‘I make films on the level of a person’s common sense and try to explain things to him on that level, and to say something while being entertaining. But I do not try to make a film that may pass over the common man’s head. I make films to entertain him. I feel that in my country people do not have enough entertainment.’ – Raj Kapoor on film-making
‘In my opinion, three basic things are very important: observation, sensitivity and intelligence. One must observe life, have the sensitivity to interpret it and the intelligence to project it. These faculties need to be developed and sharpened with time. I am very conscious of this need to constantly sharpen one’s faculties, to extend one’s own personality, to observe myself and inculcate things and to experiment outside the realm of one’s personality.’ – Shabana Azmi on acting
Chatty and informal, this book opens a window to the life and work of some of the legendary figures in Indian cinema. From golden era greats like Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar to leading ladies like Waheeda Rebman, Nargis, Rekha, and Shabana Azmi to megastars like Amitabb Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Mammootty, to present-day movie moguls like Yash Chopra, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Gulzar, Nana Patekar, and Suhhash Ghai—the range of this collection is breathtaking.
These interviews and articles by Anil Saari capture a crucial twenty-year period of change in cinema in India, from the l970s to the mid-1990s. Interestingly, the last part of this volume includes three pieces that provide a retrospective of the 1980s, summing up the highs and lows of that eventful decade in Indian cinema.
With well-known film critic Saibal Chatterjee’s Introduction setting the stage for Saari’s writings, this volume will prove rewarding for cinephiles and engaging for students and teachers of film, media, and cultural studies.
Anil Saari (1945-2005) was a journalist, poet, dramatist, and film critic. He worked in several newspapers through his career and was one of the earliest film critics in India. He is the author of Hindi Cinema: An Insider’s View (OUP 2009).
Saibal Chatterjee is a writer and film critic. He won the President’s Gold Medal for the Best Film Critic in 2003.
I will be more concerned about the man because to me the image is the shadow of the man and I could tell you in that context we could discuss the substance but I can’t discuss the shadow because I’m not involved with that. It is the reaction of people.
—Dilip Kumar in an interview to Anil Saari in 1982
Certain crucial dimensions of movie superstardom are indeed akin to elements of a shadow play. Extreme adulation serves as a reflector-screen through which fans perceive their icons. What they comprehend is often only a magnified and heightened expression of the essence of the individual they adore, whether he is a phenomenally popular film actor whom they have frequently admired on the silver screen, or a movie mogul who has spun golden yarns and sold gossamer dreams to them. Sifting the real from the unreal, that is, what we actually see against what our mind tells us to construe in a state of excitement, is vital to understanding how superstars are produced with their huge fan bases in this inchoate but germane relationship between the performer and purveyor, and the audience and consumer. However, it is people’s reaction that ultimately makes or breaks a superstar.
A perceptive analyst of varied facets of Indian cinema, and a playwright, poet, and critic, Anil Saari possessed the special gift of unscrambling the ‘personality’ from the ‘shadow’ and subjecting the two to critical scrutiny in isolation from each other as well as in seamless coalescence. He could touch the core, weaving his way through the blinding aura that usually surrounds the movers and shakers of showbiz. When he sat with a superstar or a director for an interview, his quest was to reveal the true, tangible human being behind the nebulous but alluring image diligently crafted through portrayals of on-screen characters. This compilation of some of Saari’s best interviews and articles from the I 980s and I 990s for a variety of publications bear’s eloquent testimony to that prowess.
Saari has acknowledged that star power is essential to the commercial movie industry. In Hollywood and Bollywood, as in Tamil popular cinema, and the Hong Kong movie industry, although the most accomplished and feted directors do play a big role, it is the movie superstars who influence the magic of cinema for the masses. The charisma which these extraordinary personalities bring to bear upon their films ensures sustained popular support for the film industry.
Commercial cinema, for the most part, thrives on conjuring up dream scenarios. The grand, crowd-pleasing, overtly dramatic tales that it churns out need larger-than-life movie icons with massive popular appeal to make such cinematic flights of fancy entertaining, convincing, and viable. Even when a film, cast in the popular mould, addresses issues that may appear to have been drawn from real life, it does so in a manner that is anti-realist. The treatment usually draws upon the narrative conventions associated with melodrama, fantasy, and slapstick. To carry 0ff these films, the superstars, with their much-loved mannerisms and established personae, come in handy. Familiarity is the key here: the ticket-buying public knows what to expect from a particular star. It prefers the sense of predictability that stars bring to the table.
