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Making Sense of Mithun
PANKAJ BUTALIA  14th Mar 2011

A still from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

ollywood may have been the predominant film industry of the last century but it wasn't written about seriously till the early 1950s, when a group of young writers (Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and others who were to become leading Directors of French New Wave Cinema) writing in the Film journal Cahiers du Cinema, started the trend of re-evaluating Hollywood. Within a decade their writing had overturned the paradigms with which American film had hitherto been seen. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray were rehabilitated within the concept of the auteur theory. Critical writings in the Cahiers du Cinema focused on the themes of their work as much as aspects of formal creativity, mise en scene, and the technological innovations in their work. Since then there has been no looking back and the last fifty years have seen the emergence of voluminous writings on the American film.

Something similar happened to what was till recently its lesser-known cousin, Bollywood. The early '80s saw some of the earliest serious writing on popular Indian cinema by sociologists like Ashis Nandy and Veena Das. Nandy's pieces were journalistic forays – attempting to understand, for instance, the notion of the double in mainstream Hindi cinema using sociology and a bit of psychoanalysis. Veena Das explored the phenomenon of the success of the cult goddess Santoshi Maa as manifest in the film Jai Santoshi Maa. The '80s also witnessed some of the earliest international writing on the Indian film industry, with Rosie Thomas writing on Indian cinema in Screen, the British Film Journal. Close up, brought out from Bangalore, contained some scholarly writing on popular cinema. Later, when Indian students started flooding American universities, popular Indian cinema became a choice area of research. Hordes of students, and later teachers, descended upon Pune where the National Film Archive is located, and Mumbai in the hope of finding 'new meaning' in the popular Hindi film. A small but growing group of film scholars like Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Madhava Prasad are actively engaged in pursuit of in-depth studies of Hindi cinema.

Today Bollywood is as much a part of the English language as Hollywood, though Bollywood is only a concept while Hollywood is both place and concept. Interestingly while most investigations into the popular American film have attempted to look at it within various critical traditions, writings on the popular Hindi film have by and large located it within the paradigm of cultural studies, looking at it as an anthropological artifact in an attempt to comprehend the reasons for its popularity. The spread of the Indian diaspora the world over has also fuelled the demand for Indian films beyond India's geographical borders. Books on Indian popular cinema are now regular features for publishing houses.

The latest entrant in this is Harper Collins (India), which has recently brought out three monographs as part of a new 'Film Series'.  Presumably these will be single film monographs of varying length and writing styles. The selection of authors of  the first three is indicative of the eclectic nature of the venture: a playwright-cum-popular blogger, a blogger-cum-journalist and a well known historian.

The problem here is that Pal says precious little. He attempts to re-present the film as a fresh script by fiddling around with the original, claiming this would bring out the latent comedy in the script.

Pal's desire to do the same for the memory of the film is noble, no doubt, because what matters is not the film one selects but what one has to say about it. The problem here is that Pal says precious little. He attempts to re-present the film as a fresh script by fiddling around with the original, claiming this would bring out the latent comedy in the script. He adds interviews with the filmmaker and Bappi Lahiri, and throws in a brief telephonic conversation with Mithun Chakravarty. Period. But what do we get from all this ? Nothing. The 'English-ization' of the text falls flat.  Even after four readings and a willingness to be indulgent, it was difficult to find anything even remotely funny, leave aside interesting, in the hundred odd pages that Pal devotes to his 'interpretation'. Nor do the interviews add much – other than a few gloats about how original the film and its music was and how much it deserved a place in history. We needed Pal to invest more in why the film worked – for him to believe in something which he could then convey to us. Sadly this doesn't happen.

or journalist Jai Arjun Singh (a columnist for this newspaper - Ed.) Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is an important film – oft ignored but deserving its place in our hearts and minds. After a brief introduction about why he feels the film is important, Singh delves into the story of how the film came about and how its protagonists, from director to actors to editors, got together to form a unit which got collectively involved in the film's madness. The book is, as the author says "a narrative non-fiction...part reportage, part analysis". But somehow it fails to motivate. No doubt every film, certainly every non-mainstream film made in India, has a huge story behind it, and sometimes one needs to be aware of what goes on behind the scenes of such exercises in filmmaking. Nevertheless, a book on it, and one which lays claim to also undertaking 'part analysis' needs to be more focused on how the material will be put together into one cohesive unit. Singh's book is not that. It travels too much all over the place.

Vinay Lal's 'Deewaar' is different. Cast more in an academic mould, it is an attempt to locate one of the seminal films of the past fifty years within its socio-economic context in order to see how its markers stand out compared to those of its contemporaries. Lal looks at the motif of the mother, the separated brothers, migration, the village and the city, and argues that while one or the other of these may have been present in many films before Deewaar, it is their coming together at this critical historical and cultural juncture which gives the film a special place 'in Indian cinematic history and popular imagination alike'. Lal's is an interesting summing up of a point of view that has been commonplace ever since the creation of the myth of Bachchan as the 'angry young man'. Some of these arguments were also present in Jyotika Virdi's article on Deewaar in Jump Cut in 1993. But Lal contextualises the film not just within its times but also within Hindi cinema of a similar kind. Lal makes complex academic arguments but presents them in a simplified, reader friendly form.

What is a bit disconcerting, however, are some casual throwaways, like the notion of dyadic relationships in concentric circles (dealt with by another review of the book), and also the notion that 'maine ma ka doodh piya hai' is intended to invoke 'sentiments of humility, piety and holiness'. Certainly my long association with this phrase has never allowed an interpretation even vaguely resembling this one!

Notwithstanding this, one wishes Lal had developed some ideas latent in the book: the ruptured family seen from the point of view of the Partition of India, or the relationship between the Salim/Jawed team and the powerful dialogue and delivery that was to become the signature of an authoritative Bachchan persona that nevertheless wore irony on its sleeve.

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