'Without SRK's Devdas, I would have missed all this'
In her new book, French film critic Ophelie Wiel presents a detailed, refreshing account of the Hindi film industry by interviewing people who make it what it is
What compels a person to fix their gaze on a screen for two hours? The answer varies. But popular discourse is often restricted to one poster or trailer — the end credits signifying your time to leave the cinema hall. But then, there are those like Frenchwoman Ophélie Wiel who might be waiting for the credit till the end, intrigued, and analysing every name. It's the overriding essence that is inferred from her new release, Rendezvous with Hindi Cinema (SAGE Publishing). Here, the film critic and professor of film studies at Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, deep-dives into the industry along with the people who make it — the actor, director and film critic. So, you read about MF Husain watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! 50 times for Madhuri Dixit and Kalki Koechlin being 'seen' as Indian for the first time in Margarita with a Straw. It's almost as if Wiel makes the reader the third wheel, but one doesn't really mind.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
When did your tryst with Indian cinema begin?
I started my career as a film critic around 2004. By then, I was a huge movie buff ("cinéphile" as we call ourselves in France). I was fond of classic Hollywood movies, especially musicals from the 1930s to the 50s. In 2001, when a friend told me that there was a musical playing in the theatres, I didn't even ask her for the title or the director. It was Devdas by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I had never seen anything like it. I fell in love with Bollywood. So I started binge-watching every film I could find in small Indian shops, pirated DVDs of Bollywood movies from the early 2000s. My first loves were Rani Mukherji, Abhishek Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Aishwarya Rai. I even learned songs by heart though I knew absolutely no Hindi! Three years later, I started an internship at the River to River Florence Indian Film Festival, and discovered Bengali and Tamil cinema; I was unable to understand how, as a film critic, I had been oblivious to this amazing universe. Keen to know more, I came to India for a month in 2005, to write on Indian cinema for a French magazine and fell in love with the country. I owe it to Shah Rukh Khan (I have had a crush on since then). Without his Devdas, I would probably have missed all of this.
You have lived and worked in Mumbai for eight years and hail from a country with a strong cinema culture. As a writer with a foreign lens, was this a challenge?
Yes. French people have a kind of know-it-all feeling about cinema. Like: we have the biggest film festival in the world, we invented the "auteur cinema"; we even invented cinema! Film criticism is a big thing in France. And Indian cinema (apart from Satyajit Ray) has always been (and still is) regarded as a second-rate cinema in France. I wanted to change that image as much as I could. But for that, I had to forget all about my prejudices, about comparing it with French or European cinema. I tried to watch Indian cinema with, as much as I could, Indian eyes. Obviously, it was impossible. So, I decided to write with my heart. Maybe at the end I could bring something new.
Ophelie Wiel on the set of Byomkesh Bakshi
The passing of Liberty Cinema owner, Nazir Hoosein, left a deep void for cinephiles. It made for a thoroughly enjoyable section in your book...
When I fell in love with Bombay, I fell in love with the "suburbs" part of it, from Bandra to Andheri. It had that Bohemian feel that made me feel at home; a kind of European vibe while still being so Indian. With all my friends were living there, I barely knew South Bombay. Mr Hoosein gave me a glimpse into its spirit. He was filled with so much nostalgia about the "good old times", and was so proud that foreigners like myself an interest in his theatre when it seemed everyone had forgotten about it! After our interview, he took me to an old-fashioned club for lunch, and shared more stories about the Bombay he loved so much (a Bombay without Andheri, Juhu or Bandra). It was like being in a Raj Kapoor black-and-white movie. I felt really emotional; Mr Hoosein helped me understand this part of Bombay more than I used to.
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