In an era, where Parliamentarians hit headlines for their flying tantrums and chair-smashing shenanigans, Shashi Tharoor comes across as a Utopian wonder. Well-read, well-spoken, well-groomed he stands distinct amidst the burgeoning league of browbeaters. “His good looks have left armadas of women swooning... When he brushes his mop of hair from his impressively high forehead and lights up his charming smile, men roll back in wonder. He writes with matchless skill. He speaks even more impressively, in a voice as deep as Amitabh Bachchan’s and with eloquence as fluent and witty as Winston Churchill’s,” once wrote Congress leader Mani Shankar Iyer about his charismatic colleague. Shashi Tharoor’s magnetism rises beyond the cacophony of power corridors because politics is not the only thing that defines him. An influential speaker, a prolific author, his grey-blue eyes resonate a curiosity for the creative and the compelling. Here, India’s most charming politician shares the magic woven by the movies on his mind and manner…
What is your earliest memory of watching a film?
It was either The Count Of Monte Cristo or the original Disney film The Parent Trap, both of which released in 1961 when I was five and both of which I remembered vividly for years.
Any recollection of visiting theatres to watch films?
Absolutely. It was the only way you could see a film in the ’60s. It was always a special treat, usually on a Saturday or Sunday when one of my parents would take my sisters and me. The Eros at Churchgate (Mumbai) was ‘our’ theatre. I saw 80 per cent of my movies there during the Bombay years of my childhood, with occasional forays to the Regal in Colaba. The Eros used to have special Sunday morning feature-length shows of cartoon films – imagine, two hours of Tom and Jerry! That as a child, I particularly looked forward to with barely suppressed excitement. Hindi movies came a little later into my life. But they were a highlight of my college years in Delhi, when my friends and I would bunk classes to catch the first show of a favourite star.
As a child, what characters fascinated you?
Swashbuckling adventurers were my thing, for the most part... Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers. As a pre-teen (and in my early teens), I loved war movies too: The Battle Of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Tora!Tora!Tora!, Patton, those sort of films. What I actively disliked was the torture of being dragged out by my mother every week to keep her company while she saw a Malayalam movie. They were all, as far as I was concerned, insufferable weepies. Chemmeen (1965), of course, redeemed the genre. But it was a rare exception to the interminable black-and-white tragedies that seemed to be all that Keralite movie-makers made in those days.
Did you enjoy Hindi fare or did your interests cover a wider spectrum through adolescence?
My family watched mainly English movies (and my mother Malayalam cinema too). So it was only when
I reached high school and started going out with classmates and friends in Calcutta that I began watching Hindi movies. I was soon hooked. In a typical month I’d see Love Story and Dirty Harry as well as Aradhana and Jawani Diwani, to name four favourites (though they probably weren’t released in the same month).
What was the genre that fascinated you while you were growing?
I was always eclectic in my tastes, whether in reading or movies! So several genres fascinated me as I was growing up – Bollywood, of course, since that was what everyone around me was watching and one could share one’s experience of, and reactions to; popular Western films, many of which I’ve mentioned earlier; serious world cinema, by directors like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, whose films one could watch at screenings at the USIS, the British Council or the Alliance Francaise; and serious Indian cinema, in the form of highly respected but money-losing auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and their ilk. Remember, we had no television when I was growing up, so for visual entertainment, cinema was it. And one lapped up quite a bit of it. I was not inclined to be too choosy about what I watched.
For an average Indian, his first lessons of love and romance are derived from films. Which of those remain your favourite romantic sagas and why?
If I ask myself what moments of adolescent awakening I recall from the cinema hall, two scenes from my pubescence stand out in my mind – Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore near the smouldering fireplace as he sings Roop tera mastana in Aradhana, and of course Rishi Kapoor catching a glimpse of Simi Garewal undressing in Mera Naam Joker, every schoolboy’s fantasy.
I don’t know if either would qualify as a romantic saga! In English, Love Story, of course, and also Summer Of ’42 made a deep impression.
Did you go through crazy ‘fanboy’ moments – where you watched a film again and again or collected pictures and posters?
No, life was too short, the time away from homework too limited and pocket-money too scarce to watch any film more than once!
Who among the male actors impressed you and why?
Rajesh Khanna, undoubtedly. He was the first real superstar, an ordinary boy from nowhere who broke into the movies by winning a talent contest. He had the looks, the charisma, the mannerisms. I liked Shashi Kapoor a lot too, but I kept wondering if that wasn’t at least partly because of his name. And as for looks, I always found Sanjay Khan impossibly good-looking.
Name the most beautiful women Hindi cinema has witnessed? What are the striking visuals that come to your mind when you think about them?
Beauty is always subjective. And when you’re talking about movies, it’s always skin-deep. As a child, I was hooked on Mumtaz
and Saira Banu; as a teenager, I was in love with Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi; and as an adult, I couldn’t take my eyes off Madhuri Dixit. But when I think of visuals I can’t name specific scenes: I actually met Zeenat Aman when my college Students’ Union, of which I was President, hosted the premiere of Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (remember her dying lines, “Bharat kahan hain? Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak…”) and that’s all I remember of the premiere! With Parveen Babi, it was the iconic Time magazine cover and with Madhuri Dixit, a particular cover picture in Filmfare that my three-year-old son would drool over.
