December 26, 2013

The Curse of Deficient Perspectives

I have always aspired to not judge people on the basis of conventional morality. I have always tried to let go of even the slightest need to fit into other people's idea of right or wrong. It has not always been easy, especially when deeply personal issues and intimate relationships are concerned. But I have always tried, and often succeeded, and have felt guilty and inadequate all the time I failed. It is almost an obsession, and is born out of one fundamental truth that I very strongly believe in: that it is not important to label things as right or wrong. And the conventional morality and the popular perceptions of correct and incorrect, and righteousness and sin, fail to appeal to me. In this life, it seems, I wouldn't be able to conform with the world around me, the world that is habitually used to classifying people, judging them, forming opinions, and almost imposing their perspectives on to others. However difficult it might be, I would, or at least want to, give the person in question a valid benefit of doubt. And nothing would please me more than finding that my assumptions about his or her wrongdoings were nothing more than acts of misjudgment.

Thomas Vinterberg's unforgettable and heartbreaking drama, 'The Hunt' (2012), is entirely based on a very innocent and unintentional mistake committed by an otherwise very sweet and loveable character. But what it snowballs into is a series of misconceptions, premature and unfair judgments, and devastation of reputations, self-esteems, and lives. The biggest achievement of the film is the way it manages to make you hate the gentlest of humans, because of the way they are hurting the protagonist, and also how it forces you to empathise with the very same people, because you know that what they are doing is only normal from their perspective. It is the kind of film that makes you feel fortunate that you are the audience, and not a part of the film's universe, because being the audience gives you the complete picture, and a rare blessing in the form of objectivity. You do not judge the characters, who are disillusioned by half-truths and rushed opinions, but still desperately wish the truth to come out in the open and everything to get right all over again.

"The world is full of evil. But if we hold on to each other it goes away," says an important character at the beginning of the final act of the film. It is then that you have your first sense of relief, and you start hoping that things will be fine soon. This character then makes the difficult decision to take the first step toward mending the ties, and get rid of the unwanted and unfortunate bitterness that has destroyed the peace of their lives. Also, perhaps that decision is not that difficult at that moment in the film because of the clarity this character has achieved, and he knows that this is the only way to correct the wrongs.

But in our real lives, we often lack clarity, and at times the intent, to set things right all over again. Despite realising the futility of bitterness, especially with people whom we love or loved, we fail to take that first step. And as the closing images of the film show, at times, the delay in that causes an irreparable damage to the soul of the victim, who is often the person with the best intent, almost closing the possibilities of the person's liberation from the unjust and unfair judgement forced upon him. Knowing all this, what do we keep waiting for? Why is it so difficult for us to seek that clarity which would hopefully erase all negativity, to make that effort to fill up the gaps in communication? Are we waiting for someone to take us out of the movie of our life, so that we are no more a character but the audience, with a complete perspective of things, and free of the curse that the characters seem to be bearing - the curse of incomplete understanding, premature judgments, and insufficient communication? Since we cannot be both the characters and the audience of the movie of our life, shouldn't we just act on our own, out of faith, trust, mutual respect and the desire to set everything straight, once and for all?

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Here is a text exchange I had with one of my former students, now a friend:

Me: What did Santa get for you?

She: Sadly, nothing. But I did eat a lot of cake. What did he get for you?

Me: Nothing. And a lot.

She: And a lot?

Me: I don't want to believe that he brought nothing for me. I think he did. Only I would realise what his gifts were as time passes.

She: Of course. That's how God works. Sometimes, it feels like a Tarantino movie to me. It's hard to keep up, but eventually everything will make sense.

Well, that was quite a compliment for the Almighty, don't you think?

Merry Christmas! :)

December 17, 2013

"Rush" (2013) by Peter Morgan

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead

The most common error in written English among educated people, in my opinion, is the interchangeable use of "it's" and "its". Spotting it in the very second line of a screenplay by Peter Morgan (writer of Oscar-nominated screenplays - "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon") was definitely disappointing for me. However, the error, and it repeated itself on two-three occasions, perhaps remains the only problem I had with this wonderfully inspiring and involving screenplay.

The writer, in an interview on the film, says - "Sometimes you have the good fortune to stumble upon characters whose voices you just — hear." Most screenwriters would give anything to have such "fortune" and in Morgan's case it was almost destined. Of German origin, he spent the larger part of his life in Britain, finally moving to Austria with his wife. And here he writes about the real-life rivalry of an Englishman and an Austrian F1 racer during the season of 1976. It is almost envious that he was introduced to Niki Lauda, the above-mentioned world-champion from Austria, by his wife over an informal family lunch. All writers are constantly looking for powerful stories and to find one over a family affair is almost divine providence. But then, it is what the writer does with that inspiration and how he shapes up the story that determine whether the story turns into an inspirational tale or a wasted opportunity.

