When a book dared to chronicle a doomed Bollywood romance
Quite surprisingly, of all the books on Bollywood - the republished A Very Strange Man - has been flying off the racks lately.
Written by the legendary Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991), under the title of Ajeeb Aadmi, and ably translated into English by Tahira Naqvi, the slim volume is an incisive account of the rhapsodic romance between Guru Dutt and his muse Waheeda Rehman.
Although the names were altered to Dharam Dev and Zarina Jamal, it's more than evident that the story dared to relate the real-life liaison between the genius actor-producer-and-director and the actress whom he groomed and presented to the Hindi film industry in C.I.D. (1956), directed by Raj Khosla.
Next, Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman co-starred in his personally helmed masterworks Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), besides M. Sadiq's Chaudhavin Ka Chand (1960), Abrar Alvi's Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) - not to forget Pramod Chakravorty's quirky murder mystery 12 O'Clock (1958).
A majority of millennials may not know about the consequences of the romance, which disrupted Guru Dutt's marriage with singer Geeta Dutt. Eventually in 1965, despair and depression led to the suicide of the auteur director at the age of 39. Unarguably, no other writer beside Chughtai could have narrated the tale with an equal amount of candour. Neither is she judgemental about the doomed love story nor does she lapse into figments of her imagination.
If Chughtai is trenchant in her prose, it is purely when she discusses the hard-hearted ways of the filmmaking system. Career ambitions, maintaining a public image and the grime behind the glamour are endemic, she emphasises.
Another book by the author, Masooma, which is also visible at bookstores and on online outlets, just isn't in the same league. The exploitative movie business is the milieu again. Yet, the story about a girl from a "respectable" Hyderabad family, who sinks to the lowest depths in the Bombay of the early 1960s, doesn't have the tenderness or the psychological acuity of A Very Strange Man.
I'm bringing up the book not only because it's an eye-opener even for the know-alls of Bollywood, but to assert that no writer could possibly have the guts to author a similar tell-all today. Commissioned biographies fall into the category of hagiographies (which I plead guilty to in the case of the Amitabh Bachchan coffee table book To Be Or Not To Be), while cut-and-paste hatchet jobs from magazine articles and posthumous recalls are littered with half-truths.
Moreover, more than ever before, authors and publishers are also wary of being slapped with lawsuits, which often turn out to be protracted battles by the film star or their surviving families.
As evidenced in her controversial novels (Lihaaf, about an unorthodox relationship within an aristocratic household, for example), Chughtai had that instinctive gift for relating stories frankly and fearlessly. She possessed an insider's knowledge of the film industry, since her husband Shahid Latif was a producer and director with whom she had collaborated on several socially-concerned films - most famously Sone Ki Chidiya (1958). Here was an all-too-real take on the exploitation of actresses, especially by their relatives, acolytes and other dependents.
Indeed, Nutan, the leading lady of Sone Ki Chidiya would cite it as one of her career-best films. Incidentally, it featured playback singer Talat Mehmood in one of his rare appearances on screen as an actor. The era's most undervalued actor, Balraj Sahni, headed the cast as an upright poet who strives to rescue the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs. Incidentally, the film's music score by O.P. Nayyar with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi yielded such unforgettable songs as Pyaar Par Bas Toh Nahin Hai and Raat Bhar Ka Mehman Hai Andhera.
Besides Ismat Chughtai, the film writings of Urdu littérateur Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) are a must-read too, for anyone interested in the way Bollywood was and continues to be. It's a strictly need-oriented world out there, as borne out by Manto's collection of essays compiled in a book titled Stars From The Sky.
Manto, like Chughtai, would write film scripts and was immersed in the movie world. Yet, that didn't prevent him from penning profiles on stars, including Nargis, the now-almost-forgotten vamp Kuldip Kaur, Shyam, Sitara Devi and Ashok Kumar. The profiles stand out to date for their frankspeak, despite the fact that Manto was a perennial confidant of Ashok Kumar and Shyam.
Plus, Manto's essay Why I Hate Bollywood continues to be relevant right to this millennium. Nandita Das's biopic on the iconoclastic writer, which released last year, afforded a glimpse into the heart and mind of Manto, who eventually chose to shift from Mumbai to Pakistan.
Thus far, alas, no biopic has been attempted on the feisty Ismat Chughtai. But yes, Naseeruddin Shah's theatre troupe has consistently sought to revive her memory by blending three of her stories for a series of provocative monologues called Ismat Aapa Ke Naam. Shah followed this up with another stage tribute to the unwaveringly outspoken feminist writer with the play Aurat! Aurat! Aurat!.
In sum, then, the insightful observations and comments on film personalities by Manto and Chughtai are textbooks for cinema lovers - be it the millennials or the senior generation.
Here are two great authors who exposed the secrets behind Bollywood's closed doors, without mincing their words. Like it or not, today's film journalists and biographers - curbed by omnipresent public relations agents and timid publishers - can't even dream about being in the same league, or anywhere close to it.