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Regional pride

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

That lurid pink cover, couples in garish clothes and the title were very inviting. I dug into Avijit Ghosh’s Cinema Bhojpuri gleefully. I have enjoyed his writings on non-Hindi cinema, especially from North India, for many years now. That, however, is not the only reason this book is welcome. Bhojpuri is now emerging as one of the most important languages in the business of media and entertainment. But there is very little written material on it. So, it is nice to see a book from someone who has tracked this genre.

Ghosh, a senior assistant editor with The Times of India, takes you through the beginnings of Bhojpuri cinema right from the time the first film was conceptualised. Nazir Hussain, who most of us will remember as the priest in Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony, produced India’s first Bhojpuri film — Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo (1962). It all began because of a meeting that Hussain had with the then president Rajendra Prasad at a film function in Mumbai. Both discovered that they were Bhojpuri-speaking and bonded. At some point in the conversation, Dr Prasad asked Hussain why he didn’t make a Bhojpuri film and Hussain, who had always wanted to do it, decided to give it a shot.

Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo is a rural tale of love and sacrifice set firmly in the local milieu, with folk songs and music from the region. It went on to become a silver jubilee success, grossing Rs 75 lakh. It also became a symbol of regional pride, says Ghosh. It was followed by Bidesiya (1963) and Laagi Nahin Chute Ram (1963).

Their success caused a stampede of sorts among producers, many of whom came from Kolkata or Mumbai. Between 1962 and 1966, a total of 19 Bhojpuri films were released. Most were family dramas or mythologicals rooted in the cultural milieu of Bhojpuri-speaking people. This was, according to estimates, less than half of the 50 films announced in that period.

Through the book, Ghosh keeps firmly on track of every film made, the reasons, the crew the directors and producers. His research is deep, wide, impeccable and full of delicious little nuggets. Like, did you know that Nadeem-Shravan, the composer pair that was such a big hit in Hindi films during the nineties, actually began with Bhojpuri films? They composed the music for Dangal (1977), the first Bhojpuri film in colour. Or, that it was on the music of the 1981 hit Dharti Maiya that music composers Anand-Milind first cut their teeth as assistants to Chitragupta?

Ghosh goes through the early years, the slump years and the recent rise of Bhojpuri cinema diligently, and the research remains good throughout. I emphasise this because any good book on films in India requires tremendous amounts of primary research (read footwork). It means finding the right people and talking to them. There is no data, no single source available on the history, evolution of business or the dynamics of large swathes of the film business. So, Ghosh must have really spent a lot of time tracking the sons, daughters, nephews or business associates of the people who had made Bhojpuri films.

The book is clearly a labour of love for Ghosh who has spent his teenage years in Arrah, a small town in Bihar’s Bhojpur district, and has grown up watching these films. That is why it has an honesty that is refreshing. Nowhere does Ghosh try to intellectualise Bhojpuri cinema or judge it. Nor does he make it sound like some grand social experiment was happening. The book is just a matter-of-fact read that tells the story of the birth and existence of Bhojpuri cinema.

In some ways, it is also one of the reasons why the book falls short of expectations. It is too much of a chronicle; some perspective might have been nice. It could have been in the first chapter before the history begins or somewhere towards the end.

At over 240 million, Bhojpuri-speaking people form half the Hindi-speaking audience in India. But so far there was precious little media that addressed their needs. Bhojpuri cinema’s boom in the last few years led to the launch of a Bhojpuri channel, Mahua, in 2008. Most major broadcasters are now planning one. It is, in fact, the growth of Bhojpuri cinema in the last five years that has pointed out the flaws in the multiplex-led growth of the Indian film industry.

And just like Hindi, Bhojpuri works across various parts of Europe and Asia where second and third generation migrants still speak the language. The Netherlands, for example, has one of the biggest concentrations of Bhojpuri-speaking people in its Surinamese minority. This is another market for Bhojpuri films. While Ghosh touches upon some of these things, here and there, the big picture remains hazy.

Having said that, the book is worth a read. Especially if, like me, you want to know about Bhojpuri cinema. You won’t find much else on it.

Avijit Ghosh
Penguin India
208 pages; Rs 399

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First Published: Thu, June 24 2010. 00:23 IST