Cinema is the only genre that I read assiduously through the decade. I didn’t lose interest and more and more good/great books came out as the years went by. Like the earlier films list, this decadal list of books doesn’t match exactly with my annual favourites. Several books that I loved after finishing them didn’t give me reasons to go back to, while others became dogeared.
- Don’t Disturb the Dead – Shamya Dasgupta: A well-researched, affectionate account of the Ramsay Brothers, India’s best-known horror merchants.
- Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy – Yasser Usman: This is the insulin shot you need to recover from sweetness of Sanju. Completely non-judgmental, meticulously researched and a smooth read.
- Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet – Akshay Manwani: Only when you read this book do you realise the true depth of Sahir’s genius, written by a connoisseur of cinema and poetry alike because to truly understand Sahir, you have to be both.
- And then one day… - Naseeruddin Shah: How brutally honest and abrasive can Naseeruddin Shah get? Read this book to find out! Rarely is a memoir so insightful and entertaining but then what else can we expect from the thespian?
- Conversations with Mani Ratnam – Baradwaj Rangan: This is the Hitchcock-Truffaut of Indian cinema, a leading critic having a book-length conversation with a legendary filmmaker.
Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai – Yasir Abbasi: An amazing collection of articles from Urdu magazines, featuring a mind-boggling array of stars who write about themselves and contemporaries. That these articles could be sourced (many from now-discontinued magazines) and be translated so felicitously is a miracle.
Travails with the Alien – Satyajit Ray: Probably the only full-length book on a film that was never made (i.e. The Alien, a film Ray was supposed to make with Hollywood collaboration). It is a treasure trove of previously unpublished articles, letters, photographs, news clippings along with Ray’s screenplay, reminisces and short stories (on which the script was based). The design 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.
In a Cult of their Own – Amborish Roychoudhury: An analysis of forty ‘cult’ Hindi films, this is the kind of book that you want to read fast because it is so interesting and want to read slow because you don't want it to finish. It has now won a special mention at the National Awards for Best Book on Cinema. So, it’s not only me telling you to read it!
Rekha: The Untold Story – Yasser Usman: The biggest achievement of this book was to bring alive the effort behind Rekha’s rise to stardom, a phenomenon usually associated with her liaisons and not her talent. For the 70s (and 80s) film fan, it is a deeply satisfying read as the book strikes the right balance between what we knew, what we didn’t and what we imagined. “But Amitabh Bachchan never officially commented on this.”
Funky Bollywood – Todd Stadtman: An amazingly compilation of the curiosities that made 70s Hindi cinema so much fun. Loaded with posters, screenshots and associated visual delights, the book brings alive the memories of long-lost brothers, reincarnation, grand lairs of villains and other such joys!
Flashback – Avijit Ghosh, Srijana Mitra Das, Sharmistha Gooptu: Times of India’s voluminous archives were mined to create a collector’s edition of filmi news, held together by some insightful articles by the editors on the tricks and trends of the film industry. It is the perfect flipbook of our fondest memories.
Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads – Scott Jordan Harris: A wonderful inventory of world cinema's 50 most evocative objects that leaves us with that dilemma – of wanting to add your own objects but unable to drop any object from the list. Kane’s childhood sled and Khartoum's severed head are mentioned in the title but the other 48 are just as impactful. To paraphrase a line from a classic (and this book), this is "stuff movie dreams are made of".
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron – Jai Arjun Singh: JBDY’s cult status deserved this book, one that captured both the method and madness meticulously well. Pieced together from memories of the makers and the actors, this book is the script Netflix will option when they make a film on the making of JBDY.
10 Bad Dates with De Niro – Richard T Kelly: The concept is just unbelievably perfect. A compilation of eclectic lists on cool cigarette scenes, unusual murder weapons, severed heads, sex scenes, drunk scenes and what not from world cinema. By the way, the list in the title refers to the 10 films in which Mr De Niro acted boorishly – even violently – with his on-screen women.
RD Burman: The Man, The Music – Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal: This is the benchmark of cinematic biographies, where even the first-person accounts were verified by the authors to bring unmatched authenticity. The RD fanboy, the music aficionado and the film scholar will all find their fixes in this rocking book about India’s original rockstar.
This is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, Bengali and English, crazy and predictable.
- Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson: A bittersweet memoir of a member of the English village team who went on a seemingly hair-brained mission to play cricket on every continent of the world.
