July 31, 2013

All the Days in a Decade

This post has nothing to do with cinema. It is an indulgence purely into myself, if my others posts are not sufficiently self-indulgent. But the occasion is such that I would rather want to share it with the world here. I had the choice of not doing this. But I decided otherwise.

July end. 2003. I had joined Armed Forces Medical College, Pune as a Medical Cadet. And on the day I took my train from home, with my Mamaji, to reach Pune, I started writing diary entries. It was a tough time for me and I felt like recording the events happening in my life. Once, several years ago when I was 11 and had just joined my boarding school, I had tried this. And had given up in a few weeks. This time, I was not sure whether I would be able to persist with this habit. The real test was the during the first few weeks in college. The 'orientation' by seniors was so strenuous and exhausting that by the time our floors were shut and the seniors left, which was around 10.30 every night, all of us Freshers just wanted to crash on bed. But despite that terrible desire to just go to sleep, and replenish ourselves to face fresh assault the very next morning, I made it a point to write the diary entry for the day. As a result, I have my entire Freshers' Term recorded in my diary, day by day, event by event.

What started then, has not stopped until today. This July I complete a decade of recording my every day on a single page. Do you understand what it means? It has a record of everything that has happened to me in the last ten years - my entire life at Medical College - the day I felt nauseous in the Operation Theatre to the day when eventually I 'washed' and assisted in a surgery, all the joys I experienced with my friends, all my trips, all my vacations, all the relationships I've had with women, including my first love, all my dreams and fantasies, all the moments of loss, including losing both my Grandfathers, my first attempts at making films, my entire journey as a poet, my coming to Mumbai and the life since, my experience with 'Udaan' and all other projects, my experience as a screenwriter trying to learn the craft, my experience as a teacher trying to introduce cinema to young minds, and most importantly - my entire discovery of the best of cinema - great Hindi and American movies, and all the hundreds of films I discovered from different languages and cultures. If the value of someone's life could be measured by his memories and experiences, I have all of it recorded, day by day. For a person who is not very intuitive and imaginative but still wants to live the life of a creative professional, like me, it is always important to dwell into the memories of his own past so as to feel the emotions and experience the moments that are there in the database of the days he has lived. Here are a couple of lines from a poem of mine I had written nine years ago. It is today that I realise how significant these lines are:

पलटते पन्ने पलों के पर पकड़ पाए नहीं पर
डायरी में समाई है हर ख़ुशी, हर ग़म गया है…

However, the biggest gain for me from this exercise of persistence has been this. Every day, when I write my diary entry, I think of what I achieved or learnt or experienced in those 24 hours. As a result, my way of life, consciously and sub-consciously, has become obsessed with the importance of the day I have in my hands, my present, my today. This not only helps me discipline myself, it makes me a happy man. I literally understand and believe and practice the fact that each day is a new beginning. Of course, it feels mighty strange to think that it has been ten years since I started doing this. Of course, I don't want this to end. And of course, I don't know what will happen to these diaries when I am gone, when I am no more. But who cares for what will happen once it's all over, when I am getting to immortalise all that is happening today, now? Today's diary entry will also have a mention of this blog post. See, how cool this is!

July 22, 2013

The Most Inspiring Indian Film Debut of Our Time?


I am facing strong disapproval from some of my closest acquaintances for not sufficiently admiring a latest mainstream Hindi film. Most around me have loved it and it shows in its box-office performance. Although, I don't mind either - people loving that film and it making money, and I kind of accept why this is happening, I am a little disappointed by their expectation from me to love that film as much as they do. So much so, that I almost contemplated writing a post here on this blog about what according to me were the problems with that film. And let me tell you, those, according to me, were big, glaring problems, which we can ignore only because our own standards as film audience has been very average, to say the least. It has to do with our tastes, and it also has to do with our commerce, and it definitely, and most importantly, has to do with the kind of films that are made in this city, thus sustaining a vicious cycle that has for a long, long time kept our cinema from growing and expand and evolve. The Indian film audience and their approach to the movies is like my Dad's approach to food. He has a certain set expectations from his food. It has to be Indian, North Indian to be specific (as the food from the South doesn't appeal to him), and 'Bihari' to be even more specific (as he is repelled by the idea of cream or milk in the gravy of a vegetable dish, and always prefers ghee over butter). He is very fond of eating, but he won't eat anything outside his strict and limited menu. During his last visit to Mumbai, I made him taste Italian and Chinese food. He vowed never to taste that again. And I can't blame him for that. Our small town and our closed culture never allowed him to develop taste buds for the enormous variety of food from all around the world. And he, almost unfortunately, believes his idea of food to be the epitome of human culinary achievement.

