PAGE 05: Film in the 70s: A Ballet of New Indian Cinema

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By Karishma D’Mello

After beginning his career as an assistant to Raj Kapoor, Rahul Rawail made his own debut as a filmmaker with Gunhegaar (1980). By his own account, his first two films were an unsuccessful prelude to what later grew into a successful career as a filmmaker in Indian cinema. Having witnessed the evolution of Indian cinema first-hand, Rawail explained the creative revolution that spurred the golden age of films in the 1970s, in an online session of ‘In-conversation’ on the IFFI portal. 

“There was a time when everything was stagnant. It became all about breaking the mould. To start a revolution, you need to go against the norm. That is exactly what happened in the 70s,” says Rawail. “We had this herd mentality for a long time, and then suddenly filmmakers began to go against the grain. There was an influx of new ideas, new performances, and different perspectives. It ushered in a ballet of new cinema.”

Rawail firmly believes that experimentation is what drives progress in all creative fields. “People were inventing, they were looking at people in different ways. There were stories about a boy who spoke Tamil and did not speak Hindi, a girl who spoke Hindi and did not speak Tamil, and so on. The film Bobby (1973) was one that featured completely unknown actors at the time. It set the trend for taking on new actors and giving them a platform.”

In other examples, Rawail noted the introduction of darker characters into Indian cinema. “The portrayal of complex, grey, almost black characters in Memsaab (1971) was a stark contrast to the goody-goody characters we had gotten accustomed to. It was fantastic. When you have a popular character and you make him do unexpected things that deviate from his usual roles, that film will always score well in the public eye. That’s what makes cinema resonate with the rest of the world. You do come to a point of stagnation and then you have to pull out of it,” says Rawail.

Similarly, Rawail notes that films like Arjun (1985) set a new trend. “It was the first film that was more about a character than a story. The script was written in a single eight-hour-long night. It inspired a whole new wave of films. Everyone was committed to creating good cinema.” Rawail adds that he felt an immense sense of learning among his contemporaries at the time. “There was always competition between actors to do better than the other, but there was never rivalry.”

“We need to correct the narrative about ‘mainstream’ and ‘independent’ cinema. They are not mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as art cinema or commercial cinema. All films, commercial or otherwise, are art. There are films that find more commercial success than others, but they are still art,” says Rawail. He measures the success of his own films in two ways. “The first is the satisfaction you get as a filmmaker, and the next is the response of your audience towards the film. A film that gives you pleasure and satisfaction for having created it is a great film.”

Rawail defined the period between the 40s and the 70s as the golden age for Indian cinema. “There are plenty of films that have stood the test of time, and we may never know why. Films like Aradhana (1969) and Ganga Jamuna (1961) have nothing in common. There is no formula for creating a successful film.” On the future of Indian cinema, Rawail said, “There are a lot of good directors today. They’re not afraid to experiment, and that alone will keep things moving. Experimentation is the driving force behind every revolution.”

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