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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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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