Watch Now: 5 Tips to become a Better Writer and Interviewer by Renuka Vyavahare

It’s been over 12 years for Renuka Vyavahare in the film and entertainment business. As a popular film critic for The Times of India and a Principal Correspondent at The Bombay Times, it would be safe to call her a relatively seasoned journalist. Renuka truly believes that if you love your job, it feels like a hobby. And writing about films makes her immensely happy. Watching Cinema and then decoding, discussing the intent or thought behind it is also a favourite activity. Like most Mumbaikars, film and cinema have been an intrinsic part of her life since childhood, and a combination of will and hard work has helped her convert her passion into her job. 

Most youngsters today are looking to gain a foothold in the entertainment industry. There is immense hype surrounding the job requirements of a media professional. But is it everything that it is made out to be? What goes on behind the glitz and glam? And what does one really need to imbibe or develop to forge a successful trajectory in an industry that forgets people as easily as it makes them? Renuka Vyavahare tells it like it is to Sneha Kamat Bhavnani.

Give us a brief idea of your beginnings in entertainment journalism. Was this always what you set out to do or just an accident?
Renuka VyavahareI never thought that I would be a film journalist because I never saw myself as being a social person. I was offered to do film reviews and that made me fall in love with the beat. A lot of people are drawn to film journalism for the glamour of it. They are attracted to the stars, not the reason why they become stars — films. I never felt that way. The magic of movies is what appealed to me the most.

My father loved movies and he’d even buy tickets in black and take me and my brother to the cinema. We were young kids then. At that time, it was escapism and the aspirational value that films offered. But as I grew older, it became my voice in a way. After watching Maine Pyaar Kiya as a child, I became a fan of Bhagyashree’s fashion from the film.

I had a poster of Tom Cruise from Cocktail in my room, I had small pictures of SRK and Kajol from DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) pasted in my cupboard and was quite a fan of Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit. I also watched SRK’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa on the VCR literally every day when I was in Switzerland on holiday for a month. I was barely ten then. Looking back, I’d definitely say I was a filmi kid.

You’ve worked with print, online, and then a combination of both. How have you grown through this process and how has your skill-set developed?
Every medium requires a certain set of skills. Short, crisp copy with ‘new updates’ for online, exclusivity and conversational headlines for print, and love for feature writing for magazines. Accuracy, speed, relevance, reliability and compassion can take you a long way. You can’t be so self-indulgent that you forget the medium that you’re writing for. 

In print, it could be a magazine, a newspaper or even a book. When it comes to writing for an online medium, while I don’t endorse deceiving headlines, your copy must be clickable. People don’t have the patience to read a 2000-3000-words article online, so you have to draw in the reader faster than you would have to with print. Magazines give you the benefit of writing more in-depth. Newspapers have word limits. One has to adapt to the requirements of the medium.

 

A big part of your job is hobnobbing with industry biggies. Has this ever been a daunting prospect for you? What inherent skills or qualities have you needed to not be intimidated when you’re interviewing a Matt Damon or a Ranbir Kapoor?

Interview Matt Damon

With Matt Damon

I would be lying if I’d say that you aren’t awed by certain people. The first time I met Matt Damon for an interview in Hong Kong, I forgot my purse which had my passport, money and documents in the media suite and walked out of the hotel in haste! I was overwhelmed with happiness, but I was lucky enough to realize what I had done, and so rushed back and found my bag. Of course, you are nervous or intimidated sometimes, especially if you admire their body of work. Be it Nolan, Bale, Damon or SRK … the trick is to never forget that they are also human, just doing a different job. If you didn’t hear something properly, do not hesitate to ask the celeb to repeat his answer or elaborate. Clarity of thought is a must. 

The best interviews are the ones that are conversational and not rehearsed. If you are passionate about movies and have done your research, confidence comes naturally and grows with experience. Never underestimate an interviewee, nor allow anyone to disrespect you. Simplest of things also make for good questions. Listen more, talk less. Never walk in for a celeb interview with an agenda. Go with the flow.

One needs to maintain a healthy relationship with the celebrity to continue to do such interviews ahead as well. How do you manage this once you are done with the job part of it? 
Honesty is a great relationship builder. Mutual trust is what will set you apart. There’s a perception that stars like people-pleasers, and some actually do. Not everyone can take criticism but if you can speak openly to someone without fearing the repercussions, those relationships can last forever. 

You write for your audience and for yourself… your conscience. Writing something untrue will just make you unhappy, the authenticity is just lost. Any writing that is forced isn’t good writing. It’s not about using complicated words or trying to sound intellectual. It is about relatability. If a reader cannot relate to my writing, it isn’t good writing. So yes, while I have received accolades for writing a good piece, there have been times when I’ve written something as a critic that hasn’t been well-received. 

A true artist will respect the writer’s honesty. Eventually, they will come around and recognize that this criticism will help improve their performance. Recently, I reviewed Yami Gautam’s latest film, and she was mature enough to acknowledge the constructive criticism on social media. So, this whole notion that actors are insecure does not hold true for me. As a critic, it’s nothing personal. I’m criticizing a film or a character, not an actor or their life.

