70's: The decade of innocence

The Sixties were the defining years of the West. But India began its search for self-definition in the Seventies, a decade that is today almost synonymous with the word ‘retro.’ What made it so special?

brunch Updated: May 29, 2012 16:19 IST
Namita Bhandare
Namita Bhandare
Hindustan Times

The toothpaste was Binaca, The Radio A Murphy Miniboy and the detergent Det. Flares were wide, sideburns long and heroes were angry young men. Bangladesh was still East Pakistan, the colour of revolution was green and a gungi gudiya discovered her iron fist.

In the first month of the 1970s, house-full boards went up outside theatres showing


with Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. Also sold out were Mrs Pritam Uberoi’s cooking classes – ‘veg / non-veg’ at Rs 25 for each course, ‘payable strictly in advance’. In the capital’s Greater Kailash area, the rent for two rooms with bathroom, kitchen and store was Rs 250. And tickets for the Wills Made for Each Other contest, an event with a completely tenuous connection to a cigarette brand, were Rs 40 a couple (inclusive of snacks).

Shortages were chronic, creating a new career, smuggling. Haji Mastan, on whose life the retro

Once Upon a Time

in Mumbaai is based, was not a don really – no gang wars, no supari, certainly no RDX. He simply brought in watches, transistor sets and, when Morarji Desai imposed prohibition in Maharashtra, bottles of Vat 69.

Indira Gandhi announcing the Emergency in ’75; VC Shukla in his trademark natty safari suit; Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor in Bobby; Amitabh in Deewar.

It was the time to disco. There was Tabela at the Oberoi Inter-Continental hotel, the Cellar at happening Connaught Place and Wheels (‘it’s the moving thing’) at the Ambassador Hotel: “Hey swinger!” called out an ad, “This is the scene!”

The symbols of that decade are neatly captured in this snippet in India Today, a magazine launched in December 1975. VC Shukla, Indira Gandhi’s information and broadcasting minister with powers far beyond his brief, at least in 1975 when the Emergency was declared, was the “swinging minister in his natty safari suit, leaving trails of Paco Rabanne as he danced away with his girlfriend of the moment at one of Bombay’s best discotheques.”

But the decade went beyond dodgy politicians, disco and safari suits, a wholly indigenous fashion invention that dominated the Seventies and part of the Eighties along with its dreadful accessory, the man purse.

Every decade has its own markers. If the 1950s was a time for construction, the 1960s saw a depletion of physical and emotional resources with two wars (China and Pakistan) and the death of two prime ministers (Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri).

What do the Seventies mean to us? When composer AR Rahman received his Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, he evoked Salim-Javed’s immortal line, “

Mere paas maa hai

”. It was an inside joke that nobody at the Kodak Theatre quite got, but one that had instant resonance in India, even amongst those who hadn’t been born when Deewar was made in 1975.

We see the Seventies in the constant revisiting and remakes in cinema.

Action Replayy

, Vipul Shah’s comedy, is about a man who travels backwards in time to the Seventies. Farah Khan’s

Om Shanti Om

was a cinematic tribute to those years. Our ongoing fascination with the Seventies seems odd. Globally, it’s the counter-culture of the Sixties that is the hip ‘make-love-not-war’ decade. The Seventies is the Me-decade of flared pant suits, polyester shirts, winged eyeliner and big hair.

And given that over half our billion people are born after 1979, you have to wonder what relevance this decade can have to them. Or is it just ageing boomers allowing themselves a bit of nostalgia? Is it that we see the 1970s as the last decade of our innocence? The turbulent Eighties with violence in Punjab ended in a cycle of assassinations. The Nineties saw liberalisation, but also corruption on a scale that seemed almost institutional. The Seventies by comparison are an innocent time. We look back to see a decade marked by a scarcity of everything except imagination.

“What we experienced in the Seventies was a heady, almost euphoric feeling of immense freedom,” says writer Shobhaa De. “There was a burst of creativity that remains unsurpassed. It was a hungry generation of writers, artists, filmmakers, thinkers. People with fire in the belly and a naive, touching and overwhelming desire to change the world.”

