August 26, 2010

The Beginning is the End!

Hitchcock is the classic text-book - to make you understand the grammar of cinema. Kurosawa adds a legendary and epic quality to it and takes it to a higher emotional and spiritual plane.

And then comes Stanley Kubrick - to make you realize the intuitive potential of cinema and explore its abstractions - to motivate you to keep stretching its limits. No doubt, he has influenced all modern maverick masters.

Remember 'Pulp Fiction'? Of course, you do - where the first scene is the last scene. Many films have used this device in the last two decades and it still continues to work. It is actually an established literary device called In medias res ( Latin = into the middle of affairs), a story beginning either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning.

We, my brother and I, seem to be so much in love with this tool that all three of our completed screenplays begin with the climax of the respective films!

Watched Stanley Kubrick's 'Lolita' today. He used this tool for wonderful effect, way back in 1962! His earlier film 'The Killing' is most probably the first major film to use parallel narration with several tracks going back and forth in time.

Vikramaditya Motwane says, you can learn all you need to learn about film making from Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Kubrick. Just last night my brother and I were discussing this. Hitchcock is the classic text-book - to make you understand the grammar of cinema. Kurosawa adds a legendary and epic quality to it and takes it to a higher emotional and spiritual plane. And then comes Stanley Kubrick - to make you realize the intuitive potential of cinema and explore its abstractions - to motivate you to keep stretching its limits.

No doubt, he has influenced all modern maverick masters.

August 17, 2010

Getting Cinemate: #12 The Lens of the Camera

There are mainly four types of Lenses, based on their focal length (distance from the plane of the film to the surface of the lens):

1. For cameras that use 35mm film, the “normal” lens has a focal length of roughly 35-50mm. It distorts the least and most closely mimics the way the human eye perceives reality.

2. For 35mm film, any lens shorter than 35mm focal length is considered WIDE-ANGLE lens. In a cramped location, these types of lens are used to photograph as much of the subject as possible. Since they enhance the ‘angle of view’, they are called Wide-Angle lenses. (Eg. The fish-eye lens, an extremely wide-angle lens, with angle of view approaching 180 degrees). But it greatly emphasizes our sense of depth perception and often, distorts linear perception as well. Remember those visuals where the person close to the camera appears too large compared to those away; or a fist or a gun approaching the camera loom large!

3. Similarly, focal lengths more than 60mm (up to 1200mm) make TELEPHOTO or LONG lens. They, like telescope, magnify distant objects. They do not distort linear perception but do, and it is useful at times, suppress depth perception. Akira Kurosawa was fond of using this type of lenses. These lenses provide a flattened, staged appearance.

4. The ZOOM lens (focal length between 10 to 100 mm) has a variable focal length, ranging from wide-angle to telephoto, which allows quick changes in focal lengths between and also, during a shot. This effect permits the zoom shot to compete with the tracking shot.

‘Once Upon a Time in Mumbai’ is, as we know, set in the 70s. In spite of a lot of work on the costumes, the make-up, and the sets, and giving them the feel of that era, the film does not remind us of the 70s. It looks very much like a picture of modern times if we can see beyond the production design tools I just mentioned. And the reason for that is the use of Wide-Angle lenses. You will not find a movie from that era that has been shot with this type of lenses. We ‘know’ inside our heads that the distorted, exaggerated feel of a Wide-Angle lens is a modern cinematographic development. Our sub-conscious that relates an era or a place to the pictorial descriptions fed into our brains by images, and more effectively by ‘moving images’, ‘refuses’ to ‘feel’ that these visuals depict the same. Hence they look phony, despite all hard work put in by the production designer, art director, costumes and make-up departments.

That is the power and the limitation of film craft, essentially a collaborative art-form. Each and everything should fall into place in order to create great cinema.

(The technical details provided in this post are a part of my notes from this brilliant book by James Monaco – ‘How to Read a Film’.)

August 13, 2010

Intent and Imperfection

Aniruddha Guha (DNA) writes in his review of ‘Peepli [Live]’ that it ‘leaves you impressed but unaffected’. I read the fairly positive review, trying to find out whether Guha tries to diagnose the reason behind this impression he gets from the film. Perhaps he does. I’ll try to elaborate.

