July 29, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: The Legend of the Seven Samurai

A few years ago when I watched ‘Seven Samurai’ for the first time, I could hardly appreciate its greatness. The poor print and watching it on my laptop did not help. Recently I revisited the movie on big screen. In all these years, it kept growing on me. I have watched more than 600 good movies since my first watch of ‘Seven Samurai’, and I have not watched anything close to it. In fact, in all of my cinema experience, despite its elements being borrowed by several other movies, I have not seen a movie that could match this Kurosawa classic in its achievement. Today, I can sit through its 210 minutes every time it is screened near me. Some movies are made of the stuff of legends.

‘Seven Samurai’ can easily be considered as great an achievement of cinema as it could possibly be. The very idea of something like this is intimidating, an action-adventure period epic set in a village, with a long running-time, huge ensemble of cast, big budget, and gigantic ambition. At its inception itself, it goes beyond most of the movies ever made. And then by crafting it with timeless storytelling devices without missing on its incredible artistic appeal, Akira Kurosawa ended up making an extremely entertaining film that could appeal to all, and thus exploring the medium of cinema to its fullest. It was the biggest blockbuster of Japanese cinema when it was released. However what makes it timeless is the strong socio-cultural context and a philosophical undertone, that gives the movie its exotic yet universal appeal. Close to six decades later, it remains one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. Cinema would have shaped itself differently, if this movie were not made.

A village in medieval Japan is oppressed by a group of merciless bandits. The helpless villagers decide to hire a group of Samurais to help them protect their next harvest. What follows next is ‘Seven Samurai’, one of the first action-adventure movies, featuring elements that were to become repeating motifs of the genre. The introduction of the action hero through a sub-plot totally unrelated to the movie is a celebrated style today; it started in this movie with the introduction of Kambei, the leader of the pack, played masterfully by the versatile Takashi Shimura. Building up of a team for an upcoming task is another celebrated plot element. It takes close to one hour for Kambei to get his Samurais together and head for the village. Then we witness the strategizing – how they plan to defend the village. The storyteller shares these wonderful details with us, using maps, showing the training of the villagers, and constantly teasing us with the sense of ‘something is going to happen soon’. This main narrative graph of the film is refreshingly intersected with some extremely involving sub-plots, interwoven elegantly with the central spine. The forbidden romance between the youngest Samurai and a village girl, the story of the peasant whose wife has been abducted by the bandits, the old woman who avenges the death of her son in a chilling scene, and the occasional hinting at the back-story of Kikuchiyo, played by another Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune, add so much to this otherwise straight-forward story. These sub-plots, I suppose, appeal to you more when you watch the movie for the second time, like various other elements that keep coming up in the subsequent re-watches.

Universally loved and respected, ‘Seven Samurai’ is also one of the most watched movies. It is not surprising that Hollywood and Bollywood never cease to pay homage to it. ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Chinagate’ are the closest adaptations. But you will find ‘Seven Samurai’ in ‘Sholay’ and ‘Lagaan’, and ‘Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Dirty Dozen’. George Lucas admits to have been influenced by the Samurai epics of Kurosawa that inspired him to create ‘Star Wars’. As I write these words, the signature tune of the movie fills my ears and my mind, and I am looking forward to experience the movie again, with hundreds of people, in a darkened theatre, on the big screen – this is one movie that goes beyond celebrating the medium of cinema, it actually fulfills the invention of motion picture.

The Most Significant Hindi Film of the Last Decade

The farewell dinner in Sydney. Rohit and Shalini will soon be leaving for their marriage. Akash is invited. Mahesh Uncle is present. And Rohit tries to taunt Akash by reminding him of their graduation party, and the punch that had resulted in the iconic black-eye. Akash retorts: “In fact, I think I was lucky. Because if Shalini were with me, and someone had flirted with her, I would have killed him.” Some giggle in the audience. “Crap!” – emits a girl in my row. And for me too, that heroic line does not work this time. Ten years ago, when I was seventeen, and had romanced girls only in my head, that line had given me goose-bumps. Something had changed. This line from Terry Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ probably explains it: “The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different.”

