In conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Sandman, the mythical dream maker from Scandinavia, is said to sprinkle magical sand on sleeping children’s eyes to inspire beautiful dreams. What could Sandman have in common with a much-fêted editor who has worked with many celluloid stars and writers?
They both vend dreams – one makes dreams for children and the other is tries to fulfil dreams of writers attempting to create a beautiful book. Meet one such seeker of serendipity Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent award-winning editor, who has brought out books on and by film personalities of India as well as assisted less-known writers find a footing in the tough world of traditional publishing. His magical sand is impeccable editing and an open outlook that stretches beyond the superficial glitter of fame and delves deep to look for that hidden well from which he draws out the best in a writer.
Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has worked with famed writers like Gulzar and Arun Shourie as well as Bollywood stars like Rishi Kapoor and with the prestigious Satyajit Ray Archives. He has a book called Icons from Bollywood (2005) with Penguin on films, a set of fifteen essays. And he writes wonderful pieces on films for various sites like Cinemaazi, an archival film website, and Free Press Journal regularly.
But, Ray Chaudhuri is not just a film buff as he tells the world. He has a well-kept secret like ABBA’s ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, who would wear dancing shoes after work and turn into a phenomenon. He emotes beautiful poetry but hesitates to publish…He does have a book of verses though called Whims brought out by the Writers’ Workshop. In this exclusive, Ray Chaudhuri, who has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and now is the Editor-in-Chief of Om Books International, tells us how he turned from a dry accountant to a seeker of serendipity and what it takes to publish with traditional publishers.
Please tell us what started you out on your journey as an editor and writer.
I have always loved the word serendipity. It accounts for whatever good I have experienced. I loved reading of course but went on to become an accidental editor. I started very early – loved books. Went through the age-specific lists – Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, and Tintin (which I love still), then slowly to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, Satyajit Ray, Feluda and Shonku, Somerset Maugham, Camus and others.
In fact, I remember, during summer vacations, my mashis [aunts] would often ask to pluck grey hair from their heads and would pay me at Re 1 per hair. So, if I managed 25, I would have money to buy a Tintin. Or novels that were sold in second-hand shops at Rs 10-15. I wanted to study literature and humanities but at the time the stream was looked down upon. People whose opinions we respected kept saying, ‘Will you be a schoolteacher after studying humanities?’ I wish I had said yes at the time.
Anyway… Science I was sure I wouldn’t take. And humanities I wasn’t allowed to. So, I took up commerce, graduated, did my M.Com, studied for chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Then for years worked in accounts and finance. And hated it. I would leave jobs and go off quite regularly.
Meanwhile, I had started writing poems and on films (as a means of escaping the drudgery of accounts and finance). These were published in magazines regularly. In fact, I won the Filmfare Best Review Award that they had every month a few times. Then, Writers Workshop published my first book of poems. And by this time, nearing thirty, I had had enough of accounts. I realised that any creativity in accounts would lead to jail! And I was damned if I could put up with another day of matching debits and credits. I enrolled for a mass communication course at XIC Mumbai, then started a magazine on cinema on my own, and subsequently moved to publishing and editorial.
What pushed you into publishing others over writing yourself for we can see you are an excellent writer too?
I have often asked myself: do I have anything to say that will make a difference to someone reading? Can I ever write an opening sentence as eloquent as Camus’s The Outsider? Or create a character like Larry Darrel in Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or one line like Rilke’s ‘For the Sake of a Single Poem’. Or, in fact, a draft of an unpublished novel a young friend of mine, Ramona Sen, asked me to read recently to comment on editorially – it is so good … could well be the next big thing in publishing. And the answer has always been ‘no’.
I look at what goes for writing today. It dismays me that books have become all about posting your picture with the cover and getting likes – it has to be more than getting FB likes, more than announcing your book as bestseller on social media. I would be mortified about unleashing anything as mediocre as these on anyone.
And then there’s also the question of what being a ‘writer’ means for you as an individual. Some of these authors and poets I meet are so conceited … I have doubts about myself as a person … you know, as Matthew 16:26 says: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? These doubts about whether my writing amounts to anything, whether it says anything about me as a person have kept me from writing and more importantly publishing my writing – barring of course my columns and features on cinema.
