Interview with Jai Arjun Singh

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch’. This is the line from one of the famous Poems called ‘Jabberwocky’.  If you are wondering what has this got to do with our interview today, allow us to introduce one of the earliest bloggers in India with his blog, popularly known as Jabberwock. Jai Arjun Singh is a freelance writer known for his  succinct reviews and opinions on movies and books and has just finished a book about the cult comedy film Jaane bhi do Yaaro for Harper Collins, and is currently editing an anthology of cinema-related essays for Tranquebar.

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

A: I started in September 2004. I was already working as a feature writer with a newspaper, mostly doing corporate stories … something I didn’t find stimulating at all. But I had recently also started writing book reviews, which I did find stimulating. I thought the blog would be a good (free!) storehouse for the journalistic writing, but it soon also became a place where I could put down general musings, or informal notes for a story/review I was working on.

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

My blogging is largely an extension of my journalistic writing, so books and movies figure strongly. But basically, anything that I’m comfortable writing about on a public forum: observations on Ekta Kapoor’s serials, north Indian weddings, water tanks, the problematic invincibility of Roger Federer, the bizarreness of being expected to refer to your in-laws as “mummy” and “papa”, evil children in trains and so forth.

In recent months my workload has been very heavy so the frequency of the blogging has reduced somewhat. But I do make sure to post book and film reviews, or at least short notes, every now and again.

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

A: Oh I experience writer’s block very frequently, but that’s true of the other writing as well as the blogging. It can get very frustrating at times, but there are deadlines to be met, so I can’t indulge myself too much I have to get on with it!

Q: In your post on 3 idiots, you’ve analyzed the first major part of the film saying it preached ‘…your dreams are more important than “success” as society defines it (status, bank balance, size of car, etc)…’. We understand that it is not easy to follow your dreams always – what would be your advise to someone who wants to pursue their not-so-normal dreams? Is the pressure to succeed in life taking a toll on the newer generations?

A: Honestly, I’m not qualified to give people advice on “following their dreams at any cost”, because I never did any such thing myself. When I got out of school in 1995, journalism and writing didn’t seem like viable careers, so I did B.Com in college, thinking that chartered accountancy was the obvious career option. (I was good at Math and Accounts, my mother’s brother and cousins were all CAs … you know how it goes…). The only somewhat “enterprising” decision I made was to not go ahead with my C.A. Articles and instead opt for a post-graduation course in Communication. That led to a stint as a copy-editor with Encyclopaedia Britannica, which in turn led to mainstream journalism. But my career trajectory has been unplanned and haphazard; it wasn’t until the age of 27 that I started making a living by doing the sort of writing I really liked doing.

I’m sure the pressure to succeed is taking a toll on young people, but then so many things are to blame for that: we live in a society of aspiration and status-consciousness, where a majority of people define “success” as having bigger cars than their neighbours. When parents pass such attitudes on to their children, the result is there for everyone to see.

Q: Some very important issues and facts have been discussed in your post ‘The divorced woman as easy prey’, published 4 years ago. Do you think there has been a change in mindset now or is it the same? Why do you think women like Ritika Aunty still feel helpless even in this new age society? What kind of pressure holds them back to do what is right?

A: That post was written for the Blank Noise Project, and it was about some of the issues my mother faced as a divorced woman: mainly, unwanted attention from the husbands of her friends, who thought she was fair game.

I’m wary of making generalisations about social trends – what has changed, etc – but speaking very broadly, I think it’s slightly easier for divorced women today than it was around 20-30 years ago. (I’m talking about reasonably liberal communities in the urban centres.) Perhaps because divorce doesn’t seem to carry the same stigma that it once did – it doesn’t raise eyebrows as it used to, maybe because it happens more frequently now.

That said, I know women in my age-group (including my wife, who was married earlier) whose parents actively discouraged them from getting a divorce (even when they were wallowing in a really bad marriage) … or put pressure on them to settle down again as quickly as possible. A friend of a friend is now in a second bad marriage because she was rushed into it immediately after her divorce. And this is someone who used to be a fairly independent working woman.

As for Ritika aunty, she was stuck in a marriage to a lout, and maybe she was helpless to get out of the situation because there were two small children involved, and possibly for a number of other reasons I don’t know about. I’m not a big one for judging people who don’t make a strong and visible attempt to “improve their lives” or to “do the right thing” – it’s easy to preach but you can never put yourself in someone else’s head, or see the full picture.

Q: Some of our earlier interviewees like Sidin and Preeti Shenoy feel ‘Blogging is more personal & heartfelt while Mainstream Media is less personal & more reported’. As a journalist and a blogger, what does Jai feel about difference in writing for a blog and writing for mainstream media?