Last Sunday I watched ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ after close to six years, and for the first time on big screen. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the movie and the screening was followed by a Q&A with Farhan Akhtar. I had always been disappointed with the Sangeet scene where Akash ‘proposes’ Shalini in front of a hundred people. This time, I was disappointed with almost the entire final act. The writer-director himself admitted that there were two things he would like to change, in retrospection, and both have to do with the final act. One, he said, would be to terminate the Akash-Shalini track in Sydney itself, and two, to eliminate the last shot in the epilogue in Goa where Siddharth notices Deepa and drifts towards her as Akash and Sameer join their wives. It was heartening to hear him speak, with his charismatic insouciance, and answer all sorts of questions candidly, without making big deal about the movie that changed the shape of Hindi cinema like not many.

Back then, I didn’t understand cinema much. But I was so affected by the movie – by its sound (movies without sync-sound started to put me off), lighting (“You can watch DCH just for the way it uses light and colours” was my favourite show-off remark in college), and editing. I was amazed to observe the effect of the shots lingering over the faces for just a few seconds longer, enhancing the performances, and creating a stillness that all of us could relate to, but could hardly ‘diagnose’. It is not a coincidence that DCH showcased the finest performances of all lead actors, that had as much to do with editing, as with the unforgettably written characters. Also, the use of jump-cuts and ultra fast-motion, though not innovations, changed the picturization of songs forever. By just being truly modern, and setting an aesthetic parameter, DCH defined the decade that followed, and in this sense contributed more to our cinema than ‘Lagaan’. For me, these two movies, releasing within 5-6 weeks, changed the perception of cinema forever.

I was thus excited to catch this movie this Sunday, to check how it affects me after surviving for all these years on the finest of world cinema. And I have no words to describe the experience. Nostalgia had indeed a major role to play, but the real triumph was of the movie itself, of watching it unfold magically on the big screen. It is long, it is extremely melodramatic, and it is rooted in the Hindi cinema tradition. But ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ supersedes the tradition and becomes something so entertaining and involving that should be continued to be treasured when it is no more ‘modern’. The dip in the final act is something we would blissfully ignore.

July 24, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: 'Salaam Bombay!' and the Initiation of the UC Project

It was really heartening to see the positive response to ‘Salaam Bombay!’(1988) among the students. I was a little confused after the relative ‘failure’ of ‘Pather Panchali’ and was reconsidering my selection of movies. Well, I don’t think I was wrong in selecting ‘Pather Panchali’, but perhaps could not time it well. I should have screened it later, at least after ‘Salaam Bombay!’

Through these two movies I have started explaining to the students the limitations of the classical narrative structure that was introduced to them through ‘Vertigo’. Sticking to the classical narrative definitely limits cinema and it is indeed necessary to defy these rules. However, I have also, and I will keep repeating this, stressed upon the importance of the classical narrative. It is very important to understand it completely, before denouncing it. And for all practical purposes, it is safe, and generally rewarding, to obey these rules.

I also briefly covered some cinematography topics, like camera equipments, and FPS. It was also interesting to note that the students are generally more interested in learning these film-making aspects, rather than understanding the ‘greatness’ of movies I screen. I would try to incorporate this observation into my future lectures.

The most exciting thing, however, is the initiation of the ‘Understanding Cinema Project.’ I am dividing the students into film-making teams, to be led by the Producers. After briefly explaining to them what a producer does (and he does not just put in the money!), I selected all producers I need from the volunteers. They will now select the directors they want to work with, and then divide the entire batch into their film-making units. There is still time before the topics are allotted and they start working on their scripts. Before that I want to make sure that each group consists of people who share good rapport among themselves. That, in my opinion, is the most important thing in a film-making unit, more important than the collective or individual talent.

