April 30, 2012

The Opportunity to Defy Death

I am scared of death, truly, genuinely. It is difficult for me to believe that one day I’ll be gone. This world, in its limitless expanse into time and space, exists because I exist – I, in my case, and in your case, you. Before me, the world didn’t exist at all, and it will cease to exist once I’m no more. One day, everything that matters to me, every truth, will turn meaningless. And this is scary. More disturbing than the mystery of “what will happen once I die” is the realization that everything that I’ve paid importance to, including myself, will end, and be lost forever.

I watched ‘Titanic’ today. I’m not a big fan of the movie and the decision to watch it was purely academic. I wanted to see how the 3D conversion of a 2D movie looks like, when done by the person who is an authority on 3D film-making. What I had not imagined was that the movie will also trigger the memories of watching it for the first time fourteen years ago. My brother says it was the first time we were sitting in an air-conditioned movie hall! Today I was reminded of that tender age when I was too innocent to believe that an actress can pose nude in front of the camera. They had chopped off the shots of full nudity and I was to wait several years to finally see Kate Winslet as proudly and defiantly exposed as the pencil sketch of her character.

Those shots were deleted in today’s show as well. The film had not changed much, despite the irritating 3D glasses, and a new ‘depth perspective’. But I had changed, and today the most affecting image for me was neither the erotic and gorgeous beauty of the leading lady nor the helpless surrender of that gigantic creation of man before the might of frozen and fluid water. Just before she is rescued, and seconds after she has let go of Jack’s dead body into the ocean, Rose blows into a whistle in order to attract the rescue boat towards her. That image of the young girl, surrounded by hundreds of dead bodies, blowing not helplessly but purposefully, to fight against death with an uncompromising and relentless desire to live, was for me the biggest moment in the film. In order to fulfill her promise to Jack, she had decided to live, and embrace life with all strength and passion. Today wherever she goes, she carries the photos from different stages of her life – Rose riding a horse, Rose posing like a black-and-white screen diva, Rose with her kids – the photos which are testimony to a life she has lived proudly and fully, a life that has stood firmly against death as long as it can. 

Last year a stupid mosquito had infected me with Dengue. In the hospital, it suddenly dawned upon me what I today consider to be the most valid definition of life. What is life? In my opinion, it is the opportunity to defy death. The best way to live is to honor life, feel blessed that it is with you, and to live as if there is nothing after it, because this is your only opportunity. And if you live it well, without letting any regret haunt you and remind you about “what could have been”, your existence will go beyond the body containing you, and the time defining your tenure as a living organism. A life thus lived will turn into a blissful memory or an inspiration for others, and survive well beyond death. When I listen to Celine Dion’s rendering of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ or when I watch the celebrated cinematic moment of Jack and Rose ‘flying’ with their hands stretched at the bow of the ship, the blissful tears brimming in my eyes are stronger than the fearful sight of hundreds of people dying their premature deaths. Embracing life lovingly and passionately is perhaps the only answer to death, and the only code to immortality.

April 26, 2012

How to Produce Smart and Successful Sperms

Step 1 – Conception: The writer gets pregnant (in the head) with an idea that is novel, exciting, and promising. Preferably, that idea should be modern – something that was impossible to imagine during the 90s or before. Go for taboo topics if you feel the courage.

Step 2 – Incubation: A lot of blood and sweat is invested to write the script over the next few (read many) months. The best mantra will be (as suggested by Bergman or Wilder or both, I don’t really remember) – you shall entertain, and you shall not sell your soul.

Step 3 – Selection: The director casts the best actors possible for each role, big or small. (Casting, according to Kurosawa, is the most important step in film-making, after writing). Well-written characters will always inspire the actors to do their best, often at a low-cost.

Step 4 – Production: An intelligent and caring producer takes on the project and provides love and support to the team, led effectively by the director. One important tip here is – do not compromise on production value. Negotiate with your talent to cut their costs but not with what shows on screen – the sets, the costumes, the overall look of the film. And yes, there are two words that matter most here – conviction and honesty.

