March 30, 2012

Actor versus Character

I just read that Woody Allen’s next is titled “To Rome with Love.” After the amazing “Midnight in Paris” (2011), we cannot help but have huge expectations from his next. “Paris” was more a tribute to the arts, literature, and cinema, than to the city, and for us Woody fans, it was about the Woody character (superbly played by Owen Wilson) than anything else. I, personally, feel sad when the Woody character is missing from a Woody Allen film, but he, more often than not, manages to appease me with other wonderful elements so unique of his work. I loved “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008) and “Melinda and Melinda” (2004). And just a couple of days ago, I watched “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, and loved it too.

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) may very well be the best Woody Allen film in which he has not acted. However, despite his absence, I believe the Woody character is very much there, this time as a female, in the character of Cecilia, and Mia Farrow’s wonderful performance keeps reminding us of Woody himself. She is clumsy, and tentative, and unhappily married. She is in love with the movies and she is struggling with dilemmas about romance and infidelity. She is a simple, nice girl, who manages to evoke humour and pathos at the same time in the hearts of the audience. I was missing Woody Allen badly during the first few minutes of the film, but soon Cecilia took over. And soon we get to see the incredible event that changes the course of the movie and Cecilia’s life.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Cecilia is watching a movie called “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in a local theater for the nth time, when a character from the movie, called Tom Baxter, ‘spots’ her sitting in the audience and emerges out of the screen to meet her. This kick-starts a series of incredible events – the movie on the screen going off-track with other characters not knowing what to do without Tom, the audience and the theater-owner perplexed and irritated at this, the producers struggling to find a solution to it, and Tom Baxter secretly hiding from everyone else, except Cecilia, with whom he has fallen in love. He knows he is a character from a movie, and that he is not real, but he wants to enjoy his sudden freedom and wants to spend his life with Cecilia. The matter gets further complicated when, on hearing the news, the real actor playing the Tom Baxter character comes to town. What happens next is for you to see. Here I’m sharing the scene where Cecilia brings Gil Shepherd (the Actor) to meet Tom Baxter (the character).

CECILIA (entering): Tom! 
CHARACTER: Cecila, I dreamed of us in Cairo… 
CECILIA: I brought… 
ACTOR (entering behind Cecilia): Gil Shepherd. I play you in the movie. 
ACTOR: How dare you run away? 
CHARACTER: This is disconcerting. 
ACTOR (charging at him): I’ll show you the meaning of disconcerting! (grabs the Character by his collar) I’m trying to build a career. 
CHARACTER: I don’t want to be in the film anymore! I’m in love with Cecilia! (manages to free himself) 
ACTOR: You can’t do this to me. It’s my best role. I’ve been critically acclaimed for this! 
CHARACTER: Because of the way I do it. 
ACTOR: No, because of the way I do it. I’m doing it, not you! 
CHARACTER: Then how do you explain that here I am? 
ACTOR: I took you from the printed page and made you live. 
CHARACTER: So I’m living. 
ACTOR: For the screen only! 
CHARACTER: I want my freedom. 
ACTOR: I don’t want another one of me running around the world. I can just imagine how he’s… 
CHARACTER (interrupting): Are you afraid I’ll embarrass you? 
ACTOR: Frankly, I’m afraid… 
CHARACTER (interrupting again): But you created me! 
ACTOR: Look, be reasonable here. I’m starting to build a career. Is life up on the screen so terrible
CHARACTER: I want to be with Cecilia. I’m in love with her. 
ACTOR (rushing towards Cecilia): Will you tell him to go back? Tell him you don’t love him. Tell him you can’t love him. He’s fictional. Do you want to waste your time with a fictional character? You’re a sweet girl. You deserve an actual human. 
CECILIA: But Tom is perfect. 
ACTOR: But he is not real. What good is perfect when the man’s not real? 
CHARACTER: I can learn to be real. It’s easy. There’s nothing to it. Being real comes very naturally to me.
ACTOR: You can’t learn to be real. It’s like being a midget. It’s not a thing you can learn. Some of us are real, some are not. 
CHARACTER: I say I can do it. 
ACTOR: I’m not staying here to argue with you. I’m going back to town and call my attorney, the actors’ union. I won’t take this lying down. Nor will Roul Hirsch (the Producer). Nor the police, nor the FBI. 

