Inside the obsessive, compulsive, addictive world of Bollywood trivia

Diptakirti Chaudhuri
Grist Media
Sharmila Tagore in a still from the 1969 film Aradhana

In 1999, a pretty unusual thing happened to an e-group of Bollywood enthusiasts who were animatedly discussing one particular piece of trivia – several decades old – about the book Sharmila Tagore was reading during the song “Mere sapnon ki rani” from Aradhana. Before the days of pausing YouTube, this was a pretty difficult question to answer – on account of it being a pretty difficult frame to catch – and protracted discussions ensued even after the real answer was revealed (she was reading an an Alistair Maclean thriller, When Eight Bells Toll). Till the following mail arrived.

From: "Sharmila Thakur" <>
Subject: which book
Date: Wed, 10 Mar 1999 21:50:21 PST

I understand that there is some debate about the book I was holding in a train when Rajesh was moving his lips and almost falling out of the jeep in the movie "Aradhana".

It is time to reveal a secret after so many years. It wasn't an Alistair MacLean book at all. Only the cover was from Alistair MacLean's "When Eight Bells Toll". Inside it, I was carrying a railway time-table. Many keen fans (such as those who ask such questions in the first place) may have observed that I refer to a railway time-table in a subsequent scene. This railway time-table was that railway time-table.

As for the cover itself, it's from the Fontana paperback version of the book and shows a helicopter and a man in a diver's rubber suit in the foreground.

I hope that this settles the issue once and for all. I ought to know. I was there.

As to why nobody from the film unit revealed the secret until now, the reason is that we anticipated a lot of discussion on the question thirty years down the line from intelligent fans like you. Every fan counts towards the box office as you know.

I am sure at least one intelligent person from among you will now point out that Aradhana is not thirty years old. I am afraid I will not participate in the heated discussion that is bound to follow.

But my best wishes are with you.

This mail is a brilliant symbol of the wonderfully chaotic and interesting world of Bollywood trivia. In a group of regular Bollywood fans, why would a top star of the yesteryears appear and throw such a googly? Every bit of common sense would indicate this letter is a hoax but for the trivia-bhakt, it is something one cannot be sure of. And that is such a great thing!

When I wonder where my interest in Bollywood trivia started, it goes back something I share with many such fans – quizzing.Growing up in 1980s Calcutta, quizzing was a part of life. The O’Briens – led by patriarch Neil – and many other doyens of quizzing served up questions at these events and most of them were bloody tough and gratifying. If you could answer them, that is. Strangely (or perhaps not-so-strangely), Bollywood questions were the absurdly easy parts in these quizzes. In one open quiz, in which Derek O’Brien himself was a participant, it was asked: “If Gone With The Wind is GWTW, what is DDLJ?” Yes, you read that right. This was clearly an exception, but for the most part, Bollywood questions in general quizzes were either too easy or frustrating, largely on the lines of “Who composed the music for...?” after playing an audio clip of a not-so-famous song.

But there were exceptions, and cool ones at that. Long-time quizzer Ujjwal Deb remembers quizmaster Movin Miranda playing this song and asking the seemingly random question: “What was the number of the truck Dev Anand was driving?” (The song was from the film Nau Do Gyarah, which was also the number of Dev Anand’s truck).

Dev Anand in a still from the1957 film Nau Do Gyarah

This kind of question – what quizzers call ‘workoutable’ – is most important for a quiz to be interesting, says Ashwin Kumar SV, who quizzes quite often. But quizzers admit that Bollywood questions were, by and large, there just to make up the numbers and were restricted to identifying adaptations and rip-offs or the music. Quizzing enthusiast Gaurav Sabnis (who is now a professor in marketing in the USA) feels that very few quizmasters managed to get the perfect balance in Bollywood trivia questions; most of them were too easy or too obscure to be interesting.

Radio is abuzz with quizzes that give away prizes every hour, and many of those questions are on Bollywood. All movie channels on TV dish out snippets of trivia several times a day. A very large part of these questions cater to the lowest common denominator and are around movie releases and star birthdays. The longer format of traditional quizzes – rounds of question and answer – has never done too well either on radio or TV.

