There have been some nice, flattering reviews of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book recently, such as the ones by Jerry Pinto in The Indian Express (this was a special thrill) and by Gautam Chintamani in Mail Today, but the most entertaining one by far is this relentlessly negative one by Khalid Mohamed. Read and enjoy.
I suppose I should be glad that he took the trouble to go through the book closely. I also know full well that when an author responds to a negative review, he is automatically in a disadvantageous position: open to charges of being thin-skinned, petulant and so on. But since I am, first and foremost, a critic myself - and very invested in the basic tenets and disciplines of criticism - I won’t let this pass without making a few observations on strictly factual points:
1) “The thesis advanced by Jai Arjun Singh is that the master filmmaker was amazingly simple and honey-sweet.”
Nope. Not even close. I have repeatedly pointed to the complexities, contradictions and insecurities that one finds in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s interviews and statements, and the glimpses one gets of inner demons - in his attitude to his own work and his much less than “honey-sweet” feelings about the state of the world. And “simple”, “innocent” and “honey-sweet” are words I have always found a bit problematic as descriptors of his cinema as well.
2) "In any case, why pull down Shakti Samanta and Asit Sen?”
Which... I haven’t done. (Though I personally find HM’s work more stimulating than theirs.) All I said was that those directors seemed more comfortable with the tropes of the emotional social film and with melodrama than Hrishi-da was. (And I don’t use "melodrama" as a pejorative.)
3) Now this bit is magnificently reductive:
"For Singh, the airplane ending transporting Mili and the man she loves to a doctor in Switzerland suggests that her 'beemari is nothing more than the fact that she is single, that she hasn’t been completed yet by having a man in her life. No wonder the film ends with the hope that she might be cured.’ In other words, being single means being incomplete. And that’s not all. It’s suggested that the flight to the Alps could well morph into a honeymoon.”
I was being ironical in that passage - raising a hypothetical reading in order to refute it - and the very next line after the bit quoted by Mohamed is “Do I REALLY see the film in those terms? No.”
4) Referring to a couple of places where I have quoted from his old reviews of Hrishi-da’s films, Mohamed writes:
"I don’t have any quarrel with being quoted, even if it’s without the basic courtesy of being consulted.”
Basic courtesy? Really? You wrote something, it’s in the public domain now, and it’s fair game for any subsequent writer to quote from it as long as he provides the right attribution and doesn’t misquote or present something misleadingly out of context. (You know, the way Mohamed misrepresented my remarks on Mili above. Now THAT would be a problem.)
More than that, though, I’m amused at how Mohamed seems to think I have designated him a “strident beastie”, whatever that might be. I won’t offer an elaborate defence here, but anyone who’s interested: just go to the book’s Index, locate the two Khalid Mohamed references, take a look at what I have said on those pages, and then judge for yourselves.
For the record, and I have said this to friends often: I actually have high regard for some of the writing Mohamed did in the 1970s and 80s, at least whatever little I have encountered in magazines and archives. His 1983 review of Jaane bhi do Yaaro, for instance, was so sharp. Those fine old pieces make for a very worrying contrast with his output of the past 15 or so years (just one sample of which is here), and I think his career arc as a writer is a good caution to any talented young writer/critic who may be in danger of getting complacent or lazy or pompous over time.
P.S. the Bawarchi-Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference is from a passage that very specifically sets itself up as a farcical/April Fool-ish joke. Also: if a woman "falls at a man's feet" in a particular scene in a film, no, that does not automatically make the film itself regressive (though many critics, even today, seem to think it does); it could simply be an honest depiction of what a certain person from a certain milieu might do in a certain situation. A filmmaker's responsibility is to be truthful to his story and his characters, not to be "progressive" in a ham-handed way. But I’ll stop here...