December 19, 2014

In Search of Aesthetic Emotion


After watching Rajkumar Hirani's 'PK' this morning of its release, I was instantly reminded of some concepts explored by Robert McKee in his wonderful book, 'Story'. Without spoiling the plot for you in any way, here follow the words of McKee that precisely illustrate my view on the film. All the words are his, but I have edited and reordered sentences to keep it brief and still as powerful and insightful.


NO SPOILERS AHEAD. NOT AT ALL.

In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. Because in life idea and emotion come separately. The two realms influence each other, but first one, then the other. If you see a dead body in the street, you're struck by a rush of adrenaline. Perhaps you drive away in fear. Later, in the coolness of time, you may reflect on the meaning of this stranger's demise, on your own mortality, on life in the shadow of death. In fact, in life, moments that blaze with a fusion of idea and emotion are so rare, when they happen you think you're having a religious experience. 

But whereas life separates meaning from emotion, art unites them. In art, experiences are meaningful at the instant they happen. Story is an instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will, the phenomenon known as aesthetic emotion - the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever. A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual - it does not express ideas in the dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather, the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion.

(Excuse me for interrupting Mr. McKee for a very brief illustration of the above-mentioned concept. Watch any movie directed by Rajkumar Hirani, who is perhaps the only filmmaker in the commerical Hindi movie space constantly exploring the communication of ideas through very basic emotions of joy and pain, all through well-crafted stories. Four movies, and all have this in common - the artist's pursuit of aesthetic emotion. Now, read on, for McKee has more to say.)

The danger is this: When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of the world. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly. This omniscience forces them to become even more creative, more imaginative, and more insightful. Ultimately, they express what they deeply believe, but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue and experience all its possibilities.

Master storytellers never explain. They do the hard, painfully creative thing - they dramatize. Explanations of authorial ideas, whether in dialogue or narration, seriously diminish a film's quality. A great story authenticates its ideas solely within the dynamics of its events. Failure to express a view of life through the pure, honest consequences of human choice and action is a creative defeat no amount of clever language can salvage.

December 18, 2014

#10: My Film Playschool

"You know, places are like people. Some shine, some don't." – Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980)

Through my previous posts in this series, you know that I left my home at the age of eleven for a hostel. Out of all the beautiful things that life has given me, that might just be the most significant – eight years of my adolescent life in this ashrama, because it was, among different things, my first film-school. Or playschool, to put it more correctly.

Spread over thirty-three acres in the holy town of Deoghar, run by the Ramakrishna Mission, it was a world in itself. Vast green football-fields – two for every grade, pitch-white hostel buildings with wonderful, little front gardens maintained by us, a majestic temple at the heart of the plot, dense mango orchards, and ancient banyan trees, the school that started with three students in 1922 had grown up to house boys from all over Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, the North-Eastern states, Bangladesh, and even Delhi and UP. Run on the ethos of the ashram-culture, where all seniors and teachers were referred to as dadas (‘elder brothers’ in Bengali), it was an English-medium school providing modern education under the CBSE curriculum. We were not allowed to step out of the campus except during semester breaks. It had a dairy with over a hundred cows, a giant dining hall, an auditorium, a small hospital-cum-dispensary, an extremely well-maintained and versatile library, a general store, barber shop, cobbler and washer-men. Our daily routine included, apart from attending lectures and hours of supervised self-study, chanting and meditating – twice every day, cleaning our dormitories, attending compulsory PT and evening games, and serving food in the dining hall. There were several outdoor activities and sports, as well as training in fine arts and vocal and instrumental music. Not all of us enjoyed all these different activities and most of the above-mentioned details were nothing but torture for us. Add to this the restrictions we had – all of us were supposed to dress very simply, and alike, even in dormitories or in the play field; we could not talk to our parents over phone – writing and receiving letters was the only source of communication; and we were not allowed to keep comic books, magazines, video games, or portable music systems. Two hours of TV every Sunday was all we had in the name of recreation. I believe it was growing up in an environment like this that shaped my taste, and my sense of pleasure and joy. I also would like to attribute my ability to switch between solitude and working in a team to the formative years in that school, as well as my growth as a storyteller.

