Old Really Is Gold

Since there's been some bad luck with broken DVDs and dud-rentals of the Hindi films I was planning to watch (and rather than write yet another post about Bengali films ... y'all are gonna get tired of those if I don't switch it up), I'm going to sketch out some other recent thoughts.

I've had a few lively conversations with my new Hindi/Urdu teacher this semester about films ... partially because he went to film school in Mumbai and "knows" people. We found that we both like Mithun and Sridevi (one can spot the 80's Indian generation a mile away by these markers) lekin 50's filmon ke bare mein hamare khayyalon alag-alag . . . I was surprised to hear that mere teacher ko Geeta Bali to boring lagta hai.[Pardon the messy Hindi attempts, one has to start somewhere.] But my teacher at least likes older films, if not all the old stars. The rest of my class, not so much. This has made for some interesting conversations and arguments about what filmi songs and lyrics should be used in class.

The bewilderment of my classmates in regards to my tastes have made me realize I need to learn to better articulate why am I not likewise bored. In the heat of the moment, it seems like such a big task to explain the appeal in a concise fashion, and I never even know where to start.

Here's what I do know. 

I like the old-school ethics...

There's a sweetness or goodness in the characters of many older films. Even when the values portrayed are opposite to mine, sometimes I can't help but love the characters for having values to begin with. Moral dilemmas are actually difficult to solve. Cherished traditions are thrown off with much effort. Sex is a whisper or a closed bedroom door. Betrayal is not a ten-dollar word. Friends are friends because they care about one another, not just because they like the same discotheque.

I'm generalizing I suppose. The kotha-goer of one film generation is the club-goer of another's. One could argue that in both lifestyles, time and lives are equally wasted. Or one could chock up both onscreen environments to the need for fantastical spaces, unreal locations that exist for the purpose of over-the-top performance: especially talent-centric dance and music.

But in most older films, there's a general agreement that the kotha is not the ideal. Nature is an ideal. Clean air and clean pastures. But only when inhabited by folks trying to to live well. There's no better example of this than Pakeezah. For all my struggles with the film, I like that it is about a woman who wants more than a lifetime of entertaining strangers, or dancing for other people's pleasure. And a man who wants more than the unending blandness of beautiful panoramas. Perhaps it is not the "old" values then, that I appreciate, but "old" dreams. Such things get lost in the shuffle when there's too much neon and too little reflection.

I want to take part in another time ...

Familiarity breeds discontent, and thus older films in other languages industries are doubly satisfying. I *think* I know what's available in English, and therefore I am not as interested. Whereas, Hindi or Bengali or Soviet films offer all kinds of uncategorized delights. Furthermore, the lost world depicted in these films is ripe for analysis and pseudo-possession. It's a world almost nobody wants anymore, and one I get to be part of, for a short while at least.

New movies often bore me on a certain level because they show me what I already know. They depict a world I recognize, with accoutrements of daily life that are close to my own. And even if I wasn't bored by these elements, my aesthetic tastes have always run towards the past. I was that weird kid who pretty much exclusively listened to classical or orchestral music (even at 9 or 10 years old). Not because it was mandated, but because I preferred it. It certainly wasn't something my parents taught me. I still remember that first time, around eleven, that I heard Rhapsody in Blue on the radio. It was more like Rhapsody in Me. Something similarly magical happened the first time I heard the Suite from Carmen or the Overture to Tannhauser, etc. etc.

I also watched the classic film channels dutifully up through high school. Any biographies of golden-age stars that the local library carried were consumed (leading to some disturbing reading: don't ever pick up Esther William's autobiography unless you want to be disenchanted) ... as was any sort of documentary that might be airing on the period, sensationalist or no. (I still find myself spouting trivia from those years of information gathering, things that my parents would know, maybe, but none of my friends could even guess at.) I was obsessed with history and historical novels, sort of switching back and forth between ancient history and twentieth century history in phases. I went through that awkward high school stage (ok, what childhood stages aren't awkward) where you try to dress kind of vintage and totally fail.

