Will Masala Prevail?

The filminess of a film book is critical to its success. Do these three recent books get the plot?

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro:Seriously Funny Since 1983 Jai Arjun Singh, HARPERCOLLINS INDIA, 272 PAGES, Rs 250 {{name}}
01 April, 2011

MASALA. That’s the word that springs to mind when I try to describe the first three books in the HarperCollins film series. Taken as a set, they contain all the elements of a good Bollywood film. There is drama; heroes and antiheroes; the cult of the ‘Maa’; a humour track that doesn’t always have much to do with the main plot; pathos; hard-to-believe connections between characters and events; and unstinting social commentary.

Jai Arjun Singh’s take on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY) is the one that, in structure, most resembles a script. It is the story of how such a savagely brilliant, madcap film got made at all, survived the frightening mainstream cinema over the 1980s and 1990s, and acquired cult status in the new millennium. Singh begins at the beginning—with director Kundan Shah’s slow, unplanned drift into cinema, his lucky acceptance into the Film and Television Institute of India, a description of his student film Bonga, which won him the regard of his friends and contemporaries, including Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Kaushik, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Renu Saluja, the editor who is credited with having given JBDY its final shape. Singh leads us next to the experiences of Shah’s friends and Shah’s anger at our dysfunctional civic systems, which soon became the basis of the first draft of a script.

In each chapter, the plot moves forward—government funds are miraculously offered, dialogues are written, actors are persuaded, locations are found, lives are risked on the very first day of shooting, meals are skipped because there is no money, precious footage is lost, the editor does her best, and finally, the film sees the light of day!

Singh has approached the book with the hard-soft silicon love that many of us have for Hindi cinema, along with the quiet intelligence of a journalist who is invested in finding out what makes a good film tick, what it might have been, what it escaped being and who made it happen.

All JBDY fans know of Kundan Shah, of course, while Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah need no introduction. Talented actors and directors win a place in public memory easily enough. This is rarely true of film writers. In this case, few of us know of the role played by Ranjit Kapoor, of the National School of Drama, who transformed an early draft of an English screenplay into what became JBDY. It is a delight to find out just how this happened.

The book is dotted with trivia that would leave any film buff panting for more, such as an account of the bits that were cut out, including scenes involving a talking gorilla, which might have appeared in a borrowed werewolf’s costume if only another film director had been more generous. Readers become privy to delightful details like the one about a wall outside Kundan Shah’s house reflecting how the script progressed, since Kapoor was staying there and he chewed paan. This book is just the thing a JBDY fan needs.

Deewar: The Footpath, the City and the Angry Young Man Vinay Lal, HARPERCOLLINS INDIA, 190 PAGES Rs 250 {{name}}

A lot of the material here is of the kind that could have gone into the ‘making of the film’ add-on that DVD buyers have now come to expect. Singh tells us how the film did, how it was funded, how it was cast and how each person somehow slipped into the groove he or she best fitted. He pays special attention to the intensity of social critique, highlighting terrible moments written into the script such as the one where a businessman persuades a beggar woman to throw a child before an oncoming car, just to illustrate a point about the nature of profit.

VINAY LAL TOO LEANSHEAVILY towards the social critique embedded in the script of Deewar. The book begins with a discussion of the 1970s Emergency era, workers’ unions and their frequent shows of strength. Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay is a product of that time, not just because he plays a dockworker, but also because his father is a union leader who ends up betraying the striking workers. Vijay’s loneliness is exacerbated by the city and the choices he has been pushed to make.

Lal discusses Deewar in the context of other films, including Gandhi, Zanjeer (which first cast Bachchan in the angry young man mould) Waqt, Awara and Shree 420. He also mentions a village-city divide in Hindi cinema, which I don’t find very relevant. Vijay and his family probably came to Bombay from a smaller city, not a ‘village’. Indian villages rarely had (or have) factories with striking unions. This is an urban narrative through and through. There is no village at the heart of Deewar.

The Mahabharata is always in the background, of course. Brother is pitted against brother and fratricide is inevitable, as is the mother’s suffering. Readers are presented with the difficulty of deciding what is good, because Bachchan’s

Vijay is not evil. He is a scarred fighter, a lawbreaker but not a goon.

From a cultural history viewpoint, Lal’s book is interesting. He dips into colonial India’s contract system, into the problems of legal systems that value written contracts above social relations. There are multiple ‘signature’ scenes in the film, all of which he discusses at length. These are valid and necessary observations about the country and the way popular imagination was shaped. And yet, the writer seems to have employed just a little more jargon than the average Hindi film buff might have bargained for. Semantics and semiotics form the bulk of this work; there are references to the ‘Jungian notion of archetypes’—not quite what a non-cultural historian fan wants from a book about a film like Deewar.

The filminess of a film book is critical to its success. Unfortunately, there is almost no trivia to feed the hungry fan’s soul. There are no special interviews with the principal cast or crew, not even with Salim-Javed—perhaps the last celebrity scriptwriters in Bollywood in the last millennium.

Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Deewar. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

The book also neglects to provide key insights into the specifics of the filming process; nor does it discuss the happy coincidences that allow any truly great film to go from paper to screen. It is as if the author doesn’t really care that much about Deewar or its cult status. He is more interested in the realities that enabled the fiction; the fiction itself holds little excitement for him.

INTERESTINGLY, ANUVAB PAL’S TREATMENT of Disco Dancer suffers from the reverse problem. The author seems interested in why it was so successful. He describes it as “a thing you laugh along with over drinks, like a movie version of karaoke”. He also makes it very clear at the outset that his book is not an academic study on 1980s cinema. Instead, it is an attempt to find “another movie buried under this famous one”. So he rewrites the screenplay in English with humorous notes peppering the action.

There are curious, amusing details that Pal has spotted, such as the one about the faces in the crowd being the same in two different sequences. The ubiquitous cult of the mother is celebrated and mocked. Trivia hunger is also partially satisfied through the interviews later on, when Pal goes to meet Bappi Lahiri and discovers several garden gnome-like replicas of the great man himself. Lahiri’s astonishing—and unfortunately amusing—correlation of his ‘Rambha ho’ number with AR Rehman’s Oscar-winning ‘Jai Ho’ is a revelation. The author’s Mithun chase is also amusing: he almost doesn’t get the interview and that too a phone interview.

Disco Dancer: A Comedy in Five Acts Anubhav Pal, HARPERCOLLINS INDIA, 182 PAGES Rs 250 {{name}}

While the treatment of the film is light, there are bits that remain heart-wrenching despite Pal’s attempts to lighten the script. There’s nothing particularly funny about a good woman going to jail for a crime that didn’t happen, or a talented young man having his legs broken by hired goons. The rags-to-riches fantasy is not particularly laughable either. At least, it is no more laughable than Hobbits and wizards, or the fantasy of a Pretty Woman prostitute finding true love with a rich, handsome bloke.

It would only be fair to make a confession at this point: I grew up on a diet of Hindi films and danced to ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ as a kindergarten kid. There is clearly a gulf between Pal’s world and mine. He seems to hold the view that Disco Dancer is the worst Hindi film ever made. I actually liked it.

The author says in the Introduction that, in a way, he too is a disco dancer, but the tone of the book doesn’t convey any empathy for the characters or their motivations. It does not discuss the cast, the ones who shimmer true right through their gift-wrapping costumes. There is no discussion of what went into making the film, the budgets, the crew or even the costumes.

A scene from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. {{name}}

Fans of the film, or even film scholars, may have been interested in learning who designed the costumes and whether shiny wrapping paper was indeed used. Another major lacuna is the lack of interviews with the choreographer, or other contemporary choreographers, and with the singers of the film’s popular numbers. It seems unforgivable not to have tackled the dancing and singing when writing about Disco Dancer.

The book does contain phrases like “thrusting loins aimlessly” to describe the dance movements, which seems a tad uncharitable considering that in this country, loins have not stopped thrusting even into the new millennium, and the aims thereof are still being speculated upon. Also, in at least two different places, the word pelvis has been put down as ‘penis’.

Disco Dancer fans might be disappointed by the lack of actual behind-the-camera information or gossip. Although director B Subhash is interviewed (one learns that he seems to shun sunshine), there is little information about his background, or what his contemporaries thought of his work.

Pal refers to the global impact of the film, including the remarkable development of having a Japanese shrine dedicated to it, but attributes its success to the lack of better entertainment options, or compares our enjoyment of Mithun’s disco-dancing stardom to our enjoyment of Mr Bean. He says the filmmakers failed, that the failure was spectacular because they tried to show disco balls and the Sun & Sand Hotel to signify ‘posh’ lifestyles. However, he doesn’t realise that hotels were posh for most Indians. For the Indian who didn’t go to Columbia University, the very word ‘disco’ was posh. It probably still is.

The author believes that “no one wants to be a disco dancer now because we know what success and fortune look like”. I would suggest he switch on his television set. Thousands of ordinary Indians seek nothing more than to become gift-wrapping clad, pelvic-thrusting, singing-dancing stars, baring their lives to their nation in exchange for a crumb of approval and a million SMS votes.

Mithun Chakraborty in Disco Dancer. {{name}}

Pal can be devastatingly funny, but he makes the mistake of buying into the “young, hip, entrepreneurial capitalist nation” twaddle. We are a semi-urban nation that sits for the Civil Services exam while slyly dreaming of being on Dance India Dance, where we would probably weep if Mithun Chakraborty hugged us. Disco Dancer indeed will prevail, but not because the film was tacky or funny. As Pal himself says, Disco Dancer will prevail because it is only in the dancer’s ambition that we can we truly see ourselves.

Each of these authors’ approaches to the films that they have written about are actually obvious from the subtitles. Singh considers JBDY seriously funny and thus takes a serious look at its madness. Pal looks at Disco Dancer as essentially funny, while Lal considers Deewar through the prism of the grit that allows the poor to survive in cities, and the anger that informs their lives.