(Continued from here)
One thing I’d really like to see in 2010 is a big improvement in our film-related literature. What’s badly needed in this field is writing that’s accessible yet intelligent, personal yet written with some rigour and background knowledge.
Most of our movie writing tends to fall into either of two extremes. On the one hand there are heavily academic, almost willfully abstruse books, guaranteed to chase off even the most engaged reader; on the other hand, booklets that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. The result: shoddy writing, indifferent editing and abysmal fact-checking – all by-products of the need to quickly throw books together for a mass readership.
The lack of basic discipline can be embarrassing. Take a biography of Shyam Benegal, one of the key figures in the “New Wave” of Indian cinema in the 1970s. It looks well-produced enough from the outside, but open it and you discover an episodic work that doesn’t even pretend at narrative coherence. Inserted randomly into a section about Benegal’s early life is an autonomous mini-chapter comprising laudatory quotes (presented in ugly, visually jarring italics) from various people about the director. A recent book about Om Puri – an actor who deserves to be the subject of more than one well-written biography – similarly throws information haphazardly at the reader. Typos proliferate: the contents page even manages to spell Ardh Satya, a seminal Indian film and one of the most important in the actor’s career, as Ardh Staya. (More about this sort of thing in an old post about Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History.)
I suppose one shouldn’t really be surprised, given the attitude to movie reviewing in the country – starting with the minuscule space available for film reviews in our mainstream media. Given just 300 words to work with, even the most skilled writer can’t do more than make a cursory evaluation and give “marks” to each of the major elements of the film: acting, direction, music, script. At any rate, it’s assumed that the star rating is what the “casual reader” is really interested in; who has the time or attention span to read even a 300-word piece?
Which brings me to a troubling question: is this a case of a society getting the film literature it deserves? I’m tempted to answer yes when I overhear people (including people in my own house) animatedly discussing movie reviews in the most superficial terms. (If their assessment of a film conflicts with the reviewer’s, the only possible explanation is that he was “paid off” – either by the producer of the film or by the “rival camp”. And why do these writers deal in such big words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, they ask, if they chance to encounter a reviewer who really knows how to use the language and articulate complex ideas. Why can't they simply tell us if the film is Good or Bad?)
But I like to think the general situation can improve, if publishers provide the right support. (That’s a big, big “if”.) A start of sorts has been made. HarperCollins is currently doing a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, and the involvement of such writers as Anuvab Pal (he’s doing the book on Disco Dancer, which I’m really looking forward to), Meghnad Desai (Pakeezah) and Vinay Lal (Deewaar) is good news. (Full disclosure: I’ve recently finished my own contribution to the series, though I have no idea when it will see the light of day.)