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!