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.
I was born in an odd generation that somehow missed the Rajesh Khanna euphoria. I missed inheriting it from my parents, who had been young and film-crazy when Ashok Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand had been in their prime. And I missed being part of it; I was born just after Rajesh Khanna—who had one of the shortest-ever reigns of any superstar anywhere—had come to the last of his 15-in-a-row super hit films.
Yes, I admit it: I am not too much of a Rajesh Khanna fan. I like him alright; I think he’s gorgeous in films like Aradhana, and so very poignant in Anand. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to read a biography of the man. So, when I received a review copy of Gautam Chintamani’s Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (Harper Collins Publishers India, P-ISBN: 978-93-5029-620-2; E-ISBN: 978-93-5136-340-8; ₹499; 242 pages), I was a little ambivalent. I was not particularly interested in the life of Rajesh Khanna. On the other hand, this man had acted in some of the greatest hits of the late 60s, films that were both extremely popular as well as critically acclaimed.
That love for SD Burman has, instead of abating, increased over the years. With that love has arisen a deep admiration for the sheer versatility and genius of this man, without whom the face (or should that be ‘sound’?) of Hindi film music might have been very different. And much, much the poorer.
Not a surprise, then, that I should get so excited when I discovered that a biography of SD Burman had been published: Sathya Saran’s Sun Mere Bandhu Re: The Musical Journey of SD Burman (Harper Collins Publishers India, P-ISBN: 978-93-5029-849-7, E-ISBN: 978-93-5029-850-3, Rs 499, 258 pages). I had read about and heard various anecdotes about SD Burman over the years: that he was a prince of Tripura, of his love for paan and football, and how he skilfully drew inspiration from just about every type of music: Baul, Bhatiali, Rabindra Sangeet… to actually read a biography of the man himself was something I looked forward to with great anticipation.