The art of the unhurried interview
- Nasreen Munni Kabir, Syed Mohd Irfan and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur are slowing the format down
- Interview books and oral histories allow for more comprehensive and insightful discussions
George Plimpton, American sports writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, was an evangelist for the art of the interview. “Try to think of the interview as a dramatic form in itself," he advised a contributor to the journal, “where one’s tools are very much the dramatic devices: character buildup, suspense, surprise, argument even." On another occasion, he said, “The best interviews not only divulge something about the character of the writer, but have a surprise or two in them, and maybe even a plot."
Film interviewing in India rarely fulfils the Plimptonian ideal. Too often, it’s a less-than-illuminating barter of print space for a star’s time. Even the better interviews centre on films about to release, thus limiting the scope of the conversation. TV interviews are mostly cosy affairs, with anchor and guest trading gossip. Cinema-centric publications are few, and even in these interviews are “pegged" to release dates.
Every journalist has at least one story about when they kept talking with a subject for hours until, magically, something was revealed. Indian film stars rarely grant that kind of access and Indian film journalists rarely seek it. Unless you are lucky, the 20-minute discussion that fills a half-page in a daily will yield little more than rehearsed answers.
Still, a few individuals have been steadily pushing the practice of the unhurried interview. They work in markedly different fields: as an author, a TV anchor, a preservationist. But they are united by a determination to reveal the workings of Indian film, and to record the memories of its practitioners while they are still around.
A SEAMLESS ADVANCE
There’s nothing like the moment when a seasoned interviewer says, “I didn’t know that."
One such admission comes 110 pages into Conversations With Waheeda Rehman, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book-length interview with the actor. They have already spoken about her famous films with Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool) and her lone collaboration with Satyajit Ray, Abhijan. Kabir brings up Guide—perhaps Rehman’s most celebrated performance—and asks her if she had read R.K. Narayan’s source novel before it was turned into a movie. Rehman replies: “It was Mr Ray who asked me to read the novel because he was considering adapting it."
Kabir’s research is clearly exhaustive—one of her earlier questions is about a portrait of Rehman painted in the early 1960s by Kaagaz Ke Phool’s set designer, M.R. Achrekar. So when she reveals that she wasn’t aware of a detail this significant, what she’s really telling the reader is: How exciting! Over Skype, Kabir says it always makes her very happy when her subjects say something she suspects no one knows. “You know you haven’t heard it. And you can see they are excited, and they talk faster, and if you try and interrupt them they won’t listen to you."
Kabir started out in the 1970s as an assistant to other directors, including French legend Robert Bresson. She helped organize Indian film festivals for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and directed the 1989 documentaries In Search Of Guru Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan: Follow That Star. But it was Movie Mahal (1986-88), a 46-part guide to Hindi cinema that she made for British TV, which prompted publisher Rukun Advani to suggest she do a book-length interview.
Kabir was initially hesitant, but when she approached Javed Akhtar with the idea he was enthusiastic. The result was Talking Films, a freewheeling discussion about Akhtar’s screenwriting career as one half of the iconic Salim-Javed duo (the two would later sit down for another book, Talking Songs, in which Akhtar discusses his equally influential career as a lyricist).
At the time, Kabir couldn’t have known she would become synonymous with the interview book. She has since published conversations with Waheeda Rehman, writer-director Gulzar (twice), singer Lata Mangeshkar, composer A.R. Rahman and percussionist-composer Zakir Hussain. Each discussion usually stretches over 16-20 sessions of about 2 hours each, in person or over Skype.
It’s useful, Kabir says, to establish one’s own credentials as an interviewer early on. “The most important thing is to surprise them, because they have done thousands of interviews. If you ask them ‘What’s your most important film?’ and they say Guide, that’s the end of the conversation." She believes the interviewer’s voice can be present in the discussion without making it to the page. “Often I am an active participant, but when I complete the book, I cut my questions in half. I don’t want the reader to think I am a smart-ass."
Once the conversations are done, Kabir gives them out for transcribing. When they are returned to her, she edits each session one by one. “Then I start cutting and pasting so it flows. If someone talks about tomatoes and then in the next session talks about tomatoes again, you have to join them in the book. A conversation needs to be a seamless advance."
REVISITING A LIFE
In 2018, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur was invited to screen Celluloid Man, his documentary on film archivist P.K. Nair, and give a talk at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. He spoke, as he often does, about the vast swathes of Indian cinema that lay undocumented. Afterwards, he was approached by the Academy, which has been recording oral histories—career-spanning interviews with actors, directors and technicians—since 1989. Would Dungarpur like to conduct his own oral histories with Indian film professionals?
A history-minded documentarian and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), an organization dedicated to the preservation of cinema, Dungarpur had already dabbled in oral history. He had recorded Gulzar at length on tape and shot for 4 hours with actor Kamini Kaushal. Celluloid Man itself was a sort of oral history of Nair. “I was anxious that nothing was being done to archive these legends on film," Dungarpur told me when we met at the FHF office in Tardeo, Mumbai. He immediately said yes to the Academy.
Before Dungarpur and his team could start, though, they had to learn how to conduct the interviews—which meant unlearning what they knew about interviewing. “Oral history is all about the speaker deciding what they want to say," Dungarpur explains. The camera would not move. There would be no leading questions or interjections. This is the exact opposite of Kabir’s approach, where the interviewer’s personality shapes the conversation as much as the guest’s. Here the interviewers must subsume themselves for the sake of the discussion.
The FHF started out by researching each subject’s life’s work, doing some in-house and outsourcing the rest to film scholars they trusted. A detailed filmography was assembled in each case, key films identified, and a questionnaire prepared. Rohini Singh, who worked at the FHF and assisted Dungarpur on the histories, says the conversations usually lasted 4-7 hours. “This is the longest interview most of them have sat for. We have to reinforce the idea that this isn’t any old interview, that they are the narrator."