It's hard to make any sort of argument (that holds water) about this array of "old" things being "better" than their counterparts in the present. But I will say that we can't really control our own sensibilities--it's really the other way 'round. The "discovery" of Hindi films definitely bulldozed me into an unrecognizable person for a time, similar to what I've seen happen to friends when they like, get married, not just discover an artistic industry. But I've been into world music as long as I knew it existed, and I watched all the Hollywood musicals I could access in middle school ... and so Hindi films were an extension, a fulfillment of earlier loves, not something entirely new or out of character.

I am moved by love as resistance...

When cosmopolitan protagonists move easily between male and female circles, it's hard to believe (even if it accurately depicts the modern experience for many) that women and men somehow can't make their relationship work because of societal restrictions. Thus, social dramas and family dramas have become romantic comedies--where the focus is localized on the neuroses and petty misunderstandings of the main romantic interests.

Just spotlighting Deepika Padukone's recent films, it's easy to see this trend. In Chennai Express, "overcoming one's own immaturity" acts as the central romantic conflict instead of a caste difference or even the red herring of a North/South cultural divide. In Finding Fanny, choosing to stop waiting for the perfect relationship or proposal and just *ahem* "be together" takes the place of the lovers' triumphant reconciliation after years apart.

In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the rather old-fashioned heroine (short-shorts do not a modern woman make) encapsulates the ideal Indian woman who is happy with her home soil, and pines after someone who clearly doesn't deserve her. The hero wants to travel, to see the world, to run away.

This all seems rather like a throwback to older ideals. The primary difference being: this new generation is not being forced by parents or community to take on old roles. If anything, the hero's parent (Farooq Sheikh, stealing the film away) is an exceptionally permissive figure, giving his son freedom to wander and find his own path. In contrast to the past era's optimistic endings, as YJHD's credits roll, we are not confident that Deepika's Bharatiya nari has the ability to scrub the muck of the world from her fiancee's feet, nor do we necessarily want her to try.

Ram Leela might be the "best" of the lot, managing to mix old and new ideals together into something that we can care about, if not always love. For the old, we get lovers from separate warring clans, a trope that almost never fails to tug heartstrings. For the new, we receive a dis-empowered power couple, playing both the victims and the perpetrators in their own passion play. It's at times an odd artistic piece (what's with that "head lice" song as one friend calls it?), but it sticks with powerful, tried and true ideas, and it possesses the inter-actor chemistry to give them life. It's an egalitarian dream in the midst of a patriarchal hyper-reality, and this somehow works. Ultimately, it's also a good example of the most compelling reason to watch recent films: Progress. For all the shallow gloss out there, sometimes we get things like Dedh Ishqiya or Queen (the latter of which I haven't seen but seems to have blown a lot of the female stereotypes and story arcs out of the water); both valiant attempts to change the public discourse and the public's "proven" taste.

And yet ...

I'd rather watch Tarana or Amar Prem get it wrong, than see Dedh Ishqiya get it right. If I want interesting estranged lovers (or just because it's a day that ends in 'y'), you're going to find me in front of Saptapadi or Daag. And if I want to see love as a metaphor for social revolution or resistance against oppression, I'll watch Mughal-e-Azam for the tenth time. In all fairness, it was probably easier to believe in resistance once-upon-a-time when there was something visible to resist against (society, censorship, or family), and it may have been easier to inspire with a recent memory of independence spurring filmmakers and storytellers on. But that could also be the rosy tint of hindsight speaking.

Either way, the stilted metaphors that held currency in the past are more powerful for me than the casual prose of the present. I guess like my clothes comfortable and my stories corseted.


