There are a few generations that have grown up without seeing some of the most successful Hindi films of all time. So for them, success is measured by today’s standard — money.
And because records matter so much to a fiercely competitive industry, high box-office returns have become the only measure of success. The art versus mainstream divide started somewhere in the 1970s, and it became a kind of accepted standard — art = boring; commercial = mindless.
This has carried on and come to the absurd state now, when commercial simply cannot be artistic or intelligent, because then the lowest common denominator cannot be tapped, and the Rs.100-crore mark cannot be reached. And that is more important than making a good film that will be appreciated across India, by all kinds or people — mass as well as class.
Before the great divide, the directors making mainstream cinema kept popular ingredients in mind; the films had strong plots, songs, dances, quotable dialogues and a creative quality that made them classics. V. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand made successful films, but did not stoop to the levels of stupidity that some of today’s top grossers do, just to make the fastest initial bundle, because hardly any films lasts more than that.
The days of silver and golden jubilees are long gone.
The list of top grossers includes Kismet, Barsaat, Awaara, Aan, Shree 420, Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay —all films made with pride, love, and yes, intelligence, a much derided quality now. But when filmmakers were story tellers, creators and artistes, they respected audiences’ tastes, but did not pander to the low brow.
The films of Nasir Hussain and then Manmohan Desai and their followers started the trend of mindless entertainers, formulaic plots and over dependence on stars. But why should entertainment be mindless? Guide, Golmaal (the Hrishikesh Mukherjee version), Lage Raho Munnabhai are not mindless, so pleasing the masses with stupidity is no justification for making bad films.
In the eighties, commercial cinema was fighting TV, video, low attention spans and dealing with a general decline in educational and intellectual standards in the country. Films had to please the class that had only cinema as a form of escapism, and did just about anything to get their ticket money, as fast as possible. If the films were totally nonsensical, so be it. Today, by some odd reverse snobbery, Desai’s films like Amar Akbar Anthony are counted as popular classics, but the film’s lack of sense or logic was deplorable.
Now, films that make a lot of money quickly are the only films that matter, and they also make enough noise in the media to stifle criticism or mock it. But history is a great leveller and while fortunes are made and lost, nobody can take away greatness once it is recognised and recorded. There was a film called Aankhen by David Dhawan that is among the top grossers. Can anyone remember it? But Mughal-e-Azam is a money maker and a classic over half a century later. If anyone remembers Housefull, Bodyguard or Chennai Express even ten years later, then the measure of success can be recalibrated.