Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Up above the world so high...

One of the many pleasing things about Hindi cinema’s multi-starrer culture in the 1970s was the phenomenon of the “And Above All” in the title credits. This was fuelled by ego clashes and by a general tendency to fawn and mollycoddle: when two or more stars were equally popular and had been in the industry for around the same length of time, who would get top billing?

Such insecurity wasn’t peculiar to Bollywood, of course. In his book Tracy and Hepburn, Garson Kanin observed: “Billing appears to be as important as breathing to some actors and actresses. Important films with ideal casts have fallen apart on this issue.” Old Hollywood came up with inventive methods to keep prima donnas happy – for example, two names might be lettered in the shape of an “X” so that neither star could be said to have taken precedence. (If “Humphrey” was placed above “Ingrid”, at least “Bergman” was above “Bogart”.)

But in our movie industry “Above All” was the preferred solution, and if that failed it was always possible to proclaim a “guest” or “friendly” appearance – even when the actor in question had a substantial role. For a good example of title credits gone awry, I offer you Raj Kumar Kohli’s magnificent horror film Jaani Dushman, about a werewolf-like Shaitan with chest hair that would make Anil Kapoor look like the Glaxo baby.

The film’s title sequence begins well enough with straightforward “starring” credits for Sunil Dutt, Sanjeev Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha (the hierarchy of seniority being apparent enough in this trio), but then things get murky. The next credit has Vinod Mehra with a parenthetical “Special Appearance” next to his name, almost as if he were reluctant to get too deeply involved. Likewise Rekha and a bevy of starlets including Neetu Singh, Bindiya Goswami and Sarika (all playing village belles ripe for abduction). But doing a solo number in the middle of all these special appearances is poor Reena Roy, whose name appears without any qualifiers at all. Possibly her agent failed to read the fine print?

Then comes a “Guest Artists” series – Yogita Bali, Aruna Irani and suchlike – followed by one of the more intricate credits I’ve seen:

And Above All
(Special Appearance)

And so it goes. Briefly, here is a movie whose opening titles could be the subject of a thesis. (You can see them halfway through this video, but to get there you’ll have to watch
Amrish Puri reading “The Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories” and making a monstrous transformation. The scene gives new meaning to the phrase “that book made my hair stand on end”.)

Come to think of it, Jeetendra had quite a romance going with special titles; his “Above All” billing in The Burning Train conjures images of the actor sitting mournfully by himself on the roof of the train compartment while the rest of the cast travels in comfort. (Alas, the credits of this film were so preoccupied with the male stars that they turned the luscious Parveen Babi into a man by spelling her name “Praveen”. Unforgivable.)

In that awful decade commonly referred to as the 1980s, some films exhausted all their creativity within the opening five minutes. Watching something called Do Qaidi on TV, I discovered the title “Dynamic Appearance by Suresh Oberoi” imposed on a still of the thus-honoured actor (who played a fairly inconsequential part in the film). What, one wonders, were these performers and their families thinking as they watched preview screenings? Did little Vivek Oberoi beam with delight when he saw daddy’s name appear on the screen? Did he tell himself, “I’ll grow up and become a movie star too, and then everyone in the whole wide world will call me Dynamic Vivek?” If so, think of the human tragedy unleashed by five words that appeared ever so briefly in a long-forgotten film. It gives new meaning to Larkin's verse about man handing on misery to man.

P.S. Here is Kanin on the subject of Spencer Tracy’s name always appearing before Katharine Hepburn’s in the films they did together:
Tracy’s position as a Metro superstar meant that there was nothing to discuss [...] It was always “Tracy and Hepburn”.

I chided him once about his insistence on first billing.

“Why not?” he asked, his face all innocence.

“”Well, after all,” I argued, “She’s the lady. You’re the man. Ladies first?”

“This is a movie, chowderhead,” he said, “not a lifeboat.”


  1. Hilarious, insightful, liked this article. The idiosyncrasies of cinema.

  2. There is an interesting story on how Steve McQueen backed out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because of credit issues with Paul Newman. They had come up with a compromise of having their names on the same page - but diagonally opposite (lower left and upper right corners of the screen).

    The negotiations didn't go through and Redford was cast instead (and the roles reversed - Newman was going to play the Sundance Kid originally).

