Memoirs and biographies of film personalities, mostly stars and directors, have long ruled the roost in film writing in India and this year was no exception to the rule. It has to be said though that where there has normally been droll fare, mostly ghost-written or in the case of biographies, the adjective ‘authorised’ in the subtitle often doing the opposite of what it intended, i.e., putting the reader off the idea of reading it, this year there were a few unusually good contenders in this category, which engaged the reader both with an accomplishment in form and a surprisingly candid tone of voice. This was also a year of a couple of wonderful film histories, an engaging film biography, and a solid piece of academic writing on a genre that I adore, horror. My absolute favourite Indian cinema book of the year though is tough to give a label to, one of the many reasons for it being so cutting-edge and contemporary.
So here goes.
Soha Ali Khan, The Perils of Being Moderately Famous
Author: Soha Ali Khan
Soha Ali Khan is that rare Bollywood personality, a truly gifted writer. So even though the book is more about her illustrious family, as she warns right in the beginning, it gives you a delightful peep into what it would be like to belong to a rather pedigreed Bollywood family especially if you were the sort of person who did not take this fact so darn seriously. Soha writes with a light touch making the book endearingly funny. I particularly loved the witty captions accompanying the photos that pepper the book.
Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy
Author: Yasser Usman
I would be the last person to celebrate toxic masculinity even in the garb of an apologetic biography of Bollywood’s original bad boy, so I was happy that this book wasn’t any of that. For all those who found the attempt to explain away Dutt’s many transgressions in Hirani’s film nauseating, this book is a safe read. It is as candid as Dutt can be in his interviews about his women and many encounters with ‘every drug under the sun’, and leaves you with an undiluted sense of how privileged masculinity can sometimes be the most twisted in our ecosystem. The book tries to present the events exactly as they transpired, does not try to provide explanations, and I like the fact that it begins with Dutt’s arrest under TADA, before moving back to his childhood. The bonus bit for a history-lover like myself is the long legacy portion, which made me fervently hope for a book on the unbeatable Jaddan Bai, Sanjay’s maternal grandmother.
Hema Malini: Beyond the Dream Girl (An Authorised Biography)
Author: Ram Kamal Mukherjee
The biography I truly loved this year though is the one on Hema Malini. She is a star I have watched and admired for decades, and I suppose it says something about how expertly she embodies the characters she has played that I have never had any curiosity about her life or antecedents, unlike so many others who seem to be surrounded constantly by a mist of details from their personal lives. It was splendid therefore to learn about this unique woman, her love for Bharatanatyam, the rather unusual relationship she shared with her mother, her female friendships with actresses like Dimple Kapadia, and her intent efforts to traverse the entire spectrum from commercial to art house in her chosen career. There is a fearlessness that comes through in these pages without any pretension to a life lived in bohemia. Just a sense of a rock-solid personality who likes to meet her gaze every morning in the mirror and not feel uncomfortable doing so.
My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khiladi
Author: Suresh Jindal
If you are a film history buff like me, this is pure gold, and if you are also a Ray fan, then it doesn’t get better than this. Suresh Jindal produced Shatranj ke Khiladi for the master film director, the latter’s only outing in Hindi, which is what makes this account so very readable. The challenge of making a film in a language he barely knew, and that too a gigantic period piece with a larger canvas and budget than any other film he ever made, leads to us encountering a Ray who is less sure of himself and far more reflexive than he has seemed in any other account of him. His letters to Jindal which lay bare his apprehensions are a treasure trove about the kind of research and mining of information the master put himself through in order to infuse his script and every frame of the film with minute and rich detailing. One of the best bits in the book are the portions where they discuss the books they read to get a better sense of the period the film was based on, whether it was a translation of Abdul Halim Sharar’s Guzishta Lucknow or Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada. This was a different era, and perhaps even for that era, a uniquely discursive director-producer relationship, and a delight to discover in the pages of this eminently readable book.
Bioscope: A Frivolous History of Bollywood in Ten Chapters
Author: Diptikarti Chaudhuri
Bioscope as a book of film history could not be more different than the one above. To my mind, however, the publisher has done it a disservice by adding the adjective ‘frivolous’ in the subtitle. The book is presented in 10 chapters, written with such felicity that you can finish them in one sitting. And even though the book is mostly based on secondary sources, other books and film magazines, it is a minefield of the most curious information: like how Devika Rani’s illicit romance with a film lead was ultimately responsible for the foundation of Filmistan Studios, or that when the famous feather scene was being shot during the making of Mughal-e-Azam, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were not on speaking terms with each other. Chapter titles such as Sabse Bada Rupaiya which looks at the history of box-office collections in Bollywood and Tere Geet Mere Bol which pay a tribute to the teams behind the iconic songs of the industry allow Chaudhuri to approach Bollywood totems afresh, but my favourites were the chapters on the bad guy in Bollywood, i.e., the Khalnayak, and the one on watershed moments which spell out the style quotient of a generally over-the-top industry. If you want to be the one with all the unique film trivia at the next gathering of trivia experts, this is the book for you.
Indian Horror Cinema: (En)Gendering the Monstrous
Author: Mithuraj Dhusiyaa
Last year, my year-end wrap of cinema books included a terrific one on the Ramsay Brothers, the kings of horror in Bollywood, so in 2018 I was delighted to find this authoritative analysis of the horror genre as it developed in Indian film in seven languages—Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. This one’s a read to relish and given that it belongs to the scholarly genre, keep it aside for a holiday when you can truly do it justice. What is particularly fascinating about the book is how it demonstrates that the horror genre was where the industry tried to debunk stereotypes, whether of class, caste or gender, or indeed of the human body, and experiment with an alt universe, if you like. We need more books on this genre just for this reason if no other.
Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes
Authors: Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur
That brings me to my favourite book on Indian cinema this year. If I began the wrap with the most popular genre of writing on Indian cinema, memoirs and biographies of celebrity personalities, I end it with a book that, as I said before, defies labels and looks at people who could not be more invisible in the industry. It profiles 20 women who, as the subtitle proudly declares, are changing Bollywood from behind the scenes. And the fact that two of the profiles are of a gaffer or as they were traditionally referred to, technician, who now heads her father’s film technicals’ enterprise, and the other of a makeup artist who fought a legal case against the Union of India to give women the right to work as makeup artists in Bollywood, you know why I am so excited about the book. We need more such books which have the gumption to show the inner workings of this complex industry, and certainly many more accounts of the roles women play in it, and not just in front of the camera. This book is a great start to a potential list of books that hopefully more publishers would want to put their money on and more authors would like to give their time to.