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TRIVIAL PURSUIT

Bollywood’s Top 20 By Bhaichand Patel, Viking, Rs 599

Someone once famously said that Scrabble, amongst trivial pursuits, tops the roll of being the most responsible for marital discord. I find it difficult to agree. That addictive word game is ultimately an objective, verifiable venture; not so the Making of Lists. The inveterate list-maker and compiler of relative data, and there are many amongst us, know that the essence of a superior list is the extent of subjectivity that goes into creating it. So, who are the Five Greatest Batsmen in the World? Who are the Three Worst Prime Ministers India has Produced? Go fight.

One can, of course, be a compiler, which isn’t the same thing as being a list-maker. In any case, if you are looking to avoid argument, you can learn to hedge your choices in a number of ingenious ways. Decades ago, I acquired a book called The Best of Everything. The publishers got what they believed were the most suited people on a topic to gather factoids and thread them with a personalized commentary. At times it felt that what wasn’t in was probably more deserving of an inclusion. It was clever and forestalled full scale conflicts.

The 70-plus Bhaichand Patel, who has compiled Bollywood’s Top 20, is a renaissance man; a LSE alumnus, a retired barrister and UN diplomat, a much sought after columnist on fine spirits and cinema. Patel is also a bespoke compiler with three books under his belt. His Happy Hours :The Penguin Book of Cocktails, is a funny, fact-filled free-wheeling journey into drink and drinking. For his second book, he inveigled a number of his alpha friends —Khushwant Singh, Urvashi Butalia, Suhel Seth, Jerry Pinto, Radhika Jha and others to write about how they go about living alone. He is on far safer ground with his third book which identifies 20 Bollywood superstars and gets twenty of the best writers on Indian film to tell you why, though I haven’t learned as yet whether any of the high profile columnists told him, “No Bhaichand, I don’t think this actor merits being here, so give me someone else.” The other problem which a compiler has to resolve, as we have said, is the selection itself. So why is Sanjeev Kumar not in, or fearless Nadia, for that matter? And why Hema Malini and not Nutan? And so on. Whilst these choices can be argued out and explained, what continually poses a challenge for the compiler is the clear danger of individual styles at work. Therefore, does a good compiler let things alone, as written, or edit in an uniform style? The former is acceptable if the idea is to generate distinctive viewpoints on a common phenomenon. But in listing, say, the Best Of, it’s inequitable to let the writing create an unfair advantage by itself. Bhaichand seems to have wanted to avoid this and convinced his high-profile friends to allow their writing to be meddled with. This has resulted in a narrative thread that reads like it’s been written by the same contributor. Another ploy, I suppose, has been to go for information overload, leaving very little space for analysis and there are bound to be those who would regret such moves; for me, three or four pieces, Jerry Pinto on Waheeda Rehman, Siddharth Bhatia on Amitabh, Shefali Vasudev on Madhuri Dixit, stand out in the compilation.

Bhaichand being the sort of person he is, can’t sign off without putting his choices on the line. Thus he tweaks every episode by including his pick of the five best films of the superstar and to round things off, includes, gratis, a CD which has what he considers 50 of the best Bollywood songs. Needless to say, I listened to the CD and decided that I had better ideas about at least a half of them.

Irrespective of what is written about it, the book will go the distance because as any street smart publisher knows, both Bhaichand and Bollywood sell.