For someone possessing the talent, experience, and success like Morgan, the motivation to write this story must have been naturally powerful - there wasn't really much for him to go wrong. Not having much interest in or knowledge of Formula 1 racing must not have been too much of a deterrent, because as writers we constantly take plunge in unknown territories if we find a universally appealing story in the midst of that world. In the case of the F1 scene in the year 1976, the course of the events were anyway the material of a film, waiting to be discovered and retold by a competent writer. And the proximity with Lauda was a definite advantage. So yes, Morgan was lucky. But the success of the script goes beyond this factor.

It is always tricky to write a film based on real characters and true events, as I wrote a few months ago in this post. The biggest challenge is to create a dramatically powerful script without deviating too much with the truth of events as they took place. The main triumph of "Rush", the screenplay, is achieving that rare balance. Not that there is no scene in the film that appears implausible. I find it difficult to believe that James Hunt would punch a British Journalist to teach him a lesson after he asked Lauda a humiliating question about his marriage, although I completely loved that moment. Also, Hunt coming to know about his wife's affair from the mouth of Lauda on the race track did not seem too convincing to me. But the real Niki Lauda has applauded Morgan for a surprisingly true portrayal of the events and "Rush" does not come across as a script that twists facts too much for the sake of adding more drama.

And I think the biggest reasons that have contributed to Morgan's success are the way he has used spoken lines to create the wonderful characters of the two protagonists (I like to believe it is a film with two protagonists, despite the recently-announced Golden Globes nomination claiming Daniel Bruhl to be a supporting actor), often giving them unforgettable moments and powerful scenes, and also the way he has structured the film. Finding the right structure is important for any story being told on screen, but more so for a real story. Unlike a complete fictional tale you cannot modify details to create your climax out of nowhere. In a true story, the climax, as the set-up, is already there, waiting to be discovered, and it is the most appropriate structure that gives you that. "I imagined the movie as one big grand prix, with Hunt and Lauda taking turns to pass one another. The screenplay is constructed as a series of overtaking maneuvers" says Morgan about the structure of his script, and this marriage of the most appropriate form with the content, in my opinion, has made the screenplay so successful. It is funny because while and after reading the final thing you cannot fathom that the writer would have experimented with other options for the story's structure - so "correctly" structured this screenplay is.

And of course there are little gems that show the kind of research Morgan must have done for his writing. At times it is as on the face and expository as a commentator naming all major F1 drivers who lost their lives in the past five years. And then at other times, it is as beautifully interwoven into the "cinema" of the story as the moment when, before the climactic Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda stares out of the window to notice that Mount Fuji is not visible in the rains. "The locals here believe if you can see the mountain in the morning, it brings good luck", Lauda says, creating not only an ominous foreboding to the dangerous race that has to follow, but also adding effortless emotional value to this very important climactic battle that is to determine the champion of the season.

Morgan decided to write this film as a spec script. Perhaps that explains why there are so many "non-filmable" scene descriptions in it. Or perhaps Morgan always does that, with all his films - I'll have to read his other works to figure this out. Frankly, although I am uncertain I would do that as a writer, I didn't mind that, except may be in the opening page, because I am so emotionally invested in the film that a few such lines as "NIKI screams inside. Wanting to be heard. Wanting to give them a sign." (while describing a comatose Niki Lauda) did not trouble me much. Also noticeable is Morgan's conscious deficient descriptions and dialogue during certain moments, especially during the chaos of too many people talking - commentators, media guys, and so on.

"Rush" succeeds as a screenplay. And, personally, it will remain one of the most powerful tales of ambition, and the drive to succeed. I constantly find myself questioning my academic and method-oriented approach with respect to a more natural and intuitive one that various creative people are blessed with. I could completely relate to Lauda's obsession with little details, his single-minded discipline, his almost boring logical and calculative personality, and his lack of charm despite the impressive and incomparable intelligence. And like Lauda, I did envy the personality and the pleasures that Hunt so effortlessly possessed. Perhaps Lauda took solace in his clinical approach, because deep within he knew he could never be James Hunt. But he knew that being Niki Lauda was good enough, and he just assured that with his way of life. Could anyone turn an insult to a compliment for himself the way he does in these lines?

"Relentlessness is good. Means you're a fighter. That you never give up. Behind my back I know some of you guys call me 'The Rat.' Because I look like one. It's meant as an insult. But I don't mind it. Rats are ugly, sure. And no one likes them. But they're intelligent. With a strong survival instinct."

