Lots of money, scene and unseen

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It was like that in the bad old days when the industry was an industry in name only and money was a necessary evil. A thing so evil that if you look at Chetan Anand Neecha Nagar (1946), we cringe a bit from the somewhat caricatural representation of the rich. The Anand brothers were good at it. Take the song of paisa, paisa, paisa in Kala Bazaar (1960) which turns the young man towards the black market. It was at the end of the great old 1950, the time which we were told was the golden age of cinema. Money and power have clashed with poverty and innocence, and the latter has always triumphed with brilliance. Nargis as Mother India did not succumb to Kanhaiyalal, the pawnbroker; and Madhubala as an Anarkali offered herself as a sacrifice to keep Mughal-e-Azam(1960) intact.

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Illustration: Jayachandran

In the 1960s we had rich men who had to experience love to make their way through the hills and poor boatmen who turned out to be rich men anyway. In the 1970s, it was more the same even if it was sometimes a class war (Bobby, 1973) and sometimes it was simply a war of the means of producing wealth (Deewar, 1975) but the whole thing was that bhaiya, sabse bada rupaiya. The 1980s were a banner decade, with Bollywood desperate for modernity and missing a mile. Nothing worked. The rich didn’t look rich, the poor didn’t look poor, and we were all yawning desperately.

Back in the 1990s, Sooraj Barjatya decided maybe it was time to spend some money on extras. Instead of the usual A-list extras (who could bring their own rather scruffy clothes), he got ramp models and dressed them in designer duds. Suddenly there was money smeared all over the screen and no one ever looked back. Nobody asked how a teacher’s daughter could dress like that. We don’t care. We wanted a destination wedding and a mehndi and a story and a book and a video and we needed a budget for all of that.

After liberalisation, the world started looking at India as a market — we know, we know, they wanted to sell us outdated goods — but they also thought it might be a place invest money and watch it grow. ICE (Internet, Communication and Entertainment) was big, does anyone even use that expression now? ICE as an investment opportunity meant there had to be bound scripts, deadlines and accountability.

There was a time when Shashi Kapoor signed over 50 films and worked three shifts a day. There was a time when Ashok Kumar came on set and asked Leela Naidu what her character’s name was. Not anymore. Now there were men in suits, I was told.

So, I was unprepared for a late call from a young lady who had just graduated from the university I teach.

“Jerry,” she said, “talk to me.”

” What’s wrong ? I asked.

“I’m in a taxi en route to this hotel in Bandra,” she said. I had heard of the hotel. I thought it had closed.

“No, some rooms are open. I have to deliver a bag to the first floor.”

My mind was whirling. I thought of the taxi driver who overheard this conversation. I thought of him stealing from the young woman. I thought of the young woman being chased by the mafia. “Let’s talk about the cinema of Pedro Almodovar”, I said.

She delivered the bag, left the hotel unscathed, and stopped to breathe the cool, fetid night air by the sea. “I don’t think I can do it again,” she said.

“You shouldn’t,” I said.

When I told a friend this, she shrugged and said, “There’s no more black money in Bollywood. Everything is payment by check now. All. She probably knew what she was talking about.

Bollywood, or what’s left of it, still has an uncertain attitude towards money. It’s because its engines have always been sex and violence. Sex is disguised as love, and love has always opposed money. Gentlemen may prefer blonde gold diggers in Hollywood and writers like Anita Loos may even side with us deftly, but in Bollywood it was gonads over gold. And as for violence, we all know that the man with the most firepower wins. But again, the power was ours purana daur. The bus would lose, the horse would win. Karan and Arjun would come together and dislodge the powerful. The five strangers would get together and defeat the zamindar.

In Sholay (1975), we have an iconic moment that pits money against desire. The two mercenaries (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) who have been hired by the Thakurs (Sanjeev Kumar) to liberate his village from the clutches of Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) decide to take the money and vamoose instead of waging war on someone. another. They get caught by the widow of the house (Jaya Bhaduri) who, dressed in white, plays the guardian of conscience. And she doesn’t stop them. She offers them the keys and tells them to take the money and leave. You knew what was going to happen in the next scene. You knew it but you were moved.

For me, the money thrown into the fire of Qurbani (1980) was a revelation. It is difficult at this distance to remember the impatience with which we waited to see Qurbani. The audience was actually knocking on the doors of the theater to be let in. When Sheela (Zeenat Aman) comes running out of the Arabian Sea water, there were of course boos and whistles. But in the conversation that follows, she throws Rajesh’s (Feroz Khan) ill-gotten gains into the fire. There was a collective groan that ran through the cinema. Nobody could believe that someone could do that. Later, rumors spread that the currency was real, much like the Mercedes he destroyed in the parking lot scene was real.
But those ill-gotten gains haunted us. Live from theft (Mr Natwarlal1979, has a good comedic riff on middle class budgeting) or a woman’s body (take any of the pimps in any of the tawaif movies up to Gangubai Kathiawadi) and you will see that it is not easy to invest money in the embrace of love and violence. Both must be pure, and purity is judged on the basis of the absence of taint from the silver. As for business, it didn’t play much in the movies like any other Guru (2007) will tell you.

It’s not surprising. Even at this time when we have entrusted all the details of our lives to Mr. Zuckerberg and the Sarkar, we will not talk about money. (Don’t ask me what they pay me for this piece.) Our sexual preferences, our morning meals, our children’s antics, we’ll talk about everything but we won’t talk about money.

Is it surprising that Bollywood is our black mirror?

Pinto isauthor of Helen: The Life and Times of a Bollywood H-Bomb and publisher of The Greatest Show on Earth; Writings on Bollywood.

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