Friday, April 05, 2013

About a brief encounter with Roger Ebert

Sad to hear of the passing of Roger Ebert. I hadn't read much by him in the past few years (no particular reason - my online reading in general has thinned out), but his reviews were staples in my early years of net-surfing, circa 1998-2000 (when the Chicago Sun-Times site was one of the first pages I opened each time I got online) and I particularly enjoyed his Great Films essays. In a somewhat surreal turn of events, I found myself in correspondence with him around six years ago, after he mailed to say he liked something I had written in Business Standard. This begat a comical email exchange because, although his ID and the tone of his mail seemed authentic, my blog had been plagued by some inventive troll activity around the time, and this seemed a little too good to be true. So I sent "Ebert" a very cautious, split-personality response expressing my happiness if the mail really was from him, but also being careful not to get too fulsome, and repeatedly using the phrase "assuming this really IS you". Then he would reply trying to convince me. He used faux-philosophical lines like "How can I prove I'm me?" He even sent across two photos from the 1999 Calcutta Film Festival, which I knew he had attended; the subject line of his mail was "Would an imposter have this?"

Even then I continued to be a little wary (the photos did seem to be insider views of the fest, but he wasn't in either of them). The pleasing clincher came a few weeks later when I was browsing through an entry on his blog and saw his response to this comment. (Yes, I'm showing off. Deal with it.)

At which point I mailed him back, apologising for my earlier reserve and saying the fanboyish things I had held back from saying earlier. He replied, sounding amused and relieved (and possibly also wondering if I was missing a few bulbs in the old chandelier). After that, however, we were only sporadically in touch - this was also around the time that his health problems were escalating.

As a very small tribute, here is a link to an Ebert piece that I often returned to in the old days, his review of Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel. No idea why this review in particular struck such a chord (partly perhaps because I had just seen the film and was trying to collect my own thoughts about it), but the quality and the passion of the writing left a big impression on me during a difficult, depressing period when I was wondering if it was possible to pursue a career writing about the things I was interested in. (Or if I even knew what I was interested in.) On some level, this and dozens of other Ebert pieces helped me decide, though back then it was beyond imagining that I would one day get an email from the man himself, saying "We are similar in having strong interests in both film and literature."

P.S. I first came across Ebert's writings on my Cinemania 95 CD-ROM in the pre-Internet days (that was also where I discovered this fascinating new concept of the hyperlink). Hard to believe it's been nearly 20 years.


  1. Jai, you were the first person I thought of today upon hearing of Ebert's passing. That's because I first ever heard of him thanks to you, and since then, I have been as regular a reader of him (in all forms and on all subjects!) as ever. So, anyway, thank you for that, and don't you (or Baradwaj Rangan) go die or something anytime soon!


  2. Thanks for writing this lovely piece.

    but his reviews were staples in my early years of net-surfing, circa 1998-2000 (when the Chicago Sun-Times site was one of the first pages I opened each time I got online)

    I think this is exactly the thing so many of us can relate to and hence feel so sad for Mr Ebert's death, especially after growing up in India on standard Bollywood fair where movie watching was never really meant to be taken "seriously" , in the sense of turning into an experience . He was almost like a teacher in this sense and even today when I like a movie , I rush back to google to see what his thoughts were on the same . Saddened that I will not be able to do it anymore.

    Sorry , had no idea you would write a piece on him so quickly . Please delete my comment on the other post . It was written on a vague impulse .

  3. I was gutted by the news. Surprisingly so, given how often I disagree with him. Fact remains that the modern iterations of film criticism mightn't even exist without him. He was the first to make film criticism feel accessible to me, an enormous gift in and of itself.

    I'll be choking out an obit for the Sunday Guardian soon.

  4. I had that Cinemania CD ROM too. And Ebert was an institution. I will miss his insightful reviews tremendously.

  5. I too was thinking on the same lines that how come you have not written anything on Ebert. Just checked your blog and found the post. Must've been a memorable experience for you getting those mails from him. Once in a while I write mails to writers after reading their books. I remember writing a mail to Chandrahas after finishing 'Arzee the Dwarf'. I didnt expect him to reply and therefore was pleasantly surprised when he not only replied, but wrote in a detailed way. My expectations were high when I sent a mail to Rana Dasgupta after reading Solo. His reply was one line (much below my expectations, which had jumped after Chandrahas's detailed reply) :)

  6. Wow, Jai. What a compliment from the great man himself! Of course you must show it off! :)

  7. ...and I LOVE the "missing a few bulbs in the old chandelier" analogy. I'm going to use it at the first possible opportunity. Will give you due credit! :D

  8. Radhika: I'm fairly sure I didn't think up that phrase all by myself (and I'm also sure I've used it before), but you're welcome to it!