  1. "New movies often bore me on a certain level because they show me what I already know. They depict a world I recognize, with accoutrements of daily life that are close to my own." Have you tried fantasy/sci-fi? ;-)

    Jokes apart, I must admit that I love oldies as much as you do. Couldn't put it better than Siverambrosia - I too "Often I feel what I call 'false nostalgia'...a sort of nostalgia creeps up on me for something I was never a part of; I wasn't there, never lived through that period, or in that place and yet the feeling I have is comparable to someone's who had been there." And as far as I can remember, I have always felt this way. Perhaps it satisfies my craving for fantasies set in a world that is at once exotic, yet real. Much as I love oldies, I must also admit that I am increasingly aware of, and annoyed by, old world ethics (80s' me and today's me are separated by almost a century in ideas, methinks!). They were quite misogynistic and seemed to embrace most of the isms (racism, colonialism, orientalism) that feel noxious today. It can make some childhood favorites particularly hard to watch - especially now that I realize that I was brought up on a steady diet of women's "purity" and men's inalienable right to question it. (Yes, Hindi films, I am looking at you! Thank goodness for Bengali oldies - at least the sexism is vastly toned down, and they do not seem to laugh at other cultures the way Hindi films do.)

    1. "Have you tried sci-fi?" Touche. It was a sweeping generalization, I admit. On a related note: do you ever find that older sci-fi is actually "stranger" and more entertaining because it isn't built off of structures you are comfortable with? Depending on one's age, the past is sometimes more alien than any future we could imagine, lol.

      Wanting "exotic yet real" worlds is a great way to explain the nostalgic drive. It feels close enough to touch, even if it is all but extinct. It's interesting to wonder why some of us are oriented like this, towards past places and eras, while other people are pretty darn happy to enjoy the present. Perhaps it's not that we want to live without our modern comforts, but that we feel we've lost something along the way?

      But thank goodness we don't have the same societal restrictions. Those I am happy to see go, even if I feel that vacuousness often moves in to fill the void. [How a void can fill a void, don't ask me...I'm not the scientist :) ] Along that line of thought, I agree that the *content* of the older ethics is often something I can't endorse, and all the unnecessary suffering at the hands of one's own moral convictions can make me crazy. Maybe I appreciate these moral melodramas, tho, because I grew up in a different kind of conservative tradition, and there's catharsis in seeing (maddening) conservative ideals play out in different a set of symbols and language.

      I'm all for stories that tell us to embrace an inner moral code (instead of a religious one) or a more universal humanistic code in stories, but I do think that it's harder (initially) to construct an interesting story when an industry has relied heavily on traditional morality for plot structure. I feel like Bollywood is in that kind of limbo right now...wanting to break free, but often not sure how to write a screenplay without the usual moral handbook to fill in the blanks.

    2. RE: Bengali movies, I feel so much safer now having them as an ace in my back pocket for whenever I am fed up with all the self sacrifice and the NOT ACTUALLY TALKING about problems in Hindi films. Don't know how I functioned before without them.

  2. I think the ism's (colonialism, racism, orientalism) are a given in many (certainly not all) older texts. Those particular 'isms' don't ruffle me as they would have, say, had I been been watching those films in the 70's or 80's. Because, I think now the number of people who subscribe to crude stereotypes or make ignorant assumptions about other cultures are far fewer (globalisation, world getting smaller, information age etc.) Racism in the earlier Hollywood films, not infrequently, ensued from a lack of exposure as much as anything else (it need not have been maliciously motivated). Films such as 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' now would probably bemuse many Indians rather then offend them...most would probably respond to the film today with light derision rather then get upset....but we can be oversensitive as well; when 'slumdog millionaire' was released a section of society did consider it to be poverty porn, showcasing India in a poor light etc. Apparently there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the film ‘City of Joy’ (1992) as well. The racist content of Bollywood films was pretty strong up until the late 90's perhaps; It hasn’t gone but I think there has been a decline in it as well.

