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Had been wanting to write Matinee Men for more than a decade: Roshmila Bhattacharya

The veteran film journalist opens up about her latest book which features interviews with top actors of Hindi cinema, from Ashok Kumar to Aamir Khan.

Sonal Pandya

In Matinee Men: A Journey Through Bollywood, author Roshmila Bhattacharya takes us down memory lane as she recounts her experiences with yesteryear legends like Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor and her continuing interactions with stars like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.

Lot of khalnayaks got buried but the Bad Man has stayed alive: Gulshan Grover

The veteran journalist earlier wrote the biography of actor Gulshan Grover titled Bad Man and has now broadened the scope of her writing to include both silver screen heroes from the golden era of Hindi cinema and current box-office stars. Peppered with interesting anecdotes about the stars and their habits on and off the sets, Bhattacharya takes us through several decades of Hindi filmdom.

On e-mail, Bhattacharya opened up about the evolution of her second book, the selection process behind each chapter, and film journalism's metamorphoses over the years. Excerpts:

In many ways, Matinee Men reads like the culmination of your career. Were you always preparing for an anecdotal book such as this?

Matinee Men, as the tagline reads, is my journey through Bollywood [commercial Hindi cinema], without commas, question marks or full stops. And while I was not consciously working towards it, this book is a dream I have been living for years as I went about writing about actors and movies. These were some of the stories I would tell my junior colleagues, friends and family, and they were enthralled.

I was lucky that my literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, liked the concept and pitched a couple of chapters to Rudra Sharma, my commissioning agent at Rupa Publications. He embraced Matinee Men as his own and helped me live out my dream.

How did you pick the subject of the book? You have chosen actors, not actresses or filmmakers. Was there a reason?

I joined The Times of India as a trainee and in the three decades since have worked with many publications like Screen, Zee Premiere, HT Café, a trade magazine called Blockbuster and am currently with Mumbai Mirror. In this journey, I have met innumerable actors and through my interactions with them and anecdotes about them from colleagues and filmmakers discovered the persons behind these personas. That’s what sparked the idea for this book, which you could say is my Bollywood Dairies, offering a glimpse of the men behind the make-up, the grit behind the glamour.

I started with actors because they lead a film’s cast in our country though now content is slowly becoming the king and queen. The idea is to spin a franchise, maybe. I would like to follow up Matinee Men with Matinee Women, Matinee Makers, Matinee Movies....

I'm sure there must have been others you would have liked to include. Would you go ahead with part two of Matinee Men?

Oh yes, there are so many other actors I could write on and Matinee Men could definitely spin a sequel. I have to admit it was hard narrowing the choice down to 13 and eventually I just went with those whose stories were the most interesting.

Book excerpt: Irrfan Khan, the zen star of Hindi cinema

Which are the memorable moments that stand out for you?

Many such moments are encapsulated in the book, like when Dilip Kumar saheb suddenly took it upon himself to instruct me how to make the perfect biryani, but then left the recipe incomplete. Shammi Kapoor very matter-of-factly discussed his plans for his seventy-seventh [birthday] while undergoing dialysis. And I remember meeting Aamir Khan for the first time while he was rehearsing his dance moves and when I asked for an interview, he whipped out an organizer from his pocket and gave me a date. When my editor asked me at the office if I had got the interview, I told him I would, if we could wait three months.

On the appointed day, Aamir was punctual to the dot and patiently answered every query. Also, how can I forget the time when Shah Rukh Khan sent me home in his car because it was way past midnight and I had missed my last train, while he had to take a ride with someone else.

Each chapter unveils a hidden nugget about each actor — from a particular hobby to a key moment that could have changed the course of their careers. How did you get hold of all these details?

Yes, you learn how Dharmendra started dabbling in shayari [Urdu poetry] and Ashok Kumar offered miraculous cures with his homoeopathic pills, how Farooq Shaikh ended up becoming an actor instead of a lawyer and what was Mithun Chakraborty’s personal connect with the Agneepath (1990) song, 'I Am Krishnan Iyer MA'.

I learnt all this while speaking to them and others. For me, an interview has never been a quick question-and-answer session. It is always a free-flowing conversation and more than rehearsed replies to expected queries, it’s the interesting trivia which comes spontaneously that has me hooked.

What insights did you discover about the actors over the course of your interviews?

I can tell you that Mithun-da might appear casual and relaxed on set, but when it is a film that matters, like Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files (2019), he preps for a particular scene for three days and at the end of the film asks the filmmaker, “Have I passed your test?” Also, John Abraham, who has made a name for himself as an action hero, is an economics graduate with a Master's in management who ranks Franz Kafka among his favourite authors.

As seen in the chapters on Ashok Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan, the style of interviewing a star has changed. What do you miss about those earlier days and what do you like about the current scenario?

My interviewing style is the same. What has changed is that earlier I could hang out on a film set all day while I interviewed a star in fits and starts between shots. Now, you are watching the watch with a publicist reminding you that you have “just 10 minutes”, or else you are trying to keep him on the phone line for as long as possible. As a result, many of my younger colleagues know a character better than the actor playing him. In this scenario, I feel privileged to have got the time to bond with them and learn them better in the good old days.

What do I like now? That the waiting period has shortened, though even back then I didn’t mind it so much because I always had a book to keep boredom at bay. I wish I could see one of my younger colleagues reading this book today while they wait to be called for an interview!

Early on, in the introduction, you mentioned how you initially thought of embarking on different careers before deciding on film journalism. Did you imagine then that you would be writing such a book as Matinee Men?

Those were just childish whims, but once I started writing, I never had a day’s doubt or regret on my choice of profession. It’s a passion and every day has been a new journey, learning about new people or more about the ones you have already met. I had been wanting to write this book for more than a decade now. I wish I had found Rudra and Rupa earlier. But maybe this is the best time because, thanks to the recent lockdown, we have been learning each other better, and that could be true of our matinee idols too.

You have interviewed many stars over the years. Which personality from the past would you have liked to interview?

Definitely Guru Dutt. He left too early, long before I grew up to become a journalist. I met his mother, Vasanthi Padukone, when I was a 20-something junior reporter, and she shared so many stories of him with me. So did his friend and writer-director Abrar Alvi. They only left me wanting to know more. I wish I could have asked Guru Dutt saheb if there was a real-life muse behind Pyaasa’s Gulabo or if Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) would have been a different film had Dilip Kumar, Biswajeet or Shashi Kapoor played Bhootnath, because, believe it or not, they had been his choices for the role.