Journalist Shashi Baliga passes away: A student remembers his teacher and mentor's most valuable lessons
Shashi Baliga, a prominent journalist, was my professor at the Xavier Institute of Communication, and mentor, till she passed away on 2 May, after a month-long battle with coronavirus.
First lesson learnt from Shashi Baliga: Don’t start your article with a quote, it’s not a school essay. Now that it’s out of the way and I’ve already begun this one, allow me to quote her. "Life is too short to correct typos." She would say that since every third WhatsApp message from her would carry a typo. "That's not your professor, but an exhausted 60-year-old woman speaking, okay?" She would never forget to follow it up with this disclaimer.
Shashi Baliga, a prominent journalist and executive director of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, was my professor at the Xavier Institute of Communication and mentor, till she passed away on 2 May 2021, after a month-long battle with coronavirus . I stand corrected. She continues to be. While writing this tribute, I half-expected that she would shoot me a text after reading it. "Did you not give it a once over?" I would reply with, "Oh, was it that obvious?" only to get back a, "No emoji for one tight slap."
Besides the once-over and the ironing out of typos (that's a ritual!), and the resistance to start with a quote (that's sacrilegious!), she had various lessons to offer, on career, films, and life in the same order.
To separate the art from the artist
The #MeToo era has required us to separate art from the artist, or grapple with the problematic legacies of certain creators. Even before these phenomena gained momentum, she had valuable advice to offer: To navigate the landscape of the film industry, she told us during college, one has to remain deeply invested yet consciously aloof. It was a state that Shah Rukh Khan would, a couple of years later, term as 'demotional' = detached + emotional.
As I progressed in my career as an entertainment journalist, she complimented me on my ability to be "unnaturally unswayed" and reminded me how getting starstruck ruined the careers of several promising journalists. She would herself avoid attending parties and wishing celebrities she knew personally on their birthdays, except over Facebook. But she would also not hesitate to drop a message to, say, a Shabana Azmi for a student who needed to get in touch with the actress for a story.
During one of our last conversations, I asked her if it was okay to request personal favours from celebrities (for friends and family) and if it is a good idea to visit a film set when invited to hang out with them. She insisted that it is a good problem to have as long as the equation is strictly professional. I confessed that a day ago was the first time I visited a film set without an agenda because I was missing the buzzy film life of Mumbai. "How is that not an agenda? You went there so you could fall in love with the movies again! I'm sure that'll serve you right." Then she added, "And when has doing something without an agenda ever become a thing to raise eyebrows at?"
No guilt in guilty pleasures
I felt like chatting with a very different Shashi Baliga post-college than the uncompromising figure she was at XIC. In our first class on film writing, she told the class that we need to be acquainted with all kinds of cinema — Hindi, English, regional, world — to be able to critique any film. It seemed like a daunting uphill climb from there before I confessed to her a couple of years later that the cinema of some greats bores me. After a long pause, she would nod and pop out her eyes in agreement, and say, "But as long as you've seen them".
From that day onwards, I found in her an ideal moviegoing companion, though we never watched a film together. I felt her taste, like mine, could not be boxed. We could go from making Venn diagrams for blind items to yawning at Martin Scorsese's The Irishman ("such an irritatingly indulgent movie”) as swiftly as waxing eloquent about a tiny German production with a big heart to gossiping about a top Bollywood actor who now looks like a "Photoshopped robot".
She had a clear distinction between the films she could admire and the films she loved. She once told me she could marvel at the craft of a film but felt disgusted by the red-tinted frames used for effect because they looked like a "paan-stained wall". Similarly, when I asked her if she watched Tumbbad, she said she liked it but "there was too much rain so could not see much." Or another recent instance of a streaming show, laced with incessant intimate scenes, where she declared she could not "take another heavy grunting scene in dim light".
For her, film watching and reading as an exercise, revealed much more about the watcher than the maker. That is why she never felt cut out as a film reviewer herself, and often confessed her stint in film journalism was an "aberration in her career." But when I asked her if it was right to acknowledge my biases in a review, she would say, simply yet sternly, with a shrug of her shoulders, "As long as you can justify them, sure!"
Add more life to your writing
Of the dozens of my articles that she read, she found those outside of film writing the most fascinating. Again, that could say a lot more about her perspective more than my inclination. But she always encouraged me to "go out and find your own stories now". She considered film writing to be a derivative style as opposed to say, travel writing. I am not sure I would agree completely but I did endorse her view that experiencing more of life would definitely add more to the writing, film or otherwise.
When I told her during the lockdown that I could not retain the same quantity of frequency of writing, she reassured me that taking a step back always gives one a better vantage point. "Don't waste your youth on so much work!" When I added that I cannot really go out and party during lockdown, she responded with suspicion, "But there's more to youth than just partying no? Go, smell a rose, or a mogra maybe." The event she would look forward to the most across the year would be her annual pilgrimage to Sanjay Gandhi National Park in order to appreciate first-hand the bloom of a certain species of seasonal flower.
I am sure the determination to find organic beauty in the remotest corners of difficult terrains translated into her writing, her teaching, and definitely the full-bodied smile that lit up every room. I will picture that smile, and all the learnings from her, in every flower that I get to see bloom, every blind item I get to the bottom of, and every article I manage to not start with a quote. Yes, life is too short to correct typos, but in the memory of Shashi Baliga, let me give this a once over.
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