I thought it could be interesting to add an occasional piece that wasn’t a movie review.
Lisa Tsering is a reporter for the California-based paper India West. I’ve known her as a fellow Hindi movie and Govinda fan for a couple of years now, but I was curious to learn how she came to make a living writing about something she loves so much, and hear about her experiences on the job, and how she’s keeping it all together now that she and her husband have an 11-month-old son. Here’s our chat:
Maria: Before we jump into the whole Bollywood subject, can you give me a little biodata? How did you get into this line of work?
Lisa: I was born in LA and I’ve been watching Bollywood movies since 1991. I was going to make my first trip to India and I thought if I could prepare myself to see what real life looked like in India then I can have an idea in my mind. So I thought “Well, I’ve heard about Bollywood movies”, you know down in LA they have a couple of theaters. So I thought “Why don’t I go see a movie and see what real life is like?” Of course as we know, Bollywood movies don’t look much like real life.
But I went and the first movie I ever saw was called Akela with Amitabh Bachchan. It was kinda lousy, but I saw that movie and it was like a spiritual experience for me. After that I went to India and I realized “Oh my God, this is the greatest thing. I’ve discovered something totally wonderful.”
Maria: Wait, you mean India was this totally wonderful thing, or Bollywood, or both of them?
Lisa: Both of ‘em.
Maria: Why would you say it was like a spiritual experience for you?
Lisa: The fact that it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t anticeptic. It had flaws, for example, I noticed that Amitabh’s eyes were kind of pointing in two different directions. It was a little bit slapdash and the technical qualities of the movie weren’t so good. It was kind of corny and everything. And all these little imperfections to me became very charming. And I thought it was a little bit dorky in a way. And that’s sorta how I see myself. Kind of dorky and kind of weird and charming at the same time. Something about it was the key that just fit in the lock in my mind and I thought “I get it! I get it! This is great!”
Maria: So that was the beginning. Then what happened? Were you writing at the time? Did you have a day job that was different?
Lisa: I had a day job that was really different. I was working at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in LA. And I was a doing a little bit of writing, but not much. But then after I started getting backstage at the various Bollywood concerts, which back then was very easy if you didn’t look Indian, just being different, they would let you in and do whatever. I made some friends and I started doing a little bit of coverage for an LA-based Indian paper. They were really nice and gave me a chance. That was the very early ’90s. Then I had a bunch of different jobs but then I came here to India West about nine years ago.
I’m not the quitting type, but I had just quit a job that I hated, some desk job, and that very day I was going through the want-ads and saw that India West needed a part-time proof reader. By then I had been reading the paper and loving everything and I went and introduced myself and spoke some Hindi to them and they said “Oh that’s great, c’mon onboard.” I started in a very low position but then I started slowly working myself up and taking more responsibility and now I’m so grateful. If there’s a show or anything that needs to be covered, I’m the first one they call, and that’s really great.
Maria: How about credibility? Do you ever find people looking at you a bit askance, saying “Well what does she know about this because, well, she’s not one of us”?
Lisa: To my face, at least, people have always been so nice, especially because I’ve taken time to learn some Hindi, so people have been just so nice and sweet and grateful. And if I go out to interview anyone, say some movie star, after two or three minutes they realize “Oh, I don’t have to explain what chai is to this person” and they treat me just like any other Indian, which is just great.
Now, when I go to India though, being a woman, yeah that’s when some problems begin, but not being not Indian, as a woman journalist you know what I mean, it can be a little hard as a woman there sometimes.
Maria: You mentioned in an email that you really like Bombay. How many times have you been there and what have your experiences been? Have you been to the studios?
Lisa: I’ve been there six times, and I’ve been to most of the studios. I’m not gonna tell you his name, but one major male star, we had some experiences together when he was on a break between shooting and he was smoking a joint while his bodyguard waited and it was very weird, but all that crazy stuff’s behind me now. I’ve been able to visit the studios and it’s a wonderful experience, but it is so hot and those guys work so hard. The women have all that heavy make-up on in the heat and they always look so beautiful… I don’t know how they do it!
Maria: What about other Indian films (Tamil, Telugu, etc.) – have you branched out?
Lisa: Well, only if Mani Ratnam has made it, you know? Otherwise, not much.
