I feel like DCIB as a whole has Feelings on this topic. More Feelings than is, necessarily, logical and expected when talking about a film reviewer/writer. But that is why we come together, to share our Feelings-with-a-capital-F about topics that really make no sense to have feelings about.
Anupama! Let me quickly run through her biography highlights. Born to a film adjacent family (her Mom wrote some scripts, her sister directed), she graduated college and started working for a film magazine in Bombay. It was a silly fun starter job, she went on set with a bunch of other media folks, chatted with stars, wrote up silly little stories. And then she applied for graduate school in America and came to Northwestern to study Journalism. I happen to know, thanks to Northwestern being a Chicago area school, that it has one of the best Journalism programs in the world. A Masters in Journalism from Northwestern really really means something.
Anupama could have done almost anything with that degree. And what she chose to do was move back to Bombay and try to write seriously about the film industry. She was one of the first, if you read her early stuff (First Day, First Show is a nice collection) it’s very impressive. Yes, she is just doing an interview with a movie star. But she sets the stage for the interview, she asks penetrating questions, she draws out really good quotes, and the end result is an article that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.
She managed to start getting some recognition, which led to her first 3 books, boom boom boom, all of them just EXCELLENT and all of them similar. She wrote about Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange for the British Film Institute, she combined really good journalism (tracking down interviews, paperwork, all kinds of research) with a solid analysis of the text of the film itself. My favorite of her early books is the one on Sholay, which is almost entirely a historical account of the film with very little textual analysis. She did an amazing job creating the story of the creation of the film, talking with everyone she could about the experience, piecing together a timeline and just making you feel like you were there from the inception of the idea to the day it released in theaters.
And then there is her Shahrukh biography. It truly is the best book on him. She had unprecedented access thanks to their long friendship (she first met/interviewed him back in her early post-college days when his career was just beginning). And she combined his long family stories with hardcore research, talking to other people, finding photographs, confirming what she was told, and then finally pulling it all together into a logical book that moves along in a clear way so you don’t feel lost.
Anupama was hitting her stride in her career and really taking off in the early 2000s, the era when Hindi film was riding high and culturally respected all of a sudden both at home and abroad. She wasn’t the only writer seriously working on it in that era, but she was the one with the most access (thanks to her film media background), and I honestly think she is just the best WRITER of all of them. Well, maybe tied with Tejaswani Ganti.
And then she got a TV show where she did interviews, and then was given funding for her Film Companion website. At the same time, Hindi film began to fall out of favor. The craze was over in the West, it was no longer the hip cool thing, just one of many funky options. And in India itself, as the liberalization of the economy and the arrival of the multiplex and DVDs lead to more and more foreign films being available, suddenly Hindi film was no longer “cool” to treat seriously.
If you come to Anupama Chopra now, you will know her as the reviewer who tears down popular film, who calls out hypocrisy and poor quality, who runs a website that consistently rips into every new release. And as a public figure who tends to do quick videos and uncut interviews, rather than a writer.
What breaks my heart is that Anupama was one of the first to be serious about Hindi film! Her early writing is gorgeous, conveying the importance of popular media to a culture, and treating with respect the goals of the films for what they are. And now, somehow, she has turned into the standard barer (sp?) for tearing down popular film. Her website employees, her own interviews and reviews, suddenly they are all scornful, dismissive, unhappy. The pure joy is gone.
It is most apparent in her writing. Her early stuff is almost like poetry. You can see how her feelings for these movies just swept her away and inspired her. And now, it is so empty. There’s no inspiration, no joy, it’s all gone.
I find Anupama fascinating in many ways. As a writer, what happens when the spirit leaves your writing. As a representative of the Bombay intellectual community, the embrace of Hindi film followed by the rejection over the past 20 years. As a cautionary tale, when you try to achieve perfect objectivity and end up losing your own beliefs. Or just as an interesting story of how people change as they age and lose their youthful fire.
What do you think?
I have so many feelings. You’ve articulated many of them beautifully, but just to add, it’s as if her western training overtook her at some point, like when people who were never religious ‘find god’ as they age. They want some clear boundaries and safety so they revert to finding a box to be in (no offense to anyone religious.) And for her I’m not suggesting it’s about age but more about seeing herself as ‘serious.’
To me the joy of film, especially Hindi film, is in its emotions, not in the perfection of the craft of storytelling. When the two come together, I think it’s magic…but why compare every romance novel to Shakespeare? Or every story of youth to Huckleberry Finn? I think she’s bought into the idea that India can’t produce anything of value so she can’t see anything of value. I find this longing for the ‘good old days’ boring.
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Yes! It feels like some sort of function of aging. When she was young, she forged her own path and went her own way and experimented. But now somehow it feels like she is less willing to take a risk, less willing to follow her heart. And she is rewarded with a different kind of success. Film Companion makes her a respected power with employees and stuff. She is a bit of a celebrity in her own right now. I don’t think that could have happened when she was out there saying “DDLJ is a feminist film” against everyone else who said “it’s just pop culture, why take it seriously?” Now she is going with the flow instead of against it and suddenly has become the “establishment” she used to be fighting.
