THE SUNDAY INTERVIEW Lit for Life

A cinematic journey

Baradwaj Rangan. Photo: V. Ganesan   | Photo Credit: V_GANESAN

Baradwaj Rangan has spent the last decade reviewing films and interviewing top personalities in Indian cinema, including Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan. With his second book, Dispatches from the Wall Corner, having been released recently, he engages in an unusual role reversal as he answers questions for a change. Excerpts from an interview:

Anthologies are usually associated with somebody nearing the end of their career, are they not?

Well, as a journalist, you produce so much work that at one point, you notice there’s a certain trajectory to it. I noticed I’d written quite a lot during the last decade and thought people may be interested in an anthology; something that would also serve as a peek into Hindi and Tamil cinema. Westland (the publisher) thought so too.

After your first book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, it must have been tempting to do another book along the same lines?

I think we all have a few books in us. I didn’t find the idea of doing a similar book appealing and definitely didn’t want to be typecast as the ‘Conversations’ writer.

You did a whole series on Kamal Haasan and his tryst with the arts. Your reluctance to do another conversations book notwithstanding, surely there was a book there?

As a journalist, I have to churn out three-four stories every week. Perhaps if I were just writing books for a living, I could bring out two books every year — one based on interviews, and the other on some other topic, like this book. Since I’m not, it’s important that I try different things. I may not be able to when I’m 75.

Your book has writings that date back to 2004. You must have been pretty meticulous in storing your work.

Absolutely. I’m extremely organised when it comes to my writing. Any writer, I think, should be. I have two back-up drives that are full of my writings over the last decade. If you now ask me to retrieve my review of a film in 2006, I can do it in a jiffy.

What did you set out to create when you discussed this book with Westland?

The idea was to bring out a collection of stories on commercial cinema (Hindi and Tamil) and its people. We decided that we would represent all the major actors and filmmakers, and create a cinematic journey of sorts.

Considering that you must have written more than one piece about somebody like, say, Kamal, how did you decide what to include and what not?

The piece about Kamal in the book talks about the experience of being a journalist and interviewing a star. I thought it was interesting in that it explored the mindset of a journalist and the nature of stardom. The story on Rahman, for instance, was written right after he won two Academy Awards. It was a landmark moment in Indian cinema, and we knew it had to be part of the book. Many such considerations influenced our choices.

It must have been an interesting experience to look back on all the writing you have done. Surely, your writing must have evolved over the years.

There’s an old saying that journalism is literature in a hurry. When I look back, I only see the flaws. I see a sentence that could have been written better, a joke that could have been avoided. The language aside, my analysis of films has been fairly consistent during the last decade. I find that heartening. The same barometers I used then to analyse films, I do now.

Did you consider editing some of your old writing and improving upon their language, if not content?

I decided at the outset that I wouldn’t edit them further than they already were. If I did, I knew I’d end up modifying them in accordance with my sensibilities today. I didn’t want that and liked the idea of preserving its originality.

Did your initial interest in films ever make you contemplate a career in the film industry?

I disagree that every critic wants to become a director. I don’t have any such intentions. It requires a certain set of innate qualities, people-handling, for instance. Of course, on a subliminal level, every time critics say that a scene was badly done, they’re actually saying that they would have done a better job of the scene.

I enjoyed reading your interview with lyricist Thamarai. Is there any piece that you especially like from this anthology?

Hey, I like that one too! I also enjoyed my conversation with Sarika. It happened in 2005 when she won the National Film Award for Best Actress. Coincidentally, I won the Best Film Critic award the same year. Even though the interview was arranged rather urgently, the conversation we had was open and honest. As a journalist, sometimes you have all these burning questions you’d like to ask the celebrity, but end up getting nothing from the interview. Sarika, here, was different. A portal of communication opened between us, and what ensued is what you see in this book. Selvaraghavan’s interview also stood out, as it had all his quotes in third person — quite unusual in newspaper writing. When you write story after story, there comes a time when you want to break the monotony. Changing the way you write a story is a way to do that. I think that’s what I was going for with that.

There aren’t as many interviews as there are reviews and columns in the book. Even though I love writing interviews and profiles, I believe that, in order to do them justice, a lot of time must be spent. It takes time for a celebrity to open up. A one-hour interview doesn’t really do that. Actors, for instance, are used to being complimented and asked easy questions. They are comfortable providing little anecdotes that aren’t necessarily deep. I don’t like that. I want to spend a lot of time, like when I interviewed Mani Ratnam. More recently, I wrote a profile of actor Vikram that took at least six months of work.

You won the National Award for your reviews, and there are over 60 of them in this book. Does being reviewer stop you from enjoying films the way a commoner usually does?

A good cricket commentator, for instance, doesn’t just say, “That was a good shot.” He talks about the type of shot — say, a square cut — and cites perhaps similarities to a shot played by Gavaskar in some series played in, say, the 1970s. Just because these connections are made and the technicalities conveyed, does not make the shot less enjoyable for the commentator. If anything, it’s the opposite.

Right at the beginning, you mention that reviews must not be thought of as facts. Don’t you think it’s natural that a commoner who reads a newspaper interprets the opinions of its writers as being facts?

I think that situation is changing. People now understand that a newspaper conveys several points of view. The digitisation of journalism has gone a long way in making the interactions between readers and newspapers two-way, unlike how it has traditionally been.

Were you worried that the discontinuity of your writings may make it difficult for a reader to finish the book at one sitting?

The publisher wanted it to be a collection of my writings that a reader could stop and start at any point. We wanted the writer to be able to pick and choose at random.

There’s also a noticeable absence of pictures in the book.

It’s a serious book, even if it may not be academically written. I call it a serious book written in non-serious language. I’m anti-pictures, unless they are evocative and add value to the story. I have seen quite a few anthologies without pictures.

What can readers take away from this book?

Well, they get a brief glimpse into the world of Hindi and Tamil cinema, and an insight into me as a writer. Every piece tells them as much about the writer as it does about the person being interviewed. I think that any writer who doesn’t bring their uniqueness to a story is sort of missing the point.

Another anthology after the next decade?

I’m not sure, really. But I really hope that this is not considered to be a career-capping anthology.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 12:43:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/interview-with-baradwaj-rangan/article6710853.ece

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