November 27, 2014

Must Watch Before You Die #42: Boyhood (2014)

On 15th of October, I watched 'Boyhood' for the first time at the Mumbai Film Festival and recommended it as a must-watch-before-you-die. Exactly one month later, on the 15th of November, I watched it again in a packed evening show. Since then, I cannot stop thinking about it and I feel the earlier post that carried a small discussion on it does not do justice to the film. Hence this post, and a stronger tone of recommendation.

A couple of evenings ago, I was having a discussion with a friend, a psychologist and a mother of two, on this latest Linklater movie. It was I who had introduced her to the director's 'Before' trilogy, which she had loved, and I had been waiting for her reaction to 'Boyhood'. As expected, our discussion went on and on, both of us sharing different but doubtlessly agreeable perspectives on the film. Suddenly, I stopped her. "I had a feeling just now" I said. "I can picture several people in different parts of the world talking about this movie at this very instant." In that moment I realised what a powerful achievement the film is. It is not only being understood and analysed by an unquantifiable number of people, like most Linklater movies, but deep beneath its casual and impressive surface lies something that is the stuff of materpieces, and a rare human achievement.

One big reason why motion picture, since its invention, struck an instant chord with people all around the world was how it became a rare human expression that could so powerfully affect our temporal perception. When we read a novel, or watch a play, or when someone narrates us a story, we understand the passing of time in the world of those characters, but never really feel it. When an author writes - "Several years went by," we develop an intellectual understanding of years going by, and fill in the gaps, and readjust ourselves to the changed temporal reality of the story. We never actually feel the passing of those years. Motion picture can use and alter our sense of time in more powerful ways. Slow-motion or fast-motion cinematography makes us experience time in a way no human can experience unless being under the influence of an intoxicant. The use of real-time storytelling in cinema has been another unique achievement of the medium - a 100-minute story told in 100 minutes is a rare experience, operating not just at the level of narrative, but also mood, and tone, and sensory feeling. But despite being the most powerful medium to play with time, no film, none before 'Boyhood', had managed to convey the feeling of passing of such a long span in less than three hours. Cinema has told stories spanning over decades and centuries, even millennia ('2001: A Space Odyssey'), but by using the same trick that the novelists use - "Several years went by..." With the use of time transitions, and most commonly - different sets of actors, movies have traditionally made us understand that years have gone by, rather than making us feel it. The young Vijay starts running and that shot dissolves to the shot of the adult Vijay, now Amitabh Bachchan, and we know that time has passed. Imagine a movie where we would see the same young boy grow up before our eyes. He would never grow up to be Bachchan, and hence no one ever conceived a film like that. By covering twelve years in the lives of its characters, played by the same actors who also, obviously, have aged, 'Boyhood' unfolds itself like an experience no human has had before. It's not the turning of the pages of the diary of your teenaged years, not even the flipping of the photographs in your family album. It something more real, alive, vivid, and affecting than anything you have felt. It is like the strongest memories of your growing up stitched together without the loss of its minutest details. The movie experience that comes closest to 'Boyhood', and I am amused at myself while making this analogy, is the Harry Potter series. It shows seven years of the boy's growing up, and since the cast remains primarily the same, we do feel that we saw Harry et al grow up before our own eyes. But even this experience was spread over eight movies that we experienced over ten years! That Linklater's achievment is not only a landmark in cinema, but in the history of human art and expression is well reflected in this succinct assertion by Rolling Stones about the film: "There has simply never been anything like this movie!"

But is the fact that it was shot over twelve years using the same set of actors the only thing that makes 'Boyhood' a great film? Of course not. Because then it would be easy to beat it, right? Let us start making a film today to be released after twenty years. There you go - we have a greater film! We all know that it doesn't work like that. Even if we try to underplay the passion and the persistence that the makers of this 'project' possessed, writing new scenes every year, shooting for a few days, and then going back to their other commitments, before reuniting again next year, we cannot ignore the wonderfully written scenes that became its ingredients and the imaginative edit that seamlessly joined it, with unforgettable transitions. I would recommend watching this movie more than once because only then you stop bothering about the plot and the whats and focus on how the film is one great scene after another, delicious dialogues, charming performances, and a gutsy, authoritative, self-assured narrative pieced together by perhaps the most organic editing in the history of scripted fiction films. Without getting overtly dramatic, and not once losing its tone, the film mimics life itself. It is like a great Marquez novel, containing within itself all that is funny and all that is sad about the human condition, with insights and themes that speak differently to different people in the audience, and also that will speak differently to us at different stages in our lives. If you are not convinced by the greatness of the film, try watching it about ten years down the line and you will find how the film appears all fresh. Today, I react to it like a son, although I relate most with the young boyish-man character played by Ethan Hawke. But ten years from today, I think I would react to it as a husband, or a father. How often does cinema come with this unique ability to reinvent itself with every passing decade? What else can be called 'timeless' if not this? And which other film can be called 'an unassuming masterpiece' as Peter Travers calls it in his glorious review of it?

