Actor Jeetendra who had some of his best hits in the 80s was once asked how he ranked himself in the Hindi film industry. He replied that he was number 11. When asked who the ones were from 1-10, pat came to his reply’ “Amitabh Bachchan!”

In many ways, the 80s was a transformative decade for the Indian film industry. The broadcast of the Asian Games in 1982 had rapidly brought TV to people’s homes, making theatre-going a casualty. The introduction of DVDs further grew the home video market, making people reconsider going to theatres. Piracy became rampant as technology made copying films easier, and the Bollywood box office faced a perfect storm.

Avijit Ghosh captures this interesting decade in meticulous detail. He lists all actors that made an impact, all that didn’t, films that worked and the ones that didn’t, the characters, the producers and even the factors at play.

He observes that despite some big hits in the early ’80s, the formulas that successfully helped Big B create magic at the Box office in the ’70s had slowly run to the ground. The writing master duo of Salim-Javed had split at the beginning of 1981, and by the mid-80s, Big B’s super hit films made by the quartet of Prakash Mehra, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai and Hrishikesh Mukherjee had started to wane.

Ghosh attributes the birth and rise of parallel cinema to this gap created by the failure of the formula film. Directors like Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, ShyamBenegal, Ketan Mehta, Mrinal Sen and Sai Paranjpye, aided by technology that helped make films at low cost by shooting in 16mm and enlarging it to 35mm for the big screen, experimented with a new range of low-budget films. Films that stepped away from the usual masala and explored real themes with social messages, like Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Mirch Masala, Holi, Katha, Sparsh, and Arth ran to packed houses.

Sridevi Sizzles

In parallel, a new phenomenon was born in Bollywood. Ghosh postulates that if one asked the audiences of the ’80s who the hero of films like Mr India, Chalbaaz, Chandni, Himmatwala, Sadma, Mawaali and Tohfa was, the answer would be Sridevi.

She became the new Amitabh Bachchan and did over 150 films in the ’80s in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu and even though many of her films failed, her brand always stayed higher than the movie. She established her supremacy in family dramas as well as action and frothy entertainers. Like Big B, she could make any ridiculous situation look convincing. Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda and Rekha were the other stars who ruled the ’80s, trying to get the audiences back to the theatres.

In search of formulas, Bollywood also looked south in that decade. Of the 55 superhit films that defined the ’80s, Ghosh says 15 were remakes of South Indian films and helmed by Southern directors. Films like Himmatwala, Tohfa, Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Swarg Se Sunder, Mawaali, and Naache Mayuri set the box office ringing with their high entertainment quotient for Hindi audiences.

Ghosh highlights an interesting difference between the South and Bollywood producers. The South producers were strong on finances and negotiated bulk dates, making people work days and nights instead of shifts. Bombay producers, meanwhile, struggled to finish their films and pay them on time. Unlike the Bombay way of doing things, where the star was the centre of the universe, in the southern films, the producer was king. Their projects, from start to finish, had far shorter gestation periods than Hindi films. I am not sure if this difference still exists.

South Takeover

The plots of south films, Ghosh, says could only be experienced not explained, with a focus on newness of content and presentation rather than chasing a formula. Even Veeru Devgan was under pressure to design fight scenes with a different intensity than the ones in Hindi films.

After Ek Duuje Ke Liye hit box office glory, a large amount of South capital driven by K. Raghavendra Rao, T Rama Rao and K. Bapaiah entered Hindi cinema and by the end of 1984, a remarkable 27 Hindi films were made by South producers, many of them blockbusters.

A very interesting detail Ghosh brings out is that while the ’80s brought forth a string of South Indian actresses like Sridevi, Hema Malini, Rekha, and Jaya Prada as majorly successful heroines in Hindi cinema, South Indian male actors like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan didn’t get the same reception and had to quit Hindi films in the mid-80s. Read the book to find out how this came to be. How Rajinikanth built a much larger Hindi audience for his films over time will make another interesting study.

Through anecdotes, Ghosh vividly describes the launch of star sons of that era, including Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Kumar Gaurav, Suneil Anand, Rajiv Kapoor, Kunal Kapoor and Kunal Goswami and why barely a few of them survived.

While Ghosh gives a good outside view by mixing film history with the major political developments in that decade, he misses bringing first-person accounts of how the industry survived the perfect storm to tell its tale.

We know for sure is that by the end of the ’80s, a new set of stars - Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit - had emerged in the galaxy. They would be joined by Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgun in the early ’90s, and together they would all set new benchmarks for the Hindi film industry over the next few decades.

That, of course, is quite another story!

The reviewer runs a film studio that produces regional language feature films

About the Book
When Ardh Satya met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s’ Bombay Cinema
Avijit Ghosh
Speaking Tiger
392 pages; Rs 390 (paperback)

Check it out on Amazon.