December 30, 2009

Cinema 2009: Looking Back at my Cinema Experience of the Year

It was in October 2006 that I really discovered cinema and got addicted to it. Although it is hard to believe, I watched Aanand, Andhi, and Pyaasa for the first time only then. But since then it has been the most important job for me, to watch as many films as I can and compensate for what I call my 'sins'. 2009 was the best year I have had, as far as cinema experience is considered, with more than 250 good films that I watched for the first time, and I do not count the bad ones or re-watches. Here is a brief summary of the year:

  • It was the year that made me realize the greatness of Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin. Also, I saw some of the great films of Martin Scorsese, although a lot remains to be wathced.
  • Discovered Federico Fellini, and also Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson.
  • Got introduced to Jean-Luc Godard, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders, John Ford, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Marcel Carne, Theo Angelopoulos, Andrzej Wajda, Terrence Mallick, Terry Giliam, Guy Ritchie and the Marx Brothers.
  • Continued watching more films of Hitchcock, Bergman, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and Woody Allen
  • Realized that my favourite Hollywood genre is the Western. Apart from a rewatch of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the big screen, watched Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, For a Few Dollars More, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  • Finally watched classics like The Godfather - II, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Touch of Evil, Jules et Jim, 12 Angry Men, Chinatown, Lawrence of Arabia, Easy Rider and more.
  • Discovered the power of the Documentary through Born into Brothels, An Inconvenient Truth, Unmistaken Child and Ayn Rand- a Sense of Life.
  • And some great Hindi films strengthened my faith in the legacy of our own film industry. Some of them were: Pakeezah, Neecha Nagar, Aakrosh, Nishant, Trikal, Bhumika, Kalyug, Sparsh, Saaransh, New Delhi Times, Bobby, Maachis, Lamhe and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na.
To add to this were many other great movies of the past and some of the best releases of the year. Perhaps for those not exposed to the best of cinema, most of the above will sound intimidating. But those who are really into it would find it difficult to believe that I was so late in discovering such gems. For example, I watched The Godfather-II only recently! I know that I have arrived late, but if few more years be spent as 2009, I hope to catch up soon. I watched almost 80 of the 1000 Greatest Movies list I am following. 10 more years like 2009, and I will cover almost the whole of it. Too ambitious? Well, when you are addicted, and terribly so, do you care for anything else?

They Kept Their Promise

Since 2001, numerous first-time filmmakers have arrived on the Hindi Film scene. The list is incredibly huge and includes names ranging from Farah Khan, who gave two back-to-back blockbusters but essentially forgettable movies, to Rahul Dholakia, who after a disastrous debut redeemed himself with the National Award winning Parzania (though not a Hindi film), to the likes of Abbas Tyrewala and Neeraj Pandey, who have just made a successful debut. We saw Naseeruddin Shah, Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgan and Nandita Das turning directors. We saw people like Nikhil Advani, Shaad Ali and Rakeysh Mehra who impressed in one film and disappointed in others. But there are some filmmakers who arrived with a promise and fulfilled that through their subsequent works. Here is a discussion on those who kept their promise.

The first name that made it big as early as in 2001 is Farhan Akhtar. His Dil Chahta Hai can easily be considered as one of the very best films of Hindi cinema. Although with Lakshya and Don, he could not really recreate that magic, but we also know that films like DCH are not made very often. He later indulged in production and acting and singing and hosting TV shows, but we all know that he has the talent and the temperament to give us another great film as a director.

Imtiaz Ali has established himself as arguably the best teller of love stories of the times. My personal favourite remains his first, Socha Na Tha. But going by the commercial success that his later films – Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal achieved, he is currently one of the most loved writer-directors.

Shimit Amin is perhaps the most versatile director of today. He has changed genres like none other, from the dark and gritty Ab Tak Chhappan to the popular and slick sports flick Chak De India to the subtle Rocket Singh. The last film has generated a mixed reaction and I invite debate by including his name in this list. But I think, he has kept his promise.

If there is one filmmaker who has won hearts across the country and met with the most incredible financial and critical success, it is Rajkumar Hirani. He has a style of his own, and all his films – the Munnabhai series and 3 Idiots, have been extremely entertaining, enlightening and warm. Being hailed as the Hrishikesh Mukherjee of today is an extremely prestigious achievement. If he makes just 4-5 more films like these, he will ensure his name as one of the legends of Hindi Film history.

But the man who has surprised us all with his rise from the composer of Chaddhi Pahan Ke Phool Khila Hai to a master storyteller, and whom I consider the most talented man in the film industry today is Vishal Bhardwaj. He writes, directs, composes music and sings. He makes films as innocent and heart-warming as Makdee and The Blue Umbrella, and has the courage to adapt Shakespeare in the form of dark, psychological dramas called Omkara and Maqbool, the latter being a cinematic masterpiece of our generation. And then he defies his style with the commercially successful Kaminey. After the decline of Ashutosh Gowariker, Vishal is now my favourite Hindi film director.

There are two more names that I am certain would make into this list by next year. Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye) and Sriram Raghvan (Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar) have had a great start to their film careers. They both have shown extreme maturity and unique personal style in telling their stories and I hope with their next films, Love Sex aur Dhokha and Agent Vinod, respectively, we will have two more names in the list of the five above.

One name that I have not included in the list is that of the gutsiest filmmaker of today – Anurag Kashyap. I have two reasons for that. One, his films – No Smoking, Hanuman Returns, Dev. D and Gulaal have been inconsistent, and have generated extremely varied opinions. And two, his films still give the feeling of the excitement a bright kid has on getting access to his medium and none could match the maturity he exhibited in his first release –Black Friday. He still remains a huge hope and the biggest promise, and he still has to fulfill what we, his fans more than his critics, expect from him.

P.S. Please remind me if I have missed something. I have considered filmmakers who arrived in 2001 or later and who have given at least three films in this period without disappointing in any of them.

