Between Reviews: Dreams of Prose

DREAMS OF PROSE

Corporate espionage in the world of dreams makes for a great action stretch buried in a lot of talky tedium. Plus, love in the world of the British makes for a reasonably diverting romance.

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JUL 25, 2010 – THE IDEAL DREAM-MOVIE MAKER, to my mind, would be Federico Fellini. Things happen on an apparent whim, in his films, and the only way to keep up is to surrender to his rhythms, just like you have to surrender to sleep in order to begin to dream. Take the nightclub scene in La Dolce Vita, for instance, where a clown with a trumpet steps out of the spotlight and begins to outline a mournful tune. By the time he gets around to kicking balloons into the air, we are in a trance, half-aware that a movie is unfolding before us, and yet unaware exactly how to respond logically. The only possible response is emotional, as if from inside a dream. By the time the clown retreats from the spotlight, his balloons tailing him like the Pied Piper’s rats, we feel we’ve experienced something profound and also primal. It’s impossible to reconstruct these subconscious feelings with mere words.

In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the subconscious comes with an instruction manual – filled with words, charts, diagrams, and more words. Apart from the stray visual of a cat strolling around a chemist’s counter or the spider-web straps of a blonde’s costume, there is no place in Nolan’s world (even his dream world) for the offhand shot and the glancing image – the kind of visuals that appear at the corner of the eye and vanish before we can train our focus on them, leaving us unsure if we did indeed see them, like in a dream. Nolan’s visuals are all in the centre of the screen, in the centre of our eyes, daring us to misread them (and in case we do begin to mistake them to mean something else, the accompanying words, the endless explanations in the form of cheat-sheet questions and answers, steer us back to the one-and-only meaning).

Nolan is only interested in the “not being awake” part of dreaming, not in the “manifestation of innermost feelings” part. His dreams, therefore, are less fantastical than functional, woven around the plot of corporate spies who invade businessmen’s dreams in order to extract and implant ideas. These dreams are cold and clinical, extremely businesslike, extremely lifelike. It isn’t that we expect characters to reach their dream destinations by hanging on to the sleepers’ neurons and swinging across, like Tarzan on his vines, but couldn’t their travel have incorporated a tiny bit of logistical magic? Then again, even when Nolan made a movie about duelling magicians, it was less about magic than mechanics, and Inception is more of the same, filled with elevators and cars, just like the real world. These dreams are hardly the hothouse mental states that are likely to rouse you in cold sweat (or arouse you with a boner, for that matter). You don’t need Freud to interpret these dreams – just a logical thinker.

It’s easier, therefore, to view Nolan’s dream world as you would view, say, the moon or Mars. It’s essentially a fancy sci-fi backdrop with a unique set of characteristics and rules – or put differently, it’s just the setting for a super-intricate video game. (Hence the need for that instruction manual, filled with such directives as, “Arthur has about a couple of minutes. We have about 20.”) We don’t experience dreams in Inception, the way we would in a Fellini film – we merely leap in and out of them as the “game” keeps ratcheting up to the next level (or the level beneath, as Nolan toys with dreams within dreams within dreams). And once we get past the gassy setup – a truly testing tract of tedium – we get the thrilling payoff, the real reason for the film’s being, a mind-bending third-act stretch that instantly slots itself among the great action-adventure sequences of all time.

This is when we realise that, despite the portentous stabs at profundity, Inception is essentially a glorified B-movie, an assembled-team heist movie, and that it could have been a great heist movie had Nolan not allowed himself to be bogged down by self-aggrandising minutiae (or allowed himself a bit of amusement). Despite the recurrence of what could be an auteurist signature or thematic obsession (his protagonists, whether superheroes or sorcerers, are work-bound men haunted by women they’ve lost), his is not so much a cinema of ideas as illusions. His stock in trade is the sleight of hand, and he may well be the cleverest packager of clichés (or cinematic references) in Hollywood today. Not a single action segment in Inception is truly visionary in the never-seen-before sense, and yet, we feel we’ve never seen it before because of the conceit of dream layers – or video-game levels, if you will.