Maria: And the non-Bollywood movies, you know, the
Lisa: Mr. and Mrs. Iyer type movies?
Lisa: Oh yeah, I love the parallel cinema.
Maria: You’re a mother now, you’ve got this career as a journalist full time, how do you juggle it all and how often do you watch movies or go to concerts?
Lisa: I go to cover something once a week, a movie or a show, and my husband is so supportive. He is such a gem. He always says “Hey, your work is so important, you need to do that, just leave the baby and we’ll have a great time just being bachelors” so it’s not been a problem. In fact, you know, if I need to I’ll take my son along to an interview. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m not afraid to. I want him to be surrounded by all the wonderful Indian music too. There’s one place I won’t take him, though, and that’s to these Indian star shows because they are so loud and it just drives me nuts to see people bringing babies to those, makes me so mad.
Maria: You were at a show recently, weren’t you?
Lisa: Yeah! I was at Salman Khan’s show and then before that it was Akshay Kumar.
Maria: Do you notice quality changing in the last 10 years or so? Any observations or trends?
Lisa: It’s satisfying on one level, you know, you get to see your stars dancing, and the dancing’s really good, but the staging is really old-fashioned. If you ever get a chance to go see one of the bigger Western acts, like Madonna, you’ll think “Why aren’t the Indian show producers looking at the new technology and the new staging and try to be innovative? You know, in fact, they’re so old-fashioned that the girl dancers usually have to wear flesh-colored spandex on their tummies; I have no reason why. It’s so lame. A lot of progress needs to be made.
Maria: Yeah, that spandex cover-up is weird. Tell me about your personal favorites over the years; actors or movies that you could watch over and over.
Lisa: Since Amitabh was the first star that I ever saw, he’s totally the king of everything. He’s a god to me. It’s almost like in my mind he’s a father figure and I know maybe that sounds really stupid for a movie fan to say, but hey, people build altars to him. Then, I think Shahrukh Khan is great and I admire Aishwarya though her acting leaves me cold, but I admire what she’s doing. And Raj Kapoor. Nargis is a total favorite. In fact, I named my cat Nargis!
Maria: You’ve watched the earlier movies also, have you?
Lisa: A fair amount. Not as many as I’d like to watch. My absolute favorite of all time is Awaara. It’s such a beautiful piece of art.
Maria: Have you met Amitabh Bachchan?
Lisa: Oh yes, I’ve interviewed him several times. He recognizes me now.
Maria: How was it the first time, and since?
Lisa: The first time I interviewed him I waited in a hotel lobby for six hours. I was relatively new at that point in my career and I thought “You know, I’m willing to wait as long as it takes to do whatever I have to do to get an interview with this guy” and I’m so glad that back then I would wait because you know these stars are always late and you have to get used to it, but I felt so committed.
It was some hotel in the San Francisco Bay area and he said “Oh my gosh, since you’ve been waiting so long, sure I’ll give you some time. Come on up and we’ll do the interview” and I was just flabbergasted. He was such a gentleman. You know, a lot of journalists will say “Oh yeah, this fake modesty thing he puts on” but I just think that he’s the ultimate classy, wonderful gentleman and he’s just great.
Other stars have been not quite so positive, like one of the times I interviewed Salman Khan. He was hanging out with Sanjay Dutt backstage in LA at a show and the floor of the dressing room was an inch deep in booze. It would splash when you walked. They would smoke cigarettes and let them fall to put themselves out in the booze, and I thought “Oh my God, we’re all gonna’ go up in flames!”
Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s not. Once in Bombay, Hrithik was shooting Main Prem ki Diwani Hoon and I waited for about 3 hours outside the studio in the burning sun and I didn’t get to see him. But things do eventually pay off. I was actually the first NRI reporter to interview Hrithik.
Maria: How often do you go to India?
Lisa: I haven’t been in about three years now. I used to go every other year. Since I’ve had the baby I’ve had to take a little break from that.
Maria: Do you have any of the Indian channels at home?
Lisa: We used to have them, but they’re so freaking lame! These stupid soap operas and the same old ads for these fortune tellers. Why should we pay all this money to watch a half an hour of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and then suffer through 23 and 1/2 hours of garbage? So I cancelled my channels. It’s bad. I would love to see Indian Idol and all that. Did you have a chance to see those shows?