Until the Seventies, we existed as a collective nation. Now, a new sense of individualism began to be felt in various fields. In film, the decade began with the soft-focus romance of Rajesh Khanna, cinema’s first superstar, a shortish man with bad skin and crinkly eyes, but a wicked smile that drove women to write him letters in blood. Khanna’s superstar mantle was soon taken over by the brooding, unsmiling intensity of Amitabh Bachchan.

Karen Lunel in the iconic Liril ad.

In cricket, Sunil Gavaskar, selected for India’s triumphant West Indies tour in 1971, was soon endorsing such products as Palmolive shaving cream. Models like Nandini Sen caught the attention, while a little known girl called Karen Lunel made waves when she stripped to a green bikini and jumped into a freezing waterfall in Kodaikanal for Liril soap.

But it was Indira Gandhi who left her stamp on everything. It was Mrs Gandhi who brought in the idea of dynasty, first choosing as her anointed successor her younger son, Sanjay and then, when Sanjay was killed doing stunts in his plane, bringing in Rajiv.

“The convergence of the Congress as a family firm paved the way for other political parties,” says historian Ramachandra Guha. This model of family succession would eventually be adopted by the Shiv Sena, the Akalis and, in the South, the DMK. The cult of Indira goes back to 1966 when she was chosen by the Congress old guard (or Syndicate) to be Shastri’s successor under the mistaken belief that she would be pliable.

Indira Gandhi was so shy that Ram Manohar Lohia dismissed her as a

gungi gudiya

. But then something happened – perhaps she was frustrated by the obstinacy of old-style leaders or with the contempt they showed her. But by the late Sixties, Indira Gandhi had begun locating her groove. First, in 1969 she split the party into two. Next, to project her faction as the socialist party of reform, she nationalised banks and abolished privy purses.

Mrs Gandhi’s biographer Inder Malhotra recalls the jubilation on Delhi’s streets when the banks were nationalised in 1970. “Rickshaw pullers and people who had never seen the inside of a bank were cheering,” he recalls. “I asked them why and they replied, ‘at least someone is thinking of the poor’.”

Garibi hatao

was Indira Gandhi’s war cry for elections 1971. When the results were declared, she had swept 325 of the 518 seats in Parliament.

By March 1971, trouble was fermenting in the neighbourhood over an election in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami Party of East Pakistan had won the most seats. But the West was not willing to let Mujib become prime minister and retaliated with a military crackdown.

Sanjay Gandhi; Lieutenant General Jagjit Aurora and Lieutenant General Niazi sign the Instrument of Surrender after the ’71 Bangladesh War.

Mujib was arrested and the army ordered the arrest, torture and rape of thousands of others. To escape, millions of refugees from East Pakistan began pouring into India. Indira Gandhi appealed to the international community, but the Americans – led by Richard Nixon who referred to Mrs Gandhi as ‘that witch’ – sided with Pakistan. Next, the Indian army began training East Pakistani guerrillas, the Mukti Bahini. In December a full-fledged war broke out between Pakistan and India. It lasted 13 days before the Pakistanis surrendered and Bangladesh was born.

It was Mrs Gandhi’s finest hour. In Parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee called her ‘Durga’ and her popularity within the country soared. She seemed unstoppable. But in a few months, the monsoon failed, food riots broke out and inflation soared. Industrial strikes, labour action and student unrest characterised these years, a time best exemplified in the angst-filled roles played by Amitabh Bachchan.

With a letter of introduction, ironically from Indira Gandhi, the tall, lanky Bachchan got his first break in 1969 with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s

Saat Hindustani

. Yet it was not until 1973 that he played the role that would come to define him: Vijay Khanna, an honest police officer who tracks down his family’s killers after being falsely implicated and suspended from his job. Scripted by Salim-Javed,


had many themes that would recur through Bachchan’s career: poverty, exploitation, injustice, but beneath it all, a sense of idealism and a desire to change the system.

