October 31, 2009

Mumbai 2009, Day #2: About Special Men

The day began with one of the best biopics I have ever seen, China's official entry for Oscars: Mei Lanfang (Forever Enthralled), about the life of one of the most legendary Chinese opera performers of all time. It was the kind of cinematic experience you wish about, a fine blend of fact and fiction and of music, art and theatre, with a unique cultural and historical flavour to it. I thought it was going to be my movie of the day. But movies that followed have made it extremely difficult to decide: the heart-warming documentary Unmistaken Child, about the search of the reincarnation of Tibetan master Lama Konchog; the Hindustani film Muhafiz, 1994, (as part of Shashi Kapoor Retrospective) that talks about the state of Urdu in modern India through the last days of a famous Urdu poet; and The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, about a Filipino ladyboy prostitute. All these movies told great stories about special men and each was as good as the other.

Apart from these I saw this Hungarian movie Nem Vagyok a Baratod (I Am Not Your Friend). I selected this film because I am still in awe with Hukkle, the only Hungarian film I had seen before today. And I thought another film from Hungary would be interesting to watch. After the show, I talked to Gyorgy Palfi, the director and I could not believe it when while talking to him I realised that it was he who had made Hukkle. I told him how unforgettable it was and took his autograph.

Also had the chance to meet Paprika Steen, whom I mentioned in my last post, and her director Mikael C. Rieks. When I told them that their film reminded of Kieslowski, they informed me that it has actually been nominated for some award named after the Polish master. Overall, it was a hugely rewarding day.

For the performance of today I would like to mention that of Om Puri in Muhafiz. As always, he excells as the Urdu professor, with a Hindi M.A. degree and an undying hope that Urdu poetry would survive, and through his eyes we witness the personal life of Nur Shahjehanbadi, Shashi Kapoor in an unforgettable performance. Leon Lai in a restricted and subtle portrayal of the Chinese superstar, 'the King of female roles', Mei Lanfang was amazing too.

P.S. This friend of mine, one of my partners in the discovery of world cinema, who was there with me during Pune 2008, has come to Mumbai specifically for this fest. For the next three days, he wll join me there. Looking forward to more moments to cherish...

Mumbai 2009, Day #1: Belonged to the ladies

It does not happen often that you finish watching five movies in a single day, within 12 hrs. But from today, it is going to be my case for one full week. With five great movies today, the fest begins for me. And today it belonged to the ladies.

Two of the five movies had women directors. And all but one had ladies as protagonists: Mar Nero (Black Sea), a beautiful Italian film about the old Gemma and her young Romanian caregiver; Zanan-e Bedun-e Mardan (Women Without Men), a surrealistic political Persian drama about four women and how the unrest in Iran during 1953 affects their lives; Applaus (Applause), a Danish film about the personal turmoil in the life of a famous middle-aged actress; and finally Fish Tank, an English film about the fifteen-year old tough and wiry Mia. I had a chance meeting with Mr. Lekh Tandon and the movie we saw was the disturbing and brutal sexploitation film from Greece, Kynodontas (Dogtooth), which left the audience shocked and enraged.

The best performances were those of Ilaria Occhini as Gemma in Mar Nero, for which she has already won Best Actress Silver Lion at Locarno; and of Paprika Steen as Thea in Applause. But the movie that gave me a truely cinematic experience today was Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, the winner of Jury Prize at Cannes, 2009. The red-black silhouette of the pretty and talented Katie Jarvis dancing to the tune of California Dreamin' made my day:

All the leaves are brown

And the sky is grey,
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day...

October 29, 2009

Mumbai 2009, Opening Day: They Told Me To Go Back

As evident by my last post, I was extremely excited about this day, the opening day of Mumbai Film Festival, 2009. The opening movie was Steven Soderbergh's latest offering, Matt Damon starer, The Informant!. The opening ceremony, followed by this movie was scheduled at 1900hrs. And I was there well in time. They gave me my delegate pass, after looking at the counterfoil of my registration form and informed me that I can join in from the next morning. I was not allowed to attend the screening tonight! "Today's entry is only by invitation." - the girl at the help desk explained with a forced smile. "Well, I don't know who was supposed to invite me.", I said. She couldn't appreciate the humour. I forgave her.

