What is it that so links cinema-writing with the genre of biography? Indeed, it would be safe to say that two-thirds of film writing in India does so via the route of the biographical genre. To begin with, every year, cinema-mad readers are subjected to a parade of celebrity memoirs, which they read because there is little else in large volumes to be read on films, and because we have all been brought up on a hard-to-forget tradition of filmy gossip and tabloids as the mainstay of film writing, these celebrity biographies are steeped in the same tradition. 2016-17 gave us the autobiographies of Asha Parekh, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor and Karan Johar in much the same fashion.
Indeed, in keeping with South Asia's feral fascination with film celebrity voices, no matter how badly they might write, autobiographies and memoirs continue to rule the roost when it comes to books on cinema. Earlier, these used to be mostly ghost-written as it was understood that the celebrity could not be expected to write (or could not write even if he/she tried). Now, this has given rise to a collaborative genre, where the celebrity teams up with a well-known journalist to tell her story. Barring bringing more credibility to the project, since large publishing houses are now on the scene who must maintain some editorial standards, these books are mostly ordinary pieces of writing, hyped in pre-release campaigns not for the writing but some other aspect which can be turned into a marketing narrative. For instance, using Rishi Kapoor's no-holds-barred Twitter presence to promote his book titled Khullam-Khulla (also a hit song featuring him) and tagging it with the word 'Uncensored' on the cover. Another large publisher, more recently, overreached with the same strategy in the case of Nawazuddin Siddiqui's An Ordinary Life, where the gimmick revealed itself to be pure smutty content, leading to social media outrage, and a public apology from the actor.
In all the rush of celebrity voices this year, one truly accomplished film memoir hit the bookshelves as well. Sadly though, the book was not backed by the publisher's promotions team in a significant way. Hence, a truly fine piece of writing went unsung. Arunaraje Patil's Freedom: My Story is a superb account of a woman filmmaker in the male bastion of the Indian film industry. With rare insight into the craft and technique of editing and filmmaking, and a valuable description of the social ecosystem of the industry and the place of women within it, this is the genuine-article film memoir worth mentioning from 2017. If only more people knew about it and read it.
Shamya Dasgupta's Don't Disturb the Dead, on the Ramsay Brothers is engagingly written with the occasional sparkle of wit, this is a terrific read, not just for the horror genre but also about how a family created a market out of thin air at a time when there seemed to be no space for the underdog in the industry.
The kind of cinema biography that has been generating far better writing over the past few years is the biography of a film, or of a filmmaking genre. The film biography this year that made fabulous reading was Gautam Chinatamani's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. QSQT marked the advent of the most exciting Khan in the industry as well as giving the romantic genre a fresh breath of life after the morass of the eighties. All of this meant that an account of the film and its history ran the risk of being judged and measured rather quickly, seeing that a large swathe of viewers for whom QSQT was a watermark film are still around today. Chintamani takes the challenge on his chin and weaves a narrative filled with the magic and awe we felt when we first watched the Papa Kehte Hain song on Chitrahaar. Reading Mansoor Khan's foreword though, I wished hard that we will soon see a book on his other brilliant film Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar authored by the director himself. What a read that would be!
There have been numerous books on Satyajit Ray's cinema but Shoma Chatterji's The Woman at the Window is a unique and erudite look at his oeuvre from the point of view of the everyday objects belonging to his female protagonists—a box of jewels in Monihara, a lorgnette in Charulata, a hairpin in Apur Sansar. Her book The Cinema of Bimal Roy: 'An Outsider Within' also published this year, follows a much more predictable linear, biographical path but shines again in terms of rigour.
It is always exciting to anticipate a new film book by a well-known film critic or writer. Having loved his earlier book on Sahir Ludhianvi, I started Akshay Manwani's new tome on Nasir Husain's cinema, Music, Masti, Modernity with great enthusiasm. Manwani writes brilliantly and makes every page of the 400+ volume count in terms of information. The only problem is that none of it seems like new information, perhaps because his sources are largely articles from film magazines (in English), Nasreen Munni Kabir's interviews, a few widely-available recent books on cinema, and YouTube videos—everything accessible via memory or the click of a button. Another book by a well-known film critic, Shubhra Gupta's 50 Films That Changed Bollywood was enjoyable because of the familiar, reliable voice of a critic one trusts in one's ear, but the era of film books as listicles is over.
The film genre biography I started with a shiver of guilty pleasure this year was Shamya Dasgupta's Don't Disturb the Dead, on the Ramsay Brothers and their 20-year reign of the horror genre in Bollywood. Engagingly written with the occasional sparkle of wit, this is a terrific read, not just for the horror genre but also about how a family created a market out of thin air at a time when there seemed to be no space for the underdog in the industry. If there is one film title you should grab before the end of 2017, it's this one.
The cinema book that took my breath away this year, however, was Madhuja Mukherjee's edited volume, Voices of the Talking Stars: Women of Indian Cinema and Beyond. A consummate collection of interviews, essays, biographies and poems by female actors of the Studio Era (1930-55), with an incisive commentary by the editor locating and contextualising each contribution, this is a treasure which interfaces between gender, culture and cinema expertly. What is particularly satisfying about this volume is that it was envisaged by Jadavpur University as a reader to add to material on gender for students. This is the kind of meticulously presented and altogether accomplished publication on cinema that, I hope, we will see much more of in the years to come.
Top 5 Cinema Books Of 2017
1. Madhuja Mukherjee, Voices of the Talking Stars: Women of Indian Cinema
2. Shamya Dasgupta, Don't Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers
3. Arunaraje Patil, Freedom: My Story
4. Shoma Chatterji, The Woman at the Window
5. Akshay Manwani, Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain