Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eena Meena Deeka, a patchwork on Hindi-film comedy

Literature on popular Indian films is still so scanty and unorganised, one tends to be grateful for any book that puts some information together, however patchily. And so, the first thing to be said about Sanjit Narwekar’s Eena Meena Deeka: The Story of Hindi Film Comedy is that it contains some decent trivia, especially from the earliest days of Hindi cinema. Even the keenest movie buffs have little or no firsthand knowledge of such comic pioneers as Dixit and Ghory (“the Indian Laurel and Hardy”), Noor Mohammad Charlie(!), Bhudo Advani and V H Desai, which means that the first few chapters of this book have some value as research; literary merit isn't too relevant.

Some of the chapters about specific personalities work fairly well as short profile-essays. In “The Reluctant Comedian”, Narwekar reminds us that Kishore Kumar’s multiple talents sometimes made it difficult for him to concentrate on any one skill, and that comedy was a genre he stumbled into while yearning to become a playback singer. “Play it Again, Johnny!” begins with an anecdote about a bus conductor-cum-raconteur named Badruddin Jalaluddin Qazi who so impressed one of his passengers (the actor Balraj Sahni) that he was invited to join films and given the name Johnny Walker. And “The King of Comedy” examines the phenomenon of Mehmood, who became such a show-stealer that regular leading men were reluctant to appear in films with him.

There are flashes of insight in all these sections (and no shortage of movie stills), but there is hardly any fleshed-out analysis. For example, I wish a little more space had been given to one of the paradoxes of Kishore Kumar’s career – that although he was one of our best-loved movie personalities, there were few takers for some of his most ambitious jaunts into full-blown absurdist comedy (as in the 1974 film Badhti ka Naam Daadhi). Instead, Narwekar hurriedly describes Kumar’s impromptu solution to a continuity problem (he inserted a shot of himself sitting in the director’s chair and telling viewers “I decree that this scene will now continue with different costumes”) and concludes that the idea proved to be “too zany for the conventional audience”. (This same assertion is repeated two paragraphs later.)

In any case, the book’s dominant mode is that of the paragraph-length mini-review: short write-ups on comedy films (or films that can loosely be classified thus, such as the lighter work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chaterji) with plot synopses and a few superficial observations. Little attempt is made to analyse the use and impact of comedy in these works, there are
factual errors (the song used in Jaane bhi do Yaaro is not “Saare Jahan se Accha”, it’s “Hum Honge Kaamyaab”), and the careers of outstanding actors like Deven Verma and Utpal Dutt are summarised in a few sentences.

I suppose the thing to be said in Narwekar’s defence is that he’s taken on a giant canvas: to do justice to eight decades of Hindi-movie comedy (along with the hundreds of major and minor talents who worked in the genre), this would probably have had to be a multi-volume series, with more than one author. As it stands, it’s a just-about-adequate reference work.

[Did a version of this for my weekly books column]


  1. Like the old font. Times New Roman suddenly seems difficult to comprehend. :-(

  2. Have you also reviewed the same author's Dilip Kumar Biography? -

    If you have not then could you please do that too. Thanks.

  3. Dafatanly: sorry, I don't do reviews on request!

  4. Hope there's something on IS Johar - don't see enough on him anywhere. He's by far my favourite Hindi film 'comedian'.

  5. I really liked the article, and the very cool blog