Was there a moment when you could meet your ‘idol’ in flesh and blood? What do you recall of that?
I mentioned meeting Zeenat Aman at her most beautiful, but then I went off to study in the US and joined the UN. So meeting Bollywood stars fell off the realm of the possible. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve met several stars, and even got to know some of them reasonably well at multiple encounters – Shah Rukh (Khan), Amitabh (Bachchan), Salman (Khan), Aamir (Khan), Hrithik (Roshan) and Saif (Ali Khan) in particular. I’ve also enjoyed briefer exchanges with some of today’s leading ladies - Priyanka Chopra, Vidya Balan, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Asin. And Shabana Azmi has become a friend and parliamentary colleague. They’re terrifically talented, seriously professional artistes. But what’s more, they are very impressive people indeed.
What kind of songs appealed to you and why?
Beyond question, my favourite music, anytime, anywhere, are the Hindi film songs of the 1960s and early 1970s. RD Burman compositions, Lata Mangeshkar/Asha Bhosle renditions, the sublime Mohammed Rafi, the brilliant Kishore Kumar. I still listen to them whenever I can. They haven’t made music to match that golden period since.
Are there any favourites?
Oh God, yes, too many to mention. Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le (Baazi) by Geeta Dutt, Ehsan tera hoga mujhpar (Junglee) by Mohammed Rafi, the entire soundtrack of Jawani Diwani – I’d have to go on because there are so many favourites.
Lyricists whose works you particularly enjoyed – say from Sahir Ludhianvi to Kaifi Azmi to Majrooh Sulatnapuri, Anand Bakshi, Gulzar...?
All of them. But I’m ashamed to say for a writer, that as a movie fan I remembered the names of the music composers and the singers more often than those of the lyricists, even as I was singing snatches of their immortal words in the shower.
Are there any patriotic song or films that appealed to you?
I was too young for Mother India and too old for the later patriotic releases. In my youth, therefore, there was Haqeeqat and Roti Kapda Aur Makan. In later life I’ve liked Maachis and Lagaan in the patriotic genre, but not Rang De Basanti, because of its awful ending. Two films that really stirred the patriot in me recently are Kabir Khan’s Phantom and Chak De India!
Did you enjoy the parallel cinema heralded by filmmakers including Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and actors Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri?
Yes, when I was living abroad I saw more of the parallel cinema than of mainstream Bollywood, and I met and engaged with Shabana, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri at different times. I’ve enormous respect for their work, to which they’ve brought integrity and professional competence that’s truly ennobling.
Do you watch contemporary Hindi cinema? What do you like and dislike about it?
My life doesn’t allow me as much time for cinema as I’d like, and after my late wife (Sunanda Pushkar), a cinema buff, passed away I kind of lost the heart to go to the theatre without her. Friends have occasionally dragged me off to watch a new release with them and I do try and catch films here and there, but I can’t say I’ve seen every major release. Bollywood, as far as I’m concerned, is about entertainment and when it’s well-made entertainment, that’s all I want. If there’s anything I dislike, it’s the total lack of realism in the story-lines, costumes, sets, lifestyles and outcomes depicted – but since I don’t go expecting realism, ‘dislike’ is too strong a word.
Films, off and on, depict the decadence in the political system, the corruption and the criminalisation... Is it disturbing to watch that?
I’ve only been in politics eight years, and for decades before that I was very much a critic of the same things that these films are depicting. I’m as disturbed as the typical Indian is about the failings of our political system, and I still write about them, make speeches about them and introduce bills in Parliament to change them.
How do you view censorship in a society geared for ‘development’? How free should cinema be?
I’m totally against censorship, which has no place in a democracy. In any case the things our censors are so prissily snipping and muting (in the films they pass) are available in far more explicit form on the internet and on many people’s mobile phones! I believe we should just have a certification process, with clear categories indicating why the Board considers some material inappropriate for which age group. Then the film should be released without any cuts at all, but with an explanatory certificate. The conduct of the present Censor Board and its egregious chairman are the best advertisements for its abolition.
Are films/filmmakers soft targets of extremism – recent case being the assault on Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the burning of the Padmavati set?
Yes, there’s a creeping intolerance in our society, with various sections claiming to be offended by one thing or another in art, literature, television and cinema and politicians pandering to their injured sensitivities rather than telling them to change the channel or walk out of the theatre or bookshop. Unfortunately, the film fraternity is also responsible for encouraging the ‘offended’ by hastily caving in, in the past, to such outrageous demands as dropping ‘Barber’ from the title of Billoo Barber, visiting the Shiv Sena chief, cap in hand, to pre-empt objections to a new release, and so on. This has emboldened every lout with a grievance to believe they must get their way, since other thugs have gotten away with threats, intimidation and even violence.
It’s time movie-makers stood up for themselves and refused to be cowed by the bullies any more. Udta Punjab had the courage to go to court against the inanities of the Censor Board; I hope everyone rallies behind Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s right to make a fictional film about a fictional queen who some people choose to believe was real. I hope, above all, that our government and the courts will stand up for the rule of law rather than bend over backwards to appease the allegedly aggrieved.