Style versus Storytelling

I just got introduced to the cinema of Mani Kaul. And though I have been searching for his movies for five years, I’m glad it happened now. Because only now I have started to understand cinema in a way that is required to react appropriately to such works. Though it’s not more than a beginning, I was glad I could react individually and independently, without being affected by others, including this great article on Kaul’s cinema.

Ever since I read the plot of the Rajasthani folk tale on which Amol Palekar’s ‘Paheli’ (2005) was based, I was excited. However, the movie left me disappointed and angry – I thought it was such a waste of a beautiful story. So then I was dying to watch ‘Duvidha’ (1973), the original movie on the eponymous story. I told myself – look at the titles. That alone explains the difference in approach. This story is not about a ‘puzzle’ but about a moral ‘dilemma’. Hence, I was sure ‘Duvidha’ would do justice to it.

Today, I watched ‘Duvidha’. And I’m disappointed again. Not that I did not like the movie, but it left so much to be desired. Simply speaking, it failed to explore into the moral dilemma I was so interested in. The husband of a newly wed bride leaves her three days after marriage for a business trip that would not bring him back for five years. A ghost, who is struck by the beauty of the woman, enters the house in the form of the husband, even managing to cheat his own father. But he discloses his identity to the woman and leaves it on her to accept him. Unfortunately, the director does not dwell on the woman’s dilemma, neither focuses on the psychological state of her mind when she agrees to and spends days and nights with the ghost. By using a style, that I would even call egotistical, he solves all conflicts before they emerge. This continues throughout the film – including the conflict that results from the ‘real’ husband’s premature return, and the climax where the ghost is punished. Such a wonderful plot, and such a waste of opportunity.

I am aware of the arguments that would come up in defense of the movie. The first would be – the director willingly and consciously decides to sacrifice storytelling to create a powerful personal expression. And the example of Jean-Luc Godard will feature in this argument. Firstly, I think the director is not, or should not be, bigger than the story. And if he wants to showcase a unique and personal style, he should choose the story accordingly. I have watched only seven of Godard’s films, so perhaps I’m not eligible to give a general comment, but none of his movies had a story unsuitable to his style. I never felt Godard is letting go of any wonderful opportunity. I love his playfulness, and I never mind his egotism. Finding the correct story to display your style is essential, as is to find the correct style for your story, which brings me to the second point.

The minimalism of Mani Kaul might be compared to Ozu or Bresson. However, the style adopted by these two masters is so suitable to the stories they decide to tell. The economy of expression is so in sync with the universe they operate in. Watching them I never feel that they are compromising on the strengths of their story. I can not help but wonder, what someone like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet would have done to this story – how incredible and memorable the resulting film would have been.

The third argument would be the aesthetic excellence of the maker which, and I might be offending many by saying this, I thought was seriously deficient. All these great filmmakers we are talking about had an impeccable craft. Their frames and their montages were very self-assured. I have seen Godard’s outrageous innovations, but generally none of them have weak aesthetics. Mani Kaul’s imagery and sound design could never convince me of his greatness. And the voice-overs further ruined the storytelling. One example would be this: As the villagers are taking the husband and the ghost to the king for a solution, the narrator says that the ghost was on his way to be captured by the shepherd. Till then we do not even know who this shepherd is, and we do not want the narrator to spoil the climax for us. I wonder how would someone defend errors like this. And if you think I’m stressing unnecessarily on the importance of classical storytelling and do not agree with my opinion on Kaul’s aesthetics, please read on.

I decided to watch another Mani Kaul movie just after ‘Duvidha’ because I did not want to form an opinion based on just one movie. I decided to spend more time trying to understand something that I might have missed in the first. So I sat for ‘Satah Se Uthta Aadmi’ (1980). It was such a difficult movie, and I was so hungry, that I repeatedly considered the option of leaving it mid-way. There was obviously no story, and the loosely connected episodes made no sense at all. But I persisted. I wanted to give the maker a fair chance.

