Sorry, this is going to be a lot of me-me-me, but it will also be a little bit of a discussion of the responsibility of public writing and education and stuff. So that will be fun! Oh, and it will answer a question that a lot of people have been asking me lately.
When I was in Kindergarten, Mrs. Cunningham asked the class if anyone knew what day it was. I raised my hand and said it was Tuesday. And she said (no doubt very kindly, Mrs. Cunningham was a wonderful teacher), that was wrong it was Monday. And I thought “well, that feels horrible! I won’t talk in class ever again.”
Which was a system I kept up from age 5 to 30, kindergarten through grad school. Kind of. My rule was, the teacher would ask a question, and I would wait and wait and wait for someone else to answer. And if no one else did, then I would answer to the best of my abilities, being careful to limit my answer to only the things I was really really sure about. It’s not that I am embarrassed or don’t like to appear foolish, I’ve never been shy or easy to embarrass. But I hate the feeling that I am wasting other people’s time by spreading misinformation. It’s that I would rather learn from others who know more than me, I don’t want to put more ignorance out into the world. If no one else is talking about something, then it is my responsibility to do the best I can to fill in the gap. But if someone else is talking and saying intelligent things, then better to be silent so their voice can be heard.
(Mrs. Cunningham and Waheeda Rahman, very similar)
14 years after the scarring kindergarten experience, I went to a theater and saw Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and fell in love with Hindi film. Coincidentally, I saw Kandukondain Kandukondain the next day. If I had seen it first and fallen in love with Tamil cinema 14 years ago, this would be a very different post.
(Happy Birthday to AR Rahman again!)
I was at college, which meant I had a lot of resources at my fingertips, starting with my friends. All of them were desi, literally all of them, and they all knew something about Hindi film. Whether they were Punjabi heritage (like my best friend) or Telugu (like my roommate) or Gujurati (like my other roommate). Hindi film was common ground. So they told me what movies to watch and what websites to read and the things like Salman Khan used to date Aishwarya Rai or there was a rumor that Dimple was Raj and Nargis’ illegitimate child.
I also had the college library at my disposal. Where I could get good real writing on Indian film, not FilmFare magazine type trash but serious research and analysis. There wasn’t much of it, but what there was, I read. That’s part of the reason I have a soft spot for Anupama Chopra. Before her whole media empire was founded, she was just a really really good serious journalist who wrote about Indian film, one of the first.
(One of the first books I read on Indian film, and one of the first serious film books I read at all. And then I went on to read every single book in the British Film Institute series that my college library had)
After college, I kept up with the new releases and the news. And I kept reading serious books too, my first trip to India I cleared out the bookstores of everything I could find. a history of censorship, making of Sholay, so many many histories of the industry. Oh, and a book on Helen, which was AWESOME.
Finally, 4 years after college, I went back to grad school in film studies. I didn’t learn anything new about Hindi film directly (I knew more about the Hindi film industry than any of my teachers), but I learned how to properly watch films and analyze them and write about them and read about them. And in most classes I was able to choose my topic for my final paper, which allowed me to dedicate the last 4 weeks of class to researching a Hindi related topic. I spent 6 years in grad school (because I was working full time, so it took me longer). And that whole time I was reading every single book and journal article and everything else I could get my hands on related to Hindi film.
I finished grad school with a Masters thesis based on original research into Hindi film fans who are not South Asian heritage. As part of that, I read all the major blogs written by non-Indian fans, and interviewed all the bloggers. They are all delightful intelligent original people, I want them all to be my best friends! But reading their blogs made me start feeling like maybe I had something to contribute to the conversation, maybe “raising my hand” in this case would not be a waste of everyone’s time.
And so I started thinking about writing a book. Not a big academic text, there are people who have more worthwhile things to say writing those (read Ganti and Rosie Thomas, I have nothing close to offer to what they have). But maybe a kind of introductory text, something for people like the ones I interviewed for my thesis, who are new to the films, total outsiders, and trying to find their way.