Since February, the FHF has interviewed film-makers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Ratnam, actors Amitabh Bachchan, Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Vishwa Mehra, Raj Kapoor’s uncle.
I was shown excerpts from a couple of conversations, which will eventually be made available by both the Academy and FHF. Mani Ratman talks about the perils of directing great performers: “You realize that the better the actor, they can convince you with anything, and you have still got to make sure the edges are sharp and they don’t stray." Asked what acting means to him, Bachchan gives a reflex sound bite (“It’s a job"), but, faced with silence, expands this into a thoughtful response, speaking almost wistfully about how the current crop of actors immerse themselves in their characters whereas he “just wanted to learn the lines".
FINDING THE MELODY
The longest-running film interview show of its kind in India is on Rajya Sabha TV, a channel few even know exists. Called Guftagoo, it has aired weekly since 2011, with more than 350 episodes in the bank. Its host is Syed Mohd Irfan, whose unassuming manner belies his reputation as an incisive interviewer. He worked for years as a freelance broadcast and communications professional in TV and radio, teaching, doing voice-over work, and hosting the popular vintage film music programme Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya on FM Gold.
Irfan started Guftagoo with the idea of chronicling, for half an hour every week, a little piece of Indian cinema (the full episodes, which sometimes last an hour, are on RSTV’s YouTube channel). That so many luminaries have passed on without being recorded spurred Irfan. “I didn’t know who Iftekhar was," he said over the phone from Delhi. “I didn’t know Mukri either. Who was Om Prakash? What was (A.K.) Hangal’s life story?"
RSTV may not be prestigious but it has over three million subscribers on YouTube, which is where, Irfan says, most people watch his show now. And since a Parliament channel doesn’t care about inviting guests based on whose film is releasing, Irfan can talk to pretty much whoever he wants, about whatever interests him (four consecutive episodes last year were with Telugu writer-director B. Narsing Rao, French subtitler François-Xavier Durandy and Hindi film actors Konkona Sensharma and Anupam Kher). He assembles the show by himself—a habit formed in his radio days—doing his own research and making guest bookings.
Most of Irfan’s guests are happy to be interviewed by him. The conversation with the late Tom Alter has a warm start, with smiles on the host’s and guest’s faces. Singer Usha Uthup starts hers by saying she’d been hoping to be invited, and telling Irfan, “Mujhe khaas taur se aap pasand hain (I like you in particular)."
Yet it’s not always smooth, and that’s when you see the steel under Irfan’s unruffled manner. In his conversation with Piyush Mishra, the actor sits in a strange sideways fashion, shoulder aimed at the camera, remarks addressed to the side. Irfan lets him finish his first answer, then says firmly, “Aankh se aankh mila kar baat kariye (look me in the eye and speak)."
The opening moments with Jackie Shroff are even more tense. Irfan starts by asking the star about his parents. Shroff bristles. “Don’t you think you are asking me to go a little deep, asking me about my mother who’s no more?" he snaps. “She’s everywhere, but that doesn’t mean I have to dig her up." Irfan remembers thinking then that the interview was over. But he keeps his composure and Shroff’s mood quickly lifts. It ended up as one of his most popular episodes.
Irfan talks about finding the sur (tune) of an interview. You can see him discover it more than halfway through his conversation with Akshay Kumar. Kumar responds to the host’s questions about his early life professionally, without much show of emotion. Irfan keeps at it patiently, probing the actor’s mentions of his interest in sports, trouble with studies, and strict father. It bears fruit in the 17th minute, when Kumar opens up and recalls how he once told his father, who was berating him for his low marks: “I will become a hero one day." Suddenly, guest and host are laughing and the interview has found its music.
Most Guftagoo sessions unfold at the guests’ homes. This allows for a new setting every week, but it also leaves Irfan at the mercy of the surroundings. As he notes wryly: “In Bombay (Mumbai), someone is always cutting stones." In a 2016 episode, after a series of thuds from the construction work outside, voice artist Chetan Shashithal interrupts his story and advises the sound engineer to adjust the volume so the microphone isn’t damaged.
Sometimes, though, setting and subject align beautifully. Writer and comedian Varun Grover told me that when he was interviewed, “Irfan very calmly took me aside and said ‘Hum log thoda itminaan se baat karenge...so aap bataaiye kahaan comfortable hoga (We are going to have a relaxed chat…you tell me where you will be comfortable).’ I told him we can sit on the floor. He agreed."
Irfan doesn’t like keeping a set of questions in front of him. He’s calm, even bland, on the surface, but is searching constantly for a thread to the discussion. Sometimes, he already has it—a remark on another show by actor Pankaj Tripathi about how there’s a woman inside him—but he seems to relish seeking it out. “He seemed to be in a trance throughout, stable and fixed gaze," Grover says about his experience on the show, “and absolutely focused on giving the conversation a unique character. After watching the interview, I think I realized what he was going for. Slow-burn but with bursts of high-flame stir-fries in between."
These high-flame stir-fries often take guests by surprise. “People actually start crying," Irfan says. “I have to take a break."
One can see the influence of Guftagoo on Neelesh Misra’s Slow Interview series (on YouTube). Kabir’s work can be said to have cleared the way for interview books like Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations With Mani Ratnam. Some interview-based Indian cinema podcasts (Anything But Bollywood, Cinema Beyond Entertainment) have also surfaced.
These are encouraging signs, even if the slow film interview has a long way to go before it takes root. We have already failed to preserve our silent cinema. Every few months, another unrecorded fragment of our film history passes away. Simply by getting experts to speak, Kabir, Irfan and Dungarpur are working as archivists. The conversations may be unhurried, but the task could not be more urgent.