Bollywood of the Wild Wild West days was superb, but I wouldn't want to go back there: Anupama Chopra
Anupama Chopra's new book A Place In My Heart is a capsule of her evolution along with the film industry she reports on — from a cub reporter in the Bollywood of the 'Wild Wild West' days to 'marrying into the mob,' all the while building three major film organisations.
Anupama Chopra dons many hats, including the founder of entertainment journalism portal Film Companion, Director of Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and Chairperson of Film Critics Guild. But with her new book A Place In My Heart, a curated look at her personal favourites in the sphere of cinema, she brushes the dust off the author hat, one she has returned to after years.
In an exclusive interview, Chopra sits on the other side of the table and answers the questions on the marathon of writing a book in an era of digital journalism, what she has picked up from her family of writers, and how she keeps the armour of objectivity intact while forging ahead in the field.
Edited excerpts below:
The first sentence of your 'Acknowledgment' section is, "This isn't a pandemic-induced book." While I believe that, the pandemic must have played a crucial role in how it shaped up. Would you agree?
Well, the pandemic played a role in the sense that I got the time to write the book. It was a little foolhardy to embark on this without thinking it through when I'd write it, but I just wanted to do it and so I committed to it. And as it turns out, it was the perfect timing because then we went into lockdown. I had the time so I was able to put in the kind of work I needed to re-watch all the films, think them through, and then write this book. So yes, in that sense, it did play a role in how the book shaped up.
You have previously written several books on film, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: A Modern Classic (2002), King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema (2007), and Sholay: The Making of a Classic (2000), for which you won the National Award. Was A Place In My Heart easier to write because it was more extensive than intensive? Is it more strenuous to write books on singular entities as opposed to multiple ones?
Those (on singular entities) are harder to write. I think when you do a book that's, in a sense, a listicle, it does help you break it up. It's easier to tackle, though the work that goes into it in terms of actual research is exactly the same. But absolutely, it's easier to write because the ending is closer. It's 1,200 words or 2,000 words; it's not straight 30,000 to 40,000 words. So, definitely easier.
It has been a while since you wrote your last book. You have continued to write, but primarily scripts for your Film Companion review and recommendation video segments. How different is the long-distance skill of writing a book than the instant pains and pleasures of digital journalism?
Oh, it's a massive, massive difference between doing scripts for Film Companion and being a digital journalist, and actually writing a book.
A book is an absolutely different muscle. It's extremely lonely. It's the opposite of instant gratification. It's the extent of delayed gratification as much as it can get.
Because after you've written it, it takes a year to get published. If you're lucky enough to get published, it's not like you instantly become some A-list rock star. You're happy if a few thousand people read it. It's a slog, but it's a unique and a very rewarding slog. So I'm happy that I got back to it.
You make it clear your list of recommendations in the book is not exhaustive. Your heart keeps evolving and making room for films, spaces, and people you love. Film festivals made you appreciate world cinema, and streaming introduced you to regional cinema of South India. What is the next goalpost on your learning curve?
It's to learn how to read a film with more depth. As an untrained critic who grew up on mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood, I respond most strongly to narratives and characters but I want to learn more about the craft, about layering and metaphors filmmakers embed into a story. As an English lit major, I want to read films in the way I used to read books!
While I see mainstream Hindi cinema as a thali that can satiate any mood, do you think you can consume films with more stillness only when you are in a certain mood or headspace? Do you revisit those as often?
Actually, for all films, you need a certain mood or headspace. I don't think you can specifically need to be in a certain mood just for the more still films, the more cerebral films. Sure, that takes a little more work. That's cinema you perhaps have to invest in. It's not passive viewing that you just sit back and let it wash over you. You do need to be in that headspace. I think all films are a mood, even the big Bollywood blockbusters.
When I interviewed your husband Vidhu Vinod Chopra for his memoir Unscripted, he mentioned that his film watching tastes are poles apart from yours. Then how does the Chopra household decide which movie to watch together?
Ya, it's a tough one for the Chopra household to decide what to watch together [laughs]. Because our tastes are very, very different. And then there are the kids who also have very specific tastes. But we usually end up veering towards mainstream Hollywood. I think that's where everybody says, "Okay, willing to give this a shot." We usually sit together only on Saturday nights, and at that point, what you want more than anything else is a big popcorn entertainer. So through the lockdown, we went through all the Fast & Furious films, which was great fun! So perhaps those are the kind of films we all agree on, otherwise we decide to spend quality time apart and watch what each one wants to watch.
