Cinema completed 100 years of existence in India on April 21. Much tidal waters have flown down the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal, since Dadasaheb Phalke showcased the country’s first feature length silent motion picture, Raja Harishchandra (though commercially released on May 3) at Coronation Cinematograph, Bombay but many film historians feel that even though it was the handiwork of British cinematographers—yet an Indian nevertheless—Pundalik should be considered the breakthrough attempt. And now exactly hundred years later about 1100 feature films in various languages open up at the cash collection centres in the country. Ardeshir Irani talking feature Alam Ara was the second landmark 18 years later on March 14, 1931 at Majestic Cinema, Bombay. The same period saw the release of Kalidas in Tamil and Bhakta Prahlad in Telegu. It was, however, only in 1935 when cinema started to emerge as a cottage industry with notables like K L Saigal’s Devdas, Ashok Kumar-Devika Rani starrer Achut Kanya, Nitin Bose’s Dhoop Chhaon with which playback singing also came to be introduced.
100 or 82 years later Indian film market is, at a rough estimate, worth Rs 120 billion, and going strong with its reach and range touching the farthest corner of the world. Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest movie star in Germany while arch rival Salmaan Khan seems to have cornered the domestic market. Not too long ago one had to hunt far and wide for any literature on Indian cinema. Publishers seldom considered anything not of academic interest. But then perceptions suddenly changed some years ago, and books especially on Bollywood started growing like tall grass in the backyard. At a rough estimate more than a hundred books, from biopics to screenplays to stardust eroded shelf space at bookstores, and generally lapped up by an enthusiastic readership. Twenty-odd assorted one surfaced in the last year itself. And though real 100-year celebrations would really start later in the years, it is raining Bollywood-related books once again—of all shades, sizes, dimensions—with or without merit, from instant to long lasting. And a forecast of tsunami has already been predicted.
Now it is a matter of time and conjecture how many of these will turn out to be academic or serious studies, and how many run of the mill, though one thing is certain—the 100 years of celebration will indeed result in filling up the great void. And this and the following is just tip of the iceberg because it is not yet known, and can only possibility be speculated what is brewing in other film-producing centres as well as the regional languages.
In the last couple of months, there have been at least half a dozen books, of which at least four deserve a second look: Siddhartha Bhatia’s coffee table called Navketan 60; Sandeep Ray’s compilation of his father’s selected reflections on cinema, Deep Focus; Nasreen Munni Kabir’s The Dialogue of Devdas; Christina Daniel’s I Will Do it My Way, an insight into Aamir Khan, and his cinema; Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, the Original Screenplay; The Company RED, novel being converted into screenplay; Bhaichand Patel’s Bollywood’s Top 20 Superstars of Indian Cinema misleading and highly faulted assemblage of Hindi film stars by 20 different individuals. Let’s take a brief look at some of these:
Siddhartha Bhatia’s pictorial attempt at recreating the magic of Navketan 60 now assumes special importance because the evergreen hero’s death because it showcases history of a segment of the mainstream Hindi cinema, especially if one randomly looks at the august list of stars who have been involved in the making of these films. Unfortunately, it is a flawed attempt with the author having nothing to offer of his own, relying substantially on observations of some others. The Dialogue of Devdas: Bimal Roy’s Immortal Classic, is a trademark Munni Kabir handiwork that, perhaps, unconsciously seeks to answer the oft-repeated question, what was it about this Saratchandra Chatterjee’s amateurish fictional exercise that its cinematic interpretation that made its weakling hero, Devdas, such an enduring phenomenon? Or maybe it is sympathy for the doomed lover.
Christina Daniel’s I’ll Do it My Way is a heroic attempt, full of interesting anecdotes and quotes from those who at least initially helped him find polish his act and emerge as the only thinking star, a star who refuses to be defined in terms of slots and analyses Aamir Khan’s cinema, and what might have warranted his selection of films and directors once he matured and knew the ground under his feet. Bhaichand Patel’s convenient attempt to jump on the Bollywood bandwagon is a sad ride all the way, beginning with his own Introduction where he writes: “The first film I saw was Wadia Movietone’s Bambaiwali (1941) starring Fearless Wadia…sitting on mother’s lap, in a large tin shed masquerading as a cinema hall.” Forgetting what he wrote, a paragraph later he contradicts himself: “My first English film was Michael Powell’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) when it finally reached our theatre.” One wonders if it is printing howler, or a case of amnesia?
Satyajit Ray’s Deep Focus compiled by son Sandeep contains the film-maker’s very focused views of world cinema, the works of some of the masters. In his Foreword, Shyam Benegal points out: “If there is a single contribution of Satyajit Ray to the world of Indian cinema it would be the path he created for Indian cinema to break free from being self-referential and imitative of subjects lifted from Hollywood films….” It would have been better if Benegal had restricted that influence to alternate or serious cinema rather than generalising it. Talking about whether a film-maker should be original, infuse his own vision into a work of literature, Ray observed, in the context of one of his early films: “All great film-makers have fashioned classics out of other people’s stories. Apur Sansar thus grew out of situations conceived by the author himself. I, as the interpreter through the film medium, exercised my right to select, modify and arrange. This is the right which every film-maker…possesses.”
In the coming months, there will be a novelised version of Vidya Balan-starrer, Kahani by Advaita Kala; K A Abbas’s novelisation of his screenplays of Mera Naam Joker and Bobby first published more than 40 years ago; Rishi Kapoor’s autobiography; a book on Shammi Kapoor by Rauf Ahmad; about twenty under the broad umbrella—100 Years of Indian Cinema individually as well as collectively; Erotica in Hindi Cinema by Feroze Rangoonwallah; a biography of Anil Kapoor’s by Khalid Mohammed; Sharmila Tagore’s and Waheeda Rehman’s yet un-named nostalgic reflections, Sounding Off: Memoirs of an Oscar winning Sound Engineer by Resul Poolkutty & Baiju Natarajan; Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography by Naman Ramachandran, amongst others.
By Suresh Kohli