December 19, 2011

30 Big Lessons from a Short Film

1. Making short films is the best way to learn film-making.

2. Unavailability of equipment, finance, or professional crew should never be an excuse for not making a film, esp. short. I had these inhibitions. No more.

3. Zero-budget does not necessarily mean zero-budget. A budget of 3-4K can also be considered zero if spent extremely judiciously.

4. Working with a child actor is fun. But it has its costs.

5. Working with more than one child actor is a pain, especially if they know each
other well. They treat the shoot like a holiday and have a blast, making your job impossible. Next time, cast children unknown to each other.

6. You are not the most stressed person on set. Possibly, it is the actor.

7. While scheduling the shoot it is not important to consider whether it is manageable by you. The bigger question is – is it manageable by the actors. Make sure they are comfortable and not over-worked. Their mental health is more important than your own.

8. An appropriate performance is only appropriate. You have to put in extra-effort (and I don’t know what it means) to extract something magical from your actors.

9. Do not be satisfied with the actor performing the way you expected. Inspire him/her to surprise you every time you take a shot. Or your film will be only as good as your narration of the script.

10. There are times when you let the actor improvise the way he/she wants. There are times when you follow the lines from the script verbatim. Making the right decision at the right time is the difference between an ordinary and a good film.

11. An actor improvises a line. You like it and shoot it. But make sure you have one good take of the line as written in the script as well. The improvisation may appear out-of-sync with the storytelling when you edit the scene. There was a reason why the writer spent such a long time writing those lines. Respect the written word.

12. Do not ‘Okay’ a take until you have seen the framing and the performance in a monitor. The LCD screen of the camera is deceptive, uselessly deceptive.

13. After the first day of shoot, you wonder whether you should continue making films.

14. The second day is always much better than the first.

15. If you are determined to learn and improve, by the end of the third or fourth day, you will see an obvious positive change.

16. Shooting is like a mad festival. It is stressful, but it is fun.

17. Murphy also functions invisibly. Even after a relatively smooth shoot, when you think you got what you wanted, he can surprise you at the editing table, when you realize you just do not have good takes to complete the film.

18. Like always, the only way to counter this invisible face of Murphy is – planning. Meticulous planning may not always work, but it will always be better than not planning.

19. The biggest merit of planning extensively is – it keeps you stress-free during the shoot, and that enables you to take vital on-the-spot calls.

20. After watching the rough cut, you feel how wrong your judgment during the shoot was.

21. Try not to be ashamed of making big manipulative changes during the edit. Editing is as much your storytelling tool as any other. To be honest, it is the first step where the script starts to lose its relevance. You may end up making a film different from your initial vision, but if it works, nothing else matters.

22. There is a massive difference between the rough cut and the final cut. Massive. Huge.

23. Good sound design can enhance the performances too, especially in the non-dialogue shots.

24. Imaginative use of background score can be your movie-saving tool.

25. Understatement is an art to be mastered. Inexperienced makers attempting understated drama may end up with something that looks superficial and barely affecting.

26. Over-reliance on the script may be as bad as ignoring it.

27. It is difficult to decide which of the two realizations is more painful – that your filming could not do justice to your writing, or that your writing was not good in the first place.

28. If you had planned well, you can still end up with a bad film. But you will be better placed to diagnose where you went wrong. All points above prove this.

29. The best way forward would be to plan the next short film, giving particular attention to address the specific problem areas you experienced and diagnosed.

30. Life as a film-maker is going to be full of insecurities and self-doubts. And this is something no level of planning or practice can prevent. Hence proved: despite trying to be an elaborate planner, a shrewd manager and a deft craftsman, filmmaker is ultimately an artist! ;)

Black Diamond Lady

The December edition of Filmfare celebrates 60 years of its icons. From Ashok Kumar to Kareena Kapoor, the magazine has covered forty-eight icons from the history of Hindi cinema. I'd lost interest in the magazine after high-school, but I really liked this latest edition, especially the rare pics that it has assembled.

Each star is headlined with one line, some apt, some ridiculous. Following are the one-lines I liked, in alphabetical order:

Aishwarya Rai: It's a Wonderful Life...

Amitabh Bachchan: The Grandmaster

Ashok Kumar: The First Superstar

Balraj Sahni: The Thespian

Dharmendra: Man for All Reasons

Guru Dutt: Poet of Angst

Jaya Bachchan: Next-Door Darling

Jeetendra: Luck Supreme

Madhubala: India's Sweetheart

Meena Kumari: Tears, Idol Tears

Mumtaz: Spice Rack

Nargis: First Lady

Nutan: Acting Ace

Parveen Babi: Bohemian Rhapsody

Raj Kapoor: The Ringmaster

Rekha: Against all Odds

Rishi Kapoor: A Suitable Man

Salman Khan: Dark Knight

Sanjeev Kumar: World of His Own

Shashi Kapoor: Charm Grenade

Smita Patil: As Time Goes By...

Tabu: Far from the Madding Crowd

Zeenat Aman: And God Created Woman

The magazine is also conducting an online poll on the most iconic talents in the history of Hindi cinema (including music directors, lyricists, and the most iconic film). If you are interested, vote by visiting

December 12, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #23: The Age of Innocence (1993)

After a really long time, a love-story has affected me so deeply. Despite being set in the 19th century, amidst the superficial lives of the upper class New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ is devoid of any hint of melodrama, and manages to strike a chord universally. I believe it will continue to do that forever. It is one of those non-Hindi films I can show to my Mom, and then discuss in detail, drawing parallels from the profoundly mature and moving stories of love and longing by Gulzar (Read ‘Andhi’, ‘Mausam’, ‘Ijazat’). And I’m confident that most people out there, who have loved, or loved and lost, will cry the tears that only welled up my eyes. (And that is a big cut-off as I hardly get sentimental watching love stories!)

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning eponymous novel by Edith Wharton – the first female author to win the award. In one of the film’s many brilliant scenes, the narrator, aptly in a female voice, shares with us what the male protagonist thinks about her innocent wife: “He thought it was wonderful how such depths of feelings could coexist with such an absence of imagination.” Note the amazing insight it provides into the characters. The tender purity of this line echoes all through the 140-minute film and I believe it required a woman to write something as beautiful as this.

And I also believe it required a master like Scorsese to translate it to cinema so effectively. Scorsese in my opinion is a film-maker who makes European Cinema set in America, and uses the best of Hollywood to form strong and unique authorial expressions. Not many film-makers have managed to achieve that incredibly impressive balance between art and commerce, niche and popular, substance and style, or form and content. So ‘The Age of Innocence’ is not only one of the most beautiful film you will see, its beauty goes beyond sets and costumes to the magical mix of inventiveness and classical film grammar. It is one of those films which you can enjoy watching on mute, as well as by just listening to the sound-track with your eyes closed. Of course, you would not prefer to close your eyes, especially because of the amazing performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. The intricately nuanced acting by them is one of the biggest achievements of the film, and perhaps the biggest reason to watch it all over again. ‘The Age of Innocence’ celebrates cinema’s unique confluence of all forms of expression and tops it all with a rare sensitivity. You have to watch it, soon.

December 04, 2011

Bolo, Dirty Dirty Dirty!

This Friday afternoon, after buying the 55-rupee ticket for Rs100 at Gaiety from Abdul Bhai (name changed to protect identity), we had a short chat. He was glad. The movie had opened really well. Standing at the gate of the iconic theatre, as if he owns the premise, he was also aware of the 'House Full' status of Chandan Cinema at Juhu. "Vidya Balan has pulled it off amazingly, carrying the film on her shoulders!" - he beamed.

