August 21, 2014

Short Cuts to Midway

Last couple of days have been particularly wonderful. I finished my 84-page screenplay that I had been working on for the last few months. I had come up with the idea of this film fifteen months ago. And had kept it a secret even with my brother (co-writer, co-director) all these days and finally I narrated the entire script to him. This hardly happens - that he has no idea about what I've been working on for such a long time. And when it happened, it paid off. He liked the script and we know this will be a film we'll be shooting in near future.

I also had a very good meeting regarding an upcoming assignment, the details of which will be out within a week. I am really excited about it.

However, one major highlight of the last couple of days was watching Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' (1993). This film shared the Golden Lion at Venice with 'Three Colors: Blue', which happens to be my favourite film of all time. With the runtime of 188 minutes, 'Short Cuts' is an epic, involving more than a dozen characters from an American suburb, almost as a precursor to 'Magnolia' (1999) and 'American Beauty' (2000). The sheer ambition of the movie is intimidating -  you'll know what I mean once you have watched it. 

'Short Cuts' was also special to me for a reason very close to my heart. It became the 500th movie I've watched from this list of 1000 greatest movies ever made. This list is a really good one and I've been following it very closely. I reached 250 mark in November 2010, 333 (one-third) in November 2011, 400 in February 2013, and finally, with 'Short Cuts', I reached midway. Now the first film I watch from this will take my score to 501, meaning I'd have watched more movies than not from this list. As a cinephile, this is such a great feeling. Despite watching at least 200 movies every year, it has taken me close to four years to take my score from 250 to 500. This is because not every movie you watch may feature in such a list. The validity and relevance of great movies lists can always be argued upon. But for me, such lists always help - by keeping up my enthusiasm and excitement of watching movies of all kinds, giving me a feeling of accomplishment (this entire post has been about that) and also reminding me that there is so much more to be experienced. There are three more 1000-movies lists I follow, and one of those scores reads 298/1000. See, there is so much to be watched. And I must be glad about it!

So, as I celebrate reaching the 500 figure, here are the last ten films that helped me take my score up here from 490.

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949/ UK) by Robert Hamer (Ranked 195)
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975/ Australia) by Peter Weir (Ranked 515)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/ USA) by Robert Wise (Ranked 864)
  • Silent Light (2007/ Mexico) by Carlos Reygadas (Ranked 848)
  • The Killer (1989/ Hong Kong) by John Woo (Ranked 685)
  • F for Fake (1973/ France) by Orson Welles (Ranked 281)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari aka The Crucified Lovers (1954/ Japan) by Kenji Mizoguchi (Ranked 850)
  • My Life as a Dog (1985/ Sweden) by Lasse Hallstrom (Ranked 697)
  • Faces (1968/ USA) by John Cassavetes (Ranked 220)
  • Short Cuts (1993/ USA) by Robert Altman (Ranked 474)

August 14, 2014

On Writing

This is one of the best things I have read about 'writing', one of the most powerful. This is something all writers should read, and also those who say they are writers.

“To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories—science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

- Ray Bradbury (American Author)

August 01, 2014

Narrative Elements of Film

Man has been telling stories much before he learned to write. Through cave paintings, through epics passed on to generations as oral tradition, and then subsequently through different forms of the written word, poetry, plays, novels, operas, songs, comic books, photo features and eventually cinema, the human urge to tell stories has never been satiated, nor has our desire to listen to one. Between all these forms or media of communicating a story there have been some common elements, and then there have been story elements unique to a certain medium. Similarly, what type or kind of stories will work on one medium vis a vis another is also something we have been discovering all this while. For me, personally, it has been a matter of great fulfilment to try to understand the dynamics of cinematic storytelling and how telling a story on film is different from other forms of human expression. In this post, I have tried to briefly summarise some elements of storytelling with respect to the motion picture. This, in my opinion, is only an introduction to the world of cinematic storytelling. So here they are, the eight narrative elements of film:

1. Character: If there is one element of good stories that is common through all ages and narrative forms, and if there is one unbroken rule of successful storytelling, it is this - creating compelling characters whose story the world would want to listen. We, and our society, are obsessed with this incorrigible need to create heroes whom we can look upto, heroes whom we can admire, care for, whose wins matter to us, whose losses we hate to endure. Creating an unforgettable, relatable, likeable protagonist, and making him or her face a ruthless, mean, unforgiving antagonist has been the most common recipe of several great stories. And then, you need to add to the mix an interesting ensemble of supporting characters, an 'orchestration' where the individual parts complement each other like different musical instruments playing together to create a moving symphony. Think of any film you love, and you can be certain that it has great characters. Even writers who have broken different rules of film writing, read Quentin Tarantino et al, have not been able to break this one absolute rule. You want to write a film that the world loves? Make the audience invest in your characters, and the sooner the better.

