December 04, 2010

Once Upon a Time in India

This is a true story.

In the year 2001, a seventeen-year old boy discovered cinema. He started understanding the difference between the crap that had dominated the popular cinema of his consciousness, the cream of the crap that had resulted in some blockbusters, and the rare cinema rooted in aesthetics of the craft. One important lesson was to understand how 'sound' matters in a movie, among many other big and small mantras he picked up from that textbook of a movie. The final and the most essential lesson was how passion, in fact lunacy, was essential for making a truly immortal film.

The movie that taught the young boy this, went on to win the hearts of people all over the globe. Today, it is considered as one of the landmark films of Hindi cinema. This boy, struck by the achievement and short-sighted by faith, had exclaimed among his movie-crazy friends: "In the next ten years, we are going to have at least five Academy nominations, and two wins!" More than nine years have passed. The boy is now 26. He is waiting no more. He has lost all hope. He has lost his faith.

'Satya' was the film that planted in me the seeds of film-making passion. But I started learning the art with 'Lagaan'. The first foreign-language films I watched were 'No Man's Land' and 'Amelie', because they were in competition with 'Lagaan', and thus I discovered world cinema. I used to follow every word that Gowariker said those days, and thus, following his inspiration, I discovered Guru Dutt, V. Shantaram, and Bimal Roy. The film was followed by a documentary on its making, titled 'Chale Chalo: The Lunacy of Film Making'. I went to watch that in a theatre, covering a long distance by bus, alone.

'Lagaan' had the tagline: Once Upon a Time in India. I never knew it meant something like this can only happen once!

To be fair to Ashutosh Gowariker, I do not expect him to re-create something as wonderful as 'Lagaan', or even 'Swades' for that matter. I accepted the flaws of 'Jodha Akbar' and the flaw called 'What's Your Rashi?' with a smile, understanding, as he says, why he made these movies. But this time, I am left disappointed, and angry. You taught me Sir, the importance of correct sound in cinema. Why then, is the sound (including the background score) of this latest film of yours so terribly done? Why have your characters lost themselves to stars, or incompetence of the cast, or your complacence? I remember you had promised this film would be shorter. By your standards, 2 hours 45 minutes is short. But when are you going to realize that each film should be completed within the time that best suits its purpose? I refuse to believe that your passion and your 'lunacy of film-making' remains the same. And that, Sir, is a crime, especially for you than anyone else.

This is a true story. Ashutosh Gowariker is no more among my favourite film-makers. Unfortunately, he has managed to instill an insecurity and fear in me. I am no more worried about my success in this industry. I am afraid of being destroyed post that success, by my own complacency and errors of judgment, and by the loss of the purity and passion I earned through cinema.

November 26, 2010

Heart of Gold

Last evening, we were lucky to be at Metro Cinema. The occasion was the golden jubilee celebration of 'Sujata'(1960), one of the best films by Bimal Roy. It was a pretty warm and informal affair, and the focus was on the movie itself, something that is lost in the pomp of a 'loud celebration.' I had watched the film a few years ago, but to experience it on the big screen was a beautiful experience. I just feel lucky!

The most remarkable thing that I felt in the film, apart from the deeply moving story and great performances, was the display of cinema aesthetics at their best - the pure experience of the romance called film. Also, it would be apt to mention a sequence almost mid-way into the film when the story pauses, for a considerable time. It is night, and the characters are just there, sitting together, and then talking over phone. This sequence also involves more than one song, including the soulful 'Jalte Hain Jiske Liye'. Wished it to go on and on...

After the experience, my brother wants to make a film with Nutan! Sadly, that can not happen - we came into the world a bit too late. He also wants to make a B&W film. That can happen, with a gutsy producer backing us. But one thing that we can actually learn from these films is to work honestly, and to remember that we are not bigger than the films that we make. Good or bad, it is the film that stays long after the maker is no more. The romance shows if the maker experienced it himself. And those films live forever, beyond jubilees and celebrations...

November 20, 2010

Defining Its Maker

Friday morning, a friend sends me a text: “Dude, are you going for ‘Guzaarish’. Do tell me whether I should watch it or not.” Half an hour later I was in the theatre. It was fifteen minutes past the scheduled time, and we were still waiting for the projectionist to start the film. Someone joked: “The print hasn’t reached yet. Bhansali is still working on the film.”

This is the problem with being Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The world knows about your painstaking ways of making a film, your obsession with attaining your ‘vision’, a virtue that is not common among Hindi filmmakers. The world knows you work hard, and many things that you do are really good. But you are still joked at. In fact, one thing that the world surely doesn’t know is what to expect from you. ‘Guzaarish’, in my opinion, is an answer to that.

I have always felt that ‘Saawariya’ was not as bad as it appeared, and the harsh reaction it generated. And was hoping, the director would make sure his next offering is decent. Now, that next film is out and the three reviews I have read are extremely favourable, lauding it as one of the best films in recent times. One regular reviewer of a popular daily has been replaced by some other ‘critic’, with the promise that the original reviewer will be ‘back next week’. It seems the media is trying to compensate for the harsh reactions three years ago.

Why, for instance, none of these reviewers have objected to the garish make-up and the distractingly generous cleavage-revealing look of the leading lady, who plays a nurse? Why, haven’t they written about the inconsistent writing, that goes awkwardly out-of-control with the first scene of the second half? Why, for god’s sake, have they ignored the fact that there is more than just ‘inspiration’ taken out of the Javier Bardem starrer ‘The Sea Inside’? One critic, after admitting that the film is also inspired from ‘Whose Life is it Anyway?’ and ‘Prestige’, goes to the extent of saying: “Just because you trace the source of the inspiration does it anyway demean SLB’s ‘Guzaarish’? It most certainly does not. The film is a masterpiece…”

A masterpiece! I confess it left me teary-eyed in a scene or two. Hrithik Roshan did look sincere, if not impeccable. The wants of most characters were well in place. And the film appeared to be making an earnest effort to inspire us with love and life. But a masterpiece?

Perhaps the critic is not wrong. My pillow-side pocket dictionary defines ‘masterpiece’ as ‘someone’s best work.’ The critic might be right because perhaps this is the best Bhansali can deliver. He is definitely not as bad as ‘Saawariya’ and he will perhaps never make a film better than ‘Guzaarish.’ It is not a terrible film. And SLB is not a terrible filmmaker. He is just an artist past his prime, caught within his own world of diminishing objectivity and ‘inspiration’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘Guzaarish’ seems to be the precise definition of its filmmaker.

As for my reply to my friend, and my advice to you, here it is: “Nothing great. But you should watch it.”

P.S. Just before the film, watched the theatrical trailer of ‘No One Killed Jessica’. It left me stunned. Waiting eagerly for you, Mr. Gupta.

November 16, 2010

My First Quarter!

‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ is the 200th movie I have watched this year (not counting the not-so-good ones). So, I’m happy.

But I’m particularly excited because it is the 250th movie I have completed from the 1000 Greatest Movies list I so obsessively follow. (You can find the list by clicking to the link provided at the right-hand column under the title “Top Movie Lists: Check Your Score”.

Here are the last ten movies that helped me reach the landmark:

‘The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums’ (1939, Ranked #254)
‘The Exorcist’ (1973, Ranked #185)
‘A Taste of Cherry’ (1997, Ranked #643)
‘Shoeshine’ (1946, Ranked #744)
‘MASH’ (1970, Ranked #573)
‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001, Ranked #704)
‘All About Eve’ (1950, Ranked #70)
‘Back to the Future’ (1985, Ranked #361)
‘Rocky’ (1976, Ranked #459)
‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929, Ranked #101)

What a movie to finish the quarter!

Time to celebrate! And to ‘eye’ the 300 figure mark!

November 14, 2010

The Return of the Musician

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s music is very much like his movies. Love it or hate it, but you can not deny that it is born out of arrogant conviction, that might be indulgent, but is intricate, imaginative, and interesting. His obsession with pure and classical art is apparent in the music he creates. It thus does not have an essentially popular appeal. But like his films, he doesn’t seem to be caring more about the audience than about his own creative energy, which is overtly saturated with melodramatic emotions. I consider him a flawed artist, but he is an artist anyway. That does not necessarily make him a good storyteller. But yes, that makes him a good musician. And that is the reason behind the difference between his music, that always works, and his movies.

