February 28, 2010

Casting Cockroaches

Last week I was shooting a short film. One of the shots required a cockroach - live and moving. I am staying with my friend these days and his flat has no cockroaches! So, I asked our cook - Teju ji, to get some.

Teju ji is one of the best cooks I have seen. And he loves cooking and serving, and blushes when you compliment him on the great taste of his food. But apart from cooking, and a basic maintenance of the house, his approach towards other tasks is habitually negative. So, a task as weird as arranging for some cockroaches was met with severe rejection - "How can someone do that?"

I had the option of removing the shot from the shooting script, but I hated to do that. The story was set in an apocalyptic future, and a five second shot of a cockroach was adding so much more meaning to it. So, I urged Teju ji to go and talk to the cooks of the nearby hotels. I handed him a hundred-rupee note and said - "You can get anything if you are willing to pay."

Five of them were obtained a couple of days before the shoot. Teju ji kept them in a Baskin-Robbins dabba, with some food in it. It took us thirty minutes of shoot time to get the desired shot from the arthropods. The camera and light men, along with Teju ji had a blast - trying to make the cockroach behave the way we wanted them to, as my patience was being tested, sitting at the monitor. I didn't get the perfect shot, but I decided to give up trying.

A little trick on the edit table, and the shot is almost as good as it was conceived. The cockroach appears perfect. At Rs twenty each, these were perhaps the costliest ones in the millions of years of their existence. And yes, they did show some attitude during shoot. After all, they were facing a motion picture camera. They, already, are stars!

February 12, 2010

Signs of Film Language: Illustrations

As I mentioned in my previous post, a Sign has two aspects: the signifier (the word/sound) and the signified (the meaning). An Index is a kind of Sign where the signifier represents the signified not by similarity but an inherent relationship to it.

For example, I want to show, without making my character speak, that the weather is too hot. How can I do that? I can show a thermometer. But this is too loud an index. If I show the actors sweating and wiping their faces, it is subtler. What if we show shimmering atmospheric waves? Or, to further tone it down, use bright and hot colours on the set? 'Lagaan' had used yellow filter - it not only set the mood for a period drama, it also heightened the dry and hot ambience, the story of a land that is devoid of rains.

Film Indexes are also inspired from literary tools. All of us have seen the use of a solitary policeman to signify 'the law'. Or close shots of marching feet to signify 'the army'. This is a cinematic adaptation of Synecdoche - a figure of speech where the part stands for the whole or vice versa. In Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Red Desert' we find a girl surrounded and nearly overwhelmed by industrial machinery in a key scene. But the signified meaning is extended to the urban and industrialized society that has trapped this girl. These machines in the scene represent a larger reality.

A shot of falling calendars means passing of time. A man's image being reflected on a cracked mirror signifies he is torn into two - either emotionally or psychologically. Here an associated detail or notion is used to invoke a different idea. This is 'substituted naming' or Metonymy - another figure of speech. Again in 'Red Desert' Antonioni uses grey colours to signify psychological and political oppression and bright colours for independence and good health.

There is no end to such examples. I would conclude this post with this example from Kieslowski's 'Three Colours: White'. At one critical scene in the film, the protagonist, who has lived an unfortunate life of insult and injustice and poverty, makes an ambitious decision to start all over again. And he seems willing to use all means to regain the command over his life. In this scene we find him combing his hair. But he is not using a mirror. He has a photo frame of some divine deity on the wall. And he is using his reflection on that glass to comb. He is so engrossed in doing that, he hardly looks at the deity - he has started to make plans of his own. But the picture of the deity is looking at him - he can not escape his destiny. It is with the use of these signs that film discovers its own, unique metaphorical power and the ability to say many things at once.

(The post is a part of my notes from James Monaco's brilliant book 'How to Read a Film'.

February 11, 2010

Signs of Film Language: What Do I Mean to Say

A sign is something that conveys a meaning. It has two parts: the signifier, that is the letters or sounds that form a word, and the signified, that is the meaning of the word. Although the sound and form of the word 'book' is in no way close to our impression of the entity called 'book', the signifier and signified are not related, in our mind we have associated the two. For example, a person who knows Hindi and not English can never understand the word 'book'. For him that entity is called 'pustak' or 'kitaab'. On the other hand, the image of a book is conceptually more closer to the book than the word. Similarly in cinema, the signifier and the signified are almost identical. So, the language of film is difficult to discuss, because is so easy to understand.

