What brings a scholar, a popular blogger and a film-maker-playwright together? Monographs. It sounds like a limp punchline, but for HarperCollins India this is serious business.The publishing house is ready to release the first three monographs—short, single-subject books—of a new series on Indian cinema next month.Each book will cover a classic Indian cinema: Film scholar and academic Vinay Lal writes about Deewaar (1975), blogger Jai Arjun Singh offers a perspective on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and comic writer and director Anuvab Palpeels back the layers of the script of Disco Dancer (1983).
“In India, we see a lot of scholarly filmwriting that is inaccessible to most readers one end, and, on the other, you have glossy books about film stars or coffee- table photography books,” says Saugata Mukherjee, the series’ commissioning editor. “We wanted to publish a varied group of writers, not only film scholars or professional film critics, but good writers who are serious about filmand enthusiastic about film writing.”
While exceptions to Mukherjee’s categorizations exist—critic Anupama Chopra’s books on Sholay and Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge come to mind—it is rare to find popular writing on Indian cinema that isn’t the work of industry insiders. In a culture where newspapers expect readers to look at movie reviews only for the “star rating”, or for an objective idea of whether the film is good or bad, and in an industry which is often openly hostile to criticism and film journalism that is largely occupied with Bollywood gossip, a series that considers cinema at book length is a valuable entry point for readers keen to delve into films they love.
For Lal, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and who is currently teaching at Delhi University, the approach remains scholarly in that “you have to unsettle conventional views of the subject at hand. I wanted to make complex arguments accessible.Deewaar is a film that has entranced me for the longest time, and about which I’ve wanted to write for the last seven or eight years”. His book departs from the tone of his earlier academic essays in which he has written about the film, but ideas remain the currency. Lal’s sophisticated, elegant arguments about how the film reflects a culture’s changing textual traditions and changing social relations in independent India bring vibrant new ideas to a much-discussed classic.
The motivations of Pal’s book on Disco Dancer—which picks up partly from an ironic article on the film he wrote for Lounge in 2007—are a little different. “You can write or talk about good films because presumably all the messages and aesthetic choices that you see woven into the film have been put there of choice by the film-maker. But for me, writing about film was a chance to write about one of my favourites, and the worst movie of all time, Disco Dancer.”
“There have been so many biographies and studies that fling disjointed bits of information at the reader— one chapter doesn’t flow naturally into the next, it’s all so haphazard; the assumption seems to be that the book will be read in the same way that a film magazine is read,” says Singh, who, like the others, had written about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro earlier, on his popular blog, Jabberwocky. “I’ve tried to write this book as a narrative non-fiction with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s part reportage, part analysis, but I’ve tried for a certain lightness of tone.”
Pal and Singh met the principal members of cast and crew for their books— Singh to investigate “the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) ethos” that informed Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, among other things, and Pal to assemble an array of script fragments and drafts, gleaned, with generous help from Disco Dancer’s makers, from an era when a bound script was rarer than a subtle hairstyle.
It is a promising start to what may turn out to be an inspiration for a new wave of writing and criticism related to Indian cinema. Singh has been working simultaneously on a film anthology, to be published by Westland Press early next year, to which authors contribute essay-length considerations of films that are important to them. The contributors include novelists Manil Suri, Kamila Shamsie and Anjum Hasan.
Mukherjee will not commit to a definite number of volumes in the series, although he is “thinking of rounding up a baker’s dozen”. He has writers and projects in mind for cinema from Bengal and the south, spaced out for publication over the next couple of years. It is a fine way to connect thoughtful writing and movie-going, two preoccupations that have been at odds too long in Indian popular culture.