I had waited for this day for two months. I had waited for the evening the whole day. I didn't watch any movie during the day as I had to watch this. And there I was, on my way back. The Red Carpet, the media flashes, the announcements, the music, the Security, the expensive cars, the honourable guests - it was all there. But it wasn't for me. The Mumbai Film Festival had started. And I was going back.

Let me put it clearly. I knew the Opening Ceremony was not meant for the general public. But who cares about that! I was just expecting the thousand bucks I had paid to get the delegate pass would let me in one of the four theaters - all screening the opening movie. The opening day couldn't give anything for me to cherish. Tomorrow is going to be my Day #1.

I don't blame anyone. I forgive them all. But it is true that I was feeling a mix of too many emotions at that moment. One of them was disappointment. Others, too personal for me to talk about. It is OK, I said to myself, and moved towards Landmark book store. The wonderful book on the cinema of Jean Renoir was waiting for me...

October 28, 2009

The Stage is Set...

It has been a long wait. Over two months. And finally, it is over. Believe me, the last few days were real slow.

The only film festival I have attended is Pune Film Festival 2008. Had watched 17 movies in 4 days. It was an experience I could never forget. This year, I missed it. And was gearing up for the 2010 Pune fest, to be held in January. Got to know about this fest to be held in Mumbai and for the past two months I have been waiting impatiently.

Finally the wait is over. I am not going to do anything else but lose myself to this binge of movies. I never watch more than one movie a day, let it grow on myself, read about it and watch another on getting up the next morning. But from tomorrow, I am going to indulge. I hope to finish 35 movies during this week. Have already spent hours planning it out from the schedule they have released. Perhaps the planning was the most exciting part.

I'll have to leave home at 8am. And would return only at midnight, to leave again the next morning. It is going to be a hell of a ride. And although, I would miss the company of my friends who were there with me at Pune 2008, one of them is coming to Mumbai and would join me for three days. And my brother would join me for some shows as well. I can't wait any more. The stage is set just too well...

P.S. I dont know whether I'll have time. But would love to post daily reports about my experience there. Although, it seems too much to demand from myself, I'll sincerely try. C ya!!!

October 25, 2009

Bullshitting With Honesty

Cinema has always tried to translate expression from other media like the novel and the theater, and with an obvious arguable success. Three years ago, I came across this movie, especially recommended by my friend. Today, I’m writing what I feel about it, as asked by another. And as I write these words, I can still recount the experience I had had while watching this unique celluloid translation of the popular graphic novel, Sin City.

Those were the days when I was extremely critical about the stuff I watched, and appreciated. I was extremely choosy and for me the best form of cinema was the realist film with a purpose, a theme, a moral. But as the film opened, I was struck by its beautiful imagery and uplifting score. I don’t remember, but perhaps it was some saxophone playing. And there was this bold use of colour, or the lack of it. It was a visual I had never ever seen in my life. Or had I? This film had indeed managed to infuse life into the art of the graphic novel. For the next couple of hours or so, as I gazed transfixed at the amazing blend of beauty and disgust, I felt the makers shouting in my ears: “We would bullshit! And you would sit and watch!! And it would last as long as we want it to.”

I didn’t feel for the characters, but I admired some of them and hated others. As the film is a series of loosely-linked short stories, there was not a definite graph of emotional connect that I had for it. Instead, it was like being engrossed without being attached. Love making scenes had hardly appeared so magical. Action had hardly been so daringly ruthless. I can not forget two scenes: one that involved the death of the ‘Yellow Demon’, I don’t remember his name, if he had any; and the scene where Elijah Wood’s character gets his limbs, and eventually the whole body, chopped off, and the smile on his lips just refuses to fade away. The directors (there were three of them – Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino) succeeded in such sequences and more because they willingly ignored the realistic temperament inherently associated with film and took a sort of expressionistic approach, greatly inspired by the original graphic novel – a medium where things are indeed magically beautiful but essentially unreal, where stunts are indeed most daring. If any attempt was made to dilute this impact, it would have been just another movie, far from being an adaptation of the original, and an exceedingly disappointing one. Although, the film lacks a connection at emotional level, and those who fail to appreciate its imagery and style might choose to leave it mid-way, or even before, I feel its overtly non-sentimental approach was its style statement and its merit. For me it was a pure cinematic experience.