After watching ‘Satya’ in October1998, I was eager to share its story with my friends – as most had not watched it. That gave birth to this frequent ritual. Whether it was during the lecture of a teacher who failed to turn up, hiding away from our supervisor during self-study hours, or while having our meals – I was often busy narrating stories of films to some eager audience. The most common exercise was the Sunday afternoon story session that was often ‘pre-booked’ by friends. Those who belonged to a different dormitory could not join us inside the room as it was prohibited. So they would stand outside the window to enjoy these narrations that went on for hours, complete with songs and background score.

Despite the traditional ashrama environment, our school provided me with something that I could not have experienced at home – exposure to English movies. Occasionally, the entire school assembled in the central hall of the library to watch movies played through VHS tapes on a big color TV. ‘Jumanji’, ‘Commando’, and ‘Predator’ are the titles I can instantaneously recall. But the most remarkable experiences were to watch the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy and ‘The Matrix’. I also remember how excited we were to watch the old Western ‘Mackenna’s Gold’ (1969) only because there was one shot of a woman’s nude behind, or how we anticipated that ‘The Godfather’ would have something titillating but turned it off after its long opening sequence that for us was the most boring thing we had seen in our lives. At times, we also managed to watch the latest Hindi releases and I remember watching ‘Gupt’, ‘Dil Se’, and ‘Sarfarosh’ among others. By that time I had a diary of mine where I wrote lyrics of dozens of Hindi film songs during vacations. It was also the time when ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ and ‘Refugee’ had made me fall in love with the use of Hindustani semi-classical music in films. The romance was ripening and the next post in this series will illustrate how around end of 1999 it turned into a singular obsession. I hope to write that special post soon.

However, I have to briefly narrate a really amusing story before I wrap up this current post. All of us unanimously and strongly feared one person in the school – our Chief Warden. A senior monk, but more of an administrator and a disciplinarian, he single-handedly maintained the decorum in the campus where we hundreds of monkeys lived. Despite his strict manners, he allowed the occasional screening of movies, especially during a holiday, as mentioned above. He did not really endorse these movies but some senior students managed to make him accept their request. One such holiday, it might be holi, and we do not know what exactly triggered it, he got furious at our ever-growing demand for movies that he did not really approved of and decided to retort in the most imaginative way. He called for a black-and-white movie from the 60s, one that according to him was a rare good film, and made it compulsory for everyone to watch it. I still remember what horror the incident had created, when every single kid was chased out of dormitories, even those who hardly cared about movies, and those who wanted to spend the afternoon studying or sleeping, and we had to endure that movie under his watchful eyes. It was Bimal Roy’s ‘Bandini’ (1963), the only film that was made a compulsory watch in my eight years of stay there!

Several years later, I met our Chief Warden in Mumbai, and he expressed to me his disappointment regarding my decision to quit medicine for the movies. “What if I tried to make movies like ‘Bandini’?” was my argument that made him nod in silence. Perhaps he got my point. By the time of this meeting of ours, I had watched almost all Bimal Roy films and the brilliance of ‘Bandini’ was more than evident to me. If, as a filmmaker, I could go even half way close to that, I would be very proud of myself. But for the film-buff in me, that movie, and the allegorical importance of it in the lives of all little brats who grew up together in that amazing ashrama, will always remain very, very special.

‘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.

December 08, 2014

A Wonderful Gift for True Cinephiles

Here is something that I discovered recently, a web-site for you to check all the movies you have watched! I am writing about it to share with all my fellow cinephiles this new-found gift to me from the world of internet. Because this, dear friends, is really awesome!

