Clichéd but true: because I have to. Even if things had gone very differently for me (as they might easily have) and I had ended up working in a profession unrelated to writing, I suspect I would still have made notes, just for myself, in a little pad or on a blog every time I watched a film or read a book that stimulated me.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Oh, there are always many writing projects on hand – I think of even a 1000-word review or an 800-word column as a project that one has to devote serious thought and effort to. But my latest book, published in September 2015, is The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves – it is a critical study of the director’s work, which is widely categorised as “middle cinema” or “middle-class cinema”. I found myself wanting to write about him because I properly discovered these gentle films relatively late in my life, and found myself unexpectedly drawn to many of them – to the ways in which they made little observations about the workings of a society, couched in simple, comforting narratives.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Too many to mention, and across so many categories. Since I have always been an enthusiastic reader of film literature, some favourites in that field include Robin Wood, Danny Peary, Pauline Kael, VF Perkins and David Thomson. In other categories in non-fiction: Gerald Durrell, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, many others. In fiction, some favourites include Ira Levin, Alan Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro, JRR Tolkien, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Dickens, Shivaji Sawant (whom I’ve only read in translation), Roald Dahl, Anees Salim, many others.
This is just off the top of my head, I’m probably leaving out dozens of important writers.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Can’t think of any one piece, but many years ago I started writing a long essay – mainly for myself, with no plan to use it anywhere – about my love for horror cinema. Eventually I completed it and used it for my anthology The Popcorn Essayists (as “Monsters I Have Known”), but it really was a work in progress for the longest time – it was cobbled together over years (of course, this includes many long periods when I didn’t work on it at all). It was also the first piece of that length – around 6,000 words – that I did.
The most intense five-day period of writing I have ever experienced was sometime in November 2012, when I nearly busted a gut racing against time to prepare a 15,000-word first draft of a piece about the director Dibakar Banerjee (it was published as a cover story in Caravan magazine).
What’s your idea of bliss?
Reading a brilliant passage in a book, or watching a brilliant scene in a film. Getting an essay finished in good time, and achieving something like 80 percent of what I had meant to when I started it. (Happens very, very rarely, if at all.)
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Lots of things; I have a short fuse and often get very impatient or annoyed if I come across someone who I feel isn’t doing the best they can with the resources/skills available to them. More specifically: cruelty towards animals (though if I have to be honest, I’m essentially talking about cruelty to dogs).
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Lots of my favourite cinema books, a couple of favourite translations/retellings of the Mahabharata, a couple of popular-science favourites such as The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes…I’ll stop there for now. Of course, I’d also want to take along some books I have badly wanted to read but haven’t found time for. Maybe some collections of science-fiction and noir stories from the 1950s.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
Well, probably the living creatures who matter most: my mother, wife, dog. Then my laptop and a few cinema books if I have enough time.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Good grief. The only possible way I could answer such a question would be half-facetiously. So here are three separate philosophical statements that are as profound as anything I have ever come across:
“Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others” (Groucho Marx)
“Everything means something, I guess” (from the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
“If you can’t do, you’re a gaandu” (from one of our more irreverent teachers in St Columba’s School sometime in the late 80s)
Jai Arjun Singh is an independent writer and critic. He has authored the books Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 (Harper Collins India), about the cult comedy film, and The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves (Penguin India). He has also edited the anthology The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers (Tranquebar), a collection of essays about movies, and was proud to feature as the sole male contributor to the anthology Of Mothers and Others (Zubaan), with an essay about mothers in Hindi cinema.
Jai has delivered talks – mainly about criticism – at Delhi University colleges, conducted a workshop at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai and taught the Creative Writing class at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication, New Delhi. His columns, reviews and essays have appeared in many publications including Business Standard, Mint Lounge, Yahoo India, The Hindu, Tehelka, Outlook, The Caravan, Open, Scroll, Forbes Life, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, Vogue and GQ. Most of his journalistic work – including columns, features and reviews – can be found on his blog Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in).