Book Review: Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema

Despite the fact that I love reading as much as I enjoy watching films, I don’t read too much cinema-related writing. Part of the reason is that a lot of what I see in bookstores consists of biographies or autobiographies, and I have a horror of picking up one of those, only to find myself reading the sordid details of people’s personal lives. I’m really not interested in that; what I do like to read is about films themselves, and the professional side of those who make them. (Though I’m happy reading anecdotes like how Madan Mohan persuaded Manna Dey to sing Kaun aaya mere mann ke dwaare, or how Mohammad Rafi got to meet his idol).

So, when I came across Om Books International’s Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema (Ed. Ziya Us Salam) and saw that it was a collection of mini essays about the best films of the 1950s and 60s, I decided this might be right up my street.

Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema

Housefull’s essays have been contributed by four people: Ziya Us Salam (a film critic with The Hindu), Suresh Kohli (poet, writer, translator, literary critic, film historian, and editor), Anuj Kumar (who reviews films for The Hindu), and Vijay Lokapally (an authority on the cinema of the black-and-white era). Between them, they’ve written up about 250 pages of content on films ranging from Baazi to Satyakam.

After a foreword by Mahesh Bhatt and an introduction by Ziya Us Salam (the latter more or less consisting of excerpts from the essays), the book is divided into eleven sections. Most of these deal with the great directors of the 50s and 60s: Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Shakti Samanta, BR Chopra, the Anands (and Navketan, as a whole). There’s an odd, somewhat incongruous section bunged into the middle of these, named Period Films (1952-1960). And, just before the afterword (by Jaya Prada), there’s a section on solos, films like Teesri Kasam or Bees Saal Baad, which were, in most cases, the only major highlight of their directors’ careers.

Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman in Teesri Kasam

Each section begins with a short introduction, mostly by someone eminent: Gulzar, for example, provides an introduction to the films of Bimal Roy. This is followed by a set of write-ups on the films of that section. Not all the films made by the director, but some of the landmark ones. In the first section, Bimal Roy, for instance, there are write-ups on Do Bigha Zameen, Devdas, Madhumati, Sujata, and Bandini.

This is where the bulk of the writing lies: in the short essays on the defining films of Hindi cinema’s golden age. Each essay begins with a brief listing of the main credits: the director, writer(s) (story/screenplay/dialogue), lyricist(s), music director(s), cinematographer, and main actors and actresses.

That’s followed by a synopsis of the film. The length of the synopsis varies from the barebones to the detailed, and then comes the rest: basically, whatever the writer wants to say about the film. There are anecdotes here about how the film came to be made, behind-the-scenes stories (not, thankfully for me, gossip about personal lives!), and—surprise, surprise—a longer synopsis. I honestly don’t understand the need to repeat a story twice within the same book, once in a condensed form and once in a longer one. Why?

Interspersed with all of this are the writers’ own thoughts about the film: what (or who) makes it what it is, where the film scores. And, rarely, where it doesn’t score. There seems to be such a pronounced aura of ‘everything in this film is so wonderful’ in each essay, that one ends up with the impression that the writer is biased. Here is an example; this is from the essay on Milan (1967):

“Nutan’s sari is a masterful example of the designer’s eye, reserving a combination of simplicity and elegance for the lead actress. The sleeves and pleats are used to set off the height of the leading lady. Raj’s camera work is splendid too…”

Nutan in Milan

I guess I’m nitpicking here, but for me, that doesn’t really say much. Not about Bhanu Athaiya’s costume design, and not about the sari. Least of all, about the film itself.

Not that the writers are always biased; there are occasional instances where flaws are pointed out. In Taj Mahal (1963), there’s a remark about Pradeep Kumar: “…for all his skills, seems to be a tad too old to be a lovelorn prince”, and there is the odd sentence here and there about someone not quite making the mark—Leela Naidu in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), for example, is described as “so wooden that she makes even a placid Sunil Dutt look outstanding.”

