“First Day First Show”… Bolly Go Lightly

Posted on October 3, 2011

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The passion with which we pour ourselves into popular culture is surely among the more ridiculous aspects of modern life, and when our expectations are shattered, when the return on our investment of time and mental energy is incommensurate, we begin to resemble volcanoes rumbling with hot ash and lava. Why not greet a disappointing book or movie or pop song with the stoic shrug of the shoulder we bestow on other unsatisfactory life events, whose outcomes we cannot guarantee? It was this calm-headed stoicism that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. referred to when he said, “I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split.”

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A lot of mainstream Indian cinema can be viewed as a hot fudge sundae – unexcitingly tasty and non-nourishing and anyone, apparently, can make one with ingredients picked off the shelf. This is why the dominant mode of Indian film criticism is the short review that deals with the superficial. “This is all the attention these films need,” the critics seem to say, week after week, unlike, say, Pauline Kael, who would don armor and charge at hot fudge sundaes – even the inconsistency of chocolate sauce could result in horrific carnage. Here’s Kael about A View to a Kill: “And the director, John Glen, stages the slaughter scenes so apathetically that the picture itself seems disassociated. (I don’t think I’ve seen another movie where race horses were mistreated and the director failed to work up any indignation. If Glen has any emotions about what he puts on screen, he keeps them to himself.” All this frothing in the mouth about a latter-day Bond movie, which even its creators treated as little more than a tired cash machine – Vonnegut Jr. would have called Kael preposterous.

He would, however, have approved of Anupama Chopra, the film journalist (and producer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s wife) who hosts the weekly film-review show Picture This for NDTV. On the show, Chopra comes across as a pleasant-enough person who happens to review films only because someone asked her to. Like many Indian critics, she gives a bird’s-eye view, seemingly unconcerned that a film seen from that distance is like a lake that appears from a height as a dot of blue, and that unless you swoop down, you are going to miss the sunlight on the surface and the brook trout below tangled in waving reeds. Like most critics who soar over the films they watch every week, Chopra likes to close her reviews with the word “recommend.” She concludes her review of Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met, which is reproduced in First Day First Show: Writings from the Bollywood Trenches, with the endorsement, “I thoroughly enjoyed this journey and I recommend you take it too.” Of Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! she says, “I strongly recommend that you see it.” With Ram Gopal Varma’s Agyaat, she warns, “I recommend that you stay far away.”

Chopra, in other words, reviews films for those who seek out opinions and endorsements before they venture to the theatre. Is the hot fudge sundae tasty? Middling? Inedible? That’s what Chopra tells the reader – rather, the listener – every Friday. The wholly individual sensations that burst inside her as the tongue encounters the first spoonful are of little concern – we get an idea of what Chopra thinks about the film in question, but not always why. The inclusion of her reviews in this easy-read volume is a mistake, I think, for two reasons. The first, of course, is that there is little in these reviews that hints at the shrapnel-spattered war zone promised by the title – only the sense of Friday mornings spent in air-conditioned cinema halls. These reviews serve their purpose on television, providing an instant assessment, but they are not especially strong and individual-minded pieces of writing that deserve to be enshrined. We don’t read Chidananda Dasgupta’s compilations of reviews because he “recommends” movies but because he talks about them so passionately, from the trenches of his very soul.

The other reason is that the limitations of Chopra’s style – the clichés she reaches for (and every deadline-driven journalist has a clutch of clichés at the front of the mind) – is quickly outed in these selections of reviews. Writing about Jimmy, she says, “Jimmy is that rare thing – a film so bad that it’s good. True Bollywood connoisseurs have a list of these, which usually includes Sheetal’s Honey and Manoj Kumar’s Clerk.” In an article titled So Bad, They’re Good – the very title recalls the line from the Jimmy review – Chopra says, “Dunno Y enters the pantheon of classic so-bad-they-are-good movies – which includes the legendary disaster Manoj Kumar’s Clerk… But for me the Holy Grail of bad movies is the little known Honey.” And of the Rekha-starrer Mother, she writes, “Mother joins the ranks of all-time turkeys like Sheetal’s Honey and Manoj Kumar’s Clerk.” Chopra’s strategy, upon encountering a “so bad it’s good” movie, is to commission an instant comparison to Clerk and Honey.

But between these reviews, in the articles and essays about Bollywood (and the occasional non-Bollywood story, like the one about Murali Nair’s Cannes-feted Marana Simhasanam), a very different Anupama Chopra emerges – the “serious journalist, by which I mean that she wrote about Hindi films in a serious way,” as Shah Rukh Khan writes in his foreword. He adds, “Her writing reflected research.” In the excerpt from Chopra’s book on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, we read about the opening scene. “Baldev is a man without a country… The camera frames his face in a close-up. As it cuts to a wide shot, we see that Baldev has been transported back to Punjab.” Later, Chopra lingers on the name of the hero, Raj. “In Indian films, ‘Raj’ is a popular name for romantic heroes. [Aditya Chopra’s] inspiration was Raj Kapoor, who himself played heroes called Raj or Raju in his early classics, Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955). Later, when Kapoor directed the watershed teeny-bopper romance Bobby (1973), he named his hero Rajnath. In Aditya’s screenplay for DDLJ, Raj’s full name is Rajnath, but the full name is never used in the film.”

Had Chopra reviewed DDLJ on her television show, there’s a good possibility she wouldn’t have brought any of this up – not the technical information about the deployment of a close-up followed by a wide shot, and not the anecdotal digression about the hero’s name. It is in these essays, therefore, that the real Anupama Chopra appears to reside. (And these essays also make you wonder if her reviews on television are deliberately low on detail, either due to time constraints or the marketing directive that this is what the TV audience wants.) Chopra’s decades-long experience of covering the Hindi film industry has given her an insider’s empathy and an easy familiarity with its workings, and these qualities are showcased in her writings for foreign publications like Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, where she writes with a verve that’s missing in her television avatar. An essay titled Skin is In, for instance, begins like this: “A nation of one billion people presumably has a working knowledge of sex, but Bollywood has always pretended otherwise.” The article that follows is as well written as something aimed at an audience unfamiliar with Bollywood can be, the concretion of facts alleviated by the chattiness of the tone.

The most entertaining portions of First Day First Show are Chopra’s attempts to demystify stars. These miniature profiles, constrained perhaps by print space, are sympathetic but Chopra maintains her distance. In Amitabh Bachchan Has a Cold – named after Gay Talese’s classic New Journalism essay Frank Sinatra Has a Cold – she uses the peg of Bachchan’s illness to paint a dry-eyed portrait of Indian cinema. And she seems to save her best for the underachievers, the little people sought out when the big stars have no dates. In Generation Next, she writes, “Aftab Shivdasani is a flop hero. Last October, his high-octane Ram Gopal Varma launch, Mast, died an agonizingly quick death at the box office. Perhaps some day he’ll ponder his status and get depressed. Right now he simply doesn’t have the time [because of his armload of offers].” In Neena Gupta: Breathless, Chopra writes with understanding about the actor’s personal life. She gives us the gossip about Vivian Richards being the father of Gupta’s daughter, but only in the context of Gupta’s supportive father. Chopra wonders, “Perhaps some day a man of similar strength who can appreciate her unusual good looks, keen intelligence and quiet determination will show up at her door.” In a country where film journalism is equated with battling for the sizzling scoop, these essays are thoughtful diary-notes from the trenches.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Books, Cinema: Hindi