Poets and Pancakes
Notice these words and expressions in the text. Refer to their meaning from the context.
- blew over—had passed
- was struck dumb—became speechless
- catapulted into—thrown into
- a coat of mail—an armoured coat made of chain mail, interlinked rings, or overlapping metal plates
- played into their hands–did something that gave someone ekes an advantage over you, although that was not your intention
- the favourite haunt—most liked gathering place
- heard a bell ringing—familiar recollection/reminder
Ans: For nearly thirty years since 1940, Gemini Studios of Madras (Chennai), was the most influential film-producing organization of India, and its founder, the brilliant and multi-faceted entrepreneur 5.S. Vasan, lent substance and quality to the rather fragile and unpredictable movie business. Sahitya Akademi award-winning Tamil writer, Asokamitran, worked for the Gemini Studios from 1952 to 1966. He wrote a series of articles that were compiled into My Years with Boss. The book is one of the most unusual books to be written about the entertainment world and indicates the enormous impact of the movies on virtually every aspect of life in India. In this extract, he draws a humorous portrait of events and personalities in the film company and the visit of the famous English poet Stephen Spender.
Think as you read
1.What does the writer mean by ‘the fiery misery’ of those subjected to make-up?
Ans: ‘The fiery misery’ of those in the make-up room suggests the discomfort caused by incandescent tights fitted at all angles. All of them, when lit, emitted so much of heat that it was pathetic for those who were wearing make-up.
2. What is the example of national integration that the author refers to?
Ans: Talking of the make-up artists in the Gemini Studios, the writer says that the make-up department was first headed by a Bengali who was succeeded by a Maharashtrian who was assisted by a Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhra, a Madras Indian Christian, an Anglo-Burmese, and the usual local Tamils. Thus, it housed people from different geographical areas as well as of different faiths. They worked together. This shows that there was a great deal of national integration there.
3. What work did the ‘office boy’ do in the Gemini Studios? Why did he join the Studio? Why was he disappointed?
Ans: In those days, only five percent of the film was shot outdoors. The junior-most make-up man, the ‘office-boy’, was responsible for painting (make-up) the players who played the crowd. On those days, he mixed paint in a giant vessel and put it on the crowd players. He was in his early forties and had joined the studios years ago in the hope of becoming a star actor or a top screenwriter, director, or lyrics writer. He was, thus, very disappointed.
4. Why did the author appear to be doing nothing at the Studio?
Ans: The writer worked in a cubicle with French windows and thus could be seen sitting and tearing up newspapers all day. People who saw this felt he was doing nothing. Hence, everyone felt that they could walk in any time and give him a lecture.
5. Why was the boy frustrated? Whom did he direct his anger at?
Ans: The office boy was frustrated as despite being a forty-year-old man he was just an ‘office boy’. He was certain that all his misery, dishonour, and neglect were due to Kothamangalam Subbu, who was the No. 2 at Gemini Studios. He had also begun as the make-up boy and though he did not have formal education, by being born a Brahmin, he had exposure to better situations and people.
6. Who was Subbu’s principal?
Ans: The ‘principal’ refers to whoever was in command at the time, be it the producer or the company owner—the chief organizer. Subbu allied himself with the chief person and gave valid suggestions out of utter loyalty, almost sycophancy.
Subbu had great sense. He was cut out for films. He could be motivated when asked. Whenever the principal—the producer—needed creative input, Subbu would immediately come out with ideas.
7. Subbu is described as a many-sided genius. List four of his special abilities.
Ans: (a) He could be motivated when asked. Whenever the producer needed creative input, Subbu would come up with ideas.
(b) Subbu was also a poet, capable of higher forms of poetry. He composed several ‘story poems’ and also wrote a novel Thillana Mohanambal.
(c) He was an amazing actor, who was content playing secondary roles in which he performed better than the main players.
(d) He loved people and his house was a permanent abode for many relations and acquaintances.
8. Why was the legal adviser referred to as the opposite by others?
Ans: The legal adviser did not give legal aid but ruined careers. He was referred to as the opposite because he ruined the career of an extremely talented actress. When the actress was in one of her temperamental moods, she said things which she would not have in her calmer moments. The lawyer quietly switched on the recording equipment and then played back the recording. When she heard her voice, she was struck dumb. A girl from the countryside, she never quite recovered from the terror she felt that day. The legal adviser had brought about her sad end. Even when he produced a film with a lot of expenditure, not much came from the film.