Also, there is a different case. In cinema, the image of a rose is the image of a rose, not more, not less. But in language it can be modified or confused with 'rows', 'arose' etc. The power of language systems is that there is a very great difference between the signifier and the signified; the power of cinema is that there is not. A writer uses the word ‘rose’ and the reader thinks of any rose he has in his memory. The filmmaker chooses one rose out of millions and shoots it in one way out of thousand other ways and the viewer can not think of any other rose. Thus, the artist’s choice in cinema is without limit; the artist’s choice in literature is circumscribed, while the reverse is true for the observer. So, since film is the closest approximation of reality, among all arts, it is the most powerful medium for conveying the denotative meaning - that is the obvious meaning - 'it is what it is and we don't have to strive to recognize it.'

But the beauty of the film is that it has strong connotative abilities as well - a wealth of meaning that goes beyond the obvious. Also, it has the ability to accommodate the connotative factors of all other art forms and cultures, and does that denotatively (as the filmmaker has the supreme power of chosing 'what to show' and 'how to show').

Connotation is of two types:
  • Paradigmatic Connotation: the connotative sense we comprehend from the way a shot is taken. “How to shoot” is the question. Why is the camera moving? Why is it placed below the eye-line of the character? Why is the light glowing behind the subject's head. Why is the mirror cracked? And so on.
  • Syntagmatic Connotation: the connotative sense we comprehend by relating the shot to the shots preceding and succeeding it. “How to edit” is the question here. This is the most ‘cinematic’ aspect of film, as it is the stage where film is most clearly different from other arts.

In 'Swades' as Mohan Bhargav returns after meeting the poor farmer and buys a little water from the boy on a platform, the previous references of bottled water and an NRI lifestyle, and the remarkable change this character has undergone, is established as he takes a sip. The connotation works only if you fit it in the syntax or the structure of the film. This, then, is syntagmatic connotaion.

However, the line between denotation and connotation is not clearly defined. Connotations, if they become strong enough are eventually accepted as denotative meanings.

Thus, although cinema at first glance seems to be an art that is all too evident, “leaving nothing to the imagination”, much of its meaning comes not from what we see or hear, but from an ongoing process of comparison of what we see with what we don’t see. The attraction of film lies in not what is shot but in how it is shot and how it is presented.

(This post is a part of my personal notes made from James Monaco's brilliant book 'How to Read a Film.')

February 10, 2010


Great idea. Gone horribly wrong due to lack of objectivity. This is what defines Delhi-6 for me. But I always believe in trying to find merits in efforts. So, here is this great song from this film. I doubt people have taken the trouble to attentively listen to it and comprehend the lyrics. So, as you read this, play the song along with it. You will love it. This is what Prasoon Joshi can create when he gets a solid concept:

hey kaala kaala kaala bandar bahar hai ya andar
hey kaala kaala kaala bandar jo dhoondhe sikander…

it wasnt’t me, i swear
everybody’s lookin' for da monkey out there
blame da kaala bandar, blame da kaala bandar
everybody's lookin' for da monkey out there

aao hum sheesha dekhein, usmein sandesha dekhein
apna ghaayal hissa dekhein, apna asli kissa dekhein
ghunghat ki gehraayi mein, phan phailaye kaun hai
jhak safed libaason mein, kaala-sa sach maun hai
choos le choos le choos le choos le, life ki phaaank le
tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank, dil mein bhi jhank le

kasmein to moomfali hain, jab jee chahe hum khate
upar se na na na karte, par thali aage sarkate
ek thailee ke chatte batte, armaan hai hatte katte
natak yeh natak natak, band kar zara jhooth ka phaatak
choos le choos le choos le choos le, life ki phaank le
tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank, dil mein bhi jhank le

