August 28, 2013

Winds of Change?

February 2011: Filmfare Awards declare "Dabangg" the Best Film of the year and Karan Johar the Best Director for "My Name is Khan".

Two years later...

February 2013: None of the top grossers of the year - "Ek Tha Tiger", "Bol Bachchan", "Houseful 2", "Jab Tak Hai Jaan", "Rowdy Rathore", "Agneepath" and "Dabangg 2" could bag even a nomination in the Best Film category. "Barfi" won the award. And the runners-up were "Kahaani", "Vicky Donor", "English Vinglish" and the Wasseypur films - all fairly successful films but none to match the insane commercial triumph of the big ones.

May 2013: An "anthology film" - "Bombay Talkies" gets remarkably wide release and good publicity. The stars of the film, for a change, are directors, two of them being the most well-known auteurs of Hindi cinema today. (Remember it is easier to sell the name of a "genre" director like Rohit Shetty. The case was not the same here.)

July 2013: 'Ship of Theseus' gets a limited release in five cities. Almost all shows go house-full all week in Mumbai. Some of my friends, not from the film industry, watch and love it and do not feel it was too slow! Next week, the number of shows increase, a rare achievement for any film in today's times, and the movie reaches new cities. The trend continues, with the film travelling to cities like Patna, Lucknow, and Bhopal. In Mumbai, the film runs for five weeks. Although, big names were attached to it and we can not hope the same results with other films, the fact that the release model worked is such a good sign. Imagine, if the film had failed in its opening week, forcing the exhibitors to bring it out of theatres after the first week! Perhaps the success is only slightly positive a sign. But the failure would definitely mean doom for more such efforts.

August 2013: Another indie film "BA Pass" is fairly successful. OK. Sex always sells, right? NO. "Nasha", that released only a week ago could not gross half the numbers of "BA Pass".

And soon after, "Madras Cafe" is released. I love it thoroughly despite being slightly underwhelmed with its technical finesse. My brother says - "This is good enough for India!" I agree. We are going in the right direction, after all. Such a film is getting made, and getting successful. Good news. The very next day, I go to watch the Bengali film "Taasher Desh". The most pleasant surprise is not the film, but the fact that the Censor Board passed it without an Adult certificate. The film is U/A. The content is definitely bolder than that, with several intimate love making and homo-erotic scenes. Hope it is not an exceptional case and the CBFC maintains the same standards when it comes to Hindi films.

September 2013: Two big production houses have joined hands to release another small gem "The Lunchbox" that will be released in September. Fingers corssed!

The change will come only if it is holistic in nature. Otherwise one-off exceptions to the rigid rules of the market have always raised their heads and eventually got lost into oblivion. It has to start from the making - content driven, deftly executed films, on varied topics, including some conventionally controversial ones. The release and marketing is more vital than the production. It has to be done smartly and successfully. The critics should do their job - I loved Jeeturaj screaming on Radio Mirchi, urging the audience to go and watch "Ship of Theseus". The audience should respond well, and the word of mouth should be strong. The exhibitors should have continued confidence in such content - and I so admire PVR for actually releasing rare films. And eventually, the popular awards like Filmfare should acknowledge these films when the year ends. I won't go so far to say that the change has begun - the latest mega success of "Chennai Express" is nothing short of a disappointment (as we speak the film is making its way to the throne of the highest grossing Hindi film of all time). But I would like to hope that there are some welcome signs and that one day good cinema will finally dawn upon Hindi films. I will keep hoping this until February 2014 when, in most probability, Filmfare will award "Chennai Express" the Best Film if the year. I dread that day. Hope it never comes.