And thank God I did that. As the movie approached its conclusion, everything started making sense to me. The movie was pure poetry – a long poem that uses abstractions to convey the world-view of the poet. The lack of coherence and the vague imagery was completely in sync with the content (or the story). And hence, I liked the movie more than the first one. I would like to insist, thus, that I’m not adamant about the classical structure of storytelling. I only believe that the story should dictate its style. However, even this movie left me unfulfilled as far as the aesthetics were concerned. Watch Tarkovsky’s ‘The Mirror’ (1975) – another film-poem and you would agree. If ‘Duvidha’ and ‘Satah Se Uthta Aadmi’ could only improve on their shots and edit, without changing the style, the mood, or anything else, these would have been much better movies. And the argument that I should not compare Mani Kaul with Andrei Tarkovsky is totally irrelevant. Because if you are calling him great with respect to Indian cinema, we have no argument at all.

Just two movies, and I’m convinced of Mani Kaul’s greatness. The sheer conviction to make such movies, in such a style, in our film-industry, during that period is enough to convince me of that. I would definitely watch more of him, and would love to accept later, if it happens, that I was too quick in forming an opinion about him. But my belief on two things just got strengthened today. The first is really unfortunate and harsh, that even the best of Hindi cinema stands nowhere compared to the best of the world. And the second, that the story, within or without a coherent narrative, is above the style of the film and more importantly, the filmmaker.

July 23, 2011

The Importance of Being Familiar

This is the first scene (the overture) of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). I have borrowed 'action' from the Ebert review, and the lines, obviously from the movie itself:

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays over powerful black-and-white visions of Manhattan and its skyline, and the mighty bridges leaping out to it from the provinces. We go through its people and places as a voice, filled with uncertainty and hesitations, plays as a monologue.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion."

Uh, no. Make that "He romanticised it all out of proportion."

"To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin."

Uh... no. Let me start this over.

"Chapter one. He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle- bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles."

Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste. Let me... try and make it more profound.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of integrity to cause so many people to take the easy way out... was rapidly turning the town of his dreams..."

No, it's gonna be too preachy. I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitised by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage..."

Too angry. I don't wanna be angry.

"Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat."

I love this.

"New York was his town and it always would be."

We later realize that these lines were probably the protagonist’s random blabbering into his cassette recorder. Though we do not know that yet, these set him up for us. I was already laughing as this montage ended, hardly a few minutes into the movie. To all those who are yet to discover the cinema of Woody Allen, these lines would appear hardly humourous. But most of those who know him (both the writer-director and the character(s) he plays), will react as I did, and the ‘Woody’ humour will hook them into the movie at once. Moreover, going beyond what the protagonist in this movie feels or conveys, these lines communicate, to all those who are familiar with Allen’s cinema, the writer-director’s sentiment for New York.

I wonder how it would have been received if it were the first work of the maker. I wonder how some filmographies become more important and memorable than the individual films. Most Masters are more than the sum of their individual movies.

Somebody asked me once, what is so great about ‘Annie Hall’ (1977). I could not answer him then. I can not answer him today. The only answer, probably, would be – watch more of Woody Allen. And then we will share a laugh together.

July 17, 2011

The Boy will Live

I have watched all Harry Potter movies first-day-first-show, except the first two. We were in hostel when the first two movies were released and had to wait for vacations to catch them. But ever since ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’, till the latest edition – I have celebrated them all. Another memorable experience was accompanying my friend to the final book release in 2007. It was 5.30 am. And the only people awake were a few dozens of us, the fans of the series, united by a certain bond of togetherness, sharing the same excitement and spirit. My friend had then commented – “It is unlikely something like this will be repeated anytime soon.” I had a similar feeling as I watched the final movie of the series this Friday.

