We all love cinema. Nothing beats the anticipation of a new release, reading a critical piece of review methodically dissecting the actual movie or watching interviews of the men/women behind the grand spectacle !
Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, our next pathbreaker, is a film critic, contributing features and movie reviews for “Silverscreen.in”, as well as a film programmer who watches and selects Indian movies for film festivals.
Aswathy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about enjoying the responsibility of shaping a large section of society’s taste in cinema and also the opportunity to introduce lesser-known films and artistes from different cultures to the audience.
For students, India’s success in the global film stage depends on critics and film programmers who can show our best talents to the world. Are you ready to take on the challenge?
Aswathy, tell us about your background?
I studied in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, a government residential school, in a picturesque small town in the Western Ghats region. My father was a PWD contractor and my mother, a clerk at a cooperative bank in my village. There was little opportunity to watch movies or learn about the medium of cinema, but I was active in the field of sports and artistic events at school. I would read all kinds of children’s literature that were available in the small library at the school. I would write pieces of short fiction and take it to my language teachers for suggestions. When I was 15, I won the first prize in a writing competition conducted by SAARC organisation.
I wasn’t great at maths or science subjects, but I can say that I always made an effort to be better at those. In hindsight, the biggest lesson I learned in my childhood was to never give up easily. Learning is a lifelong process which doesn’t end with earning a job or a promotion.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I studied commerce subjects in my plus two years and naturally progressed to doing a BCom at Mar Ivanios College in Thiruvananthapuram. The college is one of the most vibrant institutes in the state, a thriving ground for musicians, writers, dancers and those with a creative inclination.
At some point during those three years, it had become clear to me that I didn’t want to work in the field of accounts, taxes or management. I first heard of Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, from an alumnus who was then working at a major news organisation as a reporter. I went on to do a post-graduate diploma in Print Journalism from ACJ.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I grew up reading a lot of Mathrubhumi (newspaper) and The Hindu, especially the features that came on their special editions on Sundays. I would religiously study the incisive articles written by scholars and journalists, in awe of their ability to express their thoughts so eloquently. Movies were the most accessible form of art in my surroundings during my formative years. What began as an active interest in popular cinema grew into a more mature fascination in my mid-twenties. It was a time I strongly felt the importance of choosing a field of specialisation in journalism.
I started from scratch. I didn’t have a degree in film studies, so I had to make up for it by reading books on the subject and watching as many movies as I could. I regard all the people I interviewed as a film journalist -sound engineers, filmmakers, writers, actors, cinematographers and editors, especially people like cinematographer CK Muraleedharan-and my colleagues and editors at Silverscreen.in -Karthik Narasimhan, Manoj Varkey and Sinndhuja Ramaprasad -as my mentors. I follow blogs of accomplished film critics such as Girish Shambu, Sohini Chattopadhyay, Trisha Gupta and Baradwaj Rangan. All the friends I made at various critic labs continue to inspire me with their perceptive writing on cinema as well as their kind heart.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
After college, I was placed with Mint newspaper as a trainee journalist. I worked there for a few months, got a hang of field reporting -I reported on Telangana agitation in Hyderabad when it was at its peak -and moved on to a desk job at Times Of India and later, with One India. Those years as a sub-editor gave me a great clarity on what I really wanted to do.
The fact is, my entry into the field of film criticism was accidental. It happened in a matter of a few weeks. I was tired doing a clerical job, and wanted to be somewhere I could put my intellect to use. I spent my initial months at Silverscreen as a regular reporter. I interviewed people, reported on events, and wrote news stories. However, I always knew I had to move, at some point, to an advanced stage.
That’s why I started applying for film critics labs and workshops, to be part of the larger international community, and get introduced to a variety of cinemas, forms and writings on cinema. At Young Film Critics programmes in Rotterdam, Jerusalem (critics delegation programme) and Yerevan, I met accomplished film critics, curators and filmmakers from different parts of the world, whose works encouraged me to explore new horizons of film criticism. I am now aware of the importance of having an original and compelling language, and I believe the training and experience I gathered have given me a great deal of courage to express my opinions honestly.
It was Smriti Kiran, the director of MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, who brought me into the field of film curation. She has, over the years, built a strong team at MAMI that is ardently working towards discovering and nourishing Indian talents in cinema. In the first year, I assisted Deepti DCunha, a senior film programmer who works for international film festivals such as Cannes and Locarno, and Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, an associate professor at the humanities department of IIT Mumbai.
How did you get your first break?
