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Starry-eyed about Bollywood

Jai Arjun Singh 

To begin with a minor quibble, the “Indian” in this book’s subtitle is slightly misleading: this is a collection of essays on iconic Hindi-movie performers. But there are larger problems with this anthology. Given that its subjects are screen legends who have had an immeasurably complex influence (for better and for worse) on the lives of countless fans, it would be reasonable to expect personal, passionate writing. Instead, one gets an odd mix of second-hand reporting with throwaway observations on films that deserve to be written about with much more enthusiasm.

Here, from S Theodore Baskaran’s essay on Nargis, is an example of what I mean: “In the Middle East played to packed houses. T J S George, Nargis’s biographer, points out that the duet in the boat scene was one of the best love scenes of her career. Her appearance in a bathing costume was pointed out as one of the highlights of the film. Apart from Prithviraj Kapoor, other cast members included Leela Chitnis and Shashi Kapoor.”

Many of these pieces veer between being chatty and intimate and also trying to be comprehensive in a by-the-numbers, encyclopaedic way. But in the Wikipedia age, I’m unsure what value there is in listing most of a performer’s movies with two or three trite sentences about each of them. And when you do commit yourself to providing such information, the fact-checking has to be exemplary. Instead, there are many careless errors: to mention just two, we are told that by 1954 “a whole new generation of actresses like Asha Parekh, Sadhana and Saira Banu had appeared on the scene and the era of colour films was also ushered in” (this is off by roughly a decade) and that Prithviraj Kapoor was over 30 years older than Suraiya (22, actually).

When several instances of indifferent writing and editing pile up in a book, it’s a reminder that film literature in India is often treated flippantly even by those who have a deep level of engagement with cinema. I often hear the defence that essays about mainstream Hindi films should be as accessible and egalitarian as the films themselves are. But in the same way as there are good Manmohan Desai films and bad Manmohan Desai films, there are good and bad ways of writing about popular movies and movie stars. (For a sample of intelligent, engaged writing in this vein, see Mukul Kesavan’s marvellous essay on Dharmendra, available online.)

Such a varied collection will inevitably have a few high points too. The pieces on K L Saigal and Devika Rani (by Vikram Sampath and Cary Rajinder Sawhney, respectively) make at least a perfunctory effort at a narrative structure. Jerry Pinto’s Waheeda Rehman essay combines thoughtful analysis with lightness of touch. Shefalee Vasudev’s piece on Madhuri Dixit, though overwritten in places (“Hema Malini was the ultimate dream girl and Rekha sensational, but Madhuri — oh, she was something else. An incidental sum total of desirable parts of moh [allure] and maya [illusion]”), does try to examine the evolution of a star persona against the background of a changing movie-going culture.

I didn’t envy the task of the writers saddled with a really big superstar whose career has played out (wholly or partly) during the media explosion of the past decade, but Sidharth Bhatia and Namrata Joshi do a decent, professional job on Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). Bhatia’s observation that the young Amitabh “was an angular personality”, easily cast in edgy or villainous roles, led me to contemplate an alternate universe where the actor might have made an adequate career playing intense second leads of the sort he did in the early films Gehri Chaal and Parwana. And Joshi’s piece on Shah Rukh includes some intriguing thoughts on the private persona versus the public one, and on the cracks that have been appearing in a once-secure image (the essay was written before SRK’s recent brawl with Shirish Kunder).

Also enjoyable is Avijit Ghosh’s wry dissection of the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon. At one point, Ghosh writes of Khanna’s decline: “With half Rajesh’s acting ability, one-third his waistline and four times the discipline, Jeetendra comfortably ensconced himself as the director’s favourite for weepy socials or mindless entertainers made down South.” This is a sample of the irreverence that comes with being a fan (the attitude that goes “these stars belong to us, we can say what we like about them”) — more of it could have made Bollywood’s Top 20 a better book.

More typical, alas, is the last paragraph of the Madhubala piece — a quote by Manoj Kumar in 2008, when the long-deceased actress had a stamp issued in her honour. “There can only be one Madhubala in one century,” Kumar said, “Every time I would see her, my heart would start singing ghazals.” This would be a moderately acceptable way to end the essay, but the quote continues: “I am happy and want to thank the [postal] department for their initiative.”

Yes, THAT is the closing sentence of a piece about one of Hindi cinema’s most ethereal stars! It says something about the peculiarly distant, uneven tone of this book and the sloppiness of its editing.

Edited by Bhaichand Patel
Penguin India
279 pages; Rs 599

First Published: Fri, March 02 2012. 00:38 IST