An exclusive interview with film journalist and New York Indian Film Festival director Aseem Chhabra

A Potpourri of Vestiges Exclusive

By Murtaza Ali Khan

New York Indian Film Festival director Aseem Chhabra, interview with Murtaza Ali Khan, exclusive interview with A Potpourri of Vestiges

Ever wondered what it takes to become a professional commentator on cinema? Would you like to watch movies and get paid for it? Would you like to interview your favorite film personalities? If writing about movies is what you love then can you fully dedicate yourself to it? How feasible is film criticism as a full-time profession? These are the questions that we often receive from many of our readers which include young cinema enthusiasts keen on taking up film criticism as a profession. In an endeavor to seek out the right answers we have started a special series wherein we would be interacting with some of the leading film commentators in the world and try and get them to talk about their success stories. How they got started? What inspired them? How they overcame the various challenges? What is it like to have tasted success? How they keep themselves relevant despite the changing dynamics, etc.?

Now, we consider ourselves really fortunate to start this series with someone very special: Aseem Chhabra (@chhabs). Aseem needs no introduction. A world renowned voice on international cinema, Aseem is the author of the critically acclaimed book 'Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star'. As a freelance writer in New York City, Aseem has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hindu, Mumbai Mirror and He has been a commentator on Indian popular culture on NPR, CNN, BBC, Good Morning America and Reuters. He is the India consultant for the International Film Festival and Awards, Macao, festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival and the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival in Pittsburgh. He is the voice of Shadow Puppet #1 in director Nina Paley’s award-winning animation film, Sita Sings the Blues.

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Aseem for making himself available, despite having a very busy schedule, for a detailed telephonic discussion and for sharing his thoughts/experiences in a most candid and elaborate manner.

Edited Excerpts

Q1. Film criticism as a discipline is still not as organized as say filmmaking. What do you attribute it to? What, according to you, is the role of a film commentator in today’s time, especially when the viewers are so well aware themselves?

A.  You see it is different from country to country. Let me briefly talk about the US for instance because I have lived in New York for many years since 1981. So a publication like New York Times for instance has a lot of power when it comes to independent films or foreign language films. So their word really counts because the city of New York has a very large population of people who are very interested in American indie films and foreign language films but the tickets prices are 16 or 17 dollars now and so watching a film is expensive. And so New York Times film critics are very influential and if a New York Times critic doesn’t like a smaller budget film, it just kills the film. But when it comes to the big budget films such as the superhero films they are more or less review proof just as the case with Salman Khan films here in India.

Now, if we talk of India, say if a critic is able to tweet about a film like Mukti Bhawan or Newton, having watched it before than the rest at one of the festivals, then it does help such films. Shubhra Gupta, who is a critic for The Indian Express, runs a film club which allows film enthusiasts to watch films they aren’t able to see otherwise.  So, the critics do have a very important job of informing the audience, especially with regards to the indie films which don’t have a strong distribution network working for them.

Q2. Many people take up film criticism as a hobby or part-time vocation. Can film criticism be taken up as a full-time profession? What are the different avenues available for students who want to take up film criticism as a career?

A. Although I haven’t gone for any film appreciation class but I am aware that FTII, Pune does offer film appreciation courses and I know some critics who have gone for such courses. A year or two back Shubhra Gupta went to Hyderabad where she spent a week with IIT students, just talking about films and showing them everything from Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton to newer films from Indian and abroad, and having conversation with students, telling them what all to explore. Even film festivals like MAMI have been holding sessions for young college students who aspire to become film critics/journalists.

Now I am aware that it’s a little harder in smaller cities but the most important thing is to watch as many movies as possible, say classic works of Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bertolucci, among others, and these days a lot of stuff is actually available online. There is so much of film industry and it’s very difficult to absorb it all. I got interested in films at a very young age and credit goes to my mother who used to talk about Guru Dutt films and I would watch them as well as films of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee on Doordarshan. Now, I studied French at Alliance Française in Delhi and they had a film club there. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday, they used to screen classic French films or they would bring classics from the Pune Film Archive. So that’s where I saw classics works of Kurosawa, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Ray’s Pather Panchali, and they completely blew my mind. Obviously I didn’t understand everything but I knew that it was very different and so much more exciting. Then going to New York also helped. My master’s thesis was on the art house revival theatres in journalism school. So many of these art house theatres have been shut down now; these allowed one to watch multiple Kurosawa or Bergman or Fellini films in a single day and it was so great for someone who wanted to explore the classics. Of course, reading does help a lot in developing a better understanding.

The problem these days is that everyone on Twitter pretends to be an expert. Today there are so many blogs and websites and so many young people are reviewing films and most of them have very limited exposure to even classic Indian cinema. There are still some very worthy film critics in India such as Baradwaj Rangan, who is a wonderful critic; then there are names that I have already mentioned like Namrata Joshi; Raja Sen, who is a dear friend of mine, is very young but is a terrific critic. Rajeev Masand does very populist kind of reviews because he does television but his point of view is very fascinating to listen to, even Anupama Chopra. So there are still some critics who are doing some great work in India.