2. Plot: A story is always a journey that its characters take. Whether it is a self-reflective, internal monologue of a novel, or an adventure ride of a movie - the characters, especially the protagonist(s), undertake an emotional or physical journey that causes some change in them by the end. The course of this journey is marked by events - incidents and experiences that the protagonist faces. The plot is the series of these events, from the beginning, through the middle, until the end, that gives us the feeling of the forward motion (or motionlessness) of the story. The most important events of the plot are often significant irreversible incidents that change the course of the plot and push it further ahead. These events are called Plot Points. When Neo Anderson takes the red pill and decides to understand what is wrong with him, when Bhuvan accepts the challenge from the British Captain on behalf of his village, when Simran meets Raj on the first day of her Europe trip, when Jack saves Rose from committing suicide over the deck of the mighty ship - we know their respective stories have changed irreversibly and moved ahead. These are all examples of Plot Points. The plot can be thin or thick, but it is this that forms the body of your story.

3. Conflict: Imagine what would have happened if Bhuvan and the villagers already knew the game of cricket and easily defeated the British to get rid of their taxes. If Jack were of the same social status as Rose and the ship had sailed smoothly to reach its destination, if Simran enjoyed absolute freedom and she and Raj had no friction whatsoever when they met and her Dad had no problem with him as his son-in-law, or if Neo had a doubtless, riskless journey of realising that he was 'the One' - these stories would be as dead as logs of wood. Conflict is the bread and butter of drama. The more you can involve the audience into the conflicted situations of your characters, the more problems you can create for your protagonists and make them overcome those one by one, the more successful your storytelling will be. Also, any level of conflict or drama starts appearing redundant, repetitive or lukewarm unless you keep increasing the stakes and keep coming up with bigger conflicts. Especially as a storyteller on film, we need to keep raising the tension and thickening the action to make sure the collective attention and interest of hundreds of people watching the film stays with us. How to do it without making it look manipulative or convenient is something we have been trying to learn for all these years. And this is something that each film writer struggles with, even after years of experience.

4. Resolution: So how does it end? If you have told a gripping story, it better end well, or the audience will feel terribly cheated. In cinema, particularly, the ending is very important because hundreds of people are going to react together to it as they exit the theater. And their 'Exit Door Reaction', or EDR - a word that I have coined, can make or break your movie on which crores of rupees are riding. I have read several good novels that have weak final act, but perhaps none of the great movies suffer from this. A climactic resolution to the already thickening plot, a final confrontation of the protagonist with the antagonistic forces, a final Plot Point, that is emotionally, dramatically, and visually the high point of the film is very important to complete your movie experience. And this closure, this resolution of the primary conflict of the film, or the lack of it (as is the case with tragedies), often brings forth the 'point of the movie'. The resolution should also, generally, cause a significant change in the life of the protagonist. After all, is a story worth telling, if it is not signifcant for its own protagonist?

5. Structure: "A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order." This wonderful quote by Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the simplest way to put across the importance of structure. Also, the pleasures of structure are more apparent and impactful in a movie than any other form of narration. From 'Citizen Kane' to 'The Killing', from 'Mystery Train' to 'Pulp Fiction', from 'Irreversible' to 'Memento' to 'Amores Perros' and '21 Grams' - playing with time, twisting the plot, and constantly challenging the audience has been a wonderful game moviemakers have been indulging in. But I would also like to insist that a simple, linear narrative is at times equally powerful, if not more. Imagine the timeless story of 'Bicycle Thieves' told in flashback when the last scene has already been played and then the entire film is an explanation of that. Would that ever cause the heartbreak that the film's simple, linear design does? Determining the correct structure for your story is like deciding on how to dress yourself for a certain ceremony. From your reputation to the impact you can make may depend so majorly on that. Personally, I find this, determining the structure of a film I am writing, the most exciting stage of film writing.

