New Delhi: Penguin/Viking, 2005
Part of me loves this "bio lite" look at the Kapoor family. Author Madhu Jain is clearly a Shashi pagali of the highest order; her fondness for the baby of the second generation is evident from the very first page of the introduction, and, based on the frequency of his stories in the profiles of other family members, he seems to have enjoyed sharing stories with her. Jealous!
But mostly I wanted this book to be more substantial. Like an unsuccessful masala film that contains great ingredients but leaves them in fragments or assembles them carelessly, Jain fell short of creating portraits of both the Kapoor stars and their significance to Indian cinema (and fans thereof). I became uneasy in the introduction when the author said "I wanted to explore the terrain between the gossip and the academic analysis, essentially steering clear of both" (page xxiv). Maybe she and I mean different things by "academic" - to me, thinking critically about your sources and information and organizing them into thoughtful presentation to answer questions and raise interesting points is a good thing. What does she mean by those terms? The basic connotations I have are that "gossip" implies intriguing and juicy but fluffy and not always provable and "academic" means solidly written, if perhaps a bit dry. I don't want to be reductionistically dualist, but I wonder what she was aiming for, exactly, especially for over 350 pages? Sort of interesting without being shocking but better organized and with more named sources than Stardust?
My overall impression of this book is that is usually veers toward the "gossip" arena, though at least there are source notes for each chapter. Especially in her chapter on Rishi, Jain often latches on to particular common impressions of the figures (Shammi was wild! Shashi is a gentleman!) and reiterates them over and over, sometimes including films and performances as evidence (for which I'm grateful). I haven't seen enough of the films by or read enough about the non-Shashis among the Kapoors to know whether these are true traits/behaviors or if they're just commonly held ideas that are unsubstantiated, but I felt like she was just reinforcing one- or two-note sketches of these people, not actually illuminating their characters and not always letting the sketches arise naturally out of the information presented. "Biography deals with the events that throw light on a character. What goes into the forging of a character, however, tends to remain elusive," Jain says in the introduction (pages xxiv-xxv). That may well be - but if it's so elusive, then what did she have to fill 371 pages with? I wonder how this book struck any of you who grew up with a basic knowledge of the Kapoor family (or with impressions of them, anyway) - did it tell you much you didn't have a hunch about?
Some other problems that nudge The Kapoors away from "academic".... The wonderful family tree at the beginning of the book has no dates in it. With such a big time span being covered, dates would help the reader trace the influence of the Kapoors' careers and see how the family was growing. I went through and added what dates I could find; I also marked each generation with a different underline so I could remind myself of interesting little details like Shashi and Rishi, who technically are of different generations, are the same number of years apart as Shashi and Raj. There is also an egregious lack of photographs. These are people who are famous because of what they did on camera (or with film), and including some stills from the most-discussed films would have been a huge benefit. For example, there's a ton of ink spilled on Shammi's rebel/yahoo persona but no illustration of it. My final complaint is more vague, but it nagged at me throughout. The book is too often sloppily written, with little problems like inconsistent sentence structure, grammatical mistakes, and imprecise wording adding up to give me the impression I was reading a draft, not a finished work. Maybe it's just a matter of having needed one more read-through by a different pair of eyes before it went to press. There's a sketch of Jain's career on the book jacket, and she certainly seems like the kind of experienced writer who should know better. To her credit, Jain also has some wonderful turns of phrase and describes people and characters in remarkably evocative ways. I wish she had been as careful with all her words.
This was far from my ideal book on the Kapoors, but I still enjoyed reading it. I underlined a ton of interesting tidbits: Neetu Singh quitting acting was her own decision (I hope that's true)! the only rumor of an affair that stuck to Shashi was with Shabana Azmi! Shashi's taste in films as a kid mirrors his own multi-genre career! I just didn't walk away with much that matters. It's only fair to state up front that a significant frustration with this book was actually in what I learned - or what was suggested - about the subjects themselves, and there's no way I can pin that on the author as long as she was being honest, fair, and diligent in her research and presentation. I kept thinking of that old warning about meeting your heroes. Now that I've read it, I wish I didn't know what philandering jackasses Raj and Shammi were, what a horrific alcoholic Rishi has been, how little education seems to have mattered to the earlier generations. Maybe I should have applied to this book my general principle of avoiding interviews with movie stars - who, after all, are usually known for what they do with other people's words and ideas, not for creating them on their own. Nothing in this book made me like a Kapoor less as a performer, but...yeah, even though it really doesn't matter, I like them, or the idea of them, less as people.
Writing about living people - and depending on them for your information about the deceased - plus the author's affection for her subject probably means that some questions went unasked and a few punches were pulled here and there. One thing I thought for sure I'd learn about, but didn't, is Shammi and Shashi's relationship, especially given that both contributed heavily to the book. Does that mean they didn't want to talk about it? Or maybe there isn't much to tell? Or maybe Jain didn't ask? Who knows! I don't get the impression that she consistently followed the advice she says Shashi gave her when she began writing the book: "be 'honest,' which I suppose in some way was a carte blanche to look at the less flattering side of the Kapoors as well as their achievements" (page xxvi). Maybe I need to cut her some slack: after all, looking at the less flattering sides is not the same as asking questions about them or trying to understand them, so maybe she didn't set out to write the book I wish she had written.
Now that I say that, I realize I wish Jain had taken the approach Anupama Chopra used in King of Bollywood: SRK and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, looking at what was going on in Indian history and culture and wondering how her subject fit into, and was influenced by, those things. Gossip and public personas definitely have something to say about these questions, but I don't think Jain's book provides the information or tools to address the meanings of celebrities "in our collective memory" (page xxiv), nor does she offer much of her own opinion on them. When I finished The Kapoors, I thought "So what?" That may say more about me and what I want to learn than it does about Jain, her work, and what she wanted to share. What I want to know is what films and their makers mean, what they say about their context and culture. Maybe one of the dozen or so "academic" books on Indian cinema sitting on my bedside table will do the trick.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
New Delhi: Penguin/Viking, 2005