Books: Essay

The Lives of Others

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Sanjay Dutt’s biographer Yasser Usman on the ennui of hagiographies and the challenge of writing unauthorised biographies

Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy | Yasser Usman| Juggernaut | 248 pages | Rs 499

IN THE SMALL town in Uttar Pradesh where I grew up in the 1980s, the only source of entertainment was the escape Bollywood provided. My father and I would often skip into a nearby film hall in the late afternoon to catch the matinee, and later in the evening I would devour film magazines and read about that same movie, its actors, its making, the scandals and controversies surrounding it. I was obsessed. Every month, I would ask my father to borrow and bring home film journals and magazines from the library of the college he taught at. Stories of the magical successes, haunting downfalls and torrid romances of celebrities were part of our dinner table conversations. I was a starry-eyed teenager, and this world fascinated me no end.

But when I made the natural progression to picking up cinema memoirs and Bollywood autobiographies, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. The brutally honest, masala quality of old film magazines seemed a world away from the whitewashed, PR-driven universe of Bollywood memoirs. Sanitised versions of events become the new truth. As the decades pass, the original, more honest renditions, crumbling in the brittle pages of old magazines, are lost to memory, their place taken by carefully- calibrated PR projections. Positive events get magnified, negatives are avoided or wrapped up in a few sentences. Sometimes even absolute lies are pedalled. The degree of amnesia some actors have in recalling their own interviews and statements can boggle the mind.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some recent highly-anticipated Bollywood memoirs. When in 2007 Vyjayanthimala released her autobiography in which she denied having an affair with Raj Kapoor, the journalist Coomi Kapoor remarked, ‘Why do film stars write their life-stories? And if they do, must they embroider truth, or tell plain lies? Why not tell it like it really was?’ Movie magazines—only of a certain generation—remain the last bulwark against spin; not just the first but in some cases the most trusted drafts of history. Coomi recalls ‘reading a film magazine of that era which had detailed how Raj Kapoor’s wife, Krishna (who is still alive), disgusted at his affair with his Sangam co- star , moved out of her husband’s house with her children and checked into a Mumbai hotel’. This was a story that even Raj Kapoor’s son, Rishi, angrily aired after he read Vyjayanthimala’s book.

Similarly, when Dilip Kumar’s autobiography came out in 2014, India Today remarked, ‘It is clearly a bowdlerised account of his life: His ‘marriage’ to Asma is missing. He is euphemistic about his relationships with Kamini Kaushal and Madhubala, and discreet about the affairs of his fellow actors like Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.’ The Hindu hit the nail on the head: ‘A good part of it is just hagiography, friends and family saying how great Dilip Kumar is.’

The Asian Age was likewise scathing about Hema Malini’s latest authorised biography (2017) when it called the book ‘a public relations job’ and ‘idolising hagiography that fails to take off’. Where is the authoritative clarity, the review asked, that one would expect from an authorised account, on the mechanics of Hema Malini’s wedding to a much- married Dharmendra, for instance?

Indian autobiographies simply do not have a culture of bare-all honesty. No one wants to fess up to mistakes and mottle their legacy

Of course, there have been brilliant exceptions too. Rishi Kapoor was brutally honest in his book about his marriage, his jealousy of Amitabh Bachchan and his encounter with Dawood Ibrahim. Karan Johar was candid in his autobiography about his relationships with Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

THE FACT IS that, by and large, Indians make terrible memoirists. A bureaucrat will always take the credit for every good policy and say he singlehandedly stalled every bad one. A politician will always be over-cautious and sycophantic, not wanting to spill any beans, not wanting to offend their high command or seem even remotely critical, or evenhanded, on their party’s icons. In the latest installment of his memoirs, Pranab Mukherjee, now in proper retirement with no prospect of holding public office, was so guarded and cagey that if nothing else, one at least finally understood why he’s the ultimate Lutyens’ insider. All in all, Indian autobiographies simply do not have a culture of bare-all honesty. No one wants to fess up to mistakes and mottle their legacy. Everyone wants to be a pious do-gooder. The dirty, complex, multi- layered reality must be whitewashed, made clean and flattened.

Writing an unauthorised biography is easier said than done, though. I should know, I’ve written three: on Rajesh Khanna, Rekha and now Sanjay Dutt. What you gain in the freedom to explore uncomfortable spaces and the priceless leeway to be honest, you lose in first- hand information. When I was writing a biography of Rekha, for instance, I tried to get an interview with her. Several calls were made to her landline number. Gulzar even tried to help me by putting in a good word. Then, one morning, I got a phone call from her secretary, Farzana. She politely asked me what I was writing about. I explained my vision for the project. Farzana graciously heard me out, we had a nice chat, and she told me that she’d get back to me. That call never came. I tried phoning multiple times, only to be greeted by a message on an answering machine— yes, she still uses one. I gave up.

I didn’t get Rajesh Khanna’s family’s or Sanjay Dutt’s buy-in for those books either. When the primary source is absent, one has to go on a hunt for secondary sources to piece the narrative together. One has to trawl through newspaper and magazine archives, read hundreds of reports and interviews, and try and talk to close friends, associates and colleagues of the star—though there are often terrible speed-breakers in that last route too. And let me assure you that ‘unauthorised’ doesn’t equal ‘irresponsible’. Like any biographer who takes their work seriously, I do a huge amount of research; I watch all the films, read every available secondary source material on the subject, conduct wide-ranging interviews with friends and colleagues, and base my writing on bona fide stories, mostly using interviews that the star and his (or her) closest friends and family members have given.

And yet I’ve often been given the royal ignore by members of the film fraternity. My mails have gone unanswered. People have hung up on me. They refuse to meet or talk. I have twice even flown down to Mumbai after a prominent filmmaker promised he would talk to me but each time he “forgot” to pick up his phone or became too busy. One actor I was researching even phoned everyone he knew asking them not to speak to me. Still, many did. And many shared their memories and stories. That’s how journalism has always worked—no one can control everyone. Sometimes, all you need is a tiny opening to be able to see on the other side of an iron curtain.

What if I could do it all over again? I’d always pick honesty over access. That freedom to paint a rounded, flesh-and- blood portrait is the most precious thing a biographer has.