9. What made the lawyer stand out from the others at Gemini Studios?
Ans: While every member of the Department wore a khadi dhoti with a little oversized and clumsily tailored white khadi shirt, the legal adviser wore pants and a tie and sometimes a coat that looked like a coat of mail. He seemed to be a man of calculated thinking in a crowd of dreamers.
10. Did the people at Gemini Studios have any particular political affiliations?
Ans: Most of the people were apolitical but worshipped Gandhiji. They hated the term ‘Communism’ as to them a Communist was a godless man; incapable of love, and always out to spread unrest and violence among innocent and ignorant people. The khadi-clad poets of Gemini Studios, too, felt the same.
11. Why was the Moral Re-armament Army welcomed at the Studios?
Ans: The Moral Re-armament Army enacted plays. The moral messages of the plays were plain and simple, but the sets and costumes were impressive. It was a kind of counter-movement to international Communism and they managed to impress important people of Madras like Mr Vasan.
12. Name one example to show that Gemini Studios was influenced by the plays staged by MRA.
Ans: Madras and the Tamil drama community were impressed and for some years, almost all Tamil plays had a scene of sunrise and sunset in the manner of Jotham Valley with a bare stage, a white background curtain and a tune played on the flute.
13. Who was the Boss of Gemini Studios?
Ans: The Gemini Studios was set up in 1940 and was one of the most influential film-producing organizations of India. Its founder was S.S. Vasan, who was known as the Boss.
14. What caused the lack of communication between the Englishman and the people at Gemini Studios?
Ans: The Englishman left the audience dazed and silent as no one knew what he was talking about. The people in the film studios led lives that least afforded them the possibility of cultivating a taste for English poetry. The Englishman talked of the thrills and problems of an English poet. Moreover, his accent defeated any attempt to understand what he was saying.
15. Why is the Englishman’s visit referred to as unexplained mystery?
Ans: None of the employees of the Studio knew the identity of the visitor. He came and lectured them. The lecture lasted about an hour and it Left all of them confused. They did not understand what was happening. They did not know what an English poet was doing in a film studio which made Tamil films for the simplest sort of people who had nothing to do with English poetry. The poet was equally baffled. He too must have felt the strangeness of his talk. Hence, his visit remained an unexplained mystery.
16. Who was the English visitor to the studios?
Ans: The visitor’s name was Stephen Spender.
17. How did the author discover who the English visitor to the studios was?
Ans: The Hindu had announced a short story contest organized by a British periodical The Encounter. He had never heard of The Encounter so he went to the British Council Library to find out about it. There he saw copies of The Encounter where he read the editor’s name; it was the poet who had visited the Gemini Studios. His name was Stephen Spender.
18. What does The God That Failed refer to?
Ans: The God That Failed, was a book which had six essays by six eminent men about their disillusionment with Communism. The writers were Andre Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Saone, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender. The God That Failed was their disillusionment with Communism which had initially seemed a promising idea, a means of deliverance.
Understanding the text
1. The author has used gentle humour to point out human foibles. Pick out instances of this to show how this serves to make the piece interesting.
Ans: The author has used gentle humour to point out human idiosyncrasies. The title itself is suggestive of the tone of the piece. ‘Pancake’ was the brand name of the make-up material that Gemini Studios bought for its actors and according to him it was bought in truck-loads and the make-up room of the studio was once Robert Clive’s stable. He goes on to talk of the ‘fiery misery’ of those subjected to make-up, under the iridescent lights and the team of makeup artists from all over—`gang of nationally integrated make-up men’ who could turn any decent-looking person into L hideous crimson-hued monster.
Similarly in describing people he exhibits a pronounced sense of humour. The office ‘boy’ was a man in his early forties whose sole job was to paint the crowd during outdoor shootings. He had entered the studios years ago in the hope of becoming a star actor or a top screenwriter, director or lyrics writer. The situation had made him into a poet. Like most people who thought that the writer had no job, the ‘boy’ came to enlighten him with a long lecture on how great literary talent was being allowed to go waste in the department fit only for barbers and perverts.