Getting Cinemate: #8 Sound Recording

Film captures image discretely, frame by frame. And relies on the physiology of ‘persistence of vision’ to create the illusion of moving image. But this phenomenon has no aural equivalent. Sound must be captured in real time, that is, it must be recorded continuously. This basic difference did not allow the two to merge and thus cinema was born mute. Later, sound could be converted into electric signals and further into light signals, giving birth to the concept of optical sound and enabling sound films or Talkies. But this equipment of recording sound was noisy and thus recording sound on location that is while shooting, was discouraged. The artists were supposed to dub later in a sound studio, trying to match their lip movements, looking at the edited film clips.

In the late 40s, the development of tape, or magnetic sound recording enabled recording sound on location. Later, further improvements in optical sound also helped to achieve this. This procedure is called the Sync Sound technique. The equipment used to record sound is called Nagra. The device on which microphone is fixed to reach close to the actors is called Boom. Sound is recorded essentially separate from the film. The final print that is sent for exhibition contains the audio track incorporated in the film.

Aesthetically speaking, Sync Sound technique is a better alternative and adds authenticity to the film, and has been widely accepted. However, Italy and India – two major film making nations have been reluctant to accept it. In fact, the only technical drawback of Fellini and Antonioni films is the sound they use. In India, it is more to do with the professional discipline required while using Sync Sound, which along with its higher costs has been an important reason to prevent it from being the norm.

Getting Cinemate: #7 Sound Mixing

Sound Mixing involves editing the sound track of a motion picture, that involves three parts:
  • The dialogue spoken by the actors, recorded on location or by dubbing
  • The background score, i.e. the pre-recorded music
  • The sound effects: All that constitutes the ambient sound of the scenes using pre-recorded sounds. To appreciate it better, look at a clip of a crowded market place from any good film. If you listen carefully, you will realize that there are layers of sound, not only corresponding to the visuals, but also relating to things we do not see, but can imagine being present in the scene around the frame. Each sound, from the movement of a cycle to the cry of a bird to the rustling of leaves to blowing of the wind, each little detail that we never really notice while watching a film, is created artificially. It has to be done because shooting in real locations also does not record these sounds- films are mute and do not capture sound! But when the scene is getting readied for presentation, the audience must feel the ambience as realistically as possible. Even in scenes with no music or obvious noise, you will find a layer of sound, making it real. Just sit quietly for a while in your room at night, when there is no obvious sound, you will still listen to the music of the ambient sound. Creating that beautiful effect is the job of the Sound Editor/Mixer.

These three elements of a soundtrack are modified or reinforced to alter the quality of sound. The levels are made appropriate. And then the sound track is ready to be merged into the mute film to create the audio-visual product called a movie.

December 26, 2009

Believing in Idiots

Last month an upcoming production house hired me as their first in-house writer. And just a year ago I was going through the biggest struggle of my life. My decision to give up the job of a doctor in the Armed Forces to join in the Hindi film industry had caused an unprecedented disapproval for me by my family. The boy whose futile grades had always made them swell with an unreasonable pride was just not supposed to give up everything for a lesser and riskier life. I was called names. I was emotionally blackmailed. But since I refused to bend, they had to. Today, things are better. Although my dad still does not talk to me, and although not a single day has passed when I have not thought about all that has happened and all that is at stake, all is well. Today I called my mom and asked her to go for a movie ASAP, and to take dad with her too. The movie is what the entire country is dying to watch today. The movie is what the entire country should watch soon. Two years ago there came a movie that talked about taking care of your child. The commercial success of that film actually caused a significant change. Hope the same happens again, this time for people like us.

Last year, when I asked my mom to trust me for one final time, she had one big argument, among others – what would the people say! These ‘people’ are the immediate and extended family, and neighbours, and all those who have showered their honest or pretentious compliments on my parents for my ‘achievements’ since childhood. I used to tell my mom, and I still do, that I do not give a damn to what ‘people’ think or say. The only thing that matters to me is whether my own parents believe in me. But I understand that they are not wrong. The entire system is based on the mad rush for these conventional ‘achievements’. My parents are away from us, and surrounded by ‘people’. And they form a part of the ‘people’ for the parents of some other kid. And this has resulted in the society we have today – a society where a man has to take decisions not from his heart, but thinking of the ‘people’ around him.

Today, I have got a ‘fixed job’ in a ‘company’, never mind I am still a writer. I get something as a ‘salary’, never mind my friends are earning almost twice that amount as Army doctors. All those who were busy talking about me got tired long ago and had moved on with their own petty complications of life. They ‘feel good’ when they come to know about this recent ‘progress’ of mine. Perhaps making them happy is as easy as infuriating them. Only, neither matters to me. It has been thirty months since I went home or met my dad. And at times I do feel like going back for a short vacation. I have no idea when that will happen. But I know that I am ecstatic at the life I could create for myself, against all odds. And the only people I have to thank are those who helped me during the toughest phase of my life, when my own ‘people’ had denounced me as a disillusioned idiot.

For the way it relates to me, Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots is my favourite movie of the year. For the way the medium of cinema is used, it is possibly the best too. This post is perhaps the most personal post on this blog. But all inhibitions are actually shattered when you experience something as warm and wonderful as this. I won’t recommend this movie to you. I recommend this to your parents. Make sure they go for it.

December 19, 2009

Getting Cinemate: Aspect Ratio (Illustration)

Two more frames for you to compare aspect ratios. I have tried to find similar frames from two different films shot in different aspect ratios. In fact, being a cinemascope film is one of the reasons that make Pakeezah such a pure cinematic experience.
The funny thing is that the effect is subconscious and most of us do not know what is actually great about a certain film that appeals us. 'Getting Cinemate' is an attempt to understand such things better.

December 18, 2009

Getting Cinemate: #6 Cinemascope and 70mm

The ratio between the height and the width of the projected image is called the Aspect Ratio. The TV has the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This ratio, arbitrarily, became popular since the beginning of cinema. It was eventually standardized by the Academy, hence being called as the Academy Ratio or the Academy Aperture. In the 50s, the television revolutionized audio-video media like never before and its growing popularity was a threat to cinema. So, to make cinema a unique experience, ‘Widescreen’ ratios came into practice, ratios ranging from 1.66:1 (common in Europe) to 1.85:1 (common in America) or even greater.