  9. I too was thinking on the same lines that how come you have not written anything on Ebert

    Pessimist Fool: actually I'm always a bit surprised when one is expected to write about something. I did this post only because of that personal email connection - I doubt I would have written anything otherwise, even though RE's work was once a very important part of my reading life.

  10. Jai - It's funny though, even I don't know why I expected you to write on Ebert given that the only time I remember you mentioning him in your blog was when you said he looks too similar to that character in the movie Kahani. And, I guess, because you were under no burden of expectation, you didn't make your piece sound like an obituary.

  11. I was deeply saddened by his demise. There was a moment when he became much more than a reviewer to me- and this happened when I read his review of "I am not there" -especially his last six words- " And we have been left not one step closer to comprehending Bob Dylan, which is as it should be."
    Which is as it should be!
    These words of profound significance not just to this film but to appreciation of cinema in general and also to life, and more than that the unassuming manner he said it, resonate with me to this day.I watch that film often and I go back to his review invariably.

  12. Pessimist Fool: actually, the post that inadvertently gave this blog its first big wave of publicity was one that involved Ebert and a certain ToI movie critic. (It was from November 2004.) I probably have mentioned him a couple of other times too, though like I said I hadn't read him much in the past 3-4 years.

  13. Rahul: yes, that's a great end to a terrific review - must go back and reread it sometime. (Is that the one where Ebert confessed the prejudices he had once harboured towards Dylan, and how he had subsequently changed his mind about a lot of things?)

  14. Thank you for your post, Jai. I was a journalist for many years; I now teach journalism at a media college in Bangalore. I have taken the liberty of providing a link on my blog to "About a brief encounter with Roger Ebert". Here's my post:



  15. Nice tribute. Here is Ebert's review of a movie which if De Palma would have known Jai Arjun Singh, he would have surely cast him for that role. "What are you, some kind of method actor, huh"

  16. You may be interested to read this candid account from Roger Ebert's journal on his battle with alcohol:

  17. Jai, I think that you need to be a little less suspicious at times and loosen up (It's a Joke mate). Roger Ebert's passing away is really tragic and also i feel that now we are approaching the very end of intelligent film reviewing in these times.

    I know people tend to get nostalgic and lament about an end of an era, notwithstanding that era's never end, merely a new one starts. In film reviewing however the lack of depth and prevalence of commerce is becoming starker by the day. Ebert was someone I used to follow with a lot of enthusiasm and his writing was beautiful and at the same time never rigid or imposing.

    He was somebody who never asked his readers to abstain from watching a film though there are a few exceptions of some real monstrosities that even he could not digest. I also remember him speaking his heart out and giving an honest opinion about some otherwise commercially successful giants which were praised to the skies by other critics. Notable examples being Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings.

    It was refreshing to read his views and he was always a pure lover of cinema first than a critic.

    I have not been able to comment too much on your blog recently due to lack of time but this is one place where I get a lot of insight in the field of literature and cinema. So keep up the good work.

  18. Shwet: thanks! And good to see you here after a long time.

  19. I miss Roger Ebert.. He was the only critic I looked forward to for hollywood movies.
    From a person who prefers hollywood to bollywood , I must confess I find special delight in reading Roger Ebert reviews of Indian movies or Indian related movies. He seem to have more regard for bollywood movies than I do.

    For example , this line from his review of chandani chowk to china :-

    "Deepika Padukone, abandoned a promising start as a badminton champion to become a model and actress. She is breathtaking, which of course is standard in Bollywood, where all the actresses are either breathtaking or playing mothers."

    or his analysis of this scene in darjeeling limited :-

    "Anderson uses India not in a touristy way, but as a backdrop that is very, very there. Consider a lengthy scene where the three brothers share a table in the diner with an Indian man who is a stranger. Observe the performance of the stranger. As an Indian traveling in first class, he undoubtedly speaks English, but they do not exchange a word. He reads his paper. The brothers talk urgently and openly about intimacies and differences. He does not "react" in any obvious way. His unperturbed presence is a reaction in itself. There is a concealed level of performance: They probably know he can understand them, and he probably knows they know this. There he sits, a passive witness to their lives. It is impossible to imagine this role played any better. He raises the level of the scene to another dimension."

    Or these lines from Laagan :-

    "The most charming aspect of most Bollywood movies is their cheerful willingness to break into song and dance at the slightest pretext; the film I saw was about a romance between a rich boy and a poor girl, whose poverty did not prevent her from producing back-up dancers whenever she needed them."


    "Watching the film, we feel familiarity with the characters and the show-down, but the setting and the production style is fresh and exciting. Bollywood has always struck a bargain with its audience members, many of them poor: You get your money's worth. Leaving the film, I did not feel unsatisfied or vaguely short-changed, as after many Hollywood films, but satisfied: I had seen a movie."

    I assume you have read his review of Taal? If you haven't read it ,you better read it now . I don't want to quote the entire thing .Wonderful stuff here .