The 20 lucky ones

Documenting the various stages that the superstars have passed through, their story of hard work, perseverance and an element of chance
By Sarwat Ali

Any book on the history of cine stars, that cites twenty actors in the top bracket, instantly raises questions about the choice of only those twenty and not a few more. Bhaichand Patel’s choice of twenty actors from the time talkies started being made in India about eighty years ago is stated in his introduction to Bollywood’s Top 20. One may or may not agree with his selection, the fact remains that these twenty certainties were some of the most popular film stars of the industry. In a country or the subcontinent where people’s appetite for knowing more about the film personalities is insatiable, a book on the subject no matter what its quality is bound to attract attention and score favourably on the readership chart.

It is actually a selection of articles by some of the leading writers on the cinema in India. It not only gives vital bits of information about the stars, it also provides an insight into the various approaches that have been adopted by the critics to view and assess the Indian popular cinema. For most intellectual pundits, Indian cinema’s very commercial take in the drive to achieve maximum profits usually hits the lowest common denominator in terms of taste and aesthetics but this severity of view has been challenged over the years with some silver lining being discovered in the popularity-driven form of mass entertainment.

If the films were being made for the general public and the common man did not hesitate from lapping them up, it could not really be all foul and crass. The insistence exposed you to the charge of being elitist. In the long history, this dichotomy between cinema which was meaningful and cinema which was pure entertainment has been a constant refrain in the subcontinent. Attempts have always being made to rise above the idea of pure entertainment and make something more of a medium to which people have easy access to. Many have come forward to make it a vehicle for mass awareness, to instil at the popular level the ideas of national sentiment or welfare of mankind. Some have even attempted to deal with abstract values like truth and beauty but, by and large, the cinema has remained rooted in its commercial dynamics.

Bhaichand Patel calls the decade of the 1970s and ’80s as a very low point for cinema with rat-infested cinema houses presenting a sorry sight but is more hopeful now with Cineplexes and other technological breakthroughs that may have made cinema less investment-oriented.

The twenty starts that have been selected are K.L. Saigal, Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Suraiya, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Amitabh Bachan, Rajesh Khanna, Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor.

The stars seem to have been picked from the various time periods of the film industry and there seems to be an element of even-handedness so as to be saved from the accusation of being in favour of one against the other. Though it is admitted in the introduction that the period of the 1970s and ’80s was probably the most unimaginative and dull in the history of the industry — with stuff being churned out without imagination as the frontiers were not challenged — it has not been ignored totally.

The Indian mainstream cinema has relied very heavily on music and to a lesser degree on dance and any meaningful discussion on acting in the type of films being made was limp without focusing on the particularities of this kind of cinema. Perhaps there should have been greater input of music to analyse the levels of popularity and the kind of acting that was standardised. There may be no prototype like Hollywood to fall back upon. The kinds of prototypes that Hollywood throws up are partly relevant and partly irrelevant, though the tendency in India has been to gauge everything in accordance with its big brother Hollywood.

The names of contributors is the who’s who of those writing on Indian cinema like Pran Neville, Cary Rajinder Sawhney, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Urmila Lanba, Namarata Joshi, Madhu Jain, Niranjan Iyengar, Avijit Ghosh, Deepa Gahlot, Meghnad Desai, Jerry Pinto, Rauf Ahmed, Sidharth Bhatia, Theodore Baskaran, Shelfalee Vasudev, Pavan Varma, Vikram Sampath, Bhawana Somayaa and Udita Jhunjhunwala.

Such books, besides giving an intellectual dimension to the mass media, also document the various stages that the superstars have passed through en route. It is always a story of hard work, perseverance and of course with an element of chance that has made the success possible. It discounts at the same time the mythological additives that are usually associated with the lives and works of the stars. Like in other field, less mythologised, it is primarily a case of human endeavour pitched against chance or fate with no guarantees of success. Only that it is more heightened.

The book is available at Liberty Books

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