August 23, 2013

#1: The Endless Wait

A few months ago we were celebrating 100 years of Indian Cinema. A few days ago it was Gulzar sahab's birthday. On both these occasions I had thought of starting this new column. "The Great Hindi Lyrics" will be where I will be sharing great songs from Hindi cinema, great in their poetry, and not necessarily in their tune, choreography, or popularity. In fact, my effort will be to come up with songs which are great but not very popular, not those that play every day on various FM channels. There was a time when I was very proud of Hindi films. I am not anymore. In fact, I feel there is only one aspect of our films where we have been truly world-class. It is not the story, the camerawork, the editing, not even the performances or the music, but the lyrics of hundreds of great songs that we produced over the decades. It is this poetry in the songs of Hindi films that, in my opinion, is one thing we can truly be proud of. Unfortunately, not many, including myself, pay too much attention to the words (for example, I am paying conscious attention to the words of the below-mentioned song only today, after 17 years of hearing it for the first time.) This column will be an effort to compensate for that.

In case any of you do not understand a word or a line, please do ask. We should discuss the poetry for the benefit of all. Also, in each of these posts, I will let the song do the talking and if I feel like adding something, will do it in the comments below. So here it is, the first song of the series, a song on the endless wait for the beloved.....

ऐ हवा कुछ तो बता, जाने वालों का पता
काली घटाओं तुम छू के पहाड़ों को
लौट आना, हाँ तुम, लौट आना.…

जंगल से जाती पगडंडियों पे
देखो तो शायद पाँव पड़े हों,
कोहरे की दूधिया ठंडी गुफ़ाओं में
बादल पहन के शायद खड़े हों,
हौले से कानों में मेरा कहा कहना
लौट आना, हाँ तुम, लौट आना.…

बुझने लगा है झीलों का पानी
घुलने लगा है शाम का सोना,
कहाँ से थामूँ रात की चादर
कहाँ से पकडूँ धूप का कोना,
जाइयो पास उनके मेरा कहा कहना
लौट आना, हाँ तुम, लौट आना.…

ऐ हवा कुछ तो बता, जाने वालों का पता
काली घटाओं तुम छू के पहाड़ों को
लौट आना, हाँ तुम, लौट आना.…
लौट आना, लौट आना, लौट आना.…

Gulzar (Maachis, 1996)

August 19, 2013

#1: Shinbyu (Coming of Age)

"Do we have a film here?" is a new column that will feature varied story ideas that I gather from the world around us, those unlikely to see the light of the day considering the costs and risks involved in film-making. However, by sharing the ideas here, I hope to inspire someone who may take one of them forwards, and we get to see a film born out of it. 

The city of Meiktila, Burma (Myanmar). 20th March 2013. An argument between a Buddhist woman and a Muslim shop-keeper leads to increased tensions in the city when in retaliation, four Muslim men kill a Buddhist monk in broad day-light. Next morning, armed men dressed in the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks slaughter twenty Muslims to seek revenge. The police does nothing to stop them. Very soon 12,000 displaced people, mostly Muslims, are forced to live in refugee camps that look like prisons, under police protection, while the city's mosques remain closed. The livelihood of the Muslims still staying on their own is disrupted as the Buddhists have stopped employing them. Anti-Muslim propaganda is reaching the masses in the form of DVDs, the source of which remains a mystery. And pro-Buddhist stickers bearing the number "969" above Ashoka's lion capital appear on the streets.

In this scenario, a 19-something orphan, a Buddhist boy in love with a Muslim girl, is forced to undergo the ceremony of Shinbyu (the Burmese tradition of "coming of age") and to spend some time in a monastery. Since he was orphaned early in life, he did not have any guardian who could have made his Shinbyu possible at an earlier age. His magnanimous employer has suddenly discovered this and has forced him into this, causing the unwanted separation from the girl he loves. To make things worse, the girl's family is one of the victims of the unrest, and the boy feels guilty for not being able to do anything.

At the monastery, there is a senior monk who looks harmless like a baby, but continuously preaches hatred against Muslims. He is especially against inter-faith marriages and believes that Muslim men take advantage of poor Buddhist women to proliferate their population. There is no proof that this monk, and others like him, is directly involved in the anti-Muslim violence, but there is no proof either of the government being involved in the same. There are speculations though, and in some cases, some hidden evidence.

