I remember being very excited to see actors Randhir Kapoor and Babita at the famous Kayani Bakery on East Street, Poona (that’s what Pune was then called). It seemed surreal, I was mesmerized. Could this really be true? Was it really them?
Here I was, standing obediently beside my parents who were busy purchasing Kayani’s signature bread loaf and cream rolls, and was I actually seeing the pair who crooned “Aap yahan aaye kis liye” from Kal, Aaj aur Kal right in front of me?
Outside of the big screen which makes most public personalities look larger (and older), what is perhaps most unfathomably disorienting is how normal they are in real life. Or, as we have since discovered in a frenetic paparazzi world, how vulnerable.
My father was a typical professor of economics who was so deep into academic research that often when we could go to the movies, he would either take a long snooze even as Rajesh Khanna sang “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” or enthusiastically linger at the Irani samosa and Budhani wafers counter.
He would religiously go up and down the dark steps getting us all cutting chai, caring a damn for the suspense thriller Ittefaq.
My mother was a different story altogether. She would get exasperated if we interrupted her with silly questions about why Khanna did not fly his fighter aircraft more gingerly since he knew he had a worried Sharmila Tagore waiting for him.
I followed my mother’s obsessive love for Hindi cinema, while concomitantly reading up Adam Smith, Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman to keep parental diplomacy in a splendid balance.
As we grew up, Bollywood (as it was later christened) was the most exciting, enthralling universe in our modest middle-class existence, besides Vaishali’s magical masala dosa.
It was a genuine romance with cinema; hundred percent fidelity was assured. In retrospect, that’s what best explains the unmatched charismatic hold decades later of Rajesh Khanna (he was branded as ‘The Phenomenon’) and Amitabh Bachchan, who towered like a giant colossus as the ‘Angry Young Man’. The superstar label was born.
While Shah Rukh Khan has perhaps been the most successful actor-star since Khanna and Bachchan, helped considerably by (besides his protean personality) the growing clout of celebrity merchandising, Instagram, brand endorsements, multiplex screens and social media, Khanna, Bachchan, Hema Malini, Rekha, Madhuri Dixit, etc had carved out a unique rhapsodic love affair with cinema for Indians.
I am not exaggerating when I say that my mother would ask me to take a walk to Deccan Gymkhana to pick up the latest monthly issue of Shobha De-edited Stardust, which was the coveted monthly gossip magazine that featured saucy, salacious stories, told with unabashed exhilaration.
Around the same time there was also a young talented actor from the Film and Television Institute of India, Poona called Jaya ‘Guddi’ Bhaduri who entered the fray.
When I saw Jaya Bachchan speak out on September 15, 2020 about the sepulchral stigma that has been recently associated with the film industry in Parliament, I sensed where she was coming from.
I don’t think anybody can deny that from time immemorial the film industry has been an epic canvas of complex human susceptibilities; surreptitious affairs, family-owned monopoly studios, communal undercurrents, nepotism, big egos, casting couches, rampant alcoholism, underworld funding and tragic heartbreaks.
Jaya Bachchan wasn’t saying that the industry was a personification of purity. Far from it, but she was expressing anguish that it was being made to appear like a drug-cesspool or a diabolical den from which the susceptible had no escape routes or that it’s talent-factory was a Kafkaesque hell-zone, tainted with overabundance of hedonism and deadly psychological darkness. It wasn’t as psycho, was her short message.
But things have changed since 2014.
They say that Bollywood mirrors society’s grim realities, but its more true that contemporary truisms affect Bollywood sensibilities.
Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan fought Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket, and Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna contested on the lotus symbol, but we never saw the vitriolic venomous outbursts from any of them.
They were incidentally fiercely competitive performers, but there was a restrained maturity in their public utterances whatever their private feelings. They did not pretend to be the film industry’s mouthpiece or its sole moral custodians.
But now India has become an egregiously polarized country, driven by a hyper-nationalistic narrative on 24x 7 television channels and a tweet-a-second endless marathon poison-fest that does not even pretend to camouflage its religious prejudices.
Bollywood has pusillanimously submitted itself to this fissiparous divide, and for that practically most of them are guilty.
There are sporadic voices of sanity but they lack that muscular punch or are not inspiring enough to shift the public discourse. Bollywood, like corporate India, does not wish to risk with a brutal predatory regime whose retribution can be lethal. It is unlikely that things will change overnight.
Jaya Bachchan’s angst is understandable. Because the age of charming story-telling and the madness of creative cinema, a near-Arcadian state that was once it’s luminous trademark has long vanished.
Now it is a staged mega photo-op marinated with loquacious endorsement of political leaders. And fixed awards and critics ratings that manipulate audience appetite creating a tenebrous world of megalomania; the deserving candidates, however, do become collateral damage of this aggrandisement enterprise.
Many have meekly surrendered their moral conscience to the highest bidder; everything is a transactional equation in the perfidious world of weekend collections and commercial rights.
The star-crossed Sushant Singh Rajput may or may not have committed suicide, but Bollywood certainly has. But it can rise again.
And it will help if it develops a spine that is not like a chocolate éclair.