King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema by Anupama Chopra. Grand Central Publishing: New York. August 2007. Hardcover. 272 pages. $24.99.
Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief by Stephen Alter. Harvest Books, Harcourt, Inc.: New York. August 2007. Paperback. 288 pages. $15.00.
From Fiji to Germany, from the United Kingdom to the United States, from Korea to Nigeria, Hindi cinema touches an inestimable number of lives. In celebration of this ever-evolving, always-vibrant film industry, two books have hit the shelves with the hope of attracting not only desi readers but also a western audience. When read back-to-back, the two provide an admirable approximation of a “double-feature,” with one portraying an actor within his layered environment and the other providing a joy-ride account of a Hindi film from conception to birth.
Film critic and author Anupama Chopra’s latest labor of love is one that boldly attempts to define Hindi films through a new twist. In King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, Chopra examines three converging forces as they come together in the last decade of the twentieth century and into the new millennium: the rise of a superstar; the growth of and changes in contemporary India; and the modernization of Hindi cinema. While the title may deceive a reader into believing the book is yet another biography of dynamic actor and personality Shah Rukh Khan, it is, in truth, as much an assessment of the changing social and economic conditions in India that enabled Khan to become a box-office giant without star parents and facilitated the development of the industry’s increasing global stature. The actor, the country, and the industry are placed into context, one to the other, in a way that even the uninitiated will understand and appreciate.
With the economic liberalization of India came cable/satellite television, relaxed governmental restrictions on commerce and industry, and a growing middle class, all allowing more of the world to enter the Indian market and consciousness. Khan, in turn, represents this new, modern India—and Hindi films–to the world. In addition to these societal and economic changes, Chopra discusses numerous associated topics: Hindi film history, including angry young men and romantic heroes; the influence of Asian film songs on Indian lives; the global reach of Hindi films beyond Indians abroad; the role of the Mumbai mafia in film production; and actors as advertising pitchmen.
Chopra’s bibliographical references include everything from Wikipedia to Fareed Zakaria, from Chopra’s own published articles to a report used by Mumbai Police Crime Branch, and from Hindi film fan magazines to books on anything applicable to her work. While these references may seem to rely too heavily on online and print magazines and newspapers, they are varied in origin and scope. In addition, the list of interviewed industry professionals whom Chopra thanks is a veritable who’s who of contemporary Hindi film greats. Khan fans may or may not discover new nuggets of information about him or a surprise detail in the book, but certainly all readers will understand how people, places, and things rely on and react to each other to create more than the whole.
Writing about Hindi cinema with a different purpose, novelist Stephen Alter offers an insider’s view of the making of Omkara–the Indianization of Shakespeare’s Othello–in Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief. Originally introduced into the Hindi film industry by his cousin, actor Tom Alter, the author understands and depicts the magic of moviemaking at its most intense. From pre-production to premiere, Alter consults with Director Vishal Bhardwaj and his team and chronicles how Shakespeare takes on a decidedly mirchi flavor in a modern retelling for a culturally-dissimilar audience.
By being even a peripheral part of the process, Alter’s writing is personal, and the story is told by a welcome guest rather than a hanger-on. As the filmmakers go through the required motions, Alter puts Bombay’s movie industry into global perspective, occasionally comparing Hindi film practices to those of Hollywood. An interesting piece of information is that the book covers the year’s time it took to prepare the script, cast the film, scout the locations, secure the necessary technicians and extras, complete the filming, concentrate on post-production, and launch the premiere of the film. In the Hindi film industry, one year from start to finish is certainly not the norm; most films can take two years from start to finish.
The true excitement of movie-making is juxtaposed with the tedium involved in planning the screenplay, searching for proper locations to replicate the director’s vision of the setting, and bits and pieces of dance numbers captured by several cameras at once to be edited together later into a stunning and heady motion picture. In between visits to the sets and locations, Alter meanders through the film industry, devoting a chapter here or there to people he admires but are not a part of the Omkara team. Despite those side trips, the result is that the colors, music, personalities, action, drama, and romance of Hindi films are brought to life as they are stitched together into one carefully prepared movie and told in print by a highly-readable raconteur.
It is clear from their writing that both Chopra and Alter are discriminating fans of Hindi cinema. They are wise enough to recognize both the industry’s strengths and weaknesses and never shy away from acknowledging either. Both write with the confidence required for credibility. Both write without the conceit that would turn their works into tell-alls. Each wisely chooses the proper point of view for their respective book’s presentation. There is no mistaking the fact that Chopra admires Khan, but at no time does she become a fangirl or put herself into the action. Her own film-family credentials would allow first-person narratives; however, this simple removal of self boosts her integrity as an author within the framework of the book. In contrast, Alter’s basis for his book is that he is a part of the proceedings, from listening in on the initial script discussions to attending the premiere. Without his direct participation or insights, the book would merely be another “making of” based on third-party anecdotes (Chopra’s books on Sholay and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge excluded).
“For an estimated annual audience of 3.6 billion worldwide,” Chopra states early in her book, “Hindi cinema is a necessary comfort and a collective expression of hope.” While Chopra’s book presents a fairly unbiased look at country, society, and stardom, Alter’s book takes the next step and presents the process of filmmaking and some of the most important personalities involved in making films. Both books are must-reads for fans of Indian cinema, for anyone interested in world cinema, and for those who are merely curious about that far-reaching phenomenon known (for better or for worse) as “Bollywood”.
“You can’t buy a ticket to Bollywood,” Alter says, making a reference to its western counterpart. “There’s no such place.”
Oh, but there is, sir. In hearts, in minds. In hopes, in dreams. You can buy a ticket to Bollywood every Friday. And every time you open one of these books.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|