The 1936 Hindi film Jeevan Naiyya begins with a telephone conversation. An engaged couple, very much in love with each other, whispers sweet nothings on the phone. It’s all a bit awkward, and the young man in particular comes across as distinctly uncomfortable with all this koochie-kooing. This is not quite the mellifluous, effortless romance of a Jalte hain jiske liye, but it is, in its own way, a landmark scene. Because this is the very first onscreen appearance of a young actor who went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars: Ashok Kumar Ganguly, better known simply as Ashok Kumar.
Three years ago, celebrating lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s birth centenary on my blog, I wrote that it was a tough ask to select just ten songs from the more than two thousand that he wrote in the course of a film career that spanned a whopping five decades.
For a blog post, restricted (admittedly by its writer) to just ten songs, that can be a challenge; but it is also a challenge for a full-length book to do justice to a colossus of the size and stature of Majrooh. It’s not even as if, when discussing Majrooh, one could get away with just talking about the songs he wrote for Hindi cinema: to be able to portray, with any veracity, not just the poetry of Majrooh but also his personality, the man he was, the work he did, how he thought—all of this requires a lot of research, a lot of organization and careful planning.
Manek Premchand’s Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet for All Reasons (Blue Pencil Publishers, 2021) is an ambitious project, an attempt to capture, within the pages of a book, the life and career of one of Hindi cinema music’s greatest personalities.Continue reading
On 31st March, 1972, a Good Friday, Meena Kumari died, after a long and painful battle with cirrhosis of the liver. She had been admitted to St Elizabeth’s Nursing Home in Bombay on 28th March, and died three days later surrounded by the people who had played an important part in her life, both personal and professional. Her sisters Khursheed and Madhu; her estranged husband Kamal Amrohi; and various luminaries of the film world, including Begum Para and Kammo, from whose house the Aab-e-Zamzam (holy water from Mecca) was fetched to be spooned into Meena Kumari’s mouth as she was dying.
Over the next few days and weeks and months, Meena Kumari’s name dominated Hindi film news. Her magnum opus, Pakeezah, had just been released, having been 15 years in the making; Meena Kumari’s death served to make the film a success: thousands went to watch Pakeezah simply as a way of paying tribute to the much-loved actress. Praise was lavished on ‘India’s greatest tragedienne’ and there was much speculation about who, really, was responsible for her lifelong misery, and the alcoholism that had finally taken her life. People who had worked with her—co-actors, directors, and others—paid homage.
And Vinod Mehta, based on the success of a book he’d already written (not a biography) was asked if he would be up to writing Meena Kumari’s biography.Continue reading
The first Soumitra Chatterjee film I saw was Charulata (1964). I had known of Soumitra Chatterjee before, had known even of his stature in Bengali cinema; but this film was my introduction to him. And what an introduction it proved to be.
Even now, several years down the line, I cannot claim to have done justice to Soumitra Chatterjee’s filmography, not even to his most famous phase of the fourteen films he did with Satyajit Ray. I have seen some films, of course, including Aranyer Din Ratri, Samapti (the third part of the Teen Kanya trilogy of short films), Kapurush and Sonar Kella from among Ray’s works, and a few by other directors, such as Barnali (which I watched a few weeks back, when Chatterjee passed away). My relative lack of familiarity with Chatterjee’s work made me a little nervous about reading his biography: I wondered if I would be able to understand all the nuances, whether it would not be too much for a Chatterjee-ignoramus like me.
Some weeks back, I received an e-mail from someone named Joe Jordan, who wanted to know if (since I had reviewed The Desert Rats), I would like to have a copy of his book about the film director Robert Wise.
I rarely turn down an offer of a book, unless it’s something that I absolutely know will not be my cup of tea. But a book about classic cinema? I said thank you to Joe, and waited for my copy of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures.
I watched Guide for the first time when I was about twelve or so. Till then, all the Hindi cinema I had watched was predictable, comfortable, simple enough for a pre-teen to know what to expect. Or so I thought.
Because Guide defied every norm I thought I understood. Heroes, not even when they were the anti-hero Dev Anand had played in earlier films like Baazi, Kaala Bazaar or House No. 44, did not go anywhere near another man’s wife. Heroines, even when they were married off against their wishes to men other than those they loved (as in Dil Ek Mandir, Gumraah, or Sangam) stayed true to their marriage vows and sooner or later left their past behind (I was to watch Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke only much later). They absolutely did not leave their husbands and start living with another man.