Editing and publishing other people’s work is more impersonal – I can keep myself out of the equation. Though when you really like a book, you do tend to get emotionally involved.
I guess both came off just like that – I wonder if there was a case of wanting to show off at the time I had published them. Today, I would think twice. The book of poems, Whims, was published by Writers Workshop, and I was rather proud at one time that Professor Lal deemed it worthy of being published. I often told myself that some of the best Indian poets began with Writers Workshop. I just sent it off to him on a whim.
Icons from Bollywood was a more organised affair. I was working at Penguin at the time. Its children division was doing a series of books on icons – the arts, science, music, etc. Since everyone knew my interest in cinema, I had even met a few of the icons, the publisher, Sayoni Basu, asked me and I agreed. Eventually as no two people could agree on the ten names for the book – all the books in the series had ten icons – this ended up having fifteen names, the only book in the series with fifteen essays. It did rather well, got some good reviews in Dawn and Guardian and a few others.
Is authoring a book more challenging than editing and publishing for another? Or is it the other way? Please elucidate.
Of course, writing a book is more challenging. When you edit, you are working on adding some value to what a writer has already put down. You are not creating the world. At best, you help the author develop his work. It is challenging because often you are the first reader outside the author’s circle and your opinion also shapes the book. But writing is way more difficult. You are literally creating something out of nothing. Even writing a single line of good poetry is tougher than editing.
Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?
That’s tough. It could be anything. For instance, in my college days DTC buses used to have a single passenger seat right at the front. I would often look at it and imagine how lonely it might feel. I eventually wrote a poem on that. Or when my folks narrated the story of Gulzar’s film Lekin to me, I was moved enough to write a poem. The sight of a battered old man, dead-drunk, lying by the roadside led to a story – what if that man had a past when there was hope and love in his life. Being in love has been a muse: I once wrote 21 poems for a beloved friend’s twenty-first birthday. The sight of my son’s sleeping face, his soft breathing, when I wake up at night and look at him. Even hate inspires you. The sense of disillusionment I felt about a ‘great’ poet’s pettiness and hypocrisy led to one of my best poems. My own frailties. The light at dusk, a tired day going to sleep. Lost friends … lost ideals. A good film. A bad film. Anything really.
We have read a lot of film pieces by you. When did your interest in writing for cinema start and how did it take off? Did it ever stray to film industries in other countries?
I think the love for cinema developed once I started studying commerce. The subjects bored me. Films offered me an escape. It helped that there were 4-5 cinema halls within walking distance of both my home and my college. I would often get away from college and make my way to a theatre. In the three years of graduation, I watched 169 films in halls. I watched the first-day-first-show, 12-3, and then would make my way to the evening one 6-9. I used to make a list and write down synopsis of what I felt. This was the 1980s, theatres were in awful shape, a really bad time for films and so most of what I watched were utter crap. But that was a lesson in itself. And I really enjoyed the escape to another world, even if a trashy one.
Slowly, with the coming of cable TV, there were more options. The VCR had come in and with that a few more options. Pirated prints from Palika Bazar. I had meanwhile written a few reviews for Filmfare and won a series of best review awards. That boosted my confidence in both my writing and my understanding of cinema. I also did a course in film and TV from the XIC, Mumbai. I started contributing to journals. I ran and wrote for the journal I started in Bombay, Lights Camera Action. But things took off after I started writing on Bengali cinema for Film Companion. And then with my association with Cinemaazi. I must thank Anupama Chopra and Sumant Batra for this. Couldn’t have happened without them.
I publish primarily on Bengali and Hindi cinema but write on a lot of international films for my own self. It’s tough finding time to watch, write, while keeping to the demands of a regular job and other freelancing assignments that one needs to do to keep the home fires burning. I envy the people who have money to spare, don’t have to worry about a job, and can keep churning out books.
Please tell us a bit about Cinemaazi – is it a website founded by you? It seems to be an archive, there is mention of an encyclopaedia?