Despite the humor, the predicament of the actor here is very reasonable. An actor actually takes the character from the script and makes it alive, literally adding flesh and blood and face and voice to it. Good acting, they say, is not about trying to play a character different from you, but to find the similarities between yourself and the character, and substituting your own life experiences into the life of the character, trying to understand the character’s psychology from your own perspective and turning it into behavior. But the truth is, despite putting in so much of effort and creating the character with love and empathy, finally the actor needs to detach from the character and his conflicts. He cannot let the ghost of his creation haunt him forever. So, what if some day the character you created as an actor comes alive and confronts you as your alter ego? Isn’t it an exciting premise? Trust Woody Allen for such wonderful moments. He is one true genius, and an inseparable part of cinema consciousness. The eager wait for “To Rome with Love” has begun!

March 28, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief

"There is a thin, invisible strand between the audience and the screen. It’s called believability. That strand gets stronger and stronger as the picture progresses. It can be easily snapped if you start out being too crazy or unbelievable. As Bill Walsh says: “an audience must believe in and care about your lead characters over the unspooling of the first reel (ten minutes) of the movie. If they truly believe, you can take them anywhere.”

"You have to make the audience care about your on-screen people and their dilemmas, and when that occurs you’ve created believable unbelievability. Audience will just not get with a film that starts with what they perceive as unbelievable unbelievability. 

"Movies are unbelievable. Your job is to make the audience believe its unbelief."
                                                                        -          Lew Hunter in his book “Screenwriting 434”

March 25, 2012

Gurudev Uvaacha #4

"Nothing is 'too much' if it has reality... A full experience, no matter how huge it can be, is not 'too much', in my opinion." - Uta Hagen

March 20, 2012

My Subconscious is Also Me

These days I’m reading an extremely difficult book. Difficult for me, because it has forced me to rethink my way of living, and working. “The Film Director’s Intuition” by Judith Weston is also the only book on cinema that is not giving me an obvious ‘sense of learning and accomplishment.’ And that, perhaps, is exactly the point that it wants to make.

We remain too obsessed with results and accomplishments, and an evident sense of growth and development, so much so that we hardly take time to think whether in this mad rush to feed our conscious mind we are taking sufficient care of the subconscious or not. I realized this only a couple of days ago – that my subconscious is also me. And do I know about it? Do I take care of it? Subconsciously, may be; consciously, hardly. I know I operate mainly from my left brain. I set deadlines for myself when no one does, and I always tend to discipline everything I do, painstakingly, obsessively. Suddenly, this book is forcing me to question something I so strongly believe in.

At this point, I must make it very clear, why I have been so blissfully confident about my methodical approach. It is a constant desire to make sure that everything, every little thing at work or in my life, remains under my control – not to dominate, but to supervise them. I do this not in a stressful way, but to remain stress-free. For close to four years now, I have been monitoring my finances, my studies, my work, even my swimming regimen, with such a minute detail that it would intimidate anyone. Keeping a daily record in the form of diary entries helps. Not taking any day off, at least trying my best not to, has made it a habit. If I’m not sleeping, I’m working, or reading, or watching a movie, or doing something of ‘value’. I don’t sit idle, rarely hang out with friends, have drastically cut down my phone conversations, and there is an unending feeling of being “productively occupied” all the time, which is the pain and the pride of my existence.

I won’t believe I have been doing it wrong. Not having trained professionally, it has been only up to me to study about cinema and film-making. So, I would say these years might be considered as the time I have spent in a film school, working really hard, and orienting myself for objective and evident growth. And perhaps, at the right time, and before it was too late, life has gifted me with this amazing book, where each page is forcing me to see everything from a different perspective.

