Why the star biography is still a fail-safe literary formula

Why the star biography is still a fail-safe literary formula

By NIRMALA GOVINDARAJAN | | 15 July, 2017
biographical books, Dipa Chaudhuri, Om Books International, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, Donald Spoto, Christina Daniels, Jerry Pinto
The star biography is always in great demand in the publishing world, with leading authors and journalists now willing to pen down life stories of celebrities, writes Nirmala Govindarajan.
The biography has proved to be one of the most successful literary genres of all time. And of all kinds of biographical books, the ones that are read, and that sell, the most are life stories of celebrities. So it comes as no surprise that the star biography is still in great demand in the publishing world, and that established journalists and authors, along with major publishers, are doing their utmost to keep the biography sections of bookstores well-stacked. 

Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor, Om Books International, talks about the popularity of this genre among today’s readers. “Stars worldwide connect to their audience through their larger-than-life personae that may be distinct from their actual lives. A biography, or an autobiography allows the readers to partially understand the foundation of star mythologies, and discover other half-truths about the subject,” explains Dipa. 

She continues: “Most artfully written biographies avoid falling into the trap of overlapping biographies—of the biographer and the subject. A personal favourite is Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography.  And autobiographies could take a leaf from Confessions by Saint Augustine. So, the biography/autobiography of a star—from cinema, politics, sports or any other sphere of public life—is not meant to be a ballad, hagiography or the record of a court chronicler. A living subject may or may not allow a scathingly honest account of his or her life depending on the cultural moorings, but reliving and sometimes willingly revising and altering  personal histories could be a cathartic process. A star who has passed on provides the leeway for a speculative reconstruction of his or her life without being around to either corroborate, challenge or censor the presentation. Much depends on a biographer’s ability and willingness to provide multiple perspectives, and the subject’s willingness to be open to public scrutiny.”

Christina Daniels is the author of  I’ll Do It My Way, a book about the “incredible journey” of the actor Aamir Khan, published by Om Books. Aside from being focused on Khan’s life and work, the book is also an expression of Daniel’s own love for cinema. It is a kind of tribute to Hindi cinema. The other interesting thing is that the author hasn’t interacted with Khan for this book and yet she does justice to her subject by successfully bringing it alive on the page. 

I’ll Do It My Way  is a worldwide bestseller, and has recently been translated into Turkish. “This book reflects my concern that not enough is being done to document India’s cinematic history,” says Christina.

Award winning author Jerry Pinto, too, has written a biography of the yesteryear actress Helen. His book, Helen: The life and Times of an H-Bomb, was also written without any real interaction between the author and the subject. “My book was not about Helen’s personal life. It was about her life as a screen icon,” says Pinto. “If she had agreed to talk to me, I am sure she would have given me a great deal of anecdotes about filmmaking; this is what Hindi film stars do best. I love reading about how Raakhee  ji made fish curry for the whole set and how Rajesh Khanna put on a cap to cover his singed hair in a song. But that’s not what I am interested in writing about. I am interested in the construction of identity. What is it that makes a hero? How does the soundtrack introduce him? What emotions are we expected to invest in him?”

The idea of writing about Helen was born when Jerry was having dinner with his publisher and editor Ravi Singh. “He said, ‘Who do you think could write a book about Helen?’ and I said, ‘Me’ without thinking, and the next day, I started,” recalls Jerry. 

He adds: “In retrospect it may have been because Helen was a Christian by name and by identity. She played a parade of Rosies and Jennies and they were all women of questionable morals while the heroine was always a white-clad vision with no sex drive at all, just a heart full of love. I was interested in how Bollywood used minorities, how it portrayed the Muslim and the Christian. And so I got to write about those ideas while working on the book.”  

Pinto’s Helen has gone on to win the National Award for Best Book on Cinema, and so an even longer shelf life.

“The shelf-life of biographies is directly proportional to the interest and curiosity the subject sustains in the readership,” observes Dipa Chaudhuri, who has personally intervened as an editor in the making of  I’ll Do It My Way, and the newly launched biographies Anything but Khamosh by Bharathi S Pradhan, and  The Hit Girl  by Khalid Mohamed.

Talking of her role in shaping such books, Dipa says: “An editor melds with the biographer to get to the book that is finally published. Bharathi and Khalid, both perfectionists, know their terrain very well, and are not first-time biographers. Exigent as editors are expected to be, that made the rest of the tweaking into place easier for me. Given the power stars wield over our lives, their biographies shall always been well received by readers, more so when they are well researched and examine all angularities. Of course, great writing and storytelling only add to the charm of such biographies.”

Nirmala Govindarajan is the author of The Community Catalyst: A Novel Inspired by the Life of a Civil Servant

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