The setting at Fame, Andheri was similar to that of the Landmark store, in Pune four years ago. It is rare to find such a packed house on Friday mornings, even in Mumbai. As we waited to enter the theatre, I could feel the same bond, togetherness, and passion on all of our faces. Some were busy revising the previous seven episodes, some were clarifying the doubts in the minds of the ‘forgetful’ fans (including me). You could hear lines like – “So, three more horcruxes are to be found… or is it four??” It was such an emotionally charged scene, I felt sorry for all who can not appreciate this phenomenon, and dismiss the series without bothering to read the novels.

A phenomenon like this will not be repeated anytime soon because of some very important factors. The seven novels of Harry Potter were released over ten years. And fourteen years went by between the release of the first novel and the last film. Any one novel or a smaller series will not be able to have such a continuous craze over such a long period. It will require a long series of bestsellers to create a similar fan-following, finally concluding with the final novel or movie that will generate the maximum hype, excitement, and footfalls. For this to be repeated, someone will have to come up with something as popular, over a long series of connected novels, over more than a decade. Most likely, it will again be something that can be read by children and adults alike, and its most loyalist fans would be teenagers who grew to their late twenties as the series progressed. Within our lifetimes, something like this being repeated is not unlikely, but difficult.

However, the movie did not satisfy me. I’m anyway not a big fan of Harry Potter movies and believe that a big-budget TV series would do greater justice to the novels. But I had really liked the seventh movie (‘Deathly Hallows’, Part 1). It had a certain stillness to it, the stillness before the storm, and it appeared to be dwelling more on the characters we so love, than a quick unfolding of events. The latest movie left me unsatisfied. Perhaps it has to do with its inadequacies to fulfill our expectations, especially because the last novel of the series was an undoubted triumph. But perhaps it also has to do with the sentiments associated with it – we now know it is the definitive end of a series we desperately don’t want to end. Perhaps it was impossible for the makers to satisfy us anyway. In fact, I’m divided over the question whether we should have more of Harry Potter novels. My heart says yes, my brain says no. I’m torn. The only solace for me is perhaps to revisit the novels, and experience again the magical journey of the boy who lived!

The Three Masters from Japan

Japanese Cinema, the only film-culture from Asia that has maintained its reputation across several decades, for me has now gone beyond Akira Kurosawa. Though the fourteen films of his that I have watched still remain my biggest window to the Land of the Rising Sun, it is the discovery of two other masters that is making my experience truly wholesome.

Kenji Mizoguchi, who made films between 1923-56, was the earliest of Japanese masters. Kurosawa revered him as his guru. The world discovered Mizoguchi only a few years before his death, through ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’(1953). In the same year, Yasujiro Ozu (filmography spanning 1927-62) made ‘Tokyo Story’. The movie went on to become one of the most universally loved of all time, rivaling ‘Seven Samurai’ in its reputation, if not its influence.

And there is a reason why Ozu, despite earning worldwide reverence, did not influence world cinema as much as Kurosawa, or to some extent, as Mizoguchi. Ozu’s cinema – both the content and style – is the most personal. I have watched only three films of his, but having read about them has made me realize that Ozu is also the most difficult to watch and appreciate among the three. His cinema is an acquired taste, and an extremely exotic one. You want to watch his films because of his unique style, so unique that it is inimitable. Ozu manages to impress despite his obsessively economical use of the medium, and despite breaking some of the most important rules of shot-taking, because of the sensitivity his stories portray. It is difficult, and dangerous, to be influenced much by Ozu. But there is one thing we can learn from his cinema, or from Mizoguchi’s, and it is there in this Roger Ebert statement about the two, that to enter their world is to find “a film language that seems to create the mood it considers; the story and its style of telling are of one piece”. That, in my opinion, is the greatest achievement a filmmaker can have.

