Friday, July 2, 2010

Bollywood Babylon, and two other books with Bollywood in the title

The term "Bollywood" is problematic but inescapable, as Rachel Dwyer notes in the introduction to her 100 Bollywood Films (BFI Screen Guides, 2005). It persists because it's a useful shorthand: other alternatives are clunky ("Hindi commercial cinema"), only partly descriptive ("Hindi cinema" ignores films in Urdu) or misleading ("Hindi popular cinema" conceals the power of media industries in shaping popular taste).

Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London, but her book is free of film studies jargon and is highly readable. As its title implies, it consists of 100 short (2-page) reviews of Bollywood movies from the early sound era to the present. The main criteria for inclusion are language (Hindi-Urdu), production and distribution (mainstream commercial), "importance in the history of Hindi cinema," and representation of the work of significant directors, stars, music directors, writers, and playback singers. Many of the films she chooses are obviously personal favorites as well. She excludes parallel cinema, so there are no films by, say, Satyajit Ray. Dwyer does find room for Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (1976), though not his Zubeidaa (2001), which featured major Bollywood stars and a score by A. R. Rahman.

Of course, no selection of 100 (I actually count 101) Bollywood movies can be comprehensive. I'd argue with some of Dwyer's choices, such as Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2001), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) (which she says "will be seen in the future as a landmark film"; I have my doubts), and Disco Dancer (1982)—all big hits, of course. I'd also prefer a chronological rather than alphabetical organization, but it's likely that Dwyer inherited the format from the other books in the series. On the plus side, names are indexed as well as titles, so it's easy to look up all of the films in the book that feature a particular director or actor. Especially if you're beginning to explore Golden and Silver Age films (movies released before 1980 account for nearly two-thirds of the entries), you'll find 100 Bollywood Films to be a useful compact guide.

Subhash K. Jha is a journalist, and it shows in the breeziness of the prose in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli Books, 2005), which covers about twice as many films as Dwyer's guide. Jha's capsule reviews are shorter than Dwyer's, but he packs a maximum amount of summary, analysis and context into a small word-count. The Essential Guide is also liberally illustrated with film and promotional stills, with a majority in color (100 Bollywood Films has fewer illustrations and they're all in black and white). Nearly every right-hand page also features a short sidebar focussing on a particular film or star. And while Jha includes only one pre-independence film (Dwyer discusses 9), he offers a substantial section on parallel cinema (22 films) and has entries for 18 films from the early 2000s (Dwyer includes only 5).

Jha divides his choices rather unhelpfully into genres among which the distinctions aren't always clear—for example, he includes three kinds of drama, "War Drama," "Family Drama" and just plain "Drama," with the last taking up fully half of the book. The "War Drama," "Historical" and "Action" sections are only four pages long, and (shockingly) the "Romance" section only covers 12 films. Better, probably, to have fewer and larger sections, or to simply arrange the films chronologically. Fortunately, there's a name and title index; unfortunately, the index doesn't indicate which page contains the major entry for a film (Dwyer's index prints the main entry page numbers in bold type).

Jha's book is a good choice for its sheer breadth of coverage and its author's obvious enthusiasm for his subject. Both Dwyer's and Jha's guides are now somewhat outdated, though, and I hope new editions are being prepared.

Finally, there's William van der Heide's hilariously mistitled Bollywood Babylon (Berg, 2006). Far from the lurid exposé that the title promises, the book instead consists of extensive interviews with writer/director Shyam Benegal. While Benegal has employed actors, music directors, and playback singers that have also worked in mainstream Bollywood, his films are generally classified as parallel cinema. They are often realistic, morally ambiguous stories of women struggling against the constraints of a patriarchal society. And Benegal has had the good fortune (or good taste) to work repeatedly with extraordinary actors, including Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.

The book is organized into chapters on Satyajit Ray, Benegal's beginnings as a filmmaker, his views on Indian cinema, and a film-by-film survey of nearly all of his work up to 2006. This approach is similar to Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, Revised edition, 1984) or José de la Colina and Tómas Pérez Turrent's Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel (Marsilio, 1992). And it offers similar rewards: you don't have to be an evangelist for the auteur theory to feel that a director has a uniquely important perspective on his own work.