For instance, Shah Rukh Khan has always been a crowd-puller because he revels in repeating himself and in playing to the gallery without any inhibitions. People love him because he delivers exactly what they expect from him. In contrast, because 0f the chameleon-like screen impersonations that he specializes in and pulls off with astounding success time after time, Naseeruddin Shah is never likely to enjoy the same kind of box-office draw, although he rules the roost among the more discerning segments of Indian moviegoers. This segment, however, does not always impact the commercial prospects 0f a film. The masses do, and superstardom springs from mass adulation.
How exactly are these superstars created and sustained? As this compilation of conversations and interviews conducted by Saari with some of Indian cinema’s greatest achievers reveals, they aren’t made overnight. It is an ongoing, even lifelong process, a result of calculated risks and inspired artistic and business moves. The popular clout of a megastar stems as much from the fictional characters that she or he portrays as from their perceived personal attributes. The magnitude of superstardom hinges on the size and intensity of the fan following commanded.
The history of commercial cinema would be pretty drab without such stars, the visible faces of showbiz. Remove the reigning triumvirate of the golden era of Hindi cinema, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Dev Anand, from the annals of Mumbai movies and it would leave a hole so large that historians would be hard-pressed to find anything else 0f comparable import from that period of film-making in India. What each of them represented as actors and creators went a long way in marking out the boundaries of popular Hindi cinema not just in the golden era but later.
Because they are the ones whose faces appear on the marquee, the superstars are largely instrumental in pulling in crowds. They, as much as their directors and producers, have shaped the contours 0f popular cinema from the beginning From Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford to Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn to Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, each era in Hollywood has had its own brand 0f megastars. Hindi cinema, too, has had its Devika Rani, Leela Chitnis, Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Rekha, and Madhuri Dixit among innumerable others whose popular appeal has survived death, retirement, and long absences from the spotlight. ‘Real stars don’t die; they only fade away’.
It is easy to see why the stars have always held centre stage in the business of movies. In order to understand how a particular movie industry works and how its audience engages with the films it watches, it is important to grasp the true meaning of stardom and how it impacts the thought processes 0f the exceptional men and women who have wielded the power to sway millions with their on-screen actions. The interviews and pieces that constitute this b00k provide insights into the nature of movie stardom in the context of Indian cinema while exploring how actors and film-makers approach its art and craft.
In an interview after the release of Bobby in 1973, Saari had asked Raj Kapoor why he was regarded as the ‘greatest showman that Hindi cinema had ever produced.’ His reply was: ‘I myself don’t know ... it is the vista, the vision that you have as a film-maker to display in a scene; to shoot a scene in the enormity of an impressive backdrop. You must know how to use the panorama of the set. Everything including the set and characters must be integrated into the fibre of the story and the scene.’
It is always difficult to tell what makes a star a ‘superstar’ and what separates a blockbuster from an ‘also-ran’. However, the depth and range of Saari’s understanding enables the readers to see through the haze of conflicting signals and draw illuminating inferences about the personalities that have worked towards giving Hindi cinema the global profile that it enjoys now. The scope and relevance of these interviews are not confined to just the periods that they were done in. They also contain little kernels of knowledge and insight that are of value in contextualizing numerous subsequent developments and trends in Indian cinema.
Raj Kapoor further talks about why and how he made films:
My films appeal to a class of people who may be described as common people, who are neither intelligently concerned about the film medium, nor do they give too much thought to it. 1 make films on the level of a person’s common sense and try to explain things to him on that level, and to say something while being entertaining But I do not try to make a film that may pass over the common man’s head. I make films to entertain him. I feel that in my country people do not have enough entertainment. Films are the cheapest form of entertainment available. It is much cheaper here than in other countries where cinema tickets can cost one or two pounds (i.e., twenty to forty rupees). We have the cheapest cinema tickets in the world. The highest we charge is less than six rupees per ticket. Through my films, ill can also say something that is socially relevant, I try to do so. But I have no pretensions to be an intellectual.