To be honest, if you have watched hundreds and thousands of movies from different countries and eras, after a time you do get confused about a certain title - whether you have watched it or not. It may appear lame - because it doesn't happen with the books that you have read, right? But it does happen with short stories. If you name a certain O. Henry story, chances are that I may not be able to recollect what it was and hence not be sure whether I have read it or not. Hence, a permanent and easy-to-sort checklist does help. Since October of 2006 I've kept a record of all the movies I've watched in the diaries of respective years, but it is in different diaries, and cannot be sorted. IMDB gives you options of 'checking' the movies you have watched, and until now the IMDB watchlist was the most efficient and easy way for me to keep a record. 

But iCheckMovies is several times better. For me, the best thing it has done is the time it saves every day that I spent on poring over my collection of 'greatest movies lists'. There are different lists that I had with me, as .doc(x) files: IMDB 250, Oscar winners, Cannes top films, Roger Ebert's list, AFI, Cahier du cinema, Sight and Sound, WGA, TSPDT, Guardian's top 1000, and so on. Every time I watched a film, I used to search for it in each and every list of mine and mark it as 'watched' in all of them. Plus, I had to keep a mechanical count of each list. If I discovered a new list, I had to spend a lot of time to go through each of its titles, one by one, to check my score. I was happy doing it, and I spent some minutes every day on them, but it did make me feel guilty - of wasting time over something that most would consider a useless and indulgent exercise. But the hardcore, true, sincere, obsessed cinephile won't. We know how much pleasure we derive from it. And hence I carried on with that mechanical checking and counting.

This website has suddenly made things extra-ordinarily easy for me. After watching a movie, if I check it, it is 'checked' in every list it appears in. And there are hundreds of lists there - more than I was aware of, and definitely much more than I could have managed on my own. Plus, there are awards!

The website awards you for your scores on different lists. If you have watched half the number of movies in any list, you get a Bronze, 75 per cent score earns you a Silver, and 90 per cent enables you a Gold. As on date, I have got 25 Bronze Awards on my shelf (Ebert's list, Sight and Sound etc.), 20 Silver (Rotten Tomatoes, AFI etc.), and 3 Gold (IMDB 250, 50 Greatest Crime Films and 50 Greatest Films from the 1960s). There are also Platinum awards - I have none of those. Perhaps it will be earned once I finish watching all movies in one of those lists. And one more thing. These lists keep getting updated (e.g. IMDB Top 250 changes regularly). So it is possible that your score on a certain list falls on a certain day. This also means, these awards are not to be taken for granted. They will be snatched back if your score goes below the cut-off for that certain award. Guess, that is to keep us on our toes and make sure that we keep watching, endlessly, forever! Isn't it amazing? So now go ahead and check all the movie you have watched. Like me, you may end up spending your first day on checking hundreds of them! Have fun, and let me know your scores and awards! :)

December 04, 2014

10 Questions to Understand the Meaning of 'Indie Films'

Independent Films or Indies are widely abused terms a lot of people use without really understanding what they mean. I hope the post below helps you understand the concepts better. Do comment if you disagree with any of my opinions.

Q1. What are Independent Films?
A. Independent films are those that are produced (almost) without any funding from major film studios. Once produced, these films try to reach out to their audience on their own, often also involving alternate distribution channels like the internet, unless they are picked up by a bigger distributor, with or without the backing of a studio.

Q2. Why the term 'independent'?
A. Movie-making has always been expensive. During the early decades of the last century, when cinema turned into a business, it were big production and distribution companies that soon started dominating the market. They were called studios. RKO, MGM, Warner Bros. etc were some of the major studios of Hollywood. It was almost impossible to make a film outside of the studio system and getting it released was even tougher. However, several factors around the 40s and the 50s, including the gradual weakening of the studio system and development of new aesthetics through film revolutions like the Italian Neo-Realism, saw the rise of film-makers who made their films outside of the control of the studios. These film-makers did not have to conform with the notions and formulae of the sudios and thus exerted greater control over their medium than even the most successful of directors working with the studios. This gave the feeling of a new-found freedom, to be able to make movies, and make them on your own terms. Hence, the term 'independent'.

