Thursday, March 01, 2012

On Bollywood's Top 20: a collection of oddly impersonal essays

[Did this review of Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema (edited by Bhaichand Patel) for Business Standard. It’s another example of a book I would prefer not to have written about - and the exasperation and lack of interest probably comes through in the piece]

To begin with a small quibble, the “Indian” in this book’s sub-title is slightly misleading: this is a collection of essays – by different writers – on iconic Hindi-movie performers. But there are larger problems with this anthology. Given that its subjects are screen legends who have had an immeasurably complex influence (for better and for worse) on the lives of countless fans over decades, it would have been reasonable to expect some personal, passionate writing. Instead, much of it lacks warmth and has a mechanically journalistic tone.

Some of the pieces do begin in a way that suggests they will be firsthand accounts of a writer’s interest in a movie-star. (“When I was invited to write about Madhubala, I was delighted,” says Urmila Lanba, “Madhubala is one of my favourite actresses; my sister and I were only allowed to watch one movie a month and I recall we never missed her films...”) What usually follows, though, is a mix of gossip, second-hand reporting (with long quotes taken from various sources) and throwaway remarks on films that deserve to be written about with much more enthusiasm. Here, from S Theodore Baskaran’s essay on Nargis, is one example of what I mean:
In the Middle East [Awaara] played to packed houses. T J S George, Nargis’s biographer, points out that the duet in the boat scene was one of the best love scenes of her career. Her appearance in a bathing costume was pointed out as one of the highlights of the film. Apart from Prithviraj Kapoor, other cast members included Leela Chitnis and Shashi Kapoor. Helen, then an unknown junior artiste, made an uncredited appearance.
The paragraph is stilted and dull in ways that are too obvious to mention, but as a reader I would also have been interested in knowing what Baskaran himself thought of Nargis in those two scenes rather than learn what other people have “pointed out”.

It’s possible that I’m falling into the old trap of reviewing the book I wish had been written instead of the one that actually was. But my main objection is unevenness of tone: many of these essays veer between being chatty and casual and also trying to be comprehensive in a by-the-numbers, encyclopaedic way. In the Wikipedia age, I’m unsure what value there is in listing most of a performer’s movies with two or three trite sentences about each of them. And when you do commit yourself to providing such information, the fact-checking should be exemplary. Instead there are many careless errors. To mention just two, we are told that by 1954 “a whole new generation of actresses like Asha Parekh, Sadhana and Saira Banu had appeared on the scene and the era of colour films was also ushered in” (this is off by roughly a decade) and that Prithviraj Kapoor was over 30 years senior to Suraiya (22, actually).

That might sound like nitpicking, but when many similar instances of indifferent writing and editing pile up in a book, it’s a reminder that film literature in India is often treated flippantly even by those who engage deeply with cinema. I sometimes hear the defence that essays about mainstream Hindi films should be as accessible and egalitarian as the films themselves are. But in the same way as there are good Manmohan Desai films and bad Manmohan Desai films (how many movie buffs would put Ganga Jamuna Saraswati in the same league as Amar Akbar Anthony?), there are good and bad ways of writing accessibly about popular movies and movie-stars. (For a sample of intelligent, engaged writing in this vein, see Mukul Kesavan’s essay on Dharmendra.)

Of course, it would be silly to claim that there are no high points in such a varied collection. The pieces on K L Saigal and Devika Rani (by Vikram Sampath and Cary Rajinder Sawhney respectively) read smoothly because they make at least a perfunctory effort at a narrative structure. Jerry Pinto’s Waheeda Rehman essay characteristically combines thoughtful analysis with lightness of touch. Shefalee Vasudev’s piece on Madhuri Dixit, though overwritten in places (“Madhubala was mesmerising, Waheeda Rehman engrossingly attractive, Hema Malini the ultimate dream girl and Rekha sensational, but Madhuri – oh, she was something else. An incidental sum total of desirable parts of moh [allure] and maya [illusion]”), does take the trouble to examine the evolution of a star persona against the background of a changing movie-going culture.

The writers whose subjects had relatively short careers are at an advantage, since their pieces lend themselves to more focused analysis (in writing about Meena Kumari, for example, Pavan Varma can devote a generous amount of space to her key role as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), but I didn’t envy the task of those saddled with a really big superstar whose career has played out – wholly or partly – during the media explosion of the past two decades: what more is there to say about Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, for instance? Still, Sidharth Bhatia and Namrata Joshi manage a decent, professional job on these two subjects. Bhatia covers well-trodden ground (including Bachchan’s much-analysed shift from the Angry Young Man battling the system to “the settled establishment man” over the past decade), but his observation that the young Amitabh “was an angular personality”, easily cast in edgy or villainous roles, led me to contemplate an alternate universe where the actor might have made an adequate career playing intense second leads like he did in the early films Gehri Chaal and Parwana. And Joshi’s piece on Shah Rukh includes some intriguing thoughts on the private persona versus the public one, and on the cracks that have been appearing in a once-secure image (the essay was written before SRK’s much-publicised brawl with Shirish Kunder).