With the help of a young drug addict friend of his, our hero (the boy undergoing Shinbyu) tries all he can to take care of his girl and her family. After some struggle, and using the teachings of Buddha, he convinces the monastery to open its gates to hundreds of Muslim refugees, and the girl is now residing close to him, where he can take care of her, secretly, but surely.

What happens next, to the state, the city, the people? What happens to the politicians and the monk who is the preacher of hate? What happens to the druggie side-kick of our hero? And most importantly, what more conflicts does this innocent love story face as the two lovers are dying to unite in a world that is getting fragmented every day with ever-increasing communal hatred? Isn't the entire country and its people in the need of a Shinbyu that would turn them into humans from what they have become? To find answers to these, watch "Shinbyu", a feature film in Burmese, that is too controversial for its own people, and perhaps too insignificant for the world outside. And hence, this film may never be made.

This idea came to me as I read an article in the wonderful journal "The Caravan". The facts mentioned above are correct, and the character of the monk is actually based on a real monk. However, the angle of romance between the fictitious lead-characters was added by me to find a universal spine in this premise. And a little research made me aware of the ceremony of Shinbyu, that I added to give the film a symbolic and cultural layering. Please respond to this, as you would to a film, with comments, and/or more ideas to develop it further, in this virtual movie-making space.

August 10, 2013

#7: The First Signs of Being 'Different'

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" - Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Blvd.' (1950)

Once my parents dropped me back to my hostel after my first vacation, which was forty-five days of summer, I realised there were so many things I forgot sharing with my Mom - little things about the hostel, and my experiences there. That left me heartbroken. The next vacation was three months away and it was going to be a short, eight-day leave. And I was sure that in the next three months, I would have accumulated so many more things to share with her. Intimidated and terrified by the idea of a continuously building deficit of "things-to-share-with-Mom" over several vacations, I decided to solve it, once and for ever. I started making a note of things happening to me during my term at the hostel in my little diary, half-sentences that contained long stories and new discoveries and layers of emotions. During the eight days of the next vacation, the mention of which has been made in the previous post in this series, Mom was so busy that I never got the time to sit with her and go through those pages of my diary. She was aware of it and it was an important agenda for her, but somehow we never got time. Finally, the last night, a few hours before I was to leave, Mom and I sat on a mat spread on the floor, and I shared with her all that I had to. That image of my mother, tired and exhausted, her heavy eye-lids battling against her resolve to spend time with her son and hear him out despite the night turning old and cruel, will remain one of the most special memories of my life. But today, as I look back, I also see the REVERSE SHOT of that scene - an eleven-year old boy, going through his 'notes' that he had made over several weeks, narrating stories and incidents with untiring enthusiasm and excitement. Today, as I look at the eleven-year olds around me, I wonder - was that the beginning of the method-oriented, obsessed-with-planning-and-execution storyteller I was to eventually become? Or was it simply, the first sign of me being 'different' - an adjective my friends in high-school and college used for me, for all compliments and insults!

A little more than a year after that night, I was on my way home for the winter vacations. It was December, 1996. It was for the first time that I was travelling from my hostel in a car, as my Buaji (the one who until her marriage was an active member of our domestic movie club) and her family had picked me up on her way to Munger, my home-town. I was sitting in the front passenger seat with my Chachaji and had fallen asleep as the car made its way through the rocky terrain of Sooiya Pahaad (the Hill of Needles). A little later, my eyes opened to the sound of a song that was being played from the car stereo. The song was ending but I heard it sufficiently to exclaim to my Uncle - "This is a good song!". "Isn't it?" he said. "Now, listen to this, an even better one." He reversed the side of the cassette and the song faded in. If life is a romantic ride, that definitely was my first experience of one. As this song soared, I felt its voices echoing in the dull and dead ambience of the hills around me. I was mesmerised by its pure magic, and until today, every time I listen to it, I am reminded of that amazing afternoon.

