This is a slim book, choosing to focus on only one film: Aandhi. Made by Gulzar, it was released in 1975, a momentously significant year for India and for the Hindi film industry which sent to the theatres, one after another, movies such as Deewar, Sholay, Aandhi and Mausam, even as Emergency was declared during the month of June.
In ‘The Controversy’ Bashir incorporates a brief discussion of the decade and the political and economic reasons that led to the precipitation of the theme, amongst others, of the angry young man interrogating the system. During the course of her rather slender discussion she makes fleeting references to academic studies on this topic in particular and Hindi cinema in general by well-known scholars including Partha Chatterjee, Vinay Lal, David Lockwood and Sumita Chakravarty. The references are apposite, yet the connections to their arguments are neither pursued at length nor with any vigour, in the process letting the examination of the film in the book subside to well-worn and clichéd simplifications.
It is this logic that operates in the manner the book is structured. Divided into five chapters, ‘The Auteur’ examines Gulzar’s cinematic oeuvre before attempting a short synopsis of the subject of the book: the film Aandhi. It does not help that this remarkable poet’s wide range of songs across several decades of writing for the Hindi film industry finds brief and simplistic discussion under heads such as ‘love songs’, ‘political satires’, ‘songs for children’ and ‘philosophical songs’. The second chapter as seen above focuses on the 70s, as well as on the controversies that followed the film’s release. Largely these erupted in the wake of a perceived similarity between the life and persona of the female protagonist of the film with those of Indira Gandhi, which resulted, in the year of the Emergency, in a ban being imposed on the film. While this chapter has some glimmers of the shape of the book as it may have been, ‘The Stellar Cast’ crashes the readers’ expectations through its cringingly naïve accounts of the actors in the film and their roles, the summaries of which seem hopelessly like ‘character sketches’ reminiscent of school essays. ‘The Poetry’ explains the four songs in the film and how they are picturized; the last chapter attempts to summarize the film’s dialogues and their wit, sensitivity and humour.
This slender book also includes two appendices. The first is simply a list of the film’s songs in English transliteration. It is a mystery why the author thought it was a good idea to include these in an appendix, considering that she does testify to their popularity on YouTube. The second appendix is a reproduction of Bashir’s interview with Gulzar. Though it is presented in English, the poet’s voice is unmistakable. This is the only valuable part of the book.
In contemporary times, scholars who do film studies generally use an arcane theoretical argot to examine what is unarguably an expression of popular culture, driven and constructed by the powerful corporate industry. Quite obviously the modest study under review does not belong to this elite academic club. The other possible perspective which could have shaped this little book was political: given the present times it would have been interesting to locate historically the representation of a female political figure that challenged the establishment. Attempting neither, Bashir diminishes her own work and that of a remarkable and beloved filmmaker and poet. There is nothing in the book that could not have been found better articulated on a wiki page. Gulzar deserved more.
Rohini Mokashi-Punekar is Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. She is the author of On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (Altamira Press 2005 and The Book Review Literary Trust 2002), Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon (Manohar 2005) that she co-edited with Eleanor Zelliot, and Vikram Seth: an Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2008). She is currently engaged in translating medieval Varkari poetry from Marathi, an anthology of which will be published by Penguin in their Black Classics series and Jotirao Phule’s play Tritiya Ratna to be published by Orient BlackSwan.