Saturday, September 08, 2007

Umm...my dog ate it? a very tardy book report on King of Bollywood: SRK and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema

(What's the difference between a book review and a book report, anyway? Do teachers still ask children just to report on a book, as though it is a static fact, and not critique it and engage with its ideas? Kids can do that. They're really bright and have tons of ideas.)



Anyway. In case you missed it, back in July before the book came out, several bloggers from the US and Europe participated in a marathon discussion of the book with author Anupama Chopra. My hat is very much off to her for agreeing to such a rambling project, and she answered questions respectfully and with humor, an approach I always appreciate.

Now that I've had time to mull the book over - I was reading frantically right until I sent my questions in - I don't think I have much more to add to what was discussed in that post or to what other reviewers since then have said. It's an engaging, straightforward book, combining personal, industry, city, and cultural history. In its strongest moments, it made me feel like I was teleporting with the author, getting a personal tour as we zoomed through time or lurked around movie sets and stars, overhearing their thoughts.

Chopra avoids dull, rote listing of events in SRK's childhood and student days, and while it's clear she's a fan, she's not a suck-up, either. Her style of writing falls in the "analytically affectionate" category. She doesn't pretend to be unbiased, and because she tends to focus on "why SRK's performances resonate with such a wide and varied audience" rather than on "why SRK is the best actor EVER!!!!!!!!!!" her approach works nicely. She's thorough without gushing, and that's hard to do. I feel similarly about her tone in writing about the film industry - she's got fascinating, insider-sounding information, but she's not smug about it, nor does she condemn people for mob involvement, nepotism, making low-brown films, etc.

I am heartbroken that Chopra does not footnote her work. Each chapter contains a list of references, but facts, assertions, and opinions are not cited. I have spent almost all of my adult years in a university, both as a graduate student and now employee, with research as one of my major job responsibilities, so forgive me when I gripe that the failure to link ideas to their source, which would be so easy to do, renders this book almost useless to scholars. Of course, scholars are only a tiny fraction of the potential audience, but the problem is bigger than that: clearly anyone who reads this book is curious about the topic, so why not give us the tools to keep digging? It also means that a reader could very easily - and fairly, I think - decide not to trust what she says. The book is full of great stories, but how does she know them? Especially when a quote or description of an event sounds almost too filmi to be true, a citation would give the reader some more confidence that the narrative is, in fact, what we hope it is. (For example, she tells the story of a 25-year-old SRK standing on the Marine Drive overpass declaring "One day I'm going to rule this city" [page 67] - completely delightful and resonant with a star persona, but is it true? If he told her this story, then admitting that would help us understand that it might have been embellished a little or remembered as fuller of big emotion than perhaps it really was. He is a good storyteller, after all.) A story like SRK's needs all the backup it can get; as the author herself says, it's "a dramatic show-biz success story" (page 11), the kind that's easy to get swept up in, and he's obviously the kind of person(a) that can bring out the fanatic in those who like him. I said in the previous paragraph that she was thorough; I guess I should have said that her writing strikes me as thorough, since I don't know with absolute certainty how she got each bit of information, nor could I follow up on it myself. I wish I had asked her about the rationale for this decision when I had the chance. The reference lists are impressive, though, and they include books on film, newspapers and magazines from India and abroad, tv shows, screenplays, and production company websites. She also lists the people she interviewed; I'd like this even more if she annotated the list to explain who everyone is.

Maybe this complaint says more about me than it does about the book, but it's my book report, so too bad. I may be hot-pink in love with Bollywood, but I'm also a librarian, a bookworm, and a child of historians. I need for this passion to stand up to the kind of critical thinking that I try to apply to the other things I'm interested in, and this book doesn't help me as much as it could have.

Wow, how un-filmi was that?

I also wonder why the book's subtitle says "Indian cinema" when it's really just about Hindi cinema. Was that an attempt to make the topic more recognizable for potential readers who don't know what Hindi is?

As I read the book, pen in hand to mark passages and record my comments, I drew a star at the bottom of any page that I thought contained an interesting question, a conclusion worth debating, an insight I wanted to explore further, or simply a great story that very effectively illustrated her point. My copy is littered with stars, and there were so many moments while reading that I wanted to phone up the other people who were also in the group discussion and ask them what they thought of x or y passage. Chopra has a real way with words, putting her finger squarely some important ideas and describing this "seductive world" so accurately and resonantly - "Hindi cinema is a necessary comfort and a collective expression of hope" (page 8), "Shah Rukh's keynote [as an actor] was innate buoyancy" (page 59), "A superstar was created because the audience was ready for him.... It was almost as though, starved of a god after Amitabh, the audience had already decided to make Shah Rukh the next idol" (page 100). The book, like its subject, is generous with emotion and entertainment. Even if it doesn't always live up to what I want in a study of Bollywood and its context, King of Bollywood is a perfect match for its subject, and that makes for a great read.

Update to post (September 10, 2007): I forgot to mention that I have a preview copy of this book, so there might be things missing in mine that made it into the final version. For example, I just read over at Memsaab Story that there are photos, but mine doesn't have any.

2 comments:

Indianoguy said...

"One day I'm going to rule this city" [page 67] - completely delightful and resonant with a star persona, but is it true?

True, according to SRK's friend, who was with him when he said that.
After some googling I found this

ggop said...

The Indian cinema catch all phrase for Hindi cinema gets the goat of South Indian cinema and Bengali cinema. :-)
Both industries do venture into more artsy cinema than Bollywood.
(specially Bengali cinema, we have annual festivals/screenings in the Stanford theatre of some old movies by Ray)