Bollywood is like a kaleidoscope where box office forunes are like chimeras — building and breaking by the minute. Not all movies make it to the everlasting consciousness – some movies fall off our minds over the years.
“We remember only those movies which are successful at the boxoffice.Several movies,critically acclaimed, have been forgotten for many reasons— they should have deserved more. It is difficult to guess what clicks,” says film historian, writer and journalist Avijit Ghosh, who has compiled a list of “40 good but forgotten movies” to understand one of Bollywood’s most ironic aspects— “oblivion”. What makes the tinsel sink?
Why does it happen? LIke most works of art, movies are judged by two barometers – popular success and critical acclaim. Failing to achieve this, they are condemned to oblivion. “The truth remains that even good — great movies falter — at the box office, sometime fail the critics’ test,” Ghosh says. His new anthology, “40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed” is a tribute to the “meaningful failures” in the last 100 years of Indian cinema.
In 1964, producer director Chandra Shekhar made a movie, “Cha Cha Cha” – starring self, Helen, Bela Bose, Aruna Irani, O.P. Ralhan, Om Prakash and Iftekar. The movie broke through the Bollywood stereotype to follow the life of a male dancer of Indian Dalit origin — his life from the fringe to fame and his love for an upper class girl from a liberal family.
“The movie has some of the finest western dancing you will ever see in a Hindi film — from the Latino- Spanish ‘Cha Cha Cha’ to the more contemporary genres. And some unforgettable compositions by Iqbal Qureshi,” Ghosh says.
In Hindi cinema, producers and directors like to gloss over the sensitive subjects like caste and untouchability rather than take them head on. But the movie “blends western dancing with an inter-caste love story,” the writer explains. Director-actor Chandra Shekhar, who wrote the story and the screenplay, says the movie’s “offbeat idea came to him from childhood observations”. “I come from an Arya Samaji family in Hyderabad. We used to eat together with all castes. But I was aware about untouchability and felt it should be addressed in a movie,” the director says.
Hero Puran is no B.R. Ambedkar’s Dalit – but a Gandian. The movie has a strong social message, but falls short with the viewers because of its “low points”. It brings to light a sad reality in Bollywood that musicals are yet become a separate and viable genre in Mumbai unlike on Broadway and in Hollywood (in America) where they have a near cult reckoning.
“The new generation of viewers have not heard of the movie, ’27 Down’, a social reality classic by A.K. Kaul. It was one of my favourite movies on the list. The National Film Development Corporation (the apex government institution to promote Indian cinema) printed the movie afresh last year,” Ghosh says.
Kaul, the filmmaker who studied his craft in United States, was a one-film success. Soon after releasing the film in 1973, he died in a drowning accident, while trying to save a girl on the Mumbai coast.
Recounting Kaul’s making of “27 Down”— the life of a ticket examiner at the Indian Railway, his life, frustration and loves in the confines of a middle class India — Ghosh says, “Kaul was meticulous in his choice of the cast comprising theatre heavyweight M.K. Raina and leading lady Rakhee.”
Kaul, who came to “India with the intention of making good cinema” met Raina, a fresh graduate from the National School of Drama in New Delhi, for 10 days before handing him the script. The movie was based on a short story by HIndi writer Ramesh Bakshi.
Kaul chanced upon the story at a bookstore in the Triveni Kala Sangam – a cultural facility in the national capital.
“The Triveni had a bookstore in its basement many decades ago. Kaul went to the bokstore and told the owner to hand him all the books that have not been read before. He went through the books and like a short story – ‘Atthara Suraj ke Poudhe (Tree of 18 Suns)’ – from a collection by Bakshi – an existential story influenced by the philosophy of Albert Camus. He sought out the writer to work on a script,” Ghosh recalled.
The movie was shot largely in Mumbai’s Victoria terminus. “27 Down” opened to rave reviews – but was forgotten because the director was not around to promote it any more.
“Teen Deviyan” made in 1965 – about the lives of three women and a man — sunk into onlivion “despite many old timers having watched or heard about it”, Ghosh said.
Starring Dev Anand, Nanda, Kalpana, Simi Garewal and I.S. Johar — Bollywood stars of yesteryears — the movie is a satire on modern day relationships. Dev Dutt – Dev Anand, charming dandy of a young man — has to choose between the three divas – whom he dates at the same time. Each woman is different from the other.
Actress Simi Garewal says one of the reasons for the poor box-office showing of “Teen Deviyan” could be the fact that it was made in black and white. “Colour had been around for years, everyone was making movies in colour – regressing to black and white was a regression for the audience,” Garewal reaclls. But Ghosh argues that “Teen Deviyan” has aged gracefully — “it was probably ahead of its times in the Sixties”.
Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra describes “Khamosh” — a thriller shot in Kashmir few years before the Valley was ravaged by cries of “Azadi” in 1985 — as one of his “favourite movies”. “It has been one of the purest cinema, I have made. It was only when nobody bought it that I went on make ‘Parinda’ in 1989. If ‘Khamosh’ had been successful, it would have given me the courage to go another way,” the director says.
“Naseem”, directed by Saeed Mirza was produced by the National Film Development Corporation and Doordarshan, bagged two national awards for its “investigation into the destruction of certain secular notions of India five years after the Babri Masjid (the disputed Ram Temple/Babri Mosque) demolition in Uttar Pradesh in India in a communal backlash.
The movie, though intelligently made to strike a chord of empathy in the audience, failed at the box office. “By the time, ‘Naseem’ came on the scene, the parallel cinema movement, sadly, was on a low turn, Ghosh says. It is probably more relevant to students of secular history in schools and colleges, the writer says.
Movies like these abound — “Is Raat ki Subaah Nahin (1996)”, “Hari Bhari” — about a woman’s reproductive choices in 2000, “Dacait”- a gangster movie (1987), “Trishangni” (1988) and several more. The list of box office crashes is long.
“I had complied a list of 125 movies initially — which I had to bring down to 40. I sifted through film journals, encyclopedias and magazines to identify the failures — went back and spoke to the actors, members of the crew and directors to understand why they had failed,” Ghosh says.
“One of the primary reasons for Bollywood movies to fail at the box office in the 1950-1970s was poor publicity. Some movies like ‘Hasil’ and ‘Is Raat ki Subaah Nahin’ and ‘Seher’ came ahead of their time. Many of these movies created a template for directors to follow later,” Ghosh said, pointing out the reasons.
Remember, “Foorpath”— a hard-hitting indictment of capitalism starring Dilip Kumar in 1953. Director Zia Sarhardy – praised as a path-breaking movie-maker in his time- crashed at the box office. But the audience did not like the realistic overtone of the movie.
“In the end, only the audience can decide — there is no formula for box office success,” the writer says.
(“40 Retakes..”. has been published by Westland -Tranquebar Ltd) .