Vidya Balan - the casting choice that had shocked us all, has proved to be the only reason to watch the film, so much so that it's difficult to imagine some other actress playing this role. With possibly one of the most unforgettable female roles in Hindi Cinema, she has successfully obliterated my judgment of the film. It was quiet an emotional experience for me, because I was not just watching her act or perform, but also wondering what the actress would have gone through in order to do what she did. Thanks to the inconsistent writing of the film, I was able to detach and think and appreciate her so much more - reminding myself of her filmography and admiring her guts to do something as outrageously bold as this. The fact that I found her barely titillating or 'hot' helped me think of her as a woman rather than an object of desire - which could have hardly happened with some other actress. The film surely failed to do justice to her, but perhaps I didn't mind that. The 'hero' had overawed me, and that experience was more than what I had expected. Just one scene can summarize my opinion of the film - the pre-interval 'award function' scene. I would have hated that scene in the screenplay and no one in the world could have convinced me that it will work. Vidya Balan did, by making the scene memorable and by making the scene her own, and going well beyond it. She surely goes well beyond the picture as well.

Another interesting question is troubling me for the past two days, since I watched this film - how else could have the writer approached the character? The writing was truly one-dimensional and devoid of any depth that this fascinating character apparently promises. But then was there any other option? I may be wrong, but the character in real life must have been frankly superficial, kind of disillusioned, and must have gone through terrifying conflicts from within - trapped in the whirlpool that she created for instant 'success', going deep with every passing day, till the time she could not afford staying alive. To treat this character truthfully would have resulted in a dark and disturbing psychological drama, with the protagonist so flawed that we could have only pitied her. Instead, the writer decided to project her as an underdog, an optimistic dreamer, with smart and quick decision-making abilities, and charm and confidence. Under the garb of her 'bindaas' attitude, the writer managed to cover the disillusioned, superficial character she was, and made sure the audience rooted for her. Though I want to determine a better approach of writing this character, the choice made by the writer was perhaps the only way to make a commercial entertainer out of it. The black marketeers should thank him for the same reason for which the critics are being harsh in their reviews. It is, after all, for the makers (including the writer) to decide what they would like to hear - "More Dirty, Less Picture" from a critic, or "Haan bolo, Dirty Dirty Dirty!" from those swarming at the gates of single screen theatres, reaping the great opening the film has made.

November 26, 2011

Old Enough for School

Three years ago I was living the most challenging phase of my life.

I had completed my MBBS, after flunking the Gynaecology paper once. But was not out of college, as I needed lakhs of rupees for breaking the bond of not serving in the army as a doctor. I had not started my Medical Internship and wasn’t planning to. People I hardly cared about were successfully instigating the people I cared about, and both groups regretfully believed I had gone hopelessly insane. The documentary film project, that I had got within one week of landing to this city, was stuck. I was living in a small one-room flat at Dahisar with my Mom and brother, though my little room at AFMC Boys Hostel was still under my name. That sequence of this life’s wonderful movie was full of unhealthy melodrama, albeit without any background score. Worst of all, I was waiting for it to get over, like a helpless protagonist, who can do nothing by himself, except keeping faith.

It was then that I chanced upon a blog by one of my juniors. And that made me think – should I start a blog of my own? Should I use this medium to stimulate my creativity and gain some motivation? A blog of my poems, or just random ramblings about things I see and observe. No, I argued. That would be making my egotistical nature ‘officially’ available for the world. If I start blogging, it should be something about others, rather than me. And then, like it has often happened, Cinema came to my rescue.

I wrote four small posts within the first three days of starting this blog, which I proudly named – ‘Cinema is Forever’. I didn’t know what it was going to lead to, just this – I would dedicatedly use this space to celebrate Cinema, without actively publicizing it.

That was 22nd of November, 2008. Today, three years later, this blog has become an essential part of my existence. I constantly try to come up with something every now and then, working hard to score low on egotism, opinionated views, uni-dimensional criticism, and trying my best not to show off – though I doubt if I always succeed! This blog has become a platform to vent out my ‘reading’ of the medium, and the joy of the same. During my hostel days in school and then at AFMC, for close to a decade, movies had been my most favourite topic of conversation, in the dormitories, at mess tables, in the dissection hall, the hospital wards, everywhere. This blog makes sure that the ritual continues – in a more formal way, perhaps, but with equal conviction and enthusiasm. But even more importantly, this blog, and its modest number of ‘followers’ and ‘page views’, inspire me to a continual study of Cinema and its numerous facets. On turning three, I suppose, this little blog is ready to go to school now!

This post, unlike most, is very personal and uninhibitedly egotistical. But on the occasion of the Third Anniversary of this blog, I allowed myself this indulgence. Many of my earlier posts appear amateurish to me today, and my struggle with the English language continues. But that is the fun of it – trying to do something passionately without the insecurity of being judged, and hoping to improve with time. I should have written this post a couple of days ago, but was busy shooting a short film. After the last day of shoot, I watched two movies at PVR – George Clooney’s ‘The Ides of March’ (2011) and a special screening of Martin Scorsese’s ‘GoodFellas’ (1990). There could not have been a better way to celebrate this anniversary. A post can always come later to share the experience and the unending love for the ‘most beautiful fraud on earth’.

November 19, 2011

Context and Subtext of ‘Sleepy John’

Using songs with a great context is something Hindi cinema has traditionally been proud of. But this trend has been gradually disappearing. So, it was wonderful to watch ‘Kun Faaya Kun’ and ‘Hawaa Hawaa’ in ‘Rockstar’ – two songs, among others, to have been used with great contextual significance. However, it is ‘Hawaa Hawaa’ that impressed me the most – and the reason is that it went beyond the context into an intelligently communicated subtext. And this inspired me to write this post.

Spoiler Alert: Please do not read further if you have not watched ‘Rockstar’ and plan to.

When Janardan (Jordan) reaches Prague for a cross-cultural music show, he meets Heer – now married but not happily so. She is not well and seems to have lost interest in the ‘fun’ of life – a taste of which she had had in the dirty bylanes of Delhi where she had spent a few weeks with Jordan. Now, he inspires her again to do all that she wants to do. And they make a plan. What follows is a song, ‘Hawaa Hawaa’, with local street musicians, while a montage shows us Jordan and Heer visiting the forbidden places of pleasure – the cheapest of bars, striptease clubs, red-light areas and all, and the two enjoy that time with a childlike rebellion against the social norms. We are not supposed to approve of what they are doing, especially because Heer has not informed her husband or in-laws, but we do not complain either. These two are like innocent and harmless rebels, who only want to have some fun and do not care about the ‘norms’ of society. (This is also in tune with the theme of the movie, and the mid-point of Jordan’s relation with Heer, and thus works very well here).

However, I’m not sure how many of the audience paid attention to the lyrics of the above-mentioned song, which underlines this sequence with a great subtext. The song is based on ‘Sleepy John’ – a local folk legend of Czech culture. Click here to read the short story. And please hear that song paying attention to the wonderful words.

The lyrics have been adapted for the film. It tells the story of a queen who wears out twelve pairs of shoes every night. The king gets suspicious and tries to find out where she goes. It is discovered that every night she descends into hell and dances with devils, uninhibitedly, unashamedly. The king is shocked to hear this and prohibits the queen from leaving the palace. The queen replies by saying that she is not happy confined within these walls of gold. She wants to be free and is willing let go of all wealth for freedom. As she says this, the earth gives way to her and she descends into hell forever, to live with ‘bad people’. And then she dances freely ever after…

P.S. I only wish the intended subtext behind the film were as beautifully and convincingly portrayed as this song. I would have loved the film then.

November 14, 2011

Childhood Forever

"Steven Spielberg's films tend to convey a certain "heaviness" with regard to adult life but joy and belief with regard to the children. He is at his most effective in his films that focus on childhood... and in films where the adults act like enthusiastic adolescents..."

Thus begins ‘Childhood Forever’ – the chapter on Steven Spielberg in the book ‘The Director’s Idea’ by Ken Dancyger. The point made by the author appears very interesting and valid to me. If I could summarize the discussion, it would be this:

• Choice of Stories: For Spielberg, plot is the most powerful narrative element, standing above and beyond character. He makes sure not to limit himself with a simple, logical progression of plot, but keeps thickening it, using it to challenge his protagonist, each step being more dangerous than the last. And thus he prefers genres like action adventures, thrillers, and war films.

