The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema by Madhu Jain

New Delhi: Penguin/Viking, 2005

Part of me loves this "bio lite" look at the Kapoor family. Author Madhu Jain is clearly a Shashi pagali of the highest order; her fondness for the baby of the second generation is evident from the very first page of the introduction, and, based on the frequency of his stories in the profiles of other family members, he seems to have enjoyed sharing stories with her. Jealous!

But mostly I wanted this book to be more substantial. Like an unsuccessful masala film that contains great ingredients but leaves them in fragments or assembles them carelessly, Jain fell short of creating portraits of both the Kapoor stars and their significance to Indian cinema (and fans thereof). I became uneasy in the introduction when the author said "I wanted to explore the terrain between the gossip and the academic analysis, essentially steering clear of both" (page xxiv). Maybe she and I mean different things by "academic" - to me, thinking critically about your sources and information and organizing them into thoughtful presentation to answer questions and raise interesting points is a good thing. What does she mean by those terms? The basic connotations I have are that "gossip" implies intriguing and juicy but fluffy and not always provable and "academic" means solidly written, if perhaps a bit dry. I don't want to be reductionistically dualist, but I wonder what she was aiming for, exactly, especially for over 350 pages? Sort of interesting without being shocking but better organized and with more named sources than Stardust?

My overall impression of this book is that is usually veers toward the "gossip" arena, though at least there are source notes for each chapter. Especially in her chapter on Rishi, Jain often latches on to particular common impressions of the figures (Shammi was wild! Shashi is a gentleman!) and reiterates them over and over, sometimes including films and performances as evidence (for which I'm grateful). I haven't seen enough of the films by or read enough about the non-Shashis among the Kapoors to know whether these are true traits/behaviors or if they're just commonly held ideas that are unsubstantiated, but I felt like she was just reinforcing one- or two-note sketches of these people, not actually illuminating their characters and not always letting the sketches arise naturally out of the information presented. "Biography deals with the events that throw light on a character. What goes into the forging of a character, however, tends to remain elusive," Jain says in the introduction (pages xxiv-xxv). That may well be - but if it's so elusive, then what did she have to fill 371 pages with? I wonder how this book struck any of you who grew up with a basic knowledge of the Kapoor family (or with impressions of them, anyway) - did it tell you much you didn't have a hunch about?

Some other problems that nudge The Kapoors away from "academic".... The wonderful family tree at the beginning of the book has no dates in it. With such a big time span being covered, dates would help the reader trace the influence of the Kapoors' careers and see how the family was growing. I went through and added what dates I could find; I also marked each generation with a different underline so I could remind myself of interesting little details like Shashi and Rishi, who technically are of different generations, are the same number of years apart as Shashi and Raj. There is also an egregious lack of photographs. These are people who are famous because of what they did on camera (or with film), and including some stills from the most-discussed films would have been a huge benefit. For example, there's a ton of ink spilled on Shammi's rebel/yahoo persona but no illustration of it. My final complaint is more vague, but it nagged at me throughout. The book is too often sloppily written, with little problems like inconsistent sentence structure, grammatical mistakes, and imprecise wording adding up to give me the impression I was reading a draft, not a finished work. Maybe it's just a matter of having needed one more read-through by a different pair of eyes before it went to press. There's a sketch of Jain's career on the book jacket, and she certainly seems like the kind of experienced writer who should know better. To her credit, Jain also has some wonderful turns of phrase and describes people and characters in remarkably evocative ways. I wish she had been as careful with all her words.

This was far from my ideal book on the Kapoors, but I still enjoyed reading it. I underlined a ton of interesting tidbits: Neetu Singh quitting acting was her own decision (I hope that's true)! the only rumor of an affair that stuck to Shashi was with Shabana Azmi! Shashi's taste in films as a kid mirrors his own multi-genre career! I just didn't walk away with much that matters. It's only fair to state up front that a significant frustration with this book was actually in what I learned - or what was suggested - about the subjects themselves, and there's no way I can pin that on the author as long as she was being honest, fair, and diligent in her research and presentation. I kept thinking of that old warning about meeting your heroes. Now that I've read it, I wish I didn't know what philandering jackasses Raj and Shammi were, what a horrific alcoholic Rishi has been, how little education seems to have mattered to the earlier generations. Maybe I should have applied to this book my general principle of avoiding interviews with movie stars - who, after all, are usually known for what they do with other people's words and ideas, not for creating them on their own. Nothing in this book made me like a Kapoor less as a performer, but...yeah, even though it really doesn't matter, I like them, or the idea of them, less as people.

Writing about living people - and depending on them for your information about the deceased - plus the author's affection for her subject probably means that some questions went unasked and a few punches were pulled here and there. One thing I thought for sure I'd learn about, but didn't, is Shammi and Shashi's relationship, especially given that both contributed heavily to the book. Does that mean they didn't want to talk about it? Or maybe there isn't much to tell? Or maybe Jain didn't ask? Who knows! I don't get the impression that she consistently followed the advice she says Shashi gave her when she began writing the book: "be 'honest,' which I suppose in some way was a carte blanche to look at the less flattering side of the Kapoors as well as their achievements" (page xxvi). Maybe I need to cut her some slack: after all, looking at the less flattering sides is not the same as asking questions about them or trying to understand them, so maybe she didn't set out to write the book I wish she had written.

