Punjabis in Bollywood
Times Group And Punjab Tourism recently released the book Experience Punjab – On the road.
Beautifully illustrated and authored by Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu (you can check out the launch on her popular travel blog www.cuttingloose.in here), it is an indispensable collection to the library of all you travel aficionados.
The author had also invited guest writers to briefly detail contributions of Punjabi community to the nation’s art and culture. My humble submission on the invaluable Punjabi connection with Bollywood was also selected, published and is now part of the book, reproduced here for your reading pleasure.
And please do order your hard copy now.
PUNJABIS IN BOLLYWOOD
That the enterprising Parsees and the entrepreneurial Gujratis stole a march by being first of the blocks in laying the Indian film industry’s foundation may also be attributed to geographical advantage. Our largely provincial nation’s Punjabi population was concentrated in the North while Bombay and Calcutta were becoming centres of cinematic excellence. But like the indomitable Gauls in Asterisk comics, the adventurous Punjabi was on the verge of being unleashed.
In 1929, Prithviraj Kapoor left Peshawar for Calcutta. At Lahore, he made a course correction and headed to Bombay instead.
Hired by Ardeshir Irani (Imperial Studios) as an unpaid extra, his Adonis face and broad frame soon shot him to his first starring role in the 1930 silent ‘Cinema Girl’. Jagdish Sethi from Lahore joined Kapoor in ‘Alam Ara’, India’s first talkie film.
This breakthrough propelled what became a dynastic rule of the silver screen by the Punjabis for decades to come.
Lahore was the beehive of cultural pollination in North India – an apt city to establish a home grown Punjabi film industry. The now forgotten K D Mehra produced and directed the massive 1932 hit, ‘Pind Di Kudi’ which introduced Noor Jehan as a nine-year old child star. Another success, ‘Heer Syal’ followed next as new studios sprung up and Lahore became an alternate film destination, giving nationwide musical hits like Khazanchi (1941).
In Calcutta too, the coming of sound gave India its first ever superstar, the singing – acting sensation ‘Devdas’ Kundan Lal Saigal. Originally from Jalandhar, the Jammu born Saigal, defied the odds and the community to achieve stardom in the insular Bengali dominion.
More than any other community in films, the Punjabis have displayed a unique proclivity to identify and promote fresh talent since the beginning.
Born and trained in Amritsar, Master Ghulam Haider became the first iconic Punjabi music director. Working in Lahore from 1934 to 1944, he is credited with discovering Noorjehan, Mohd. Rafi, Shamshad Begum and Surinder Kaur.
Thereafter in Bombay in 1947, he also spotted an anaemic youngster singing to herself in a local train and invited her to a studio; thus effectively gifting India its nightingale, Lata Mangeshkar.
Other eminent music directors to emerge from Punjab were Shyam Sunder, Husn Lal Bhagat Ram, S Mohinder, Madan Mohan Kohli, O P Nayyar, Roshan and Khayyam.
Another talent hunter was the pioneering Punjabi writer – director from Narowal, Kidar Sharma. Getting his break as a dialogue writer for Saigal’s Devdas, Sharma is the greatest unsung hero of mid twentieth century cinema. The man who uncovered the myriad talents of Raj Kapoor, Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Bharat Bhushan, Mala Sinha and Tanuja now stands evicted even from the footnotes of history.
Two thirds of Punjab, including Lahore, was lost during the partition of India in 1947. The large-scale religion instituted migration also affected the film industry. Superstar Noorjehan and Samrala born writer Manto were among the first to leave.
For the hordes of Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs working in Lahore, including director Dalsukh Pancholi, writers Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander, actor Pran and journalists B R Chopra and Ramanand Sagar, the dislocation was equally traumatic.
Independent India kick started the Bollywood party in earnest with the emergence of fresh faces, studios and film idiom. While Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor (R K Films), Dev and Chetan Anand (Navketan) and B R Chopra (B R Films) redefined meaningful Hindi cinema, the verse of Sahir Ludhianvi, Anand Bakshi and Gulzar gained pan Indian popularity.
However it was the dominance of the Punjabi male star that became a virtual monopoly, portraying the entire gamut from the sensitive soul to the son of the soil personas as they became the pin-up boys of a free nation.
The Kapoor brothers (Raj, Shammi and Shashi), Balraj Sahni, Dara Singh, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra and Manoj Kumar, Dharamendra, Jeetendra, Rajesh and Vinod Khanna rounded up the top.
The Punjabi antagonist too brought his ‘bad man’ attitude to the mix with K N Singh, Pran, Premnath, Madan and Amrish Puri, Prem Chopra, Ranjeet, Gulshan Grover and Shakti Kapoor.
The female actors, though fewer in numbers because of the ingrained orthodox mindset of the times, also displayed virtuosity when afforded the opportunity and continue doing so today; Suraiya, Geeta Bali, Bina Rai, Shyama, Achala Sachdev, Neetu Singh, Juhi Chawla, Raveena Tandon, Karishma and Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra.
Given the incestuously cliqued nature of the film industry, like politics, the ‘rise of the star sons’ phenomenon has been peculiar to Bollywood.
Like prized stallions, the pedigreed were trained and launched with fanfare. While some succeeded (Rishi and Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor), the multitude ended as casualties of war (Prem Kishen, Kumar Gaurav, Sunil Anand, Kunal Goswami, Karan and Kunal Kapoor).
Recently a social scientist commented he notices a widespread ‘Punjabisation’ of India, in dance, music and cinema. The tipping point for me was Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989), after which the ‘balle balle’ boisterous Punjabi themed cinema crept like an invisible virus to consume the entire nation and with the likes of Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra continuing the tradition; the contagion exhibits no signs of abating.