Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bollywood, made in Hollywood

The Magnificent Seven, the 1960 Hollywood western starring Yul Bryner and Steve McQueen, and Sholay, the 1975 Bollywood remake with Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in the lead, had a common storyline—saving an oppressed village from bandits in the original and dacoits in the copy. Both were cult films, did extremely well at the box office, and are watched even today.

Bollywood, the Hindi film industry based in Bombay, owes much of its success to dozens of remakes of, most notably, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), My Fair Lady (1964), Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), and The Godfather (1972), to name a few. Their Bollywood remakes were Satte Pe Satta (1982), Man Pasand (1980), Khatta Meetha (1978) and Dharmatma (1975)  in that order. 

Most of the remakes are no patch on the originals, barring SholayMan Pasand, Satte Pe Satta and Khatta Meetha.

Even Satte Pe Satta (Seven-on-Seven), a fairly entertaining movie starring then superstar Amitabh and Hema Malini, does not hold a candle to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the hugely entertaining musical comedy starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell.

In the Indian version, all's well till the end of the first half when Amitabh resurfaces abruptly in a villainous double role and has a change of heart by the time you leave the cinema hall. So you have seven brothers and their seven brides, a baddie-turned hero, a bunch of villains hiding on an island, their fat kingpin, and a fight scene in the end.  

Now watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and you wish Bollywood were banned from making a hash of Hollywood films.

Like I said there are exceptions. For instance, in Khatta Meetha (Sour-and-Sweet), veteran Ashok Kumar and the affable Pearl Padamsee reappraised the role of Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours very well. Ditto for Man Pasand where actor-director Dev Anand played the part of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

Years later, the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore starrer Ghost (1990) was remade into the utterly forgettable Chamatkar (1992) starring Shahrukh Khan and Naseeruddin Shah. Now where are the copyright guys?

Holly-Bolly launched identical films just once, in 1983—Man, Woman and Child and Masoom (The Innocent)—based on the book by Erich Segal. Both versions, starring Martin Sheen and Blythe Danner in the first and Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi in the second, were worth the price of tickets and popcorn. It's not always so, you know.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Where have all the comics gone?

Old and out-of-print Indrajal comics have almost disappeared from Bombay’s pavements, circulating libraries and old paper marts. It's a pity, really, considering that these comics—Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and the rest—are fetching a fortune online, though you wonder who's buying. They are up for sale on auction sites with price tags of hundreds and thousands of rupees (or dollars if you like). Who doesn’t dream of being a lakhpati overnight (or a millionaire if you like)?

While there are many willing to sell or pawn their Indrajals, it’s difficult to say if there are any buyers willing to fork out that kind of money. That’s because, unlike America, Europe and Australia, a comic book is not a serious investment proposition in India—and I doubt it will ever be one.

Trade in rare and secondhand comic books usually takes place among collectors in western countries with scarce attention paid to aficionados in countries like India. There are some very serious collectors here too.

There is, however, a market for comics in India, albeit a limited one. Sales of comics are mostly restricted to the ever-popular Amar Chitra Katha for their historical and mythological value or the odd Tintin and Asterix. You will rarely find parents buying, say, a Marvel or DC, for their children. Enid Blyton and education books top the charts.

Parents who have an ‘open access’ policy on comics are the ones who read and collected them during their own childhood. You just can’t let go of some things in your life, can you?

There is another reason why comics are a low priority in India: their cover price. While Amar Chitra Katha, Tintin and Asterix, Gotham Comics and Commando are reasonably cheap, Marvel, DC and the like can bore a hole through your pockets. Mega retail outlets like Landmark and Crosswords are stocking up on imported comic books and graphic novels with entire shelves devoted to this category of literature. While these comics are hugely entertaining, they are also frightfully expensive. A typical middle-class family will rarely buy a Wolverine or a Spider-Man for Rs 500 (around $10) and above. Only the serious and well-heeled collector will.

So back to square one. The pavements and old paper marts of Bombay and in other metros of India, are still the best bet for comics long gone. You will find them if you look long and hard.

For instance, I purchased half-a-dozen Classics Illustrated—no, not the 50s and 60s priceless originals—but those published by Acclaim Books in 1997-98, for Rs 30 (about 65 cents) apiece. The bookseller in south Bombay told me that even these were flying off his pavement space and replacements were hard to come by.

