By Kanika Katyal:
She is the award-winning writer of books like “Sholay: The Making of a Classic”, “Freeze Frame”, and “100 Films to See before You Die”. A passionate writer and storyteller; the very titles of the book’s chapters – from the introduction, ‘Kitne Aadmi The?’ to the epilogue, ‘Yaad Rakhunga, Tujhe Yaad Rakhunga’ – reflect the ardour of her undying love-affair with cinema.
An erudite film critic and an extremely affable host, Anupama Chopra changed the face of movie reviews and film interviewing in 2007 with Picture This. In The Front Row with Anupama Chopra, she mastered the art of gaining insights into the Hindi film industry straight from the horse’s mouth.
For how else can one draw a confession such as this from the ‘King of Bollywood’, Shah Rukh Khan: “Maybe I am no longer as innocent as I used to be. When I did a scene, I always thought I had done it well. I never thought it was wrong. And there were days when somebody would tell me, ‘You know Shah Rukh, I liked what you did.’ I didn’t have to worry about appreciation from outside. Now I find myself doing something and I think a lot of people like it just because I am doing it, and they don’t feel it and it doesn’t touch them at times.”
Or from the indomitable Farah Khan: “ … the director can be a transvestite, he can be a eunuch. They don’t care about the gender of the director. They care about the gender of the star.”
YKA catches the film critic with a difference, to give you front-row seats to this love affair: Presenting, in technicolour – Anupama Chopra and Cinema!
Kanika Katyal (KK): You won the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema for your very first book, “Sholay: The Making of a Classic” (2000). There was a serious dearth of documentation on Indian cinema then. What is it that you think you got right? And do you think a lot has changed since?
Anupama Chopra (AC): I am not sure what it is I got right with the “Sholay” book. That’s only for readers and book reviewers and book critics to say. But my attempt was to create a book that at least aspires to be as entertaining as the film “Sholay”. It’s one of my favourite films of all times and I didn’t want to create a boring, academic treatise around it. I think what I really went after were the stories. The great behind-the-scenes stories that I got from talking to everybody who I could find, including the cook and the camera person, not Dwarka Divecha of course, but his assistants, the light boys. So I think that was very exciting for me and perhaps that excitement translated to readers as well.
There wasn’t too much documentation then and it’s really changed because Hindi cinema now has great cultural legitimacy and there are so many fine writers and so many academics who are now writing about films, so it’s wonderful that we moved far ahead. We still have miles to go but there is a great deal of documentation.
KK: I feel what distinguishes your work on films, from your reviews, to your books, is that they come across as driven by your sheer love for cinema, as opposed to someone whose job is to critique them. How crucial do you think it is to find a midway between your fondness for the subject and the need to remain objective in something like films, as they thrive on that personal connect?
AC: It is tough, but I think all criticism has to come from love. I think it’s very important as a film critic that I come from a space of great passion and love. I hope never to walk into a movie with an attitude of snobbery or condescension or any kind of idea that this is beneath me. I am doing this because I love Hindi movies and I have loved Hindi movies way before it was cool to love Hindi movies. I went to school in North Western University in America, I had a job in New York, and even then, when nobody or very few people ever came back from America, I came back because the only thing I wanted to do was write about Hindi films. I think that has fuelled my writing and it has fuelled my work.
How do you find a mid-point? You do. It’s like your family. Even though you love your family, you are aware of what the weak spots are, what the soft spots are and what doesn’t work within the family, who is dysfunctional… You are aware of that and you will point that out. So I have never really struggled to be objective because I love Hindi movies that much. I love them far more than any other cinema. It’s terrible that I spend my life watching awful Hindi films and I have no time to see excellent American serials, but what you are going to do? Because life is short. But the point is that the affection only works in my favour.
KK: You have been quoted saying that when you started working, “Film journalism was untouchable at the time. Everybody was ashamed and nobody wanted to admit that I worked for movies.” Today, it wouldn’t be wrong to call you the brand ambassador of movie journalism. Tell us about the challenges you faced in the beginning of your career.
AC: Thank you for that great compliment.
One – My mother was absolutely mortified that I work for a film magazine. I am what they call in Hindi movies – a ‘first-class first’ gold medallist in English Literature from Bombay University. I topped the University, then went to work for a movie magazine, which, to my mother, was just an appalling decision and she couldn’t believe that I was going from studio to studio interviewing stars. She really didn’t want to tell people that her topper daughter was talking to Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff, but that’s what I enjoyed and that’s what I loved.
But on a serious note, the challenge was that there weren’t real role models within Indian film journalism. People who were serious journalists, people who wrote great articles, they wrote about politics, sports, business, serious stuff. I never had a mentor and I always wonder what it would have been like to have somebody really groom me and teach me professionally. I miss that and there were no rules, we did what we wanted, but honestly, I never look back and say, “Oh my God! It was such a struggle.” It was so exciting, it was like a blank slate, it was tabula rasa and fortunately I had always had editors who were willing to give me the space to do what I wanted. At Sunday magazine – Vir Sanghvi, at India Today, Mr. Aroon Puri and Mr. Shekhar Gupta, all of them really encouraged me to go out and write whatever I wanted to write. It was very exciting. So it was an interesting time.