And heroes did not die. As when I watched Anand, when I watched Guide too, I kept thinking, “This isn’t it. He isn’t dead, he can’t be dead.”
Several years later, I had to study RK Narayan’s The Guide at school, and I pretty much knew what to expect—but once again, I found myself surprised, because the book was in many ways different from the film. The book had won its author the Sahitya Kala Akademi Award (the first book in English to win the award), and the film won accolades by the handful—and continues to do so, fifty-five years after it was released. It has been analyzed, discussed, derided, lauded. Personally, other than for its music and Waheeda Rehman’s dancing, I have never really liked Guide much—but even I, when offered the opportunity to read this collection of essays about Guide, couldn’t resist it. Partly, perhaps, because I hoped to be able to discover what fans of the film saw in it that I didn’t.
When I began this blog, it was with the intention of reviewing films, and doing the occasional song list. I had never read a book on cinema, and had no real interest in doing so, either: my perception of the genre, so to say, was a world of sleaze: biographies laying bare lives about which I did not want to know the sordid details.
I am happy to say that, over the years, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve read several biographies, of film personalities all the way from Balraj Sahni to Fearless Nadia, Mohammad Rafi to Kidar Sharma, Asha Bhonsle to Rajesh Khanna to Nasir Husain—and most have proven entertaining, informative, and definitely non-sleazy. A hat tip is due to biographers like Akshay Manwani, Sidharth Bhatia, Gautam Chintamani, and Jai Arjun Singh.
… and to Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, whose biography of RD Burman was the main reason I wanted to read this, their biography of Pancham’s illustrious (and, in my opinion, even greater than his son) father, S D Burman. S D Burman: The Prince Musician (Tranquebar, Westland Publications Private Limited, 2018; 344 pages; ₹799; ISBN 9789387578180) is an exhaustive detailing of the career of S D Burman, beginning from his days as a singer in Calcutta, till his death—while still far from having hung up his boots—in 1975.
In the nearly ten years this blog has been in existence, I’ve reviewed hundreds of films. Including many, many Hindi films. Some have been big hits, others so obscure that even fairly faithful followers of my blog, seeing the name of the film in their RSS feed, have probably decided my review didn’t even merit a visit.
But there are also the (to some) glaring omissions. Every now and then, someone wonders why I’ve never got around to reviewing some of the most iconic Hindi films of the pre-70s period. Mother India. Guide. Pyaasa. Devdas. To them I say that I fear I will not have anything to say that somebody or the other hasn’t already said, and probably in a far better and more informed way than I could.
Among the films about which I’m asked, again and again, is Mughal-e-Azam.
This one is a somewhat more puzzling omission from my list of reviews, given that I am deeply interested in Mughal history, I am very fond of Madhubala, and that the film really does have near-cult status. So much so that it was even the first full-length film anywhere in the world to be digitally coloured for a theatrical re-release (in 2004). But what would be the point of me writing about Mughal-e-Azam? Almost anybody who’d be interested enough in the film to read my review of it would almost certainly have already seen the film, and chances are, would know not just the story, but would have decided and definite views about much of the rest of the film, too: the characters, the songs, the dialogue, the historicity (or lack of it).
All of this, too, was in my mind when I began reading Anil Zankar’s Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2013; 200 pages; Rs 250). I was intrigued: what would Zankar have to say about a film so well-known?
In the early 1940s, my mother (then a toddler) and her family lived in Amritsar. My grandfather used to work in Lahore: he was the sound engineer at the HMV recording studios there. Nana would commute everyday between Amritsar and Lahore, and one day, when he got back home in the evening, he told my Nani, “Today I heard a very young man with a wonderful voice. He will go places.”
My grandfather was the one who recorded the first song sung for cinema by that young man. A few years later, Nana could proudly say that he had heard Mohammed Rafi sing that day in the studio, and that he had recorded the song.
Mohammed Rafi. Rafi of the golden voice, Rafi of whom it was said (by many of his contemporaries) that he had a voice given by God himself. While I love the voices of Hemant and Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar and Talat (and many others of that period), and while I cannot imagine anybody but Hemant singing Tum pukaar lo or anybody but Mukesh singing Woh subaah kabhi toh aayegi… Rafi is special for me. If pushed to the wall and made to name one singer who’s my favourite, I would have to concede that it’s Rafi.
This is why I got pretty excited when I saw Sujata Dev’s Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen (ISBN: 9789380070971; Om Books International; Rs 595; 238 pages). A biography of Rafi? It was worth a try.