I am not very fond of the music of his first film, but his collaborations with Ismail Durbar and Monty, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, ‘Devdas’, and ‘Saawariya’, apart from the only song from ‘Black’, have been phenomenal. During the past decade he has been the only filmmaker with such a consistent record of high-quality playback music. Personally, his music gives me the fulfillment that I expect from none. In fact, I wait for his music more eagerly than his movies.

I have to accept that the music of ‘Guzaarish’ does not match the standards of the three preceding movies. Just one ‘Daras Bina Nahi Chain’ from ‘Saawariya’ was better than all the ten tracks of this. Also, a major disappointment is the poetry, which has been deteriorating consistently with every movie of his. Bhansali is more interested in putting together ideas and words, rather than working within the conventions of lyric-writing. In fact, I joke that the lyrics have also been written by Bhansali himself. Interestingly, and perhaps suitably, the CD cover does not credit anyone for ‘lyrics’. It says: ‘Words by Turaz and Vibhu Puri.’ The lyrics are not bad, but very typical, at times outrageously so. It goes with our idea of Bhansali. But imagine what a wonder someone like Prasoon Joshi would have created on these tunes?

Ultimately, the best thing about Bhansali’s music is that it allows you a discussion on it, a long, never-ending discussion. You just need to find someone who understands the basics of music, and more importantly, loves these songs. My brother and I have been doing this for more than a decade now. During the first few hearings, all our energies are directed to ‘understand the structure’ of these free-flowing, apparently ‘formless’ songs. It is always a challenge to correctly hum the lines, in sur. The challenge that these songs provide you as a singer is the single most fascinating aspect of this music. I would love to sit with someone who could just correctly hum these lines: “Bas itni si tumse guzaarish hai… Ye jo baarish hai, us mein teri baahon mein mar jaaoon… Bas itni si, chhoti-si, ek khwahish hai…

In this era of instant chartbuster music, here is one musician whose music, in spite of being an integral part of the films, is independent of them. ‘Saawariya’, the movie, came and failed, but its music still gives us the high that we have stopped expecting from Hindi film music. I am not expecting much from the movie releasing this Friday, being more than happy with the magic its music has created. Bravo, maestro! En core!

Must Watch Before You Die #7: 'The Man with a Movie Camera' (1929)

Artists who are intellectually and aesthetically more advanced than their contemporaries are called the Avant-Garde (literally ‘the vanguards’), pioneers contributing in the evolution of the art. For all those who knew this term, and for those who came to know while reading these words, here is a movie that best defines it. Dziga Vertov’s silent experimental film called ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929) is, and will remain, one of the most mind-blowing experiences of motion picture.

Why is it a must watch?
• Because its opening titles daringly read: “Excerpts from a camera operator’s diary… This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of visual phenomena, without the use of intertitles, script, actors, and sets… Aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.”
• Because it does succeed in communicating cinematically the passion of a man with a movie camera, the fascinating patterns in the everyday world around us, and the power of film to entertain, and go beyond it. It also argues for the case of filmmaking – that it is a kind of occupation with complicated technique and long-hours of patience and devotion. Of course, what it ‘communicates’ to you would depend on how you look at it.
• Because it might be the first film to have attempted to show filmmaking itself. It shows a man going around with a movie camera and shooting. It shows a woman working patiently in the edit room. And it shows the final product being screened for the audience. Also, the movie being screened also shows the cameraman. So, it shows the screening of itself!
• Because I doubt you are ever going to find a film that contains so many technical innovations in one: Parallel Montage, Match Dissolve, Freeze Frame, POV Shots, Fast and Slow Motions, Jump Cuts, Stop-Block, Split Screens, Dutch Angles, and the earliest Spl Fx. All of these were not strictly ‘innovated’ in this film, but I have never seen something technically and historically as important as this.
• Because it is the father of all cinema rebellions and revolutions, celebrating the power of motion picture by simply playing with images, and entertaining and stunning us, without any story or performances. Just different rates of frames per second. Just film – shot, cut, projected.

As Vertov said, “My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world I decipher in a new way, a world unknown to you.” That perception is the magic a filmmaker weaves through the make-believe of cinema!

November 08, 2010

Waiting for Godard

Last week I walked out of the theater during the intermission of a movie, deciding to ‘abandon’ it. I have watched movies worse than this, but strangely, have never actually left one midway. I was feeling guilty, doing this for the first time, but mainly because it was a ‘small’ film sans stars, with honest intentions, but a terrible execution. This summarizes the state of independent Hindi cinema today.

Half a decade ago, there was this myth of an upcoming independent cinema revolution that would change ‘Bollywood’ for good. This myth rode on the success of a shameless rip-off of a French comedy, and the promise of new names like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Imtiaz Ali, Sriram Raghvan etc. Today, some of these directors have turned to stars and are making big-budget films. Others have been inconsistent about the commercial and critical success of their movies. And worse, in spite of a mob of first-time filmmakers appearing during this period, hardly a few can match the talent and the aesthetic maturity of their predecessors. Let us summarize the situation:

  • Even the most talented and gutsy filmmakers, can not avoid the opportunity a star or a big budget provides.
  • Even the best and most interesting of small films have failed to achieve commercial success. None has replicated the dream-run of that ‘rip-off’.
  • Most, if not all, films made with ‘honest intent’ are so pedestrian in their aesthetic value that we are forced to think – whether this person should be making movies? Others are ‘almost there’ – in spite of having an interesting plot and characters, these films have an air of complacence and lose steam mid-way.

I have not yet talked about the problems of marketing and distribution that these movies face, because that was always expected, and we were hoping that these films will slowly, but consistently, help in changing the scenario. The hope has dimmed. The clout of stars and big-budget films is as mighty as before. The New Wave of Hindi Cinema seems to be dying a premature death, in utero.

And we can not blame the audience. The makers need to understand that ‘independent cinema’ is not the license to serve half-baked, technically poor specimens of ‘honest and brave attempts’. There can be no excuse for out-of-sync dialogues and annoying background score, leave aside improper framing and purposeless edit patterns. Bad ‘big’ films have less of these problems. And the presence of good-looking ‘stars’ and ‘sets and locations’ make sure you have something to watch. A big, bad film is bad. A small, bad film is worse. The number of patrons of small, meaningful cinema is rising. But it is the responsibility of the filmmakers to ensure that the audience sits-through the movie once they have entered the theater despite poor publicity, and not ‘abandon’ it mid-way. The unnecessary transfer of guilt does not, and would not help. The last thing we would wish is this wait for ‘the revolution’ to be an endless one.

October 30, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Afterword: It's A Wonderful Life!

A film festival is like life itself. Too much is packed in a short span of time. There is a mad rush to get as much as we can, and are limited only by our own constrains of body and spirit. There are lots of hits and misses, depending on the choices we make. And in spite of all this we can only have a limited slice of this gigantic pie - it is all over before we could realize it.

"This time they do not have such a good collection of movies." You can often wonder this yourself, if not this being a common complain among the delegates. The truth is, only the most well-informed of cinephiles can be sure of something like this. Out of close to 200 films screened, a person can practically watch a maximum of 35-40. What if he was struck by the worst of luck and those were actually the weakest films of the festival? His complain, though true from his own perspective, would still not be relevant as he missed 160 other films. How can one tell? How much can we know enough to judge something as enormous as this?

My first experience was Pune 2008. Watched 17 films in four days and was extremely satisfied, in spite of some poor bets. I still have that catalogue. And today I regret not having watched "Cries and Whispers", "Red Desert", "Bhuvan Shome", "Devi", and "M" that were screened there. Also, there was a retrospective on Pedro Almodovar. Back then I was not aware of his merits, neither of Bergman or Antonioni or Lang. What would have been my reaction to that impressive line-up had I known cinema a little better? It is only in retrospection that I can see what I missed. The impression of an edition of a festival ultimately depends on the movies you choose to watch, which is also the most fascinating and important aspect of it.