Maria: A little bit. I have to confess when I’m in India it’s hard for me to get out of my hotel room, the TV there is just mesmerizing.
Lisa: Oh yeah, Zee TV and MTV and all of that.
Maria: We both love Govinda. What is it about him that you like so much? Have you met him?
Lisa: Oh yeah, he’s my favorite, my God! I have a picture right here that I took when he was shooting in San Francisco. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, in both Bombay and here, and he laughed at my jokes. What can I say? The man’s a god.
Maria: Excellent! How is he to talk to? Does he speak to you in English? What’s he like?
Lisa: He’s very laid back and laughs all the time and his accent is very thick but he’s very funny and he’s just as charming and cuddly in English as you could imagine him being in Hindi. Is he supposed to come back in films after doing his political thing?
Maria: If you look at IMDB, there are some movies down there, so supposedly he is. Let me ask you about your career. You did this piece about immigration fraud and false dowry accusations and you won an award for it this year. How do you interweave these stories with your Bollywood work and do you worry about getting pigeonholed?
Lisa: Oh, I do care. For instance, my business card says “Entertainment Editor” which I’m changing now, because I hate to go to some function, like a memorial service for somebody, and I whip out my card and it says that. To me, it’s real easy to switch from subject to subject, and I’m glad that I don’t do entertainment 24/7; I think that’d be real stultifying.
India West is a small paper and the advantage to that is for the reporters, we have to dip our toes into so many different subjects.
Maria: How did that piece come to you? [Note: the story was about NRI men returning to India to marry and afterward being extorted for money or citizenship for their brides’ family members under the threat of being accused of asking for dowry.]
Lisa: My editor mentioned that it happened to somebody she knew, and then it happened to somebody else, and if it happened to these two people, then maybe we can research this. And now, my God, there’s so many people! I still get email about it. In fact I just got an email yesterday about some NRIs who are mobilizing against it. Storywise, it was just such an interesting novelty.
Maria: What is your opinion of recent Bollywood movies, compared to say what was coming out in the early 1990s? What do you think of them now?
Lisa: Of course I admire their increasing sophistication both technically and storywise, but Maria, the latest thing that I’m all upset about is product placement; shameless, odious, obnoxious product placement. I just saw Krrish and they put a bag of Tide laundry detergent right in the middle of the movie screen between Rekha and Hrithik as they’re having a conversation. In another scene, they put a jar of Bournavita on the table right in front of the camera as they’re trying to have their breakfast. Odious.
If you read the news in India all these media analysts think this is the greatest thing to come along and I just think it’s disgusting and I’m so upset by it. But if there’s any trend I’m seeing, it’s that, and we have to do something because it’s not o.k.
Maria: On the positive side, anything that impresses you?
Lisa: The look of the films has become much slicker, which I like. The heroes and heorines are cleaned up a little. You know, the girls used to have bushy eyebrows and be chunky, now they’re all hot. All in all, the films have improved. They used to be a little simplistic, they’re more intellectually rewarding now.
Maria: What was your favorite movie in 2005?
Lisa: Was Main Hoon Na 2005? I just saw Fanaa and thought it was great. I loved it. I thought the relationships were so beautifully done, Aamir and Kajol had so much chemistry and you could really feel the two people connecting, and the scenes of her and her son. I mean the kid had some crappy dialogue, but she and Aamir are such a great actors that watching them is just a joy on screen.
There was one parallel film I saw called Dombivli Fast, a Marathi film, that was really good. It’s been in a couple of festivals.
Maria: Amitabh Bachchan was in just about every big movie last year. Was there anything of his that really struck you?
Lisa: Oh, Black! The scene where he kissed Rani Mukherjee was one of the highlights of cinema of any country, I thought.
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It’s a Friday afternoon in San Leandro and we wrap up our chat so Lisa can get home to her family. I ask if her husband shares her enthusiasm for Bollywood movies, and she says that, being Tibetan, he’s familiar with Hindi movies, of course, but, Lisa tells me, “I’ll say ‘Hey, do you want to come with me to this event that Aishwarya Rai will be at?’ And he’ll say ‘That’s ok, you go with one of your girlfriends. I’ll hang out here and watch TV.”
You can learn more about Lisa and read her award-winning article “Indian Husbands Fall Victim to Dowry/Immigration Fraud” here.