Cirrhosis of the Liver and Hindi Cinema

Written by  //  November 10, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  8 Comments

Today’s piece is going to be given over to brooding over gloomy things. Brooding over the importance and necessity of gloomy things in producing great art.  I am going to provocatively argue that the root cause of decline in the quality of Hindi cinema since the fifties has been that the people in the movie industry have gone from being pathologically sad to being genetically happy.[1] In this task, I will discuss the personal lives of certain stars of the fifties and the contrast with the present generation, should, I believe become painfully evident. I don’t want to relay in great detail the lives of the individuals in question. These are already well known and well documented elsewhere. I will be making no contribution by merely repeating these details. I will just use the broad outlines to make my overall thesis that the loss of sadness seems to directly correlate with the loss of quality.

1. Guru Dutt –

Directed films that are by common consensus the greatest to ever hit Hindi screens (please note that Satyajit Ray is not included here). Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool,Saahib Bibi aur Ghulam. His films are overflowing with one quality that seemed to be the very essence of the man- an inexplicable dark sadness that knew no boundaries. This was not a sadness that evoked frustration or some petty disenchantment. It was sadness that evoked loss of companionship and betrayal of romantic love as manifested in this song.

His personal life followed a trajectory eerily similar to his movies. He was in love with and married Geeta Dutt, the iconic singer of the previously linked song. Fell disastrously in love with the unattainable Waheeda Rehman, became an alcoholic and died of a lethal combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. He had severe liver damage which probably accelerated his death.

2. Meena Kumari-

Widely hailed as the first feminist heroine on the Indian screen, a couple of decades before Smita Patil. One can sense a bit of the helpless nature of her sadness in her portrayal of the misunderstood alcoholic wife in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.

She married Kamaal Amrohi after an intense romance. However, (it appears, rather typically for an actor of this time), they split and she became an alcoholic. They remarried but she never entirely recovered. She continued to suffer and died a few weeks after the monument to her romance with Kamaal Amrohi, Pakeezah was released. Pakeezah was initially shot in the early fifties in the first flush of her love (the song “Inhi logon ne” was shot in black and white) but was shelved and later completed in the seventies. Ironically, it was her untimely death by cirrhosis of the liver that made Pakeezah popular.

The song that epitomises her condition is linked here:

3. Geeta Dutt

Already mentioned in connection with Guru Dutt. A singer of great intensity and piety. Married Guru Dutt, was destroyed by his dalliance with Waheeda Rehman and predictably took to heavy drinking. She died of the cirrhosis of the liver. Is there a hint of any of this helpless pain and suffering in her singing of this early song?

4. Madhubala

The great beauty whose primary claim to fame is her role as a doomed courtesan, Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam. She had a long affair with Dilip Kumar which ended because of a combination of personal and professional reasons. She married Kishore Kumar, the acclaimed playback singer but their marriage was never happy. She was widely believed to be still in love with Dilip and the strain of having to act with him in Mughal-e-Azam probably aggravated her heart illness which led to her premature death in 1969 at the age of 36. Another sad song featuring another sad actor:

You get the drift. I will not burden you with any more details of actors who died of an excess of love or liver damage or more usually, both! But I think one sees a pattern here. These are people who are very very sad. And the movies that they made were very very good.

Look at the situation now. We have an industry filled with happy kids. Kids of parents who were happy people. Karan Johar, Sonam Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Bobby Deol… the list goes on. Looking at the on screen cuddling of Shahrukh Khan, Kajol and Karan Johar and one feels like one has walked unwittingly into a very happy high school reunion. But what has happened to the movies that we make? They have become happy as well. Happy and bad. Happy and delusional. They are mostly set in some suburb of an urban area in a western country with brown faces facing entirely white problems. When was the last time an Indian family grappled with the issues faced in the recent Stepmom rip off (“We are Family”)? Never. Which is why it had to be set in Toronto. The movies have become culturally dislocated catering to a zombie NRI audience that exists only in the twisted cheerful minds of these new age directors and in the movies they make. They can’t do India. They can’t do reality and they can’t do sadness.  Even if they do set a movie in India they choose to set it in locales that exist purely in their myopic visions – for example, under the sea link bridge (which is possibly the only place in Bombay without poor people) (“Jaane Tu ya Jaane Na”) or in the cloistered bungalows of South Delhi (“Aisha”). Movies have become shopping brochures for luxury brands and broadly have the emotional resonance of a big red lollipop.  Is it really possible to feel sorrow, real genuine human sorrow for somebody who has a six pack or a breast implant? Do they think we are fools? Or possibly it is not their fault. It is just that they are genetically happy and genetically happy people can only make movies that are pre-ordained to be insignificant and irrelevant. Proving my theory.

Or worse- it is not their fault because we, as a nation, now don’t understand sadness. We look at Pyaasa and tell the hero to get over the chick and get a life. We think the lines “Jaane who kaise log the jin ke pyaar ko pyaar mila” is about a guy who scored in a bar. Have we all collectively lost the sincerity it requires to be sad? Therefore, have we all lost the sincerity it requires to make great movies?

