Cinema in a nutshell

Bhawana Somaaya has been a film journalist actively writing about Hindi cinema for the past three decades. Talking Cinema is her 12th book, and is a collection of her interviews with leading figures of Indian cinema between 1993 and 2005. Somaaya’s preface indicates that she wanted to recapture milestone moments with actors and filmmakers in the centenary year of Indian cinema. She says that the conversations “reflect an era and a mindset…a phase when the old, leisurely way of doing things was giving way to corporatisation of cinema, when promotions did not yet determine content and entertainment was not limited to a marketing exercise…”

Since none of the interviews are less than 10 years old, one would have thought that they would seem dated. Surprisingly, except for very specific instances, (like Shah Rukh Khan’s interview in 2005, where he talks of the media hounding him after the Sri Lanka tour, one can’t quite remember today what it was about), the vintage of the interviews does not seem to matter. The footnote on the bottom of every chapter indicates when the interview was carried out, and what the director/actor’s last release was.

Initially, I wondered what I was doing reading such ancient interviews (like Waheeda Rehman’s interview in 2000, prior to the release of Om Jai Jagadish two years later, or Mani Ratnam’s in 2004, before the release of Yuva, to name just two) but I found it mattered little. The thoughts expressed by the personalities remain interesting, and in fact serve as a sort of a record of what they said at the time. Looking back at them today in 2013 makes for an interesting comparison of how far the individuals have travelled.

I must also hasten to add that for a film-buff like myself, any material on films, actors and directors is always attractive, and needs no justification. That the writer is well known, grasps subtle nuances during interviews, and doesn’t impose herself on the interviewee is an added bonus. The attitude right through is of a knowledgeable and good listener, which is what a first-rate journalist ought to be. And nowhere is there any attempt to self-aggrandise herself, which is refreshing in today’s era, where most people want to thump their chests and shout from the rooftops about how knowledgeable they are.

The interviews have been categorised into four distinct sections. The first set is made up of interviews with actors of a more general nature, and it becomes more specific as the book travels along. You have actors speaking on roles or projects, directors speaking their minds on the eve of a release, and the last one with icons like Yash Chopra on love, Shyam Benegal on women, Amitabh Bachchan on cops (interestingly, he played a policeman 15 times), A R Rahman on compositions, and Rekha on courtesans (of the 18 roles she played as courtesan in her over a 100-film career, she played two memorable ones in Muqaddar ka Sikandar and Umrao Jaan).

Interesting titbits in this last section, like Rekha on her experience in Utsav (which film-enthusiasts will remember was Rekha at her memorable best), where she says nobody from the “so-called art-house cinema community” deemed it fit to educate her on the relevant literature of Mrichchakatikam, from which Utsav was adapted.

The section on very specific topics, like Amitabh Bachchan on Dev and Black (Amitabh appears thrice in this book), Kirron Kher on Khamosh Pani, and Ajay Devgn on Company and The Legend of Bhagat Singh, to name just a few, is very absorbing.

There are many memorable glimpses into the thought processes of many stalwarts in this collection of interviews. Shabana Azmi’s interview with her memories of her father Kaifi Azmi, and her journey from being an actor to being a crusader on many social issues; or the late Hrishikesh Mukherji’s views on the middle class that has disappeared from films; or Gulzar’s thoughts on his long journey in films — it makes for interesting reading.

Relatively younger directors are also included — like Raj Kumar Santoshi, Vishal Bharadwaj and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Shekhar Kapur’s dated interview, post Bandit Queen’s release in 1994, reveals his state of mind at the time, and perhaps should be seen in the context of the book appearing during the centenary of Hindi cinema.

This is definitely a book for the shelf of a film enthusiast, and one can easily read and re-read some sections. I only wish Somaaya, who shows herself to be such an astute student of cinema in her preface, had dwelt at length on each of the characters she has interviewed and her assessments of their journeys. But, after over 30 years as a film critic, she is perhaps keeping that in reserve for a future publication. One can only hope it happens soon.  

Talking Cinema
Bhawana Somaaya
Harper Collins
2013, pp 304

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