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.