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Making a cinema book count

Some recent books look at cinema engagingly, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2006 18:37 IST

A flurry of books on the Hindi film industry and its most influential creative and commercial forces has hit the market in recent weeks. On the face of it, that is certainly a happy augury. What it establishes is that publishers who have developed a special fondness for popular cinema as a viable subject of discourse aren’t about to abandon their new interest any time soon.

Sadly, however, not every Indian cinema book that comes off the printing presses carries the imprimatur of an erudite, insightful chronicler. In fact, more often than not, books on Bollywood are much like the industry itself: superficial, designed for mass acceptance, focussed squarely on personalities and often rather rushed.

Mercifully, there are writers like Nasreen Munni Kabir and Rachel Dwyer to make amends for the star-struck effusions of the less scholarly. Even as they present a record of Hindi cinema, they manage to strike that rare balance between analysis and entertainment, between insight and accessibility.

Kabir’s tome on the life and work of Guru Dutt, Dwyer’s lucid Yash Chopra biography and the more recent book on the ubiquitous Kapoor clan by journalist Madhu Jain, among others, have indeed opened the sluice-gates for meaningful literature on one of India’s greatest passions, commercial Hindi movies.

What these books, and a handful of others, have done is fill the vacuum that once existed between stuffy academic writing on Hindi cinema and the quickies that are routinely churned out by star-struck pen pushers. There is of course still a yawning gap that needs to be plugged, but with many a seasoned observer of the Mumbai movie industry chipping away, the lacuna will soon hopefully be a thing of the past.

In the last month alone, there have been at least five major books on Bollywood, including The Kapoors – The First Family of Indian Cinema by Madhu Jain. Also currently on the shelves of bookstores are a quartet of interesting books – Yours Guru Dutt, a compilation of letters written over 50 years ago by the legendary actor-filmmaker to his wife, Geeta Dutt, presented by Nasreen Munni Kabir; 100 Bollywood Films by Rachel Dwyer; Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema by Johan Manschot and Mruke de Vos and The Art of Cinema by veteran journalist and author B.D. Garga.

As is pretty obvious, most of these books of Hindi cinema are emerging from the minds and efforts of chroniclers based outside India. It is easy to see why: serious writing on cinema, mainstream or avant-garde, had hitherto been a preserve of regional language publishing. It is only of late that English-language journalists and critics have begun to turn their attention to Hindi cinema. Unfortunately, few of these books have risen above the level of superficial analysis. Worse still, a majority of these books, probably under pressure from the profit-seeking publishers, have focussed more on the lives of big-time stars and movie moguls rather than on the logic and dynamics of their work.

But sometimes, as in Yours Guru Dutt, a record of deeply personal letters from a suicidal filmmaker to his equally melancholic singer-wife, the biographical details do provide startling insights into the creative output of a director. The Guru Dutt letters, full of cross-references, both personal and professional, tell us much about why the man behind the filmmaker was what he was.

Guru Dutt worked in an era when even a so-called commercial filmmaker could use the medium for the purpose of self-expression. His films, notably Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, were direct results of his emotional state. So, you cannot separate the man from the filmmaker. They were inextricably intertwined.

Much the same could be said about the Kapoors. Jain’s book on them is understandably replete with details about the personal lives of the members of the high-profile clan, but the author ensures that virtually every piece of information that she puts into her racy account serves the specific requirement of a springboard for an analysis of the professional paths that each of the Kapoors had to take to find his/her place in the sun.

The appeal and reach Mumbai movie industry is growing. It is only natural for scholars and scribes to add their weight to the incipient process of churning that could take Bollywood someplace else in the long run.

First Published: Jan 16, 2006 20:00 IST