Shubhra Gupta has been a film critic with The Indian Express for twenty years. Her latest book looks at the 50 films that changed Bollywood over the course of 1995-2015, from DDLJ and Rangeela to Satya and Dev D to Queen and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
We speak to her about the future of Bollywood, her most interesting interview (it was with Govinda!) and what it’s like being a film critic.
1) How did you choose these fifty movies. What parameters did you look at when selecting them over different time periods?
The idea was to zero in on 50 films, within the span of these post-liberalised last twenty years ( 1995-2015), which did something significant.
‘Changed’ is used loosely and multifariously : these were the films which I think changed the game ; caught a never-before moment ; shifted the goal-posts ; launched faces/ directors/ production houses which became determinants of how the film industry functioned; changed the narrative– for `good’ or `bad’, both terms I use more for convenience than caveat.
A great deal of work and thought went into the selection : we started with more than a hundred possibles, which I then whittled down to 50.
Some of the choices are no-brainers ; some will hopefully make readers pause and think and question, which is what a book like this should ideally do.
2) What kinds of movies do you see Bollywood veering towards? Will there be any disruption in the way movies are being made- we are already seeing a digital revolution.
Like Hollywood, the other big industry across the pond , Bollywood will continue to make all kinds of films. But because the rate limiting factor for all mainstream cinema is the accretion of box office collections, the ratio of the big starry vehicles created to gain maximum eyeballs will always be higher.
As younger, newer players enter the field, which is an inevitability, there will also be an increase in personal stories with sharp personal vision, and those will be backed by smart established players looking to broaden their slate.
And that will be helped by the spread of online players like Netflix and Aamzon and Itunes : if the net is the future, the players need to be out there, populating it.
3) What is the most memorable/interesting interview you have done?
I have met/ interviewed a bunch of stars, but it is not what I primarily do ( which is review/ write on their work). But one long-back encounter with Govinda is memorable : he made me laugh even while he made us wait during a bitingly cold Delhi winter event. Should fish out that piece sometime if I can find it!
4) What aspects differentiates an excellent movie from a very good one? What do you relate to most? The story line, cinematography, the performance?
That’s a tough one, because the line is very thin, and often indistinguishable : within a single film, you could find ‘very good’, and ‘excellent’ patches, as well as some not very exciting ones. I would say that I reserve an `excellent ‘for films in which I can’t find a single misstep, or in which I wouldn’t change a thing, and those are, understandably, very rare.
5) What was your writing process for the book like?
It’s a journalist’s book, not an academic’s, and the intention was always to do it in the same style of my reviews and other writing, because I know no other way– conversational yet informative without letting the reader feel that she is being lectured or hectored. At least that’s what I hope has been achieved.
Hopefully I will leave the reader with a little more than they started off with, and a smile!
6) How do you work towards becoming a film critic? it sounds like a dream job for many!
I’m not sure if you can work your way towards being a film critic. I think films choose you, and put their mark on you, and once that happens, writing on cinema is an inevitability, not just a probability. And these days, with so many platforms, it can writing, blogging, v-logging, you-tubeing : the possibilities are endless.
If there’s anything I could offer as a pro-tip for those who want to become critics of cinema, having done more than two decades of what
If there’s anything I could offer as a pro-tip for those who want to become critics of cinema, having done more than two decades of what I do, is to keep watching, and keep reading. You can never watch enough, or read enough.
The other thing to remember is that there is a difference between being a reviewer and a critic : the latter can, and in my opinion, should review cinematic work ; a reviewer is not necessarily a critic.
7) What is your personal favourite genre of movies?
Don’t have favourites. I’m a hopeless omnivore. I like all kinds of films, from all kinds of movie-makers, in all kinds of styles and genres and languages. ( Except I’m a bit petrified of horror films, in which I confess to closing my eyes in places!)
8) And finally: given the times we live in, do you think Bollywood stars – even the superstars – are getting more circumspect about saying what they feel/ answering direct questions on national issues?
Not just Bollywood superstars, who I think are soft targets for any and everyone who decides to take pot-shots at their celebrity status, and who are expected to have quotable thoughts on everything under the sun, we are all having to be circumspect about our speech these days, aren’t we? Because who knows what will come out from under a rock, and bite us when we least expect it.
The space for civilised dissent/ comment is consistently and sadly shrinking, and we are all– including Bollywood superstars who may or may not have anything pertinent to say– the poorer for it.