AS THE NEW YEAR begins, I wonder why I didn’t watch as many Hindi films as usual last year. Is it all part of getting ever older? A few films drew me in without my loving them; so Jayeshbhai Jordaar did because it was Ranveer Singh in Gujarat and he held together a sometimes inchoate film through his stardom and charm, just as SRK could; or Qala, whose beautiful form showed dark deeds in the film world of Calcutta (Kolkata) in the early days of playback singing.
However, I also enjoyed many series, my favourite from India being Panchayat – a universal comedy of people pursuing their own interests in ways which don’t match with audience perceptions; the outstanding-as-always Shefali Shah and other great actors in Delhi Crime; Sima Aunty (more of the fabulous ‘Face Reader’ please) in Indian Matchmaking, which is hilarious in so many ways; and the sometimes baffling Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, where I want to see more of Gauri Khan and Karan Johar styling people and their houses.
I began to feel a little more familiar with films from the southern film industries. After starting last year on several Malayalam films, mostly starring Fahadh Faasil, who seemed like an old friend when he appeared in the Telugu Pushpa: The Rise (2021), as did Samantha Ruth Prabhu whom I’d first seen in the (Hindi) series The Family Man. Meanwhile SS Rajamouli seems to be heading to the Oscars with RRR. The spectacle was breathtaking and ‘Naatu Naatu’ was unmissable. It’s a shame the Brits seemed to be ‘am dram’ (amateur dramatics) rather than foils for the heroes, but I was thrilled to see NTR’s grandson and Chiranjeevi’s son together on screen. Kantara was set among the forest dwellers of coastal Karnataka (hence perhaps the elephant shortage), and I would have liked less roaring and more dancing.
I usually choose my Hindi films because they have stars I want to see, or they are made by directors I’m interested in or I read reviews that intrigue me. Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) was therefore unmissable because of Alia Bhatt, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali setting the film in historic Bombay (Mumbai).
The film was exquisite although the difference in appearance between the real Gangubai (written about in S Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai) and the delicate beauty of Alia Bhatt was much commented on. Alia gave a stunning performance as always. Any film about historical Bombay (Mumbai) is going to pull me in, and I wasn’t disappointed in the recreation of Falkland Road as an art deco city whereas today the beauty of the city seems to be vanishing before my eyes. Bhansali created a city of dreams, with movie halls showing Hindi films, and women campaigning for the education of girls.
As in most of Bhansali’s films, love is difficult. Love is easy to find but it vanishes like the morning dew, as lovers are almost certainly doomed to suffer exquisite pain. Love is foregrounded so while sexual attraction is present, here it is mostly hidden from the viewer, even in a film about a woman who is a sex worker and a madam.
Gangubai is Bhansali’s Pakeezah (1972). Gangubai may be seen as a version of Sahibjaan/Pakeezah, who finds herself in the great modern city of Bombay/Mumbai rather than in the courtly world of the then Hindustan
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Some critics find Bhansali’s films beautiful but ‘bloodless’ as passion is expressed aesthetically and bodies are beautiful, smooth, perfumed (I am sure) and far removed from the grimy sweaty business of life in the city. Even the colours of the city are refined and Gangubai stands apart from the city in her white sari, sunglasses hiding her eyes, reminding me of many of the great stars of Hindi cinema, perhaps most of all Nargis and Rekha. In Bhansali’s films, suffering becomes beautiful, an exquisite torture, framing tears and sorrow. Gangubai rages—she hits, she struggles—but her biggest fights are won by presenting herself so beautifully, while using words as weapons.
I was a little unsure how to understand Bhansali’s vision of Gangubai but I was lucky to be Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s interlocutor in a masterclass he was invited to deliver at BAFTA in November. Bhansali engaged the whole audience as he expressed his love for Indian cinema in highly articulate and carefully considered ways, explaining how he creates his own films aware of their role in the history of Indian cinema, foregrounding his love and understanding of Indian aesthetics.