So, of course I don't blame my friends who are loving this film as a supreme cinematic achievement, because most probably they are satisfied too easily, not knowing what cinema can achieve when it is driven by pure inspiration, rather than a factory-designed manufacturing unit, trying to fit too many things into what they consider primarily a commercial product. After reading my lines here, most will think I am an 'artsy', pseudo-intellectual, or just too cerebral for conventional taste, or I live in my own world of idealism with the idea of 'cinema that can changes the world' or of a certain kind of cinema that is more 'superior' than others. However, those who know me will agree that I am someone who understands, or is at least willing to understand, the commercial dynamics of films much better than most. I want to love all kinds of films, and do not want to segregate them into art-house or mainstream. And for me, the only purpose of choosing my personal favourites is by trying to figure out the inspiration behind a film and the (cinematic) execution of what inspired the makers, especially the director. Instead of wondering about why I failed to appreciate a certain film, I would request my friends to understand why I appreciate another. I try to stay away from criticising films on public forum and hence I eventually decided not to write about this film in question. And I hope the reasons for me not liking that film can be found in my reasons for loving another film, which is Anand Gandhi's incredibly well-crafted, and confident feature debut, the film that is the talk of the town, and a film that will be remembered forever for what it is. I watched 'Ship of Theseus' today, and am desperate to watch it all over again.

Because very rarely you see a film germinating out of conviction as strong and pure as this. Because most of such convictions fail to take the shape of a well-written script, as cinematically promising as conceptually exciting. Because many good scripts suffer at different stages of their translation onto the big screen, and very few end up appearing as one organic whole, a visionary's dream, a poet's verse, an artist's expression. Because modern Hindi cinema is utterly deficient of makers who have such an impressive understanding of framing a shot and controlling everything within the frame, and timing a cut and pacing their work using those cuts, and using the actors as they were real people playing themselves. And most importantly, because we hardly make films that fulfil and satisfy us at all levels - intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, and inspirational. Will 'Ship of Theseus' emerge as a landmark in our film history? Will Anand Gandhi live up to his promise, giving us more films as good as this, if not better? Will this in any way change anything for our audience? These are the questions I don't want to trouble myself with at this moment. All I want is to celebrate this unique achievement by this new voice in our cinema. 'Ship of Theseus' is not only the best film of the year, it is one of the best Indian films you will see. I hope you do yourselves a favour by watching it. Else, I know you are very happy and content with what is being offered to you on the usual basis, very much like my Dad and his favourite food on his plate.

July 09, 2013

#6: Partners in Crime

"Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere." - Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (1958)

Early hours of 28th September. 1995. About 2am. It is raining heavily. Dad and I have just reached home after an exhausting train journey from my boarding school. The Durga Puja vacations have begun. It is going to be the shortest vacation of my hostel life - only eight days. And I am really upset that the rains delayed the trains that has spoiled almost half a day of my vacation. Soaked wet, we enter the compound of our house. Mom and my brother, Devanshu, come rushing to the collapsable grill. It is dark. Power failure. Mom is struggling to find the keys, more so with the excitement of having her son back, than due to darkness. Devanshu and I are standing on either sides of the locked grill, unable to look at each others' faces but glad to be together. The first thing he says to me is: "You missed something that came on TV tonight. It was called "the Making" of a film. They showed how the film was made and all that, and it was amazing. The film will be released in Diwali. It is called 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge'."