6. Scenes: A scene is the building block of a screenplay, its most basic unit that has its own independent, whole existence. Technically speaking, everything happening at one place at one time in the film is a scene. The moment you change the location or jump time, you have entered a new scene. It is this wonderful ability of a scene to actually make you feel that "you were there" is what makes cinema a "live" emotional experience. Unlike all other forms of narrative, cinema is very much a "real" experience, even when it is telling an outright fantastical tale. So the importance of scenes as its units can never be stressed enough. When does the scene begin (it may enter the 'event' or the 'incident' a little late) or when it ends (we may leave earlier, abruptly, leaving something for the imagination) is as important as the internal dramatic structure of the scene and how the events unfold in it. Also important is the transition from one scene to the other. If scenes are stitched together to form one seamless whole, we very willingly lose ourselves into the universe of our characters. Scenes from great films also create unforgettable moments that gain iconic status in cinema history. Rose and Jack standing together with her arms wide open on the bow of the ship as it pierces the heart of the mighty ocean is an image that will live forever. A moment or scene as cinematically powerful as this can also be among the biggest motivations for the creative talent involved in the tedious filming process.

7. Dialogue: From creating characters that we worship forever to conveying the biggest plot truths, from bringing out the internal and external conflicts to establishing the significance of a powerful resolution, from constructing the internal drama of the scenes to being wonderful transitional devices, dialogue or spoken lines are one of the most conspicuous elements of film narrative. Each line spoken in a film may serve several functions - from entertaining and seducing the audience to making them empathise with even the coldest of characters, and dialogue, as well as conscious and economical lack of it, forms a major part of our movie-viewing pleasure. However, more often than not, bad dialogue also completely ruins the film. "Show, not tell" and "Less is more" - these rules are perfectly apt for film writing. "In a novel, a character thinks. In a play, he talks. In cinema, he does" - this is another broad generalisation that I love. Cinematic dialogue is so different from any other narrative medium. And if done well, smart and tasteful dialogue becomes an inseparable part of popular culture more succesfully than any other story element of films.

8. Visuals: Perhaps the most unique of all narrative elements discussed above is something that is most integral to motion pictures - the visuals. It is no wonder that cinema is the youngest human expression - it had to wait hundreds of years, until photography was invented. And thanks to this "real" reproduction of images, cinema could actually become this powerful and impactful form of mass communication. Apart from making the story appear real and inviting, the visuals in cinema transcend time and cultural boundaries. I so often feel thankful to cinema for having shown me different cultures and lands and people when I have never stepped out of my country. Well-done compositions, purposefully designed color-palettes, and metaphoric use of images not only enhance the aesthetic pleasure of watching a film, they also give film its own unique grammar, form, and expression. It is important to mention 'visuals' as one of the narrative elements of cinema, although its depiction mainly depends on how the film is shot, because a film writer has to understand the visual potential of this medium. And unless the film writer imagines it, great and unforgettable visuals will never be created. And if not for the visual spleandour that cinema is, we would remain contented with the good old novels and fables and folk tales.

P.S. Apart from these eight basic elements of cinematic storytelling, there is one more that some writers and many viewers put a great deal of importance to. It is the 'theme' of the film, the 'moral of the story'. Often during discussions on a film, we tend to emphasise so much on its philosophical message or its socio-political implications. I, personally, do not consider this as an essential element of film narrative. I do not believe in making films to change the world, although I accept the power this medium possesses. I also do not find it an obligation to tell stories with certain moral obligations. For me, the only approach to take while creating a screenplay is to find interesting characters who have got something going on in their lives that is so universally appealing that it will always find audience. And also, I believe, each story that is well told, carries a moral or a theme, whether the writer intends to convey it or not.

July 25, 2014

International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2014: Closing Day

22nd July. The closing day of the festival. Some more short films - fiction and non-fiction. Experienced the amazing cinematic piece - 'Megacities' (1998) by Michael Glawogger. It is one of the best movies I've seen in my life.

The Closing Ceremony was held in the evening. 'Tamaash' won the Best Short Fiction award in National Competition that had 33 other films. This is the tenth award for 'Tamaash' and this win made this trip a little more fulfilling. Another good thing was the screening of award winning films in the end. This time the hall was packed. So 'Tamaash' got a very good response.

Spent the entire night at SP Grand Days - one of the five hotels where the guests were staying. In one of our fellow film-maker's room, we partied all night. It was a party where the room was stuffed with people, all drinking, and singing in turns. Was an unforgettable night.

