x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tribute to a century of Bollywood: Part three 1934-1943

The age of sound: worth making a song and dance about.

Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

The coming of sound meant the rise of a new breed of writers, more complex stories and several careers in ruins. But most of the time the dialogue sounded unreal, the articulation too careful and following the letter rather than the spirit of the language. However, it was also an exciting time. The first Bollywood dynasties were coming into their own, genres were slowly differentiating themselves and cinema was now seen as a potent tool for the rewriting of society. It could go where pamphlets and newspapers couldn’t: to the unlettered. It was also the beginning of the song-and-dance tradition that now defines Bollywood.

Fearless Nadia

Bollywood’s B-Grade cinema queen was an Australian-born woman who could barely speak Hindi. But that didn’t stop her because her fan base only wanted to see their heroine exercise with clubs, put on leather chaps and a mask and hunt down villains. And Mary Evans, who was rechristened Nadia by her director Homi Wadia (whom she later married, thus becoming, euphoniously, Nadia Wadia) obliged in film after film, playing a female version of Zorro with great success and providing a foil to the virginal, simpering coy heroines of the time. Fearless Nadia, her grandnephew’s film, is an affectionate portrayal of the actress and her era.

Devika Rani

When India gained independence in 1947, there was an unwritten rule that stars couldn’t kiss on screen. Devika Rani would have laughed; she kissed her husband, Himanshu Rai, on screen in Karma for a legendary four minutes. But, then, she was a mould-breaker. The grandniece of the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Rani helped set up the studio Bombay Talkies, was also a jewellery collector, a bridge-player and accepted into the salons of Bombay’s comprador class. Five years after she was widowed, she met Svetoslav Roerich, the son of -Nicholas Roerich, the Russian painter, fell in love and walked away.

P C Baruah

One of the great tropes of Hindi cinema is that of Devdas, the young man who loses his love because of his inability to assert himself against his father, his social position and the decadence of society. P?C Baruah was the first to see the potential of this story that has been told several times – with Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Abhay Deol playing the central character in the 1950s, 1990s and 2000s respectively. Baruah learnt his craft at Elstree Studios in England.

Shobhana Samarth

One of the great stars of the 1930s, Shobhana Samarth played Sita, the wife of Rama, in several cinematic versions of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. She thus “became” Sita and generations of calendar and comic-book artists would use her face as a reference, whether consciously or unconsciously, to recreate the story in which Sita is abducted by Ravana and is rescued by Rama after a protracted search and battle. Her mother Rattan Bai was an actress and so were two of her daughters, Nutan and Tanuja. Two granddaughters (Kajol and Tanisha Mukherjee) also became actors as did her grandson, Monish Bahl. See? It’s a family business.

V Shantaram

Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram set up the Prabhat film company with Sheikh Fattelal and V?S Damle who, like him, were highly regarded directors. Prabhat made magnificent films on socially relevant issues such as communal harmony and the caste problem. But Shantaram is remembered mainly for his song and dance routines, which he staged with gusto. Some of these starred Sandhya, who was noted for her dancing – if not acting – talent. His daughter Rajasree was also a film star.

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