Author: Anupama Chopra
It didn't seem like the wisest thing to do when a 20 something Anupama Chopra set her mind to write on Bollywood. Her intellectually inclined family was taken aback by her decision. Even more bemused was the India Today editor Arun Poorie who took her interview. "So you came back from America with a journalism degree to write about Bollywood?' he asked incredulously, giving her the job anyway. Through the 90s and mid-2000s, she wrote extensively on Hindi cinema, covering various aspects of Bombay’s dream factory. In the course of this time, she also wrote two books, one on the epochal Sholay and the other, her all time favourite film, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Currently, as the consulting entertainment editor for an English television news channel, she does weekly interviews and reviews. Her latest book First Day First Show is a compilation of her numerous articles -- comprising interviews, quotable quotes and pithy observations, that give a panoromic view of Bollywood in the last two decades. The concentration is essentially on the 90s though.
In her Prologue, Anupama tells us how she started working in a period when the mainstream press rarely took film journalists seriously, and movies were primarily the domain of popular magazines like Stardust, Filmfare and Cineblitz. Some of these were PR driven, while most others contained salacious gossip and spicy interviews. The language had plenty of spunk and chutzpah. However, these were entirely star-driven magazines with no place for serious film appreciation. This was also a time when the industry was anarchic in its working patterns. Stars would be hopping sets like headless chickens, doing 20-25 films at one time. The distributor lobby - which would push for randomly inserting action sequences or a sexy item number - made the movie business cruder than ever. Formulas ruled, and much of the scripts were frame-by-frame copies of Hollywood blockbusters. To compound matters, the industry’s murky links with the underworld were surfacing.
To be conscious of this context and yet write lucidly and responsibly was a challenge by itself, and this is where Anupama succeeds. There is no trace of condescension or cynicism in her writing. Her passion for Hindi cinema brims forth, even as she takes an objective view of the industry with its chaos and contradictions. Her pieces are intelligent, not overly academic or pedantic.
These columns, most of them written for India Today in the last decade and a half run you through the various phases of the industry. And you have to agree with her when she says that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, the 90s for a while saw a phase where double-meaning, ribald songs ruled the roost. From cholis to khatiyas, each producer was trying to outdo the other. There was a public outcry finally, a few vulgar films flopped, and the ‘smut bubble’ as the author calls it, finally burst.
She rightly observes that melody moves in circles and that the vulgar wave was perhaps inevitable. It’s like how Amitabh Bachchan came and edged out the soft, romantic songs typified in Rajesh Khanna’s films, she says. “In 1990, the super success of Nadeem-Shravan’s Aashique ushered in the year of ghazal-type romantic music as in Saajan, Dil, Phool Aur Kaante and Deewana. 'There was so much sweetness,' says (lyricist) Sameer, ‘that the audience got diabetes.’ Aakhen put a foot in the double-meaning door and ‘Choli’ opened the floodgates.”
One sees a similar trend in music now, with the likes of Dev D’s Emotional Atyachar and Delhi Belly’s D K Bose flaunting a devil-may-care attitude with their irreverent tone and impudent lyrics. The intent in some ways is again to break away from set pattern, and its target audience – youth – are lapping it up.
Anupama covers the careers and personalities of all the key players of this time - Madhuri Dixit, Shah Rukh Khan, Govinda, Aamir Khan, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor, Amitabh, Aishwarya Rai – and brings a rare acuity to her observations. She says about Madhuri’s astonishing ascent to the top. “So what is the Madhuri phenomenon all about? It’s about dancing, for one. No other actress can match her suggestive, come hither mobility. In the profusion of bare midriffs and wiggling hips, her sexuality stands apart, marked by apparent innocence...She doesn’t ooze sex, she suggests it. With no overt come-on, she is the ultimate Indian male fantasy – a desi, middle-class Madonna,” she writes.
Among the most interesting articles is the one on the Bhatts, who were the most prolific makers through the 90s. The piece on script-writer Honey Irani is hilarious as well. There are also a few articles on Govinda, who seems to be a favourite of the author. She describes a particularly amusing incident of her trying to pin down the Hero No 1 for an interview. She narrates how he and his family were unfailingly polite. Govinda himself kept referring to her as ‘Bhabhiji’ after Anupama’s marriage to filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, but constantly failed to keep his appointments.
One of the best chapter here is an extract from her book on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, where she interprets the film is some detail, bringing in several fresh insights. Talking about the character of Raj, she writes, “He is the perfect blend of the modern and the traditional. He is progressive in certain situations and rigidly conservative in others. He plays by the rules but he also tweaks them. When Simran decides to keep karva chaut, Raj supports her. Karva chaut is a largely north Indian ritual in which married Hindu women keep a day-long fast, abstaining from food and water for the prosperity and longevity of their husbands. Feminists have long railed against this gendered practice, but the ritual continues to be immensely popular. Aditya (Chopra) who grew up watching his mother do karva chauth, puts a modern twist to it. Simran, the bride-to-be, decides to fast for her future husband. In her mind, of course, it is Raj and not Kuljeet. Raj doesn’t take the ritual too seriously – when Simran complains of hunger pangs, he tries to sneak her a laddoo. But as a token of love and solidarity, Raj also fasts...”
Anupama rightly points out how the DDLJ world is a largely male-driven one, where women have little power. She also makes a mention of one of the most terrific scenes in the film, involving Simran’s mother Lajjo who speaks about the continued sacrifices expected out of women. “The film most definitely recogonises this inequality between men and women, but affirms the status quo. Like Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! it establishes the importance of family over individual.”
The book also carries many of the author’s reviews of past and recent films.
Anupama’s writing is precise, with unmistakable irony and style. Shah Rukh Khan in his Forward of the book also makes a mention of it. "I may or may not agree with her view but I know it is honest. I like the simplicity of her writing. I like that it is never over-elaborate," he says.
The actor in his forward also mentions how Anupama is objective because she is an 'outsider' who became an 'insider' - much like SRK himself. SRK further recounts some interesting aspects of his journey to superstardom, and especially talks about his early days.
Since much of the contents of the book are from contemporary film history, it's not terribly revelatory in any sense. But Anupama's polished yet empathetic approach is what makes her writing stand apart. For that reason, this book is a worthy endeavour.