For someone starting out it is very important to try and reach out to the editors. If you are looking for a paid job then you can pitch ideas to The Hindu or The Indian Express or Mint or any other publication. Now, there are publications like The Hindu and Asian Age, in particular The Hindu, with good film coverage. The Times of India is mostly Bollywood centric and so it depends on where you want to go. There still are many publications that seriously look at cinema. Then there are magazine like Outlook and India Today that do encourage writing on cinema.      

Q3. What is your approach to writing? How long do you usually take to complete an article? How does one cope with the pressures of the deadlines?

A. Well, some articles just flow naturally and one is able to complete it in a very short internal of time and those are the good times. On other occasions you just struggle. So there is no one approach but you have to sit down and get started.

Actually, deadlines mean a lot to me as without deadlines I tend to procrastinate. In fact, I have produced some of my best work while operating under deadlines. I obviously like being a journalist otherwise I wouldn’t have done this and although I have done other things also in life also, professionally, but I have always fallen back on writing about cinema.

Q4. You have written a book on Shashi Kapoor—the first and the only biography of the celebrated actor-producer. Tell us about the journey of writing that book and the challenges that you encountered.

A. It took some time for me to come up with a topic to write upon. It occurred to me that there hasn’t been any book written on Shashi Kapoor.  Now, I have been a fan of Shashi Kapoor, having watched his films like Deewar, Sharmeelee, Kabhi Kabhi, Junoon. I have been living in New York since 1981, it’s been 36 years now and I have a written a blog about this a couple of weeks ago, after Shashi Kapoor passed away, about how I got the chance to watch the Merchant-Ivory films of Shashi Kapoor like The Householder and Shakespeare-Wallah at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. It allowed me to see Shashi Kapoor in a very different light. Quite frankly over the years as a journalist I have interviewed the likes of Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005, James Ivory, who directed these films, as well as Madhur Jaffrey, who was the lead in Shakespeare-Wallah opposite Shashi Kapoor and I have collected books by them. I have been fortunate to access other films of Shashi Kapoor like Siddhartha, living in the US, which never really released here in India.

So, you see, without even knowing that I will one day be writing a book on Shashi Kapoor I was in a way preparing myself to write a book on him. When I signed a contract for the book with Rupa Publications I certainly realized I had so many books on my shelf which I had been collecting without even thinking that one day I will actually be using them.

The biggest challenge was that Shashi Kapoor was unwell when I came to India for the book. Her daughter Sanjana was the first person I interviewed. She told me that he was unwell, he had dementia and so I didn’t feel like push her to arrange for an interview with him. Another challenge was interviewing people. Sharmila Tagore for instance was not very keen on telephonic or email or Skype interview. Fortunately, I was able to meet her in October 2015… the book was nearly finished by then. I was able to get some very valuable information from her. With Amitabh Bachchan I had to do an email interview. Simi Garewal sent me an email interview. I contacted Yashraj films trying to get photographs of the Yashraj films that Shashi acted in… I was also looking for an interview with Aditya Chopra because his father had directed Shashi Kapoor in so many films. But, Aditya Chopra just doesn’t give interviews and so I contacted Pamela Chopra and finally she did an email interview. And it was wonderful… she was able to tell me some very interesting stuff about the making of Kabhi Kabhi.

The best part was that Shashi Kapoor was so well loved that everybody, except one person, was so happy to talk to me as they all wanted a book on Shashi Kapoor. Shabana Azmi, for instance, was so keen about the book that she inquired about the book’s progress 4-5 months after I had interviewed her. I learnt from people that Shashi was such a generous person and would throw these lavish parties and lend money to people. In fact, while I was interviewing people I also started seeing it as much more than just a job… I mean he was such as good guy so I started feeling that it was really important to write the book.

Q5. You recently presided over a panel discussion regarding the challenges faced by independent filmmakers across the globe at the Dharamsala Film Festival. Why do you think many independent Indian filmmakers get lost into oblivion after making just one or two films?

A. The basic challenge is to get the funding for the subsequent films. There surely is no dearth of ideas. Then censorship in India is another challenge, especially for young filmmakers. The makers of An Insignificant Man had to suffer so much as the hands of Pahlaj Nihalani who asked them to get no objection certificates from Narendra Modi, Sheila Dixit and Arvind Kejriwal. I mean it’s impossible. 

