September 26, 2014

Preserving the Impulse that Brought Us Here...

What a brilliant way to start my day!

I'm sharing with you here one of the most amazingly inspirational speeches by an artist. This 30-minute speech by Martin Scorsese is one of the best things you can do to yourself, if you are a filmmaker, an artist, or a motivated human being striving to do something that is different and that requires courage.

"Every step is a first step. Every brush-stroke is a test. Every scene is a lesson. Every shot is a school. So, let the learning continue."

September 18, 2014

Finally I Gotcha, Gump!

A couple of days ago, I was among those 25-30 people sitting in the magnificent IMAX theater at PVR Phoenix, watching this celebrated picture. It can be assumed that most of them, if not all, had come for a re-watch - there will be very few cinephiles who haven't watched 'Forrest Gump'. And all those who know me have always been utterly surprised to find that I haven't, or hadn't, until that day. So, I was sitting there and more than half of the movie was over. We were back after the forcefully and clumsily done 'intermission' and soon came a scene that was backed by this line in Forrest's voice - "It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life". I was surprised how unaffected I was when that happened. It was the scene where Forrest is made to speak at an anti-war rally and comes out from nowhere - Jenny, Forrest's love-interest. Cinematically, that scene looked ambitious and made to create a historical moment. Emotionally, it did nothing to me. It did nothing because it felt contrived, and forced. And by that time in the movie this had happened a bit too much - the writing had been manipulative and relying completely on chance events. Every time I was to get lost in the movie, the writer showed up, and did something smart, which for me was only gimmicky. "Is it again one of those mainstream Hollywood movies that will not be able to stand the test of time, that's going to age poorly?" - I thought. And also - "Winning Oscar over 'Pulp Fiction' was surely a fluke."

Some more minutes passed by. And then I realised I was smiling uninhibitedly at the misadventures of the lead character. I really cannot say when, after that over-critical reading of the film, it eventually won over me. I have to admit that my problem with the movie was only its writing. In every other aspects the movie was an absolute triumph, there was no doubt about it. But eventually, even the writing started making sense. The complete reliance on chance events, the unpredictible structure, the exaggerated plot elements, events happening without actually taking us anywhere in a clear, purposeful direction - everything made sense. Today, two days later, I know I can watch the movie all over again. I think I can also accept, now, that the biggest triumph for this picture is its writing. Finally, I got it, it seems.

The screenplay of 'Forrest Gump' bases itself on the pattern of life, especially an extraordinary life of a seemingly ordinary man. It covers emotions of all kinds, it touches people of as many kinds as can be, and does this with a playfulness, a never-ending sense of humour, making it insightful, uplifting, entertaining, and inspiring at the same time. What eventually convinced me of its greatness was Forrest's repetition of what his Mom told him about life, that it is a box of chocolates, and you never know what you'd get. It was consolidated by Lt. Taylor's belief in destiny. The movie, or its screenplay, has been designed purposefully in a melodramatic way - plot events driving the characters rather than the other way round. After all, isn't life very much the same? I can only call this as an extremely ambitious idea, extremely challenging, because such writing can often fail, and extremely well-executed. Watching this great film unfold before my eyes on the giant IMAX screen for the first time was an unforgettable experience. It seems, my wait of all these years was worth it. That I did not watch it for so long, despite people making fun of me, and a copy of it present on my laptop, and then suddenly a re-release making me travel all the way to Lower Parel so that I could experience it on big screen, in itself is an inexplicable chance event. Had I ever imagined that this is how I will meet 'Forrest Gump' for the first time, a film that I would call one of the most successful melodramas of our time. And hence, almost inimitable.

September 17, 2014

Mumbai 2014: A Look at the Line-Up

A few hours ago, MAMI announced its line line-up for the Mumbai Film Festival 2014 to be held between 14th to 21st October. You can click here to get the complete line-up. It is close to four weeks before the city's favourite film festival returns, after fighting all odds and after several film enthusiasts came together to save it. I thought of writing a quick blog post to create the buzz. So here it is, very quickly, the highlights of the line-up of films from all over the world.

