Chairperson of the Film Critics Guild, director of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and founder of Film Companion, Anupama Chopra is a respected name when it comes to Indian cinema. A few chapters down A Place in My Heart, her latest book, I wondered if the book was actually written by a film critic or by a cinema lover who is madly, deeply and passionately in love with Indian movies. An easy read of 50 plus chapters, the book presents a curated selection of films, actors and events that have impacted and influenced Chopra in more ways than one. While her profession may be one of critiquing movies, her book is an open love letter to everything that she has treasured and experienced in the last 25 years when it comes to cinema. The book begins with the forever classic Sholay, Chopra’s first tryst with Indian movies and goes on to include stories on gems like Star Wars, Amitabh Bachchan, The Lunchbox, Priyanka Chopra Jones, Mughal-E-Azam, Sairat and others. In a nutshell, A Place in My Heart is a blend of recommendations and remembrances, nostalgia and narratives. It is a smorgasbord of cinematic delights, written, as Marie Kondo would say, to ‘spark joy.’ Above all, it is a testament to Chopra’s enduring love for all things cinema. I sat down with her to understand her journey to this book, how she separates the critic from the film lover within and everything else about cinema that still excites her. Excerpts below:
Kamna Malik (KM): From Bollywood to world cinema, you have seen and experienced it all. How do you define your journey and the exposure? You do briefly mention in the book about how the initial exposure changed the way you look at Indian cinema. Tell me more about this. What has changed over the years?
Anupama Chopra (AC): I started with only Bollywood and it was only much later that avenues opened up and I had the chance to take in different kinds of cinema and experiences. I don’t have a set process. I think my process was always defined by the medium I was working in. When I am reviewing a film its different, writing a book is another ballgame and then if I am making a video or writing a column then it changes again. But yes, what has evolved over the years is my point of reference. In the beginning it was very much mainstream Bollywood or Hollywood. Of course, there was some exposure to what was the known as the ‘art house cinema’ or ‘parallel cinema’ of the 70s and the 80s in India, the cinema of Shyam Benegal or Govind Nihalani. But then, with = the exposure I had at film festivals, my head started to open up to so many other kinds of ways of storytelling. I understood the many different ways of engaging with the narrative, the audiences and emotions. And then, in the last three years, I think I’ve really kind of, first gone out and now come back in. I am now watching a lot of non-Hindi Indian cinema, which is just fantastic and it’s really thanks to the OTT platforms that have made it so easily available to us.
KM: How did A Place in My Heart happen? What was your process like?
AC: A Place in My Heart happened because I wanted to write a book. My last book was in 2007-08, which was the Shah Rukh Khan book, King of Bollywood. I think writing is a great training ground and fulfilling in many ways. When it comes to non-fiction cinema writing not many people get that opportunity and to be able to do that is very satisfying. Yes, it may not be a standard bestseller where one sells lakhs of copies and becomes a great star overnight but its fulfilling. It’s actually a labour of love and what is does is really help you hone your focus, your ability to commit and write every single day. Writing is a tough job, especially in today’s day and age. While I may have started my career with writing but over the last eight years, I am a digital journalist and my instincts now are to do things that are instant, that get instant responses. So, the idea of writing a book really got me. It was literally like, “I want to write a book!” And right after that thought, I met Milee Ashwarya who was my editor at Penguin India and we tossed the idea back and forth and that’s how A Place in My Heart happened. To write a book about one subject, you need to find a subject that really engages, drives and hooks you. For me it was a lot of subjects so I decided to package it in one book in the best possible way.
KM: 25 years of a career and you’ve picked up 51 people, movies and moments. How easy or difficult was it to arrive at this list?
AC: It was a difficult task. Each year the list gets longer because there is so much good stuff that one sees. It’s not like you’re ever done. However, with the book I wanted to write about new topics. Over the course of my career, I have written several books, compilations and columns that also have lists and people that have influenced me. For Mumbai Mirror, I used to write a column called ‘100 Films to See Before You Die.’ So, while putting the list together for A Place in My Heart I didn’t want to revisit those films, people or moments. I’ve already written about them. My intent was to write about films, some familiar, some classics like Mughal-E-Azam or Sholay, and some unknown like the documentary about P. K. Nair who was a great archivist. I wanted it to be a mix of things where people could find new things or rediscover something about the films they’ve already watched.
KM: You start your book with Sholay, which was also your first insight into Indian cinema. Today when you look back, how do you define the evolution of the industry and yourself as a person?