Despite loving all kinds of movies and celebrating all the filmmakers we have among us today, in my heart I know that the biggest achievements in cinema are over, achieved by the films of the past. Technological innovation is the only tool cinema possesses today, the grammar of its craft and the originality of its narrative has already been explored to almost its fullest. But in 'Boyhood', we have a modern film that stands tall amidst its peers and contemporaries, and the great films of the past. It has given us something to talk about with the cinephiles of the next generation whom we will tell how we had waited for this movie, had excitedly watched its trailer, and then had experienced it on big screen with hundreds of equally enthusiastic women and men. And some, like me, would show-off by saying that we watched it more than once on the big screen, and immediately proclaimed it as one of the greatest achievement by not just a film-maker, but an artist, and a human.

November 14, 2014

Crafting Truth

This blog post is my attempt to answer a question a student of mine asked me: Movies are all about showing right emotions. Is it necessary to support it with dialogues? If yes, then how to select perfect dialogues? If no , then how to show perfect emotions? When do I know what to do with either of them ? Kindly advise.

If I'm getting the question, it is this: How to create a scene that is emotionally authentic as well as dramatically powerful? To be honest, the approach to this question not only separates good screenwriters from not so good ones, but also explains why screenwriting is one of the most difficult forms of writing. As film-writers we determine each twist and turn and all conflicts and resolutions of our story, and every action and reaction of our characters. We meticulously control every bit of our story universe to make it 'powerful', so that scene after scene the story can move forward. However, this much is not sufficient to emotionally affect the audience. Despite achieving all that is mentioned above, if there is one false note here or there, one moment when the audience stops believing in the authenticity of what they are seeing, every effort by us becomes visible, and the telling appears manipulative and contrived. In fact, in movies, the camera actually 'recreates' reality and such false notes are spotted more easily than in a novel, where the author need not 'show' every little thing and can hide behind words, trying to explain each 'untrue' motivation, or in a play, where the audience 'knows' that this is 'not real'. We brutally expect movies to mimic reality, so much so that we question the absurdities of a film more than we question the absurdities of life. It is this expectation of the audience, of authenticity, that makes film-writing so difficult, because unlike life, the 'truth' in the lives of movie characters does not shape up on its own. It has to be crafted, without appearing crafty.

