Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cyberspace and movie-love

[From a column I did for Business Standard]

I recently realised that this month marks 10 years since I first got an Internet connection at home. (I was a Net user for a year or so before that, but only sporadically, at a tech-savvy friend’s house – it took me a long time to overcome my diffidence about being alone with the monster.) This led to speculation about the role the WWW played in my development as a movie-lover – even to the point where it helped me transfer a personal obsession to a professional sphere.

For a youngster living in Delhi, the early 1990s was a lonely time if you were interested in something other than mainstream Hindi cinema – for me, it was marked by solitary treks to the video libraries of embassies, a copy of my thick movie guide in a polythene bag. As a teenage Indian who became inexplicably and unreasonably passionate about (for example) Hollywood films of the 1930s, it was unthinkable that I would ever be able to discuss these interests with anyone else; it had to remain a privately pursued hobby and there was certainly no future in it (assuming of course that I wasn’t going to move to the US and become a film historian).

When I got my first personal computer in late 1995, a precious side-purchase was a CD-ROM titled Cinemania '96, a collection of film reviews, essays, movie stills, biographical details and – most fascinatingly – short clips from around 25 seminal American and British films. Articles on the CD were “hyperlinked”, which meant that clicking on an actor’s name in a cast list took you straight to his biography page – it was a wondrous discovery and my first (relatively primitive) experience of something that I today take for granted on the Internet. Back then, being able to watch short clips from films like Taxi Driver (the tense two-minute scene with Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance as a paranoid husband who makes Travis Bickle park outside his wife’s apartment) on a PC, without having to go out and rent a videocassette, seemed like the apotheosis of technology’s marvels.

But after the Net made its advent, the parameters changed forever. In the months and years that followed, I spent a large amount of time on movie websites, sometimes contributing short pieces to them. My first paying assignment as a film writer came not for a print publication but as a moonlighter for the now-long-defunct website Cafedilli, which – the nature of the Internet being what it is – had no problem with a Delhi-based writer doing articles on international cinema. And though I was never too keen on online forums, it could be a stress-buster to occasionally log on to a site run by people with similar interests and take part in a short, intense discussion about Cary Grant or Preston Sturges – if only to remind myself that the world did contain other nutcases obsessive about the same things (some of whom, it turned out, were actually Indians, based in my city) **. All this, incidentally, was before blogs became popular and the real explosion of opinion pornography began.

Even knowing how the Net has mollycoddled our generation – turning what used to be arduous, hard-won research into a matter of a few well-chosen search words and mouse-clicks – one never ceases to be surprised by how much is available online. Recently, while writing a piece on Hitchcock's Vertigo, I decided to see if YouTube had any material – interviews, commentary - on the film. Among the goodies I found was an alternate ending that had been shot for European audiences (and which I had never seen before, even though my DVD of the film has a good collection of special features) as well as valuable information about the restoration of the film’s negative. Each time I make serendipitous discoveries like these, I marvel at my naiveté in thinking that the Cinemania CD-ROM was the best that it could get. On the Net, I’ve watched documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage that there would be little chance of getting hold of anywhere else; all of it contributes in an ongoing way to my movie-love and helps me grow as a writer too. And who can even begin to guess what the future will bring?

It turns out that the nutcase factor works both ways. One of the recent pleasures of Net-surfing has been the discovery of excellent Bollywood blogs created by non-Indians who have a fascination for Hindi cinema – such as such as Beth Loves Bollywood, Filmiholic and the Post-Punk Cinema Club blog, a treasure-trove of posts about Shashi Kapoor films of the 1960s and 1970s (even a Bollywood historian would be astonished by some of the detail). More on these in a later column.

[Related nostalgia posts here, here and here.]


  1. Hi,
    I don't know whether you know about this but can give it a try; A nice and detailed blog on Indian parallel cinema:

  2. What a nostalgic post ! The things Internet has done to us :). What I like about your posts is that there is always an element indicative of personal growth. NICE WORK !!

  3. One of my earliest memories of the net is of a similar vein. This was in the days of "shell" accounts, which offered text and links but no real graphics. Even this could only be accessed in a tech-savvy uncle's house because of the exorbitant phone bills. My brother and I stumbled onto a site that listed Homer's "mmmmms..." ("Mmmmmmmm... sixty four slices of American cheese" is one that stuck in my mind). For me then Simpsons was the first exposure to popular culture with any sort of subversive content and finding this random piece of it on the internet was truly magical.

  4. It works both ways. The Net has not just offered an avenue for people to discuss their quaint esoteric hobbies. It has also rendered these very hobbies more commonplace.

    A twenty something interested in 30s Hollywood was the rarest of rarities in the early nineties. I suspect it is no longer so now. Thanks to torrent and imdb.

  5. I felt very alone for years being the only person I knew who watched Hindi films. My friends and family all thought I was crazy. Writing a blog about my "obsession" has really brought so much more pleasure---not to mention new friends---than I ever expected. (Plus, I got to see a Fearless Nadia film finally over at! Thanks, internet!)

  6. I stumbled here through the Post Punk Cinema Club.

    The ease with which one can find old media online is truly amazing. I wonder if something is lost by viewing artifacts of a past time through a contemporary lens, though. I'm sure that my small computer screen could never recapture the experience of viewing an old film on a large screen. Am I then watching a different film from the one that people in the past would have seen?

  7. Did we run into each other at Alliance Francaise or Max Mueller Bhavan or the French Embassy on Aurangzeb Rd back in the early 90's? :-) There were usually half a dozen of us in these places. At the IICs & Siri Forts of course you had to beg, borrow & steal to get in. Bad luck if you didn't have an uncle or aunty at the I&B Ministry...

  8. 10 years were 30, right? :P

  9. Opinion pornography... tsk! :-)

    Liked this post a lot, you write very well.. an excellent blend of personal nostalgia and detached observation. . . Inimitable, Inspirational style; and so very engaging...