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Bollywood’s timeless flashbacks

A still from Aradhana.  

About a year ago, I chanced upon an online discussion that centred around the chartbuster Mere sapnon ki rani from the 1969 film Aradhana . No, it wasn’t about how the song, which spiralled a then little-known Rajesh Khanna to dizzy fame, was shot without Sharmila Tagore (common fodder for many a film trivia conversation). This debate, a little more unusually, focused on the book that the coquettishly dimpling Tagore is shown to be reading in the train as Khanna serenades her from a jeep running alongside.

The book was the Alistair MacLean thriller When Eight Bells Toll . I don’t remember the discussion too clearly now but a cursory mention by someone of the year it was published — 1966 — suddenly set me thinking. Aradhana was a story of two generations, and if this was the 1960s — as, indeed, it appeared to be by way of costumes and production design — which was the decade in which Tagore’s and Khanna’s son, 20 years later, becomes an Indian Air Force pilot?

Here’s where the conundrum begins (mostly in the idle mind of a person who’s troubled by logical improbabilities; most cine goers couldn’t care less). The son, in the course of the film, is summoned to the “war front”; he leaves, promising to bomb the hell out of the “enemy” while the anxious family listens to war news over an ancient-looking radio. Clearly then, this is either the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict or the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Which means the earlier part of the narrative, featuring the chiffon sari-wearing, Alistair MacLean-reading young woman unfolded in the pre-independence 1940s (at which point, among other things, Maclean had yet to become a writer).

The strange thing is I’ve seen Aradhana about 10 times at least but failed to notice this chronological inconsistency. Most of us don’t bother going too deep into such things, engrossed as we are in the headiness of a full-on masala narrative replete with melodrama, music and stars. But yes, come to think of it, this casualness was common to almost all the old Hindi films that spanned more than one generation via flashback (and there’s no dearth of them). Their narrative could slide back 40 years but the setting remained the same; or it could leap 40 years ahead but the only concession made to time was a few wrinkles and a dust of chalk powder in the actors’ hair. (Television czarina Ekta Kapoor, of course, tookthis timelessness to another level by leaving even her actors intact, as young and fresh at 60 as they were at 20.)

Aradhana set me thinking: how many earlier mainstream film-makers were meticulous enough to create two distinct eras in movies that dealt with different generations? Answering that question would entail a viewing of dozens of films but one can safely make an educated guess: very, very few. Off the top of my head I can think of Manoj Kumar’s 1970 film Purab Aur Paschim , in which the past, beginning in the year of the Quit India movement, had a distinctly different feel (it was also shot in black-and-white before switching to colour for the present, perhaps a first for a mainstream film). Then there’s Ramesh Sippy’s television epic Buniyaad , whose progression from 1915 to the 1960s was handled with the necessary changes in production design, costume, language and political-cultural references. Buniyaad ’s last episode was set in 1964, the year Jawaharlal Nehru died, but it also had a 20-year flash forward — the 90th birthday of its protagonist Master Haveli Ram, who, in the continuing interests of period authenticity, is shown talking on a cordless telephone.

Admittedly, films that have a specific timeline and encompass historical events in their narrative are the ones that are more authentic in portraying different time spans. I’m guessing that in the workaday 20-year leaps — the Aradhana kinds — authenticity would actually be undesirable. For instance, Sharmila Tagore would probably have to dress in staid khadi and refrain from openly romancing her IAF officer among other things. Too inconvenient all this for a movie whose main aim is to entertain.

Now here’s a thought. What if the latter part of Aradhana had indeed leapt into the eighties? What imaginary war situation would the scriptwriter have conjured up for the junior IAF officer? Back in 1969 when the film was made, no one could have guessed that the last official war of the century would be fought two years later, and that all subsequent hostilities calling for the army’s intervention would have to do with cross-border terrorism, internal insurrections and the like. Decades later, it would indeed have been diverting to check if at all the scriptwriter’s imagination coincided with reality.

Bollywood has rarely attempted being futuristic, and I, for one, can think of only two films in this genre (let’s please discount Love Story 2050 and its flying cars). One was Aditya Bhattacharya’s 1987 thriller Raakh which was set a mere 10 years ahead; the other was Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi , a dystopian horror that imagined a post-female foeticide, womanless India. I’d love to see a futuristic Hindi film that’s not sci-fi — a film spanning two or three generations set in, say, Kashmir, with the last part imagining the fate of the Valley 50 years hence. Make it, someone.

The author is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 1:25:41 PM |

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