A: Like I said, there often isn’t a big difference between my blogging and my journalistic writing; the blog has sometimes been a storehouse for the journalistic stuff. At other times, I’ve used the blog for a longer, more in depth, more informal version of an officially published review or interview. In that sense it’s been a very useful and satisfying medium, because review space is woefully limited in India’s mainstream media.

Q: As a common man and as a journalist, what kind of changes would you like to see in the Indian Mainstream Media and why?

A: See the last sentence of the answer above. I’m a fairly tunnel-visioned sort of guy: what I’m most concerned with is film and book reviews, and I wish the reviewing culture in mainstream Indian media would get a little more thoughtful. Which means greater space for long, thoughtful, engaged write-ups about movies, as opposed to these 300-word summaries where the most important thing is how many stars a film gets.

More generally, the quality of feature writing could improve vastly… but that would require a tradition of good, long-form feature writing, which we don’t have in our mainstream media. For that matter, even basic understanding of grammar, even in the copy desks of some of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, is appalling. We have copy editors who think articles (I mean “a”, “an”, “the”) don’t matter… that they can be randomly removed from, or inserted in, sentences. Commas are regularly misplaced or over-used, news reporters specialise in clichés and awkward sentence construction (e.g. “A meeting would be held today at 10 AM” instead of “A meeting will be held today…”). And this is never corrected by the copy heads, who know no better themselves.

More often than not, our journalism is driven by such unreasonable deadlines that quality has to suffer. As a freelance writer myself, I’ve often faced situations where someone has given me just a week’s time to do a 1000-word story that requires speaking to a few people, collecting quotes, doing a bit of research etc. Naturally, the story that results is decidedly not been the best story I could have done if I had more time.

Q: Parveen Babi was amongst your favorite actresses of yesteryears. Do you think any of the current actresses exhibit the same grace and ooze sexuality as she did? Who are your favorites among the current crop and why?

A: Honestly, I don’t watch as much contemporary cinema – Indian or international – as you might think. Also, I tend to get fed up of the sight of many actors/actresses quite quickly, especially when they become over-exposed (which everyone does in this celebrity-crazed, media-heavy age). So, for instance, I may have found a number of actresses attractive or alluring the first two or three times I saw them, but the appeal wore off very fast.

Among the current lot I like Lara Dutta, not so much for “oozing sexuality” as for being a very rare example of a good-looking woman who’s also a good, underrated comic actress (and game for doing “silly” roles). Thought she was excellent in No Entry, and quite good in Partner and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. But I don’t find her too interesting when she does the straight-faced, oomph-laden roles, as in Blue.

I should point out that the Parveen Babi obsession was a childhood thing, and the post you’re referring to was more nostalgia-driven than anything else. Today, when I watch her films, it’s easier to see how garishly made up she sometimes was, and the frequent tackiness of her costumes. That said, I still think she was Amitabh’s best leading lady by a huge margin… they made a much better pair than he and Rekha did.

Q: You also blog a lot about movie-making right from the sets. After many years of writing about Bollywood, what kind of film would Jai want to direct? What is the single most thing you get impressed in a movie about – Story, Screenplay, Cinematography or..?

A: To clarify: my first on-a-movie-set experience was in Kerala very recently, so that was something new … I was purely an armchair critic before that. Also, Bollywood hasn’t really been the focus of my movie-writing. I’ve had a long and complex relationship with Bollywood movies, of course, but I also went through a 12-year phase when I hardly watched a single Hindi film!

There’s no single answer to what impresses me most in a film; it would vary from one movie to another. But the film that I’d love to make (in my dreams, of course… it’s never actually going to happen!) would be a silent movie, driven entirely by its visuals and possibly a few background sounds. Hardly any explanatory title-cards, except maybe a few denoting the time and setting. No spoken words at all.

Q: There are a lot of people who do not believe in various awards being conferred these days. If you were to judge, Which would be the best movie, actor and actress for 2009?

A: I don’t take competitive awards seriously at all, though it’s always fun to discuss them and quibble about them. Also, there are many Bollywood films I haven’t seen this year. But here’s a very random list of some films and performances I liked in 2009: Luck by Chance, Dev D, Little Zizou, Chintu-ji, Kaminey; Arshad Warsi in Ishqiya; Mahi Gill in Dev D.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

A: I’ve been very lazy about promoting it, or even maintaining it outside of the actual writing I put up; I’ve had the same boring-looking template ever since I began… I’m scared to change it because I’m paranoid that things might disappear! The only “promotion” is putting up links to my post on my Facebook profile once in a while.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

A: I try to respond to comments, even the snarky ones. But it gets difficult when there’s too much comment activity. Over the years, some of the interaction has been very rewarding; some of the good, long comments by engaged readers can be much more interesting than the actual post.

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

A: I know this will sound like a dampener, but I don’t read blogs as regularly as I once did. Too much reading and writing to do anyway, and the Internet is an enormous distraction. I check updates on my Bloglines subscription list and if something looks interesting I’ll visit the blog in question to read the full post.

