Film Critic Bhawana Somaaya on 100 Years of Indian Cinema

Film journalist Bhawana Somaaya releases book on Indian cinema

The essence of Indian cinema is the storytelling, film journalist and author Bhawana Somaaya tells SheThePeople.TV, when discussing her new book “Once Upon a Time in India: A Century of Indian Cinema.”

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Somaaya has been a film critic for over thirty years and has written twelve books. Her latest project is her most ambitious yet. The book is a beautifully conceived celebration of Indian cinema, which includes fifty-three full page original illustrations of iconic movie scenes in Bollywood poster art style. She talks to us about her ideas on Bollywood’s future and the age of marketing and packaging, her early days in journalism when she was too shy to meet new people, the book writing process, her favourite movies and much much more in her interaction with us.

Your book covers 100 years of Indian cinema. What according to you is the essence of Indian film?

Th essence of India cinema for me is the story telling. We are a country of oral history. Our grandmothers tell stories to our grandchildren. As a child I was told a story every night if not by my parents then my older siblings and when the lights went out I made my own stories in my head and mixed them all up. I never read story books till I was much older and went to school. It was always somebody narrating stories to me. I loved the build up to these story sessions: the curtains drawn over the windows and the dim light in the room.

For me cinema is nostalgia and this book is like visiting a fair and watching the bioscope.

What kinds of research material did you use for the book particularly for cinema in the ’20s and ’30s, where it was probably harder to come across good archival material?

You are absolutely right, there is very little material available on this era so I went through the regular channels which is I surfed the internet and some old tattered books. Fortunately the book is not a heavy documentation of decades gone by so whatever I found was sufficient.

Postcard from Bhawana Somaaya book

Source: Penguin RandomHouse

Have we come a long way in our portrayal of women according to you?

Most certainly, the woman in Indian films has come a long way from the suffering martyr who revered her husband as parmeshwar and what is interesting is that she has taken a long time to evolve and find her identity.

My co-authors Jigna Kothari Supriya Madangarli and I have written a book Mother Maiden Mistress that travels the journey of Indian heroine over five decades.

Which period of Indian cinematic history fascinates you the most?

The silent era does not attract me maybe because I was not born that time but I have heard many stories of that era from my parents.

I think the 50s were fascinating because there is a magic about Black & White cinema that leaves you to imagine beyond what you watch on the screen.

The 70s was passionate and path breaking and after that cinema changed drastically in 2000 and is changing everyday so to answer your question the 60s, the 80s and the 90s were not exceptional decades.

Once Upon a Time In India

Source: Penguin RandomHouse

You started as a journalist, write columns and also do programs on the radio — which out of these do you enjoy the most?

When I started as a journalist I thought I would not last one month in the job. I was so shy and withdrawn, so scared of meeting new people and interacting with them that it is a wonder that I have lasted so long in this profession. The first time I was asked to write a column by The Hindu my first thought was how can I deliver the same word count on same deadline week after week? But I was able to and and I’m still doing it. Column writing is a great discipline. Radio happened to me out of the blue, just as journalism happened to me as an accident in the summer of 1978. It was a new medium and a new language/ Hindi but I have survived for seven years.

 What is the most enjoyable part of writing a book, and what is hardest part of writing for this medium?

The most intoxicating part is the idea because then you are impatient to begin writing. I have read about authors going into isolation to complete a manuscript, I have never done it. I have written them along with my regular job as an editor or an anchor. The process of writing is fun even if a bit tiring. The hardest is the final corrections because by then you have been through the manuscript so many times, that you are aching to get over with it. It is like being pregnant and you are desperate to pop it.

Every time I go through the final stage, I tell myself I’m not going to write another book in a long, long time, but a year later, I’m at it again!

Bollywood movies are now better packaged and marketed and digital video is the next big thing. Where do you see the future of the Indian film industry going? What are the hindrances if any? 

We are going through a phase where there is too much emphasis on marketing and packaging. Special budgets are chalked out for promotion of a film. Technology has great advantages and some disadvantages too. In the olden days actors did not have to promote their films, it was the producer and later the distributor’s job. Today, actors have become like netas asking for votes on every television channel.

My theory is that the biggest promotions cannot save a bad film and a good film will attract audience anyway.

 What project are you working on next?

I try and aim for a book a year, this time it has taken a long time but I have been working on two manuscripts – the first is on the subject of mythology and the second on Garbhsankar, I’m hoping to publish both in 2017. I have also written a play which should be premiering early next year and a dramatic script which hopefully somebody will make it into a feature film.

What genre of movies do you personally love watching?

I like to watch all films, what I don’t like are the dark films and horror genre. After so many years I’m still easily scared and need to hold hand of the person beside me when it comes to violent and scary scenes.

At the media screenings there is a standing joke where nobody wants to sit next to me because I suddenly clutch their hand and don’t let go. I’m learning to grow up and become brave but it is tough!

And a few words on that epic tweet by Amitabh Bachchan?

What can I say, maybe he liked what he read and saw and mentioned it on his page, I’m flattered and so is my publisher. It is bound to help the sales.

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Read More Stories by Tara Khandelwal