  1. Boyhood: Best Director at Berlin apart from several other awards all over. This latest film by Richard Linklater might just be the biggest high-profile film of this year's festival.
  2. Life of Riley: Alfred Bauer Award and FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin. This is the last film by Alain Resnais who passed away this year after a great filmography that includes films like 'Hiroshima mon amour' (1959) and 'Last Year at Marienbad' (1961). The Alfred Bauer Award at Berlin is awarded to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art" and I keenly look forward to the winners of this prize every year.
  3. The Little House: Best Actress at Berlin to Haru Kuroki. This is the 81st film by the 83-year old Japanese master Yoji Yamada (director of, among others, 'The Twilight Samurai (2002)').
  4. Stations of the Cross: Best Screenplay at Berlin
  5. Difret: Audience Awards at Berlin and Sundance. This film is in competition here and I believe it will emerge as a favourite among most.
  6. Party Girl: Camera d'Or Winner at Cannes. This award at Cannes is for the best first film. Mira Nair had won it for 'Salaam Bombay!' (1988). I look forward to this award as well because it brings forth the film-makers to look forward to. Earlier winners of this award include Jim Jarmusch (1984), Jafar Panahi (1995), and Steve McQueen (2008).
  7. Turner: Best Actor at Cannes to Timothy Spall who played 'Wormtail' in the Harry Potter movies. This is also the latest film by the British master Mike Leigh.
  8. Mommy: Jury Prize at Cannes. The fifth feature by the 24-year old Xavier Dolan who is a Cannes favourite.
  9. Goodbye to Language 3D: Jury Prize at Cannes. This is the latest film by the 84-year old French legend Jean-Luc Godard.
  10. Corn Island: Two awards at Karlovy Vary
  11. I Am Not Him: Screenplay Award at Rome. This is supposed to be a celebrated film in its home country, Turkey.
  12. Vessel (Documentary): Audience Award and Special Jury Award at SXSW
Apart from the films by Richard Linklater, Alain Resnais, Yoji Yamada, Mike Leigh, and Jean-Luc Godard, as mentioned above, the festival brings the latest films by Kim ki-Duk, Ken Loach, Zhang Yimou, the Dardenne Brothers, Atom Egoyan, and Takashi Miike.

This list boasts of the greatest films of this festival. 'Alexander Nevsky' (1938/ Sergei Eisenstein), 'Ballad of a Soldier' (1959/ Grigoriy Chukhray), 'Andrei Rublev' (1966/ Andrei Tarkovsky), 'Dersu Uzala' (1975/ Akira Kurosawa), 'Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears' (1979/ Vladimir Menshov), and the seven-hour epic 'War and Peace' (1968/ Sergei Bondarchuk) are the best of the lot.

I will be eagerly waiting for 'Killa' (by Avinash Arun) that won two awards at Berlin and 'Court' (by Chaitanya Tamhane) that won this year's Venice Horizons Award.

I am also looking forward to 'Girlhood' by Celine Sciamma (the director of 'Tomboy (2011)') and 'The Search' by Michel Hazanavicius, the director of 'The Artist (2011)'.

September 08, 2014

The Truest Love Story

Spoiler Alert: The following post contains several crucial details about 'Vertigo' (1958). Please do not read it if you haven't watched the film yet.

In their first meeting early in the film, when Gavin Elster offers the 'job' to Scottie, Elster talks about the good old days of San Francisco. "The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast", he says, before adding those 'things' - "color, excitement, power, freedom." Later, Scottie visits an elderly book-shop owner, to enquire about Carlotta Valdes, the woman whose spirit has been supposedly haunting Elster's wife. Apart from other things, it is revealed to us that Carlotta was abandoned by her man, who kept their child and threw her away on the streets. "You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom." Last week, as I watched 'Vertigo' for the fourth time, the repeated use of the words "power and freedom" hit me like never before. Was this, the power and the freedom to dump your woman, that Elster was wistfully referring to in the earlier scene? That I knew the real truth behind Elster's plans definitely helped me read his lines in a new light. And my views got consolidated later, at the climax, when a livid and outraged Scottie is confronting Judy after having figured out how he was framed. Here, in the closing minutes of the film when he talks about her relationship with Elster, the words are repeated again - "...You were his girl, huh? Well, what happened to you? Did he ditch you? With all of his wife's money, and all that freedom and that power, and he ditched you. What a shame."

