Ophelie Wiel on her new book on Hindi cinema, why Bollywood lacks global appeal, sexism in the industry
French writer and film scholar Ophelie Wiel's book Rendezvous with Hindi Cinema takes the reader to Bollywood's backstage. In a series of 20 interviews conducted with many well-known and lesser-known names from Indian cinema, Wiel paints a holistic picture of modern-day Bollywood that seemingly accommodates insiders and outliers alike.
French writer and film scholar Ophelie Wiel's book Rendezvous with Hindi Cinema takes the reader to Bollywood's backstage
The book contains 20 interviews with people working in different capacities in the Hindi film industry
The first Hindi film Wiel watched while in France was Devdas, back in 2003
At its best, the Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, is a land of endless promises; at its worst, an undemocratic space characterised by nepotism and prejudice. Unravelling the elusive middle-path is French writer and film scholar Ophelie Wiel, whose recent book, Rendezvous with Hindi Cinema, transports the reader to Bollywood's backstage.
In a series of 20 interviews conducted with many well-known names in Indian cinema — including music composer Sneha Khanwalkar, directors Dibakar Banerjee and Onir, film critic Mayank Shekhar, casting director Atul Mongia, writer Anjum Rajabali, actresses Kalki Koechlin and Richa Chadha, among others — Wiel paints a holistic picture of modern-day Bollywood that seemingly accommodates insiders and outliers alike.
However, what stands out is her dedication to telling the lesser-known, 'behind-the-scenes' stories from the industry — ones that silently keep the machine running — through the voices of technicians, heads of major production houses, a former CEO of the certification board, and directors committing to difficult subjects.
In an interview with Firstpost, Ophelie Wiel talks about why Hindi cinema still doesn't have a significant global presence, her love for Bollywood, and how gender parity at work continues to be a joke across the world.
When and why did you decide to explore more of Bollywood, and subsequently, move to Mumbai?
I saw Devdas by pure chance in 2003. A friend of mine, who was a big fan of musicals like me, asked me whether I would like to go watch it with her at the theatre in Lille, the city where I was studying. I knew nothing about this film or where it came from, only that there was music and dance in the movie – something I’ve always loved. And I fell in love with the whole experience, I was amazed that even as a movie-buff, I had never heard of an industry which had so many fans around the globe and made so many films! I started to watch whichever Indian movie I could find (mostly pirated DVDs, since most Indian movies didn’t get a release in France). I worked in Italy for the Florence Indian Film Festival, discovered even more Indian films from all parts of India, and then decided I wanted to write about it, since there was not much to find, even in France, the country where film criticism is like a religion. In 2005 I went to India for a month, did my research, fell in love with the country, and then for four years, I went back and forth until I could find a job in Mumbai, working as a teacher. That’s when my first book about Indian cinema happened. It was published in 2011. I used to say that at the end, this was all because of Shah Rukh Khan.
What factors did you consider while choosing your interviewees? You mention in your introduction that quite a few of them weren't planned or predetermined. Why?
The book was meant to be a 'behind-the-scenes' type of book. It was not supposed to be about big names or celebrities, but about professions, about craft, about the very people who make Hindi movies. People behind, more than in front of the camera. So I first made a list of professions which I was interested in (DOP, editor, scriptwriter, etc.), and then I tried to find a person who would represent each profession best – keeping in mind that I didn’t want my book to be about commercial cinema, about 'Bollywood' only, but more about a new kind of cinema, a more urban cinema which is being made in Mumbai since about 2005. I asked my connections for names, and they gave contacts to me. Dibakar Banerjee was the one who helped most, especially since he keeps working with the same people who also work for directors like Anurag Kashyap. At the end, and again, by pure chance, I think I got quite a wide range of personalities. I loved it.
As someone from outside India, how would you assess the significance the Hindi film industry holds for global cinema, at present?
Unfortunately, from where I stand – and by this I mean the Western world – the Hindi film industry doesn’t hold much significance, mostly because it is not being watched, even in festivals. You will find a few Indian films in festivals like Toronto or Berlin, but you will hardly find a movie-buff in Europe who would be able to give you the names of 10 Indian films he has seen in his life. People are still confused about Indian cinema and Bollywood, like Bollywood is usually seen as representative of Indian cinema (nobody knows about Tamil, Bengali or Malayalam cinema). And it’s still seen as a second-grade kind of cinema.
From the perspective of countries in Asia or in Africa, I am pretty sure the influence of the Hindi film industry is quite different. Immigrants coming from North Africa into France, for instance, are used to watching Bollywood with Arabic subtitles. And when SRK came to France in 2004 for Veer-Zaara, the fans waiting for him on the Champs Elysées were mostly from countries like Morocco, Egypt or Algeria.
What did you think were some of the most astonishing revelations about the Hindi film industry that emerged during your research for the book, and otherwise?
I was really interested in understanding the big debate on censorship: was it really more than just films’ classification, like what happens even in countries like France or the US ? When I met with Pankaja Thakur, who was at the time the head of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), she had really interesting answers for whoever had complaints about film censorship in India. Till now, I am not completely sure that the state’s censorship has been so terrible these last few years (except for films dealing with homosexuality, which is still such a taboo, hence my two interviews with people who have been trying to deal with this specific taboo — filmmakers Onir and Sridhar Rangayan). I don’t think anyone can say film 'censorship' in India is as bad as the Hays Code was in Hollywood in the 30s. Sometimes, I feel this is an excuse directors in Hindi cinema use not to tackle important subjects. See, Tamil cinema is very much about politics, they are films with a strong message and they don’t care if they need to show violence to convey this message. It seems they are not being censored. Potential censorship should never be an excuse not to fight the important fights.
