One of the most touching obituaries of Meena Kumari was written by Nargis titled Maut Mubarak Ho
Khalid Mohamed on some of the most engaging reads on Hindi cinema. and why certain celeb autobiographies will never be written
There's nothing like a good read in the hot summer months. And if you're a devotee of Bollywood cinema, naturally you'll scour the bookshelves or shop online for a book - about its celebrities or the magnitude of its impact over the decades on the audience - not only in India but overseas as well, be it in Asia, the Gulf countries or in pockets of Europe and America.
As it happens, right now, book publishers are especially keen to support biographies of current A-listers. The snag is that a majority of the nation's stars aren't willing to tell all or even discuss their professional careers in-depth.
For instance, Salman Khan has stated quite tongue-in-cheek at an event, that there would be far too many secrets to reveal. So why go into that zone at all? Aamir Khan has permitted analyses of his films, but without giving the book his formal sanction or assenting to appear at its launch ceremony. As for Shah Rukh Khan, several books have popped up, but the autobiography he has been writing for over two decades now is still in the works.
Dharmendra is believed to be working on a book of poems. Amitabh Bachchan has often expressed the desire that the ultimate biography on him should be written by his daughter Shweta Bachchan Nanda. And the buzz is that Rekha has been beavering away on her attitude to life and cinema but will not admit to it, till she's completed the last word.
This year, so far, has yielded a particularly lean harvest of Bollywood books. So, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a magnum, four-volume collection titled A Touch of Evil, a handsomely-produced, profusely illustrated homage to the genres of horror, whodunits and thrillers stretching back in time from the 1940s to the here and now.
Aptly, one of the volumes has been dedicated to the unapologetically slash-sorcery screamfests of the Ramsay Brothers who ruled the public imagination, particularly during the 1970s, kicking off with the Prithviraj Kapoor-Mumtaz spine-tingler Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi (1970) and Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972). Incidentally, the latter has retained its cult status, and had even wowed the discriminating moviegoers, losing out on the Filmfare Critics' Award by just a vote among the jury.
The Ramsays - a patriarchal family led by producer F.U. Ramsay and bulwarked by his sons Tulsi and Shyam - had achieved notoriety as well as financial success with their B-grade, quickie blood-curdlers. Unfortunately with time, owing to irreconcilable differences, the brothers went their separate ways, never to taste the success which they had during their peak days. Yet, the family, which made horror a full-fledged, even 'honourable', genre in Indian cinema, has been the subject of serious academic studies.
Unusually, the easy-to-read quartet of volumes - A Touch of Evil - has been compiled by an unlikely, first-time writer. That's the 46-year-old textile tycoon, Dhruv Somani, who had to self-finance the book project, although his father would repeatedly request him to focus on their family business exclusively.
In the event, Dhruv would slog away on his laptop after office hours, besides collecting memorabilia, photographs, facts and trivia galore from every source imaginable, ranging from film distributors to shops in Mumbai's Chor Bazaar aka The Thieves' Market. "It was a difficult task but my wife and three children were very supportive and would even proof-read and suggest rewrites. So I never felt alone or worried that I had gone insane," Dhruv elaborates when I meet him at his tastefully-appointed penthouse overlooking the famed Marine Drive seafront.
Compelled to market the book online and at a few select stores, the tycoon-cum-Bollywood fanatic, may not have recovered his investment of several lakhs of rupees, but says optimistically, "By promoting the book on social media, over 200 copies have already been sold. And to my delight, the demand has been escalating. I know its price is a bit steep at Rs. 5,999 (Dh317), but since it's a collector's item, the sales have picked up steadily and surely."
Next on Dhruv's to-do itinerary is a factoid-filled book on the career graph of Zeenat Aman, whom he sighs he fell in love with when he was a school kid. He's been trying to meet her for a chat but hasn't lucked out so far.
The second good read of the season - Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai (loosely translated as 'once upon a time') - is by a research scholar from Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi. The 40-year-old Yasir Abbasi spent years tracking down articles, pen-portraits and commentaries written for a clutch of now-defunct Urdu magazines.
While opening up the folds of the past, Abbasi's aim was to convey that there was a time when Urdu spelt chaste prose and heartspeak from film personalities writing about their colleagues.
Indeed, the most moving segment in the book, published by Bloomsbury, is an obituary written by Nargis Dutt for Meena Kumari. The title of the obit - Maut Mubarak Ho (congratulations for your death) - speaks for itself. Meena Kumari, who was dubbed as the tragedy queen, had led a troubled life ever since she was a child star. During her last years, she had drowned herself in melancholia. Her end at the age of 38 came in 1972, shortly after the release of the classic musical Pakeezah. Nargis' ode to her colleague is perhaps like none other ever attempted on paper - frank, empathetic and critical of the merciless ethos of the film industry.
In addition, Balraj Sahni's reflections on the film industry, and an account by scriptwriter-playwright Javed Siddiqi on his experience of working with Satyajit Ray on Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), are must-reads for any film connoisseur.
Last, but absolutely not the least, for a good re-read, I'd suggest Romancing With Life, the authorised biography of Dev Anand, published by Penguin in 2007 during his lifetime. He was to pass away four years later. As racy and ever-alive as the legendary producer-director-actor himself, the book is more than likely to return a smile to your face.
In the tradition of his memorable entertainers - whether in black-and-white or colour - Dev Anand's recap of his life is for forever.