The Popcorn Essayists

For those of you who like cinema, and who like reading about cinema (which is probably why you’re reading this), a piece of news I wanted to share: the launch of a new book. The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do To Writers is an anthology of film writing—by writers who don’t professionally review or otherwise write about cinema. Compiled and edited by Jai Arjun Singh, the book contains essays by a wide range of authors, most of them very well-respected and well-known. Anjum Hasan, Manjula Padmanabhan, Namita Gokhale and Amitava Kumar are among those who’ve contributed to The Popcorn Essayists.

Now, the main reason why I’m so excited about The Popcorn Essayists: I contributed too. Jai, when giving me a mandate, didn’t mention any guidelines except word limit, so I stuck to something I really, truly enjoy: Hindi suspense thrillers from the 50s and 60s. From CID to Teesri Manzil, from the sizzling Helen (who, incidentally, also features on the book cover) to a bronze-bewigged Biswajeet in Kahin Din Kahin Raat: it’s all there.

I haven’t read the book yet (my copy is on its way and should be arriving someday soon), but Jai’s descriptions of the essays included are tantalising. I’m looking forward to widening my horizons and finding some good recommendations within these pages… plus, getting to read some good writing.

The book will be formally launched in Delhi later this month, but it’s already available on Flipkart. And while you’re waiting for it to arrive, here’s something to whet your appetite: a couple of paragraphs from my article, Villains and Vamps and All Things Camp:

“Vamps are the lifeblood of any Hindi suspense film. They give it oomph, add glamour to sordid crime, and shimmy to sexy little tunes that no Hindi film heroine—at least in the staid 50’s—would have featured in.

The original vamp (not in Hindi cinema, I hasten to add) was Theda Bara, and the appellation ‘vamp’ was derived from ‘vampire’: a woman, beautiful but predatory. Hindi cinema, even when it came to vamps, didn’t dare cross its self-imposed limit of what was good for viewers and what wasn’t. The west was welcome to Theda Bara, her daringly bared breasts and her infamous “Kiss me, my fool!” line. Our girls, even when bad, were not that bad.

The vamp, in essence, was the one who wore revealing dresses (even when not on the dance floor), smoke, drank, hung out with the villain and his henchmen, and was often used by the villain as a decoy or other pretty diversion that would keep the police occupied while the gang grabbed the loot, killed somebody, and/or made a getaway. More often than not, the vamp was at heart a not-too-bad girl, who, in the course of the film, fell in love with the hero and helped him—the latter often by simply coming in between him and a bullet meant for him. At any rate, the cardinal rule for any Hindi suspense film worth its salt seemed to be that the vamp had to die.”

Interested? Buy the book!

49 thoughts on “The Popcorn Essayists

  1. Am I the first to write on this post? Kewl.

    I look forward to reading the book and spending some time with the vamps. The cover page looks out of this world. What an innovative way to look at Helen!


    • I hope you like the article. :-)

      Yes, isn’t the cover absolutely fabulous? I thought the idea of composing Helen’s face from hundreds of tiny letters of the alphabet was so smart – it looks great, and it conveys the idea perfectly. Even the title font, the particular Helen pose they’ve used… it all fits superbly.


  2. Yes, both sound good. :)
    Though I doubt I’d be able to lay my hands on it anytime soon.
    Perhaps when I’m in India next – this December(?).

    Didn’t know the origin of the word ‘vamp’.


    • If it should become available internationally, I’ll let you know.

      I hadn’t known about the origin of the word ‘vamp’, either, until I wrote this article. Here, by the way, is a photo of Theda Bara, looking her vampish best (worst?):

      Rather bold, considering this was back in the 20s. Though I think most of us seem to unjustly assign a prudishness to early cinema (not to mention society) that was probably not there. 20s cinema was much freer with a lot of stuff than I’d imagined.


        • Well said!

          I would have loved to watch Theda Bara in action. She looks so very interesting. Unfortunately, I believe some of her most famous roles (including Cleopatra) were in films now lost – or at least not commercially available. There is a film, in parts, of her on youtube though.


  3. There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “The Vampire” which begins with the line “A Fool There Was…” which was the title of Theda Bara’s fist film. (1915)As far as I know only that film, and her last “The Unchastened Woman”(1925) are the only two still known to exist. I saw them years ago on videotape, though I see some clips are currently available on you tube. I think Theda was probably more seductive and shocking in her publicity photos than she actually was on screen. Congratulations on the book and your essay. Your work is much appreciated!


    • kenjn60, I just read your comment after having replied to harvey’s comment. Thank you for clarifying that bit on Theda Bara – I must go back to Youtube and look for the clips again. (And actually watch them this time). I remember having noticed that the film in which she had that classic “Kiss me, my fool!” line is on Youtube.

