Baradwaj Rangan has been writing on various aspects of Indian cinema for several years now. He is a Senior Editor with The Hindu but the articles collected in the book have been sourced also from his former stints at The New Indian Express and New Sunday Express. A few of them have also appeared in more serious long-form journals, like Caravan. Divided into six sections – actors, Hindi cinema, directors, music, Tamil cinema, reviews – Dispatches covers 20 years and many hundred reels of cinema in India. Uneven in length and widely uneven in substance, Rangan’s essays are not to be read as a unitary work of insightful cinema analysis. Instead, this handsomely produced bulky book is to be read as a gathering of brief, often amusing reviews and reflections, as fluffy as its theme and as flippantly attractive as those who populate them. 

Rangan is primarily a film reviewer and critic. The strengths and weaknesses of this collection are hence best measured against the film reviews – that is if the review manages to outlive the film – because it is against the tendency of popular readership to go back to reviews of failed, or even successful, films. So when Rangan writes in his introduction that he would hope for his reviews to have a longer shelf-life than is usual in a weekend-obsessed industry, he is right in expecting to be treated not as part of that movie’s publicity circus but as one with an investment in the cinema of his own. I find his insistence that reviews are not about whether the critic can predict the film’s fortunes rightly or wrongly but about giving a full appreciation of a film, even an eminently disagreeable piece of moviemaking, re-assuring in these times. (In case of most reviews included here, like of DonDorEklavyaSaawariyaDelhi-6 and a host of others, the film has been long forgotten). Let’s take for example the case of a film called Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag. Most reviews of the film had not only panned it but ranted at Varma’s audacity in trying to remake Sholay. Rangan’s review goes beyond. For example, about the villain Babban Singh, played by Amitabh Bachchan, Rangan writes:

“Varma makes Babban an extremely modern (and therefore non-mythical and non-masala movie) embodiment of evil, someone who muses that the innocents that die at his hands are no different from those that die at the hands of America or the Al-Qaeda. This villain isn’t simply a bogeyman who’s stepped out of our darkest imagination; he’s very much part of the complex reality around us, for when Babban escapes from jail, it’s thanks to the complicity of the all too corrupt police”. (p 374) 

Not content with saying that the remake is a disaster from reel one, Rangan tries to look at the problem of modernising a mythical cinematic landscape like Sholay. For Rangan, the remake was not just a case of bad re-writing but also suffered from the misplaced confidence that Sholay could be updated to be plugged into the sleazy underbelly of Bombay. Varma’s gobbledygook is not just a problematic film in itself but fails miserably to understand the cult of the original. Reading this review so many years after the film has been rightly forgotten, Rangan’s insights into the complicated afterlife of cult moviemaking remains valid. Most reviews, like the one quoted, manage to make a valid point or two that turns our attention away from the film at hand towards the act of filmmaking itself — the endless tribulations and the riches that the art (or the lack thereof) might force one to consider.

Doubtlessly, the review section is the most enjoyable part of the book. Rangan also has the advantage of writing from the South and thereby managing to achieve a critical distance that is unavailable to the average Mumbai critic. He seems to have fewer axes to grind as professional reviewer and hence to rise above, in most cases, the ingratiating indeterminacy that Mumbai reviewers end up displaying, often unconsciously.

Of his other sections, the one on Tamil cinema seems to carry more weight than the rest. This could be because Rangan is native to the language or could be because of this reviewer’s unfamiliarity with the cinema of that territory. Essays like “Madras Mongrel” and the “New Tamil Cinema” offer rather interesting insights into the colourful kitsch that is Tamil filmmaking. In the first essay he writes:

 “Even in incendiary films like Mahanadhi and Thavamai Thavamir-undhu, there is a gradual sense of loss of innocence (along with a loss of a beatific way of life) as characters forsake their salutary hometowns on the banks of sprawling rivers and move to the shores of the Cooum in search of livelihood. You don’t find this in popular Hindi cinema, where urban living is celebrated to an almost ridiculous degree. The stories of the small man have practically vanished, and all we seem to see on screen are stylish slackers from South Bombay. A Paruthi Veeran or a Subramaniyapuram, redolent of fresh earth after the first rainfall, is unimaginable in Hindi cinema today- and it’s wonderful that Tamil cinema continues to tell the stories of the villages. (p 257)

Not only does Rangan manage to evoke a longing for a certain kind of cinema but he immediately places it in context and comparison with other, apparently removed, cinematic worlds. A film scholar would involve him/her self in understanding the sociology and psyche of the forced urbanisation in Hindi cinema. Rangan’s piece will not go that far. But at least he manages to provoke thinking along those lines. Similarly, one or two essays on the section on music, especially “The Biscuit Shakers”, on the functions of music in ‘Englishspeaking Hindi Film’ deserve special mention. In fact, compared to average critics of either Madras or Bombay, he is literate in both cinemas, which is often a great advantage for him as well as his pan-Indian readers.

The question is if this book has the strength to carry itself into a shelf of good writing on cinema. Maybe not. And Rangan is not to be held responsible singularly for that. The problem is actually with the practice and reception of popular cinema writing in India. Hollywood, which had lent, semantically, Bollywood its name, is a predecessor and companion of Indian cinema in terms of scale, money and reach. But it does not suffer from this malady. The critical apparatus in Hollywood is independent, organised, learned and influential in its own way. Also, the industry is effortlessly cosmopolitan and engages a very wide spectrum of people, cultures, forms, economies. Together, they ensure that from time to time one sees genuinely insightful and seminal works — biographies, memoirs, cultural and social histories etc. Unfortunately, the mobilisation of critical works on Indian cinema, in general, is on a rather weak footing. Critical cultural nonfiction is rare. Publishers are not always even willing to put their money on cinema studies which are erudite and interesting at the same time. Academic scholarship is often quite good but not for the non-specialist reader. That is not to say that Indian cinema does not attract good writers. It does, but not in a systematic way. First, the hodgepodge called Bollywood is often seen as a floating signifier that can be co-opted for endless popular pontification. Indeed, quick opinion on cinema is par for the course, meaning that serious and enduring engagement with something as culturally omnipotent as Indian popular cinema is often missing. So, good writers spend a holiday or two reflecting on Indian cinema. And those who are attached to it professionally are often incapable of producing good writing. So the writing available is either witty and patronising or superficial and uninformed. This has largely let this crucial culture industry, an arbiter of popular taste and currency, to be turned into an unfortunate global brand which also masquerades as a silly metaphor of Indian ‘culture’.

Lately and thankfully, there have been some improvements in writing in cinema for a general audience. Mukul Kesavan (The Ugliness of the Indian Male and other propositions), Sidharth Bhatia (Cinema Modern) and Rachel Dwyer (Bollywood’s India) among others, have tried to pull out popular film writing in India from the rut it had been in. But still, the numbers are way below than what an intelligent readership would want from this disproportionately popular form of art. The problem is endemic, and for similar reasons, in cricket writing too. 

Rangan’s collection of short writings fulfils the need to be seen as enjoyable Sunday readings, to be read aloud and perhaps passed onto the neighbour for a quick reflection on cinema, but when they form a book, they lack the strength to marshal enough gravitas as a serious book on cinema. But that is not to claim that this book is without charm. Dispatches from the Wall Corner does not quite make it to a shelf of abiding literature on Indian cinema but carries the promise that Rangan’s future engagements might.

Dispatches from the Wall Corner: A Journey Through Indian Cinema | Baradwaj Rangan | Tranquebar Press, Chennai, | 2014 | 583pp