First Day First Show: Writings from the Bollywood Trenches
By Anupama Chopra
Penguin, 376 pages, Rs 499.
Serious people did not become Hindi film critics—or so everyone told brilliant young student and rookie journalist Anupama Chopra at the beginning of her career as a movie reviewer. She may have told herself something very similar as she stared in the dark at films such as Mrityudaata and Hum Saath Saath Hain during the exasperating 1990s.
But in 2011, when Bollywood has become desirable cultural capital, Chopra can look back at her extensive body of work and celebrate both her own career and the movie history she has witnessed over two decades.
Her collection, First Day First Show, is just such a celebration. It features a selection of her wide-ranging film writing, from movie star profiles to trend pieces, to short news magazine reviews that summed up and dismissed the week’s offerings in 300-word judgements.
The 1990s were a time when comedy meant Govinda and finance meant gang lords. Madhuri Dixit’s dance steps fuelled national controversy. Gore and sex on screen were pushing boundaries even as the ornate chastity of Sooraj Barjatya’s family dramas became a byword.
Chopra wrote about all these with crisp professionalism, mixing critical insight with the sort of commercial and trend forecasting that still dictates much of the critical practice of writing about Indian cinema. Her cool judgement and straightforward prose, in these early years, are susceptible to the hasty short cuts that Indian film writing tends to encourage. For example, on Dixit: “She may not be a Meryl Streep, but she can act”. But reading her keen industry pieces on the Bhatt brothers or Amitabh Bachchan’s disastrous comeback years, there is plain evidence of the serious writer in search of a serious reader, even as she plays to a gallery looking for buzzwords about hits and flops.
To Chopra’s eternal credit, she chooses pieces that reflect the age, rather than her literary elegance. With quiet glee, she includes the dashed-off reviews of terrible films such as Dil ne Jise Apna Kaha and Teesri Aankh alongside polished excerpts from her books on Shah Rukh Khan and Sholay, among others.
One of these excerpts, from her book on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, forms the “interlude” to this book, a transition to her writing about the next decade. Dilwale came out in 1995; a family drama to end all family dramas, but it also heralded a younger, more heartfelt movement in Bollywood that was years in the making, but came about less than a decade after Aditya Chopra’s film, and has governed an increasingly urbane (sometimes internationalist), youth-oriented industry.
The 2000s, closer to our moment, have seen several new kinds of film and film-makers entering the mainstream. The crowd-pleasing blockbusters have given way to a streamlining of genre and audience; the multiplex dominates film revenues. After Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge came Dil Chahta Hai.
We are still sifting through the consequences of these changes, and Chopra offers no verdict herself. Instead, she concludes with an excerpt from a Shah Rukh Khan interview in which the actor, with typical sardonicism, offers the consideration that he might one day die of overexposure. “‘He got photographed to death. He got shot.’ I think that would be the nicest way to go.”
Khan is not in the business of converting sceptics. Neither is Chopra. They both know that Bollywood, the industry that can produce films such as Mother and Jimmy, is nonetheless a long exercise in dazzlement. If you are a devotee, you cannot look away. In the book’s best piece, Chopra narrates, as a “prelude”, the breathless suspense that followed the release of Sholay, a film that was widely predicted to fail, but went on to become make history, a success with few equals in any cinema, anywhere. In the thunderstruck movie-goers of 1975, who took a moment to absorb what they were seeing, and then went back to experience it again and again, you recognize the stupefying love that has kept Bollywood going, improbably. It can still propel train-loads of people to Mumbai to become movie stars. Making a film reviewer out of a serious journalist, as Chopra gracefully reveals, is just one of its tricks.