The rules of writing an unauthorised biography
In February 2017, I signed a contract to write a biography of Priyanka Chopra. It was important to talk to Priyanka and those close to her. I contacted her manager in the US and then spoke to her lawyers. But a month later, I was told I could not interview Priyanka since she had signed a contract to write her autobiography and was forbidden to talk to another author.
I was disappointed. But just around that time, I met Priyanka’s mother in New York City. I explained my predicament to her. Her response surprised me.
“There are thousands of books on Mahatma Gandhi,” she said to me.
My initial reaction was ‘Wow, she is comparing her daughter to Mahatma Gandhi!’ But then I understood what she was saying – there was room for more than one book on Priyanka.
Priyanka’s autobiography is yet to be released. But I am glad I followed her mother’s advice and wrote Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story Of A Global Bollywood Star, an unauthorised account of how a 17-year-old from a small town becomes a beauty queen, then a Bollywood star, even winning a National Film Award, and eventually making a big splash in the US.
Beneath the gossip
Writing unauthorised biographies has become the norm for me. All three books I have written – biographies of Priyanka, Shashi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan – were unauthorised, although that is not how I initially approached the projects.
Shashi was seriously unwell when I began writing Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star. So, there was no way I could get his permission. But at least I was able to interview two of his children – Sanjana and Kunal.
It was a different situation when I wrote Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star. In the summer of 2018 I sent an email to Irrfan. He responded with a WhatsApp message and finally spoke to me from London, where he was getting treatment for neuroendocrine cancer. At that point, he was not in a space to give me an interview and unfortunately I never got that chance. But at least he gave me contacts of some people I should talk to.
Writing unauthorised biographies was unnerving, but it also gave me a sense of freedom. The subjects of the books did not control the narratives. I was free to explore their lives on my own terms.
But that freedom also comes with a huge amount of responsibility. If I decide to write about a particular actor, I have to first respect that person, care for her or his successes and struggles. And I would not gloat over the person’s failures or write malicious gossip. I am not that kind of writer.
And so, I approached the books as celebrations of the three actors. In attempting to track their lives and works, I wanted the readers to learn more about their films, how they approached their characters and performed in some key scenes. I read and thought a lot about the three actors, watched their films, and then tried to weave their life stories.
The trust factor
There were other challenges along the way. I had to reach out to the directors, co-actors, and others who followed the actors’ careers and knew them personally. I had to build trust with the people I planned to interview.
While working on the Shashi Kapoor biography, I realised he was truly loved and people were more than willing to talk about him. Shabana Azmi ran into me in Mumbai and reminded me it was important for the book to be published. When I approached Naseeruddin Shah for an interview for the Irrfan biography, he wrote back: “Irrfan is a dear friend and great actor. I’d like to talk about him.”
But there were also exceptions and disappointments. Girish Karnard who had directed Utsav for Shashi Kapoor wrote this to me: “While Utsav was being made or since the day it was released, I have not said a word about my experience of making the film or of Shashi as a producer and actor, preferring to let him have his say. I should like to continue the arrangement.” There was nothing I could do to convince him to change his mind.
Then there was the stress of acquiring photographs for the books. I was fortunate to get some rare images of Shashi Kapoor from director James Ivory when I met him in New York. Shashi looks like a handsome prince in those images.
But after the Irrfan biography was published I discovered some amazing photos of him on Instagram during the shoot of Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior. But it was too late and I regret not being able to share them with the readers.
Aseem Chhabra is a New York-based film journalist who contributes to international publications. He is also the festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival.
From HT Brunch, July 12, 2020
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