Leela Naidu in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke

Where the essays score is in the anecdotes and the back stories. For example, how O P Nayyar had composed 20 songs for Kashmir ki Kali, but only a handful of these were used—the rest being kept aside, to be later used in Sawan ki Ghata. Or how Aan (1952), while a failure in India, ran (as Savage Princess) for 12 consecutive weeks in London’s Rialto Cinema—and was dubbed in several languages, including French and Japanese (the Japanese version was an 88-minute one, released in 1954).

Dilip Kumar and Nadira in Aan

There’s plenty of this interesting trivia, some that would be familiar to die-hard classic cinema fans like me, some that elicits a triumphant “I didn’t know that!”

On the flip side, the editing leaves a lot to be desired. I know the editor in me tends to come to the fore when I’m reading a book, but even if I try to suppress my urge to pencil in corrections, there’s only so much I can take.
If I were to offer some suggestions on cleaning up Housefull, this is how my list would read:

1. Exclamation marks need to be used very judiciously, especially when writing anything that isn’t dialogue. A single paragraph containing three sentences: “Here the prince comes to meet his lady love almost as a commoner, dressed up as a sepoy!”, “For instance, when Anarkali is put on sale, she sings once again, calling out to her beau, ‘Aaja ab to aaja, meri qismat ke kharidar’!” and “Of course she worked up the magic without touching the bottle!” – is really not advisable.

2. Spell check’s a useful tool for a writer. It helps you find that underpriviledged and transend aren’t words.

3. It’s good to re-read what you’ve written. This helps weed out sentences that can be terribly confusing for a reader who hasn’t seen Aradhana (frankly, even though I’ve seen Aradhana multiple times, I still got muddled with this one):

“One day, as the owner wants to impose himself on her, Suraj (younger Rajesh Khanna) kills him to save his governess. Vandana in turn takes the blame for the murder, protecting her child. Of course, Suraj has time for romance too with Renu (Farida Jalal) playing the romantic lead.”

Rajesh Khanna with Farida Jalal in Aradhana

How a ‘younger Rajesh Khanna’ could have been playing Suraj in the same film in which he starred as a young man is beyond me. And it seems rather precocious of little Suraj (there is no mention that he’s grown up in the interim) to be romancing Renu.

4. Check your facts. While a half-Kashmiri, half-Ladakhi Kammo (Priya Rajvansh) from Haqeeqat could be passed off as a “naïve Kashmiri hill girl”, there’s really nothing in the film that marks Dharmendra’s character as a Ladakhi.
And yes, Priya Rajvansh didn’t play Kammo; her character’s name was Angmo.

Angmo bemoans her lost love

Also, if I remember correctly, in Khamoshi, it’s not strictly correct to say that “Arun gets cured but Radha is once again in love with her patient.” I could be wrong, but I recall the film as being centred around Radha’s single-minded and unrequited love for Dev (Dharmendra); her pretend-love for Arun (Rajesh Khanna) never turns to reality.

5. Use logic. Let’s say you’ve written, within a couple of pages, about Babul (and mentioned the Talat-Shamshad romantic hit song Milte hi aankhen dil hua deewaana kisi ka), Baazi, Jaal, and Footpath (where you write about Talat’s Shaam-e-gham ki kasam). If the next film you’re talking about is Taxi Driver, to say that “Talat Mahmood scored a rare hit as did Dev Anand with the song ‘Jayen to jayen kahan’”—well, that does sound a little illogical. Five films, three hit songs that were Talat’s, and this is a ‘rare hit’?

6. Please, please don’t give away the endings of films. I have seen Haqeeqat, Teesri Kasam, Khamoshi and Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, but plenty of other readers may not have watched these, and may not appreciate being told beforehand how the film is going to end.

I will admit that I’m paranoid about some things—grammar, spelling, logic, etc—and that probably stems from the fact that I have worked as an editor. So I’m perhaps being overly critical of the writing in this book. It’s not terrible, not even downright bad—but it’s not a patch on, say, Sidharth Bhatia’s Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story. Bhatia’s book is an example of a well-researched, well-written book. Housefull, while being mostly well-researched, is let down by sloppy editing and carelessness.