This conversation, even before Dad and I had entered the house, is the first memory I have of Devanshu and me having a personal, passionate discussion on the movies. We were eleven and ten respectively. This memory is so vivid, I feel I am still there, soaked, unable to see anything, waiting to enter the house and touch the feet of my Mom, but already curious about what "the Making" of a movie could be like.

For the next seven years, this was to be our ritual. Whether during Devanshu's visit to my hostel to meet me, or during my vacations, it did not take more than five minutes for us to start discussing cinema. And then we went on and on for hours. Mom participated excitedly, often giving us perspectives that her two kids did not have, while Dad was left ignored, and he retaliated with unkind remarks. The moment power supply was restored, Devanshu and I used to rush to the hall, to watch the latest trailers of the upcoming films. And he made me hear movie songs from the cassettes he had bought. This was all too overwhelming for me, especially during the first day of my vacations. He also taught me the lyrics of the latest hits - he had always been sharper than me when it came to learning the songs, and he could sing really well. But he was always less inhibited about his excitement and that often led us to embarrassing and difficult situations. I remember how he had exulted with joy when a particular song had topped the weekly top-ten on Doordarshan, a show called "Ek se badh kar ek", as Baba, our grandpa, was having dinner in the same room. Devanshu exclaimed as the song grabbed the top position and started singing along, as I stole a glance at Baba's disapproving face. The song was "Ek ho gaye hum aur tum, toh ud gayi neendein re" from Bombay (1996). Needless to say, I shivered with fear as the video of the song played on TV, with Baba sitting with us, and my brother, as if unaware of his presence, singing along.

Perhaps staying away did this wonderful thing to us. We longed for each others' company. And we longed to discuss cinema. My years away from him and this distance, I am sure, had to play a very major role in turning us into serious cinephiles very early in our lives. Leaving home as the vacations ended was sad not just because I was going to be away from my family, but also because my connection with the movies and the songs would be interrupted for the next few months. I remember, during the final day of all my vacations, I spent my entire day before the TV, trying to soak in all that I could, and the only relief would be the fact that on reaching hostel, I would be able to discuss with my friends all that we caught during the vacations. That mad passion for cinema would one day become our life, and we would continue to stay partners in crime, eventually working together and sharing credit - "Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh" - was of course a thought that never came to our heads back then. We were yet to be infected by the 'film-making' virus, and were happily, innocently, and harmlessly enjoying our love for cinema, together.

During my winter vacation in 1995, I finally got to see DDLJ on video. All had already seen it before me. I remember how amazed I was when the line "Bade bade deshon mien" was repeated in the end. Was that my first taste of an unforgettable pay-off? Perhaps it was. Later, perhaps in the summer vacation of 1996, Mom, Devanshu and I watched, for the first time, the Filmfare Awards on TV. I am sure it was a repeat telecast. But that added another chapter into my cinema consciousness, as since then I obsessively followed the Awards, year by year, to eventually compile a list of all winners in Filmfare history, and almost learning that by heart. As far as that 'first' Award show is concerned, I distinctly remember two things - that I believed 'Ho gaya hai tujhko toh pyaar sajna' had better lyrics than the winner 'Tujhe dekha toh ye jaana sanam', and that all three of us wondered what Choreography meant!!!

July 03, 2013

Author and Authority

Four years ago, I read the screenplay of 'Lootera'. A couple of years later, just a fortnight before it was going on floors, I read it again and had a discussion on it with the writer-director. I also visited its sets during the Mumbai-schedule of the film. This March, I watched the First Cut of the film in the editing room. And last night, I watched the final film at a preview at Yash Raj Studios. Despite having observed the journey of this film from such close distance, its impact on me last night was phenomenal. To say the least, well, I could not sleep all night. And as its release approaches, I am more anxious than I have ever been for the release of a film, despite the fact that I was not really a part of it.