Two films in 1975 established Bachchan’s superstardom. The first was Yash Chopra’s


, loosely based on the life of Haji Mastan. The second was Ramesh Sippy’s


, “the gold standard of the


Bollywood film taken to the level of high art,” says Anupama Chopra, film critic and author of

Sholay: The Making of a Classic


Cricketers Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar; Amitabh and Dharmendra in the cult film, Sholay.

In the Seventies, says Chopra, “Everything just came together, the scripts, the acting, the emergence of the superstar, the music, the direction; so many great minds working at their peak.” Everything seemed to work. Raj Kapoor’s


, the 1973 debut film of his son, Rishi and Dimple Kapadia, was a ‘super-duper’ hit.

Jai Santoshi Maa

(1975) inspired women to begin fasting on Friday. And Bachchan, just to show off his range, showed up in lunatic comedies (

Amar Akbar Anthony

, 1977) and sappy romances (

Kabhi Kabhie

, 1976), both scripted with him in mind.

Because of Amitabh’s impact, it is easy to forget the other cinema of the Seventies: the parallel cinema movement which began to gather momentum in Hindi films with Shyam Benegal’s 1973 release,


A copywriter with ad agency Lintas, Benegal had grown up with the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. “Those who grew up in independent India had a great sense of idealism,” says Benegal. “The idea of the vigilante hero who would take up the cause of the exploited was born out of this,” he says.

As with many of Salim-Javed’s scripts, the themes of exploitation, an inequitable social system and the possibility of redemption through individual dignity run through many of Benegal’s films.


was based on a real life incident where the son of a


has a relationship with a poor, married Dalit woman, only to abandon her when she gets pregnant. “It went against the grain of public morality,” says Benegal, and finding a producer was tough. But when the film released it was a hit.

If Ankur established the reputation of Shabana Azmi, Benegal’s next film,


, launched some of cinema’s most talented actors, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Set in a small village where a debauched zamindar family terrorises farmers,


talks of standing up against exploitation.

Indira Gandhi is released from Tihar Jail on 26 December 1978; Shabana Azmi in Ankur; Smita Patil in Nishaant.

The film showed at international film festivals but ran into trouble with the censors at home. In 1975 when


was released, the Emergency was on. VC Shukla saw the film as a veiled attack against the state and wanted it banned.

Some of the country’s finest filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, wrote to Mrs Gandhi who saw the film and found nothing objectionable, recalls Benegal. The film was then released with one condition: it would be prefaced with the line:

‘The events of this film took place before Independence.’

Whenever it was shown in the theatres, the audience would read the line – and burst out laughing.

The events leading to the Emergency began with Indira Gandhi’s electoral sweep in 1971. Following those elections, Raj Narain, the candidate defeated by Indira Gandhi, filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court accusing her of electoral malpractice. The grounds were flimsy. Nevertheless, on June 12, 1975, the high court ruled in Raj Narain’s favour, effectively setting aside Indira Gandhi’s election result.

Mrs Gandhi appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted her a stay but ruled that although her powers and privileges as prime minister would remain during the appeal, she could not vote in the Lok Sabha.

At a rally in Delhi’s Boat Club, Indira Gandhi said ‘big forces’ were trying to oust her. Indeed the opposition – from Jan Sangh’s AB Vajpayee to Lok Dal’s Charan Singh – had ganged up under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan (JP) with one agenda: to get her out.

On the evening of June 25, Indira Gandhi drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan. There was a state of emergency, she told president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, and he needed to sign a proclamation that would suspend civil rights in order to protect the ‘security of India... threatened by internal disturbances’. The president signed and within a few hours, the arrests began: first JP, then Raj Narain, Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekhar. On the first day, 876 people were jailed.