• Choice of Characters: Generally, the protagonist is ‘ordinary’ and easy to identify with. His actions are elevated to heroic levels because of a powerful antagonist, who often tends to be cartoonish or one dimensional. Women characters have youthful spunkiness and looks compatible with their ordinary-looking male partners. Spielberg always works with children – expressive, energetic, curious, and always creative. These kids are never lonely or troubled with problems of life, but with the conflict of the story. Spielberg also always has at least one larger than life supporting character who provides the charisma lacking in the other adult main characters.

• Approach to the Medium of Cinema: Spielberg, like Hitchcock, is playful with the medium and his joy in filmmaking yields a special experience for his audience. The most obvious result of this is that Spielberg is the single most successful commercial filmmaker in film history.

• The Craft: His use of camera and edit is guided by a simple principle – keep the story clear, moving, and exciting. The narrative clarity is extremely important – what is happening at every moment, as is dramatic punctuation. He also makes sure that we ‘stay’ with his characters and never forget whose point-of-view we are experiencing at any moment.

• Favourite Element in his Films: Spielberg loves pure action. He always creates breathtaking sequences of chase – rendering every moment so clearly that we always know who is winning or losing at what point. He often defies logic to make such sequences more exciting – which also explains every other point mentioned above. His choice of stories and characters, and his perpetual joy to play with the wonderful medium lead to their glorious best in sequences like these.

‘Jurassic Park’ was the first Hollywood movie I saw as a kid. Till date, purely for its nostalgia value, it remains one of my favourite films. I do feel like a child when I think of that wonderland of dinosaurs. Watched Spielberg’s latest ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ this morning. I’m generally not keen on watching animation and/or 3D movies. This was both, and yet, I loved it. The facial expressions and body language of the characters were so genuine that my usual complain with the ‘fakeness’ of animation movies was taken care of. I had not consciously planned to watch it on Children’s Day. It just happened. That’s life’s screenplay for you!

The First Third of a Long and Blessed Journey

Almost exactly a year ago, I had written a post celebrating my 250th movie from TSPDT's list of 1000 Greatest Movies of all time. A little while ago I finished watching 'Spartacus', my 334th movie from the list. I am glad to have finished one-third of this long and blessed journey of watching the greatest films.

'Spartacus' is also my twelfth and last Kubrick feature (not counting the 72-min long, least-seen 'Fear and Desire' that the director himself disowned later) and my 210th film this year (not counting the not-good ones).

Following are the last 10 movies that helped me reach the figure of 334. It features some of the biggest names, and thus looks good!
  • 'Strangers on a Train' (1951) by Alfred Hitchcock
  • 'El' (1952) by Luis Bunuel
  • 'Kes' (1969) by Ken Loach
  • 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) by Martin Scorsese
  • 'Jaws' (1975) by Steven Spielberg
  • 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' (1948) by John Huston
  • 'The Wrong Man' (1956) by Alfred Hitchcock
  • 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957) by David Lean
  • 'Wild at Heart' (1990) by David Lynch
  • 'Spartacus' (1960) by Stanley Kubrick
Looking forward to reaching the 400-mark. By this rate, it should happen about a year from now.

November 09, 2011

The Fundamental Need for Catharsis

“… cinema’s preeminence is arguably due to its unparalleled power to make us see and feel from another’s point of view. Through the screen, we can temporarily become braver, funnier, stronger, angrier, more beautiful, more vulnerable, or more beset with danger and tragedy. A good movie sends us out energized and refreshed in spirit. This cathartic contact with the trials of the human spirit is a need as fundamental as eating, breathing, or making love. Art, of which the cinema is but the youngest form, nourishes our spirit by engaging us in surrogate emotional experience and implying underlying patterns.”

Just today I read this passage from a wonderful book I’m reading these days. It’s called ‘Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics’ and is written by Michael Rabiger. It’s a great book because it insists on and inspires to, over several chapters, find an authorial voice, a compassionate heart, and a storyteller’s knack. I’m already one-third into it, and the technical aspects of film-making are yet to begin. I’m looking forward to that as well, but one thing is certain – it’ll be these early chapters that I’ll keep revisiting, for years to come.

I was especially affected by the above-mentioned lines by the author. I had never thought of cinema in this way, though it makes so much sense now. It is as if you already knew something, but never realized you knew that until someone pointed it out to you. Thank you, Mr. Rabiger.

And I feel so lucky to have watched Nanni Moretti’s ‘The Son’s Room’ (2001) on the day that I read these lines. The movie is a warm and moving tale of a family trying to cope up with the loss of a loved one. Using a simplistic design, but some unforgettable characters, it does take you through a ‘surrogate emotional experience’ and you do end up ‘refreshed in spirit’. Movies like these are like a rare beautiful dinner with your loved ones, like one odd evening at a quiet beach, like writing a simple but personal poem after a long, long time – you don’t know how much you needed them, until you actually made time for such experiences. I would like to share these lines from the song 'By this River' by Brian Eno that features in this film. It is brilliant in the context of the film. Do watch it soon!

“Here we are stuck by this river,
You and I underneath a sky
That’s ever falling down, down, down,
Ever falling down…

"Through the day as if on an ocean,
Waiting here always failing to remember
Why we came, came, came,
I wonder why we came…

"You talk to me as if from a distance
And I reply with impressions chosen
From another time, time, time
From another time…”

November 08, 2011

One More, for the Poet

This is going to be a long post. But I cannot help it. For the first time I’m writing a second post on the music of a film. And I had to, for the wonderful lyrics of ‘Rockstar’, because they are the latest elements to enrich the already beautiful world of mine. So let’s begin with a few lines from the album:

तुम लोगों की इस दुनिया में हर कदम पे है इंसान ग़लत...
मैं सही समझ के जो भी करूँ, तुम कहते हो ग़लत....
मैं ग़लत हूँ तो फिर कौन सही?
मर्ज़ी से जीने की भी मैं क्या तुम सब को अर्जी दूँ?
मतलब कि तुम सब का मुझपे मुझ से भी ज्यादा हक़ है?

With these words begins ‘Saadda Haq’ – a song that truly incorporates the essence of Rock music in a Hindi film song, perhaps for the first time. The words that follow always instigate and provogue a relatively calm person like me. I wonder what it can do to the restless bundles of youthful energy out there, for whom it might become the latest anthem. Here it continues…

इन कतारों में, या उधारों में, तुम मेरे जीने की आदत का क्यूँ घोंट रहे दम,
बेसलीका मैं, उस गली का मैं, ना जिस में हया, ना जिस में शरम...
मन बोले – रस्में जीने का हर्जाना, दुनिया दुश्मन, सब बेगाना, इन्हें आग लगाना,
मन बोले, मन बोले – मन से जीना या मर जाना.....

Still no set pattern, no obvious rhyme scheme, but so much of powerful poetry, and so true to the genre. And the best is to come…

ओ इको-फ्रेंडली, नेचर के रक्षक, मैं भी हूँ नेचर...
रेवाजों से, समाजों से क्यूँ तू काटे मुझे, क्यूँ बाँटे मुझे इस तरह?
क्यूँ सच का सबक सिखाए, जब सच सुन भी ना पाए?
सच कोई बोले तो तू नियम-क़ानून बताए!
तेरा डर, तेरा प्यार, तेरी वाह – तू ही रख!

Of course we have to credit the music director for composing such a popular song out of these lines, and the singer for expressing it so powerfully in his voice, but I find it amazing how Irshad Kamil, the brilliant lyricist of our time, has managed to express the inherent angst of a Rock number using a language that is not naturally capable of doing that. Writing something that is simple yet powerful, youthfully rebellious yet not unreasonable or ridiculous, popular yet profound – all of this in Hindi language for a film song is extremely difficult. It’s not a surprise that we do not have many such songs in our film history.

