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Rumblings from the south in 1980s Hindi cinema

A new book examines the influences on Hindi cinema in the 1980s, including that of directors from the south

To many critics, ‘Himmatwala’ and ‘Mawaali’ typify all that was wrong with Hindi cinema in the 1980s. Photo: IMDB
To many critics, ‘Himmatwala’ and ‘Mawaali’ typify all that was wrong with Hindi cinema in the 1980s. Photo: IMDB

The first rumblings of a southern ‘invasion’ were heard in the early 1960s. Reviewing Prasad Productions’ Sasural (1961), The Times of India’s film critic wrote, ‘Ghunghat, Bindiya, Nazrana and now Sasural. The invasion from the South seems to be complete. Because, whatever be its artistic shortcomings, it cannot be denied that Sasural has got what it takes to be a big box-office hit.’

But by 1974, South-based productions in Hindi had shrunk to single digits; L.V. Prasad’s Bidaai (Jeetendra’s comeback hit) and D. Ramanaidu’s Prem Nagar (Rajesh Khanna’s surprise success) were two of them. By the mid-1970s, both AVM and Gemini had lost sway. Others failed to make inroads. Film business data (1975-79) shows that only a handful of southern ventures such as Julie (1975), Swarag Narak (1978), dubbed sex film Man Ka Aangan (1979) and director K. Vishwanath’s tender musical Sargam (1979) minted money.

In 1980, South made a robust return with Jeetendra’s Jyoti Bane Jwala. The film, produced at Annapurna Studios, Hyderabad and processed in Chennai, received an AI (hit) rating from Trade Guide. Two southern socials, Judaai (Prasad Art, dialogues: Dr Rahi Masoom Reza) and Maang Bharo Sajana (Lakshmi Productions), both directed by T. Rama Rao, also kept the ticket clerks busy. Other movies such as producer B. Nagi Reddy’s Swayamvar and director K. Raghavendra Rao’s Nishana were moderately successful.

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These successes may have renewed the enthusiasm of southern producers dreaming of an all-India market, and spurred the making of many more films. Of the five southern winners in 1980, Jeetendra was the hero in four—undoubtedly, the No. 1 Hindi filmstar for southern producers. The investment zeal reached stratospheric heights after veteran producer L.V. Prasad’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), a passionate and tragic love story, became a money-spinner. Director K. Balachander’s film—released alongside Love Story —drew repeated viewings among the young adult audience. Scenes like heroine Rati Agnihotri drinking the burnt remains of a photograph of her lover with her coffee or Kamal Haasan spinning a top on her washboard stomach became talking points.

‘When Ardh Satya met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s’ Bombay Cinema’, 392 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
‘When Ardh Satya met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s’ Bombay Cinema’, 392 pages, 599

Padmalaya Studios also struck gold the same year with the ultra-violent, vigilante Meri Aawaz Suno (1981), starring Jeetendra and Hema Malini. However, the production house became synonymous with another kind of movie. In 1983, it delivered Himmatwala, Mawaali and Justice Chaudhury—all Jeetendra starrers. To many critics and viewers, Himmatwala and Mawaali typify all that was wrong with Hindi cinema in the 1980s. But the impact of these movies is undeniable. To understand their success, one needs to locate them in their time when VCR piracy ruled and the middle class had abandoned theatres. Movie halls were primarily the domain of young males from the underclass. Both movies provided likeable content for the new majority audience.

The Forgotten Forerunner

Director K. Raghavendra Rao’s Nishana (1980), the tale of an elusive necklace, was a masochist’s guilty pleasure. Made under the banner of Roja Pictures, the film was a remake of the NTR-Sridevi Telugu smash hit, Vetagadu, helmed by the same director and released the previous year. With Jeetendra and Poonam Dhillon in lead roles, the film was a middling moneymaker but became the prototype of many zany entertainers. Utpal Dutt’s part was the forerunner to Kader Khan’s villain in Himmatwala. The Golmaal actor spoke his lines (dialogue: Charandas Shokh) in rhyme: Kavita dekhne mein rooi hai, par chubhne mein sooi hai (Kavita looks like cotton but stings like a needle). Or, Tum achambhe mein khambhe ki tarah kyon khade ho (Why are you standing in astonishment like a pillar)?

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The film’s dress designer clothed Prem Chopra from top to bottom in a single strong colour, flaming red or vibrant violet. The film foresaw the future in other ways too. In the song Maine tujhe jeet liya, Poonam Dhillon wore the same bejewelled clothes that later became famous after Sridevi put them on in Tohfa’s Nainon mein sapna. However, a forerunner only serves as an advance warning. The tsunami came with Himmatwala in 1983. By the end of 1984, production houses based in Madras and Hyderabad had barrelled into the Hindi film market. In 1984, twenty-seven Hindi films were produced by South-based banners, signalling a large-scale entry of new capital.

Year 1985 was a blip after two years of southern comfort. No major hit came from Madras or Hyderabad that year. But in 1986, the South roared again delivering six of the year’s top ten hits. Family drama Swarag Se Sunder was a monster hit. Nache Mayuri, the inspirational dance film based on the life of Sudha Chandran, was another runaway success. Aakhree Raasta and Insaaf Ki Awaaz also yielded profits. Several other films were above-average earners: producer D. Ramanaidu’s Dilwaala (Mithun), K. Bapaiah’s Muddat (Mithun, Jaya Prada, Padmini Kolhapure), T. Rama Rao’s Dosti Dushmani (Jeetendra, Rajinikanth, Rishi Kapoor) and Sadaa Suhagan (Jeetendra, Govinda, Rekha).

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However, it would be fair to say that post 1986, the giant southern wave ebbed. Kudrat Ka Kanoon (1987), Sindoor (1987), Watan Ke Rakhwale (1987), Pyar Ka Mandir (1988) and Rakhwala (1989) made good money but the southern studios did not deliver any super-duper hit in the last three years of the decade, collections reported in a trade magazine show. Yet production continued at a good pace. In 1988, at least twenty Hindi films were directed by South-based directors.

Excerpted with permission from ‘When Ardh Satya met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s’ Bombay Cinema’, by Avijit Ghosh, Published by SpeakingTiger

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