Trials of freedom
India in 1970s
1970s, the decade that defined India
Sunil Gavaskar, Amitabh Bachchan and Indira Gandhi changed India and Indians in the 1970s, last century's most epochal decade; a period that was "thrilling at moments and appalling at others"
Human on the Moon
When the history of the last century gets documented (not necessarily written), the one event that will acquire singular significance -- to the exclusion of so many other equally compelling ones -- will be man's landing on the moon. The greatest achievement in the last century (perhaps in all recorded history) was without doubt that moment when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface. Michael Collins, the third astronaut, continued to circle in Apollo 11 around the moon. The year: 1969.
The Russians had torn through the confines of earth's atmosphere and penetrated space more than a decade earlier. But the undiluted honour of putting a human being on the moon was reserved for the Americans. For the west, this was the ultimate triumph. The landing on the moon came as some sort of culmination which resulted in the old guard and old values being replaced by something that was substantially more just and humane. It took some time, but the process began in the sixties. The events that unfolded during that decade shaped the ideas, opinions and the future course of the century.
It was the decade when (to paraphrase Regis Debray's description of Castro and Che) "people risked everything to win everything, and at the end they deserved everything they got." As Tariq Ali writes in Street Fighting Years -- An Autobiography of the Sixties, "The sixties continue to exercise enormous fascination for those who did not live through them." Everything that had to happen happened in the 60s. Woodstock and Paris Commune, Che and Russell, Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong, JFK and Martin Luther King, grass and LSD, Beatles and Rolling Stones, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, and, more than all these, Vietnam. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, though written in the late 1950s, found its audience and relevance in the sixties. Kerouac died in 1969. Hollywood, the final arbiter of popular taste, also witnessed a revolution in that decade --The Graduate, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, just to name a couple.
The seventies turned out to be the lost decade between Mick Jagger's tongue and Michael Jackson's pelvic thrust.
What did the seventies have to offer? Oil cartels, inflation, global terrorism, Watergate, the Islamic Revolution. It turned out to be a decade of trite. The most original and popular book that came out of in the seventies was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a dense, boring and pretentious book. Though every one read it, not many understood it, and still few enjoyed it. And only Pink Floyd created original music in a decade that was otherwise lost to Bee Gees and disco. Hollywood decided that it was form that mattered and not substance, and gave us Jaws and Star Wars.
John Travolta, Bruce Lee and Mohammed Ali were the few genuine popular icons that emerged in that decade. Though Ali, of course, began his controversial run to stardom in the previous decade.
For India it was different. The sixties didn't matter, the seventies did. Sixties were trying times for India and Indians. Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who in large measure was responsible India remaining on the world's radar screens, died. And the world forgot India. The Chinese invasion, the famines, the humiliation of Public Law 480 (PL480) and red wheat, the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, devaluation of the rupee, the rise of regionalism. All that could go wrong did. 'Beggar India' was Naipaul's Area of Darkness.
And then, just when the decade was about to end, Indira Gandhi took the struggling nation by the scruff of its neck, vigorously shook it and set it on course to glory. The west may perhaps debate whether or not 1969 should be declared the most important year of the last century. There is no doubt about its significance in the Indian context. Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969. The Indira Era began with a bang and ended only with her assassination in 1984.
Compared to the sixties, the next decade turned out to be far more epochal in Indian history. In 1972, the country celebrated its 25th anniversary as an independent nation, and finally India began to grow out of the long shadow cast by the stalwarts of the pre-independence era. Indians rediscovered, and, at times, reinvented their heroes. The true genius of India and Indians began to be realised, acknowledged and encouraged. Adult India matured as a nation. It stopped looking over its shoulders to seek approval from the west.
Without fear of contradiction one can say that the three most important things for Indians are cricket, films and politics (though not necessarily in that order). Nothing excites passions as much as a discussion on any or all of these three topics. The fascination and adoration, the loathing and criticism that is reserved for politicians, cricket and film stars has been an inherent part of the making of modern India. In the 1970s, these three metamorphosed completely, and changed India forever.
Sunil Gavaskar, Amitabh Bachchan and Indira Gandhi symbolised this change. Try explaining Indian politics without mentioning Indira Gandhi, or Indian cricket without Sunil Gavaskar, or Indian films without Amitabh Bachchan. And, then again, try explaining the careers of these three icons without narrating their achievements in the seventies. They were what Indians were waiting for. Hard-as-nail heroes, who asked for no quarters, and gave none. They played to win.
Cricket, Films & Politics
Cricket is religion in today's India, notwithstanding the match-fixing controversy. Sunil Gavaskar is, without question, the most important contributor to the creation of this phenomenon.
