Hindi cinema. “Bollywood.” Whichever name you prefer to use, the film industry is here to stay. The movies are shown all over the world in South Asian-market movie theaters and even in select mainstream complexes. But sometimes, it’s just not enough to go to the theater and spend three hours with our heroes and heroines. Or to rent or purchase a new movie. Or to renew a subscription to Filmfare. Sometimes, we Hindi film fans just need to go where the movies themselves can’t take us. That’s when we turn to books because they take us behind the screen, beyond the scenes, and between the frames.
As the number of books published on the subject of Indian or Hindi cinema increases, we are able to spend more quality/Bolly-ty time diving into the filmi fantasy factory. “But what’s available? And where can I find them?” you ask. To help answer those questions, the following is a guide to 15 books that sit on what I call the “casual” side of the bookshelf rather than the scholarly side. Certainly, the scholarly books provide a wealth of information regarding social, religious, or cultural issues found in Hindi cinema, but they are less driven to satisfy the fan who looks to the films for entertainment or as a postcard from home.
The business of entertainment is carried out by inventive people who create the films you see. The fate of these people and their projects is determined every Friday with a declaration of “hit” or “flop.” Box-office disaster, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the film is poorly-made, bland, or structurally unsound, as Ashok Banker reminds us in his book Bollywood. An essential tool for the Hindi film fan, Bollywood covers what Banker feels are the 50 most important Hindi films produced between 1913 and 2001. This pocket pal, written with a fervor for Hindi cinema, provides for each film a concise synopsis, background of the major players, production details, and highlights that, in the author’s opinion, make the film wonderful. In addition, Banker shares the reasons why the film was significant to the development of Hindi films—how it introduced a technique, started a trend, advanced technology, or otherwise changed the face of the current standard. His discussions of each film are so energetic and informative that he inspires the reader to see as many of the 50 films as possible. This is a fun-to-read, invaluable, and educational resource.
Nasreen Munni Kabir, in her book Bollywood—The Indian Cinema Story, zeroes in on the defining elements of “Bollywood” or Hindi cinema. The book is a treasure because she regularly steps back to make way for lengthy quotes from the people who make the movies. Spiced with excerpts of interviews from her documentaries and television productions for Channel 4 in England, we hear from actors, directors, designers, choreographers, singers, musical directors, critics, and stunt directors. “If you have to name five basic ingredients that your Bollywood film must have,” states Karan Johar, “I’d say: glamour, emotion, great interval point, a hard-hitting climax, and every kind of entertainment you can put into the film.” (p. 22) With the global market being an important factor in the success of Hindi films, NRIs certainly are not forgotten by filmmakers: “The Asian abroad is getting more assertive,” according to Mahesh Bhatt. “He wants to celebrate his status, he doesn’t want to emulate the white man any more, he is not apologetic about his likes and dislikes. He is today unashamedly saying, ‘I like bhangra, and I like Hindi film music, and I like Shahrukh Khan more than I like Tom Cruise.’” (p. 216). Covering everything from action and romance to mythologicals and cheap, churn-’em-out horror by the people who know the details, this oversized paperback is perfect for those who want a crash course in what Hindi cinema is all about.
From Bhawana Somayaa, the former editor of g Magazine and the editor of Screen Weekly, come two more “Bizstory” books. In Salaam Bollywood—the Pain and the Passion, Somaaya recollects her climb in the Hindi film rag-mag world and her dealings with the industry’s personalities. A nice touch is that some of the stories are augmented by articles she wrote. While it is a tell-all book, it is one with a healthy respect for the people she talks about. She never sensationalizes the events. The stories are told without sordid details; they are told gently and focus more on the aftermath, the tolls taken by the stars. There are no graphic images to conjure up, no side-taking allowed. Even when the author discusses a star’s failings, outbursts, or strangeness, she does so without judgment. Salaam Bollywood is a comfortable book from a three-decade insider who has interviewed, befriended, and known many stars. Rather than looking down from an ivory tower, Somayaa happily shares her experiences with the reader.
The Story So Far—On Screen, Off Screen was conceived and edited by Somayaa and sponsored by Lux soap. As a year-by-year reference guide, it serves as a chronicle of Hindi cinema from its beginnings through 2002. The “On Screen” section for each year lists the hits, the flops, the debuts, who’s in, who’s out. The “Off Screen” section lists the historical milestones, awards, achievements, events, deals, marriages and other mergers, and passings of the year. Color and black-and-white photos grace the book, as do bonus tear-out postcards of Lux lovelies such as Tabu, Madhuri, Raveena, Juhi, Aishwarya, and other actresses who don’t require the baggage of a last name. While there is a fluff second section, the third is a milestone section that further examines each decade by top film, top stars, music, landmarks, box office trends, and general trends. This is a book that can be absorbed in one sitting, or it can be referred to again and again.
THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE BUSINESS WHAT IT IS
There are many books on Hindi film personalities, but they are not about the “new kids” or flavor-du-jour types. These biographies speak of longevity, history, innovation, and change. Urmila Lanba, in her book Life and Films of Dilip Kumar, provides a captivating biography of a man who not only influenced the film industry over several decades but was one of the first actors to see social change as a cause of daily life. From Kumar’s beginnings in Peshawar as Yusaf Khan to today, Lanba shows us the private man who would become a legend both onscreen and off. Her narrative deftly entwines his personal history with his film history. Black-and-white photos from his films and off screen are sprinkled throughout the book, and a full filmography is found at the end. Bonus: To make this book fully accessible to English readers, Hindi and Urdu words are translated.
Javed Akhtar is as well-spoken and thoughtful as his screenplays and lyrics are well-written and meaningful. As one-half of the prolific writing team that gave us Sholay, Don, Zanjeer, and Deewar, and as one of Hindi cinema’s most poetic lyricists, he speaks candidly about writing for Hindi films with Nasreen Munni Kabir in her book, Talking Films: Conversations on Hindi Cinema with Javed Akhtar. Raised in a literary environment, Akhtar came to Bombay in the mid-1960s to be a director. Instead, he and Salim Khan revolutionized screenwriting with Sholay. More recently, he has concentrated on film lyrics, and in his conversations with Kabir, particulars and peculiarities about working with various musical directors are revealed. Some of his dialogues and lyrics are transliterated in Roman script; translated-to-English lyrics are a bonus. A complete filmography and discography to 1999 impress upon the reader the magnitude of his contributions to the industry. Will this influential writer ever become the director he once aspired to be? Read the book to find out.
The Rupa Charitavali Series presents quick-read biographies of major figures in Indian history. From politicians to kings, philosophers to artists, freedom fighters to sports stars, the series highlights the subjects’ lives, achievements, and character. Raj Kapoor (The Great Showman) and Aamir Khan (Actor With a Difference) represent the Hindi film industry. Both books, written by Lata Khubchandani, were published in 2003. The book on Khan is a near-gushy-mushy look at one of India’s finest actors. There is nothing in-depth, nothing revealing or shocking in the text. However, fans of the actor will enjoy the book for the many pictures and for the story of the quiet-but-prank-playing boy who became the producer and star of an internationally-lauded film. The author’s book about Raj Kapoor looks at the man with less sugar coating but maintains a high level of respect. She is quick to point out the secret of his success: “His films were mega blockbusters, had memorable songs, magnificent themes, and glorified the common man. They were pure and simple entertainment.” (p. 7) Looking at the Interesting Facts and the two filmographies (RK Studios’ films and “outside” films), it is little wonder that Raj Kapoor remains “The Great Showman” even today.
From Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai to Zeenat Aman and Zubeida, Stardust Magazine’s coffee-table book, The 100 Greatest Stars of All Time, devotes a page or two or three of words and pictures each to 100 of the Hindi film industry’s greatest stars. According to editor Ashwin Varde in his introduction, there was a methodology used for the selection process: “Factors taken into consideration were the star’s popularity and status at the box office, range of histrionics, the hit-flop ratio, and most importantly, the kind of impact the star had on the industry as well as the audience in general.” The book’s USPs (“Bolly-talk” for Unique Selling Points) are that it is perfect for generating conversation, and it is, like The Story So Far, the type of book you can come back to for quick-takes more than once. Sadly—but understandably—it is weighed down by ads. Nevertheless, it remains an enjoyable addition to a fan’s library.
The Angry Young Man. Superstar. Star of the Millennium. Icon. In his fourth decade as an actor, Amitabh Bachchan has earned those titles and more. For his 60th birthday, wife Jaya presented him with her project: To Be or Not to Be Amitabh Bachchan by Khalid Mohamed, a 400-page tribute. “My silences are misconstrued as moodiness. I don’t have many scintillating topics to discuss anyway,” Mr. Bachchan says—amusingly so—in the 168-page interview section. “I’m not a great talker, communicator, or conversationalist. It’s presumed that film stars are arrogant. Hardly. I haven’t come across any film star who’s arrogant. The way we behave is linked to the way we work. We open ourselves to the public 18 hours a day. We are expected to behave the way the public wants us to. If we crave solitude, that immediately sets off a reaction that we are moody and starry.” (p. 200) And open himself to the public he does in this comprehensive look at his life, loves, and career as they combine to reveal the man behind the name. From childhood and school memories to his film successes and failures; from his near-death experience to his tangle with politics; from his philosophy of acting to his coping with myasthenia gravis; from his business dealings to his love of family, Bachchan speaks frankly and without the constraints of a public relations machine behind him. The result is a chronicle as huge as his impact on Hindi cinema continues to be. Adorned with personal photos, on- and off-set photos, artwork of and about Bachchan, and publicity shots that record his transitions over the years, this book doubles as a love letter from his family: “Pa keeps insisting that he is an average actor even though the rest of the world believes otherwise,” son Abhishek says in the “Tenderness, Togetherness” family-written section of the book. “Perhaps he follows the maxim that the softer you speak, the harder they listen. Like any son, I consider my father to be flawless.” (p. 313) A flawless man or not, the bottom line about this particular biography is this: If you are a fan of Amitabh Bachchan and have $100 or more to spend, spend it on this book.
