In many ways, Indian cinema is insular, and the millions of those who patronise it are even more so. It is only a miniscule number of Indians who peek beyond Bollywood, Kollywood and the innumerable other Woods of the country. So I was more than mildly surprised to see a huge contingent of photographers and journalists gathered at Chennai’s Satyam Cinemas on Wednesday morning.
The occasion was a media conference by the Oscar winning Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, and the cast of his newest film, Life of Pi, Irrfan, Tabu, debutant Suraj Sharma and others. Four different clips from the 3D movie – adding up to about 20 minutes – were also to be screened.
Life of Pi is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel whose story of a teenage boy and his family of father, mother and brother running a small menagerie begins in Puducherry (earlier called Pondicherry and just a two-hour drive from Chennai. Lee had wisely shot the first segment of his film in Puducherry, and the later parts in Taiwan, where he recreated the Pacific Ocean in a gigantic water tank that was built in a disused airfield.
It is quite possible that the crowd of media men and women at Satyam Cinemas that morning had their curiosity aroused by the Puducherry setting, which the production company, Fox, had cleverly highlighted in its public relations campaign. Lee himself was probably persuaded to visit Chennai – the only other city in India he hopped into for this advertising exercise was Mumbai.
Otherwise, Chennai is back and beyond for not just Bollywood, but also Hollywood. American movie companies do not even think it necessary to hold a press show for an English language film in Chennai; an event of this sort is becoming a rarity there.
So, when Fox decided to hold the Lee conference in Chennai, its executives must have gone on an overdrive. To begin with they chose a PR man in Chennai whose business card reads: PRO & Celebrity Management.
One cannot blame the man, but he seemed to be clueless about who’s who in cinema journalism. When I walked up to him at Satyam Cinemas and introduced myself, he said he had never heard my name before. To me – one who has lived in Chennai for the past 30 years and who had worked for and written widely in The Hindu (the city’s leading newspaper) for a quarter century – this came as a shock. At the cost of sounding immodest, I must say that most readers interested in cinema know me – certainly by my name. (The drivers who used to take me from Paris to Deauville for the Asian Film Festival there knew about me; they would Google me before the trip – and it is as easy as this!)
Today, a wider section of the reading public knows me only because I write profusely for the Hindustan Times, Firstpost, Free Malaysia Today and Gulf Times among others. I have also written widely and for long for The Hollywood Reporter, Screen and Variety.
Given the fact that Fox had selected a PR guy who appeared to know very little about the city’s movie writers/critics, it was only to be expected that many of those who had assembled (presumably on invitation) at Satyam Cinemas had no inkling, whatsoever, about Ang Lee.
There were at least three media men who asked me if Lee was a great director, and could a Chinese like him make English language cinema!
Lee has had an illustrious career with a fantastically diverse oeuvre. Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility (from Jane Austin’s novel), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Oscar for the Best Foreign language Picture), Brokeback Mountain (Oscar for the Best Director), Taking Woodstock and Lust Caution among others have been some of his great hits, remarkably varied in content and treatment.
But not many at the Satyam gathering would have known about all this; one could not have even expected them to have known. The PR guy himself might not have.
Finally, when I got around asking the PR man for an interview of Lee, he said that it would be very difficult for him to fit me in. I was then asked to meet a Fox executive who suggested that I come over later in the day to a city hotel, where the interviews with Lee and the others were being conducted.
At the hotel, I was made to wait for 90 minutes, before the Fox executive grudgingly offered me FIVE minutes with Lee, after which he said he would “interfere”. He added that since the names of all those who wanted to interview Lee had been cleared by the helmer’s publicist and Fox in the U.S., he would lose his job if it came to be known that I had been given time to be with Lee.
Would Fox or Lee’s publicist really have minded the director giving an interview to an author and critic who has religiously followed the helmer’s work, and seen each of his pictures?
I walked out of the hotel without the interview, and a journalist said later that he had an open invitation to interview Lee! So did some others.
Obviously, the Fox executive and the PR man in Chennai did not think I was important enough to warrant time with Ang Lee.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and movie critic, who has covered the Cannes Film Festival for 25 years, Venice for 15 and other major movie festivals across continents for many, many years