Sunil Manohar Gavaskar was 21 and unknown when he accompanied the Indian cricket team that went to the West Indies in February 1, 1971. When he returned, he was a hero. He was to develop an almost pathological penchant to accumulate runs. By the time he bid adieu to cricket, 17 years later (as an on-field player) he had become an institution.
It is said Gavaskar was arrogant on the field. His height being inversely proportional to his ego. But his arrogance was matched by his talent. It is also said, and with good reason, that Gavaskar was a selfish player. That he played for himself and his records and not for India. But all this is uncharitable. This diminutive man changed the way cricket was played in India. From a team of gentlemen losers, India became a team that almost always posed a challenge. Gavaskar inculcated a sense of determination and professionalism that was never known to the team before. Sure, there were players of class before, and many were as legendary as Gavaskar. But it was Gavaskar who gave the Indian team that aura of invincibility, that zeal and desire to out perform the opponents. That feeling that they -- the 11 -- were responsible to those 800 million-odd fans.
According to the record books, he scored an amazing 774 runs, with an average of an astonishing 155 in four tests. He went on to score the maximum number of test centuries (34), became the first score 10,000 runs in test cricket, became the only player to score a century in each innings on three occasions, the only Indian to score a 1,000 runs in a calendar year. And a lot of other incredible things which this writer is not aware of. But Gavaskar's contribution to moulding of the Indian psyche far outweighs his contribution to Indian cricket.
Gavaskar turned out to be the bridge between the old generation of cricketers, dominated by the spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Venkatraghavan and Prasanna, and the new generation that emerged after 1977 when Bedi & Co were hit out of the game by the wild Pakistanis. Kapil Dev emerged from the ashes of that defeat. Within no time Kapil Devi captured not just too many wickets, not just the imagination of the entire cricket-crazy nation, but also the enduring adulation of the cricket-playing world.
Kapil Dev was the fire and brimstone to Gavaskar ice and calculation. Their distinctive styles were evident in the manner in which they won the world trophies. Kapil Dev led his team by example when India shocked the world by winning the World Cup. Gavaskar, the sly tactician, managed his team to win the World Championship of Cricket.
Amitabh Bachchan began his film career at the time when Rajesh Khanna's namby-pamby romanticism reigned supreme in Hindi cinema.
He did not have the looks to carry off the usual song and dance routine without looking completely silly. After his debut in 1969 in Khwaja Ahmed Abbas' Saat Hindustani, Amitabh had to wait for five years to break free of the confines of romance. Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer unleashed upon an unsuspecting film audience an angry police inspector who couldn't care less for the law.
Amitabh's gritty portrayal of the angry young man who waged a war against the corrupt and corrupting system captured the imagination of the people. Here was a hero who did not want to look at the past. He wanted to change the future. He was determined to survive at any cost, and bend every rule to win. Kill if necessary, and die rather than be defeated. Urban India had become a world in which scruples had no meaning. Survival meant winning every battle. Amitabh, with his quiet anger, amplified this struggle. In retrospect, his films reflected the grim reality that life in urban India had become.
Yash Chopra's Deewar is Amitabh's best film. It is this film that accurately reflects the frustration of 1970s and the absence of choices available to people. In Deewar Vijay knew he was destined for bigger things in life, and he knew he wouldn't allow anything to get in his way. He had seen that incorruptibility was for the virtue of a loser, and he didn't want to lose. Despite this tough exterior, he was immensely vulnerable. He was the criminal with a conscience. He was willing to cross over to the other side of the law, but he wasn't willing to forget that he had done so.
Amitabh's popularity soared. Every film that he acted in between Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony was a major hit. In fact, in 1978, eight of his films were running simultaneously in cinema houses of Mumbai. Of these seven celebrated silver jubilees. The Amitabh mania reached its pinnacle in 1982, when during the shooting of Coolie, the actor was near-fatally injured. The entire nation came to a standstill.
After a few years, the angry persona began to jade. Manmohan Desai gave Amitabh a new lease of life. The angry young man became the entertainer. With Manmohan Desai, Amitabh became everything -- the anti-establishment hero, the buffoon who turns into a rebel without a clue, the abrasive youth with a peculiar ways with girls. Amitabh changed cinema; the way it was made, seen and enjoyed.
Indira is India
Indira Gandhi did not waste too much time dispelling doubts created by Ram Monohar Lohia's description of her as a "gungi gudiya".
After the Congress'first defeat in the 1967 elections, Indira Gandhi moved in with the stealth of a cougar. There was no stopping her after she split the Congress. Within the next two years she created an aura of invincibility around herself that stayed till she was killed. She was determined to take a hard-line on everything. She turned American ambivalence in geopolitical equations to her advantage and signed a 20-year peace, friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. She nationalised the banks, abolished the privy purses.