His neighbouring bookseller was selling tattered Indrajal comics in English and Hindi, both equally in high demand. When I asked him the price, he said: “Rs 60 each (a little over a dollar). Rates have gone up. There is big demand for Indrajal comics. If you have any, sell them to me. I will pay you Rs 10 each!”

Did I say comic books were not a serious investment in India?

Recommended Read: For those who came in late... White Skin, Black Mask at

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hey presto! The Indrajals are gone

Indrajal comics, long out of print, are making a comeback in Bombay and probably elsewhere in India. No, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, the publishers of The Times of India which brought out the 800-odd comics from March 1964 through April 1990, is not reintroducing them.

Rather, what has revived interest in Indrajal—led by its flagship heroes Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur and Flash Gordon and to a lesser extent Rip Kirby, Buz Sawyer, Garth, Mike Nomad, Kerry Drake, Phil Corrigan and Dara—is a spate of stories in newspapers and on internet about how old issues of these comics are hard to find, how their value has skyrocketed, and how tradition-bound collectors (like this writer) are on a never-ending hunt for this elusive treasure.

A little over a decade ago, secondhand Indrajals were available everywhere in Bombay—on broken pavements, in circulating libraries, and at old paper marts. Well, they still are but you will have to look long and hard and if you are lucky you might just come away with a few near-mint, dog-eared and yellowed issues for anywhere between Rs 30 to Rs 80 apiece (around 60 cents to $1.65). They are worth the money considering that some of these comics are up for sale on auction sites at obscene bid amounts starting from Rs 400 ($8) to Rs 50,000 ($1,021) and more.

But, comic book collectors and aficionados don’t usually sell; they hoard until they are old and ready to pass on their carefully nurtured “wealth” to the next generation. This is true of all pursuits, serious and pastime, be it stamps, coins, music albums, picture postcards or model ships.

Coming back to the city’s vanishing comic book haunts, the stretch of pavement between Churchgate station and Hutatma Chowk (or Flora Fountain) in the central business district of south Bombay used to be a most lucrative place for all kinds of books and comics. No one returned empty-handed. You cultivated friendships with a handful of sellers who, over a period of time, knew your wish list better than you. So impressive was their knowledge of books that they might as well be employed as librarians.

The footpath was home to dozens of book sellers for dozens of years until one day the civic administration drove them out to clear the pathway for office goers. Some years later I managed to trace four of the book vendors and they were operating from different locations in the city; they told me business had never been the same since they were forced to move out. They didn’t know where the rest of the tribe was. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the richest civic body in India, promised an alternate site in south Bombay but is yet to give them one.

With the Churchgate-Fountain stretch out of bounds for comic book lovers, the city’s only remaining secondhand literary haunt is the pavement around Maheshwari Udyan (King’s Circle Garden) in central Bombay, which has been spared the broom. If you don’t find Indrajal here then try the local library and the old paper mart. You might get lucky. And if you do, don’t tell no one.
The media and the medical malaise

Can you imagine a time when reading newspapers, surfing internet or watching television is injurious to your health? If it isn’t already, it will soon be. The three information superhighways are dishing out more than news, views and juice—they are scaring people. I am not talking about everyday crimes, terrorist acts, urban unrest, tragic accidents, natural calamities, starvation deaths, corrupt politicians or depression and suicides. They are terrifying enough to make you lose sleep when you are already sleeping less.

I refer to the medical studies issued, most often, by western health experts and scientists on the course new and existing diseases are taking. And, strangely, they all seem to be making headlines about India. Here’s an example: The International Diabetes Federation has reported that 7% of India’s adult population, or 58.7 million people, will have diabetes by 2010. That’s like, oh my God, this year. There’s more. The study reveals that some 30% more are already suffering from IGT or pre-diabetes, most of whom end up becoming diabetic within a decade.

As far as India-centric studies go, before diabetes, it was heart; before heart, it was cancer; before cancer, it was AIDS, before AIDS, it was tuberculosis…and guess what’s coming? Anti-pharma lobbies allege that these studies are funded by global pharma giants just so they can dump their drugs and therapies in a developing nation like India or some poor Third World country (read The Constant Gardener by John le CarrĂ© for a chilling perspective). Whatever the merits or demerits of these estimates, the grim news is that Indians are getting "sicker" by the year.