This anxiety and sleeplessness has nothing to do with the film per se, or how much I liked it. It is much beyond that. It is a matter of inspirations and insecurities, of hope and hopelessness. It is the feeling that only true art can ignite in you, and in my case, only powerful cinema.  Within a couple of days, the so-called film critics operating in our industry will inundate the minds of the masses with their star-bearing reviews that never dare to go beyond the synopsis of the story and how the first half of the film was vis-a-vis the second half. There are only a handful of critics, from whom I can expect to talk in ways only critics can and should. I dread to imagine the consequences if such a film fails at the box office. After coming this close, all we need is the public applauding the film and making it a huge success, because that will be an irreversible milestone in the history of modern commercial Hindi cinema. I wish that happens. I wish the Indian audience tells us filmmakers that they are a responsible lot and we will get the liberty to believe in our convictions and our genuine, sincere hard-work.

I am saying all this because of many reasons, including the fact that I could not talk so highly about 'Udaan'. Being a part of that film, I felt it was 'nicer' to keep quiet. I really regret that in a way, because if I were not a part of 'Udaan', the film-buff in me, and the student of cinema in me, would have exalted the film beyond any sense of imagination. Today let me acknowledge this in public space for the first time - I think 'Udaan' was one of the most well-made Hindi films in recent memory. And the merits of its craft go beyond its Cannes nomination and its multiple Filmfare awards. I have been using that film as a text for my students, to talk about cinematic storytelling, shot division, sound design, and so on. But the biggest thing about 'Udaan' was something I could hardly talk about, because of lack of evidence, despite the strong intuition. After 'Lootera', I can talk about that one thing - that rare and precious achievement on motion picture that not many have the guts to aspire for, and most who do fail to fulfil. That one thing, which was evident in each frame of 'Udaan' and which comes back to us in 'Lootera' is called 'Authorship' - when the director of the film exerts complete control over the entire material, using cinema as a pen to write his novel on screen, when all cast and crew function proudly as puppets in the hands of the master craftsman, surrendering to his authority with complete humility, trust, and faith, when the captain of the ship becomes the ship itself and all its parts revel in that fact. Authorship in cinema is perhaps the most difficult achievement a film-maker can have. It takes entire life-times of intent and execution, clarity and madness, humility and self-belief to do that. Of course, going by that, it is too early to call, and unarguably so, Vikramaditya Motwane a true author. But after his second film, we can definitely see hope and can expect him to achieve what very few Hindi film-makers have achieved.

So what exactly defines authorship in cinema? Well, it starts with the world-view of the film-maker. Does he have something to share with the world? It's not important how relevant or 'correct' his world-view is, having one, or several views in one, is good enough. It then goes on to the expression of his world view, using his medium. His aesthetic choices not only do justice to the world-view, making him a competent communicator of his opinions, but also show a unity of design, over several films, as we start seeing patterns emerge and talk to us - the way the director designs his shots, lights his sets, uses the motion or the stillness of camera, explores the possibilities of sound, extracts performances from his actors, paces his storytelling, and does all of this to create, despite the mad and clumsy process film-making is, one seamless whole, one organic body, one sum that is greater than its parts. Films are made anyway, an author creates works of art, that provoke, disturb or inspire people, from their minds and intellects, to their emotions and their feelings, and most importantly, their senses. In fact, it is the sensory perception that a master film-maker creates, purposefully and meticulously, that forms the most beautiful film experience, taking cinema beyond its story, trying to mimic music, or even dreams.