I do not want to know the plot. I choose movies by researching, and picking the ones that have been awarded at other festivals during the past one year. Also, I choose filmmakers whose previous works have impressed me. I also have very interesting experience with Hungarian and Turkish films and am a little biased towards them while making my choices. But the most important thing is - I do not want to miss a film or a filmmaker who has earned a reputation over the decades and is now celebrated the world over. Hence, I did not miss the films by the Japanese masters this time; neither did I miss 'The Exorcist' or 'Khandahar'. Also, I made sure to watch the latest films by Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Abbas Kiarostami. And since I mixed movies - classics and fresh, and filmmakers - legends and first-timers, I had a very wholesome experience.

If you were unsatisfied, you can just say: “I wasn't very lucky”. And hope for a better experience next time. Unlike life, thankfully, there is a next chance in this. I am more than satisfied. Thanks to the makers for all the great films, to my bad luck for all the not-so-good ones, and to this great carnival that has made me alive again with the hope and the inspiration to do some good work. Meanwhile, the wait for MAMI 2011 has begun...

October 29, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #7: Is It Over?

"Is it over?", a helpless Chris MacNeil asks Father Karras after a horrifying session of exorcism performed on her daughter Regan.

"Is it over?". I am saddened as I leave PVR and the festival ends. During the last one week it has been a part of me. It will be a difficult year-long wait for the next edition.

It was my first experience of William Friedkin's 'The Exorcist'(1973) and I believe all the reputation, legacy, and notoriety associated with this classic is justified. Unlike other horror films, it doesn't depend greatly on 'chills' and 'shocks', but there is a lingering, disturbing impact of the film achieved by long sequences of possession and exorcism of the little girl. After all these years, the scariness might have aged, but the psychological impact has not worn out. The film was followed by a discussion on it by Jane Campion.

The German film 'Shahada'(2010), by Burhan Qurbani was like the Islamic equivalent of yesterday's 'Of Men & Gods'. Tackling similar issues of faith, quoting extensively from the religious texts, and made equally brilliantly, 'Shahada' also has a more popular appeal. Undoubtedly, one of the best movies of the year. This film also made me realize that these days I am very fascinated by movies asking spiritual and theological questions.

'Shahada' could have been a beautiful 'last film' of the festival. And after that I was confused whether I should risk its impact by watching the 10.30pm screening of the Turkish film, 'Kosmos'(2010), by Reha Erdem. Some said it was an ordinary film. Thank god I decided to go for it, and discovered that it wasn't ordinary at all. It was in fact very unusual, a tale of a corrupt, lustful 'messiah' who steals compulsively and 'heals' people mysteriously. I won't be able to forget this film. And weird films like these are necessary to complete your festival experience.

As I was returning home late night, I crossed the Lakshmi-Narayan temple on my way. As a habit, I closed my eyes and uttered a prayer. What instantly came to my lips was a 'Thank You God' along with a wide smile that lasted for some time. Blessed to experience cinema at its best!

P.S. For the record Must Watch Movie Before You Die #6 The Exorcist (1973)

October 28, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #6: Duties and Dilemmas

I chose to watch Benedek Fliegauf’s ‘Womb’(2010) because its script had won Krzysztof Kieslowski Award at Cannes this year. And it was apparent why. The film deals with the ethical and moral questions related to cloning and incest, and tells an immensely dramatic story without appearing to be doing that, very similar to Kieslowski's cinema. It will take a thousand years for such a film to be made in India.

‘Certified Copy’(2010) was a popular choice among the audience. A day in the lives of an English author and a French lady, and set in Italy, directed by the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, the film was a confluence of cultures. Ending on an ambiguous note, it was like an O. Henry story in ‘Before Sunrise/Sunset’ flavour, with Kiarostami’s touches. Loved the film, and Juliette Binoche, again. She had won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film.

I just realized, three of today’s films were honoured at Cannes. ‘Of Men and Gods’(2010), directed by Xavier Beauvois won the Grand Prix this year. Based on the real story of a small group of Cistercian monks serving the Muslim community in Algeria and trying to survive the hostility of the local terrorist groups, it was one of the most spiritual films I have seen, besides being extremely affecting and well-made. My pick of the day.

Another special screening late night. Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’(2010) won the Golden Lion at Venice 2010. It was her second film that I watched, and like the hugely acclaimed ‘Lost in Translation’(2003), it left me wondering – Why is this such a good film? It had just a glimpse into the superficial luxuries and the lustful life of an average Hollywood star, and the responsibilities he has to fulfill towards his daughter. Neither a definite progression of story, nor a clear ending, it didn’t even try to be taken seriously. Perhaps some day I would know why.

On the penultimate day, my count reaches twenty-four. I don’t expect much from tomorrow. Just one good movie would do. And the one I have selected is truly special! Just a few hours left for that…

October 27, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #5: Family Matters

Could watch only three movies today. Seems this is how it's going to be for the next two days as well. If only I had finished my assignment before this fest...

Tai Kato's 'In Search of Mother'(1962), the story of a drifter looking for his mother who had abandoned him as a child was very good in parts. But it was inconsistent. I liked the ending, though.

Rajko Grlic's Croatian film 'Just Between Us'(2010) used an interesting structure to tell the story of a family of promiscuous people, just about everyone sleeping with multiple partners. Call it a sex comedy, but it ended with a message. The last line of the film was: "These bones slept with that bones. So what?"

Thanks to another 'public demand', I got to watch the third film of the day. 'Next Year in Bombay'(2010) is a documentary by Jonas Pariente and Mathias Mangin on the small Jewish community in and around Mumbai. One interesting thing I would like to share here is this. There was a shot of a public transport bus stopping at the stop before moving ahead. That shot was an inversion (mirror image) of the original shot. The entrance and exit to the bus were on its right side and the bus-number was inverted. I asked the directors, who were present during the screening, the reason for it. They said, while shooting they shot this bus that moved from right to left of the frame. During the edit they realized that it was not a desirable motion. (Psychologists say our perception of motion is largely affected by the way we write. So, a left-to-right motion is more comfortable for the eyes of English/Hindi audience than a right-to-left motion.) So, in the edit, they decided to invert the image.

Alfred Hitchcock has used the reverse of this principle. In 'Vertigo' when the protagonist, who fears height is running up the spiral stairs of a tower, he moves from right-to-left-to-up. This, psychologists say, is the most disturbing motions for our subconscious!

P.S. It is interesting to note that cultures reading right-to-left would probably find the same shot less disturbing!

October 26, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #4: Ruins and Regrets

A family of husband and wife with their kids, twins. A tragedy. Father dies. Son and Mom go on to live a life of poverty. Daughter is adopted by a rich family. Decades pass. In the end they reunite, again due to a similar tragedy. Add to this some subplots like: pre-marital pregnancy, lonely mother at home as son is away working, the new daughter-in-law complaining of the house being small, and all, and all. What looks like a summary of popular Hindi cinema cliches of the 60s is China's Official Entry for the Oscars this year, Feng Xiaogang's 'Aftershock'(2010). Easily the weakest movie this festival. I don't know why there was such a demand for this film, so much so that it had to be re-screened at 10.30 in the night. China's last year's entry, 'Forever Enthralled' was such an amazing film, and even that couldn't be shortlisted in the top five. I don't see any hope for 'Aftershock'. By the way, the friend sitting next to me claimed he heard some sobs during the movie!

Mikio Naruse's classic 'When a Woman Ascends the Stairs'(1960) tells the story of a virtuous bar-woman and her journey through customers' infatuation and the desire to live a better life. Naruse is not as popular as other Japanese masters, but after this I would like to watch more of his films. I was very tired when the film started and could not pay much attention to it. But it slowly engulfed me with its beautiful emotional appeal. Also, I don't think I have seen a Japanese film of that era with such a formal grammar of shooting and edit. Very impressive.

I was called for an important meeting. So I could watch only three films today. But thank god I watched Mrinal Sen's 'Khandahar'(1983). The film made my day. Easily, one of the best Hindi films you are going to see, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor, and Annu Kapoor, this film is also a mesmerizing visual experience, shot at a vast landscape of ruins. Three city boys visit what was once the palace of a royal family over a weekend. And they meet a girl living with her paralyzed mother, both waiting for a man who would never come. Like the old building, slowly awaiting its death, this mother-daughter duo's indefinite wait is not very different. Eventually, time will take them away, and we won't be able to do anything. This film was chosen as one of the ten best films released all over the world in 1983-84. I am not surprised. Watch it if you want to experience the rare gems of Hindi cinema. I feel proud again.