The exasperating thing, though, is that the rules of Nolan’s video game are hardly complex enough to warrant all that buildup, all that fuss. Anyone who worships at the shrine of The Matrix (or any space-time-continuum adventure, for that matter) — and that would certainly cover the core audience for this film — would be able to cotton on such concepts as “the kick” and “limbo,” without having to endure Nolan’s elaborate physics-meets-transcendental-meditation lectures, and a lot of this dead time could have been more usefully spent in detailing the tortured, loose-cannon protagonist. (That would have invested the terrific twist, at the end, with more emotional heft.) But Nolan is the kind of filmmaker who likes to tell, then show, then tell us about what he’s just shown. For someone with such a surfeit of smart ideas, it’s baffling he’s so convinced about the dumbness of his audience.

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VIJAY’S MADRASAPATNAM IS A REASONABLY diverting entry in the honourable cinematic tradition known as the Epic for Dummies, and it takes its cues from Titanic, the most famous Epic for Dummies of all time. As with the waterlogged blockbuster, the period setting – the last days of the British in India, filled with trams and Vande Mataram-spewing revolutionaries – is merely scenery for a rich-girl-poor-boy love story, and it’s this richly recreated backdrop that distracts us from the obviousness of the proceedings. (There’s also a strong Lagaan hangover, especially with the first song being in anticipation of rains.) The aspect that may linger with Chennai-ites, though, is that the Cooum, at one time, actually flowed. People took boats rides on it. Today, the only thing people take on it is a dump. Inadvertent or not, it’s a splash of cold water, this realisation that our city was better off in the hands of the Brits.

Copyright ©2010 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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58 thoughts on “Between Reviews: Dreams of Prose

  1. @Brangan: I do hope you had something better to do while you churned out these two :D Hardly a few sentences on the tamil film and a para or three about inception(and a few stock brangannite phrases on the monthly Priyan rubbish ).Working on another script are we ?

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  2. re inception, like I said in my blog, it feels more like a business strategy paper submitted to management by a consulting company than a movie. It was too practical.calling inception a “dream” film would be like taking the Martin luther king “I have a dream” speech literally .

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  3. I perfectly agree with you regarding your views on what Inception doesn’t offer but why do you want to thrash the movie by comparing it to something like one from Felini’s when Nolan didn’t intend to make a dream movie. To me his intention was to make a movie purely based on logistics with almost no plot holes in it, in which he was fairly successful.
    I don’t think we should compare a movie to one of Felini’s which has a dream reference in its story, why can’t we judge the movie based on its own merits. Nolan’s views on dreams are his own as were of Felini’s but did Felini ever wanted to show gravity defying stunts in the dreams or lots of fistfights and gunfights- no, but Nolan wants to and gives a good enough reason for them in his movie. The point I want to make is that both Nolan and Fellini or any other director are very different in their styles of filmmaking and according to me we should enjoy their different works and POV’s instead of comparing them.

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  4. I’ll say the same thing that I said over at the last Bitty Ruminations post: The dreams in “Inception” aren’t supposed to be surreal — they’re specific creations by people who designed it in the real world — which means that they aren’t going to be the same as they are in a Fellini (or Lynch) film.

    I do agree with the parts that you point out as a weakness — the over-explanation was not needed — but I disagree with that first criticism that a lot of film critics have been making with regards to this film.

    “Not a single action segment in Inception is truly visionary in the never-seen-before sense, and yet, we feel we’ve never seen it before because of the conceit of dream layers – or video-game levels, if you will.”

    While this may be true (to an extent) — I still feel that the anti-gravity sequence is easily one of the most astonishing we’ve seen in years.

