Freeze Frame is mainly a collection of interviews that noted film critic Anupama Chopra had conducted for the show, ‘Picture This’, on NDTV between 2007 and 2011. Apart from this are interviews published in Vogue, and articles by Chopra contributed to Open Magazine in 2010–2011.
What we are reading is of course how the conversations have transitioned from an electronic audio-visual medium to a literary medium, and from a series to a condensed anthology. Editing has taken place at the broadcast level as well as in the making of the book.
In the resulting work, what we find is that the strength of her questions lies in exploring personal experiences of the respondents vis-a-vis colleagues and acting stints, and sometimes some biographical reflections. In fact Karan Johar’s foreword emphasizes just this. And though not very often, it is good that the emerging stories point to various industry practices like the career of female actors after marriage, foreign actors’ interactions with the Indian film industry over time, and experiencing oneself at the vortex of stardom.
But, the questions still engage very little with cinema as a medium, or an art form, or collective social memory. Or perhaps, only to the level of characters played.
The medium of television through which the questions and answers were first disseminated, and the policies of time or content of the channel may have put restrictions on what could be taken forward from a reply. For example when Chopra asks Russell Crowe about the experience of doing a literary character that has been performed ‘successfully’, and he latches on to the concept of ‘success’ and leads us to how the unique personality of each actor will lend a different quality to the same character being played. She begins her conversation brilliantly with Abhay Deol and Anurag Kashyap, with a question on cinematic interpretations of Devdas. But then it fizzles out into simple interaction stories of the two artists, Shah Rukh Khan’s version of the character of Devdas, and touch-and-go deliberations on popular notions of this character. In each case there is no further pondering on the historical conditions of each version of the story. Aishwayra Rai Bachchan begins to talk about recreating another time on the sets of Action Replay, but the next question posed to her shifts base.
The way the interviews are initiated by Chopra in this collection, as in the way she writes reviews of popular films generally, reflects the problem of film criticism in mainstream media today: terminologies of film-making or art in general are used and abruptly the thought ends in a judgemental statement about what was tasteful and what was not, what was boring and what was not.
All of the personalities (mainly actors and directors) featured in Freeze Frame are engaged with cinema industries in different parts of the world, of various levels of size or budget, style or ideology. And there is indeed a vast array of respondents from Luc Besson to Dev Anand to Christopher Nolan to Frieda Pinto to Noomi Rapace. But we read the perspective of them doing a job instead of as artists scrutinizing what messages they feel they are communicating through their performance. A very provocative thought is hinted at in a question to Naseerudin Shah about Ishqiya being ‘significant’, but then it comes back to the technicalities of its making. Steven Soderbergh is asked about The Informant being a comedy—a chance to ponder upon formalistic decisions is wasted after his reply. If Baz Lurhmann is saying that there is ‘artistic exchange’ between styles of film-making in Bombay and L.A, why not ask him more about this exchange? Then an oversimplification of Besson’s Joan of Arc and The Lady into a question on ‘strong women’; whatever happened to historical and political contexts—both of events and of films?
Also, Chopra sticks to this umbrella term that assumes a body of work as Indian cinema—‘Bollywood’. Bombay cinema has fluid boundaries, it is not one type—if that is what was meant. And it is definitely not all of popular Indian cinema.
As an archive this material is more tangible—written versus passing flashes on a screen. Thus ‘Freeze Frame’: moments captured into a medium which can be revisited in a different way and with the ability to spend more time upon each thought expressed. It makes sense then that there is a variety of the author’s work so that we may understand her perspective a little better.
In most of the essays in the last section (columns from Open), what Chopra seems to be doing, is collecting all kinds of information which the reader is mostly aware of or opinions which are widely held, and just putting them together. Conclusions on it, further insight on what is happening, seem like a hurried wrapping up of each set of information.
In one column she talks about her own practice of reviewing films. ‘I try to give my viewers information, insight and a recommendation for the weekend. I rarely tell people outright not to see a film.’ But that’s just the problem: people could choose to watch a film for various reasons, and one wants to read more than just opinions—opinions are subject to change. Then does proximity with the industry, the type Chopra enjoys, help or hinder a writer to probe an artwork or issue? This is an important question a book such as Freeze Frame throws up for readers.
Ipsita Sengupta has an MA in Film Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She believes in the strong power of cinema to facilitate dialogue on the individual and society.