To achieve this ratio various methods are applied. One of them is the use of Anamorphic Processes. Twentieth Century-Fox made the process with the trade name of Cinemascope. But it is now used as a common noun for anamorphic processes in general. And although it is just one of the methods to achieve it, it is often used as the general term referring to the widescreen aspect ratio.

Paramount Pictures’ answer to Cinemascope was Vistavision. It is a non-anamorphic process and instead uses film two times wider than the traditional 35mm film. This film, with an increased width-height ratio is the 70mm film used for shooting. For projection it is reduced to 35mm print which enhances the quality by reducing the graininess.

Widescreen ratio provided so much of space around the subject that it increased the visual appeal of cinema. Action sequences, musicals, outdoor shots – everything looked better. Just compare the two pictures of similar shot compositions and see what a widescreen ratio does.

P.S. Since I was a child I wondered what Cinemascope is. And also, why they write 70mm on the censor certificate? 70mm is 7cms, and the screen is so huge! Poor me, I had no one to answer these questions.

Le fabuleux destin de Satyanshu Singh

-->The first foreign-language films that I watched, three years ago, were No Man’s Land and Amelie. The reason, obviously, was to know what was in them that they scored above Lagaan at the 2002 Academy Awards. No Man’s Land left me stunned and I remarked, hypnotized and in a hasty overstatement, that this was possibly the best film of my life. And Amelie was merely a new cinematic experience, interesting rather than impressive. Since then, I have re-watched Amelie whenever I could, and now consider it as possibly the best film of the decade. While the Bosnian war drama was an example of the political statement cinema can make, the sweet little story of this crazy French girl threw open for me the numerous possibilities of aesthetic innovations. Things were never the same any more. Foreign language cinema became the oxygen for my life. Within three years, I was distinguishing between Japanese and Cantonese, and French and Italian by the way they talked. I learnt that the French for ‘yes’ is ‘oui’ and the Italian is ‘si’, and that a Chinese name has monosyllabic parts like Wong Kar Wai while Japanese have longer names : Yasuziro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi. Foreign cinema became my window for the cultures of the world and the stories these masters said made cinema the passion of my life. I should avoid the word ‘sorry’ but this is what I feel for those who are blissfully ignorant towards cinema from out of India. They just don’t know what they are missing. There is so much to know and appreciate in this small life of ours. I thank God that I got rid of my prejudice sooner than later and how much more beautiful life has become. Kurosawa’s Japan, Fellini’s Rome and Kieslowski’s Poland look so much familiar to me. And I don’t yet have a passport!

By the way, for all those who love Amelie, here is a short film, Foutaises, by the same director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It was made twelve years before the 2001 film and clearly shows Jeunet preparing himself for the fabulous feature-length beauty that shaped my destiny.

December 16, 2009

Getting Cinemate: #5 FPS

When we look at a frame, the brain registers its image, which stays for a short while even after the frame has been removed. This physiological phenomenon is called the ‘persistence of vision’. If at least 12 such frames appear in a series before our eyes per second, a psychological illusion is created that forms the basis of motion picture. Ingmar Bergman called this phenomenon as a ‘defect’ of human visual process. But thanks to this ‘defect’ that the art of moving image was born.

FPS or Frames-per-Second is the number of frames exposed during shooting from a movie camera. It can also mean the number of frames projected from the movie projector. During the silent era, films were shot and projected at 16-18 FPS. But as the Talkies arrived, 24 FPS became the norm. This current standard is also called ‘sound speed’ and it is this FPS at which your TV or even your Laptop shows you the images. Thus, the silent films which were shot at 16-18 FPS look speeded-up. Chaplin’s comedy appears more comical today than to its original audience!

If shooting is done at 240 FPS, while being projected (at 24 FPS) the action seems to be taking ten times more time than normal. This is the basis of Slow Motion Photography. Similarly, to achieve Fast Motion, camera allows exposure of frames at a lesser rate, say 3 FPS, which on projection appears eight times faster. Also, you must have seen shots of Extreme Fast Motion or Time Lapse Photography in which a night sky gives way to morning, the sun rises and it is day – all in a matter of seconds. It is achieved by allowing camera to expose frames intermittently, say 1 frame per minute. When the series of frames is run at the ‘sound speed’, the desired result is achieved.

The modulation of FPS has made Motion Picture Camera play with time the way a microscope or a telescope plays with space to enable visual perception beyond human capacity. And going beyond the scientific study, it has revealed the psychological effect of altered sense of motion, resulting in the now-cliché slow motion love scenes, and more. Next time a movie moves you, thank the moving FPS.

December 15, 2009

The First to Talk as they Fought

Perhaps the oldest talkie I have seen is Lewis Milestone's 1930 epic All Quiet on the Western Front. It is considered possibly the first War film with sound that not only set an standard for war films, it gave birth to the numerous cliches that now essentially find their way into this genre. While watching it, I was reminded of the entire range - from Saving Private Ryan to Border to No Man's Land. I do not generally prefer war films these days, after having seen so many of them. But this one was special. The scale on which it was made - shot over an area of about 700 acres with thousands of extras, and the incredible montage it uses to present the elaborate battle scenes, it is worth a watch even today, eighty years since it was released. The following link can give you a glimpse of the epic that it was:

Based on a German novel Im Westen nichts Neues by a war veteran, Erich Maria Remarque, the film was awarded the Best Picture and the Best Director at the third Academy Awards. It tells the story of young and disillusioned German boys who enlist themselves in the army during World War I, only to suffer extreme mental and physical trauma, realizing that "death is stronger than duty to one's country" and "when it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all!". Later, on returning from a leave, and experiencing a strange detachment from the civilian life, the lead character tells his fellow soldier: "It's not home back there any more... At least we know what it's all about out here. There are no lie here." The film, thus, does not glorify war or sacrifice in the name of patriotism, and has an extreme anti-war statement. They said the League of Nations should secure a print, dub it in all languages possible, and use it for promoting peace.