The film is a satirical take on the plight of poor farmers in modern India. The premise is extremely powerful, as it plays around, in a stark black comedy, the expected death of poor Natha. Sex and violence are the most affecting tools in cinema and it has been proved beyond doubt with the all-time success of Exploitation and B-films. And death of a human is as violent as it could be. Weaving a funny tale around it promises just the correct cinema experience. The problem here is that this merit of the film has already been known to us through its long and overt promotional campaign. I believe a film like this can have a much stronger impact if we watch it with no preconceived expectations and, more importantly, any idea about its theme and tone.

But this alone is not the problem with ‘Peepli [Live]’. In spite of brilliant performances, sharp and intelligent lines, and a different, ‘real’, and believable setting, there seems to be something missing. And that ‘something’, in my opinion is the mantra all screenwriting gurus insist on. I would like to name it: ‘Progression and Pace’.

After establishing the primary conflict of the film, the writer is supposed to take us on a journey. Not to a circus where we sit and wait for performers to exhibit their vibrant colours but to an active, involving journey of human emotions. Irwin Blacker brilliantly puts it as: “Plot is more than a pattern of events: it is the ordering of emotions.” To invoke the desired emotional response, the writer has to establish a serious ‘want’ for the protagonist – what exactly is at stake; the higher the stake, better the chance for drama. But to actually achieve drama, the writer needs to elaborate and enhance the conflict. Create obstacles in the path of the protagonist who is striving to achieve his dramatic need. These obstacles, preferably as harsh as they could be, and the protagonist’s efforts to overcome them is what makes drama affecting. His success or failure in doing so is hardly important. And this entire act of confrontation has be to crafted with intelligence and an acute critical eye, making sure that each scene takes the story forwards – it progresses from one plot point to the other with a definitive sense of purpose, remembering that each tree is important without losing the idea of the forest.

‘Peepli [Live]’ has the ‘want’ perfectly in place. But it lacks a purposeful progression of story through well-defined obstacles and attempts by the characters to overcome them. Also, the presence, and active involvement of such a large number of secondary characters causes the plot to meander, not meaninglessly, but diluting the force of the impact. There are sequences where it does work. But if you notice carefully, all those instances in the film are strong plot points and the scenes surrounding them are high on conflict-want confrontational drama. Of course, this is a very orthodox approach of writing films and the Quentin Tarantino school of cinema has always believed in defying such norms. If you are a genius, you can actually make a beautiful and affecting ‘circus-like’ film on a thin plot if you manage to create memorable characters and sequences, as Fellini did in most of his movies. But for all of us who are not Federico Fellini, and I think most are not, the conventional rule of ‘progression with a sense of purpose’ is the rule to follow.

This brings me to the ‘pace’ of the film. Contrary to the common notion, a film need not be ‘pacy’ to make an impact. It is attaining just the perfect pace suiting the mood of the film that matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ has apparently too many things happening without actual progression of the story during the most of its hundred minutes. The story is stagnant, but the ‘events’ are happening hurriedly. So, we do not get time to think and feel the drama that is already minimal. The result is: we feel unaffected. The most affecting portion of the film unarguably is the final act. And I believe the best portion of this satirical film created in overtones is the final sequence, the denouement or the post-climax. Over the faces of Budhiya and Natha’s wife, lost over their bleak fate and ignorance about Natha’s reality, the camera makes an obvious meandering motion backwards. Kieslowski would use such camera movements to suggest some supernatural ‘eye’ looking at our characters. I could not help but feel the same as the camera pulls back and after a long journey through villages and towns reaches a modern city. Without a word more of dialogue or staged action, it presents before us the faces of numerous labourers working at a construction site. One of them is Natha. But who are the others? Aren’t all of these migrants from rural India – trying to survive in the inhuman loneliness of the polluted cities? One of them is Natha, and we have just witnessed his story. But wouldn’t there be similar, if not equally heart-wrenching, stories behind all of these helpless faces? There is so much conveyed during this entire closing sequence, so much of impact using a brilliant montage and camera. And although the closing title reduces it to a ‘fact’ about farmers in India who have left agriculture and spoils the understated brilliance of it for me, it still succeeds fairly. Notice that this entire sequence has only one strong dramatic reveal; otherwise it is just the stagnancy of its progression, or the ‘slow’ pace that generates such a strong emotional response in us.