2. Why was Kothamangalam Subbu considered No.2 in Gemini Studios?
Ans: The ‘boy’ in the make-up department hated Kothamangalam Subbu who was considered No. 2 at Gemini Studios. He was next in position to the Boss. He was given this title as he was not much liked. He had joined as a make-up boy but, because he w as a Brahmin, he had exposure to more affluent situations and people. He looked cheerful even after having had a hand in a flop film. He could never do things on his own but, because of his loyalty, endeared himself to the Boss. His creativity only surfaced when asked by the Boss. He was talented, yet had enemies. It could have been because he seemed so close to the Boss or because his general behaviour was that of a flatterer. It could also be because he was ready to say nice things about everything.
He gave valid suggestions to the producers, coming up with as many as fourteen alternatives to do a scene. He gave direction and definition to Gemini Studios during its golden years. He was also an amazing actor.
3. How does the author describe the incongruity of an English poet addressing the audience at Gemini Studios?
Ans: Gemini Studios made preparations to welcome an English poet. They knew nothing about him. The only poets from England they had heard of were Wordsworth and Tennyson; a few knew of Keats, Shelley, and Byron; and even lesser of Eliot. Then they were informed that he was not a poet but an editor. But, he wasn’t the editor of any of the British publications known at the Gemini Studios.
Finally, when the gentleman arrived, the face was equally unknown to all of them. The Boss welcomed him in his speech, yet the audience was at sea. First, the speech was muffled by the sound of the pedestal fans and second, it was in the most general terms and was laced with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. The poet’s speech was as vague. The audience was quiet. They could neither understand what he was talking about nor was his accent comprehensible. It lasted about an hour but left them completely baffled. The poet looked equally baffled. His visit remained an unexplained mystery.
4. What do you understand about the author’s literary inclinations from the account?
Ans: The duty of Asokamitran in Gemini Studios was to cut out newspaper clippings on a wide variety of subjects and store them in files. Although he performed an insignificant job, he was the most well-informed of all the members of the Gemini family. Poets like S.D.S.Yogiar, Sangu Subramanyam, Krishna Sastry, and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya used to sit for long hours in Gemini Studios hence, an intellectual environment prevailed. The exposure was, however, limited. When The Hindu announced a short story contest, the author went to the British Council Library to find out more about it.
The author’s literary interest is evident from the fact that even when he was out of Gemini Studios and did not have much money, he noticed on the footpath new books for fifty paise each. He paid fifty paise and picked up The God That Failed where one essay was by Stephen Spender, the poet who had visited Gemini Studios. Suddenly, the book assumed tremendous significance. In a moment, he felt a little more enlightened.
Talking about the text
Discuss in small groups taking off from points in the text.
1.Film-production today has come a long way from the early days of the Gemini Studios.
Ans: Most people involved in the film production industry know that there is a constant evolution. The change is in the way movies are made, discovered, marketed, distributed, shown, and seen. Following independence in 1947, the 1950s and 60s are regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of Indian cinema in terms of films, stars, music, and lyrics. The genre was loosely defined, the most popular being ‘socials’, films that addressed the social problems of citizens in the newly developing state. In the mid-1960s, camera technology revolutionized the documentary method by enabling the synchronized recording of image and sound. Today, CINEMA 4D users are free to create scenes without worrying about the size of objects or how many objects are in the scene, shaded settings, texture size, multipass-rendering, or eye-catching particle systems.
Until the 1960s, film-making companies, many of whom owned studios, dominated the film industry. Artistes and technicians were either their employees or were contracted on a long-term basis. Since the 1960s, however, most performers went the freelance way, resulting in the star system and huge escalations in film production costs. Financing deals in the industry also started becoming murkier and murkier, since then. According to estimates, the Indian film industry has an annual turnover of Rs 60 billion. It employs more than 6 million people, most of whom are contract workers as opposed to regular employees. In the late 1990s, it was recognized as an industry.
More money impacted the perception, visual representation, and definitions of reality. Like any other media of mass communication, the themes are relevant to their times.
Thus, filmmaking became more expensive and riskier. As opposed to the time of the Gemini Studios, when only 5 percent of a movie was shot outdoor, filmmakers often select overseas locations to create greater realism, manage costs more efficiently or source people and props. Filmmakers spend considerable time scouting for the perfect location.
2. Poetry and films
Because of its ruinous and impossible costs and the necessity of immediate huge returns, the cinematograph cannot fulfil its essential function: to serve as the supreme weapon of the poet. —
The greatest similarity in poetry and films is that both are creative media. The producers in both cases are artists—sensitive persons—who work on a different medium. Nevertheless, films cater to a wider audience and the money stakes are more. Hence, films cannot have art for art’s sake.