One other thing I find interesting about her is that she doesn’t actually have film criticism credentials. Which is TOTALLY FINE. I think you can ABSOLUTELY be a self-taught film critic. But it means, perhaps, when she is challenged in her opinions she is less secure. Does that make sense? Ganti (my other fave) could totally own anyone who tries to say that Indian popular film has no merit because she’s got a cultural ethnography background. But Chopra is coming from journalism, she certainly has ideas and can write them well, but maybe feels less confident if someone else tells her she is wrong in terms of film analysis.
On Tue, Feb 23, 2021 at 12:43 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Growin up I always like her reviews. I remember they would come out every Saturday morning in one newspaper and I would search through the pile to find her. She was very good and funny.
I also really like her interviews on film companion. Her connections with the industry make the people more comfortable….they seem to share much more than they would in other interviews…it’s like listening to a drawing room conversation…I just really like her style…
But I do agree with you about her film companion reviews…I used to love her reviews but more and more find them blah…mostly negative and not very insightful anymore…maybe that’s a function of the audience change? Earlier her reviews were in a national newspaper…a broad audience read them so she was talking to people who would go see a Salman movie…now it’s a niche YouTube video…the viewers are watching Netflix…so she has to change her reviews for the audience?
Good point about the audience, feels like a lot of media has gone through that specialization process. There are only a handful of outlets that got to stay massy.
Also agree about her interviews, they’re almost always my favorites. She’s even found ways to make some of those catchy bit videos into interesting content, like going over famous moments in different films in an actor or director’s career.
I wonder if part of what comes through in her reviews now is disappointment – not because the films are all disappointing but because she thought she was helping to craft a story of where Hindi film was going, and then it didn’t end up going where she thought it would?
But is that disappointment with the films, or disappointment because nothing is ever as good as it was when you were young? Or because you think of what was there when you were young as the best possible option somehow?
I’m not saying this right. But I know it’s something I have to guard against in my own writing. I want to say that I loved Main Hoon Na and it was brilliant and original and wonderful, and Happy New Year is a travesty. But that’s not true. Main Hoon Na had loads of flaws that I was too blind to see when I first watched it. And Happy New Year has loads of good bits that I could have missed if I just focused on what I didn’t like. Ultimately I can still judge Main Hoon Na to be the superior film, but I shouldn’t say “Happy New Year was a vast disappointment, nothing like Main Hoon Na” because that’s not true. It was nothing like my experience of Main Hoon Na, because I was older and I had seen more films, and I had seen more films that did things similar to what Main Hoon Na did, and so on and so forth. But I have to realize that my personal feelings towards the movies mean nothing.
And what makes it worse is that, I think, she has also ended up specializing a bit in who she works with. Where is the young person who will challenge her and say “you loved DDLJ, I think Humpty Sharma is even better, and I know it was more important in my life”? Or the older person who says “I was writing Hindi language reviews of Mithun Chakraborty movies when you were still in school, there is valid stuff from the past that still relates to today”. Instead what seems to be left is Anupama saying “90s are tops” and no one else defending any other era, including today.
I was thinking about disappointment more in the sense that probably earlier in her career it felt like Hindi film was on this inexorable path towards higher production quality and finally getting international recognition and prestige, that it would take its place in the world cinematic pantheon, and her writing was helping to validate it with that wider audience. Only what happened turned out to be more complicated. It does have a broader audience, but not the prestige that might have seemed on the cusp of being bestowed in the days of Lagaan and Devdas and My Name Is Khan. So she’s left in a world where the markers of success that seemed so close – mass release in cinemas, award nominations – are farther away than they were before (because of larger structural changes affecting movies everywhere) while at the same time Indian films are having to compete more at home against the international films she was always kind of measuring them against. And because of the splintering of the audience, the Indian industries are mostly producing either massy films or “prestige” films for the multiplexes, they’ve lost that sweet spot from earlier times where an ambitious film would also reach for mass appeal. I feel like she’s still looking for the movie (or star or director) that will cross over like Almodóvar or Guillermo del Toro or Bong Joon-ho. She was supposed to be the guide who helped get them there, and instead she’s got this website for fractious online cinephiles.
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Oh, that is really interesting!!!
Because the other part of it is, Indian film has crossed over, but the markers she was anticipating/looking for have faded. So, she’s really big on the Mumbai film festival, which is supposed to be training ground for other festivals and international awards and so on and so forth. But she’s missing that Made in Heaven is a massive hit on streaming, including a bit of crossover. So what she might be seeing as loss and disappointment and an impossible challenge, is because she is behind the curve on her goals.
Which would go back to her website then, she is angry because the cinematic releases in India are not the kind of thing that will win an Oscar. But she is ignoring that they ARE the kind of thing that gets streaming buzz. There isn’t a crossover top star like SRK, but there are more and more crossover character actors. And so on and so forth.
On Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 8:29 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Another thought, maybe it’s because she’s just too busy?
When she first formulated her theories of film and concept of the industry, she was sitting back and taking the long view and writing books and things. Now, she is doing a million little short pieces and running a website and she hasn’t really sat down and taken the time to look at where Indian film is today and how it got there and why. She’s still running behind trying to fit her original theory onto a new world.
