“Papa says he will make a great name for himself, He will do such astounding work.”
by Saad Quasem
In Edinburgh, Bollywood is synonymous to Piyush Roy. While, he wears several hats laced by accolades of different kinds, it is a proud and touching time for all of us in the editorial board and the team of the South Asianist as Piyush recently won an award in the category of “Best Film Critic” at the 60th Indian National Film Awards 2013. In an interview with us, Piyush Roy discusses the chronicles of his career and how he got to where he is, as well as, his future outlook on integrating academia and film studies; how he got to what Papa says.
1) You started your career as a journalist, how did you get into film journalism?
From my first job as a sub-editor with The Asian Age in Bhubaneswar (1997-1999), I always had an inclination for feature-based writing vis-à-vis news reportage. I had done almost 150 plus front page anchor stories in my first journalistic stint. Subsequently when I did some reporting on the Mumbai ‘underworld’ for the Society magazine, the Mafia’s attraction for the film industry was a major focus. This incidentally was the topic of my M.A. in International Journalism thesis at Cardiff University. However, once I joined the national English daily Hindustan Times (in Mumbai), as a special correspondent (2005-2006), I decidedly moved towards analytical writing in the culture beat of music, theatre, TV and cinema. My subsequent joining of another Indian national daily, The Indian Express (2007-2008) had me further narrow down my writing to serious cinema reportage. That’s when I got a fully funded scholarship to pursue an MSc in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh (2008-09), which opened me to the joys of world cinema, especially the cinemas of Europe and the Middle-East, and alternate styles of filmmaking.
On return, as editor of StarWeek and Stardust (2011), I guess I carved a niche for myself in mainstream film journalism in India. Those days, I was approached to do a Sunday column on cinema for an emerging daily from eastern India, Orissa Post, marking my debut as a columnist. The column is now in its third successful year without break, with another following a year later, on review introductions to 100 iconic Indian films.
2) How different is your work at this point of your career from the starting days?
A major difference in my writing today is in its maturing from reporting others’ opinions to an analysis of their point of views, apart from bringing in fresh, personal insights into the art of film appreciation born of an experience of nearly 15 years of dedicated movie watching, research and criticism. The focus in my writing too has shifted from popular Hindi cinema to other Indian cinemas, appreciating their signature regional and narrative diversities.
3) Which pieces of writing do you think were catalysts to your nomination?
My National Award ‘Special Mention’ citation states that it was conferred for my ‘in-depth knowledge of cinema and easy, informative style.’ This I think is an endorsement of my journalistic style of writing, which I do bring in, to my academic writings as well, to make them accessible to a larger readership. The fact that I have written beyond the national Hindi cinema on lesser known regional cinemas of Kashmir and Odisha, or the artistically more challenging films of Kerala and Maharashtra, along with my current research interest area of early Indian cinema perhaps boosted my nomination because the National Awards do look for a pan-Indian sensibility in reportage.
4) Who all went with you to Delhi to receive the award?
I was accompanied by my wife, Suratarangini Roy, who has been a constant source of strength and patience in my passionately driven erratic career, not to discount keeping up with my long research absences from home. Also joining me were the former head of the Cardiff University International office and an old friend from my MA days at JOMEC (Cardiff School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies), Rhian Thomas and our family doctor and an avid movie enthusiast Dr. Sudhanshu Sharma from Jaipur.
5) How was the experience attending the National Film Awards? Could you introduce us to the major feature films in competition this year?
The National Film Awards are Indian movie calendar’s highest and most eagerly awaited felicitation ceremony. Having been in the organizing team of two of Bollywood’s biggest, popular award ceremonies (the annual Screen and Stardust film awards) in the past, being part of a ‘national film award ceremony’ was a truly humbling, as well as an uplifting experience, especially since I was actually a winner this time. Humbling because of the honour’s nature of national recognition and seriousness of affairs, being presented by the President of India, after a selection by a learned jury featuring some of the best minds in one’s calling. Uplifting because, this like no other film award in the country, aims for a true celebration of the best of ‘all Indian cinema’ in both art and spirit!
This year’s ceremony became even more special as it coincided with the culmination of a year-long-celebration to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, apart from attracting a record number of 500 plus entries. My category on ‘writing for cinema’ had an all time high of 25 plus nominees.
The Indian film industry, of course was the biggest winner that night with the honouring of an eclectic spread of realistic high art showcasing many memorable movie vignettes. The major winners were Dhag (portraying the stark reality of a crematorium and its inhabitants in a Maharashtra village), Usthad Hotel (an inspiring story of desi enterprise from Kerala), Eega (an extraordinary fusion of technology and storytelling celebrating imaginative cinema from Hyderabad), Vazhakkuenn 18/9 (a modern love story set in Chennai with interesting class insights), Baandhon (a felt capture of love and loss featuring an Assamese couple on the other side of 70s), Paan Singh Tomar (an unusual biopic on a sports icon turned dacoit from the hinterlands of central India), Vicky Donor (an entertaining and enlightening film on a taboo topic like sperm donation set in Delhi), Harud (an incisive effort exploring the effect of militancy on the social fabric of Jammu & Kashmir), Chittagong (a poignant note on teen activism from the Indian independence struggle story) and Dekh Indian Circus (recounting fond adventures of a travelling circus in a Rajasthan village).