THE FILMS THEY MAKE
“The Making of …” feature on DVDs is a popular addition to the viewing experience, but it’s a limited medium. Enter the books that detail the birth of a film from conception to pre-production through filming, post-production, and release. Coffee-table books are often the presentation of choice because they are visually impressive. The Making of Asoka by Mushtaq Shiekh and The Making of Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham by Niranjan Iyengar are no exceptions. Both are gorgeously-appointed books that cover the day-to-day goings-on, the creative process, the cast and crew, the designs, the problems encountered, and the subsequent trouble-shooting required. Color photos to cherish, tidbits, confessions, tales from on- and off-set, plus production notes enhance the “you are there” feeling. Where the Asoka book is regal, the K3G book is lavish, each perfectly capturing the tone of the films.
In contrast, Anupama Chopra’s book, Sholay: the Making of a Classic, is a simple paperback with occasional photos. Written as a chronological narrative, the book drives home a story of innovation, confidence, and dedication to a project that had all the earmarks of failure. Despite a poor box office start, Sholay emerged victorious in changing the way Indian films looked, sounded, and felt. History was made. This book relives that history and, in some ways, is a more captivating story than the film itself.
AND PEOPLE WHO HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT THE BUSINESS, THE PEOPLE, AND THEIR FILMS
All right, so the final two books are by English writers. But wait! They are people who have had an intimate relationship with Hindi cinema. Justine Hardy saw Hrithik swagger into a bar, and her life changed. Chris England didn’t know a thing about Bollywood, but when he was cast in Lagaan, he learned that the world is indeed a small place.
Justine Hardy’s Bollywood Boy is a flip, irreverent, and honest tale of the author’s obsession with the then-new heartthrob—Hrithik Roshan—and the filmi folks she encounters during her hunt for him. At times she leaves you wondering if she likes Hindi cinema at all or if she just considers Hrithik the “holy grail.” Whichever it is, buckle up for a wild ride to places in and around Mumbai you never thought you’d go, from looking for a once-upon-a-time movie star in the local red-light district to hanging out at the hippest clubs with aspiring actors and directors. Conversely, Hardy illustrates the vast chasm between the larger-than-life screen fantasies and the poverty enveloping so many of those who crave them. Meanwhile, Hrithik survives his father’s shooting, the Nepal “statement” brouhaha, his wedding, his post-Kaho Na … Pyaar Hai films, and the rumors, while the Mumbai mafia makes Bollywood headlines. Although the book is non-fiction, it could easily be made into a Hindi film.
For a lighter look at the Hindi film industry, Chris England’s Balham To Bollywood tells his tales of spending 10 weeks in Bhuj as a member of Lagaan’s British Army cricket team. England offers up a humorous, fly’s-eye look at the experience of filming far from the family, friends, food, sports, and conveniences an Englishman relies on. From his audition with other amateur cricket players (most of whom, like England, are actors by trade) to the film’s premiere in London, the author’s narrative displays his slowly-developing affection for the film’s talented cast and crew, the colorful people of Bhuj, and Aamir’s promise of a British vs. Indian cast/crew cricket match. The book is a delight to read and appeals to film fans, travel fans, and cricket fans alike. On the serious side, the books also promotes The Oxfam Relief Effort in Bhuj and Gujurat with facts and response alternatives.
From the business to the people to their films, you now have 15 recommendations to get you reading. Many of the books mentioned can be purchased through Amazon.com, Booksamillion.com, or Amazon.co.uk. Performing a web search for sellers of “Bollywood” or South Asian books will yield more alternatives. If you have access to a community that supports a South Asian shopping district, such as Chicago’s Devon Avenue or Artesia’s Little India, chances are there is a bookstore or two in which browsing is encouraged and special orders are welcomed. And as I prepare once again to scour the shelves of India Bookhouse in Chicago, I wish you happy hunting and even happier reading.
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Jeanne E. Fredriksen is from Chicago, where she juggles an odd series of jobs so she can afford to buy books and movies and to write about the things she loves. Many thanks to Mahesh Sharma of India Bookhouse, 2551 W. Devon Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659 for his kindness and assistance with this article.