The psycho-political issues aside, All Quiet on the Western Front is a landmark film due to its historic and aesthetic importance in cinema. It was remade as a TV film in 1979 and another remake is under production now. I sincerely doubt, however, that it can match the achievement of the original. German soldiers talking in English throughout - they got away with this way back then. Today, it would seem ridiculous.

December 13, 2009

Getting Cinemate : #4 Storyboard

When the screenplay is ready to shoot, it is called the Shooting Script. Each scene is then broken down to shots, as shooting is essentially a shot-by-shot procedure. After this, each shot is sketched: its subjects and essential elements within the frame. This series of drawings and captions that show the planned shot divisions and camera movements of the film is called a Storyboard. It greatly resembles a comic strip. And the art is called Storyboarding.

Akira Kurosawa used to paint his frames himself prior to shoot. But otherwise, most directors take the help of a Storyboard Artist who sits with him and gives suggestions and helps him in getting his vision documented in the form of sketches. This is the stage where cinema moves from written medium to the arts.

Note: The arrows in the storyboard signify intended camera movements.

Getting Cinemate : #3 Editing

The screenplay is the only document that exactly describes the narrative structure of the film. After that, it is broken down to pieces, in order to achieve what it describes. Even the shooting is not done chronologically, and it is a shot-by-shot process. There are many improvisations during shoot that go beyond the screenplay. So by the end of the shooting, the director is left with an enormous amount of footage, millions of shots preserved in cans (and several among them from various camera angles), and with a total loss of objectivity. Now, he needs a person who has been detached with the process to help him put these pieces together. Here comes the editor.

So, Editing is the process of re-constructing the narrative structure of the film, mainly based on the screenplay. But it also incorporates the improvisations, and makes certain decisions regarding the flow of the film, as it is now that the actual film starts appearing. Some scenes may have to go. Some extra shots may need to be added. And apart from ‘film editing’ or splicing the shots together, with the transitions like fades and dissolves, it involves the adding of the soundtrack: voices, ambient sound and background score. In fact, editing is the process that actually makes cinema a unique art-form. Writing, acting, photography, music, art-direction, choreography – all are contributions from other older forms of art. Editing combines them together to make cinema – the art of the moving image.

Games People Play

This is a great scene from Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Dinratri (1970) aka 'Days and Nights in the Forest'. A group of six people, spending a vacation in a forest, plays a memory game. I have uploaded the 8-minute scene on Youtube. Even if you do not understand Bengali, you can easily follow it. And I want you to watch it. I want to share a glimpse of the genius called Satyajit Ray.

But before you go for the video, I would like to brief you a little about the six characters. Knowing them better will help you appreciate the subtlety with which Ray captures their psychology and the games they play. The underplay of sexuality, among other things, is one of the best achievements of the director. Of course, the best way would be to watch the film. But otherwise, here they are (clockwise from top) :
  1. Aparna or Reenee (Sharmila Tagore) : A girl who lost her mother when she was in school and then her elder brother. She grew up as a bright and intelligent girl, with an excellent memory and a taste varying from Mozart to Tagore to Shakespeare to contemporary issues. During this vacation, she has met Ashim, and both are attracted to each other. But no one has yet taken the first step.
  2. Sanjoy (Shubhendu Chatterjee) : Labour Officer in a jute mill in Calcutta. A hard-working, polite, bachelor. Parents have started looking for a girl to marry him. He is all-set to become a 'conventional' Bengali gentleman with considerable success. During the time he spends here, he develops a bond with Jaya. But we are not aware of that yet.
  3. Jaya (Kaberi Basu) : She is Aparna's sister-in-law, a widow. But we have never seen her sad. She keeps coming up with little things to engage everyone, from badminton to going to the tribal fair. Later in the film, with her growing intimacy with Sanjoy, we get to know about the real pain she is going through. But for now, she is just a warm and sweet lady.
  4. Ashim (Saumitra Chatterjee) : A promising executive, handsome, charming. The richest of the four friends. It is he who suggested this trip and we see him paying for all expenses. It is in his car that the friends travel. But each night, when he gets drunk, his frustration comes out - the frustration of being stuck in a job he hates. On Sanjoy's compliment that he will keep going up as long as he lives, Ashim replies: "With each high, a new low." Since the time he has met Aparna, he is attracted to her and it is through him that we discover Aparna.
  5. Hari (Samit Bhanja) : A sportsman. Even in the forest he is dying to know about the live cricket score. He has just had an upsetting break-up with his girlfriend and is low on confidence and spirit. He has the best built but possibly the least brains. He is going to lust for a tribal woman he sees in the forest.
  6. Shekhar (Robi Ghosh) : The funny man of the group. He has no job and is fond of gambling, although he avoids alcohol. Keeps borrowing money from friends and does not hesitate in approaching woman. Supremely confident. And extremely entertaining. You are going to love this character forever.
So, here they go...

December 12, 2009

Getting Cinemate: #2 Cinematography

The cinematographer is the 'eye' of movies...

Cinematography can be best defined as 'motion picture photography'. And it is the most important job while shooting the film, because the film that will eventually appear on screen has to be constructed from the footage the camera has captured. All planning, all merits and demerits of the script, what the actor could or could not do - everything is immaterial after this stage. You can only see the film the way it was shot. Hence the 'eye'...

Apart from taking care of how and what to capture in the frame, how to light the set, selecting the colour tone, and creating a visual balance between the characters, the costumes and the set - all come under cinematography, just like still photography. But unlike still photography, cinematography has to take care of two more things:
1. capturing the movement of the characters with respect to the camera, i.e changing focus as the shot continues,
2. movement of the camera itself with respect to the ground, i.e panning, tilting, rolling, tracking etc.