Having a clear cinematic vision is a rare virtue and being able to achieve that requires tireless effort and character, and most of all – honesty. Whatever seems apparently, I would call Sin City one of the least pretentious movies. Today, three years later, I am a lot more acceptable to film expressions ranging from purely abstract to purposefully documentary, from silent melodramas to long hours of subtlety. I still, at least through the films I want to make, would like to choose issues and convey meaning in a way as realistic as possible, and would like to be known as a maker of serious, important and effective cinema. But I would be equally proud if I could make a film like this. Bullshitting can be fun. And doing it with sincerity and honesty, very much an art. And it finds its patrons. The cult popularity of this film is a fact as true as its merits.

P.S. I just found out that his name was The Yellow Bastard. I love him!

October 21, 2009

The Most Powerful Art Form

The phenomenon of cinema can be studied in three ways: economic, aesthetic and political. The economic aspect of movies is indeed important, but with respect to the economics of the world, it is hardly significant. The aesthetic aspect of cinema concerns with its study as a form of human expression. But it is the politics of films – the way it relates to the world, is something that makes it the most powerful form of art. While the socio-politics of film describes how it reflects and is integrated with human experience in general, the psycho-politics explains how we personally and specifically relate to it. So, in order to study the ‘impact’ of films, we need to study its political nature, which can be done on three levels: the Inherent nature of films, the Mimetic nature of films and the Ontological nature of films (Ontology= the metaphysics of the nature of being).

  • Inherently, its intense communicative nature makes it strongly political. It is a widely popular phenomenon. It represents reality more powerfully and convincingly than any other art form. In fact, the ‘dream function’ of the film is a major reason behind its success and acceptance. Film is plural, rather than unique, that is, it is infinitely reproducible. It is available at regular basis to a large number of people and unlike other traditional arts, it meets the observers on their home grounds. It has also enabled the observer to participate directly in the logic of the film. In fact, this art form has exceeded from being a relation between the artist and the art. It has involved the observer as well, and the relationship between the artist, the art and an active observer is the power of cinema.
  • Mimetic: There is this traditional film debate on Realism versus Expressionism on how to use the medium. Realism celebrates the raw material of films: the realistic plot, characters and issues. Expressionism gives more power into the hands of the filmmaker. It allows them to re-create or modify reality. While the earliest films of Shyam Benegal easily qualifies as an expression of realism, the films of V. Shantaram is the finest example of good quality expressionist film making in India. Whichever be the case, film either reflects or re-creates reality and does it so well that has indeed developed into an essay in which we can work out the patterns of a new and better social structure.
  • Ontological: Film tends to deconstruct the traditional values of culture. While on the one hand, its depiction of sex and violence does disturb the moral norms of the society, its ruthless exposure of the ills of the society is definitely a desirable virtue. Films have historically mirrored the cultural and moral values of our culture and, to a lesser extent but definitely, have helped in modifying them. Cinema today is not only an illustration to sociology, it is an important tool of sociological change.
However, two strong limitations have definitely lowered the possibility of impact of films. One, its production: the huge costs involved do not allow everyone to use this as a medium of expression. It is indeed the costliest art form. Secondly, the channels of distribution are limited. Even if I make a 2-hour film of mine, how do I make people watch it? Another challenge is what cinema faces from television. The phenomenon of TV has appeared to be more powerful than cinema. But, and I invite criticism in this regard, TV is hardly art. Like the radio, it is a medium of communication. It is a tool that broadcasts art forms like music, dance and fiction.

One important point here would be to study the Celebrity phenomenon. Traditional heroes were either fictitious or real. Films fused the two types: real people became fictional characters. In fact, the earliest of Hollywood producers insisted that the actors work in anonymity. Obviously, it was not to happen. And the complex relationship between stars and the public has been a prime element of the mythic and political nature of film ever since. Amitabh Bachchan was not popular for being AB, nor for being Vijay, but for being the Angry Young Man. Of course, later, as he successfully played romantic and comic roles, he became Amitabh Bachchan. Although it seems ridiculous, but it is a fact that the only ‘characters’, apart from the numerous Hindu Gods who are worshipped in a movie-crazy society like ours is (apart from a couple of cricketers) the film stars (the first name that comes to mind here is Rajnikanth). You can dismiss this fact if you wish, but sociologically speaking, it is an extremely valid point. And the interesting observation here is, people do not worship the real man behind Rajnikanth. Neither do they worship the individual characters he plays. It is the fusion of the real and the fictitious that people are crazy about.
It seems appropriate to mention that the basis of cinema is indeed an illusion. What we see on screen is a series of stills that give us the perception of ‘motion picture’. The process is extremely painstaking and clinical and even ‘boring’ for the common man. But what cinema has done is to achieve an amazing confluence of the best of all art forms: fiction, theater, dance, music, architecture and fine arts, not to mention costume design and jewelry design as well, and has emerged as so strong a force that has the ability to move hundreds of people at a time, deeply affecting their emotions, thoughts, belief and value-system. Cinema is an illusion, and what a grand illusion it is!