Step 5 – Promotion: Here, the concept that kick-started the writing process will come handy again. A modern and promising idea can create curiosity in the mind of the audience. One section might take this ‘high concept’ as a gimmick, but it will generally work, esp. if it has a sexual connotation. Having a star do an item number for promoting the film is also a good idea. If the star is producing the film, you save a lot of money there as well.

Step 6 – Ejaculation: As always, the timing of release is essential for good performance. “IPL is bad for film business” is a myth. A smart sperm will find one Friday during IPL when no ‘biggy’ is being released and with good reviews and word of mouth will penetrate the tough shell of the ovum waiting for it (read “poor audience, poor both money-wise and helplessness-wise, starving for good entertainment”).

P.S. We badly need such smart sperms, at least once every month. The millions others are too weak to survive in the competition and the cinema consciousness of the audience, and as a result go waste. We call upon the filmmakers for such 'sperm donation' to bring joy in the barren lives of the movie-goers, frustrated with the infertile Hindi cinema of today. Vicky made a few thousand bucks per 'donation'. We promise you crores of them. Just check the latest trade reports.

April 13, 2012

Must Watch Before You Die #29: 'In the Mood for Love' (2000)

I believe in love. Because I think I understand its mechanism. I’m a student of biology and for me the laws of nature are the biggest and most powerful truths. So with the perspective of the way nature functions, I am beginning to understand the complex phenomenon that we have named as ‘love’. If I didn’t, I would have either unconditionally accepted love as a romantic truth (that most of us do as teenagers) or have discarded it as a false notion (that a lot of us feel after a few failed relationships). Today I have a neutral perspective on it, and hence would like to share it here without any inhibitions.

Disclaimer: We are talking about romantic love here, not the love between a mother and her son, or a boy and his dog. Nothing written here is absolute, and most points made below are generalizations from a male’s perspective. Please feel free to disagree.

We are naturally programmed to be attracted towards the object of our sexual desire. For a man, it can be a woman, another man, or both. Also, one person can have more than one objects of sexual desire. When we are attracted to another person, it is this subconscious (or conscious) desire that drives us. As a teenager, I had this notion of ‘pure love’ – that I’m truly in love with this girl and I don’t think of her sexually. I believe many of us felt that way sometime in our lives. Today I cannot separate sexuality from love, however pure or magical it might be. Now, if both these feelings are true for most people, there has to be a design in place here. The design is the biological truth that dictates us. We all know that a teenager has a lesser role to play sexually than a man aged 25 or above. We also know that a teenager’s notion of the world is more romantic and uninhibited than that of older people. Hence, it is common sense that a teenager’s notion of love is more romantic and less ‘biological’.

Now, we are attracted differently towards different people. This is as true as the varied taste we have for food, hobbies, arts, and perversions. So there is nothing inexplicable about it. Is there a reason why my favorite dessert is ras-malai? And is there a reason why the ras-malai of a particular shop is my favorite among all? No. We like something based on how our senses and feeling react to it, and ‘intellectualize’ it later. This ‘strong and intimate liking based on our response to someone at a sensory and feeling level’ is LOVE. Simple, isn’t it? Simple, until now.

Now, with the same person, who is our love-interest, we feel differently during different stages of our relationship. When we started dating, even before expressing our feelings, we were suffering from terrible weak-knees and dry-mouths, and overnight separation caused terrible anxieties. This magical stage – and this does not stop happening post-teenage – occurs under the effect of the hormone called dopamine. This hormone is also associated with intoxicated states, and all of us know that the ‘magical feeling when we are high’ and the ‘depression during hangover’ is very similar to the experience of the earliest stages of a romantic relationship. This hormone, however, cannot remain triggered forever. Once we start coming close, holding hands, getting physically comfortable with each other, the hormone called oxytocin is stimulated (both in men and women). This hormone is related to the female reproductive system and gives us the feeling of long-term association and bonding. If dopamine charges us, oxytocin calms us down. Again, this is a stage of love we are very much aware of. Even in arranged marriages (where the dopamine stage might be short and less powerful) this oxytocin stage of blissful togetherness is an essential experience. So yes love is magical, and love is also pacifying, fulfilling, and it ‘makes you complete’. All these things are true – we are designed that way.