‘Rockstar’ has a strong voice in its songs. The above-mentioned song expresses a rebellion, loudly, uninhibitedly. And the following song uses the same character in a different situation, a passion-filled moment:

मेरी बेबसी का बयान है, बस चल रहा न इस घडी,
रस हसरत का निचोड़ दूँ, कस बाहों में आ तोड़ दूँ,
चाहूँ क्या जानूँ न, छीन लूँ, छोड़ दूँ, इस लम्हे क्या कर जाऊं?
इस लम्हे क्या कर दूँ मैं जो मुझे चैन मिले, आराम मिले?...
तुझे पहली बार मैं मिलता हूँ हर दफा...

And then, ironically, there is this song about the inability to express….

जो भी मैं कहना चाहूँ बर्बाद करें अलफ़ाज़ मेरे,
ओ या या, या या या, या या या......
कभी मुझे लगे कि जैसे सारा ही ये जहाँ है जादू, जो है भी और नहीं भी है,
ये फिजा, हवा, घटा, बहारें – मुझे करें इशारे ये,
कैसे कहूँ कहानी मैं इनकी?
जो भी मैं कहना चाहूँ बर्बाद करें अलफ़ाज़ मेरे,
ओ या या, या या या, या या या......

Whether it is the confused flight of a wanderer (रंग-बिरंगे वहमों में मैं उड़ता फिरूँ....) or the blessed togetherness of lovers (तुम हो पास मेरे, साथ मेरे तुम हो यूँ, जितना महसूस करूँ तुमको उतना ही पा भी लूँ...) the poet appears to have felt each of these different emotions and has expressed himself in the intimately personal way only poets can. There are also, a couple of fun songs, especially impressive being an adaptation of ‘Sleepy John’ – a folk legend of Czech culture. In this song the play of sounds is amazing and infectious – I wish to memorize it and keep singing aloud. And then, like almost all Rahman albums of these times, we have a voice of the Sufis….

रंगरेजा रंग मेरा तन मेरा मन, ले ले रंगाई चाहे तन चाहे मन....
सजरा सवेरा मेरे तन बरसे, कजरा अँधेरा तेरी जलती लौ,
कतरा मिला जो तेरे दर पर से, ओ मौला.....

जब कहीं पे कुछ नहीं भी नहीं था, वही था, वही था, वही था, वही था.....

हो मुझपे करम सरकार तेरा, अर्ज़ तुझे – कर दे मुझे मुझ से ही रिहा,
अब मुझे भी हो दीदार मेरा, कर दे मुझे मुझ से ही रिहा....

Hindi cinema is fast losing its glorious tradition of songs, and good ones have become so much rarer. But when an album like this comes, it suddenly changes our personal worlds – our homes start ‘sounding’ different. These songs carry in themselves the proud tradition of Hindi poetry and film lyrics, and supported with great modern music and a purposeful voice, they start breathing like lovable beings. Receiving them begins essentially with our initial superficial reaction to the music, and this time too, like many Rahman creations, it was full of confusion and dissatisfaction. But then the songs start growing, and finally one day you pay slightly more attention to the words – the day when the unsung poet rises – and his expression completes the experience. I am confident that the director, Imtiaz Ali, has had a big role to play in the success of this album. And it is immensely satisfying to see the super-talented Mohit Chauhan rising up to the opportunity to literally be the ‘voice’ of the album and confirming himself as one of the finest singers today. The music of ‘Rockstar’ has been a wonderful experience. I only hope the movie does not turn out to be ordinary – because that will spoil the pure experience of listening to its songs. A year ago I was in love with the music of ‘Guzaarish’ and after watching the movie I have hardly ever played those songs. I didn’t do it intentionally. Guess a not-so-good movie is still powerful enough to spoil things. Hoping ‘Rockstar’ is not one of them.

The Evolution of the Best

These lines open the music album of one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year.

फिर से उड़ चला,
उड़ के छोड़ा है जहान नीचे,
मैं तुम्हारे अब हूँ हवाले हवा...
अब दूर-दूर लोग-बाग, मीलों दूर ये वादियाँ...
फिर धुआँ-धुआँ तन, हर बदली चली आती है छूने...
पर कोई बदली कभी कहीं कर दे तन गीला ये भी ना हो...

Beautiful poetry, but I hope you notice the lack of any structure or rhyme scheme in it – so much so that it hardly appears to be song. It is fluid, and relies more on its inspiring content and the magic of phonation. This summarizes my opinion on the brilliant sound-track of ‘Rockstar’. A R Rahman is not only ‘back with a bang’ and has reaffirmed that ‘he is the best’, but has improved upon himself, and has come up with something so surprisingly new, even from his standards. Please do not take these words to mean that I consider ‘Rockstar’ as the maestro’s best work. Let me make myself clearer.

There is something about great artists – whether they desire for it or not, they tend to go beyond their individual creations. Watching individual great movies is fun, but what I truly cherish is something from the filmography of a great filmmaker – and read it not only as the movie per se, but by understanding its place in the filmmaker’s career. So even a lesser film by Luis Bunuel is important because it helps us understand, or at least speculate, how it helped in the shaping up of the master’s career. Today when the Coen Brothers make a genre film like ‘True Grit’ (2010), we read it as their attempt to break free from their comfort zone. This is also the reason why I loved Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ (2008), which disappointed some of my friends who worship his other works which are way more complex and philosophical.

So when Pandit Ravi Shankar plays a certain Raaga, our main interest is to observe ‘how’ he does it, ‘what more’ does he add to it. When the experts on cricket discuss the style of Sachin Tendulkar, the most fascinating thing for them is how he has managed to weave in subtle variations in his method and approach, something that has enhanced his longevity under all conditions and, most importantly, has enabled him to stay at the top for such a long time when other great batsmen have come, ruled and retired. That in my opinion is the evolution of the best – or perhaps, the evolution required to remain the best.

For the past half-a-decade or so, Rahman has surprised us with his attempts to go beyond his usually great work. A lot of such efforts did not please me initially – it took me some time to realize that he is more concerned about surprising and outdoing himself than impressing us. That took some time, and a couple of years went by without any phenomenal music album by him (the last great album by him in my opinion was ‘Delhi 6’). But now when he is back, with a director who has always had an ear for pleasant, yet surprisingly different music (listen to the songs of ‘Socha Na Tha’), a lyricist who is one of those rare poets in Hindi films today, and a film about music – Rahman has delivered one of the best works of his extraordinary career. Not only it has an amazing mix of genres, and the songs appear to be emoting – of love, rebellion, and spiritual enlightenment, the most striking feature for me is how confidently and successfully he is abandoning structure and composing songs which are fluid and complex, but still hummable and potentially popular. The music of ‘Rockstar’ reminds you so much of the magician we have loved for two decades now, but it also establishes him as a genius who refuses to settle down and whose quest for perfection continues. He has made me greedier, and I am looking forward to his next album now – ‘what more can he do’ has become my pleasant concern as a lover of his music.

November 01, 2011

The New Blockbuster

Watched Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975) only yesterday. Though I knew what to expect, and I love almost all major films made by him, it left me a little disappointed – there was this certain flavor of a ‘commercial’ movie that spoiled my experience. I must explain here that I love well-made commercial cinema. But when the elements to make a film popular are too apparent and on-the-face, I get a feeling of dishonesty. To add to that, ‘Jaws’, in my opinion, suffers from poor editing (ironically it grabbed an Oscar for that). The edit was spectacular and not true to the dramatic and emotional flow of the film. I could never feel for the characters, despite some gimmicks like the protagonist being slapped in public by the woman who lost her child to the shark. Rising tension, building up of suspense, which are so critical for horror-suspense genre was missing. Even a brilliantly created sequence like the one at the beach where Chief is the only person worried about the shark, and the above-mentioned boy is killed, has the feel of a very deliberate editing. May be I was expecting too much. May be I’m thinking too much. But somehow, I’m always put off by such films where one moment the hero is scared and fighting the villain with stylish valour, and the very next moment he shares a one-line joke and laughs like he has nothing to worry about. So after the climactic ordeal, when the two characters in ‘Jaws’ look at each other and start laughing, I’m sorry – that was just too much for me.