October 25, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #3: Biutiful Day

Nagisa Oshima is one of the pioneers of Japanese New Wave. And the first thing I noticed in his film, 'The Sun's Burial'(1960), was the highly saturated shades of primary colours, reminding me of Godard's 'Pierrot le fou'. 'The Sun's Burial' is a view into the criminal lives of slum dwellers in Osaka.

Yojiro Takita's 'Departures'(2008), that won the Foreign Film Oscar last year, is one film you would find difficult to forget. Introducing us to the traditional Japanese custom of preparing the dead for cremation or burial, the film truly, as the festival catalogue says, was 'a moving celebration of life in midst of corpses and coffins'. Whether it was better than 'The White Ribbon' is a question I need time to answer. And that is a beautiful situation to be in.

First-timer Natalia Smirnoff's 'Puzzle'(2010) was a sweet surprise. The story of a middle-aged Argentinian woman's discovery of a passion for solving jig-saw puzzles left me wondering - why there is such a huge difference between the first-time directors in our country and those abroad. I wish some Indian filmmaker could make a film as good as this.

Another first-film, that was awarded the Best Debut at Berlin this year, Babak Najafi's Swedish movie 'Sebbe'(2010), was extremely well-made. But the writing left me unsatisfied. The story of a mother-son bond amidst conflicts within and around left me wanting for more.

But the best of the day, and till now of the festival, turned out to be the film I had most eagerly awaited. Thanks to the organizers, they screened it again tonight after yesterday's mad rush and disappointed faces. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 'Biuitiful'(2010) does not have the structural complexity of his earlier films - 'Amores Perros', '21 Grams' or 'Babel', but it is way more complicated and layered. The story of Uxbal, brillinatly portrayed, as ever, by Javier Bardem, is almost straightforward in narration, but the way it explores the protagonists' character, it leaves you grieved and elated at the same time. It is as if the master has overcome his wonderful fascination with screenplay structure, and has moved to a higher level of artistic maturity, something not many can achieve. For creating something like 'Biutiful', you need to be a genius. With this film the filmmaker affirms his position as the one the living greats in world cinema.

October 24, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #2: Inspiration in Chaos

It could have been a great day with such high-profile movies in line. But it turned out to be a little disappointing. And the disappointment is more on my own diminished stamina. After two back-to-back movies today, I genuinely felt the need to take a break. I was hungry and had this headache. So, missed the third movie and prepared myself for 'Biutiful', one of the most eagerly awaited movies this year. But it was so crowded that I couldn't enter the theater. Finally, watched only three movies today.

Kenji Mizoguchi's classic 'The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums'(1939) takes us to the journey of an actor's achievement of his true potential with the help of the woman of his love. Deeply moving, this was my third Mizoguchi film and I believe the warmth that his films have is very rare in cinema. In that aspect, he is certainly way ahead of Kurosawa. Also, this film was unique with the presence of long scenes rendered in one shot. Text-book stuff.

Jane Campion is the President of the Jury this year. Her film 'Bright Star'(2008), the kind of love story I have stopped watching, is about the great romantic poet, John Keats' love affair with the protagonist, Fanny Brawne. Beautifully shot, and with some great performances, this one is for you to watch with your girlfriend, especially if both of you love romantic poetry.

But the movie that made my day despite the above-mentioned disappointments was to come last. One of the most celebrated films in the last couple of years, 'The White Ribbon' from Germany, blends drama with mystery in an unusually affecting way. Unforgettable characters, and layers upon layers into the lives of a village community, full of sins, and still hopeful of purity and peace, this movie made me react (for the first time): Wish I could write something like this! It shouldn't be difficult to find it. Go for it. My first 'must watch' recommendation from the festival.

For the record: Must Watch Before You Die #5 The White Ribbon (2009)

October 22, 2010

Mumbai 2010 Day #1: Of Battles and Wars

Out of the five movies I watched today, the protagonists of three die in the end. That apart, most of the primary characters in these movies lost their lives. What a bloody day to begin with! Also, since this festival has a special section on the best of Japanese Cinema, three of today's movies were Japanese classics.

'No Regrets for Our Youth'(1946) is one of the earliest films by Akira Kurosawa. It is also very different from his other films, having a female protagonist and being extremely political in nature. In fact the unique blend of politics and personal lives of a woman and two men reminded me of 'Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi'. After finishing all of Kurosawa's major works, it is good to find these rare gems.

Seijun Suzuki's 'Branded to Kill'(1967) doesn't just sound like a Tarantino film. The very first few seconds into it and you will realize, this film must have had a big impact on him. And I just read that it actually did. Noir elements stylized to create a stuff that is still fresh, I am sure this film would have been a sensation back then, as much as it was in that PVR screen today.

The day also introduced me to Takeshi Kitano, the great contemporary Japanese master. 'Boiling Point'(1990) is the kind of stuff you look for in film festivals. I was badly hoping that the last film of the day should make me laugh and it did made me do that badly. Plus, it was weird, and did not make much sense - an essential ingredient for festival experience.

Also watched two recent movies. 'Kick Off'(2009), the story of a group of Iraqi refugees residing in a football stadium after the US invasion, and 'The Man Who Will Come'(2009), an Italian film set in the Second World War period. The impact of the latter was so immense that I would rather call it a horror film. The story of German cruelty against the women, children, and elderly of a countryside community was easily the most powerful film of the day. And it was the reason why I wanted to follow it and conclude the day with something funny.

Tomorrow promises to be even better. For now, I should just take a good sleep.

October 21, 2010

Mumbai Film Fest Opening Day: Got Last-Minute Lucky

Just after writing the last post, my brother informed me that he has a pass for the opening movie and he won't be able to go. So, I got lucky!

As expected, the Opening Ceremony started late, and the punctual ones like me were thanked 'for our patience'. And when the hosts, Minissha Lamba and Prachi Desai, did come on stage, it was followed by one embarrassing show. It was only after two hours that the opening movie did start.

And thanks to cinema, and what better than a good Hollywood movie in a situation like this, that my evening got made. David Fincher's latest 'The Social Network' on the story behind the creation of Facebook and its emergence as a major social phenomenon opened the festival.

It is an involving and if you may, inspiring, movie and I would recommend you to watch it. The poor sound system of Chandan Theater (the Main Venue for the fest) didn't allow me to comprehend all of the dialogue and I would want to watch it again. Right now, I am going to read about Mark Zuckerberg and his partners. And then will go to bed early: the next few days are going to be busy.

P.S. Last time I went to Chandan, a major single-screen theater, it was to watch 'Dabangg' at the stalls. And today it is welcoming International delegates for a prestigious film festival, despite not being well-equipped. Guess, this is how things will always be in this country!

Binge Time

It is back to the madness. Mumbai Film Festival 2010 begins today. As always, the opening movie can be attended only by invitation. And no body remembered inviting me, so I am not going. I would rather wait for it, ‘The Social Network’ by David Fincher, to get released in the theatres. Guess it will not be before December. But it’s OK.

It’s OK because the line-up of the movies in the next seven days is so exciting that missing the opening movie does not seem to be an issue. This time, it is indeed the best of modern world cinema. And they have a special segment on the best films from the Japanese film history. After a long wait I finally got the schedule last week and spent hours making my own plans for the next seven days: what to watch, what to miss. It is such a pity that you can practically watch only up to five movies a day. The day gets over by the time you finish the fifth!

Last year my days at the fest also included three hours of travel time – I stayed far from the venue. This time, I would save time on that. Hoping to post a daily report on this blog.

But this time there is one little problem. There is this assignment I have taken and am afraid they would call me for a meeting or something. Hope they do not do that before 28th, the day when the event ends and I do get to beat my last year’s record of 34 movies.

What I most importantly hope from this fest is that it inspires me to write a good script again. It has been quite some time since I did that!

October 20, 2010

The Natural Successor

Following is an extract from Richard Linklater’s philosophical animation film ‘Waking Life’: “If you look at the time scales that are involved here (in the evolution of man) -- two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, 100,000 years for mankind as we know it -- you're beginning to see the telescoping nature of the evolutionary paradigm… when you get to agricultural… to scientific revolution and industrial revolution, you're looking at 10,000 years, 400 years, 150 years. You're seeing a further telescoping of this evolutionary time. What that means is that as we go through the new evolution, it's gonna telescope to the point we should be able to see it manifest itself within our lifetime, within this generation.”