(You can download the screenplay of "Rush" by clicking here and then clicking on the "screenplay" tab on the page.)

December 11, 2013

A Glimpse into the Dreamscape

I just watched this beautiful video essay on the cinema of the great Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. I have watched 16 of his films and could completely relate to every second of this eight-minute tribute to him. More than anything, the frames and the philosophies of Bergman's cinema are portrayed so stunningly in this video that I suddenly feel inspired to watch all his films again, apart from those that I am yet to. But even if you are not well-exposed to his cinema, or haven't watched a single of his films, I would recommend this short video to you. Perhaps it is the easiest and the quickest way to have a glimpse into the cinematic genius of Bergman. Perhaps the video will seduce you into discovering his cinema, and then you will agree with the closing line of the video essay:

It's a life's work from which, if we are lucky, the cinematic world will never wake up.

December 04, 2013

Perks, Perspectives

Last month, Devanshu and I enjoyed, perhaps for the first time, the perks of being film-makers, during the first film festival we attended as participants in competition, rather than delegates or film-buffs. The event, International Children's Film Festival, was held in Hyderabad where our film, Tamaash, was competing with 15 others in the International Shorts Competition. To be honest, we had no idea how wonderful the experience could be, until we reached there.

Okay. So, I haven't travelled much by air - only thrice before this. The festival organisers took care of our air fare and hence I got the chance, once again, to feel the excitement of being hundreds of metres above the ground, silently revising the concepts of physics - relative velocity, frame of reference, etc - that we had learnt in school, and marvelling at the achievement of man. On reaching Hyderabad airport, we received a traditional welcome with flower garlands from the festival volunteers that left us amused and awkward at the same time with everyone in the airport looking at us. Then a car took us to the hotel we were supposed to stay in for the next eight days. To add to this, my Mom joined us that evening, and for both her and me it was our first stay at a five-star hotel. Our meals were taken care of, and we were provided with vehicles to travel from the hotel to the festival venue and back. Interacting with film-makers from abroad, with the audience during the screening of our film, and with the media followed. Personally speaking, the biggest highlights of the trip were to make Mom meet Gulzar Sahab and Amol Palekar, visiting Ramoji Film City and other places of interest in Hyderabad, and having a one-hour informal lunch meeting with Raju Hirani. This last meeting was amazing, with Raju wanting to hear from me my poems from 'Udaan' and we talking about his approach towards writing and editing his films. I'm sure Mom will cherish that forever. And then, on the last evening, our film won an award, as I have mentioned in a previous post. The most beautiful thing about it, of course, was that it happened before my mother. As if this was not enough, soon after this trip ended, our film won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at River to River Film Festival, Florence, Italy. The win also secured two more screenings in Italy for the film, one each in Rome and Milan.

Through my brother's FB account, we have shared this news with all. And we have been receiving congratulations from all our well-wishers. And the first thing most of them ask is - you must be partying hard, right?

Well. No. We did celebrate in our own little way, but our degree of celebration would disappoint most of our friends' expectations. The most important thing at this moment is not all the accolades that we won, but the desire to repeat it again, and more importantly, do that with a much better film. The most important thing, in fact, is not a repetition of all the perks and praise, but to ensure that our next film is a better cinematic work - with only the two of us, Devanshu and I, being the judge of the same.

Each film, I believe, results in three different kinds of results that the film-maker should respect and be aware of. The first is the maker's feeling toward what he created. In our case, we are proud of the film, mainly because it taught us more about film-making than anything else, and we know that a lot of things fell in the right place to make this happen. But the merits of the film are equally glaring in comparison with the shortcomings, which we feel are many and need to be taken care of. However, the second result is the way audience reacts to the film. If they love your film, you have to respect their reaction, as much as you have to accept their disapproval for it. And the third result is - how you can use your film for professional gains - from monetizing it, to using it as a PR tool, to anything and everything that may help you as a film-maker. Even if I hate my film, and the audience hates it, I should still try to maximise my returns. I cannot abandon the film, because costs involved in film-making and lack or availability of opportunities are as important as our craft and the specific successes or failures. These three results are and should be mutually exclusive of each other and a wiser film-maker will never try to mix the three and hope for the best in all these fronts.

At times we will click. At times we won't. The only way forward is through this maze of differing perspectives and the hide-and-seek opportunities play with you. And the only real tool you have is the desire to create something new, and hopefully impressive. All the past projects - good or bad - and memories and learnings associated with them are only the building blocks of the next. Celebrations included.