In a scene from Bhagwan Dada’s Albela (1951), Pyarelal, played by Dada himself explains to his family, the reason behind the sudden disappearance of his moustache. “Kalakaar ko sabse pehle muchein mundwani padti hain”, he says as he lifts the veil. The moustache has been traditionally linked to masculine pride in India, but in this context its transitive properties say much more about the idea of an artist’s life. Pyarelal wants to become an actor, and while he mimes his aspiration as part of everyday life, he understands that sacrifice is possibly the first stepping stone. Without shame, and maybe even social scrutiny, no one can possibly express that which they wish to. In the Indian context, this sacrifice can be the abandonment of ritualistic morality or the very idea of a familial identity. Hindi cinema has over the course of its history, considered the artist in varying, often fascinating light.
In a scene from Kabhi Kabhie, Pooja, the estranged but now married former lover of Amit (Bachchan as a poet) asks him, years down the line on a live TV show “Amit ji agar aap zindagi se shayari, kala aur sangeet nikaal den toh zindagi mein jeene layak reh hi kya jaata hai.” Amit responds by affirming that a life devoid of poetry – which he gave up on years ago – is not a life devoid of purpose. A life devoid of love, though, is another question – one that isn’t bellied up here in the midst of an awkward, but affecting interview. Because our cinema has bloomed through the soil of song and dance, it’s natural that the singer and dancer have featured as protagonists on several occasions, more often than not surrounded by controversy. From Rishi Kapoor in Karz to Kumar Gaurav in the lesser-known but more melancholic, Star, the rise of the artist through the 80s was seen as the rise, also of the celebrity and ultimately also of the people trying to bring them down. None of these portrayals demarked the boundaries for criticism, or at least the interpretation of art but simply chose to speak about the material rewards of being an artist.
The history of India is intertwined with that of the arts, and so has been the freedom struggle. From patriotic poems to pamphleteering that cost the British their throne, art has been inextricable from the DNA of the country’s imagination. So much so that Hindi cinema has often returned to historic territory to re-imagine art as the provider of both purpose and instrument. In Baiju Bawra (1952) for example, a young Bharat challenges Tansen in the court of Akbar, as a way to exact revenge. In Padosan (1968), a young man uses music to woo a neighbour he has fallen for- an act that eventually devolves into an iconic across-the-window duel.
The writer, in Hindi cinema’s imagination, has always been the mystic loner whose general enterprise in life is always under scrutiny. In Udaan, a young poet must unshackle himself to pursue writing – to what extent, it is never quite explored. Writing, is obviously a lonesome process, but cinema also interprets it as an act of quizzical devotion. Acting, singing and dance have in comparison been imagined as economically liberating pursuits with national ambitions. Also the only kind that can inspire fandom. Rakesh Roshan’s Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, for example, frames the artist as a vague mix of many superficial arts. In Rockstar and Rock On, music is a form of conquest in itself. In Jhankar Beats it is a form of restoration. Both Rockstar and Rock On double down on Albela’s view of art being, in essence, also an act of abandonment. Not necessarily of humanly obligations, but that of modest desires and worldly responsibilities.
For a cinema obsessed with aesthetic and studio quality mis-en-scene the painter occupies a somewhat whimsical place in our imagination. In Ittefaq (1969), Dilip played by Rajesh Khanna tells his nagging wife “Ye painting mere liye sabkuch hain. Mere armaan, meri zindagi”. This devotion to art is interpreted as selfishness in a film that refuses to indulge the poetic melancholy of loneliness. Paintings, after all, don’t have to memorised, or remembered. They can both be forgotten or robbed of their lifetime with a blink of an eye. In Dil Chahta Hai, the painter is the oddball, brooding outsider who though he makes the most obvious art, looks at the world in abstract, unconventional ways. Aamir Khan’s Dhobi Ghat echoes a similar sentiment. The painter is by design, provisioned to look deeper than most others.
Post-Independence cinema up until the 80s, was still a battle between whims and practicality. Though indie cinema has queried art’s role in state-making (Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, Court), there is plenty still to be done to excavate a more sophisticated image of the artist. Bollywood has been notorious for its reputation having carried the burdens of being identified as a form of vice. On the cusp of globalisation, this narrative underwent the kind of social overhaul that elevated the artist to a position of seamless agency. Singers, dancers, painters and on the odd chance, the writer, have since appeared in our cinema, unencumbered by the existential shadow of a ‘profession’ that most still don’t fancy. But for those who do, it’s everything – the journey and the destination, the immutable reward or the unrecognisable end. It’s what cinema, or art, is in a sense. Not the pursuit of perfection or a comprehensive finish but simply one journey bouncing, unknowingly into the other.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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