I have always believed in this. The species that follows us should take less time to evolve from us than what we took to evolve from our predecessors. And, this does not happen overnight. We must be able to find the initial hints of it among us. Also, there is another kind of ‘telescoping’ that nature has achieved. Evolution has progressively condensed the learned behaviour among species. In fact, the present state of information technology is another step towards that – we know infinitely more than our predecessors a few centuries ago. An average man today knows so much more about such a varied range of topics. And all is made unbelievably accessible to us by the Internet which I believe is the next great invention in the series of agriculture, the wheel, and steam engine.

Nature has a grand plan manifested in the form of the wonderful evolution of life. Presently the humans are at its pinnacle. But the height of this summit is constantly increasing. We will perish if nature decides to do so, but its great journey will never cease. And to achieve its forward motion, it will choose a species better suited to carry on its expectations than us. Going by the discussion above, the initial hints of that species must be present among us.

Is that species the Artificial Intelligence? Can it be considered a species at all? Why not? The difference between living and non-living is incomprehensible if we consider all that exists as different manifestations of the same space-time or mass-energy continuum. A polythene bag, filled with air like a balloon, dancing in the wind, I believe, is as living in its existence and capacities as we are. It is matter, and energy, some chemicals, and some internal and external forces, and all this cause a perceptible ‘event’. A kettle filled with boiling water makes noise and vibration. Again, and interplay of matter, and energy, and some internal and external forces. We might be more complex, but essentially are manifestations of similar forces. Our living and thinking and indulging in abstractions are nothing but more complicated ‘events’ generated from similar forces. Why then are we called ‘living’ and the polythene bag is not? And if there is indeed something, evolved out of us, that can perform most of what we can, including the telescoping of knowledge and information, does calling it ‘artificial’ rule it out as the potential species that would replace us?

Shankar’s ‘Robot’ begins with the haunting tune of ‘O naye insaan, dharti pe aa’, welcoming a ‘New Human’ onto this earth. I can not help but think whether it is a prophetic call to the true and ‘natural’ successor of man.

October 02, 2010

All in the Name

Theo Angelopolous’ ‘Eternity and a Day’ is a beautiful movie. But look at the title. Isn’t it beautiful by itself? There are some movie with such interesting titles that we instantly feel like watching them. Bergman’s ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, Polanski’s ‘Cul-de-sac’, Linklater’s ‘Me and Orson Welles’, and Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ belong to different genres. But I find all of these titles extremely interesting.

Was going through The Guardian’s list of must-watch movies and came across some truly catchy titles. These must be good films, having been recommended in such a list. The following are a handful of them – films I want to watch just for their titles.
1. Closely Observed Trains (1966)
2. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
3. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
4. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
5. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
6. Man Bites Dog (1992)
7. My Life as a Dog (1985)
8. Nil By Mouth (1997)
9. Play It Again, Sam (1972)
10. Serial Mom (1994)
11. Spanking the Monkey (1994)
12. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
13. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
14. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)
15. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Do you find any of these interesting? Can you and I predict, without going to IMDB, the genre and the premise of these films? I just feel intuitively that ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ would be a sweet romantic film. Also, ‘Closely Observed Trains’ reminds me of ’12 Angry Men’ or of Wong Kar Wai films. But what the hell is the Buckaroo Banzai adventure? Any guesses?

Intentionally Inconsistent

Last week, I got the chance to watch Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989). I am dying to write a shot-by-shot discussion of it. Guess this shows what impression it had on me.

The film is a uniquely heterogenous, and successful, blend of drama and comedy. Heterogenous, because it distinctly carries the flavour of the two genres by juxtaposing two different stories, and their contrasting protagonists. The alternating narration of these parallel stories is so self-assured that each would make a separate film of its own, and would be definitely within their genre-defining parameters. I can’t be so sure, but I don’t remember Woody Allen photographing his characters in close-ups and shot-reverse-shot patterns. He keeps the shots medium-close, with the characters within the physical or psychological edges of the frame. Their staging is purposeful and theatrical, and camera renders them generally as a neutral, objective narrator, without trying to draw our attention to details. Allen’s wonderful writing does that for us. Unlike other filmmakers who tell intimate, personal stories, he does not make us ‘read’ them through their face, though they are psychologically as interesting as any of other great cinema characters. He wants us to sit back and enjoy. I believe this is the style most suitable to all intelligent comedies, mimicking the experience at a theatre. This is the common style of most Woody Allen comedies.But in this film, in spite of sticking to his style, Allen has taken pains to elaborately explore the dramatic potential of his scenes, esp. narrating the track of Judah Rosenthal. He is a rich, and successful ophthalmologist, revered by society, loved by family; apparently, he is all you want a man to be like, despite the fact that he is a ‘non-believer’. And in the first scene itself, we are informed about his extra-marital affair. His track stays absolutely true to the grammar of the drama genre, both in the writing, and especially, in the mise-en-scene. So much so, that it draws our attention to its sticking-to-theory nature.

On the other hand we have the character and the black comedy of Cliff Stern, played by the writer-director himself. He is a loser in every sense – a complete contrast to Judah. There is infidelity in his life too, only it is too naïve and unintentionally funny. And we laugh at this miserable state of Cliff. Essentially Woody Allen stuff, this half of the film is in fact a huge and obvious distraction from the immensely dramatic moral dilemma of the other. I kept wondering on this obvious inconsistence. Only later I understood that the philosophical question behind the film – whether God is our moral guardian with his “eyes always on us” or not – is the spine of both of these stories as well. The writer’s triumph is to give us a fulfilling end – that justifies both stories and their convergence – and the director succeeds in meeting the challenge the writer set-out to achieve – to explode two genres and come up with a unique and memorable work. Roger Ebert says about this heterogenous, parallel narration: “The technique is Shakespearean: The crimes of kings are mirrored for comic effect in the foibles of the lower orders.” This realization suddenly makes things even more significant. But the unusual impact of the film, its brave and fresh attempt at creating something new out of itself was something that impressed me while the end credits rolled.

Hope to come up with the shot-by-shot study some day in the near future.

September 22, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #4: 'The Truman Show' (1998)

A couple of days ago I finished studying Nicholas Proferes’ shot-by-shot discussion of Peter Weir’s ‘The Truman Show’. In his excellent book ‘Film Directing Fundamentals’ he studies the craft of three movies, the other two being Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ and Fellini’s ‘8 ½‘. While I was aware of the greatness of these two masterpieces, I wondered, before watching ‘Truman’, why Proferes has chosen this movie among the two great ones. I wonder no more.

Why ‘The Truman Show’ is a must-watch-before-you-die movie?
• Because ‘How the hell they came up with this idea!’ is the universal exclamation the audience has on watching this film. You talk about innovative story ideas? After watching this film, it will be the benchmark to evaluate that. Also, twelve years after its release, it now has indeed acquired a prophetic status, with our private lives actually being chased by the phenomenon of reality television.
• Because this story can only be told through the medium of cinema. Movies like these establish the importance and uniqueness of cinema among other forms of art and expression. ‘The Truman Show’ is a triumph of the power of cinema, something that would make its founding fathers smile in their graves.
• Because it is universal in its emotional appeal and entertainment. No one can stay unaffected by the wonderful journey of Truman, beyond cultures, languages, and even tastes. This film again proves that when it comes to pure entertainment, nobody does it better than Hollywood.
• Because Jim Carrey is Jim Carrey. And in this film he is more than that. He is Truman. I have watched its dramatic scenes so many times already, and with a very mathematical eye at the camera movement and the edit pattern and all. And in spite of that, Carrey’s performance makes me truly emotional. The climax is devastating and uplifting at the same time.
• Because you can not help but think about the philosophical undertone of this film – the world is an illusion, a make-believe trap for us, controlled by a mastermind, who loves us, but is cruel at the same time, who exists because of the world he has created, and the world exists because we allow ourselves to be trapped in the illusion. As Christof, the Creator of the Show says about Truman: “He could leave it anytime, if his was more than just a vague ambition. If he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there is no way we could prevent him... ultimately, Truman prefers his cell.”

If you haven’t watched this movie, you are definitely missing something wonderful.