Having watched only a few films of Mizoguchi and Ozu perhaps does not enable me to comment on their cinema in general. However, I can not help but indulge in a comparative study of their films with Kurosawa’s. If Kurosawa creates amazing epics, and Mizoguchi narrates moving fables, Ozu calms you with his poetry. Kurosawa’s canvas seems to be covering the country’s rich and magnificent history, Mizoguchi paints socio-cultural portraits, while Ozu takes you into domestic lives of simple people, into their families. They thus address issues accordingly. Kurosawa is a man’s filmmaker, displaying valour and vengeance, but he can not match the sensitivity of Mizoguchi who can definitely be considered a woman’s filmmaker, and of Ozu, who cares more about the extremes of age – the kids and the old.

There is an opinion that Kurosawa was lucky to have achieved the biggest international acclaim, that he was perhaps not as good as his other two compatriots. But I do not agree with that. I have watched some of the lesser films of Kurosawa and I agree that there were certain merits in Ozu and Mizoguchi that Kurosawa could not match. But considering the very best of their films, I have no doubt to admit that Akira Kurosawa is rightly the most famous Japanese filmmaker. That, however, should not take any credit away from the others. In fact, discovering Japanese cinema can never be complete until you discover Mizoguchi and Ozu – they have told incredibly beautiful stories and displayed unmatchable mastery of the craft. It will only be apt to take the names of the three masters in one breath, as is often done while discussing the cultural history of cinema.

P.S. I foresee a follow-up to this post sometime in future as I discover other greats from Japan – Mikio Naruse, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, or the big name in modern Japanese cinema – Takeshi Kitano. I have only watched one movie each of them, and hence could not include them in this discussion.

Must Watch Before You Die #16: Breaking the Waves (1996)

Lars von Trier is one of the most controversial filmmakers we have today. Infamous for creating trouble at Cannes every time he visits the festival, he also believes that he is the greatest director on the planet. I find his arrogance amusing, and perfectly in sync with his cinema. One of the founders of Dogme 95 movement (would discuss it later), von Trier is the compulsive rebel, and a genius at doing what he does.

I have watched only four of the fourteen feature films he has made till date (the last being ‘Melancholia’ (2011) that I’m eagerly awaiting). But that has been sufficient to make me understand the voice of this filmmaker. It is outrageous, and shocking, but most importantly, it is still profound. He is not one of those who indulge in sex and violence just for the sake of it, though the degree to which he goes is still open to debate. Even his most vehement critics would agree that he very well knows how to wrap his sensational content with relevant philosophical subtext. Even his extremely disturbing ‘Antichrist’ (2009) has so much to convey, as is evident by this wonderful essay on the movie.

But with ‘Breaking the Waves’ von Trier has created an everlasting masterpiece. Less disturbing than his other works, easier to watch despite its 150 minute running time, this film is one of the most profound expressions of love and faith on cinema. It is not even reasonable to start the discussion on its craft and performances, which might go on and on. Two things to mention, though: Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert consider ‘Breaking the Waves’ as one of the ten best films of its decade. And the camerawork and editing of this movie has just given me the cinematic expression I was looking for one of my own works. Spending hours into its study is going to be a fulfilling exercise.

And for all you film buffs out there, ‘Breaking the Waves’ is my proud recommendation as a must watch. It is brutal, and harsh, and it is beautiful.

July 14, 2011

The Woman and the Man from the Old South

I have had a copy of ‘Gone with the Wind’ for close to four years, but never dared watching it. The only reason was its daunting four-hour running time. A couple of days ago, on my 30-hour train journey, I watched five films, the first being this Victor Fleming historical. I feel relieved – as if a long-pending job is over. And I feel fulfilled – an unforgettable cinematic epic is now a part of my consciousness.

Adjusted for inflation, ‘Gone with the Wind’ would be the highest grossing film in the history of cinema. It played in certain theatres for more than 3-4 years. It is certainly as magnificent as a movie can be. It is also one of those rare instances where the film is believed to have done justice to its literary source, though I must confess that I haven’t read the Margaret Mitchell novel. In fact, I’m not sure whether I would ever read it. And that brings me to the biggest sense of fulfillment on watching the film.