Even if we talk non-biologically, from a relationship point-of-view, love can be defined as ‘the willingness to go out of your way for the fulfilling company of another individual’. The key part of this definition is: ‘out of your way’. If required, you resist temptations of all kinds, re-think and modify your personal plans, let other relationships and issues suffer, in order to maintain the company of someone you truly love. You say sorry when you don’t even know what your fault was, and you forgive the other person even if he hasn’t accepted his mistake. All these are examples of ‘going out of your way’. If you forgive the negative connotation, we can replace ‘going out of your way’ with the verb ‘compromising’. So, we can now define love as ‘the willingness to compromise for the fulfilling company of someone’. The catch here is, the moment we realize that we are ‘compromising,’ the intensity of our love starts to diminish. We then carry on for social reasons or break up. Or, we carry on as a habit – just being with that person is enough for us, and we decide to spend the entire life-time with him/her, not out of love, but by blaming or acknowledging ‘destiny’.
Remember that the notions of ‘destiny’, ‘social norms’ and ‘personal compromises’ is hardly thousands of years old. The sexual drive is millions of years old. It does not require too much of intelligence to figure out that the willingness to compromise depends greatly on the social expectations that surround us. A freer society has more percentage of divorces than a conservative one. Also, if marriage does not remain an essential institution in our society, 'marrying' for being together, and 'divorcing' for getting separated would be futile exercises. A truly free society will treat divorce and separation as equally normal and important as falling in love. So, in the end, love should be defined as: ‘a strong and intimate liking we develop for an individual based on our sensory reaction to and feelings for him/her, (influenced majorly by our sexual preferences at a subconscious level and affected strongly by the play of our hormones) and the outcome of which is greatly affected by the social norms that we agree to operate within’. This, in short, is love, its cause and effect. We react to it differently at its different stages – whether it is writing a love-sick poem, rendering a shoulder of support, or holding wrinkled hands sitting on a bench in a park.

And after this long post full of bulshit, let me recommend you the sublimely beautiful film on love and longing, Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ as a must-watch-before-you-die. Gift yourself this unforgettable film, whether you are in love with someone, or yourself.

April 11, 2012

Must Watch Before You Die #28: 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966)

It's hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it's only afterwards, once we've won, that the real difficulties begin.” - from Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966).

It is one of those rare movies that refuse to age. Whether it’s the appeal of the content, or the brilliance of the craft, I believe its impact remains as powerful as ever was. If you feel otherwise, it can only be attributed to the several movies made after, and unarguably influenced by, this terrific film. That day, a colleague of mine told me that Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’ (2007) was inspired by it. While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of it. Content-wise, and structure-wise, both are quite different, and ‘Black Friday’ is as original as films can be. But the grittiness of the docu-inspired style, the use of location as a character, the unbelievably natural performances, and the details of planning and execution of the moves of an urban warfare (or revolution and its suppression) are very similar in both films. In fact, I doubt any film telling a similar story can adopt a different approach and be as successful as ‘Algiers’ was. This is the biggest triumph of the film – it seems to have born out of its organic whole, the craft perfectly in sync with the content. It is one of the most painfully and shockingly ‘real’ films, told in the manner of an edge-of-the-seat thriller. That it is based on real incidents gives it a terrifying truthfulness that documentaries enjoy. Until date, revolutionary groups all over the world, as well as anti-terror outfits, screen this film for their members, to inspire them and make them understand the realities of urban guerrilla warfare. For me, the film also manages to remain more-or-less neutral in its political point-of-view, despite showing so much of violence and blood-bath from both sides. A Frenchman might disagree with me on this, but I felt the film resisted the temptation to take sides, for whatever reasons, and did not portray the French as downright ‘villains’ as a lesser film would have done. Perhaps it was honestly seeded in the harsh truths of our world or perhaps it just decided to be diplomatically correct, but the film works at various levels, deep and complicated.