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  5. Absolutely agree – this is a so-so caper movie disguised as a mind-bender. I have no idea why this has been touted as a seriously complex movie – for big chunks I felt I was trapped in a badly given physics lecture on Discovery. And the grand objective of the caper took my breath away in its sheer banality. All this for planting this idea? Good grief! The action was also so-so – I can’t think of a single scene which even had the paisa-vasool dhamaal effect of say, Mission Impossible. I think the woman-lost angle was also so overplayed that I got completely impatient and wanted to give Cobb and his wife an OTS by the end of it. They came across as such self-absorbed jerks – all that time in limbo and they could only make an unpopulated crumbling city? At least Saito had fun in limbo recreating his empire, guntoting goons and all. And what a waste of such stars like Ken Watanabe – Michael Caine had a sneeze-and-miss-it role and poor Postlethwaite had to content himself with a brief drooling role. Sigh.

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  6. Thanks.Perfectly encapsulates what irritated me about Inception’s conceit. Even the characters’s quips like how someone shoulda dreamed up a beach instead of a snow fortress(which is exactly what I thought before the line comes) and such like…its like Nolan threw in those in-jokes and other cheat sheets almost defensively to override the questions the audience would’ve asked…and what further riles me is all the other reviews using the ‘original’ buzzword…the idea, just about,but the execution no way.

    and if people had problems with some characters literally interpreting the characters in Raavan, why gloss over names such as Ariadne and Mal which are pretty much the same thing in reverse…

    PS: dunno if I missed it but the falling van causes the characters in the next level to float but is there some explanation given as to why it doesnt spill over to the other levels? and the scene where Cobb reaches the old Saito seemed to happen instantaneously…looked like a cut dunno.

    Ooh that last line about the Brits is gonna piss off the jingo police ;)

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  7. “a lot of this dead time could have been more usefully spent in detailing the tortured, loose-cannon protagonist.”
    I thought there was more than enough information supplied to keep us invested in the emotional stakes of the protagonist.Were you looking for Nolan to show us a more screwed up version of Cobb’s subconscious?

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  8. dude the dreams were interwoven, that’s why they needed all the other people, so the person would dream what they wanted him to dream. there wasn’t much space for the experience of a random dream, cos it was all planned. they created a world for the person inside his dream.
    the third dream sequence did make it sort of campy, but i wanted to know if it over shadowed the rest of the movie for u, like it did for a few others.
    also, a lot of the audience that left the theater did not understand much of it… after a one time watch, i’m still struggling with a view concepts, to be honest. the explanation he gave was needed for most of us, i’d guess

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  9. the perils of being a movie critic i suppose? you can’t just kick back and enjoy the beauty of inception for what it is.
    its not a glorified b-movie, or a heist flick, it is a beautiful love story about loss and redemption.

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  10. Hi Baradwaj,

    Not a big fan of Nolan are you! Remember your Between Reviews column for ‘The Dark Knight’ – you were not very impressed then, though everyone was going ga-ga. Have you Reviewed Batman Begins/Memento/Prestige – if yes, can you please give me the link. ‘Epic for the Dummies’ – LOL!

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  11. Your review of Inception capturted the uneasiness with which I left the theatre..that nagging feeling that it there was a large lacunae-your review precisely detailed that lack of surreality that one would hope to experience…even the camera work during the dreamsequences were a series of special effects…where one would have expected some dali-like moments.

    And then I watched mullholland drive and that made my day…!!

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  12. satyam; Wow. I’m going to have to set aside some serious time to read that. Thanks.

    Bala: Dude, you’re a tough taskmaster :-)

    Akshay Ahuja: I wasn’t comparing the two filmmakers at all. I was saying that a dream movie would be like Fellini’s. And that it’s more useful view Nolan’s world as “a fancy sci-fi backdrop with a unique set of characteristics and rules…”

    radhika: Also, it looked like Nolan wanted to go Freudian with that bit about “the need for father’s approval” and all that. But in the end he didn’t go that way, opting instead for spectacle. I did like the action a lot, though.