Ticket prices may have escalated exponentially since the time the above statement was made, but the essence of Raj Kapoor’s self-analysis is relevant to this day. The Mumbai movie industry has seen enormous changes sweeping through its creative and commercial landscape. Thanks to the efforts of a slew of young directors and actors seeking to break away from conventional modes of cinematic expression, but entertainment remains the principal purpose of Hindi cinema. When Kapoor asserted that he made films to entertain the common people of a land where cinema was the cheapest form of mass recreation available, he was speaking for the industry as a whole and for everybody who had followed Actors and the universe that they inhabit fascinated Saari just as much, but by no stretch of imagination was he another star-struck pen-pusher. He had the detachment and mental acuity to go deep into the nucleus of the experiential aspects of acting and stardom. He drew Dilip Kumar, Rekha, and Shah Rukh Khan out of their shells to paint vivid portraits of these epoch-defining stars. Take, for example, his discussion with Dilip Kumar about the term ‘star’, in which the actor told him:
For an actor there shouldn’t be a term. There should be no term such as a star. A star is a kind of... it’s something coined by the marketing man. There is nothing like a star because the actor is a man or a woman and it is better to be more preoccupied with one’s work than with the results of the work, which is stardom. If one is not able to analyse this phenomenon and accept and reject parts of it for instance, the public relations people who come to you with gratitude, you too should receive them with a certain measure of gratitude and you should show cordiality. One must appreciate the fact that they have been touched by your work: this is one thing. But to be carried away into another world, to consider that you have yet another personality, and play up to that personality ... most people then acquire a false personality. That happens to the best of us.
Coming from Dilip Kumar, an actor who is widely regarded as one of the finest actors in popular Hindi cinema, the statement has a confessional edge that places stardom and its ramifications in perspective. It probably also alludes to the distinction that exists between being an actor committed whole-heartedly to the craft of etching out on-screen characters on the one hand and being simply a star addicted to mass adulation with a streak of delusion of grandeur on the other.
There is no denying that any movie industry thrives on a mix 0f the two ends of this duality. A quality actor may not be a star, but a star is necessarily an actor, no matter how inadequate and self-conscious he might be. He makes a connection with a wider audience because he is blessed with the talent to ‘act’ out and embody the fantasies of his fans.
In the Hong Kong movie industry, for instance, Jackie Chan is a megastar who spins a thousand incredible yarns with his action comedies. Is he an actor or just a box office star? Actually, he is both because of his ability to inject life and believability into far-fetched situations that his films depict and this special ability of his is grounded in his acting skills. However, thanks to the persona he projects on the screen, Chan is in his footsteps to the heart of the movie-making trade.
also a superstar with a huge global fan following His films earn millions of dollars around the world because his appeal transcends geographical boundaries.
While that sort of global mass appeal may still be out of bounds for most Indian movie stars, they do exercise a huge influence on lives and sartorial norms in a nation 0f a more than a billion people and its diaspora. The strengths of a Bollywood star arc also, in a significant way, his drawbacks. As we have already seen, he is usually trapped in a predetermined mould for he has to stay true to his screen image in order to please his constituency of admirers. As Rishi Kapoor, one of the most successful romantic heroes of the I 970s, told Saari in an interview in
In commercial films, the professional actor is not so much an actor as he is a stylized performer. The professional actor is called upon to play many different moods and characterizations within the framework of one film. The song sequences are there, you have to do them. You cannot get away from them. What is acting after all? Acting is only style. Everybody is talented, everybody can act. Each person has his awkwardnesses but once these are accepted, his personality becomes stylized. It is all a question of a particular style being projected properly; it is the question of acceptability by film-goers.
In the course of this interview, Saari asked Rishi Kapoor why film stars were so obsessed with their fans. The actor was forthright, ‘We come into their dreams, We become part of their fantasies. But you are wrong if you think we don’t have to work hard and that it’s all very easy. We work our ass 0ff for it. There’s the involvement, the thought process, the fatigue that we go through portraying so many emotions for different scenes in just one day.
Saari also delved into the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon in his account of the on-set accident that nearly incapacitated the megastar in the early I 980s, going on to present a lucid portrait of the man and the actor. He did pretty much the same with the man who succeeded Bachchan as the Mumbai movie industry’s most successful actor, Shah Rukh Khan, analysing the crucial career moves he made in his early years in Mumbai to get ahead of the competition. Significantly, Saari noted Khan’s willingness to do anti-hero roles, essentially to secure a toehold in the industry.
It probably was no coincidence that Shah Rukh’s ascent on the Mumbai movie firmament coincided with the five-year period during which
Bachchan took a break from the arclights between the completion of Khuda Guwab (1992) and the making of Mrityudata (1997).The temporary vacuum that the original ‘angry young man’ of Hindi cinema left was quickly filled by Shah Rukh, who played the ‘anti-hero as protagonist’ in two super-hit films, Baazigar (1993) and Darr, (1993), to cement his position as the biggest Bollywood star of his generation. By the time Amitabh Bachchan returned to the thick of the action and graduated to playing diverse character roles that suited his age and exploited his repertoire as an actor, Shah Rukh had turned into ‘King Khan’, riding on the back of blockbusters like Karen Arjun (1995), Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), Dilwale Dulhaniya Lejayenge (1995), and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993).