Now that I say that, I realize I wish Jain had taken the approach Anupama Chopra used in King of Bollywood: SRK and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, looking at what was going on in Indian history and culture and wondering how her subject fit into, and was influenced by, those things. Gossip and public personas definitely have something to say about these questions, but I don't think Jain's book provides the information or tools to address the meanings of celebrities "in our collective memory" (page xxiv), nor does she offer much of her own opinion on them. When I finished The Kapoors, I thought "So what?" That may say more about me and what I want to learn than it does about Jain, her work, and what she wanted to share. What I want to know is what films and their makers mean, what they say about their context and culture. Maybe one of the dozen or so "academic" books on Indian cinema sitting on my bedside table will do the trick.


JJC said…
Interesting take on the book. Thoug hi havet read it, form your review it seems as though its how the Hall of fame series on a few indian stars are written. vague and nothing to wow you.
Rum said…
I think my post on the Kapoors was quite well written and hilarious! And maybe i should make into a mad rambling book!
Richard S. said…
Beth, your review connects to a theme that I keep getting back to: It's better not to know too much about your favorite performers or artists if you want to continue enjoying their work. :)

As and aside, yesterday I read something that makes me doubt that Shashi was always the perfect gentleman either... People in a couple of comments over at YouTube talked about how Shashi had complained about having to play Ragini's lover in a movie because he thought Ragini was ugly. More than one person confirmed this. I found that rather strange, and given how I feel about those Travancore Sisters, it makes me less inclined to venture into Shashi's work! But I also try to ignore a lot of stuff outside of the performance.

Vyjayanthimala made it kind of problematical for me. There are few things more enjoyable to me than watching Vyjayanthimala dancing on the screen (or, more specifically, just a couple of things: Padmini dancing on the screen and Kamala dancing on the screen), but I've gotten really turned off by stories of Vyjayanthimala's huge ego and the fact that she joined a right-wing political party that I do not like at all (from what I know), mainly because they gave her better attention than the political party that she left. It's really hard for me to continue adoring Vyjayanthi after reading stuff like that, but we do need to separate the work or performance from other things as much as possible if we want to honestly assess that work or performance. (And in fact, I've lectured about that on my own blog - in defense of Meena Kumari, actually.)

Anyway, one thing I'm curious about... You talk a bit more about Shashi and Shammi than about Raj. I think there are a few people in our little Bolly blogging community who have been caught up in some kind of anti-Raj backlash, so they emphasize the other brothers. But does the book give equal or less emphasis to Raj vs. his brothers? My impression is that historically speaking, Raj was like a towering giant compared to the other Kapoors. In terms of my own tastes, I also find his work as a director in some of those '50s-'60s films to be very brilliant, and I think that at least sometimes he had a really fascinating persona on the screen. (I also like some of the social-political ideas in his early films.) I couldn't imagine seeing Shashi or Shammi in the same league, so to speak. That's my opinion; everybody's got one. :) But I wonder what the focus is like in the book.
P.S. Hope I didn't go on a little too much in my comments. I've dumped some pretty long comments on your blog (though I don't comment too frequently, I know). Once I left a virtual thesis about Slumdog Millionaire that was basically the post I just didn't feel like writing on my blog. (I was reminded of it when I got a link back from it in my stats the other day.) But I know you said in another context that Bollywood fans probably don't care much about brevity, so I'm not going to worry too much. :)
bollyviewer said…
"Bio lite" is an excellent way to describe this book, and almost all other books on Hindi cinema that I've read. Some writers are more successful at sketching characters than others (Sadat Hassan Manto for example, in his Stars From Another Sky, sketches brilliant (and quite biased) word portraits) - but most of the biographies I've read recently (this one, one on Dilip Kumar, one on Hema Malini) and some other books (Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History) have been pretty much "Sort of interesting without being shocking but better organized and with more named sources than Stardust"!

In terms of the impact of the family on aspects filmi, I think only Raj Kapoor can be said to have any, since he was the only one of them who was an active film-maker. The rest were, for the most part, performers.

And I totally agree on wishing that we didnt know too much about out favorite celebrities. If Amitabh Bachchan hadnt been constantly in the news for his "second innings" and his silly political maneuverings, I'd probably appreciate his filmi performances a bit more!
Anarchivist said…
Sadly, when I think "academic," I think: "Song Picturizations: the Ontological Implications of a Cultural Praxis." Which maybe I should write, only in English.

This book was more of a time-pass than anything, which seems like a lost opportunity. However, it's vair deep next to Dev Anand's autobiography!
Aimee said…
I was also disappointed by this book...especially by the slapdash style of writing. It felt a bit too college freshman-ish to me.

I love all the little anecdotes, but I found reading The Prithviwallas a better experience, if that makes any sense.
Sneha Padiyath said…
Hi Beth!!

to introduce myself, I am Sneha from Screen, which is an entertainment weekly from India. Greta must have informed you by now that she had been featured on Screen about two weeks back for her blog on Land, Gold, Women. We would like to do the same for your blog on the book by Madhu Jain about the Kapoor family.

Could you please answer the following quetsions?
1. When did you start blogging on Bollywood?
2. Who first introduced you to Indian movies?
3. What was the best and the worst part of the book according to you?
4. How has the perception of Indian movies changed in the US since you started writing on Bollywood?
5. Why do you choose to write on Bollywood?
6. Where did you watch your first Indian movie?

Alongwith it, could you also send an introduction of yourself as to what are you doing, where are you from, what do you like to do, etc.? Also, send me a picture of yours and if possible a picture of the book(if you have it).

You can mail me the answers and the pictures to

Thanks & regards,

Sneha Padiyath
I will reply properly to these comments soon, but in the meantime: there's a little piece on family businesses called "The Great Indian Family: Dynasty Dominates India" in The Times of India in which sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan refers to the Kapoors as a "minor ecologies of creativity." That's a lovely idea to think about, isn't it? Certainly the shiny side of the in-crowd/nepotism coin.

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