When Bollywood (almost) died

“To Mr. and Mrs. Industry”

French Producer Alain Chammas was in town. India was amid political upheavals. The wounds of Emergency hadn’t healed yet. An assassination attempt on Indira Gandhi had just been averted. Godmen were being shot at, and the License Raj was in its prime. In this melting pot of a nation back in 1980, Alain came to Bombay with a certain determination to cast one of India’s biggest superstars for his next project. He was planning his next film titled Crossings, for which he’d already cast Richard Dreyfuss and Jon Voight. He thought this Indian star would only be too glad to jump at this chance of Hollywood stardom. But after months of chasing this man and failing to convince him, Alain Chammas is said to have uttered the following words: “This man is not just a star. Amitabh Bachchan is an industry.” The proclamation was quickly picked up by the media and Bachchan was, for the first time, referred to as a “one-man industry”. The phrase screamed from an India Today cover story that was designed to study the phenomenon that is Amitabh Bachchan.

His brother Ajitabh said that if Amit were to be run over by a truck the next day, crores will go down the drain. Just for context, while contemporaries like Rishi Kapoor and Dharmendra were being paid anywhere between 12 to 15 Lakhs per movie, B was getting 25 for a single film. He had had 12 releases in the previous two years, all of which were blockbusters, barring one – Besharam. He was booked for the next 3 years. This is what the India Today article had to say about the aforementioned French producers departure from Bombay, empty handed:

After dinner with Amitabh and Jaya when the logistics of the situation were explained to him, Chamas sat back in amazement. The next day, he threw in the towel. Appropriately enough, he did it by sending a bouquet. With it came a small card. It read: “To Mr and Mrs Industry.”

Just 5 years later, another article in the same magazine spelled the doom of the Indian film industry. Far from being rosy, the situation was grimmer than ever.

The Fever

A “night super” bus from Bombay to Mahabaleshwar breaks down on the way, in the middle of nowhere. It takes a good seven hours before the bus is up and running again. Not one passenger budged from their seats throughout this seven-hour ordeal, one made even more intense by the absence of air conditioning. Nobody protested. The conductor just played Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti on the VCR twice, back-to-back. Everybody was glued to the TV screen perched behind the driver’s cabin.

Today, many would scoff at this. What’s so special about watching a movie on video? Well, consider this. Till the 70s, the only way for most Indians to watch a film was to go to a theatre – called a cinema hall or movie hall those days. When television sets became commonplace in the cities, they only had access to the national broadcaster – Doordarshan. They showed movies once a week, but the films were of a certain vintage. The coming of VHS changed all that. Suddenly, you had a way to watch the movie of your choosing – often the latest release – at a time of your choosing.

The VCR wasn’t a very affordable device for the middle class. But what bridged the gap were video libraries that cropped up across the country. They would rent out cassettes at Rs. 10 a day. You had everything from Jaws to Jurmana under one roof. Two other things happened. Piracy reared its ugly head – latest films were being videographed and released almost as soon as the films hit theatres. And video parlours opened up – where “video films” were being screened for a measly sum. There were millions of these parlous across the country, with them announcing three or four “shows” in a day, timings plastered outside the den.

And this took its toll. If you’re getting to watch the films for a fraction of the cost in a controlled environment, why would you venture out? And movie halls in the 80s weren’t particularly inviting places. Many of them were dark and dingy, with the white on the screens fading. And the mid-80s was also the period when Doordarshan came into its own and ushered in the Golden Age of Indian television.

Last Nail

Besides revolutionising filmmaking and taking the industry by storm, Sholay had also hardened the Indian audiences somewhat. Till then one was used to seeing softer heroes and suave villains – if at all – on screen. Now the hero was rugged and the villains were hardcore bandits. People didn’t flinch at gore no more. The gunshots were louder, more real. You can virtually smell gunpowder. But this had an unintended (or otherwise?) impact. Indian producers had found their holy grail. Violence. Silly things like plot development rapidly took a back seat.

It is said that Salim Javed brought writers their lost glory. They painted their names on Zanjeer posters across the face of Bombay and soon their names were prominently appearing on movie credits (as well as posters). But ironically, they also represented the last wave of bonafide “screenwriters” before things went completely downhill. This is how films were “written” in the ensuing decade: a producer decides to make a film with hero X. Meets him, cooks up a semblance of a story that suits X and his image. Signs a heroine the hero wants to be romancing on screen (or worse). The film is announced, goes on the floor, and silly things like dialogues were written on the sets right before the respective scene was being shot. There was virtually no screenplay for more than 90% of the films.

The urban middle class, grown up on soiled copies of pulp fiction and classic literature, grew increasingly uncomfortable with the whole movie theatre experience. They had once thronged the theatres to watch Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and then there were the likes of Amol Palekar and Naseeruddin Shah to balance things out. But now even Naseer was giving in the to the Dark Side, and Amol had concentrated on theatre. What was being served in the cinema halls, along with stale popcorn and oil-dripping potato chips, was the equally tasteless films with nothing to latch on to. The middle-class, the last bastion of movie theatres, started shunning these places.

