Bombay Cinema, A Rough Guide: The 1950s

[For the background on this series, see my introductory post from last Sunday.]

India became independent in 1947. The film industry—due to colonial censorship—had not been a significant cultural force in the anti-colonial movement (contrast with literature, especially in the high-Gandhian period from the 1920s on). In the first decade after independence, however, cinema was to become the major cultural form in which the new Indian nation was to be imagined and represented. Bombay was not the only location for this, of course. Bengali and Tamil cinema were already major industries, to name two; and it’s also worth remembering that before WW2 Bombay was not the only center of Hindi film production. With the Hindi film industry—and the nation—made over by Partition, however, by the end of the 1950s Bombay cinema’s ascendancy as the symbolic face of Indian cinema was complete. In this post I will briefly sketch some of the genres and thematic concerns that marked this decade, and highlight some of the major artists (directors, actors, music directors, singers, lyricists) who defined the era. At the end I will offer a few more general observations about Bombay cinema and also issue a couple of warnings for the unwary viewer.

A quick refresher—in case you didn’t go back and read that introductory post: I’ll be posting a weekly (that’s the plan anyway) annotated list of films per decade since independence. Each list will have 10 films and each decade will run as follows: 1951-1960, 1961-70 and so on till the present. The introductory post had included the 1950s list and here it is again:

  1. Baazi (1951; d. Guru Dutt)
  2. Aar Paar (1954; d. Guru Dutt)
  3. Shree 420 (1955; d. Raj Kapoor)
  4. New Delhi (1956; d. Mohan Segal)
  5. Pyaasa (1957; d. Guru Dutt)
  6. Naya Daur (1957; d. B.R. Chopra)
  7. Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958; d. Satyen Bose)
  8. Madhumati (1958; d. Bimal Roy)
  9. Mughal-e-Azam (1960; d. K. Asif)
  10. Bombai ka Babu (1960; d. Raj Khosla)

Included in this list are most of the major stars of the period: Dilip Kumar (Naya DaurMadhumatiMughal-e-Azam);  Madhubala (Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, Mughal-e-Azam); Waheeda Rehman (Pyaasa)Dev Anand (BaaziBombai ka Babu); Raj Kapoor (Shree 420); Nargis (Shree 420); and Vyjanthimala (Naya Daur; New DelhiMadhumati). Two major female stars—Nutan and Meena Kumari—are missing but they will show up in the 1960s list. Among the men, the absence of Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar and Sunil Dutt is hardly to be mourned and the absence of Bharat Bhushan is to be outright celebrated. Between Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, B.R. Chopra, Bimal Roy and Raj Khosla most of the major directors are also represented. Finally, the soundtracks of these films are among the most popular in Bombay history and feature some of the most important music directors, lyricists and singers.

Okay, let’s move on to what the films are about. Major plot points are sketched but I have tried to avoid major plot spoilers for it is my hope that at least some of you will be motivated to actually watch these movies.

One way to slice this list—and 50s Bombay cinema, more generally—is along the Nation/City thematic axis*. Four of the movies on the list are what you might call national movies. In very different ways, Shree 420, Pyaasa, Naya Daur and Mughal-e-Azam set out to either represent the emergent nation (in the case of the first three) or to re-present a spectacular national history to it (in the case of Mughal-e-Azam).

Shree 420, Pyaasa and Naya Daur are allegorical movies set in the post-independence present that seek to ask (and answer) large questions about the identity of the nation. Shree 420‘s setting is urban and Naya Daur‘s is rural but both pose the question—Shree 420 more implicitly than Naya Daur—of how national identity is to be articulated between the tensions of various divides: rural/urban, traditional/modern, Indian/westernized. As different as they are, both films answer the question optimistically (I’ll take up Pyaasa separately below). Through the figure of the male protagonist a resolution is found between the old and the new.

In Naya Daur feudal relationships are made over. The film takes as its theme the threat posed by industrial mechanization to rural economies based on feudal labour relations. This may seem very dry and tedious but the film’s plot is actually energetic and rousing: centered on a race between a bus and a horse-drawn cart, representing the battle between the urban and the rural. The film ends not with a valourization of one over the other but in a proposed mediation of the two. The peasants are politicized in the process but their triumph also involves the participation of sympathetic urban forces and other urban technologies (the journalist’s camera that records the narrative for the national papers). There is a secondary narrative as well, involving a romantic triangle, and I will come back to this again below. O.P Nayyar’s soundtrack is wonderful.