Speaking of the Chopra/Chandra household, it is a family of writers, from your mother Kamna Chandra [screenwriter of Prem Rog, Chandni, 1942: A Love Story], brother Vikram Chandra [author of Sacred Games], sister Tanuja Chandra [screenwriter of Dil To Pagal Hai, Zakhm, and Qarib Qarib Singlle, and author of Bijinis Women] to husband Vidhu Vinod Chopra [screenwriter of Parinda, Mission Kashmir, Munna Bhai MBBS] to daughter Zuni Chopra [author of The House That Spoke]. What have you picked up from them in the capacity of a writer?
It's not that easy to tell you specifically that I learnt this from my mother or brother, sister, husband, or daughter. Yes, it's a family of writers, and we all love the written word and storytelling. My mom was really who started it all, at least for the Chandra household, because she was the first artiste in the family. Each writer in the family does a different thing, like my daughter really, really loves fantasy. My brother does what he does. My husband's preference, at least in reading, is Hindi literature because he learnt English much later in life. For me, English is all that there is since that's the language I think in. But in a general sense, what I've really learnt from all of them is the rigour to sit down and work, and keep at it till it emerges. It's a tough lesson. Especially now when we all have the attention spans of a goldfish, it's very very hard [laughs]. That inspiration comes from all of them.
When I interviewed Irfan, who hosts the film chat show Guftagoo, he lamented he finds it impossible to navigate the "PR jungle" in order to gain access to celebrities. Is the direct access or the personal touch something that you also miss from the Bollywood of "the Wild Wild West" days when you started out?
Yes, absolutely. The personal touch and direct access is something I miss as well. At that point when I first started out, you'd literally go from one studio to another, and talk to whoever was there. It was that easy. But there were also perhaps 15 journalists. Now, an average press show has 300 people in it. I completely understand it's no longer possible. I do miss the personal touch but I love that the film industry is now much more professional, there is a variety of content out there, so much respect and authority being given to writers. And this has happened very, very recently, especially with the advent of streaming. Yes, the Bollywood of the Wild Wild West days was superb but I think we've gained a lot. And I wouldn't wanna go back there.
I remember when you visited my college Xavier's Mumbai in 2015 and urged us students to visit MAMI, the Mumbai Film Festival, there was a sense of assurance in your plea, that things will work out despite the festival being on the verge of closure. Then in 2019, you told me you got grey hair in the process of making MAMI stand on its own. Now that the festival is on its two feet (I would say Smriti Kiran and Kalpana Nair), what role do you see yourself playing in MAMI's further growth?
Truthfully, as you said, MAMI's two feet are Smriti Kiran and Kalpana. I'm just wo jo kehte hain na, stepney [laughs]. [In an earlier interview, she brought in the same comparison: "I can't believe I'm quoting my husband on this but Vinod once said that Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi are run the show in his productions, and he steps in only when required, like a stepney.] I'm asked to step in only when there's something they can't solve or would like my guidance on or like to be involved. But really, it's their show. I'm just there as a figurehead, as their cheerleader to pump them up, keep them motivated, help where I can. But it's not a lot honestly. It's truly what they do that makes MAMI what it is.Finally, I call this the Luck By Chance question. Having been associated with the film industry for over 25 years, first through your mother, then as a journalist, and later "marrying into the mob," as you say, how do you navigate the space with the objectivity that is required for a film critic? Any practical hacks?
To begin with, you have to make peace with the fact that you're not here to make friends and influence people. You have to understand that what you say will perhaps make you lose access, make you unpopular. If you can't handle that, then it's just better to be a film reporter than a film critic. Because if you come from a place of honesty and integrity, and you say your truth, then there's no way to not have people unhappy. How do you navigate the space with objectivity? It's a tough one but all of us arrive at it. You gradually evolve your voice, your lens. The one thing is we don't have too many friends from the industry. So we're not socialising with them. That'd make it very hard. And I never review anything my family is involved in in any way. I think that's also a big asset because it tells people out there what you stand for you, that you are coming to your job from a place of integrity. And that's all really that youy can do.
A Place In My Heart is published by Penguin Books.