Sunday, November 27, 2011

History of a forward-looking studio

[Did a version of this for the Sunday Guardian]

Hindi-movie buffs have many reasons to be grateful for the production house Navketan, founded in 1949 by the Anand brothers Chetan and Dev – the former an established director who had won an award at the inaugural Cannes festival, the latter on his way to becoming one of Indian cinema’s best-loved leading men. Without the breezy unselfconsciousness of this studio’s best films, its refusal to get too mired in ideology – and, of course, Dev Anand’s urbane and upbeat star persona – 1950s Hindi cinema might have been suffocated by quasi-realist social dramas filled with tragic heroes and martyrs, and by a limited idea of what “Indianness” had to mean.

“In the 1950s filmmakers were involved in the ‘national project’, which inevitably involved the village in some form or the other,” writes journalist-author Sidharth Bhatia in the Introduction to his book Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, “But the urban world of Navketan, created by the sensibility of the Anands, was as much about the Indian reality… The difference lay in the fact that their early films looked at urban India in an entertaining rather than a disaffected way.”

Personally, when I think of the early Navketan films – such as Baazi or Taxi Driver – and compare them with the more overtly socially conscious cinema of the period (some of the work of Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy, for instance), I’m reminded of the critic Manny Farber’s distinction between Elephant Art and Termite Art: the latter (especially relevant to high-quality genre films) doesn’t self-consciously set out to make a strong statement but creates something meaningful and abiding through an accumulation of fine talents jointly doing their best work. It bears considering that while Dev Anand wasn’t taken too seriously as an actor in his own time, some of his early performances hold up better today than the work of more highly regarded dramatic performers. And the genre films directed by his prodigiously talented younger brother Vijay – Jewel Thief and Teesri Manzil among them – have a fluidity and cinematic assuredness that was often overlooked because of their lack of “serious” content.


As you can guess from its title, Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story is a history of this studio and its films. It’s a terrific-looking book, full of rare photographs and stills, but it sits – sometimes uneasily – on the ridge separating coffee-table publications from conventional, text-driven histories. The research is efficient, the writing lucid, but there is also evidence of the Repetition Malaise that hits so much of our non-fiction: on many occasions, exactly the same thought is expressed multiple times, with only minor changes in word arrangements. To take just one offhand example, the section on Taxi Driver finds different ways to provide identical information about Sylvie the dancing girl (also referred to as “Sylvie the Anglo-Indian dancer” and “the dancer Sylvie”, all within the same three or four pages). She “goes with clients to the Taj Mahal Hotel, the unattainable bastion of the upper classes” and “she likes to spend time at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the watering hole of the city’s elite”. Plot synopses do tend to be vulnerable to such repetition, but it isn’t all that hard to avoid. I also thought it a little puzzling that almost every reference to Dev Anand (and there are hundreds, as you might imagine) uses his full name. Given the book’s candid tone, a simple “Dev” might have sufficed.

On the positive side, I was glad that Bhatia doesn’t pass off every Navketan film as a classic; he is frank about what he regards the failures, and also about Anand’s embarrassing post-1970s directorial ventures. (“The treatment of the women was often gratuitously voyeuristic; the scripts were shoddy and the plotlines thin.”) But the principal mode is that of casual, one-line judgements – a limitation probably imposed by the book’s format. Of the early film Afsar, he says (having watched just the surviving three reels), “the overall effect is stagey and immobile”. He writes disapprovingly of the 1951 Aandhiyan that it “was shot in dark overtones”, that it “was unrelieved by any lightness” and that it “was designed to make you think” – as if these things in themselves make for a poor movie. Reading this, one would almost conclude that the good Navketan films were mindless entertainments that followed a fixed formula (and that is far from the case).

Which means that as a history this book is a passable addition to the meagre literature on popular Hindi cinema. The best things about it are the photos and the posters: I particularly liked the delightful illustrated advertisements for Afsar, the stills from lesser-known movies like Humsafar, and the shots of Dev Anand and Nutan from Tere Ghar ke Saamne, but you'll have a good time picking your own favourites.


  1. Hi Jai,

    I had heard of Siddharth Bhatia attempting this book while I was researching my own book on Sahir.

    I'm happy that his effort has come to fruition!


  2. I can't imagine my teenaged kids sitting through any of the RK films. But we watch Tere Ghar Ke Saamne every few months (on VCD) and everybody loves it. It's well made, very funny, and very real too. It's also a very Delhi film. The two fathers/families are different types and both are familiar

  3. Personally, when I think of the early Navketan films and compare them with the more overtly socially conscious cinema of the period, I’m reminded of the critic Manny Farber’s distinction between Elephant Art and Termite Art

    Yeah. Haven't seen the early Navketan films. But yes. White elephant is an apt description of RK films. Poor man's white elephant I'd say! With no shades of grey.

    I was watching Anthony Mann's The Tall Target today. The epitome of Termite art. A magnificent noir set in the 1860s that deals with a failed assasination attempt of Abe Lincoln. A thriller on the surface, the film is full of pithy exchanges that tell us what a complex issue abolition of slavery was! Hardly a simple Good (Union) vs Evil (Confederacy) episode as painted in our history books.