Went to bed at 4.30 in the morning. Left the city at 6 am (23rd July) with a couple of friends. Bye bye Kerala Film Festival. You were a great experience. And we head to Allepey!

July 22, 2014

International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2014: Days 3 and 4

This has already been a special festival, and mainly because of the kind of fun I've had with friends, new and old. To be honest, until a couple of days ago I had not expected it could be so amazing to be here, and the reasons for that are not all directly related with the festival but what we are doing here with our time.

So, I did watch some more short fiction and non-fiction films. Also watched 'Non-Fiction Diary' (2013), a South Korean documentary by Yoon Suk-jung on the Jijon clan murders of 1994 and the Sampoong Department Store collapse of 1995.

The best film that I watched in these two days was Shabnam Sukhdev's 'The Last Adieu' (2013). Deeply personal and moving, this wonderful film about a daughter's reconstruction of her father's image for herself, a father with whom she had had a troubled relationship before he passed away when she was fourteen, left me touched and teary-eyed. And apart from this strong personal story, it also introduced me to life and the work of Sukhdev, one of the most path-breaking documentary film-makers India has produced.

And apart from watching these films, the trip five of us made to Kanyakumari and back will remain unforgettable for all of us. We hired a car and left Thiruvananthapuram around four in the morning, reaching Kanyakumari by six, minutes before the sunrise. Now that I think of it, it surely was magical and unbelievable that we were sitting at the southern most tip of the Indian mainland, where the three great seas - Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea met. Also, visiting the Vivekananda Memorial was very special for me personally. He was around 29 when he had reached this spot and had meditated here. To be there was homecoming of sorts. And then we returned to the capital of Kerala by one in the afternoon, around when Devanshu informed me about our win at Stuttgart. 'Tamaash' was one of the nineteen Indian short films there in competition and it won the award. This little film has given us so much, including this wonderful trip to the southern most tip of our vast nation. That it is a Kashmiri film seems romantically so apt as I enjoy my days and nights here in Kerala!

July 20, 2014

International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2014: Day 2

The day started with the screening of 'Tamaash'. It was a good screening with respect to the projection and sound, but since it was morning the audience was thin and thus I was a little disappointed. We have increasingly realized that this film is best experienced with hundreds of people watching it together and that, unfortunately, could not happen here.

However, my day was made when I watched 'Katiyabaaz' (2013). Also known as 'Powerless', it is an engaging and entertaining investigative documentary on the power crisis of the city of Kanpur. It is directed by Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa who were sitting one seat away from Devanshu and me at the National Awards. I wish I had seen the movie back then so that I could tell them in person how amazing it was. And one thing that this film reaffirms is that good film, fiction or non-fiction, are made of great, unforgettable characters.

Also watched a couple of other short films, including my friend Hardik Mehta's 'Skin Deep', which I think was very well-crafted. Some of us filmmakers were also called to speak to the audience in a 'Face to Face' session. Looking forward to watching some more movies tomorrow and continue hanging out with some new friends I've made here. This festival has been fun! 

July 19, 2014

International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala 2014: Day 1

Highlights of the day:

  • Screenings started in the morning, much before the official Inaugural Function, and I completely loved this. All other festivals I've attended have nothing but the Opening Ceremony on the first day.
  • Watched a couple of short documentaries made by up and coming Indian film-makers. Met some of them and made new acquaintances.
  • It was great to be joined by Hardik Mehta, a friend and film-maker from Mumbai who is here with his short film 'Skin Deep'. Also, a friend from AFMC visited me. 
  • The projection and sound is really good, as is the seating. Nothing is too fancy here, not much of show, but the real business - screening of films, is being done really well.
  • Watched Kamal Swaroop's 'Rangbhoomi' (2013), an entertaining and stylish documentary on Dada Saheb Phalke's days in Varanasi in the 1920s. It made my day!
  • The Inaugural Function was in the evening followed by dinner. It was great to meet Mr. Gauhar Raza, father of Sahir (our DOP from 'Tamaash'). He is here to talk at a conference on science in films.
Looking forward to the screening of 'Tamaash' next morning!

Must Watch Before You Die #41: The Piano (1993)

I'm in Thiruvananthapuram, attending the Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala and it is late in the night. In a few hours, 'Tamaash' will be screened here. And I'm tired and need to go to sleep. However, I cannot have a peaceful sleep unless I do this thing I have to - recommend this beautiful and moving film I watched on the train, as a must watch. I will keep the post brief for obvious reasons.