There's a significant number of female voices in your book. You write in your introduction: "...I discovered that in more than half the interviews, what emerged were very powerful female voices. Though I had not consciously evoked these voices, I am proud to think that perhaps this is, in a way, India's answer for how poorly it comes across to the rest of the world in regards to the condition of its women." Do you feel there have been significant positive developments in terms of gender parity in the Hindi film industry in recent times? What are your observations on the issue?
No, the change is definitely not significant enough today, be it in India or in another country. Speaking only about the film industry (because I don’t know much about the problems women face in lower classes or in villages, and I am pretty sure they are 10 times worse), I came across a lot of sexism and borderline sexual innuendos when I was working with people in the film industry. Probably because I was a foreigner, and a journalist, it never went really far with me (though I have my share of stories) but I heard so many stories from other women! Thing is (and it’s like that everywhere — look at the movement surrounding Weinstein), everybody knows who the sexual predators are, but people are scared to give out their names publicly – scared of not being believed, scared of losing work, or their reputation, scared of being bullied – and so, apart from very few of them, these men (and women sometimes!) will happily continue doing what they do until mentalities really change, meaning until we really educate boys to respect girls as their equals.
And gender parity is still a joke everywhere in the world. Women have to work twice as hard as men. Still, I think Indian women are being really brave, and are doing quite well for themselves (look at all these female directors, even in commercial cinema — Aparna Sen, Konkona Sen Sharma, Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar). It was important for me to not only show their strength in my book, but also show that women shouldn’t be treated differently because they are women. Their work shouldn’t be watched differently because it has been made by women. Basically, a perfect world would be a world where gender is not an issue, but just a fact.
Could you share any interesting anecdotes or aspects from any of the interviews you conducted that didn't make it to the book? Something that is telling of the Hindi film industry and the way it operates.
Every interview I conducted made it to the book, and I didn’t even cut one sentence from my interviewees. Still, to answer your question – and I don’t know whether it is interesting per se – but I really wanted to have an interview with a choreographer. Dance has always been so important in Hindi movies, and it really was one of the elements of the famous 'Bollywood formula' that made me love those movies. I got various contacts, with some of the biggest names. All of them declined the interview. Sometimes, they didn’t even bother to answer. Talking to some friends about it, they told me that choreographers are usually quite arrogant and they were not surprised I couldn’t get through to them. I didn’t want to beg, so I gave up on the idea, especially since I had already come across a lot of arrogance in Bollywood, and I couldn’t be bothered to face more.
Another interview which I would have loved to make was with Anand Patwardhan, about documentary filmmaking. He very nicely met me and gave me all his films to watch, but then told me that he had been interviewed so many times he didn’t care to be interviewed once more. Anyway it eventually became a good thing, since I got this amazing interview with another documentary filmmaker, Nishtha Jain.
Which Indian films (not necessarily in Hindi) have left a lasting impression on you?
So many! But if I have to pick just a few of them, I would say, Devdas, obviously, since it was the film which made me come to India. Afterwards, I discovered Bengali movies, and I have to say Mr and Mrs Iyer by Aparna Sen and Subarnarekha by Ritwik Ghatak are my all-time favourites. From the Hindi classics, I am really fond of Raj Kapoor, and Guru Dutt made me cry more than once, especially in Kaagaz Ke Phool with the wonderful Waheeda Rehman. Last but not least, I am a big fan of Mani Ratnam, but in Tamil cinema, I think I will never forget Paruthiveeran with one of the best and strongest Indian heroines I ever saw.
Why do you think the next 10 years are crucial for the Hindi film industry? Do you believe streaming platforms have changed the content game for Bollywood in any way?
There have been a lot of changes in the Hindi film industry since 2005, but whether it is going one way or the other, is really difficult to predict. Everybody I met kind of predicted the death of the Bollywood formula, but sometimes it seems to me it is only a few details which are being changed (like no one is going to Switzerland to dance on a mountain anymore), but the spirit is the same – which is not really a problem for me, I think all kinds of cinema should co-exist. But it also seems some directors, who claimed they wanted to make a change when they began their career, are quite happy with the way things are, now that they are famous. Ten years ago, I really believed Hindi cinema would be watched in all festivals by now; the viewership has definitely increased, but it is still so small (I am talking about the festival circuit obviously). Hindi cinema is not getting the respect Korean cinema, for instance, is getting. Can we really imagine an Indian film getting the Palme d’Or at Cannes in the years to come?
As for streaming platforms, they could have been a game-changing innovation, and I was especially amazed at the beginning with all the web-series which were being made. It seemed they had more freedom, content-wise especially, and that they were tackling the day-to-day life in India and the urban youth. The quantity has been there (so many web-series and now films, with Amazon or Netflix, are being made nowadays), but the quality, in my opinion, is still missing. Everything I watched on those platforms was so bad. I haven’t watched Sacred Games yet though...
Finally, what about the Hindi film industry do you like the most?
The people, definitely. Without them, I wouldn’t love Indian cinema, and I wouldn’t love India.
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