June 18, 2010

Cosmetic Cinema

I have a Sardar friend called TP Singh. He was one of the most famous guys in the campus; most notorious among girls and the officers. There can not be a single guy in four batches preceding and succeeding ours at AFMC, who can forget TP. He is one of those guys who come in a decade. Yesterday, I met him after a gap of two years. For a change, here was someone who wasn’t too surprised by the change in my ‘look’. I was. The TP Singh, today, sports short hair, and trimmed beard. This was the most striking feature when I saw him. But then we sat and talked. His peculiar voice and accent, and hilarious stories – all are still in tune with the guy at campus. Perhaps always will. Some things are difficult to change. We had a tour of Town. Spent hours at CafĂ© Leopold, where he gulped down three litres of beer, and we both agreed that it was still nothing. Listening to him talk about the Indian Army, really felt I’m not a bad listener at all. You can have a hell of a time with a guy like him around, with or without his turban. Looks matter, but only at the recognition level – when you greet the person you have just met. After that, it has nothing to do with looks. Yeah, voice does matter – storytellers do need to have the perfect voice for storytelling, as much as they need dramatic pauses, coherent narration, and most of all – a story deserving to be told. Premise can be interesting, but holds interest only for a while, just a little more than the ‘look’. It is all that follows that matters.

TP Singh stayed at my place and joined me for the first show of ‘Raavan’. Thanks to him, we did enjoy ourselves. It is always good to have a ‘bakar’ friend when your movie turns out to be like this. But then, I never expected anything different.

June 15, 2010

Twelfth Man

The moment I realize - the date is 15th of June, I start thinking hard – whose birthday is it today, or some anniversary? There is definitely something special about it. And then, within seconds I recall. It has been happening every year for the past nine years – I welcome this day with a smile. It was on 15th June, 2001, that a film got released and changed the meaning of cinema for me. Today, we can safely call that a watershed moment in the history of Hindi cinema. This date is truly special.

Here is what Pritish Nandy had to say about Lagaan. “If Hollywood has any sense, it will get put its hands together and acclaim it as the film of the year… Our cinema history will now have two eras. Before-Lagaan and post-Lagaan. The standards of movie making will have to completely change. Lagaan has set the new standard... It is not just outstanding. It is spectacular. It is better than anything I have seen.”. Mind you, this review of his came just 5 days after the release of the film – long before it actually won acclaim at Locarno and later the Academy Awards. I am really amazed at this far-sightedness of Mr. Nandy. Just after the film's premiere, Rakesh Roshan had complimented Ashutosh Gowariker with these words: “Do you know what you have done? You have just created a masterpiece.” A filmmaker can realize better, what an epic of a film Lagaan was, in every aspect of cinema – aesthetic, economic, and more. There are friends who ask me – “OK, I realize it was a good film. But why do you rate it so highly?” I seriously want to prepare a paper, a detailed discussion on this film, to answer this question.

A few days ago, Empire Online released a list of the Greatest Non-English Language Films. Here is the list for the current decade (2001-2010). Bhansali’s Devdas is another film that finds a place in the top 20. This is not among the best of the top-movies lists, leaving out some truly great ones. But it has managed to appease me by ranking Amelie as the best movie of the decade. I have no doubts in accepting that. And although Lagaan could not make it to the top 10, it is the twelfth man anyway. Cheers!

1. Amelie (2001, France)
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico)
3. City of God by (2002, Brazil)
4. Spirited Away (2001, Japan)
5. Let the Right One In (2008, Sweden)
6. Oldboy (2003, South Korea)
7. Y tu Mama Tambien (2001, Mexico)
8. Infernal Affairs (2002, Hong Kong)
9. Waltz With Bashir (2008, Israeli)
10. 10 (2002, Iran)
11. Downfall (2004, Germany)
12. Lagaan (2001, India)
13. Persepolis (2007, Iran)
14. A Prophet (2009, France)
15. Ten Canoes (2006, Australia)
16. Hidden (2005, Austria)
17. Devdas (2002, India)
18. House of Flying Daggers (2004, China)
19. The Host (2006, South Korea)
20. Goodbye Lenin (2003, Germany)

June 07, 2010

Coming Together of the Greats

End credits roll. I’m the last person to leave the theatre. Making my way through the empty corridors of this old mall that has lost its sheen, I’m looking for a toilet. Arrowheads guide me, through a maze of shops, reminiscent of that shopping complex beside West End Cinema in Pune, whose name I fail to recollect. There is a man holding the gate of the toilet open for me. There are no urinals in there, only cabinets with commodes. I take a while to choose one, considering the floor is wet. The cabinet I choose is, as I discover later, wetter. I relieve myself and emerge out of the cabinet to find urinals right in front of me. I am scared – of this place, of the staff, of the people around me. I make sure I escape before they trap me.