Cinemaazi is the kind of serendipity I have been looking for as editor and film lover. It’s an initiative to document the history of Indian cinema across languages under the umbrella project Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation, a public charitable trust. The Foundation is also creating a freely accessible digital archive and encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and its people. No, I am not the founder. It’s entirely the brainchild and vision of Sumant and Asha Batra. Sumant is the kind of collector you can only be in awe of. I met him first at the Kumaon Lit Fest that he runs. And we shared a common love of cinema. In 2019, he started talking of a site to document the history of Hindi films, using his huge collection of film memorabilia. My only contribution, if you could call it that, was suggesting we make it a site on pan-Indian cinema, not just Hindi. He agreed and I worked on getting some material on Bengali and some other languages. Also kept contributing to it with articles and some video essays – we did a six-hour-long oral history project with Dhritiman Chatterjee. Cinemaazi got off to a very good start in January 2020. But by March 2020 we were all locking down. And it affected an endeavour taking its first steps. But it kept on working thanks to a small dedicated team. And now it’s poised to take off in a big way. I would have been very happy to engage in a bigger way with Cinemaazi, but as Sumant says, ‘he can’t afford me’, whatever that might mean. Sigh! I guess one ceases to be useful after a time. I am happy to have been a part of it in a small way in its first years.
The big names I worked with like Gulzar and Rishi Kapoor and Arun Shourie were like perks of the job. Yes, they were FB like/share moments except that I seldom shared those days. I miss Rishi-ji a lot … and often go through the WhatsApp messages he sent me… With Gulzar-ji, it was all about poetry and translations. Never worked on a book of films with him, though I did commission a series of monographs on three of his films that came out after I had left the publishing house.
The Satyajit Ray association was immensely satisfying. We ended up publishing five very rare books that I think not many editors would have dared to – imagine doing a book on Satyajit Ray’s unmade film on Ravi Shankar! The ones I really enjoyed were the first-time authors I was privileged to publish, people like Balaji Vittal, Anirudh Bhattacharya, Akshay Manwani, Rakesh Bakshi, Parthajit Baruah … and so many. They had no reason to trust me as editor and publisher. I have never been a big-name editor. But to have had them trust me with their books, books that did well, was quite humbling.
I was privileged to have someone like Vishal Bhardwaj trust me with his first book of poems in English. And through Vishal, I came to know Rekha and worked on a series of festival appearances with her – she has so many stories that she should do a book. With Sharmila Tagore, I worked on a book on Mansur Pataudi that did very well. Authors like Krishna Shastri, Sathya Saran and Gajra Kottary became close friends. Rakhshanda Jalil … whom I love and admire – she did a wonderful book on Shahryar with me and a couple of other translations of Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi. There was Nasreen Munni Kabir and her book on Zakir Hussain…
The more interesting encounters are the ones that ended badly. An author, who again published first with me and went on to publish 4 more, turned on me because I took on his rabid right-wing wife on the CAA and their obnoxious reference to ‘urban naxals’ … I was abused and received a lot of threatening messages and calls … I lost a friend and an author, but I am glad I could take a stand on a matter on which many of our ‘liberal’ friends and authors remain silent. Another ‘great’ poet, someone I considered God, turned out to have feet of clay and whose behaviour I find traumatic even today. But those are for my memoir! They taught me a better lesson than anything else could.
You have worked with big multinational names like Penguin and HarperCollins and even brought out collection of books on films. And now you have moved to working with one of the oldest and most iconic publishers from India. Is the experience any different?
Well, the best thing about not being with an MNC is that one is not part of the toxic environment they breed. It was killing after a point. And often they wouldn’t take on an idea just to spite you, even though some of the books that got commissioned were unbelievably bad, had me scratching my head, wondering what I had missed. And they can be very demeaning to authors. And short-sighted too. I remember signing up Rahul Rawail’s memoir of Raj Kapoor. And the publishing house actually reneged on its commitment after sending him an offer. It put me in such a bad place with him. Thankfully, I could get him another MNC publisher. And the book is now getting such rave reviews.
Yes, it’s challenging working in a smaller space. You have nothing going for marketing – not that the biggies do anything much on this either, unless you are already a big name which makes it easy to market. Then you don’t have budgets for advances and for marketing. So, immediately your commissioning acquires a different take. But that also makes you look for good young talent. I am glad I have found quite a few, thanks to agents like Suhail Mathur and some goodwill I might have built up in the last few years. Authors I am sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to publish in the MNCs. Now, whether they sell and work in the market is a gamble.
Writers find it challenging to use traditional publishing. In an attempt to make their writing visible, many are turning to self-publishing and publishing with independent small publishers. What do you think of this trend?
