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Vol. XXXI No. 16, December 1-15, 2021

Doubling as sports and film critic

PARTAB RAMCHAND looks back on his days as a film critic interviewing Roman Polanski, chatting up Sharmila Tagore and being accused of spoiling a film’s business on account of a negative review.

The movie scene in Chennai that was Madras leaves me with a blur of memories. I have always been fond of films and my earliest recollections are of sitting on my father’s lap in the late fifties and crying through Goonj Uthi Shehnai, the Rajendra Kumar-Ameeta starrer with melodious music by Vasant Desai. I was not crying because it was a sad movie but because I was hungry or bored, I forget which. Throughout the sixties I never missed a popular English or Hindi movie, making plans for the evening show or the Saturday matinee with my friends. And if my friends were not available I never hesitated in going for a movie all by myself. Of course I also kept a tab on theatres that had regular Sunday morning shows of old movies – alas, no more a feature of the city theatre scenario these days.

In 1968, I joined Indian Express as a sports reporter. The lady in charge of the cinema page, coming to know of my interest in films, asked me whether I could review movies for the newspaper. I jumped at the opportunity and for many years I doubled up as a sports reporter and a film critic. Covering my two favourite beats and getting paid for it – there certainly was no luckier journalist in the city! I began to take a deeper interest in movies, came to recognise films by the director rather than the stars, familiarised myself with cinematic techniques and phrases and by the early 70s, became a keen student of the movies. That brought me closer to film distributors, theatre owners and film-makers. It also opened a whole new avenue of preview theatres wherein we film critics were privileged to watch the movies before they were screened for a general audience. The Film Chamber theatre, the mini theatre in the same premises, Suprageet, Mena and other such compact theatres became a part of my life.

Through the 70s, 80s and 90s my love affair with the cinema continued and I never missed a film festival organised by the American Center, the British Council, the Russian Cultural Center or Max Mueller Bhavan. I still treasure memories of the Frank Capra film festival and the Oscar films festival shown at the American Center, the early Hitchcock films shown at the British Council or the classic Kurosawa movies, which I saw at the Russian Cultural Centre. Covering the movie scene of course brought me into contact with a number of eminent personalities of the celluloid world and interviewing Roman Polanski during Filmotsav 80 in Bangalore takes pride of place in the memory list. He answered the questions disarmingly in his halting English but was able to get his ideas across in no uncertain terms and also displayed an impish sense of humour. A short chat with Sharmila Tagore at the same festival was something I will never forget, even if it was only for a few minutes and I remember thinking that she was even more gorgeous in person than on celluloid – and this when it was well past her ‘An Evening in Paris’ days.

In the eighties, I had an extended interview with the British director Christopher Miles who came across as a well-informed personality, exuding charm and typical British humour. I always carry vivid memories of a long informal chat with Jag Mundhra at the coffee shop at the Chola Sheraton in the mid 90s when he was already well known in India for making slick commercial thrillers with more than a tinge of sex under the Amritraj Productions banner. Ashok Amritraj of course I met a number of times, right from the days Amritraj Productions was launched in the late 70s. Covering his tennis exploits earlier in the decade obviously helped. Ashok made a name for himself as one of the top independent producers in Hollywood and so popular was he as a personality that I remember filmmakers from the movie capital flying down to Madras for his wedding in 1991. Talking to Feroz Khan in 1998 was another experience that will not be erased from memory so easily. The irresistible showman in him came right through in the interview. And of course there was dear old Mr. Umapathy, owner of Anand theatre, for whom my wife, even though she was almost 40 and a mother of two, was always ‘papa’ (baby). I also clearly remember with some amusement a manager of a theatre accusing me of spoiling his business because I had carried a negative review of one of the films released there. If only film critics here really had that power!

It was fun while it lasted but like all old things it came to an end when I retired from the profession. In the last few years, I have stopped reviewing films but my love affair with the movies has never stopped. I still read Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann, have many film books in my library at home and make it a point to watch old films on YouTube or the various movie channels (with Halliwell’s Film Guide always by my side). I used to attend as many film festivals as possible and once in a way made it to the theatres to catch up on today’s movie scene before I was put off by the excessive violence, explicit sex scenes and bad language. Very occasionally I succumb to my daughter’s request to see a film which she assures me is wholesome entertainment. But otherwise I am happy with my collection of old films and my nostalgic memories.

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