When you’re reading the Introduction to an anthology, certain words can set off alarm bells. For instance, an editor’s claim that he wanted his collection to be “eclectic” is sometimes shorthand for “I didn’t want to spend much time on a careful selection process. Pretty much anything I found went in.” If you merely flip through the Contents pages of The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood – with 37 pieces divided under such headings as “The Stars”, “The Music and the Music-Makers” and “Ringside Views” – you might be tempted to level this charge at Jerry Pinto.
Once you get down to reading these excerpts, though, you're reminded that few people know the pulse of the true Hindi-movie enthusiast better than Pinto does; there’s little arguing with his claim that these pieces jointly reflect Bollywood’s “all-inclusive, opportunistic, outward-looking” identity. Were the subject of this book anything else, it would be difficult to imagine a reader who would be equally interested in two essays as tonally different as Susmita Dasgupta’s scholarly “The Birth of Tragedy” (in which Amitabh Bachchan’s career arc from rebellious anti-hero to symbol of order is discussed in terms of Dionysian and Apollonian values) and Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s shabbily written and edited trifle “Marrying Hema” (sample sentence: “This was the time when Dharmendra went out of his way to explain it to the industrywallahs, that people was reading more than they are expected to”). But a full-blooded lover of Hindi cinema can embrace both these pieces, and the many others that fall somewhere in between.
This assortment of previously published writings includes Kishore Kumar’s brilliantly surreal 1985 interview to Pritish Nandy (“I tried to dig a canal all around my bungalow so we could sail gondolas there...Why can’t I hang live crows on my wall?”) and R K Narayan’s almost equally surreal account of his experience as an irrelevant onlooker during the filming of his novel The Guide (“I began to realise that monologue is the privilege of the filmmaker, and that it was futile to try butting in with my own observations”). Mukul Kesavan’s essay on the “Islamicate” roots of Bollywood (“Urdu didn’t simply give utterance to the narratives characteristic of Hindi cinema, it actually helped create them”) rubs shoulders with Naresh Fernandes’ poignant journalistic feature about a real-life Anthony Gonsalves and other Goan musicians who had an impact on Hindi-film music. Javed Akhtar discusses screenplay-writing in an engrossing interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir, and in a short story by Salman Rushdie we meet a rickshaw-wallah with Bombay dreams. Khushwant Singh is mildly haughty about Bollywood stars while Bhisham Sahni describes his brother Balraj (today acclaimed as one of Hindi cinema’s first great actors) having to shake off his stiffness before the camera.
Most of the pieces mentioned above are very well written, but in other cases literary quality is beside the point. And on at least one occasion, banal writing is the point: the “Fiction” section includes a dreary excerpt from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s novelisation of Raj Kapoor’s film Bobby, which (going by Pinto’s note accompanying the piece) seems to have been included to demonstrate how flat such an endeavour can be compared to the actual experience of watching the movie. Reading the excerpt, I couldn't help recall Rishi Kapoor's expressive face register embarrassment, mild alarm and anticipation in turn during the birthday-party scene, and the words on the page seemed clunky and inadequate in comparison.
It’s natural to read such a collection in fragments rather than linearly, and this allows one to discover, in quick succession, essays that provide contrasting takes on the same person or incident. Thus Madhu Jain notes that “people forget Lata Mangeshkar was a sensual being and not just a disembodied, ethereal voice” (and that “she was the only woman to make Raj Kapoor dance to her tunes”), but Ashraf Aziz in “The Female Voice in Hindustani Film Songs” suggests that “Lata’s laundered voice appeals to the spirit rather than the senses – she infantilized the female voice”. And as if that weren't enough, Dada Kondke presents a pleasingly improbable view of the singer as Annie Oakley. (“Placing the gun on her shoulder and looking at the reflection in the mirror, she started drilling more holes into the tin can”.) But what the pieces reveal about their authors is often equally striking: note how a respected writer like Saadat Hasan Manto can display a bitchy and voyeuristic side when writing about a Bollywood figure (in this case Sitara Devi, portrayed as a sexual predator constantly sucking the life-blood out of the men who came under her spell).
Some of the excerpts are from high-profile publications such as Anupama Chopra’s Sholay book (the chapter that begins with the frisson-creating “Sholay flopped”), but there are also little treasures that you’d be hard-pressed to find in print these days. One of my favourite inclusions is from Vinod Mehta’s 1972 biography of (and unabashed fanboy ode to) Meena Kumari, which suggests a rare form of intelligent yet personal writing on popular Hindi cinema that I had little idea existed at the time; it made me want to rush to a rendezvous with Mumbai’s raddiwallahs (which is where Pinto got the book from). I particularly enjoyed the way Mehta refers to the deceased actress as “my tragedienne” and “my heroine”. Anyone who has ever had similarly proprietary feelings about a Bollywood star or film will find The Greatest Show on Earth hard to resist.
[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review. An old post about Pinto's book on Helen is here]