‘Jaws’ however is widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made. And when I read about it, I got something very interesting to share, especially relevant in the context of the most talked-about and widely debated movie playing in the theatres today, our very own ‘Ra. One’. The rest of my post is still about ‘Jaws’ but can be read with the perspective of ‘Ra. One’.

‘Jaws’ was one of the first ‘high-concept’ films – that rely on a brief catchy premise powerful enough to inspire the making, and attract financing. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ – the name itself describes the film and its commercial potential. Such films rely on a fantastic idea – ‘what if we could clone dinosaurs?’ ( ‘Jurassic Park’), so much so that generally the character development suffers. This is not universally true (‘Inception’ is a high-concept film with well-developed characters), but generally, and with ‘Jaws’ I could exactly feel that.

However, the historical significance of ‘Jaws’ is much more than that. It is considered a landmark film for a very special reason. The term ‘blockbuster’ was initially used for films that performed exceptionally well at the box-office. With ‘Jaws’ a new definition came into being. Quoting from Wikipedia: “ …the usage of 'blockbuster' for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.” This is interesting to me – ‘Blockbuster’ as a genre. When ‘Jaws’, made at only $9 million, grossed fifty times its budget at the box-office, it had set a new record, and kick-started the ‘summer blockbuster’ trend. Next summer it was ‘The Omen’ (1976), and then it was ‘Star Wars’ (1977) that forced studios to release a big movie during the summer months for instant revenue. This can easily be likened to the current trend in our country where big movies are released around Diwali, Id, and Christmas and make it big by cashing on the ‘festival blockbuster’ phenomenon.

‘Jaws’ is also an important film in the history of film distribution and marketing, as it was the first to successfully use the ‘wide release’ distribution pattern. Before this film, they relied on slow opening and word-of-mouth. Even a hugely successful film like ‘The Godfather’ had opened in only a handful of theatres. ‘Jaws’ changed that – it was released simultaneously on hundreds of screens, with a big nation-wide marketing campaign. It was the first film to extensively use TV for its promotion. Within the first weekend of its release, it had grossed an amount almost equal to its budget.

Cultural phenomenon, commercial landmark, father of the summer blockbuster, marking the beginning of a new business model – with these terms used to discuss this movie, we are forced to look at it from a different perspective. Its contribution to cinema, the costliest and riskiest form of human expression, is no less. Movies like this ensure at least one thing – the trend of going to movie theatres will continue. If such fantastic festival money-spinners are not made, and we limit ourselves to dramas, theatres will soon be obsolete and the audiences will choose to experience cinema sitting in their drawing rooms. I dread at that thought!

October 30, 2011

Gurudev Uvaacha #2

“To create the Storyteller, you have to bring alive not only the telling, but also the tale—that is, you must give the narrative the integrity of a quirky human mind that sees, weighs, wonders, feels, and supposes while the story unfolds. Do this successfully, and your work will have the humor and intelligence of work with a human character. In the struggle for high-concept plotting, filmmaking’s factory processes often trample the humanity out of their work. Few films have the feeling of a human soul, but when they do, audiences universally respond. It takes a director with a clear, strong identity—one not overwhelmed by the people and the procedures.”

- Michael Rabiger in his wonderful book 'Directing - Film Techniques and Aesthetics'.

October 23, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Epilogue: That Low Feeling

The last evening at MAMI always leaves me sad. This time I also felt guilty, of not being able to watch as many movies as I could. I could watch only 28. The factors were many: some technical problems with the screenings, the need to miss one movie in order to stand in the queue of another, missing the morning shows because of remaining awake all night, among others. But if I could sit through 35 movies during my first MAMI, when I had to travel every day for 3-4 hours and eat bad food, I don’t think any number of excuses can defend my low score.

The good thing, however, is that I am not saturated with movies unlike my first MAMI. And I can start my one movie a day routine soon. Also, I have started working immediately, and it feels as if a new professional year has started.

This time there were so many people I knew at MAMI. The number will only increase every subsequent year. So basically, when MAMI ends, you don’t only miss that madness and the movies, you also miss the company of those people, who for that one week share the biggest passion of your life. And hence the hormonal system of the body makes you feel low. The next day after the last most of us were feeling really bad. We needed something to cheer us up. And then some of my students started thinking of organizing a mini-fest at their place. I won’t be able to join them for that, but have selected the movies and prepared a schedule for them, including the ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ films. I hope they remain inspired and get caught in this vicious cycle of the craving for good cinema. The fest should continue, with or without the hormonal surges.

Mumbai 2011 Day #7: Not Satisfied with Myself

I had high expectations from ‘Restless’, since it is a Gus Van Sant film. It’s always interesting to see him attempt different genres, and this time it was a warm and funny reflection on death. I especially liked the end of the movie.

‘Tomboy’ generated a huge applause from the audience. This is the kind of movie you instantly fall in love with. I also appreciated how an intense and difficult topic like this was treated so interestingly. This film festival was full of films featuring children, and ‘Tomboy’ featured some of the best.

My closing film was ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’. I found it difficult, but it was obviously good. I mean, I could understand that it has something, but couldn’t determine that something. This and ‘Sleeping Sickness’ will be two movies I would like to watch again and read about in order to appreciate better.

My final score was 28 in seven days. I’m not at all satisfied with myself. And now I can only hope of bettering it the next year.

October 19, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #6: Healers and Healing

Out of the three movies that I watched today, three intimately dealt with doctors and the medical profession. Needless to say, terms like 'Transient Ischaemic Attack' and 'Epidural Anaesthesia' do convey something to me despite my lost touch with medicine. So, i don't mind watching cinema featuring healers and healing!

'Best Intentions' (Romania, 2011) was a little demanding to begin with and inspired a major walkout by a good chunk of delegates. But by the time it ended, all of us could relate to the experience - how we react to a situation when a loved one is undergoing hospitalization and treatment, and how everyone around us tries to help with advice. All, doctors and well-wishers, of course have only 'best intentions' in mind!

'Sleeping Sickness' (Germany, 2011) was an extremely difficult film. It won the Best Director award at Berlin film festival this year. Apparently, it talked about a German doctor working in Cameroon for years, but I felt the movie had something more that we couldn't appreciate. At least the final act was baffling beyond words.

'Declaration of War' (France, 2011) was perhaps the most 'commercial' movie I saw during this fest. The story of a couple dealing with the ailment of their baby was treated in a surprisingly funny way, and their spirit was truly inspiring. The treatment of the film however was very 'Bollywoodish' (not in a bad sense). They even had one lip-synced romantic song!

I selected 'Savage' (Sweden, 2011) because of its title. The festival experience is never complete without one movie of brutal violence. And the climax of this movie, a story of four young adults driven by their animal instincts being forced to confirm with the society, did fulfill my desire - a shocking scene of two insane murders gave me the high I was looking for.

As a final note, I must share this beautiful feeling I have during most modern movies from World Cinema. For the first 15-20 minutes, not much sense can be made, but slowly, once you sit through the most difficult and demanding moments, a narrative emerges, organically, and then everything starts making sense. It happens sooner if you realize the 'motive' or the 'worldview' of the director early into the film, and then if you play it from the beginning every scene will make sense. It is this self-assured, purposeful though demanding, nature of these movies that always challenge and fascinate me as a viewer.

Mumbai 2011 Day #5: Magic Continues...

Jahnu Barua's 'Aparoopa' (1982) has become my first Assamese film. Loved it. The Q&A with the director that followed, as my friend said, 'completed the experience'. As he recalled the making of his first film when he was just 26, his enthusiasm was infectious.

The Spanish film 'Even the Rain' (2010) evoked in me the strongest emotional reaction. One of the best 'films on films' you are going to watch.

Poetic and profound, 'Stories Only Exist When Remembered' (2011) was so inspiring for me. The first-time director Julia Murat was present and she answered our questions after the movie. I will always like to remember her as the calm, mature, and down-to-earth person as she is. Wishing her all the best for future - I'll eagerly await her movies.

