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.