A 'Cinematographer' is also known as the 'Director of Photography'. And in the creative hierarchy, he is just below the Director, along with the Writer and the Editor.

Getting Cinemate: #1 Screenplay

A Screenplay (aka Script) can be defined as the written document containing sequential arrangement of scenes of a film. It contains the action (instructions regarding what happens on screen) and the dialogue. It thus says a story, not from a third person narrative (as in written fiction), but in the language of cinema.

However, many films, esp. in India, split the credit of 'script' into three parts:
1. the Story: the original storyline, not necessarily in the language of cinema
2. the Screenplay: that converts the story into a sequence of scenes (aka 'Scenario' in some European films, also in Satyajit Ray films)
3. the Dialogue: which when added to the screenplay, completes the script.

This explains why Filmfare awards each heads separately, while the Academy covers it under 'Best Screenplay'. Thus 'Best Screenplay' in Filmfare generally goes to 'structural' films like Yuva (2004), Life in a Metro (2007), Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008). Note how important the scene structures of these films are. While a Screenplay Oscar can go to a Juno(2007) which has an extremely simple structure but great dialogues.

Getting Cinemate: Intro

A new series begins here. I hope series with shorter posts can be more fun. Please tell me what you feel.

I, through this series, would like to define certain terms that belong to the field of cinema, mostly theoretical and technical, but terms that cinema lovers should know. Or at least, terms that make us more 'cinemate'.

I begin with this term itself: Cinemate. It is a neologism, meaning 'cinema literate'. A person who is cinemate has developed a better understanding of the medium. And all cinema lovers, knowingly or unknowingly, are progressing towards increased 'cinemacy'.

I am usually asked by friends, the meanings of 'screenplay' and 'cinematography'. Through this series I would like to explain terms as simple as that to Mise en scene. And infinitely more words and concepts that I have to learn myself...

Rocket Singh: Attempt of the Year

As I came out of the theatre, a lady was telling to her husband, in one of the most innocent tones possible in Mumbaiyya Hindi, which roughly meant: "I did not get what they were talking throughout the film". It did not surprise me at all. During the interval, my brother had called me. He was in the interval too, coincidentally. We talked for 10-15 seconds. And in that short period, we mutually agreed: it is a difficult film.

What do you expect from the director of 'Ab Tak Chhappan' and the writer of 'Company' and 'Khosla Ka Ghosla'? What do you expect from the next project by this duo, after the hugely successful 'Chak De India'? The problem is, whatever you expect gets hugely affected by the promotion of the current film, and the filmography of these talented people remains nothing more than factual details in the minds of people who care.

This problem, promotion, or selling itself, is the biggest error committed by a film that, ironically, comes with a tagline: "Salesman of the Year." And this could be fatal for the film. It has been promoted as the story of a protagonist who appears to be funny enough to entertain. Sadly, the film is not a comedy. So, if you want a laugh-riot that can make your weekend, it is not the correct film for you. It is a difficult film. And not all difficult films are masterpieces! Rocket Singh is far from that. It is not even the story of this young Sardar. The protagonist of the movie is 'Rocket Singh' which does not exist in person, but as an idea. That idea is the theme, the story and the protagonist of the film. That idea is the message.

But this film manages to achieve something that is rare in this industry madly following a 'formula' that does not exist. This film takes some daring steps. It tries to bridge the gap between the actual chages Indian society has been going through and the stagnancy that has plagued the commercial cinema of this country. The traditional villain has been replaced by the corporate set-up. The point of confrontation is not modesty of a woman or the love-interest of the hero. Here the humiliation is not physical. It is verbal and mental. And it hurts you as much as it has always done. And you want revenge. But even the revenge is not relying on adrenaline, but on planning and making smart moves, and taking calculated riskes. There is no comedian. The life itself is a big, dark comedy. And the hero is not a tough guy protecting the poor, but a middle-class man who is running as a salesman in spite of having a place to live, food to eat, and friends to party with. But this is what the life of today has become. And this film tries to explore that reality. The reality that does not have strong, emotional points of conflict, but which is a continuous, never-ending struggle.

In its attempt, it has become a difficult film. During the interval I was thinking: is this subject powerful enough to be made into a feature film? The second half picks up and there are some genuinely funny moments. And a convincing Ranbir Kapoor tries his best to keep you emotionally connected, as does most of the support cast. But in the end, Rocket Singh remains an honest and gutsy 'salesman' that did many things right, but failed while trying to sell itself. If you can ignore this mistake and appreciate the attempt, you might like it. An actor who makes her debut with this film has said that it does not belong to any genre, and this is what will work for the film. I almost agree with the first part of the statement. But will it work? If it is successful, I would be pleasantly surprised, but it is unlikely. As for me, well, I liked it, almost.

December 06, 2009

A Night, a Day, and Nine Lost Years...

If there is one movie that I would strongly recommend to anybody and everybody, it is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995). Recommending movies is a tricky business. It depends on how good the movie is, how much you like it yourself, as your recommendation reflects your taste, and also on whether you expect the person to love it, which is the main reason for this entire 'dude-recommend-me-a-kickass-movie' thing. And there is another angle to it. The movie you recommend should be fairly easily available. There is no point in recommending a movie which is nowhere to be found!

Before Sunrise is a movie I can keep watching forever. In fact, I don't want it to end. It is also substantially 'different' from the 'usual' commercial movies. It has great writing and memorable performances. It stays with you. It is something you can watch alone, or with your beloved, or with anyone. I can watch it with my Mom. And it is extremely unlikely that you would not like this movie. It is like a beautiful song that moves you regardless of your tastes and notions and preferences. And it is available. I am sure most of you have watched it. If not, just check the nearest college hostel.

If you watch it, and like it, and want some more of it, stop here and don't read further.

