Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Why so cautious? A response to a piece about film literature

[Wrote this for the Daily O]

In this piece published by the Daily O yesterday, literary agent Kanishka Gupta makes hard but pragmatic observations about the Indian publishing industry and about aspiring writers. Some of these observations are general ones, but since the piece is specifically about film books, he mentions that these don’t sell in large numbers; the benchmarks for bestseller status in this category are very low.

That sounds puzzling, given the passion for cinema in this country, but it may have to do with the fact that we don’t have a particularly evolved attitude to good popular cinema, or to good writing about cinema. Many professional film reviewers either endorse movies in the most superficial terms, in cliché-ridden 300-word pieces (“it’s good entertainment if you leave your brains at home”, “four stars for the acting, three stars for direction”), or sit on a pedestal sneering at everything mainstream, making little effort to engage with what they are watching – and then winning brownie points for their “sharp” and “clever” writing. And what is true at the level of reviews holds at the book level too. On the one hand there are academic books meant for a very particular, circumscribed market; on the other, flippant little things that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. (A few years ago a couple of big-name publishers were falling over themselves trying to quickly “produce” a book about AR Rahman when his Oscar nomination for Slumdog Millionnaire was announced; of course, the idea was that the book would be ready for publication by the time the awards were announced!) Accessible yet intelligent writing about cinema is still in short supply – though that has been changing to a degree, with the top publishers now showing a little more discernment in their choice of writers and approaches.

Gupta mentions the big market for tell-all star biographies. That makes intuitive sense – of course a book with Salman Khan’s or Deepika Padukone’s face on the cover, with the promise of juicy, previously unpublished tidbits inside, has greater sale potential than a sombre-looking biography of a less glamorous figure. I would add a caveat, though. My experience, having done two cinema books with big publishers, and also having spoken with other authors of film books, is that marketing is often muddled or indifferent to begin with. Two years after my book about the 1983 comedy Jaane bhi do Yaaro came out, a restored print of the film was released by the National Film Development Corporation. This was after a longish period when this well-loved film had been very difficult to find in stores, so there was naturally lots of publicity and much celebrating. One would think it would be in a publisher’s interests to contact stores such as Crossword and Landmark, and get them to do something as basic as display the DVD and the book together (assuming it was too much trouble to tie up with the NFDC for a DVD-plus-book package).

It didn’t happen, of course. And I confess to my own indolence in not trying hard enough to make it happen (after sending out a couple of emails making the suggestion). I was happy with the feedback I had initially got for the book; I didn’t spent time worrying about sales; everything good that happened – the reviews, the royalty cheques for tiny amounts that still drift in once or twice a year – came as a pleasant, unlooked-for bonus. And it was only with hindsight that I realised that more could have been done: that the marketing people who arranged 4 pm meetings with me at Café Coffee Day (that’s a good time, 4 pm – it lets you leave office early “for an official meeting with an author” and go straight home afterwards) and made impressive sounds about “leveraging social media” and “looking at new avenues such as film festivals” didn’t bother to follow up on most of their claims.

Anyone who has worked in publishing knows that such missteps are part of the grand dance. However, I also had a problem with a couple of Gupta’s points. He is upfront about not knowing much about cinema, but this raises a question that is important to me as someone who does care about films and film writing: how much value can a literary agent dealing with all sorts of books bring to a field that he isn’t personally invested in? Wouldn’t this inevitably result in pandering to a conservative view of what the readership is like, what a “worthy” book might look like, what will sell and what won’t? And we see signs of this near the end of Gupta’s piece, where he says:

“I was reduced to tears when a journalist of S's stature started suggesting names such as Joydeep Mukherjee, Mithun Chakraborty […] And horror of horrors, even Bappi Lahiri!”

I was taken aback by that paragraph, because here is a bit of sneering about people who are presumably too slight or not “important” enough as subject matters for a (good/successful) book. But as the critic Victor Perkins wrote once, “The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject.” A great book can be written on any topic, the same way that a terrible book can be written about an "important" personality like Satyajit Ray. The execution is what matters.

For example, the 1960s actor Joydeep (Joy) Mukherjee is the least well-known, certainly the least fashionable, of the three names that Gupta mentions, but I could easily imagine a book about him – by a hardworking writer – that would not just be about Mukherjee in a narrow sense but would also provide a fascinating window on the Hindi film industry of the 1960s, as well as an examination of that elusive thing called stardom: why did this affable leading man never make it to the heights that, say, Manoj Kumar or Jeetendra did? What does that say about our film-going culture of that specific period, about our expectations of star personalities, about us as viewers?

Again, what is so "horror of horrors" about a book on Bappi Lahiri? There are a dozen different ways in which an insightful – or just plain funny – book could be written about this most flamboyant of music directors. But the biggest surprise on that list is Mithun Chakraborty, because here is a hugely interesting subject to begin with: someone who could be convincing in a Mrinal Sen film AND in Disco Dancer (how many other actors could you say that about?), and was seen as a genuine contender for Amitabh Bachchan's throne for a couple of years in the mid-80s, before he took the route that led to Kanti Shah and to a very profitable and shrewd career in C-movies. A book about Mithun, well done, could be a microcosmic study of Indian cinema; it could tell us much about the workings of, and the interplay between, the various grades of cinema in this country.

