On this day a hundred years ago Dhundiraj Govind Phalke otherwise known as Dadasaheb Phakle made India's first film. A hundred years is as good a time as any to reflect on not just the greatness but also the other less significant triumphs.
A century is a long enough time to be dotted with significant achievements and Indian cinema has, no pun intended, hundreds of those. In spite of being done to death, one could still find enough to wax eloquent about the great accomplishments of our cinema. But this isn't about such accomplishments. It's about the single most insignificant accomplishment of the first hundred years of Indian cinema.
One of Indian cinema's most insignificant feats has been the invention of the so-called common man as personified by Amol Palekar. One of the watershed moments of our cinema is the middle of the path films like Rajnigandha, Choti Si Baat, and Gharonda. Although there's a lot more to Indian cinema than just Hindi films and especially commercial Hindi films, the importance of the said character can't be denied. Since the onset Hindi cinema, and for that matter a large portion of Indian cinema, has been about the hero in the most traditional definition of the word. While early cinema might have been inspired by the rich heritage of mythology as well as folklore, the more cinema prospered the more the simpler the hero became. He couldn't do anything wrong and gray became a shade that wasn't a preferred choice for the portrayal of protagonists. Along with this escapism became the operative term to describe our blend of films and plausibility a collateral damage. In the 1950s as well as a large part of the 1960s Hindi cinema's leading men were people off the streets but propped up for the arc lights. More than a reflection of the common man, which he was inspired from, the hero became a depiction of what he believed the common man aspired to be.
Films like Pyasaa, Dhool Ka Phool, Upkaar are about people that you might have come across and yet they never seem to be able to completely shrug the hero aspect. With the advent of the Angry Young Man a sense of heighted escapism was added to the hero, which while touted as an echo of times somewhere increased the distance between the hero and the audience watching him on a 100-foot screen.
It's in this light that the invention of the true common man with Rajnigandha (1974) ends up being a cornerstone in the history of Indian cinema. Usually the public would replicate the image of the screen stars but with this film the reverse happened. Released in shadow of Zanjeer (1973) and Namak Haraam (1973) Rajnigandha made the hero look like someone who walked into a cinema hall and didn't stop till he entered the screen. In a single year the audience got to vent out their supposed repressed anger with Amitabh Bachchan and the Angry Young Man persona as well as see Palekar truly become one of them for the silver screen. Incidentally 1974 is also the year where yet another school of real portrayal of the hero germinated with Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1974). The Parallel Cinema movement matched the regular commercial cinema with great aplomb and while the latter did its best to nurture the escapist hero, the former took care of the very real and organic and sometimes even the perverse facet of the hero. Nestled in between the was Palekar and his very middle-class-cinema that gave us gems such as Chhoti Si Baat (1975), Chitchor (1976), Gharonda (1976), Baaton Baaton Mein (1979) and Gol Maal (1979). Like many actors of that era Palekar graduated from the stage to films but unlike most of them he worked in a regular 9-5 job before taking up acting full-time. Palekar worked in a bank and perhaps that's why he could imbibe the nuances that made his characters look real.
In a cinema that is based largely on the idea of escapism for someone like Amol Palekar and his 'middle-class-man' to not only succeed but attain a cult like status is nothing less than a miracle. Commercial Hindi cinema's leading men have it easy; most of them need to look halfway decent and their job is almost done. The common regular looking man finds that more than enough to worship the men who play the hero because he in some weird way is one of them solely because of the character he depicts even though the actor couldn't be any further from them. In its 100 years of existence Hindi cinema has seen a lot of things repeat with many of them being same, same but different. It's only Palekar and his middle-class man as imagined by directors like Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Bhimsain Khurana that stands out in the as far as the hero in Hindi cinema is concerned. What could be a greater achievement than the fact that the reel common man before Palekar looks unreal and since him largely implausible?