People in Hindi movies don’t read many books. When you do see a character with a book, it’s often just another accessory: as meaningless as the brand of sunglasses they’re wearing, or the kind of sofa in their living room. Sometimes the book in a person’s hand seems incongruous—think of Nushrat Bharucha’s Chiku, the spoilt, screechy caricature of an upper-class young woman in Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, holding a copy of Marjane Satrapi’s plucky graphic novel Persepolis. Sometimes, though, book-spotting can be more fun, when the choice of title is meant to function as shorthand for a character’s personality, or as a sideways comment on a situation.
In the 1965 hit Jab Jab Phool Khile, for instance, when we meet the protagonist Raja, a poor Kashmiri boatman played by Shashi Kapoor, he proudly displays a shelf of classics in his houseboat to a guest, Rita, played by Nanda: “Ismein Tagore hai, Shakispeer ... aur Munshi Premchand hai. Bahut accha log hai ismein, memsaab!” But the memsahib merely rolls her eyes. A little later, we see Rita—her high-heeled feet on a divan and a string of pearls around her neck—absorbed in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a 1950s American novel about a man’s sexual obsession with a young girl. The besotted boatman, slate in hand, cajoles her into giving him Hindi lessons, and the two later begin an unlikely romance. But once you’ve seen that book in Rita’s hands, you know that this modern woman will soon find herself struggling to deal with this traditional Indian man.
A more recent instance of book-as-comment occurs in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, when Tara (Deepika Padukone) picks up a half-read copy of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 from the floor where Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) left it the previous night. Strangers in Corsica, they have embarked on a fling on conditions of impermanence and anonymity. Her quick, knowing smile on reading the book’s title suggests an internal dialogue, an unspoken note to herself on their predicament. She checks the flyleaf for a name. (If there had been one, their agreement would have fallen through—as would have half the film’s plot.) But all she finds is a stamp from Social, a fashionable “urban hangout” with branches in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Years later, that remembered stamp becomes Tara’s clue to finding Ved.