2 August 2015

Picture This: Studio sagas

My 'Picture This' column for BL Ink:
Two books by Ashokamitran offer a richly storied account of the '50s film world, as seen from Gemini Studios.
An Indian poster for the Gemini Studios extravaganza, Chandralekha (1948)
Another poster for Chandralekha, this one for its international release, makes the film seem like an Indian circus coming to town
Was the studio era in Indian cinema its most colourful, or is it just that it has had the frankest chroniclers? “When Najmul Hassan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil,” begins Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s vivid essay on Ashok Kumar. Manto’s sketches of film personalities in Stars from Another Sky offer glimpses of the workings of several major Hindi film studios of the 1930s and ’40s: Filmistan, Bombay Talkies, Hindustan Movietone, V Shantaram’s Pune-based Prabhat.
But Manto did not focus on a particular studio. 
Recently, I came across a book which does. The acclaimed Tamil writer Ashokamitran, it turns out, spent his youth at the Public Relations Department of SS Vasan’s Gemini Studios, which produced huge hits such as ChandralekhaAvvaiyar and Samsaram. In the ’80s, Pritish Nandy, who was then editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, persuaded Ashokamitran to write a series of reminiscences — in English — about his years at Gemini. These were later published in the form of a (very) slender book called My Years with Boss. It covers only five of those 14 years, but brims with wry, entertaining anecdotes of how things were done at what was then among India’s grandest film studios.
To start with there is Ashokamitran’s description of his own job, which he describes as “respectably insignificant”. It seemed to consist, first and foremost, of cutting out news clippings about the film industry and filing them under various heads from ‘Aarey Milk Colony’ to ‘Zoroastrianism’. “Seeing me sitting at my desk tearing up newspapers day in and day out, most people thought I was doing next to nothing,” he writes. Magazines were not allowed to be cut up, so chosen articles had to be copied out in long hand. “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials and the ‘Bombay Calling’ pages of Film India...” writes Ashokamitran.
Other parts of his job are more recognisable: such as bringing out special souvenir volumes before the release of a big film, or dealing with the “assault of the visitors”. Most were turned away with masterfully obfuscatory responses. “But a film studio can’t afford to turn everybody out. It can’t take chances with guests of income tax commissioners and cousins of joint secretaries. Also traffic constables. Or the airlines people.” Ashokamitran mines these visits for a terrific vein of observational humour: “[I would] let them sit on the swivel chairs of the makeup rooms and say, ‘This is the very mirror Madhubala sat in front of’. Visitors ever (sic) could never resist the temptation to adjust their hair.”
Other visitors included some unlikely big names: the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai “sat through an hour’s shooting of a dance by a large princess wriggling with abandon”, while the poet Stephen Spender made a baffling speech. Gemini Studios may not have been quite the place for Spender, but Ashokamitran makes it apparent that SS Vasan, though he may have been a “hundred per cent free enterprise man”, had respect for poets and artistes. One of the book’s highlights is the lifelong battle between Vasan and C Rajagopalachari, over many things including the loyalty of the hugely popular writer Kalki. Another brilliant story involves Vasan’s arrival in Calcutta for the premiere of his star-studded Hindi film Insaniyat — pause here to think about this remarkable world, in which the only film starring both Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand was produced by a Madras studio and premiered in the capital of Bengal — to find that a strange sort of Bengali film, that no one had expected to be more than a stopgap between the previous film and the Gemini production, was running very well. Vasan insisted on the contractual arrangement, and on September 30, 1955, the film was stopped for the release of Insaniyat. But he was intrigued enough to take the unsubtitled reels back to Madras, and Ashokamitran, who saw them soon after in the studio theatre, remembers being stunned. The film was Pather Panchali.
Insaniyat also marked the end of the studio era. Until 1955, Vasan had really been the Boss: all his projects flowed from his own ideas and intuitions, and “[t]he scores of men and women needed for a film were all his employees”. “But from the early 50s, he would have to take into consideration the whims and fancies of men and women who may not have had the slightest feeling for him, or may have been far less mature or wise, but who enjoyed at that moment the adoration of the film-going masses.” The rise of the star-based era also meant the jettisoning of many studio employees — writers, song-writers, musicians, technicians, even actors and actresses.
Ashokamitran describes some of these unsung heroes lovingly. But he also drew on those years to produce a meditative novel called Manasarovar, about the unexpected bond between a studio scriptwriter called Gopal and a Bombay star. The film world that appears here is terribly prosaic, and still shunned by middle-class morality: wives are suspicious of husbands who work in films, even studio drivers judge stars for talking to junior artistes. 

The portrait of tragic hero Satyan Kumar, son of a fruit seller from Peshawar, derives much from the real-life Dilip Kumar, even down to his special relationship with Nehru. It is an odd, melancholic book. Ashokamitran’s unornamented prose sculpts a profound contrast between the scriptwriter’s dry-eyed response to personal tragedy and the star’s near-breakdown, heaving with tears. The actor who must channel grief for practically every film has no idea how to deal with it in real life. The book ends with a final nod to the strangeness of performance. ‘You know how to bathe in a river, don’t you?’ Gopal says to Satyan Kumar, and then adds: ‘Of course you do. You have done it in so many films!’
Published in the Hindu Business Line on on July 31, 2015.

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