A not-so-simple past

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:01 hrs

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death last week gave me a pretext to dust off a DVD of an old film he had scored — Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s National Award-winner Anuradha, about a woman who sacrifices her singing career to move to the village with her dedicated doctor husband. This is a lovely film, one of our cinema’s best depictions of threatened individuality and a marriage under pressure, highlighted by fine pacing, a subtly plaintive score, and excellent performances: the luminous Leela Naidu shows sensitivity beyond her years in the title role (she was barely 20 at the time) and Balraj Sahni brings dignified understatement to the part of Anuradha’s well-meaning but neglectful husband Dr Nirmal. In conjunction, their performances make this film an emotionally complex experience, because it is difficult for the viewer to “take sides” between the two characters and their circumstances.

Anuradha was made in the restrained Bimal Roy tradition (Mukherjee had assisted Roy before turning director himself) and is in some ways a precursor to the so-called Middle Cinema of the 1970s. It is a gentle, nuanced film, one that is easy to hold up as a representation of an idealised past where people conducted themselves with greater dignity than they do today, and with the associated idea that the film industry of that period was much higher-minded than it is today — more concerned with crafting grounded, meaningful movies than in catering to the “lowest common denominator”. There is a small vestige of truth in this notion, especially when one is assessing the work of such humanist directors as Mukherjee or Roy. But it’s also true that our minds are hard-wired to think of the past as glorious and idyllic, and the present as bleak and corrupted, and that this infects our view of film history (it helps explain, for instance, why people of all ages seem convinced that old songs were infinitely more melodious, and that today’s music is nothing but shrill cacophony).

Shortly after watching Anuradha, I flipped through the relevant sections of Leela Naidu’s feisty memoir Leela: A Patchwork Life and found that the industry she describes (one that she was well-placed to look at dispassionately, being an outsider to the Indian film world) doesn’t seem all that dissimilar from the industry of today. Naidu’s account begins with an anecdote about an assistant director sending her three brassieres with little nozzles for the purpose of inflating them to the required size (and her own amused speculation that she might come out of her dressing room and be told, “No Madamji, in this film you are a 38B cup, remember?”). Later, she refuses to wear makeup that would be too loud for a young woman living in a village (“Why is the bridge of my nose yellow and my nostrils blue?” I asked) — not at all surprising if one has seen the film and noted the scene in which an accident victim’s face is randomly splattered with dark paint.

Naidu also caused consternation on the set when she displayed “communist” tendencies by refusing to sit down until chairs were arranged for “extras”; and she fended off a subtle advance made by Balraj Sahni (“a perfect gentleman...but like many other perfect gentlemen, he was not above trying his luck”). Relating stories from other films she made around the same time, she observes that even a fine, professional actor like Ashok Kumar would show up on the set — for one of three “shifts” in his working day — and have to be told the title of the film and the name of the character he was playing. Or that producers were not above capitalising on a tragic real-life incident such as the Nanavati murder case.

None of this is to suggest that the people who made beautiful movies in the past were secretly hypocrites looking out only for their own profit. But it is a reminder that most of the old films that we canonise were, to varying degrees, part of a practical, commercial tradition — and that our notions about the innocent “simplicity” of the old days can be, well, simplistic and innocent.

Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer jaiarjun@gmail.com  

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