For someone who didn’t know of Soumitra Chatterjee till fairly late in life, I fell under the actor’s spell pretty fast. Initially (as I mentioned in this review of another Soumitra Chatterjee biography) seeing him in Charulata, I liked him well enough to want to explore more of his work. I watched him then in various other films, and always, so far, with admiration. His versatility, the way he manages to mould himself to believably depict such different characters: exemplary acting.
So when another Soumitra Chatterjee biography—Amitava Nag’s Soumitra Chatterjee: His Life in Cinema and Beyond (Speaking Tiger Books, 2023)—came to me to read, I wasn’t averse to the idea. Perhaps Nag would have something different to say about the subject?
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.
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.
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.
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 won’t go so far as to say that Helen was the first Hindi film actress I remember seeing (that would be Shakila, since CID was the first Hindi film I remember watching). But I distinctly remember being about 10 years old, watching Chitrahaar, and being very excited because an old favourite of mine, a song I had till then only heard and never seen, was going to come on (in Chitrahaar, there would always be a sort of intertitle between songs, a single frame in which the name of the next song, the film it was from, and the names of the music director, the lyricist, and the singer(s) would be listed).
This song was Mera naam Chin Chin Choo, and my feet were already tapping when it began. All that frenetic movement, those men in sailor suits dancing about. The energy, so electric that it even seemed to transmit itself to the musicians. The infectiousness of it all.
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.
… 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 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.
I don’t recall exactly when I realized who the Hunterwali really was. Myth, fictional character, movie character: I had no idea, but—even as a child—I had vague memories of references to a feisty woman who went about cracking a whip (thus, ‘Hunterwali’—the ‘woman with the whip’). A particularly fearless, sharp-tongued woman would jokingly be referred to as Hunterwali, and I always thought it was a generic appellation. Not something derived from cinema, at any rate.
This, mind you, well into the 80s.
Then, somewhere down the line, I discovered the truth: that Hunterwali was a blockbuster hit film from the 30s, starring an actress named Fearless Nadia. The visual—I think it was a grainy photo in an old magazine or newspaper—was enough to explode all my ideas of what old Hindi film heroines (till then, for me, always sari-clad and melodramatic) were supposed to be. This one wore shorts and a clingy top. Her boots were no-nonsense ones, she wielded a whip and she generally looked super badass.