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How Hindi cinema has celebrated Diwali

The festival of light, happiness and love has often had a pivotal role in the narrative of Hindi cinema. It is not just a profitable weekend for a new film; it has also played important roles in the structure and flow of many films. Here's a look.

Shriram Iyengar

Releasing a film during Diwali, India's biggest festival, is a dream for any producer. The way Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Ajay Devgn's Shivaay have picked up at the box office after a lacklustre beginning will tell you why.

Time and again, Hindi cinema has made Diwali an important sub-plot, or at least a turning point, in the story. The splendour, the colours, and the fireworks add a dash of cinematic glory to the screen.

The festival was a big event in films of the 1940s and 1950s. Sheesh Mahal (1950) is a good example. The film dealt with complex human relations in a regal family, and one of the crucial moments is the arrival of Diwali. The celebrations mark the coming of a prospective groom for the heroine, setting the stage for the inevitable clash.

Hindi cinema has often created events around Diwali, garnished with songs, to provide a sense of impending doom. For instance, in Kismet (1943), the festival accentuates the contrasting fortunes of the main characters. The stage provides a backdrop for the song, while Amirbai Karnataki's voice narrates a summary of the film.

Incidentally, Kismet was released on the Diwali weekend and went on to become Hindi cinema's biggest hit, until it was upstaged 17 years later by Mughal-e-Azam.

There were other films in the 1950s with Diwali as their main theme. Notable among these were Gajanan Jagirdar's Ghar Ghar Mein Diwali (1955) and Deepak Asha's Diwali Ki Raat (1956).

Most films depicted the festival as an occasion of happiness. However, the grand celebrations also made it a backdrop for depicting the contrasting sadness of protagonists. In Nazrana (1961), Raj Kapoor's character finds himself brooding when the festival comes along. The film, based on the Tamil drama Kalyana Parisu, was a forgettable one, but it is a good example of the evocative nature of Diwali in Hindi cinema. 

By the 1970s, the festival had moved on from scenarios and become a major plot point. In the curtain raiser to Amitabh Bachchan's 'Angry Young Man', Zanjeer (1973), Diwali is a sign of impending doom and the cataclysmic moment that shapes his character. It is also the event that introduces the villain.

In Anuraag (1972), Diwali becomes the fulfilment of the wishes of a child who dies a tragic death. Honouring the last wish of the child, which grants a new lease of life to the protagonists played by Vinod Mehra and Moushumi Chatterjee, the entire colony gets together to celebrate the festival, thus emphasizing its status of a secular, unifying event.

However, the decade also saw the festival become a turning point that changes the movement and pace of the film. Gabbar Singh's Holi attack in Sholay (1975) is a classic example. In Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav (1999), the festival leads to the momentous clash between Sanjay Dutt's criminal tendencies and his parents' middle-class morals. The scene remains iconic for its close connection with Al Pacino in Scarface, or, closer home, Amitabh Bachchan in Agneepath (1992). 

This trend has only grown. Karan Johar has often used Diwali as a point of reference in his films. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was famous for its lavish Diwali celebration which also marked the return of the prodigal son, Shah Rukh Khan, to the Raichand household. In Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein (2001), Diwali signalled the union of the three young couples, and the victory of love over orthodoxy. 

Over the years, the importance of the festival in storytelling has been reduced. However, it continues to have a stronghold on box-office strategy. Many filmmakers view the long holiday and the festive mood as a good time to release their films. Karan Johar, Ajay Devgn, Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar have released some of their biggest films over Diwali.

Johar's latest, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which is filled with colour, celebration, love and heartbreak, has found an eager audience. It is proof that Diwali still carries the promise of a big bang for Hindi films.