It is easy to dismiss this Hitchcock masterpiece as just another mainstream Hollywood suspense thriller. But then, I don't think it is too difficult either to figure out how deeply layered and hauntingly profound this story is. The example above is an illustration of what J. Hoberman writes in his 1996 review of the film, which according to him is "a mystery that only improves with knowledge of its solution". As mentioned above, the story can be read as a brutal tale of a man's successful abandoning of his woman - murdering her in this case, and the absolute victory of its demonic and invincible antagonist. This shameful act happens every day in each part of the world, although not all cases are covered with such an incredibly flawless plan. But more remarkably, I believe 'Vertigo' is the ultimate love tragedy, as deeply passionate and devastating as most love stories I encounter in real life. I have a feeling that you relate more with Scottie and the film if you are a man, and especially as you age, and see hints of all kinds of love affairs in this film. Please excuse my almost cynical world-view when it comes to love, and allow me to indulge in this reading of the film.

Look at the still above from the wonderfully crafted chase sequence when Scottie is following 'Madeleine'. Scottie is literally 'in the dark' and the woman he is following is nothing but an image - shiny, colorful, bright, and daringly inviting him to get infatuated with her. Hoberman's one-line description of the film is perhaps the most apt way of defining it. He writes that the movie is concerned with "being hopelessly, obsessively, fetishistically in love with an image" and I think the still above is exactly this definition, in these many words and more. But aren't all love affairs the same? When we fall in love, we are actually attracted to and infatuated with an image of the person we think we're falling in love with. That image is always extremely alluring and we are always taking a risk, and willingly so, when we fall for it. Scottie took a risk - he allowed himself to be drawn to the 'mentally-unstable wife' of his old schoolmate. And when that image crashed, the harsh reality hit him on his face. Haven't all of us experienced the same in our love affairs? I must add that I'm not saying that the person we love 'tricks' us into this by projecting a wrong and superficial image of herself or himself. It's just that this is how love affairs get constructed, and both parties are victims of this trickery that love plays on them. Afterall, isn't Judy as much a victim of this love affair as Scottie?

This brings me to another aspect of this love tragedy - the woman's perspective. Let us think of Judy and her story. She is a young girl from Kansas, somehow surviving in San Francisco City to support her mother back home. One day, a rich man discovers her and realises that she looks like his own wife whom he's been wanting to get rid of. So he proposes to her this plan that would make her rich and her life more comfortable than she can imagine. She agrees and they together start tricking Scottie. Until now, it feels like fiction, the stuff of the movies. But what happens next is something that I've seen happening with so many girls. Judy falls in love with Scottie. If we try to figure out the reason behind this, we'll have to agree that her love had hardly to do with the external appearance of Scottie, or the image he was portraying. Roger Ebert mentioned somewhere what he came up with during a shot-by-shot study of the film - that the turning point for Judy would be the day when Scottie 'fished her out' of the bay and took her home. Remember, here we have a single man, finally taking home the woman he has desired, who is 'unconscious'. He undresses her and makes her sleep in his bed. It is almost evident that his conduct during this entire process muct have been impeccable and Judy, who was hardly unconscious, must have been going through all this with great nervousness and terror. Can it ever be easy for a woman pretending to be unconscious to let a man undress her completely in his own house? And when she is going through this entire thing, scared and not knowing where it will take her, she finds that Scottie treats her with care, does not take advantage of the situation in any way, and then when she wakes up, he behaves like a perfect gentleman. I believe, this is good enough for a woman to be exceedingly drawn toward a man. Soon she realises that this man is strongly attracted to her, this man of values. Not only that. When asked about the details he cooks up answers that definitely make him appear 'innocent', even 'cute' - as the woman knows certain ghastly details that he does not. Her falling for him is definitely justified then, just like most girls I've seen fall for their men, in a way much deeper than the other way round.

