This is the third biography of SD Burman’s that I’ve read in the past few years.
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?
At the risk of being labelled an iconoclast and being trolled by diehard Lata fans, I have mentioned several times on this blog how much I like Asha Bhonsle. It’s not that I don’t like Lata: I do, very much, and there are many, many songs of hers that I cannot imagine anyone else singing, or singing better than she does. But when I think of Asha, of Aage bhi jaane na tu and Saba se yeh keh do and Yehi woh jagah hai… I cannot help but think that Asha is too often unfairly dismissed as being second to her Didi.
So, when I was offered a chance to review Raju Bharatan’s Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography (Hay House Publishers India Pvt Ltd, ₹599, 332 pages), I jumped at it. (If you want to read a shorter and more tactful review, read the one I wrote for The New Indian Express, here).
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.
And she was blonde.
In all the years I’ve been writing this blog, one film maker whose name keeps cropping up every now and then—whose films I’ve reviewed, whose work I’ve commented on—is the brilliant Hrishikesh Mukherjee. From his editing of classics like Do Bigha Zameen, Madhumati and Chemmeen, to his direction of both popular hits like Asli-Naqli and relatively little-known works like Majhli Didi and Biwi aur Makaan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee has had a hand (and a mind and a heart, and sometimes—as I discovered when I read Jai Arjun Singh’s ‘sort of biography’ of the man—a house) in some of my favourite films.
I have Richard, over at Dances on the Footpath, to thank for this. Several years back, Richard had linked a blog post to a URL from where one could download Balraj Sahni’s autobiography. Since I’m a fan of Mr Sahni’s, I did so, promptly (which was just as well, since sometime later, that link went dead). What with this and that, however, I didn’t get around to reading the book until a week or so back—and then I wished I’d taken the time to read it earlier.
I know I’m a bit late to the party here; Anu had already written about Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s latest book over at her blog, and Harini reviewed it recently on her blog—but better late than never, I guess.
Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s book’s subtitle says it all: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs. They define ‘classic’ too, in the prologue to the book, where they discuss what is for me truly a classic, the brilliant Baabul mora, by KL Saigal. A timeless song, a song as capable today as it was in the 30s of touching hearts, of making people catch their breath in sheer awe at the music, the lyrics, the rendition—and a song with a story behind it: the story of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, ousted from his Awadh and sent away to Calcutta. A song rendered repeatedly by different singers, including some of the greatest voices. And the story, too, of its filming in Street Singer.
I have a confession to make: despite my love for cinema, I’ve never been too keen on film magazines. When I was a child, my parents never bought film magazines, and by the time I’d grown into my teens and had the freedom (and pocket money) to buy whatever reading material I chose, all my major interest in films had shifted to films made before I’d even been born.
As a result, I never knew of Filmindia (or, as it was later renamed, Mother India) until a few years ago, when I read, on Greta’s blog, about Baburao Patel and his film magazine, Filmindia. Reading excerpts on Memsaabstory from Filmindia (and, more often than not, snorting out loud at Baburao Patel’s irreverence), or gushing over the fabulous artwork, I couldn’t help but think: if there’s ever one film magazine I would want to read, it would be the erstwhile Filmindia.
When I heard that Sidharth Bhatia was going to be releasing his book on Baburao Patel and Filmindia, I knew this was right up my alley. Not so much for Baburao Patel (who, I had convinced myself, after having read some of his writing, I did not like—not a nice man), but for the art, the ads, the feel of the 30s, the 40s, the 50s. Even the 60s. The golden age of Hindi cinema. That—the cinema—was what I wanted to read about, what I wanted to see.