What makes a successful film? I think the only essential ingredient for a powerful and popular film is 'characters'. If you have cinematic characters the audience can relate to and care for and who inspire the audience and earn their admiration, you may succeed as a film-maker. Most great films also have a very strong story weaved around these characters played wonderfully by the actors. Some of these great films also have beautiful camerawork and stunning visual design. But not all great film have all the ingredients fitting so perfectly that they leave you spellbound. What if a film told an unusual, yet relatable story of unforgettable characters and great performances from actors, using a location and setting that was an exotic treat where every frame was lit and composed so well that you wanted to create a million posters out of them, had dialogue rich in flavor and texture, used sound and music so hypnotically that you forgot time and space, and ended up being something that was not just a story, but also a poem, and a novel, and an emotional experience you would not want to end? And what if that film made a strong statement about the human condition, and our desires and their morality, with only the shades of grey to paint each character, big and small, so seamlessly and effortlessly that it left you intellectually and socio-politically shaken?

Well, 'The Piano' is one such film - an absolute triumph in every possible way! Watch it TODAY! And I'm sure you would like to revisit it several times in your lives. I definitely would.

July 13, 2014

#8: Puberty's Pictures

I have to start with an apology. It has been almost a year since my last post in the series ‘The Autobiography of a Romance’, which was developing into a favourite for most of you. It was procrastination, more than anything else. And I’m sorry for that. So here it is – the latest post in this very personal series. All those are not aware of it, please click here and read posts from down upwards. I really hope, you won’t be disappointed.

"For me, a normal man is one who turns his head to see a beautiful woman's bottom." - Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Conformist' (1970)

There comes a moment in a boy’s life when he loses his innocence with his own hands, and quite literally so. Today, as a 30-year old man, I do not feel any hesitation talking about it. But seventeen years ago, when it happened to me, in the summer of ’97, it was confusing and scary, but also thrilling and unprecedentedly pleasurable. Today, that image of guilt-ridden misadventures of my little self, looking for privacy in a big, joint family in the summer heat appears almost endearing to me. I wish I could go back and have a talk of reassurance with the teenaged me and advise about having the most of that colourful period of sexual discovery. Back then I had no one to talk to, and for better or for worse, movies were my only guide, this time into the world of forbidden pleasures.

By now you know that I was in this ashram-hostel with no access to TV, or other means of entertainment. I hope you will not laugh with a sense of mocking if I tell you that the introduction to human reproductive system that was only suggestive and left a lot for imagination in our seventh-grade science text book was a big hit in our hostel. Some of us borrowed those well-illustrated manuals from the library for ‘higher studies’ and then the entire dormitory read the chapter on reproduction with more interest than any other topic from any other subject in our course. And we often took refuge in our own secretive acts of pleasure, taking help from newspaper cuttings, illegal magazines, and memories of what we saw on TV during vacations.

1997 was also the year when my Dad brought cable TV home. In hindsight, it can be argued that it was the sudden exposure to all kinds of content, including the unending parade on FTV, that triggered the sudden onset of my male menarche. There was this music channel, I don’t remember its name, that aired a show called ‘Shabab’ at 11 in the night. I had discovered it one night browsing the channels looking for something of ‘interest’. I had the reputation, and rightly so, of being very fond of studying books of all kinds, apart from doing my homework. So I, kind of, earned the right to remain awake until late night and study. Whenever I felt sleepy, I turned on the TV, and then went back to my studies – was the excuse I gave to my parents. The truth was that I kept watching TV all night, until either my eyes were dead tired, or my Baba caught and lectured me. So when I discovered ‘Shabab’, it was one of the most amazingly fulfilling discoveries of my life. The show was a collection of erotic songs from Hindi cinema. The three songs that always come to my mind when I think of it – and I will only hint at those to test your knowledge – starred Pooja Bhatt and Rahul Roy in one, Madhuri Dixit and Vinod Khanna in the second, and Dimple Kapadia and Anil Kapoor in the third. Today, these songs do nothing to me, and wouldn’t do much to today’s kids either, but back then they were scandalous and inviting and I couldn’t bat an eye-lid as they played on TV, on mute!

