Book launch: Penguin Classics Library

Photo: R. Ragu

Kamal Hassan doesn’t often do book events, but this was a rather special occasion. It was the inauguration of the Penguin Classic Library in Chennai and one classic in particular – ‘Stars from Another Sky’ by the legendary Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto – was being showcased for discussion.

“I’m here quite simply because I’m Manto’s fan,” said the actor and filmmaker to the packed audience at Landmark. “I came to know of him only later in life, but it was a very important find for me – I found myself in finding him.”

In conversation with National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Kamal revealed how he was strongly influenced by Manto’s powerful collection of stories on the partition, ‘Mottled Dawn’, while making ‘Hey Ram’. “That’s when I became his blood brother – or ink brother, perhaps,” he said. “I believe that if I’d been there, I’d have been just as troubled by it all.”

Indeed, the actor said that he would have chosen that book to showcase Manto’s writing rather than ‘Stars’, a collection of bluntly honest, irreverent essays on Bollywood stars of the 1940s such as Ashok Kumar, Nargis, etc., which he felt showed the “lower side” of the writer.

But even if one considered these essays ‘yellow journalism’, they were probably the most stylish example of it ever seen, said Rangan: “Although this is a salaciously written book, he’s still very much the writer… we should all aspire to such yellow journalism!”

So continued the lively discussion between the two fans of Manto, including brief readings from the book (that drew gasps and laughter from the audience), a beautiful Tamil translation of one of his Urdu poems read by Kamal in his inimitable style, and discussions on everything from censorship and film criticism to translation from regional tongues and politics in Tamil cinema.

One might argue that the point of the event – the inauguration of the Penguin Classics range of books, consisting of 1,200 titles ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to the works of R.K. Narayanan – was somewhat lost in the midst of all this.

But the standing-room only crowd didn’t seem to mind, hanging on Kamal’s every word, clapping vigorously at his every witticism, and eventually surging out behind him as he left, hoping for a quick handshake or picture.

And it would be safe to say that at least a few of those film buffs will return to read the works of this great Urdu writer, and quite a few others will be drawn back to see just what other hidden gems the Penguin Classics shelves – soon to be up at Landmark – hold in store for them.

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