24 January 2016

Not quite by the book

My Mirror column today:

As the Jaipur Litfest unfolds, here's a look at publishers and publishing -- as projected onto the Hindi film screen.

Guru Dutt and Rehman in Pyaasa (1957)
For much of its history, popular Hindi cinema took literature seriously. Until the 1960s and 70s, screenplays were often adapted from existing literary work: plays, novels, short stories. Even after this stream of literary inspiration began to dry up, the writer/poet protagonist remained a figure of admiration and romance. But what about the publisher? It's fascinating: the publisher in Hindi cinema was invariably a petty, money-minded sort, either too stupid or too evil to appreciate the worth of the writer-hero. 

Perhaps the most memorably villainous publisher of Hindi cinema is the urbane Ghosh Babu of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957). Played by the accomplished Rehman, Ghosh Babu starts off dapper and inscrutable, a potential godsend for the talented but impoverished Vijay (Guru Dutt), whom he invites to his office after hearing him do an impromptu recitation of one of his poems on stage. But we soon realise that his intentions are far from noble. Having somehow caught a whiff of Vijay's long-past relationship with his wife Meena (Mala Sinha), Ghosh wants to rub the younger man's nose in the dirt. He dismisses his nazms as "the nonsense of a novice", publishing a soap advertisement in the empty spot in his journal; he invites him to a party only to make him wait on guests. 

Abrar Alvi, like so many 1950s screenwriters, drives an ideological wedge between characters, deepening Pyaasa's personal conflict into a battle between the idealistic socialist who hopes to change the world, and the unscrupulous capitalist for whom status quo is profitable. The prosperous Ghosh is clearly literate enough, but the books that line his rooms do not touch his unscrupulous soul. For him, the best poet is a dead poet - one who can claim no share of the profits. 

Pyaasa actually begins with another publisher, of the too-stupid variety. A sherwani-clad old man in a small, haphazard office, he tells Vijay only a fool would publish his 'rantings against unemployment'. "Aap shairi karte hain ya hajaamat (Are you a poet or a barber?) Poetry is another name for delicacy. Gul-o-bulbul pe sh'er kahiye... jaam-o-suraahi pe sh'er kahiye (Write couplets on the birds and blossoms... on the wine flask and the goblet)," he urges. Vijay collects his manuscript from the wastepaper basket and leaves. Later, watching Ghosh's well-heeled guests applaud precisely such stock offerings, we recall the publisher's words. 

And yet, [Spoiler Alert] by Pyaasa's end, Vijay's poems - ostensibly too serious, too critical, too political—have been published to massive success. True, Rehman only prints them because he thinks Vijay is dead—and a dead poet is more easily turned into legend. But the film has scored another point against publishers - by showing that the public appreciates good literature, if only publishers would let them have it. 

The main thing about publishers in the Hindi film universe is that they make money. Royalties and profits appear in many different films. One silly caper called Chori Mera Kaam (1975) features the late comedian Deven Verma as a shady publisher who stumbles onto a professional thief's account of how to commit fool proof crimes: the book becomes a countrywide bestseller. The socially-conscious tearjerker Aakhir Kyon (1985) featured a rare writer-heroine: Smita Patil as an ill-treated wife who takes to writing under a pseudonym. The film's most dramatic turnaround features Rakesh Roshan, Patil's villainous exhusband, discovering that the celebrated writer Asha Shree, whose novel he hopes will revive his failing publishing business, is actually his abandoned spouse. Patil's character agrees to give him her next manuscript, and surrenders her royalties to help finance her own daughter's wedding. 

None of this is surprising. The Nehruvian consensus about money lasted for decades: the Hindi film hero could not aspire to wealth unless it came his way by a stroke of luck. Wealth was a temptation, businessmen were dishonest—and publishing was a business. In Raman Kumar's sincere 1982 marital drama Saath Saath (produced, interestingly, by David Dhawan), the pressures of domesticity push an idealistic aspiring writer, Avinash, (Farooq Shaikh) into a career in his friend's publishing firm. Having once entered this space, he finds himself becoming precisely what he had so despised as a writer - commercially savvy and morally bankrupt. Saath Saath does offer up an alternative ethical model of publishing: a newspaper run by Avinash's retired professor (who else but AK Hangal), though it seems unlikely to be financially stable. 

In post-liberalisation Bollywood, no AK Hangal options exist. Publishers appear infrequently, and they are cutthroat and corporate. In 2005, Leena Yadav directed a terrible film called Shabd, in which Sanjay Dutt plays a Booker-awarded author (yes, quite) plagued by performance anxiety. After one of his books does badly, his posh publishers refuse to even take his calls. In the more recent Happy Ending (2014), too, a failing writer (Saif Ali Khan) is unceremoniously jilted by his publishers. Desperate to revive his fortunes, he takes on a screenwriting job. 

Here, as in the fun indie Sulemani Keeda, we see talented screenwriters stuck in bizarre Bollywood vanity projects. From that perspective, book publishing seems like a bed of roses. Sulemani Keeda, for instance, ends with one aspiring screenwriter abandoning the Versova rat race to write a book. But of course this is the imagination of the young film-wala in the trenches, for whom book publishing can now only be less corrupt than Bollywood.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Sun 24 Jan, 2016.

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