We also heard about movies like ‘Fire’ and ‘Kamasutra’ (both 1996) but never really got a chance to watch them. I also remember very well that Dad was disapproving of the stuff we watched on TV because we mostly watched trailers and songs of upcoming movies, some of it being lurid, and suggestive. Today, it is so common that perhaps most parents have taken it for granted. Back then it was not. And he used to voice it out to my Mom, his concern regarding what we watched. Mom always replied to him with supreme confidence in me. “Even when he is watching those dirty songs, he is only focussing on the making, the craft and the choreography and music. So there’s no need to worry!” She barely knew that in the very adjacent room, her good son was actually burning with desire!

Raveena Tandon was one of my sex goddesses. ‘Tip tip barsa paani’ from ‘Mohra’ (1994) has to be one song that turned me insane. And then there was this scene from ‘Aatish’ (also 1994) where she is showing off the scars on her body to Sanjay Dutt. Today it all looks so cheesy and cheap. Back then it was pure gold for me. I also particularly liked Pooja Batra who had obviously zero talent but an amazingly pretty smile and something irresistibly sexy about her. I never found Mamta Kulkarni that appealing, although she was a big hit among my friends. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t seen much of her. The famous Rekha-Akshay Kumar song from ‘Khilaadiyon ka Khilaadi’ (1996) was again something I had heard a lot about but couldn’t really manage to see until very late in my life. Strangely, Madhuri Dixit who had a very clean image was an object of my fancy because of two films she did with Sanjay Kapoor – ‘Raja’ (1995) and ‘Mohabbat’ (1997). The white sari she wore in the latter in a rainy scene with Akshay Khanna remained etched in my memory forever. Urmila Matondkar in ‘Daud’ (1997), Rani Mukherji in ‘Ghulam’ (1998), Karishma Kapoor in ‘Biwi No. 1’ (1999) and Sushmita Sen in ‘Sirf Tum’ (1999) were also maddeningly desirable for the little teenager I was. But the best among all these lovely ladies was, I wish you guessed it right, the inimitable and unsurpassable Sonali Bendre. She stormed into the imagination of that innocent boy I was with her dance moves in ‘Duplicate’ (1998). And then, in 1999, came the song that I undoubtedly consider the sexiest motion picture experience of my life, bigger than Sharon Stone’s ‘Basic Instinct’ – ‘Jo haal dil ka’ from ‘Sarfarosh’. To be honest, all the songs and scenes mentioned above have aged really poorly, but not this. It still gives me the same pleasure, albeit minus the thrill I had while trying to catch it in the hall of my house, the hall with four entrances where anyone could walk in from any direction, as it required a serious and meticulous vigil to keep enjoying these pictures on the TV without being caught and getting my reputation ruined forever. It is still intact, by the way. Guess, now that my Mom reads this blog post she will realise what I was up to way back then growing up under her proud protection.

July 04, 2014

The Protagonist Puzzle II

Recently, I watched Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960) for the second time, six years after my first watch. And like with most great movies, the second watch was better than the first. In fact, I could feel the horror so much more this time. And of course, there are certain sequences which are so well shot and edited that you can keep studying them again and again.

However, this post is not on the wonderful cinematic design of the film, about its masterful direction or performances. This post is intended to take forward the discussion I started with a previous post on identifying the protagonist in a movie. And let me tell you, this time I'm fairly confused.


The film starts with Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), a young not-so-conscientious girl, who runs away with some handsome cash belonging to her employer. Do we relate to her or care for her? I don't know. I think I'd care for her, and that too marginally, only because she is an attractive woman. She is like one of those characters from the classic Film Noir who is immoral but still the central character. So yes, whether we care for her or not, we follow her track and it seems she is the protagonist of the film.

She reaches a motel and decides to spend the night there. It is here, around 28th minute after it started that the title character, Norman Bates, enters the film. For the next twenty minutes, we stay with Marion, but increasingly get aware of Norman's dark and disturbed side. And around the 48th minute, Marion is brutally murdered by Norman's 'mother'. Here, the main character whom we had followed since the film began exits the story. Marion is dead. And one hour of the film is still remaining. So the character who was driving the story for close to one hour was not its protagonist?

For a little over the next ten minutes we stay with Norman and see him getting rid of Marion's body, evidently to save his 'mother' from the crime she has committed in a bout of insanity. It is tough for me to think like this because even before watching the movie for the first time, I knew that Norman is, in fact, the 'mother'. But for a viewer who is not aware of this, does Norman become the protagonist from this point, trying to save her mother? Perhaps. I am not sure.

