Biography of Indian biographies

Biography of Indian biographies

In the last few years, Indian literature scene has been inundated with numerous biographies. Thanks to the 2013 General Elections and the momentous occasion of Indian cinema completing 100 years, there have been numerous biographical books written on politicians, actors and even films.


In the last few years, Indian literature scene has been inundated with numerous biographies. Thanks to the 2013 General Elections and the momentous occasion of Indian cinema completing 100 years, there have been numerous biographical books written on politicians, actors and even films. And not to mention, celebrated sports persons, yester-year leaders and events. But, do they really come up to the mark. What with the almost non-existent levels of tolerance, lack of editorial freedom and the habit of papering over inconvenient quotes and incidents; and above all the hurried way most of the biographies get written

When cocktail fiction rules over the Indian literary scene, who needs genuine, authentic, readable biographies? Fiction sells. Any mini-celebrity can sit down, write 200 pages of rubbish and persuade the gullible publisher to bring it out. The pre-publishing time is spent on excerpts carried in the celebrity-conscious media. Till recently, the book releases were accompanied with reading of select passages by a celebrity actor with other celebrity writers looking on admiringly. ‘Marketing’ a ‘product’ (in this case, a book) was regarded a more challenging assignment handled by adpersons who are keen to join the rat race and get whatever rubbish they write, published. Editors and newspaper managements saw to it that the books got ‘rave’ reviews because of the ‘ad links’ with authors. India is the one nation which can boast of the highest number of ad writers (also called copy writers) who have established vital links with editorial departments, which, in turn, are controlled by the managements, which, in turn, favoured ad-authors who are also helpful in procuring ads. The vicious circle has been going on for years now. Look at the number of young geniuses sprouting up in every literary field, and producing instant fiction masterpieces, which are welcomed with four or five star ratings. Mumbai University’s Bachelor of Mass Media course, which was intended to produce young, committed journalists who will expose corruption and cleanse public life find it easier to switch over to Advertising in their final year and come out with great writing like ‘tanda mathlab coco-cola’. The fiction plots are exactly like those of cheap Hindi films (that is why Chetan Bhagat kind of fiction is readily accepted in Bollywood). A touch of spicy sex is all the more welcome!

In such a literary scene, there isn’t much scope for biography.

Biography immediately brings out pictures of ‘golden oldies’, particularly the great Indian heroes and heroines from the glorious Indian past. So Gandhiji, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Netaji Bose, Tagore still find favour as topics for biography, but not much attention is paid to the generations, which emerged later. It was safer and easier to write biographies of established leaders on whom enough material ready existed and the archives, when squeezed further released more interesting tidbits. Since Indian publishing avoided controversies on national heroes and treated them like holy cows, there were fewer chances of biographers to indulge in digging for unpalatable truth.

Indian biography writing is seriously handicapped with self appointed custodians of public morality, keeping a close watch on this genre of writing. Can we imagine what will happen in Mumbai if an unflattering biography of Balasaheb Thackeray is released? The author will have to flee the city, and copies of his books will be burnt in public.

What was wrong in the warm feelings which existed between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten? Any writer who attempted a new biography on Nehru would think carefully on this chapter This is one of the greatest tragedies of independent India. Levels of tolerance are dangerously low; the real meaning of the term ‘freedom of speech’ is seldom understood. Can’t there be more than one opinion on a national leader, a much-acclaimed poet or a talented actor, in their professional and personal lives? This kind of attitude was common amongst the followers of the personality who were prepared to indulge in violence, to ‘protect’ the good name and reputation of their favourite hero. What was wrong in the warm feelings which existed between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten? Any writer who attempted a new biography on Nehru would think carefully on this chapter, in view of the current polarisation of political forces in the country. The right wing RSS and BJP-led bigots would descend to the level of labelling Nehru ‘lecherous’ for dallying with a foreign woman! Snide comments were passed on the marital status of Netaji Bose. Na Mo’s followers kept quiet on his seldom-discussed marriage, though in South India the ‘affairs’ of DMK leader Karunanidhi and AIADMK stalwart MGR were discussed more freely, as part of filmy license! But the biographies on these leaders or N T Rama Rao, founder of the Telugu Desam will certainly be sanitised efforts. The same is the case with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalita. Hugely talented, attractive and articulate, she carries the burden of being an ‘amma’. But a good writer with a political background along with knowledge of Tamil Cinema will jump at the opportunity to attempt a hard hitting, no holds-barred-biography of Amma, which, while projecting her as the heroine of Tamil Nadu politics, will not shy away from mentioning her film career and dalliances with actors, particularly the charismatic MGR. No one today, denies affairs between Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala or Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaywant. But these are mentioned in bits and pieces and never done full justice to in books. We, at the biography level, are more comfortable with falling in love and getting married. The ‘pati’ and ‘patni’ get all the attention, while the ‘woh’ gets relegated to the background.

