Saturday, April 21, 2007

On Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

The word "Bollywood" - till recently there were still some who resented the term, thinking it conveyed a satellite status, but now it seems universally accepted - refers not just to the Hindi film industry in general, but also to a specific site, the city of Bombay, and a specific style of moviemaking different from others, particularly in the use of songs and the mixing - some would say the outright murder - of genres.

It could be argued that before the arrival of the talkies in the late nineteen-twenties, the Hindi film was not a Bollywood film as we know it. This distinction is not considered in Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History, the jacket copy of which claims it is "the first comprehensive history of this major social and cultural phenomenon". For Bose, Bollywood begins the day cinema arrived in India in the late nineteenth century. He has written a curious book, high on enthusiasm but low on insight, containing plenty of personality sketches - and Bollywood is in some ways all about the cult of personality - but for the most part rehashing old arguments and interpretations in equally careless prose.

As Bose points out, unlike other Western inventions like the motor car or the typewriter, the cinema came early to India, almost as soon as it was birthed. In December 1895, the Lumière brothers showed their first selection of short films to a thunderstruck audience in Paris using the Cinématographe, which was both a camera and a projector. It was a seminal moment in the history of the modern world. As the great film critic and historian David Thomson has written, "Used to the frozen mirror of stills, people began to see for the first time how they walked, smiled and gestured, how they looked from the back, and how other people watched them. Introspection and exhibitionism were thus simultaneously stimulated by the cinématographe."

Only seven months later, the films of the brothers Lumière were being screened at Watson's Hotel in Bombay, and the Times of India carried an advertisement about "the marvel of the century, the wonder of the world". India took to the movies almost at once: viewers were enthralled, short films began to be made imediately by native filmmakers, cinema-houses mushroomed in the major cities, and within a few decades, the Indian film industry was the world's second-largest. How did the new art form capture the Indian imagination so swiftly? Bose does not spend any time over this - in general he shows little interest in the specificity of film as a form - but the explanation surely lies in the power of the medium itself.

As the film theorist Noel Carroll has argued, the movies are an unusually clear and intelligible medium, requiring little or no training on the part of the observer (unlike, for example, reading). It is much easier understanding the conventions of films than of novels or plays: film is a truly mass medium. If film easily superceded prevailing forms of spectacle in India, such as the theatre, it was because it outdid the theatre in the production of mythological stories, which was what Indian audiences liked to watch. The Indian film scholar Nasreen Munni Kabir, in her book Bollywood Dreams, notes how cinema technique could enhance the illusion of the mythical, through simple devices like low-angle shots or basic special effects. It was not just the matter but also the medium that excited the wonder of the viewer.

Several parallel film industries, each working in a different Indian language, sprang up, but of these the Hindi film industry emerged the strongest. Early on the Hindi film industry worked along the lines of the Hollywood studio system, in which each actor was employed with a particular studio; later, as star power grew, actors began to freelance and the star system emerged. Many of the early luminaries of Bollywood were foreigners, such as the German director Franz Osten, who made 14 movies between 1935 and 1939, or the spectacular stunt queen Mary Ann Evans, who became famous as "Fearless Nadia".

With the arrival of sound in the nineteen-twenties came not just spoken dialogue but, just as significantly, music. Indian popular narrative traditions had always incorporated music, and the first Indian talkie in 1931, Alam Ara ("All Talking Singing & Dancing"), had seven songs. As films were then all shot in sync sound, the actors needed to be able to sing capably, as did stars like KL Saigal. Later image and sound were broken up, and the tradition of playback singing emerged. Bollywood also attracted some of the best writers of the time, like Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto (whose superb memoir of his days in the Hindi film industry, Stars From Another Sky, Bose quotes frequently).

From this potential treasure trove of material, Bose has produced a severely undercooked book. Although he has written other good books, most notably A History of Indian Cricket, Bollywood, or cinema in general, are clearly a foreign field for him. His general method is to paraphrase a bit of history, augment it with a long quote, (usually from Shyam Benegal, who deserves twenty per cent of the royalties); supply a few plot summaries here, retail a bit of gossip there. His book does not extend or deepen our understanding of Bollywood in any way.

Some of Bose's writing is exceedingly puzzling. Consider this bit, about the culmination of the romance between Dharmendra and Hema Malini: "In 1979, Dharmendra heard that in the film Hum Tere Ashique Hain, based on My Fair Lady, Hema had planted a kiss on Jeetendra's cheeks and also cried in the movie without the help of glycerine. He decided he had to act and, in May 1980, he married her." It seems to me that the writing here accentuates the absurdity of what was already an unusual affair.

