Growing up in England in the 50s, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s weekends were committed to watching Hindi films.
At 12, Kabir had a serendipitous encounter with actor Dilip Kumar in Hyderabad, a star she fancied immensely.
These early experiences predetermined Kabir’s calling as a chronicler of contemporary Indian cinema. “NRIs are taken in with Indian films because you don’t feel alien anymore. Shah Rukh represents home,” said Kabir, who is in Mumbai for the launch of her book The Dialogue of Mother India: Mehboob Khan’s Immortal Classic.
The book presents the film’s complete dialogue in Hindi, Urdu and Roman scripts and is a third of its kind.
“No one questions a Shakespearean text because theatre is considered an art form, but it’s not so with film. This documenting of Indian cinema is not a sexy sell but has hard substance and is necessary,” said Kabir, who has previously published the dialogues of Raj Kapoor’s Awaara and K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.
“I started research in early 80s, a time before DD started screening Hindi films. Access to the industry was easy because there was no queue behind me. Today the demand on these people’s time and over-exposure has diminished their star value.”
Her subjects include masters such as Guru Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Javed Akhtar, Helen, Shammi Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Shah Rukh Khan. The documentary filmmaker also produces an annual season of Indian films for Britain’s Channel 4.
Kabir rues the lack of footage on stalwarts like Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Guru Dutt. “They were history makers who shaped the heart and poetry of Indian cinema. Today, cinema is like an open tap and most of what flows out is junk. The only way to legitimise the subject is to write about it.”
She says quality and purpose should drive the interest in chronicling Indian cinema. “If you interview Saif Ali Khan, don’t ask him where he and Kareena (Kapoor) will club at night. Ask him how he built his character in Omkara. Actors reveal themselves through their work and that is what is remembered,” Kabir said.
The London-based author is planning a book of conversations with A.R. Rahman, a dialogue book on Sholay and a Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy film. “I suppose I am an insider because I choose to work deep and not wide.”