Cinema itself, was the theme of at least four acclaimed films – Celluloid (depicting the trials and tribulations of the father of Malayalam cinema Dr. J.C. Daniel), Filmistan (a gripping tale about a Mumbai film buff, who unwittingly gets involved in a cross-border adventure in Pakistan), Shobdo (a brilliant tribute to a technician’s obsession for ambient sound) and the multi-layered biographic documentary, Celluloid Man on the founder of the National Film Archive of India, P.K. Nair highlighting the urgency for archiving of films in India.
6) It seems that Bollywood and other Indian language cinemas are in a fabulous space of creativity and storytelling these days.
Indeed, Bollywood in its 100th year, 2012, has been in a very inspiring space of creativity, frequently bursting with new talents, possibilities and story ideas. Never before had so many good films and performances happened in a single year in Hindi cinema after 1957 and 1975. South Indian auteur Mani Ratnam has hailed 2012 as the ‘actual golden age of Tamil cinema’. Young directorial talents have made the ‘new age urban Bengali art cinema’ even more experimental. Malayalam cinema continues its leadership in showcasing unique story ideas, while Telegu cinema has been achieving new highs in technology led by the likes of filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli (the winner of the Best Telegu film of 2012 for Eega), who happens to be the most adapted director in popular Indian cinema today. Last but not least is Marathi cinema, which starting with Shwaas (2004), has seen a phenomenal surge in some seriously never-before-seen tales to emerge one of the bravest regional cinemas of recent times.
7) Is there a particular school of thought/ methodology/ framework you use to formulate your reviews?
Film criticism is a fine art, and film appreciation like any other professional discipline needs a certain amount of dedication, discipline and talent for fair play. The job of critics goes beyond finding faults, to discovering and highlighting the beautiful moments in a viewing experience. They should educate their readers/viewers on how to appreciate cinema as an art and point them to relevant examples beyond their comfort zone of regional or national cinema. Critics should avoid the temptation of making below the belt, saucy comments to boost the popularity of their takes, because a review is a serious piece of journalism.
One of the biggest training for a film critic is to never tire of seeing as many varied films as possible from different countries, languages, cinematic styles, etc. One should never lose out on his education of the history of cinema in the pursuit of reviewing current successes.
While pursuing my Masters in Film Studies, I was introduced to and was impressed by a lot of foundation theories on film appreciation from Europe, especially France. Amongst critics, I admire a lot the style, structure and balanced analysis of all crafts of filmmaking in the reviews of American film critic, James Berardinelli.
However, while reviewing Indian cinema, I also believe that the context of its culture should be understood to better appreciate its unique attributes, and different style of storytelling. That concern eventually became the trigger for my multi-disciplinary doctoral project on the traditional, ‘Navarasa Aesthetics of Indian Cinema,’ which I am currently pursuing at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the University of Edinburgh.
8) Tell us something about your topic of research at the University of Edinburgh.
My research project intends to explore ‘the impact & influence of the Rasa (emotion) in Indian cinema’. How and why affective or emotional realism has come to become a definitive, integral and signature aspect of the story telling attributes of Indian cinema over natural realism. It aims to investigate the role of the idea of Rasa (from India’s ancient textbook of drama, the Nātyasāstra) in film production and narration; the analysis and understanding of viewers’ experience; box-office performance of blockbuster films; and explore the possibility of using a film’s ‘dominant emotion’ as a parameter for identifying directorial intention.
9) Now that you are in academia has your angle of analysis changed? If so how? If not, then why not?
Academia trains you for an in-depth overview of a subject. Good journalism inculcates a sense of balanced review and the seeking of multiple perspectives to an issue. I don’t see a reason on why to not continue with the boons of both, so long as one is able to stay away from the arrogance of the former and the popularity driven, ‘please-all’ pitfalls of the latter.
10) How do you think winning a National Award will help further your career goals? How would you review your journalistic success so far?
Success is a relative term, and I think it’s for others to judge vis-à-vis my analysis of it. I still have a lot more to study, write and review in my current area of work, which involves elements of movie studies, cinema research and constructive film criticism. Professionally, the tremendous amount of buzz the win has generated in my home state, Odisha, and the awareness to my work in the national media (in a non-glamorous film category like film criticism) is very encouraging. Now, when I approach my interviewees, I do experience a sense of respect and the assurance of serious journalism. Personally, there is of course a sense of joy in my being awarded in the category of ‘Best Film Critic,’ especially in the tremendous amount of goodwill it has generated amongst friends, family and colleagues from the media fraternity.
11) Finally, in 20 years from now, where do you see yourself?
This sounds so much like facing a job interview board. Jokes apart, 20 years is too long a time to procrastinate; but I wish that my Sunday column on cinema would have turned 22 by then. What I definitely see myself doing is further contributing towards the propagation of a healthy culture of film appreciation amongst film goers in India, while awakening them to the joys of other world cinema. I also hope to inculcate a more sensitive and informed disposition towards appreciating Indian cinema in all its unique features in the Western world and academia.
Links to Published Articles in Journals and leading Indian dailies:
The Times of India (Crest) Edition: http://www.timescrest.com/reporters/Piyush-Roy
The Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/columnist/piyushroy/
The Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/Search/search.aspx?q=Piyush%20Roy%20(HT%20Style)
The South Asianist: http://journals.ed.ac.uk/southasianist/article/view/29
Review (of Piyush Roy’s debut novel ‘Never Say Never Again’ in Dawn): http://archives.dawn.com/weekly/books/archive/071104/books9.htm
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