    Norms concerning women's purity etc are in some parts of the world today brutally enforced by state sanction (Afghanistan, segments of the middle east, perhaps also parts of Pakistan), or without being coerced exactly, women can be pressurized into conforming with norms or patterns of behaviour which are not reflective of what they believe in (Hindi films did this). But, I don’t think these norms were/are necessarily inherently misogynistic, or have to go hand in hand with misogyny. They ARE misogynistic when they are forced, or acceded to through extensive societal pressure. They are also misogynistic when serious discrepancy exists between the standard men are held accountable to and the standard women are held accountable to. However, sometimes those norms can also be consciously and willingly adopted by the concerned individual (and it isn't always just a matter of cultural conditioning). I have cousins the same age as me, who respond very differently to the romantic scenes in films like 'Pakeezah'. For them, it’s just terribly quaint, and even a little amusing. For them it’s just too remote to relate to. One of them describes it as ‘romance in slow motion’. For me, it’s not just quaint but it’s something that charms me; I can see a beauty in it as well. A lot comes down to individual opinion. I quoted parts of Prasoon Joshi’s article, because in those paragraphs, I felt, he was able to articulate (better than I could) where the beauty and charm of it lies. Why I don’t think old world romance is just ‘boring’ and ‘lame’ as, e.g. some of my younger relations think. I think he was on to something when he spoke about the many restrictions placed on lovers leading to a kind of romance which was “more layered, complex, sacred and, paradoxically, beautiful’’. It is also true that now there is a greater realism in romance. For me, seeing something beautiful in old world romance, doesn't mean I endorse some of the conditions which influenced its expression (purdah, segregation of the sexes).

    1. Silverambrosia, you make some great arguments about our double standards when judging Hindi films and U.S. films...AND also re: the label of "misogyny" as being a very ambiguous thing when applied to a culture that is not your own. In calling something from another place and time "misogynist, one is just as likely to condemn the willing participant as the willing actor in a traditional way of life.

      I think applying ultra high [modern] standards of feminism and and anti-colonialism and equality (and all those faddish "isms") don't get you very far either in watching past films, or studying historical events. One of my least favorite trends in academic or in Internet-commentary-land is this tendency to demonize past regimes or traditions, and the militant desire to sniff out and destroy any tiny shreds of sympathy or pragmatism or rationality expressed by others about that time period or cultural practice.

      For example, it's all very well to hate the Raj and say that everything wrong in India comes from the Raj, but yet, the Raj was a mere blip in India's long history. I don't deny the importance, the inhumane acts by the regime, or today's institutionalized racism that the Raj probably set in motion. But such blanket cause and effect activism makes me want to scream, "Surely there are other factors! Variables! Diversity in experience!?" But no. To such critics, it doesn't matter that there were Englishmen in the Raj era who did their best with the socialization they had had to try to create cultural bridges and support South Asian's basic humanity. No, the Raj is evil, therefore all Englishmen in India during the Raj were unforgivably corrupted. This is perhaps a natural reaction, but it's a horrible base on which to start any historical research.

      Similarly, if one writes off a film in which misogyny (by our distant standards) occurs, not only do you potentially misrepresent the complexities of the situation depicted, but you really learn nothing. You just slapped a label on it, you didn't let it teach you about itself. We as viewers were obviously socialized differently, and it's not our job to blame past eras or people for not being as civilized as we are.

      So yes, I am all about abiding my own ethics IN REAL LIFE. In films from another era in another country, I may be extremely offended by an event or a plotline, but except in extreme cases (depictions of rape and the like don't get my sympathy), but that doesn't mean I get to instantly dismiss it. And where's the fun in that, anyway? If I watched things I agreed with day in and day out, I would be very bored, and worse, I would probably bore everyone else to death :)

      P.S. People who say they don't like old world romance (A) don't know what they're missing, (B) are probs just jealous that their romantic decisions are more about where to get takeout today than how to ensure eternal bliss for the next seven births.

  3. Thank you Silverambrosia, for your link to the article, and your own points. It's definitely relevant--this idea that romance was a stand-in for social rebellion and change. Relevant to my interests, at least :D

    This false-nostalgia as both you and Bollyviewer talk about--is more ambiguous. "What exactly are we nostalgic for?" We are bound to ask. Because the things we covet, whether they are a "joint family experience" as in your example, or a pallette of mod fashions ... these things never existed as we experience them. And, of course, it's in looking back that we infuse them with meaning, enchanting them with our own desire.
    However, though the object of desire may not be completely real, the feeling itself is. And it's caught up in a web of very real past superstructure ... ideals and ideas that we long for after their death. Same goes for the romance that no longer exists as "it used to." Although, that perhaps was less an abstract shift in our experience or hindsight interpretation and more of an actual shift in social norms.
    (Will comment on the rest of your thoughts below.)


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