Steven Soderbergh believes “It does everything that as a filmmaker you want a film to do. It works as a movie, it works as politics, it affects everyone who sees it in a very visceral way, and makes them think differently about a certain situation. Pontecorvo sort of just hit the bull’s eye.” I couldn't agree more. And I want to add that it also does everything that as a film-buff you want a film to do.

April 10, 2012

Creator of the Cinematic Spectacle

The lovely Isabelle tells the little protagonist in ‘Hugo’: “Thank you for the movie today. It was a gift.” I wanted to say the same to Martin Scorsese after watching his latest film. And I wanted to say the same to the man whom this film is dedicated to.

‘Hugo’ (2011) is actually about Georges Melies (1861-1938), the magician-filmmaker, one of the first few humans bitten by the movie-making bug, and one of the rare few to have explored cinema in such an unbelievable manner. Blending facts with fiction, it is a delightful film told with the fictitious protagonist’s point-of-view, but is actually, as someone rightly remarked, “Scorsese’s love letter to cinema.”

On 28th December 1895, as the Lumiere Brothers, credited as the inventors of the Motion Picture, conducted their first public screening at the Grand CafĂ© in Paris, among the audience being amazed by the magic on the white screen was a magician with the incorrigible addiction to dreams. He immediately offered the Lumiere Brothers 10,000 francs for one of their cameras. They refused to sell it. The man refused to let his dreams die. While the Lumiere Brothers limited their movies to record occurrences in daily life (non-fiction films), and considered it to be an art form without any future, this magician, Georges Melies, immediately recognized the magical powers of the medium. He discovered and used several film-tricks that led into the development of cinema as something that could make dreams come true, and that could make you experience impossible fantasies. Melies made more than 500 films, including sci-fi and horror. He even used the earliest animation techniques and always thought beyond the conventional wisdom. Look at the names of some of his movies against the years in which they were made: ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1896), ‘The Vanishing Lady’ (1896), ‘The Man with the Rubber Head’ (1902), ‘Kingdom of the Fairies’ (1903), ‘The Impossible Voyage’ (1904), ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1907), and ‘Humanity through the Ages’ (1908). Melies had the incredible distinction of sending humans to the moon as early as in 1902! Very few film-makers have been able to explore the possibilities of the medium as he did. I can imagine how he must have been, like a child who has just discovered a toy and wants to keep playing with it forever. Many of us have that child within us. Alfred Hitchcock was such a child, Federico Fellini was one. Steven Spielberg is a child genius before our eyes. And perhaps remaining a child forever is the only way to do the kind of work that these film-makers could do. 36 years after he had refused to sell Melies his movie camera, Louis Lumiere was to present to him the Legion of Honor, and label him the “creator of the cinematic spectacle.”

The last years of Georges Melies’ life were difficult for him. And it is quite possible, as suggested in ‘Hugo’, that he would have often regretted his days as a film-maker, and would be filled with embitterment about himself. These regrets are not uncommon and most humans undergo these emotions. But how many of them eventually manage to survive well beyond their mortal existence? Today, more than a century since he started creating these dreams on celluloid, Georges Melies continues to exist in the hearts of film-buffs all around the world. That a modern film by a modern master has paid such a befitting tribute to the man is only poetic justice.

Few would have expected such a light and charming fantasy film to come from the man known for stylish masculine crime dramas. But after watching it, you feel it did require someone like a Scorsese, as big a cinephile as a film-maker, to do this with so much of love and passion. Thanks to him, I got to talk about Georges Melies today here on this space, and am recommending his famous short “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) as a must-watch-before-you-die (#27). Click here to watch it. It is only 12 minutes long. And do share your reaction. It would matter to Papa Georges.

