Hindi cinema has always has strange on-screen pairings. If you thought that Shahid Kapoor and Vidya Balan in Kismet Connection had it tough then imagine for a hero to get it on with…ahem, an elephant, an eagle, a snake, a couple of dogs or even parrots. No, this isn't about that kind of cinema.
Before it became truly international or in other words came to be known as 'Bollywood', commercial Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 80s had so many films with animals in prominent roles that they could have constituted a special awards category. It all started with Haathi Mera Saathi, a film that made man and animal share equal screen time. There's another first attached to it; this is the first official collaboration of Salim-Javed. Legend has it that Khanna had taken a huge advance for this south Indian remake and lured Salim-Javed, who worked in the Sippy Films story department, with a independent credit if they could do set the script right. If the biggest superstar of the nation thought it was safe to share the screen with an animal instead of another actor could they others be far behind?
Just about every hero worth their salt has pranced around with an animal or two in the name of art. In 1976 when their reel and real romance was peaking Dharmendra chose to chase a baby elephant instead of cavorting longer with Hema Malini in Maa. Jeetendra took it a step further and decided to play a snake in Naagin (1976). Even Amitabh Bachchan's Iqbal grew up with an eagle for a best friend in Coolie (1983).
With the passage of time this man-animal bonhomie only grew. In the 1980s it wasn't Jeetendra that gave reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan sleepless nights. The Hindi cinema of the 1980s that didn't feature Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil or Shabana Azmi wasn't taken seriously. Besides the colorful pots and flowers that suggestively touched each other, the dakus and the crumbling social structure that made heroes angrier young men, it was a slew of animals that kept things exciting. Suddenly the burden of being man's best friend weighed heavier on the dogs. In Teri Meherbaniyan the top-billed Jackie Shroff was missing during the climax and it was up to Moti, his faithful canine friend, to avenge the bad guys. Things became so bad between the rivals of the day that most heroes refused to work with each other. How else do you Moti and Badal- a dog and a horse that Amitabh Bachchan converses in Mard (1985)? If you thought things couldn't get any worse then you don't know Hindi films of the 1980s! In 1989, one of the biggest box-office draws of the day Mithun Chakraborty's on-screen friends in Dost included Ram, the elephant, Bansi, the monkey and Mithu, the parrot.
In the 90s as our films began an upward journey the animal stars started a downward spiral and it was mainly the dogs and monkeys that enjoyed a little bit of glory. Dobby, the dog, played by Brownie, the dog, went beyond the call of duty and became best friends with a dead human. He was the guardian angel to his dead mistresses newborn son in Maa and saves the infant from dying. Redo, an Indian Spitz became Tuffy, the mistaken Pomeranian, in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994). He might have been the only non-human in the big happy family but he's the one who realizes Prem and Nisha's predicament and helps unite them. After the film Redo was said to be adopted by Madhuri Dixit and lived till the grand age of 12. Aankhen had Bajrangi, the monkey, who could rev up the getaway car in case of emergency and in Ishq the monkey, with 007 patch on his jacket, saves the lives of the heroes when he navigates a car with no brakes.
But things aren't the way they used to be.
Progress had come to 'Bollywood' and now it didn't have space for anyone who had more than two legs or feathers. In 1989 Handsome, the kabootar, from Maine Pyaar Kiya ferried loves messages and even killed the villain but the animated tota in the same director's Main Prem Ki Dewaani Hoon (2003) was something else. Now we see animals once in a while in films like Housefull but they are angry or why else would the monkey in a cameo only be interested in slapping the hero? The masala in our films is now a fine herb. And there isn't any space for meat that ain't dead.
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
If every action has a reaction shouldn't there be something sensible in the senseless that often pervades our cinema? Split Screen explores the side that often remains in the dark.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
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