    Arun: Ah, but Indian films have to be “emotionally involving,” you see. We don’t hold foreign films to the same standards :-)

    Senthil: I guess I was just looking for more of him – alone — like in Shutter Island. Most of what we saw of him was with his wife, and after a while that got monotonous.

    pr3m: Once the dream sequences began to unfold, I was quite gripped — campy or not. Also I’m saying that there should have been an entire dream that was “random,” as you call it. But those little flourishes like the cat and the spider-web dress — those “random” extras might have added to the off-kilterness of the world. Because they do say that one part of the dream is what they deliberately construct, while the other part if from the subject’s subconscious. I saw only the former in the film.

    Raj Balakrishnan: Oh, I’m a big fan of Memento, Inception and Prestige. Didn’t mind the two Batman films, just didn’t think they weer all that great.

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  13. @Arun : >>dunno if I missed it but the falling van causes the characters in the next level to float but is there some explanation given as to why it doesnt spill over to the other levels?
    Yeah, I also had that doubt. And if the logic is that time is expanded in the next level, then even if not exaclty floating, there could have been the sense of a slight moonwalking experience.

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  14. @Brangan: just keeping you on your toes :P Also, I find that some formatting has got screwed up in some of the blogs that you imported(case in point, your” The Prestige” review) or maybe it’s just me ….

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  15. @radhika/Arun: I am not really sure but I read somewhere about how the perception of physical sensation rippling down drops with each level down. Like how Saito will feel lesser pain as the levels go deeper. So that explains the perception of gravity too I believe.

    BR: I am not really buying the Fellini comparison. I think you’re comparing a literal dream world with some sort of surrealistic cinema. Again, like how many have pointed out, these are planned/created dreams with a predetermined architecture and all that with no room for fantasy. I mean Nolan does choose to show it’s possible with that Ellen Page sequence on how they walk with the city folding down etc. But yes, I agree with the whole talky tedium part.

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  16. Bala: Did I review Prestige? I can’t even remember that far back. Damn, my gray cells are dying :-)

    Gradwolf: Not comparing the two at all. See my response to Akshay Ahuja.

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  17. “why it doesnt spill over to the other levels?”

    becauseat some point the subconcious manifests itself as the id and not the superego.

    you’ll notice that di caprio’s inner dreamscape was completely silent and unpopulated, while murdoch jr’s dreamscape, at its lower levels was cold and cruel.

    ok i completely dremt up that explaination, but its as good as any that the writer sweatshops at WB can come up with! :D

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  18. For anybody working with dreams in their art, the quality with which this master presented the dream might remain a dream :

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  19. Inception didn’t work for me the way Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind did (as far dreams/surreal/reality swapping movies go) and you laid it out in great prose the problems that Inception gave me(barring the action sequences).Somehow I could never feel for Cobb or anyone till the end whereas Jim Carrey breaks your heart with his memory retention issues. Did you “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind ” or any other Kaufman creation?

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  20. brangan : it is striking that you compared inception to levels of a video game. David Cronenberg’s Existenz (it used to come on a movie channel pretty often a year back) with Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh is the exact same movie. Have you seen it? Thru a bionic portal in the body, you could become character of a video game. Watching that movie, it was tough to figure out whether the characters were in the video game mode or in-reality. Sadly, it wasn’t true with inception. Chris Nolan explains everything to the viewer, leaving little for imagination.

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  21. BR,
    I enjoyed Inception a lot (except for Ellen Page’s “mind of the audience” role!). It was not complex enough as they said but still a very satisfying movie experience. Also it’s great that an original idea got a chance to see the light with this grand style — I think the studio should be thanked for that!!! (Even with Ellen asking all those questions, many american viewers don’t get it at all!!! goes to prove their fragile intelligence…….!!)
    “Epic for dummies”—LOL, LOL, LOL!!! It was such a waste of time and effort to see Lagaan meets Titanic story with such straight scenes lifted from both films……I did not enjoy it. (They could have done a docu-film about old Chennai, it would have been more satisfying, enjoyable one to see).
    BTW, 3 Idots is going to be in Tamil with vijay (really?!!), Simbu and Madhavan with Shankar directing it. Why, why why they want to screw that wonderful film (minus the “birthing scence”!) is beyond my brain’s reach!!!