Unfortunately, even the few images included (in two lots, midway through the book) aren’t particularly exciting: they’re mostly reproductions of posters, or stills from films. And the captions tend to match the general tone of the book: a still from Leader, of Vyjyanthimala smiling as she holds the receiver of a phone, is captioned “Vyjyanthimala imparts political overtones to Ram Mukherjee’s Leader” – which was news to me, since (barring one song) the lady didn’t really have that much to do with the politics in the film.

Dilip Kumar and Vyjyantimala in Leader

I’d recommend this book if you want to know some of the history behind the major films of the 50s and 60s. If you’re trivia-mad, and are willing to forgive errors, both language-related and otherwise. If you’re not, not.

P.S. And, while we’re on the topic of books, some shameless self-promotion. If you don’t already know, my fourth book—and the third in the Muzaffar Jang series—has been published. Titled Engraved in Stone, this is a novel set in Agra, in the winter of 1656-7 CE. Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang finds himself in Agra, saddled with the task of investigating the murder of a wealthy and influential merchant. In the process, Muzaffar unearths another mystery, this one long-forgotten. And finds himself in danger of losing his heart…

Engraved in Stone, by Madhulika Liddle

Engraved in Stone is available in paperback in most major bookstores in India, plus online at Flipkart, Infibeam, Book Adda, and other online retailers. Also, it’s available as a Kindle book from Amazon UK.

56 thoughts on “Book Review: Housefull: The Golden Age of Hindi Cinema

  1. Ehehehehe, first comment! But anyway. The first thing I thought was that I’d get that book, but meh, I haven’t seen many of the films you mentioned and I don’t want the endings of them spoiled for me. And yes, I do slip up on spelling “privileged”, but hey, spell check! :P

    I am going to go get some more Muzaffar Jang books as soon as I finish The Englishman’s Cameo! :D Oh, and also, I’ve resorted to watching old Hollywood films sometimes out of boredom. Watched “Spellbound” that day and ended up bawling because I KNEW Gregory Peck did not commit the murder.

    …Heck, I’m really starting to like him.

    • Gregory Peck is very likeable. Now you’ve made me think I should really watch one of his films next. He’s one of my favourite actors. :-)

      Yup, this book’s not recommended if there are loads of films that you haven’t watched yet. There were a couple of them there (like Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Mujhe Jeene Do) that I haven’t watched yet, and now am not particularly looking forward to watching because I know something of how they’re going to end.

      And I hope you like the other Muzaffar Jang books whenever you get hold of them!

      • Yes, do! At first I thought I’m never gonna watch any Hollywood films, but hey, I can make exceptions for old, good ones. And that day I was so looking forward to watching “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. but we didn’t have the stupid channel! Urgh! :(

        I saw “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai” and though the songs are good, the ending was just a big WTF moment. Well, I was 9 when I saw it, but still.

        Yeah, I need to get some moreeee! (Got to chapter six and I really think Muzaffar and Mehtab’s sister are a good couple! Hehe!)

        • At first I thought I’m never gonna watch any Hollywood films, but hey, I can make exceptions for old, good ones.

          One can always make exceptions for good films, no matter from where or from which period in time. Really, I’d started off this blog thinking I’d review only Hindi and English films, but I’ve watched a lot of wonderful foreign films since then, and some of my favourite films now are the ones I hadn’t ever thought I’d watch. :-)

          • Really? Like which films? :D

            Oh, and by the way, I really love “The Englishman’s Cameo”! Now at chapter 10, and I laughed so hard when Muzaffar tried to convince Akram to drink coffee and he thought it was terribly bitter! And also when Muzaffar said that he carried Salim down the Qutub Minar (Yaaaaaay!) ’cause he felt dizzy. I also picture Muzaffar like this:

            I was just being me, looking at old songs, came across this, read the plot summary, and guess what? I started sobbing and crying over a damn plot summary. I don’t know how much more insane you can get from that.

  2. Now that I am well on the way to my own film blog, I am tempted to buy this book, going by your review it could serve as a good reference book. After reading this post I have a problem, and that is you keep tempting me with your books. I am a history buff and a detective novel steeped in history, well that sure is tempting but where do I get the time, I now have 2 blogs to manage, besides taking care of other personal matters.I may just have to give into tempatation.