I am listing down all that, I believe, may help in achieving this. The list is not absolute and can never be complete, and is mostly my spontaneous attempt at answering the question.
  • Know the world of your story. Through research and active imagination you can have a detailed and almost intimidating understanding of the universe in which you are setting the story - the location in space and time, the socio-cultural milieu of your characters, the colors and textures and so on. If the world you have created is rich in its detail, it will appear authentic - the greatest fantasy films have proved that. Also, research gives you an authority and the audience loves to be in the hands of a storyteller who 'knows'.
  • Create characters who are unique in their outwardly appearance and in their psychological make-up, but extremely relatable at the emotional level. If your story is about a woman, give her an emotional core that will resonate with all women, and men. But through her behaviour, her world-view, her interpersonal relationships, her experiences, and her appearance, make her truly original.
  • Know your characters inside out. Any level of detailed understanding of your character will not be enough. You should know them so closely that you can predict with certainty their actions and reactions at each and every situation. Never judge them, and love all of them - even your antagonist. You must know that each character behaves according to what she thinks is good and right. You need to understand her perspective to know why her idea of 'good and right' is different from someone else's.
  • Now, while creating your scene, treat it as a battle between your characters. In this battle, each of their actions and reactions, their dialogues and pauses, will be directed as per their individual behavior in the situation of the scene. And the end result of this battle is something you have already determined - your scene objective.
  • Guide their behaviour with the light touch of your scene objective. Do not make them do anything for the audience, but to each other or to themselves. Write diaogues (and every action/reaction of your characters) by getting into their respective minds. Let them speak when they want to. Let them react without dialogue if that appears truer. And finish writing the scene. Finish writing the first draft without worrying too much about how brilliant it is.
  • Read the scene aloud, especially the dialogues. Be ruthless in your scrutiny to find the false notes. Also, determine the dramatic impact of it. If you are honest to yourself, you will find that there are certain moments where 'truth' is missing. Also the dramatic potential of the scene will appear unfulfilled either because of too much of effort or because of lack of conflict. Also the scene will appear either too long or too short to create the desired impact.
  • Then ask this question: how can you add more genuine conflicts into the scene to make it more dramatic? The conflicts that you add must come from the characters and their world - and the first two points in this list will ensure that. Also, these conflicts should ideally not depend on chance. When a gun runs out of bullets at a crucial time in a movie, we never say it is destiny. We say - it is a film! It is important that we avoid such chance-driven conflicts to remain invisible as storytellers, to craft without appearing crafty.
  • Ask another question: how can you remove the false notes? The answer to this lies inside your characters. Ask them why they would behave in such a way and they will give you answers from their lives. You will find that they will either modify the 'false' action you gave to them or completely change it and surprise you with something new and original, that still helps you reach the scene objective.
  • Rewrite the scene based on the answers to above questions. Do not resort to cliches. In fact, fight all temptation to use them. Determine the correct length of the scene. Try to use as less diaogue as possible. And once you have rewritten it, evaluate it again, and prepare for the next rewrite. 
As should be clear from the above discussion, conveying right emotions does not essentially need dialogues. It needs truth - believable behaviour from relatable characters in an authentic world. If dialogues come naturally in this believable behavior, they must be used. We have to trust our understanding of the characters, develop a critical eye for our own work, and believe in the power of persistent rewrites. Eventually, we will get there. 

November 11, 2014

Studying Composition #2

'Ida' (2013) by Pawel Pawlikowski is a beautiful, black & white film I watched recently. It is Poland's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. Shot in the 'Academy Aperture' of 4:3 Aspect Ratio, this film was a revelation for me with regard to framing. Hence this post.

The picture above is a classic Extreme Close-Up where the upper edge of the frame cuts the head and the lower edge cuts the chin. The Aspect Ratio here is 2.35:1 or Scope, and this is roughly, the ratio of the width and height of the projected image in our cinemas these days. However, the image above is cropped by me from the original image (look below), shot in 4:3 ratio. Note that the lower edge is still the same, but the upper edge is providing for an unconventionally large head-room.

This unconventional framing recurs in the film, giving us some daring, but surprisingly beautiful compositions. In fact, the very first frame (see below) of the movie sets-up this stylistic tone:

Before we move ahead, it's important to wonder why such an unconventional framing became an aesthetic choice for the director-cinematographer. The conventions of compostitions are based on the principle of finding ways to involve the audience effortlessly, by placing the 'Centre of Interest' in that part of the frame where the audience naturally focuses its attention while looking at the frame for the first time. Does this stylistic variation, then, is to invite the audience for a more active effort toward observing the 'Centre of Interest' and thus making it a more involved viewing experience in the contradictory way? Look at the frames below. What do you think?

It is important to note that such framing where the 'Centre of Interest' is to be 'found' with effort may not work when the edit is fast and shots do not stay for long. As is with all decisions of film-making, this decision with regard to composition has clearly been taken while keeping the edit in mind. There are times when this has been pushed to a maximum. And surprisingly, the aesthetic beauty of the frames is still not lost. In fact, these frames look fresh and extremely pleasing to the eyes. Look at the frames below:

And then there are certain compositions that not only play audaciously with the vertical negative space, but also the horizontal negative space, and still, surprisingly, look very appealing (look below). These composition-related decisions actually contribute to the 'voice' of the film, that is self-assured and unique. Without causing any hindrance to story-telling, the choices of cinematography of this film give it a visual texture that would be lost in otherwise generic or conventional aesthetics:

However, the biggest question to ask while studying the aesthetic choices made by the director is, in my opinion, do they serve the purpose of the storytelling? In this case, I think it does, and very strongly so. Not just the compositions add to the central conflict of the film which is very 'internal', by creating unconventional frames in B&W 4:3 ratio, the classical old-school template, it seems the filmmaker is conveying the premise of a certain struggle that the young nun is facing, challenging (or not) the traditional institution of Church and its faith. Is the enormous head-space, then, making room for 'someone' observing our characters from 'above' or, even better, being an omnipresent part of the story and an invisible 'Centre of Interest' for us to discover?

