January 23, 2011

W(n)ot a Film!

“By any stretch of imagination, it can not be called a film” is what a friend of mine feels about ‘Dhobi Ghaat’. Aamir Khan, slowly gaining notoriety for the way he aggressively markets his films, has always maintained that this film would not appeal to the traditional Indian audience. There are people calling it boring, others praising it for its ‘freshness’. For me, it is neither. It is one of those numerous ‘hyperlinked’ films that world cinema has witnessed since ‘The Killing’ (1956) or even earlier, and what has been a fashionable trend among the movies of the last decade. By Hindi film standards, it is both fresh and slow, and even unaffecting. And this time I am not even ‘happy that a film like this got widespread release in India’. Being the wife of one of the most powerful men in the industry has done the trick. Kiran Rao has been fortunate in that sense, but that does not, in any way, mean that she is not talented.

The writer-director has made a film she can be proud of. It is not a great piece of cinema, but it is very well done. It is sure of its intent, and its content, or the apparent lack of it. It has its own way of affecting you, but as one leading film critic rightly wrote, it is an ‘acquired taste’. We can ‘acquire’ that taste only by watching films like these. And the presence of a superstar in this otherwise ‘small’ film will surely bring more people into the theatres. That is the only saving grace for the atrocious decision of casting Aamir Khan, who disappoints in his portrayal of the reclusive painter. Awkward with his English lines, he seems to be trying too hard, failing the character that, after a long time, suited him in all its dimensions. ‘Dhobi Ghaat’ proves once again that an actor ‘bigger’ than the character can never do justice to it. Correct casting is what Akira Kurosawa considered ‘the most important part of filmmaking besides writing’. I would like to add another exercise in the list, and that is ‘acting workshops and rehearsals’. I believe these are the reasons why Kriti Malhotra playing the girl in the videotapes is a delight to watch. And Prateik and Monica Dogra fit into their roles to near perfection.

I don’t expect the film to be widely loved. But I do hope that more and more people watch films like these. Because the coming generation of Hindi filmmakers is actually going to ‘stretch the imagination’ of the Indian audience, including the aforesaid friend of mine, and redefine what can be called cinema. ‘Dhobi Ghaat’ is a small step in that direction.

P.S. After watching the film, please try to answer this – why was it given an Adult certificate? As I type these words, small kids near my building are dancing to ‘Sheela’. It is some celebration down there, and they are lip-syncing to ‘Sheela ki jawani… I’m too sexy for you…’ whatever!

January 14, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #8: 'Anatomy of a Murder' (1959)

The first release of the year was a disappointment for me. I expected a lot from Rajkumar Gupta and his 'No One Killed Jessica'. The subject had the potential of a world-class film. But the best compliment it can generate is frankly 'good by Indian standards'. Still, there are reasons to be happy. The film is a certified hit. A decade ago, it was impossible to imagine a film like this could be made. Hindi cinema is changing, definitely.

But a lot needs to be done. A couple of days after 'Jessica', I watched a 2hr 40min courtroom trial drama. And I believe Otto Preminger's 'Anatomy of a Murder' is one of the best trial movies we will ever see.

The movie is a must watch for:
  • The unforgettable characters. The lady victim is promiscuity personified. We are not made to sympathize with her, but wonder at her state-of-mind. Her husband accused of the murder is a cool, composed armyman pleading not guilty on the grounds of insanity! And then we have the Judge and his sense of humour, the confident and suave prosecution lawyer, and our protagonist - the defense lawyer played by the ever-dependent James Stewart, who loves fishing possibly more than practicing law. Add to this the person whose murder we are dissecting. He is never seen, but you won't realize that.
  • The delightful and insightful detailing of the court proceedings and game of law. Based on a novel by a Supreme Court judge, it presents itself as a case, less sensationally projected as you would expect, but keeps you intrigued by its progression. You like chess? You like Test Cricket? You like cerebral entertainment? This is the movie for the weekend.

January 07, 2011

Why Awards Matter

I am not a fan of the Oscars. But I still give a lot of importance to them. And, in my opinion, it is good to give just the right importance to everything. How to judge that is tricky, but worth a try.