About Shah Rukh Khan, Saari wrote:
The importance of Shah Rukh Khan lies in the sweeping way he has exposed some of Mmdi cinema’s oldest myths and conventions. Me has been equally unconventional in his personal life. As soon as he felt financially secure, with a reasonable number of films in his pocket, he went and married his childhood sweetheart Gauri, though the conventional view in the film industry has always been that a young matinee idol is likely to have a greater number of fans among girls if he is unmarried. Shah Rukh was totally unfazed by it, insisting, ‘Look, if my first few films had flopped, these film people would have found twenty-five reasons for my failure: that a TV artiste can never be successful in feature films, that he didn’t make it because he was married, or that he’s a very arrogant kind of fellow, or whatever. But now that my films have done well, they have started saying that he has set a trend! I don’t think there is anything like this. Because, look, Rishi Kapoor was married at his peak, Amitabh Bachchan was married even before he reached his high point, Dilip Kumar was married, and Shammi Kapoor. I just didn’t understand why people say that I set a trend by marrying before I established myself. I think that if these things were to affect your career, then you’re not half as good an actor as you should be. I personally don’t believe that my personal life is at all going to affect my career as an actor.
Saari engaged with the movie stars both on a personal level and on a cerebral plane, and he could move from one to the other effortlessly. With wit and wisdom, he sought to size up his subjects and tried to understand what drove them creatively and professionally. He then ran those utterances through the sieve of his own perspective of the medium before finally serving it up to his readers, much in the manner that a Mumbai film-maker delivered his films to the public in an easy-to-grasp, easy-to-digest form.
Sample this passage from his April 1982 interview with Dilip Kumar:
ANSI. SAARI (As): Dilip saheb, what is the most important thing for an actor, especially a film actor?
DILIP ICUMAR (DK): I think he has to have various attributes. He should, first of all, respond to a proposition, a suggestion not only through his mind but through his instincts. As a matter of fact, it is the instinct that is far more important; the mind just gives you a general direction, it puts forward propositions. The mind itself becomes hostile to those propositions because they have no basis in fact. The mind is merely proposing certain fictional or hypothetical situations. And yet it is the mind itself that, having put the suggestion or the proposition, negates it by saying that there is no truth in thi5. So it is a very tricky phenomenon. It is the inner working of the artiste, his mind and his personality, to absorb the positive and delete the negative or absorb the negative and delete the positive. In that sense, the mind is right if, when it becomes hostile to a proposition, it says that this situation does not exist.
AS: Could you give an example?
DK: Yes, for instance, you have the proposition that your beloved is parting forever and you have to play the scene very intensely. Now in this case, you know there is no parting and that this artiste is just another colleague of yours and she will go home and she will come back the next day for some other scene. So your mind, while it reads the scene and wants to act, at the same time is hostile to the proposition because there is somebody sitting inside you and telling you that this is nonsense, this is fiction, it has no basis in fact, it is totally untrue, The artiste is caught between this duality. Now this may not be a conscious phenomenon, it may be unconsciously that both these factors keep on working and the inner struggle is that you have to get it through your instincts, which function on their own. The prerequisite of an artiste is that between the absorption and the reproduction there should be as little loss as possible. I don’t think that anybody has achieved that stage of perfection, but you’ve got to be as close to it as is possible.
Rarely has a Mumbai film actor held forth with such precision as Dilip Kumar did on this occasion. Saari brought into play the same depth of understanding and empathy when he dealt with a star of more recent times like the irrepressible Nana Patekar, whose views present the very antithesis 0f Dilip Kumar’s in-depth adumbration 0f the elements that go into the craft of acting. Patekar is known for his on-screen intensity, and a unique style 0f acting that blends the overtly dramatic with the consciously under-played. It is almost as if a stage thespian, accustomed to delivering his lines at a certain pitch, has strayed on to the big screen and, while retaining his usual pronounced body language, has toned down the timbre of his dialogues, keeping in mind the movie camera’s capacity to heighten facial expressions and emotions.
About his interaction with Patekar, Saari wrote with a subtle mirth and bemusement:
Surprisingly enough, for an actor who has come from the theatre, Nana Patekar refuses to indulge in any kind of theoretical talk. ‘What is style?’ he asks, and says, ‘There is no style in acting, you know I think any actor can do wonders, provided he wants to excel himself After all, he does have to breathe life into the role. It is like the love a mother imparts to her cooking which makes it special. So, too, an actor must put that kind of love into his work. The doesn’t, why should other people have any love for his work?’
