Let me start this write-up with a bias, just like the disclaimer I put up whenever I write a review. I believe that Anupama Chopra is the most credible film reviewer we have in India right now. She is honest, fair but never mean – three qualities every person with a mouthpiece should have. There are critics who express polarising reviews, albeit very well written pieces, but she is possibly one of the most balanced reviewers. Thanks to Raja Sen, I got her email id and sent her the request for the interview. Within an hour I got a reply, and she agreed to take out time soon. However, at that point of time (early May) she was getting ready for Cannes and had too many things on her plate to squeeze out time for a one-on-one interview. On the other hand, I was insistent on not doing a telephonic conversation because that is almost never fruitful. So, I decided to wait till she came back from France. In the meanwhile, I got busy with the shoot for my web series and my vacation with friends. So, the moment I set foot on India again, I sent her an email to kindly schedule an interview in the first week of June. This time, she promptly replied yet again, and confirmed the meeting.
So, on 5th June 2015, on the day of release of Zoya Akhtar’s “Dil Dhadakne Do”, I met Anupama Chopra for our pre-scheduled interview while she was on her way back from the NDTV office in Elphinstone to her home in Bandra. Sitting in her car, I volleyed questions I had written myself and had sourced from other authors of MadAboutMoviez (MAM), and she replied each one of them with the same smile and charm we all associate her with. As I don’t intend to shorten or edit the conversation, this post will be in 2 parts. This is the first half of my rendezvous with Anupama Chopra.
Except her father, her family has been associated with films and art in a very strong way. Her mother, Kaamna Chandra, wrote dialogues for Chandni and Prem Rog. Her sister, Tanuja Chandra, is an accomplished screenwriter (Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Zakhm) and filmmaker (Dushman, Sangharsh), and gave us Ashutosh Rana in avatars unmatched by other directors. Her brother, Vikram Chandra, is a highly reputed novelist (Sacred Games, Red Earth & Pouring Rain). So, the first and the most obvious question for me to ask was how did film journalism happen to her.
Completely by accident, she states, it was not a plan at all. After all, she comes from a family that stayed in South Bombay, where watching Hindi films wasn’t a part of the culture. Everyone watched Hollywood films, she reaffirms, even though those films released months later. So, when she decided to choose Hindi film journalism after being First Class First in English Literature, her family and especially her mother was mortified by her choice. However, the credit for Anupama’s entry into films has to be ascribed to a female professor in her alma mater (St Xaviers), who suggested that the former took up the job in a film magazine as a stop-gap arrangement. The professor, who personally knew Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari – editor and deputy editor of the magazine MOVIE, recommended Anupama to join the organisation. As Anupama recounts, she went into it without knowing what to expect, but there was something about the chaotic Hindi film industry that appealed to her. And (thankfully for film lovers like us) it still continues.
I then asked her about her YouTube channel “Film Companion”, which I personally believe is the best online video content we have about movies in India. For someone who has worked with Hindustan Times, NDTV, Star World, has publications across the world, how did the idea of YouTube channel even click?
Very modestly she accepts the appreciation and says that while they are still not sure about how to pay for FC, it has been a huge labour of love. However, it was during the The Front Row days that she and Ms Smriti Kiran (Creative Producer – TFR and Creative Head – FC) decided that film reviews cannot be a sit-down approach. When people want a film’s review, they just want it, and you cannot give them fixed time slots on TV to know more about it. So, Ms Chopra and Ms Kiran decided that the best medium to go ahead with it is the internet, for digital is highly accessible and available without zero stress, and is arguably the way forward for media. She credits her friends, who were very supportive about her decision and egged her on to start Film Companion.
Anupama Chopra received the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2000 for her first book Sholay: The Making of a Classic. So, it was an obvious question to ask where she got the impetus to document the biggest and most loved Hindi film ever.
Like many great things in my life, she recounts, it also happened by chance. Writing the book was never a plan. It was on the 25th anniversary of Sholay, Ramesh Sippy’s kids – Rohan, Sheena and Sona – asked her to write about it. Like most of us, she loves Sholay, and this book gave her the chance to learn all that went into making the biggest classic of the Hindi film industry. So, she grabbed the opportunity with both her hands.
Sholay is just the beginning of many books that Anupama has written. From “Freeze Frames” to a book on DDLJ, from “The Front Row Conversations” to a biography on none other than Shah Rukh Khan, she has dabbled in a lot of non-fiction writing. So, given her access to cinema via her husband or her sister, or the possible influence of her brother, does she plan to write films or novels? No, she says. Very humbly, she adds that she just doesn’t have the talent.
We know that as a policy, she doesn’t review films directed or produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. So, we decided to ask whether this clash of interest is purely from a family perspective or she has any other involvement in those films.
None, she says, there is no involvement at all. She elaborates that if it is a film directed by Mr Vinod Chopra himself, he does share his ideas with her. Also, while she may share her opinion about what she hears, she doesn’t read the scripts. But, if it is a film that Vinod just produces, she clarifies, whether it’s Raju’s film or Bejoy’s film, I don’t even have a clue of what is being made.
