It all began with a glass of water.
We all have our own gateways into the wondrous world of Steven Spielberg. From the glowing doorway in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the first sighting of the shark in Jaws to the rolling boulder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark… we have, each of us, experienced that moment of sheer cinematic exhilaration, a moment where we realise just how headily joyous bigscreen cinema can be.
For me, it was the water. A glass that stood on a dashboard of an SUV with two children (and a lawyer) locked inside, the exploring palaeontologists far out in the rain. Few visuals in cinema are as ominous as the way the water in the glass ripples outward and, at 12, I remember gaping at that moment in 1993’s Jurassic Park — scared and thrilled and with my heart going boom — and being overwhelmed.
For that is what Spielberg does: he makes us fall head over heels in love with the movies. And no matter what image he bowled us over with, we remain grateful fans. Each of us, no matter what we think of War Horse or the last Indy movie, has been jolted, galvanised, touched by his work. Several times over.
And so it was a particularly unbelievable Monday evening in Mumbai when we gathered to meet the man who made ET. Self-importance and egos were thrown aside as a dazzling assemblage of Hindi movie directors arrived at the venue, more than a half hour ahead of the scheduled time. And with a crowd like that, it was special well before Spielberg walked in.
It was fascinating to see all of Hindi cinema represented in one hotel ballroom, a stupendous set of directors waiting for the man who had wowed us all, a room teeming with talent. The assemblage was magnificent — from Shyam Benegal to Anurag Kashyap to Abbas-Mastan to Gauri Shinde to Rajkumar Hirani — and each was as thrilled. Personally, as one of only two critics in attendance — the wonderful Anupama Chopra being the other — it was a huge privilege to rub shoulders with this set of helmers, to exchange Indiana Jones notes with Nagesh Kukunoor and discuss the Munich telephone sequence with Sriram Raghavan. Unlike any other industry event rife with politics and far too much press, here we all were, talking about a man who mattered. And we all sounded as old as I was when I’d seen that water ripple.
The tables were eclectic tag-teams bursting with talent. I sat, for example, on one between Rohan and Ramesh Sippy, Sriram Raghavan, Onir, Nagesh Kukunoor and Kunal Kohli. Wow. For a minute I wondered how thrilling it would be to give each table a video camera and instructions to film a short in a half- hour, and then I realised it’d lead to more bloodshed than anything else. Ah well.
The event, organised by Reliance Entertainment, promised us Amitabh Bachchan in conversation with Mr Spielberg, and this it provided most wonderfully. The directors couldn’t be gladder that the only actor present was the one on stage, and Mr Bachchan, a handful of years older than Mr Spielberg, conducted a thoughtful conversation peppered with witty asides and insight. He asked fine questions — about how the director has come to rely on his actors more, and whether he’d like to take on a Bond film — but, above all, let the director speak up. Giving us all a glimpse of just how inspiring and how humble one of our idols truly is.
With the schoolboy passion his movies evoke, Spielberg spoke about it all, with exemplary generosity and candor: about cross-cutting shots of his train set to make his first film as a kid; about how all great comedic performers have incredible dramatic performers within, as he’d found with Tom Hanks; about how he repeatedly tried to get a job directing a Bond film and about the fundamental difference between his movies about aliens and those made by his friend George Lucas: “George wants to go out into outer space and find them, I want the aliens to land in my backyard,” he said talking of how nobody but Lucas could have made Star Wars. “I don’t want to lift a finger,” he laughed, and I couldn’t have been the only one thinking of that famous Extra Terrestrial finger.
Mr Bachchan kept taking questions from the rapt audience, questions Mr Spielberg handled deftly and articulately. Asked by Javed Akhtar if his shift towards “cinema with more gravitas, like Lincoln” would mean he won’t make any of the more joyous films we celebrate him for, Mr Spielberg smiled and said, “Well, I did just make a movie called Tintin.” He then proceeded to compare himself to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, quoting the scene of the filmmaker who meets an alien in a field who says they loved his films in outer space; well, at least his “earlier, funnier films.”
It was an immaculately organised event, intimate and wonderful. Steven Spielberg walked into a room and made the Hindi film industry feel far more united and tight-knit than it usually seems. He inspired us, smiled at us, shook our hands. Yes indeed.
And after all the directors were done asking questions, often prefaced by how he changed their lives, I couldn’t help asking him about that famous video clip of him in 1977, having just made the super-successful Jaws, watching the Oscar nominations announcement on TV. In the terrific clip, a 26-year-old Spielberg predicts that Jaws will get a sweeping 11 nominations, and then reacts with disappointment as it gets ‘only’ four. And he doesn’t get a nomination for Best Director, but in the video says “I got beaten out by Fellini.” I asked if this was said with regret, fury or admiration, in the sense that at least he was beaten by the master.
“I don’t remember that day very well except to ask myself why on earth I let those cameras into my office,” laughed Mr Spielberg, bringing the house down. “The amount of ego and hubris that I could have, as a 26-year-old director, to assume that I would get nominated and the film would get these multiple nomination, I think my karma intervened. I was probably on the wrong side of the Academy that year because I never should have said it. I believe if I had perhaps watched [the nominations] privately, it might have been a little brighter.”
“You know, I had met Fellini when I was very young, because he had seen Duel and liked it, loved it, and I had spent my day with Federico Fellini, The Maestro! And we kept communicating with each other, and I believe the last letter he read before he passed away was one I wrote to him, and so when Fellini got the nomination that year [for Amarcord], I remember actually feeling happy for him.”
I went and shook his hand and thanked him for Jurassic Park and that glass of water, and he smiled and reminded me that the film is re-releasing in 3D next month, for its twentieth anniversary. And as I walked out and pinballed among a crowd of excited filmmakers with a “my year is made” vibe coursing through the room, I realised that very few things can make us feel as young as the films of Steven Spielberg.
We talked about his movies, about ours, about movies in general, and specific instances of his movies, all while being giddily aware of just how remarkable the evening had been. And then I walked out and, um, phoned home.
First published Rediff, March 12, 2013