Sathya Saran: My biographies focus on the subject as a creative artiste, and track the work and career

In a nation besotted by the charms of cinema, the genre of cinema literature is yet to find its aficionados who’d lend their Midas touch and turn them into bestsellers. In such scenario, there comes an author like Sathya Saran, armed with the curiosity of a journalist, and an editor’s penchant for perfection, penning heartwarming biographies like ‘Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey’, ‘Sun Mere Bandhu Re: The Musical World of SD Burman’, ‘Baat Niklegi Toh Phir: The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh’ and short story collections like ‘Night train and other stories’, and ‘The dark side’. Here’s a brief chat with Sathya Saran, author, former editor of Femina, and Consulting Editor at Harper Collins: 
How did you begin your career in writing?

I have always enjoyed writing, even while in school. My career began when I went for an interview to relieve a friend who was also my junior in MA LIT, from his job as Magazine Editor of a newspaper titled ‘The Hitavada’, in Nagpur. He was migrating to Canada and wanted to present me as someone who could take over from him, so he could be relieved. It was to be a trial. But I enjoyed the job so much, that I stayed on, practically writing the entire two-page section under different names, until I could find good writers to contribute to the different sections. Happily, we found some good writers quite soon. Circulation on Sunday soared, and two pages grew to four, and my career took off. Of course, I added a Journalism degree to ensure I learnt the theory too, besides the hands-on learning.

What do you enjoy writing the most – biographies or short stories?

Both. Stories are more fun, but more spontaneous and need a certain quiet frame of mind to take shape. Biographies are stories already written, I only need to gather the facts and find a new way to present them. I have tried to do that in each of my three biographies. And in ‘Sun Mere Bandhu Re – The Musical World of SD Burman’, I have tried to weave in the storytelling technique into the factual retelling of the maestro’s life. 

Which is your favourite short story from your book, ‘The Dark Side’ and why?

Hmm…Tough one. I like ‘Sunday Evening’ a lot, and ‘Through a Looking Glass’. And ‘Night Train’, of course. 

What is the actual process of writing a biography? Do you conduct the research on your own? And what kind of challenges do you face while writing a biography?

Yes, mostly I reasearch on my own. ‘Ten Years with Guru Dutt – Abrar Alvi’s Journey’ took two years of research, while the Jagjit Singh biography took about six months or so. For SD Burman, I had an offer from the founder of a fan club to collect old published and recorded interviews and conduct fresh ones on my behalf, and I gratefully accepted. Of course, all of what he gave me was welded into my narrative, with due credit, where required. 

The main challenge is getting people to talk. And as all my three subjects were no longer alive, I had that issue to deal with. However, Abrar sahab, Chitraji, Gulzar sahab, Sanjeev Kohli, Waheedaji and many others could fill the lacuna of a missing subject and help with valuable information for each of the books. 

How much does the person you are writing about seep into your conscience and affect your life or change your perspective towards life, especially while writing about Guru Dutt?

It really happens. While writing Guru Dutt’s biography, I partially inhabited the world of Guru Dutt films, despite having a full-time job. It was like a spool running at the back of my mind, in the subconscious. With SD Burman’s biography, it was more serious, as I had to think like him, or how he might have thought. And even write letters on his behalf. I think growing up in Kolkata and Guwahati and being familiar with the culture of Bengal helped me there. 

But sometimes it was difficult to shift gears to the present, or from the present to the book. With the Jagjit Singh biography too, a deep empathy grew towards the person, who was so much more than just a singer and composer, as I had imagined before starting work on the book. I do think the three biographies enriched me in different ways. And knowing Abrar sahab will always be something I will treasure as a gift. 

How do you decide what anecdote to keep and what to discard? Is there something like ‘Deleted chapters’ from the biographies that you have written?

No deleted chapters. I write very tightly, and seldom delete or add paras or portions. If i try, it does not work, the structure gets lost. But yes, there are portions in Ten Years that I left out despite knowing details, on Abrar sahab’s request. He did not wish to hurt anyone. And as it is his book as much as it is mine, I respected his request. 

My biographies focus on the subject as creative artiste, and track the work and career, and the personal angles connected with that. So, there is no quest for sensational details. And thus, no need to ‘ delete’. I use as many anecdotes that show the person’s nature and genius. Repetitive incidents and stories are left out after I decide on the most interesting ones. 

Do you think there is an audience for cinema literature in India? 

Yes, and no. The number of books on cinema stars that are on the stands, says a very definite yes. But serious books are harder to sell. However, thanks to the interest, and the fact that there is a dedicated readership even for books that try to delve into the craft of the subject and the subject matter, books that chronicle a life, or a period in cinema or track the work of a film-maker, a singer, or music director are growing in number. We may finally be creating some record of the history of cinema greats. Something the industry itself has not cared to do. 

With the thriving of digital platform, have you noticed any change in our reading culture?

Yes. A serious lack of attention. An inability in many of the younger generation to read books, a focus on celebrity news rather than good reading, and no understanding of the joy of reading good prose. But there is a sizeable percentage of exceptions to this norm. 

What next? 

Two books, one on cinema and one on ‘How To Look Like Miss India’, are with two different publishers. And I am back to my favourite subject; starting on a new book on another musical genius, for Harper Collins India. It is most exciting. But of course, many hurdles must be crossed en route to reaching the writing stage. 

On a parting note, what advice would you offer to aspiring writers?

What I always tell my students, and anyone who asks me for advice: Read. Read. Read. Just as you cannot run unless you learn to walk, or sing unless you listen to music, you cannot write unless your read a lot. Reading helps you grow your vocabularly, and develop your style. It takes time, trial and error, and a lot of preparation. But it is a fun journey. If you learn to enjoy it. 

– Prakash Gowda 

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