Even after the successful execution of the plan, Judy does not leave the city and go into hiding - she cannot, although the mastermind, Elster, has fled to Europe. By deciding to stay in the city, hoping to see Scottie just once, she is being foolish. But this is what we all do when we are in love, right? We do foolish, dangerous things. After being discovered by Scottie, she decides to go with the flow. She allows him to dress her and change her despite finding this unbearably hurtful. Scottie indulges in his perverse attempt to resurrect the image he was in love with, and she lets him do that, bit by bit, with the hope of eventually making him love the real her, until her surrender to his absolute power and control recreates for them that fragile love affair that rests on images that we seek and unwillingly (or willingly) portray. The very next scene, after an obvious time-lapse, that image is shattered again. Scottie gets to discover the real and complete truth and this triggers in him a reaction both calm and violent, and hence so dangerous. In his final confrontation with Judy, atop the church, he cries - "Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?" A heart wounded in love always reacts in this way, bitterness and jealousy completely overpowering you, and you act without thinking, until it ends in something that silences you. And if you are as unfortunate as Scottie, it can devastate you forever. The cyclical nature of finding and losing your loved one, often by your own doing and mostly due to matters out of your control, is again a very strong depiction in this timeless tragedy. The loss may not always be the loss of one's life, as in the closing seconds of the film, but isn't it as brutal as that? Isn't the image of a slightly stooped Scottie hanging helplessly over the roof top of the site of the biggest tragedy of his life the image of most of us when we lose our love? And don't we thank our stars when someone we know goes through this and we silently hope to either stay away from love or succeed in it? For me, John 'Scottie' Ferguson has become that dear 'someone' whom I care for since the first scene everytime I watch this film. And mostly, I see myself in his mad pursuit of this woman. If you can see yourself in either Scottie or Judy, you will agree with me about 'Vertigo' being the truest love story ever put up on screen. And I believe, most of you will, someday, if not today.

August 27, 2014

#9: The Moment of Truth

“I've loved you all my life, even before we met. Part of it wasn't even you. It was just a promise of you.” 
– Sydney Pollack's 'The Firm' (1993)

Sometime in early 1998, I proclaimed a movie album to be my favourite of all time. It was Uttam Singh’s ‘Dil Toh Pagal Hai’ (1997). ‘Are re are ye kya hua’ is still one of those songs that uplifts me unlike most others and the romantic wistfulness of ‘Bholi-si soorat’ has been my inspiration as a poet ever since I turned one. One thing that I particularly loved about the music of this film was the programming, including the beautifully fresh interludes. In 1998, I represented my school at several science seminars and congresses. At the age of fourteen, being the only one from my batch to actually get to travel mid-semester was more than any of the privileges I was aware of. It was also the first time I was travelling, and these first long-distance train journeys had turned me into a complete romantic. I had fallen in love with the writings of Ruskin Bond and my parents had bought me my first portable stereo that I could use only on these trips as it was not allowed in hostel. Pankaj Udhas’ ‘Stolen Moments’ and Shankar Mahadevan’s claim-to-fame ‘Breathless’ were among the few cassettes I had, and soon I had learnt the latter’s title track by heart. The album, however, that was to become my favourite companion on train journeys, and still is, was ‘Dil Se’ (1998). ‘Chhaiyya Chhaiyya’ was perhaps the first song I became truly crazy for.

