Hindi Cinema refers to the prolific Hindi language film industry that operates mainly from Bombay, India. Characterised by music, melodrama, dance routines and extravagant production values, it is both a source of aggravation and wonder for its patrons. With enthusiastic audiences and box office success stories from all over the English speaking world, the escapist entertainment of Hindi Cinema has become a spectacle to reckon with. However, Hindi cinema seems to fall into a self induced rut ever so often. And similar to it, the film journalism in India tends to lie in a pathetic condition. With the media that thrives more on gossip and paparazzi culture, objective and analytical film journalism is something that is seen very sparsely in India. In this regard, the author Anil Saari and his posthumously published book, ‘Hindi Cinema – An Insiders View’, stand out. The poet, theatre artist and journalist, Anil Saari, was Hindi cinema’s most enthusiastic patron more than 3 decades ago. The book which is a compilation of his essays from the 70’s to 2005(the year he died), can be seen as a tribute to one of Hindi Cinema’s most enthusiastic advocate. The introduction by filmmaker and critic Partha Chatterjee enumerates Anil Saari’s panache for identifying social-cultural trends within Hindi cinema. The 36 individual essays have been divided in into four different sections titled ‘The Aesthetic Foundations of the Hindi Formula Film’, ‘Themes and Variations of Indian Cinema’, ‘Perspectives on Indian Cinema’ and ‘The Makers of Popular Cinema’.
A personal favourite is the essay titled, ‘What went wrong with Bhansali’s Devdas?’. Apart from being an extremely well written piece, the lucid arguments back the valid criticism of the movie. Without questioning Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s prerogative of a brilliant director, Saari argues that Bhansali’s rendition of Sarat Chandra’s Devdas is an anxious attempt to capture poetry on film. Saari says that Bhansali’s effort to create ‘poetry on celluloid’ resulted in the movie where “every single moment in the film is a great emotion – of high emotion, grand gestures, extraordinary feelings”. Saari states that Bhansali’s effort to convert every single second of the movie into a great moment resulted in the bland nature of the film. Saari also questions the need for the large scale exorbitance of the film. “It is against the backdrop of the simple, everydayness of human behavior that a great film sets its dramatic surprises, narrative twists, and its heart wrenching moments”. With that said, Saari’s again expresses the need for a simpler and realistic portrayal of the real world in cinema. With this essay, one can observe Saari’s genuine perceptiveness to the aesthetics and intricacies of film making.
The other two note worthy essays ‘The Dynamics of Tradition and Modernity in Hindi Cinema’ and ‘The Compelling World of Hindi Films’, overlap immensely in terms of the arguments put forward. In ‘The Compelling World of Hindi Films’, Saari speaks of how Hindi Cinema is successful in escaping the realities of poverty and the boredom of routine life. Unintentionally it affirms to status quo of the politically powerful and richer classes. His arguments are mostly echoed during the times of post-independence, where Saari understood the power of cinema as a tool in building an emerging economy. His arguments draw inspiration from the success of Bertolt Brecht’s plays in Europe. Perhaps, Saari hoped that Hindi cinema would produce its own version of Brecht, whose awareness of life’s struggles and politics would permeate through to the masses. Similar arguments are put forward in the essay, ‘The Dynamics of Tradition and Modernity in Hindi Cinema’. Saari’s reiterates the need for the entertainment and socio-economic realities to compliment each other. In the essay he talks about how, “The Indian psyche lies in the shadow of a long, callous history of economic disparities; a psyche that tries to preserve itself and its shell of bones from the wretched sea of poverty that exists all around it. The dividing line is so thin and fragile that consciousness can only lead each man to conceive of himself as an oasis in the desert”. Upon deliberation, the reason for Saari’s strong stance on cinema mirroring reality can be found by studying his personal background. Anil Saari’s father, Arjun Arora, was the co-founder of the Communist Party of India (CPI), in Uttar Pradesh (India), and also a proactive trade union leader. Perhaps it is this this exposure to the ideology that leads him to gain in insight into the struggles and realities of the common Indian citizen of that time. It is this approach of Saari’s that sets him apart from mot film journalists of is time.
The biggest learning points from the essay, ‘The Compelling World of Hindi Cinema’. Hindi cinema has always challenged for being conservative and parochial, so the arguments in this essay are refreshing. Saari’s arguments make one realize how even though films from the 1950’s/1960’s never tried altering the established social norms, it did endavour to fire the imagination of the Indian public in a subtle manner. Saari mentions how Shree 420 was successful as it blended “the traditional Buddhist ideals of renunciation and sensuality” and “in its own inelegant way, it taught a million young Indians how to accept their natural attraction for the other sex.” It is this different approach of that makes readers realize that even with all its conservatism, Hindi cinema did make an effort to introduce modern ideas in a surreptitious manner.
In the essay, ‘Can Parallel Cinema Survive’, Saari appreciates and criticizes the work of parallel film makers. Saari says that the biggest grouse of the parallel films is that it failed to engage and reach out to their own target audiences. So while he is extremely appreciative of the works by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, he remains discontent as most of their films gained recognition internationally and failed to draw the audiences within their own countries. In the final chapter, Saari makes interesting comments about screen idols, right from the ‘Troika’ to Mani Ratnam. It is in this section that one observes Saari’s great love for the work of Guru Dutt.
In all, there is great deal of information and insight available in Saari’s book. Although, at times, it can seem slightly academic in nature, it never fails to provide an analytical point of view to its readers. Saari’s essays are extremely perceptive and provide great understanding into the various trends within Bollywood. However, since some of the essays have been written decades ago, the contents and arguments of various essays are outdated and can be challenged. While it is understood that the book is a compilation of Saari’s various essays, the random selection of essays have no link to one and other. While some essays such as ‘Rags to Riches’ and ‘Black Money as mainstay of Hindi Cinema’ could be given a miss, better categorization of essays could perhaps have given the book a better structure. Another drawback of the book is the title itself. Even though the book is titled ‘Hindi Cinema’, three of the four sections of the books contain essay’s pertaining to ‘Indian Cinema’ where a great deal has been mentioned about South Indian Cinema, which does not classify within the bracket of Hindi Cinema. In addition, apart from being a regular film journalist, it is vague as to what categorizes Saari as an ‘insider’ in Hindi Cinema.
In conclusion, Anil Saari’s book not only reflects on his style of writing but his passion for the art of film making. His holistic approach in films is not just confided to their content but also their aesthetics, financing and exhibition. Saari’s style of appreciation and criticism without malice enhances his credibility of his critique. The essays are exceptionally informative as they are all linked to the issues of politics and history within that time. By capturing the various forms of narrative cinema, parallel cinema and popular cinema, the book is a holistic guide to Hindi Cinema over time.