January 24, 2013

A Kusturica Film by Vishal Bhardwaj

A gypsy without dreams is like a church without a roof, like a textbook without letters...

There is a scene in Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film that is supposed to be funny, in which, the two male leads are trying to shift a well from its position, too drunk to realize the futility of the endeavor. It is night, and the area is deserted. In the background, among the shops that are shut, a board reads – “Kusturi-ca Brass Band”. It is not a deliberately ‘detailed’ art-design decision, but clearly a tribute to the great Serbian film-maker Emir Kusturica. And thanks to the scene that was boring me like the rest of the film, my eyes wandered from the main action to this little, subtle detail in the background, because it made me think before I started criticizing the film. And it has now led me to a very confused state where I find myself split over my views on it.

Vishal Bhardwaj was my favorite modern Hindi-language film-maker, until he made ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’ (2011). That film kept me depressed for days, not because of its content, but because I thought it was a bad film that broke my heart and ended my love affair with the maker. Two years later, I suddenly found myself praising the film, after I watched ‘Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola’. That was perhaps the only good thing about this latest film, that it made its predecessor look so much better. This, however, is my film-buff self speaking, that wants to watch good films, and good films alone. A bad film spoils my mood and affects my physiology. But the truth is that I am not just a film-buff. I am also a film-writer, and someone who dreams to be a director one day. When my film-maker self thinks about ‘Matru’, and thinks of Bhardwaj as a colleague rather than an icon, I find myself empathizing with him.

All serious film-makers want to create unique, unforgettable films. And mind you, it is not easy. In fact, the more I work in this medium, I realize how incredible it is that some people do end up making films that are brilliant. One thing we can never take away from Bhardwaj is that he always tries to make films which are unique, at least from Hindi commercial cinema standards. Even his decision to cast stars over genuine actors is because of the complicated commercial dynamics of our industry, which would otherwise make it impossible for you to make ‘your’ films ‘your’ way. So, I appreciate the film-maker’s aspiration to make a film on the lines Kusturica. That his film falls short by a ridiculously large margin does not rob him of the credit of trying something as insanely difficult as this. Most film-makers would fail trying to do this, and hence the film’s failure is not a big surprise.

If you are aware of Emir Kusturica’s films, you will know what I mean when I say that most film-makers would fail trying to do what he does. I recommended the first Kusturica movie that I watched as a must-watch, and I’m almost tempted to do the same with the second. For the first half an hour or so, in both these movies, you are trying to get oriented to their mad fervor and quirky characters, something that ‘Matru’ had common with them. However, Kusturica eventually involves you so deeply with his characters that you care and feel for them, and almost do not want the film to end. In fact, until last week when I watched ‘Time of the Gypsies’ (1988), and the 'Kusturi-ca' mention in ‘Matru’ inspired me to do that, I thought something like the Marquez epic ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ can never be filmed. But now I feel tempted to say, that if there is one film-maker today who can adapt that novel to film, it is Kusturica. If you have read that novel, watch ‘Time of the Gypsies’, which is perhaps the best magical-realism film I have seen. It is ridiculously funny and painfully sad at the same time, a strange feeling that the Marquez novel so effortlessly evokes. Watching this film will also make you understand Bhardwaj better, or his motivation behind making ‘Matru’, a film I would like to forget as soon as possible, and hope that the maverick from India only rises from here. Something even half as good as ‘Maqbool’ (2004) would make me re-discover my love-affair with the amazing Vishal Bhardwaj I once knew.

January 15, 2013

Top 10 at Oscars 2013

Last year I had watched the Oscars ‘live’ for the first time. And having watched several of the major films made it more exciting and entertaining for me. So if you are planning to do it this year, read about the Oscar buzz, indulge into predictions, and get up at 6 am that Monday morning and reach office late (the event gets over around 10 am India time), here are the ten movies watching which will ensure you remain oriented throughout the ceremony and it doesn’t appear as merely a fashion parade to you. These ten movies (in alphabetic order), having together earned 68 nominations, are going to cover almost all major awards categories this year:

1. Amour (5 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): Including this French-language gem in the Best Picture list the Oscars have done themselves a favor. The best of International cinema are generally works not in English language and this is one big reason why the Oscars do not find many takers among the fans of World Cinema, as the scheme of the Academy limits the awards to English-language films, except in one category. That category, of the Best Foreign-Language Film is perhaps the most predictable this year, with ‘Amour’ as the clear front-runner. The 85-year old Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest actress to have earned nominationin Oscar history. I watched this film at MAMI this year, and it is unlikely that it will find a release in India. You can either download it, or wait for the original DVD.

