The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 22, 2003

Telling cinematic (un)truths
Suresh Kohli

BOOKS on cinema, of all shapes, sizes, nature, with a variety of content, seem to be the flavour of the summer. Much like the newly coined expression Ďcrossoverí films. And they seem to be generating interest not only amongst the diaspora but also among locals in places where Indians have a sizeable presence. But any ambitious attempt in that direction is like crossing the agneepath barefooted. It is not easy. Unfortunately, the supply cannot match the demand because both experts and historians with an in depth understanding of either the medium or those who make it tick, are few and far between. There also seems to be a mad rush amongst Indian publishers to throw a noose round the golden goose, as the columnist knows to his discomfiture.

One is both flattered as well as dismayed at the number of demands one has received to do a book, for instance, on Dev Anand. They all seem to have the impression that since one has been on friendly terms with the evergreen hero for three decades or more, makes one the most competent authority to write a book on him. Friendship does not necessarily spell intimacy. There cannot probably be any between unequals, more so, if neither is willing to give away even an inch. It also does not mean that the secrets, or unknown aspects about the celebrity that one may be privy to can necessarily be made public knowledge. Secrets that can be spilled without ruining a beautiful relationship where no give or take might be involved, especially at the lesser-known end. Secrets, or information that might put friendship at stake. Close association cannot also be considered licentious.


Unfortunately, a disinformation about oneís closeness to Dev Anand gained ground after a somewhat casual interview one conducted with him on Doordarshan recently. The interview was his first ever for the national broadcaster. There is no denying oneís hand in persuading the actor-producer-director to give an exclusive. And he decided to oblige. The main reason for this was not really friendship but the impending release of his new film, Love at Times Square. And a relationship that had remained under wraps for long went into a spin. All those little bits and fragmented pieces that existed in the minds of a few enlightened souls in the nationís capital spread like the proverbial jungle fire. There is no denying oneís association with Dev Anand and many other illustrious Hindi film stars, including some glamourous actresses. But should one carry these beautiful moments on oneís collars, and make capital out of it? It is not a very uncommon practice.

But if familiarity has its pitfalls, the absence of it could be dangerous. There, however, seems no stopping any scribe trying to put pieces together and churning out a biography. Alpana Chowdhury, as some others in the past, has tried to fit together fragmented pieces of Meena Kumariís life. Now nothing tangible is really available, even in the form of personal memorabilia, about the actressesí life. What exists is stray magazine clippings about her troubled childhood and torturous life as a grown-up. There are few survivors who could provide some truth, some useful information. But both Dharmendra and Gulzar have been tight-lipped about their relationship with her. Any quality material from them could provide some semblance of insight into her final days. What is worst, these books arenít even based on any research. They are made to order books, contracted today and delivered tomorrow.

There is no denying that the world of Hindi cinema, and those who constitute it, is an open capital market, in a variety of ways. And more disinformation than information is public knowledge. There is a need for books. The more the merrier, one would say. But there is need for more responsible behaviour. The Indian book industry is notorious for its clumsy approach. It hardly believes in maintaining any editorial standards. This can also be said about the Indian units of foreign, not necessarily multinational, publishing houses with enviable reputations in home countries. One has on hand the Standard Chartered Bank sponsored Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema published jointly in India by Encyclopaedia Britannica and Popular Prakashan with Gulzar, Govind Nihalani (both abysmal choices) and Saibal Chatterjee constituting the editorial board. It is already in news for all the wrong reasons. Besides, both Gulzar and Govind may be fine craftsmen, what are their credentials for such a project? Isnít this an area for other kind of specialists?

It is a wonderfully produced, expensive coffee-table book. Most contributors are specialists: film critics and film historians. But the book reportedly abounds in bloomers. That is probably because most writers resort to the same sources. So a blunder committed in one historical account is bound to creep into another, unwittingly. According to a newspaper report a film buff (and one should lap up any information provided by this obsolete, freak tribe almost blindly) from Chennai spotted 70 inaccuracies in just four of the 36 chapters. And if this report is to be believed the maiden numbers sung by Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh and Asha Bhonsle, for instance, have been wrongly attributed. Therein lies the malady. In oneís growing up years one was forced to accept everything contained in Encyclopaedia Britannica as the gospel truth. Friends like Khushwant Singh continue to swear by it. But then, like in many other matters, Britannia seems to be losing its grip over credibility.