The rise of the actor-director and the age of the first superstars
This was the first golden age of Bollywood. By now its tropes were defined, its strengths and weaknesses identified. But this was the age of the director-actors. Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt both acted in and directed their own films. The films began to travel, too, making their way to lands behind the Iron Curtain so that Raj Kapoor and Nargis were huge stars in the USSR. In Egypt and other places with similar social structures - primacy given to the family, a belief in humanist values, a respect for the little man and a contempt for wealth - Bollywood began to be well-known. And after all, it was hardly a decade since India had got independence. Freedom was in the air.
His father, Prithviraj Kapoor, started the dynasty but it was Raj Kapoor who defined it. He was the Great Showman, but as long as he had Khwaja Ahmed Abbas writing his scripts, his films also showed a connect with the problems of India. (Abbas was a member of the Progressive Writers Association, which meant he was left leaning, as almost every Indian intellectual was.) Kapoor was a superb storyteller but he had an uncanny sense of music and an understanding of the pulse of the audience. He was still making successful movies into the 1980s.
One of Hindi cinema's defining moments is
, directed by Mehboob Khan. It is the powerful story of an Indian peasant who sacrifices maternal love for honour. Khan made the film twice. In 1940, he told the story as
with Sardar Akhtar in the lead; in 1957, he made it in colour with Naushad as music director and it became a monster hit. The second version had Nargis in the lead role and it defined a certain vision for India, cementing the reputation of Mehboob Khan Studios.
The second superstar after K?L Saigal, Kumar was one of 12 Pathan siblings from Peshawar. His birth name was Yusuf Khan but he adopted a Hindu pseudonym - a common practice in the day - and became Dilip Kumar. Devika Rani claimed to have discovered him but his first outing,
, was not a hit, with the acidulous journalist Baburao Patel describing him as an anaemic, "ill-treated convict who has escaped from jail". But he went on to become the King of Tragedy, and the first film star to read Sartre on the sets.
was nominated by
magazine as one of the 100 best movies of all time, and by Richard Corliss as one of the 10 most romantic movies. Romantic, in its literary sense, also defines Guru Dutt's oeuvre. Whether meditating on decadence (in
Saahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam
) or on the ephemeral nature of fame (
Kaagaz ke Phool
) or society's attitude to the creative spirit (
), the tragic-romantic figure was always at the heart of his cinema. He was found dead in his apartment on October 10, 1964. He was 39.
She was already an actor in Telugu cinema when Guru Dutt discovered her and brought her to Bombay. He first cast her in the somewhat unlikely role of a woman running a crime syndicate but she went on to become his muse and they starred together in films that are now accounted as Bollywood classics:
Kaagaz Ke Phool
Saahib Biwi Aur Ghulam
. After Dutt's untimely death, Rehman went on to act with a number of top-line directors and now plays genteel granny roles in big-budget pictures.
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