When I first joined Newsweek, an editor was assigned to tutor and instruct me in the essence of magazine writing. Or any quality writing for that matter. Copy must always be crisp and concise, with an emphasis on verbs and not on adjectives, he coached me. It must hold the reader tight in its embrace. It cannot roll on endlessly. It must never become boring.
He also pointed out, diplomatically and delicately, that most Indians tended to write verbosely, spewing out reams and reams of text. As if the more words they spilled out, the more erudite they would appear to all, he said. When conducting interviews, he warned me to keep my questions extremely pithy, giving ample time to the person interviewed to make his points. Today, when I hear TV reporters drone on with lengthy, sleep-inducing questions, I hark back to those useful comments made early on in my career. We were not encouraged to interrupt the person being interviewed either, unless absolutely essential. We had to bear in mind who was upfront and central: the person to be interviewed, not the interviewer who is seeking to impress others with his expertise and knowledge.
The editor also suggested that I read the Wall Street Journal’s front-page synopsis of headline events. ‘What News –’ is the WSJ’s daily double-feature column which carries concise reports of financial and world-wide news. He termed it a remarkable feat of journalism in that, within the briefest of paragraphs, the newspaper filled the reader in on all front-burner news and highlights for the day.
I learned fast. I cut my teeth on the New Products and Processes section which capsulised five or six new products or procedures in the market in terse paragraphs which would astonish most admen. I also wrote Marketplace: a full page which succinctly spelled out seven or eight major developments in international business transactions. All you ever wanted to know about a financial deal in a few significant lines. Snappy, scissor-sharp, salient.
When I did major one-on-one interviews with heads of state, I toiled and groaned over what copy should be cut and what retained, to fit into the allotted space. As far as I was concerned, everything was interesting, but I had been primed to select only the most important issues. Period! Cut, cut, cut, edit, edit, edit were the touchstones here. Use the pencil, use the scissors unsparingly and relentlessly: the words of my editor still ring in my ears.
Recently, during the Krayya cyclone which hammered our shores and kept me insulated and indoors for several days, I spent much of my time reading Salman Rushdie’s brilliant novel ‘Quichotte’: a fascinating tale which yet again reveals his incredibly tempestuous, vibrant and vivid imagination. I also viewed several movies on Amazon Prime. Michael Winterbottom’s thriller ‘Wedding Guest’ with Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, and Richard Gere’s ‘Primal Fear’ counted among the English ones; ‘Kalank’ (Scandal) and ‘Gully Boy’ were the Indian choices. To name but a few.
My editor’s words surfaced time and again as I drew comparisons between the two sets of movies. Whereas the English movies were short, crisp and moved along briskly, the other two dragged on and on for an eternity, diminishing their otherwise solid appeal. Ninety minutes versus almost three hours. I watched the English movies in one fell swoop, I viewed the others piecemeal, in portions of an hour each. Not that the themes were boring. ‘Kalank’ was enthralling, with superb sets and lavish clothes; moreover, it starred the gorgeous and classy Madhuri Dixit, who epitomises perfection for me. The music and story-line of ‘Gully Boy’ were not bad either. But if we expect a Western audience with foreign judges to decide on who should win the Oscar, then we must consider putting our films through a wringer and sending them a shortened version.
I fully understand why Bollywood produces long-winded films. The average Indian movie-goer pays good money to watch them: he revels in the languid hours of entertainment that they offer, ensconced in an air-conditioned theatre, with friends and snacks for company. Such films are completely in sync with Asian, Russian and Middle Eastern audiences as well. But if we wish to vie for a top Western award like the Oscar, we must consider the majority of spectators who are playing the role of judge and jury. The Western appetite leans towards movies that are bang on target. The jurors have several films to evaluate (92, at last count, according to the New York Times) and if they have to confront three-hour films on a regular basis, long-drawn-out affairs will lose. I may not be in the film industry, but an hour of ‘Gully Boy’ could easily have been culled out, without affecting the leitmotif or the outcome in the slightest. Such a film would then have a fighting chance for an Oscar.
To those who may argue that the West also produces exhaustive sagas like ‘Gandhi’, ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’, paralleling blockbuster Bollywood films (‘Jodha Akbar’, ‘Bajirao Mastani’ and ‘Bahubali’), the response is that ‘Gully Boy’ is not an epic by any stretch of the imagination. It therefore warrants no more than a ninety-minute slot if it is to be the nation’s offering for the prestigious American award. Since winning top-spot on the international stage has become a matter of national pride and chest-thumping these days, and that obviously includes an Oscar, we should seriously consider playing their game if we hope to bring home the prize.