They don’t make them like they used to.’ It’s the kind of thing we often say about all kinds of things, in a combination of nostalgia for the sturdy assuredness of things past. Speaking of cinema, for instance, we remain wistful for the great stars shining in majestic black-and-white over our current self-promoting lot, even though movies themselves have become technically proficient and our storytelling tighter.
The big question is whether Hindi cinema is actually moving forward. Far older films seem more progressive, more politically provocative, more forwardthinking, more feminist than most we watch today. Those movies were braver. Then again, we have also grown up on Hindi films so racist, so sexist, so catastrophically regressive, and which set such a poor example for audiences, that we can’t imagine them releasing today. Those movies were stupider.
These days, there are calls to boycott films and actors, to downvote movie trailers and create humiliating hashtags — all a sort of self-deluding performance art at a time when theatres and ticket sales can’t do the talking. The reasoning varies, from an overall (and recently triggered) loathing for nepotism to, say, the politics of a cricketer having his biopic made. The mobs have never been louder. Here, then, are two lists. One of films that couldn’t be made today, and one of films that shouldn’t be.
Films that wouldn’t be made today
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)
Where would we be without Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and that immortal climax set around a staging of the Mahabharata? Where, in fact, would our parallel cinema movement stand without all these era-defining performers riffing off each other in this absurd space?
The scene involves a low-budget local production (the actor playing Arjun complains about having to buy his own bow and arrow) that’s invaded by two photographers, a corpse and several interested parties. Each pulls on a costume and takes the stage. With the corpse Satish Shah clad in Draupadi’s sari, the hero Naseeruddin Shah dressed as Duryodhan announces he has “dropped the idea” of her cheer-haran, while Om Puri’s corrupt, tipsy Bheem wants to take Draupadi away, memorably telling Yudhishtir that she isn’t his alone, and that all five brothers are “shareholders.” It is a glorious sequence, interrupted frequently by the actor playing Dhritarashtra who, at one point, drops out of his blind character to exclaim “This is too much.”
Trolls would attack: That whole scene could not exist today. In a nation which treasures mythological lives over real ones, several religious groups would immediately — and competitively — be up in arms, sharpening swords, proclaiming rewards for decapitation and saying they want to cut Satish Shah’s nose off. Dhritarashtra was right.
Chandni Chowk To China (2009)
This is an agonisingly bad film. I am not at all saying it deserves celebration — or even defense.
Yet critics are not censors.
In the film directed by Nikhil Advani, Akshay Kumar has powered up from a simpleton to a martial arts expert, working hard on his body using something called the ‘Iron Forearm Technique.’ He proceeds to take Deepika Padukone into his arms, saying — and this is the roughest of translations — “It’s just iron forearms for now. Soon I will have iron legs, an iron chest, an iron stomach…” He trails off here so he can pointedly look down, at which point Deepika coyly clamps a hand on his mouth, saying “Bas, bas.” Never one for leaving things unsaid, Kumar shrugs off this protest and growls, “Now my entire body is made of iron.” Deepika approves. She sizes him up dreamily and says, ‘Ohhh, mere Iron Man.”
Trolls would attack: On an aesthetic level, everything. On a technical level, try getting away with that line about Iron Man at a time when Disney, the company that owns all the Marvel superheroes, rules the entire entertainment industry.
Based on the book of the same name by RK Narayan, Vijay Anand’s drama is one of Hindi cinema’s enduring classics, a film about self-awareness and actualisation, a film about faith and about holding on to it because it is always darkest before dawn. Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman shine in the roles of a tourist guide and a disillusioned woman with a fractured past, and the SD Burman soundtrack is sublime.
Trolls would attack: In all probability, a tour guide union would object to the film and its title. In 2009, Priyadarshan’s Billu Barber had to be retitled Billu after hairdressers’ associations found the word ‘barber’ derogatory, and every mention of the word ‘barber’ had to be snipped from the film. Picture that Dev-Waheeda poster with the title ‘Tourism Executive.’
An insightful Hrishikesh Mukherjee film about celebrity obsession, Guddi is about a schoolgirl (played by Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager with an all-consuming crush on the actor Dharmendra, who plays himself in the film. In order to rid the girl of her unrealistic fixation, her uncle contacts Dharmendra and he gives Guddi a peek behind the curtain, showing her the messy innards of the movie industry.
Trolls would attack: A teenage girl obsessing over an older man? In a film directed by a male director? With a uniform-wearing schoolgirl being courted for marriage? And featuring Dharmendra in shorts that tiny? Many an aspect of the film could now be interpreted as problematic. At a time when we obsessively examine older films with newly woke lenses, Guddi would positively drown in think-pieces and hot takes.
Mother India (1957)
One of the most celebrated films in the history of Hindi cinema, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India is an epic drama about a self-sacrificing mother striving for her children. Nargis plays Radha, a suffering heroine — and an icon of empowerment — who does everything in her power to raise her sons. When one of them, played by Sunil Dutt, becomes a bandit, Radha lifts the gun herself and kills him to prevent the kidnapping of a young girl.
