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Indeed, the mosaic of Hindi cinema, which the authors unveil episodically through vivid biographical sketches of a hundred of the 85-year-old industry's greatest achievers, from Dadasaheb Phalke to Shah Rukh Khan, is littered with shattered dreams, unfulfilled promises and fleeting moments of triumph steeped in a lifetime of tragedy. The Bombay film industry has lived and flourished primarily because of the feats of brilliantly gifted individuals. But as a collective governed strictly by the profit motive, it has rarely, if ever, encouraged concerted movements in the direction of pure cinematic evolution and narrative refinement. It has always existed in the marketplace, never in the domain of art, despite the monumental efforts of Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor.
The Formula has held sway all the way. So individuals, especially those who have dared to plough a lonely furrow, have always been sacrificed at its altar. Brutally. Phalke never graduated beyond making mythologicals. Amitabh Bachchan seldom ventured outside his designated angry-young-man image. Amjad Khan did only one Gabbar Singh, just as Ramesh Sippy never managed to better Sholay. Vijay Anand rarely got his due, and Guru Dutt died a disillusioned man. The likes of Motilal, Balraj Sahni and Sanjeev Kumar, despite their undeniable virtuosity as actors, forever remained on the margins of mass acceptance. Just as well.
What is it about the world's largest film industry that prevents filmmakers and artistes from breaking out of its immutable mould? What is it that makes it virtually impossible, as Bachchan himself grants with disarming candour in the book's foreword, for even the 'one-man industry' to set his own terms and do more films like Saudagar, Alaap and Main Azaad Hoon? The Hundred Luminaries of Hindi Cinema, lucid, incisive, tongue-in-cheek, often laced with just the right degree of cynicism, does provide the occasional insight into what actually ails Hindi cinema even as it explores the nature of stardom and delineates the dynamics of the mass hysteria which commercial films and their army of stars feed off.
No list of this nature can ever be complete. Especially when it pertains to an industry as large as Bollywood, with as many stars, to borrow a Hollywood phrase, as there are in the heavens. Nor can it please everybody. There is no Raakhee, no Asha Parekh, no Suchitra Sen (who, admittedly, worked only sparingly in Bombay but Mamta and Aandhi are two films that no purported 'history' of Hindi cinema can be complete without), no cinematographers (the work of men like Radhu Karmakar, Dwarka Divecha, Ashok Mehta should automatically place them in the firmament of luminaries), and no fiercely off-mainstream filmmakers like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Saeed Mirza, Govind Nihalani although, thankfully, Shyam Benegal makes it to the list.
The intention here is not to carp. For the book, despite the inevitable omissions, is a great addition to literature on the popular cinema, which is woefully inadequate in this country. True, Hindi cinema peddles meaningless dreams and unabashed kitsch, but let us not forget that it rules the fantasies of all Indians, no matter where in the world they are. With its wild farrago of muck, mush and mayhem, star-spangled Bollywood is the only frontier the Hollywood dream machine hasn't been able to overrun. As a matter of fact, as Amitabh Bachchan insists, it is the American film industry that is vulnerable. "America at the moment is a culturally insular country but as soon as that barrier breaks, Indian films will be enjoyed by them too! It only requires proper marketing and promotion."
And so, it might not after all be the 'losing game' that Raj Khosla made it out to be.