Also enjoyable is Avijit Ghosh’s wry dissection of Hindi cinema’s headiest, most enigmatic superstar phase – Rajesh Khanna’s dominance in the early 1970s. At one point, Ghosh writes of Khanna’s decline: “With half Rajesh’s acting ability, one-third his waistline and four times the discipline, Jeetendra comfortably ensconced himself as the director’s favourite for weepy socials or mindless entertainers made down South. Rajesh could only watch the water flow.”

This is a sample of the irreverence that comes with being a fan (the attitude that goes “these stars belong to us, we can say what we like about them”). One also sees it in the cheeky ending to Bhaichand Patel’s own (otherwise unremarkable) essay on Ashok Kumar – a reference to Kumar’s affair with Nalini Jaywant and the speculation that they “might have bumped into each other on their evening walks” in their old age.

More of this sort of thing could have made Bollywood’s Top 20 a better, more intimate book. More typical, alas, is the last paragraph of the Madhubala piece – of all things, a quote from Manoj Kumar in 2008, when the long-deceased actress had a stamp issued in her honour. “There can only be one Madhubala in one century,” Kumar said, “Every time I would see her, my heart would start singing ghazals.” This would be a moderately acceptable way to end the essay, but the quote continues thus: “I am happy and want to thank the department for their initiative.”

Yes, THAT is the closing sentence of a piece about one of Hindi cinema’s loveliest performers. Manoj Kumar is happy! He congratulates the postal department! It says something about the peculiarly distant tone of this collection and the sloppiness of its editing.

P.S. the accompanying CD of songs helps make up for some of the uninspired writing, but given this book’s cover price I thought it was naughty of Patel to describe it as “a free disc” in his Introduction.


  1. The book is bad, as you say, and still it is priced at about 599 bucks! Any comments on that?

  2. Anon: haven't I commented enough on the book? What more can I say? Easy enough to see why it's so highly priced - they probably figured it would be some sort of must-have/collector's item for people who love some of the stars in it (and who doesn't?). Plus there's the "free disc".

    Anyway, at least 80 percent of the material in this book is available for free online (and written with roughly the same skill).

  3. By "material" I meant information.

  4. A mediocre book about mediocre films and filmmakers.

    Suits everyone.

  5. Oh, I think its some sort of a marketing strategy to have priced it higher.

    Where do you think the writers did the research from, and where should have they done it from, in order to make the book better (if possible, quote specific sources).


  6. "Anon: haven't I commented enough on the book? What more can I say?" LOL!

  7. Uh, if there are more than one Anonymice here (or even if there aren't), it would be useful if you could each pick a proper moniker - makes this less confusing.

  8. Its me, the first anon. (Alok Saxena).

    I had posted the question:

    Where do you think the writers did the research from, and where should have they done it from, in order to make the book better (if possible, quote specific sources).

  9. Alok: no idea how the research was done, but that isn't really what I was thinking about when I read the book. Better research alone wouldn't have made this a much better book (in my view).

    What I'm basically saying is: 1) For a subject like this, it might have been a better idea to have personal essays on a writer's feelings about a particular performer (intense fandom, ambivalence, shifting feelings over time, or whatever). Such essays wouldn't be driven by research anyway, though of course some basic factual information would have been required, and 2) Even if the brief was to do encyclopedia-like profiles, many of the pieces could have been better written and structured.

    Just one small example: in the piece on Kareena Kapoor, after a couple of references have already been made to her older sister Karisma, comes a sentence – "Kareena, who counts Nargis, Meena Kumari, Sharmila Tagore, Karisma Kapoor and Kajol as her influences..." – that reads like it has been taken from the pages of a hurriedly written magazine profile. There's nothing wrong with the research in this instance, but would it have been so difficult to substitute "her sister" for the penultimate name on that list?

  10. Ohh but I heard a colleague praising it!!

  11. hey Jai - loved that line on Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra...ha ha ha been thinking and laughing on it...i actually wanted to ask you, what's your take on Rajesh Khanna? I know it is something can't be explained in one reply, but still...the guy did work in off beat films, did more than i think any super star (i think the count of off beat films he has done is more than Bachchan's count)

  12. The closing sentence of the Madhubala chapter made me guffaw!!! great post as always

  13. The "weepy socials" bit seems to run in the family, does it not..

    Ominous, certainly, but if it hadnt been Ekta Kapoor it might have been someone else.

    Perhaps, a few years down the line, someone will probably pen a few lines on that insufferable clique that "balaji telefilms" is turning out to be... with any luck, deathless viewing might make for matchless prose.

    Oh hum .. back to season two of "the walking dead" for now.