8 July 2015

Speaking English, Doing Desi

Last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:

'Convent' English, Hinglish and the non-filmi journalist: the last in a three-part series on the Indian film magazine.

Devyani Chaubal, columnist for Star'n'Style magazine
There was something strange about Indian film journalism, at least as it was conducted by English language journos writing about Hindi cinema. For the last two weeks, as I've written about how this world came into being, I've been trying to put my finger on what that was. Now I think I have it: the more magazines became about film stars, the less their writers needed to know about the films. In fact, the snob value that the Indian elite of the time attached to not watching Hindi films became the cachet of the English-language film journalist.

Film journalists who wanted to be taken seriously had long maintained a social distance from the film world. Last week, while writing on the venerable BK Karanjia who edited Filmfare for 18 years and Screen for ten without attending filmi parties, I stumbled upon Karanjia's own charmingly matter-of-fact explanation. Talking about the big bash Dev Anand threw when BKK became Filmfare editor, he recalled: "There was too much drinking going on, dinner was served at 4.00 a.m. and I had to attend office five hours later. That put an end to my partying."

But Filmfare was "the stuffy dowager", "a widowed aunt", as Shobhaa De's 1997 memoir put it. In the '70s, its place at the top was threatened by a host of upstart mags, staffed almost entirely by twenty-somethings. These included Stardust (launched in October 1971 with De as editor), Cine Blitz (started in Dec 1974 by Russi Karanjia's Blitz group, with BKK's niece Rita Mehta as editor) and Super (ran 1976 to 1982). Just before them came Star'n'Style (1965), and later Movie (1982) and Showtime(1984).

All these new magazines lived off filmland gossip -- and not the coy variety of it in which heroines "confessed" to sleeping with their teddy bears. The uncrowned queen of gossip columnists was Devyani Chaubal of Star'n'Style, known as Devi, and a bit of a publicity magnet herself. When she was famously assaulted by a sloshed Dharmendra for having written various things about his sexual appetite, Khushwant Singh, who enjoyed her "bitchy pieces", felt quite free to write a bitchy piece on Chaubal herself. "I wrote in my column that had I been in his shoes, I would have done exactly what Dharmendra had done to her," Singh wrote in his 2002 autobiography. Even when she was issued sexual threats by the drunken sons of an actor whose histrionic talent she had scorned, Singh's interpretation of Devi's teary retelling was bizarre: "I was not sure if she was really upset with the threats... or... looked forward to their being fulfilled". (All this despite - or perhaps because? - Singh had "the feeling that we were meant for each other"!)

Shobhaa De had her own mixed feelings. "With her paan-stained mouth, fair skin, curly strands of hair and voluptuous figure, Devi was irresistible to some men," De wrote in 1997. "It was her practice to hold court at parties, often sabotaging the host's efforts by staging a parallel soiree of her own in one corner of the lawn or bungalow... she was a high-profile star in her own right, unlike our schoolgirlish reporters speaking 'convent' English to all the 'Punjab da putters' who couldn't tell a compliment from a slur."

De's recognition of her staffers' "convent" English didn't reduce her disdain for Chaubal's own. Describing how Stardust's hit column "Neeta's Natter" was first written by a freelancer called Mohan Bawa, she writes: "Short, thickset and very camp... Bawa was also the only film journalist who wrote decent copy in grammatical English - entire sentences with punctuation marks. This was more than anybody could say about... Devi's 'Frankly Speaking'... written in catchy but clumsy Marathi-English."

The last comment is particularly fascinating, because Khushwant Singh liked Chaubal's columns for her "brand of Hindustani English (Hinglish)", and because De's own much-feted contribution to the new film journalism was also Hinglish. Namita Gokhale, who published Super, described Shobhaa (then Kilachand, nee Rajadhyaksha) in her marvellous 2011 essay "Super Days" as having "unleashed a whole new dhakar street vocabulary via Neeta's Natter". 

Namita Gokhale in the Super days.
Clearly there was a discernible difference - linguistic, but also social - between someone like Chaubal, who was, for instance, notoriously besotted with Rajesh Khanna, and these "convent girls" for whom Hindi filmdom held a horrifying fascination at best, and no interest at worst. De writes proudly that she watched only four or five Hindi films a year. Bhavana Somaya's parents, who disapproved of her working for a film mag (Super), were lied to whenever she had to cover a film party. Gokhale was fresh from literature at Delhi's Jesus and Mary College, and went back to books, but at least the stars had some frisson for her. De (like BKK, but more grandly) declares that barring two film parties, she "did not step into a film studio, attend a muhurat, visit a star home, or party with the film crowd", while editing Stardust

De is right that this "enforced distance" helped create a "credible level of objectivity". But there was more to it, as is made apparent by De's take on stars who "dared to show up at the Cat House" as "setting themselves up for further ridicule in... the magazine". De's description of "Shatrughan Sinha, with his broad Bihari accent and crude manner", or the drunken Sanjeev Kumar's crassness as that "of a grain-seller... a shop-keeper... a frustrated labourer" reveals how new English-language journalists often experienced their difference from the Hindi film world in class terms. And they felt no need to hide it. In fact, they wore their fluent English and "well-spoken" backgrounds like armour against the industry's perceived boorishness. Vinod Mehta once told me that his "England-returned" accent helped impress filmwalas for his Meena Kumari book.

It needed liberalisation to turn "Bollywood" into something Anglophone Indians could find cool. That transformation has coincided with the rise of the fully English-speaking star -- and perhaps, the disappearance of the snooty film journalist?

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