Can’t generalize about the quality of “Indian blogs”, and also can’t pick five “favourites”. But here’s a quick, top-of-mind list of blogs that I think deserve a broader readership:

The first three are blogs that are mainly compendiums of columns/reviews written by former colleagues:

  • Rrishi Raote’s Under my Byline – musings on literature and history (along with some general features) by an excellent writer
    (Latest Post: OVERLEAF 69)
  • Mitali Saran’s Stet – more than any other writer whom I personally know, Mitali causes me to react thus: “HOW did she get into my head, steal my thoughts and articulate them much better than I could have?”
    (Latest Post: Red, red whine)
  • Vikram Johri’s Patrakaar2B – book reviews, mainly, but hardly any Indian books – which is a relief, because too many of us mainstream reviewers are writing about the same old stuff
    (Latest Post: Apocalyptic stories painted in ‘cheery hues’ )
  • Next, there’s Dusted Off – a movie blog maintained by the writer Madhulika Liddle, author of The Englishman’s Cameo. Detailed write-ups (with screen grabs) on old Hindi movies from the 1950s and 60s that are hard to get hold of. Plus some classic Hollywood. Check her sidebar for links to other top-notch movie blogs.
    (Latest Post: Wait Until Dark (1967))
  • Finally, A Goose Egg by Gawker – some very droll, low-key humour writing. This guy’s right up there with the more famous funny men of the Indian blogosphere.
    (Latest Post: Bhakshak)

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

A: Having space to write about the things you want to, in the way that you want to, and being able to click on the “Publish” button yourself, without having to go through a long-winded editorial process.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

A: Don’t do it just for the heck of it; there’s too much clutter on the Internet as it is. If Hell exists, chances are that some of the choicest seats in the innermost circle will be reserved for people who thoughtlessly start blogs and then abandon them within a week or two. If all you want to do is share snippets like “Today I ate bacon and poha for breakfast at 8, experienced stomach rumblings at 8.45 and died of indigestion at 8.55″, Facebook or Twitter are better options (and will probably get you a lot more traffic, sympathy and funeral attendance these days, if you have enough online “friends”).

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

A: Nope. Never have. Got a couple of offers for carrying paid ads, but the ads needed to occupy a lot of space right at the top of the page, which didn’t work for me. I tried installing Adsense once but got the terse message that my blog didn’t meet their specifications or something such.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

*Groan* I don’t believe in these exercises! But okay…

Color: used to be green, but I can’t bring myself to pick any one colour now.

Movie: Can’t name one or ten or twenty. If you asked me for my 200 favourite films, I’d give you a list, but even then there would be a footnote saying that the list would be completely different one hour later! Some films that have strongly influenced my interest in cinema and led me to movie literature: Hitchcock’s Psycho, F W Murnau’s Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Godard’s Contempt…and, well, dozens of others.

TV Show: I don’t watch much TV, but I enjoy shows like Channel V’s Dare 2 Date: it’s so much fun watching these poor kids trying to be oh-so-cool but making fools of themselves. (I know that sounds supercilious but I’m actually quite sympathetic towards today’s youngsters who are growing up at a time when every phase of their lives… including the really immature bits… is being recorded on the Internet, on TV shows etc. Am very glad my own adolescence took place in a relatively anonymous world… though I’d like to think I wouldn’t have signed up for shows like Dare 2 Date or Roadies anyway!)

Book: again, pointless to try and name one. But the Mahabharata… not so much as a fixed text (or in any one translation) but as a fluid work that’s constantly open to interpretation and revision.

Time of Day: Huh?

Your Zodiac Sign: Leo. But I’m not into any of this zodiac/horoscope business, unless it’s to derive humour from it. I’d love to be given completely free rein to write the horoscope predictions in a newspaper though… that would be a lot of fun, and would possibly lead to a great many teen suicides!

Thanks a lot for this wonderful and an enlightening interview. It was a pleasure reading your views on Journalism, Society, films and much more. We are sure our readers will feel the same. Readers, if you have anything to ask Jai, do drop in your questions as comments below. For now, Shabba-Khair.

Connect with Jai: Blog, BlogAdda, Facebook

3 Replies to “Interview with Jai Arjun Singh”

  1. This is a wonderful discovery for me – Jai Arjun Singh. Never knew about him and now, I am going to follow his blog regularly.

    “……we live in a society of aspiration and status-consciousness, where a majority of people define “success” as having bigger cars than their neighbours….”
    Jai, you have said so correctly. It’s scary at times thinking what will happen in the future.

    When is your book releasing? Jaane bhi do yaaro is one of my fav. films!

  2. Snehal: the book is mostly done at my end, but the publication process might be a little slow – I’m hoping for a September-October release.

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