Film lovers have been acquainted with the considerable skills of M.K. Raghavendra ever since he won the National Award for best film critic a little more than a decade ago. Now he has brought the same set of skills in putting together a book of essays, “50 Indian Film Classics.” Yet, browsing through this collection, one is left with the feeling that somewhere Raghavendra has fallen short. Maybe, it is in the choice; probably there is too much of it.
Maybe, he falls short on details. Or maybe, the selection is very subjective. But then, therein also lies the book’s unique appeal. The author does not bring with him the scales of a geometrician or the box-office balance sheet of an economist. Rather he brings with him the proclivities of a poet, now whimsical, now questionable, but almost always delightful. He writes as he pleases, and that saves him the embarrassment of predictability. There are passages that are profound and enjoyable, just as there are essays that are mediocre.
Take for instance, Bimal Roy’s “Bandini”. Raghavendra dissects the film well, talking of its story-setting in Sino-Indian war but fails to go beyond the obvious. The film gave Gulzar his first break in Hindi film industry, and he had almost said no to Bimal Roy! Similarly, writing on “Mother India” he draws parallels from Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” but fails to discern the real patriotic streak in the film. Also, the film’s canvas and director Mehboob’s streak of perfection made sure that the finances ran out, making the director borrow from the heroine, Nargis, to complete the film. As for “Mughal-e-Azam”, Raghavendra talks of it as a “historical,” focussing largely on the film’s chaste Urdu. What he misses out is that the film was a classic showcase of our Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, the secular fabric of the nation. The film had a Krishna bhajan at the beginning and a hymn dedicated to Prophet Mohammed in the middle. The Muslim Emperor had a practising Hindu wife. The film’s value went beyond the obvious Urdu dialogue and lilting music. Of course, it brought Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Pandit Lachchu Mahraj together. And Naushad used as many as 80 sitars and 8-sarangis for one of its songs! Unfortunately, all these details and even the subtle message of the film find no mention.
But Raghavendra makes up for all these lapses in his essay on “Pather Panchali.” It is a piece that is dew fresh yet has the density of a tropical forest. Similarly, the essay on K. Viswanath’s “Shankarabharnam” is well formulated, enlightening, and enriching. His clear-cut demarcation of popular and classical music is, however, a nice foray in the piece. So far so good. But towards the end, Raghavendra loses many points with the inclusion of films like “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna” and “Rang De Basanti” in a list that is supposed to be of the greatest Indian films ever! To put them alongside “Pather Panchali”, “Sholay” and “Mughal-e-Azam” is to belittle those films. Sad, but Raghavendra’s desire to give us an updated book far outstrips his sense of proportion. Result? A book that lives in moments, and the moments do not add up to hours of reading pleasure.
50 INDIAN FILM CLASSICS: M. K. Raghavendra; HarperCollins Publishers; A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 350.