November 06, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Epilogue: The Return of the Story

Consuming movies back-to-back at a festival is very different from experiencing the daily dose of cinema. With more than 30 movies in the festival week, I often find myself simply going through the process, never allowing myself to be completely consumed, and enjoying this mad binging without caring too much about the details of each film. But every year, the increased awareness of cinema and the movie-making process gets tested during this week, as I observe my reaction to the images and sounds unfolding on screen. For example, last year I found myself paying extra attention to the aspects of cinematography - lighting, lensing, and composition, as well as the formats of filming, mainly because I had been focussing on these during the months leading to the festival. It happened very organically, as I saw things I never did before. This understanding into the craft has kept increasing every year, for obvious reasons, and gets reflected in my festival experience. And that's why this year I was amazed at realizing how my approach and attitude to watching films had taken a complete turn as I found myself seeking the most basic element in a movie experience - the story.

After watching ten movies in the first two days, I realised that form and technique, although more naturally evident before my eyes, did not interest me too much, unless it was too extra-ordinary to be missed. My strongest reaction would be directed toward the story - interesting characters in unique situations, going through a significant cinematic journey being part of some meaningful change in the end. I think 'The Little House' did this to me, my seventh movie of the festival. It was being screened through a DVD and the image quality was below average. I even contemplated leaving it for some other movie but decided otherwise. And thank God I didn't leave, because once the story engufed me, with its endearing characters, I really didn't mind about the picture quality. "What a story!" was my reaction as the film ended, and I felt strongly connected with it.

By the third day, it had become evident in the degree of pleasure I received from the movies and for the rest of the festival week, it was to remain one of my major criteria to select what movies to watch. This renewed faith got reaffirmed with other films. 'The Umbrellas of Cherboug' is a musical where every line of dialogue has been sung like a song. It took us some time to get used to it, and most of us found it extremely amusing. But as the film progressed, we were reacting to like any other film -  the story had taken over. 'Life of Riley' is filmed like a play on screen, and that made it very unique, almost uncomfortably so. Soon, I realised, every story element in this film is working as well as it should. We were more concerned with the characters than with the medium through which they communicated with us. And then, of course, there was 'Mommy'. Shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, it looked audaciously weird when it started. But when the story took over, none of us really cared about the ratio, and started reacting to it like any other film. The playful use of the aspect ratio, which was a complete surprise for me, was definitely a bonus by the end.

I am very glad that the signifcance of story has returned back to me, through all the unlearning and learning that movie-making requires. And I hope to stick to the importance I have learnt to give to story above everything else in future as well, especially as a film-maker than a film-buff.

I managed to watch 33 movies in the seven days of the festival this time. The overall experience was not as good as last year's, but in the end I did watch sufficient number of good movies to make it truly special for me. Following are my recommendations from those I watched:

If you are looking for unique, festival-like movies and have the patience and will to give all they require to enjoy them, you should go for:
However, if you want safe bets, well-made, high quality films that entertain you without too much of effort, these are my top suggestions:
I also watched three classics and as expected, they completely fulfilled my expectations. You can check them out as well, if you like classics:
From the sentimental outburst of the Opening Day of MAMI 2009, to watching festival promos directed by me on the screen before the movies this year, I have had such an eventful relation with this festival of ours. After religiously attending six of its seasons during which I watched 186 movies, all I can say is "MAMI 2015, we are waiting for you already!"

November 05, 2014

The Protagonist Puzzle III

Yesterday, I watched David Fincher's latest work 'Gone Girl' (2014) in a packed Tuesday evening show. This morning I read the chapter on 'Protagonist' in Robert McKee's wonderful book, 'Story'. And these two events have compelled me to revisit the discussion on the Protagonist that I had had in two of my previous posts. The first post was about identifying the protagonist in the first two 'Terminator' movies, where I had concluded that Sarah Connor was the protagonist in the first part (1984), while the Terminator was the protagonist in its sequel (1991). The second post had ended with the puzzle remaining unsolved as I failed to identify the protagonist in Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960). This morning McKee solved it for me by introducing me to a new concept.

