09 March 2011

Indian Cinema: the faces behind the mask

Author: Anil Saari
Published by: Oxford
Year of publishing: 2011
Price: 495

The radical opening up of the publishing industry in India has revitalised almost every genre, and it isn't surprising that books related to cinema are releasing with amazing regularity these days. Author and blogger Jai Arjun Singh paid a personal tribute to his favourite 80s cult film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro through a neatly compiled book that released earlier this year. National-award winning critic Bharadwaj Rangan is all set to put together his book on films as well. Besides that, there have been several other credible initiates that need to be welcomed in an otherwise dismal film criticism scenario.

The field of film journalism in India has been muddied for too long, but there have also been a few names who have enriched one's understanding of the medium. The one name that stands tall is the late film journalist Anil Saari, whose last book, Hindi Cinema- An Insider's View (2009) provided some of the most erudite and illuminating essays on films. Saari focussed on many aspects such as 'Why Hindi films require songs' 'Violence in films'. He also had some candid, well-thought out views about the art film movement in India and its failure to attract masses. All in all, the book I found to be an exceptional one in terms of the originality and insights.

Obviously, it was with some expectation that I took up his new book 'Indian cinema -the faces behind the mask', which is a random compilation of many of the interviews he did with leading actors and directors in the period between 1970 to 1990. The book, edited by journalist Saibal Chatterjee offers a somewhat misleading introduction though. Chatterjee speaks about the importance of stars and how they have shaped the contours of popular cinema, as much as directors and producers. But the introduction specifically focusses on the role that stardom plays in influencing films and the industry as a whole. Now this is of course a much-debated topic - ie do stars matter more or does the script..., but Saari is really not that concerned about making a case for popular cinema and superstars in the book. That is not the point of this compilation at all. It is merely a random selection of interviews, approached with characeristic flair and earnestness.

Yet, the overall effort seems a bit drab because there is a sense of deja vu to many of the thoughts and anecdotes covered. In a film-obsessed country like India one already knows so much about stars in gereral- their background, quirks - that it's hard to bring much novelty to such an endeavour.
The interview that does reveal something interesting is the one with Raj Kapoor, who as his son Rishi Kapoor says put his work above all other considerations of family and children. Saari- though knowledgable and well-exposed - walked the middle-ground where he appreciated art house and meaningful cinema but was equally taken in by the magic of commercial cinema. And true enough, many of directors he interviewed - whether Yash Chopra or Raj Kapoor had the same views about cinema -that it should primarily engage an audience. Kapoor was willing to take risks and allowed his writers their leftist ideals, but not at the cost of commercial prospects. So in Bobby, Dimple's social status was made higher so that she could be shown in a club in a swimming costume. On being asked what made him a showman, Kapoor said, " I myself don't know...it is the vista, the vision that you have as a filmmaker to display in a scene, to shoot a scene in the enormity of an impressive backdrop. You must know how to use the panaroma of the set. Everything including the set and characters must be integrated into the fibre of the story and the scene."

The other two wonderful interviews are with Dilip Kumar and 80s charmer, Dipti Naval. The latter was a far cry from the regular film heroine of her times, and her views make this evident.
There's a long interview with Rekha, done at the time when she was slowly slipping from the top and making way for Sridevi, but the actress appears as optimistic and charged up about the future as ever. There's plenty of space devoted of course to Amitabh Bachchan and the admirably disciplined and principled life he has always lived. There's sadly no interview.

The one refrain we hear today is about how there are only a handful of stars and how there is a pitable lack of good scripts. While we extol the past, it seems even actors of that time suffered from the same problem, and rued that there was not enough substance in their films. All of them wisely recogonise that it is the filmmaker and script that drives a film, quite contrary then to what Saibal Chatterjee's introduction suggests. There are brief interviews with Gulzar, Shabana Azmi and filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, but nothing very significant gets covered. Shah Rukh Khan's name is invoked prominenly in the book's jacket cover (perhaps to make the book seem relevant and saleable) and Chatterjee's introduction where he says 'Shah Rukh is the pivot around which the Mumbai movie industry rotates' but there's no interview with the superstar and even Saari's short note on him written during SRK's success after Baazigar and Darr, is written in the vein of trade talk.

The book has some decent interviews, but nothing significant or substantial enough to merit much attention.


janaki said...

there is a whole series of books : started with Anupama Chopra's book on Sholay to now with JBDYaaro... there is also a new one on Disco Dancer and the Mithun Cult.

Film journalism as a genre is growing and indeed there is an audience for a well wriiten book on a meaningful theme. There is a beautiful book on Bhojpuri Cinema and its ascendance in the Hindi hinterland which makes fantastic reading for a sociologist and others studying popular culture.

hindu blog said...

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HiFriends Entertainment said...

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