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The first ambassador of Indian cinema

india Updated: Mar 06, 2009 23:33 IST

With the passing of Amita Malik on February 20 , an entire era of broadcasting has passed away.

At a time when the media was not a career option for women, Malik became a distinguished broadcaster and film critic. For many of us nurturing a desire to make a career in the media, her writings fueled aspirations. It can be safely concluded that she taught an entire generation to engage critically with film and television, at a time when ‘film appreciation’ meant just that.

For many years, I had no clue what she looked like even as I collected clippings of her column ‘Film Notebook’ in The Statesman. Before the internet and TV came into our lives, we recognised writers through not their faces but their ideas.

Malik was born into a Bengali family settled in Assam and spent her school and college days between Shillong and Guwahati. She always recalled with love and nostalgia her growing up in the North-East. In her autobiography, aptly titled Amita, No Holds Barred, she writes that having reached her teens she learnt that there was ‘some sort of a wicked girl known as a flirt’. The nuns at Loreto Convent, it seems, had seen one Biddy Bell ‘lingering on the way home and talking cheerfully to the boys of St Edmund’s’. After school, she joined Calcutta University, where she mysteriously acquired the reputation of a ‘western degenerate’. She settled scores by bagging two gold medals while her detractors failed or fared miserably.

Malik began her career with AIR, Lucknow in 1944 and then AIR, Delhi. She worked with stalwarts like Melville de Mellow and A.S. Bokhari and interviewed people such as Satyajit Ray, Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, John Masters, David Niven and Alfred Hitchcock. Malik’s work in both AIR and Doordarshan comprise important chapters in the history of Indian broadcasting. Sadly, many of these are now missing. Typically, Doordarshan managed to erase the recording of Amita’s joint interview with Satyajit Ray and Marlon Brando and her interview with the ‘father of the documentary’ John Grierson, who founded the National Film Board of Canada. A similar fate met the 1975 roundtable discussion she had with Elia Kazan, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and Michelangelo Antonioni. This ‘lost archive’ would have been a treasure anywhere in the world.

Malik’s career straddled more than six decades during which time she wrote for The Statesman, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, Indian Express and more recently, Pioneer and Tribune. In my opinion, she was India’s first ambassador of cinema. She introduced Indian cinema to the world, world cinema to India and most importantly, regional cinema to Indians. Not only did she have a special fondness for Bengali cinema, she played a major role in publicising the Indian New Wave and the entire canvas of regional filmmaking in India.

By the time I was born, Amita Malik was already an established media professional. Her family and mine had known each other for years but I first met her at a family dinner in the early eighties. Amy Mashi (as I called her) put me under rigorous scrutiny and pronounced that I would never get admission in the Jamia film school. Thankfully, she changed her opinion once I did. One Christmas day she picked me up from my house to go meet a common friend in hospital. She drove like a maniac, almost knocking several people down while yelling and complaining about everybody else’s bad driving. It was terrifying but lots of fun! My relationship with Amy Mashi was a bit like that bumpy, unforgettable drive.

She will be missed and remembered by all of us who loved her feisty spirit, her youthful company, her storytelling abilities and her hilarious sense of humour.

To use a line she once used for someone else: If there is a next world, Amy Mashi must be creating quite a commotion there.

Shohini Ghosh is Professor, Dr Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.