More alarm bells at the very end of the piece, when Gupta scoffs at the idea of doing a book about a mere “technician” (who, given the little hints in the piece, might well have been someone as notable as Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer). All I can say to this is: it's a pity if film writing in India hasn't reached the stage where a literary agent would feel comfortable midwiving a book of that sort. In other countries with large moviemaking cultures, there are dozens of accessible books on every aspect of the filmmaking process, not just on the most instantly recognizable actors.

Possibly I’m getting idealistic now, and possibly Gupta’s intention was only to discuss what is likely to become a bestseller. But his piece also left me with the nagging sense that an agent, even while ruing the many (undeniable) problems in the publishing industry, can become part of the problem. By falling in too easily with the assumptions of a system that has fixed expectations of writers and the market, and needs books to be clearly classified.


  1. How did that guy get his job? I had to re-read the line just to make sure I read it correct where he says the only thing he knows about Satyajit Ray is his oscar acceptance speech and that he has never seen any of his films! This guy is the literary agent for film books!!

    1. No, he's a literary agent for all sorts of books, not specifically film books. But maybe there needs to be a bit of specialisation. Anyway, to be frank, I'm not convinced that many agents (or even some editors in publishing houses, for that matter) are very engaged "readers". Mostly it seems to be more about the "pitch" and the "peg" than anything else.

    2. I agree with your observation, Jai. When I started my career in publishing a few years back, I was surprised that many editors don't read for pleasure. Since publishing in India is largely disorganized there are no set requirements for anything, but I would still assume a love for books would be necessary for an editor as well as an agent. There is certainly a gap between agents and editors too, based on what sells which rises mainly from the fact that books are just seen as products. I, for one, would love to read an interesting book on Bappi Lahiri for instance...

  2. I am in the midst of Stewart O' Nan's West of Sunset right now, a book that looks at early 40s Hollywood from the PoV of Fitzgerald struggling as a script doctor for hire. And I can't help wishing there were similar books that use Hindi cinema as a background to talk about a time or a place, books where facts and journalism mix with imaginary stories. Imagine one about Manto's connection with Indian film for instance.
    On another note, I think there are readers for ALL kinds of books and content in India. The challenge is finding them- something that the 4 o clock marketing managers should be doing a better job of .As someone who greatly enjoyed your book on JBDY, I wish there were MORE good books about films, not less, and that is why this piece by Kanishka Gupta seems misguided

  3. I may sound like a preacher but I guess at best India is only getting there to becoming a literate country and is decades behind being an educated country. That is the reason people behave like this about the written word. Of course, in a country of 130 crore people, the number of people who appreciate writing may well be more than in a European country, but these folks are so scattered that it is near impossible for anyone in the business of selling the written word to approach them. They may try but I wonder if it will make them rich. To be rich, they stick to hopelessly tried and tested formulas.

  4. I posted under the article. but maybe there is some issue with the site and I cannot see the comments. Pasting it here

    A very nice read. For one, ours is a country where documentation has been , at best, the least of our priorities. In the west, there are dozens of books on very average film makers and musicians. I recall having seen a "World This Week" episode where one of the topics was dedicated PhD programs on the work (and the musical structure) of Elvis. (I never thought that the music of Elvis mandated any kind of dissection, as it was mostly the same, but that's entirely a personal pov). In our country, there have hardly been any original thoughts on these lines, which in turn, has made life difficult for writers like us. With none interested, original thinking leads you nowhere. This can never be a full time occupation. Maybe just a hobby where you spend like hell from your pocket but expect not to earn anything apart from some respect, among the brickbats which are hurled at you by wannabe writers and armchair experts.

    Next comes the issue of sale-ability. In spite of being a 1000 million country, our readership for non-fiction is yet to reach the 5 figure mark. We have failed to create a culture where reading is encouraged. Why reading, I have written scripts for musical shows and I have been told, categorically, to keep the content as little as possible, as the junta would like to hear the songs and not hear the story behind them. And I am not talking of technical aspects which interest me most; just plain, simple stories.

    Also, most of the work which we do are unfunded. Except publishing houses like Oxford , where the intent is to encourage basic research, no publisher would be interested in investing in something which won't appeal to the mass.

    Is there any solution? I feel there is. Film and music education / appreciation is something that we, as a country, deserve, right from school levels. And yes, I do not mean the kind of courses rolled out as "Film studies / appreciation" where film making is made to sound like an extension of literature and the student is judged by his / her command over the English language. I mean courses which are technical / analytic in nature and actually can help students understand the science behind film-making. Not just the art.

    Similar thoughts about music too. Majority of music lovers who claim to understand music often confuse between good lyrics and good music. Something which hardly has any overlap.

    (I also find that most books on film-makers / music personalities read like an anthology of superlatives, an assortment of stupid interviews, and a total absence of library work, leading to bloopers galore. Cannot blame the publishers always. :D )