THE DREAM MERCHANTS
Of all the stories in this delectable collection edited by Jerry Pinto, Pritish Nandy's interview of the late Kishore Kumar in a 1985 issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India has to be the craziest. Ranging from anecdotes of his eccentric ideas for refashioning his bungalow (he wanted little boats floating around his living room and monkeys farting from the ceiling instead of fans!), to how much he hated the film world — "I muffed my lines, pretended to be crazy, shaved my head off, played difficult, began yodelling in the midst of tragic scenes, told Meena Kumari what I was supposed to tell Bina Rai in some other film but they still wouldn't let me go" — it's one surreal piece.
Pinto's love for the movies and their makers is evident in his inspired introduction (brief but vivid descriptions from films like Krishna Shah's Shalimar are side-splitting funny), his selection of writing goes from serious analysis like Mukul Kesavan's essay on the Islamicate roots of Hindi cinema to a gratifying chapter from Madhu Jain's book on the Kapoors which speaks of the Showman in love. "Raj Kapoor has famously — and rather callously — said that his wife was the mother of his children and Nargis the mother of his films."
Thirty seven essays, most of them extracted from previous publications, are divided into six parts and offer a taster's menu of Bollywood. Anecdotes and experiences of the stars themselves, the making of iconic films, film music, gossip, ringside views and finally, fiction, this truly is the stuff our cinematic spectacles are made of, with a little bit of everything; authentic entertainment that makes you laugh and cry as you breeze through its pages.
Everyone's sure to have their pick depending on their biases and mine has to be Vinod Mehta's ode to Meena Kumari and Chhoti Bahu. Referring to her as "my heroine", "my tragedienne" he traces her journey from playing the iconic character in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam to, tragically, embodying it in real life. Ashraf Aziz's erudite piece on the female voice in Hindustani film songs comes a close second, where he analyses how Lata Mangeshkar infantilized (his italics) the female voice thus breaking the magic spell of the femmes fatales who held sway over film music in pre-Partition India. "Whereas the voices of the earlier singers were imbued with daunting sensuality (indeed, passion), Lata's voice had a 'neutered' sound. Hers was (and is) a desexed voice -- she sounded like a prepubertal adolescent." Amen.
Still on the nightingale, Dada Kondke recalls how, during the course of his relationship with Asha Bhosle, he would flit between both sisters' houses and each of them would grill him about what the other said of her!
But there's some semi-serious trivia too. Like how Sholay 'flopped' on its release as critics and trade pundits made doomsday predictions for what was then the most expensive film ever made in India (The Fall And The Rise of Sholay, Anupama Chopra). Two Views Of Guide has Dev Anand and R K Narayan recounting varying, nay contradictory accounts of the same episode, leaving the reader to judge who to believe.
And for the seamier side of Bollywood, turn to Suketu Mehta's The Struggler And The Goddess about his encounter with a youth who gave up his family's flourishing cloth business in Dubai to come to Bombay to become a star and ultimately, after years of knocking around, had one landmark film to show for it — Jai Mata Shakumbhari Devi. Poignant and witty at once, it finds its protagonist vacillating between hope and despair as he is humiliated on a routine basis, turns overly superstitious and neglects his health and well—being in pursuit of his dream.
The pick of the fiction is, without doubt, an extract from Ismat Chughtai's A Very Strange Man, a thinly veiled reproduction of the Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman affair. But facts are sometimes even stranger as Ram Kamal Mukherjee's Marrying Hema (extracted from Hema Malini: Diva Unveiled) proves. So for those uninitiated in film gossip of the '70s, you'll now have a chance to find out how Hema Malini almost married Jeetendra, and how Dharmendra gate-crashed the wedding and stole his bride away!