Alankrita Shrivastava too had to face a lot of opposition before she should release Lipstick Under My Burkha. Fortunately, she had the backing of a seasoned filmmaker like Prakash Jha and so could challenge the CBFC’s verdict in the court. Going to court obviously means losing out on a lot of time and money. It can actually demotivate a lot of people.  The way the CBFC is working these days it’s almost killing the creativity and so it’s becoming very hard for young filmmakers. Ultimately, it’s a test of character and the only way forward is not to give up.

Q6. A film called Sexy Durga was prevented from its scheduled screening at the 48th IFFI despite instructions from the court to screen it. What are your thoughts on the entire episode? How do you see the prospects of Indian independent cinema? 

A.  I watched Sexy Durga at the 2016 Film Bazar in the Viewing Room. It was almost ready at the time with some post-production work remaining. I think the film is absolutely fantastic and feel that it got stuck in a political tug of war. It’s really unfortunate that a young filmmaker like Sanal Sasidharan has to suffer like this. Sexy Durga is so well shot… the camera work is brilliant. The same is true of his first film also. I guess all these people who are criticizing him have no sense of cinema. We should be celebrating a filmmaker like Sanal. He is extremely talented and I think he has the temperament and he will surely continue to make films. I hope the film will sooner or later end up on Netflix. Netflix is still a very safe place for films… even Amazon Prime is censoring some films… Netflix isn’t.    

Q7. You have written an article for The Hindu about how Steven Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind took inspiration from a work of Satyajit Ray which could never materialize. Please tell us about the incident.

A. It so happened that I was chatting with a friend of mine on Twitter and then Namrata Joshi who works for The Hindu messaged me that she was reading my tweets and she told me that I should write something about it. I then discovered that it was actually 35 years of the release of ET and so the timing was also very good.

You see I could not directly prove that Spielberg plagiarized Ray’s work. This was 1983 and I was a student, pursuing masters in journalism from the Columbia University. As part of a project, I was supposed to write three original articles in a semester which would later be sent to well known publications like LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer. I had just come to the US and ET had already become a huge success. I came across a cover story of Satyaji Ray in India Today magazine and that’s where I learnt for the first time about Ray’s remarks that Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t have been made without his Alien script. Actually, the renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had seen ET in London and he had also read the script of Ray’s Alien and he was the one to call Satyajit Ray and tell him that there were enough similarities between Ray’s script and the film.  So my professor asked me to interview Arthur C. Clarke also.

Honestly if someone gave me that kind of challenges today I don’t think if I would be able to do it. Even then I remember I used to get very confused as to how I would be able to get it done. I was just lucky that these phone numbers were available and I could talk to Arthur C. Clarke. Spielberg, I couldn’t interview despite trying really hard to go through his lawyers. I was also able to get Satyajit Ray’s number through a British writer. Arthur C. Clarke’s number was listed in the phone book. An international operator connected me to Sri Lanka. He was in Columba at the time and he picked up the phone and I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I was so lucky really. A friend of mine at the Columbia University, who had worked as an intern with Merchant-Ivory in Bombay, had the script of Ray’s Alien with him. So when I read the script I too realized there were definitely similarities between that and ET.    

Q8. When it comes to films, we all have our favorites. As someone who has watched cinema very closely for decades, which are your all time favorite films and why? 

A. There is a Coen Brothers film called Blood Simple that I absolutely love. It is violent, shocking and the twists in it are so smart and clever. Its sound design and other technical aspects are brilliant. The characters have no clue what’s going on in the other characters’ mind. It’s so cleverly plotted and the script is so smart. I used to have a VHS tape of Blood Simple when I lived in Boston and later in New York also I would have people come over for dinner and then I would screen Blood Simple. I would have seen it 9 or 10 times.  Then there is another film similar to Blood Simple… with similar elements of mystery… Louis Malle’s first film called Elevator to the Gallows… it’s a black and white film and has this amazing music by Miles Davis. Jeanne Moreau was very young and it’s shot so beautifully and the twists just breathtaking. There are these nice scenes of rain falling on the streets of Paris and the music is playing in the background… it’s fantastic.

But then I have loved Satyajit Ray’s films. Actually, come to think of it, I would have also seen Pather Panchali at least 8 or 10 times. Charulata is again a favorite. I love Garam Hava. I also love some Bollywood films. I thought Band Baaja Baaraat was a lot of fun… it’s not only entertaining but also tells us about the people living in the outskirts of Delhi and their aspirations. It’s very Bollywood-esque but Ranvir’s work is amazing… he was so raw at the time. It’s a rather clever entertaining film.

I particularly love film noir and Chinatown is one of my all time favorite films. I think Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar, which has just completed 10 years of its release, is a very well crafted film, inspired by pulp novels and Vijay Anand films like Johny Mera Naam.  I absolutely love the first two Godfather films. Woody Allen’s Anny Hall and Hitchcock’s Rear Window are favorites. In fact, I am a big fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window, North By Northwest, and Psycho. And, of course, Kurosawa’s Rashomon! You see there are so many films that I love.    

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

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