(This book. You can buy it here)
I wrote my book after 10 years of dedicated study of the films going all the way back to college. Including Indian sociology and history classes, reading religious texts, learning everything I could about everything I could related to Hindi Film. And the book itself taught me a lot more. I had a wonderful editor who forced me to back up with footnotes every single claim. It made me go back into my bookshelf and my DVD shelf and justify everything I thought, and clarified my thoughts. And that is what made me think I could start blogging, writing about Hindi film. Because it felt like, finally, I had enough knowledge behind me to make it worthwhile.
The internet is full of kindergartners raising their hands and guessing on the day of the week. I feel I have a moral obligation not to join that crowd and, at the same time, to do everything I can to provide real true answers on the subjects I actually know. So I will write as best I can about the topics that I feel I can provide something valuable to the world by talking about, but I will not write on things I just simply do not know enough to talk about.
It’s not always obvious, I mean, I’m not going to sit down and list out “these are all the things I know!”, but it’s there in the background, especially on 101 and news posts. My post on Kangana and Hrithik, for instance. My discussion of the situation drew on gossip about Hrithik I had heard from my friends all the way back in college, things I learned about mental health and class in India from sociology and religion seminars, my own following of this news story and Kangana and Hrithik’s respective careers since college, a whole massive decades worth of background data. Which made me feel absolutely totally confident that what I was saying was reliable, useful, and original.
(12 years ago my roommate came back from break talking about Kangana in Gangster, and I’ve been tracking her ever since)
Most often I use my knowledge to decide what I DON’T want to say. My news posts, for instance, I read a lot more news items than the ones I discuss here. But a lot of them, in my informed opinion, are not worth talking about. At least, not the kind of thing I want to talk about here. In a film review, I will pick and choose which examples to reference and which to discard, I will select which Hindi film is worthy of a Film Classics review, I will pick which facts to mention in a birthday post about someone, and so on and so forth. It’s invisible knowledge, to you, but it does make this a more useful source than other websites might be.
And that is also why I am cautious about, for instance, doing a “best of 2017” post related to southern industries. I don’t know what to include and, much more importantly, what to exclude. I only know the few things I have happened to watch. And I am not going to contribute to a slanted view of the industries and general ill-informed opinions by pretending that I have any ability to host a forum on that topic. I have only been watching these movies for two and a half years, only tracking the industry and reading background texts and so on and so on for the same length of time.
Two years ago, moviemavengal/Pardesi told be I HAD to watch Bahubali. And then she told me I HAD to watch OK Kanmani and Ohm Shanthi Oshaana and Bangalore Days. I had resisted seeing any films outside of Hindi films because I knew it would be the start of another ten year commitment. I take movies seriously. If I start watching, seriously watching, films from a particular industry, it means I will want to learn everything about that industry. Absolutely positively everything.
(I watch this movie, and I enjoy it, but I also immediately want to know EVERYTHING about all of these actors, their families, their mentors, also the director, also any films that may have influenced it, also the changing face of Bangalore today, also the interaction between Kerala and Bangalore, also all the other things I don’t even know enough to want to know about)
It’s been 2 years since I started watching southern films and I feel like I have learned about 4% of what I need to know to feel modestly educated in them. I can write about individual movies, so long as I keep my focus closely tied to what I am actually seeing onscreen and what it is saying to me. And I feel an obligation to write about individual movies. There are very few people on the Internet or off of it who are writing close careful interpretations of films from these industries.
But if you want more general discussion, if you want history posts or news stories or anything like that, let me direct you elsewhere, to the other kids in class who are better able to answer those questions: Bhardwaj Rangan and Anna Vetticad. They are the ones you should be reading, not me. I know nothing. I won’t know anything for at least another two years, maybe longer.
I hope you will help me keep learning though! Tell me things in the comments, answer my questions, make recommendations. I am reading and watching and doing everything I can in whatever free time I have and trying to get better.