Van der Heide is a knowledgeable interviewer, perhaps to a fault—he is sometimes so busy telling Benegal his own interpretation of Benegal's films, or elicting Benegal's response to the criticism and comments of other writers, that he neglects to fully draw out Benegal's own views. The interviews are presented as uninterrupted transcripts; all explanatory material is given in the endnotes to each chapter. Those endnotes are so extensive, though, that it might have been better to try to integrate some of them (the film synopses, for example) into the main text.

Still, if you are interested in Benegal's work or parallel cinema in general, Van der Heide's book is essential reading. It, too, though, will need updating, whenever Benegal decides that he's through making films. Although he's in his mid-70s he's still going strong, having released Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba! (2010) since this book was published.

15 comments:

  1. I totally NEED the Babylon book- sounds perfect!!! I love Benegal very very much, and I'd like to know what he was thinking, before changing his usual style with his last 2 movies. Thanks for the rec!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for writing up Bollywood Babylon! Shyam Benegal interviews are always interesting, and he seems to be a favorite with interviewers. I remember at least two books where he is interviewed and/or quoted extensively (Fantasies of a Bollywod Love Thief by Stephen Alter and Bollywood: A History by Mihir Bose). I wonder if its because of his extensive knowledge of Bombay film world, his accessibility to interviewers, or both!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Shweta, I'm a big fan of Benegal's, too, and Bollywood Babylon is a fascinating look at the process of making each of his films. I think you'll really enjoy it.

    I thought that the book would also answer some of the questions I had about some of his films--for example, whether Zubeidaa deliberately crashes the plane in which she and the Maharaja are flying, or who the father of Usha's daughter is in Bhumika. But in general when something in one of Benegal's films is ambiguous he means it to be so, and in the book he declines to resolve things one way or another.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What happened to the comment I left on Friday (or maybe Saturday)? Did blogger ingest it, or you did not "approve" it? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bollyviewer, my apologies for the delay in posting your comment--it wasn't forwarded to me by e-mail for some reason, and so I didn't see it until I logged on to write another post. I'll try to figure out what went wrong.

    I'll take the opportunity to say that the only comments I don't allow are spam, in non-Roman characters (probably spam), or are way, way off-topic (also probably spam--I sound like a Monty Python routine!).

    Thanks very much for mentioning the Benegal interviews in Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief and Bollywood: A History. I read and enjoyed Stephen Alter's book a few years ago; I'll have to track down Mihir Bose's.

    Online at the British Film Institute website you can read an interview with Benegal conducted by his friend and collaborator Girish Karnad. The interview is a retrospective of Benegal's entire career to that date (2002).

    You're right that Benegal is not only very knowledgeable, but is extremely generous with his time and a very gracious man. Thanks to another knowledgeable and gracious Bollywood fan, I was recently able to contact Benegal regarding some questions I had about Bhumika. To my astonishment (Well Done Abba! had just been released, and he must have been extremely busy) he responded immediately and in detail. I'm grateful for a chance to thank him publicly for his kindness.

    Thanks for your comment, and once again my apologies for the delay!

    Best,

    P.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for these. Haven't read any of them, but I'm notorious for checking out Bollywood-themed books from the library every chance I get, and shall be on the lookout now. Particularly interested in Dwyer's book.

    According to Jha, would the likes of DDLJ and KKHH fall under 'family drama' or just 'drama'? (Come to think of it, is there a term for 'romantic drama'?) See what 'I Hate Luv Storys' gets me to ask? :D

    Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I did not really think that you disapproved of my comment, just thought that blogger had swallowed it up, but thought I'll check, just in case... :D

    And I am so glad to hear that Benegal is as generous and unassuming as he appears to be in his interviews.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for posting that link to Shyam's interview. Very interesting to read. I am a fan of Shyam Benegal especially of his earlier movies like Ankur, Manthan, Bhumika and also Mammo. I also like Govind Nihalini's Akrosh and Ardh Satya.