I could not sleep last night because I witnessed the same. Do not expect 'Lootera' to be a better film than 'Udaan'. Do not expect 'Lootera' to even be one of the best films of the year. You might have issues with the story, like I had, until last night, or find the movie to be one with several flaws. But if you really understand cinema, and its magical scope, you will look beyond that. You will love the stillness of its certain sequences, and would want those moments to linger on. You will jump at its amazing chase sequence,  and never want it to end. You will feel for the two main characters, and the helplessness of their situation. You may even start discovering its similarities with 'Udaan', despite the apparent difference in the two. And with all this, you may just understand the power and authority of a single man, the director, owning up the entire film as his own, with all its merits and flaws, with his conviction and ambition speaking in a voice louder than the film he just made. I am suddenly eager to watch the next Motwane film, because for me, the film-maker is already beyond his current or future filmography. If only some of our critics could identify that author in the film-maker, if only our audience could actually understand how special a craftsman we have in our midst....

July 02, 2013

A One-day Film Fest

Last Tuesday I did something I had never done before. And it was so much fun. Fun Republic, the closest movie theatre, is 20-minute walk from my place and on Tuesdays their ticket prices are lower than other days. The back-log of pending movies was building up and I knew if I didn't watch them soon, I am going to miss at least some of them. So, I decided to watch three movies on the same day, alone.

Started the day with 'Raanjhanaa'. I thought it had a very good story, about a man obsessively in love with a woman who never returns that love. And the dialogues were amazingly delicious. Despite that, writing remains the biggest problem with that film. Clarity and focus in storytelling, along with identifying and maintaining the right mood and genre elements is very important, especially mainstream films. Despite a very good job by the director, an incredible and endearing performance by the male lead (I can watch the movie again just because of Dhanush and the dialogues), and powerful music, the film still fails to soar from its amazing first act. However, I think this is a film that must be watched, and am very happy that it has been successful.

I returned home for lunch and then had a long discussion with my brother on a story idea I had had a day ago, followed by another extended discussion with a friend on his script. By 6.30 in the evening, I was back to the theatre. This time to watch the highest grosser of this year - 'Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani'. It has its moments, and I think the biggest achievement of the film was that I liked Miss Padukone for the first time in my life. Frankly, I was disappointed by the film, as I thought it was just about OK. I am not surprised that it is a successful film. But I really do not know why it became so successful, among the biggest grossers in history. I don't know why audiences are watching it again and again. The lady sitting behind me had definitely seen it at least once before, as she could not stop mouthing the lines and reacting to the jokes before they were delivered!

After the long second film, it was already 10pm, and I was tired and hungry. I wasn't sure if I will be able to sit through another film. But I had already purchased the ticket and so had no option. I quickly grabbed a bite at McDonalds, made a brief but important call, and then rushed back to the same screen, to the same seat (I had taken the tickets keeping that in mind). And then they played 'Fukrey'! What a film! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did others around me in that packed house. It was also the perfect 'closing film' for this mini-festival of mine.

On the whole, that day was pretty something. To be honest, I want an en core soon. I don't know how many of you have done something like this. If you haven't, give it a try. If the movies are above average to good, you won't really regret this indulgence. :)

July 01, 2013

Half a Decade of Freedom

30th June, 2008. I got done with my Obstetrics and Gynecology (Practical) paper, took an evening train from Pune, reached Mumbai, and made this city my home. Today I complete five years of my life in Mumbai – a life full of adventure, uncertainties, hopes, opportunities, passion, and dreams, but most importantly, a life of freedom, from norms and conventions, and from the society’s expectations from me. Until recently I could not believe that so much time has passed, but today as I write these words, it all seems very normal to me. Five years have passed indeed, and I have sufficient matter to ponder over and be fulfilled with, despite the apparent continuation of the ‘struggle’ my life turned into that rainy evening.

