The many fantasies of ‘Reel India’
- Namrata Joshi’s book chronicles those who live outside the cinematic mainstream
- ‘Reel India’ is best read as a collection of discrete essays or vignettes
Mera cinema meri muhim hai (my cinema is my campaign)," a writer-film-maker, trying to raise ecological awareness through his self-funded work, is quoted as saying in Namrata Joshi’s Reel India. Elsewhere, a collector of vintage radios—and a fan of old film songs—remarks, “Haddiyan boodhi ho rahi hain (the bones are ageing)"—he is talking about both himself and his prized collection, which might decay and be lost forever if someone doesn’t recognize its worth.
Reel India is a wide-ranging book—sometimes too wide-ranging and diffused for its own good—and as such, different things in it will appeal to different sorts of readers. For me, its true heart lies in its chronicling of magnificent obsessions like the ones quoted above: the obsessions of people who live outside the cinematic mainstream (or what city dwellers think is the mainstream) and engage with films in myriad ways, not seeking monetary benefit but doing things because they are compelled to; because cinema is so central to who they are.
Other such subjects include “Hamraz" of Kanpur, who spent decades putting together an exhaustive five-volume compilation of data on Hindi-film music: devoting all his non-office time to locating credits for songs going back to the early 1930s, when such information wasn’t properly catalogued; even using up his leave travel allowance for this purpose. Or the Lucknow-based Joe Vishal Singh, whose devotion to Shah Rukh Khan far transcends the usual clichés about people worshipping movie stars. Or Nasir Sheikh—“the Dadasaheb Phalke of Malegaon"—who began his town’s now famous tradition of spoof films like Malegaon Ke Sholay .There is a physician whose haveli is a favourite location for shoots, and who has become “a cameo specialist", making appearances in films like Tanu Weds Manu. There are also collectors of memorabilia—lobby cards, 78 rpm records awaiting digitization—and others who dally with fame by sending in scores of requests to radio stations.
Though Reel India has an overriding theme, encapsulated in the subhead “Cinema Off The Beaten Track", it is best read as a collection of discrete essays, which combine reportage with commentary. Some chapters—for example, “Small Towns On Big Screens"—offer reflections on a few films that fit a broad category, but the better essays centre on individuals and places, allowing Joshi’s journalistic strengths to come to the fore. We learn of spaces with offbeat connections to cinema, such as the shop where the adolescent Naushad once tuned harmoniums. We see how low-profile cinema can aid the survival of endangered languages, identities and subcultures, or raise awareness about predatory companies. There is much here for the trivia buff (which is the Life Of Pi of Garhwali cinema? Who is the biggest star of Jharkhand cinema, or Jhollywood?) and there are evocative images: Bhopal teeming with John Abraham lookalikes, a Bollywood go-to man in a small town trying to snatch lizards off the walls of his own home for a scene, screenings organized in the mukhiya’s (village head’s) house in a Bihar village, with bedsheets stitched together to create a makeshift screen.
Almost by default, this book is also a sort of pan-India travelogue, about the subtle differences between people and places across the country: how, for instance, the less demonstrative populace of a particular region tends to be more disciplined and non-intrusive during shoots. But equally, how these varied places, each with its distinct sociopolitical concerns, can engage with each other through popular culture: how a web series like Mirzapur, so apparently north Indian in its ethos, may share the DNA of violent Madurai films; how urban and rural worlds can merge, and radical ideas coexist with conservative ones.
Joshi’s chatty, conversational style—one of the appealing qualities of her feature writing—lends itself well to this subject matter, but there are times when the line between casualness and carelessness gets blurred. There are typos and grammatical errors (Lucknow becomes Luck in one place—and no, that wasn’t intended), unrelated streams of thought flow into each other without para breaks; in some places there are superfluous details (in a brief reference to Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, we are parenthetically told not just that the film was remade in Hindi as Dhadak but also that the latter starred Ishaan Khatter and Janhvi Kapoor…and that Kapoor is the daughter of the late Sridevi) while in other places, information is provided in a slapdash manner. Occasionally, I got the impression that the book was rushed into production before the author was fully ready, or that some material drawn from old feature stories hadn’t been fully integrated into the larger narrative.
However, these are problems of form, most of which will hopefully be remedied in a later edition. For the reader who can ignore this and concentrate on a book’s content and informational value, there is—as indicated—much to appreciate.
Most of all, Reel India invokes a feeling of sheepishness in me, being a reminder that despite being a movie nerd, there are many aspects of the film-going experience I am completely cut off from. Though I lament that movie-watching has become sterile in an age of smartphones and streaming, I also plead guilty to having always lived in south Delhi and having rarely gone to movie halls in the pre-multiplex decade—much less having ever thrown coins at the screen!
Reading this book is to realize that my love for dialoguebaazi and dhishoom-dhishoom, for ornate song sequences set to Laxmikant-Pyarelal scores, for the sort of “masala" that we are taught to be ashamed of these days, amounts to a form of urbanite posturing when compared to the true worshippers (or sachhe aashiq) whose stories Reel India is so full of.
Jai Arjun Singh is a film journalist and author of The World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, published by Viking.