- Longing Belonging: An Outsider at home in Calcutta – Biswanath Ghosh: The dispassionate outlook of an outsider blends with the erudition and charm of an insider in this lovely book. The result is a beautiful mix of fact and opinion, past and present, happiness and melancholy, human and divine, modern and archaic, longing and belonging.
- Peon theke Prakashak – Badal Basu (Bengali): The autobiography of Bengali literature’s foremost publisher is a veritable history of the language, featuring pretty much every major author in a cameo or extended part.
- Rong Tulir Satyajit – Debasish Deb (Bengali): A valuable encyclopedia of all the work Satyajit Ray has done as a graphic artist, with commentary from the author (who is a renowned illustrator and artist himself), giving it an excellent context and flow.
- The Billionaire’s Apprentice – Anita Raghavan: A compelling account of how an Indian icon got embroiled with one of the most successful hustlers of Wall Street. The book captured Rajat Gupta's entire life from his early life to his eventual fall from grace in intricate detail, with a remarkable mix of fact and perspective.
And my ten favourites, in (approx.) reverse chronological order are…
Fire in the Babylon – Simon Lister: An unputdownable history of how West Indies went from being a bunch of extraordinarily talented cricketers to the world's greatest cricket team and in the process, becoming a symbol of excellence for people of colour everywhere. Research and storytelling come together beautifully in this saga of cricket, a book for the ages. (I met Vivian Richards at an event. I got him to autograph my copy of this book!)
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage – Sydney Padua: The story of two pioneers in the history of computers is recounted with wit, verve and a whole lot of footnotes. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage are credited with laying down the principles behind software and hardware (respectively) of the future computers and Sydney Padua does a stellar job of bringing these eccentrics to life. Alice in Wonderland, the financial crisis of the 1840s, Queen Victoria, Lord Wellington, Thomas Carlyle et al make the quirkiest guest appearances to build a story like no other. (Did I mention this is a graphic novel?)
Bongpen 75 – Tanmay Mukherjee (Bengali): This is the best collection of short stories to have come out in Bengali language. No author – living or dead – has managed such variety and consistency in one volume.
Fortunately, the Milk – Neil Gaiman: The best children’s books don’t treat children like children. Time travel, prehistoric life, bloodthirsty pirates, forgetful parents and precocious children make appearances in this fantastic tale that I started reading to my son during his bedtimes and ended up looking forward to it as much as – if not more than – he did.
Hatching Twitter – Nick Bilton: This documentary recreates the heady days of Twitter’s founding like a thrilling novel, without changing the facts. The four founders were described in such detail that you could find one you were very similar to. And then you’d realise that you’re rooting for another. At some point, this Business book became a Self-Improvement one.
First Person – Rituparno Ghosh (Bengali): This two-volume compilation of Rituparno Ghosh's weekly columns satisfies the low-brow voyeur and the serious film fan. Rituparno talks about his attending the Abhishek-Aishwarya wedding as well as the Cannes Film Festival with the same childlike enthusiasm that we saw in his talk shows. He talks about the difficulties of being gay in India and recounts silly anecdotes from his shooting, both casually and without any intellectual pretensions. He manages to convey a sense of wonder when he narrates his encounters with stars and displays a starry stubbornness as he holds on to some of his idiosyncrasies. The only disheartening thing is that there will never be a sequel.
The Mine – Arnab Ray: A mind-slashing thriller that catches you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Even after you finish it. In fact, especially after you finish it. Our day-to-day fears, paranoia, insecurities are exaggerated manifold to create a yarn that keeps coming back to you. The visceral emotions of blood relationships (a father-daughter one, for example) are twisted into a macabre tale that makes you to ask "what would I do in a situation like this?" And the horror is that the truth is not the answer you would like to hear.
Would You Like Some Bread with that Book? – Veena Venugopal: I love books. I love people who love books. I love books by people who love books. I love stories about books in books by people who love books. This was a series of delightful anecdotes/observations about the author's reading life and has got to be one of the least known, most underrated gems ever.
Chinaman – Shehan Karunatilaka: This was touted as the Sri Lankan novel. The quest of a disoriented journalist to find out about a genius leg-spinner who dropped off from the record books could well be the cricket novel. Yes, it’s that good.
Mother Pious Lady - Santosh Desai: If I had to recommend a book to anyone who wants to understand India, this is the one I'd go with. Everyday things that pass us go under an exceptionally powerful microscope in this collection of essays and suddenly, India makes sense. Or even if it doesn't, you know why it doesn't!
Phew... that was a lot of writing on the last day of the year!
Here's wishing all of you a great year and decade ahead. May all your days be filled with good books and great memories.