We time travel back to 1981 to look at the pin up stars, the heart throbs, the music, and some questionable movie choices.
Quick- name your favourite Amitabh Bachchan movie. Is it Sholay or is it Deewar? I know some of you are partial to his Hrishikesh Mukherjee oeuvre, so perhaps Mili? And if your memory doesn’t extend that far, maybe his admirable but slightly icky turn in Paa? How many of you chose one of these though – Naseeb, Lawaaris, Kaalia or Yaarana?
But do you know that every single one of them was among the 10 highest grossing movies of 1981?
Allow us to indulge in a personal anecdote if you will. Back in the day when the Red Bagger was not stymied by a crippling stage fright, she fancied herself a bit of a thespian. She even auditioned for the lead role in the coveted school play, convinced that she would lose it to one of the girls with a posh South Bombay accent or to the resident Julia Roberts who had led three school concerts in a row. But what do you know, she aced her auditions and won the part! That triumphant moment unfortunately was the peak of her acting career. The play was a damp squib (classmates may recall the infamous and unfortunate attack of the giggles); and her disillusioned Drama Teacher explained her spectacular failure thus: “When you auditioned you really wanted that part, and were uninhibited by the thought of failure! The hunger is gone now that you have what you want!”.
Now consider this lament of Mrs. Lobo against the late-career complacence of the Khans or Mr. Bachchan. Add to this lack of try a coterie of well-wishers who are paid to ensure you remain in your insulated bubble. That explains your Ready, your Chennai Express, your Dhoom 3 and almost all of Amitabh Bachchan’s movies in 1981.
All of which is a long roundabout way to say that the Number 1 song of 1981 was “Mere Angane Mein”, and I have almost nothing to say about that.
Laawaris has a convoluted not particularly smart plot involving Amjad Khan as the non-accepting father, Rakhee- only recently Mr. Bachchan’s paramour in Barsaat ki Ek Raat now playing his poor club dancing mother (fun fact: how many of you would have guessed that Rakhee is 5 years younger than Amitabh), a love interest (he was in the alternating Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi period), some angst and this song.
There are two versions of this Anjaan penned song- one sung in a club by Rakhee –notable for being the first real superhit of a certain Ms. Alka Yagnik, and the other which Amitabh Bachchan himself sang while in drag.
I have always wondered how our nation would react to the sexual minorities if someone really famous and well respected claimed that it was alright to love whoever you want, that there’s nothing inherently hilarious about the Kantabai jokes in Kal Ho Na Ho, or grotesque about your supposedly manly manly manly masculine actors cross-dressing. My preferred candidate for bringing upon this social revolution would be Sachin Tendulkar (because I doubt that even the Rediff commentators can stoop to calling out to him –“u r gay urself mr. 10dulkar, and Kallis was a better batman than you”), but Amitabh Bachchan would do just fine- he is universally loved, respected, and that famous voice can lend a certain gravitas to any issue he can be trained to speak eloquently about (Whatever your personal opinions about him, his work towards the Polio Eradication campaign is admirable). And what a way would it be to seal a legacy which has seen it’s fair share of ups and downs?
He will however, have to explain this song.
The Song: Forgive the superstar his indulgence of singing the song himself when he could’ve had playback singers on demand, the stilted dance steps (which were vintage Bachchan at that point of time), and the tight white pants. But the choreography , the costumes and even the lyrics -whether seen from the prism of 1981 or 2014 (or really, any time in between), are absolutely inexcusable. There are two schools of thought about Bollywood men in drag. Some insist that it’s fine- and in some ways almost accepting of transgender or transsexual identities. I belong to the school that detests the way it is done- especially the insistence on keeping the make up and look almost grotesque as if to say – “look, I am nothing like this in real life. I see how absurd this is”.
The fashion: We can ignore Amitabh Bachchan and his many costume changes and focus instead on the women in the party. There is Bindu in a patrician avataar wearing a saree that I would be willing to wear (I would honestly wear about 80% of what Bindu ever wore, but that’s a story for another time). Zeenat Aman with her Goopy hair-do and colour blocking is timeless. There is a pretty gori extra in a red shift dress, and some pretty nifty hairdos and sarees among the rest of the extras.
The picturization: It was de rigeur in the early 1980s for Amitabh Bachchan to enter a party and win everyone over with his Chhora Ganga Kinaare Waala persona. Why, 1981 alone had him waiter his way to glory in John Jaani Janardhan , steal a karonon ka haar in Jaahan Teri Yeh Nazar Hai, and the next year saw him reach the pinnacle of his party-stealing- prowess with his bravura turn in Namak Halal. The template in all of these songs is the triumph of the fish-out-of-water. The setting is that of a high society party that’s just itching for its dose of Bachchan’s country charm. The event of course is laden with subtext- and it must have a bemused heroine/sidekick oblivious to this subtext. One of the things I miss most from the movies of the era are the extras, so glad to just be a part of the party, acting their hearts out and clapping to the songs. Most of them have been replaced by dull wannabe models now, and our picturizations are poorer for that.
Elsewhere in 1981: The movie that set the cash registers ringing the most was Manoj Kumar’s odious Kranti (one gets the sense that Hema Malini’s writhing on an slick deck may have had something to do with that). But a special mention must also be made of the three-way attack to the 1981 teenage heart in the form of Kumar Gaurav in Love Story, Kamal Hasan in Ek Duje ki Liye and Sanjay Dutt in Rocky (ooh the womenfolk were spoilt for choice!) . Apart from his four blockbusters, Bachchan also starred in the tepid lifted-from-the-tabloids saga Silsilaa. Your mileage on how much you can tolerate that sordid affair may vary, but surely no one can dislike Shashi Kapoor singing “Neeche Paan ki Dukan” in a drunken lilt?
Our favourite movies of the year though? It would have to be a toss up between Chashme Buddoor which we can not resist whenever it’s on television, or the incredibly tense and fantastic Kalyug. Rajneeti’s Mahabharat re-telling had nothing on Benegal’s masterful affair – and the casting was so spot-on (Can you imagine a better Draupadi than an early 80’s Rekha? )
And the song we’d like to store in a time capsule from 1981? RD Burman’s very romatic, very peppy and absolutely adorable gem from Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai. Chintu saves another year.