Nov. 12, 2011: What to Make of the “Making Of” Books

A few weeks back, Julie gave us a wonderful post about some of her favorites in Indian literature.  I certainly have read my share of novels set in various parts of the desi diaspora, but I find, more often, I leave my fiction for the screen and my reading tends to follow my long held addiction:  Behind the Scenes books.  I am totally hooked…from my first one in college (I believe it was my old buddy Jean Cocteau’s film diary of shooting his classic, Beauty and the Beast…What an amalgamation of brilliance and neurosis…never the like to be seen again!), I am fascinated with how these films that I love are shot, and with all the myriad details of the people who shoot them.  Bollywood, would of course, be no different.

I’m going to begin this listing of my wanderings through the cinematic history of Hindi film making, chronologically, with a book that I mentioned a few weeks back, White Cargo by Felicity Kendal [Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0140271589].  For any lover of Indian film, especially of the Shashi Kapoor era, this is the perfect mix of nostalgia and poignancy.  It details the formative years of Ms. Kendal, one of Britain’s finest classical actresses, which she spent in theaters all over the Indian subcontinent, traveling with her family, who comprised the troupe Shakespeareana.

The story of her years with the troupe, and their adventures during their tour of the 1950s, unfold in a series of vignettes that fill her mind as she sits at her father’s bedside in the 1990s, hoping he will come out of his coma.  Ms. Kendal paints a vivid canvas of a caravan lifestyle as she and her mother, father and sister Jennifer wend their way from town to town giving their classical productions for all the local villages.  It’s a very exciting life for a young girl, eventually winding up with her starring in Shakespeare Wallah, a fictional chronicle of their life.  The whole family acts in it, including her then brother-in-law, Shashi Kapoor, himself Bollywood royalty.  A wonderful read.

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I began my mania for Bollywood films with Lagaan, an award winning film by Ashutosh Gowariker, starring Aamir Khan, one of India’s finest actors.  Set in the latter half of the British Raj’s occupation of India, it dramatizes the valiant struggle of a poor village to compete in a  cricket match in order to forego their paying the annual land tax to the crown; it captured my imagination with its colors and song, and I haven’t been the same since.

After I saw Lagaan, and found out that there were a few “Making Of” books about it, what did I do? Of course, I bought all of them that I could find.  The first was called The Spirit of Lagaan by Satyajit Bhatkal [Popular Prakashan, Pvt. Ltd., 2002, ISBN 8179910032].  This is a very fun and thorough documentation of the ins and outs of the creation of this classic film, offering us images and stories, many of which have stayed with me.  Like that of producer and star, Aamir Khan rising at 5 am with the rest of his cast and dozing in the bus that transported them to the set, in the dry-as-the-proverbial-bone Kutch desert.  Also, a story Mr. Bhatkal told on himself about the trials he had when asked to provide a fully caparisoned elephant for a day’s shooting.  No mean feat, it seems, even in India.  His story [also told in the film, Chale Chalo: Madness in the Desert] is completely enjoyable, except for the photos, which are few and very small, surprisingly so, given he was the film’s official chronicler.

 

Balham to Bollywood, Chris England’s tale of the Lagaan shooting [Sceptre, 2002, ISBN 0340819898] tells some of the same stories, but from the other side of the cricket pitch. 

Mr. England was cast as the British cantonment’s bowler (pitcher, for the baseball counterpart), because of a) his acting talent and b) his skills as a cricketer.  But the casting team had no idea the problems they’d have after finding the perfect looking actor/athlete and finding he could bat, but not bowl.  This book is a completely irreverent tour through the whole saga of film making from casting to cast party with all the sordid details of daily life on the set included.  Not for the faint of digestion, or the overly serious minded of readers, but I found it hilarious.

Devyani Saltzman writes her tale of cinema history in South Asia from a unique viewpoint.  As Deepa Mehta’s daughter, Shooting Water [Newmarket Press, 2006, ISBN 1557047111] she details their life during the filming of Water, her mother’s final chapter in the Elements trilogy (with Fire and Earth). 

As a photojournalist, she has the skills to explore the technical as well personal efforts that go into filming a controversial drama as it unfolds from Canada, through India and on to Sri Lanka, all the while letting us see the toll it takes on the mother-daughter relationship.  I found the memoir elements touching and the behind the scenes elements very informative.  The photos, while good, are few, again, and in black and white, even in the hardback version.  An odd situation, given her job as photographer on the shoot, but her prose is clear and fluid and I enjoyed taking the trip with her.