Q3. Does 'independent' always mean low-budget? Also, if my film has no stars, is it an indie film?
A. Not necessarily. If you are a rich man (and not a studio), you can produce a big-budget film on your own, with your own money. That big-budget film will still be called independent. However, since not many are that rich to be able to make movies to fulfill their whims and fancies, and since several rich men are sensible enough to not get into this misadventure, most indie films are low-budget. And I think it will remain that way. It should. Similarly, if a studio funds and distributes a film that does not necessarily have stars, it is not an indie film. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) was not a star-studded film. But it was not indie either.

Q4. Does 'indie' mean 'art-house' or 'experimental'?
A. Not at all. Most art-house and experimental films fail to attract studio financing and hence have to raise money on their own and thus be made independently. But an independent film can be as, if not more, entertaining and commercially viable as a manistream, studio film. Remember, Pulp Fiction (1994) was an indie film. It was super-successful financially, and is among the most watched films of all time, apart from being so critically acclaimed and a major landmark in film history.

Q5. Why do 'indie' films look poor and unattractive?
A. Not all of them look poor and unattractive. I just named Pulp Fiction. But since the production budget of these films is typically low, several of them cannot adopt the gloss that big-budget movies possess. In fact, the success of the indie movement is based on the conviction of the film-maker to rely on content, performances, and a new sense of aesthetic that goes well with the limited budget. The hand-held camera and shooting in natural light or with non-actors are widely popular trends in world cinema. These were all developed when cinema broke free from the absolute control of the studios. Most successful indie films either manage to look 'good' despite the low budget, or come up with an original and exciting design to please our senses. The really timeless indies, like all successful films, are big on content than anything else.

Q6. Is it easier to make an indie film than a big-budget film? If no, then why do some film-makers choose to go independent?
A. No way. How can it be? Arranging so much money on your own can never be easy. And even if you do manage that, making films on small-budgets is always tough. Most importantly, it is film-making at the end of the day, something that is a difficult job anyway. I don't believe any film-maker would choose to go independent if a studio/producer assures him of funding, complete creative control, and distribution. But since that does not always happen with all film-makers and with all films, going indie is the only way out.

Q7. What is the most important ingredient for a successful indie film?
A. The script.

Q8. I have managed to develop/acquire a kick-ass script. And I have crowd-sourced the funding for the film. Guess, now I am sorted, right?
A. That depends on how sorted you are in your head. Is it really a kick-ass script or your passion is too blind to judge it? Is the funding actually in place or these are just promises? Is your budget realistic? Is there a mechanism in place to use that funding in the most economical way? And most importantly, is your director (even if it is you) really capable of directing a film? Does he/she have the undertanding of the craft and the technique?

Q9. Why do so many indie films fail?
A. For the same reason why most films fail, indie or studio-backed. Because most of them are really bad films. Very few films, indie or otherwise, are really good. Plus, even several good indie films fail to reach out to the audience. Those that do manage that suffer from low publicity budget and fail to create awareness in the audience about their release. But the biggest reason is that most of them are bad.

Q10. When will we witness the prophecy coming true - a real indie revolution in Hindi cinema?
A. No one can really tell when and if it will happen. But I am hopeful that the change is already visible. To be honest, a real successful and long-lasting impact will be created only when we have a really handsome number of films that tell essentially good stories in interesting and involving ways, forcing the studios and the distribution model to take notice of us, backed by some important steps taken by the government, and the industry, to nurture the most deserving indie films. I very stongly believe that the easiest barrier to cross is support from the audience - reaching them might be tough, making them love a good movie is really easy. The toughest step in the entire process is to make that good movie. And finding the right script is the single biggest challenge film-makers are going to face, today and tomorrow, indie or not.

'Sulemani Keeda' is an indie film directed by Amit Masurkar and produced by Datta Dave and Chaitanya Hegde. It releases on 5th Dec in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, and Ahmedabad. I have written a song called "Door" for the film. Please watch it and share your comments with us. Cheers! :) 

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).

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

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.