Lars Von Trier's latest, 'Melancholia' (2011), left me stunned. I wasn't expecting something like that. I feel fortunate to have watched on big-screen this movie that, in the decades to come, will be considered so important!

Just two more days to go.... Already feeling sad. And my score: 21 movies in five days. Not very good...

October 18, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #4: Thanks, Cinema!

When you watch several movies in one day, each from different part of the globe, the cultural perspective you gain is incredibly interesting. Without physically travelling, you get to know about people and places and practices that amaze you. This, at least for beginners, can be one of the greatest motivations to explore world cinema.

So a person like me, who has never traveled abroad, watches 'Death is my Profession' (2011, Iran), 'The Mountain' (2011, Norway), or 'The Mirror Never Lies' (2011, Indonesia), three different stories set in different socio-cultural spaces, he can not feel anything but fortunate. Each such experience only enhances our perspective of life and being alive.

So here is my perspective on my 'movie of the day'...

German master Wim Wenders' latest offering 'Pina' is a non-fiction film dedicated to the German dancer-performer Pina Bausch in 3D. Other dancers, who have worked with her or learnt from her, talk about Pina and her passion, and perform in her honour. This film was till date the most eagerly awaited film of the festival and there were people standing in the queue for hours before the late night repeat screening of the movie. Some of them had already watched it a few hours ago and waited for a re-watch. When my show ended, I was dying to watch it all over again...

For me it was not a documentary or a dance-movie, it was perhaps one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. I envied those talking about Pina, her proteges and colleagues, because I never had the fortune to spend any time with someone like her in my life. And I did dare to aspire for a fraction of her passion and hard work. Though I should be the worst dancer alive, the movie affected me on a more general level, at the level of a man's spiritual relationship with his life's passion. Please watch it as soon as you can. Some things might just change within and around you. Amen!

October 17, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #3: More About Children...

Sleep deprivation and long days are making it difficult for me to write detailed blog posts about the movies. Plus I also have to evaluate the exam papers of my UC students. So I'd rather be brief here, reporting my 3rd day....

'Toast' (2010): A British drama about the boy who grew to become Nigel Slater, a popular food writer and journalist...

'The Monster's Dinner' (2011): A dark Turkish satire on the present and future of the humankind... (it was great to talk to the director after the film)

'First Time for Everything' (2011): A minimalistic Russian drama about a young boy's bonding with his Dad... (met the child actor later!)

'Yelling to the Sky' (2011): An independent American coming-of-age film about a girl of a white Irish father and a black mother...

13 movies in 3 days... good enough!

P.S. It is interesting to watch so many different movies dealing with the issue of problem child and their coming of age... This is one of the most universal topics for cinema...

Mumbai 2011 Day #2: The High I Could Die For...

On the 2nd day, after watching five amazing movies, I already feel satisfied with this year's festival. Anything more will just be bonus...

'Omar Gatalato' (1977): An Algerian film, unforgettable for its documentary style, and its protagonist who looked straight from a Godard film ... and also for the scene where Mehboob Khan's 'Aan' is being screened - a French dubbed version for the Algerian crowd. But the songs - 'Aaj mere mann mein sakhi' and 'Dil mein chhupa ke pyaar ka' were in Hindi! The protagonist Omar loved Hindi film songs!!!

'Swayamvaram' (1973): Finally I watched my first Adoor Gopalkrishnan film, one more filmmaker apart from Ray and Ghatak who can match the world standards. This film also reminding me of 'Apur Sansar' - aesthetically it was as good as that; plus the story revolved around a newly-wed couple trying to survive in the city life, the hero wanted to be a writer, and the actress at times resembled Sharmila Tagore!

'Generation P' (2011): an in-competition Russian film. I won't be surprised if it wins! It is extremely entertaining, its 'trips' have some incredible surreal imagery, and it very interestingly shares with us the changes in the Russian commercial society after the disintegration of the USSR. One of the must-watch movies of the year!

British master Ken Loach's 'Kes' (1969): perhaps the best film of the festival. Counted among the greatest films ever made, it tells the poignant story of a problem child who, despite his troubles and weaknesses, develops some amazing talents. The child actor David Bradley's unforgettable role would be my favourite performance of the day. And I would recommend this movie as a Must Watch Before You Die. (#22)

However, for me, as for many others, the movie of the day was 'The Artist' (2011). It is one of the most loved films of this year and will definitely score well during the upcoming awards season. For its overwhelming celebration of cinema (a tribute to the Silent Era, to the Hollywood Star and Studio System, and tributes to various classics) it wins the honour of the day over 'Kes', though in the long run I think I'll consider 'Kes' a better movie. Movies like 'The Artist' are the best illustrations for the sentiments and the spirit of this blog, and my life. Please watch it as soon as you can!

October 14, 2011

Mumbai 2011 Day #1: Fine Start, Almost...

About half a dozen strangely masked humans carry on with some incomprehensible ritualistic march, till a frankly naked woman walks down the hall. She reaches an intimidating crocodile, live and menacing, waiting for her in the corner of the room. The woman looks pretty sure of herself as she faces the crocodile that then opens its mouth. Without any hesitation the woman crawls into the crocodile's mouth, and MAMI 2011 begins.

Watched four movies today, all latest offerings from world cinema. 'The Turin Horse' could have been the fifth, if the technical problems with its projection could have been sorted. Going by what I saw, it could have been the movie of the day. Hopefully they will organize its screening tomorrow and then I'll feel better. At this moment, however, I'm not feeling contented, and it's only because I could not finish this movie.

But otherwise the movies were very good. This year's Camera d'or winner at Cannes - 'Las Acacias' that told the quietly moving story of a truck driver who is taking a woman and a baby from Paraguay to Buenos Aires, was loved unanimously by the audience. The director Pablo Giorgelli was glad to present his film for the Mumbai audience and we were pleased to attend his brief Q&A after the movie.

The German movie 'Die Ausbildung' ('The Education') told the story of a young boy training at a customer care center and the people around him. I liked it for how the movie gave a glimpse of the ruthless corporate culture through a simple story. At the same time 'Pather Panchali' was being screened in the next screen. Watching it on big screen again (had watched it for the first time at AFMC Med Cine festival) was a tempting proposition and I'm not sure whether I truly not regret my decision!

'Above us only Sky' reminded me partly of Kieslowski's 'Blue', because of the situation faced by the leading lady, but mainly of Antonioni's 'L'avventura'. The film begins with a story of relationships that suddenly turns into an inexplicable mystery-thriller. But eventually, the story neglects the 'mystery' altogether and culminates as a strange and unexpected love story. The reaction by the audience was lukewarm, especially near the baffling end of the movie, but I truly loved it. Sandra Huller, playing the protagonist, is my pick for the 'performance of the day'. And the movie too was perhaps the best among the four. Perhaps, because one strong contender was the French political drama - 'The Minister'.

Watching the scene mentioned in the beginning of the post I was stunned, and excited. The movie turned out to be completely different from its opening scene, but it left me so satisfied. It was so well written, so well executed. Modern world cinema at its powerful best - that is 'The Minister'.

Excited about tomorrow - going by the schedule, it can be the best day of the festival...

October 13, 2011

Mumbai 2011: Annual Ritual Begins...

My delegate pass for MAMI Film Festival 2011 is lying beside me. It looks familiar now, as it is going to be my third installment of the great experience. Everything is put aside when this week begins sometime in October every year. Everyone associated with me knows that I can not be disturbed during this time. They may not factually remember that I managed to watch 34 movies in MAMI 2009 and 27 in MAMI 2010, but they now know that is is my binge time, the biggest celebration, an annual ritual....

Though the venue will be again new (MAMI keeps changing its main venue), there will be so many known faces - film buffs from Mumbai who know each other only through this annual festival. And every year more acquaintances join in. This year I hope some of my students will experience something like this for the first time, and some of them surely, will change for good.