Shree 420 begins in a rural setting, as we see our protagonist Raj (played by the film’s director, Raj Kapoor) making his way from Allahabad to Bombay where the vast majority of the film takes place. The 420 in the film’s title refers to the section of the Indian Penal Code that deals with fraud and Shree 420‘s narrative turns on the question of whether Raj can make it in the city as an honest man. Unemployment and corruption are rife and the answer appears to be a firm “no”. Raj’s entry into the world of capitalistic fraud is also his entry into westernized modernity and his journey is allegorized explicitly through the women he oscillates between: the virtuous Vidya (whose name means “knowledge”) and the significantly-less virtuous Maya (whose name means “illusion”). As with Naya Daur, however, the denouement turns finally not on a rejection of the big city for the country but on a resolution: the future will be in Bombay, but in a Bombay that is yet to be built, one in which migrants from the country and from small towns will have homes of their own. The film’s soundtrack by Shankar-Jaikishan contains a number of iconic songs: “Ramaiyya Vastavaiya”, “Pyar Hua, Ikrar Hua” and above all, the opening “Mera Joota Hai Japani”, an anthem of syncretic culture.

Pyaasa is an altogether more melancholy affair. Like Shree 420, it is one of the most iconic films of the 1950s. It marks a break in the director Guru Dutt’s career, away from lighter caper/comic fare to more serious, issues-based cinema. Like Shree 420, it has an urban setting—Calcutta, not Bombay—but the protagonist is not a small-town naif but an urban poet who—like Shree 420‘s Raj—finds at the end of the first decade after independence that the promise of that independence has failed. But where Raj in Shree 420 pawns the medallion he has received for honesty and plunges enthusiastically—and sharply clad in a tuxedo—into the seductive world of illusion, Pyaasa‘s protagonist Vijay (played by Dutt himself) is a much more virtuous type: a model of integrity whose failure and lack of recognition is the indictment of his modern, money-obsessed society and who finally rejects that society. As in Shree 420, his story is also thematized on the two very different  women who love him—more on this too below. S.D Burman’s songs and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics remain touchstones, hummed and sung every day.

Unlike the afore-mentioned, Mughal-e-Azam is set in the past, and in the fairly distant past, in the 16th century. It centers on a clash—far more apocryphal than historical—between the Mughal emperor Akbar and his son Salim (the future emperor Jahangir) over the latter’s love for the dancer, Anarkali, a love that the emperor forbids. Setting aside the significant pleasures of the spectacular historical trappings and also the chaste Urdu spoken by the characters (one wonders how most Indian audiences of the time understood much of the dialogue), the story is unsurprisingly modern: the rebellious love of the young couple and Salim’s protestations to his father (and his mother) have a very contemporary ring and it’s not much of a stretch to see this as another Bombay film about family drama. That said the film’s budget—and it was large—was spent on the spectacle and that spectacle was and is the draw. The music (by Naushad) too is outstanding.

And so from the “nation” to the “city”. In this category fall BaaziAar Paar, New Delhi and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Of course, Shree 420 and Pyaasa are also films set in big cities and thematized on urban culture but unlike that celebrated duo these films have a smaller scope (New Delhi could also be described as a film about the nation but it is not concerned with a dramatic clash between tradition and modernity at the level of essential identity). And in these films—to different degrees—urban space is presented far less moralistically as a site of pleasure and desire.

Baazi was one of Dev Anand’s first major roles. He would go on to embody urban/urbane Indian masculinity through the 1950s, his star persona linked directly to the kind of character he plays here: Madan an insouciant, attractive and westenized Indian man. This was also Guru Dutt’s first film as a director and both it and Aar Paar are also exemplars of a  major genre of the decade: what you might call Bombay noir. These films draw clearly on Hollywood noir conventions but as with all borrowings in Bombay cinema the adaptation/recasting of these conventions is key. The hero, for instance, is usually not terribly “grey” in his motivations or manner. Madan and Kalu in Baazi and Aar Paar are transgressive characters—Madan, a gambler who gets caught up in the schemes of a crime lord and Kalu, an ex-convict—but the audience is never in doubt about their goodness and the films turn on their eventual receipt of their due. Social order is restored at the end not called into question.

Baazi in many ways has a plot very similar to that of Shree 420 (which is also quite obviously influenced by noir conventions, as Kapoor’s earlier films, especially Aawara (1951), were as well). Both films feature an essentially moral protagonist who is tempted into the underworld because official society has no work to offer. Both protagonists go to work in clubs owned by seeming pillars of society who are shown to be the real rot (fathers, real and metaphorical, don’t fare well in either film). And both protagonists’ paths are graphed between two women, one a member of the underworld and one a virtuous member of society. There are, however, key differences. In Baazi, westernization—especially as represented by western clothing—is never really identified with corruption as it is in Shree 420, and the pleasures of the transgressive club space are also embraced openly. In Shree 420, on the other hand, Raj’s suit is a metaphor of fraudulent performance and the club is where that fraudulent performance takes place (it’s another matter that Shree 420‘s too loud insistence on the world of Vidya over that of Maya is undercut quite severely by its own obvious attraction to Maya whose transgressive glamour exceeds the moralistic frame of the official plot).

