Friday, August 30, 2019

Other cinemas, other cineastes: on Namrata Joshi's Reel India

[Did a version of this review for Mint Lounge]

“Mera cinema meri muhim hai (My cinema is my campaign),” a writer-filmmaker, trying to raise ecological awareness through his largely self-funded work, is quoted as saying in Namrata Joshi’s Reel India. Elsewhere, a collector of vintage radios – and a fan of old film songs – remarks “Haddiyan boodhi ho rahi hain (The bones are aging)” – he is talking about both himself and his prized collection, which might decay and be forever lost if someone doesn’t recognise its value and take care of it.

This is a very wide-ranging book – sometimes too wide-ranging and diffused for its own good – and as such, different things in it will appeal to different sorts of readers. For me, its true heart lies in its chronicling of magnificent obsessions like the ones quoted above: the obsessions of people who live outside the cinematic mainstream (or what city-dwellers think is the mainstream) but engage with films in myriad ways, not seeking monetary benefit but doing things because they are compelled to; because cinema is so central to who they are.

Other such subjects include “Hamraz” of Kanpur, who spent decades putting together an exhaustive five-volume compilation of data on Hindi-film songs – resisting the apathy of publishers, even using up the leave travel allowance he got from the bank he worked in. Or the Lucknow-based Joe Vishal Singh, whose devotion to Shah Rukh Khan far transcends the usual clichés about people worshipping movie stars. (Singh, who has rechristened himself Vishahrukh and turned his house into a giant shrine to the star, is a living representation of unconditional faith – no matter if his idol doesn’t acknowledge his presence.)

There is Nasir Sheikh – “the Dadasaheb Phalke of Malegaon” – who began his town’s now-famous tradition of spoof films, from Malegaon ke Sholay to Malegaon ka Superman. There is a physician whose haveli has become a favourite location for recent shoots, and who has himself “become a cameo specialist”, making appearances in films like Tanu Weds Manu and Bullet Raja – a man and his house, both poignantly enshrined through their appearance in a movie. There are also collectors of memorabilia – lobby cards, portraits, 78 rpm records waiting to be digitized – and people who dally with fame by sending in scores of requests to radio stations.

Though Reel India has an overriding theme – encapsulated in its subhead “Cinema Off the Beaten Track” – it is best appreciated as a collection of discrete essays or vignettes, which combine reportage with commentary, and vary in quality. Some chapters – e.g. “Small towns on big screens” – offer reflections on a few films that fit a broad category, but the better essays centre on individuals and places, allowing Joshi’s journalistic strengths to come to the fore. We learn of spaces with offbeat connections to cinema, such as the shop where the adolescent Naushad once tuned harmoniums. We see how low-profile cinema can aid the survival of endangered languages, identities and sub-cultures, or raise awareness about predatory corporates. 

There is much here for the trivia-buff (what is the “Life of Pi of Garhwali cinema”? Who is the biggest star of Jharkhand cinema, or Jhollywood?) and there are evocative images: a Bhopal teeming with John Abraham lookalikes; a Bollywood go-to man in a small town trying to snatch lizards off the walls of his own home for a scene; screenings organised in the mukhiya’s house in a Bihari village, with bedsheets stitched together to create a makeshift screen – and the small audience expressing approval and disapproval, interest or boredom, in much the same way that savvier viewers do all over the world. (Elsewhere, there is an account of students who have never before been exposed to international cinema talking enthusiastically about shot-taking and symbolism after watching Bicycle Thieves or The Seventh Seal for the first time.)

Almost by default, Reel India is also a kind of India travelogue, which looks at the subtle differences between people and places in different parts of the country: how, for example, the less demonstrative populace of a particular region tends to be more disciplined and non-intrusive during film shoots. But equally, how these varied places, each with its distinct socio-political concerns, can engage with each other through popular culture: how a web-series like Mirzapur, so apparently north Indian in its ethos, may share the DNA of violent Madurai films; how urban and rural worlds can merge, and radical ideas co-exist with conservative ones.


Joshi's chatty, conversational style – one of the appealing qualities of her feature writing –lends itself well to this subject matter, but there are times when the line between casualness and carelessness gets blurred. There are typos and grammatical errors (Lucknow becomes Luck in one place – and no, that wasn’t intended), unrelated streams of thought flow into each other without para-breaks; at times there are superfluous details (in a brief reference to Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, we are parenthetically told not just that the film was remade in Hindi as Dhadak but also that the latter starred Ishaan Khattar and Janhvi Kapoor… and that Kapoor is the daughter of the late Sridevi) while at other times, information is provided in a slapdash manner. Occasionally I got the impression that the book was rushed into production before the author was fully ready, or that some material drawn from old feature stories hadn’t been fully integrated into the larger narrative.

However, these are problems of form, most of which will hopefully be remedied in a later edition. (It’s no secret that very little copy-editing of any note takes place in Indian publishing these days, and this seems especially true of cinema titles – perhaps because publishers assume the target readership won’t be concerned with anything as trivial as an elegant sentence.) For the reader who can ignore this and concentrate on a book’s content and informational value, there is – as indicated above – much to appreciate here.

Most of all, Reel India invoked a feeling of sheepishness in me, being a reminder that despite being a movie nerd, there are many aspects of the film-going experience I am cut off from. Though I lament that movie-watching has become sterile in an age of smartphones and streaming, I also plead guilty to having always lived in south Delhi and having rarely gone to movie halls in the pre-multiplex decade – much less having ever thrown coins at the screen. Reading this book is to realise that my love for dialoguebaazi and dhishoom-dhishoom, for ornate song sequences set to Laxmikant-Pyarelal scores, for the sort of “masala” that we are taught to be ashamed of these days, amounts to a form of urbanite posturing when compared to the true worshippers (or sachhe aashiq) whose stories Reel India is so full of.

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