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Remembering Bollywood's big supporter

April 30, 2015 13:06 IST

Richard Corliss

'Richard Corliss started loving Bollywood late in his career, but he gave everything he had in his power as a critic to promote India's Hindi cinema.'

Aseem Chhabra remembers Time magazine's film critic, who passed into the ages last week.

There are two stories I often tell about American film critics and Bollywood.

In 1985 I attended a press screening of Raj Kapoor's Shri 420 organised by the University of California, Los Angeles.

It was a part of the year-long traveling Indian film festival called Film Utsav.

There were only two people at the screening -- Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times and I.

Image: Richard Corliss. Photograph: Kind courtesy, the TCM Classic Film Festival Web site.

About 15 minutes into the film Thomas could not handle it -- the songs, the old-style Bollywood melodrama with Kapoor imitating Charlie Chaplin.

He decided to leave.

One of the organisers begged and pleaded with Thomas to stay back and give the film a chance, but the critic just left.

Meanwhile, I sat and enjoyed what was now a private screening being held just for me.

Two days earlier, Thomas was present at a press conference addressed by Raj Kapoor at a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.

At the press conference I talked to Thomas about Kapoor's films.

He listened for some time and then said he did not have a question to pose to the actor, since he was not familiar with his work.

Image: Madhuri Dixit in Devdas.

The second story is about Richard Corliss of Time who in 2002 attended a press screening of Devdas at the Cannes Film Festival.

During the screening all the critics watching the film walked out (as did most Academy members when the film was screened for the best foreign language Oscar selection process).

But Corliss liked Devdas and he sat through the three-hour long screening.

Corliss started loving Bollywood late in his career, but he gave everything he had in his power as a critic to promote India's Hindi language commercial cinema.

Corliss died of a stroke aged of 71 on April 23. In his death Bollywood lost one of its fiercest supporters in mainstream American media.

In 2012 as he started to track the top 10 films of the millennium (our current century was only 12 years old at that time), he listed Devdas as the number eight film.

And this is what he wrote about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's over-the-top operatic melodrama:

'The piece is played with such commitment that the tritest plot twists seem worth believing -- and dancing to, in nine nifty production numbers. But the fervid emotion is what makes the thing sing.'

'Beyond that, Devdas is a visual ravishment, with sumptuous sets, fabulous frocks and beautiful people to fill them; it has a grandeur the old Hollywood moguls would have loved.'

I never met Corliss. But I exchanged a few e-mails with him. He was always very approachable.

In 2010 I wrote a column titled Confused American Critics. I later sent the link to Corliss since I had mentioned him in the piece, singling him out as one of the few critics who made every attempt to appreciate Bollywood films.

Corliss wrote back, saying he had seen my column as he was searching for comments on his review of Mani Ratnam's Raavan.

'I appreciated your compliments,' he wrote adding, 'and am amused that I seem to be famous in Bollywood for having sat through all of DEVDAS at Cannes eight years ago.'

Like most American critics Corliss did not grow up with Bollywood films -- the romances of Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and the dramatic moments in Amitabh Bachchan's films where the superstar spoke dialogues written by Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan.

Corliss' introduction to popular Indian cinema was quite by accident.

He discovered those films after he was skewered by Bollywood fans.

Image: Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan in Lagaan.

Corliss had ridiculed the Oscar nomination of Lagaan, a film he had naturally not heard of. But he listened to his critics, fans of Lagaan and made it his mission to teach himself about Bollywood.

And he wrote a long essay about his newfound passion, almost an obsession of watching and collecting as many Bollywood films he could.

At that time there was perhaps only one more American critic -- Los Angeles-based David Chute, who at one point wrote for LA Weekly (he currently reviews Bollywood films for Variety) and who had a better understanding about Bollywood.

Roger Ebert discovered Bollywood when he watched Taal in Hyderabad in 2005 on the recommendation of film programmer and journalist Uma da Cunha.

But in his 3.5/4-star review, Ebert almost ridiculed Taal, as he also appeared to enjoy its camp quality.

Corliss was a lot more respectful of the Bollywood films he watched, collected and wrote about.

As a critic he was not embarrassed to acknowledge his lack of understanding, but he took pride in this big discovery he had made.

He revisited classics. He included Pyaasa in his list of the top 10 romantic films of all time.

In 2012 he updated Time';s top 100 films of all times by adding Awara to the mix. Earlier, in 2010, he added Mani Ratnam's Nayakan to the same list.

I did not always agree with Corliss' taste in Bollywood films.

In 2005 he picked Bhansali's Black as one of the top 10 films of the year, a choice I would not have supported.

I know that lists like these are a matter of personal choice.

What Corliss did was not to just make lists or show off his love for Bollywood.

He tried to get his readers to understand why those films mattered to him. And in the process he was surely able to convert at least some of his readers to the joys of watching popular Hindi films.

The US market is still fairly closed when it comes to Bollywood films.

Richard Corliss should be remembered for his attempts to change that through his passionate write-ups in Time.

Aseem Chhabra in New York