In The Shadow of the Arc Light

Star Dust: Vignettes from the Fringes of the Film Industry, winner of the National Book Award for best film book, is an enjoyable account of people from the fringes of Kollywood. The book (by India Penguin) uses short, vivid sketches to look sympathetically and curiously at those who remain in "the shadows of the arc lights" in Indian cinema. Roopa Swaminathan, the author, profiles extras, fans, dancers, sound recordists, production managers, editors, assistant directors, character actors and item girls. Her style is journalistic more than academic, and her prose is simple but entertaining.

A search for the words `fan-club' typed on Google”, she notes, “comes up with over 61,000 hits. And pretty much all of them have the following two words in them: Tamil Nadu," The first chapter deals with rasigar manrams. She asks why fan clubs are rampant in Chennai but not Mumbai, and provides interesting answers. She notes that everyone in Tamil Nadu makes a clear either-or choice when it comes to heroes: "You either like Sivaji or MGR. Kamal or Rajnikant, Ajit or Vijay... the fact is everyone in Tamil Nadu is a fan."

The book evokes the dreams, hopes and agonies of three die-hard fans — Nacchamathu, a Rajini fan, Thirunavukkarasu, a Vijay fan who has to debate the merits of Vijay with his father who happens to be a fervent Rajini believer, and Parthiban, who starves himself if he fails to remember from which Rajini movie a particular scene on television is from. The chapters that follow on extras and dancers is equally fascinating and revealing. The extras range from the Mylapore mamis "who wear their nine-yard saris and speak pure Vadama Iyer Tamil" to `Roja pati', "the old lady who dances with abandonment in "Roja".

In a seedy apartment in Kodambakkam, the author interviews a trio of giggling, buxom, dark, thick-waisted dancers. And it is just as we had guessed: they have a hard life, perennially living on the edge, emotionally and sexually wasted. Models — college girls trained in contemporary dance - who do it not for the money but for kicks are their biggest threat. The newer choreographers in Bollywood prefer "models" to the traditional dancers. Veteran choreographers in the South — Kala Master and Brinda, however, are fiercely protective of these dancers and "are derisive of the choreographers in Mumbai who dismiss dancers from the south as being dark and fat and unattractive. Both firmly believe that the dancers from Mumbai are no patch on the ones from the south and claim that most of their dancers are trained classical dancers and therefore superior to their counterparts up north."

"Dancers" also looks at the burgeoning soft porn film industry, beginning with Silk Smitha (whose real name we learn was Vijayalaxmi) and her suicide, to Mumtaz and then Shakeela who charges 35,000 for a day's work. In "Technicians", Swaminathan turns her attention to outsiders who became insiders — key people in the industry whose actual work we know little about: superstar Telegu producer A.M. Ratnam, Dharani, the director of "Dhool" and "Gilli" (a polio victim who made it against great odds, it was Dharani as an assistant director in Yajamaan who introduced the familiar Rajini trademark of the swishing angavastram.) sound recordist Anand who uses sync sound, art director Sabu Cyril, production manager Nazeer and dubbing artist Savitha who has dubbed for Jyothika, Sheha, Vasundhara and Meera Jasmine.

"Assistants" looks at those intrepid hopefuls — assistant and associate directors poised in the shadow of the arc light. The last chapter, "The Vikram Story", is a slight departure, stylistically and thematically, from the book's premise: Roopa switches to the first person, shaping the new superstar Vikram's words into autobiography. Vikram's extraordinary story of how he became an actor and a star against incredible odds is compelling.

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