KK: Today, the internet is flooded with movie critics. What would be your advice to young cine-goers and aspiring critics of our generation?
AC: My advice to aspiring critics would be, do it only if you love it. When I say ‘it’, I mean the movies. So, if you do love the movies then watch and consume as much as you can. One of the great struggles of my life is to fit more cinema in. I have a really hard time fitting more movies in and I am very frustrated with that because I think the more I see, the more I learn and the better I am at what I do.
I am a mom, I have two kids to raise, I have a house to run, I have a high-maintenance husband. Time is finite and movies are endless. So, when you’re young and when you presumably don’t have the high-maintenance spouses and the children, consume as much cinema as you can and read the great critics, everyone from Pauline Kael, Anthony Lane to Anthony Oliver Scott and Manohla Dargis. Even if you don’t agree, you will go away having learnt something. So do not ever stop reading and learning. Every weekend, I get all the reviews of critics and I read them because it’s such an education and I realise what a long way I have to go, but it’s like a classroom I conduct for myself.
KK: Karan Johar writes in the foreword to “Freeze Frame”, “Curiosity is the key to a good interview.” But there is hardly any mention of gossip or scandalous content in any of your interviews. Are you not curious? What is your mantra to a good interview?
AC: I think Karan Johar is right. Curiosity is the key and I am hugely curious about people, especially about film talent. I love to find out more, but gossip and scandal honestly don’t really interest me. I am happy to know a little bit of gossip as much as any person; I do not look down on it; I don’t have any holier than thou attitude that I am too intellectual for gossip. I want to know what’s going on but is that what drives me to talk to people? No! What drives me is to find out what drives those people? What makes them tick? What are their fears? What excites them? How do they create what they do? When I get a great actor or a great director in a room to talk to me, the last thing I want to know about is, “Who’s your girlfriend?” or “What do you wear?” Honestly, it’s fun but it’s not what drives me so I am hugely curious but just not so much about these things.
KK: What convinced you to extend your work to the digital platform with Film Companion, a YouTube channel ‘for film lovers, by film lovers’?
AC: With Film Companion, it has been a very exciting journey because we’ve been thinking about digital through the making of The Front Row and Star Verdict, which was the Hindi show.
My sense is that film reviews cannot be appointment viewing. Nobody is going to sit down at 8:30 p.m. to watch what I have to say about a particular film. I think film reviews need to be available whenever people want to know and want them to be available and I think Bollywood is a global brand and everybody is curious about Bollywood. Many NRIs and non-Indians love Bollywood, so why restrict yourself to India? And the way to reach people is digital. I think it’s a great learning for me, as I am actually a print journalist. From there I went to television and now to digital and so it’s a great learning and an unlearning of so many things, so many practises in terms of style, in terms of the way you talk and I think it’s been great fun. I am still learning; I am totally not on top of it at all, and I am hoping that we grow and we reach out to as many people as possible.
KK: Do tell us about the experience of your first TV interview, your favourite interview, and which celebrity is on your wish list.
AC: My first TV interview was with John Abraham for “Dhoom” and we did it at Chowpatty, I am not sure why. I remember the makeup person sort of caking me on. Before that, the only other time I had makeup like that was at my wedding, and I was so nervous. Honestly, what I didn’t understand, obviously because I am a print journalist, is that this is a visual medium and therefore you need to dress a certain way and you need to be a certain way. In my first few interviews I use to just laugh loudly like hahaha…and you would pick that out on a sound track and I would laugh so loudly that I would drown out the whole answer of my guest. So these were all learnings on the job.
Which celebrity I would like on my wish list? I have interviewed Quentin Tarantino but I would like to do a much longer, in-depth interview with Ang Lee, who is one of my favourite directors ever. I would love to do a much, much longer interview with Ang Lee. We had done one for “Life of Pi” but I’d like something more.
KK: Your husband and you seem to possess very distinct sensibilities. Is he your biggest critic or fan?
AC: Yes! My husband and I possess absolutely distinct sensibilities. I remember sitting in “Kal Ho Naa Ho” with him, weeping copiously as Shah Rukh’s character died, and he couldn’t believe that I was crying and he was shaking his head and saying, “You know this love for all things candy floss will be your downfall as a film critic.” He is neither my fan nor biggest critic, he is my best friend.
KK: Films have been an integral part of your life. Your mother was a script-writer, your sister Tanuja Chandra is a director and a script-writer and your husband, Vidhu Vinod Chopra too is a director, filmmaker and screenwriter. Can we also expect to see you writing for films in the near future?
AC: No, never. I don’t have the courage or the talent to ever write for films or create a film.
Q. In a scene in “Lagey Raho Munna Bhai”, Circuit tells Munna that “Isko chhod dete hain. Doosre radio station pe ek Anupama Chopra hain, woh sirf Shah Rukh Khan ke baare mein baat karti hain, uske paas jayenge!” What was your first reaction to this scene?
A. That scene from “Lagey Raho Munna Bhai” was written specifically because I was writing at that time a book on Shah Rukh, and worked out of my bedroom. There was a desk in my bedroom and there was a long line of papers and all of it was Shah Rukh and my poor husband had to bear with this, for I think at least a year, when I was writing and transcribing. Shah Rukh-Shah Rukh- Shah Rukh was all that happened in his life. So I think that was just in there to underline his trauma.