Bollywood produces approximately 800 films a year, most of which are musicals and feature elaborate song and dance numbers. There is constant work for lyricists, music composers and music directors. Good poetry and music are also deciding factors in the popularity of a film. Hence, movie music is released as tapes and CDs before the movie is released and account for the bulk of popular musk sales in India.
Why poetry? Some say that the long tradition of Indian temple spectacles, sacred dramas danced and sung still shape Indian tastes. Others point to the linguistic diversity of India. Only films that transcend language barriers have any hope of being all-India hits. Music, not being tied to any one language, expresses the feelings of the characters even to people who can’t follow the dialogue. Early lyrics tended towards the literary and drew heavily on contemporary Urdu and Hindi poetry. The pop lyrics of later years are deplored by film traditionalists.
3. Humour and criticism
Humour is the ability or quality of people, objects, or situations to evoke feelings of amusement. The term encompasses a form of entertainment or human communication which evokes such feelings, or which makes people laugh or feel happy.
Criticism is the activity of judgement or informed interpretation. Constructive criticism is a form of communication, in which a person tries to correct the behaviour of another in a non-authoritarian way, and is generally, a diplomatic approach to what another person is doing which is socially incorrect. It is ‘constructive’ as opposed to a command or an insult and is meant to be corrected with a peaceful and benevolent approach.
Satire is one such tool used by a critic. It is usually witty and funny, though the purpose of satire is not primarily humour but criticism of an event, an individual or a group in a clever manner. Satire is one of the most precise literary terms; it usually has a very definite target, which may be a person or a group of people, an idea or an attitude, an institution or a social practice. In any case, the target is held up to ridicule.
Because satire often combines anger and humour, it can be profoundly disturbing and since it is essentially ironic, including that heavy-handed form of irony called sarcasm, it is often misunderstood.
It is an artistic form in which human or individual vices, folly, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to censure using ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement. Literature and drama are its chief vehicles, but it is also found in such media as films, the visual arts and political cartoons. To Horace, a satirist is an urbane man of the world who sees folly everywhere but is moved to gentle laughter rather than to rage.
This piece is an example of a chatty, rambling style. One thought leads to another which is then dwelt upon at length.
Read the text again and mark the transitions from one idea to another. The first one is indicated below.
Make-up department Office-boy Subbu
(a) Pancake ——–> Robert Clive –> make-up room
(b) Writer’s cubicle ———-> lecture by office ‘boy’ ————-> Subbu
(c) Subbu ———-> story department———> lawyer ———-> actress’s career
(d) Poets ———-> Communism ———-> visitors
(e) Announcement in The Hindu ——–> The Encounter ———-> Spender
You must have met some interesting characters in your neighbourhood or among your distant relatives. Write about their idiosyncrasies with a touch of fun and humour. Try to adopt the author’s rambling style, if you can.
If there’s one thing people are lacking in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world, it’s meaningful connections with others. Walk down any city street and you’ll witness thousands of people all co-existing in complete solitude. There’s little eye contact, few friendly smiles, and an almost absence of initiating new friendships. Yet, some people leave an indelible imprint on your mind. You cherish each moment spent together.
I have fortunately met such a person. It seems as though it was a long time ago it was more than ten years or so before I had the privilege of meeting the ‘Most Interesting Person I Ever Knew’—Saumya Shah, though I have taken the liberty of changing his name. Sam was an incredibly skillful toolmaker as well as being a truly amazing person, shrewd and devious.
He seemed to have an insatiable appetite for reading, which, strangely enough, was his biggest failing. I think Sam read too fast or something. In conversation, he knew exactly what he meant to say, but it always seemed to come out jumbled or twisted and often in remarkable form. Sam was the library peon when I met him. I was preparing for my Board examination when I visited the library often. As a result, I came to know him quite well.
Interestingly, this man had an impressive lineage but had fallen on bad days. As a result, he had to take up that job. He talked to me about his life in his haveli and how he was called to grace the puja in the temple. With the end of the princely rule in India, he had lost everything. My friends and I felt sorry that this middle-aged man had to take to sitting outside, braving the rigours of weather—a life that he had never conceived for himself. We scrounged for each penny for three years and helped him in our meagre way.
Then one day, much to our surprise, the Library Superintendent mentioned that this peon, a man from the close-by slums had learned to read by being in the library. All the stories were the ones he had either seen in pictures or read!