September 30, 2011

Modern Paisa-Wasool

For me it is a rare feeling – to go into theatres and watch a Hindi movie that claims and emerges to be truly paisa-wasool. The films I like do not claim to do that, and those that claim fail to satisfy me. Recently it was ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ that I truly enjoyed. And today after watching the first show of ‘Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster’ I feel the same.

Please do not infer that both of these movies are equally good. I’m not saying that. I’m just feeling happy, because it is these movies that restore my faith in Hindi commercial cinema. To survive in this industry, in this country, you need to be an entertainer. And if you manage to do that with anything that is even slightly different or personal or topical, anything that makes it different from the soon-to-be-expired formulae, in my opinion you have succeeded.

So, in my opinion ‘Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster’ succeeds. Watch it for its characters, even the smallest roles have ‘character’ in them. Watch it for its actors – it is difficult to choose the best. Watch it for its dialogue, most of which are very proudly filmy, but some subtly layered. I want to congratulate Tigmanshu Dhulia for the film he has made – the milieu is his territory and he walks through it with confidence and flair.

Do not raise your expectations after reading this post. It is a film worth the money you spend on the ticket. You may not enjoy it as much as I did, or you may even truly love it. But definitely, you will agree that we will stop complaining about the quality of our commercial entertainers if we have a movie like this every fortnight.

P.S. There were only six people for the 10.30 am show at Fun Republic. I desperately hope it increases with word of mouth. Spread the word, if you can.

Understanding Cinema Lecture: The Greatest Film Ever Made

The biggest problem with ‘Citizen Kane’ is the baggage it comes with, the tag it has earned over the last seven decades, of being the greatest of all films. Our first experience of the movie is generally a useless exercise – trying to question, appreciate, and criticize at the same time different aspects of a movie that is bogged down by its reputation. In the end we are still not convinced about the reason behind its hype, our final reaction being – “Well, may be… I don’t know.”
If only we could watch it without the enormous expectations…
For the first time on this blog I’m going to discuss any one film in such detail, and it is merely a coincidence that the first such movie is going to be ‘Citizen Kane’. But somehow, I feel good about it. Starting with the best!
The posts to follow will focus on three aspects of the film:
An Epilogue will then conclude the discussion. I’m really looking forward to it…

September 29, 2011

Getting Cinemate: #13 Realism versus Expressionism

You might believe that motion picture photography captures reality and hence it is honest and true and real. You also believe that as a filmmaker it is wrong to try to modify that reality. So, you will pay more attention to ‘what to show’ when you make your films rather than ‘how to show’. If you think like this, you are a ‘Realist’ filmmaker.

However, if you believe in using cinema as magic, and using your expression to alter reality to create a different reality, you are an ‘Expressionist’ filmmaker. ‘How to show’ gives you greater satisfaction than ‘what to show’.

If you are shifting focus in the running shot, you are directing the audience’s attention. This is Expressionistic. However, if everything in your shot is in focus and you leave it to the audience to focus on what they want, this is Realistic. The ‘unreal’ sets of a Sanjay Bhansali film can be defended by the concept of expressionism – it is the director’s wish to supersede reality with his own way of looking and showing. The complete lack of background score in various movies can be defended by the concept of realism – we do not have background score in real life!

It is difficult to find examples of films relying totally on either of the philosophies of filming. Generally, the best of cinema uses the best of both.

September 11, 2011

The Real Challenge

For their ‘Understanding Cinema’ project, my students are busy making their short films. I have required from each group, apart from their films, a poster, a trailer, a PR news article, and a film review. My intention was to make them realize the importance of marketing in this form of ‘art’ and ‘communication’. And they have responded with excitement. They have gone ahead to find different ways to create a buzz for their movies.

It started with a group starting a gossip blog reporting the making of its film. Another group followed, by creating their protagonist’s blog, and thus having us interact with the character even before the movie was shot. This blog is particularly beautiful, though not as sensational as the previous one. But this kind of publicity goes well with the topic this group is working on, which is ‘Hindi Parallel Cinema’ – thus focusing on its target group of artsy audience. There is another group circulating their own version of Mumbai Mirror – with gossip articles added to the already spicy daily. I love their enthusiasm. Other groups are launching their production house logos, and I’m amazed to see the technical expertise they have at their age. But the group that has managed to impress me the most is the one exploring the topic of ‘French New Wave’. Instead of creating a blog, they have created a Facebook page, thus managing to reach, and more frequently so, a wider audience. Apart from this, they are already uploading Teasers on YouTube, which are very true to their topic and really interesting.

All this exercise is important in order to really ‘understand cinema’. The commerce of this expensive medium can not be ignored and the only way to survive in this business is by keeping the finances correct – you can even survive making truly bad movies if you have got your monies right. And because of the unpredictable nature of this trade, that is a real challenge.

Had a chat with Anurag Kashyap at a preview of his latest film. He has reduced this game to a simple arithmetic, and that makes sense. For a movie with the production budget of, say, two crores to break even at the box-office, around 4-5 lakh people should walk into the theatres. This should happen within the few weeks of the movie’s stay at the theatres, and includes the movie-going audience all across the country. The point is, considering the population of some of the major cities in this country, this number is hardly significant. Five lakh people from all over India is really nothing. But we still can not guarantee that they will come, willing to spend on a movie. There are two things we can interpret from this – the film business in India is yet to tap its fullest potential (consider this – only 2 to 3 crore Indians watched ‘3 Idiots’ in theatres), and the need is to devise a marketing strategy that manages to achieve the cut-off figure mentioned above (which will be around 50 lakh footfalls for a 20-crore movie). This latter issue will determine the success story of new cinema and new film-makers.

