Unheard, unspoken stories of cinema

An actor does his best. But what unfolds in front of the camera — that’s a mystery nobody has been able to unravel — says Amitabh Bachchan in an interview with Bhawana Somaaya.

A mystery it may be — what happens in that magical moment between an actor taking his or her place in front of the cameras and transforming into a character that the audience will then love (or hate or be indifferent to) when the director calls out “and action”. But in her recently released book, Talking Cinema, noted film writer, critic and author of 11 books Bhawana Somaaya has a pretty good shot at it.
Her three-decade-long career puts her in the position of having access to the stars (as well as their innermost thoughts) that not many can claim to. Add to this a deep respect for cinematic endeavour, and what you have in Somaaya’s book is an erudite but accessible series of conversations with actors and filmmakers about the how and why of their craft.
“Whenever I watch a good film or a great performance, I’m always curious to know what the actor or the director was thinking and wish to know about their creative process,” says Somaaya, explaining how Talking Cinema came into being. “Hollywood has published many books on film technicians, writers particularly, but we don’t have many books on those lines. ”
The interviews in the book are divided across four sections. The first deals with actors talking about their “stagecraft” as it were; in the second, you have actors talking about an iconic role and what inspired their portrayal; the third section is devoted to the directors’ perspective; while the last section, called “the specialists”, looks at those who’ve made a particular genre their own.
The interviews have been conducted over a period of time, some of them dating back to the late 90’s and extending to the early 2000’s. Some of the interviews are invested with a certain sense of poignancy, especially those with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Yash Chopra — Bollywood stalwarts who are now no more. “When I met Hrishida at his home, he was very frail but his spirit was intact. He was detached from praise, from his films, said he had done what he had to and now it was for the world to interpret his cinema the way they wanted. I have very fond memories of Yash Chopra and was deeply affected by his demise… Yashji was unafraid to share his anxieties. He said he regretted making such few films and wanted to relish every moment of Veer Zaara and Jab Tak Hai Jaan,” recalls Somaaya.
Another striking feature of the interviews is that they juxtapose the viewpoints of veterans like Gulzar saab with someone more contemporary, like Karan Johar, an Amitabh Bachchan with an Ajay Devgn. Somaaya says that it is surprising that filmmakers and actors, no matter of what generation, suffer the same anxieties before starting a new film or inhabiting a new character.
Talking Cinema is testament not just to the talent of our filmmakers and actors, it also speaks volumes of Somaaya’s skill as an interviewer, who deftly draws out her subjects to articulate the mechanics of their profession. Ask Somaaya about the “rules” if any that govern the way she conducts an interview and she enumerates, “I have never indulged in frivolous interviews over the decades and consider it below my dignity to ask questions related to the stars’ private lives.”
With so much of an insider’s knowledge of cinema and the way it works, Somaaya even worked as a costume designer on films like Masoom and Main Azad Hoon — is making a film of her own on the anvil? “Not directing, but screenplay writing yes,” she says. “I have written a few scripts but not found a producer to make it into a film as yet.” Once she does, it’ll be time for an all new conversation on cinema.

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