The last two books on my list, I haven’t finished…but for two very different reasons.  The Making of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham [2001, ISBN 8175083387] is your typical blockbuster chronicle coffee table book.  Written by Niranjan Iyengar, ostensibly, and published by Dharma Productions and India Book House Pvt. Ltd.  It has all the lush photos you could desire in the documenting of a song and dance extravaganza.  You’d think I’d just eat it up, given all the whining I’ve been doing about bad photos in the earlier books.  But no.  Didn’t grab me.  At all.  Still haven’t been able to finish it. 

Maybe it’s that with Dharma publishing it, it is, in actuality, an extended, director-approved advertising filler piece…and hagiography.  Why, do I say this?  Perhaps that it’s filled with piles of purple prose all pointing to one purpose?…all but deifying the film’s director, Karan Johar.  I’ve never seen a book like this before that has as many images of a director (all carefully chosen, I’m sure, for the best angles and sufficient seriousness shown); almost more than of his stars.  I’m not exaggerating, or not by much.  I checked.  Photos of Amitabh, Hrithik, Jaya and Kajol; 37, 35, 32 and 32, respectively, while Karan had 25 photos of himself in there, quite a few of them as large and glossy as any matinee idol could desire.  But poor Kareena Kapoor…a measly 20 shots, and only Shahrukh, of course, steals the lion’s share of the photo “exposure” at 51 portraits.  Sheesh.  No wonder I’m left with a very narcissistic aftertaste from this very overpriced book.

The other book that I haven’t finished yet, is Take 25: Star Insights & Attitudes by Bhawana Somaaya [Sambhav Publishers, 2002, ISBN 8190135414].  A formidable film journalist with degrees in psychology and the law behind her, Ms. Somaaya is one of the few commentators on Indian film that I actually take seriously. 

Really…if you love the medium like I do, you just ache to read something about the films that has some meat to it (beg pardon, to the veg portion of my readers), and all we get to sate our curiosity is the fluff of Cineblitz and Filmfare fodder.  Personally, I don’t give a flying falooda (or would like to, a la Glee’s Slushee attacks) about where on her European vacation Rahkee got her faaabuulous handbag, but most filmi-journos seem to think I do.

But Ms. Somaaya has been writing intelligent interviews and actual think pieces on the actors of India and their films for over thirty-five years now (25 when this book was written, hence the title) in publications as varied as the Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Pioneer and Newstime.  Right now she is Editor in Chief at Screen Weekly, a slight publication if measured by size and gloss, but head and shoulders above any of the others in serious content. 

This book, Take 25, though very hard to find now (even on her website  or her new blog ), is a compilation of some of her favorite articles published to date, all filled with wit, whimsy and insight, and is well worth reading.  And the reason I haven’t finished it is this: Five hundred and eighty four pages; and all interesting, especially for those of us who have been researching older Bollywood fare.  I must say, on a strictly superficial note…what was the publisher thinking to put it out in a 5 ¾” by 10 ½” format?? It’s the oddest sized book I’ve ever bought, bar none.  Doesn’t hurt the quality any, though.

So that’s my current take on the “Making Of’s” that are out there.  I have two or three more on my shelves, waiting.   Sholay: The Making of a Classic, and one on Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge, both by Anupama Chopra, and Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking by Stephen Alter (don’t you love that title?) all with varying degrees of promise, so you might expect a follow-up post sometime in the future.  Feel free to recommend your favorite Bollywood non-fiction to me, as well.  Enjoy!

Part 4: The Pan-Genre Week — RomCom, Sci-fi and Lots of Aamir

Jenny K:  It’s my day off and I’m going to finally mail the DVD’s today. Sorry for the delay. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is definitely the lighter and fluffier of the two. Though I like both films, Lagaan stays with me longer,  I’d watch KKHH first, as it would suffer coming after, I think. The music in KKHH is cute but not, definitely not, Rahman. The first half, just think of as a Archie, Veronica and Betty style high school musical…though they say they are in college…eh, maybe India is a much more innocent place than good ol’ Amreeka, as they say. The best parts are the chemistry between SRK and Kajol, and to some extent Rani, too. Rani and Kajol are cousins in real life. A note of Pointless BollyTrivia.

Lagaan was one of the first three films that I saw and I quite love it, though it is very long. I found I had no problem looking at Aamir, uninterrupted, in all his rustic glory, but you might want to break it at the intermission because the full run-time is almost four hours (if you add in the deleted scenes from the Bonus Features, it’s over four). I learned all I know about cricket from watching the second half of the film. Probably all I will want to know about cricket, too, but I didn’t find it painful.

