Why Do Indian Biographies End Up, Almost Invariably, As Hagiographies?

Federico Fellini wanted to cast me in Casanova. We ended up in bed together -- Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer
I had read the piece, whose link is given above, sometime back, rather perfunctorily and would have generally forgotten all about it, given the information overload and the consequent need for information prioritization and selective retention that we need to practice regularly, except that it triggered a memory refresh about one of my pet topics about Indians in general. And so, I have searched it out again and placed it right at the top as the starting point for this piece. [ Bio : Germaine Greer ]

Why are Indians so reverential and worshipful of their icons and celebrities that they  regularly elevate them to the status of 'all-perfect human beings, seemingly possessing all the classical virtues that one can think of and supposedly leading 'prim and propah' lives with nary a 'blemish'? Why can't biographies mention that virtually all of them have or had their share of foibles, idiosyncrasies or weaknesses? Why can't a person, undoubtedly talented and gifted in one or more areas, have feet of clay? Why must most biographies eventually become hagiographies that simply become unreadable after a point (except possibly as prescribed textbooks)? Since the attachment  right at the beginning concerns a famous actor and personality and a celebrated director, let me illustrate my point by making a few observations about Satyajit Ray, that venerated icon of Bengalis particularly and the Indian intelligentsia generally.
Potrait of Satyajit Ray, painted by Rishiraj S...Image via Wikipedia
Satyajit Ray

1. Ray is generally believed to be up there with the most celebrated directors internationally. A popular song I recall mentioned him together with Fellini, Godard & Truffaut. It is a fact though that Truffaut [Written Interview: Francois Truffaut ] once walked out of a screening of one of his earlier films saying it was insipid, plainly dragged and mindlessly aped the neo-realist styles of some of the prominent Italian directors of the times. Godard, quite some years later, opined after going through one of his films that the man just didn't have a good grasp of the cinematic craft of making a good mystery movie or a taut thriller. One may agree or differ with these observations - one's opinion of a book or a movie is finally a strictly personal point of view - but catch any of the numerous mainstream books or write-ups about Ray even mentioning these facts. {Airbrushed}

2. Ray churned out quite a number of short stories and novels including the immensely popular 'Feluda' and 'Professor Shonku' series. It can be indisputably shown that Ray unabashedly plagiarised several English authors for most of his stories [ Professor Challenger ] and novels and, had copyright laws and awareness about India and Indian regional literature been what it is today during his times, Ray could have landed in significant trouble over his serial plagiarisation. The fact remains that he did have an innate knack of putting together words and sequences(the archetypal perceptive and observant filmmaker and scriptwriter) and adapting these plots to a local milieu, making them greatly readable. [The Lost World - Arthur Conan Doyle ] No mainstream biography or write-up about him mentions these facts though. {Airbrushed}

Jean-Luc Godard at Berkeley, 1968Image by Gary Soup via Flickr
Jean-luc Godard

3. Ray had a glad eye for women and in particular, his dalliances with one of his leading ladies whom he kept casting in many of his movies, was fairly visible and well-known to many of his unit members, friends and possibly even his family members (usually the last to know)[ Ray's affairs 1  2 ]. If Fellini ending up in bed with Germaine Greer , after first wanting to cast her, doesn't detract in any way from his standing as a director, there is no reason why Ray's dalliances with women should make him any less a director. Yet, catch any biography or write-up even mentioning this aspect of his life in some detail. {Airbrushed}

4. Having seen all of Ray's movies and read most of his short stories and novels (I used to subscribe to and quite enjoy reading 'Sondesh' till it ceased publication), I think that Ray made some brilliant movies, quite a few good ones and some rather average and below-average stuff even. The last three movies that he made, while he was  ailing and increasingly restricted in his movements, were pathetic by his standards and rather poor movies by any reckoning. Yet, catch even the seasoned movie critics mentioning anything along somewhat similar lines, mainly because I suspect it would be blasphemous and possibly career-ending for any critic to mention that not everything Ray made was in any way short of being an absolute cinematic gem {Ersatz, insincere fawning, instead of objectivity}.

Do any of the above facts or perspectives detract in any way from Ray's undeniable multifaceted talents or the large body of work left behind by him by way of movies and Bengali literary works? Not at all, according to me. Yet, it is precisely this fear that inhibits and holds back any writer penning his biography or writing a piece about him for mass consumption. Why do many Indians have to be such monumental hypocrites?


  1. By Rakesh Yadav - from Facebook

    A balanced analysis about worshipping of icons in India in proper perspective.

    Have to add - 1)As the number of films by Ray which were below average was a minute proportion ..no big deal in lack of mention about them in biographies.
    2)Personal dalliances (universally common features among all icons or otherwise ) do not go well with indian middle class literary mindset and would tend to overshadow the intellectual genius of Ray .So biographers can be sympathised without major loss of objectivity.
    3)Plagiarism is omnipresent in the creative world....inspirations galore all around.

  2. Having been ruled by the Mughals and then the British for hundreds of years, feudal systems and master-slave relationships are deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. Once the feudal systems and the rulers who enforced it went away, icons from any sphere of life, celebrities and superstars became the new masters, mistresses, kings and queens who have to be larger than life and near perfect.


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