A Dream Come True

Last week I got the opportunity to talk to a group of Mass Media students, 50-60 of them, on Screenwriting. It was a wonderful experience and I feel like thanking them for their patience. The lecture ran for close to two and half hours, and though there were a few dozing heads and heavy eyelids, it was a fairly successful affair! I had gone there to learn, rather than to teach, though teaching has always been a dream. But I did learn a lot, about myself, about the students, and about the subject. There were some interesting experiences that I thought to share here:

• A long time was spent on explaining the difference between a screenplay, and a script. Some brought up the issue of a shooting script; some were obsessed with the idea of storyboarding. You can go through the “Getting Cinemate” series of my posts under the label “Reading Film” for a quick understanding of these.
• Surprisingly, it was not a problem to convince them that screenwriting needs to be learnt. Not a single one of them objected to me saying something like: “A storyteller is a born storyteller. Why does he need to learn anything?”
• I explained them about the inherent three-act structure contained in every purposeful bit of communication. One of them shared a joke – I broke it down to three acts. I did it with the poem “Johnny Johnny, Yes Papa.” And then asked someone to share a random dream he had. And showed to them how a dream does not have a universal appeal because it does not have a distinct beginning, a purposeful direction, and a definite conclusion. It is a product of the subconscious and the conscious storytelling is a different thing. Also, while sharing the dream, we actually give it a ‘structure’ because now we are consciously “telling a story”.
• I chose the structure of ‘The Matrix’ to explain them the three-act paradigm. It is a popular film and has a very conventional three-act structure (you can find the discussion in my “Getting Cinemate” discussion). Also, the inquisitiveness to ‘understand’ the story of this film helped. I’m pretty sure these students have taken the first step towards understanding the classical structure of storytelling.
• While talking about protagonists and antagonists, we had a little debate over the antagonist of ‘Titanic’. Some believed it was the fiancé of Rose, before I convinced them that it was nature. Also, I loved it when someone did answer my question regarding the antagonist of ‘Inception.’ Cobb is the protagonist and he himself is the antagonist: his past, his fears, his weaknesses are proving to be the biggest hindrance in his desperate pursuit of fulfilling his dramatic need.
• I didn’t want them to take notes during the lecture. But if there was one thing I wanted them to take down, and take home, it was this: “Make sure you know the end of your story before you know the beginning or anything else.” They appreciated the illustration, and I hope they will remember it forever.

A wonderful experience indeed, for a student of screenwriting to test the theory in front of a group of enthusiasts. I wish some of them write a great script some day that would teach me a thing or two. It has to be a two-way process, or a self-centered man like me would hardly be interested. Teaching is fun, learning is life.

September 19, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #3: 'This is Spinal Tap' (1984)

A ‘rocumentary' by director Rob Reiner on the legendary British rock band ‘Spinal Tap’, covering their trip to the USA to promote one of their forthcoming albums is the perfect answer to the ‘must watch’ question. I won’t say a word more about this, just that you must, must, must watch this film as soon as you can. Unlike other posts, I’m purposefully not giving any ‘must watch reasons’ for this film, because the most important reason will spoil the film for you.

If you have not watched this film, stop talking about it with anyone, do NOT google or wiki about it. Just watch it.

If you have watched this film already, I’m sure you understand me. Please respect this sentiment and do NOT give a hint about anything to those who haven’t watched it. Just ask them to do it soon, so that we could discuss.

By the way, for your information, Entertainment Weekly rated ‘This is Spinal Tap’ as the greatest cult film of all-time. Come, join the fan club.

September 09, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #2: 'Raise the Red Lantern' (1991)

Zhang Yimou’s ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is set in China, in the year 1920. It tells the story of a young girl who becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man and finds herself caught in the game of winning that disgusting, good-for-nothing chauvinist from other ‘sisters’.

Why is this movie a must watch?
• Because it is a bold and brutal critique of our society that has traditionally been making rules to suit the polygamous and perverse nature of the male. At the same time it displays an interesting game of sexual politics by women who know how to make use of the male’s weaknesses.
• Because it is immensely erotic and haunting, without being either. There is a gutsy aesthetic decision made by the director by hardly revealing to us the face of the husband – as if it is a shame, as if it is irrelevant, though we are allowed complete access to the expressions, the emotions, and the inner lives of most of the wives.
• Because it is always wonderful to witness something so unique, so local in its socio-cultural expression, so universal in its aesthetic appeal. From the customs, to the music, to the costumes – it is an amazing cultural journey into one of the world’s oldest and richest civilizations.
• Because it is one of those rare films where the location is as important as the plot or the characters. You can not forget the imposing castle that contains all of the film and might even feel like taking a trip to China just for visiting that place.
• Because this film proves how a good director can take the script and re-write it on celluloid, making it rise to a level so supreme that is beyond words written on pages.

Film Critic James Berardinelli says, talking about its opulent visuals, “The appeal to the eye only heightens the movie's emotional power." He rated this film as the 7th best film of the decade.

September 08, 2010

Must Watch Before You Die #1: ‘The Wild Child’ (1970)

Watched Francois Truffaut’s ‘The Wild Child’ yesterday. And it inspired me to start a new series of posts on this blog. I would be recommending movies in this series that must be watched if you love cinema. A movie can be anywhere on the spectrum of poor to brilliant. And a ‘must watch’ movie need not be among the most brilliant ones. Let me make it absolutely clear that I would not suggest movies on the basis of their merit or their quality, but depending on a simple fact: If you don’t watch this movie, you are going to miss something truly unique. For example, I would recommend ‘Let’s Talk’ over superior films like ‘Maqbool’.

Also, there are certain expressions possible only through the medium of cinema. I would try to recommend those movies. ‘Amelie’ is a must watch for the same reason.

‘The Wild Child’ is based on a true story – about a beast-boy discovered in some jungle in France, and how a doctor dedicatedly works to ‘civilize’ him. Why is this film a must watch?
• Because it is a great study into the mental development of man over other species, illustrating the unique achievement of certain inherent traits in us that we hardly seem to notice. This film can actually arouse in you an interest in the psychological evolution of man.
• Because it doesn’t take sides and still triggers a discussion, a paradoxical debate in your head, about the importance or the futility of ‘civilizing’ someone by robbing him of his natural habitat. This balance, this ambivalence of the film is a rare achievement.
• Because the way Truffaut directs his actors (including himself as the Doctor) makes you seriously doubt whether a better film would be possible with a similar story.
• Because you do not want to blink and miss a moment during the entire length of the training sequences – you see the child being civilized and learned, and you smile at his achievements, but can still feel the loss of that wild ignorance, as if it were a desirable virtue.
• And finally, and this is going to be my strongest reason for many ‘must watch’ films – because you just don’t want this film to end.

“It is an intellectually cleansing experience to watch this intelligent and hopeful film” - Roger Ebert

P.S. I will try not to go through the list of movies I have already watched, because then there will be no end to this exercise. Instead, I will come up with these recommendations only when a new movie blesses me and I’m dying to make you watch that.

September 03, 2010

Disturbing Delight

When we watch the first film of a director, and one made on a low-budget, there are certain things we take for granted. If the film fails miserably, we dismiss it. And we know that the next film made by this filmmaker will not inspire us to the theatres. But if it moves you at some level, there is just one thing that comes to mind – wish it could have taken care of its flaws, wish the craft was just a little more mature, and effective.

While watching ‘Antardwand’ it was very apparent. All this script required was one final rewrite – just a little work on the structure, making small but meaningful changes in some of the scenes, cleverly hiding expository dialogue and making it more true, and at times, just getting rid of the lines – replacing dialogue with expressions, with action. And I believe one week’s work would have been sufficient to cause significant improvement.

‘Antardwand’ is a deserving story, and the horror of its premise and the psychological trauma of its characters are deeply moving. All its characters and some of the actors are so true that I felt transported to the land of my birth, my first taste of Bihar in more than three years now. But other actors appear equally fake, in spite of sincere attempts to do their best. Again, it could have been handled with a little more understanding from the part of the director. Just a better camera placement, just a purposeful cut, just letting the shot linger on for two more seconds…

The film is definitely worth a watch, for some of the performances, if not for anything else. And if you allow yourself a little sensitivity, and thought, you can be truly affected. My advice would be to watch this movie alone – I almost was, with just four other men in the large PVR theatre. Even with its flaws, it is good enough to win the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues. Here is your chance to stop cribbing about the lack of sensitive and meaningful cinema in today’s Hindi film industry. Catching it in a theatre would be difficult, considering its limited release, but grab a DVD when it is out. You won’t be disappointed.