The songs, atypically from Indian films, are so well integrated into the plot that you can’t really pull them out well, out of context you feel something’s missing. I don’t recommend the British costumes…pretty awful, historically, and quality-wise….don’t get me started, that’s what I do for a living, costumes, can’t help myself. However, I loved the rest of the production design and cinematography. Lovely. I even bought Chale Chalo: the Making of Lagaan…took me several years to track it down and most of it is dubbed into Hindi, even when it’s in English to begin with (and no subtitles…frustrating!) but I enjoyed it.

Julie M:  LOVED Lagaan. B watched most of the 2nd half with me and liked it too (after he swore he wouldn’t watch any more). Great suggestion!! LOVE Aamir Khan. (and he spent most of the movie with his shirt off…score!!)

Jenny K:  Aamir was my first love…still like him quite a lot, but he’s getting a bit “angry young man” on me as he gets older. I own most of his films until Ghajini, which was a remake of a South Indian hit, which was supposed to be a blatant rip off of Memento…I loved the Chris Nolan film so much that I just couldn’t watch it, even with Aamir…Sigh. Lagaan, Taal and DCH were my first three Indian DVDs…got me hooked. I can’t believe I missed seeing Lagaan on a big screen, for free, when it came out. I can’t even remember the film I chose instead of it. No foresight. Glad you liked it. Did you succumb and watch the extra 20 minutes of “director’s cuts”?

Julie M:  I have not watched any extra features on that one; I plan to if I have time over the rest of this holiday weekend. The weather has turned nice today (if a bit humid) and I have to get plants in the ground. It’s been so wet lately that I couldn’t do anything.

I loved Taal too. In fact, if anyone asks me for a recommendation, I would have them start with that one. Dil Se, even though it was the first one I saw and still probably in the top 3 I have seen so far, I would save because although the music is unbelievably amazing the 2nd half is weird and the ending shocking.

Jenny K:  Yes, the second half is definitely not a conventional Indian film, actually, Dil Se didn’t do well at all at home…SRK’s fans don’t seem to like him being the villain anymore (a few early ones, playing crazy guy, obsessed stalker, etc) except for Don, which is a good twin evil twin type of film updated from one BigB did back in the seventies. Some good bits, but still, except for Dil Se, I think I agree with his fans. He does better being likeable and charming. He can’t top the acting in DS though, shows me he can do it, if required. That fight for his life in the construction site or whatever it was, was the most convincing fight I’ve ever seen in a Hindi film. They’re usually so chop-socky if you know what I mean. And I thought the end of the film was marvelous…as a portrait of obsession, if it had ended with him happily marrying Preity, I just wouldn’t have bought it.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Watched KKHH this evening. Very sweet. I was not a fan of the slapstick elements, and the dance numbers in the college scenes were pretty stupid, but overall a good movie. Thank you so much for sending it!

I have Luck by Chance, 3 Idiots and Koi–Mil Gaya waiting for me at the library, so that is my viewing schedule (mostly) for tomorrow through Tuesday.

Jenny K:  KKHH has it’s flaws, of course, but if you’re a true Kajol fan, you have to have seen it, sometime. She’s lovely in it, isn’t she?

Your “schedule” looks good, with the possible exception of Koi… Mil Gaya, which you may find as cheesy as I did, but it is a milestone of a sort. Kinda the first Indian Sci-fi quasi super hero film. Shah Rukh has another coming out late this fall called Ra.One which may or may not be as scary as KMG, but we will just have to wait and see. KMG is sort of a mix of Flowers for Algernon (aka Charley) with ET. Hrithik is sweet in it, and gorgeous, of course, but I’ll be interested in seeing what you make of it. If you like it, the sequel is called Krrish…w/HR playing his own son.

Julie M:  You weren’t kidding about the cheesiness…guess they are SO not used to sci-fi in India! So much ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that I had to howl with laughter. You also forgot to tell me that there was a whiff of Teen Wolf and The Six Million Dollar Man. They even did the Six Million Dollar Man sound at times. And I’ve noticed that none of these actors (even the extras) know how to play basketball in real life–their ball handling skills really blow. However, I did enjoy it (B didn’t so much). HR did a sufficient amount of dancing to satisfy me and he played a pretty convincing mentally retarded young man. Sweet moments with Preity Zinta, too. I will probably try to find Krrish, because I suspect that HR will be super-buff in it, and I love superhero movies anyway.

I LOVED 3 Idiots. B did too. No more to say–it was everything I like in a movie, and miracle of miracles, Kareena Kapoor did not annoy me.

[JK’s Note:  Per Julie’s request, new 3 Idiots video.  For those of us who also want to see the cute (though not particularly plot-relevant) item number, click here to watch Zoobi Doobi, as well !]

Will try to cram in Luck by Chance tomorrow night before everything goes back to the library Tuesday.