The Opening Movie of the festival was screened this evening - Bennett Miller's 'Moneyball', starring Brad Pitt. As always, the entry was restricted to 'invitations only', and unlike last year I couldn't get any pass. Don't mind, though. This movie will surely be released in India sometime soon. And moreover, I have spent the evening trying to wrap up all pending work. Finally I'm set to experience another overdose of cinema - hope the seven hours I've spent in selecting the movies proves to be fruitful!

October 10, 2011

Baat Nikalegi Toh...

“Waqt rehta nahin kahin tik kar, iski aadat bhi aadmi-si hai, Aaj phir aapki kami-si hai…”

These lines in your voice have suddenly acquired an altogether new meaning. Perhaps the news was so unexpected that I couldn’t handle it. Or may be I had taken you for granted – that you are always going to be with us. This happens with family, right?

You know you had something that made me feel I’m related to you – as if you were a dear Uncle I had never met, but always shared great love with. Perhaps it was the kindness in your voice, perhaps it was the gentle demeanour of your face. And I’m sure you made everyone feel the same. You belonged to everyone. And it was never difficult to fall in love with you.

And falling in love with you meant falling in love with your music. You have to take credit for initiating in us a love for Ghazals when we were just kids. You made it accessible for us during an age when we were not capable enough to appreciate the likes of Ghulam Ali Sa’ab and others. You took the Ghazal form to the common man, you made popular its use in cinema. You gave us that push at the right time to develop a liking for something that was apparently not ‘easy to appreciate’.

So this naturally led to more exploration of this genre from our end. Once we ‘learnt’ some more and discovered the very classical form of Ghazals there was a time when we formed a strong opinion about your music. Let me confess this, there were times when I remarked that your music is repetitive and it does not have range. Too blinded by my ‘sense’ of music, I was beginning to forget my ‘Uncle’ who had initiated me into it. Again, this happens with family. I was taking you for granted.

The 23rd of last month, on my way from Pune to Mumbai, I got a chance to listen to ‘Teri khushboo mein base khat’. It was not for the first time that I was hearing that song, but suddenly my perception of you changed. I realized what your music was about. Your music was not about the melody or the voice, but about the words. No other composer-singer has achieved this – to underplay the composition in order to render the poetry in the best possible way. You sang as if you were talking to us – sharing those words of wisdom, making, among others, Gulzar sa’ab’s thoughts reach us unadulterated. You were the dear teacher-friend who shared great poems with us and made us understand what they meant only by reciting patiently, correctly, aptly. Despite possessing one of the best voices that we ever heard, you never tried to overpower the words, to overwhelm us with your singing. And yet, you managed to develop a style of your own, inimitable, pure, genuine.

During the last few days my brother and I talked a lot about you. A couple of days ago the two of us were singing your ‘Kya khoya kya paaya jag mein’ on the footbridge over Goregaon station. Not once we thought that you’ll be gone so soon. Today I feel like a son who never paid enough attention to you, never thought of paying back, mainly because somehow this thought never came to me – that one day even you’ll be gone.

Just talked to Mom over phone, about you, about your music. And then played your music. Was feeling really bad until these lines left me thinking, as your songs have always done…

“Shehad jeene ka mila karta hai thoda-thoda, Jaane walon ke liye dil nahin thoda karte; Haath chhooten bhi toh rishte nahin chhoda karte….”

If life is an opportunity to defy death, you have surely succeeded.

Always yours.

October 08, 2011

The End of an Experience

Over the last 3-4 months, I had the most fulfilling experience of my life. I was excited and apprehensive in the beginning, when I had started my ‘Understanding Cinema’ lectures at National College. Today I’m amazed to see the result – the way the students have responded. And it has nothing to do with whatever teaching-learning that happened during this time or with the short films they finally made. It is the way they reciprocated to my efforts that has elated and humbled me at the same time, with unprecedented passion, dedicated hard-work, and above all – tolerance, and humility. They are now prepared to embark on the wonderful journey of discovering the best of cinema. I wish them exciting and romantic times ahead as cinephiles.

On 26th September, which will remain an unforgettable day for me, the students screened their movies. (I will share the links of the best of those as soon as I can.) We also had a small award ceremony in the end where the best efforts were acknowledged. I could not afford buying trophies for them, so at the last minute came up with this idea. Following are the ‘awards’ that were handed out to the winners. This could not have been possible without the help of Mehar, one of my students, who designed these beautiful cards. I hope the winners liked what they got.

Wanted to share these on this blog since that evening. But two reasons kept me from doing that – one, I wanted to finish my discussion on ‘Citizen Kane’ and two, I wanted to live this beautiful emotional phase of my life before sharing it publically. Now I’m beginning to break free from the effect of the hormones, to resume the study of cinema. Hopefully, life will give me another chance to share it with a new bunch of enthusiasts. Successful films do inspire sequels, don’t they?

The Greatest Film Ever Made: Epilogue

Old age – it's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.

What makes someone or something great? Incredible talent, brilliant performance, innovations, influence, test of time – all of these contribute, but there is one more thing essential for that final stamp of ‘greatness’. It is the legend associated, the folklore, the paradoxes, the enigma. Whether it is the symbolism of Muhammad Ali’s fight against racial discrimination, or the tragedy of Guru Dutt – these socio-political, poetic-philosophical elements always contribute to the unanimous acceptance of something as ‘great’, and often these have nothing to do with the actual performance of the act.

So here is a story, true, unbelievable…

At the time when the Hollywood Studio System was at its powerful best, when studio executives held more power than the stars or the directors, a unique contract suddenly became the talk of the town. RKO, one of the major studios, had just offered someone to produce, direct, write, and act in two feature films, without any interference and with the privilege of the final cut – something even the most established directors could not dream of. This offer was made to a 25-year old young man and this led to phenomenal jealousy in the Hollywood community against him, whom the world later identified as Orson Welles.

Welles decided to base the first movie on the life of a newspaper tycoon – William R. Hearst, playing the lead role himself. The name of the character in the movie was Charles Foster Kane, but the Hearst connection could not be retained as a secret. Fearing a negative portrayal of himself, William Hearst attempted to buy and destroy all negatives of the film but couldn’t. He then attacked the movie through his newspaper, and threatened to retaliate against theatres that showed it. The industry was terrified. A group of studio bosses offered RKO money to burn the negative. But the studio refused.

‘Citizen Kane’ opened to extraordinary critical acclaim. And my last three posts on it, which are only a glimpse into its brilliance, should at least justify that. I still feel that the unprecedented praise by the American media had definitely something to do with the controversy surrounding its production and release.

However, the movie failed to recover its costs at the box-office. Despite several nominations, it could not win more than one Academy Award in a ceremony where it was booed and insulted. Eleven years later, in 1952, Sight and Sound magazine voted it as the 11th greatest movie of all time. A group of French critics, who were soon to kick-start the most influential film movement in world cinema, the New Wave, were praising the movie highly during the 50s, and it was revived in America in 1956. When Sight and Sound released their next list in 1962, ‘Citizen Kane’ was voted as the greatest film ever made. Since then it has retained that spot for each subsequent decade, and today it occupies the top position in almost all great movies list. The story, though, does not end here.

The film did an everlasting damage to the career of Welles. The industry had realized that this man will always place his artistic aspirations over the finances. RKO violated the same contract by taking his next film away from him and changing the ending. Welles went into a self-imposed exile in Europe for much of the rest of his career where he found a more sympathetic audience. He acted in others’ movies to raise funds for his own. Two years before he died, he accepted that he “made essentially a mistake in staying in movies”. In the end, his first movie also became a prophecy for his own life which ended lonely and unfortunately like that of his character – Charles F. Kane.

‘Citizen Kane’ in my opinion, is definitely one of the greatest American movies. It is a wonderful film text, rich, influential, enigmatic, and also, once you start understanding it, entertaining. It is a brilliant expression of an auteur, a purely original work, an aesthetic and technical watershed in cinema history. But is it greater than ‘The Godfather’, ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘8 ½’, ‘Bicycle Thieves’? I don’t know. I’m not qualified enough to comment. However, when filmmakers and scholars and critics all over the world vote it as the greatest, I better listen to them. They know the medium better than me, and they have no reason to lie! "Everyone will always owe him everything" – believes Godard about Orson Welles. And just for this reason, I also recommend this film as a must watch (#21). You can not die without watching ‘the greatest movie ever made’.