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  22. At some point while watching the movie it became apparent that Nolan wanted to explain every little detail, like you said, which for me didn’t make the movie as great as it could have been. I believe that Nolan’s approach cannot be faulted though – he aimed for a movie that was sufficiently complex, but gave enough hints and directives on the important plot points to ensure most people understood what happened – and in essence he made a Hollywood version of a paisa-vasool movie. Everyone feels that an IIT exam paper is difficult, but provide them with a solution set, and then suddenly the exam has become easy :)

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  23. If you are looking for a complex tale where you cannot make out between real life and a dream, I would recommend the Japanese movie, “Audition”. As the blurb says, it starts off as if it is an Ozu film and then completely go off tangent in a delicious way.

    ‘Inception’ as many critics had pointed out, was way too literal. The dream was not a dream at all. As Cobb explains, you never remember the start of a dream. if only they also understood that you don’t have dreams which end perfectly :) All said and done, a very watchable movie if you don’t worry too much about the dreamy underpinnings.

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  24. Hi Baradwaj,

    Saw Inception yesterday and loved it – though I didn’t fully get it. You had made a point that all the explanation and build-up was unnecessary – I think without that this movie would have been impossible to follow (at least for laymen like me)! Even with all that I am not sure I got that twist in the end you are referring to – need to see again!

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  25. BR: Inception worked for me big time. I also liked the dialogues, to me it was not tedious at all. Also the back and forth usage of terms like ‘leap of faith’, ‘waiting alone to die’, ‘idea like a virus’ etc left me a bit baffling. Perhaps a second viewing will help for lesser mortals like me!

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  26. apala, why? 3I is very much an iLayathaLapathy movie. The job of Madhavan and Sharman is to keep saying “aNNan baniyan size 42″ about Aamir throughout the movie. Supporting cast needs to change though – Sriman is the right fit for Maddy’s role and Sharman can be that Vijay’s real life college friend who plays IT’s sidekick from time to time. Maddy’s role is not good enough even for Simbu. Sriman-E pOdhum.

    ( I remember possibly mentioning in the comments here of 3I review that it is a Vijay role minus the fights so I feel vindicated :-) )

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  27. @Raj Balakrishnan,
    Raj, That means your intelligence is not fragile but it may mean that you are an american!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  28. 1) Inception is a movie that pulls you, hurries to comment rather than read the actual review and think about :)

    2) I got what was missing in the movie , when i read the above review. Dream is seen more of backdrop than a wonder that can loosen out mind.The 3-4 dreams could have been 16 characters in 4 differ ent backdrops than dreams !

    3) Still , i think the movie engages us simply because most of the times we are busy following the layers and satisfying our intellectual cloud as against the progress in characters .

    PS : Good that you are using less hyperlinks – research shows that use of hyperlinks dents our comprehension ability.

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  29. Ah, 3 idiots in Tamil!

    Expect the following changes:

    1. Vijay introduction song
    2. Aamir’s introduction – the ragging incident – would be changed a bit – instead we will have Vijay beating up about 30 to 40 college seniors
    3. 3 heroines and 7 songs (minimum)
    4. Vijay’s amma character and a blind sister
    5. An underworld don tries to take over the college – Vijay fights the don’s gang and wins the heart of Prakash Raj (Boman Irani)
    6. One kuthu song
    7. ‘All is well’ replaced with a punch line which eulogizes Vijay
    8. Chatur’s balatkar speech replaced by a Vijay speech (we can’t have somebody else hogging the limelight in a ilaya thalapathy padam)

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  30. Raj,
    I don’t think 3I is that bad that it can be called an IlayaThalapthy movie. That is the greatest insult for the movie, dude! It had it’s bad moments like that “birthing scene” but I can not even imagine Vijay playing Aamir’s role — no, nada, zilch.