But not to worry there is hope at hand. Is it any coincidence that possibly the greatest movie made in recent times – Dev D- was made by a man whose personal life reads like a bleak commentary on human relationships? Anurag Kashyap is positively the greatest poster boy for my thesis that sad people make great movies. At the heart of Dev D lies a very Guru Dutt-esque character. Astronomically in love, misunderstood and alcoholic. There is hope yet.

[1] The standard disclaimer: Not all people in the movie industry in the fifties were sad and not all the people now are happy. This is meant to be a more emotional argument on broad trends and should not be taken literally.

8 Comments on "Cirrhosis of the Liver and Hindi Cinema"

  1. Harsh Parashar November 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm ·

    Fantastic piece! Very True. If I may add something….
    Filmmaker, Madhur Bhandarkar, a genuine talent, started his career wth the riveting Chandni Bar, good efforts like Satta, but success (professionally and financially surely) took him to Page 3, Fashion, which were average works of a man who now refleted on his “culturally dislocated”new world. Thank god for filmmakers like Bhardwaj, Dibanker Bannerjee, Hirani, Kashyap (add his brother’s name to it) who know where they come from and importantly where their audience comes from.
    But do you wonder why the “happy” brigade still makes more successful films than the “wear your heart on sleeve/sad” ones?
    My guess is we as an audience seem to be growing more cynical and we shy from genuine emotion when we see it on screen, so we prefer a spoof of it.

  2. Varun Hallikeri November 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm ·

    I make this general, unsubstantiated statement but I believe in it. Pain and sadnesss have many shades than happiness which is pretty much the same in any situation. Which explains why movies and songs around pain and sadness leave a deeper impact. The first 30 or so years post-Independence were also the times of many social, economic and national struggles in our society, which brought out such movies and songs. Whether it was a song in the background of war or a failed love story due to social barriers, filmmakers and audience identified with them. Here is another song which I listen to whether I am happy or sad – – a gem from Kishore da!

    I don’t agree with you that we no more make sad movies and songs on a large scale these days. Look at Emraan Hashmi and Himesh Reshammiya movies and songs. They are mostly sad, and deal primarily with unrequited love (which they successfully chase ultimately!). Given the sea of opportunities in other aspects of lives, unrequited love seems to be the primary reason for sadness in Indian youth today. While I agree that we have lost the sincerity to be sad, I also feel that we have lost the many reasons to feel loss, pain and sadness.


  3. Ambika November 11, 2010 at 5:15 am ·

    Nice!!! It was very unique indeed to connect Liver cirrhosis to good cinema…
    Well, the 50’s was a great era and people back then understood more of human emotions and hence those same emotions got exhibited on screen.

    This generation is so full of themselves, that appreciating an art, is least of their priorities. Today cinema is all about going to swanky theatres to watch films made on dysfunctional families settled abroad and yet try valiantly to be Indian (though they fail miserably) and be happy that they finally got to be happy on screen. But we seldom find a situation where we could actually empathise with them.

    However, I do believe once in a while we do get meaningful cinema from a handful of directors, who dare to go beyond the usual boundaries of ‘always happy syndrome’ and present to us the true India. Remember the hue cry when Slumdog Millionaire released. Most Indians were not ready to accept that Mumbai is the home to the largest slum and people with true emotions live there. For most Mumbai junta, the city is an epitome of wealth and swankiness, though its a perfect place to observe the stark reality that exists..

    Keep up the good writing..

  4. Subramanian Natarajan November 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm ·

    Thanks guys!

    Harsh: Very true observation about Bhandarkar. I agree with you entirely that the new crop of movie makers are reversing the trend of cheap and cheerful nonsense that we had been seeing for the past 2 decades. I would add the director of Udaan to that list. That was an exquisite movie. On your question – I think my point that in present day young urban India, nobody gives a rats posterior to sincerity of emotion. It is all about how much cash you have and how obscenely you spend it. The movies reflect the society. But again this is changing with these new film makers. But as I said the piece is supposed to be more provocative and not exactly scientific.

    Hallikeri: I entirely agree with your first paragraph. On your second paragraph though I have to say I think Emraan Hashmi/ Himesh reshammiya movies are “sad” in a very different sense. They are sad and bad. Very very bad. Also I think unrequited love has lost its preeminent position as trigger of misery among young people. Just look at this show called UTV Bindass Emotional Atyachaar and you get a sense of where the romantic zeitgeist is.

    Ambika – I agree with everything you say. Especially about the bit about people being more emotional and sensitive in the fifties.

  5. aandthirtyeights November 12, 2010 at 6:14 am ·

    Great post. I think a similar mapping can be done for Carnatic musicians as well. 😛

  6. Anirudh Wadhwa November 15, 2010 at 10:09 am ·

    Excellent post Subra! You’ve hit the bulls eye on this one.

  7. Sudeshna November 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm ·

    This was absolutely a great read. Thanks for bringing back nostalgic images of Guru Dutt and Madhubala, that my generation will always cherish and hopefully the youth will recollect when one talks about the recipe for a good, ‘Indian’ movie.

  8. Subramanian Natarajaj November 16, 2010 at 8:57 am ·

    Swarup, Wadhwa and Ms. Sudeshna,

    Many thanks. Really appreciate it.

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