Outside, the city prepares itself for the rains, a mid-day sun playing with the pre-monsoon drizzle. I take an auto-rickshaw and reach home. Switch on my laptop, and start typing these words. I am not sleep deprived, nor starved. But I feel delirious. Nothing makes much sense. Everything seems unreal. It’s as if I’m stoned. Well, I am. A movie has just turned me crazy.

David Lynch does this often. But there is always a sense of unbelievability in his films. His cinema keeps reminding you of its unreality. You feel shaken, cerebrally charged to solve the puzzle the film has been, dazed and confused, but you are never as affected as a truly emotional, heart-wrenching film can be. Even among Lynch’s films the most affecting is 'The Elephant Man', which is of a different league than his other surreal classics, which I have loved, but which have failed to make me feel the way I do right now.

The first half of 'Shutter Island' is classic Hitchcockian. It is in the second half that things actually start turning insane. Real and unreal don’t make much sense any more and you are left solving a puzzle that perhaps never existed. Perhaps, because you can never be sure. The film ends with a shot of an imposing lighthouse – that guides you to nowhere. But in spite of an open end, and all its abstractions, 'Shutter Island' is more intuitive than cerebral; it plays more with the sub-conscious than with the conscious mind. You feel exhausted – because you have internalized the conflict of the film. The director has done what Hitchcock did – played psychological games with your mind. He has used the illusion of cinema without making it obvious, unlike Lynch. And then he has delivered the master stroke by maintaining the ambiguity. You can always expect a master like Martin Scorsese to do something like this.

Want a high? Go for Shutter Island. There is a lot that we can talk about later. For me, this film has just begun.

June 05, 2010

The Power of Screenwriting

India has been a land of epics and legends. We take pride, and rightfully so, in the treasure of our traditional fiction. From folk tales to songs of all genre to poems – small and epic, we have been telling stories for centuries. Why then, when it comes to telling a story on celluloid, we fail miserably? Why the country with the greatest epic in human history fails to make films that could enthrall the audience for two hours? Or we are forced to include songs to keep the audience pleased and hooked? We have even failed to create decent adaptations by exploring our rich literary heritage. Our characters, mostly, are half-baked; their conflicts unconvincing; their actions defy logic, and we try to defend that with embarrassing and ridiculous display of melodramatic emotions. Why, in spite of having quality actors, we can not utilize their potential? Why, except for a few gems, we have failed to utilize the power of cinema, more so in the last couple of decades? The answer to all these questions is, ironically, known to all – we lack quality scripts. I would like to modify the answer just a little bit, so that it actually answers all the questions above – we lack the craft of writing quality scripts.

I’ve been reading a few excellent books on screenwriting lately. It is just that at this moment, thanks to these books, I’m better placed to exactly diagnose the flaws we traditionally commit, and to appreciate the ‘tricks’ used to ensure a decent product. I feel fortunate, that under these circumstances, last morning, I watched the first show of Rajneeti. It left me strained. And I’m loving this state I am in.

Rajneeti is one of the most powerful Hindi films you are going to see, and definitely the most powerful film in the last few years. I went with tremendous expectations, because I knew it is an adaptation of that very epic I just talked about, our very own Mahabharata, because I believed in the writers – Anjum Rajabali, one of the few men in Mumbai who know the craft of screenwriting, and Prakash Jha, who is second to none in creating hard-hitting scenes and penning powerful dialogues. And in spite of great performances, and meticulous direction by Jha himself, I would like to congratulate the writers of this film for exceeding my expectations. And would thank them for this wonderful gift. Because it is the writing of the film that, in spite of no songs, doesn’t let you relax for close to three hours. Because the characters are so well created to inspire Arjun Rampal and Katrina Kaif to leave memorable impact and Ranbir Kapoor, Nana Patekar, Ajay Devgn and Manoj Bajpai to excel in a way only they can. Because it uses their star image and persona, the crores of rupees that go into the making, and the eye of the director to create an epic of a film. From scenes that follow the Mahabharata verbatim – like the Karna-Kunti Samvad, to subtle changes – like Draupadi’s hair (notice Katrina’s hair in the final act), Rajneeti has fulfilled the onerous task of daring to play with the ancient epic. And in spite of hitting you with such enormous force in the end it leaves you empty within. The tragedy that Mahabharata was is re-lived through the lives of these modern humans – all grey, powerful, yet vulnerable. And you feel a pain, a sense of loss, as affecting as the cerebral stimulation the political film has blessed you with. I wished it hadn’t ended, somehow, like those good, old stories that we want to continue forever. Yes, cinema allows you to revisit it in its exact form. I will do that, soon.