2. Argo (7 nominations, including Best Picture): Ben Affleck’s rise as a film-maker is something to applaud. I have to admit that I’m a little surprised, especially because I have never taken him seriously as an actor. A few hours ago, ‘Argo’ has won Golden Globes for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director, and this will majorly boost its chances at the Oscars. The film was released in India several months ago and I regret having not watched it. Have to watch it somehow, very soon.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (4 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): This film’s inclusion is another good news, this time for small, independent film-makers. The little Quvenzhane Wallis has also earned a Best Actress nomination, becoming the youngest actress to achieve this feat, beating Keisha Castle-Hughes who was nominated for ‘Whale Rider’ (2003). I had watched this unforgettable film at MAMI, and its release in India seems utterly improbable.

4. Django Unchained (5 nominations, including Best Picture): Quentin Tarantino’s latest has just won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. For me, this is the most eagerly awaited film of the lot. Unfortunately, the official date of its release in India is 29th March, and I will not watch a downloaded copy of it. In all probability, I will watch the Oscars this year without having watched this movie, and will wait for it to hit a big screen near my house.

5. Life of Pi (11 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): The successful run of this film in India continues and it is still playing at several screens. Watch it today if you haven’t. It has earned 11 nominations, and that includes a nomination for the Indian singer Bombay Jayashri. If you are not aware of her, please use Google. I don’t mind telling you that hers was the amazing voice that sang the passionate ‘Zara Zara’ from ‘Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein’ (2001).

6. Lincoln (12 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the title role, is a strong contender for the Best Actor award this year, for this film that has earned the maximum nominations. Do not be surprised if it wins the Best Picture as well, going by the Academy’s traditional fascination with biopics, costume dramas, and Steven Spielberg. It is releasing in India on the 8th February, and deserves a big screen watch.

7. Master, The (3 acting nominations): I was a little surprised and upset to know that this movie was not nominated for Best Picture, nor was PTA nominated for Best Director. He is one of the best directing talents in the world today, and this film was eagerly awaited. I still do not know whether it is releasing in India, and if yes, then when. Please let me know if you find out.

8. Miserables, Les (8 nominations, including Best Picture): From the director of ‘The King’s Speech’, this film has just won Golden Globes for ‘Best Film (comedy or Musical)’ and acting awards for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. It is releasing in India this Friday, and I am going for it on the first day itself.

9. Silver Linings Playbook (8 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): This film came and went, and I missed it. If you’ve missed it too, we can now regret doing that together. It was also the Opening Film at MAMI this year and I never took it too seriously. Now, I wish I had watched it when it had come. Torrents, anyone?

10. Zero Dark Thirty (5 nominations, including Best Picture): Releasing in India on the 1st February, this is a film that will definitely fascinate most of the audience, mainly because of its content, and also because of its director. Her ‘The Hurt Locker’ had defeated big films in 2010 at the Oscars, and this time ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was being hailed as a worthy successor to it. However, Kathryn Biegalow’s non-inclusion in the Best Director list has created some controversy back there, with many believing it to be the result of the interference from the US politicians. Controversies aside, watching this film will be one important agenda early next month.

The Oscars this year are on the morning of 25th February (India time). Watch as many movies out of these as you can, and enjoy the event on your little idiot box. Like last year, I will have to visit a friend’s place for the same. The wait has begun…

P.S The release dates as per the information I could find online and are subject to change.

P.P.S. Clicking on the movie titles above will take you to their respective trailers. Watch them and share your views about them - which ones fascinate you majorly!