    I may seen Well Done Abba sometime soon as my twin said that it is a good movie

    ReplyDelete
  9. Bollyviewer, my apologies for the delay in posting your comment--it wasn't forwarded to me by e-mail for some reason, and so I didn't see it until I logged on to write another post. I'll try to figure out what went wrong.

    I'll take the opportunity to say that the only comments I don't allow are spam, in non-Roman characters (probably spam), or are way, way off-topic (also probably spam--I sound like a Monty Python routine!).

    Thanks very much for mentioning the Benegal interviews in Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief and Bollywood: A History. I read and enjoyed Stephen Alter's book a few years ago; I'll have to track down Mihir Bose's.

    Online at the British Film Institute website you can read an interview with Benegal conducted by his friend and collaborator Girish Karnad. The interview is a retrospective of Benegal's entire career to that date (2002).

    You're right that Benegal is not only very knowledgeable, but is extremely generous with his time and a very gracious man. Thanks to another knowledgeable and gracious Bollywood fan, I was recently able to contact Benegal regarding some questions I had about Bhumika. To my astonishment (Well Done Abba! had just been released, and he must have been extremely busy) he responded immediately and in detail. I'm grateful for a chance to thank him publicly for his kindness.

    Thanks for your comment, and once again my apologies for the delay!

    Best,

    P.

    ReplyDelete
  10. theBollywoodFan, Jha classifies KKHH as "Drama" while DDLJ is in the "Romance" section. "Family Drama" includes Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! and Kabhi Kushi Khabie Gham, of course. It all seems pretty arbitrary. I think skipping categories entirely, as Dwyer does (especially since Bollywood films often gloriously combine action, comedy, drama, and romance) is the best strategy.

    Thanks for your comment!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Filmbuff, I haven't been able to see any of the films you mention except Bhumika, which I thought was tremendous. I'm really looking forward to seeing some of Benegal's other films. I'm particularly curious about the two films he did with Khalid Mohamed before Zubeidaa, Mammo (which you recommend) and Sardari Begum.

    Thanks for your comment!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I would recommend Ankur, Manthan, Kalyug (Sashi Kapoor's home prod), Junoon (Sashi Kapoor's home prod and set in British Raj days), Mandi, Mammo. Mammo is excellent and Farida Jalal has done a great job as the lead character in Mammo! She usually playes the role of a mom in many commercial hindi films like DDLJ (Kajol''s mom), KKKG (she is Hritik's nanny.

    I haven't seen Zubeidaa and Sardari Begum.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Filmbuff, many thanks for the recommendations!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Of the books mentioned i only know Jha's and find you sum it up perfectly - just like Jha manages to sum up a movie in two paragraphs. Even though i'd say that Jha's commentary is best enjoyed after viewing the respective movie.

    Read that you have a ban on Salman Khan. Wonder if you know about Jha's controversy with Sonu Nigam and plan on banning him too.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi, Hans:

    Sorry for my belated response to your comment, but I just reread this post and realized that I'd left it unanswered.

    No one is banned from E & I, whatever that would mean. I did write that "[Salman's] real-life violence against women (alleged, of course) has landed him permanently on the E & I blacklist" (in The Top 10 Bollywood Love Stories?). All that means is that I don't tend to watch or write about his films—with some exceptions, as longtime readers probably realize, such as Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (Secretly, Silently, 2001), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is Happening, 1998), and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Is Yours, 1999). Salman gets plenty of attention from other quarters, and I'd rather devote my energies elsewhere.

    As for Subhash Jha and Sonu Nigam, I was unaware of the controversy before you called it to my attention. For those who, like me, don't tend to follow Bollywood gossip, Nigam has accused Jha of making sexual advances towards him and then retaliating against him in print when those advances were rebuffed. These allegations, if true, would make Jha guilty of serious ethical lapses. However, as serious as these allegations are, I wouldn't equate them with violence against women.

    So no one is banned from E & I. However, I make no apology for following my personal tastes and preferences in choosing what and who to write about. I hope that clears up any misunderstanding.

    Best,

    P.

    ReplyDelete