"I Became a Film Critic to Justify Watching Films After Marriage"
NEW DELHI: Film studies scholar, journalist, author and independent researcher, SHOMA A.CHATTERJI has contributed to cinema and writing for over 35 years. She has authored several books on gender issues and cinema and been a jury member at numerous film festivals. An avid blogger, Chatterji frequently expresses her take on Indian cinema through new media. On May 5, Indywood honoured her with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Beginning with a B.Ed degree to being honoured with two National Awards and now a Lifetime Achievement Award. How has your journey been?
I began with teaching because the conservative family I was married into didn’t approve of any other vocation. Hence, I did my B.Ed. followed by M.Ed from Bombay University on a merit fellowship. The first National Award for the Best Film Critic in 1991 came as a surprise because I was only six years into journalism.
After this National Award, many editors shut their doors because they felt I didn’t deserve it so early in my career. For the second award – the Best Book on Cinema in 2002, I had seriously aimed towards it and was very determined to win.
I went to newspaper offices in Mumbai hawking my stories ready to be edited and published. They were on different subjects and not just cinema or gender because a freelancer cannot really choose his topics even today. I wrote for SCREEN for 32 years till it shut down some years ago. Papers like The Daily and Free Press Journal were welcoming.
The then news editor of The Daily challenged me to do at least three op-ed articles a week on issues surrounding gender. The Sunday Observer, Mid-Day, Evening News (TOI Group), The Illustrated Weekly of India (when Pritish Nandy was editor), Free Press Bulletin carried my by-line, one story per week and often, more than once a week.
The journey has been very long but I don’t think I should leave this world with much regret except that I could never finish any novel I began.
Your works revolve around gender issues, and portrayal of women in media. When did you first realise that this was your calling? Did it stem from the poor representation of gender roles or the dwindling art of earnest film-critiquing?
I do not regard any specific subject as “my calling”. Writing is my passion and so is cinema. Watching films was a big hurdle for me before and after marriage. So, I turned it into an asset by writing on films. I shared personal problems I had experienced as a woman in a paper. I wrote angry letters to the editor in The Eve’s Weekly and most of them got the Best Letter Prize.
This was the trigger of my venturing into gender issues. Interestingly, I have authored eight single-author books on gender. I’m grateful to my late mother-in-law for being the harridan she was else I would have led a boring life as a sugar-syrup ideal Indian daughter-in-law.
Cinema is my passion and I write on it, there is no specific reason why I made Indian cinema my beat. I began writing reviews of classic films like Gone With The Wind and contemporary Hindi films for FORUM, a political monthly edited by Joachim Alva. He taught me how to type my piece, use slug lines at the top of every page, type double space on one side when computers weren’t even heard of.
He liked my writing and made an exception for cinema articles in a strictly political magazine. Breaking into cinema as a freelancer was difficult as established writers and journalists were already there. Slowly, I persuaded editors to allow me to write on women in TV soaps. My weekly column in The Daily was my first brush in creating a blend of the audio-visual media and gender. Everything about cinema began to fall in place– interviews, profiles, one-to-ones, reviews, critiques, everything led to a lot of serious reading up on cinema.
Among all your contributions towards cinema and its studies what according to you has been the most impactful? Do you feel that content like yours is duly acknowledged in our country?
I don’t think that I’m the right judge to evaluate my own contribution.
Talking of due acknowledgement, awards might be considered as some form of acknowledgement. The National Award-winning book, Parama And Other Outsiders- The Cinema of Aparna Sen, was the first-ever auteur critique in book form of an Indian woman director. I’ve won some other awards too for writing on cinema and writing on gender.
The book– Subject Cinema: Object Woman, A Study of the Portrayal of Women in Indian Cinema, which I consider to be a pioneering study of feminist film critique on mainstream Indian cinema went largely ignored. The publisher couldn’t afford the promotional costs and lacked proper distribution machinery or funds. I do not find even a mention of this book in any bibliography of books on serious film studies as many haven’t heard of it.
Since then, I have authored altogether 24 single author titles on cinema – biographies, cinema analysis. I’ve no clue about their sales because the royalty I’m paid is an embarrassment.
Drawing parallels between regional Indian cinema and the Hindi film industry, what sets them apart or binds them together?
I can only talk of Bengali cinema because I am not familiar with the workings of other regional films. While comparing Bengali cinema and the Hindi film industry, the first difference is the scale of production since Bengali films work on small budgets as the audience is narrow. Funding is only the tip of the iceberg Bengali film-makers use as an excuse for producing bad films.
Around 160 to 200 Bengali films are released per annum but their quality is dreadful.
The Hindi film industry works differently and most heroes produce their own films or are stakeholders in the profits. Hence, they’re cautious that every film works commercially well. Bengali cinema is disorganized, and unlike Hindi cinema, is not stratified into big budget or crowd-funded films. Storylines are either conspicuous by their absence or are copyrighted versions of hit South Indian films. I’m not aware of Hindi films’ statistics but as an avid watcher of Bollywood films, I can safely conclude that most are above par.
Is there lack of incentive/encouragement for those who wish to explore aspects of Indian cinema other than mainstream Bollywood? Does your work aim to bridge this gap?
No, I don’t believe that there is lack of encouragement or incentive since film studies cover innumerable areas of humanities, technology, history and aesthetics. One can begin researching new areas of Indian cinema from any point of view at any time.
Talking personally, I cannot say that I have any authority or expertise to “bridge the gap” but I have tried my best. Apart from the aforementioned two books, which are pioneers if I may say so, I have done a book on the Independent Documentary Movement in India. My recent book, Womaan At The Window is an original application of French philosopher Jean De Baudrillard’s theory of the object-value system on Satyajit Ray’s interpretation of Tagore’s works that he placed on film.