Not too long ago, noted film-maker Kalpana Lajmi rued that she could no longer lay her hands on her first feature film as a director-producer. Ek Pal, the Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi starrer of mid-1980s, could not be retrieved, despite her best efforts. Lajmi is still to get lucky, but many others like Alain Corneau, Alain Tanne and even Roberto Rossellini are not so.
The prints of their movies may not have necessarily been lost but cinegoers, born and brought up on a staple diet of Karan Johar's NRI fantasies, never thought they made movies on India in the first place! Courtesy Shanay Jhaveri, cinegoers get a rich spread of films and film-makers not easily accessible or even known in the country they deal with!
They say never judge a book by its cover, but Jhaveri's edited saga is different. We have a wonderful little picture of Madhur Jaffery's right eye, peering from behind the page on the cover. The eye at once seems inquisitive and sad, reflective and profound. This still from Ismail Merchant's Shakespeare Wallah is a precursor of the things to come.
While at one level, Merchant's Shakespeare inspired a film-maker like Vishal Bharadwaj — not to forget Rituparno Ghosh with his The Last Lear — to pay his tribute to the legend with Indianised versions of Macbeth and Othello in Maqbool and Omkara, at another level, the lesser known films are a neat symbol for selection here.
The films chosen may not be masterpieces but each one of them had its uniqueness that went beyond what it mustered at the box office. If Louis Malle and Phantom India deserve attention, it is because Malle found his tabula rasa here. If Ghosh's film is mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare Wallah, it is because of the mere sameness of the subject.
Not quite doing a Catherine Clement, Jhaveri resurrects 10 films that had been lost to us for multiple reasons. He brings James Ivory, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir within the covers of the same book and manages to sneak in gems like: how Renoir's The River paved the way for foreign film productions in India; and how even the legendary duo Ismail Merchant-James Ivory's India-related films were inspired by The River.
Yet even as he talks of the lesser known tales about some absolutely marvellous films, the editor gives some interesting sidelights too. For instance, he talks of the founding of the Calcutta Film Society by Satyajit Ray and Bansi Chandra Gupta and shows how Renoir's arrival reflected in Ray's writings. Then he speaks of Rossellini's India Matri Bhumi, a 1959 film that was so disappointing for its producers that they refused to have its commercial release. But he desists from stating the obvious; how Rossellini inspired Ray and neo-realist cinema is something he does not even allude to. Instead, there is a neat, but very small, aside about his relationship with Sonali Senroy Das Gupta, a Brahmin and a mother of two, who had gone to meet him only on the insistence of her husband!
Go in for Jhaveri's book to have a real idea about how international film-makers captured India on their camera, and how, long before we accused our guys of selling India's poverty to the West, others had been here and had done it without ever being accused of the same. In its own understated ways and non-linear approach, the book is a revelation. What it lacks in punch, it makes up with profundity; what it loses with structured expression, it gains with appealing visuals.