There is a Portugese word ‘saudade’, a word that makes into lists of those hardest to translate into English. It describes a deep, heart-crushing nostalgic longing for something someone loves, something someone lost. That is the word to describe the emotion that must have driven Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema, edited by Ziya Us Salam. This record of notable films from the 1950s and 1960s is written by journalists Ziya Us Salam, Suresh Kohli, Anuj Kumar, and Vijay Lokapally.
How do you write about films you obviously love? It is a tricky feat to accomplish. You could part the curtains and delve into the inside story, which could slip into gossip magazine territory. Or you could start analysing these movies as compositions of images and signs. It could range from insightful to boring, at worst pretentious. Or you use the movies as a starting point and funnel out the discussion into the social, economic, and political context, and then land in academic territory.
Or you could take another route, the ‘winter night on a terrace’ route. You are with friends, chatting. A song wafts along with the fumes of spiced chai or some other intoxicant. The reminiscences begin. You recall the plot of the movie, the names that made it with reverence. Someone pipes in with ‘did you know’ details. Some gossip is shared, untouched by malice. Then you talk about the songs, hum a tune or two, recall the lyrics that became anthems, and revel in those thoughts awhile.
This is the approach Housefull takes. Each of the greats, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, V. Shantaram, Anand brothers (Dev Anand, Vijay Anand and Chetan Anand), Shakti Samanta, and The Chopras, are honoured with a section. Each section has short pieces on selected movies. Each short piece contains the main credits, a plot synopsis, followed by a fond reminiscence peppered with ‘did you know’ facts and cherished songs.
The ‘did you know’ part keeps you interested. Be it how Raj Kapoor and his cinematographer Radhu Karmakar managed to show billowing clouds in a dream sequence in Awara with limited resources or how the opening couplet of ‘Chaudhvin ka chand’ came into being, the stories are fun. And some insightful, like the story of Subodh Ghosh, who was a freedom fighter, a bus conductor, a circus clown and a sweeper in the Municipal Corporation, who wrote Sujata, an inter-caste love story.
The sections on individual directors is followed by ‘Solos’, where other notable films, including Bees Saal Baad, Ram Aur Shyam, and Teesri Kasam, are described in the same vein. Finally, with a series of short paragraphs on ‘Films that live on’, the book ends.
In between, there are contributions by guest authors from the film industry, as introductions to the directors. Gulzar narrates a short deeply personal anecdote about Bimalda. Cinematographer V.K. Murthy talks about his association with Guru Dutt and says ‘he was a better director than an actor’. Other such pieces include Lekh Tandon talking about his close friend Raj Kapoor; Madhura Jasraj on her father V. Shantaram and Ashim Samanta about his; and Goutam Ghose who made a documentary on Ustad Bismillah Khan talks about the shehnai legend. In a piece titled ‘Dev on Dev Anand’, the yesteryear heartthrob candidly talks about the ups and downs of his long film career.
The title of the book speaks of a golden age. It immediately elevates this era into something whose sheen, rather glare, forms the focus. It is as though you decided to direct a movie titled ‘Someone the great’. Now you cannot show this person in a poor light, for the subtleness of greys cannot be captured in a canvas bathed in a golden halo. Many a time that is the trap Housefull falls into.
Abundance of praise
Consider the titles of the pieces introducing the directors: ‘The genius of Guru Dutt’; ‘For the greater good of humanity’ (Mehboob Khan); ‘The man with a king-sized heart’ (Raj Kapoor); ‘A father extraordinnaire’ (Shakti Samanta). Superlative adjectives, phrases conferring greatness, and lots of exclamation marks define the tone. Sometimes defending an improbably blemish-less persona seems untenable. Lekh Tandon writes about Raj Kapoor: ‘He also had many gopis and one of them could have been Radha but at the end of the day he returned to his wife, like Krishna was devoted to Rukmini’. There is such an abundance of praise that the rare moments when it is not applied, stand out. One of those is about Ashok Kumar’s performance in Howrah bridge, described as: ‘Ashok Kumar deeply disappoints in the role of a lover and then a hero trying to put things in order’.
Then again, it depends on the reader, how the praise is received. In his foreword Mahesh Bhat writes ‘Housefull gives us the sugary feeling of gazing at a forgotten family album’. And goes on to say that despite having gained political independence, we continue to be culturally colonised, something that reflects in the cinema made today. To find our authentic voice, he says, ‘we need to drink deep from the wells of the past’ and that Housefull opens a door to that past.
But what kind of a past do we resurrect? For, we do have a choice here. An overdose of the ‘sugary feeling’ can border on diabetic. Housefull teeters on that line but is saved by a certain genuineness of emotion. What comes through in the book is the authors’ genuinely felt love for an era gone past, a time in Bollywood when directors seemed like gods that neither age could wither nor custom stale. As stated in the beginning, nostalgia is inadequate to describe this love because it is not just a yearning for an era gone past. It is something more, an excess of sentiment that seems to mirror their muse, Bollywood. That honest emotion, that lack of pretension saves Housefull from being just the gushing of a wide-eyed, well-informed fan.