I suppose you are reading anyway, so just let me talk. Nine years after this movie, after making the poetic and philosophic Waking Life (2001) and the uplifting The School of Rock (2003), another film no one can hate, Linklater made a sequel to Before Sunrise. It was called Before Sunset (2004). I really envy those who actually waited nine years for the sequel. Because it is a long time to change you, just the way the characters in the movie changed. I also cherished the experience of both movies, but I envy them because I could never wait for those nine years. I missed the waiting, and growing, and changing, and realizing the change. So, if you loved the first part. Do not go for the second. Wait for nine years. I guarantee you, you'll never regret this suggestion of mine.

I know that is impractical to suggest and impossible to do, esp. if you loved Before Sunrise. So, just do one thing. Postpone watching the second. As long as you can. I had a three-month gap. It served me fairly well.

Oh, just forget about it. Ignore the entire post. GO FOR THESE TWO MOVIE TODAY! Something beautiful is about to happen in your lives...

December 04, 2009

Why We Need A Paa?

Imagine this. R Balki arrives with his second film after Cheeni Kum (2007), starring Abhishek Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Paresh Rawal and introducing a twelve-year old child actor. We do not know this kid, although it is possible that he impresses us all after we see him perform. But does this essentially guarantee a bumper opening for the movie? Can we safely assume that the audience will come into the theatres?

Now, take this. The entire cast and crew remains the same. And although it is indeed possible to find an immensely talented child artist and create the desired character using prosthetic make-up and voice modulation, the director decides to cast Amitabh Bachchan as the child. And he calls the film Paa. The result is for us to see, in the form of one of the most smartly promoted films of our time. This is what we call star power. This is what I admire about the phenomenon of a superstar. And this is what this film uses in the best possible way.

The film also uses the personality, and not the acting, of Abhishek Bachchan to create a gen-next politician, and we connect. It uses Vidya Balan to portray a strong, independent, modern Indian woman, and most importantly – a mother; and we connect. And it utilizes the human curiosity for the weird, our tendency to look at ‘freaks’ with wide eyes and held breaths, and converts that ‘freak’ into a warm, lovable and memorable character called Auro, and takes us into his world. It uses songs, melodrama and the Bollywood cliché to tell a story. It relies on the time-tested formula of emotional manipulation and succeeds in making the audience cry. It has decent production values, is marketed smartly and sold at cheap rates. The result is not a great, timeless, flawless piece of art. The result is a film that knows how to use the illusion of the medium. The result is a movie that moves.

The best thing about Paa is that it knows what it is doing. It does not claim to be ‘socially relevant’, and does not ask us to leave our brains home before coming to the theatres. Instead it asks us to bring our brains, our hearts, our entire selves, not excluding the ‘curiosity for the weird’ that we all have but fail to accept. It treats itself as a film for everyone, and successfully creates an entertaining cinema experience. In its attempt, it often gets inconsistent, but it never seems uncertain. It is an innovation, and yes, that it is, which is sure of itself, including how to sell itself. It is an innovation that does not go wasted, and that is indeed an achievement in the Hindi film scenario of today.

It has been a few decades now and Hindi cinema is desperately in the need for revival. For that to happen, if it ever happens, we need socially relevant cinema, we need cinema as works of art, we even need cinema with an international appeal, and with the guts to experiment . But what we need most is innovative ideas, true to Hindi cinema sensibility and tradition, not necessarily great in the absolute cinema-sense, but films which make people come, watch and connect. We need more films like Paa. I have no idea about how it is going to fare at the box-office. If it is a commercial success, my point would be proved beyond doubt. If it fails, well, I will try my best not to lose hope.

A Reason to Remember 1914

Whenever I thought of 1914, the only word that came to my mind was World War I. But now I have a better reason to remember that year. It was fateful indeed.

A 25-year old Englishman by the name of Charles Spencer Chaplin appeared on the cinema screen, in as many as 35 short films, 25 of which he had directed himself. All this in a single year! If 'arriving with a bang' needs an illustration, can anything be greater than this!

Before The Kid (1921), which can be considered his first major feature-length film, he made another 35 short films. But then, as came the 1920s, his career had a remarkable change. He started making feature films, which were few and far in between, but it were those films that made him one of the greatest film talents in history. Chaplin made five feature films in the 20s, and just seven after that. The feature films directed by him are:
  • Burlesque on Carmen (1916)
  • The Kid (1921)
  • The Pilgrim (1923)
  • A Woman of Paris (1923)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • The Circus (1928)
  • City Lights (1931)
  • Modern Times (1936)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) : first full-length talkie
  • Monsieur Verdox (1947)
  • Limelight (1952)
  • A King in New York (1957)
  • A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) : the only film in colour

All the ten films made between 1921 and and 1952, each one of them, features in TSPDT's list of 1000 Greatest Films Ever Made. After Stanley Kubrick, he is the only filmmaker with such a consistent record and unparalleled quality. This post of mine, in a futile attempt to measure his genius through numbers and data, has been reduced to a statistical glimpse of the master. But I was so fascinated by this entire information that I had to share it here. I would try to write a more insightful post later. For the moment, let me end with these words by Sir Charlie Chaplin himself:

"I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician."

By the time the world got engaged in another unfortunate war, in 1939, that young man had grown to a gigantic stature in popular culture. As Hitler prepared for World War II, Chaplin was making a film on the dictator. What happened when the two ideas collided? To be continued...

November 30, 2009

A Reaction to Bollywood!!!

In an industry where mindless crap rides on the shoulders of over-hyped ‘star power’, it has always been extremely difficult for smaller films to make a statement. Worse, most of these small, ‘independent’ films are badly made themselves, not by the standards of their production values, which can be ignored, but in general. The promise that Hindi film industry will soon go through a revolution remains unfulfilled and the biggest reason is the lack of content. But once in a while, there is a film that makes you notice that spark yet again. And the optimist in you starts believing that the much-needed change is just round the corner. Lately we have had quite a few of such movies. And I try to catch all such movies in a theatre.

Earlier, that was not the case. Going to the theatres was rare and not having a laptop did not allow the luxury of following all the latest releases. During that period, many movies went unnoticed, mostly those that, ironically, lacked ‘star power’. One such movie was Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, released in 2003. I finally saw it today and the least I would say is I was thoroughly entertained.