One of the most delightful chapters in this book is his freewheeling interview with Rekha which provides many examples of Saari‘s ability to glide seamlessly from a playful probing into a personal aspect of a star’s life to a more incisive line of questioning on the creative aspects of the actor’s profession.
AS: It’s common knowledge now, how you lost weight?
REKHA: Yah! I couldn’t believe it. Now I feel that was somebody else, because that was not the real me. I feel this is the real me.
As: Which is the real you?
REKHA: I know what I am, whatever I am today. But nobody else can understand because I can’t explain it in so many words.
REKHA: I can’t. I’m not very good at explaining in so many words. But I am definitely very proud of what I am today. Not of my performances as I don’t think there is one performance to date which I can be really proud of. I’ve liked working in a few films because of the beautiful experiences and fun. But to be proud of my work, no, except for maybe a couple of moments, a couple of close-ups in a couple of films. You feel there’s something in them but not in totality, not the whole performance.
AS: What exactly do you want to achieve in your performances?
REKHA: Maybe in future I will.
REKHA: I can’t explain it. It should be in everything, in every word I speak, every step and posture of mine; in effect, whatever I do on screen should not only be the best but it should be unique and something which nobody else has done in the past or will be able to in future. Do you understand? No, I don’t think you do. (Laughs.) It’s not enough or a particularly creditable thing to be the best, to be number one, or to be a very good artiste. It’s very easy to be so. Because there are a lot of beautiful people and there are a lot of very good artistes in the industry and there are many people who give them a lot of money. But I want to achieve a lot more. Maybe I’m aiming high. But one always lives on hope and works for it if one really wants to. I aim to be somebody! People should say that there have been a lot of beautiful girls and a number of very good artistes, but what Rekha has done nobody else has nor can they. Now I’m blowing my own trumpet, I know, yet…
Yet, there is much more to this book than star interviews, as there was to the work that Saari did as a professional. Apart from interviews with actors from the other film-making centres of India, including Mammootty, Mamata Shankar, and Ben Kingsley, this collection includes conversations with Bollywood’s movie moguls of recent times—Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, and Suhhash Ghai, who gave commercial 1-lindi cinema its impetus in the I 970s and I 980s with a brand that tapped the mass appeal of stars to tell epic tales of love and heroism cloaked in a cinematic language designed for easy comprehension.
To whom but somebody like Saari would Manmohan Desai have confessed with candour as disarming as this:
I am not a great film-maker. I’m only a successful filmmaker. My films have clicked so far but for how long they will continue to be popular I don’t know. When I think that the law of averages may catch up with my films, I feel very worried.
I have simply kept working like this for the last ten years. I try to have a good script and pack the film with excitement so that there is never a (lull moment in it. Once the audience starts getting restive in the theatre, trouble may start. One should not give the viewers a chance to think while they are watching the movie. Inside the theatre, the film should engage them totally. Though they can go home and curse you.
Film is not a medium of logic, it is a medium of make-believe. If you give the audience a chance to think while it is watching the movie, it will point out all its faults.
Subhash Ghai, who earned the ‘showman’ sobriquet once reserved for Raj Kapoor, extended the above logic into his own films, being aware of the changing realities in the global cinematic scene. In the mid-I 99Os, when mainstream Bollywood was still a few years away from breaking into the US and UK box-office charts consistently, he told Saari,
After 50 years, Indian films will dominate the world! Believe me! I’ll tell you why, because I am a keen student of both the cinemas. India is rising and they are now going downwards. They have achieved hi-tech prominence, but as far as human interactions and human drama are concerned, their cinema is on the decline. Indian music, the Indian play of the narrative, and Indian dances have a lot of treasures. When these are exposed properly, Indian films will be accepted by the world and then you will find that they have the biggest market. I am very sure that India will be a leading film country within 25 years. The only thing, I feel, that we must do is that we should encourage the entertainment industry, because the entertainment industry is a power in itself for a nation to communicate.
This book captures a very crucial 20-year period of change in the history of Indian cinema, from the 1 970s to the mid-I 990s, seen through the perspective of the key movie industry players. Although much of what these personalities predicted to Saari has come to pass, a lot hasn’t. The process that began in the mid-I 970s is still unfolding. The critical observations and self-revelations of the men and women who mattered, therefore, continue to be relevant to this day.
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