To spit or to swallow, that is the troublesome choice facing the reader as he surveys the spate of biographies currently flooding the market. Some are plain slush jobs: biographies of captains of industry like J.R.D. Tata, M.S. Oberoi and H.P. Nanda. They are sustained by their subjects by way of rented ghosts, prepublication deals with the publisher or mass purchase of copies. Unsavoury details are carefully blotted out in the crescendo of splendid achievement.
One ironic quirk of democracy is that whereas accounts of the rulers themselves--for example, biographies of Rajiv Gandhi or P.V. Narasimha Rao-are destined straight for the dustbin, those of the once-grovelling court officials have acquired the shine of stature and sales. The classic instance is the as-told-to story of his life by Chief Election Commissioner TN. Seshan. This turnaround reflects not merely a change in popular taste but a redefining of the role of public figures. The public yearns for new heroes in place of corrupt politicians,
Both the Seshan and Bedi biographies cash in on this. They are unreadable since they present their subjects as caricatures of self-congratulation. Figures like Bedi and Seshan are of public interest primarily because of the offices they hold and the battles they have fought there. That does not make them intrinsically fascinating or their lives dramatically different from many other public servants. They doubtlessly possess laudable attributes that have enhanced their positions, but in my opinion although good, they are essentially dull. Good but dull people make the most insufferable bores. Bores masquerading as stars are the sheep-in-wolves'-clothing of the publishing industry.
Real stars possess a magic that can never pall. Screen idols are the classic example. With their interplay of light and shadow, their private suffering gilded by public worship, here is the reverse opportunity of humanising the idol rather than idealising the mundane. Yet recent biographies of Mehboob Khan by Bunny Reuben or Ritu Nanda's pictorial account of her father Raj Kapoor's life, despite the photographs, turn the sublime into the commonplace.
Only one recent film biography stands head and shoulders above he rest and that is The Life and Times of Nargis by TJ.S. George. It is capably researched and well written. George handles his subject with a skill and sympathy that sheds new light on cinema history, on Nargis' dazzling but doomed charisma, and her extraordinary life of celebrity and tragedy that ended in a painful struggle with cancer. By leaving nothing out, from her association with Raj Kapoor to her obsessive relationship with her son Sunjay, he does not cut his larger-than-life heroine down to size. Instead he dignifies her with an out standing humanity.
It is the sort of biography that makes you swallow hard. It also enables you to spit out the rest.