Garibi hatao got her back to power in the Lok Sabha, and she used this new legitimacy to bury Jinnah's two-nation theory by creating a third one -- Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. Nixon dispatched the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, Mrs. Gandhi couldn't care less. Atal Behari Vajpayee, always the one to capture the nation's mood in words, declared Indira was "Durga astride the tiger". There was nothing that she could do wrong. Years later, Devkant Baruah was to say, "Indira is India and India is Indira."
Such was her cocky confidence, recounts Sam Maneckshaw, the field marshal who gave the Indian armed forces their finest hour, that when they met after the war, she summarily asked him about the rumours that he was planning to over throw her elected government and bring in army rule. "What if I did?" asked Maneckshaw. "You wouldn't dare." replied Mrs. Gandhi calmly.
But such admiration resulted in heightened expectations, and Mrs. Gandhi wasn't equipped to deal with them. Inevitably, the rot set in. Her lack of patience for her opponents and a complete absence of scruples caused major problems. Unfulfilled aspirations can be a dangerous thing in a democracy, and Mrs. Gandhi realised this in 1973-74 when out of nowhere Jayaprakash Narayan (J.P.) launched the Nav Nirman agitation and George Fernandes called for the great railway strike. The nuclear tests at Pokhran the same year did not help her fight the rising tide of anger. The Emergency in 1975, the Janata victory of 1977, her own return in 1980 are all well recorded events that don't need any reiteration.
What needs to be emphasised (and it is something that is not explained by any of the numerous critics of Mrs. Gandhi) was that she need not have called for election in March 1977. Why did she do it? No dictator in the world has done that, or having called for an election, not ensured his/her own victory. Mrs. Gandhi lost comprehensively.
She was, in the ultimate analysis, a democrat. An imperious one, but certainly a democrat. And it she who should be credited for creating an unprecedented awareness of democratic values in the Indian masses. And the power of a free press. After 1977, Indian elections have never been the same. The tumult of Emergency, the 20-point programme and the forced sterlizations changed the submissive multitude into an angry, sullen and vengeful electorate.
The common thread that binds our heroes -- Gavaskar, Amitabh and Mrs. Gandhi -- is a Giant Ego. Their exaggerated sense of self-importance. This over-assessment of their abilities and over-rated self-esteem often resulted in major personal and professional reversals. It stemmed essentially from their conviction that they were inherently superior to their peers. It was this individualism that was new to Indians. They were trendsetters. They set the agenda for others to follow. They made the rules, and they changed them.
Thanks to them, the seventies turned out to be a decade of challenge, change and compromise, a time when for tremendous social, political and cultural changes. The 1970s also saw the first successful shift in political and social paradigm. The first non-Congress government. The new journalism of Shobha De, who, through Stardust, invented 'Hinglish' in the 1970s, the language which has given a new cultural identity and unity to India.
Sex came out of the closet, the trio of Bhagwan Rajneesh (Sambhog se Sanyas tak), Khushwant Singh and Zeenat Aman reinvented sex, made it modern, acceptable, enjoyable and fashionable. And last, but by no means the least, M. J. Akbar -- the Amitabh Bachchan of Indian journalism. Akbar rewrote rules of reportage in Sunday, and gave Indian journalism what Watergate gave to the American journalism -- cutting edge. Dhirubhai Ambani began his ascent to dizzying heights in that decade. His formula was simple. Get the middle class into the stock market, and they'll fund your success. On the flip side, it was also the decade of Sanjay Gandhi, Ruksana Sultana and Maneka Gandhi's Surya.
The era ended just about the time Mrs. Gandhi was killed by her guards. Gavaskar retired three years later, but never reached the pinnacle he achieved in 1985 when he was the Championship trophy in Australia (1985). Amitabh carries on, but his last major, unqualified hit was Mard (1985), since then his films have no doubt made good business, but not that befitting a superstar of his stature.
The earlier generations had their idols, but these were the nice guys who played by the rules. Jawaharlal Nehru would not give up Panchsheel and China defeated India both in the battlefield of war and more importantly the battlefield of the mind. Dilip Kumar always offered the other cheek (even to someone like Ashok Kumar in Deedar), and smiled when Raj Kapoor took away Nargis in Andaaz. Vijay Merchant's averages in first class cricket were second only to Bradman's, (or so I am told) but cricket was just a game, not a matter of life and death.
The generation that followed Gavaskar, Amitabh and Mrs. Gandhi have produced their set of icons. But they have not had the same impact, and they are just mercenaries. Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan or someone like Pramod Mahajan give you a distinct feeling that they would stoop to any level to earn a few extra bucks, and the country be damned.