There was a time when Filmfare awards meant a lot. I remember watching them for the first time with my brother and mom. I also remember complaining when Anand Bakhshi won the Best Lyrics Award for ‘Tujhe dekha toh ye jaana sanam’. My 11-year old self believed his ‘Ho gaya hai tujhko toh pyaar sajna’ was more deserving. Seven years later, I suffered my first heartbreak when the music of ‘Devdas’ lost to that of ‘Saathiya’. Filmfare lost its importance for me. But not its significance. I am not a fan of the Oscars. But then I am not a fan of any award given for cinematic excellence. Still, it is impossible for me to ignore them altogether.

An award should never be taken very seriously. The winner of the Best Film need not be the best film of the year. In fact, it need not even be the best among the nominees. The winning film is just the most popular first choice among the jury (with or without the audience vote). But the film that wins does manage to generate a reaction. The Academy nomination of ‘Lagaan’ had resulted in the release of that film in countries oblivious to Hindi cinema. I have friends from the US who have not watched many Indian films, but have watched ‘Lagaan’. This increased penetration of a film into untapped audiences is the greatest advantage of winning an award, especially a popular one. And this means a lot more to a small, off-beat film.

Some unavoidable circumstances had forced me to spend a month with my family at Patna. All work had to be paused. This also explains my silence on this blog for such a long time. This morning my brother and I got the news of ‘Udaan’ winning the Best Film and the Best Director awards, and two more, at Screen Awards. It was the morning we took our train to Mumbai, and this was the best news we could have shared with our parents while leaving. I am on the train at this moment and the news of these awards is truly the biggest inspiration for both of us. For the first time in more than two decades, an unconventional, ‘small’ film, that didn’t do well at the box-office, has been awarded the Best Film award at a popular award function in this country. Being a part of that film is special. But even more special is the hope that it has rekindled in me, that good cinema will eventually find its way to its audience.

Last night a friend of mine was talking with me about the fourteen nominations ‘Udaan’ got at the Screen Awards. The results were not out then. But just those nominations, he said, were enough for his financial banker colleagues to take a notice of this film that they had missed. They now want to grab the DVD. If nominations could do that, hope the wins cause a more widespread awareness for the film, something its limited publicity could not achieve. For films like these, at least, awards do matter a lot.

January 05, 2011

Cinema 2010: Looking Back at my Cinema Experience of the Year

One of the best things about 2010 was my exploration of the cinema of Coen Brothers. Except ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ and their latest, ‘True Grit’, I have finished watching all of their films, some more than once. This, and finishing Kieslowski’s ‘Dekalog’ were the best achievements of the year. But there was a lot more.

Watched more than 200 movies in 2010, about 75 from the Greatest Movies list. It included some of the best English-language films like: ‘The Third Man’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Walkabout’, ‘Life of Brian’, ‘Network’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘All About Eve’, ‘GoodFellas’, ‘Midnight Cowboy’, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’, ‘Deliverance’, ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape’, ‘Rumble Fish’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Traffic’, ‘Lolita’, and ‘The King of Comedy’. I was also fascinated by the two films of Wes Anderson that I saw: ‘Rushmore’ and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’.

Also experienced some classics of World Cinema for the first time: ‘M’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘The Rules of the Game’, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caliguri’, ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Shoeshine’, ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’, ‘Knife in the Water’, The Orphic Trilogy, ‘Rififi’, and ‘Raise the Red Lantern’.

But the most fulfilling experience was discovering greats like Luis Bunuel, Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Abbas Kiarostami. I was also introduced to the cinema of Sam Peckinpah, Nagisa Oshima, Takeshi Kitano and Lars Von Trier.

Discovery of Shakti Samanta was the highlight of my Hindi cinema experience. And I also watched some of the best Hindi films for the first time, like Jewel Thief, Waqt, Shakti, and the hugely underrated ‘Disha’.

And to add to this, continued watching more of Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Godard, Truffaut, and Ray.

The Film Book of the Year was Nicholas Proferes’ ‘Film Directing Fundamentals’. Earlier, I was pretty confused when every other person praised a film’s ‘amazing direction’. Thanks to this book, I have begun to understand what the job of a director is. The last section of the book discussed three films in detail: ‘Notorious’, ‘8 ½’, and ‘The Truman Show’. It was such a rewarding experience that I want to continue the exercise by studying more films and writing about them in detail. Starting with the one-hour films from the ‘Dekalog’ would be great. Only wish a day had more than 24 hours…