    Years later the same credit strategy was used when Newman and McQueen were cast in the Towering Inferno.

  3. Hansda: indeed - or the idiocies!

    Anshumani: interesting, didn't know about that. McQueen was one of the world's biggest box-office draws in the late 60s (when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was made), but Newman was several years senior - maybe that's where the conflict lay.

  4. In South India, the lead star (always male - the women are usually there to dance in a couple of numbers, be the villain's daughter/niece/ granddaughter/best friend's daughter etc., confess that they have a "cresh" on the hero, get kidnapped and finally saved and happily married) gets a special credit to himself. It is never simply "Starring" - that's too blah for them.

    Rajnikanth gets one minute to himself, as the alphabets making up "Superstar Rajnikanth" appear on the screen one-by-one, in Tamil and then in English. Similarly for Vijay, the title "Ilayadalapathi"... "Megastar" Chirajeevi, Too many examples - from Kannada and Telugu also.

  5. Harsha Bhogle had written somewhere about this when Ganguly was selected as an "all-rounder" for the Pakistan tour 2005-06. It's as if they couldn't find anything befitting... :D

  6. As always, enjoyed the read too much. Thanks, Jai saar.

  7. For everyone here, the full list:
    Nishi Presents
    Shankar Movies
    Jaani Dushman
    Sunil Dutt
    Sanjeev Kumar
    Shatrughan Sinha
    Vinod Mehra, special appearance
    Vikram, special appearance
    Premnath, special appearance
    Rekha, special appearance
    Reena Roy
    Neetu Singh, special appearance
    Bindiya Goswami, special appearance
    Yogita Bali, guest appearance
    Neeta Mehta, guest appearance
    Aruna Irani, guest appearance
    Shobhini Singh
    and above all
    Jeetendra, special appearance

  8. I love these too - how fun it would be to collect them!

    I often wonder what the children of 70s and 80s stars thought when they saw their parents' movies and love imagining young Ranbir Kapoor stumbling across Rafoo Chakkar and its fabulous cabaret song on late-night tv....

  9. I remember reading somewhere that Nargis insisted on getting top-billing in her films with Raj Kapoor. Not sure if that's true, but would love it if it was. :-)

  10. always.
    @hansda: yes,hilarious and insightful are the words
    @anshumani: thanks for adding zing to this discussion with your info
    @aanthirtyeights: we get to see southern films dubbed on local channels..and yes, rajini's intro is always the most 'above all' kinds

  11. @anshumani, that reminds me of a hilarious exchange that I read on a blog.I can't find it so quoting from memory -
    Blog entry was about the sexual adventures of McQueen with female and male costars! It alleged that McQueen had sex with Newman.

    Random Commentator 1 : I find that highly doubtful concerning the acrimonious exchange between them regarding the credits of Towering Inferno.
    Random Commentator 2 : No, I think its completely logical,referring to their carnal liaison, that both of them wanted to be on the top!

    Incidentally, "Above all" in this context conjures up the unsettling vision of an orgy..

  12. Incidentally, "Above all" in this context conjures up the unsettling vision of an orgy..

    Yes, if you look at that Jaani Dushman poster the shaitan seems delighted at the prospect of an eleven-some with Sunil, Shatru, Sanjeev, Jeetu, Neetu, Rekha, Bindiya, Vinod, Premnath, Amrish and Reena. What a radical film.

  13. Oooh, I luuuuuuurved Jaani Dushman. I think that the furry costume changed in size, so you could figure out who the next "possessed" hero was based on how stocky or lean the monster looked. Hmm, such a pity bechara Raaj Kumar didn't get to act in a film that so celebrated his favourite word.

  14. such a pity bechara Raaj Kumar didn't get to act in a film that so celebrated his favourite word.

    Radhika: ha! I think he would have taken the Method acting approach and refused to wear the costume - opting to "internalise" the character instead.

  15. >>he would have taken the Method acting approach and refused to wear the costume

    Hah, if you see him in this clip at 6:19 and 6:38 you'll see he had no need of fake hairy costumes at all

  16. Radhika: ow! oww! my eyes! What are you doing to me?

    Couldn't stop wishing for a passionate love-making scene between Raaj Kumar and Shatru at the end there!

  17. The heading instantly reminded me of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" :)

  18. Mariah: yes - it's meant to do that.