Whatever little money the producers were making, the government was chopping off half of it as entertainment taxes and duties. And the costs were mounting any way. Here’s a snapshot:

Films started bombing left, right and centre. Even the infallible Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t guarantee the opening that his films used to win effortlessly. An “aging doyen” of the film industry said to a magazine, “Ten years ago people were identifying with Amitabh Bachchan. Now they just watch him.” It was 1985. The entire year had seen just two big hits: Bachchan’s Mard and Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The industry was about to suffer a net loss of more than a hundred crores. It was a bloodbath. Producer Gulshan Rai lamented, “I’d imagine that buying lottery tickets today is a safer investment than making films.”

“I came to Bombay as a property agent and builder. With me, my sons also joined films. But I’m sure my grandchildren will never be in show business. Never.”

G.P. Sippy, producer of Sholay and Ramesh Sippy’s father

Kahaani mein twist

When the middle class left the theatres, the empty seats were filled by the man-on-the-street, the lowest common denominator, like the sociologists would probably say. And they were lapping up what they were getting. They were dancing in the isles, whistling to the songs and the gyrating midriffs. If the 70s were about the Angry Young Man, the 80s were about the dancing young man. The man-on-the-street, the “janta janardan”, gave rise to two men right from their midst. Their own superstars: Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda. Both danced their way into people’s hearts. One from the back-lanes of Calcutta, the other from the slums of Virar. And thence came The Bling.

The Indian cinegoer had seen it all – the hope of the fifties, the opulence and romance of the sixties, the disillusionment and anger of the seventies. But what they were not ready for was what the Disco ball did to Hindi cinema. Producers scarcely had money to build grand sets or provide good food, the studios were sweaty, grimy places with little or no air conditioning. But the dance numbers were shot with as much luxury, shine and quirk as possible.

Sample this electric number from Taqdeer ka Tamasha, directed AND produced by one Anand Gaekwad, the only film he ever made:

The jackets…the dresses…the glitter….and the sets! Check this one from Hisaab Khoon Ka:

And then there were the divas. Meenakshi Sheshadri set a thousand hearts aflutter with her confidence on the dance floor, whether it’s Bharat Natyam or Cha Cha Cha:

And the ONLY instance Govinda and Sridevi shook a leg together:

In addition to the likes of Mithun da and Virar ka Chhokra, there was the Jumping Jack for good company. Even Kaka – Rajesh Khanna of all people – joined the bling-wagon!

The Turnaround

“The youngsters have arrived. They were not born in the industry, but they have arrived just the way that television and video did.”

Basu Bhattacharya

80s was also the decade of newcomers. Bollywood had scarce seen this level of mass debuts happening. Practically every year someone or the other was joining the fray. Kumar Gaurav, Rajeev Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol were launched within years of each other. And these were just the successful ones. Other industry kids who debuted but didn’t find acceptance were Kunal Kapoor, Karan Kapoor, Rohan Kapoor, Karan Shah, Aman Virk, Mohnish Behl, Rajan Sippy, Hoshang Govil, Suneil Anand etc. And then there were the outsiders. Jackie Shroff, Chunky Pandey, Sumeet Saigal, Govinda, and so many others. There was a deluge of heroines as well: Farha, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, Meenakshi Sheshadri, Kimi Katkar, Mandakini, Khushboo, Neelam, Rati Agnihotri…the list is endless.

“It is the day of the starlets. Suddenly, they are everywhere, both the male and the female of the species, like an invading swarm of fireflies in the gloomy Bombay film industry. Collectively, they represent more than just a generational change in tinsel town. Brash, savvy, street-smart, daring and above all, younger.”

India Today Issue, June 30, 1986

Suddenly, teenage romance was the flavour of the season. It all started with Bobby back in 1973, followed up by Julie (1975). But the films that really turned the tide in favour of such movies were Love Story (1980) and Love 86 (1986). Every producer worth their salt was looking for “fresh faces”. The industry was still in the dumps but circa 1986, about 15 crores was riding on the backs of these young stars. Teenyboppers and young audiences were slowly but surely heading to the theatres to watch some of these fares. The two definitive films that brought this about with prominence were Aamir Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and Salman Khan’s Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). Multiplexes were still a long way off but some of the old “cinema halls” were getting a facelift. The middle class families were staying away like before but at least the college kids and young couples were filling the coffers of good ol’ Bollywood. The world was turning.

(The blogger would like to gratefully prostrate at the feet of this behemoth called India Today for making their entire archives – right from their inception in 1975 – available online. It’s a treasure trove for trivia-mongers like yours truly, and all the quotes, numbers and information have been pulled from there.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *