Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A ticket to Bizarro World”

Notes from a random day at the 12th Chennai International Film Festival.

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Under normal circumstances, this would have given me an aneurysm. I walked into a film a couple of minutes late. If that wasn’t bad enough, I did not know the name of the film. I know you think I’m being overdramatic with all that italicising, but this is me we’re talking about, someone who’s in his seat well in time and who thinks the Censor Certificate is a part of the film. But when it comes to film festivals, you’re in a bit of a Bizarro World. Up is down. Left is right. And Baradwaj Rangan checked his phone every now and then as the movies were playing. That’s right. When you walk into the theatre in the morning and don’t leave till night, there’s no way you can still follow your Ten Commandments of Film Viewing: Thou Shalt Not Open Crinkly Wrappers Once The Film Has Begun, Thou Shalt Not Switch On Your Smartphone, and so on. More than a few viewers made crinkly-wrapper noises, and I ignored them most benignly. The poor souls, caught in the vortex of endless movie-viewing – surely they need their nourishment.

It took me a full ten minutes to stop obsessing over the fact that I was watching a film I did not know the name of – but then I got caught up in the story and things were okay. What language was this film in? I heard snatches of French. Some people seemed to be speaking Hebrew, given all the talk about Mossad and the Israeli locations. But the style of the film was pure Hollywood. It was a slick product – jaunty score, spilt screens, CCTV footage, a crack team on a secret mission, interrogation scenes, an ominous-sounding nuclear program, $100 million in diamonds, the works. It was far-fetched and fun, and not at all the kind of film you expect to find in a festival. But that, perhaps, is the point. It was also a reminder that not all “foreign films” are grim stretches of great art. I cannot tell you how relieved I am right now that the film has ended and I’ve looked it up and can stop referring to it as “it” and “the film.” It has a name, and it’s the French-Israeli movie Kidon. Catch it someday you feel like some undemanding entertainment, but want to claim, at the same time, that you’re not just watching some Hollywood junk. This is French-Israeli junk. That has a certain ring to it, non?

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How do you know you’re in a film-festival screening? Because the whistles and claps when the name “Kim Ki-duk” appears on screen rivals the whistles and claps when the name “Rajini” usually appears on screen. Then there was silence as Moebius began – shocked silence, I imagine, as the first few minutes involve a woman attempting to punish her philandering husband by severing his organ (and I am not talking about his ear), and when he wakes up in time and throws her out of their bedroom, she wanders into her son’s bedroom and severs his organ (again, I am not talking about his ear). Then she disappears. The man scours the Internet for information on how to fix this peculiar plumbing problem. There’s gang rape, sadomasochistic sex, and probably the only instance on screen of men pleasuring themselves by scraping their skin with rough stones. At points, I couldn’t bear to look. I’ve seen my share of out-there sex on screen – In the Realm of the Senses, The Pillow Book, Antichrist – but Moebius is something else.

There’s not a line of dialogue, and it’s not as if the situations are like the ones in Pushpak, where conversation was either impossible or unnecessary. Here, people are in the same room, and the situations demand that they say something, but they don’t – so you’re watching stuff that’s stylised in the extreme. It’s fascinating. It’s bizarre. It’s one-of-a-kind. But is it any good? That question I never got around to answering because the audience had begun laughing out loud at the increasingly ludicrous goings-on, and after a while, I began to find things very funny too. I’m sorry, but laughter is probably the only response to the sight of a chopped-off organ (by now you know I am not talking about the ear, right?) landing up on the road and being run over by a truck. This screening of Moebius was a great example of the effects of watching movies with an audience. Sometimes, you cannot help being influenced by their reaction, and if they’ve decided that this psychologically messed-up story is a sex comedy (as in, a film about sex that they’ve decided to treat as a comedy), then you have no option but to watch a sex comedy.

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Midway through Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, I had a startling realisation: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is essentially Bergman filtered through a vibrant, modern, casual-seeming pop sensibility. (In other words, Linklater, at least in these films, is a Bergman with a sense of humour and who takes himself not-too-seriously.) Think about it. Most Bergman films are existential talkathons, but Scenes from a Marriage is especially so – and what is Before Midnight if not scenes from a marriage? The Linklater connection struck me because Winter Sleep is structured as a series of conversations between the various characters, and the Bergman connection came about because of the rather deep and philosophical nature of these conversations – about class, religion, work, good and evil, and what it is, sometimes, to be human. Also, doesn’t the title remind you of Winter Light? (It’s one of my favourite Bergmans. Watch it if you haven’t.)

After the astonishing visuals in Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I expected more of the same here. There’s a lovely, grave zoom-in on the head of the protagonist, Aydin, as he stares out of a window. And a little later, after a little boy throws a rock and smashes Aydin’s car window, several shots are beautifully framed around this broken window, with its spidery web of cracked glass. But this is an interior film, and we quickly realise that it isn’t so much about visuals as words. Some of the conversations are breathtaking, especially one between Aydin and his sister. Emotions suppressed for years rise to the surface and we see how two people can love each other and yet harbour a hundred festering hates. But not all conversations work as well, and the film, after a point, becomes a tad tedious. (It runs three-and-a-quarter hours.) One moment made me laugh out loud, though, when someone says Omar Sharif was so “humble” because he posed for pictures with everyone when he came to shoot a film in this area. Clearly, it’s not just we who want our celebrities to be paragons of humility.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Moses supposes…”

Thoughts on ‘Exodus’, ‘The Ten Commandments’, Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.

Just last week, I wrote about Gone With the Wind, and how, 75 years after its release, it remains the epitome of a certain style of filmmaking – the Old Hollywood Style, if you will. I was reminded of that style again while watching Ridley Scott’s new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings. Actually, it isn’t much of a movie. I have had my differences with the critics’ aggregate rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but this time I’m not quibbling with the numbers: a measly 27%. But an analysis of the film’s merits (and there are some, especially the visuals) is fodder for another column. Here, I’d like to continue my discussion on the Old Hollywood Style (OHS), because while watching Exodus – which tells the story of Moses and his liberation of Hebrews from Egypt – I was constantly reminded of Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which narrates, more or less, the same story.

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But with a difference. DeMille was a more straightforward (translation: less subtle, and with no patience with arty, painterly, slo-mo frames) filmmaker than Scott, and this difference is manifest in the leading men of their respective films – Charlton Heston (what you see is what you get) and Christian Bale (there’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface). This isn’t a judgement. This isn’t to say the “straightforward” style (which, really, is just another name for OHS) isn’t as good as the “subtle” style – you may have your preference, but they’re just two different styles, and this is an attempt to highlight a few aspects of each style, from each of these films.

The advantage of OHS is that we are quickly drawn into the drama, instantly immersed in the goings-on. The Ten Commandments begins with the baby Moses being cast into the waters by his mother, a Hebrew slave. We see her place the child in a basket after wrapping him in a cloth whose rough texture will, one day, reveal his origins. We see the basket float towards the palace of Bithiah, the Pharaoh’s widowed and childless sister. We see her delight in this “gift from the Nile gods,” and we see the disapproval of her servant Memnet. In a matter of minutes, the foundation is in place for the scene in which Moses, at the height of his glory, will realise he doesn’t belong in the palace but amongst slaves. How would a more modern-minded filmmaker have staged these events? Perhaps with a flashback, which is the easiest way to withhold information from the audience. As the film begins, we may see Moses, all grown up and embodied in the strapping form of Heston, and then, when the time comes, he stumbles upon the bit of rough-textured cloth and discovers his past.

So why didn’t DeMille formulate a flashback? After all, the device wasn’t all that uncommon by the time The Ten Commandments was released in 1956 – William Wyler made excellent use of it in his 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and two years later, Orson Welles, with Citizen Kane, made a movie that was pretty much unimaginable without its flashbacks. But maybe that wasn’t DeMille’s style. Maybe he thought that this is a story everyone knows, so there’s really no use having a Big Reveal through a flashback. Maybe he felt that, with the flashback, the character acquires information at the same time the audience does (at least the ones unfamiliar with the story), and maybe he wanted the audience to have this information before the character came upon it. Maybe he just wanted to tell the story from the beginning, especially given that his film reconstructs the events spanning 30 years of Moses’s life (omitted in the Bible) with the help of works of ancient historians such as Philo and Josephus. DeMille admits as much at the beginning of his film, appearing from behind a curtain and addressing the audience. (Three years later, Shantaram would introduce his Navrang to the audience in a similar way, by appearing from behind closed doors.)

Scott’s film does away with all this drama – and most of the other drama too. There’s no love triangle between Moses, Rameses and Nefertiri. There are no filial fireworks, as when the Pharaoh Sethi banishes Moses, whom he regards as a son. And the Rameses we see in Exodus isn’t as interesting as his counterpart in The Ten Commandments, whose resentment of Moses rose from the fact that the latter stood between him and the throne of Egypt, between him and his father Sethi’s affection, between him and his wife Nefertiri, who could not forget Moses even after marriage. These are strong psychological shades, and without them, we never really understand why the Rameses in Scott’s film comes to resent Moses.

So why doesn’t Scott weave these elements into his conception of Rameses? Why doesn’t he flesh out scenes with the slaves so that we get to know them better, and therefore get to care more deeply about their fate? (DeMille, who knew no shame when it came to milking the audience’s emotions, even included a scene where Moses saves his mother from being crushed between stones without knowing that she is his mother.) Why doesn’t Scott give us the scene where the commandments are written by “the finger of God,” depicted as a lick of flame forking from a giant pillar of fire? (Here, the tablets are found almost accidentally, like how someone might discover a conch shell while walking on the beach.) Why isn’t Moses “built up” as a saviour, the ones the slaves keep praying for and keep talking about?

Maybe Scott was just embarrassed using these “primitive” methods of audience manipulation (which is why his film isn’t as effective as drama). Maybe he thought of Moses as a more complex figure, which is a very New Hollywood thing, the kind of thing a Christian Bale is far more likely to embody than a Charlton Heston. The OHS would never allow for a scene like the one where Moses, in hiding, looks on as Rameses hangs Hebrew slaves, promising that more will be hanged unless they give Moses up. It’s impossible imagining this shade of “selfishness” in a character played by Heston, who would have given himself up the minute the first hanging was announced. (The audiences of those times, too, wouldn’t have accepted Heston doing anything else.) But a Bale can get away with this selfishness – and today’s audience recognises that it isn’t selfishness, exactly. He’s just deciding what his next step should be.

This Moses is often caught in contemplation. He isn’t as certain about his path, about God’s plans for him, as the older Moses was. And unlike the earlier Moses, this one doesn’t instantly renounce his riches when he learns he’s a slave. He… contemplates. Could it be true? What if it is? What does he do then? These questions drive the new Moses. Unlike the Heston-Moses, Bale-Moses is faced with questions even during the exodus. In the mountains, does he go this way or that way? How does he cross the sea? (Heston-Moses, on the other hand, was so sure about what to do. He raised his staff and parted the sea, as if enacting a well-rehearsed script.) The relationship of Bale-Moses with God is even more fascinating. We get hints of him being a madman-prophet, seeing illusions where others see him talking to thin air. So does God, as Bale-Moses “sees” him, really exist or is he a figment of the imagination, like how Gandhi appeared in Munna Bhai’s mind? Had DeMille posed this question in the script discussion room, the Old Hollywood studio executives might have staged their own exodus.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A study in Scarlett”

Training an Indian-cinema lens on the still-awesome ‘Gone With the Wind’, which turns 75 on December 15.

Leonard Maltin, in his video guide, had this to say about Gone With the Wind: “If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of storytelling on film, maintaining interest for nearly four hours.” It’s hard to disagree, even if the film isn’t in fashion anymore – at least, it’s not “cool” to say you’re a fan of GWTW, the way it is to say you’re a fan of, say, Citizen Kane. To me, the fascination of the film is simply that it’s one of the greatest melodramas ever made, and it’s an amber-preserved artefact of the Old Hollywood style, which also informed how our movies were made once upon a time. Why, even today, this is how our masala movies are made. You have, for instance, the Face Reveal: When we first glimpse the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, she surrounded by two men she’s flirting with. These men are carefully positioned so that we don’t really see her face till the camera zooms in to the exact position. That’s when one of them moves. We see her face. We still have this in our films: the Hero (or Heroine) Introduction Shot.

Or consider the Echo Shot. When Scarlett’s father first tells her about the importance of land (their plantation is named Tara), the camera begins to pull back, and we see the characters as silhouettes, we see brown/orange clouds above and the gnarly branches of a tree behind and, at a distance, we see the homestead. This shot is recreated at interval point, when Scarlett is no longer rich, and she vows she will never be hungry again. We see the same brown/orange sky, and, to a side, another tree with crooked branches. We hear the same score. Echo Shots (or Echo Dialogues) like these are a key component of masala cinema. In the recent remake of Agneepath, for instance, we saw the entry of the hero, first as child and later as adult, in festive, gulal-smeared circumstances, and we saw the hanging of a good man avenged by the hanging of a bad man.

This Echo Shot in GWTW is also a demonstration of the Interval Block principle that we still use, the big sequence that leaves the audience hanging (and on a high). Scarlett says… nay, she declaims, “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s all over I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill… as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” These big words, these big emotions are backed by a big score (which works very well with melodramas), and we are deposited at the edge of a cliff – we can’t wait to return for more. Then we have the comedy. Aunt Pittypat, always on the verge of fainting, has been reincarnated over and over in the routines of Tuntun and Leela Misra. But there’s more understated comedy as well. A lot of Rhett Butler’s interaction with Scarlett involves lines that are laced with humour. You can almost hear the directive to the writers: “Don’t make things too serious.” “And if things have to get too serious, then provide some comic relief in the next scene.” Add to this action and romance and drama, and you have a rock-solid template for a lot of our pre-multiplex-era cinema, a style that still survives in today’s masala melodramas.

Where GWTW begins to differ from our movies is in its scrupulous craft, which, even considering these anything-is-possible-with-special-effects times, is stunning. Colossal shots in the outdoors, painterly shadows when we get indoors (especially in scenes involving death) – you could say GWTW was a David Lean movie before David Lean started making David Lean movies. (I’ve seen it on the big screen – it’s breathtaking.) And then there’s all the accumulation of detail in the production design. When people are scrambling to flee from Atlanta before the siege, we see a harp in one of the carriages. A harp. And that shot of soldiers sprawled on the ground as Scarlett makes her way through is still astonishing. Whether due to budgetary constraints or something else, it’s hard to find this level of production in our cinema.

It’s harder still to find women like these in our cinema. It’s easy enough to cite instances of heroine-oriented cinema – Mother India comes instantly to mind – but those heroines were good, kind, pure. Scarlett is (in Rhett’s words) a bad lot, “selfish and shrewd, but able to look things in the eye and call them by name.” And yet, she’s so human, a mix of bad as well as good. At first, she cares only about herself, but then she stays with Melanie in Atlanta, despite the oncoming siege, to help deliver the latter’s child (all because of a promise she made Ashley, the man she thinks she loves and who is married to Melanie). Then Rhett helps for a while, but after he leaves, Scarlett has to drive her carriage back to Tara, where she discovers her mother is dead, her father has lost his mind. It’s very much a Mother India narrative – a woman has to draw upon her inner strength as she is visited by one misfortune after another.

But the difference is that Scarlett will do anything. She even offers to sleep with Rhett if he’ll give her $300 to pay the taxes on Tara. It’s a marvellous scene. Rhett asks her what collateral she has. She offers her earbobs. He’s not interested. She offers a mortgage on Tara. He asks what he’d do with a farm. “I’d pay you out of next year’s cotton,” she says. He replies, “Not good enough.” Then she says, “You once said you loved me. If you still love me…” He says, “You haven’t forgotten, I’m not a marrying man.” Fully aware of what he means, she says, “No, I haven’t forgotten.” He then spurns her. “You’re not worth $300.” But she’s not licked. When she finds out that the man her sister is meant to marry is now running a profitable business, she lies that her sister is carrying on with someone else and marries him. The most fascinating thing is that she’s not doing this for some noble cause. She’s doing it for herself, for Tara, which is probably the only thing she loves. Can you imagine Nargis in this part, throwing herself at the moneylender in order to survive?

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Scarlett is too proud to admit she loves Rhett. She can’t stop loving Ashley. She dismisses Melanie as a “pale-faced mealy-mouthed ninny” and later forges something of a strong sisterhood with her. She dismisses the notion of loving land, and yet, by the end, that’s the only thing she seems to care about. What fascinating arcs for this character, and so many of them. At least in the first half (yes, it’s possible to talk about this film in halves, just like we do with ours), Scarlett earns our sympathy – she’s the poor little rich girl who must now learn what it’s like to be without money. In the second half, after she’s married Rhett and has all the money she wants, she’s still mooning over the unattainable Ashley. The film (and Margaret Mitchell’s novel) doesn’t “soften” her. We are invited to find her unlikeable and shift our sympathies to Rhett, who has to suffer her whims, like sleeping separately because she doesn’t want to have more babies. (And why? Because her waist, post the birth of her girl, is 20 inches, and she wants the 18.5-inch waist she had earlier.) How many mainstream movies, before or since, have featured such an intriguingly complex character? You have to agree with Rhett when he says, “What a woman!”

Why doesn’t this film have the stature, today, of some of its contemporaries? One reason could be that its melodramatic style has fallen out of favour. Outside of Indian films, you have to try really hard to find something similar – though Steven Spielberg gave it a halfway-decent try in War Horse. A Citizen Kane, on the other hand, still seems relevant – its techniques are still in use. Another reason is probably the perceived racism, with its troubling images of black children fanning white women taking a nap. But if this is what those times were like, can you fault a film for showing those times? Furthermore, GWTW isn’t a realistic film – it’s a melodrama that just happens to use the real-life backdrop of the Civil War. Anyway, that’s how I look at it, and when Scarlett gives her dad’s gold watch to a black servant, or when she argues with her Mammy, she reminds me of Indian housewives of a certain generation who formed close, almost familial bonds with their servants. This doesn’t excuse slavery. But it does justify the presence of such characters in a movie. In any case, apart from Rhett, the only person who really knows Scarlett is Mammy, who gets away with saying things Scarlett wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. “Miss Scarlett, where are you going without your shawl and the night air coming?” And “You can’t show your bosom before 3 o’clock.” And “You ain’t got no more manners than a field hand.” As in our films, a little comedy always helps to cover bitter truths.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Time passages”

Now that awards season has begun in the US, some thoughts on the wonderful ‘Boyhood’, an Oscar frontrunner.

In the Before movies, Richard Linklater’s signature trope (if you want to call it that) was the walk-and-talk. The couple kept walking, the couple kept talking. And at some point, I was reminded of how Woody Allen likes to do the same thing. Almost every film of his has a walk-and-talk – and when I made this weird connection, I also began to think about how similar Allen and Linklater are in some ways. Both make human-sized movies, targeted at adults. Both have figured out a way to do their own thing and – more importantly – keep doing their own thing. Both have fashioned enviably long-lasting careers, with what appears to be unlimited creative freedom, in an industry that’s grown increasingly infantile. Both adore actors and write great parts for them. And both have their share of hits and misses, and because the hits are so good, it’s easy to overlook the misses.

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Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood is most definitely a hit, right from the opening scene. It’s Aspiration Day at school. The sky is a clear blue. The grass is a bright green. There’s a boy lying on that grass, staring at the sky. The boy is Mason, and it’s the journey of his life – moments from his boyhood to adulthood, filmed over 12 years – that we’re setting out on. His mother Olivia (who’s separated from Mason Sr.) comes to pick him up. In the car, we learn that she’s had a chat with his teacher, who’s complained to her about Mason ruining a pencil sharpener by putting rocks into it. Olivia asks Mason why he did this, and the boy says he wanted to sharpen rocks. Olivia asks him what he will do with sharpened rocks. She has the kind of smile that suggests she’s amused. She probably regards this as a silly antic. We are primed, too, for a bit of lightheartedness. We think Mason will say something “cute” and make us laugh at the darnedest things that kids say. And then the boy says he wanted to make arrowheads.

Suddenly, the mother is looking at him differently. And we are looking at him differently. So it was not something foolish, after all. At least, there’s some kiddie-sized logic in this act – after all, if a blunt pencil can go into a sharpener and come out with a sharp tip, why not blunt rocks? Boyhood is filled with moments like this, moments that make you look at life just a little differently. I expected the film to be like the Before movies or like Michael Apted’s Up series or like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel episodes (which, like Boyhood, used the same actor to chart the story of a fictional character over decades) – but despite a similar preoccupation with the passage of time in a life (or lives), Boyhood is a different beast.  It’s filled with “nothing really happens” moments – Mason plays video games; his sister does homework; they go to buy the new Harry Potter book; the family plays Charades; Mason Sr. takes them bowling; Mason has sex; Mason Sr. sings; Mason’s boss screams at him; Olivia sells her house. But these moments aren’t “dramatic,” in the sense that they aren’t a result of the previous scenes and they don’t lead into the next scene. They’re just moments. They’re just there. They just happen. Time just happens.

Most films – most dramas, at any rate – are in the business of manipulating time. This episode, which isn’t important, is condensed. That one, which has the potential to affect the audience, is expanded. Time, in Boyhood, isn’t measured out. It just… flows. And the evidence is in the utterly ordinary milestones – a voice that’s just a shade deeper; a haircut that’s just a little different; a frame that’s just a little taller; thoughts that are just a tad more philosophical. (You can easily see Mason, who’s a “creative”-type, growing up to be the character Hawke played in the Before films.) And these moments are filmed in a style that’s equally ordinary, a fly-on-the-wall style, without a background score.

All this might suggest a documentary, but Boyhood isn’t that either. There’s, at times, a sense of scripted drama, especially in the melodramatic passages (melodramatic only in content, not in tone) that describe the domestic life of Olivia and her second husband, an abusive, alcoholic teacher. (He’s one of those Gothic monsters whose behaviour could have shaped any of Tennessee Williams’s sensitive young men.) So in one sense, this is a “plotted” film, woven around various “episodes” in the story of a boy growing up. And yet, the film doesn’t give us the closure we expect from scripted drama. The “arcs” aren’t tidily resolved. Mason and his sister become close with their stepdad’s kids and when Olivia yanks them away and leaves her husband, Mason complains that they won’t see those kids again – and they don’t. There’s no happy reunion, a few months or years later, waiting around the corner. Or you think that, when Mason’s Sr.’s second wife turns out to be religious, there will be some kind of friction when the kids ask him, “You’re not becoming one of those ‘God people’, are you Dad?” The storm isn’t even allowed to gather. The wife, seated at a distance, simply says, “I can hear you.” She laughs. So do we. Or you think that Mason Sr. is simply teasing his son when he says he’s sold the car he promised to give Mason one day. You think that, when the big birthday scene arrives, one of the gifts will be a set of car keys. But that car is gone. People make promises they can’t (or won’t, or don’t remember to) keep, and that doesn’t make them bad people – just people.

And real people. Boyhood comes closer than most films to showing us that the way forward with adult-oriented drama may be just to remove the… drama. Early on, we get a scene where Mason Sr. and Olivia have an argument – but we don’t hear the argument. We barely even see it. Instead of heated lines and impassioned performances, we just see – from the viewpoint of the kids inside the house – Mason Sr. and Olivia gesticulating and talking outside. But over time, there’s a sense of softening. Mason Sr. and Olivia seem to have learnt to coexist – and then we discover that seem is the operative word. At Mason’s graduation party, Mason Sr. pulls out his wallet to offer some money to Olivia. She doesn’t say anything, but her face is a sight to behold, a tight lid over a thousand questions, beginning with “Where were you when the kids were younger and I didn’t have a steady job and we really needed money?” At times like these, the title feels almost constrained. This is as much Mason’s film as it is Olivia’s or Mason Sr.’s. It could easily have been called Peoplehood.

Or Adulthood. Most of my epiphanic moments from the film came from watching Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr., who comes off, at first, like a deadbeat dad but slowly becomes the film’s most affecting character. Hawke, to those of my generation, has always been one of us – in the sense that he seemed to be in school (in Dead Poets Society) round about the time we were in school. At that time, I too thought, like the Hawke character did, that everything inside me was worthless and embarrassing. I don’t want to get too much into this now, but to see Hawke age here, and reach a point where his temples are grey – I was in tears. Suddenly, this wasn’t Mason’s story or Mason Sr.’s story but my story – at least, it could have been my story. That cliché about the universality of some art… sometimes it’s not such a cliché after all. Mason Sr., unfortunately, gets saddled with the film’s sole false note, a kind of “summing up” scene when his son asks him what the point of all this is. Suddenly, you sense an attempt to tether a free-floating film. But luckily, the moment doesn’t linger. The narrative loosens up again, aware that there really is no point. We just keep going till we can.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Two-film wonder”

Why did C Rudraiah’s career never take off after his dazzling debut film? The film industry’s answer: “Avar Appadithan.”

This is your first film, and even the way you refer to this first film in the acknowledgements at the beginning is different – not as “mudhal padam,” which is the literal translation, but as “kanni muyarchi,” your virgin attempt. Padam signifies a tangible product – a film. Muyarchi, on the other hand, is shrouded with vagueness – it suggests flailing about, it suggests a search, it suggests an experiment. Aval Appadithan (loose translation: She Is the Way She Is; in other words, her own person, not too concerned about blending in with the rest of society, all of which, gender-reversed, seems to apply to the director C Rudraiah as well) was all of these things, especially an experiment. The film, which was released in October 1978, remains one of a kind, an “art film” made with huge commercial-cinema stars (Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Sripriya).

PC Sreeram, who was Rudraiah’s junior at the Adyar Film Institute (Rudraiah graduated in 1975), told me, “We were all totally zapped by the movie. This is the kind of world cinema we had been exposed to, the kind of cinema we believed in, and to see one of your own make this kind of movie, in your mother tongue, was amazing.” Imagine what the audience must have made of it. You go to the theatre seeing the faces on the posters, the stars who were last seen together in Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu, Sridhar’s superhit which was released just that June, and you expect a story-driven melodrama along similar lines, with probably a trendy “item number” like Yennadi Meenatchi, and instead you get… this, this moody dissection of a woman’s psyche. And, at first look, this isn’t even a very likeable woman, someone you feel sorry for, someone whose plight makes your eyes swim in tears, but a woman who’s to her gender what cacti are to the plant kingdom. She’s filled with thorns, and she does her darnedest to keep you away.

When a film is in the spotlight – due to, say, its director’s demise, as in this case – there is a tendency to shove other films into the darkness, and if we are to be really fair to the other directors of the time, we should take note of K Balachander’s Thappu Thalangal, which was released in 1977. That film, too, had Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan (in a special appearance), and it, too, had an “adult” storyline that was unusual for Tamil cinema, something about a thug who meets a prostitute. That same year also saw the release of avant-garde filmmaker John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhudhai. So you could say there was something in the air.

Still, Aval Appadithan was different. The shadowy black-and-white cinematography was different. The dialogues, which were more about revealing character than advancing plot, were different. The frank handling of sex and profanity (“she is a self-pitying, sex-starved bitch!”) was different. The documentary-like detours were different. The painfully sensitive, feminist hero was different. Rudraiah was different. If nothing else, no Tamil film, before or since, has had the hero and heroine kissing in the loo, right next to the flush toilet. K Hariharan, the filmmaker and a close friend of Rudraiah, told me, “He was very radical. His thinking was very [French] New Wave – he was a big fan of Godard. Like Godard, he was into anti-narrative cinema, without traditional beginnings and ends. He wanted to change the conventions of cinema.”

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The director (seated behind the camera) during the shooting of ‘Gramathu Athiyayam’

Seen from today’s vantage, then, it’s not surprising at all that someone like Rudraiah had such an abbreviated (one might even say aborted) career – he made just one other film, Gramathu Athiyayam, which was released in 1980. That same year, Rajinkanth became a superstar with the release of Murattu Kaalai, and two years later, with Sakalakalavallavan, Kamal Haasan was officially launched into the stratosphere. It wouldn’t be feasible for these stars to do small films again, especially if the director wanted things that the box office did not want. Hariharan pointed to Mani Ratnam, too, as a “major game changer.” He said, “His was a consumerist kind of cinema. He looked at frames as commodities in themselves. And this was anathema to Rudraiah, whose cinema was a pure, radical, anarchic world that could not be seen subscribing to anything called ‘standard culture’. Between the native folk art of Murattu Kaalai and Sakalakalavallavan and the urban city art of Mani Ratnam, Rudraiah lost out.”

But not for lack of trying. Among the people I spoke to was S Arunmozhi, who was one of Rudraiah’s associates on Aval Appadithan and Gramathu Athiyayam, and a director in his own right. (He made films like Kaani Nilam.) Arunmozhi, actually, was more than just a professional cohort. He spoke of the “ashram”-like atmosphere in Rudraiah’s Kumar Arts office at Raja Annamalaipuram, where, between 1978 and ’86, many like-minded and creatively inclined individuals used to gather. He spoke of a library there that housed Tamil translations of Jnanpith Award-winning novels, along with the scripts of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Polanski’s Cul-de-sac. Arunmozhi met Rudraiah at the Film Institute – the story of Rudraiah, then, is also a chronicle of people who’ve been trained to look at cinema purely as art, and what happens when they step into the Tamil film industry, which is among the country’s most commercial – and assisted him in his diploma film based on the Jayakanthan short story Siluvai, which is about a nun’s struggles with celibacy. The script was not approved by the HOD, who was Christian, but somehow the film was made and it impressed the examiner, K Balachander, so much that he awarded Rudraiah a gold medal. (At least this part, to some of us, isn’t very surprising. A nun’s struggles with celibacy? How could this story not end up fascinating KB?)

Arunmozhi told me about the other films, the could-have-beens, and though he wasn’t exactly clear about the dates, the chronology, it’s at least instructive to see that even when he was not making cinema, Rudraiah was thinking, constantly, about making cinema. In the 1982 timeframe, give or take a few months or years, there was Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu, with Kamal Haasan playing younger brother to Chandra Haasan. Sujatha was cast as the latter’s wife and Sumalatha was to play Kamal’s heroine. The story dealt with the conflict between the peacenik older brother and the Naxal leanings of the Kamal character. The film was shot simultaneously in Telugu – it was to be a bilingual; Rudraiah’s mother tongue was Telugu – and one of the locations was the set that served as the blind protagonist’s house in Rajapaarvai. Shooting went on for about 15 days, and the film was about 40% was complete (“Those days, you shot very quickly,” Arunmozhi said) when things ground to a halt. Hariharan told me that one of the reasons was probably that Kamal Haasan, at the time, was advised by SP Muthuraman – who had always been a sounding board, since the days of Kalathur Kannamma, on which SPM worked as an assistant director – to change tracks, to make more mainstream movies and not keep making films like Moondram Pirai (released in February 1982). The result of this advice was, of course, the as-mainstream-as-mainstream-can-be Sakalakalavallavan (released in August 1982). So Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu possibly collapsed under the pull of a big star, on one side, and, on the other, a director who worshipped Godard. A couple of songs that Ilayaraja had composed for the film – including Ponvaanile ezhil venmegame – ended up in a 1985 Manivannan flop named Anbin Mugavari.

But Kamal Haasan remained a well-wisher, and he tried to put together a project – this was sometime after Moondram Pirai – that Rudraiah would produce and Balu Mahendra would direct. “But Rudraiah, at that point, wanted complete control over a project,” said Arunmozhi. “He wanted to produce the project. He wanted to direct the project.” But after a point, things came to a halt – and these words will be seen a lot over the next few paragraphs.

There was something called Unmayai Thedi, which was announced in the papers with an ad – but after a point, things came to a halt. Then, around 1988, there was something called TXT7, a road movie inspired by Taxi Driver. (Arunmozhi’s synopsis: “The taxi driver is a good man and society makes him a criminal.) This was to have L Vaidyanathan’s music. Raghuvaran was to be the hero. The story was by the writer Sujatha, who wrote the lyrics for a song as well. Two songs were recorded. But after a point, probably due to a financial problem, things came to a halt.

From some accounts, though, Rudraiah doesn’t seem to have been all that averse to merely producing a movie – and there are projects he floated where his role was just that. Among the more interesting-sounding of these projects is Bhishmar, which would tell a story of the legendary figure incorporating portions from myth as well as the modern day. Rudraiah was to produce, with his Film Institute classmate Kothandaraman providing the finances, and ‘Billa’ Krishnamurthy was to direct. Sivaji Ganesan was to play the leading role, and as a story goes, he landed up on the sets at 5 am, waited till 8:30 am, grumbled about the “lack of planning” by these “new Film Institute boys,” and left. When I asked Kothandaraman about the film, he said that he had distributed two hits from April 1984, Thambikku Endha Ooru and Vaazhkai – and the latter had propped up Sivaji Ganesan’s sagging market. When his classmate came by and spoke about his non-happening career, he decided to help. Vaazhkai had made him a familiar face in the Sivaji Ganesan camp, and he went along with Rudraiah to give the actor an advance for Bhishmar. But after a point, things came to a halt.

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The director (in a dhoti) during the shooting of ‘Gramathu Athiyayam’

Why did Rudraiah begin to toy with the idea of producing? Arunmozhi told me the story of how he, along with a few other technicians who were supposed to work on Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu, resigned their jobs at Doordarshan, New Delhi, when the film was announced because they couldn’t be shuttling back and forth. “We resigned a government job,” Arunmozhi said, and when the film never really took off after that, Rudraiah probably felt guilty. Turning producer for films made by other directors was possibly a way to help out the disciples from his “ashram.”