According to McKee, a story can have three kinds of protagonist:
  • A single protagonist, as is the case with most movies.
  • A plural-protagonist: This is the new concept for me. The author argues that two or more characters can form the set of plural-protagonist if they all share the same desire and in the struggle to achieve this desire they mutually benefit and suffer with their motivations, actions, and consequences being communal. 'Thelma & Louise' (1991) and 'Seven Samurai' (1954) are examples of this. An extreme illustration would be 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), where an entire class of the people, the proletariat, create a massive plural-protagonist.
  • Multiple protagonists: The case where there are several characters pursuing different desires, suffering and benefitting independently. E.g. 'Do the Right Thing' (1989), 'Short Cuts' (1993), 'Pulp Fiction' (1994).


Going by this discussion, both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese form a plural-protagonist in 'The Terminator' fighting against the title character, the antagonist, to save Sarah, and eventually, humanity. Similarly, in 'Terminator 2', all three characters of the Terminator, Sarah, and her son, John Connor form a plural-protagonist up against T-1000, the antagonist, to save John. These two sets of plural-protagonists share the same desire and benefit and suffer mutually in their struggle to achieve this desire.

And, according to McKee, there is a remarkable formal innovation in 'Psycho'. For the first 48-minutes of the film, there is a single protagonist - Marion Crane. And after she is murdered, the three characters of Marion's boyfriend, her sister, and the detective take over the story, forming a plural-protagonist.

I am glad that this new concept has given certain explanation to the puzzle. But the beauty of art, and cinema in particular, is such that it gives rise to more puzzles. And this time, the unsolved puzzle for me, is the latest film I watched - 'Gone Girl'.

Who is the protagonist of this film? For the first hour or so, it is evident without doubt that it is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) - a victim of the circumstances whom, despite his flaws, we want to succeed. His conflict appears to be the central conflict of the film, with odds getting increasingly difficult for him. This gets further affirmed when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), reappears in the film, indulging in an extremely satisfying exposition of the truth, and solving the mystery for us. She comes across as a ruthless antagonist and the film turns into a game of chess being played through the insatiable greed of the modern media, between the husband and the wife, both aware of each other's willfulness, capabilities, and desires. I don't know about others, but I was supporting Nick throughout and hoped that Amy would fail. Despite this, I was amazed at how likeable the character of Amy was - we loved her flawless evil plans and her undeterred resolve. I also appreciated how despite the situation being against him, and he mostly relying on other factors for help and resolution, Nick continued to rise as a protagonist, with his wit, charm, and presence-of-mind. By then end of the third act though, as the story resolved itself, Amy has cleary won, in every possible way. The final act of the film, according to me, is its biggest triumph that makes it different from a regular Holywood thriller. And it achieves that mainly through the masterstroke played by the character of Amy. She wins. Nick loses. And I do not feel totally satisfied, because I really wanted Amy to suffer.

Then I had a conversation with a female friend of mine. She was amazed by Amy. She did not empathise with her, because according to her 'Amy does not seek anyone's empathy'. This friend of mine, without actually meaning to do so, made me rethink the story from Amy's point-of-view. A girl who fell in love and wanted to have a special marriage, realises that her husband is not only a selfish, financially-dependant parasite, he is also cheating on her despite all she has done for him and his family. She vows revenge, and although things do not work exactly how she had planned, she still manages to teach him a big, nasty lesson, something he truly deserved, and makes everything work for her all over again. Is Amy, then, the protagonist of this story, a protagonist who remains physically invisible for the first hour of the film, and then emotionally unrelatable for the most of the rest? I just realised that the author of this story, who based the screenplay on her own novel, is a woman. Does that help, in any way, to solve this protagonist puzzle?

October 22, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #7: The Best Day Saved for the Last

Five more movies. The last day. The total score goes up to 33. The festival comes to an end. And how amazingly!

Theeb (2014/ UAE-Jordan-Qatar) by Naji Abu Nowar set the perfect tone for the day. What stunning landscape. Great sound and music. Really, really liked the film. It had won Best Director at Venice Horizons this year.

Coming Home (2014/ China) by Yimou Zhang was for me the most moving film. A heart-wrenching story of a domestic family torn by the Cultural Revolution, it proved once again why its director is onr of the most revered Asian filmmakers today.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014/ China) by Yi'nan Diao was a glorious tribute to the Noir tradition of Hollywood of the 40s. A fallen cop, a femme fatale, and an ending that remains devastating despite the mystery being solved. Loved its writing - operating within genre space is not easy. And was absolutely stunned by its cinematography. This Golden Bear winner at Berlin this year was a very special film for me, if not so for others. It had also won Best Actor award at Berlin.

