Interview Bengali Hindi Telugu

Hindi films were made with an abandon in the 1970s, it's missing today: Blogger Beth Watkins


The American writer, whose blog is titled ‘Beth Loves Bollywood’, speaks to Cinestaan.com about how she began watching Indian films, what she enjoys about them today, and how she keeps up with them online.

Watkins in Darjeeling with a mini Shah Rukh Khan doll (Photo: Beth Watkins)

Sonal Pandya

If you visit Beth Watkins’s Twitter page, she has been running a 'Filmi March Madness 2018' that matches up vamps and villainesses from Hindi cinema. If this is something that interests you, then you definitely should follow her and her writings on Indian cinema.

Watkins became a fan of Indian cinema around 13 years ago and began her own blog, notably called ‘Beth Loves Bollywood’. Since then, she has written about all kinds of Hindi films, stars and themes on her blog and at publications like www.firstpost.com, newspapers Hindustan Times and The Hindu, and many other film-related websites.

On Twitter, she often shares screenshots of subtitles gone wrong, hashtagged ‘Paagal Subtitles’. Watkins has a Tumblr page devoted to these translation oddities and another to telephones in Indian cinema called ‘Fully Phoney’.

Cinestaan.com spoke to Watkins in a delightful telephone conversation on what makes Indian cinema unique, viewing habits, and on the origin of the above mentioned Tumblr pages. Excerpts:

On your blog, you have said that you discovered Hindi cinema through Jane Austen and Gurinder Chadha with the film, Bride And Prejudice (2004). What made you stay and look up more films?

I haven’t actually thought about that particular question. I had seen a bunch of Jane Austen adaptations and Bride And Prejudice, while I’m not going to argue it’s the world’s best movie or anything, there was so much in it that was new to me.

I realized there is a ton here that I have no idea what it is about because the only Indian films I had seen at that point were Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), which I’m sure you wouldn’t count as [Indian] films. So that was it. I hadn’t even seen [Satyajit] Ray’s films, for example.

I just thought Bride And Prejudice was really fun and I could understand those musical numbers. I live in a university town [in Champaign, Illinois] that had a video store with a great international selection. This is before movies were streaming online. I went in there and they had hundreds of Hindi films and I just picked a couple and happened to find ones that somehow hooked me.

How did you start blogging about Indian cinema and find other like-minded people? You began fairly early on in 2005.

I have always enjoyed writing. Until that point, I had only done it in an academic context. I wasn’t someone who wrote fiction in her spare time. I wasn’t blogging before then, but I was so interested in [Indian films]. For me, writing about something has always helped me think through it and I think that’s probably what I was aiming for. It was more for myself, but I happened to make it public and I don’t really know why I did that, because I didn’t know anybody who I thought was going to read it (laughs).

I had a couple friends where I live who watched some of these early DVDs with me, but they were into other things. And I was like, ‘I need to talk about this!’ (Laughs.) So I happened to [write about it] online and people happened to see it. I don’t really know how that happened.

I have to give a little shout out to Kamla Bhatt. She had a radio show at the time and she somehow found my blog and interviewed me for her show within the first year that I was writing. A lot of people heard of me because of her show. Facebook existed, but it was just for university people. There was no Twitter yet. [There were only] blogs at that time. Through the luck of googling, I was able to connect with people.

Your blog has a catchy title – Beth Loves Bollywood.

(Laughs.) That also was a piece of luck. I think, in retrospect, I wish I had named it something else, but at least it was honest about who I am. Being a white person who is interested in Indian films, I would never want to present myself as something I’m not. I think some things about culture and identity politics have changed. I think I would do [it] differently if I had to do it again. [The name] did make people go, ‘Oh, that’s different!’

How do you decide what to write about on your blog?

That has changed a lot over the years. I don’t write nearly as much as I used to. I try to write about the new releases that I’m able to see, although even in the last year, I haven’t done as well about that. Before then, it was not everything that I saw, but if something was really interesting to me about a film I would write about it.

Every now and then it would seem like a bunch of the other bloggers were maybe talking about a particular film, so I would be like, I want to get in on that conversation.

Mostly, it was just whatever happened that grabbed my interest. For a while there, I had a lot of energy. Writing long blog posts, like one or two in a week, even though my job has occupied a lot of my brainpower, it was very energizing for me. Somewhere along the line, I [realized] this is tiring, actually (laughs). One of my New Year’s resolutions was to blog more. It has not worked yet, but I intend to try.

You think your day job has helped you blog about Indian cinema as well?

Yes, I think so. I work at an anthropology museum so the idea of thinking about cultural output, products and conversations, what people make and what it says about them, what the maker may mean is different from what the user may mean, and all that is something I deal with off and on in my day job.

Thinking about some of those issues may be partly more standard practice for me than some of the other bloggers, which is not to say I’m better at it, by any means. Of course, I would ask some of these questions, because that’s what you do.

As you said before, you write more about the newer films now. How would you say they have evolved?

I will preface that by saying that from 1987 to about 1996 is the era from which I’ve seen the fewest films. Overall, I find them really violent and really broad in a way that it doesn’t appeal to me. I know that means I’m missing some major films by directors and stars that people really love. For example, I have seen very few Madhuri Dixit films. It’s not because of her, it’s because of this stuff around her.

If people recommend me something specific, then I’ll definitely try to watch it just in terms of what has this person done. It’s pretty easy to research films these days. The 1970s, which is my favourite era, there is an abandon with which films are made. There is this generosity of creativity that’s certainly not absent, but it has a different shape and feel overall.