Three more characters join us after this - Marion's boyfriend, her sister, and a private detective. None of them assumes so much importance as a protagonist should. And a little later, after the 'mother' has killed the detective, and the other two visit the local sheriff to discuss the matter, they get to know that Norman's mother has been dead for quite a while. Twenty-five minutes of the film is still remaining and I can imagine how this revelation must have affected the first audiences of 'Psycho'. Even today, I could feel a chill down my spine at this point, mainly because we have 'seen' the 'mother' and cannot believe that she does not exist.

In the final act of the film, Marion's sister and boyfriend go to the Bates Motel with the intention to talk to Norman and his mother and figure things out. Around this time, these two appear as the protagonists - we care for them, they are driving the story, and Norman, by now, clearly appears to be the 'antagonist'. The climax finally reveals the dead 'mother' and Norman dressed up like her, trying to attack Marion's sister, only to be overpowered in time by the boyfriend.

The last seven minutes of the film, and perhaps the weakest, is an explanation about Norman's condition. It is done in a way to evoke empathy for him, although we are still horrified by him. Then we see him, in a wonderfully composed frame, with his mother's voice over. He is there - the central character, the culprit as well as the victim. But is he or was he our protagonist? I just don't feel he was.

A few days have passed since this re-watch of 'Psycho' and I still don't know the answer. Perhaps this is one film where the classic structure of a 'protagonist's journey' or 'journeys of multiple protagonists' is simply not applicable. And this is an extremely rare case. Perhaps 'Psycho' is the story of the antagonist, the villain. Perhaps Norman Bates is like Shakespeare's Macbeth or Othello, and it is his story that we were told through this film. Only, the first half an hour does everything to make us feel otherwise.

June 23, 2014

Our First Film Poem: Ishq ki Ijaazat

You can click here to watch the first Film Poem Devanshu and I have created for online release. It is a four-minute video. And you can read the poem below. Let us know your reaction to it. Thanks.

इश्क़ की इजाज़त

दो इश्क़ की इजाज़त, इल्ज़ाम अब हटा दो,
हम ग़ैर हैं नहीं - ये एक बार तो जता दो.

पूछो ज़रा खुदा से जिसने हमें बनाया,
क्यूँ ख्वाहिशें अलग दीं, क्या रंग ये चढ़ाया?
और बोलते हो तुम कि हम क़ुदरती नहीं हैं,
तुम भीड़, हम ज़रा से, तो भीड़ ही सही है?
अपना सके हमें कोई दूसरा खुदा दो...

सदियाँ गुज़र-गुज़र कर करती रहीं गुज़ारिश,
न तुम बदल सके, न ये तोहमतों की बारिश,
फिर भी हमें हमेशा जो चाहते बदलना, 
इन्साफ ये कहाँ का - बस बात ये बता दो…

यूँ सहमे-सहमे कितने यहाँ छुपे हैं,
क़ायदों के पर्दों की ओट में रुके हैं,
ये क़ायदे उठा लो, बाहर हमें बुला लो,
हमको बराबरी की तुम आज इब्तदा दो,
हम ग़ैर हैं नहीं ये एक बार तो जता दो...

थी क़ैद कब मोहब्बत मज़हब के दायरों में ?
न क़ौम रोक पाई, न ज़ात टोक पाई,
न उम्र के फ़रक़ को भी आशिक़ों ने माना,
फिर आज तक हमें क्यूँ है रोकता ज़माना?
दो दिल ही जुड़ रहे हैं, दे दो दुआ इन्हे भी,
इस दिल के जश्न को थोड़ा अपना मयकदा दो,
हम ग़ैर हैं नहीं ये एक बार तो जता दो,
दो इश्क़ की इजाज़त, इल्ज़ाम अब हटा दो.

June 18, 2014

The Protagonist Puzzle

Okay. So, whether you believe it or not, I just watched the two Terminator movies, for the first time in my life. And let me admit it, I enjoyed them thoroughly. 'The Terminator' (1984) was enagaging and exciting. 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991) went beyond that. It was emotionally moving. And I think it is one mainstream, popular, genre stuff I won't mind watching again and again. This post, however, is not on my opinion about these two movies. It is an attempt to answer a very fundamental question - identifying the protagonist in a story. I hope some of my concepts will be tested and, in the end, consolidated as I discuss the issue below.


