Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: Travails With The Alien

Satyajit Ray’s reputation in India is based on his world-renowned films (which have sadly not been watched widely in India) and his Feluda novels (that have a decent readership via the English translations). His short stories are relatively lesser known, though a few of them had been made into a television series (directed by his son) in the mid-1980s. It is, therefore, very interesting that one of those stories – Bonkubabur Bondhu – was one of the first short stories he wrote, featured a benign alien and was the origin of what could have been his first Hollywood film.

Travails With The Alien is an amazing book, in the sense that it is probably the only full-length book on a film that was never made. It is not a short journey that started with an idea/script and ended with a major studio backing out due to a shady wheeler-dealer who had slithered into the project in a somewhat unplanned manner. I mean, that’s probably the ‘tweet summary’ but the book covers a journey that was much longer, much deeper and much more magnificent.
The book – designed like an album – starts with Ray’s earliest writings on science fiction as a genre in both literature and cinema, traces his journey as a SF ‘addict’ (and goes into his correspondence with SF legends like Clarke and Bradbury) before reaching the short story and the script for the TV show episode.
The Alien – like the hero of a blockbuster film – makes an appearance about a third into the book in the form of a fairly detailed script that was pitched to and accepted by Columbia Pictures. The piece de resistance comes after this – Ray’s account of what happened, narrated with his brand of sardonic humour and amazing detail. For fans of classic Hollywood, the narrative would be delicious because it features some of the top stars of 1960s in bit parts and Ray exhibiting an almost copybook case of the ‘impostor syndrome’. Like any middle-class Bengali, he asks about hotel room rents and is not fully placated when he is told, “Maestro… you can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!”
The book ends with two more tangential inspirations – two short stories by Ray’s father and Ray himself. The former could have been the starting point of Ray’s SF hero – Professor Shonku – and the latter a child-friendly tale of a helpful alien.
In between, there is this interesting theory about The Alien script being an inspiration to later-day films like Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – told from the perspective of noted film journalist, Aseem Chhabra, who did an investigative story on the topic as a journalism student. This segment is very intriguing and – if not anything else – should inspire readers to watch Spielberg’s films once again and check out the similarities between his aliens and Ray’s!

In short, the book is a sumptuous treat for movie fans. It is a treasure trove of previously unpublished articles, letters, photographs, news clippings to boost the main content of the script of The Alien, Ray’s reminisces and the short stories (which have appeared in print earlier). The book's layout (by Pinaki De) needs a special mention because it is very rarely that you see such a diverse set of visuals accompanying an even wider range of text, fitting in with each other so beautifully.

Review copy via WritersMelon and Harper Collins India.
Available on Amazon. Recommend buying the paper book.

Monday, February 26, 2018

10 Things About Bioscope AKA My Urge To Talk About My New Book

Bioscope has been used as the early name for cinema, to describe a travelling movie theatre, or as a generic name for a film camera (and sometimes a projector). I interpreted it loosely as a device to peek into the past.
For kids growing up in 1980s India, it is also the name of a squat, cylindrical machine (on a stand) with small windows in which you placed your eyes to see a passing montage of photographs (usually bunched together in a theme). I interpreted this as a collection of snippets that showed a progression.
Somewhere this ‘Past + Progression’ got collectively interpreted as ‘History’. To protect my reputation* as a Bollywood Trivia Hunter not given to serious analysis, I added a ‘Frivolous’ before the history.
[* among my 17 friends who have read my earlier books diligently]

Everything* about this book is in ‘ten’. There are ten chapters. Each chapter has ten points. Even the end-chapter boxes (yes, those are my favourite usually!) have ten entries each.
This ‘coincidence’ is due to the fact that my publisher – Hachette – has just completed ten years in India and is taking out – wait for it – ten books to commemorate the occasion. That explains the stenciled ‘10’ on the cover and the (ahem) subtle ‘10’s on the cover, spine and back cover.
[* In a glaring oversight, there are only six footnotes in the book. Should have been ten! Hopefully, readers will forgive this oversight.]

The cover is a stunner. The ten is a die-cut ‘hole’ on the yellow top cover through which you can see part of a movie poster (see left) that’s the ‘bottom cover’. I am usually a big fan of ebooks but I’d recommend a paper version of this book, just for the cover.
The cover is designed by Bhavi Mehta and her absolutely stunning portfolio can be seen here.

I wrote the book in one super-fast burst (June to December 2017, including planning at the beginning and editing at the end) – slightly shorter than even my first book (on cricket). Though I have been toying with the idea of writing a ‘history’ of Hindi cinema using stories and snippets for some time now.

The collection of stories and snippets for started – very strangely – with a script that I was trying to write for a live show on the history of Hindi cinema and its creators, characters, costumes, clichés and what not. That show didn’t happen but the research helped!

The best part of writing a book is always the editorial interactions. Given the breakneck speed of writing, the edits were full of comments like:
-          “Not clear, please rephrase.”
-          “Mention two of the songs here.”
-          “Had Gulzar spoken to him about the lyrics?”
-          “What about mothers-in-law?”
-          And my favourite: In the context of Indo-Pakistan wars, “Check. There was Hindustan ki Kasam in 1972.”

The other part of the writing was ‘research’ which – in my case – means (a) watching movies on YouTube, (b) reading books and magazines on cinema and (c) chatting with friends on movies. My go-to people for (c) was this cool group of people, who have encyclopeadic knowledge on everything in the universe including and certainly not restricted to Hindi cinema. They are like a kind of Illuminati (but much more modest), who have critiqued chapter drafts, improved my knowledge of modern Indian history and thrown dialogues at me to fit into various obscure parts of the book.
The book is dedicated to them.

The chapters are interesting… I think. They cover a wide range of subjects like:
-          A history of box-office collections
-          Leading pairs down the ages
-          The stories behind the scripts
-          Legendary composer-lyricist combinations
-          A brief history of bad men
-          Expats in Hindi cinema
-          How the language of Hindi cinema has changed
-          Filmi fashion highlights
-          Biopics in Bollywood
-          A Filmi History of Independent India i.e. how major historical events have been depicted on screen.

My favourite chapter in the book is No. 7 – the one on how the language of Hindi cinema has changed over the years, both dialogues and songs. How people express love differently then and now, how they come together and how they leave each other, how people pray… this chapter is full of wild generalisations, interesting song selections and some silly jokes. Had most fun writing it.

You can buy the ebook on Amazon. Paper also on Amazon and Flipkart. (Psst… you can buy multiple copies and gift them.)