The article is a part of my personal notes from the study of James Monaco’s brilliant book How To Read A Film.

October 18, 2009

Glorious Basterds!

Chapter 1: Basterds
At Fame, Inorbit last week, I had the fortune of watching a Tarantino film in theater for the first time. And since during this period between his last film and this I had covered his complete filmography, it was indeed eagerly awaited. For the first time I was eager to experience a fresh film of a foreign film maker with whose works I was completely acquainted and in love. The certificate by CBFC, India kickstarted this unforgettable experience. But there was an error. It read 'Inglorious Basterds.' A female voice from behind me announced - "Spelling mistake!" I forgave her. Perhaps she was not aware of this famous 'mistake' in the title of the movie she had come to watch. That when it is Tarantino, 'bastards' can very well be spelt 'basterds'. I forgave her; she was wrong because she was ignorant.

Chapter 2: Inglourious
But then it hit me hard. The movie is called 'Inglourious Basterds', an extra U in its first word apart from the E replacing A in the second. And the CBFC certificate showed 'Inglorious'. May be the lady behind me knows about Tarantino and the movie indeed! May be she is not ignorant at all. And that means she is damn correct about the 'error'. So, this time I forgive CBFC. The point is - however hard you try to know and predict Quentin Tarantino, he still manages to surprise you. You felt you have done it right when you wrote 'Basterds' instead of the literal English-language word. But you still missed a U. You still missed a Tarantino trademark, a beautiful detail.

Chapter 3: Glorious Basterds
After an utterly forgettable 'Grindhouse', Tarantino is back in style. And it was a pleasure to see how he celebrates his love for cinema in this film, and leads us to an unforgettable climax that challenges the history known to man. They say he is getting repetative. I don't care. As long as he does his stuff the way he does his stuff, we're gonna love him. After all, really, we havent seen a lot of things, until we see them through the eyes of QT.

Oh, I'm in love!

Diwali Night. I take the fast train from Churchgate on my way to Andheri. Two gentlemen sit before me. I greet them ‘Happy Diwali’ and the train leaves. Sitting in my window seat, I look at the city that I have made the home of my being and my dreams. And soon I find small slum-like dwellings not good enough to be called houses, but yet decorated in their limited capacity and shining in the spirit of the festival.

I smile.

At Dadar, more people join in. Men making way for more men. Four sit on the seat meant for three, something the gentleman before me calls ‘Bombay adjustment.’ I smile again. ‘You from Bombay?’- he asks. I tell him that I’m from Bihar, living here for the last fifteen months. And then I add that this ‘adjustment’ is one of those things that make Bombay a beautiful city. He smiles back in approval. And I turn my gaze back to my love- this city of dreams, of hope, of life. We, in this short conversation of ours, had shared our love for this city. And all three times when we took its name, we said ‘Bombay’ and not necessarily ‘Mumbai’.

It was sad to know that Karan Johar had to apologise to Raj Thackrey for using ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’ in his production ‘Wake Up Sid’. As Shobha De wrote in her column the next day, Raj Thackrey has clearly missed the point. Couldn’t he see the love this film showed for this great city? I like to call my beloved with names more than one. And does it really matter what name I use as long as I love her enough.

I loved ‘Wake Up Sid.’ And I have an extremely personal reason for it. The film had its warm and emotional moments. But those that choked me the most and brought tears in my eyes most easily were not the scenes of interpersonal relations or joy or sorrow. It was the mention of ‘Bombay’ and the palpable love the writer-director has for this city that affected me the most. As I came out of the theatre, I knew one thing for sure – I’m in love.

Thanks Ayan, thanks Karan, and the wonderful cast and crew of ‘Sid’. Thanks for making me realize that I am madly in love with Mumbai. And I love to call it Bombay. Somebody’s got some problem with that?