Golden oldies, no songs

November 21, 1997

SO MANY CINEMAS: The Motion Picture in India. By B. D. Garga. Eminence Designs, Bombay, 320pp. Available at Pounds 49.50 from Asian Bookshop, 112 Whitfield Street, London W1. ISBN 81 900602 1 X.

Indian cinema, for the film buff in the West, has always been a bit of a joke - singing and dancing, nautch girls, flying carpets, melodrama, the unlikely and the improbable. It was only after the arrival of Satyajit Ray four decades ago that these fixed ideas began to change. Ray, rooted in his own culture and at the same time acutely aware of the culture of the Occidental world, became a "film ambassador". From the late 1970s, thanks to the international film festivals, a serious interest in Indian cinema began to grow, and other names such as Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, G. Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan came to be recognised and appreciated worldwide.

What is surprising, in view of this, is that no good and well-illustrated books have been published on the history of the Indian cinema. There was Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy's Indian Film (1963, revised in 1980), which is a dry tome despite its considerable scholarship, without colour or high-quality illustrations. Then, in 1995, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen produced an Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. Sadly for this pioneering effort, it was severely opinionated and riddled with jargon and inaccuracies.

B. D. Garga was among the first to realise the importance of the contribution Ray was making to Indian cinema, and the first to make a documentary film about him (in 1963): it was a revelation, in which Ray was shown at work on the sets, guiding his team firmly but unobtrusively despite major technical limitations. Garga's sumptuously produced book is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the small number of significant surveys of Indian cinema. He has a passion for anything old, and so almost half the book is a fine reconnaissance of turn-of-the-century and early 20th century films in India. His great love for the early days of the silents and the talkies is evident, and his treatment is readable and informative.

The text is supported by some rare stills. The frontispiece is a beautiful hand-coloured picture of Padma Devi in Prithviraj Sanyogita, produced in 1933. Yes, she is the same Padma Devi who, 25 years later, played the zamindar's wife in Ray's The Music Room, and then, nearly two decades later, the aged madam in Ray's The Middleman. Other unusual photographs include a still by Charles Urban of the Delhi Durbar in 1911, a photo of one of the earliest film-makers, Gopal Torney (who produced a film in 1912), and a beautiful portrait of Bal Gandharva as a popular female lead (no date). Since at that time women did not appear in films, Gandharva set the fashion in women's dresses, and men raved over his gracious charm! Also memorable are photographs of D. Billimoria (the most popular male star in silent films), the Anglo-Indian star Sulochana (Ruby Meyers), and a full-page sepia-tinted photo of Zubeida. These are further complemented by numerous posters and advertisements ranging from the poster of the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931), to the mega-hit films of the 1990s.

The silent era was an exciting period in cinema, when the language of the medium was being discovered. From 1915-30, some of cinema's most expressive artists were made: India, too, had its share of pioneers although they may not have done as much as their colleagues abroad. D. G. Phalke (1870-1944) will always be remembered, for he was the first innovator of Indian cinema and its first auteur, who made the first real Indian feature in 1913. One must also not forget Baburao Painter (1890-1954), the mentor of V. Shantaram (1901-1990), one of the leading directors of the silent era, Dhiren Ganguly (1893-1978), a maker of comedies, and Ardeshir M. Irani (1886-1969), who introduced sound and colour to Indian cinema, all of them competent craftsmen.

These chapters easily impress with the author's formidable knowledge of the first four decades. After that, sadly, Garga appears to slip, and not to care. His responses become trite and conventional, and there are lapses that are most surprising. The book deals extensively with popular cinema, but mentions Hindustani film music only in passing. But film songs, and their picturisation, have always been the cornerstone of mainstream films in almost all Indian languages. Ideally, Garga should have devoted an entire chapter to major lyricists, composers and singers who have contributed as much as actors and directors. As Indian columnist Sunil Sethi noted, prima donna Lata Mangeshkar's voice, "like Mahatma Gandhi's loin cloth and Rabindranath Tagore's beard, has become a part of India's collective consciousness".

While discussing some of the best-known Hindi film-makers, Garga does not seem to probe and analyse in any depth. Raj Kapoor's contribution is blown out of proportion, Kidar Sharma's and Bimal Roy's are played down. While Kapoor's showmanship cannot be denied, how relevant is his socialist posturing today?

Garga's views on Bengali cinema appear to be the least reflective. He does not hesitate to pass sweeping judgements but he does not offer much substantiation.

To prove his devotion to Ray, Garga has a whole section on him. But here again, there is a disappointing lack of detail. Given Garga's personal knowledge of the man, he should not have had to resort to a quick "cut-and-paste" method. All loose joints and cracks are neatly sealed up by quoting the film critic, Pauline Kael, and Ray's biographer, Andrew Robinson, a number of times. Even then the text is not error free. For instance, Ray's last film Agantuk (The Stranger) was not an Indo-French production, but was produced by India's National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). When the film was completed, Ray returned the money that was left over from the budget, thereby creating a record in the history of the NFDC. Garga ought to have known that.

Speaking of mainstream Indian cinema (really, of Hindi cinema), Garga touches upon all its facets, but continues to fail to etch them with insight. For example, he talks of the feminist film-makers and the influence of feminism in a handful of films, but he does not attempt to explain why, even today, the women in most popular films are always categorised into three slots: the sacrificial mother, the victimised sister or the westernised woman who needs to be tamed. Garga poses no questions and offers no arguments about the limitations or the achievements of mainstream Indian cinema.

One feels that the chapters on films in the 1970s and 1980s are not Garga's work. The style changes noticeably, along with the aesthetic preferences. Keeping up with the times seems to be an effort, and the strain shows. At the end there is no complete filmography which would have been of help to young film enthusiasts.

My predominant feeling about this book is one of profound regret. While one salutes the septuagenarian writer for his elan in recounting part of the history of Indian cinema, one is forced to admit that So Many Cinemas (with too many quotations) begins with an unmistakable bang, but ends with something of a whimper.

Indrani Majumdar is a journalist and broadcaster, based in New Delhi.

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