AC: For 25 years, I’ve had a sort of front-row seat in Bollywood. I have seen it change so much that its sometimes difficult to encapsulate it. If I have to describe to you what it was like in the early 90s, you’ll say it’s unbelievable. Even early 2000s, when I was writing my book on SRK, things were very different. You could just text actors and get interviews. It was much simpler and people were a lot more approachable. Having a team of people like managers, publicists, PRs was never there. When it came to film journalism, it was only a handful of us in Mumbai. You could just go to the studio, all the actors knew who you were, you knew who the actor was. It was sort of an informal relationship that one would end up having with actors. Through A Place in My Heart, I have tried sharing this arc of change. For me, it was important to tell people what I’ve seen and what Bollywoodused to be like. And how it’s changed so much. I thought that narrative was very interesting.
KM: The advent of OTT has shaken things up and has completely changed how one consumes content and cinema. Bollywood suddenly seems to be pushed in a different time. Your thoughts?
AC: The truth is that like any other industry, there’s the good and the bad in Bollywood too. What I think is amazing and exciting right now is the fact that stories are getting the spotlight. I think streaming has really changed the game completely. I love the fact that it’s throwing up its own superstars and now we are at a point where we can devote 8-9 hours of your life seeing shows without really caring who the actor is. It doesn’t matter. And I think that’s brilliant. The fact that we’re all watching cinema from across India and across the world is amazing. We all have access to great content now. Language and geographical boundaries do not exist any longer. Also, I think the professionalism that has come in with the younger generation is wonderful. When I started out, we used to hear these stories about Rajesh Khanna, that he was such an outsized star, temperamental and would perpetually show up late. When I was working Govinda would go to a 9am shift at 4am and that was accepted. It doesn’t work like that anymore. The scripts are bound, negotiations are done and the contracts are signed. So, it’s a wonderful place. It’s wonderful that writers are getting so much recognition and it’s all about the content today.
KM: While the current times are exciting there is a lot of social media euphoria as well. What do you think needs to change in the industry?
AC: The only thing that I think has to happen and still hasn’t happened is that it still remains a very stardriven business. And I think that is hobbling because it’s still led so much by ‘actor kaun hai?’ Why is that first question? What it does is that it stunts the whole film industry, it stunts your whole storytelling. It makes the whole thing too much about the varnish and not about the real thing. So, I think those things need to change. Also, social media. I think frankly the emphasis on social media is too much and is a bit silly. Social media is great. I love Twitter and Instagram but that cannot be the focus, especially as an actor. That cannot be an actor’s core. The core has to be one’s craft, what you do. When you start to look at actors and say that “Oh but he has 40 million followers on Instagram,” is when craft is compromised and we end up confusing things. These social media numbers don’t mean anything. The craft has to be solid. It should be more like he or she perhaps has 40 million because they’re damn good at what they do.
KM: You’ve have possibly interviewed most Indian legends along with some powerful international names in your two decade plus career. Are there still any names in your list that you wish to sit down and have a conversation with?
AC: In India, I’d love to talk to the massive Tamil superstars who never give interviews. Rajnikanth doesn’t give an interview. Vijay doesn’t give an interview. Ajith rarely does interviews. I think it’d be amazing to get into the heads of these men. Even Nayantara, who I think is just one of the most stunning women, again, doesn’t give interviews. I would love to be able to talk to them. I would love to perhaps access some of the world’s greatest directors like Christopher Nolan. I’ve done a 4-minute interview with him at the time of Inception. But I would love to sit, listen and learn. I just feel that there are so many great artists out there and others who aren’t really comfortable speaking. And I’m so fascinated by people who make movies that I always feel there’s something to learn and get excited about.
KM: What next? You’re doing so many things, but what is it that still excites you and what’s that one project that you still want to do?
AC: Well, it is actually underway and I’m very excited about it. It’s a project we’re doing with Netflix called Take Ten. It’s a lovely project, like a sort of a CSR activity where we try to find and fund 10 filmmakers across the country to make short films. And that really excites me. The idea that you might enable someone, that you might change somebody’s life. I hope we can really go out there and find exciting voices. The funding is coming from Netflix’s ‘Fund For Creating Equity In Entertainment and I hope the voices we find are also, people who might perhaps, otherwise may not be heard. So, that’s what’s exciting to me. I want to find more ways to give back. And I want to build new things brick by brick.
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