    Sriman – if you give him Rs 5/- he will act for Rs. 5 crore man!!! Too much!!!!!!!!

    My guess is that they are going to screw the movie royally!!!! (That’s why Shankar is there!!!).

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  31. how can there not be a caste scene a rape of the hero’s sister by Bald college admin , finding dhavani in kenaru,college “boys” beating up gundas of the management,innocent puny brahmin boy committing suicide because of not getting admission(oh wait 3 idiots had that too! ) a fat white heroine doing a jujilippa with vijay and karthik raja singing in syncopated tamil imagining it to be “western”.

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  32. I meant it as an insult, apala. Kuthu paattu, amma sentiment irundhaa dhaan kevalamaa. I.thalapathy formulavaiyE vEra formla koduthuttA? Enakku adhuvum IT padam dhaan!

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  33. Ther is more to inception than what meets the eye, first of all I think the whole movie is a dream, and DiCaprio is the subject of Inception. the dialogue” take a leap of faith” is uttered by Seito in the helicopter when he convinces DiCaprio to take up the final job, but the dialogue is that of DiCaprio’s wife’s, when she jumps out of the building. during the chase scene the walls come close, a classic dream effect and suddenly out of no where seito come to rescue him, this is one property of dream when u look for a way out of a miserable dream, mind comes with a solution which is unreasonable. more over every time the top spins we don’t get to see the result of it. and at the final scene the children have the same clothes, in the same position with out growing any older as he always imagined. all adds up to the fact that DiCaprio is in limbo. Nolan’s successes is how he could take the audience out for a ride where they can’t differentiate between real n dream just like the characters.

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  34. Sir!
    One para for Madrasapattinam okay. But why you didn’t write anything about Amy Jackson???

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  35. unrelated to blogpost – Did you get to attend this “Keys and Conversations – Ensemble Concert” Organized by NDTV Hindu? If not, you can check it out here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8P_U3ZKMH8&feature=related Anil Srinivasan (pianist) jams with Naveen (flute) Srinivas (singer) and others. They perform some lovely ghazals and melodies, with a major portion of the show dedicated to works of Ilayaraaja. Thought it might interest you.

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  36. correction to previous comment – “…with a major portion of the show dedicated to works of Ilayaraaja.” That might be a little misleading. They do perform quite a bit of Ilayaraaja, but they do a lot more. :)

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  37. So, BR. Lets say there is a critic who becomes a co-screenwriter on a rom-com Tamil movie. How much do you think he would be paid for his services? Or has he been paid yet ?
    How much does a screenwriter usually get paid.. Tell me if it’s five figures or six figures.That would suffice and provide enough fuel to my screenwriting dreams. :)

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  38. Senthil: Early five figures if you’re starting out. But let me tell you, the money is just one part of the equation. If you’re a creative type and are looking at screenwriting to express that creativity, it’s not exactly a bed of roses. Because you’re not writing the movie YOU want to write, but the one the DIRECTOR wants you to write (taking into account commercial considerations and producers’ inputs and suchlike).

    Filmmaking is entirely a director’s baby. If that’s your bag, I’d say go for it.

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  39. “we get the thrilling payoff, the real reason for the film’s being, a mind-bending third-act stretch that instantly slots itself among the great action-adventure sequences of all time.”

    Really? I had similar views on the movie overall, but by the time the snow-skirmish sequence, I was almost waiting for the oh-so-predictable-ending. here’s my take on the movie..

    http://42ing.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/thoughts-on-inception/

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  40. BR, please post a full review of Inception. This is just a tantalising teaser. Or are you too busy with your movie? :-)

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  41. can’t wait for k2k. But we will all watch it guaranteed, just to see your work and “critic” you :-)

    BTW, watched 500 days of summer based on someone’s reco here. Not a bad movie, and could enjoy it at various levels.

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