      Thank you also for the appreciation! That is much appreciated! :-)


  4. Oh my GOD! You got published! WOW (bows in reverence)
    Congratulations !

    I shall look on Flipkart for this it looks really interesting, but tell me something more about the book, won’t you? Like, are the essays observations on Hindi Cinema in general? Or are they about specific films? Are they a collection of reviews?


        • It must be doing VERY well. I’ve missed having my order with bookdepository filled AGAIN. I ordered on Nov 4, missed the first batch, and apparently also the batch they received last week. So while I’m annoyed that they didn’t order enough copies to meet all pre-orders, the obvious demand for your book is very encouraging


          • I’m sorry you haven’t received your copy yet, Stuart, but oh, your comment makes me feel so good. Thank you!! :-)

            And yes, I guess they hadn’t expected much of a demand – I know the total number of books exported was a meagre 30 copies. Hopefully they’ll be more optimistic the next time round!


    • Hey Neha, as Jai (Jabberwock) and pacifist have already mentioned, this isn’t the first time I’m getting published. ;-) But thank you for your enthusiasm!

      As Jai also mentions in his post, the writing in the book, while all on cinema, is very eclectic. Finnish cinema, Bangla cinema, Manoj Bajpai, Piya tu ab toh aaja, etc etc… and not reviews. Reminiscences, thoughts, opinions. Read through Jai’s post to which he’s linked: it’ll give you a good idea of what The Popcorn Essayists is all about.


    • Ahem.
      *is very embarrassed*

      Sorry Madhulika – it was really syupid of me to assume that this was your first published piece. Sorry!! But I am excited nevertheless! :)

      Thank you Jai for clearing that up, and the post! I am checking Flipkart right NOW.


      • Not stupid at all! It’s not as if I’m enormously famous or anything, is it now? ;-)

        If it makes you feel any better, I’ll admit to having asked TV personality Suneet Tandon, when he wanted my autograph on my book at its launch: “And what name shall I put on it? Sunil? Oh – Suneet? Do you spell that with an I?” Felt like a fool when he’d gone and someone told me who he was!


  5. So that is how a ‘vamp’ came into being – from a vampire! I can’t wait to read the rest of that article. Sadly, it does not look like Flipkart delivers outside of India. Will have to wait till some other site offers shipping to Canada.

    When is you next novel coming out? I’m really looking forward to more Muzaffar Jang.


    • The next novel is still some way off – perhaps winter 2012. But if you don’t mind short stories, there’s a collection of Muzaffar Jang short stories due for release in October this year. I must admit to thinking the short stories are better than The Englishman’s Cameo!


  6. Congratulations Dustedoff, that cover art is a KILLER, I love it. I’m not much of a reader but a book about bollywood i cannot say Nahin to, in fact the last book i bought was Helen by Jerry Pinto, and this seems very similar in vein. i checked flipkart and unfortunately they don’t ship abroad and I’ve noticed a lot of books in India don’t become readily available here for a very very long time, but i’ll surely ask a friend to pick it up or do so on my planned trip to India either sometime later this year or early-mid next year, its a long way away but with the way time goes these days, its something I’m really looking forward to


    • Just one little disclaimer, bollywooddeewana: Not all the articles in the book are connected to Bollywood. I do know of at least three that are about Bollywood, but there are others too which are about other forms of cinema from across India and the world – for instance, Bengali cinema or Finnish cinema. But I do hope you’ll get to read the book anyway, and that you like it!


    • bollywoodeewana: four of the pieces in the book (Madhulika, Amitava, Namita and Manil) are Bollywood-centred, plus there’s one piece about the Punjabi film Maula Jatt and another about Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik. And a couple of the others have references to Hindi cinema too.

      But *plug alert* if you’re interested in books on Hindi cinema, do also look out for my book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro ( – it’s part of a Harper Collins series on Indian films.


      • Finished reading the book on “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron”, and really liked it. This movie has always been one of my favorites, and glad to read about all the behind the scenes episodes/turmoil.
        ****Major Plug Alert****
        The drama theater where the Mahabharat Draupadi Cheer-Haran was supposedly shot (Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh), was formed by my maternal grandfather (Dr. A. N. Bhalerao) & his associates. I have seen several plays in there, including many famous ones starring Bhakti Barve.
        I have also heard from my family that portions were shot in another theatre, I need to confirm that.


        • Yes, I believe the book is very good. Maybe I will go and buy it one of these days!

          Interesting bit of information about that theatre, Samir. It’s been a long time since I saw Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, but somehow I thought that was a set in a film studio, not an actual theatre.


  7. Pingback: Cinema e scrittori: The Popcorn Essayists | Metropoli d'Asia

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