Friday, January 21, 2011

Another Prick in the Wall

When I had first heard that Harper Collins was starting a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, I rejoiced. Two of the authors were spot on - Jai Arjun Singh (on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron) and Anuvab Pal (on Disco Dancer). The third book of the series was on Deewaar - which is my third favourite film of all times, of all languages.
I loved Jai Arjun's take on JBDY enough to pre-order the other two books. The Deewaar book got delivered day before yesterday and I finished in two days. For all the wrong reasons.
One, it was a short book - more like an extended essay. Second, I had to get to the end to confirm that the book is indeed as bad as I thought after reading the first 20 pages.

Because on page 15, I came across this line: "That spell, I have merely hinted, arises from an awareness of the multifarious ways in which Deewaar simultaneously works upon mythic material, contemporary narratives of the nation-state, a profound rootedness in Indian culture, histories of the self, the architecture of memory, and even, if I may hazard this phrase, 'autobiographies of the street'." WHAT THE EFF?
In the page just before that, I found the following words: dyadic, Lacanian psychoanalysis, id, ego, super-ego.
On page 85, we have: "Whether or not the apotheosis of motherhood has attained in India scarcely matched elsewhere, it is arguably true that Indian civilisation has always had a substratum of matriarchy, certainly antecedent to the patriarchy that is far more characteristic of Indian society today."
And the piece de resistance (on page 93): "Writing is the harbinger of hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power; and the signature is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft."
What, in God's name, is the author trying to say? Apart from 'I conned you into paying 200 bucks'?

Maybe I am getting this all wrong. Maybe I should not be seeking 'stories' in this book but 'interpretations'. Maybe this book is meant for film scholars only. How else do you explain these Ulysses-like sentences that go on for 6-7 lines on an average?
In that case, my grouse shifts from the author to the publisher.
Why the hell did you publish a breezy, episodic story about the making of JBDY in the same series as a jargon-laden treatise about an even more popular film - Deewaar? Why is there a 8-page description of Emergency in a book meant for - presumably Indians?

The author has not met any of the stars, writers or director of the film. He has chosen to pontificate and speculate on things that any of them could have answered.
For example, he has written a 145-word footnote on the significance of the number 786. If only he had asked any of the two Muslim gentlemen who wrote the film, we would have had a readable book.
There are pages and pages of 'subtext analysis' - including a (unintentionally) hilarious one on the film being a disguised Partition story. Apparently, Pakistan is the 'errant brother' increasingly going towards lawlessness! Unbelievable! To be fair to the author, he is 'not inclined' towards this theory despite knowing that the director was born in pre-Partition Lahore (along with, of course, half the directors of Bollywood of that age).
Oh - there is a chapter called 'The Art of Writing' which is all about the symbolism of the signature in Deewaar. Anandbabu signing on behalf of the workers, Vijay signing to buy his mother a skyscraper, Ravi asking for his brother's signature. Amazing!

According to the blurb, the book 'assesses Deewaar's unique space in world cinema'. There is a 3-page description of a 1931 film called Public Enemy (which had similar plot points) but no mention of Deewaar's international release in a dubbed version - I'll Die for Mama. Where did it release? How did it do? How did the Western audience react to intense Indian emotions like mother-worship? No mention.
It talks about the film's 'unrivaled popularity' but it never tries to explain why the film is still so popular despite mothers and moral standards having changed completely in the intervening four decades? Has the author heard of a film called Aatish - where the story is similar to Deewaar, except that the mother sides with the errant son?
Has the author noticed that all of Yash Chopra's directorial ventures for other production houses (Dhool ka Phool, Waqt, Deewaar, Trishul, Parampara) have missing father figures or estrangement from fathers as a key element? His own productions don't ever have them. Has he thought it would have been a good idea to ask Mr Chopra about this?

Just because the previous book of the series had many stories about the script development, shooting and the actors, it would be unfair to expect the same from this one as well. But surely, it wouldn't be too much to expect that author would give us some sense of the mental states of the lead contributors of the film - to know their inspirations and motivations.
Instead of peddling pompous theories, the book would have given some real insights. And it would have been far more interesting.

I once read Khuswant Singh saying that he got his inspiration to write from bad books. Great books scared you into thinking "Oh my God, I am nowhere as good as this". Bad books, on the other hand, made you think "Hey, even I can do better than this".
The only positive thing about this book is that I felt the same way.
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