Around the late 1980s, Rudraiah decided that he would direct films for other producers – some people might describe this as climbing down from a rather high horse – and in the 1990-91 timeframe, he began work on Kadalpurathil…, which was based on the novel of same name by Vannanilavan, who co-wrote Aval Appadithan (with Somasundareshwar and Rudraiah). It was a tragic love story set in a seaside village, and Archana was supposed to play the lead. After a couple of weeks of shooting, the producer decided to make it a telefilm, and he changed the heroine as well as the director. Kadalpurathil… ended up being telecast on Doordarshan.

Then there was this film whose story was written by Somasundareshwar. PC Sreeram remembers listening to Somasundareshwar’s narration, and being impressed by “this intense love story. It was wild and weird, and still made a lot of sense.” Arunmozhi remembers this film as a modern version of Romeo and Juliet (that, in fact, was the film’s name), to be made with Somasundareshwar’s son as hero. Sreeram was to do the cinematography. AR Rahman was to do the music. “This was supposed to bring Rudraiah back as a director,” Arunmozhi said. But after a point, things came to a halt.

Even during the director’s last days, he was planning a film – it was called Gautam, and the hero would play a triple role, a father and his two sons. The film was to be shot in London and Colombo, and the German filmmaker Martin Repka (whose 2007 film Return of the Storks was Slovakia’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars) was roped in for discussions. But after a point, things came to a halt. There could have been other projects too, Arunmozhi said, and he didn’t know about them because, for a while after 1986, he wasn’t in regular contact with Rudraiah, at least not as much as in the “ashram” days. If some of these projects appear to be overly big in scope, especially considering the filmmaker’s modest (and modestly budgeted) résumé, they seem in line with Rudraiah’s thinking, which was always big. “He’d travel by car, never by auto,” Arunmozhi said. The economic losses from the shelved films didn’t cramp Rudraiah’s style. His wife was employed as a teacher, and there were friends who lent him money. After his divorce, he moved into a Single Person’s Quarter in Royapettah, but he kept wanting to move out. “Even during his last days,” Arunmozhi said, “he was looking at houses that cost something like Rs. 60,000 per month.” And this is a man who hadn’t made a movie in over 30 years.

It’s common for a project or two to get dropped in the course of a filmmaker’s lifetime, but in Rudraiah’s case, it comes off like something chronic – almost as if he couldn’t bear to go ahead with the ideas he had in mind. One of the reasons for the stalling of Rudraiah’s career, Arunmozhi said, was that it was too late by the time he began to consider making films for other producers. The man was also a Marxist, a follower of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, which may mean nothing until you begin to consider the unapologetically capitalistic and class-filled nature of the commercial film industry. (Titbit: Rudraiah’s elder brother Gurulingam considered himself a ‘Marxist Leninist’, and it was this dynamic, reversed, that worked its way into the relationship of the siblings in Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu.) In his last days, though, there appears to have been some disillusionment with the people he put his faith in. When Rudraiah was undergoing treatment for the cancer that finally consumed him, he noticed that most of the patients in the adjacent beds were from Kolkata. “What good is a Marxist party if it cannot build even one good hospital?” he told Gurulingam.

Kothandaraman said that Rudraiah was too sensitive, that he used to take things very personally, that he had “too much self-respect” to function in the film industry, where a bit of boot-licking is the norm. Hariharan said that Rudraiah was a private man who would frequently retreat into a shell. He wouldn’t circulate and meet others. “He was a villager at heart. The three years at the Film Institute changed him. Had he been persistent, he could have been the mascot of a new wave, but he gave up.” But more than anything, it was perhaps the cult success of his first film that left Rudraiah paralysed. “He was frozen with Aval Appadithan,” Hariharan said. “Everyone kept praising the film, and it took years for him to come out of its shadow. And he was not flexible. I said I’d take him to Doordarshan, where he could make a meaningful documentary or some sort of semi-fiction. I was doing TV then. Saeed Mirza and Govind Nihalani were doing TV then. But he said no. For him, that was a big compromise. I used to tell him that the best way to describe him was ‘Avan Appadithan’. He would laugh.” And later, he probably started losing confidence. “I met him last in the mid-1990s. He had forgotten what it was like to make a film. Aval Appadithan was so far back in the past.”

Arunmozhi told me that Rudraiah’s fondness for Kamal Haasan was really why nothing ever happened. “Kamal was intelligent, talented, and he knew so much about world cinema. They were on the same wavelength. Rudraiah always appreciated him and admired him. In fact, I would say he was addicted to him. He wouldn’t settle for less. He could have tried to do something with Rajinikanth as well. Rajini helped him too. He didn’t take any money for Aval Appadithan. But Rudraiah wanted only Kamal. It was like an ‘oru thalai kaadhal’.” This revelation lends another layer to Aval Appadithan, where Kamal Haasan plays an uncompromising, non-commercial filmmaker and can be seen as Rudraiah’s alter ego. In the opening credits sequence, Arun (the Kamal character) – rather his voice, given that we just hear him over a black screen – tells an associate that nothing can be done if “villagers” don’t understand this film, and we hear many other thoughts along these lines, all overlapping, like voices inside the head, until Arun shouts “Silence,” like a director would. Consider these other scenes too. The scene where Arun looks at the audience (us) and says, “Konjam left-la thalli irukkanum,” which Kamal Haasan recently revealed was an injunction for the audience to have leftist (or in Rudraiah’s case, Marxist) leanings; the scene where Manju (Sripriya) enters Arun’s home and finds a huge poster of Mamayev Mound, the statue commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad (speaking of Russia, Arunmozhi told me that The Brothers Karamazov was one of Rudraiah’s favourite books); the scene where Manju asks if there’s lots of money in cinema, and Arun replies, “Adhu mattum ennoda nokkam illai”; the scene where Arun tells someone that he’s going to interview S Janaki and she asks if it’s the Janaki who sang Machaana paatheengala and he says he only knows the Janaki who sang Singaravelane; the scene where a big-name actress says she has no dates to spare for the production company named ‘Kumar Arts’… These appear, today, to be as much about Arun as Rudraiah. Even the character of Manju was based on a woman Rudraiah knew. I asked Arunmozhi if Rudraiah, like Arun, was a bidi smoker. He laughed, and reminded me that Rudraiah liked to live life Kings size. “Even if he had to borrow money, he’d smoke a 555 or a Dunhill.”