Trolls would attack: The title. Calling India a mother is fine, but a mother that kills her own child? Never, never. And must a Mr Khan direct this film about Bharat Mata itself? The censor-board we currently know would never allow a title so blatant. Not only would the title have to change, but the director would have to release an apology video online where he would (accurately) look like a hostage. Custodians — on both sides — may further choose to take umbrage to the fact that on the sets, the actress playing the mother fell in love with the actor playing the son.
Films that shouldn’t be made today
Madhur Bhandarkar makes an appearance in his own film where two women, spotting him at a fashion show, excitedly coo about “the man who makes realistic films.” In this shrill attempt to ‘expose’ the fashion industry, Priyanka Chopra stars as a model falling rapidly from grace. She does so step by step: from having an affair with a married man, starting to drink heavily, taking soft drugs, then harder drugs. What could therefore signal her complete descent? The film here has her sleeping with a black man — and then scrubbing herself off, crying at how unclean she has become.
The ick factor: Racism has featured frequently (and casually) in our cinema, but it’s hard to imagine this film belonging to this century. The real reason Fashion may not have released today — regardless of the outrage and hashtags — would be a legal injunction from Priyanka Chopra. This film would rightly be anathema to her growing Hollywood career, where she makes politically progressive statements and stars alongside The Rock.
Where to begin with this godawful Indra Kumar film? Aamir Khan participates in a boxing match where, if he loses, he will have to kiss the heroine’s slobbering, overweight friend and if he wins, he gets to kiss Madhuri Dixit.
Later, as Khan and Dixit play pranks on each other, she ups the ante on a college trip by falsely levelling a rape accusation against him. This wrecks his reputation, but because he doesn’t respond with vengeance — something he is immensely proud about — she falls for him.
The ick factor: The casual rape cry and the fatphobia deserve no place in cinema. That same year, Khan and Dixit also made Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin, the cheeriest of stalker films: He stalks her, she loves someone else, but then once she realises the other someone doesn’t love her back, settles happily for her stalker. K-k-k-cute.
Benaam Badshah (1991)
However did we survive the 90s? In this film by K Ravi Shankar — a bizarrely frivolous remake of the Tamil drama Pudhea Paadhai — Anil Kapoor plays an orphan born in a garbage bin, a man with no name who grows up a local gangster. He rapes Jyoti (Juhi Chawla) the night before her wedding, thus “ruining her life”. The heroine fakes a pregnancy to move in with her rapist, and then, at her pluckiest, Chawla-iest best, sings songs, darns his shirts, wins him over and gives him a name.
The ick factor: The idea that a rape victim would want to marry her rapist — and then set about actively conspiring to make that happen — is disgusting. I’d like to believe we won’t see a mainstream film this offensive, but Kabir Singh, which revelled in the triumph of its misogynistic protagonist, was among the biggest hits of 2019.
The discourse around the obnoxiousness of Kabir Singh shone a light on a particularly galling scene from Raj Kapoor’s 1951 classic. Awaara is an ambitious crime drama containing both socialism and romantic comedy, but it also holds this scene that mustn’t be overlooked.
Raj (Kapoor) strides up to Rita (Nargis) on a beach, while she’s changing her clothes. She tells him, coquettishly, that a gentleman would never do that. He smiles, admits he’s no gentleman. She smiles back, bats her eyes, calls him ‘junglee.’ He chases her as she laughs playfully, but then he grabs her, and twists her arm. At this, she calls him junglee three times over. Indignant at being called names, he first strangles her, then slaps her — thrice — before throwing her to the ground.
Before he can walk away, she falls at his feet and holds on. She asks, breathily, if he wants to hit her, and then turns her face up so he may do the same. He touches her cheek, caresses it, and the two embrace passionately.
The ick factor: The most striking thing about this unfortunate sequence is the staggering glamour on display. Cinematographer Radhu Karmakar’s beautiful lighting, the luminosity of the actors, the sudden intensity and the immediate turnaround, Nargis’s eyelashes, Nargis’s smile, Nargis’s acceptance. The impact is too dreamy, too cinematic. It isn’t hard to imagine young men in the audience deciding that a few non-consensual slaps may be just the foreplay they need.
Naseeb Apna Apna (1986)
In this grotesque film directed by Rama Rao Tatiteni, Rishi Kapoor stars as a man with a dark wife, played by Tamil actress Radhika Sarathkumar. So upset is he by her darkness — he fears her very appearance, even as she talks like a child — that he is driven to take a second, much fairer wife, played by Farah Naaz. The first wife is reduced to working as their maid, till one day (after the fair wife takes the darker wife to a beauty parlour) the bigamist confesses.
On learning this, the second wife attempts to kill the husband. Only for the first wife to claim she should be killed instead for ruining the man’s life.
The ick factor: Hindi cinema’s long history of blackface is dreadful and remains hard to forgive. Just last year, in Amar Kaushik’s Bala, Bhumi Pednekar was painted brown in order to be discriminated against by a fairness cream salesman. Naseeb Apna Apna offers a most egregious example of colourism in our cinema, and it is easy to empathise with the second wife who — on hearing the first wife’s nonsensical claim that she is to blame for it all — promptly heads upstairs and shoots herself.