Meet the people who live and breathe Bollywood
It’s sometime in the late ’80s. A whole nation is tuning in to Doordarshan to catch the Sunday evening Hindi film, Aradhana, a tale of a secret romance, a woman’s sacrifice and a son’s reunion with his mother. All threads of the story tie into a neat little bow at the end. For one young boy in Kolkata, however, one question remains: What is that book Sharmila Tagore is reading on the Darjeeling-bound toy train as Rajesh Khanna sings Mere sapno ki rani from the open jeep alongside? His mother has told him it’s a novel by Alistair MacLean, but she’s not sure which. A quest is born.
Over the next few weeks, the boy heads to the video parlour, rents the tape and painstakingly tries to hit pause at just the right moment for a glimpse of the title. It’s still too grainy! But he can make out the cover – a helicopter and a man in a diving suit. It’s enough to take him to a library and look up their row of MacLeans. Book by book he checks until he finally finds it – When Eight Bells Toll. Is it any surprise that Diptakirti Chaudhuri, the boy in question, grew up to write an exhaustive book on Bollywood trivia and one about screenwriters Salim-Javed? He’s one of a legion of film enthusiasts now sharing their treasury of information with the world.
Point of origin
In many ways, Bollywood buffs are the same as film enthusiasts anywhere. They’ll watch and rewatch movies, memorise key dialogues and obsessively track an actor’s or director’s oeuvre. But where American fans obsess over the Star Wars’ extended universe, Tarantino gunfights, and superhero cosplay, Indians can go many steps further. Jaipur IT professional Pavan Jha specialises in everything Gulzar. Such is his passion that when the lyricist-filmmaker was unable to recall a particular detail during an interview, he responded, “Ek minute, main Pavan se pooch leta hoon”.
Shishir Krishna Sharma, a Mumbai bank employee focuses on mid-’40s to mid-’60s films on his blog Beete Hue Din. Delhi-based author Madhulika Liddle’s blog Dusted Off offers analyses and quirky lists based on pre-’70s cinema, while Delhi’s Bobby Sing – named after the Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia blockbuster, which came out the year he was born – revels in the details on his blog Bobby Talks Cinema. The site also lists over 900 examples of Hindi films ‘inspired’ by foreign ones. And Mumbai’s Amborish Roychoudhury, whose book In A Cult of Their Own comes out this year, finds himself seamlessly enchanted by regional films, fringe cinema, high-brow classics and corny blockbusters.
Most buffs started out the same way, in a pre-liberalisation era, when films were the great escape. Kids would complete homework in time for Sunday evening TV. Some would listen to Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharti, furiously scribbling down lyrics. Others would accompany film-crazy mothers to afternoon shows. Many got hooked just via dialogues. Jha credits his fascination for Gulzar to the dialogue tape of Anand, which he’d play every day for months as an eight-year-old: “It made me see that the film’s star was neither Rajesh Khanna nor Amitabh Bachchan, but the dialogues.”
Some were lucky. “My uncle was a musician with Filmistan during the ’50s and ’60s, working in major films like Mahal and Pakeezah, and my father was a fan of old films,” says Liddle. Others, not so much. Sing’s school hours overlapped neatly with two sneaky back-to-back afternoon screenings at the local theatre. “My parents would have to explain to my teachers why I was so frequently absent, especially on Fridays,” he recalls. “Then came a point, when on Fridays, the teachers wouldn’t bother calling out my name at roll calls.”
They grew up, amassing collections of magazine articles, vinyl records, tapes and books, quizzing through school and college, little realising how much they already knew. And then, by the turn of the century, the Internet changed everything. “It just got everyone together on the same level,” says Chaudhuri. Jha recalls watching Agneepath every day for three straight months with another Bachchan-smitten cousin. With the Web, it was possible to discuss Vijay Deenanath Chauhan with 40 fans in 40 small towns and to find, as Liddle puts it, “die-hard fans of a particular director, actor, singer, composer or lyricist, who had devoted their lives to researching them, sharing their results for anyone to discover”.
Sharma, who’d been writing nostalgia columns for newspapers since 2001, was one of those people whose interviews and research on old-time film studios found a new audience on a blog. On Beete Hue Din, visitors from anywhere in the world can stumble upon the fact that S Balbir, who sang Ye desh hai veer jawanon ka, was murdered in the ’70s by his family in Punjab or realise that Mora gora ang lai le is not, in fact Gulzar’s debut film song. “He had already penned around 10-12 numbers in earlier films, including for two action movies, under the pen name Gulzar Deenvi,” Sharma says.
Some discoveries were wholly unexpected. “I remember watching a club song from an early Dev Anand movie,” Liddle recalls. “Someone in the comments had written that the dancer in the song was their grandmother!” It was a bonanza for geeks of all kinds, but especially for film buffs. “With movie trivia, half the information is already in your head,” says Roychoudhury. “But like a jigsaw puzzle, it only makes sense when you find other bits and pieces.”