Nymphomaniac I and II (2013/ Denmark and others) was my most eagerly awaited movie of this festival. And did it reach upto my expectations? Boy, it surpassed it. Firstly, this was the most personal film I watched this year - only Lars Von Trier could have made this, his authorship is evident in every minute of its five and half hours of run-time. Secondly, I never thought this film could be such an involving and entertaining essay on human society that it was. So playful, apart from being explicit and shocking. And most importantly, especially to someone who has followed the maker and his previous films, it was almost like an open-letter to his detractors about why he is the way he is - an eccentric, unapologetic, shameless genuis. I could not have asked for any other film to end my festival experience.

October 21, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #6: Genre Rules

Watched four movies today, taking the six day total score to 28. I really want to end up at 33, equalling my last year's total. Somehow, after the 5th and the 6th days, I am feeling satisfied with this year's experience. Some very special movies have made it happen. And the last day is supposed to be awesome. Also, now the trailers Devanshu and I made for the festival are playing before every screening. You can watch them by clicking here.

The movies that I watched today were:

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014/ Iran) by Ana Lily Amirpour: An Iranian film. Designed in B&W, like a Western, with great music, and a Vampire love story as its text. Can it get more surprising than this? It seems the film decided to change the image of Iranian cinema single-handedly. What style! What fun! I can watch it all over again. On big screen.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970/ Italy) by Elio Petri: A restored classic. I am so glad I decided to watch these classics. Five minutes into the film and you know what you are watching is so much better than most recent movie. Very unusual crime drama. Very interestingly done. Had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for that year.

Macondo (2014/ Austria) by Sudabeh Mortezai: Very involving coming-of-age story of an 11 year old Chechnyan refugee living with his Mom and two kid sisters. Wonderful performances.

Schimbare (2014/ Spain) by Alex Sampayo: This is a thriller that grows slowly and steadily before exploding into a devastating climax. However, because of its subject and the violence depicted in it, some in the audience could not react favourably to it. I feel sorry for them. Seriously. Because this indeed was a very, very well-made film.

October 20, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #5: Mavericks for Rescue

So, overall I was not very happy with the movies I watched during the first four days of the festival, especially because last year had been so special. And this morning, I hit a new low with Early Spring, Kyoto (Japan/ 2014) by Hiroshi Toda. The film improved by the time it ended, but it remains the weakest movie I have watched in these five days.

I badly needed to rescue myself from this now. I needed an effective and quick redemption. And I decided to watch a classic despite having not booked the ticket for it. The seats were empty and I didn't have any problem entering. So I watched A Few Days from the Life of Oblomov (Soviet Union/ 1980) by Nikita Mikhalkov. What a wonderful dramedy it was? The triumph of a good story, and classical cinematic techniques. This was how the fate of my day turned in my favour.

Because the next movie was supremely engaging, brilliantly written, and wonderfully performed by its players. It was Omar (Palestine/ 2013) by Hany Abu-Assad. What a heartbreaking film about love and betrayal set amidst the Palestinian conflict. There was some technical problem during the screening that first left us disappointed, but then got solved. However, this caused a delay that made me miss my next movie, Goodbye to Language.

And thank God for that. Because, I went in to watch Kim Ki-Duk's latest instead, One on One (South Korea/ 2014). It was such an entertaining film. Watching it with more than 200 people made it even more enjoyable. The day had already been very nice so far. But the best was yet to come.

They say I should not keep in mind the fact that a 25-year old has made this film and judge it despite of that. How can I do that? Especially when every minute of this brilliantly crafted, insanely entertaining, deeply moving film reminds you of the passion and the genius of the man behind it? Mommy (Canada/ 2014) is not only among the very best films of this festival or this year, it will always be remembered for its boldness of craft and content, and an audacity that is endearing and awe-inspiring at the same time. Take a bow, Xavier Dolan. See you at the Oscars this time, representing Canada.

October 19, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #4: The French Connection

Had to miss one movie today because of something that came up at the last moment. I was really upset with the thought that I would be not scoring 35 movies this time as well, but then a friend said: "Make room for life" and that brought a smile on my face that erased all doubts. I will never regret missing one movie. And I think I will always remember this one line, when ever in doubt.

So, 19 movies in four days. Not a bad score at all. And the fours movies of today were all in the French language.

