As India celebrates its Independence Day on August 15, we take a look at some pinnacle scenes from the country’s cinema throughout the decades.
From some of Bollywood’s earliest cinematic contributions through the heydays of Amitabh Bachchan and right up to the present decade, we put together an estimable panel of cinephiles who selected some of the greatest scenes this 101-year-old industry has had to offer.
Dir: Franz Osten
Blueprint for the Taj: An Indo-German co-production, directed by Franz Osten, the film predates the arrival of the Germans who came to work for Bombay Talkies in the 1930s. There is a wonderful scene where Shah Jahan (Charu Roy) views models that architects have designed for the tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He chooses the one by Shiraz (Himansu Roy), which looks like the Taj Mahal we know today, but the other possibilities are mind-boggling.
Pather Panchali (1955)
Dir: Satyajit Ray
Arrival of the train: Cinema began with the Lumière brothers’ train pulling into a station in 1895 (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) . Exactly 60 years later, a vital strain of Indian cinema was born when a train sped across a field in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Siblings Apu and Durga are in a field when they hear a distant keening. A column of smoke becomes visible through the white kash stalks, and the train bursts into view. Both children run towards it: Durga trips, while Apu reaches the tracks and watches it from up close – a foreshadowing of their respective destinies.
Kagaz Ke Phool (1959)
Dir: Guru Dutt
A love song to remember: “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam” is simply the most poetic song picturisation ever, for me, in Indian cinema. Against Geeta Dutt’s haunting voice, director Guru Dutt and his protégée Waheeda Rehman realise that they are in love. The magical play of light and shade, the chemistry between Dutt and Rehman, all combine to make it one of the most memorable sequences Dutt ever directed. To think, there wasn’t even a situation for it in the film, originally...
Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)
Dir: Ritwik Ghatak
The lingering farewell: Few writers used melodrama as effectively as Ritwik Ghatak. Tuberculosis ridden, Neeta is discarded by her family to die in a sanatorium. Only her elder brother comes to see her. She is her usual self-dignified, gracious, stoic self. But, as he is leaving, she cracks. A lifetime of shattered dreams, of exploitation, ingratitude, of being unloved – bursts forth in one pathetic wail from her broken heart, as he holds her helplessly. “Dada! I want to live!” Her cry still echoes in our hearts. We are all guilty.
Dir: Mohan Kumar
Best wishes from Bertrand: Mohan Kumar’s Aman would probably have been forgotten by now had it not been for a cameo by a certain legendary philosopher. In a scene that’s even dearer to quiz nuts and trivia hunters than it is to cinephiles, Rajendra Kumar seeks the blessings of Lord Bertrand Russell before leaving England. In his only feature film, the legendary pacifist compliments Kumar on his plans to go to Japan and help victims of the nuclear bombings. The surreality of watching Russell chat with Kumar is heightened by a slow voiceover that translates from English into Hindi.
Dir: Shyam Benegal
Out of the past: In Bhumika, Shyam Benegal uses a simple but highly effective device to toggle between his protagonist’s past and present states. Ten minutes into the film, Usha (Smita Patil) leaves home after a fight with her husband. As the taxi she sits in pulls away, a voice is heard on the soundtrack. All of a sudden the film, which till now has been in colour, changes to black-and-white. We see Usha as a young girl, running through the woods. The voice turns out to be her mother’s – Usha’s past calling out to her.
Salaam Bombay! (1988)
Dir: Mira Nair
Bawl bearing: During the course of Mira Nair’s Oscar-winning debut, Shafiq Syed, who plays Chaipau, loses his love, his best friend, his job and the money he’s been saving to buy a ticket home. As he sits by the side of the road, the camera moves in for a long, unforgiving close-up. He breaks down, then composes himself and looks at the camera. Nair’s instruction to Syed was to give a look that suggested Chaipau would never cry again, and that’s what Syed delivered.
Shape-shifting superstar fights: Filmmaker Shankar, more than anyone else, instilled the concept of gargantuan-ism in Tamil cinema, and few action sequences are more gargantuan than the climactic fight where the robot-Rajinikanth goes on a furious rampage, assuming a number of computer-generated forms – a ball, a wall, even a snake. It rivalled anything dished up by Hollywood.
Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
Dir: Anurag Kashyap
Permission to love: Nawazuddin Siddiqui burnt up the Hindi screen in 2012 with Kahaani and Talaash. But the one which made me fall off my seat was Faisal Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur. Faisal is a druggie and a gangster whose style is shaped by Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay persona. For this, the film selected a great scene from Trishul – and he imitates AB’s hairstyle. In this scene, he tries to romance Mohsina (Huma Qureshi). She is keen on him but says he should have asked for her permission before touching her. Faisal bursts into tears, adding pathos to the humorous scene and his troubled character.