‘Peepli [Live]’ in my opinion would work better in its repeat viewings, when you already know the story and understand its nature and limitations. It is then that the wonderful detailing and the ‘moments’ in its narration will make you smile. Its business story and importance, or the lack of it, in Hindi cinema history will always be worth discussing. But to understand the triumph of cinema, we need to keep these aside and assess the craft on its face value. The intent of a movie and the courage behind its making must be applauded if it deserves that. And after having done that justly, to really understand the cinematic achievement of it, the craft of the film should be analyzed, of course only if it is worthy of it. Perfection is not the prerequisite for great art, it is the stimulation that it provides to the audience is what matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ does that, by not only making you think about the social issue it addresses but also, if you are interested, by inspiring you to diagnose the merits and demerits of its craft as a work of cinema. That, I believe, is enough of an accomplishment.

Being Beautiful

Talking about the merits of ‘Aisha’, a leading trade-guide (and self-proclaimed film critic) writes: “The film did showcase Sonam as a fashion icon.” Point taken, Sir.

This brings me to something Sudhir Mishra had told me not so long ago. He said: “In our film industry we don’t tell stories, we make lifestyle statements.” Can it be more true? Our films are about what clothes you should wear, about the latest fashion trend; they are about stylish cars and foreign holidays and everything else but honest storytelling. Our stars are not actors, they are brand ambassadors. ‘Aisha’ is really a beautiful film; even those who have hated it admit that.

P.S. My last few posts have been full of negativity and I think that is not the right thing to do in this forum where we should be celebrating cinema. In my posts to follow, I’ll try to stick to discussing cinema. No use indulging in calling bad ‘bad’. Let’s focus our attention in understanding what makes good ‘good’.

August 11, 2010

Gods of Small Things

‘Udaan’ just recently won three awards at the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy, the largest children’s and youth film festival in the world. Apart from winning the second place in the Campania Regional Council Awards based on the results of the juror's votes, the film won the Audience Choice Award for Best Film and the award for Best Music Score. Director Vikramaditya Motwane is glad for Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya – the music director-lyricist duo, whom he calls ‘the unsung heroes of the film’.

Following is my favourite song of the film. Please note the poetry:

चढ़ती लहरें लांघ ना पाए, क्यों हाँपती-सी नाँव है तेरी
तिनका-तिनका जोड़ के सांसें क्यों नापती-सी नाँव है तेरी
उलटी बहती धार है बैरी, कि अब कुछ कर जा रे पंथी.

जिगर जुटा के पाल बाँध ले जो बात ठहरी जान पे तेरी शान पे तेरी
'हैय्या हो' की तान साध ले जो बात ठहरी जान पे तेरी शान पे तेरी
चल जीत जीत लहरा जा, परचम तू लाल फेहरा जा
अब कर जा तू या मर जा, कर ले तैय्यारी
उड़ जा बनके धूप का पंछी छुड़ा के गहरी छाँव अँधेरी
तिनका-तिनका जोड़ के सांसें क्यों नापती-सी नाँव है तेरी

रख देगा झकझोर के तुझे तूफानों का घोर है डेरा
भँवर से डर जो हार मान ले कहे का फिर ज़ोर है तेरा
है दिल में रौशनी तेरे, तू चीर डाल सब घेरे
लहरों की गर्दन कस के डाल फंदे रे
कि दरिया बोले "वाह! रे पंथी, सर आँखों पे नाव है तेरी"

This has to be one of the best written songs of the year. I still wonder whether any popular award function in India has the guts to honour the lyricist for this. The music of the film is not only apt, it is catchy and you fall in love with the songs within a couple of hearings. Sadly, it is next to impossible to listen to these songs. T-Series did not release too many copies of the audio CD. I have failed to buy one in spite of visiting all leading stores. FM Channels will play everything but the songs of ‘Udaan’. They don’t listen to the songs to select them; they look for ‘names’ associated with the songs. Any FM guy would reject the songs of 'Peepli [Live]' if the name of its star-producer were not attached to them. But they played, and the audience loved, and ‘Menhgayi Daayan’ is one of the top rated songs on Radio Mirchi today. But those Amit Trivedi numbers that could have easily been popular due to their inspiring rhythm, easy melody and beautiful lyrics are just nowhere to be heard. This link will take you to the lyrics of other songs from the film. We can easily say that Amitabh Bhattacharya is one of the best in the business as of today. Only, not too many people know him. And this really makes me sad, and angry.