August 26, 2010

The Beginning is the End!

Hitchcock is the classic text-book - to make you understand the grammar of cinema. Kurosawa adds a legendary and epic quality to it and takes it to a higher emotional and spiritual plane.

And then comes Stanley Kubrick - to make you realize the intuitive potential of cinema and explore its abstractions - to motivate you to keep stretching its limits. No doubt, he has influenced all modern maverick masters.

Remember 'Pulp Fiction'? Of course, you do - where the first scene is the last scene. Many films have used this device in the last two decades and it still continues to work. It is actually an established literary device called In medias res ( Latin = into the middle of affairs), a story beginning either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning.

We, my brother and I, seem to be so much in love with this tool that all three of our completed screenplays begin with the climax of the respective films!

Watched Stanley Kubrick's 'Lolita' today. He used this tool for wonderful effect, way back in 1962! His earlier film 'The Killing' is most probably the first major film to use parallel narration with several tracks going back and forth in time.

Vikramaditya Motwane says, you can learn all you need to learn about film making from Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Kubrick. Just last night my brother and I were discussing this. Hitchcock is the classic text-book - to make you understand the grammar of cinema. Kurosawa adds a legendary and epic quality to it and takes it to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. And then comes Stanley Kubrick - to make you realize the intuitive potential of cinema and explore its abstractions - to motivate you to keep stretching its limits.

No doubt, he has influenced all modern maverick masters.

August 17, 2010

Getting Cinemate: #12 The Lens of the Camera

There are mainly four types of Lenses, based on their focal length (distance from the plane of the film to the surface of the lens):

1. For cameras that use 35mm film, the “normal” lens has a focal length of roughly 35-50mm. It distorts the least and most closely mimics the way the human eye perceives reality.

2. For 35mm film, any lens shorter than 35mm focal length is considered WIDE-ANGLE lens. In a cramped location, these types of lens are used to photograph as much of the subject as possible. Since they enhance the ‘angle of view’, they are called Wide-Angle lenses. (Eg. The fish-eye lens, an extremely wide-angle lens, with angle of view approaching 180 degrees). But it greatly emphasizes our sense of depth perception and often, distorts linear perception as well. Remember those visuals where the person close to the camera appears too large compared to those away; or a fist or a gun approaching the camera loom large!

3. Similarly, focal lengths more than 60mm (up to 1200mm) make TELEPHOTO or LONG lens. They, like telescope, magnify distant objects. They do not distort linear perception but do, and it is useful at times, suppress depth perception. Akira Kurosawa was fond of using this type of lenses. These lenses provide a flattened, staged appearance.

4. The ZOOM lens (focal length between 10 to 100 mm) has a variable focal length, ranging from wide-angle to telephoto, which allows quick changes in focal lengths between and also, during a shot. This effect permits the zoom shot to compete with the tracking shot.

‘Once Upon a Time in Mumbai’ is, as we know, set in the 70s. In spite of a lot of work on the costumes, the make-up, and the sets, and giving them the feel of that era, the film does not remind us of the 70s. It looks very much like a picture of modern times if we can see beyond the production design tools I just mentioned. And the reason for that is the use of Wide-Angle lenses. You will not find a movie from that era that has been shot with this type of lenses. We ‘know’ inside our heads that the distorted, exaggerated feel of a Wide-Angle lens is a modern cinematographic development. Our sub-conscious that relates an era or a place to the pictorial descriptions fed into our brains by images, and more effectively by ‘moving images’, ‘refuses’ to ‘feel’ that these visuals depict the same. Hence they look phony, despite all hard work put in by the production designer, art director, costumes and make-up departments.

That is the power and the limitation of film craft, essentially a collaborative art-form. Each and everything should fall into place in order to create great cinema.

(The technical details provided in this post are a part of my notes from this brilliant book by James Monaco – ‘How to Read a Film’.)

August 13, 2010

Intent and Imperfection

Aniruddha Guha (DNA) writes in his review of ‘Peepli [Live]’ that it ‘leaves you impressed but unaffected’. I read the fairly positive review, trying to find out whether Guha tries to diagnose the reason behind this impression he gets from the film. Perhaps he does. I’ll try to elaborate.

The film is a satirical take on the plight of poor farmers in modern India. The premise is extremely powerful, as it plays around, in a stark black comedy, the expected death of poor Natha. Sex and violence are the most affecting tools in cinema and it has been proved beyond doubt with the all-time success of Exploitation and B-films. And death of a human is as violent as it could be. Weaving a funny tale around it promises just the correct cinema experience. The problem here is that this merit of the film has already been known to us through its long and overt promotional campaign. I believe a film like this can have a much stronger impact if we watch it with no preconceived expectations and, more importantly, any idea about its theme and tone.

But this alone is not the problem with ‘Peepli [Live]’. In spite of brilliant performances, sharp and intelligent lines, and a different, ‘real’, and believable setting, there seems to be something missing. And that ‘something’, in my opinion is the mantra all screenwriting gurus insist on. I would like to name it: ‘Progression and Pace’.

After establishing the primary conflict of the film, the writer is supposed to take us on a journey. Not to a circus where we sit and wait for performers to exhibit their vibrant colours but to an active, involving journey of human emotions. Irwin Blacker brilliantly puts it as: “Plot is more than a pattern of events: it is the ordering of emotions.” To invoke the desired emotional response, the writer has to establish a serious ‘want’ for the protagonist – what exactly is at stake; the higher the stake, better the chance for drama. But to actually achieve drama, the writer needs to elaborate and enhance the conflict. Create obstacles in the path of the protagonist who is striving to achieve his dramatic need. These obstacles, preferably as harsh as they could be, and the protagonist’s efforts to overcome them is what makes drama affecting. His success or failure in doing so is hardly important. And this entire act of confrontation has be to crafted with intelligence and an acute critical eye, making sure that each scene takes the story forwards – it progresses from one plot point to the other with a definitive sense of purpose, remembering that each tree is important without losing the idea of the forest.

‘Peepli [Live]’ has the ‘want’ perfectly in place. But it lacks a purposeful progression of story through well-defined obstacles and attempts by the characters to overcome them. Also, the presence, and active involvement of such a large number of secondary characters causes the plot to meander, not meaninglessly, but diluting the force of the impact. There are sequences where it does work. But if you notice carefully, all those instances in the film are strong plot points and the scenes surrounding them are high on conflict-want confrontational drama. Of course, this is a very orthodox approach of writing films and the Quentin Tarantino school of cinema has always believed in defying such norms. If you are a genius, you can actually make a beautiful and affecting ‘circus-like’ film on a thin plot if you manage to create memorable characters and sequences, as Fellini did in most of his movies. But for all of us who are not Federico Fellini, and I think most are not, the conventional rule of ‘progression with a sense of purpose’ is the rule to follow.

This brings me to the ‘pace’ of the film. Contrary to the common notion, a film need not be ‘pacy’ to make an impact. It is attaining just the perfect pace suiting the mood of the film that matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ has apparently too many things happening without actual progression of the story during the most of its hundred minutes. The story is stagnant, but the ‘events’ are happening hurriedly. So, we do not get time to think and feel the drama that is already minimal. The result is: we feel unaffected. The most affecting portion of the film unarguably is the final act. And I believe the best portion of this satirical film created in overtones is the final sequence, the denouement or the post-climax. Over the faces of Budhiya and Natha’s wife, lost over their bleak fate and ignorance about Natha’s reality, the camera makes an obvious meandering motion backwards. Kieslowski would use such camera movements to suggest some supernatural ‘eye’ looking at our characters. I could not help but feel the same as the camera pulls back and after a long journey through villages and towns reaches a modern city. Without a word more of dialogue or staged action, it presents before us the faces of numerous labourers working at a construction site. One of them is Natha. But who are the others? Aren’t all of these migrants from rural India – trying to survive in the inhuman loneliness of the polluted cities? One of them is Natha, and we have just witnessed his story. But wouldn’t there be similar, if not equally heart-wrenching, stories behind all of these helpless faces? There is so much conveyed during this entire closing sequence, so much of impact using a brilliant montage and camera. And although the closing title reduces it to a ‘fact’ about farmers in India who have left agriculture and spoils the understated brilliance of it for me, it still succeeds fairly. Notice that this entire sequence has only one strong dramatic reveal; otherwise it is just the stagnancy of its progression, or the ‘slow’ pace that generates such a strong emotional response in us.

