Bhojpuri cinema was birthed at a film awards function in Mumbai, in the latter half of the 1950s, when character actor Nazir Hussain stumbled into a conversation with then President Rajendra Prasad. When Prasad discovered that Hussain hailed from Ghazipur, a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, he switched to Bhojpuri. “After all,” says Avijit Ghosh, author of Cinema Bhojpuri, “India’s first president was born in Jeeradei village in west Bihar’s Bhojpuri-speaking Siwan district.” Prasad voiced a request that echoed a dormant desire in Hussain, to make a film that spoke their tongue. Hussain had already written Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo (O Mother Ganga, I’ll offer you the auspicious yellow cloth), and he narrated it to Bimal Roy, whose assistant he was at the time. Roy liked the story, but Hussain refused to part with it because he wanted to make it in Bhojpuri. The stage was thus set for the kind of whip-shot repartee that, these days, is labelled punch-dialogue. “Bhojpuri? What language?” demanded Roy. Hussain replied, “It is the language of the President.”
The role of producer, instead, was destined for Bishwanath Prasad Shahabadi, a mica and coal mine owner from Bandhuchhapra, a village about 16 miles from Arrah, a small town in Bihar’s Bhojpur district. Hussain’s chance encounter with Shahabadi resulted in a cultural phenomenon, pivoted on an unsurprising rich boy-poor girl story. (His father demands a dowry. Her family is unable to comply. He leaves. She’s married off to a sexagenarian who dies before consummating the marriage. After maltreatment at the hands of
malevolent in-laws, she ends up a nautch girl, eventually rescued by the very boyfriend who abandoned her.) Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo was a staggering success. “Apart from the novelty of watching a film in their own language, what could have drawn the Bhojpuri-speaking audience is the movie’s ability to recreate the sights and sounds of the region,” notes Ghosh.
It became a symbol of regional pride, “a positive expression of identity for those who spoke Bhojpuri.”
Thereon, Ghosh shepherds the fascinated reader through each chapter in story of Bhojpuri cinema — the initial wave of hits that caused a feverish migration of producers to this hitherto barren cinematic landscape, the subsequent string of flops, the
revival that came about with Dangal (The Bout, 1977; the first Bhojpuri film in colour), and the current wave that began with the stratospheric success of the irresistibly titled Sasura Bada Paisewala (Father-in-law has pots of money, 2004), which Ghosh calls the Sholay of Bhojpuri cinema, a Rs 30-lakh enterprise that yielded a harvest of over Rs. 9 crore. “The tin-roofed cinema halls of mofussil towns, where men often stripped down to their underwear during matinee shows, were overflowing.” And today, with six prints of Spiderman 3 being dubbed in Bhojpuri, and with Amitav Ghosh having researched films like Mai Jaisan Bhauji Hamaar for his novel Sea of Poppies, Cinema Bhojpuri is no longer a curiosity but a cultural behemoth. The read is riveting.
Ghosh lives within an enraptured bubble of nostalgia, and his affectionate prose is mercifully free of the look-how-quaint-it-all-is condescension that can, so easily, creep into a subject so far off the mainstream radar. He grew up in the small towns of Bihar and Jharkhand, and he spent his teens in the cinema halls of Arrah that he dedicates his book to — Rupam, Mohan, Sapna and Moti Mahal. This is, thus, a tale told with the empathetic twinkle of an insider. “On another occasion (in Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo), the heroine’s father is served sattu (roasted and pounded black gram). In a touching scene set in a tadikhana, the village drinking place, the heroine’s father (played by Hussain) keeps staring at a glass of palm toddy. When asked why, he replies, ‘Hum dekhatani ee kitna gahir ba. Ae ma hamra khet, ghar, bagriya ab doob gayi.’ (I am measuring its depth. I have lost my home, my fields and my garden to the bottle.)”
Ghosh reserves special space for the heroes and heroines of Bhojpuri cinema (which he oddly, and insistently, keeps labelling a “genre”) — and these pages are speckled with lists and anecdotes and nuggets aplenty. “No heroine was as successful as Padma Khanna in the second phase of Bhojpuri films — she not only excelled as the heroine, but also became the second woman director of the genre with Hey Tulsi Maiya (1992) after Arti Bhattacharya’s Dagabaaz Balma (1988).” Finally, Ghosh traces the evolution of Bhojpuri film music, noting the gradual vulgarisation of lyrics once wrought by the genteel likes of Shailendra. In a song in the family drama Ganga Se Nata Ba Hamaar (1991), the obsession
behind breast size was highlighted with the aid of succulent fruit. (“Nobody spares a second thought for the poor lemon. This is the age where everybody is mad after pomegranates.”) That piece of acute
social observation, incidentally, came from the pen of Ravindra Jain, and it sounds positively pious when compared to this existential conundrum from Daroga Babu I Love You: “From the front or from the back, I am contemplating from where you will put it in.”
Ghosh, however, desists from making the case that there is a place in the cinema for overt ejaculations of carnality — and, with enormous respect for his efforts, I would like to make that case for him. As long as the playground is filled with adults, with children banished to bed, why go red in the face about lasciviousness as a sport? Why begrudge the interiors the freedoms of unfettered ribaldry, all too often buried under self-conscious considerations of class in the cities? Ghosh describes a song sequence in Pyaar Ke Bandhan, where the lyric goes, “Put it in slowly darling, I am very young, it hurts.” On screen, however, the visual is that of a man attempting to slide bangles onto his woman’s arms. This double-entendre, frankly, is the work of an ingenious imagination. As the director Aslam Sheikh notes, the nautanki is a part of our culture.
Why the need, therefore, for a supercilious line in the sand separating high culture from low, as if sophisticates had never wrapped their lips around lemons and pomegranates?