Yes, I am yet to taste any major success. The poems in ‘Udaan’ remain my biggest achievement to date, something that helps me find immediate acceptance and admiration among strangers who have watched the film – and that number is not big. None of the numerous screenplay drafts I have written have taken me anywhere. I have written two films that never got made. I am still struggling with the script of a film that should be made sometime in near future. And one film I wrote the final draft of got made but never got released. I do consider myself a professional and fairly competent screenwriter, but there is no work of mine out there to prove it, except the scripts I have written for myself, to direct one day. My career as a lyricist has not taken off despite the song in ‘Ferrari ki Sawaari’. I have stayed away from television, until recently, and it is only now that I am going to have a weekly credit on an upcoming TV show that my parents can proudly flaunt to those around them. I have earned considerable admiration and respect at a personal level from some big names in the industry, from Shekhar Kapur to Sudhir Mishra, Irrfan, Vinod Chopra, Shankar Mahadevan, and Anurag Kashyap. Not that they will jump with joy to see my name flashing on their phones, but I know they will talk to me nicely if they eventually receive the call. The strongest relation in the industry I have, apart from several professionals, is with Vikramaditya Motwane and his family and it indeed feels great to receive the affection and guidance from them every now and then. But apart from this, what else have I achieved? My life has hardly improved in the last five years. I am yet to afford a motor-bike or get rid of the lakhs of rupees of loan I had to take while ‘buying’ my freedom from the Indian Armed Forces. In the thirtieth year of my life, I am still asking my parents to stay patient and not expect me to support them financially. I still move around without a wrist-watch, and with the cheapest phone available, and clothes that are several years old but have miraculously retained their sheen to protect my pocket and preserve my reputation. “Something big is just round the corner” and “It is only the initial phase of struggle which will be over once your time comes” are the usual lines I keep hearing from my well-wishers. And every time I take that turn round the corner, I realize the time has not come yet.

So what does this over-romanticized portrayal of the unending miseries tell you about me? Well, it might be over-romanticized, but it is definitely not miserable. If I know one thing about my life for sure, it is this – it will never be smooth, I will always be continuously seeking things to fulfill my ever-changing ambitions, success will only leave me wanting for more. I clearly do not see this quest ending, ever. And, to be honest, perhaps I don’t want this quest to end. As far as the comforts of life are concerned, I have never complained and am pretty contented with what I have. I will not say no to pleasures, but am in no rush to achieve them. My only concern is, and has been, the desire and aspiration to perform at a certain level, without giving too much attention to my successes and failures. This is not a pseudo-intellectual, fake statement by an insecure, unfulfilled man to impress others. This is the only way to survive in this life, as understood by a rational man of limited material attachments. Because if you ignore my lack of material possessions, you would agree with me that I am a pretty rich man.

The first year in this city taught me two things – one, if I keep working hard, I have sufficient talent to make a place in this industry, especially because they are keen to accept ‘outsiders’ if they see any benefit in that. And two, my biggest strength and motivation lies among my enormous support system, which is not my family, but my friends. Friends from school and college have stood by my side throughout these five years, at times even at the cost of their own personal lives, to make sure that I stay strong and motivated, and keep working hard to fulfill my dreams. And then there are some relationships that I have made in this city, few but precious, who are always there for me, to help me in all possible ways, to give me, apart from the financial support if I need it, the emotional support that I crave for at times. Hundreds of new faces have joined this list of my well-wishers, in the form of my present and ex-students, who are available with me as a raw human-resource waiting to be utilized, and as the most uninhibited and ruthless motivators, cheering for me, and smiling at my success. In the third year as a teacher, I have already realized that this is something I was born to do, and even if I fail as a film-maker, I know I will live a fulfilled life as a teacher. The efforts are on to make myself a good film-maker, and the amount of theoretical and practical learning that I have had in these five years has been way more than my five years at the Medical College.

Amidst all this, my personal romance with the movies continues. If I look back at the close to 1000 films I have watched in the past five years, and the film-makers I have discovered and worshiped, that alone would justify the time span. One thing that has not changed is that joy of watching a great film, that moment when I forget what I am – a writer, a film-maker, a teacher, or a medicine graduate trying to live the life of his dreams – and happily relish in the state of being what I was since I was a kid – someone in love with cinema.

Five years have gone. One day, these will look like a short span of time. Today, they are the sum-total of my life as a free man. I don’t know how well I’ll do, but flying with my wings spread wide is all that I want in this life, and I know I won’t give up trying, because giving up trying would actually mean giving up this precious and rare freedom.