Even when it comes to books, those on heroes and heroines seem to matter more than ones on character artistes
For generations of film lovers, Hindi films have played by rote. Even the credit lines have followed a pattern too predictable to be forgotten. First come the names of the hero and heroine followed by those of character artistes. Finally, to end on a high note, the name of the villain. Hindi films are sold on the name of the hero. Thus it is not a surprise that the latest blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger, which counts formidable artistes such as Girish Karnad and Roshan Seth among its credits, has been promoted only as a Salman Khan film, his modest acting skills easily compensated for by his market value.
However, the surprise — a mild one though — comes from the world of books. Here too heroes and heroines seem to reign, consigning character artistes, villains and music directors to the sidelines. The reality struck me at the passing away of the remarkable A.K. Hangal. As soon as the kindly artiste breathed his last, the mind’s eye went back to his autobiography Life and Times of A.K. Hangal, brought out by Sterling Books. Unlike all the brouhaha that accompanies the launch of a book about any A-lister from cinema — from the inimitable Dev Anand’s to as-loud-as-you-get Shah Rukh Khan’s memoirs, not to forget those of Hema Malini, Vyjayanthimala and Dharmendra, Hangal’s work arrived at the book stalls low key. And stayed that way. The world of literature preferring to abide by the rules of Bollywood was happy to plug a Shah Rukh book or a Bachchan cover. Of course, Hangal did not quite make the cut, even if he had a more interesting story to share with the readers. Hangal wrote of his sorrow at losing his mother as a little boy of five; his grandfather being recommended for a job by his cousin; his days in jail and the like… all very interesting. All was fine except that he could appeal for attention, not command it. He did not sell many tickets at the box-office. His name did not necessarily translate into a bestseller.
Call it prejudice or a hard-nosed decision backed by market economics, but the way a book is targeted and marketed is determined by finance. Brand value, not word value, matters. Thus a shoddy semi-pictorial essay on a star has better chances of moving off the shelves than a more nuanced book on Hangal, or say Zohra Segal, another loveable artiste, who just completed a delightful hundred. In fact, to mark the occasion earlier this year, her biography was published by Niyogi Books. Penned by her daughter Kiran, the book is replete with vintage Zohra anecdotes, her family’s days in Rampur and Moradabad, the time of the shikar, the little games of hide-and-seek. Like Hangal, Zohra too lost her mother early, and in school was known as Sahibzadi Zohra Begum. Once, apparently, while cutting betel nut she hurt herself with a grinding stone that left a permanent mark on her middle finger! The book is full of similar revelations. The launch got some media space, more than what Hangal managed, but none in comparison to the frenzy that precedes and succeeds the launch of a book on a big star! However, like Hangal, Segal’s story too was brought out not by an ace publisher, but one still young in the trade.
There is a pattern to film biographies, authorised or otherwise, and autobiographies. Through a process of elimination, most top-notch non-hero-heroine achievers from the 1940s and 1950s are a strict no-no. Thus we don’t get to see much on Kanan Devi, Zohrabai Ambalewali and the rest. The norms are relaxed only a bit for Guru Dutt or Mehboob, for some posthumous adulation. If from the 1950s only Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor are usually found between the book covers, for the 1960s such privilege is reserved only for Shammi Kapoor. That his popularity was founded on the genius of the likes of O.P. Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan is easily cast aside. Then come the 1970s. And when you have Big B, do you think publishers will even look at anybody, like a Hangal or a Zohra? Yet they are lucky. Others such as Madan Puri, I.S. Johar, Johnny Walker, Ajit and Iftekhar, etc. have not even been considered worthy of publishers’ attention!
These artistes had to fight hard to get attention in films; they have had to fight hard to get attention from book publishers and readers too. Stories of struggle, days of denial, lives of detachment do not make for happy reading.