i heard he’s two feet tall and bites off your knees
i heard he’s hot metal teeth and wears superman briefs
that makes sense, i saw him flyin' last week
he was invisible, some one saw some movement in the trees
i heard he’s an experiment gone wrong
a monkey alien that’s been left in the sun too long
i heard he’s a cyborg…..you’re right!
made from parts of a toaster and a nuclear bomb
but who’s actually seen him….nobody
this all seems a li'l bit dodgy

saarey reeti-riwaz hata kar dekho apne ghar ke andar
shayad kahin kisi kone mein oongh raha hai kaala bandar
in galion main rang hain kitne, kitni partein, kitne pardey
kitni partein, kitne pardey, kitni partein, kitne pardey
aur pardon ke peechhe pardey, aur pardon ke par kahin par
dard chhupa hai, ghav chhupey hain
raaz kayee dabe paon ghuse hain

jaan ke bhi anjaan hain hum sab, paagal ya nadaan hain hum sab
jaane kaun se rang mein range, hamaam mein hum saare nange

i like the kaala bandar, since he came along things changed
many things have been arranged
there’s way more police in the streets
so i feel safe at night when i go to sleep
now we always got electricity
so i never miss my favourite show on TV
i’m happy with the bandar as long as he don’t get me
he can stay even longer it don’t bother me
bandar kaala bandar don’t go way
bandar kaala bandar i beg you to stay.

choos le choos le choos le choos le, life ki phaaank le
tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank tank jhank, dil mein bhi jhank le

February 05, 2010

Golden New Wave

Just as the history of human evolution is marked by anthropological milestones like the invention of the wheel and others, certain ‘movements’ have had path-breaking influence over the evolution of cinema over the decades. La Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave is one of those path-breaking developments that shaped modern cinema. It was perhaps one of the most marvelous explosions of cinema talent. More than 150 new filmmakers arrived on French cinema scene between 1958 and 1962. The best among the lot were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Rasnais, Agnes Varda, and Eric Rohmer. They had several similarities. Many of them were film theorists and critics and hailed the works of French, Italian and American masters. They were against traditional narrative and eager to break conventions. And most importantly, they believed in the ‘auteur theory’ of cinema: Cinema, like the novel, is a medium of personal expression, and the filmmaker, like the novelist, must have a personal style. So each of these filmmakers tried to go beyond genres and evolved their unique personal expressions, at times by combining genres surprisingly, in their prolific careers. The peak of this movement is considered from 1958 to 1967. I have seen only a handful of these films. The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon amour, Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player, Cleo from 5 to 7, Jules et Jim, Pierrot le fou, and The Soft Skin.

It must be remembered that the New Wave was not an organized movement. It was as spontaneous as an anthropological advancement but was similarly very much ‘waiting to happen’. Each of these filmmakers worked independently, but sill managed to develop some similar and deeply influential aesthetic innovations. The protagonists of many of these films were not ‘typical’ heroes. They were men and women with existential self-doubt and weaknesses and eccentricities. They did strange things, like breaking the ‘fourth wall’ by looking into the camera and talking directly to the audience. And the narrative was hardly conventional with some totally unexpected scene transitions.

Limited resources forced innovations that later became aesthetic tools. They shot on real locations in natural light using mobile and hand-held cameras and sync sound recording. Often they had long, tracking shots that lasted for several minutes, and on the other hand, they invented the ‘Jump Cut’. Actors often improvised their dialogues with lots of colloquialism and slang terms. They even went to the extent of consciously changing characters and using incomprehensible symbolism to ‘remind’ the audience that it is ‘just a movie.’ There was this youthful rebellion that made cinema from a ‘dictatorial’ medium to a medium to play with, possibly giving birth to the concept of ‘independent cinema’. That the French New Wave is one of the most significant movements in cinema history, is evident from these words by Martin Scorsese: ‘the French New Wave has influenced ALL filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not.’ The films of this period, now celebrating glorious fifty years, stand among the most cherished gems of movie-culture.

February 03, 2010


Over the last three weeks, I watched eleven French Classics. From Dramas to Noir to Thriller to Surreal 'auteur' movies, it has been a wonderful experience.