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/ 2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: '12 Angry Men' meets 'The Bicycle Thief' in modern Belgium, with the impeccable Marion Cotillard as the protagonist. How a character apparently good only to evoke pity rises and unfolds into a tremendously admirable human. How a plot that does not have too many options and only one of two possible endings plays with the expectations of the audience. Writing text-book.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (France/ 1964) by Jacques Demy: Classics will be classics. Film will be film. This kind of a musical may not be palatable for many in the audience, but I loved it unconditionally. Had won top prize at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars.

Party Girl (France/ 2014) by Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis: Camera d'Or winner at Cannes this year, which is the award for Best Debut film for the director(s). Such well-developed characters, so effectively shot. Generated unanimous praise.

Life of Riley (France/ 2014) by Alain Resnais: Winner of FIPRESCI prize and Alfred Bauer (for opening 'new perspectives in cinematic art') award at Berlin this year. Last film by the legendary Alain Resnais.

Mumbai 2014 Day #3: Cultures and Communities

Stations of the Cross (Germany/ 2014) by Dietrich Bruggemann: A film in only 14 shots. Brilliant performances. Tremendously involving narrative. Won screenplay award at Berlin this year. And yes, a film on religion is an essential ingredient of the festival week.

Difret (Ethiopia/ 2014) by Zeresenay Berhane: There is something about true stories. In the end when the little girl says, "I don't feel like Ive won anything", I could feel a sudden rush of emotions within me. Very important film. And well-made too. Won 'audience awards' at Sundance and Berlin this year.

Broken Hill Blues (Sweden/ 2014) by Sofia Norlin: A loosely-woven mood piece set in a small mining community in North Sweden. The director was present, and very candidly admitted that she wanted to make this 'crochet-like' film without any clear narrative. Also answered my question regarding not opting for a wider scope ratio because there were certain interior scenes where she wanted more intimate compositions.

Barf (Iran/ 2014) by Mehdi Rahmani: One day in the life of a crisis-ridden family as they prepare for the daughter's engagement. Wonderful characters. Lot of humor. Without losing the touch with truth and reality. The similarity with my feature script and this is uncanny.

Blind Massage (China/ 2014) by Lou Ye: Perhaps the most original piece of work I have seen out of all 15 movies in three days. From content to craft, it had so much to offer. Took time to grow, but its hangover has been tremendous. Won 'Outstanding Artistic Contribution' for its cinematography at Berin 2014, and rightly so.

October 17, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #2: Perfect Scores, Imperfect Choices

Despite not keeping very well, I've managed to watch ten movies in two days, mainly because of the venue being so close to my place, and this online reservation system that I really, really like. It brings down the stress levels to the minimum and you get so much more time to enjoy the festival, meeting more people, taking breaks to eat, and relax.

The five movies that I watched on the second day were:

Corn Island (Georgia/ 2014) by George Ovashvili: Georgia's official entry to the Oscars, this film with minimal dialogue is a stunning document of an old man inhabiting a little river island to grow corn. It was so well shot, and the sound design was very effective. However, the final few minutes of the film left me unsatisfied.

The Little House (Japan/ 2014) by Yoji Yamada: The only Yamada film I had watched before this was 'The Twilight Samurai' (2002) and I hadn't liked it much. But I absolutely loved 'The Little House'. It was a DVD projection and the first few minutes were off-putting, but as someone has said - the most important thing in a film is the story. As the story took over, it moved me, and pleased me, and left me completely satisfied. The actress Haru Kiroki, who played the young Taki had won Best Actress at Berlin this year for her performance.

The Third Side of the River (Argentina/ 2014) by Celina Murga: Honestly, I think I could have avoided this film. It was well-made and the performances were very real. But the story itself was not very involving. Moreover, we have seen so many films about teenage angst that it didn't have anything new to offer.

Clownwise (Slovakia-Czech Republic/ 2013) by Viktor Taus: This film has emerged as the revelation of the festival so far, generating unanimous response among the audience. And the love it is receiving is very deserving. Great characters, put in an interesting situation, with a stunning and surprising use of camera, edit, music, and sound. A perfect film for big screen. A perfect film for a festival, or otherwise.

Beloved Sisters (Germany/ 2014) by Dominik Graf: Germany's official entry into the Oscars this year, this film is an epic period piece about two sisters unusually and willingly falling in love with the same guy. Some very interesting craft-related decisions, and some extremely well written scenes make this really long film an easier watch. I do not personally like costume dramas much, but if you like those, this is a film for you. The Academy might just love it. I won't be surprise to see it in the top five early next year.