The other important difference is the portrayal of each film’s pair of female leads. Geeta Bali’s portrayal of Leena, the club singer/dancer in Baazi, is generous and sweet whereas Nadira’s Maya in Shree 420 is an amoral seductress. Leena’s love of Madan is genuine; Maya only wants Raj for her own ends**. The good women are more alike but differ in some crucial ways. It should be noted that while both are aligned with virtue—Vidya in Shree 420 is a teacher of poor children, Rajni in Baazi is a doctor who works among the poor—neither are traditional women per se. Unlike the vamps in each film they are clad in saris but each is also a working woman; crucially, each has mobility, traversing the city alone or with the male lead. An important departure is in their relationship with their fathers. Vidya is devoted to her father, who unable to walk, is a representative of an older, idealized society which finds itself impotent in the new India. Rajni’s father, however, and this is not a major spoiler, is revealed to be the source of corruption and while Rajni fails to “recognize” him till the end much of the plot turns on her flouting of her father’s control. And unlike in Shree 420 the denouement of Baazi does not require a wholesale rejection of the world of Leena because the world of Rajni is not so separate from it.

This thematic splitting of the female leads into virtuous and fallen figures is taken to a higher moralistic pitch still in Pyaasa, which seems to invert the bad/good woman structure but only re-inscribes it. Gone at this point is the lighter touch of the Guru Dutt who directed Baazi and Aar Paar. In Pyaasa the only person who understands the value of the protagonist Vijay’s social poetry is Gulabo, an actual prostitute (played by the magnificent Waheeda Rehman) who is redeemed by her devotional love of Vijay—the scene of the sublimation of her erotic desire for him into worship plays out to the strains of a devotional folk song about the love of Radha for Krishna. Meanwhile, Meena (played by Mala Sinha), Vijay’s original love is portrayed as spurning that love for a life of wealth and comfort (she’s the real prostitute, you see). Women in Pyaasa exist only as vessels for confirmation of the sainthood of the male protagonist: either by embracing it or betraying it. Their own desires are of no interest to the film.

The city too offers no pleasures. Wonderfully lit and shot in shadow, the film takes place mostly at night and the city’s streets are portrayed entirely as a site of exploitation and poverty, most vividly captured in the “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Pe” segment which sees Vijay walking drunkenly through the streets commenting in verse on the scenes of degradation and calling ironically on those who claim national pride to come and cleanse them. Modernity, Dutt seems to want to tell us, can only be a fall. It is a fundamentally conservative film, and as in most of Dutt’s films this conservatism is writ large on the bodies of its women. It is, nonetheless, a formally stunning film and essential viewing for anyone seeking to have a fuller sense of 20th century cinema, whether Indian or not.

The comedies New Delhi and especially the sublimely madcap Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi approach their worlds very differently. Not present in either film is the splitting of the female protagonist into good/bad avatars. Indeed, in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi the qualities of the good and bad women merge in the female lead, Renu (played by Madhubala). Renu is a performer who drives the streets of the city alone, making her entry into the film late at night, wet from the rain, into the garage owned by three brothers, the youngest of whom, Mannu (played by Kishore Kumar) is the male lead. The brothers’ fear of women—instilled by the eldest who was jilted by the love of his youth—is presented as ridiculous and the film takes great pleasure in portraying the romantic domination of the younger brothers by the women they are infatuated with. These women barely need any saving by the men; it is indeed they who usher the men into a fuller experience of life.

Both films also question the usual operation of the tradition/modernity binary. New Delhi critiques community-based identity and marital alliances through its romance plot which sees a Punjabi boy (played again by Kishore Kumar) in love with a Tamil girl (played by Vyjanthimala). It is a very early “national integration” film which seeks to upend the restricting social order of the parents for a freer exploration of love by the children. Caste, of course, is not called into question—community here is framed in terms of regional/linguistic cultural identity. Shankar-Jaikishan provide the music again; the soundtrack is strong though only “Nakhrewali” has arguably achieved iconic status.

Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi‘s critique of family is even more radical. The three brothers are parent-less and Renu’s father—though well-meaning and supportive of his daughter’s public career—delivers her into the clutches of the villain who impresses him by pretending to be an old-world aristocrat (the villain here is played by K.N. Singh, one of the most menacing presences in cinema, who also portrays Rajni’s father in Baazi). Brij, the oldest of the brothers (played by Ashok Kumar) does occupy a forbidding paternal role but the central ridiculousness that the film skewers—the fear of women—has its source in him and as the plot unfolds he is brought into the freer worldview of Manu and Renu. S.D. Burman’s jaunty songs with Majrooh Sultanpuri’s conversational lyrics and Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle flirtatious delivery are as much a carrier of the film’s vision as the plot.

It should be clear from the above how central a presence family is in all these films. Some of them turn on actual family conflict with parents who are blocks to be overcome. In others, parents are absences to be filled with surrogate families, deceptive or nurturing. In most of these films, whether “Nation” or “City”, the symbolic role of women remains limited. See, for example, Naya Daur which also presents a transcending of the symbolic structures of the older generation by the young but whose secondary plot rests on the exchange of a woman between two men. The agent of the nation is the man and the woman’s role is to support and not disrupt male bonding. It is only in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi that the values of the traditional family and social structure are  portrayed as irrelevant—either as a presence or an absence. The film ends instead with an affirmation of romantic love that is embraced equally by men and women and will play out free of anxiety in the modern city.

That leaves us with two films, Madhumati and Bombai Ka Babu to be accounted for. Madhumati is a gothic romance that is celebrated as the first major film with a reincarnation plot. The gothic elements of the film are its most prominent features—along with the exquisite soundtrack by Salil Chowdhury. However, at the level of theme the film can be read alongside Naya Daur as an exploration of the relationship between the city and the country and as echoing the tradition/modernity binary presented in Naya Daur and several of the other films. The film turns on the tragic romance in the past between Dilip Kumar’s Anand-babu, a westernized urban man who comes to the country to manage a timber estate, and Vyjanthimala’s Madhumati, the daughter of a tribal chieftain. Their “modern” romance, transgressing lines of class and community, is destroyed by the depredations of the villainous Ugra Narayan (played by Pran), the scion of a princely family that owns the timber estate. The exploitation of tribal resources by the mainstream is present both literally and metaphorically in the cutting down of trees and Ugra Narayan’s designs on Madhumati. If in the past this exploitation cannot be overcome then the film seems to suggest that it can be in the frame narrative of the reincarnation plot. If, on the one hand, tribal identity/exploitation could be seen as elided in the reincarnation it seems more accurate to say that it haunts the present.

Madhumati‘s credits, by the way, comprise a veritable embarrassment of riches. Beyond the towering performance of Dilip Kumar—one of the great actors of all of cinema—the film is directed by Bimal Roy, who along with Guru Dutt occupies a transitional zone between popular cinema and the emerging art cinema; the story is by Ritwik Ghatak, one of the major figures of that art cinema; the dialogue is by the Urdu writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi; it is edited by Hrishikesh Mukherjee; the music is by Salil Chowdhury; and the lyrics by Shailendra. These names will not mean much to most of you but, believe me, it’s a staggering collection of talent.

The last film on the list, Bombai Ka Babu is perhaps the most anomalous film in the first phase of Dev Anand’s career and is an anomalous film in some other ways as well. It opens in a hard realist noir mode, complete with diegetic music. The first 30 minutes or so are set in Bombay and presents Dev Anand as Babu, in the kind of performance/character familiar from many of his caper films of the past decade. The tone and form shift dramatically after this opening sequence. There is a killing and fleeing it and, he thinks, the police, Babu goes all the way to northern Punjab where he gets caught up in another plot, this time to rob a rich feudal family. Both the film’s plot and the plot within the film turn on substitutions. Babu is to pose as Kundan, the long-lost son of the family, worm his way into access to the family’s safe and then decamp with all the money and jewels inside. This is where the film’s plot and the plot within the film diverge. Babu—who has grown up without a family—finds himself genuinely drawn to the parents whose son he is posing as. This foils the robbery plot of the villainous Bhagat (played by Rashid Khan, who you will recognize from Baazi) but sets in motion the film’s true plot: the question of whether Babu will be able to shed the corruptions of the city and find his true home as a traditional son.

In my reading the film becomes both another exploration of the relationship between the city and the country and of identity in the context of family. The subsuming of Babu into Kundan at the level of theme, and of noir conventions into the rural family drama at the level of form present this exploration simultaneously. But though the film may seem to be presenting a triumph of the traditional values of the country over the modern values of the city more transgressive things are happening as well. For one thing, Babu does not bring corruption to the country—it is already there and literally waiting for him to spring its plot into motion. For another, there is an uneasy “incest” plot as Babu/Kundan is attracted romantically to his “sister”, Maya. His attraction is ambiguously reciprocated by Maya (played by the Bengali actress Suchitra Sen who obviously did not work as hard as the Tamil Vyjanthimala on her Hindi pronunciation). I will not reveal how all of this plays out but I will say that the ending of the film defers closure and keeps open the question of whether the tensions of identity it raises can indeed be resolved.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let me bring this to a close with an observation and a warning with which I should probably have begun the piece.

