Interview with Rachel Saltz of the New York Times

Rachel Saltz writes reviews of Bollywood films for the New York Times. Her reviews caught our eye because she seems to really get the essence, the spirit or the “Ras” of the films. Most reviewers, whether in America or in India, have a tendency to be overly cynical and overbearing. We find Rachel’s style refreshing. (See our previous articles – Bollywood Film Reviews – New York Times vs. Times of India on May 10 and Again, New York Times is Right and Times of India Wrong on June 7).  We caught up with Rachel recently.

CinemaRasik: When did you start watching Bollywood films?
Rachel Saltz: I started watching them a while ago, when I was at the University of Chicago as a South Asian Studies major. The first class I took was called Hindi Movies, which was revolutory to me because the other thing I was interested in was films.

Hindi Movies was a class?
Rachel Saltz: Yes (with a laugh) and it was probably never repeated after wards. It was a class by two guys; one was an older fellow who loved them and the other, a younger intellectual who had that “how can we like these movies that are often so embarrassing” kind of an attitude towards them.  The first movie we saw was “Awara” and I loved it. The Raj Kapoor movie. It is so beautiful, glistening black and white, the story resonated in so many ways with other things I was living out…

What were some of the other films you watched in this class?
Rachel Saltz:  There were many I don’t remember, but I do remember watching “Mother India”, “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje” and “Kaagaz Ke Phool”, which I loved. 

CinemaRasik: How did you start reviewing the films?
Rachel Saltz:   I noticed that the (New York) Times was reviewing Bollywood films and I thought I would volunteer to review them because I loved the genre.

Do you have a favorite actor?
Rachel Saltz: I have started to really like Saif Ali Khan. I like Rani Mukherjee, Madhuri Dixit. I have a huge soft spot for Amitabh Bachchan. I interviewed him once. He is really quite charming. In some ways, I am interested in the Bollywood Star System because it does throw up good movie stars even better than really good actors, if you know what I mean. Almost everyone you see a lot in films pretty much deserves to be there.

  Which are your favorite old and new Bollywood films?
Rachel Saltz:  My favorite old movie is “Shri 420”. My favorite among the recent films, and this is as boring as it can possibly get, is “Om Shanti Om”.

CinemaRasik: Well, that is one of the biggest successes! What did you like about “Om Shanti Om”?
Rachel Saltz:  ( Laughingly) Everything! I like how confident Bollywood has become for one thing and how it has celebrated itself in a way that is truly pleasurable. It was a comedy and though there was a mocking aspect to it, it was gentle and there was no cynicism to it. From the very beginning, it seemed like it was working on all the levels it wanted to work. It has a, if you will, a state of the art – here is what we can do, aspect to it.

CinemaRasik: May be that is why it became such a huge success!
Rachel Saltz:   I think so too. That is another thing. In a funny way, I trust what the fans like in  Bollywood more than I do in Hollywood. Another movie I really like and I can’t pretend to watch a ton of them, is “Omkara” – a signal that Bollywood can go in a couple of different directions now.

CinemaRasik: What kind of directions?
Rachel Saltz: That movie (Omkara), if it were any thing but a Bollywood movie, it could have opened here as an art-house film, because that is what it is. But it is an art house film that still knows how to entertain. It reminded me of the good American films of the seventies that were really able to combine these two things. It shows that the industry (Bollywood) is now sophisticated enough that it can work on that level. So I am looking for more Omkaras, bring them on.

CinemaRasik: You mentioned Hollywood films of the seventies which were like that. For Example?
Rachel Saltz:  For example, Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, the early Scorsese films, the Coppola films like “The Godfather”. Art-house films made with Studio money and Studio ambitions. The ambition was “We can be art and We can entertain everybody”. They were sub-conscious about their artistic ambitions, which I think is something Omkara is also. Certain kind of other films like Mani Ratnam’s film “Dil Se”; those are right on the border for me in an artistic way..

CinemaRasik: Why do you think “Dil Se” did not succeed commercially?
Rachel Saltz:  I think it was a strange sort of movie. The terrorism stuff was too heavy in a way and it ends on a rather down beat note which is uncommon actually for Bollywood. Many films go through all kinds of horrors and then end on a happy note somehow.

CinemaRasik: What do you think Bollywood films don’t do that they should?
Rachel Saltz:  That is a very interesting question. I am not sure. One thing that is so interesting about Bollywood right now is how steep the learning curve is; how good all the technical aspects of it have become, from effects to cinematography; all of that has raised exponentially in the last ten years. So I don’t know, because the story telling is so  distinctive that they have got that down pretty well. Perhaps a slightly less derivative of American films but I find those interesting in a way as well. It is sort of a hard question.

CinemaRasik: What should Hollywood do? Clearly Hollywood is interested in what Bollywood has been able to do.
Rachel Saltz:  That is a very interesting development, I think.

CinemaRasik: Yet, it is clear that they (Hollywood) don’t get it.
Rachel Saltz:   It is absolutely correct. They don’t get it. They don’t get it because I think Hollywood is in a different kind of business right now than Bollywood is.

CinemaRasik:  Ok, Explain that.
Rachel Saltz:  Well. One of the Bollywood guys who wants to buy in to Dreamworks made an interesting point, that he wanted to restructure how films were made and away from the star driven concept. That is huge. That is where Hollywood turned the corner from being studio-driven to be about stars commanding big salaries. That has really changed the way films are made and I would argue to the detriment of the film. The thing is Bollywood is in the business of entertaining its audience in a way and, I don’t know any other way of saying this,  that is non-cynical. Hollywood is too cynical. Bollywood films are almost always about people, even “Krrish”, the Superhero movie develops along Bollywood character lines.

Editor’s Note:
  The old favorites of Rachel Saltz, Awara (1951) Shri 420 (1955) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) are classic and iconic films. Awara was a huge hit in Russia and many other countries at a time when emerging Bollywood did not have a marketing budg
et. Helen Abadzi has written on this blog about the popularity of Awara in Greece (
Hindi Films of the 1950s in Greece – May 31).  These three were powerful films with gripping stories, superb dialog and exquisite music. Below is a glimpse of the magic of these absolutely must watch films.

                    (Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara)

                            (Raj Kapoor in Shri 420)

(Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in Kaagaz Ke Phool)

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