Isn’t that some commendable professionalism? I can’t wonder being in a family that produces Raju Hirani’s films and not knowing about them. 🙂
As an active member of a website that publishes film reviews with a lot of sincerity, there is a question that often comes to me – how does any published review have the authority of passing a judgement on a film. After all, a review or a critique is nothing better than a person’s opinion. So, I asked her the same question I had pitched to Raja Sen – what a makes a review credible?
With all modesty, Anupama answers that a review is indeed a personal take on a film. That is the reason Film Companion attempts to be the missing film buddy for its viewers. She says that she will be stupid to believe that she has the final opinion. No one does. Everyone’s reaction is based on his or her own experiences. She exemplifies the same by citing the immensely memorable Doordarshan scene from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and how it drew her instantly to her childhood. It was a ratatouille moment, she exclaims, when the DD tune on Sunday evening marked the end of weekend and became the harbinger of the upcoming weekdays. At the same time, she clarifies, someone who has grown up on satellite television and cannot connect to that moment personally may have an equally valid response. What we can bring to the table in addition to an informed opinion, she adds, is the integrity. So, if you have seen a lot of films or have a deep knowledge about a certain field, you can use that knowledge to make connections, which the audience may not have made otherwise. And a critic should be ethical enough to not bring any personal bias or favouritism to his or her work. Otherwise, everyone’s opinion is as valid as the next person’s.
I referred to an interview Anupama Chopra had done with Rohit Shetty, where the director cheekily quipped “Critics are the Nirupa Roy of my life”, and asked whether film critics should really have different yardsticks for different filmmakers, because we really cannot judge a Vikramaditya Motwane film in the same way as a Rohit Shetty film.
She agrees, and says that her yardstick for any film is whether it delivers what it promises. When Rohit or Farah makes a film, Anupama adds, the promise is to give you a good time. So, the expectation from such a film is only entertainment, which in itself is a very big thing for it’s no mean feat to be able to engage and amuse so many people at the same time. On the other hand, when Vikram makes a film on “The Last Leaf”, the promise is very different. So, it’s not that the promise made by Rohit Shetty is in anyway inferior to Vikramaditya Motwane’s. I have never been condescending towards entertainment, she says, it’s just that very often Rohit’s films don’t regale me and I have to say that honestly. Like a lot of people loved Chennai Express, but I didn’t find it that entertaining. But you cannot say that because it’s made by a certain someone, I will lower my bar. At the same time, you can’t say that a Tanu Weds Manu Returns is not a good film because it’s not Birdman, because the former never promised to be so.
So, I put forth my next question: what if a critic is inherently biased against a film. I draw the example of Mad Max: Fury Road, the only time I heard Anupama Chopra say in her review “It’s not my type of film”. How does the review hold good then?
She accepts and says that she has been ruined by Bollywood. I want character, plot, talking – she quips – and Mad Max is an almost wordless piece of great action. But I am not an action fan, and that’s an inbuilt limitation. With complete sincerity, she accepts that she is not a fan of action films as much as she enjoys films in other genre like action. I am a sucker for romance, she laughs and says, for the kind of films Shah Rukh did, which someone else might just turn around and say “what’s happening?” But, it is an in-built bias, just the way she recounts feeling nauseated during Danny Boyle’s 127 hours. Anything that delves into the gore and macabre zone doesn’t suit her palate, and she believes that it’s her duty as a critic to let people know about the inherent bias. At MAM, we would love to emulate this kind of level-headedness when it comes to expressing our views on cinema.
2014 was a great year for Indian cinema because it saw the resurgence of women like never before. While we had the Hindi film industry doling out great films shouldered by female leads (Mardaani, Queen, Highway, Mary Kom etc), the Mumbai Film Festival conducted by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) found its two most prominent seats being taken over by women – Kiran Rao as Chairperson and Anupama Chopra as Festival Director. So, we asked her about her plans in this new and prestigious role. Anyone who has followed her shows knows how extensively she travels across festivals over the world, and it would definitely be interesting to see how she brings in her global experience to help the festival, which was in dire need of help last year.
The experience has taught me what to aspire for, she says. When we see a Cannes or a Toronto, we see what a truly world class film festival is like. We are far away from that, she says, but it gives us something to look up to and want to be. Cameron Bailey, Canadian Film Critic and Artistic Director of Toronto Film Festival, along with Natalie Lue, Vice President Operations and Productions of Toronto Film Festival, conducted a special workshop to help the new team of MAMI conduct their annual festival. Even though the environment and the challenges are very different for the two festivals, the commonality is the factor that goes into making a fundamentally good film festival. My experiences have given me ambition, Anupama reiterates, even if we don’t get there, it’s fine, but let’s aim. Her mantra is the most important philosophy for success: let’s not settle for something mediocre.
Along with her, even we hope that MAMI continues its prestigious journey and keep ascending through the echelons of great film festivals.