Watched four movies by the great Francois Truffaut: 'Shoot the Piano Player' (1960), 'The Soft Skin' (1964), 'Two English Girls' (1971), and 'The Woman Next Door' (1981). Although none of these could match the timeless brilliance of 'The 400 Blows' or 'Jules et Jim', I feel I have started to know Truffaut. And the most striking elements of his films for me have been the eccentricities of his characters and the role death plays in the narrative. In spite of varied styles, his films are essentially grim.

Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy was a discovery. 'The Blood of a Poet' (1930) was too abstract for me, a great example of Avant-Garde cinema. 'Orpheus' (1950) was engaging. It was like a diluted form of Bergman in its abstraction and treatment. But the most special of the three was 'The Testament of Orpheus' (1959), Cocteau's last film. This film, in which Jean Cocteau plays himself, is the most personal film I have ever seen. It is more personal than 'All that Jazz' or '8 1/2' and it is the perfect last film for a director, perhaps a more suited 'farewell' film than Satyajit Ray's 'Agantuk'.

'The Lower Depths' (1936) is the screen adaptation of Maxim Gorky's most famous play by the same name. This is the film that features in 'Cinema Paradiso', in the memorable scene where the priest censors the kissing scenes in the theatre alone. But this film was ordinary. I watched it because of its maker, Jean Renoir, one of the earliest masters of cinema. Interestingly, Akira Kurosawa also did a Japanese adaptation. I really want to watch that now. And a clearification- Chetan Anand's 'Neecha Nagar' is NOT based on this play. The similarity ends with the titles.

'Pepe le moko' (1937), another film starring Jean Gabin, has one of the most memorable use of a location as a character. The Algerian Casbah shown in the movie was more impressive than the movie itself. This film, the story of the celebrated gangster - Pepe, is seen as one of the early precursors of Film Noir.

'Rififi' (1955) is the perfect example of Film Noir. I would recommend this film to all. There is a long and detailed heist sequence that is definitely one of the best you are going to see. Brilliant!

But the best of the lot was Henry-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece, 'The Wages of Fear' (1953). Four jobless men take the risk of transporting two truck loads of nitroglycerine over hundreds of miles for $2,000 each, knowing very well that the volatile nature of the chemical can end their lives with the slightest jerk over the long and uneven stretch. The tension that this film builds is a cinematic achievement. Watch this urgently. This is one of those movies you must watch before you die!

February 01, 2010

The Case of Two Weddings, a Funeral, and Three Truths!

I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!

Truth #1:
I do not prefer melodrama. I hate it when a song stops the narrative. Overacting is a big turn-off. Aesthetic perfection matters lot. I hate it when the story is stuck and I tend to lose my connect. Two films that have guided me to the cinema I love have been the dark Satya (1998) and the epic Lagaan (2001). And now, being exposed to the best of cinema, across the globe and decades, I find most of our Hindi films unimpressive and disappointing, including some of the most popular ones.

Truth #2:
I LOVE Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994). It was my first favourite film. And it was up there for six years. Lagaan changed the meaning of Cinema for me. And since then I have stopped selecting just one film as my favourite. So, HAHK is also the only favourite film of my cinema consciousness, though it is no more the favourite. But even today, whenever I sit watching this film, I am amazed at how it affects me. I feel a part of that family. The songs always work for me. I feel amazed at the chemistry that an overacting Salman and a gorgeous Madhuri create. I still cry. And for the rest of the time, I keep smiling. And I am transported back to Neelam Talkies, the single-screen theatre in my hometown, where I had watched this movie. And had re-watched it three months later. And in 1999, when Sooraj Barjatya was coming up with his next film, it became the first film I eagerly waited for, the first music and movie reviews that I looked for. I never knew then, that what I am doing for this film would become an essential way of my life. HAHK was the beginning of a passion called Cinema. It was the first attachment. It was the desi tharra that made me a bewda, and today I am on my way to become a connoisseur of the best wines in this world. But the first taste of that local alcohol and the intoxication I had had is still special.

Truth #3:
I know most of the people of my generation, and those ahead, hate this film. I know the lovers of World Cinema will find it impossible to bear. I understand their reason and point-of-view and I do not expect anyone to understand mine. I do not plead guilty and I rest my case.

Over to you, Your Honour.