January 07, 2013

Few Years and a Day in the Life of a Screenwriter

A couple of days ago, I had a long discussion with my director on the craft of screenwriting. We talked about the ‘rules’ that are advocated, and ‘the need for a structured approach’ to screenwriting, something I have always believed in. My director accepted that this is the ‘right’ approach, but that is precisely the reason why film-writing is not as fine, or superior a form of expression than, say, prose or poetry. I agreed, but the discussion left me a little insecure, until after one day of pondering over it, something inside me gave me the solution. That day, I believe, has become one important day in my life as a screenwriter. But in order to understand that, let us go a little back in time.

In 2006-07, I started to learn screenwriting by adapting two novels into their respective ‘first drafts’. And then, my brother and I started working on the first original script of ours. Next year, when I came to Mumbai, that script paved my way into the industry. It was liked by almost everyone who read it, and it brought us more opportunities. Until then I was not aware of any screenwriting rules and all we had were our instincts and imagination. We adapted another novel, and worked on several drafts of it – and that too was well-received by many.

And then, everything changed when I attended a Film Writers’ Association conference in December 2008, where I saw people mouth words like ‘Three-Act Structure’, ‘Plot Points’ etc. It terrified me. I felt ashamed to call myself a writer! That kick-started my learning of the grammar of film-writing. In the four years that followed, I read several books on screenwriting. But in sharp contrast, struggled with writing a film-adaptation, re-wrote the final draft of a film that is yet to be released, and worked on another original screenplay for more than two years, that is ‘still not there’ after multiple drafts. In six years of my experience as a screen-writer, the best works have been created out of instinct, intuition, and complete ignorance about the rules of the game. How then is my obsession with ‘the need for structure’ justified? Am I going in the wrong direction by ignoring the spontaneous imagination of my mind by resorting to tables and graphs and calculative construction? I hope it is evident how troubling and baffling this doubt can be, and I was truly troubled, until a miracle eased my mind. Out of nowhere, a thought came to my mind – “the structure and the rules are tools, nothing more, nothing less, and trying to perfect the structure should be a lesser concern for the screenwriter.” I will try to elaborate it.

When we have an idea, we need a structure to help us explore it. That does not mean we are limiting the idea within a structure. If we are flexible with the structure, it will take us a certain distance before we realize it is inadequate and we re-structure everything and explore the idea again. Without a structure to guide us, we might never know the story we want to tell, and the reason behind our fascination for the story, and the merits and limitations of it. Without a structure to guide us, we might never understand the ‘best way’ to tell that story and might settle for the first thing that comes to our minds. But if we are flexible with the structure, and keep trying new ones, we are actually allowing spontaneity that can instinctively help us find that ‘best way’. We can safely conclude that ‘the structure’ is never the most important or determining factor of the process, it is only a tool that we should learn in order to explore the possibilities as a storyteller. To succeed as film-writers, what we should really obsess about is creating fascinating characters caught in interesting situations and the perspectives we can share through the characters’ journeys in the film. These perspectives arise from our experiences, insights, sensitivity, convictions, and sense of morality that we have as human beings practicing a form of expression. Dwelling on that increases our chance to come up with good screenplays, where the rules remain the tools that we should use to their fullest in order to succeed, and ignoring which might just make our jobs a little more difficult and luck-driven, though the possibility to do a great work despite ignoring all rules can never be denied.

As I write these words, I have a feeling that people reading my blog, especially my students would be surprised to know that this is a recent discovery. Perhaps I always knew this. But during that one day of insecurity, when this thought came to my head, it reaffirmed my faith in method and helped me understand how I can enhance the possibility of spontaneous creation within my structured approach. I called my Director and told him about my Eureka moment. I was not surprised when he told me that even he had been thinking about the same for the past one day, and he had also, and independently, come up with the same resolution to the debate. He further added, with examples from music and dance, how it is difficult for the beginner to learn and master and keep faith in the dry ‘rules’ and ‘methods’ of his art. He repeatedly questions the relevance of the same. Later, when he has grown into a practicing musician, he goes beyond the rules and the grammar of music which have become a part of his instinct, some of which he even breaks in order to achieve his expression.