Power lines to newspaper presses were snapped so none of this could be reported. By the time power was restored, censorship was in place. Today it is fashionable to think there was widespread unrest caused by the Emergency. But, says Inder Malhotra, “Not a dog barked.” After a few months, when it became clear that crime was down, trains were running on time and inflation was under control, there was even considerable middle class support.

With a fettered press and muted friends, the prime minister could not have known just how despised Sanjay had become with his coercive sterilisation policy to control India's galloping population. When she finally called for elections and lifted the Emergency in 1977, she could not have known that would cost her her seat in Parliament.

But the Janata regime proved so inept that it could not last its term. As the decade concluded, fresh elections were called and a resurgent Mrs Gandhi was making a comeback.

It seems strange that the Seventies, with its state control during the Emergency, would see such a spurt in media. In 1975, Doordarshan, the only TV network in the country, was available only in seven cities. There was no colour TV, no national telecast. Magazines in the Seventies were what TV shows are to us today: hugely popular and devoured for credible information as well as entertainment.

Covers of Stardust and India Today.

In December 1975, Vidya Vilas (‘VV’) Purie, a former film financer and the owner of Thompson Press, decided to launch a tabloid newspaper called

India Today

. His daughter Madhu Trehan was then living in New York and had recently graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. She says she looked at the dummy her father sent her and said: “It’s awful.”

Madhu dumped the tabloid, revamping it as a fortnightly magazine. The first issue, December 1-15, 1975, had on its masthead Madhu’s brother, Aroon Purie, as publisher and Madhu as editor. The purpose of the magazine, wrote Aroon, was to “fill the information gap which exists amongst persons interested in India residing abroad.”

By 1977, when the Emergency was lifted, Madhu was pregnant, leaving the magazine’s editorial operations to her brother. By then, India Today was no longer for NRIs, it had become and would remain a chronicler of the India story. Sunday began life as the weekly supplement of the Hindustan Standard newspaper published by the Ananda Bazar Patrika group. In 1976, when Aveek Sarkar decided to make it a stand-alone magazine with MJ Akbar as editor, he took also the decision to price it at Rs 1. The magazine captured the zeitgeist of the Seventies, remaining well into the early Nineties a muckraking political weekly.

And then there was


, Nari Hira’s irreverential film magazine that was edited by Shobhaa De (then Kilachand), which brought both new attitude and new language. While other film magazines tiptoed around the big stars, meekly running PR stories, “we were rather brash,” concedes Hira in a classic understatement.

Nothing was sacrosanct. “Stardust broke established rules and rewrote them,” Shobhaa says. ‘Neeta’s Natter’, a snippety gossip column, was blasé about revealing the private lives of public stars in a language that was “street-speak in print – catchy and colloquial”.

That same year, Raj Kapoor was to take what the film trade called the ‘biggest gamble of his career’, a film called

Satyam Shivam Sundaram

which would feature a barely dressed Zeenat Aman and also a rare feature in mainstream cinema: an onscreen kiss. The 1960s sexual revolution in the West had barely touched India. Attitudes even in urban areas were by and large puritanical. Yet, there was a new woman rising. In mainstream cinema, this new woman would pop up every now and then.


heroine, the cigarette-smoking, whiskydrinking Parveen Babi is seen – shockingly for that time – in bed with the hero, Amitabh Bachchan.

Amitabh Bachchan and Parveen Babi in the ‘revolutionary’ bedroom scene in Deewar.

In life as in film, Babi was making her own rules. With her stream of live-in boyfriends and bohemian lifestyle, she was a child of the Sixties, only transplanted in the wrong country in the wrong decade. By the mid Eighties her career was over, her biggest hits behind her. Some said she had run off to join a guru, others suggested she was mentally ill.

In January 2005, Parveen Babi’s neighbours reported that the newspapers were piling up outside her Mumbai apartment. When the police broke in, Babi was dead, perhaps for over three days, of complications from diabetes. There was gangrene in one foot. She had died alone, ill, unclaimed. The Seventies were truly over.

This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.

First Published: May 21, 2011 18:28 IST