Who is a 'protagonist'? Simply speaking, it is the main character in a story. But this vague definition, 'main character', can be gravely misleading. Who is the main character in 'The Terminator'? Is the title character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the main character? And if he is the protagonist, then who is the antagonist? If we do not go into any definition, clearly, the Terminator in this movie is the antagonist, the villain - we fear him, we don't want him to succeed, we are glad when he is 'terminated' in the end. And if he is the antagonist, who is the protagonist? We have two more 'main' characters in the movie - Sarah Connor, the woman whom the terminator wants to kill, and Kyle Reese, the human resistance fighter sent from the future to protect Sarah. Before we try to solve this protagonist puzzle further, let us have some basic discussions about the features of a protagonist in a movie.

The word 'Protagonist' literally means 'the one with the main or primary agony'. In other words, the character whose conflict is central to the story and is of the biggest concern to the audience is the protagonist. The film is actually the protagonist's active and conflicted journey, pursuing something (which is often defined as his or her "want") and/or undergoing a significant change by the end. We care for, admire, and love the protagonist. We look up to him or her. The protagonist also drives the plot, by indulging in active, visible action, and by taking strong, irreversible decisions at significant moments in the film that become 'plot points'.

In 'The Terminator', Kyle Reese has a lot of traits of being a protagonist. He, unlike Sarah, is active in the story since the beginning, he is more dynamic than her and is pursuing a "want" (to save Sarah), and we admire him and trust him and look up to him (as does Sarah). He also takes several key decisions in the film and guides the comparatively passive Sarah, who is clueless about the happenings for the major part of the film. However, I believe, despite all this, Reese is not the protagonist. Sarah, despite being unaware of the main plot, being comparatively passive, and clinging to Reese for survival, eventually comes across as the protagonist of this film. We definitely care for her more than anyone else, and the film is her journey of discovering her importance and that of her unborn child. From being a usual and inconspicuous waitress in an LA cafeteria, she realises that she is a 'legend' and the only hope for mankind some 45 years from her day. By the end, she decides to take care of herself, and her child, and make sure that the hope lives on. It won't be wrong to liken her with the journey of Harry Potter in the first book of the series or of Neo Anderson in 'The Matrix' (1999). At times, we must conclude, the protagonist is not as active and dynamic as we expect them to be when the story begins. But by the end, he or she goes through a life-changing journey, and adopts the centre-stage, defeating the antagonist, with the help of a powerful secondary character. In my opinion, Sarah Connor is the protagonist of 'The Terminator', unless we settle down for a safer conclusion that both Sarah and Kyle Reese are the protagonists, as in most love stories. And 'The Terminator' is very much their love story as well.

'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' has four main characters. The film has an amazing twist in the 25th minute when we realise that the character played by Schwarzenegger is actually there to save the child - John Connor, and defeat T-1000, the advanced prototype liquid-metal terminator who clearly is one of the most menacing and strong antagonists in film history. Sarah Connor returns in the film as well and she is determined to save her child, John, for the sake of humanity. She is not only more dynamic, active, and controlling the course of the story than her character in the first film, but also in comparison with her son, John, who in this movie plays the 'Harry Potter' or the 'Neo Anderson' - a legend who has just discovered that he is way more special than he thought he was. Both Sarah and John are extremely endearing - we completely care for them and we admire them as they take key decisions in the film. For most part, I felt John is the protagonist, very similar in nature to his Mom's protagonist character from the first movie. But in the final act of the film, my opinion changed. I suddenly realised that the Terminator has been pursuing his want most actively in the film, fighting this invincible antagonist and having a journey of his own - learning common sense and colloquial speech, understanding emotions, and fulfilling promises. In the final act, he is almost destroyed, when he rises again, and overcomes the final and the most frightening conflict - the climax, where he saves John and Sarah, terminates T-1000, and most importantly, takes the most vital decision of terminating himself for the sake of humanity. In the closing moments when we see him going away, we may not have tears running down our faces like John, but we do feel a strong sense of gratitude and attachment with this machine that was our hero throughout the film. And the final image, of his fingers curling to form a 'thumbs-up' as his entire body disappears just locks it for us - a cinematic image that will live forever. Perhaps it was the trickery of the title of the last movie that caused this little confusion in me. But in 'Terminator 2', unlike the first movie, the title character is very much the protagonist, like in most movies.