The only other actor Rudraiah was interested in was Raghuvaran, whom he had seen in Hariharan’s Ezhavadhu Manidhan. “He considered Raghuvaran an actor of some capability,” Hariharan said. “They shared a similar wavelength.” But then Raghuvaran turned to villainous roles in films like Mr. Bharath, and he acted in a 1987 potboiler called Michael Raj, which became a hit. And Rudraiah lost interest. He dropped Raghuvaran and went back to casting, in his head, Kamal Haasan in his various could-have-been films – like Gautam, or much earlier, an adaptation of Amma Vandhaal, Thi. Janakiraman’s story of a Brahmin boy who discovers that his mother is having an affair. But would such a busy star be able to shave his head and sport a tuft for the duration of the shoot? The question, now, is moot. As always, after a point, things came to a halt.

The only film that fructified after Aval Appadithan, then, was Gramathu Athiyayam, which Arunmozhi said was an attempt to transpose Anna Karenina (another Russian connection!) to a village – but the film, today, apart from the outstanding Ilayaraja songs, looks like a fairly undistinguished love triangle between a man (named Thangavelu), his sullen wife (named Bhavani), and her former lover (named Arun, like the Kamal Haasan character in Aval Appadithan). To Rudraiah’s credit, his film was probably the first to explore this dynamic, which would be seen later that year in Mahendran’s Nenjathai Killadhey, and the next year in K Bhagyaraj’s Andha 7 Naatkal – and it’s interesting that the woman, who is confused about her feelings for both men, doesn’t choose who she ends up with; the end is more the result of a deus ex machina. And there are touches that remind us of the filmmaker Rudraiah wanted to be. After Bhavani’s father arranges her marriage with Thangavelu, she attempts suicide by jumping into a pond. Arun sees this and jumps in after her. And the frame freezes. We don’t see them thrashing about in water, we don’t see the rescue – instead, we cut to the characters sitting by the banks and talking. Only, they don’t move their lips. It’s some sort of Bressonian alienation thing, which is amplified by the affectless acting of newcomers Krishnaveni and Nandakumar.

Alas, this is a charitable way of looking at these performances – and most audiences just saw this as bad acting. (Saritha, who played a small role in Aval Appadithan, was supposed to play Bhavani. She even did a photo shoot, in costume, but finally the dates did not work out.) Arunmozhi told me that Krishnaveni was fairly exposed to world cinema, and that she responded well to Rudraiah’s direction. Unlike other directors of the time, most famously Bharathiraja, Rudraiah wouldn’t act out a scene and tell performers what he wanted. He’d get them into the mood by talking to them about the character’s backstory and mental state and how all this informed the situation currently being filmed. “The cameraman always had to be alert,” Arunmozhi said. “Rudraiah didn’t like to hear excuses like ‘the lighting is not yet done’, and he didn’t give much time to the technicians. He wanted them to be ready when the artists were ready. He was always thinking about the actors.”

According to Hariharan, the film’s problems rose from the cast. Rudraiah signed director Jayabharathi (who’d made Kudisai) to play Arun. (The prospect of hiring a star never arose because Arun is a weak-willed character, the kind of man who’d give up his love because he doesn’t have the courage to talk to his domineering father. Then, as now, the character would be seen as lacking “heroism.”) But after a few days of shooting, Jayabharathi was replaced with Nandakumar, who had joined Rudraiah’s unit as assistant director. “Maybe this was Rudraiah’s way of letting people know that he could make anybody act,” Hariharan said. Eventually, Rudraiah must have realised he wasn’t making the movie he wanted to make. Later, whenever Hariharan would bring up the film, he’d say, “Andha padatha pathi pesa vendaam. Let’s talk about the next film.” Arunmozhi said that part of the problem could have also been that Ananthu, who was the screenwriter, was in Visakhapatnam, with K Balachander’s unit, shooting Ek Duuje Ke Liye, and he couldn’t be present to make changes to the script. These were finally done over the phone, which made it impossible to have the kind of back-and-forth discussion that’s possible when two people are locked in a room, arguing animatedly, feeding off each other’s energy and ironing things out. Arunmozhi later told Rudraiah that he should have postponed the shoot until Ananthu was available on the sets. I asked him if he, too, thought that the casting caused problems. He said, “Had the film worked, no one would have said anything. Because it didn’t, we try to find excuses.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Time for a toon-up”

Thoughts on animated features, which aren’t just for kids, and ‘Big Hero 6’, which is.

“But that’s an animated movie!” I hear some version of this when I say I’m going to watch… well, an animated movie. It’s surprising how, even today, so many people think that animated films are only for children – something like Rio, which is essentially a colourful diversion to keep kids occupied while you catch up on emails or something. And to them, a Rio is indistinguishable from something like Wreck-It Ralph or Toy Story 3, which, really, are targeted at adults. What tot could flash back to an era of arcade games or the end of childhood as depicted in these lovely films? To children, these would just be a swirl of movement and colour (so the keep-them-occupied goal is still achieved). It’s the adults who’d really get these movies.

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But this business of ‘animation for adults’ doesn’t wash with the majority. Before and after the release of Kochadaiiyaan, I spoke to a number of people (about their expectations, and, later, about their experience of the film) – and I wish I had a rupee each time someone called it a “bommai padam” (literally, a film with dolls, but this could be taken to mean a kiddie-oriented animated feature; and where I say “feature,” most others use the word “cartoon,” irrespective of the length of the film, even if it’s something by Hayao Miyazaki). Here’s this huge superstar in this lavish production (okay, at least from reports), and all viewers could think of was… bommai padam.

Major amateur psychoanalysis-cum-sociological theorising alert: One of the reasons for this attitude is probably that we don’t have a culture of animated filmmaking in the country, and the animated entertainment we’ve grown up with – say, the Tom and Jerry cartoons, or the Spider-Man series – did have a made-for-children quality, with emphasis on momentary excitement rather than a drawn-out narrative. Of course, this did not prevent adults from seeing them, but they didn’t see these shows as adults – they saw them as kids, regressing to a blissed-out kid-like state of watching something for pure enjoyment and nothing else (in the sense that they didn’t have to process something like subtext, like in the Miyazaki movies). And because these shows came on television, the “meant for casual home viewing” label has possibly stuck. Hence the surprise when a grown-up declares he’s going to watch an animated feature in a movie hall.

So here’s a beginner’s list in case you want to check out animated features for adults: Yellow Submarine, if you’re a fan of The Beatles and high-on-LSD filmmaking; Persepolis, if you like social and, yes, political dramas (for more of the same, and with action, check out Waltz With Bashir); South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, if you can handle sacred-cow-roasting satire; Paprika, if you liked Inception and all that thrilling stuff about entering dreams (though this film came first); Waking Life, if you liked Richard Linklater’s Before films (this one too is by Linklater, and has an appearance by rotoscoped avatars of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy); The Triplets of Belleville, if you like the comedies of Jacques Tati; Fantastic Mr. Fox (technically speaking, this is stop-motion animation), if you like the work of Wes Anderson; and since I mentioned Miyazaki, any of his films, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke (which is being released on Blu-ray as we speak).

