There are few, if any, film fans in India who haven't encountered the work of Anupama Chopra. The prolific journalist and film critic has penned books like Sholay: The Making Of A Classic and King of Bollywood, on actor Shah Rukh Khan; she has written extensively for publications like The New York Times and Variety; and presented a film review show on NDTV called Picture This. Most recently she became Hindustan Times' film critic, and starting Friday, April 27, she will host The Front Row with Anupama Chopra on Star World. The 45-year-old, who is wife to director Vidhu Vinod Chopra and sister to director Tanuja Chandra and author Vikram Chandra, spoke to us about her new show; the impact, if any, of critics; and about starting her dream magazine with Rajeev Masand. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about the show Front Row With Anupama Chopra.
The hope and idea is to create one stop for everything you need to know about movies in the week. There's so much to know, not just about Hindi films, but Hollywood and world cinema. It's a cheat sheet to the movies. There will be three segment set up—the top will be reviews, the middle will be talent interviews and then trivia and recommendations. I want it to be an inclusive show and not something so esoteric that you can't connect with it.
There's a wonderful quote that says the job of a critic is to show the viewer which way to go, and sort of unearth things that they themselves couldn't see or understand.
I actually read this wonderful thing another American critic had said that “writing about film which has meant something to me has the power of the missing companion”. For me, it's absolutely about discovery and to guide in some way, but not in the way where I'm telling you the film is really awful and don't see it. My job is to see it, most times before anyone else does, experience it and report back on the experience. I think it's more like reporting from the front row, that this is what a movie is like and this is what works for me, and what didn't work. I think of myself as a consumer who is a regular person who just gets to see more movies than the other guy. I don't think of myself as someone who is extremely intellectual in their approach to movies.
Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, described the current situation like this: “Movies and criticism have kept moving and it's worth noting that because of the Internet, there are now more critics than ever and more cinematically knowledgeable ones, too—the diffusion of expertise is one reason that critics no longer have the impact they did.” Do you agree with that?
Definitely in the West, yes, but the expertise on the net in the West is phenomenal, the kind of blogs, and academia and rigour that is brought to film criticism is amazing but I don't see that happening here. We need to bring rigour to film criticism period, in whichever platform we function in. We're decades behind in terms of our reference, in terms of our ability to write, our knowledge. There has to be far more rigour and I include myself in this. I think here the influence of critics is new. At least when I started in the mid and early 90s, filmmakers didn't really think of critics in any way, and still today there are many filmmakers who say if critics like a movie, it's trouble. But now because of the growing middle-class going into movies, there is a conversation about movies, what did so-and-so think. Sadly, the conversation here is reduced to how many stars [a film got] but hopefully we'll improve from here on.
Do critics have any impact at all here?
Going by [the success of] Housefull, of course not. I don't know. What we can perhaps do is help build a smaller film. But big Teflon movies, absolutely not. Who cares what anyone thought of Bodyguard, Ready, Singham or Housefull 2? In fact here there seems to be a real disconnect between what critics are saying and what audiences want to see.
Is that disheartening?
No. The film critic of the Los Angeles Times Kenneth Turan had really disliked Titantic and James Cameron said in an open letter to the paper he should be fired because he was so out of touch with popular taste. And Turan said no, critics aren't applause meters, that's not our jobs. We don't predict what the box-office will like. I think that's the way it is. But no, it's not disheartening.
Your husband and sister are both Bollywood directors. How do you keep yourself from getting too pally with Bollywood actors and directors. Do you have to check yourself constantly?
To begin with I never review anything that family does, which includes Vinod's productions. I have to pretend films like 3 Idiots don't exist. It's a fundamental conflict of interest. I don't go there in the least. Also what helps is that we're not big socialisers because it is very difficult to be socialising with film people, having dinners and lunches and then reviewing films. That would be tricky. We're essentially social hermits. We don't go out. That puts a distance in there. But yes, it's difficult. Our kids all go to the same school so sports day and annual days can be awkward but you have to treat review space as absolutely sacred. I'm really protective of that space.
Whose reviews do you read and trust?
Rajeev [Masand] is my partner in crime. Invariably, we rarely disagree. We both liked Kites and got beat up for it. We didn't even sit together for that screening. We both came out and said that wasn't so bad. I trust him. I think he is, again, extremely honest about how he feels.
You and Rajeev were planning to start a film magazine.
We were, that's our dream, but we're both in the television space for now. When we're both old and beyond Botox, we'll do it.
The Front Row With Anupam Chopra will air every Friday on Star World at 8.30pm, starting April 27.