Earlier I believed that film is art for only genius film-makers. For people like us, it is a craft to be learnt and perhaps all we can achieve is being good craftsmen. And that is good enough an achievement. But now I can think beyond that. All of us are aware of the hard work, dedication, and pains a musician or a dancer takes in order to achieve the label of an ‘artist’. So who can deny the assumption that the same amount of effort by a student of screenwriting, and its rules and grammar, may eventually take him to a stage where he starts expressing in a way that is above and beyond all rules? Are not we, as screenwriters, striving to reach a stage, where the ‘structure’ remains the means to an end which is a pure, uninhibited, expression of the soul?

January 04, 2013

Cinema 2012: Looking Back at my Cinema Experience of the Year

2012 was very different for me as a film-buff. As my brother put it the other day, it was our year at Film School. Personally, it was the beginning of three things for me – understanding the need to take care of and nourish my intuitive mind, taking the first steps towards learning how to work with actors, and beginning to hone my skills as a director by actually making films, rather than just understanding the theory of cinema sitting in my room. What the year taught me is humbling and inspiring at the same time, that learning the craft of film-making has just started and there is an infinitely long distance to go. But as a result of my involvement in film-making my movie-watching suffered, as did the frequency of my posts on this blog. Compared to the last three years – 2009, 2010, and 2011, my total movie count could not go much beyond 150. And I am definitely not happy about it. I’m not sure whether I could’ve helped it, though.

Here is an overview of my movie experience of 2012:

With nine movies by Woody Allen, he is now the director of whom I have watched the most, overtaking Hitchcock. As on date, my movie-score for the respective masters is: Allen (20), Hitchcock (19), Kurosawa (17), Bergman (14), Scorsese (13), Bunuel (13), Spielberg (12), Kubrick (12), and Fellini (11). Hope 2013 will help me take these numbers further. Also by watching Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger than Paradise’ and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’, they join Andrei Tarkovsky, the Coen Brothers, and Darren Aronofsky – of whom I have watched the entire filmographies. PTA’s latest ‘The Master’ is eagerly awaited, and I hope it will be released in India around the Oscars.

Joined the fan-club of Roberto Rossellini (Voyage in Italy), Luchino Visconti (The Leopard), Bela Tarr (The Turin Horse), and Alexander Payne (The Descendants). Looking forward to more movies by them. Also explored more of Pedro Almodovar, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, Wes Anderson, Peter Weir, Kim Ki-Duk, Abbas Kiarostami, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, Terry Gilliam, Takshi Kitano, Ken Loach, and Ang Lee. Hopefully next year some of these names will join my ‘Complete Filmography’ list.

On the big screen, I watched ‘1942 – A Love Story’, ‘Umberto D’, ‘Laura’, ‘Accattone’, ‘Two for the Road’ and, with a Live Orchestra, ‘A Throw of Dice’. This year I also experienced re-watch of ‘Scarface’, ‘North By Northwest’, ‘The Godfather’, and ‘Sunrise’ on the big screen.

‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘The Deer Hunter’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘The Birth of a Nation’, ‘Sherlock Jr.’, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, ‘Festen’, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Alexander Nevsky’, ‘Man of Iron’, and ‘Z’ are some of the classics I watched for the first time in 2012. Add to it some modern World Cinema gems like ‘A Separation’, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, ‘A Prophet’, ‘Amour’, and ‘Holy Motors’.

The discussion cannot be complete without mentioning some B-movies and Exploitation Films (or tributes to them) that I truly enjoyed. They were ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, ‘Ed Wood’, and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’. Also, watched some great non-fiction films like ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘Sans Soleil’, ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’, and ‘Triumph of the Will’. And in the end I have to mention one beautiful film that surprised me. ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ is one of those films that stand out of the crowd and deserve special mention.

Since October 2006, when I truly started exploring cinema, the past twelve months have been leanest for me as movie-enthusiast. It is not comforting to know that as my work load as a film-maker increases, it will be difficult to keep up the numbers. I hope the unquenchable thirst keeps drawing me towards the unending stream of good cinema, and the film-buff lives on, ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’!