The film historian Iqbal Masud, we are told, "sees the forties as a prelude to the golden fifties, whose nakedness of themes remained unequalled until the eighties". Naked themes? Bose's punctuation, particularly his deployment of commas, could make a reader weep: "But while [Yusuf] was in jail Gandhi, observed a fast, and Yusuf, refused to eat his prison breakfast."

Not only is Bose's writing pedestrian, his book is glazed over with an unseemly self-regard. He constantly makes references to his own life and experiences when they have not the least relevance to the subject. Consider his prologue, a tedious 30-page account of how, in the early nineties, he travelled from London to Bombay to write a piece on Bollywood commissioned by a British newspaper. Accompanying him was an attractive photographer called Pamela Singh, better known as the infamous Pamela Bordes. When word got around of the photographer's real identity, all of Bombay's high society wanted to meet her, and took to soliciting Bose's help in doing so. Even the newspaper editor who'd commissioned the piece decided he wanted a story on Pamela instead.

"Having been incognito as a writer for twenty years, I had suddenly discovered fame as an agent for a photographer who wanted to remain incognito," sniffs Bose. "Pritish Nandy, editor of the Sunday Observer, who had in the past taken great pleasure in knocking my books in print and describing me as a worthless writer, now rang me repeatedly to get to Pamela." All this tells us nothing about Bollywood, but a great deal about Bose. At another point Bose introduces Shobhaa De, the former editor of the film magazine Stardust: "Born in 1948, she had a degree in psychology from St.Xavier's College, where I went to as well..." If this sort of chitchat is all we're getting up to, I might as well reveal that I went to St.Xavier's College too for a bit.

Although published by a major Indian press, this book is shockingly copy-edited. The cover is beautiful and the layout stylish, but when it comes to the actual text, misspellings and grammatical errors are abundant - what kind of priorities does this reflect? In one of the book's many incoherent passages, the director Rakesh Roshan is quoted as saying, "In the old days you controlled the release in order to wet the appetite (sic)". Bollywood: A History does indeed wet the appetite.

Here's an old post about one of the best books on Bollywood ever written: The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto.

And a piece on one of the best Bollywood films of this decade: Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor.


Shripriya said...

Scathingly brilliant. :)

Karra said...

Regd. the use and misuse of punctation, poor prose and the like, how much of it can you take? Have you ever posted a review of a book you abandoned in the middle because you couldn't take any more? :)

Anonymous said...

I agree. Bose seems to be rambling on unfamiliar territory. Th book is a curious mix of this and that, and the Hema-Dharmender anecdote certainly left me nonplussed.


Chandrahas said...

Karra - Even if you don't like a book, you have to read it just as carefully to say why you don't like it. So there's no question of abandoning a book for review midway - that's not fair to the author either. Work is work.

Of course, just like all other readers, I sometimes abandon books I take up of my own volition - I couldn't stand Ian McEwan's *Atonement* at all, even though it was widely praised, or James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow, which I found mean-spirited and often tendentious. I am willing to give away my copies to these books to anyone who will offer them a home.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree for the most part with your rather righteous critique of Bose's book, I don't think the stab at the first 30 pages (on his assignment to Bombay with Pamela Bordes) was fair. I thought that that was by far the most entertaining chapter and provided a marvellous window into the indiosyncracies not only of Bollywood but Bombay's elites. Showed them up rather well, eh? And yes, the sloppiness in editing is unpardonable as are the numerous mistakes, but again, I think the book has an easy, pleasing style which makes it hard to put down. If only Bose had taken his time, been more careful and checked his facts, it would have succeeded as a light-hearted retelling of Bollywood gossip. Definitive, it is not. Dipshika

Anirudh said...

If you really wish to give *Atonement* away, you have a taker. I have not read it yet but wouldn't mind reading a copy I own - and not one that is borrowed - since I can then bracket portions and occasionally scribble something on the pages with my pencil.

Kuttappan said...

I was looking around for reviews of Bollywood, just having read it.

Agree with most of what you have written. I have read A History of Indian Cricket and the recent print of The Maidan View, and liked the former a great deal. But looking back after reading Bollywood makes me wonder whether the HoIC was also made of the same cast.

The pre-war years were well-written with the chapter of Vizzy being outstanding. But as it gets closer to the present, the writing becomes less coherent. The formula all through is to build up a few characters, and a few incidents and add some facts and trivia around it. In cricket it mostly worked well because the "incidents" are well-defined. But for the movies it is less clearcut, the writing become less interesting as time goes on and by 1990s it became incoherent rambling.

I read the 1989 edition of HoIC and I am told that the sections covering the 1990s in the second edition is much worse.