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Interview Hindi

Cinemania: Meet Hindi film blogger Memsaab aka Greta Kaemmer

The American, who writes about the forgotten faces and films of Hindi cinema, speaks about how she watches and follows Hindi cinema for her blog.

Greta Kaemmer. From her album

Sonal Pandya

Ever heard of the Hindi films April Fool (1964) or Alibaba (1977)? No? Well, film blogger Memsaab aka Greta Kaemmer has watched all these films, mostly, as she puts it, so you don’t have to. Her 10-year-old blog, Memsaab Story, is a delightful place where one can stumble across profiles of older personalities and reviews of forgotten films.

Kaemmer has been watching (and following) Hindi cinema for 15 years now. She began her journey with a contemporary film, Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha (1998), starring Ajay Devgn and Kajol. But over time, she turned to the past to discover what the industry was made of.

“I just find the older ones more interesting in terms of how they look and what they teach us about that period, and a lot of times I just find them better, more authentic in terms of the storytelling," she said. "They are less dependent on technology. I find that modern films sometimes are so focused on looks."

Kaemmer has put together a helpful gallery of the faces of Indian cinema on her blog. "I started seeing the same people over and over, so I started taking screencaps of them so that I could figure out who they were because it was impossible to do that and that’s where my readers came in handy," she said. "They would say, ‘That’s so and so'!”

Without even speaking the language, the film blogger has turned herself into a veritable authority on certain sections of Hindi cinema, especially when it comes to a few actors and actresses, like Shammi Kapoor, Dara Singh and Helen. Cinestaan.com recently spoke to Kaemmer about her Hindi cinema viewing habits and her obvious fondness for the yahoo! star. Below are excerpts from the conversation conducted on Facetime:

I know you have said it on your blog, but why did you choose the name Memsaab Story?

Actually, that name was suggested to me by a friend who thought it was a funny pun, which is ‘the sob story’ — the soap opera aspects of a lot of the films I tend to like. I grew up in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] when it was still Rhodesia, so a lot of the colonial aspects of Indian culture are really familiar to me as I grew up in that kind of culture. My mother used to call me ‘Your Highness’ and Memsaab when I was a little girl because I was always convinced I was special (laughs). So she would be very sarcastic about it like Shammi is with his memsaabs (laughs). It just seemed a good fit and when my friend suggested Memsaab Story, I thought it was hilarious.

Do people recommend films to you? Or do you randomly pick these films?

When I started watching, like most people, I quickly found favourite actors and actresses. Then I discovered Hindi cinema is so generational and I started working backwards and that’s how I started picking films. ‘Oh, I want to see a film with Sanjay Dutt’s parents’ and that sort of thing. I started working backwards that way. But then I found favourite actors in those periods and then I started branching out from there.

The Kapoors I discovered fairly early on, I guess. Shammi was always the one I gravitated towards. He is the one I love! (Laughs.) I’ve seen all the films of his from the 1950s and 1960s and early 1970s that are available.

I met him once a couple of years before he passed away, in 2009. Aamir Khan set up the meeting. I’m good friends with Raju Hirani and he is the one who told me I should start writing a blog. At that point in time, nobody really was doing that. Now you can find a lot of people writing about them. But back in 2007, there wasn’t really a lot of writing about old films, so I said, ‘Oh, alright, I’ll do that!’

I didn’t really think that anybody would read it, but it really was a nice surprise. People started finding it. I don’t have people in my actual real life, or I didn’t then, to talk about Indian movies because none of my friends or family watched them. So it was nice to find like-minded people on the internet. And it just started blossoming from there.

But anyway, so I met Aamir Khan on the sets of 3 Idiots (2009) when I was visiting India in 2009. Raju [Hirani] told him I was a big Shammi Kapoor fan. And Aamir said, ‘Oh, would you like to meet him?’ (laughs) and he set it up.

[Shammi] was still incredibly charismatic. We went to his house and his wife was absolutely charming. He came in a wheelchair and my knees went weak. He just filled the room. He had the same charisma in person as he does on screen. I’m so happy I got to meet him.

Do you come down often to India?

I don’t get there every year because it’s kind of far, but I try to get there every two or three years, I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, it’s time to go back to India.’ I was there in October [2016]. And now because of my blog, I have friends there.

Kaemmer at the Pali Hill Cafe in Mumbai during her last trip.
Photo: Courtesy of Greta Kaemmer

Do you usually watch Hindi films online?

Nope, I never watch films online (laughs). I hate watching movies on streaming or anything. I just watch DVDs. A lot of the films I want to see the most now don’t have subtitles because they are kind of obscure and it’s frustrating. But it depends on the film. Like I watched a couple this past weekend, one made absolutely made no sense to me. I could not make out what was happening. Then I watched another that I could follow what was happening. So it just depends on the movie.

Some of my readers said it depends on the amount of room talk, is what they called it (laughs), which I think is true. It’s a lot of dialogue and when you are dependent on understanding what people are talking about, it’s much harder to follow than if it’s an action movie. The Dara Singh films I can watch without subtitles and basically get the gist of it. If it’s a dialogue, not so much.

Would you try and catch any Hindi films in the theatres, or if they are available in a retrospective or festival over in the United States?

Well, I have watched a couple of new releases in the theatres here, but I live in Boston and I don’t drive much. Most of the theatres that show Indian movies are out in the suburbs. I just can’t be bothered to drive that far. I just wait for them to come on DVD, hopefully with subtitles. The newer ones always have subtitles. I don’t write about them, so many other people have already written about them, so I feel like I don’t have anything to add, unless I like something that everybody else hates, then I might write it down (laughs). That happens more than it should.

What are some of the all-time classics that you have discovered and that you could keep watching?

Oh, god! That’s a long list. There are quite a few that I watch over and over again. My all-time favourite, I have to say, is Teesri Manzil (1966). I just love everything about it. So that’s probably my all-time favourite and the one I tend to show people.

A lot of my friends here will say, ‘Oh, I want to see some Bollywood movies and get to know them a bit so.’ I will show them contemporary ones like the Munna Bhai movies because they are just so funny. Humour is the hardest thing to translate from one culture to another, but the Munna Bhai films are just absolutely hysterical in a way that is universal.

Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), I watch over and over again. My [86-year-old] mother loves that film. We watched [it] together a couple of years ago and she turned to me at the end and said, ‘Well, that was very Shakespearean’ (laughs). And I was like, ‘You’re right!’ I just thought that was the best comment. I love Dharmendra’s films, Blackmail (1973) is another of my favourite ones. It’s so romantic.

I love a lot of those 1960s and 1970s films. I can’t stand films about sacrificing, weepy women. I can’t stand those. One reason I gravitated towards what people call the B- and C-grade films is because they actually are better in terms of how women are portrayed in them. The women tend to have more autonomy and power than [the] Raj Kapoor films. I’m sorry I can’t stand them (laughs). I love Shashi, I love Shammi and I have nothing against Raj Kapoor personally, but I can’t stand his films. That puts me at odds with a large segment of the population right there.

Do you mostly watch Hindi films by yourself?

I still mostly watch them myself. My sister will come over and watch them. We both love any Shah Rukh [Khan] film, even the ones we can’t stand, we can sit through them, just because we love him. My husband doesn’t care for them; they go on too long. He doesn’t have the attention span (laughs). The music takes a while to get used to. When I started watching them, I wasn’t always enamoured of the music. It just seemed to like drag it out so I would fast-forward through the songs a lot. But I have learned to really love the music, especially in the old films. I really love the music. I mostly watch by myself, me and my dog.

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