Children grow up listening to nursery rhymes, but in the India of my childhood, we mostly grew up to the sound of the radio, static and all. A portable radio rested everywhere one looked, on people’s shoulders, balcony railings and car hoods, blaring either cricket commentary or Hindi film songs, more often the latter because they played all year around. Thus, Kishore Kumar’s yodeling, Mohammed Rafi’s smooth baritone, Lata Mangeshkar’s sweet renditions and Asha Bhonsle’s sultry notes permeated the sub-conscious. I know the lyrics of a song I heard decades ago even though I’m constantly clicking on the ‘forgot password,’ button while trying to access my numerous apps. My peers and I watched English language films too; summer reruns of The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and My Fair Lady but many English language films were rated as ‘adults only,’ ironically even their censored versions. Hence, we mostly watched popular Indian cinema before someone labelled it as Bollywood, a name that unfortunately stuck and altered our perception of it.

The films of the early 70s strove to promote age old values. Their black and white characters were an impossible ideal we went to watch, over and over again. The poor little rich girl, her giggling friends, her domineering father, the unemployed, principled young man she fell in love with, his noble, suffering mother, the loyal friend, the local snitch, the evil villain, a golden-hearted nautch girl, comic neighbours, the faithful servant, the tardy policemen; all lured us, film after film. It was the age of Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra before his violent avatar and prior to Amitabh Bachchan’s transformation into an angry young man. The heroes were devoted to their mothers (usually played by Durga Khote or Leela Chitnis) and wooed their bouffant sporting beautiful heroines, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Mumtaz and Jaya Bhaduri, to name a few. There was comfort in predictability and happy resolutions; some of which proclaimed the end as ‘The Beginning.’ Everyone, yes, everyone, went riding into the sunset, in a jalopy or open topped Chevrolet Impala, even the penniless lover. It was our cue to stand up and dust off the masala popcorn scattered on our clothes and cringe at our turmeric stained fingers before we went home.

In later years, I admit that I have squirmed uncomfortably when foreigners expressed their wonder at our dramatic, musical, cinematic style even though they have been accepting and appreciative of it. I have danced to Bollywood songs and thoroughly enjoyed sniggering through recent potboilers, but even so I seek out cinema that is true to life, be it Indian or foreign. I sit at dinner parties discussing Ingmar Bergman, Asghar Farhadi or Francois Truffaut and wax eloquent about Cinema Paradiso, In the Mood for Love and A Very Long Engagement; the top three recommendations on my must watch list. I equally appreciate the cinema of Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray and Sai Paranjape. Though, in my exploration of realistic cinema which serves to provoke and stimulate the audience, I had nearly submerged my nascent memories of films such as Aradhana, Kati Patang, Amar Prem, Anand, Mili and Bawarchi, up until a nostalgic moment I experienced a few years ago.

I walked into my home one evening and found my staff watching Guddi on TV. I had been sceptical about the genre of these films, but as it turned out, the screen seemed to be mocking me. I was struck by a pang of longing. The visuals of a bygone era drew me back to a culture that I am fast losing sight of; a culture that valued simplicity and modesty. It is rather fantastical to think that those times were uncomplicated but it was the creative prerogative of the filmmakers, screenplay writers and lyricists to portray characters who aspired to be flawless, exchanged righteous dialogue and broke into soulful songs. Renowned filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Shakti Samanta made us believe that being virtuous was utopic in itself. They gave us songs to hum and characters to emulate. Moreover, they left us with a world to return to when we feel weary of the one we live in. It consists of loving women draped in graceful saris, honourable men abiding by their promises and Kishore Kumar’s lilting voice which tells a child about a place under the sky; a place that has no room for sadness or tears but is filled with everlasting love. Now, I wonder why I ever found fault with the enactment of such dreamy possibilities.

Pic courtesy: Carole Hachet

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