For example, this book asks me to shut down my “auto-pilot”, to give myself the permission to fail, to take time off from everything and just day-dream, to learn to listen to others as if that is the most important thing in this world, to spend time with nature, and children – things that I hardly do. It advices exercises which do not have any immediate results, but which are supposed to nurture the intuition and the imagination, one of them being indulging in “stream of consciousness” or “free-association”. It has started to convince me that having a good chat with friends is not a waste of time, and that spending hours in a mall, observing people and imagining about their lives is a desirable and productive exercise.

I just finished the first of its three parts, which is called “Intuition, Ideas, and Imagination” and am convinced that as a writer-director I need to strike a balance between my intuitive right-brain and the logical left-brain and pay more attention to the world around me, in all its sensory and visual glory, than the internal, intellectual learning I have imposed happily upon myself. Before moving on to the next part of the book, which is “Script Analysis”, I have decided to take a break from it. Instead of studying more pages of it, and making notes, I would rather spend some time doing these exercises that it suggests.

In fact I’ve already started one.

Just a couple of days ago, when I was irreparably affected by the book’s insistence on unleashing the subconscious, I watched David Cronenberg’s latest ‘A Dangerous Method’ (2011). The film is on the founders of modern psychology – Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein and Sigmund Freud, and talks about the ways of the subconscious. That night, I had a most weird dream, something that left me bewildered and shocked. The dream was disturbingly visual and had so many layers of possible interpretations that I still feel drained out thinking of it. Next morning, I decided to write down the description of that dream, without making any judgments. And have decided to do this as often as possible, to keep a track of all that my subconscious communicates with me, in order to understand the muted cries of this ignored child, which is very much me. It is an amazing coincidence that I had to watch this film on that very day, consolidating my desire to start listening to my subconscious immediately. It feels amazing to assume that life’s screenplay is always perfectly designed for the most rewarding journey, if not the desired destination. I am forced to believe, that the way I have lived all these years was as correct as the measures I’m now taking to modify my approach. Life is going to take care of me when I, consciously or subconsciously, forget to.

March 13, 2012

A Monday Morning I was Waiting for

Hating Monday mornings is a cliché. And something I’m not supposed to do. My work does not have weekends, and more importantly, my work is not work. So there is no reason why I would hate Monday mornings, except for a minor fact that my swimming pool remains closed on Mondays. However, a couple of weeks ago I welcomed a Monday morning with an unusual excitement. It was the morning of 27th February, and simultaneously it was the evening of the Academy Awards at Kodak Theatre.

So much has been written before and after that day that I feel this post of mine is a redundant exercise, and not much should be expected either. It is just that I wanted to share my excitement, something I could not do immediately after the Oscars due to my cramped schedule that is not even allowing me to watch movies as regularly as I need to. However, I would have regretted having not written this post, and so better late than never.

This excitement comes from the fact that this was the first Oscars that I watched live. I do not have a TV at home. And I never miss it except for occasions like this. So, after an extremely busy working Sunday, I reached a friend’s place around midnight. We chatted until 3 in the morning and then went to sleep. I got up three hours later and switched on the TV. Thanks to my friend, he was sleeping in the same room and claims no sound can wake him up from a sound sleep, I could watch the entire event from 6 to 10 am. And I could enjoy it like never before.

One reason for that was the ‘suspense’ factor, as I was watching it live. But more important was the fact that I had already watched most of the movies nominated for various awards, and was aware of almost all. This meant my level of participation was many times more than ever. I have always loved how they organize the show, and there were several moments that left me emotional. Every time a glimpse or a mention of a classic or a great filmmaker was made, it brought a wide emotional smile on my face. Meryl Streep’s words about her husband and Angelina Jolie’s leg-show are what everyone is talking about. There were couple of more things I remember affecting me. One was the indifference of the little dog from ‘The Artist’ who had joined the cast and crew on stage when they won the Best Picture. The little creature must be the first living being on the stage of Academy Awards who cared least about it. And another was the contended and calm face of Martin Scorsese – every time someone from the crew of ‘Hugo’ won an award, and they won five that day, they abundantly and sincerely thanked the director, who just nodded from his seat, like the proud patriarch of a family. Those moments made me think of the kind of respect a great director must command from his team by simply being what he is, and of the kind of enthusiasm his crew members must feel while working with him. It is moments like these, which you can only feel and not read about, that justified my excitement for watching this year’s Academy Awards. You may or may not assign importance to the awards per se, but the ceremony is such a beautiful way to celebrate cinema that I would hate to miss it next time.