Honestly speaking, I am feeling a little underwhelmed after watching the first ten movies at the festival. I really need some really amazing movies on the third day, some truly memorable ones.

October 16, 2014

Mumbai 2014 Day #1: A New Beginning

After watching more than 150 movies in the first five years of my experience at Mumbai film festival, I think it goes without saying what a heartbreak it was to know a couple of months ago that the festival might just not take place this time due to lack of funds. You know what was the first thing that came to my mind? That I'd take one week off during January and attend the Pune film festival. (Not Goa because that would be a little too expensive for me.) But thanks to all those who supported the festival and soon it became a movement - to save this cities biggest and the country's one of the most important film festival. I am filled with gratitude toward all those who contributed toward the cause, making possible what I believe is the happiest, craziest, most exciting week of the year.

So, it was a new beginning for the festival. And it was a new beginning for my relationship with it. Devanshu and I were contacted by Shakun Batra (the director of 'Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu' and now a very dear friend) to direct a promo for the festival. It was simple. All of us, including the twelve celebrities that feature in that 40-sec promo worked for free, to send out a message that there a lot of people who care for it. It was super fun shooting the promo, and I must thank Anupama Chopra and Shakun for this wonderful opportunity. I must also thank my crew, who worked on it for free, only to support us in what we were doing. This could not have happened without their unconditional help. You can watch the promo by clicking here.

And that's why this year the excitement regarding the festival started a few weeks earlier than ever before. We also felt that this is going to be our little contribution to it, and hence went on to shoot a few more promos, getting up early morning for it, even travelling out of the city, taking more favours from friends, and managing it with all other work of ours that we had to complete before the first day of the festival. Then came the bad news. One day before the festival had to begin, I fell ill. We all know how irritating a common viral ailment can be. In this October heat, it was more irritating than ever. I was scared that it might just ruin all these days of excitement. Missing even a single day at the festival was not acceptable to me. The knowledge that viral illnesses cannot be cured by any medicine and no anti-pyretic, anti-biotic drug you give can ‘cure’ you until the self-limiting ailment completes its cycle – did not help. The knowledge that rest and hydration is the best medicine in such scenario did. I also received a couple of messages from people who know how important the festival is for me – one motivating me to get perfectly well so that I can hit the perfect score of 35. So yes, I decided to miss the opening ceremony, and the party after that and slept. By morning, perhaps I was actually better or it was just an effect of adrenaline, I was fine. And thus I scored a perfect five on the first day of my favourite festival.

Before I head out for my second day, let me quickly tell you what in these movies made them contribute to the festival experience. The five movies I watched on Day 1 are:

Over Your Dead Body (Japan/ 2014) by Takashi Miike: Play within a movie. Excellent set-design and cinematography. Surrealism. Body horror. Glimpses of the Japan of the past. A mix of all this was the perfect opening movie for me. Plus the name of the director!

Refugiado (Argentina/ 2014) by Diego Lerman: The directing in this movie was so impressive – the choice of shots and edit, visual design, use of actors, and for creating moments of genuine thrill among the audience. I would be proud of myself if I could direct like this.

Norjmaa (China/ 2014) by Bayaneruul: A breathtaking landscape is good enough to give you an unforgettable cinematic experience. Add to it some local cultural customs, and a couple of interesting characters. An important anti-war film that also inspires in you the need to get closer to nature and to learn to co-exist with it.

Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel/ 2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz: Israel’s official entry to the Oscars this year, the entire movie is set in a room and the space outside it. The way it made the audience react proves once again that all you need to move us is well-done characters. This will be one of the most sought-after movies of the year.

Boyhood (USA/ 2014) by Richard Linklater: No words can do justice to this experience. And if I try to say something really big about it, it might just set a wrong expectation for you. But I can tell you with all confidence that ‘Boyhood’ is unlike anything you have seen before. Shot over 12 years, the ageing of its characters creates an incredible impact over you. Some might think it was a bit too long, I personally did not want it to end. The movie is a work of pure passion and persistence, led by the maverick Linklater and supported by a wonderful cast and crew. That moving pictures are the best interpreters of reality – this film is the most glorious example of it. And for what it does without getting too dramatic or spectacular or profound, but by sheer insight into the human condition, apart from being an unforgettable film project, I have to recommend ‘Boyhood’ as a must watch before you die (#42). If you can let yourself be immersed in this unbelievable experience, you might just learn a thing or two about yourself, or might end up being a better son, a better daughter, a better parent. What more can we ask from films?