Does that make sense?
I’m sure she’s busy, but I’m also sure she could make time or create space in her schedule if she wanted to write another book, or take a sabbatical to think. I think it’s genuinely disorienting to figure out what the story is right now or try to peer into the future. Agreed that Indian films are succeeding in this new terrain in many ways. But I wonder what it’s like when you look at film as an industry – in India and on the festival circuit – and you see all the people. Do you know what I mean? When you know a world closely enough that it’s not abstract anymore, you think of all the individuals and the work they do. Like if I think “church”, I think of some buildings in my neighborhood, but you probably think of all the folks in your community and how they keep everything running. When that’s how you see a world, it makes navigating changes different because you’re thinking about what the people are going to do. So it’s not oh look, Made in Heaven is a huge success on streaming, it’s where do Shah Rukh or Imtiaz fit in this new world and how do they make enough money to keep paying all the people who work for them? Or maybe Netflix says X movie got a ton of views, but what does that really mean compared to the Mumbai festival path that might get you in front of important people who can support a director’s career over time and help get their movies made? You see what I’m trying to say? The new markers of success have to prove themselves capable of sustaining the ecosystem.
I absolutely know what you mean! That’s why I am happy to be a humble blogger. I can say “so-and-so’s career is in the trash” or “well, that was a stupid movie” and not feel anything about it. But for Anupama, she has to balance being right there in the industry, with trying to take a larger view and consider it.
Or I should say, she doesn’t “have” to. She had a longer view, that’s what made her special. But if she is confused and unclear as to what is happening now, she could always dump her longer view and go back to micro-view. Forget JHMS in the context of Shahrukh’s career and previous rom-coms and all of that. Just look at it as a movie in isolation without trying to draw anything larger in. I’m not saying that’s a better way to write about film, but if you feel lost in the bigger context, than maybe accept that you are lost and move back to very small ideas.
On Thu, Feb 25, 2021 at 12:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I can see that. And I would add, from my own experience, that the audience you are picturing in your head can also add or remove pleasure from the writing itself. When I am writing for an imaginary audience that I really like, I am relaxed and happy and joyful. When I am writing for an imaginary audience that makes me nervous, or I worry about judging me, everything tightens up.
Aah I definitely see that…younger me just enjoyed the silly film more…we can be more forgiving of the films of the youth…
But as a counterpoint – is there any critic who does enjoy the popular movies of today? You have Taran Adarsh ratings which are nonsense…and then KRK? I can’t think of any real critic…
Well, there’s ME!!!! And also I think Raja Sen and Bhardwaj Ranjan are pretty even handed. You have critics like them who are critical (as they are supposed to be) and whole heartedly praise a rare film, while picking out flaws and good points of most other films. And then you have hundreds of critics who only talk about the flaws. And, as you say, a few silly critics who only praise.
A critic’s job, I think, shouldn’t be to say “all films are terrible now”. Assume that if folks are reading your reviews, they like movies and want to see a movie in the theater. They want you to tell them what of the current films that are in theaters they might enjoy. They don’t need to hear “stop going to theaters, everything is horrible, stay home and watch Casablanca”. It’s one thing if you are writing a book, but it’s something else if you are providing new weekly reviews. People want to hear about what is playing now and what they might like, that’s why they read the reviews.
On Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 7:10 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
You are my favorite movie critic and I really miss reading more Indian film reviews by you. But also want you to continue taking care of your mental health.
Awww, thank you!!!!
Thinking about Anupama confirmed for me how right I was to slow down. I don’t want to burn out like her, I don’t want to start hating everything I see, I want to slow down and reflect for a bit and pick and choose.
Now we are in “don’t get me started territory. When I first started watching Hindi film I read her book, watched her show and generally thought she was who to listen to. Then she would do these in depth interviews and people like Shah Rukh and Anushka would give her GREAT stuff and then she would UNNECESSARILY pan the film. If a film isn’t dark or edgy or centered on a woman its bad. Jab Harry Met Sejal did NOT deserve the review she gave it. She has become so enamored of western film that she can’t see Hindi film clearly. All this sh– about nepotism and her husband is a major producer…please….she drives me crazy!!
Only thing I disagree about is the “centered on a woman” part. Because she’s panned those movies too! They have to be centered on a woman in the way she wants them to be centered on a woman. Not a fun happy romp movie with a female lead, no, it has to be serious and intense and depressing with a message.
Also, I agree with you about the nepotism, but in the Margaret way of “I don’t even mind nepotism! I think she is a better writer/journalist because of her connections” way. It’s not the nepotism that bothers me at all, it’s the hypocrisy about it, pretending she hasn’t benefited, that she is an “outsider” despite being raised in the industry.
Oh, and her lack of gratitude to Shah Rukh galls me. The book she wrote on DDLJ (which would not be what it is without him) and her book on him MADE her. HIS INTERVIEWS WERE WAY BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE. she then turns around and misses the point of JHMS and Fan. Doesn’t see his performance for what it is. Meanwhile praising Kangana whose “:great films” Manu..werent that good. I hope he NEVER lets her interview him again.