  3. Your book is at my cousin’s in Pune waiting his convenience to send it to me. :) (That’s more important than the book you reviewed.)

    Thanks for warning me off this book – else, if I had seen it, I may have picked it up, only to tear out my hair in frustration. I’m with you on ‘editing while you read’ – I think it’s a curse of the profession. However, I do think, more and more, that publishers are rather slack about editing; the sort of stuff that gets past the editors and is published appalls me. Apart from spelling and grammatical errors, I have seen errors in character names and chronology of events, as well as downright factual errors. Sigh.

    ps: I liked that statement about Nutan’s sari – as you so rightly pointed out, what the heck does that have to do with the film?

    • I agree with you, Anu – more and more publishers are terribly slack about editing. In India, especially, there’s now a growing breed of trumped-up printers who call themselves publishers, seem to accept just about any manuscript that’ll come their way, and will publish it, obviously without any editorial inputs whatsoever. I can imagine that facts are something the average editor wouldn’t know, but at least stuff like grammar and spelling and sheer logic?

      To lighten the mood (and make you think – try and figure out what is being said here), an example of a blurb I saw on a book cover in a store recently):

      http://www.shopclues.com/a-miss-call-at-midnight-by-ah-khan.html

      • Gabble, gobble, gibberish… I’m gobsmacked! I thought it couldn’t get worse. (Remember when I said I first had to put a document into English before editing it, because though the author fondly thought he was writing in that language, it would not have been recognised as such?) You shouldn’t give me such shocks this late at night, Madhu!

        *shudder* If I weren’t still on medication for fever, I would pour myself a stiff drink. *shudder*

        As for fact, the average editor should find it easier to fact-check these days – what is Google for? It’s far easier than the days (I remember them!) when we actually had to physically pull out tomes to ensure we were printing the right thing. They have no excuse other than laziness. Another author friend of mine was groaning about a *major* publishing house, and the gaffes they let pass, even though she sent them pages and pages of corrections. Sigh. And then they wonder why people don’t read books!

        • what is Google for?

          Oh, Anu, don’t be so harsh. This person has used Google. Google Translate, to be precise, I think. It seems to have been written in Hindi and then translated into English (that “stuffing the ocean into a pitcher” business is obviously a literal translation of gaagar mein saagar bharna).

          What beats me is why people insist on writing in a language they aren’t totally at ease with. Unless you’re fluent in a language, why set out to make a fool of yourself by trying to write in it?

          Though, of course, there’s the point that people like this firmly believe that they are good at English.

    • I am butting in here Anu, I noticed that bit about Madhu’s book being in Pune with your cousin, I am curious, is the book available in Pune and if so which store, if I do not get it off the shelf I will have to change my ways and head for Flipkart, after reading the synopsis well, my interest has been aroused.

  4. :-)
    Maybe Nutan’s sari pleats have to do with depth of the character in the film. Or maybe their orderliness shows the orderliness of her mind when in love and after her marriage they are in disarray and after the death of her husband…
    So next time you watch a film, watch out for the sari pleats.
    Wonder if it is the same for the pleats of men’s trousers?

    Basu Bhattacharya, a one-film wonder?
    I always thought that Aan was a hit in India!
    BTW, did you notice that I used only one exclamation mark this time?

    • :-D :-D

      You know, I can imagine a costume designer being praised for a lot of research having gone into the costumes of a period film, or maybe even special attention being paid to make clothes suit a particular character… but this sounded a little mundane. I mean, so? To me, it smacked of wanting to praise everything in the film, even where it didn’t really make sense. This could’ve been left at saying that Bhanu Athaiya did a good job with the costume design.

      Nah, Aan wasn’t a hit in India. My father still recalls that people were very disappointed with it, especially with Dilip Kumar, since they thought he was being too frivolous!

      (And, see? I’m using only one exclamation mark, too)!

  5. Actually I’m dying to get ‘The Eighth Guest’. Everyone is praising it.
    :-)
    I thought Nutan’s Sari’s description was great, but what was the context? Interestingly the song she’s singing is the one I just posted at Anu’s, because she’s singing a folk song.