It begins with an eight-minute prologue called Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part I, and ends with a one-minute epilogue called Part III. Between them lies the main body of the film, or the film itself. Before Part I begins we have a disclaimer:

“This film is a mindless work of fiction. The characters happen to be fictional, despite our sincerest efforts. The locations, however, are real. The story has been plagiarized from several films.”

And Part III ends with acknowledgements to Ram Gopal Verma, Ramesh Sippy, Mahesh Manjrekar, Takeshi Kitano, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and the dancers and stuntmen in the film, and to “all those who provided their moral and immoral support.”

Although it is mostly a funny adventure, it is no great cinema. And the best thing is that it never intends or pretends to be one. Critically speaking, there are some moments which could have been written well and edited more crisply. For example, there is a track of a gang of Sardars, which is more irritating than the fun it provides. But I would still recommend it. Grab a DVD copy of it and enjoy yourselves. In spite of its inconsistencies, this movie is better than most of those being made in Hindi. As a title board in the end says:

“This film is a reaction to Bollywood.” Need I say more?

P. S. The director Shashank Ghosh’s next offering was Quick Gun Murugun (2009).

November 29, 2009

Figures of Cinema Speech: Zoomorphism

This new series, beginning with this post, would focus on how the Figures of Speech of the English language have been used in Cinema to enhance its connotative expression. I would try to keep the posts of this series as brief as possible.

Zoomorphism is a Figure of Speech that applies animal characteristics to humans.

Charles Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) begins with a shot of a flock of sheep that dissolves to a shot of a crowd of working class men emerging from a subway. The connotation is obvious.

November 28, 2009

Kanoon and Ittefaq: Law of Cinema or Plain Coincidence

In 1960, BR Chopra released his suspense-thriller Kanoon. It was mainly a courtroom drama that raised relevant questions on the judicial mechanism, with the subtext of a murder. This film is widely considered as the first ‘song-less’ Hindi talkie. I am not sure about that. But Kanoon, definitely was, and remains, one of the best films to be made in Hindi. Not having songs was one tool that ensured that we do not deviate from the track, making it more powerful than other thrillers like Teesri Manzil (1966), but that was not the only creative decision that resulted in a great film. The entire procedure adapted for the film contributed. The writing was flawless. There is hardly any second in the film that is not relevant, something that can not be said for most Hindi films. The performances are restrained and moving. Apart from Ashok Kumar, who is always powerful in any role he plays, we have an aptly cast Nanda who plays her part beautifully and we have a restrained, underplaying Rajendra Kumar, proving yet again that he was the director’s actor. The sense of purpose is so defined in the film that although it has Mehmood in a brief role, there is no comedy scene by him, something that was difficult to achieve in those days. Those were the days when even Guru Dutt used Johny Walker to add a comic relief to his otherwise intense films, which in my opinion was the only avoidable creative judgment made by him. And here we have Kanoon. I am tempted to say that aesthetically speaking it is one of the best flawless films in Hindi cinema history. The pacing of the film, the way Chopra plays with time is remarkable. There is a scene where someone’s letter in the courtroom proclaims that he knows the culprit and he would name him after five minutes. We actually sit through that time, which runs for close to three minutes and half, and the tension that builds is a cinematic achievement. The director’s use of light and shadow, of sounds and silence, and the way he goes into exploring the psyche of his characters – all is reminiscent of Hitchcock, no doubt. But after all each suspense film made in the world is and will be compared to the Master’s style as it was he who invented and defined this genre. Kanoon is Hitchcockian, but looks like a worthy project by a student of Sir Alfred. After all, we can not take the credit away from Sholay, although its striking similarities with the best of the Western films clearly prove what its ‘inspiration’ was. The only weak point in the film, although I was fine with it, is the revelation of the real culprit in the end. It is something that has been done to death and perhaps the audience today would not approve of that. But the path it takes to reach the end is an unforgettable experience in itself and I would recommend Kanoon to all.

However, in spite of being critically and commercially successful, it failed to set a trend. A film without songs is a weak proposition in this country and finds few takers. Nine years later, BR Chopra produced another song-less thriller, set more-or-less in a single night’s time. The film was the Rajesh Khanna starrer Ittefaq, and was directed by the younger Chopra – Yash Raj. Nanda featured again in this film and this time her character had a lot more to do and convey than the innocent girl of Kanoon. This film was made in Eastmancolor and the inherent suspense associated with Black and White was missing. But there were other deficiencies too. While BR Chopra’s camera plays with images in a subtle and layered way, Yash Chopra has made it too obvious and on the face. His fascination with the medium is what comes through in the first viewing itself, a trait not indicative of great cinema. And adding to that is the performances of the lead pair that appears unconvincing and over-the-top at least during the earlier part of the film. As the suspense is resolved and you think in retrospection, even that seems to be justified, but it does not essentially make you desire a re-watch, unlike Kanoon. Comparison in cinema is a useless and unreasonable exercise. But here, taking example from two films of the same genre from the same production house and within a span of less than a decade, each winning the Best Director Filmfare Award in their respective years, I want to insist on the essential ingredients of good cinema. This comparison clearly suggests that while Kanoon was an improvement over its script, Ittefaq was only saved by its writing. While the background score is one of the merits of the first film, it is disappointing in the second. The natural growth and assimilation of artistic expression that starts from the written word and moves to mixing, looping and score, which is celebrated through Kanoon, is unfortunately missing in Ittefaq. Although, Ittefaq remains one of the better films of Yash Chopra and Hindi cinema in general, and it also is recommended, comparing these two films reiterated my core belief. It is true that filmmakers have always defied convention and stretched the limits of the medium. But the importance of a cohesive, coherent cinematic vision, which begins from the paper and ends on the editing table, is a law of cinema. You can do away with it and still somehow put together a decent stuff through your inconsistencies, but that, perhaps, would not be more than a plain coincidence. Perhaps these words of Sir Alfred Hitchcock state the law I am talking of: there are hundred ways of doing a thing, but there is only one right way. Looking for and achieving that one way is the difference between great and not-so-great cinema.

