Another Prick in the Wall

When I had first heard that Harper Collins was starting a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, I rejoiced. Two of the authors were spot on - Jai Arjun Singh (on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron) and Anuvab Pal (on Disco Dancer). The third book of the series was on Deewaar - which is my third favourite film of all times, of all languages.
I loved Jai Arjun's take on JBDY enough to pre-order the other two books. The Deewaar book got delivered day before yesterday and I finished in two days. For all the wrong reasons.
One, it was a short book - more like an extended essay. Second, I had to get to the end to confirm that the book is indeed as bad as I thought after reading the first 20 pages.

Because on page 15, I came across this line: "That spell, I have merely hinted, arises from an awareness of the multifarious ways in which Deewaar simultaneously works upon mythic material, contemporary narratives of the nation-state, a profound rootedness in Indian culture, histories of the self, the architecture of memory, and even, if I may hazard this phrase, 'autobiographies of the street'." WHAT THE EFF?
In the page just before that, I found the following words: dyadic, Lacanian psychoanalysis, id, ego, super-ego.
On page 85, we have: "Whether or not the apotheosis of motherhood has attained in India scarcely matched elsewhere, it is arguably true that Indian civilisation has always had a substratum of matriarchy, certainly antecedent to the patriarchy that is far more characteristic of Indian society today."
And the piece de resistance (on page 93): "Writing is the harbinger of hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power; and the signature is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft."
What, in God's name, is the author trying to say? Apart from 'I conned you into paying 200 bucks'?

Maybe I am getting this all wrong. Maybe I should not be seeking 'stories' in this book but 'interpretations'. Maybe this book is meant for film scholars only. How else do you explain these Ulysses-like sentences that go on for 6-7 lines on an average?
In that case, my grouse shifts from the author to the publisher.
Why the hell did you publish a breezy, episodic story about the making of JBDY in the same series as a jargon-laden treatise about an even more popular film - Deewaar? Why is there a 8-page description of Emergency in a book meant for - presumably Indians?

The author has not met any of the stars, writers or director of the film. He has chosen to pontificate and speculate on things that any of them could have answered.
For example, he has written a 145-word footnote on the significance of the number 786. If only he had asked any of the two Muslim gentlemen who wrote the film, we would have had a readable book.
There are pages and pages of 'subtext analysis' - including a (unintentionally) hilarious one on the film being a disguised Partition story. Apparently, Pakistan is the 'errant brother' increasingly going towards lawlessness! Unbelievable! To be fair to the author, he is 'not inclined' towards this theory despite knowing that the director was born in pre-Partition Lahore (along with, of course, half the directors of Bollywood of that age).
Oh - there is a chapter called 'The Art of Writing' which is all about the symbolism of the signature in Deewaar. Anandbabu signing on behalf of the workers, Vijay signing to buy his mother a skyscraper, Ravi asking for his brother's signature. Amazing!

According to the blurb, the book 'assesses Deewaar's unique space in world cinema'. There is a 3-page description of a 1931 film called Public Enemy (which had similar plot points) but no mention of Deewaar's international release in a dubbed version - I'll Die for Mama. Where did it release? How did it do? How did the Western audience react to intense Indian emotions like mother-worship? No mention.
It talks about the film's 'unrivaled popularity' but it never tries to explain why the film is still so popular despite mothers and moral standards having changed completely in the intervening four decades? Has the author heard of a film called Aatish - where the story is similar to Deewaar, except that the mother sides with the errant son?
Has the author noticed that all of Yash Chopra's directorial ventures for other production houses (Dhool ka Phool, Waqt, Deewaar, Trishul, Parampara) have missing father figures or estrangement from fathers as a key element? His own productions don't ever have them. Has he thought it would have been a good idea to ask Mr Chopra about this?

Just because the previous book of the series had many stories about the script development, shooting and the actors, it would be unfair to expect the same from this one as well. But surely, it wouldn't be too much to expect that author would give us some sense of the mental states of the lead contributors of the film - to know their inspirations and motivations.
Instead of peddling pompous theories, the book would have given some real insights. And it would have been far more interesting.

I once read Khuswant Singh saying that he got his inspiration to write from bad books. Great books scared you into thinking "Oh my God, I am nowhere as good as this". Bad books, on the other hand, made you think "Hey, even I can do better than this".
The only positive thing about this book is that I felt the same way.


Anonymous said…
Love this piece...unfortunately, I feel like reading the analysis of Deewar now..
Diptakirti, you have teed off very well. Now finish your own book on Deewaar. This looks more promising than you think - if this article of yours is the first chapter I shall spend a fortune to buy it.

