The trailer of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon offers snapshots of Indian cinema in the 1940s. Cracking a whip and singing profanities while wearing a hunting costume and a mischievous smile, Kangana Ranaut plays an actress who closely resembles Fearless Nadia.

Indian actresses are a mutable and paradoxical species. Even as their onscreen avatars are consistently loved, their status as sex symbols means that their morality and principles are always viewed as dubious. Rangoon, harking back to the time when filmmakers and actors were universally loved but rarely respected, is one among many Indian films that sketch compelling portraits of diverse aspects of the cinematic world.

Indian cinema has been consistently turning the lens on itself with varying degrees of insight, honesty and self-deprecation. In Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), film director Suresh (Guru Dutt) is disdainful of actresses habituated to primping and posturing. He is looking for a “seedhi saadhi Hindustani ladik” for his next film. A chance encounter leads him to orphan Shanti (Wahhda Rehman). Unhappily married and estranged from his wife, Suresh is inexorably drawn to Shanti and they struggle against a growing mutual attraction.

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Waqt Ne Kiya from Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).

Kaagaz Ke Phool is an accurate study of artistic obsession and the contrary motivations of people who pursue careers in cinema. Suresh looks at the world through a cinematic lens (he recognises Shanti’s potential only after she is accidentally captured on camera). Suresh’s self-worth is inextricably tied to his work as a director. Shanti, on the other hand, is a reluctant actress, drawn to the profession because of monetary compulsions and her fascination for Suresh.

With a haunting combination of chiaroscuro frames and lilting melodies, Kaagaz Ke Phool chronicles a director’s angst-ridden journey from fame to ignominy. Even as it depicts the massive machinery required to construct a movie and exposes the caprices of public adoration, Kaagaz Ke Phool is more about human fallibility and creative frustration than the cinematic world itself.

Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.
Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.

The Merchant-Ivory production Bombay Talkie (1970) is a more acerbic and sexually unapologetic examination of the film world. Married actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) is attempting to cement his status as a film star when his writer friend Hari (Zia Mohyeddin) introduces him to novelist Lucia (Jennifer Kendal). Although Hari falls in love with Lucia, Vikram pursues her with a restless determination to posses.

Bombay Talkie is replete with pithy observations about the film world. Vikram’s conversations with Hari offer a tongue-in-cheek reminder of cinema’s status as the less erudite cousin of the novel. When Vikram prances on the keys of a giant typewriter while shooting a typically asinine film song, he is dancing to the tune of his producer who wishes to make the film commercially viable. The strangeness of the set is explained away with a vacuous allegory, demonstrating Indian cinema’s endless tussle between credibility and commerce and its inability to logically and intelligently reconcile the two.

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Typewriter Tip Tip from Bombay Talkie (1970).

Even as it succumbs to western stereotypes about Indian society, Bombay Talkie insightfully depicts the social significance of cinema in India. Its opening sequence, for instance, features hand painted movie-style posters of cast and crew displayed against the streets and skylines of Mumbai, illustrating the deep and complex relationship of the city with cinema.

In Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977), Usha (Smita Patil) is cajoled into becoming an actress by an older family friend, Keshav (Amol Palekar). Since her mother disapproves of her profession and the lower-caste Keshav, Usha marries him in an impetuous act of defiance. When she is compelled to work after her marriage and Keshav continues to manage her business, Usha rebels against his constant jealousy and authority.

Although sexual relationships between famous women and their male managers or jealous husbands have been explored in several films, Bhumika asks pertinent questions about sexual freedom and the balance of power. In attempting to escape her controlling husband, Usha enters into sexual relationships with other men, but remains dissatisfied with the skewed balance of power.

Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in Bhumika. Courtesy Blaze Film Entreprises.
Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in Bhumika. Courtesy Blaze Film Entreprises.

Bhumika uses the film-within-a-film device to perfection, and Usha’s personal life uncannily mirrors the story arc of her film Agnipariksha. As Usha dances and hams her way through Agnipariksha, Benegal exposes the dispassionate choreography and manipulation involved in the construction of the highly stylised imagery that dominates commercial cinema.

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) is inspired by the political landscape of 1950s Tamil Nadu, and is loosely based on actor and politician M G Ramanchandran, his political rival M Karunanidhi, and protégé and frequent co-star Jayalalithaa. Anandan (Mohanlal) ascends to superstardom with the assistance of his writer friend Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj). Anandan absorbs his friend’s politics along with his poetry and leverages his tremendous social capital to further his party’s political future. As Anandan’s popularity threatens to surpass Tamizhselvan’s, an acrimonious rivalry develops between the former friends.

Much like Usha in Bhumika, Anandan’s personal life imitates the characters that he plays in his movies. The meta-film sequences in Iruvar are mostly song-and-dance routines. Although they are too neatly shot to replicate 1950s cinematography, they capture the costume and dialogue integral to Tamil films of that era.

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Narumugaiye from Iruvar (1997).

Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) is a satirical but non-judgmental look at the Hindi film industry. Sona (Konkona Sensharma), a talented actor appearing second-grade films, meets Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), an aspiring actor looking to get his first break. When Sona is duped by a producer and hits a slump, Vikram bags a role in a commercial film aided by a combination of serendipity, guile and burning ambition. Vikram continues to pursue superstardom with selfish unscrupulousness, but a disillusioned Sona breaks up with him to eventually become a popular television actress.

Luck By Chance deftly peels back several layers of the cinematic world, often hilariously exposing its nepotism, occasional cruelty and precarious relationship with Hollywood. The devilry of the film world is the small details: an anecdote about an unfairly treated stuntman, a wealthy superstar clowning around with impoverished children from behind a closed car window, and a bitterly furious heroine recalling how she was forced to relinquish control over her body to become an actress.

The film is also scattered with actors like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan playing themselves. This adds a layer of authenticity to the film that is deliciously ironic, considering that their parts are as carefully constructed as that of any other character.

The opening sequence of Luck By Chance is a montage of activities involved in making a film, featuring the weathered faces over-worked film technicians and extras. Even as the sequence highlights the banality of the tasks that add up to create the dreamy and gripping illusion of cinema, it gently humanises the process, exposing its warts and embracing its allure.

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The opening credits of Luck By Chance (2009).