    • The context for that description was the costume design, just one of the things that (in the writer’s opinion) was so good about Milan. I didn’t like Milan, so maybe I’m biased. I like the idea of the long sleeves and the pleats setting off Nutan’s height, but frankly, there’s very little else one can do with pleats. ;-) And in Nutan’s mid- and late-60s films, she generally wore blouses with elbow-length sleeves, as far as I can recall.

      I must admit I prefer The Eighth Guest to The Englishman’s Cameo, so I hope you like it, too!

      • Sorry. I have the Eighth Guest. I meant My Lawfully wedded Husband :-)
        I bought Eighth guest at ‘abe books when you informed me that they had it. I’m enjoying the book and am nearly finished. I enjoyed it a lot, especially the fact that the stories were short and I didn’t have to wait long for the answer. I find it difficult to bear suspense, even though that’s one of my favourite genre. :-)

        Let me know if the other books are available at any online booksellers.
        Not that I enjoy reading online, but Kindle UK isn’t functioning for me. :-/

          • Thanks DO. It seems a bit complicated. Perhaps infibeam is not programmed to ship outside, or at least to Switzerland, because when I wanted to register it kept saying wrong pin, and so couldn’t proceed.
            The other one indiangiftsportal wants to register through fb and then some app. I don’t use any apps, can’t use, won’t use because they clutter up, and I don’t really need them for my limited fb use.
            I guess I’ll have to wait for amazon or Abe Books. :-(

      • Personally I think you are getting better with each book. The latest book ‘Engraved in Stone’ is even better than the previous Muzaffar Jang book (The Englishman’s Cameo). I don’t compare it to The Eighth Guest as it is not a novel. However, having said that even ‘The Eighth Guest’ is quite fantastic as it is gives you a lot more variety in terms of subjects and it is perfect for when you have limited time and you still want to get your daily mystery fix

  6. 1. Basu Bhattacharya (son-in-law of Bimal Roy) made a trilogy of films dealing with marital discord – Anubhav, Aavishkar and Grihapravesh. While not quite as entertaining as Teesri Kasam, they were well-made perceptive films. He was definitely not a one-film wonder.
    2. Regarding Khamoshi, from what I understood, the nurse played by Waheeda does fall in love with the patient played by Rajesh. That’s why when she is told to reject him after he is cured, she goes cuckoo.

    • Actually, as far as Teesri Kasam was concerned, I think the one-film wonder title was probably more applicable to Shailendra, who produced it. Basu Bhattacharya certainly didn’t fit in that category.

      Somehow, I’ve always believed (and still do, after having rewatched the last few minutes of Khamoshi) that Radha is never able to shake free her love for Dev. Even when she is with Arun (for example, in Woh shaam kuchh ajeeb thhi), little things – like the water splashing on her face – remind her of Dev. From what I understood, the sheer emotional trauma was what sent her over the edge. I could be wrong, of course – but that’s just my interpretation of it.

  7. Hello! I would like to say I really enjoyed the blog, as I love ancient movies as well.
    I’m writing here also because I have a little question about Indian mythology and I maybe you could help me with this. I’d just like to know if there is, in fact, an Indian legend that says the mango tree was originated from the ashes of a princess who was persecuted. Is this an Indian legend? Would you know any book or writer who wrote some version of it?

    I thank you so much for your attention, and I apologize for my question (I know it’s out of the subject, but since you’re an Indian writer, if this legend really exists in India, you probably would have heard of it).

    Kind regards!

  8. Madhu ji,
    Thanks for evaluating Housefull.
    Last week I got 2 books- Housefull and Bollywood Melodies(Ganesh Anantraman) from Flipcart.
    Housefull was a hugh letdown for me.I am terribly disappointed with the book.Atleast I have not found much new in it. I went by the reviews of the book and hoped for something else.may be I expected wrong or too much.
    The other book is atleast tolerable.
    -AD

    • I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who wasn’t disappointed with Housefull, Arunji! Even after I’d written this review, I thought, “Am I being too harsh?” But you have vindicated me! I agree with what you say about not finding much new in it. I think some of those anecdotes might be good for someone who’s just developing an interest in discovering old Hindi cinema, but I guess a lot of the people who frequent this blog would already know most of what is in the book.