November 27, 2009

Neecha Nagar: A Lost World

Long before the New Wave and the Parallel Cinema movements were born and recognized, even before the Italian Neo-Realism had had its influence on the cinema around the world, a young, passionate filmmaker from India made his debut film, a social drama, that went on to win the prestigious Grand Prix at the first Cannes Film Festival, scoring above Hitchcock's Notorious, Clement's Le Pere tranquille, and Cocteau's Le Belle et La Bete. It was the first film for which Pt. Ravi Shankar scored the music, following it up with such phenomenal works in several Satyajit Ray films. The filmmaker was Chetan Anand and the film, perhaps the most underrated jewel of Indian Cinema - Neecha Nagar (1946), a film that was never released in its own country and remains a forgotten masterpiece in the cinema consciousness of a crazy nation. A nation where today any International recognition is hailed with an embarrassing pomp by its media has almost always been oblivious to the first film to have achieved that.

The widespread belief that it was based on the play Lower Depths, by Maxim Gorky is as far from reality as close is the similarity between the titles of both works. Neecha Nagar is an expressionistic take on a realistic social problem, reminiscent of Lang’s Metropolis (1926), where a sub-urban town is divided into an upper Ooncha Nagar and a low-lying Neecha Nagar. Sarkar, an immoral, wealthy builder has ordered the diversion of a sewage drain into the Neecha Nagar that has caused widespread diseases and disrupted the lives of the poor people, to reclaim a land from a swamp where he intends to make buildings for his profit. How the people fight their own insecurities and fears and join hands against the wealthy builder is the story of the film. It was made during the last days of the British rule. During those days the British had imposed severe restrictions on films, esp. those with a strong social statement and acquiring film stock was extremely difficult. It was then that this group of enthusiasts, including an all-new cast, joined hands, almost analogous to the characters in the film, and made this film within an extremely modest budget. In fact, they had to use damaged and foggy stock, which the director Chetan Anand intelligently used to shoot the night sequences. But after the film was complete, the authorities did not allow it to be released. Some said it was ‘too ahead of its times’. Waiting for years, the print gradually got damaged. The director even wrote to Nehru to provide aid to preserve the print, but not much happened and the print was eventually lost.

Almost two decades later, cinematographer Subroto Mitra, who had worked on Ray’s Apu Trilogy, miraculously discovered a print of the movie at a junk store in
Calcutta. The print today lies at the Film Archives of India, Pune, and was used to create the video version of the film that is available today as a poor quality DVD, with flame-like flashes across the screen during the climax. However the film is a difficult watch today even if you choose to ignore the ageing of the print. The film, in itself, has aged too, its aesthetics appear outdated; its narrative requires patience to sit through its hundred odd minutes. The film that was once considered ahead of its times is now obsolete for the common audience. It could never get the audience it deserved and today it is important for historical and academic purposes only.

But if you watch it with all these considerations, Neecha Nagar is not a film difficult to appreciate. The first thing that hits you is the director’s treatment of the socially relevant, realistic issue. It is unique as Chetan Anand chooses to give it a flavour of expressionism, close to surrealism, esp. in its final sequences. The innovative use of montage, definitive and forceful camera movements, and the effective use of score and silence – the director’s maturity is as evident from these as it is from the way he has made his actors perform. In an era when melodrama
and theatrical body language was the norm, Anand’s actors, including the debutante girls Kamini Kaushal and Zora Segal, are restrained - a gaze tells a hundred words, a moment of silence speaks a thousand. And the tools he has used to create the menacing character of Sarkar adds a strong surreal feel to it – the statue of a monster in his office, the portrait of a demon half-hidden behind a wall, and the shot of a vulture dissolving into an up-angle close-up shot of his face. Then there is this scene when his daughter finds him awake at night, and as he walks to and fro in his room, she looks at his imposing shadow growing and diminishing with his motion. It is this imaginative blend of realistic acting and expressionistic technique – both ways ahead of his times that make this film an important cinema statement. It is indeed difficult to believe that it was his first work. Interestingly, he has not been credited as the ‘Director’ of the film, but has taken the credit for ‘Film Creation’.

Chetan Anand went on to make films that earned him further critical acclaim and occasional commercial success. But in spite of making films like Taxi Driver(1954), Haqeeqat(1964), Aakhri Khat(1966), Heer-Raanjha(1970) and Hindustan Ki Kasam(1973), he remained an underrated genius. Even his own brothers Dev and Vijay Anand overshadowed his poetic cinematic wisdom by their popular appeal. As the fate of his first film, Chetan Anand’s story remains an immortal echo in a lost world, perhaps waiting to be discovered by some another film enthusiast from the junk yard Hindi cinema has become.

P.S. To have a glimpse at the film, click here.

November 23, 2009

Paparazzo and Paparazzi: from Fellini to the dictionary

Paparazzi, as we know, is a word in common English usage. The Oxford Dictionary defines Paparazzo as a 'freelance photographer who pursues celebrities to photograph them' at moments when they are not expecting to be photographed. Paparazzi is the plural form. The etymology of this word is interesting, esp. for the lovers of trivia. In his 1960 film La Dolce Vita, on the Page3 society of Rome, Federico Fellini created the character a photographer named Paparazzo. He is the assistant to the protagonist Marcello and accompanies him in his trips around the city for seeking stuff for the gossip columns. (In a certain Italian dialect, this word resembles another describing a particularly disturbing and irritating sound like that of a mosquito.) Needless to say, La Dolce Vita went on to become one of the most celebrated films of all time, and the languages got a new word to describe a relatively modern phenomena. This cultural give-and-take has become an important contribution of cinema, the influence of cinema on the popular American novelists of 1960s and later being one common example. With this post I am starting a new section on this blog, From Cinema to Other Arts and Reverse, that will focus on the cultural exchanges of various art forms. What a word to begin the discussion, Paparazzi!