‘Peepli [Live]’ in my opinion would work better in its repeat viewings, when you already know the story and understand its nature and limitations. It is then that the wonderful detailing and the ‘moments’ in its narration will make you smile. Its business story and importance, or the lack of it, in Hindi cinema history will always be worth discussing. But to understand the triumph of cinema, we need to keep these aside and assess the craft on its face value. The intent of a movie and the courage behind its making must be applauded if it deserves that. And after having done that justly, to really understand the cinematic achievement of it, the craft of the film should be analyzed, of course only if it is worthy of it. Perfection is not the prerequisite for great art, it is the stimulation that it provides to the audience is what matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ does that, by not only making you think about the social issue it addresses but also, if you are interested, by inspiring you to diagnose the merits and demerits of its craft as a work of cinema. That, I believe, is enough of an accomplishment.

Being Beautiful

Talking about the merits of ‘Aisha’, a leading trade-guide (and self-proclaimed film critic) writes: “The film did showcase Sonam as a fashion icon.” Point taken, Sir.

This brings me to something Sudhir Mishra had told me not so long ago. He said: “In our film industry we don’t tell stories, we make lifestyle statements.” Can it be more true? Our films are about what clothes you should wear, about the latest fashion trend; they are about stylish cars and foreign holidays and everything else but honest storytelling. Our stars are not actors, they are brand ambassadors. ‘Aisha’ is really a beautiful film; even those who have hated it admit that.

P.S. My last few posts have been full of negativity and I think that is not the right thing to do in this forum where we should be celebrating cinema. In my posts to follow, I’ll try to stick to discussing cinema. No use indulging in calling bad ‘bad’. Let’s focus our attention in understanding what makes good ‘good’.

August 11, 2010

Gods of Small Things

‘Udaan’ just recently won three awards at the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy, the largest children’s and youth film festival in the world. Apart from winning the second place in the Campania Regional Council Awards based on the results of the juror's votes, the film won the Audience Choice Award for Best Film and the award for Best Music Score. Director Vikramaditya Motwane is glad for Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya – the music director-lyricist duo, whom he calls ‘the unsung heroes of the film’.

Following is my favourite song of the film. Please note the poetry:

चढ़ती लहरें लांघ ना पाए, क्यों हाँपती-सी नाँव है तेरी
तिनका-तिनका जोड़ के सांसें क्यों नापती-सी नाँव है तेरी
उलटी बहती धार है बैरी, कि अब कुछ कर जा रे पंथी.

जिगर जुटा के पाल बाँध ले जो बात ठहरी जान पे तेरी शान पे तेरी
'हैय्या हो' की तान साध ले जो बात ठहरी जान पे तेरी शान पे तेरी
चल जीत जीत लहरा जा, परचम तू लाल फेहरा जा
अब कर जा तू या मर जा, कर ले तैय्यारी
उड़ जा बनके धूप का पंछी छुड़ा के गहरी छाँव अँधेरी
तिनका-तिनका जोड़ के सांसें क्यों नापती-सी नाँव है तेरी

रख देगा झकझोर के तुझे तूफानों का घोर है डेरा
भँवर से डर जो हार मान ले कहे का फिर ज़ोर है तेरा
है दिल में रौशनी तेरे, तू चीर डाल सब घेरे
लहरों की गर्दन कस के डाल फंदे रे
कि दरिया बोले "वाह! रे पंथी, सर आँखों पे नाव है तेरी"

This has to be one of the best written songs of the year. I still wonder whether any popular award function in India has the guts to honour the lyricist for this. The music of the film is not only apt, it is catchy and you fall in love with the songs within a couple of hearings. Sadly, it is next to impossible to listen to these songs. T-Series did not release too many copies of the audio CD. I have failed to buy one in spite of visiting all leading stores. FM Channels will play everything but the songs of ‘Udaan’. They don’t listen to the songs to select them; they look for ‘names’ associated with the songs. Any FM guy would reject the songs of 'Peepli [Live]' if the name of its star-producer were not attached to them. But they played, and the audience loved, and ‘Menhgayi Daayan’ is one of the top rated songs on Radio Mirchi today. But those Amit Trivedi numbers that could have easily been popular due to their inspiring rhythm, easy melody and beautiful lyrics are just nowhere to be heard. This link will take you to the lyrics of other songs from the film. We can easily say that Amitabh Bhattacharya is one of the best in the business as of today. Only, not too many people know him. And this really makes me sad, and angry.

'Peepli [Live]' is already generating positive reviews. But for me there are some things of significance beyond the product. And it is the fact that this ‘small’ film is being produced by one of the most powerful men in the film industry. That is the triumph for the film. Aamir Khan has proved to us that you can use your name to sell almost anything. This fact will remain true even if the film is not too well-made, because its marketing has already done the trick. And if it is a decent product, Aamir’s decision will only gain reputation. Sadly, even if it is a brilliant film and is commercially successful, I doubt it will make producers like Yash Raj Films stop making films they make and turn their attention towards content and originality. And if 'Peepli [Live]' fails, I can already imagine these ‘Gods’ of Hindi commercial cinema laughing on Aamir’s ‘stupidity’.

Poor Cinema, mon amour!

Post ‘Shwaas’, the Marathi film industry has undergone a revolution and a significant number of filmmakers have emerged, telling wonderful stories in simplest but effective ways. As my producer says, “It is a wonder how they manage to make such beautiful films with little resources. These Marathi guys, they know the fuck they are doing!”

‘Knowing the fuck you are doing’ is not an easy thing. Watch ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ and you’ll know. The film tells two similar stories. The main story is about a simple man with the heart to follow his dream, who gave India its first motion picture, kick-starting a movement that has turned into the most prolific film industry in the world. Today we remember him as Dadasaheb Phalke, after whom the highest cinema honour in this country is named. He had nothing when he was struck by this dream of film-making – not even the basic technical know-how. But he learnt, and he invested all he had, and he endured the disparaging remarks of the people around him. He was a Howard Roark with a smile. And his ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was indeed the fountainhead of Indian cinema.

The second story is not what the film tries to tell, but the film itself. The writer-director was inspired to tell the story of Phalke. And he does that, simply, and effectively, and again, with a smile. It doesn’t try to sound profound or motivational; neither does it even slightly try to exalt its protagonist. Instead, it takes a funny, entertaining course. It doesn’t try too hard to affect you, but it does so by being itself. Simply written, simply shot – you will be amazed by the impact some of the scenes shot purely in master shots have on you. Paresh Mokashi’s work is something that even the Grand Old Man of Indian cinema would have been proud of. Good filmmakers do not worry about what resources they can not afford, about things they can’t control. But they know what it takes to make a good film, and have the heart to do so, as evident in a scene from the movie:
The cinematographer (asks Phalke while shooting an outdoor sequence): “What about those jackfruit trees?”
Phalke: Didn’t they have jackfruit trees in those days (during the days of Raja Harishchandra)?
Cinematographer (wonders): Jackfruit?
Phalke (insists): It is the story that is important.

It is this uninhibited art of storytelling and the love for the medium that has resulted in the cinema of today – cinema that we all love. And then it really pains me when I get to know the work culture of Mumbai film industry. The more my brother and I are discovering the way they make films here, the more we are filled with disgust. And we feel pity for poor cinema that they treat like a whore. They use it to fulfill all their sensual pursuits and hardly care for the art, or the lack of it, that is resulting in some truly embarrassing works. When Phalke tried to get some female actors for his film, even the prostitutes refused to do this ‘lowly’ job. He and all other great visionaries after him made sure that the art of motion picture gained the stature it deserved, so much so that it would be difficult for anyone to decline a film offer these days. Sadly, most having reached there do everything but taking care of the cinema they are making. It is Hindi cinema that is blamed for being mediocre, when it should be these self-proclaimed ‘filmmakers’ who are the real sinners. Oh, my darling, I wish I could do something for you!