The Hero and the Storyteller

Last two Fridays have suddenly made the Hindi movie buff happy and hopeful. ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Kahaani’ – two very diverse films from two very different film-makers have achieved the right kind of success, and I can not help but notice some striking similarities between the two.

First of all, both films have unlikely protagonists, played by actors of unarguable repute who have suddenly claimed the status of stars. Both Irrfan and Vidya Balan are the finest actors we have today, but none have enjoyed the fan-following that many ‘stars’ have. Hopefully that will change now. Vidya did it with ‘The Dirty Picture’ and now she has followed it with ‘Kahaani’. And going by the cheers and claps that Irrfan’s performance is receiving, I am forced to dream that it will soon become a regular thing – powerful actors, not necessarily stars, will drive the audience to the theatres and their films to commercial success. Also notice that both films have just one big actor, and they are surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast. The work of these supporting actors must be applauded, because it is not easy to be noticed in a small role when you are sharing screen space with such fine and well-known lead actors.

The second common point between the two films is their makers. Sujoy Ghosh and Tigmanshu Dhulia had started their respective careers with small but significant films that eventually attained a remarkable fan-following. But then their careers could not take flight. Now they are back, reminding us of the promise they had made with their first films, and have just made the most successful films of their careers. They chose powerful and ‘different’ stories, based in their ‘home-territories’ – the milieu closest to their personalities, and we saw the result – confident, uninhibited storytelling, flavored with detailed understanding of the ‘worlds’ these stories were set in. Try to imagine ‘Kahaani’ without the infectious and intimidating Durga-Puja fervor on the streets of Kolkata, or ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ without the local dialect and the barren landscape, and you will understand the importance of milieu in cinematic storytelling. These two films have proved yet again that in the vast collective consciousness of our country there are numerous stories waiting to be told, and which can be exotic, not by mimicking foreign films and cultures, but by simply exploring the richness of our own culture and tradition. There is so much of inspiration around us that it is unfortunate that we have to resort to remakes and sequels and shameless plagiarism from other sources in order to make successful films.

And that brings me to the third and the most heartening similarity between the two films – the response from the audience. Gone are the days, and I hope this is true, when we watched brilliant films in empty theatres and regretted their commercial failure only because they were not ‘main-stream’. Both ‘Kahaani’ and ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ are very engaging and entertaining films, and thanks to the unanimously positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth, the theatres are full. I watched both movies on Monday mornings and the theatres were fairly crowded. This is the most encouraging sign for me.

Going back to the three observations, I feel, there is nothing new in what I have written. Whenever a competent film-maker comes up with a strong story and adds parts of his/her own self into it, it results in a good film. Whenever fine actors get author-backed roles, lead or otherwise, they give memorable performances. And the film-buff is always delighted to appreciate such efforts by true heroes and self-assured storytellers. That it has happened with two films within a span of eight days is a good news for all of us. And we won’t ever mind this happening more often.

March 04, 2012

Must Watch Before You Die #26: 'The Godfather' (1972)

A film-buff who has not watched Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather' is like a Catholic who has never read the Bible. It is one of the most accessible great films that has been acclaimed universally by critics and audiences alike, and has influenced several generations of film-makers all around the world. It is also widely considered as one of those rare films which do justice to its literary source.

Watch it for its brilliant performances. Watch it for its unforgettable characters. Or just watch it for its amazing score. 'The Godfather' is definitely a must-watch-before-you-die film. It is a must-watch-several-times-before-you-die film.

I watched it for the second time a couple of days ago. PVR is screening great films every Thursday across several cities in India. Click here to follow it on Facebook. Every Wednesday I SMS at least 50 people in Mumbai and inform them about the screening next day. Please spread the word if you can. This is an initiative we must encourage, especially if you are repeatedly disappointed with the modern releases.