BOLLYWOOD: THE ENIGMATIC CINEMA OF THE 1980sby Pratik Majumdar January 24 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 42 secs
It’s easy that calling the 1980s the worst decade for films and music might be a conveniently casual remark for those who do not want to dig deep into the wonders of cinema and music, writes Pratik Majumdar.
When I speak to fellow film and music lovers, one comment I often hear is how the 1980s were the worst decade for movies and music with some absolutely terrible films and crappy music being prevalent throughout the decade. The nadir of commercial cinema and film music is how the ‘80s are often described. As a cinema and music lover I strongly disagree.
To me the ‘80s are no different in terms of quality from its previous decades or the later ones to follow. There were good moments and not so good moments. And also…unlike most other decades there were certain defining moments exclusive to the 1980s.
The ‘80s are significant and unique because just like the previous decade there were certain moments, which standout. Although Raj Kapoor could be called the earliest star son and Rishi Kapoor in 1973 the first romantic teeny bopper hero, it was the 80s that firmly established the template and formula of star sons. Kumar Gaurav in 1980 heralded the arrival of star sons with a bang with the thundering success of Love Story. Almost overnight he became the teenybopper heartthrob of young girls. The poster boy of teenage romance. Followed Sanjay Dutt as the dashing young hero who was adept in both romance and action in Rocky, another box office success. After Gaurav and Sanjay came Sunny Deol with the blockbuster Betaab and one more star son announced his entry with a bang.
The 1980s saw more star sons like Rajiv Kapoor, Kunal Kapoor, Suneil Anand and Kunal Goswami also making their arrival. With some success and perhaps more failure. But without a doubt the launch of star sons was a significant event of this decade.
New wave cinema, which was born in the late 1960s and early ‘70s made several important strides too. Filmmakers like Saeed Mirza, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani made their presence felt in the 1980s with some stellar work. Films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho, Mandi, Vijeta, Ardh Satya and Chakra are important landmarks and their effect on the decade cannot be ignored. Women directors like Aparna Sen with 36 Chowringhee Lane, Sai Paranjpye with films like Katha and Sparsh and Mira Nair with Salaam Bombay also made their presence felt.
Moving away from the world of “art cinema”, even commercial cinema had major moments in the decade. The Ramsay Brothers who introduced horror to Indian screens made their dominance all the more solid in this decade with films like Saboot, Sannata, Hotel and Guest House until reaching the pinnacle of their success with Purana Mandir, Tahkhana and Veerana. The cult that is the Ramsay Brothers today, cemented their dominance in the 1980s.
This decade gave birth well and truly to the age of multi starrers. True there were multi hero films in the 1970s and even ‘60s, yet it was the 1980s when multi starrers ruled. Films like Rajput, Naseeb, Ram Balram, Silsila, Shaan, Qurbani, Kranti and Tridev, and so many others were major landmark movies of the decade. Why only heroes and heroines, some of these multi starrers had ensembles of villains, like Lootmaar, Naseeb and Ram Balram.
Whilst Amitabh Bachchan and other heroes like Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna ruled the roost in an era dominated by action films, the 1980s also saw middle of the road cinema standing tall. Directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Gulzar and Sai Paranjpye made films for the middle classes, which did great business at the box office. Films like Rang Birangi, Shaukeen, Katha and Kisise Na Kehna had the cash office happy as well as the audiences. Gulzar following his strong presence in the 1970s made significant films like Angoor, Ijaazat and Namkeen.
If the previous decade had announced the musical arrival of Kishore Kumar, RD Burman and Laxmikant Pyarelal, this one saw them trenching their ground and dominating the music scenario. And it also marked the arrival of disco on the Indian musical map. With Disco Dancer, music director Bappi Lahiri and actor Mithun Chakraborty catapulted to not just national fame but international superstardom. Not since Raj Kapoor in the 1950s had any star made such a huge impact on Russian cine lovers as did Mithun Chakraborty. Jimmy Jimmy, rendered in the voice of the indefatigable Parvati Khan, seemed to belong to everybody.
A lot is spoken about the qualitative deterioration in music of the 1980s. To me that is something that needs to be taken with more than a bagful of salt. The main reason for this oft-heard comment is the music from the factory produced southern dramas, which came from the likes of Padmalaya Studios, mostly starring Jeetendra and Sridevi. The south films as they were called had a very distinct style of Chaalu/tapori music (mostly composed by Bappi Lahiri) with equally banal lyrics. Yes they were catchy and yes they were low in standards (to some). But their popularity and impact can never be diluted. And, let’s not forget that the same Bappi Lahiri also gave us gems in Apne Paraye, Kisise Na kehna and other films. RD Burman gave us Ijaazat, Sunny, Love Story and Betaab among other gems. Anu Malik announced his arrival with Ek Jaan Hain Hum, Coolie and Sohni Mahiwal. Laxmikant Pyarelal had Karz, Ek Duje Ke Liye and Utsav, and so many more musical bits. Khayyam after Kabhi Kabhi in the 1970s gave Umrao Jaan. In fact, on close observation, the range of music that we can find in this decade from the banal to the brilliant is perhaps the widest from all eras. There was no one type of music but a huge variety to be found, heard and discovered. There was something for everyone.
The emergence of new directors was another important facet of the decade - directors who were much younger than their predecessors and successfully managed to balance the commercial/sensible aspect of cinema. Shekhar Kapur (Masoom and Mr India), Rahul Rawail (Love Story, Betaab, Arjun and Dacait), JP Dutta (Ghulami, Yateem and Hathyaar) and Umesh Mehra (Ashanti, Jaal, Avinash and Sohni Mahiwal) were youngsters who presented a new sensibility and style to eager audiences with a fair degree of success.
As the decade drew to a close, two landmark films emerged, which would redefine and change the landscape of commercial cinema in the 1990s. Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) brought Aamir Khan to the forefront and in a way paved the path for romance to return to Hindi cinema. Ironically, although the decade had started with love being successful in films like Love Story and Ek Duje Ke Liye, it had since been taken over by the action heroes and violent films. QSQT (also the first film to be known by its abbreviation, if I remember correctly) revived the trend of romantic films. Like Kumar Gaurav at the start of the decade, Aamir Khan was to become the new chocolate hero poster boy as the 1980s drew to a close.
And then in 1989 another young director, Sooraj Barjatya, released Maine Pyar Kiya, starring a one-film-old Salman Khan, and made it the biggest hit of the decade. A new star was born. Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, both of whom would go on to dominate the 1990s (along with Shah Rukh Khan), made their successful emergence.
It’s easy that calling the 1980s the worst decade for films and music might be a conveniently casual remark for those who do not want to dig deep into the wonders of cinema and music. Because, if one is willing to be patient and earnest in their exploration, there are gems galore in this glorious decade.