It’s very important for people who want to get into the profession of film criticism to know that you have to love cinema to be a film critic and not just love actors. It is neither about pleasing anybody nor offending anyone.

Another big part of your job is constantly churning out relevant content. How do you deal with this pressure?
Media jobs are high-pressure jobs. You have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Pressure will always be there to crack news, exclusives, and stay ahead in the game. It’s about giving your best, each day, every day. If you aren’t prepared for this, you cannot sustain in this field. If your credibility is high, people will talk to you for stories.

It’s all about striking a healthy balance. You cannot bag an exclusive every day so on those days, you may have to make do with generic news. That’s normal.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown mean that you haven’t attended film shootings, previews or events. Has the content been harder to come by?
Content always finds a way. You just have to think about what topic can be more relevant in lockdown for instance and think around it. It hasn’t affected the quality of content, and honestly, it shouldn’t be affected whether you’re working from home, on holiday or you’re in the office. 

I think pre-pandemic, I complained about the lack of time I had for myself thanks to the exhausting travel in Mumbai, coupled with a typical media life. Physically, I am definitely more relaxed now and less tired. But mentally, not at all. Stress levels are higher, anxiety with everything that’s happening thanks to Covid 19, the recent social media toxicity surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the loss of jobs across all sectors etc. have all taken a toll.

You don many hats as a film journalist, movie critic and entertainment writer. How do you stay relevant and updated on a regular basis? 

Director Imtiaz Ali

With Imtiaz Ali

You cannot stay in your bubble if you wish to be a media professional. You don’t have to hang out with celebs every day or watch every film that releases, but you need to have a certain level of exposure or knowledge. Different movie reviews or interviews offer different perspectives. It only broadens your thinking and knowledge. Just stay true to yourself. Real good writing is when you discover who you are as a person. That is what sets you apart from everyone else. I’ve written across different platforms and I can definitively say that the best writing is when you come across as real. No one likes a phoney.

Criticism is extremely opinionated and subjective. Imtiaz Ali once told me a very beautiful thing…  that cinema is not what directors make; it is what you make of it as an audience.

Be real and be fearless. Stand for what you believe in, even if others may have differing opinions. But being fearless is not enough if you do not have an understanding of cinema. Without the knowledge to back your opinion, you come across as arrogant. People ask me often – How does one become a film critic? For this, you need to study how films are analysed and expose yourselves to better cinema across different genres and languages. Do not restrict your love for cinema.

Over all these years, what has this career helped you discover about yourself as an individual and what has it meant for your personal growth? 
It has empowered me. It has given me an extremely powerful voice. People across the world can read what I have to say. All this exposure has also made me broad-minded and open to change. I’ve learnt that when you feel something is not right, don’t hesitate to talk about it. Even if it makes a difference to one single person, it is worth it. Writing teaches you that apathy is as dangerous as ignorance. It’s not only about creating a revolution or reforms; it’s about making people think. 

What have you come to be known for – your personal brand? What can people expect from an interview with you? 
I think, honesty. It won’t be a manipulated or an exaggerated piece. It will be the way it was told to me. When it comes to personal interviews, where people talk about things like their divorce, trust is a huge factor. I’m also not for sensationalizing facts or altering things to my benefit. In simple words, I adhere to journalistic ethics. I believe in using my power of discretion as a writer and would never malign someone unless I have proof substantiating my claim. I think people see me as being a responsible writer… one who knows what to write and what to let go of.

A number of critics and film journalists have their own TV or web shows, where they critique movies, interview actors etc. Is that something you would think of doing ahead?
As of now, I don’t feel any kind of saturation and quite enjoy what I do and the content that I create. There is a drive to discover myself and think ’what next?’. After doing this for over 12 years, I do think about what else I can do. I haven’t thought about the future but a review/chat show sounds nice! Something on the lines of The Graham Norton Show

 

Can you tell us about your most interesting interview experiences that have stayed with you for life and impacted you strongly?

Interview Christian Bale

Christian Bale’s Interview in Bombay Times

While interviewing Christian Bale, I remember the time allotted to me was over. I still had one last question to ask. Even as he got up to leave, I dared to slip in the question. Teasing my persistence, he smiled and said, “As I get up, go for it. Go on with your question, break the rules. Do it. I like that…” He returned to answer that question properly. So yes, break the rules sometimes! 

On the other hand, I can tell you about a very challenging experience I had with an actor, which required a different kind of tact. The actor kept doodling while I was talking. It reached a point where I told them I would leave and we can do the interview another time when they are invested in it as well. Because it was feeling like a waste of time. That’s when they finally dropped their guard and I got a fantastic interview. 

I have another interesting anecdote to share. This isn’t related to an interview but a review I did on the film Gravity. Someone commented on it saying, “Why has a girl reviewed this science fiction film? What do women understand about science fiction?”. As a critic, I’ve received my fair share of bouquets and brickbats, but that comment hurt me the most because it was pure sexism. Just goes to show, you face all kinds of situations as a media professional.

To interact with Renuka and read her reviews follow her on Instagram at @mumbaigirl14 and on Twitter at @renukaVyavahare