Illustration: Janhavi Kulkarni
– Ayushi Limbachiya
Meenakshi Shedde, our Lumière Learning Monday guest evaluated her career choices from a utilitarian perspective. She chose to study Economics at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, India and learned actively from the extra-curricular activities. Her career path was never planned to land on becoming a film critic; “I was never hired to be a film critic ever in my life.” So how did her life circle back to being one of the most esteemed film critics nationally and globally?
Deepa Soman’s “thoughtful questions”, as described by Meenakshi, helped us all learn about some precious “happy accidents” in her life. Her humility and vast knowledge are inspirational. As someone who enjoys and values unconventional methods of learning, Meenakshi’s ideas about film appreciation are extraordinary.
Role of Mentors
Things that shaped Meenakshi as a person and professional were a loving environment, rich discussions on films and, nurturing guardians and mentors. “I consider some people my mentors in an Ekalavya sense.”
Amrit Gangar, a film historian, scholar, and curator and Meenakshi’s “precious mentor” ran a film club called ‘Screen Unit’ where he organised film screenings of Swedish, Russian, American, and French masterpieces regularly. Meenakshi was inspired by Amrit’s spirit as he worked through challenges such as organizing free screenings of international films at various theatres, dealing with heavy tins with 35mm celluloid prints, making stenciled notes, etc. “Those were the richest things that I got, which really shaped the critic that I am today, things that I absorbed in that very loving and very generous atmosphere,” acknowledged Meenakshi.
The diverse conversations Meenakshi had at mentor Iqbal Masud’s lunches, and the reviews ofmentor Maithili Rao, also shaped her as a film critic. Shanta Gokhale, her former colleague at Times of India, unintentionally mentored her to hold her ground, despite being in the midst of journalists who had returned from Paris and New York.
From a Journalist to a Film Critic
Meenakshi has had a long career as a journalist with a significant number of years at Times of India. She “theatre dates” herself, stumbling upon great films at the Akashvani theatre and at the Mumbai Film Festival, India. Meenakshi’s strong adherence to the ethics of a journalist prompted her to write film reviews for the Times of India newspaper and that was “total majja” (guilty pleasure) for her. As film critics of most media at the time reviewed only Bollywood and Hollywood movies, she noticed a gap that existed, as hardly anyone in mainstream English media reviewed good films in various Indian languages, and she mainly wrote about those.
Illustration: Janhavi Kulkarni
Meenakshi’s talk was woven with stories about her life, which she refers to as ‘a series of happy accidents’.
She won the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1998. Invited as a FIPRESCI Jury member at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by the Berlin Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and, numerous other prestigious film festivals, a sense of gratitude towards her mentors encompassed Meenakshi’s heart. She set out to pursue her guilty pleasure, and the sky was the limit.
Unlocking the potential of Indian Cinema
Meenakshi has been a programmer/Consultant of Indian and South Asian films at festivals worldwide, such as the Berlin Film Festival, Busan, Locarno, Dubai, BFI, Colombo and Mumbai Film Festival, to name a few. She urges the film consumers to seek out the rich offerings of Indian Cinema beyond Bollywood.
The Linguistics and Meanings
As a linguistics enthusiast and curious seeker of meanings of words, Deepa Soman brought forth the question of understanding emotions, feelings, and messages in a film that is made in a language one does not comprehend. Meenakshi contextualises that India makes films in forty-five different languages and dialects, with Hindi being just one of them. For the longest time, Meenakshi watched Indian language films without English subtitles, as they were not available then. It was her “savage hunger” that developed her non-linguistic understanding of cinema. “My cinematic sensibility is very evolved only from my heart being open to watching it.” Clues for a viewer are present in certain scenes, visuals, dialogues and, music that can be understood through cultural context. “Indian film music is very illustrative,” Meenakshi says.
Meenakshi observes that there are more and more films with both mainstream and indie elements, or, “Mindie Cinema,” a term coined by her. So realistic films have mainstream elements like stars and songs incorporated in them, for instance, films like ‘Article 15.’ Whereas a mainstream film like ‘Kapoor and Sons’, with mainstream stars and conventional Bollywood music, tackle the often unacknowledged socio-political realities like homosexuality and parental marital infidelity. By keeping production budgets modest, films can further elevate their success levels in the Indian film industry. By investing in the production of fine English subtitles that convey the deeper meanings of dialogues, Indian films can appeal to a larger audience in India and globally.
Understanding Film Appreciation
“Art is volatile and cannot be directly compared”, says Meenakshi. However, a well-written, moving, convincing, well-acted, and refreshing story, that may depict the real world daringly, or in a way that stays with the viewer, makes our Learning Monday guest the happiest.
Meenakshi believes that there is something to learn from every movie. She witnessed the impact of Bollywood films outside of India on her visit to Sri Lanka as Curator of an Asian film package at the Colombo Film Festival. Her Sri Lankan friend Saroja Siriwardenehad specially curated thin songbooks of “zillions of Bollywood songs” for different occasions, transliterated into Sinhala, even though she did not know the meanings of all the songs. Entertainment and art indeed do not have language barriers.
Going Beyond Cultural Imprints
As a jury member, Meenakshi acknowledged the subjective element in film appreciation or reviewing, influenced by one’s cultural background and personal life experiences. Meenakshi enjoys debating with film critics and learning different perspectives. She fondly recalls an exception when the entire jury voted unanimously for ‘Porfirio’, a ‘docufiction’ film by Alejandro Landes, at the World Cinema Amsterdam Film Festival in the Netherlands.
Meenakshi’s creative spirits led her to write, direct and produce her first film, ‘Looking For Amitabh,’ that premiered at the Kala Ghoda Festival, Mumbai, India, by interviewing blind fans of Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian superstar. She has also mentored on various script labs.
Our vivacious guest works on several developmental issues in parallel. Gender, water, education and, health issues are a few. As a journalist, Meenakshi has been exposed to and interested in learning about the real India. Working closely with NGOs, Meenakshi has traveled to many corners of India, including the deep interiors and meeting tribal communities. The Family Planning Association of India was instrumental in shaping this facet of Meenakshi’s career. Just as she opens her heart to understand films, she opens her heart to understand and support the “underbelly” of India too.
The event ended with a discussion on the losses of two impactful Indian actors, Rishi Kapoor to Indian cinema, and Irrfan Khan to Indian and international cinema. Meenakshi’s ideas on this subject can be found in her Midday article, ‘Irrfan: Ekich Piece Hai’, here:
On this Monday we learned to be open and enjoy films beyond geographies and mainstream awareness. Meenakshi recommends these films to start with: (Meenakshi Shedde’s film list comes via Avid Learning).
- ‘Sudani from Nigeria’ (Netflix) Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHyaTJGmN4khttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHyaTJGmN4k
- ‘Pariyerum Perumal BA.BL’ (Amazon Prime) Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMNsUxJe4R4&list=PLs1E4EG-4wfddssT1kvm-4UdwgS5AAftX
- ‘With You, Without You’ (Amazon Prime) Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blOSbA394nI
- ‘Mahanati’ (Amazon Prime) Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLmBpf7UHJs
- ‘Ahare Mon’ (Hoichoi TV) Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHEy1WUjiqg
Ayushi is a Market Research Intern. Her formal education in Marketing and English Literature has shaped her passion for writing.