I’ve watched all of Bhansali’s films as they released, from Khamoshi: The Musical onwards. I was not a fan of his Devdas (2002) the first time I saw it in a movie hall in Mumbai, as for me Devdas was defined by Bimal Roy’s 1955 film. This was always my opening film on the courses I used to teach on Indian cinema. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s story—which students loved (poor Devdas) or didn’t enjoy (he didn’t help himself)—and a dream team of Bimal Roy, Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Vyjayanthimala, Motilal, SD Burman, Sahir Ludhianvi, Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmood, Manna Dey and Geeta Dutt make this one of my all-time favourites.
The black-and-white film is simple and has many realist elements as the two who were destined for each other spoil their fate. The songs are so lovely and restrained. Paro only sings one song, ‘O albele panchhi’, where she and Devdas as children sing for the first and last time in harmony, until their final meeting of souls. The Bauls sing of her sorrow, as Radha who knows Krishna and she cannot be married, while Devdas has the heartbreaking ‘Mitwa lagi re yeh kaisi’ and ‘Kisko khabar thi’.
So the multicoloured lavishness and excess of Bhansali’s version in which family schemes were foregrounded was a shock to me. It took me a while to understand it and to see a different version of this story, truly assimilated to Hindi cinema while Bimal Roy’s had such deep roots in Bengal. The songs were irresistible and they drew me into this new world which itself told how Hindi cinema itself had changed.
My favourite Bhansali film is Bajirao Mastani (2015) which created a world I had no preconception of, with spectacle, performances, songs and drama. It was in some ways a tribute to Mughal-e-Azam (1960), one of the greatest of all Hindi (or Urdu) films. The story of Bajirao and Mastani took place just over a century later than that of Salim and Anarkali. Bhansali is fully aware of the tribute to ‘Pyaar kiya to darna kya’ he makes in ‘Deewani Mastani’ and how these songs are part of Hindi film history.
Gangubai is Bhansali’s Pakeezah (1972), which is the favourite Hindi film of so many people. Kamal Amrohi, who had worked as a scriptwriter on Mughal-e-Azam, directed few films but Pakeezah and Mahal (1949) alone make him one of the greats of Hindi cinema. Much has been written about Meena Kumari and Pakeezah, and Gangubai may be seen as a version of Sahibjaan/ Pakeezah, who finds herself in the great modern city of Bombay/Mumbai rather than in the courtly world of the then Hindustan, just as Meena Kumari was a heroine of the post-Independence cinema, the way Alia Bhatt is of today’s post-Bollywood.
Bhansali’s tribute to Pakeezah also takes in the history of film as it was in some ways a late iteration of the great Bombay Talkies studio. Founded by the Bengalis, Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, the studio employed several Germans, including the director, Franz Osten whose most famous talkie was Achhut Kanya (1936). The film’s lead actor was Ashok Kumar who appears as Pakeezah’s father while the films had the same cameraman, Josef Wirsching. (At least in part for Pakeezah, as he died during the making of the film, but many of you will have seen him and his wife in the song, ‘Itni badi mehfil’ sung by Asha Bhosle, featuring Helen, in the film Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai in 1960). Bhansali locates Gangubai in this history of the subgenre of the courtesan film and of Hindi cinema itself. Huma Qureshi’s qawwali, ‘Shikayat, moves the courtesan’s song from the kotha onto a Bombay street, decorated for a wedding as the public and private space is blurred, and the heroine’s beloved is marrying someone else.
Alia Bhatt has a place in history as the Mumbai heroine for her outstanding performances in Gangubai Kathiawadi and Gully Boy (2019). She too brings in the history of Indian cinema as not only the daughter of Mahesh Bhatt but also as coming from one of the most famous Gujarati families in the Hindi film industry (Vijay, Nanabhai, Vikram), and she is now married into the massive Kapoor dynasty.
So while there are some new Hindi films that I anticipate and appreciate, few are in the tradition of the Hindi cinema that I love so much. Let’s hope that this year we’ll see a return to form.