Jenny K:  Wow, that certainly is a marathon! I salute you. Worth the trouble, though…Luck By Chance was my favorite of the three you had. Fairly realistic treatment as far as Indian film goes, too. I also love both Farhan Akhtar, and Konkona Sen Sharma (who I’ve met at a couple of festivals, and she’s very nice as well as talented). The director is Farhan’s sister, Zoya Akhtar.

I think I liked Krrish a bit better than I liked KMG because the director (Hrithik’s dad, btw) didn’t feel the need to dress his heir like a dysfunctional idiot. Sorry, costumer reaction, can’t help it.

So, I’ll be interested to see what you think when you go see one in a cinema. That’s the next thing. First one I saw on a big screen was a Hrithik/Kareena one that almost killed me…almost walked out, several times. Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon…run, the opposite direction, as fast as you can. Thank goodness I persevered! Have you checked out your local Indian theater yet? I see they show both Bollywood and Tamil films at the theater near you. Tamil films rarely, if ever have subtitles. I guess South Indian movies are only to be for home viewing. They tend to be a bit broader, but some are quite lovely.

I haven’t seen Dum Maro Dum (with LittleB) that’s playing in your neighborhood now, because it only stayed in mine for one week, I think, and while I hesitated because I don’t always like crime capers, it left. It’s best to go opening weekend because the audiences are best then and are always so lively. Half the fun. The whole family goes, little kids running up and down the aisles and grandmas minding them…more noise in the audience as well, but somehow I don’t mind. When SRK showed up silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline in KHNH every woman in the theater screamed. Very fun.  Also, if you miss the first weekend, and it didn’t do well at the box office…it’s outta there.  Indian audiences want their variety, in any case.  Only Superhits stay.

Julie M:  Do they show it subtitled in theaters? I’ll have to go. That theater is nowhere near my neighborhood but it’s closer than, say, the good art film theater on the south side, which I have made pilgrimage to on occasion and which I think is now closed. Before you did the research I would have said that there aren’t any theaters here that show Bollywood films!

Jenny K:  Hindi films are usually subtitled; Tamil and Telugu films usually aren’t, except at film festivals. Darned shame, too. Some wonderful ones that you should check out if you can find them…or I should send you…are Kannathil Muthamittal, that I think I’ve mentioned and Kandukondain, Kandukondain (sometimes titled I Have Found It) which is a South Indian version of Sense and Sensibility starring Aishwarya Rai.

Julie M:  Does she speak Telegu? Or Tamil? Is it very common for people to speak multiple South Asian languages or does she learn them because she is an actress? I mean, Chinese people commonly know both Mandarin and Cantonese to some degree, more one or the other based on where they grew up, but can converse in both. Is it the same in India?

Luck By Chance was good. It didn’t feel like a typical Hindi film–actually it felt kind of like an art film. Cool cameos by stars (Kareena Kapoor annoyed me: I figured it out, it’s her eyes. She blinks in a very weird way), interesting behind-the-scenes look, and I bet everyone in the credits were real film-industry backstagers. But why did Farhan Akhtar play such a d-bag?

Jenny K:  I know she speaks Tulu which is from where she was raised in Karnatka, and she debuted in one of Mani Ratnam’s (Dil Se…) films Iruvar which was in Tamil as well as this one. She’s also done a few films in a Bengali dialect for Rituparno Ghosh and other directors. So, she’s linguistically very gifted. I’m not sure she knows much more than a learn-your-lines-phonetically level in the Tamil and Bengali, but the regional cinema is the way many people break into the Hindi/Bollywood mainstream films, so most of them speak some other dialects. Most everyone in the cities, at least, or those who have gone to university speak English. I’ve been told that a good many of the scripts come out in English first and then get translated into whatever dialects they end up in.

I thought that Farhan was rather brave and risk-taking, deciding to play his fame-obsessed character so realistically. Most young guys who get hit with fame would have acted the same way. It also let Konkona’s character choose the broader outlook, and let her continue to be strong even as a woman on her own. I liked that. He seems to gravitate to edgier projects. His first film as an actor, Rock On! has him playing the charismatic, if troubled leader of a band who has walked away from it to start a “sensible life”. He has a new one coming out with his buddy Hrithik (they grew up together) in July. He has a very bad haircut in that one though.  Must be a character detail, usually it’s so good.

There is a talk show called Koffee with Karan where Hrithik and Farhan are interviewed and they talk about their childhood together. It’s in a few parts, beginning here.

Julie M:  About Farhan–“edgy” projects in Bollywood seem to be typical projects forHollywood, right? I didn’t see much of a Bollywood style about Luck by Chance. It could have been a mainstream American movie starring Indian actors about the Indian film industry–it felt very familiar to me. Was that what they were going for?

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