Connecting the dots
Putting together that puzzle takes effort. Sing, like the others, draws on his own memories of films, and also trawls old magazines, documentaries, biographies and interviews with those connected with the films. Chaudhuri, who rewatched several films for his Salim-Javed book, finds that re-examining films back-to-back reveals common phrases, ideas, even plots. He’s looked through HT’s library for reviews from the ’70s and ’80s, and spent “many happy afternoons” at the National Film Archive of India, in Pune. “But what excites me the most is going through the credits,” he says, “It’s where you discover that Nawazuddin Siddiqui was in Munnabhai MBBS, credited as Nawaz. Or Neeraj Ghaywan had a bit role in Gangs of Wasseypur.”
For every pre-’70s film she’s watched over 20 years, Liddle maintains a “detailed spreadsheet, listing cast, main crew, synopsis, list of songs, awards, trivia, etc”. She’s also drawn on her father’s memories of his brother’s career in Filmistan. Roychoudhury’s treasure trove is YouTube, particularly old film news shows like Lehren, and the site’s own suggested videos, from where he discovered a little-known BBC documentary about Rajesh Khanna. “Everyone from Shashi Kapoor to Mumtaz were in it, and they probably thought no one from India would ever know, so it was a no-holds barred, politically incorrect look at the star.”
Sourcing trivia is part sweat, part serendipity, as Jha will tell you. He’d been struggling to get his hands on a film called Musafir (the 1986 one starring Rekha and Naseeruddin Shah), notoriously hard to find because it never released. “All through the ’90s I searched for it in posh shops and filthy bylanes,” he recounts. “One day, I went to a shop to convert a relative’s wedding video to VCD, looked through their collection and there it was! The owner made a copy and sold it to me for just `200.”
The big picture
For those like political journalist and writer Siddharth Bhatia, an interest in yesteryear films is what lets him “draw larger inferences” about India’s cultural history. “If I’m interested in a chorus of dancers from films of the ’50s, it’s to see how Westernised the films of the period were becoming,” he says.
But for many others, data mining is fun in itself. Some moments are laugh-out-loud – like when Liddle found out how they shot one scene from the Raj Kapoor film Barsaat. The camera shows man-about-town Premnath lying on the bed while the naive village girl Nimmi takes off his shoes and buries her face in his feet. “Raj Kapoor [who also directed the film] kept rejecting one take after the other, dissatisfied with Nimmi’s expression,” she says. “Finally, he had a brainwave, and told Premnath, ‘Go and wash your feet! With soap!’ The next take was perfect.”
But the best moments for any trivia buff are those that were hard won. In 1998, when the media believed that the legendary singer Shamshad Begum was dead, Sharma suspected otherwise. “The composers Naushad and OP Nayyar had hinted that she might be alive but left it at that,” he says. Sharma spent a year tracking down her phone number only to have a female voice at the other end flatly deny that he had the right place. Much convincing later, she admitted she was Shamshad Begum’s daughter and the singer was indeed alive.
Six more months of phone calls passed before Sharma was granted an audience with the singer – no recordings, no photos was the strict condition. Sharma knew he had to find a way to break the ice and get the legend talking. So, he took his wife along and as he had expected, Shamshad Begum soon not only warmed up to the couple, addressing his wife as bahu, she also agreed to be photographed. The meeting, 18 months in the making, was an elaborate one that lasted over two hours. “She wove all the pieces of her life in a chain starting from her childhood,” Sharma’s post recounts.
Navigating the Internet
Today, if you’re watching Aradhna, it’s probably in restored HD. You can hum a half-remembered version of Mere sapno ki rani and Shazam will identify it immediately. You can access all MacLean ebooks and their covers on the Internet. Or just Google the right keywords to reach Bollybook.tumblr.com, which lists almost every book ever featured in Hindi films. So has the Web helped the trivia hunters? Or ruined the charm?
Bhatia believes it’s only been good. “In India, even those who manage archives don’t understand bits and pieces,” he says. Online, however, film discussion is legitimate, he believes, making the Web an ideal starting point or guide. “I’d never have dreamt of writing a book without the Web,” Roychoudhury says. “I have no access to the stars, but so many of my interviews happened through social media.”
Sharma, on the other hand, advises caution – everyone’s on the Web but everyone can’t be right. “The Internet tells us that the ’50s actress Veena was the sister of the actor Iftekhar,” he offers as an example. “They’re not even remotely related!”
Wikipedia gets facts wrong too, citing the 1958 film Navrang’s Adha hai chandrama song as singer Mahendra Kapoor’s debut, when he’d been singing since 1953.
And much of what’s verified is plagiarised. Sharma is saddened by Facebook users who share his painstakingly sourced pictures without credit. “In any case, the chapter of old Hindi cinema is now closed, I don’t know how much new stuff can emerge,” points out Liddle. “You end up reading the same facts again and again.” Sing’s friends urge him to save new information for his next book. It’s a toss-up between claiming ownership later or losing the research to an accident today.
All trivia must have an audience, but most film fanatics couldn’t care less. One recent evening, Chaudhuri and a friend were watching Shaan, saying the dialogues out loud and correcting each other along the way. “It went on for a fairly long time. My wife was so exasperated, she went for a walk just to be rid of us.” He remains shamelessly unapologetic!
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From HT Brunch, April 10, 2016
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