Come on, give us a proper book on the epic.
Magenta said…
hi, interesting and entertaining article. Look forward to more cinema related writing.
Jabberwock said…
Diptakirti, I don't have time for a very long comment just now, but quickly: I think you should review the book that was actually written rather than condemn it for not being a hypothetical book that approaches Deewaar from another perspective altogether. You say:

The author has not met any of the stars, writers or director of the film. He has chosen to pontificate and speculate on things that any of them could have answered.

Well, what exactly is wrong with pontificating or with subtextual analysis for that matter? It's a completely valid approach to writing about cinema. And why should a critic/analyst ever feel obliged to ask the makers of a film for their interpretations?

Part of the charm of this series (for me, at least) is that no brief was given to the authors - they weren't expected to follow a pre-decided format while writing their books. I chose to do it as narrative journalism, Vinay Lal has taken another approach, and though I haven't seen the Disco Dancer book yet, I've been told that Anuvab Pal has been wholly creative, even including make-believe interviews with the unit members.

I do agree with you that Lal's writing is a bit dense in places - I would personally have preferred it to be more accessible. But then he is an academic, and I suppose that comes across in his work. (Clarification: I haven't finished the book yet and am yet to form a proper assessment on it.)

Would like to discuss this at greater length if you're so inclined - either on this comments space or on email.

Jabberwock said…
And yes, I realise that did turn into a long comment after all! But there's more to be said on this subject, and I'm in a bit of a hurry just now.
Jabberwock said…
P.S. I completely agree with you about phrases like "Writing is the harbinger of hermeneutics of suspicion..." *shaking head*
FINALLY, a disagreement that is not anonymous or incoherent.

@ Jai - Yes, you are right.
I had certain expectations (which were, partly, formed after reading YOUR book) and this was definitely not conforming to those. So holding that against the author is probably not fair.

What I wanted to say is that when a publisher takes out 3 books on popular cinema (though on wildly different genres), the approach and the level of accessibility should be similar.
And having read and heard about Deewaar for about 25 years now, I know that very 'deep' symbolism was not the intention of the makers. So, why analyse?
What the makers did was to capture the dark mood of the nation and give the latent protest a charismatic face - the Angry Young Man (shit, even I am writing like the book now!). How they did it would have been an interesting tale also. But I now agree that the author doesn't have to oblige me.

Pontification can be nice too but not when you can get theories checked with the makers, who are all around.
I mean, subtextual analysis of Do Beegha Zameen is fine but why Deewaar?
In book length interviews, Javed Akhtar has already explained what they were thinking while writing this. Speculating on deeper layers (with nothing suggesting that there are any) should not be in the domain of popular film writing.
But then, my assumption is the book was intended to be 'popular'. Which may have been wrong to start with...
Jabberwock said…
Diptakirti: I think we might have to accept that there's a fundamental disagreement here. The critic isn't required to be at all concerned with the "intention of the makers", as you put it. (I think I've touched on this in a section of my JBDY book - the DH Lawrence quote "Never trust the teller, trust the tale".) None of the best works of movie criticism or literary criticism would even exist if the writers felt like they had to clarify something from the original artists.

Speculating on deeper layers (with nothing suggesting that there are any) should not be in the domain of popular film writing.

I'm glad you included that "with nothing suggesting that there are any" in brackets, because it helps me understand and appreciate your point better. But if Lal (or any other writer) thinks that deeper layers are suggested by some aspect of the film, they are perfectly justified in writing about and analysing those deeper layers - again, without giving a flying f*!k about what Javed Akhtar or anyone else has to say about the movie.

As a reader of the book, you are of course then entitled to comment on whether the analysis has been done articulately and convincingly (whether you agree or disagree with the analysis is irrelevant). But to say that subtextual analysis of a popular film shouldn't be done at all is very strange, in my view.
@ Jai - I am quite liking this!

Allow me a joke on the series.
JBDY: Mere paas anecdotes hain, interviews hain, social context hain. Tumhare paas kya hain?
Deewaar: Mere paas 'subtextual analysis' hain!

Just as Deewaar conformed to all my expectations from the 'perfect film', this book was the exact antithesis of my idea of the 'perfect book on a film'.
It was nowhere as entertaining as I thought it would be. Should it have been? Don't know.
I think we will have to leave it at that.
Unknown said…
Okay - first you have to have a provision for 'liking' the blogs...

and then a provision for 'liking' the 'subtextual conversations' on the comments space such as above :)