[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.]