First the observation: for those of you who do not already watch popular Indian cinema, the presence of songs and song and dance sequences will be perhaps the most jarring formal element of these films. There are historical and aesthetic reasons for the fact that popular Indian cinema remains in the “musical” genre even as it fades in Hollywood in the 1950s but I’m not going to spend another 2000 words going into those here. Suffice to say, this is a crucial element of Bombay cinema’s form and if you want to gain a serious appreciation for Bombay cinema you will have to learn to deal with it. In the 1950s in particular the songs and music are often significant carriers of meaning both within the films’ plots and at a level somewhat autonomous from them. Having said that, even when songs are subtitled—which is not always the case—most of the poetry of the lyrics—in this era written by actual Urdu poets—will be lost. Them’s the breaks.

And now the warning. There has been no campaign of restoration or preservation of popular Indian films of older eras. Most of these films exist in fairly crappy digital transfers of crappy prints. You’ll have to do a lot of searching on Youtube to find the best possible transfer. You may not in every case be able to find acceptable transfers with subtitles. In these situations purchasing the dvd or asking your library to get you a copy is your best bet. Finally, both Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur were re-released in disastrous colourized versions in the early 2000s. Avoid these like the plague. Not only are they visually ugly, the colourized version of Mughal-e-Azam is missing almost 30 minutes, many of them crucial to the plot. When I have time later I will try to go back add links to acceptable transfers of as many of these films as I can find.

Finally, whether you are a neophyte or an aficionado or even a student of Bombay cinema, I’d love to hear from you about these films, my takes on them above and connections you see between these and other films you’ve seen (from this era or later). Please write in to the comments!

*I am stealing this formulation from my friend Paromita Vohra, a film-maker and writer whose work you should seek out and who you should follow on Twitter.

**I don’t mean to suggest that the representation of women’s agency in Baazi is preferable to that of Shree 420 because the former’s vamp is more positively coded than the latter’s. Indeed, it could be argued that the transgressive, ambitious desires of a figure like Maya in Shree 420, and even Bahar in Mughal-e-Azam, disrupt those film’s official narratives even as those characters are cast out.

The still images in the post are taken from the 10 films in the sequence in which they are discussed.


4 thoughts on “Bombay Cinema, A Rough Guide: The 1950s

  1. This is a wonderful post, with lots to think about. Of course it’s impossible to fit everything into a top-10 format, but I’m also partial to the way that Jagte Raho basically makes an entire movie out of the expressionistic IPTA morality-play elements of, say, Pyaasa or Kala Bazar (the strange, stylized sequence at the beginning of that movie is so great). Haven’t seen Bombai ka Babu, but I’ll look forward to checking it out. I also appreciate your including the Kishore Kumar movies – I know everyone likes Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, but I still think he’s underrated as a comic actor.


    • Thanks. And yes, the top 10 list format is mostly a peg to hang some larger observations about Bombay cinema on. I could probably come up with three or four versions of this list with only 4-5 of the films appearing on every one. (Mother India—a film I loathe—would not make it to any of them though.)

      There’s so much throwaway greatness in the comic/caper films of the decade. One of my very favourites is another Kishore Kumar starrer: Dilli Ka Thug. It combines all the elements I describe in relation to Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and the songs are just killer. No one but Kishore—one of the few unalloyed geniuses of Bombay cinema, in my opinion—could have loosened up Nutan as he does in that movie. And Nutan in Dilli Ka Thug is yet another example of how female agency/identity is treated so much more open-endedly in the “city” rather than “nation” movies. Like Madhubala’s Renu in Chalti Ka Naaam Gaadi, her character is yet another example of the good/bad woman binary being collapsed. She actually performs a “water ballet” in a swimsuit! And Ravi’s fusing of folk music with rock and roll is something else.


  2. I have some stray observations that didn’t make it into the post because I either forgot or didn’t have space that I’ll post in the comments soon but I do want to correct one big error first:

    I say of Madhumati that it “is celebrated as the first major film with a reincarnation plot”. That is not true. Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal with Madhubala and Ashok Kumar had already been a huge hit in 1949 (and Bimal Roy was an editor on that film). It’s true that while Mahal has a reincarnation plot it is not about literal reincarnation but that’s a bit of a quibble.


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