Monday, September 30, 2013

Anupama Chopra's 100 Films to See before You Die

[Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author.]

Doesn't it seem like we all grumble about lists but then we write them anyway? I know I do. Anupama Chopra takes one of the few reasonable approaches to such a project as 100 films from what seems to be the whole world of feature films, stating that this book is is meant to be food for thought for the reader from among movies the author loves, with different titles grabbing the reader based on their mood, what films they've already seen, or what films they might be ready to learn about and try. There's the feeling of "something for everyone" in here, ranging from Kabhi Kabhie to Spinal Tap, which makes me think that  Chopra, like Roger Ebert, tends to take films on their own terms.

This leads to a likable individuality in the completed work, evident not just in what is said about each particular film but in the work overall. The effect is a bit like Chopra narrating her DVD shelves at home, which I find much more engaging than an approach that does not admit or fully own its subjectivity. Chopra never obscures her knowledge or authority, but she never flaunts them either. As in her other books, she cuts an important middle path between the two general extremes of published books on Indian cinema, the gossipy or merely descriptive disposable garbage on one end (which I hate) and the out-of-filmi-character drab and sometimes impenetrable academic on the other (which, if I must pick a flaw in my reading, I much prefer).

Readers of this blog will probably want to know that 100 Films to See before You Die is not entirely about Indian cinema. About a quarter of the films in the list are Indian, and most of those Hindi, with a very healthy love of Amitabh Bachchan and Salim-Javed. Chopra flat-out states a big love for Hindi cinema in the introduction and talks about a few films that she sees as key to understanding it. I wonder if this statement might also help contextualize her non-Indian choices. For anyone who has broader viewing habits than I do, wondering about the relationship or trails of inspiration they have with Hindi cinema could be a fun way to approach the book. I would gobble up The Hindi Film Lover's Guide to World Cinema, that's for sure (though I'd want more than one person to contribute to it).

Apart from the individual choices of this particular author, the book's other significant strength is the brevity of each entry, which also manages to contain some diversity of information. Each item is at most two pages long; in addition to some summary of the plot, there may be commentary on performances, writing, direction, etc., some history of the film's production, and a sentence or two specifying Chopra's reasons for including it in the list. Each entry also has a brief list of cast, run time, country of origin, language, etc.; its awards (surely incomplete in some instances); a statement about some aspect of the film by someone from the film industry, though not always someone involved with the film in question; and a piece of trivia. The quotes by film professionals are my favorite part because they add some variety to Chopra's (very reasonably) consistent voice throughout. I don't know if Chopra herself picked out these quotes, but whoever did had an eye for sources who have something intelligent to say (critics, journalists, actor-directors). The quotes are usually attributed with sources, so you have a built-in starting point to read more if you want to.

One of the risks of a very limited word count is oversimplification. Some passages contain some uneasy or conflicting combinations of ideas (the entries for Star Wars and Spirited Away, for example), and others suffer from repetitive language. There may be only so many ways to say "This film is meaningful to me," "What a powerful portrayal," or "It's still remarkable decades after its release," but having more room would help approach these ideas differently and in ways more tailored to each film.

While reading 100 Films to See before You Die, I started wondering about the actual point of lists like this. At their worst, they are prescriptive, pedantic, and lazy and conceal the diversity of examples within whatever the topic may be. At their best, they present new ideas or new ways of considering material with which readers are already familiar, either through the perspective of the particular writer or the interrelationships that develop when items are grouped together. This book is far more the latter, helped by the breadth of cinematic cultures and eras it pulls from. Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading.

  • Both intensity and lightness have their purposes. A gentle or light-hearted film can be just as memorable as an epic or heavy one. 
  • There is a very complicated—and probably hard to define and even harder to produce—relationship between what filmmakers want to do and the resources they choose to do it. A seemingly strange combination of actors and story might be used to brilliant effect, just as a classic pairing of director and writer might fall flat if it isn't suited to its environment or purpose.
  • About halfway through I was suddenly struck by how man-centered the movies are. This isn't Chopra's fault, of course, since so many films come from cultures that value and prioritize men's stories and perspectives over those of women and children (and probably men as audience members too). Many of the films have heterosexual romances, of course, but I get the sense from the descriptions that most of these stories are really about men. But this bias...it is insidious, creeping into our language and concepts. For example, the entry on Charulata has no explicit mention of Madhabi Mukherjee's performance of the title character who is very clearly the central character and the point of view of the narrative; the text is about how Ray tells the story. I am all for Ray's telling of this story, but what a disappointment not to hear about the performance around which it all hinges.
  • It's so easy to focus just on performances and plot in a film, but successful movies generally involve high-quality execution (defined on a case-by-case basis) of many other elements that we tend to forget about until the technical Oscars. Those of us who love popular Indian cinema are fluent in the importance of music, but even then I think we tend to focus on the song pieces and not nearly as often discuss the background score, even though it a much longer work that needs to be consistent and cohesive in ways that songs don't. I didn't keep a list of all the different technical aspects Chopra mentions, but overall this book is more than just stars and directors. It was a welcome reminder to me that I would like to learn and think more about all the talent that goes into films.
  • There is room in one's film-loving heart for stories and performances of different scales, as well as movies that examine or celebrate basic human experiences in very different settings or flourish in different tones. And we will be happier and better-informed viewers if we look past things like languages we don't speak or environments that challenge us.
  • Similarly, there's no reason to stick close to your own home culture, no matter how prolific your own home may be—look at all the wonderful, interesting films there are to enjoy in the world. This summer I (finally) discovered the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast*, and in an old episode the panelists were talking about how baffled they are by people who boast about what they haven't seen or read. Why would you celebrate your ignorance?
  • The human experience is complex and worthy of exploration and depiction in a range of colors: humor, love, respect, regret, frustration.
To read this book happily, you have to accept the personal nature of it—these are films that have impacted the author in some way, and you cannot really argue against someone's experiences with art—and if you want critical or comparative thought, this isn't the thing to read. Chopra invites us into her own collection, and we come along because she is someone whom we trust to have thought a lot about cinema over her years as a reviewer and interviewer.

* As a writing prompt to get me more active on this site again and to vary what I discuss, I'm thinking about doing my own miniature version of each week's PCHH episode focusing on Indian cinema (probably mostly Hindi and Bengali, knowing me, and probably mostly not new releases). Their format is generally two longer discussions on some kind of theme (the concept and current iterations of the movie franchise, "sitcom moms," depictions of government, etc.), or an idea pulled from current events (major film release, the ending of a tv show, an article that has made waves, etc.)., and they end with "What's Making Us Happy This Week," which varies widely with each participant and often reflects their recent activities and discoveries. Does that sound at all like something you'd like to read?

3 comments:

filmi-contrast said...

(A) "A Hindi film lover's guide to world cinema" would be the best Christmas gift ever. Are you listening, powers that be?

(B) I'm glad to hear that the Chopra's list embraces subjectivity, rather than tries to veil it. That sort of approach is the only thing that makes "100 best lists" tolerable or worthwhile, in my mind.

(C) I would sign up in two seconds to hear a BLB version of PCHH :)

~Miranda

veracious said...

I would love to be a guest on your version of PCHH, since I love that podcast. Make it happen, please.

This sounds like just the type of book I'd love to write and the type I'm definitely interested in reading. It's on my "books to look out for" list for the India trip.

Muhammad Usman said...

I'd rather like to watch super model movie as compared to chopra's film. Anyhow thx 4 giving us such a nice article