Home > opinion > Lounge Opinion: Once upon a time in the movie business

A staple element of feature sections in newspapers is the flashback story, in which an actor or film-maker usually described as “yesteryear" emerges out of retirement and dredges up memories mostly fond and sometimes unpleasant. Such stories make older readers immensely happy, provide a breather from the vacillating fortunes of the celebrities of the moment, and offer excuses to republish black and white pictures and dewy eyed reminiscences of a bygone time, which is inevitably better than the present. Nostalgia and unquestioning adulation fog the brain like nothing else, and stock phrases pop up regardless of the subject in question. Things were so much simpler and nicer in those days. Outdoor location shoots were like picnics. We were all one big family. Film-making was a passion, not a business.

Those “yesteryear" luminaries have now cottoned on to the fact that their experiences count for something more than a 500-word weekend story. Many of them are writing their memoirs or dictating them to ghost writers, family members and admirers. The defining feature of the faded marquee name—mystery—is disappearing one publication at a time. Hema Malini has one, as do Bob Christo, Vyjayanthimala, Leela Naidu and Amrish Puri. Even sound designer Resul Pookutty committed his life story to the page, and he has been on the planet only 42 years. Naseeruddin Shah, Mahesh Bhatt, Asha Bhosle, Sharmila Tagore and Rishi Kapoor are all in the process of travelling back in time with the help of a keyboard and willing collaborators and publishers.

The biography, both the comprehensive and selective kind, continues to be published. Waheeda Rehman shared her experiences with Nasreen Munni Kabir in a book-length interview (Excerpt | Conversations With Waheeda Rehman), as have Gulzar, Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman and Javed Akhtar with the writer in the past. Vinod Mehta’s fan book on Meena Kumari was recently reissued. Mohan Deep’s scurrilous accounts of the love lives of Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Rekha continue to be in circulation. There have been biographies on the Kapoors, Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Pran, Manmohan Desai, Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal, Abrar Alvi, Yash Chopra, Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman, K.L. Saigal, Om Puri, Madhubala, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Dev Anand through the journey of his family banner, Navketan. When journalists or professional biographers fail to rise to the occasion, kin step in. The family members of Prem Chopra, Mohammed Rafi, Bimal Roy and Chetan Anand have published books on them.

The recent impetus behind the memoir appears to be a combination of a push from publishers to populate their catalogue with movie-themed titles (and organize a star-studded book event) and a pull from film families to restate their contributions to the business. It’s not a coincidence that some memoirs are by celebrities whose children and extended clan members are also in the trade. A mid-career memoir can be the perfect excuse to drum up publicity, rekindle interest in a moribund family production company, and launch a stardom-eager son or daughter waiting for a swing of the spotlight.

The memoir spins, by its very definition, on memories that can be unreliable and unsubstantiated. The lack or absence of honesty, wisdom and perspective are hardly surprising in the circumstances. It is futile, churlish even, to demand distance or objectivity from the film celebrity memoir when admirers and family members are involved. Such endeavours are, by definition, self-regarding, but sometimes maddeningly so. The memoirs of Hema Malini, Vyjayanthimala and Prem Chopra, for instance, shed little insight on the movie-making process. There is enough material in these tomes to please fans, and juicy titbits on this and that movie or film-maker, but for deeper explorations into the role of female stars or the movie villain’s evolution, we have to turn to the often turgid writings of academics.

Do we know more about Hindi movies through these publications than we used to? The answer is a tentative yes. The history of popular cinema has suffered from inadequate note-taking and poor preservation of materials such as photographs, diaries, scripts and box-office records, leaving the field open to anecdotal rather than factual stocktaking. We now have more accurate names, dates and anecdotes with which to decorate long-form journalism, party conversations and obituaries. We have more trivia at hand, if not insight, into the process of rolling out a mainstream picture.

In the absence of a comprehensive and objective history of the movie business that goes beyond fond anecdote and chronology, the “I was there too" variety will have to do. One of the more adventurous books in this category is by Bob Christo, the bald-headed and burly Australian actor who was a dependable criminal sidekick in 1980s cinema. Flashback: My Life And Times In Bollywood And Beyond, published after he died in Bangalore in 2011, is an engaging look at the movie business through the eyes of a minor player. Christo showed the same gumption in recording his journey as he did in travelling to India in the late 1970s after having worked on the sets of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and crooned in a band. He was in Mumbai in 1977 on a stopover while waiting for a work visa for Muscat, which is when he was spotted and cast as a villain in Sanjay Khan’s Abdullah. Characterized by frankness and a fondness for tall-tale telling, Flashback is a quintessential yarn about the intersection of luck and chance, and the kind of sideways glance at Hindi cinema that we need more of.

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