Aficionados remember a national Bollywood quiz on Radio One called “Bollywood Ka Badshah” in 2005. It had several rounds of elimination in which Bollywood buffs participated enthusiastically, leading to the finalists being flown down to Mumbai for the finale – all supported by a hilarious advertising campaign.

While this show did not continue for further seasons, it nevertheless gave executives of the movie channel Sahara Filmy the idea for a similar quiz on TV. Some qualitative research showed encouraging viewer response to the concept of a Bollywood quiz, and in 2007, “Bollywood Ka Boss” was born. The choice of quizmaster was Boman Irani, who is a huge fan of Bollywood trivia himself, and he conducted the quiz with his customary gusto. The channel executives were all sold on the concept and the show was well-promoted, but the show didn’t do well and never got renewed after the first season.

Sony Entertainment’s movie channel SET Max runs a trivia slate during most movies. Called “Extraaa Shots”, it gives out nuggets about the film that’s playing, and is a long-running property. This was extended into a quiz show – “Extraaa Shots Challenge” – hosted by actor Divya Dutta and pitched as “Filmon ka Board Exams”. Again, it was promoted very heavily and had a companion quiz book with it, but did not run for more than a season, prompting the belief that it did not do too well.

Former Sahara Filmy executive Anurag Bakhshi (who was part of the team behind “Bollywood Ka Boss” rationalizes this: “Bollywood knowledge is seen as frivolous and not considered 'General Knowledge'. There is nothing to be gained, either knowledge-wise or monetarily. On top of that, it is not really the end of the world for the losing contestants who are clearly there to have fun.” Without either a big reward or a major risk, the TV quizzes on Bollywood end up having a very niche appeal.

While the mainstream media has not been able to put together a sustained burst of trivia around India’s biggest obsession, Bollywood trivia does flourish outside the purview of formal competition – on Internet chat forums and Facebook groups.

The biggest benefit the Internet brought to niche interest groups was discovery (and to some extent, aggregation). Fans of Kanti Shah – the maker of several B-grade movies in Hindi – never realized there were other like-minded people in the real world because it was taboo to admit that you had watched the director’s films. With the anonymity of the Net, you confessed your guilty pleasures and discovered there were people all over the world who shared your undying loyalty to the ‘auteur’.

Similarly, Bollywood trivia buffs have had long and often volatile discussions on obscure elements of Hindi cinema, many of which are based on personal experiences and midnight inspirations.

For example, the Facebook group Indian Film Quiz saw a question a few days back: “Who sang just one line – Akbar tera naam nahin – in the “Parda hai parda song from Amar Akbar Anthony?” Many regular fans of the Manmohan Desai classic would be hard-pressed to remember that that one line was picturized on Amitabh Bachchan – to know who actually sang it could well be impossible. (In an interview, Pyarelal – who partnered Laxmikant to become one of Hindi cinema's most successful composer duos – once gave, he said it was Amit Kumar who sang that line because Kishore Kumar, who was Amitabh Bachchan’s regular playback singer in the film, asked for his regular fee even for that one line). However, the singer and the composer both confirmed the information in an interview and the question became the subject of a hectic discussion on the Facebook page.

While Facebook has been around for only about seven years and cinema discussing groups for even less, passionate discussions on Bollywood have been almost as old as the Internet. Chat boards and subsequently e-groups provided a convenient ground for Bollywood fans from across the globe to interact. These groups are perfect for niche discussion threads, where only fans can come and discuss.

And suddenly having a superstar – La Tagore – to settle a debate is a fantastic thing.For a hobby in which documentation is dodgy and multiple versions of the same event are part of the norm, these seemingly authoritative sources provide great joy. Till of course you realize that Sharmila wasn’t holding a railway timetable in the next scene.

Long frustrated by the lack of definitive material on Hindi cinema, Diptakirti Chaudhuri has recently written a book on Bollywood trivia. Bollybook: The Big Book of Hindi Movie Trivia is now available in leading bookstores.