      My sister had gifted me Bollywood Melodies a couple of years ago. I thought that was better, too – better-researched, and more importantly for me, better-written.

  9. Madhu, thanks a lot, because you have just saved my Rs 336, as I read the review just before I was about to order the book on flipkart. Not being an editor myself, I might have overlooked some errors, but repeating the synopsis and the story does seem like the auto-rickshaws of Delhi overcharging you by going round and round before they reach you the destination.

    On spelling, please permit me some digression. All the verbs we used to spell -ise are now spelt as -ize. I am told that now both are acceptable. But how do you react to ‘color’, ‘center’? This epidemic has fast spread in India – I end up spending a lot of time in correcting these. Or are these also acceptable?

    An oservation on revealing the climax of a movie. I think I have commented earlier also on your blog. Personally I would be happy if you reveal the end in your reviews. In many Hitchcock movies, the spectators are told whodunnit, but the charm is not reduced. Many classics we like to see again and again, without the pleasure being any less in repeat viewing.

    • repeating the synopsis and the story does seem like the auto-rickshaws of Delhi overcharging you by going round and round before they reach you the destination“.

      Brilliant simile! :-D

      -ise and -ize are equally correct now. Till some years back, it was a clear demarcation: -ise was used in British (or, more broadly, most Commonwealth countries’ English, including Indian), while American English used -ize. Now even when writing in British or Indian English, there’s a trend towards using -ize. Both my publishers insist on it. Personally, I prefer the English I was brought up with – so I continue to use colour, centre, humour, and look out of a window, etc.

      Since both you and Arunji have posed the same question, I shall answer both of you in my response to Arunji’s comment.

  10. Madhu ji,

    I agree with what AK Ji has said about revealing the end.Most films are not suspense thrillers(and even if they are),so the reviews deserve analysing till the end.May be you have some say on the way it has ended too.
    When I read reviews on this or memsaab’s Blogs,I always feel something is missing.
    Do consider this.Ofcourse,you must be having your own justification or reasons for doing / not doing so.
    -AD

    • Arunji, AK:

      I know some people wouldn’t mind discovering in advance how a film ends, but since I personally cannot tolerate that, I don’t – and will probably not, ever – do that. It’s not a problem when it comes to the formulaic family drama or romance, like (as examples), Junglee, Milan, Mere Sanam etc: they’re predictable enough for a seasoned film viewer to be able to guess how they’re going to end. But a film like Jewel Thief: I have never been able to enjoy that film after the first time, because the suspense is built up so well and the denouement is so fantastic that it remains memorable for me. Rewatching the film, knowing what the secret behind it all is, ruins it for me.

      That’s why I get really annoyed if I am told what the end is. In fact, there are a few fairly well-known films (like Sadmaa) that I’ve never got around to watching because someone told me the end, and I didn’t like the end.

  11. Madhu, I read House Full and agree with all your comments about the flaws in the book. I bought it with great anticipation – considering that so few books are written about the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hindi films – but the book sadly failed to live up to my expectations. Not only is the format (two-page synopses of the ‘usual suspect’ movies) pedestrian, but since it is a compilation of pieces by several writers, the book lacks consistency and coherence in writing style. But the bigger question is, why is there such a paucity of good books about this important period of our film heritage? Even on TV, old Hindi films are rarely shown – only recently there has appeared a new channel called Cine Classic dedicated to old Hindi films – but then they have a limited inventory of movies which they keep showing again and again, and many of the prints are really bad.

    • I bought it with a lot of anticipation too, and was so sorely disappointed – as you can see. I agree with you about the format being very pedestrian; it’s obviously designed for a readership that perhaps knows very little about Hindi cinema from the golden era – and (I fear) after reading these very gushy ‘reviews’ of these films, may not even want to explore further. A more balanced, intelligent approach to the cinema of this period would’ve been appreciated.

      I don’t watch TV, so can’t say about what they’re showing, but thankfully http://www.induna.com has a seemingly endless range of obscure old films, so at least there’s no chance of running out of things to watch!

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