P.S. I think ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’ is an important film, but I didn’t like it. Now, if 100 people don’t watch it because of my opinion mentioned here, I have caused a loss to the target figure of 5 lakhs. See, how difficult it is!

Venice in Andheri

This year’s festival at Venice concludes today. Nobody invited me, and I can’t afford to attend on my own. So, I had my own little Venice Film Festival on my laptop. Watched three Golden Lion winners back-to-back (Golden Lion is the highest honour at Venice, the award for the Best Film) – ‘Goodbye, Children’ (1987), ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), and ‘Lust, Caution’ (2007). Loved them all.

Including this year’s winner ‘Faust’, we have had fifty-five films to bag this honour in the history of the festival. I have watched fourteen out of them, and the list includes some of my very favourite films made by some of my very favourite makers. Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1951), Ray’s ‘Aparajito’ (1957), Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’ (1964), Bunuel’s ‘Belle de jour’ (1967), and Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours: Blue’ (1993) feature in the list, as does Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ (2001) and Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ (2008).

‘Ugetsu Monogatari’, ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘Sansho the Bailiff’, ‘La Strada’ and ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ are some movies that have won the Silver Lion for the Second Best Movie, as has ‘GoodFellas’ for Best Direction. This year it is Cai Shangjun for ‘People Mountain People Sea’ to have won this award.

At the festival, the highest acting honour is called the Volpi Cup. This year’s winners are Michael Fassbender for ‘Shame’ and Deanie Ip for ‘A Simple Life’. James Stewart, Toshiro Mifune, Juliette Binoche, Sean Penn, and Cate Blanchett are some of my favourites to have won that earlier. Sam Jaffe as the caper mastermind in the classic noir ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, and Laura Betti in the unforgettable ‘Teorema’ also won the prize in their respective years. These two movies were also a part of my own celebration of the festival. I’m waiting for the day when I’ll physically attend it at the Lido. Till then, I don’t mind doing it in my bed.

September 05, 2011

Gurudev Uvaacha #1

On the occasion of Teachers' Day, I've decided to start a new feature on this blog. It is called 'Gurudev Uvaacha' or 'The Teacher Says'. This surely doesn't need any more explanation. So here we go...

“What the student movie director should be taught is as much of our whole culture as we are capable of synthesizing. Synthesizing, not specializing. To make a film for today’s world, we should strive to comprehend as much as possible of the human accomplishment in these last twenty thousand years.”

“Hold a mirror up to nature—that’s Shakespeare’s message to the actor. How much more does that apply, and how much more is it true, to the creator of a film? If you don’t know something about the nature to which you’re holding up your mirror, how limited your work must be! ….. A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it— his education, human knowledge, his breadth of understanding—all this is what informs a picture. . . . [The mechanics of making a film] can be taught over the weekend by any intelligent person. . . . The rest of it is what you have to bring to the machinery. . . . The angle at which you hold that mirror. What’s finally interesting is not the romantic tilt or spastic quirk at which you hold it—but what the mirror has to show back to you. . . . Which is determined by moral, aesthetic, and ideological orientation.”

- Orson Welles (1915-forever)

September 01, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: ‘Pulp Fiction’

In an essentially commercial film industry like Hollywood, or even ours, cinema has the tendency to be complacent, the tendency to identify successful formulas and limit itself to those. From a creative field, it changes itself to something churning out products as in a mass-production unit. And then we need movies that shock and stun, not only the audience and the sociologists, but the film industry, and redefine the possibilities of movies as a commercial venture. When we talk about such a movie, the first name that comes to mind is Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).

Made at the modest budget of under $9 million, the movie grossed around $240 million worldwide, apart from acquiring a cult status and a worldwide fan-following. This achievement by a movie that broke several rules (read Commandments) of conventional cinema was shocking. And hence it could stir a revolution, apart from helping the indie movement, and went on to become possibly the most influential movie of the decade.

It is easy to understand why some people do not like the movie, as is obvious why some are absolutely crazy about it. In fact, there is a lot in this movie (drugs, violence, sex) that can be instantly popular among young filmmakers and audience. And though it is not inimitable, it is extremely difficult to create something as good as it. Because making something like ‘Pulp Fiction’ can not be taught or learnt in film-schools or through years of practice and making movies. You can only be a born Tarantino.

Ironically, when the script of this film was making rounds of the studios, one of the executives remarked that “This is the worst thing ever written.” Today, it is perhaps the most widely read script around the world. In fact, you can read ‘Pulp Fiction’ like a work of literature, you can listen to its dialogues without watching the pictures and still be entertained. The film has an infective ‘aural ambience’, apart from a stylized visual one.

How a cinema borrows from popular culture and then, if it is good and memorable enough, itself acquires an iconic status in that pop-culture is easily illustrated by this movie. There are numerous tributes to other movies, TV shows, and popular music, within the movie. And today, all those lines on ‘hamburgers’ and ‘foot massage’, and the mystery of what was inside the suitecase have become a part of popular consciousness.

One can go on talking about ‘Pulp Fiction’. But there is one thing I wanted to highlight. Despite all screenwriting rules that it breaks, it does not break the most vital rule – it is the characters (in conflict) that make a film. If you can create an orchestration of characters as colourful and memorable as these, you can go ahead and break all writing rules. All screenwriting gurus made a little change in their ‘dos and don’ts’ after the success of this movie – don’t do ‘this’ and don’t do ‘that’, unless you are Quentin Tarantino. Well, most of us are not.

P.S. For its innovative narrative structure, delicious dialogue, incredible characters, and unforgettable scenes ‘Pulp Fiction’ truly qualifies as a must-watch-before-you-die (#19).