Let’s salute some of the masters who were not afraid to break new ground and who had the courage to experiment
I think today’s generation of film professionals, directors included, are either not aware of the legacy we have inherited from the master storytellers of yesteryear or do not respect their work and contribution. This flippant attitude can only harm one’s craft, for there is always something to learn from those who came before us.
My list includes both known filmmakers and filmmakers who have been underrated. There are also filmmakers who are known for a certain kind of cinema, and even if some of us don’t see eye to eye with it, they too have contributed to making our Hindi film industry what it is.
Bimal Roy is one of those filmmakers whose films are very rooted and spoke about the harsh realities of the world post-Independence and what people were going through at that point. He made films like Do Bigha Zamin, Naukri and Madhumati.
Roy was compelled to tell stories that were rooted and dwelt on the hardship that plagued people and their lives. His vision was a product of his times, just as most filmmakers. So, for instance, when cinema was invented, it had an escapist quality. It transported people away from their drudgery and into a fantasy world. So, Roy’s films spoke about reality but, unlike documentary films, his had cinematic quality.
If you are a fan of thrillers or crime-thrillers or drama, then there was Vijay Anand. He really pushed the boundaries and captivated the audience by the content and by his craft. This is especially visible in films that he made like Jewel Thief, Teesri Manzil, Johny Mera Naam and Nau Do Gyarah. He made these films at a time when attempting the thriller genre was not easy, as you need to warm up to your audience before trying out films like these. Anand was one of those filmmakers who introduced a new facet to cinema.
Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee
These filmmakers brought in reality, light-heartedness and middle-class stories that were really, really missing at the time. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a little more known because of his films and the fact that he worked with bigger stars. Basu Chatterjee came from the same school of filmmaking. He also had the elements of reality and light-heartedness in his storytelling. He portrayed the kind of reality that the middle class could relate to at that point. The characters looked real and they spoke like regular folk did.
Even when we watch their films today, we can see the innocence in their characters and storytelling. They explored new facets and the palette of Hindi cinema was influenced by them.
You cannot ignore the impact Raj Kapoor had on love stories. The way he told his stories and the scale of his love stories were unique. His films had a certain way of looking at characters, especially female characters. Kapoor explored the genre of love stories and complicated relationships. The scale on which he explored his cinema was incredible. Charlie Chaplin, who had been such an influential figure in cinema, was one of his inspirations. That innocence filtered into his storytelling and cinema.
Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani
The raw quality that these two master filmmakers brought to cinema was incredible. Shyam Benegal was one of the most underrated filmmakers. And his influence is felt not only in cinema but also on the television industry. He did Katha Sagar and Bharat Ek Khoj for television. They were very significant in terms of how we perceive television. During those days, there was Doordarshan and it had a visual quality that rendered a cinematic feel.
Somewhere down the line, as a director, Benegal was also experimenting with the form. He took cinema to a level where he made people realise that these are also stories that can be told. He made us believe that television could be so grand, so real and have great cinematic quality.
Similarly, with Govind Nihalani, there was Aakrosh, Droh Kaal, Tamas and Ardh Satya, among many others. His films were as raw and intense as the titles of his films. He is one of those filmmakers whose film titles were as great as the subject of his films. He also experimented with television and brought Tamas to TV, which had a feel of not being a regular television programme. It felt like cinema.
His storytelling had intensity. People are obsessed with digital nowadays and the shows that are gracing the medium right now, but these filmmakers brought similar kind of raw and intense stories to television back in the day. They had an international point of view and looked at stories which would appeal to the larger audience.
Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma
This brings me to my last two filmmakers who have influenced me and greatly influenced the films that we are making today. When in the ’90s, cinema began to stagnate and we did not know where to turn, here were two people from South India, Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma. They gave direction to Hindi cinema, when it was floundering. They changed the way we looked at cinema.
Mani Ratnam looked at stories in terms of visual quality as well as interpersonal relationships. He made it so real and yet unreal. He brought a certain visual quality that was missing in our films and that was a mix of magic-realism and realism, from a gangster world to drama to a love story to terrorist attacks. He truly taught us what a good visual meant, what cinema could be.
Mani Ratnam also influenced our storytelling. He could picturise a song in the best possible way, even in a 10 x 10 feet room. No one can match his picturisation. His characters were complex. His characters were real and yet there was an innocence to them. I think he is among the filmmakers who have given Hindi cinema direction.
Now for my favourite filmmaker, Ram Gopal Varma. He explored a wide range of genres. There could be a Shiva, which was about angst and being rebellious; there could be a comic love story and an emotional love story. Another aspect of this man, which he explored in Satya, was that films are not just about beautiful locations and beautiful people doing beautiful and aspirational things. People can be real looking, the truth can be not good-looking but yet things can be fascinating and life-like. This has influenced our filmmaking, especially after the ’90s.
Some of these filmmakers are very well-known, some of them aren’t but their work was revolutionary for their times. They gave us direction when we didn’t know where to look. Also, they were exploring in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Filmmakers like Gulzar saab and Mahesh Bhatt made films without depending on gimmicks. They worked purely on their storytelling, emotions and their craft. We will always have something to learn from them. We should be proud of our legacy.
- Raj Kumar Gupta