She is passionate about Hindi movies, be it the classic “Sholay” (a ‘ perfect film') or the rather disastrous “Kambakth Ishq”, which she drove miles to see when holidaying in the U.S. because she had serious withdrawal from the song-and-dance routine she is addicted to. For many years now Anupama Chopra has been expressing this passion through reviews, articles, interviews and so much more, as a film journalist and writer. She has compiled a number of these articles, written for India Today, Variety, the New York Times, LA Times, NDTV (from her popular review show, Picture This) and more in her latest book, First Day First Show. This is her fourth, after Sholay: The Making of a Classic, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.
Chopra says about her latest, “The idea was to sort of create a way to see the history of modern Bollywood, because it has evolved so much from when I started; 1993 to 2011; it's another world now. We wanted to record that change. The articles are not chosen for being the best written, but for being a snapshot of the time. When I look at it, I look at the kind of questions being asked, the issues discussed and the kind of films being made, I realise how much things have changed and how much things haven't. This book is my testament to my enduring love affair with Hindi movies!”
Bollywood was a rather surprising choice of journalistic focus for Chopra, who grew up in privileged South Bombay (as it was then). Educated in St Xavier's college, with a first class first in English Literature, she laughs, anything filmi was considered déclassé. “I was just seduced by Hindi cinema. When I began, my mother was mortified that I would think of film journalism!” Her mother Kamna Chandra — who wrote two very big films “Prem Rog” for Raj Kapoor and “Chandni” for Yash Chopra among others — said things like “You say you want to roam around Film City and interview Sunjay Dutt and Sunny Deol! Oh my God, how can you! What did we do wrong?”
Chopra recalls, “You just did not go into movies in any capacity! I did not grow up watching a lot of Hindi films; if you were a South Bombay person, you didn't even go beyond Worli! But, truly, I just did it first as a lark, a job to have because I did not know what I wanted to do.”
But she knew what she did not want to do. “I wanted to do film journalism, but knew I couldn't spend my life worrying about who is sleeping with whom.That just did not interest me. I have no intellectual snobbery or pretensions about gossip journalism — we all read it with enough pleasure — but it's just not what I wanted to be engaged in.” She went to Northwestern University, U.S. because “I wanted to learn the craft of journalism and I came back after working for a year at Harper's Bazaar magazine. I got myself a job at Sunday magazine and then joined India Today specifically with the aim of covering the film industry in a way that looks at the movies.” Of course it is about the actors and the talent – part of what makes it so amazing is the oversized personalities - but it's not about just the personal thing of who is seeing whom and what did he say to her, but the trends, what cinema says about the society we are living in, what makes something so successful, and just sort of recording daily stuff in Bollywood.”
At the right moment
She was exceptionally fortunate, because just when she came into the field (1994-95) things changed. “If it had been somewhere with just the men in safari suits and suitcases of cash, I don't know how long I would have lasted, but 1995 was ‘DDLJ’ and ‘Rangeela’; there was a generational change. And I had a ringside view on this complete evolution. It has been non-stop since then; it has really just moved ahead. It was really fortunate I was at the right place at the right time.”
And today there is more coverage of Bollywood, even in the so-called ‘ intellectual' press. Chopra says, “When I worked with Movie magazine in 1988 there were about 10 journalists and we all knew each other. Now I go to screenings and there are 50-100 film reviewers from all sorts of publications. It's amplified; there are so many more platforms that cover films. Mainstream journalism is so much more about cinema, about celebrities. We seem to have come full circle; it was about people, celebrities, gossip, then about movies and now celebrity journalism again, who is size zero or who is carrying what handbag and who is talking to whom... I'm hoping that this too shall pass.”
The attitude of film-folk towards journalists has also changed. “You have the classic stories of Dharmendra chasing Devyani Chaubal and Anupam Kher slapping someone from a magazine, but now I think everyone is savvier; marketing teams have realised that they need the media to sell movies. I think everyone has more respect towards more publications and journalists. Some journalists have great relationships with some stars, but I also hear stars complaining that they are asked either very offensive questions or very inane ones. I just hope it doesn't get more aggressive like in the West. There is such a hunger for scoops, for information, it's hard to sustain quality and standards.”
With all her passion for and knowledge of Hindi films, Chopra will not consider writing a film script. She insists, “Never ever! I think it takes way more talent than I have. I tell other peoples' stories, which is much easier and does not require the same level of talent or confidence or ambition. To write fiction you need a great soaring imagination, to be able create other worlds. I honestly don't think I have the talent or have ever had the interest. I have no interest in creating, I just like to consume.”
Anyone would think that Shah Rukh Khan was her favourite person, considering that three of her books feature him prominently; he starred in “DDLJ” and has written the foreword for her new book.
She is amused, “So many people say that to me! He is somebody I first interviewed in 1996 or 1997. Since then, our paths have crossed often. As it happened, Salman never talked to the press and Aamir was extremely reserved and not accessible. Shah Rukh is superbly articulate, superbly entertaining, tells the best stories, so it's never been a chore to go back to him. It's so much fun. He talks very passionately; he always seems engaged in the conversation. There is never a boring moment. I have a great time listening to him. He said to me that he needs to entertain all the time, whether on the big screen or one on one. He has this compulsive need to make you happy!”
In her tracing of cinema for all these years, has there been improvement in the quality of films from Bollywood? “Oh my God, yes! You see some of the films made in 1992-93, they are appalling! People hammed like crazy! I think they have vastly improved. The beauty of the situation now is that Bollywood is not as nepotistic a place, especially when it comes to directors, writers, etc; You are getting more voices, and there aren't as many second generation kids as those from other backgrounds. In terms of craft, it has hugely improved. What we do need to go back to is the fundamentals of storytelling; we do not invest enough in writers or time in writing. But in every other way we have really moved ahead.”
For Chopra, the world of movies is a driving need. And she likes her dose of masala as much as she likes an off-beat thriller. She says, “I think anything different is a good thing. It's great to have the traditional Bollywood film, mainstream masala, but it's also great to have a ‘Shor in the City'! But I was heartbroken when Karan Johar said he was going serious with ‘My Name is Khan'. I loved ‘ Udaan', but am as happy to weep when Shahrukh died in ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho'. I want it all, the Guju thali of movies, not a minimalist French meal with one dish at a time!”