During the summer vacation that year the trailer of one film caught my attention. It was called ‘Satya’. Perhaps not many know that I am called ‘Anshu’ at my home, and ‘Satya’ by my school friends. So, the trailer of this movie appealed to me, and for this reason alone, because otherwise, it looked dry and Urmila Matondkar disappointed me in her all-clad avatar after her act in 'Rangeela' (1995) and 'Daud' (1997). After the vacations, one day, I heard my warden, the only teacher in our Ashrama who talked about movies, mention ‘Satya’. “I’m dying to watch it,” he said and I was left wondering – even a movie like this has people ‘dying’ to watch it? It was a new perspective for me. From that moment, I was taking this movie seriously. A couple of months later, a very close friend fractured his hand and went home for a few days. On returning he raved about the movie, that he had not seen something as stylish and gritty as this. I really valued the opinion of this friend and thus made up my mind to watch this film during Durga Puja vacations.

That October, my parents took me to Kozhikode, Kerala and ‘Satya’ was playing there. My Dad, as you all know by know, was almost averse to watching movies. But somehow, we convinced him to take us to this one movie. I am so thankful to the cinema owners in our country who never care if the people buying tickets for an adult movie are actually adults. My brother and I were not, and ‘Satya’ was an adult film, mainly because of its realistic violence and cuss words. I also loved the dingy look of the theater – we had to go through what looked like a concrete tunnel to enter it. And when I watched it, this was the first movie that completely impressed me, from its first shot, to the opening voice over, to the unlikely gangster character of Satya, and the infinitely memorable Bhiku Mhatre. I loved the songs – ‘Baadalon se kaat kaat ke’, ‘Geela geela paani’ and ‘Tu mere saath bhi hai’, apart from the obviously entertaining ‘Kallu mama’ and ‘Sapne mein milti hai’. This was also the first film whose technical brilliance affected me like never before. The scene where Satya is being beaten up by some goons at the balcony of an old building, overlooking the street below with oblivious passers-by, with the sound of rain being most prominent – no background score, no added effects for kicking and punching sounds – it was more realistic and stylish than anything I had seen before. I also remember noticing how the sound of a scene preceded its visuals, overlapping with the closing seconds of the preceding scene – something that, I later learnt, was called a ‘J-cut’. And the way the film ended, the climax on the day of Ganpati visarjan – it left me spellbound. Even my dad was deeply impressed by the film – he could not believe a film as good as this could be made in the 90s. The impact of this movie can be guessed from the fact that on my way back home, lying down on my railway berth at night when the rest of the passengers were asleep, I actually revised the entire film, scene by scene, in my head. In the months to follow, I would narrate the film to my friends in school, of course with dialogues and background score. ‘Satya’ was thus the first film that suddenly made me interested in the craft of cinema. Soon I was visualizing the filming of the Ruskin Bond stories I read. In my own world, I was turning from a film buff to a film-maker.

This May, my parents travelled to Delhi to attend the function where our directorial debut ‘Tamaash’ won a National Award. Saurabh Shukla, who played ‘Kallu Mama’ in ‘Satya’ and who was also one of the writers of the film, was also there, having won Best Supporting Actor for ‘Jolly LLB’ (2013). For me, the moment when I introduced my Dad to him and when the two men shook hands will always remain very special. Last month, ‘Tamaash’ took me to Kerala to participate in the Kerala Shorts and Documentary Festival. One evening, at Kovalam beach, I was getting some chocolates from a shop where the title track from ‘Dil Toh Paagal Hai’ was playing. As I emerged out of the shop, I passed by a Belgian couple who were humming the song, smiling with a pleasant surprise. I was so fascinated by their reaction to the song that I decided to talk to them. They told me that back in 1997 they were travelling to India, and had watched this film and this song was one of the very few Hindi songs they would recognize. Their two little daughters, who understood no language but French, watched me talk to their parents with an amused smile. It was a sweet little chat. “Au revoir” – I said, thanks to my limited knowledge of their language from the French cinema, as I rushed to the fellow film-maker friends to tell them about this wonderful little incident. It was late evening. The beach was empty and the sea was at its glorious best. Life had come full circle in the form of this wonderful trip to God’s own country where sixteen years ago I had met the inspiration of my life, a film that changed Hindi cinema of the 90s, and me, for the better.

‘The Autobiography of a Romance’ is a series of post chronicling my love affair with the movies since early childhood. To read more posts under this label, please click here and read from bottom upwards.

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!