Nasreen Munni Kabir found her calling for Indian cinema when she realised that this was one of the most vibrant threads that connected her with the idea of home. Born in Hyderabad and raised in Britain from a very early age, Indian cinema had a great appeal, representing a world that was familiar and reassuring. Most importantly, the songs of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi provided the soundtrack to her life in London and later in Paris.
In 1986, Kabir started making documentaries, and has now written eleven books on Indian cinema. She continues to curate a 20-part annual season of Indian films for Channel 4, a prominent British TV channel. Having pursued her Master’s degree in cinema studies at a Paris university, she organised one of the first major Indian film festivals in France at the Georges Pompidou Centre in 1983 and in 1985 when over 100 films were screened. For six years (2000-2006), she was also a governor on the board of the British Film Institute.
In the late 1970s, when popular cinema in India was not considered “cool”, she started her research. “When I met Indian film practitioners, at first they were surprised by my interest in mainstream films,” she says. Her latest offering as a writer is the first authorised biography of A R Rahman titled A R Rahman, The Spirit of Music.
It is indeed a curious case. Why does a diaspora writer choose to work entirely around Indian cinema and its practitioners? “My purpose in writing about Indian film personalities is to try and archive their work for the future. It’s sad to think that so much of Indian cinema’s glorious past depends on hearsay and secondhand views today.” She rues the lack of in-depth interviews (written or filmed) of legends like Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy or Guru Dutt. Commenting on her style of writing, which is often in the form of extended conversations, noted Mumbai-based film historian and author of Bollywood in Posters, S M M Ausaja says: “Through her interviews, Nasreen manages to bring out some finer details of the celebrity or a film she is dealing with.”
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Some of her published work includes Guru Dutt, A Life in Cinema, Talking Films & Talking Songs with Javed Akhtar, Bollywood, The Indian Cinema Story and Lata Mangeshkar In Her Own Voice. She is the first author who has documented the entire dialogue and songs of landmark films (Mughal-e-Azam, Awaara, Mother India and Pyaasa) in a four-language format (Hindi, Urdu, Romanised Hindi/Urdu and an English translation). This may seem quite useless in an age in which one has easy access to free downloads. But she differs: “It is important to study the language of a film in a book form to consider it as serious text. It took my team and me nearly a year to complete each of these books as there are no written and accurate film scripts. The process becomes even more difficult because we had to transcribe the dialogue directly from the film soundtrack. I have also added extended commentaries and information on the films. I am confident that these books will have a use for future film scholars and fans.”
She adds, “Actually, dialogue books are incredibly useful. In many universities across the globe, where Hindi and Urdu are taught, including in the US, at Harvard and Yale, in the UK, Tokyo and Paris, these publications are used as language teaching tools. I know a professor in Tokyo, and another in Paris, who gets his students to study scenes from Mughal-e-Azam. They find these books hugely useful. There are so many theatre plays that are available for study and enjoyment in book form; so why not Indian cinema?”
Arun Sukumar, an instructor at the Film, Television & Digital Video Production Department of Xavier Institute of Communications adds that these books help understand the characters better as dialogue forms the depth of a character.
Through her documentaries, Kabir has introduced the West to Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan — a rare feat which no documentary film maker has achieved. Director and screenwriter Shyam Benegal, who has known Kabir since the late 1970s, describes her work as “well researched and thorough”.
When asked what she feels about the current status of Hindi in Indian cinema, Kabir replies: “A new language is shaping which is more functional in nature. Poetry and subtlety are largely missing these days.” What disappoints her most in modern day films is the lack of new ideas. Hence the chance of having expressive dialogue, as the older films did, has become a rarity. There are of course exceptions: “The dialogue of Ishqiya is wonderful because Vishal Bharadwaj has managed to retain the flavour of regional expression and given us characters who speak with great individuality and originality. Gulzar Saaheb’s song, Dil toh bacha hai is a beautiful description of mature love.”
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After being a consultant for over 28 years for Channel 4 TV, and continuing to curate its 20-part Indian film season, Kabir has come a long way in the field of non-fiction film making. So will she switch to fiction in the days ahead? “I think there are two types of film makers,” she says, “Those who work through fiction films need to imagine the world; and the others, the documentary film makers, who prefer recording the world. I think I’m better at archiving than reinventing.” She believes these documentaries must always have an element of storytelling in order to connect with audiences.
A self-confessed fan of Guru Dutt’s movies, she feels that her 85-minute documentary, In Search of Guru Dutt, is her best work. Through this documentary, she has captured some wonderful minds of Indian cinema that are no more, including Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Johnny Walker and Raj Khosla. Her excitement about this project has doubled since Shemaroo in India will release In Search of Guru Dutt in June 2011.
Asked if the current lot of Bollywood movies has the substance to make it big in the Oscars, she says, “The day an Indian film reflects the cultural, social and political reality in an original and powerful way, we will score in the West. Don’t forget, Satyajit Ray’s movies made a huge impact on Western film critics and audiences precisely because he was so rooted in Bengali culture yet told stories in a universal way. That mix is what moves world cinema audiences.”
So how has the response in the West to Bollywood documentaries changed? Kabir says there were fewer “white” viewers when her first TV series Movie Mahal was shown on Channel 4. The buzz was felt mainly by the NRIs in the UK. But her last documentary, The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan, which is now five years old, had a far wider reach and impact. For her extended work promoting Indian cinema in the UK, Kabir has won the first Women of Achievement Award in Arts & Culture in 1999.
Not the one to sit idle, Kabir has already embarked on her next book, The Dialogue of Devdas, Bimal Roy’s Immortal Classic. This work will also be published in a four-language format, with forewords by Bimal Roy’s family and include an extensive commentary on this fine film.
With increasing access to Bollywood stars through Twitter and Facebook, documentaries and books may not seem to be important. But the author insists: “Books will always provide more information and deeper insight into an artist’s thinking because there is a lot more research and time behind such work. Also, books become resource material that should, we hope, last longer than a tweet!” Agreed, as this statement comes from someone whom Shyam Benegal considers a scholar on period cinemas, especially 1950s and early 1960s.