The first song I had heard while waking up was "Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale". And the one that eventually won me over was, yes you guessed it right, "Chhod Aaye Hum Wo Galiyaan". Within a few days, I asked Dad for the cassette of "Maachis" - my first buy as a music lover. It must be mentioned that buying film music was not encouraged under my Dad's regime, despite the three of us (Mom, brother, and me) being crazy movie-buffs. But Dad brought this one. As Devanshu and I played all the songs on our little tape recorder, the haunting melodies of Vishal and the beautiful words by Gulzar, my Dad expressed his disapproval - "What's so special about this music?"

How could have I answered that? I just knew that Dad didn't think this music was great. And most people around me, including my friends, thought the same. And the world around me was infinitely more obsessed with "Pardesi Pardesi" from 'Raja Hindustani' that was the craze of the season. When I watched that film, the biggest blockbuster of the year, I was pretty disappointed. By the time the film reached its climax, I had given my verdict - "Raja Hindustani is a bad film." The Filmfare Awards that followed a couple of months later thought otherwise, and I realised that I was different, that there will be films I hate which will be celebrated by the world around me. Today as I look back, I feel thankful to my Dad for being vocally disapproving of the music of "Maachis" as well as to that moment when I had discovered its magic among the hills of Jharkhand (then Bihar). "This is good, despite others' opinion of it" - was the thought that had come to my head. Several years later, it was to become the most constant feeling with things, especially movies and music, that I loved and celebrated. Only, the world of the internet would make sure that I eventually realise that there were several people like me who thought of cinema differently, and that I was not exactly "different"!

August 02, 2013

Must Watch Before You Die #37: Eraserhead (1977)

I introduced a new movie to the current batch of students I am teaching the subject 'Understanding Cinema'. One day before the screening, I sent this SMS to the students: The screening of "the strangest film ever made" will start at 2.10 pm sharp. Please have a light lunch before it starts. Empty or too full stomachs will make it difficult for you to watch the film. Also, feel free to walk out as I don't expect all of you to bear it entirely.

This is the film after watching which some six years ago I had exclaimed with disgust that this is the worst film I had seen in my life. Of course, I eventually realised I couldn't have been more wrong. Even if you ignore its originality and its guts, you cannot not appreciate its impeccable craft - the stunning cinematography, the amazingly intricate sound, and the incredible special effects. That it remains one of the biggest mysteries of cinema - the interpretation and little details like the 'monster baby' - further adds to the 'must watch' tag of the film. Among all the movies I have recommended here, perhaps this is the one which truly deserves the throne of "One film you must watch before you die".

How strange can a film be? All of us have seen strange plots and characters, where nothing makes sense. All of us have seen confusing gender-bending movies, where you don't know whether this is body horror or black comedy. We have seen movie-puzzles, and have spent hours trying to crack them. We have seen repulsive and disgusting films, experimental films, mood films, and sci-fi films that are painfully slower than anything else. But trust me on this. You have not watched anything stranger than this film, the first by the great American surrealist master, David Lynch, a prime example of avant-garde cinema, and its biggest contribution lies in the boundaries it has stretched and the extremes it has shown regarding what cinema can do or achieve.

Considered by many as the greatest American debut after 'Citizen Kane', this film is strange from its first shot. And every ten minutes, it keeps getting stranger. Mid-way into it, when you feel that you have already watched the most disgusting images of your life, it will surprise you again, proving that things can get even filthier, and scarier, and more repulsive than what you have watched. This graph of rising weirdness will finally lead into an explosive climax that will remain one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life. If cinema could be music, this film is a glorious cacophony, celebrating the ugliness of life and minds through its form. If cinema could be sculpture, this film is a celebration of texture, indulging in mud and dust, and metal and hair and flesh and body fluids. When I described to my Mom, what this film shows, she turned livid - "It is films like these that have spoiled your mind!" The moral of the story is this - do not share the details of this film with people who care for you. Just experience it. As one of the critics has rightly said - "Eraserhead" is no ordinary film. It is a pure sensory experience that will haunt you for life. Just sit back, and get disturbed.