Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bollywood: A History

A monsoon-drenched Rekha in Utsav (The Festival, 1984)
The development of Hindi cinema offers an abundance of fascinating material to any writer. Studios such as the Hindustan Film Company, Bombay Talkies and RK Films were built on their founders' visions of possibility, willingness to take risks, tireless labor, and sometimes ruthless business practices. One of the biggest stars of the 1930s was a big-boned blonde woman named Mary Evans who did her own acrobatic fighting and horseback-riding stunts as "Fearless Nadia." Heroes such as Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand came to Bombay without connections or experience, and within a few years became screen idols worshipped by millions. Amitabh Bachchan, a gangly outsider who had once failed a voice test to become an announcer for All-India Radio, was cast as the lead in Zanjeer (Chains, 1973) after four better-known actors turned down the role; his searing performance made him a superstar.

So while the still of Amitabh's frequent co-star Rekha on the cover of Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History (Tempus, 2006) was certainly arresting, I picked up the book because of its back-cover claim to be "the first comprehensive history of India's film industry." Unfortunately, the hopes raised by that description were dashed almost immediately. Bose's book is superficial, partial, and reads as though an unedited first draft was mistakenly sent to the printer.

An early warning sign was the repetitive writing. At the beginning of the first chapter, we are told the story of a woman at a screening of the Lumière Brothers' film "'Condeliers' Square'" leaping to her feet because it appears that a "hansom cab" is about to burst through the screen (pp. 38-39). Then, on the very next page, we hear about a Lumière showing in which audience members seeing "L'Arrivée d'un gare de la Ciotat…vacated their seats in a hurry" in fear that an arriving train will crash through the screen. Was it the hansom cab, the train, or both?

Repetition is only one problem; the book is also filled with errors, typographical and otherwise. In the stories about the Lumière Brothers, for example, the titles of both films are misstated (the second one nonsensically), and there is no hansom cab in "La Place des Cordeliers" (not "Condeliers"): there is a horse-drawn streetcar and a delivery van, but no hansom cab, as you can see for yourself. Neither story is given a source, so there is no way to judge the credibility of the reported audience reactions. Repetition, errors, and vague sourcing remain issues throughout the book.

Names are frequently misspelled: the Hollywood actors were Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, not "Mathau" and "Lemon" (p. 256); the Hollywood producer of Algiers (1938) was Walter Wanger, not "Wagner" (p. 138); Shashi Kapoor's wife Jennifer's actor father was Geoffrey Kendal, and the drama award named after him is the Kendal Cup—neither is spelled "Kendall" (p. 270).

Worse than careless spelling, though, is Bose's carelessness with facts: actor Hrithik Roshan did not appear in Karan Arjun (1995), but instead served as an assistant to his director father Rakesh, so the film can hardly be "notched up" among Hrithik's "blockbusters" (p. 347). The name of Rekha's great 1981 courtesan film is Umrao Jaan, not Umrao Jaan Adda—the latter is the title of Mirza Hadi Ruswa's 1899 novel on which the film was based—and it does not quite tell "the story of a thirty-year-old abducted and sold to a brothel" (p. 235). Bose writes that "Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was shot largely in Scotland," a claim that is true only of its title song (p. 349).

Writing of playback singing, Bose states,
In the 1930s and 40s, it was the norm for actors and actresses to both sing and act…But within a decade this breed completely vanished, so totally that cinemagoers of today's Bollywood would struggle to believe they ever existed…Bollywood had created a divide between singing and acting which has never been bridged. (pp. 93-94)
That this practice had "completely vanished" by the 1950s would come as a surprise to actor-singers Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar. Major contemporary stars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan have all on occasion done their own playback singing. Further examples abound; while playback singing remains the standard practice, this is hardly "a divide…which has never been bridged." Here is Amitabh singing the Holi song "Rang Barse Bheege Chunarwali" from Silsila (1981):

For a description of the film, including the significance of this scene, please see my post on Silsila.

Bose claims that an early Indian filmmaker, Dundiraj Govind Phalke, was "far ahead of his time" (p. 53) when in the credits of his 1919 film Kaliya Mardan he showed the faces of his actors dissolving into those of their characters in full makeup and costume. However, this practice was widespread in the silent film era: for example, it occurs in Louis Feuillade's Fantômas serial of 1911-1913.

Bose is not a film historian or critic—his background is in sports and business journalism, two fields that are prone to hyperbole—and it shows when he commits errors of overstatement like these. But Bollywood: A History is also filled with non sequiturs and garbled grammar. Here are some examples, chosen pretty much at random:
Page 132: "Like Ashok Kumar, but perhaps even more so, he [Dilip Kumar] taught himself acting…" So Dilip Kumar is even more like Ashok Kumar than…Ashok Kumar?

Page 266: "It may be a coincidence that 1969, the year of Bachchan's debut in films, was also the year Indira Gandhi made her decisive turn in Indian politics, a few months after Bachchan's arrival in Bombay but, nevertheless, it is of some significance." Or not.

Page 299: "Yet, if the Indian media was easily cowed down during the Emergency, one of the most fascinating aspects of that time was that it came just as many things were bubbling away, which was to determine the course of Indian life for the decades ahead." Was it?

Page 344: "If Aamir Khan is the modern-day Raj Kapoor, although very different in many ways, then Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim born in New Dehli on November 2, 1965, and, like Aamir, married to a Hindu, Gauri Khan." Lucky Gauri!
Of course, occasional misspellings, grammatical awkwardnesses and factual errors are inevitable in any book-length project (this blog certainly has its share), but the sheer frequency of these problems in Bose's book is unacceptably high. And while omissions are perhaps inevitable, missing entirely from Bose's history or receiving only glancing mentions are such major heroines as Helen, Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz, Sridevi, Mala Sinha, Shyama, Neetu Singh, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, and Rani Mukerji, among many others. Also, Bose's discussion of dance—a highly significant element of Indian musical films—is very brief and wholly inadequate.

So Bollywood: A History is poorly written, sloppily edited, and narrowly conceived. Surely there's a recent one-volume history of Hindi cinema that's written in a lively style, is well-sourced and credible, and which gives appropriate emphasis to both the men and the women who have created and sustained this film industry. Isn't there?


  1. Thanks for the review. I would have bought this.

    1. Jean, you would only have been following the same cues of packaging and marketing that I did, but I think you'd have been equally disappointed. I confess that after reading the book's interminable and pointless prologue and repetitive, ungrammatical and unsourced first chapter, I put the book down thinking that I would never pick it up again. I don't enjoy writing negative reviews, and life's too short to read badly-written books. But I decided to persevere mainly so that I could give fair warning to other Bollywood fans who might encounter this book by chance (as I did). There's obviously a huge need for a good history of Bollywood; I'm just sorry that Bose's book isn't it.

      Thanks for your comment!



    2. Well if you ever see one let me know! I've bought a couple of Bollywood books for the library I work in, but they're more movie guides. I'd love to see a good history, and also solid analysis. (I've seen some kind of iffy analysis, but not much that I've really liked...)