January 01, 2013

The First Master?

A three-hour long, silent film is a difficult option to choose, especially when your laptop is full of several other great films. Watching ‘the Birth of a Nation’, hence, required special motivation, and it was on a train journey last month that I managed to watch it for the first time. However, the film, widely regarded as ‘the first blockbuster’, left me disappointed and angry. I did not find the narrative very interesting, and was appalled by the racist tone of the film. Its depiction of African-Americans is disgusting and shameful, and it is easy to understand the widespread riots it had evoked way back in 1915, and also, and regretfully so, how it became a huge hit among the Caucasian audience. Almost a century later, even the Americans would, or should, despise of the film. For me, it was a difficult exercise that I somehow managed to finish. D.W. Griffith had failed to impress me.

A few weeks later, I read about Griffith and the film, trying to understand his greatness as a film-maker. What I read was a revelation, and suddenly I find myself wanting to revisit the film, at least in parts. During the early 20th century, cinema was a nascent form of human expression and its narrative power was unexplored. The ‘story’ in such films was nothing more than loosely spliced scenes in strict chronological order. The ‘scenes’ were shot in single takes, where a static ‘Master’ shot covered the entire action, as if you were filming a theater performance from a distance. If at all the scene involved more than one shot, they lacked a scheme, making the temporal and spatial relations very ambiguous or unclear. It was during this time that Griffith directed over 450 short films over six years, and systematically developed film-making conventions which are still learnt and used by all film-makers.

Griffith paid attention to casting of actors, rehearsing with them several times before the shooting, and especially worked towards restraining their performances to make it more natural and less overt. These were rare practices in those days, as was the attention to detail with regards to the costumes, settings, and props. Griffith understood what others failed to realize – that anything that appears fake on screen will rob the ‘believability’ of the film, and miss out on engaging the audience. He also realized the potential of using Close-Ups to elaborate a moment, of Extreme Long Shots to contrast the stature of tiny human figures against imposing landscape, or the Point-of –View shot to ‘show’ the audience what a certain character was seeing. He broke down a scene into shots before shooting them and thus made cinema more dynamic than theater. He did not necessarily ‘invent’ all these tools, but definitely developed the narrative potential of cinema using them.

On the editing table, Griffith developed the Match Cut, cutting between one shot to another at the moment when the subject was performing some kind of a motion. For example, from a Full-Shot of a man, you cut to his Close-Up exactly when he tips his hat, matching the action of his hand. This makes sure that the cut in itself is ‘invisible’ and the audience fails to notice it as they are noticing the action of the hand, as a result of which their involvement in the film increases. Griffith also developed the rules for screen direction, and the 180-degree (or the Axis) rule of shot taking. These rules ensured the correct spatial orientation for the characters with respect to the shots intercutting with each other. He used the power of Parallel Montage (intercutting from one event at one place to something else and then back to the first) to effectively build suspense. He also developed the widely used transition techniques of Fade In and Fade Out, and the now obsolete Iris In and Iris Out.

If the inventors of cinema, the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison, made motion picture a reality, and craftsmen like Georges Melies turned it into a medium of magic and spectacle, it was the genius of D.W. Griffith that made cinema a powerful narrative medium. That he used this to tell a shamelessly biased story is an inseparable part of film history, as is his unparalleled contribution to cinema.

Marilyn Fabe’s book ‘Closely Watched Films’ wonderfully discusses Griffith and the film in its opening chapter, where the author says: “The Birth of a Nation is clearly not history but a cultural illusion written with lightning, the lightning of the powerful picture language of film articulated by its first master.”

In one sentence Fabe has succinctly covered almost everything that is associated with great films: the power of cinema, the strong mirror it is to the culture of societies and how it contributes to it, the potential of it to be used politically or for propaganda, the authorship that a director automatically, and sometimes unintentionally, claims by portraying his or her world-view, and also that in the end it is but an illusion. Whether Griffith was the first master of the ‘language of film’ is perhaps the least important question we need to bother ourselves with.