This era doesn’t have it?

I don’t think so. I’m trying to think of a recent example of a film that has had it. I haven’t had time to sit down and think about it, but it’s a pretty interesting question to think about for me. The films that really jam-pack a lot in, I tend to really like that, for whatever reason.

Maybe Jagga Jasoos (2017).

Yes, that is a good example. It has some of that 1970s masala spirit at least. In the same way, the melodramas from the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, those don’t particularly speak to me either. So there is a lot of Raj Kapoor [films] I haven’t seen. At some point, I will, I’m sure.

Like you said, the 1970s is your favourite decade because of that abandon. Would it also be because you are a Shashi Kapoor fan?

I was watching the 1970s films before I knew who he was, but those two things go hand in hand, definitely (laughs).

Besides your blog, Beth Loves Bollywood, you also have two Tumblrs — one on ridiculous subtitles and the other on telephones. How did these two originate?

All of us who are watching [films] rely on subtitles and are noticing these things, so a couple of them put them in their blog post. Memsaab [Greta Kaemmer], she would have some. [I thought], these are too great, we have to catalogue them in one place (laughs).

I want to collect them, like a museum and library thing. I’m not as explicit as I should be. If I had better knowledge of Hindi, I would not need subtitles, so this is a commentary on my lack of knowledge and ability.

I could not begin to subtitle anything in any language. It’s an extremely complicated job and we all make typos when we write things, so this is done with some empathy and I wouldn’t experience this if I were a better student (laughs). This is on me. Every now and then, you get one image that has words and both together make for a particularly good pairing, like a visual joke that no one intended.

And then the phone [Tumblr page], I think that one came out of conversations I was having with a friend on Twitter whose handle is @browngirldaily and she’s Indo-Canadian and lives in California currently. She also posts images of phones and we kind of put heads together and she is responsible for at least half the content there.

There is something about phones in terms of the technology changes, but the urge to talk to somebody is the same, and it’s just a manifestation of that. If I knew more about architecture I would do one on homes. I think the way homes are portrayed is really interesting. I was re-watching Talaash (2012), people are still relying on phone booths in that. It’s not terribly long ago. I hadn’t thought about it until I re-watched it.

It’s just a fun thing to look for. Years ago, one of the other bloggers, she had a great [collection] of chandeliers on her blog. I don’t know if Tumblr existed then, but she collected images of chandeliers, which are super opulent and fun.

On Twitter, you talk about the Bengali films you have seen. How did you become interested in them?

Yes, I do. That was about five or six years ago. Growing up in the US, most people who don’t have any background with Indian films have seen Satyajit Ray films in a film class or at a film festival. I never had, so at a certain point, I needed to educate myself about them. I had not expected to particularly like them, but I loved them.

Current Bengali films don’t tend to do a whole lot for me. There are a few exceptions. It’s fascinating to me that they are so many major Bengali films that are shot-by-shot remakes of Telugu masala.

Wow, I didn’t know about these.

Doesn’t that seem strange? When we think about the stereotypes about those film cultures, [they] are very different. Some of them are even filmed on the same sets. They first star Mahesh Babu and then they star one of these guys named Jeet or Dev. I watch a lot of the songs. I don’t watch many of those whole films.

In the Telugu movies, I love the dancing but the Bengali movies, they don’t seem to have a handle on the dancing as well. This is not really for me and that’s fine. But the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, some of the Bengali films, overall, I really like them a lot.

How do you find these movies to watch? Do you stream or you go and get DVDs?

It’s a combination. My beloved movie store has actually closed down. I work at a large university and the library has a lot of options for borrowing things. Some of them are streaming, but others, they have a pretty good DVD collection for students to use in classes. The streaming has made such a difference

A lot of the production houses are putting their films on YouTube for rental, which I think is great, to be able to pay $3 and have access to a film for a few days. That’s perfect! I don’t usually feel the need to own something. One of the Indian grocery stores in my town rents DVDs, so sometimes I go there. It’s a real hodgepodge of stuff.

There are many outlets now for fans to write about the Indian films they like — blogs, vlogs, podcasts. How do you decide on your topics? Do you discuss with others what they are thinking of, what they are seeing?

Definitely. Twitter is my major source for hearing what people are watching and what they think about them. I think that puts me in the slightly-behind-the-times category.

No, I think you get good recommendations that way.

I think I do. I’ll see that someone on Facebook has posted about something that sounds interesting. Usually, I have a list on Twitter of places that I like to read things so I’ll just go through there. Also, the very old-school technology of actually subscribing to someone’s blog where you get it in your email. That also works well for me. It’s usually Twitter and a handful of people, I always want to know what they are thinking, even if I don’t agree with them, I'd love to know what they have to say about something and that shapes a lot of choices about what to watch.

Besides your blog and the Tumblr pages, you have a podcast. Is it a regular podcast?

No, we have been off and on over the last several years. My podcast partner has recently been in graduate school so that’s obviously slowed us down for a bit.

We have actually got a couple of episodes that we are editing and hoping to get up soon because it is really fun to do. It think it’s so much fun to have conversations when it’s audio. I like learning and listening through conversations. I know that’s not everybody’s favourite, but for me, that’s really good and you literally get different voices involved in a conversation which is great. I wish I could find more Indian film podcasts. I know there are a few.

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