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Om Puri may be no more, but Indian New Wave cinema will always be relevant

The formative years of at least two generations of Indians were shaped by the non-mainstream cinema of the 1970s and ’80s.

I met Om Puri in my professional capacity at the 2012 edition of the International Film Festival of India in Goa. He had been kind enough to accept our invitation to attend the screening of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man as the opening title of the Indian Panorama section. When I thanked him for attending, Om Puri joked in his typical Punjabi accent, “Hum toh vele hain, jab chahe bula lo, hum haazir ho jayenge” (I am jobless, call me whenever you want and I will attend).

What Puri was hinting at was that outside of the gathering of 200-odd film lovers who had gathered for the occasion, there were perhaps not many Indians who really cared about the Indian New Wave cinema of which he had been such an essential part.

Om Puri’s fears were misplaced. His films, and the films of his friends and contemporaries, will always be relevant. The formative years of at least two generations of Indians were shaped in no mean part by the films of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and other Indian New Wave directors. The 1970s stands out in the history of Hindi cinema as a period of renaissance, and India’s Generation X was fortunate enough to have been exposed to it.

Generation Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, are usually characterised as slackers and cynical and disaffected. In India, this meant that as film viewers, we were an unhappy and difficult-to-please lot. It was not enough for Hindi cinema to sell us dreams for three hours every Friday. Having been exposed to cinema and theatre outside Bollywood, we were ready and willing to accept change. We knew all about the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India and the formidable talent that emerged from these venerable institutions.

Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.
Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.

In the early ’70s, the sun was about to set on Rajesh Khanna’s reign and Amitabh Bachchan was looming on the horizon. The cinema of this decade had been influenced by events in the previous years. In the ’50s and ’60s, Bengali imports to Mumbai such as Bimal Roy and later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya and Basu Chatterjee, made films about ordinary Indians, with a significant socialist tilt. These filmmakers were enthused by Nehruvian socialism, and their films reflected a new India trying to stand on its own feet.

By the ’70s, however, Nehru had passed on, and corruption had seeped into public life. The common man was beginning to get squeezed by inflation, unemployment and corruption. Constitutional values were under threat. The stage was set for a new kind of cinema.

Shyam Benegal rode onto this stage at full gallop, astonishing us with his new vocabulary, idiom and stories. These were real stories about ordinary Indians crying out against oppression. Benegal’s formidable team of actors, including Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, captured the imagination of Indians who were beginning to tire of the same old masala in every film. And with Benegal, could Govind Nihalani, the cinematographer of his major films, be far behind?

Film music buffs who grew up in the ’80s will also remember the decade as a time when melody in Hindi films had started dying a slow death. Video cassette recorders made it easier to access (mostly pirated) films at home. Quality gave way to quantity – typified by the remakes from Southern potboilers, and there was a general drop in filmmaking standards across all departments of commercial filmmaking.

In 1983, the year Bachchan’s Coolie, Rajesh Khanna’s comeback Avtaar, the Telugu remake in Hindi Himmatwala, and Jackie Shroff’s debut Hero were released, we sat up and said “Wow!” when Om Puri strode on the screen as Sub Inspector Anant Velankar in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya. About an honest cop fighting the system, Ardh Satya also starred Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Rama Shetty, who demolished our foolish notions of what evil looked like.

Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya.
Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya.

The differences between Zanjeer (1973) and Ardh Satya (1983) are telling. While Zanjeer was written by Salim Javed to showcase a young police inspector who fearlessly takes on a clearly identifiable enemy, Ardh Satya, based on Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay, is far more nuanced. It reveals, layer by layer, the complexities and challenges that a policeman’s job entails. The nexus between politics and crime is a formidable one; there is a fine line between foolishness and bravery; only the valiant Abhimanyu from Mahabharata can go into battle fearlessly, knowing that death is certain. Ardh Satya is aptly described as one of the most realistic cop films made in India.

India’s educated Generation Xers had begun to question commercial Hindi films. They were beginning to appreciate the worlds created by Indian New Wave directors, even if these films were available only on VCDs or on Doordarshan. If Zeenat Aman in Dostana had her share of gawkers, there were some of us who had bitter fights over who was better, Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil. If we enjoyed Amitabh Bachchan’s comic act in Do Aur Do Paanch (1980), we also laughed uproariously at Ahuja (Om Puri) and Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). And we continue to laugh and cry with these pioneers of Indian New Wave cinema, every time we watch a television repeat of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (in which Om Puri throws a chapatti at the fasting Gandhi, exhorting him to eat it) or Nihalani’s Tamas.

Om Puri in Gandhi. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.
Om Puri in Gandhi. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.

After the confused ’90s and the shaky 2000s, Hindi cinema is once again getting back on its feet. Actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan have as large and dedicated a following as Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. Many films reflect real people with real issues, such as Talvar, Neerja, Nil Battey Sannata and Pink. Let Bollywood makes its films about perfect young men and women seeking love in distant foreign lands, spouting Urdu poetry without understanding the drift. As long as there is cinema, there will be space for realistic films about ordinary Indians, with stories rooted in our soil. Long live NSD, long live FTII.

Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. The views expressed here are her own.

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