October 07, 2011

The Sound of 'Citizen Kane'

You never should've married a newspaperman, they're worse than sailors.

Before making his first film, Orson Welles was already a name in theatre and radio, and was thus aware of the power of sound. While working on ‘Citizen Kane’ he employed all his experience to create the ‘right’ sound for the film. “If it sounds right, it’s gotta look right” – he believed. And the sound of this movie turned out to be a great achievement on its own. Here are a few examples of his innovations and imagination.

To complement his Deep Focus photography, he created ‘deep focus sound’ by carefully regulating his sound levels so that voices in the depth of the image sound farther away than voices in the foreground of the image. ‘Hear’ carefully the Colorado scene to appreciate that. Also note that in the shot that ends this scene, Kane’s sled becomes increasingly covered with snow, and the whistle of a train can be heard from a distance. It is so subtle you might miss it the first time around. But once you discover that, the image of the snow-covered sled becomes even more poignant.

Welles made his characters interrupt each other’s lines resulting in the overlapping of dialogue. He considered it more realistic than the tradition of characters not stepping on each other's sentences. Then there are scenes, like one between Kane and Susan in a tent, where apart from the characters talking, we can also hear the voices of characters around them who are not really seen (people outside the tent in this case). Welles also pioneered the J-cut, the technique of putting the audio ahead of the visual in scene transitions.

The efficient use of texture of voices is another remarkable achievement of this film. Susan’s voice is soft and warm when she first meets Kane, only to turn into high-pitched screams later. The palace of Xanadu appears even more alienating because of the reverberating echoes whenever Kane and Susan shout at each other from across the room. Also compare the might expressed through Kane’s voice during the political rally speech with the sterile flatness when he threatens Gettys.

Another brilliant innovation by Welles was the ‘Lightening Mix’. One sentence started by a person at the end of a scene is completed in the next and this new scene is at least a few years ahead in time. So, by using sound bridges, Welles devised an interesting way to signify passing of time. The best example is the Breakfast Montage where Kane and his first wife talk over the dining table and more than a decade of story time is compressed in two minutes of screen time. This scene amazes you every time you watch it.

The musical score of the film by Bernard Herrmann was also a landmark. Instead of the traditional practice of using non-stop music, Herrmann used musical cues lasting between five and fifteen seconds to bridge the action or suggest a different emotional response. This is superbly done in the Breakfast Montage. Also notice the score simulating the ticking of a clock during the bored life Susan and Kane are leading at Xanadu. Herrmann went on to become one of the prominent musicians for Hollywood, working in films like 'Vertigo', 'Psycho', and 'Taxi Driver'. But even he believes that he was at his best when he worked on this movie. If ‘Citizen Kane’ was a technical watershed, and it definitely was, its sound had as much to contribute as its cinematography.

October 04, 2011

The Cinematography of 'Citizen Kane'

"There's only one person in the world to decide what I'll do. And that's me."

Film scholars and historians view ‘Citizen Kane’ as Welles' attempt to create a new style by studying various forms of movie making, and combining them all into one, though Welles himself denies that. He believes it was his ignorance that led him to those technical innovations, all of which were not essentially pioneered by this movie but eventually became inseparably associated with it. The director here does not indulge in taking stand on the Realism versus Expressionism debate, but rather uses the best of both schools in order to create his cinema. We will discuss this with respect to the cinematography of ‘Citizen Kane’.

Observe this snapshot from the scene at the Colorado home. It might be difficult to appreciate it here, but in this shot all characters are in focus – including the kid Kane playing outside (he may appear out of focus, but it’s actually snow). This kind of photography is called Deep Focus, where the depth of field is enhanced and a lot of things appear to be in focus together. How is this achieved technically – I don’t know. Some of my photographer friends can help me understand. But Deep Focus photography in cinema has now become synonymous with ‘Citizen Kane’. We read this technique as being ‘realist’ – since everything is in focus the audience can choose what to focus on without the director ‘directing’ their attention to something in particular.

The shot on the left is also an example of Deep Focus photography.

Any time Deep Focus was not possible, and I guess it has something to do with the availability of light (though I may be wrong), the makers employed other tricks to create the deep focus effect.

In this shot, Kane is in foreground and his friend Leland is at a considerable distance. Yet both appear to be in focus. This was achieved by shooting the two separately and then visually layering the films together using an optical printer.

However, notice that in this shot after Susan’s suicide attempt, the imposing bottle and glass in the foreground as well as the men entering the room are in focus, while Susan herself is out-of-focus. This was achieved using in-camera effects. The foreground was shot first, with the background dark. Then the background was lit, the foreground darkened, the film rewound, and the scene re-shot with the background action. Of course, this choice of focus enables a crisp storytelling where no dialogue is required to explain what happened. The unconscious woman in soft-focus definitely enhances our perception of her delirious state. And focusing on her husband, and our protagonist, makes sure that this remains as much his scene as it is of the wife.

And then we move to the most expressionistic camerawork that this movie employs. This extreme low-angle shot is so different from our perception of reality. More such bizarre angles and lenses were used at various points in the movie. Here the director is producing his own version of reality. Welles had to create ceilings over the sets and dig the floors to create trenches that could accommodate the camera. In those days, all of this was unheard of. Why does he do that? May be it was a stylistic choice, but here is how the famous French critic Bazin reads this shot: “the gaze upward seems to come out of the earth, while the ceilings, forbidding any escape within the décor, complete the fatality of this curse. Kane’s lust for power crushes us, but is itself crushed by the décor. Through the camera, we are capable in a way of perceiving Kane’s failure at the same time we experience his power.”

This is only a glimpse into the bag of tricks that this movie is. You can watch the film again and again just for its cinematography, the importance of which can be assessed by the way Welles credited his cinematographer. There is no separate title card for Welles as the director. He shares it with the cinematographer! I have never seen something like this elsewhere.

Must Watch Before You Die #20: Alien (1979)

Alternative Horror is fast becoming one of my favourite sub-genres. I don’t know whether a term like this exists, but I kind of like it. I would define Alternative Horror as the sub-genre which horrifies us without confining to the conventions of the Horror genre. So the documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on the issue of global warming is Alternative Horror for me, as are cult-classics ‘Angel Heart’ and ‘Eraserhead’. Perhaps the reason behind my fascination for this sub-genre is my love for one film-maker who has managed to horrify us without ever resorting to the classical horror elements. Whether it is his psychological thriller ‘Repulsion’, the surreal masterpieces like ‘The Tenant’ or ‘The Ninth Gate’, the unforgettable ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, or even the War Drama ‘The Pianist’ – there is always a foreboding of something terrible in the movies of Roman Polanski. With bated breaths we watch the protagonists’ struggle to survive against a supremely powerful and often invisible antagonist. These movies affect human psyche in more ways than a classical horror movie would, movies that rely on ghosts (wandering ex-human spirits) haunting someone or something and their exorcism being the only satisfying resolution. Not to forget that Alternative Horror also works better when you revisit the movie, and are already aware of the thrills and surprises.

I just watched another movie that can be classified in this sub-genre. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic ‘Alien’ managed to involve me in a way many movies can not. Despite a long and tiring day, and it was late in the night that I started watching it, the movie did not allow me to blink. In fact during the final act, I was sitting up, leaning on my laptop screening, as if nothing else mattered to me but the survival of the female protagonist.

I always thought sci-fi is not my genre. And here I am, recommending this movie as a must-watch-before-you-die. But I realize that it is not its sci-fi elements that have impacted me, it is its inherent horror, and most interestingly its smart variation on the classic horror tale of a group of adventurers trapped in a haunted house awaiting their death or a miraculous escape. And yes, there is a cat too! Watch it NOW!

P.S. I have not spoiled your fun by sharing details from the movie. I promise you that.