    I suppose such "modest" termite films won't last over a couple of weeks in the public mind in India! Leave alone immortalising them as classics.

    Wish we had critics like Scorsese amongst us who can uncover lost genre treasures from the 40s/50s. Do films worth uncovering exist even?

  4. The film Guide is another perennial favourite from Navketan - Dev Anand is in his element and coupled with an exquisite Waheeda and great songs, the film is entertaining to this day. My personal fav for Dev Anand though is Bambai Ka Babu, which, I suspect, is not a Navketan film.

  5. My first introduction to what I later came to know as film noir was through the Navketan film Baazi.Perhaps it would be interesting to track down the first Hindi noir movie.
    I did not see most of Raj Kapoor's films as "overtly" socially conscious, but then its just a POV.
    Manreet, Yeah, BKB is a terrific movie.Its a daring choice for a romantic leading man of the clout of Dev Anand, and very boldly directed by Raj Khosla.

  6. I did not see most of Raj Kapoor's films as "overtly" socially conscious

    Rahul: well, I did say "more overtly socially conscious cinema" - more than the Navketan films, that is. But I get your point.

    Shrikanth: think you're being slightly uncharitable to the RK films. His best early work is often very inventive cinematically; you can even see some of the boyish enthusiasm for the techniques and possibilities open to him that one associates with Orson Wells' "I felt like a boy with a toy-train set" quote. But yes, some of the ideology-driven stuff doesn't hold up too well.

  7. Manreet: need to see Bambai ka Babu. Have to admit my feelings about Guide have been slightly muddied by reading R K Narayan's sardonic account of its making, but no question that the Hindi version is a very high-quality film in its own right.

  8. we watch Tere Ghar Ke Saamne every few months (on VCD)

    Anon: I hope you meant "DVD"? Something pops in my head every time I read the word VCD. Having said that though, the prints of these old films are in such bad shape that it probably doesn't matter.

  9. Not to belabor the point, Jai, but what is the "ideology-driven stuff doesn't hold up too well"?
    To me, R K films movies like "Boot Polish" or "Jaagte Raho" which do not fit well into the popular mainstream paradigm, were not necessarily ideology driven, and both of them hold up very well to me.

  10. what is the "ideology-driven stuff doesn't hold up too well"?

    Rahul: this is the second time you've omitted a key part of my comment (in this case "some of the"). Even when (in my view) parts of *some* RK films suffer from self-conscious social commentary, I'm definitely not condemning the films as a whole. And what I mainly had in mind was the slightly romanticised, rose-tinted view of the underdog in some of his films.

    And of course - as you point out in your earlier comment - it's fine for us to feel differently about how well these films hold up.

  11. Why the RK hate? He was one of our first auteurs, after all :-) Anyway, the movies are very much a product of our Nehruvian times, but the music makes it timeless. Btw, the Los Angelese County Museum of Art is showing Aware next month - A brand new print too, courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival. 2 days later they are showing It Happened One Night, which I think is very apt (as is most of Capra's work from that time, having some thematic & philosophical similarity to RK's early work).

    Btw, back to the original post, I am glad that these books are at least being written though a more rigorous analysis of Navketan films would have probably made me fork out the cash for the book. Question for Jai & any other readers here - what are your top 5 or so books about Indian cinema?

  12. Jai, my apologies.:)
    Tipu, have you seen Raj Kapoor's Chori Chori? Its "inspired" by It happened one night and of course, the other similar movie, Roman Holiday.
    Agree with the Capra comparison. RK did have a similar empathy for everyman as Capra.Agreed again about the "Nehruvian times" thing, also probably he was influenced by the neo realist movements of the West.But I don't think he had any serious ideological leanings, though he did have a long association with KA Abbas.
    In my opinion, his "slightly romanticised, rose-tinted view of the underdog" was part of his attempt to appropriate the Hindi cinema template of melodrama and escapism with a John Doe story, with a more pan Indian appeal than his contemporaries.
    I am reminded of Vittorio De Sica's atypical Miracle in Milan. To me, its best viewed as what it appears to be,a breezy magical realist fairy tale, with the age old template of David vs Goliath, an everyman taking on and succeeding against the powers that be.

  13. as is most of Capra's work from that time, having some thematic & philosophical similarity to RK's early work

    Except that Capra made better films. It Happened One Night is FAR more entertaining and a far more compact narrative than the turgid Hindi remake, which is harmed by its unfunny comic reliefs among other things.

    Awaara for better or worse, is the prototype of the Bollywood melodrama in my opinion. All the melodramatic devices that characterise most Bollywood flicks from the 50s to the 90s can probably be traced back to that film. I doubt if any other film anywhere else in the world has had as much influence on mainstream cinema as Awaara

  14. I did mean VCD. We've had it for over 10 years. Maybe I should get the DVD, but as you say, it won't make much difference.

  15. Bollywood yesterStars must now be dreading to find a mention here, boss. 2011 is one year when the ready-to-kick-the-bucket tribe is willing to take any bad omen seriously. Wait for a month before you write about any Bollywood actor above 50 :)