'Peepli [Live]' is already generating positive reviews. But for me there are some things of significance beyond the product. And it is the fact that this ‘small’ film is being produced by one of the most powerful men in the film industry. That is the triumph for the film. Aamir Khan has proved to us that you can use your name to sell almost anything. This fact will remain true even if the film is not too well-made, because its marketing has already done the trick. And if it is a decent product, Aamir’s decision will only gain reputation. Sadly, even if it is a brilliant film and is commercially successful, I doubt it will make producers like Yash Raj Films stop making films they make and turn their attention towards content and originality. And if 'Peepli [Live]' fails, I can already imagine these ‘Gods’ of Hindi commercial cinema laughing on Aamir’s ‘stupidity’.

Poor Cinema, mon amour!

Post ‘Shwaas’, the Marathi film industry has undergone a revolution and a significant number of filmmakers have emerged, telling wonderful stories in simplest but effective ways. As my producer says, “It is a wonder how they manage to make such beautiful films with little resources. These Marathi guys, they know the fuck they are doing!”

‘Knowing the fuck you are doing’ is not an easy thing. Watch ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’ and you’ll know. The film tells two similar stories. The main story is about a simple man with the heart to follow his dream, who gave India its first motion picture, kick-starting a movement that has turned into the most prolific film industry in the world. Today we remember him as Dadasaheb Phalke, after whom the highest cinema honour in this country is named. He had nothing when he was struck by this dream of film-making – not even the basic technical know-how. But he learnt, and he invested all he had, and he endured the disparaging remarks of the people around him. He was a Howard Roark with a smile. And his ‘Raja Harishchandra’ was indeed the fountainhead of Indian cinema.

The second story is not what the film tries to tell, but the film itself. The writer-director was inspired to tell the story of Phalke. And he does that, simply, and effectively, and again, with a smile. It doesn’t try to sound profound or motivational; neither does it even slightly try to exalt its protagonist. Instead, it takes a funny, entertaining course. It doesn’t try too hard to affect you, but it does so by being itself. Simply written, simply shot – you will be amazed by the impact some of the scenes shot purely in master shots have on you. Paresh Mokashi’s work is something that even the Grand Old Man of Indian cinema would have been proud of. Good filmmakers do not worry about what resources they can not afford, about things they can’t control. But they know what it takes to make a good film, and have the heart to do so, as evident in a scene from the movie:
The cinematographer (asks Phalke while shooting an outdoor sequence): “What about those jackfruit trees?”
Phalke: Didn’t they have jackfruit trees in those days (during the days of Raja Harishchandra)?
Cinematographer (wonders): Jackfruit?
Phalke (insists): It is the story that is important.

It is this uninhibited art of storytelling and the love for the medium that has resulted in the cinema of today – cinema that we all love. And then it really pains me when I get to know the work culture of Mumbai film industry. The more my brother and I are discovering the way they make films here, the more we are filled with disgust. And we feel pity for poor cinema that they treat like a whore. They use it to fulfill all their sensual pursuits and hardly care for the art, or the lack of it, that is resulting in some truly embarrassing works. When Phalke tried to get some female actors for his film, even the prostitutes refused to do this ‘lowly’ job. He and all other great visionaries after him made sure that the art of motion picture gained the stature it deserved, so much so that it would be difficult for anyone to decline a film offer these days. Sadly, most having reached there do everything but taking care of the cinema they are making. It is Hindi cinema that is blamed for being mediocre, when it should be these self-proclaimed ‘filmmakers’ who are the real sinners. Oh, my darling, I wish I could do something for you!