The real triumph of the story of ‘Gone with the Wind’ is its two main characters – Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Although she might very well have been the heroine of an immortal Shakespearean tragedy, a protagonist as flawed as Scarlett is rare in cinema. I don’t think I’m wrong to believe that she is the most selfish and conceited of all characters in the story. And thus she attracts, unintentionally so, Rhett Butler, the compulsive non-committal philanderer, believing in his own morality and giving a damn to the world. There is nothing conventionally likeable about the two except, may be, their good-looks. Apparently, it is difficult to understand how a story with primary characters as corrupt as these secured such an insane amount of funding to be made into a film during the era dominated by the conventional studio mind-set. But the monumental success and popularity of the film proves that the audience related to them. This time, they did not worship the hero and the heroine for being superhumans of great character, valour, or beauty, but they empathized with the lead pair for being what they were – opportunistic, and self-centered. The audience loved the unapologetic characters because they were everything a man-animal (or a woman-animal) would secretly like to be, and they expressed something the society does not let us express. In fact, this very reason makes Scarlett and Rhett immortal and evergreen; they are as valid today as they ever were. Any story, based anywhere in the world, with these two as the lead pair would always be fascinating and more true than others involving more idealistic or romantic characters. I do not know whether I will have the patience to read the epic in its original form, but thanks to cinema, I will never forget this story of the Old South, and the woman and the man I could so relate to – two of the most lovable anti-heroes we will ever see.

Understanding Cinema Lecture: Cinema as Art

It is easy to understand the narrative function of film, of studying film as a medium of telling stories, a medium for entertainment. So much so, that soon after its invention, cinema easily, and obviously, helped in the evolution of a commercial industry, with its own rules and surprises. But the medium is not limited to money-making or storytelling, and there are two other important functions of film: one, as a medium of communication (where the filmmaker wants to convey a point-of-view through his film, e.g. political and propaganda films, films carrying a strong social or philosophical message, and so on); and two, as a medium of pure art, free from its obligations of telling a story or communicating a message.

However, since film is one medium born out of form and obvious sensory signals, unlike poetry or music that are more abstract, it is very difficult for film to let go of its narrative function completely. Even an incoherent montage of shots, when perceived by the observer, inspires him to try to understand its ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. Stanley Kubrick had famously proposed a marked departure from this when he said: “A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Going by what the famous art critic Walter Pater believes: “All art aspires to the condition of music”, we definitely can observe such a trend in cinema over all the decades of its journey. But the biggest question would still be, whether cinema is a form of art.

Art critics were initially disapproving of cinema’s acceptance as art, and considered it a technological gimmick, a passing fancy. Surprisingly and ironically, Louis Lumiere, who is credited as one of the inventors of motion picture himself believed that “cinema is an invention without a future.” It took cinema some decades and several films to ascertain its position as a form of artistic expression. And the credit for that goes to some of the greatest filmmakers who dared to take cinema beyond the dimensions of commercial entertainment or political statement. One of those masters was Satyajit Ray, and his most famous film, also his first – ‘Pather Panchali’, is considered by many as cinema’s great achievement as pure art.

‘Pather Panchali’ is not an easy film to watch. It requires patience to be enjoyed. It requires multiple viewings to appreciate its effortless beauty. And it requires watching hundreds of other films to realize its unique purity and truthfulness. Roger Ebert says “[Pather Panchali] is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be…” This huge compliment is a sharp contrast to the understated, underplayed brilliance of the film, reading which can help us understand cinema’s potential as a form of art.