I was a reader of Silverscreen.in, a website dedicated to cinema-related writing, before I saw their call for job applications. I was advised by many people against joining a niche and new website, leaving behind mainstream journalism, but I had made up my mind on it. I sent my resume, and got a call from them. It was a very new start-up, and we – the website and I – grew together. I wouldn’t have got a freehand or an opportunity to write on a variety of aspects of cinema in a big and mainstream media organisation where there are hierarchies and rigid work patterns.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: I live in a smalltown where the sight of a lone woman at the movie halls is looked at with a mix of curiosity and frown. Many a time on the first day first shows of superstar movies, I have had to hunch over in my seat and make myself as invisible as I can to the exhilarated crowd of male fans. For some time, it came as a rude cultural shock. Then I learned to live with it, brave all kinds of stares by staring them back.
Challenge 2: This is an age of industry trackers and complacent film journalism which is very much hand-in-glove with the film industry. It can be very hard to get celebrities to talk to you or agree for an interview if you’ve a history of writing brutally honest film reviews. For a long time, I struggled with it. I came to terms with it a couple of years ago when I learned how to sort my priorities. I started interviewing artistes who deserved to be heard, who weren’t part of the industry’s limelight. I started writing about films that few people had heard of, and started covering film festivals more than ever.
Where do you work now?
I work as a film critic, contributing features and movie reviews to Silverscreen.in, a media website registered in the US. While I write about movies from many languages, I specialise in Malayalam cinema.
I am also a film programmer working with MAMI Mumbai film festival. This is my second year in the position. I am part of a four-member team that watches and selects Indian movies to the film festival.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
The first step to becoming a film critic or a film programmer is to have a serious interest in cinema. This is an age when everyone on social media believes he/she is qualified to be a film critic because they watch more movies than ever, thanks to the onset of Netflix and similar avenues. However, to be a film critic is much more than binge-watching films and series. One needs to acquire a deep understanding of the medium of cinema -the history, evolution, its abstract varieties and its relationship with the larger society over the years -and express unique ideas in an exceptional language. And for this, reading is utmost important. One needs to cultivate a habit of reading widely, on subjects that might or might not pertain to cinema. A greater understanding of the world will enhance your understanding of cinema and the ability to interpret it.
What’s a typical day like?
My typical day involves watching movies, reading and writing (a lot). This is a rather “indoor” job that could get to you at some point. Also, being a freelancer means there is no fixed daily schedule. So, maintaining order in life is crucial. For a long time, I fought writer’s blocks and the prevalent problem of short attention span. Nowadays, I make it a point to not multitask. I finish one task before proceeding to the next. I make a daily log of the essays/books I read and the films I watched, note down interesting quotes/information I come across. At the moment, I am reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and watching films at a virtual film festival.
What is it you love about this job?
Life of a film critic or a programmer can rarely become boring. For starters, movie theatres become your place of work, and film festivals, the annual event you look
forward to. Often, you get the privilege to be one of the first viewers of a great film, and interact with the makers about their creative process.
How does your work benefit society?
Cinema is the most powerful art form which has a substantial influence over society. Film critics and film curators are the moderators between cinema and the audience. They have the responsibility of shaping a large section of society’s taste in cinema. They introduce to the audience lesser-known films and artistes from different cultures; they act as a bridge between two worlds.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
In 2018, I did a long-form interview of PF Mathews, a brilliant yet lesser-known writer whose screenplay for Ee Ma Yau, a Malayalam film, had been winning praises. I did an extensive research on his works and the cultural and social milieu of his characters. The whole process was highly enjoyable as well as intellectually rewarding for me. The interview got widely read, and eventually, when the screenplay was published as a book, a Malayalam translation of the interview was added to it.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
The decline of the media industry has hit the field of film criticism too. In the Western countries, film critics work with multiple organisations or take up a second job in order to survive in a big city. In India, there are healthy publications and various avenues for those aspiring to be a film critic. If you aim for a writing career, be prepared to take up a second job, maybe as a video presenter on YouTube introducing new releases to the audience. The world is fast changing, and you will have to learn new skills to survive in your favourite job. The point is, never stop learning. Keep writing and reading, as much as you can. From the age of Pather Panchali, we have arrived in the TikTok era. Pay close attention to every movement in the world of visual culture.
The goal is to become a better writer, a better film curator. I want to take both these professions hand in hand. I have plans to interact with students and aspiring film critics, write long-form essays on subjects I have been focusing on, and also, overcome my speech anxiety.