By Utpal Borpujari
In India, cinema means big budgets, multiplexes, foreign locations, et al., especially in the popular idiom. In the arena of mainstream cinema, often technology becoming more important than the story itself. Examples there are galore, the recent ones being disasters like Love Story 2050 and Drona. But this is now. There was a time when masters devised new ideas, improvised technology and simply poured passion into moviemaking, creating enduring images that even now are able to mesmerize the viewer.
Unfortunately, the lay viewer of today virtually knows almost nothing about the life and times of these masters who laid the foundation for what is now the world’s biggest movie industry in terms of sheer number of films made every year if not in terms of revenue generation.
Leave aside the critical analyses of work of top filmmakers, or the gushing tomes written about top stars of the day by hagiographers – there have been a large number of both, some highly readable, some nausea-inducing idol worship full of saccharine coatings – and we virtually have seen no concerted effort to introduce past greats of Indian cinema to the new generation of lay film viewers.
There was a time when movies by the likes of a P C Barua, a Sohrab Modi, a Guru Dutt or a Mehboob Khan would take the breath away. But they were people who were in their prime prior to the media, particularly electronic media, explosion. Quite naturally, while their names are taken with reverence, adulation and admiration, not much is known about their lives. Particularly so, if you – as a lay film lover – would want to know a little bit about the environment that contributed to their work and personal lives that invariably influenced their creativity to a great extent.
A series of books, simply titled The Legends of Indian Cinema, seeks to feel this void, bringing to readers handbook-format biographies of some of the greatest film personalities from the past. Published by Delhi-based Wisdom Tree and with veteran film critic Aruna Vasudev as the series editor, the authors of the six books are film historians and critics in their own right. But quite remarkably, each book is a simple recounting of the life and times of the chosen persona, with no trace of academic jargon.
“There is so much of Indian cinema that young people don’t know about. They virtually don’t know about the great people that made Indian cinema what it is today. And while there have been a lot of books about film personalities and their work, we don’t have a handbook sort of series for people who would love to learn about our cinema but might not be interested in picking up a voluminous book,” says Vasudev explaining the concept.
The first six books of the series are on P C Barua, Mehboob Khan, Sivaji Ganesan, Guru Dutt, Sohrab Modi and Shammi Kapoor. Written by Shoma A Chatterjee, Rauf Ahmed, S Theodore Baskaran, Rashmi Doraiswamy, Amrit Gangar and Deepa Gehlot respectively, they relive the times lived by these people and how their surroundings influenced their work. The authors have extensively researched to bring out the compact books, accessing material from various sources including the National Film Archives of India. “It is very important to know your past to have a better understanding of the present. We should be proud of these great people. Also, there are film study courses in so many universities now, but not much material is available to study about past filmmakers,” Vasudev says.
“How many of us know that it was P C Barua who had introduced jump cuts in Indian cinema, something that is used so frequently by directors like Ram Gopal Varma today, to introduce a sense of tension to viewers? Or that the use of light in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, that we commend so much, was something that was devised by the Russian great Eisenstein 70 years ago?” she says, explaining why knowing film history should be an important for any film lover.
The whole project concept revolved around keeping the books simplistic, so that they can reach the most lay lover of cinema. “This series is meant for people who are interested to know about our cinematic history but might not be interested in picking up a thick book,” says Vasudev.
Shammi Kapoor is the only living person to be featured in the first six books, and some might argue that greats like Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor could have been featured before him. But Vasudev has an explanation for that, “People know a lot about Raj Kapoor, Ray, and even Prithviraj Kapoor as there have been several books on them. Shammi Kapoor was a star in his own right, and his life has been very interesting, but people don’t know much about that.”
The series, says Vasudev, would continue to focus on other greats of Indian cinema in the same format, taking them to the masses. “We have another 7-8 ideas ready, but it is for the publishers to take it forward which they will decide depending on the response, which I have been told has been quite enthusiastic,” she says. “If the response is good enough, there could even be translations of the series in various Indian languages,” she says.