This type of thinking and presentation in biography writing is part of an arrangement involving the biographer, his subject and the publisher. In many instances, the publisher is the subject or very close to the subject and controls the purse strings. The biographer enters into a kind of arrangement on the contents of the book and has to agree to what the publisher has to say. A senior journalist while agreeing to do a biography of hotelier Oberoi, signed a contract not to mention certain messy family affairs of the subject, and also submit the manuscript for prior approval. She had no choice because the subject of her book was the one who was to pay for it. Around 25 years back, I was commissioned to do a biography of Gujarati industrialist Sheth Kasturbhai Lalbhai, who was not only a textile magnate (Lalbhai group of mills like Arvind), but also a pioneer in the field of education, one of the moving spirits behind Ahmedabad institutions like IIM, Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association (ATIRA), Physical Research Laboratory(PRL), protector of Jain monuments and centuries old Jain religious documents. I found him friendly and co-operative; ready to come out with anecdotes. The book was shaping well. Kasturbhai Sheth never got along with the narrow, one track mind of Morarji Desai who was then the uncrowned king in Gujarat. He mentioned dozens of anecdotes to illustrate his point of view. They fitted in perfectly with the book. When the final pages were ready, I was informed that nothing about Morarji should be part of the book. Some of his family members and friends advised it would be prudent not to antagonise Morarji Desai who had a long memory. Since government help and co-operation were needed for Kasturbhai’s projects, he reluctantly agreed. I was disappointed and insisted on withdrawing my name as author. This often happened to writers who were hired to do books on corporate heads and institutions. Full editorial freedom was never given. That is why Indian biographies seldom came up to the mark.

Besides, rapport is necessary between the biographer and his subject. This may need time and ‘quickie’ bios are seldom readable. The ideal set up was the famous ‘Life of Dr Johnson’ by James Boswell. Boswell was a great admirer of Johnson, travelled with him for long periods, came to know his idiosyncracies and violent prejudices, like his contempt for the people of Scotland. Johnson never hid these views in his talks with Boswell who reproduced them in full, though he was a Scot himself. ‘Oats’ to Dr Johnson was something fed to horses in England, yet consumed by the people of Scotland. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote for money’ quoted Dr Johnson and the biographer quoted him in full. Despite his physical ugliness and uncouth manners, Dr Johnson who was a great ‘hit’ at parties and dinners once confessed to his biographer, ‘I am very fond of food and the company of ladies. I like their beauty, I like their delicacy, I like their vivacity I like their silence’. Boswell preserved such immortal and original views for posterity.

Can you imagine a quote in an Indian biography where inconvenient quotes are papered over, rewritten or finally dropped. Look at our film biographies. These were rare some years back , but are now catching public attention. The focus is limited. The Kapoor family is God’s gift to Indian cinema, but we still do not have an authentic, readable biography on this. The limited focus is on the Raj-Nargis romance. Hollywood actors’ biographies sizzled with details, savoury and unsavoury, of their stars. Audrey Hepburn, the gentle Princess of ‘Roman Holigay’ and the saintly Nurse in ‘The Nun’s Story’, in real life had one sizzling affair after another, longed for children, and dropped handsome actor William Holden after he told her, he was sterile and could not have a child.

Hollywood generated enough biographies on the personal lives of the stars and their tremendous acting capabilities. Montgomery Clift was one of my favourite heroes. Intense, brooding and emotional, he was a rage, qualified to compete with the likes of Brando. But his biography dealt extensively on his agonised life as a gay, compelled to live in a closet. Tortured by sexual compulsions, Monty Clift killed himself when he was in his 40’s. So is the life story of Vivien Leigh, who was chosen to play Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’. She was wooed and won by the greatest actor of his time, Sir Lawrence Olivier. The stress was too much. Leigh’s mind collapsed, Olivier divorced her and Anna Edwards’ agonising biography brings it out in full detail.

Such a book on a star is unthinkable in India. Actors are human beings. Their lives are bright, dark and grey. A good biography will bring all these out in full.

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