What is worse is that we are lapping it all up—the medical studies, the findings, the prescriptions, and the remedies—and worrying ourselves ever more sick. Talk of irony.

The same holds true for health-related information in newspapers and on internet and, to a lesser degree, on television. Being aware of illnesses and taking necessary precautions such as making lifestyle changes is wise, though self-cure via internet is strictly no. Reading about a disease, behaving like you already have it, and running it up on internet or rushing to the GP to check up on an imaginary illness is a mental malady. Sadly, people, young and old, everywhere are doing it.

The outcome: health anxiety and gradually a host of health problems, real ones too.

Joseph Heller probably had the 21st century Indian in mind when he observed in his famous 1961 satirical novel Catch-22: “Hungry Joe collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order so that he could put his finger without delay on any one he wanted to worry about.”

So what is the remedy? Paramahansa Yogananda, the spiritual master and author of Autobiography of a Yogi, has a suggestion: Don’t read the newspaper first thing in the morning, nothing can be more depressing. Now extend this rule to internet and television.

“Newspapers are the gods of information. They are the soul of modern business. They are the epitome of the city news. The modern world cannot get along without them. They can act as the breath of life to noble human activities or they can react like chlorine gas to asphyxiate people's independent thinking,” says Yogananda. “Newspapers ought not to introduce poisonous news...human minds, for the thirsty, un-discriminative masses drink poisonous, unwholesome news wherever they find it, and hence suffer with nervousness, worry, fear…”

Instead, the Yogi recommends balanced spiritual living consisting of meditation first thing in the morning, before we begin our daily duties, and at intervals throughout the day, and again in the early evening when we have finished our daily work, and once more late at night alone in our rooms before retiring.

Our grandparents, if not our parents, depending on how old we are, lived by this spiritual instruction up to a ripe age. Why don't we?
But why? Why? Why? Why not?

Here's something to think about.

"Why are we created only to suffer and to die?" is the primal question Simon Wagstaff, the immortal space wanderer, asks in the often-hilarious science fiction novel Venus on the Half-Shell by Kilgore Trout. Actually, Wagstaff is an earthman who flees in an inexhaustible Chinese spaceship after earth is destroyed by floods. Time stands still as Simon wanders through space drifting from one planet to the next, one galaxy to another, desperately in search of an answer. He doesn't find one easily.

Simon spends three thousand years roaming intergalactic space till he lands in the super-advanced dumbbell-shaped world of the Clerun-Gowph, whose natives look like giant cockroaches. Maybe, the Clerun-Gowph have the answer to my primal question, he reflects. After all, their giant computers had told them he was coming a few billion years ago.

When Gviirl, a cockroachoid attending to Simon, tells him that he will meet Bingo, the dying head of the Clerun-Gowph, he asks, "Do you think he'll have the answer to my question?"

"If anyone can answer you, he can," Gviirl says. "He's the only survivor of the first creatures created by It, you know." The Clerun-Gowph called the Creator It. Earthlings call theirs God.

When at long last the space wanderer stands before the as-old-as-universe Bingo, he blurts out, "Why, then, did It create us?"

Bingo the wise tells him:

"Look at the universe. Obviously, it was made by a scientist, otherwise it wouldn't be subject to scientific analysis. Our universe, and all the others It has created, are scientific experiments. It is omniscient. But just to make things interesting, It, being omnipotent, blanked out parts of its mind. Thus, It won't know what's going to happen."

Bingo goes on, "That's why, I think, It did not come back after lunch. It erased even the memory of Its creation, and so It didn't even know It was due back for an important meeting with me. I heard reports that It was seen rolling around town acting somewhat confused. It alone knows where It is now, and perhaps not even It knows. Maybe. Anyway, in whatever universe It is, when this universe collapses into a big ball of fiery energy, It'll probably drop around and see how things worked out."

Not happy, as most earthmen rarely are, Simon cries out, "But why? Why? Why? Didn't It know what agony and sorrow It would cause sextillions upon sextillions of living beings to suffer? All for nothing?"

"Yes," Bingo says.

"But why? Why? Why? Why?" Simon shouts.

"Why not?" Bingo answers.

So, why are we created only to suffer and to die? Simon Wagstaff isn't the only earthman asking the primal question. Millions of earthlings today ask this question at least once in their lifetime. Simon wandered through outer space looking for an answer, 21st century earthmen will find that the answer lies somewhere in their inner space.