A musician uses musical notes arranged to form a melody, often based on a certain rhythm to create his music. A poet uses words and syntax, a painter uses colours and canvas. A filmmaker has three basic tools for his expression: the shot and everything contained in it (and eventually all individual shots), the arrangement of shots or the montage, and the sound underlying and connecting the shots. There are sequences in ‘Pather Panchali’ where the narrative is totally forgotten, and the filmmaker uses these three tools in order to create a moody audio-visual segment. If we let go of our preconceived notions about cinema’s narrative purpose and lose ourselves in the sensory effect that is thus created, it can affect us like music does – we react intuitively and instinctively to a sensation that is vague (vague because it does not necessarily ‘mean’ or ‘communicate’ something) but powerful and even memorable. This again is difficult, because cinema is more ‘obvious’ than music and always ‘seems’ to be trying to mean or communicate. Also we can not close our eyes to ‘float’ in it as we do while experiencing, say, a Pink Floyd instrumental number. In fact, I had never experienced ‘Pather Panchali’ like this until recently. Films like these are an acquired taste. Only now, I hope, watching the movie will be easier and each subsequent experience even more magical. ‘The Song of the Little Road’ – which is the literal translation of the movie’s title, seems so much more appropriate, when we are willing to experience it like music – what Kubrick had aspired and Pater had asserted.

July 03, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #15: Underground (1995)

I just got introduced to the cinema of Emir Kusturica, and watched one of his best known works - 'Underground'. The less you know about this movie before watching, the more you'll enjoy it. And you'll enjoy it more with subsequent repeat viewings. There is no harm in sharing this much though - the film is about Yugoslavia, a country that once existed, and tracks its political journey across fifty years.

However, 'Underground' is not your typical war-movie. There is nothing typical about it. At 2hrs 40 minutes, it might appear slightly longer, especially in the first half. But once you sit through it, you'll never forget its characters and moments. Insane and absurd. Political and poetic. Entertaining, and how! This film is one supreme achievement of the medium of cinema.

P.S. I love this thing about foreign-language movies - the insight they provide about different lands and cultures. I hardly cared about Yugoslavia till now. Frankly, I didn't even know it did not exist any more!

July 02, 2011

Dirty Picture!

There is something about Aamir Khan Productions that, despite all mixed news and not-so-positive gossip, makes its movies work. And interestingly, these movies work at different levels, fulfilling their respective aspirations. So while ‘Lagaan’ was an epic commercial, critical, and even international success, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ made money by manipulating the audience’s emotions, apart from making ‘dyslexia’ known to Indians as they had known malaria! ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’ was never meant to be a path-breaking film, just to be loved by the young crowd, and launch Imran Khan. And it successfully did both. ‘Peepli [Live]’ and ‘Dhobi Ghaat’ were small films with different sensibilities. Though their commercial performance should not be a benchmark to judge them, they still made more money than better ‘small’ films made outside this production house.

And then comes ‘Delhi Belly’.

It seems Aamir Khan has gained tremendous notoriety because of the way he promotes his films. This opinion against him is as natural as is the sentiment against powerful, capitalist institutions and nations. I don’t belong to that group of critics. But I think it is unfortunate that lately his movies are known more for their promotion campaigns than for the movies themselves. It is unfortunate, that on this date, the words ‘Delhi Belly’ denote expletives-ridden, uninhibited, adult content, rather than a good movie, which it definitely is. It will be unfortunate if the movie fails to get rid of this image, which is not untrue, but does absolutely no justice to the more wonderful aspects of it – the incredibly crafted screenplay, the perfect casting, the finely balanced performances, and the self-belief that when everything is correct, a film finds its audience. However, the worse thing that might follow if the movie does succeed is – the credit of its success being given to its ‘foul’ language and ‘adult’ sensibilities. I shiver with the fear that more movies will try to follow this, instead of realizing the true merits of the film, and we will be served with bad and truly degenerate stuff. ‘Delhi Belly’ will then be remembered for another bad reason – for setting the trend of ‘dirty’ cinema.

Watched the first day first show. After a long, long time, I saw the Hindi film audience laughing and smiling and excited as they left exit doors of the theatre. And yes, almost all of them were younger than me!