Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jessica and the little bee (a B in her bonnet?)

Call me slow on the uptake but it took me a long time to get a fix on Jessica Hines’s Looking for the Big B: Bollywood, Bachchan and Me. I was reading on, puzzled about where this book was headed, and it was page 253 (of 286) and the author was still going on about how “I have to start writing this baby, with or without the help of the Almighty Amitabh…at this rate the first draft should be done by Christmas”.

That was when it hit me. This isn’t a biography of Amitabh Bachchan, a serious attempt to examine his legend or a dissertation on modern Bollywood. It’s a book about Hines attempting to write such a book but eventually giving up and opting to write about herself instead. This is meta-fiction taken to an elaborate new level.

It’s also self-indulgence on such a vast, unapologetic scale that you can’t help but be impressed. We live in an age of opinion pornography where everything is about the expression of the self; where the idea of Objective Truth is more brittle than it has ever been before; where millions of us monkeys are banging away on keyboards around the world, putting our experiences and views on the Internet. But even by those high standards, the narcissism on display here is awe-inspiring. The book jacket (including spine and back cover) has six photos of Amitabh Bachchan and one of Jessica Hines. It should have been the other way round. And the “Me” in the sub-title should have been in a font size 40 points larger.

Hines, who did an M.A. in Film Art at the BFI, is best known in India for her controversial affair with Aamir Khan a few years ago. If you decide to read this book for whatever reason, take one thing as a given: she’s on air-kissing terms with many people who matter in Bollywood. Don’t bother about the whys and hows, just accept the name-dropping interludes.

The first half of Looking for the Big B isn’t bad; Hines really does make a stab at looking for the Big B. She speaks to Shobha De, Yash Chopra and Shashi Kapoor, among others, though rarely gleaning anything that could be considered a major insight (with Kapoor, you get the impression that she’s really collecting notes for a future book about him). There’s a nice pen-portrait of Prakash Mehra, the director of Bachchan’s star-making Zanjeer, now fallen on bad days. And she spends vast amounts of time with the Big B himself, accompanying him to location shoots, having numerous meals with him, watching films with him, tiring him out with wacky questions and comments, introducing him to her publisher.

Hines has a decent turn of phrase and makes a few interesting points about Bachchan's career: about his natural flair for action scenes, for instance (discussing Bombay to Goa, made in his pre-stardom days, she notes how he transformed from awkward “cheeky-chappie hero” to an assured, focused leading man once the fight scene began). There are also some cutting observations about Bollywood and its audiences, such as this one about the failure of Silsila, based on AB’s real-life affair with Rekha:
Silsila was not a success. It was almost as if they had all decided to give the public what it appeared to want. The endless stream of gossip had reached a torrent by this time; surely a film about it would go down a treat? But of course no one likes to be confronted with their own snoopy behaviour. It’s fun to twitch curtains and make judgements from afar, but really embarrassing to be presented with someone’s underwear drawer and told it’s okay to rifle through it.
Things promise to get exciting when Rekha agrees to talk to her (don’t miss the surreal phone conversation between them – it’s on page 180, so you can leaf through it quickly at a bookstore), but the interview fizzles out, and by this time so has the book. Amitabh vanishes for long stretches and what we get instead is Life of Jessica, written in tedious dear-diary style. Jessica doing yoga, Jessica in a beauty parlour, Jessica battling mosquitoes in the Pune Boat Club, Jessica flirting with a butler, Jessica in a luxurious suite in Dubai’s Burj hotel, imagining that the huge mirror above her bed is beaming videos of her to some website. (This is ironic, because the book itself is a part-exercise in exhibitionism.) Jessica being affectedly cute, self-deprecating and witty in turn, going out on a limb to make herself as likable as possible, hopping from one foot to the other behind Amitabh as he unsuccessfully tries to make her an omelette (don’t ask).

In scattered passages – too few, unfortunately – Looking for the Big B does provide a fresh, startlingly candid view of Amitabh Bachchan. One wouldn’t have thought this possible, given how ubiquitous the man has been in our lives in the last three decades (and especially in the last few years, with the overexposure jading even his most devoted fans). But Hines has the advantage of the outsider’s perspective; she doesn’t bear the burden of adoration that the average Indian does, and this in turn seems to make her subject more relaxed when he’s in her presence. She speaks of Bachchan with an offhand flippancy that we haven’t encountered before in thousands of pages of magazine articles and books; it’s almost as if she were – perish the thought – describing a Regular Guy. She writes of him fixing her in a stare that’s “a cross between a monitor lizard and Paddington Bear”. Trying to make small talk with him when he’s broody and closed, she says, “is like trying to convince Mr Kurtz to leave the jungle”. In the more inspired passages of this sort, she gives us the unlikely spectre of a smaller-than-life Amitabh, watching her balefully, trying to figure out how he ever got involved with such a nutcase.

On the rare occasions that Looking for the Big B works, it’s because of this demystification: the novelty value comes from the way Hines takes the Star of the Millennium, the cynosure of a billion pairs of eyes, and coolly turns him into a supporting player. The problem – and it’s a big problem, one that prevents the book from achieving any lasting worth – is that the lead role isn’t played by someone more interesting.

(An earlier post on the Ubiquitousness of Amitabh here)


  1. You really are quite generous Jai. How nice of you to see positive things in this terrible book. I personally even found her "insights" to be little more than mildly interesting observations that anyone who isn't familiar with Bollywood could easily have made.

    And that upbeat, perky, "look at me" style of writing was really irritating.

  2. A cross between a monitor lizard and a paddington bear...

    I remember watching either on travel and living or ndtv about this hotel that let you broadcast yourself from their top floor suite... but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Burj... and the guy was broadcasting yoga videos to the rest of the hotel's guests...

  3. Have u ever read Desmond Young's standard biography of Rommel?
    It tells you a lot more about Young's buggering around North Africa and Stuttgart than about the Desert Fox. And, dare I suggest, Rommel was a far more interesting guy than Bacchan?