April 08, 2012

Rising amidst the Ruins

A little over five years ago, Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 'Eklavya' was panned by the audience and critics for reasons beyond my understanding. I had liked it a lot and thought it was one very well made film. After all these years, I still don't know what was wrong with that movie. From the parallels it drew with the legend of Eklavya, to its performances, it had impressed me completely. And its use of cinematic technique, I believe, is something not many film-makers in India can match. Vinod Chopra, perhaps, is one of India's best directors today as far as film grammar is concerned. It is unfortunate that most people consider him a successful producer ('Munnabhai' movies, '3 Idiots', 'Parineeta') before believing that he is a competent director. In fact, and here is a confession, despite admiring him for various reasons, it wasn't until recently that I actually realized his might as a director.

Here I'm tempted to recount the movies he has made as a director. Starting with his celebrated shorts - 'Murder at Monkey Hill' (1977) and the Oscar-nominated 'An Encounter with Faces' (1978), Vinod Chopra has directed seven feature films till date: 'Sazaye Maut' (1981), 'Khamosh' (1985), 'Parinda' (1989), '1942: A Love Story' (1994), 'Kareeb' (1998), 'Mission Kashmir' (2000) and 'Eklavya' (2007). You have to watch 'Murder at Monkey Hill' and 'Khamosh' to realize how at an early age he had showed signs of a promising career. Many people recommend 'Parinda' as his best work, but I'm not a big fan of that movie. Despite that, and despite an inconsistent career, today I realize why he is regarded so highly by other directors in the industry, especially those who are serious students of film form and aesthetics. This realization occurred only a few days ago, when I was pleasantly surprised at the wonderful craft of '1942: A Love Story', as I watched it at the recently concluded Vinod Chopra Film Festival.

I was ten-years old when '1942' was playing at a theater in my home-town of Munger. We got to watch very few movies, my brother and I, with Mom and Aunt. It happened only when my Grand-dad was out of town, and my Dad reluctantly agreed to let us go. Mom always took us along. So I don't know why she went to watch '1942' without me. On her return, I still remember how she praised the movie - I really have those images before my eyes now. Almost two decades later, I was to discuss the movie with her on phone - having watched a wonderfully restored print with 5.1 sound, with the cast and crew - including Jackie Shroff, Danny, Javed Akhtar, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Nitin Desai, Vinod Chopra and others.

It's not that I didn't find problems with the film. The performances, not all, were overboard at most places, and there were certain convenient moments in the screenplay that bothered me. But, and I say this with a lot of pride and pleasure, the movie has an impeccable cinematic language. I feel sad about most good movies in Hindi cinema's history when I compare their craft with the best of the world. '1942' shocked me with its design, and now I want to revisit 'Parinda' and other films by Vinod Chopra. To make a film like '1942' you require an understanding of the medium, a passion for cinema, and guts that very few of us possess. And I hope at least those in the film fraternity acknowledge this. Remember, this film was made in the early 90s - easily the worst phase of Hindi cinema. Take any movie made in that period and play it along '1942'. You'll see what 'ageing' means, and you'll know what makes a film last forever. As Imtiaz Ali said, thanking the makers at the end of the Q&A session that followed the screening, "Thank You for bringing splendour back to Hindi Cinema.'

Any discussion on this film remains incomplete without the mention of its timeless music. Vinod Chopra says he wanted to make this film because he wanted to create a timeless music album. We will forever be grateful to him for doing that, and doing that with RD Burman. It was a time when music companies refused to buy an album composed by Panchamda. We can only feel outrage for such an attitude shown towards unarguably the most influential and imaginative music composer in our film history. He passed away before the release of '1942' but thanks to this film, Panchamda ended his illustrious career on a supremely high note - with an album that was inventively radical and soulfully traditional at the same time. The movie won all music awards: Best Music, Lyrics, Male and Female Playback Singers, among 9 wins at Filmfare Awards that year. And Filmfare started RD Burman Award for New Music Talent in his memory that very year. Guess who was the winner of the first trophy!