I think it does take a little more time in going the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is quicker. But then authors also need to be patient. Traditional publishing can give them benefits of a good editor. Give them more time to polish their text. However, it seems more and more authors are in too much of a rush to publish. Getting FB likes and shares is more important than working on your text. Authors don’t feel like they need good editorial intervention. Publishing is all that matters, whatever be the quality of writing.
Unfortunately, traditional publishing too has failed to give good editorial inputs. Some of the stuff I read by the MNC publishers are atrocious. I think everyone wants a book out too quick. When I started out as an editor, we had months to work on a book. These days, authors tend to ask for a marketing plan even before they have completed the first draft of the text. And publishers are only too willing to get on the treadmill. And the post-publication efforts of MNCs also operate on the 90-10 principle: 90 per cent of marketing budget is spent on 10 per cent of the biggies. So, I guess self-publishing works. Some of the most successful mass-market writers we have today started with vanity or self-publishing, then were picked up by the traditional publishers. And the writing continues to be as bad.
Can you tell us as a publisher, what do you look for when you accept or reject a piece of writing?
I don’t think any publisher has figured out what makes a book work. Most of them go by herd mentality: mythologicals are selling, let’s do them, in trilogies, since it’s fashionable these days. Short stories don’t work. Fitness/self-help, yes, let’s do.
Basically, one looks for (i) is the content engaging (ii) is the writing interesting. Take, Akshay’s book on Sahir … I found the content wonderful. And so well done. Or Balaji-Anirudh’s book on RD Burman … the research was impeccable. And though people were sceptical, saying these people had been dead for decades, one felt that these books had that special something. Or more recently, the anthology on motherhood that Om is publishing. I was immediately interested in the theme and the variety of essays on offer – to have Kamala Das and Mannu Bhandari, Shashi Deshpande and Shabana Azmi between the same covers is…. There’s a collection of essays on the pandemic that I have commissioned, coming out soon – again, from Shashi Tharoor and Vidya Balan to an anonymous gravedigger and migrant worker – the range is incredible. The book that we are doing with Borderless Journal, for example. What a wide variety of international writing! Or the book on cybersecurity. Or for that matter, Suman Ghosh’s Soumitra Chatterjee book, which gave some fascinating insights to the director-actor relationship. I knew people would think it niche, but what if we could make it big? It has the potential.
Thank you for that. What is your vision as a publisher and writer of the future of publishing and writing?
I am too small fry to talk of the future of publishing. It’s a tough time for publishers. At the end of the day, all those 500 likes on FB won’t help if those liking don’t buy books. Social media reach is no guarantee of either good writing or good sales.
The way Westland folded says a lot about how untenable big advances are. Authors must realise that. While publishers must make efforts to sell more of the books they publish so that even if advances are small, the royalty on sales works out.
I think there’s also a lot of snobbery around English-language publishing in India. On the part of publishers, authors, translators, agents, literary festivals. I know an agent, one of India’s most successful, who doesn’t deign to pitch books to me because I am not with the top MNC publishers. Though apart from a hefty advance, there is nothing I cannot deliver that the biggies can. One of the most popular cover designers, who worked closely with me when I was at Penguin and Harper, just put me out to dry when I approached him for a cover on the Soumitra Chatterjee book. He couldn’t be bothered even to respond given that I was with a smaller publisher now. The most popular translator won’t give me time of day, though I edited his/her first book. There’s this author couple I published after both their individual books had been rejected at other publishers. But once they realised that prosperity lay in ingratiating themselves with what they perceived were other more popular and powerful editors … though none of their books have worked in terms of sales so far in the last ten years.
Most editors I have come across give off vibes like they are god’s gift to the language. I mean, not even two per cent of the population engages with the work you do. What are we so uppity about? The local cobbler attends to more people than what your average book gets as readers.
And this snobbery impacts the kind of publishing we do. We are suckers for big names, big advances. We have to move out of that. And out of this herd mentality of publishing. Give new writers, new themes a chance. At the same time, new young authors need to reflect on their work and not rush into becoming a ‘published’ author. It’s not instant noodles or coffee. Books and authors take time to develop. We need to give books that time.
Thank you for giving us your time and also taking on our anthology.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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