What set off this topic is my decision to head to a theatre that was showing Big Hero 6, and the reaction of a colleague, who looked genuinely puzzled and asked: “Why”? To indulge my inner child, that’s why. (Those of us who love animated features do not differentiate between the kiddie fare and the adult fare.) Big Hero 6 is squarely an aimed-at-kids movie, and the first thirty-odd minutes – featuring this insanely adorable robot named Baymax; I’m sorry, but if you don’t love him, you probably think puppies are overrated – are thoroughly delightful. Speaking of puppies, the short film (also animated) that preceded the main feature was equally wonderful, the story of an insanely adorable dog that loves to scarf down humongous quantities of food.

Baymax is the latest in a long line of supporting toons that steal the show (think Olaf the snowman in Frozen, or the minions in the awesome Despicable Me) – and he reminded me of E.T., with that same mix of love and other-worldly cluelessness. There’s even an E.T.-like scene where a youngster hurries Baymax past a distracted parent figure. Eventually, though, the film reminds us of less distinguished predecessors, with frantic action set pieces and an “origins” story. Yes, this is the 495th superhero film this year, and it’s getting tiresome. How strange that an animated film for kids is aping the more adult-oriented Hollywood product – then again, maybe this will make a few more adult Indian audiences go to a theatre to watch a… cartoon.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The curious case of a buttoned-down movie”

Thoughts on the ho-hum film version of a book that I found a knockout (made by a director who’s usually a knockout).

It’s hard to say why an eagerly anticipated movie – like David Fincher’s Gone Girl – doesn’t work for you. Part of the problem may be the eager anticipation itself. A book you really enjoyed reading + a director you really admire = a movie that can never really deliver what you want from it.

Then there are the peripheral factors – rather, the peripheral people. I’ll be the first to admit that few are likely to follow my monastic rules of movie-watching – don’t talk; don’t crinkle wrappers; don’t switch on your phone; don’t tell the person next to you how nice the star looks – but that doesn’t stop me from getting annoyed when someone does any or all of these things and yanks me out of a movie. Gone Girl is all hushed voices, hushed filmmaking – it’s the kind of movie that requires that you lean forward and listen. I was trying to do just that when a girl nearby went “Yay!” when a photograph of the Neil Patrick Harris character appeared. Another chap, one who presumably reads out the names of the films on the certificate when the trailers appear (don’t you hate it when that happens? Yes, yes, we know you’re literate, now just shut up!), went, “Barney Stinson.”

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And then, or maybe earlier (I forget the sequence), the Ben Affleck character’s father showed up and began to swear – and a lot of people laughed. What is it about swearing that our audiences find so funny? I’ve seen this with Hindi films too. A character utters a cuss word, and that’s the cue for a laugh. Maybe comedy writers can stop trying to think up situations and simply have people swear at each other. The problem with laughter is that it takes a while to die down, and by this time you’ve missed the next hushed line reading. (I know. You’re thinking, “I never want to be sitting next to this guy during a movie,” and that’s fine by me.) This sort of thing really kills the mood carefully being built up, and Gone Girl is all about mood. And tone. And texture. These are delicate qualities in a movie, and an audience needs to respect that. Otherwise, they’re killing it for others. Gone Movie.

But the bigger problem, for me, was that I couldn’t unread the book, which, with its sensational midway twist, isn’t one that’s easily forgotten. The knots in my stomach while reading the book didn’t resurface while the watching the movie. The shock twist, now, wasn’t shocking enough. Is it this knowing that dampened my enjoyment of Gone Girl? I doubt it, because there have been films I’ve enjoyed, even been gripped by, despite reading the books they were based on. As an example, consider Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, whose Heathcliff was played by a black actor. This single change makes the movie a fairly different story from the one in the book. But maybe twist-laden books are a tough experience to top – the first time, really, is the charm. (Fincher’s own Fight Club comes to mind. Would I have slapped my head at the end had I read the book?)

Even so, Fincher doesn’t do nearly enough to movie-ise the book. This is a pretty faithful adaptation, and while that’s understandable – rabid fans may be left unhappy; studio execs may balk – it doesn’t help while you’re watching the movie. The book’s format is present day (from the Ben Affleck character’s point of view) followed by the past (a diary entry from the Rosamund Pike character’s point of view), and this is how the movie is structured. The start is sensational. We see the back of a woman’s head as a man says, “When I think of my wife, I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains. Trying to get answers: What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” He doesn’t just want to look into her head and read her thoughts; he wants crack her skull and unspool her brains. That’s some nasty stuff right there. And we want this nastiness to continue – this is, after all, a David Fincher film.

But at least one opportunity for nastiness is kept at arm’s length, maybe because even Hollywood’s leading men cannot be seen as too… unlovable. In the book, Affleck’s father is a pretty major character, a horrible, invective-spewing misogynist who may have passed on some of these genes to his son. Part of what stacks the odds against Affleck – as he’s accused of murdering Pike – is that he isn’t this dream husband. At least one part of him is the stuff of nightmares – he worries that he may become his father. By jettisoning this subplot, the story may have become more mainstream, the Affleck character may have become more likeable, but the film becomes less Fincheresque. Affleck’s alcoholism, too, is only lightly touched on, and when he says to his sister (Carrie Coon, who’s so good that her non-nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category is practically a given) that he used to dread coming home, that his stomach would be in knots anticipating his wife’s disapproval, it’s just a line. We don’t sense this inner life.

The parts that allow Fincher to be Fincher – that is, the parts that require his services as a director, and not merely as a traffic cop ensuring the smooth passage of scenes – aren’t many. I liked the scenes after the twist, the scenes where nothing happens. I liked the offhand visual of random people crammed into a random car on a random highway. I liked the scene with the hammer. (Now, that’s nasty.) I liked the scene outside a bar, set amidst a light snowfall. I liked the scene where a character screams into a pillow. And I liked the background score, which is either silent (allowing for the odd police siren to take over) or a low thrum, so the handful of instances where the score is amplified, as if a foghorn had parked itself in the seat next to you, are sensationally effective. For all the problems I had with Gone Girl, it is the work of a real filmmaker. It’s just that, this time, he’s decided that the author wins over the auteur.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The man who does too much”

Thoughts on a filmmaker who wants to be considered so deep, it must hurt to be him.

Has there been another director who has laboured as much as Christopher Nolan to make simple, generic stories look impressively complex? In Memento (Nolan’s first biggish movie; it still holds up very well), a routine revenge saga was tricked up with non-linear narration. The Batman movies attempted to transform your garden-variety superhero-saves-the-day stories into existential and political thesis papers. In Inception, a heist flick became a video game with multiple levels. And now we have Interstellar, which is, at heart, just an Armageddon-ish outer-space thriller about saving mankind, but how Nolan strives to make us think it’s so much more.

He throws science at us (gravitational anomalies! particle physics! quantum mechanics!). He throws Dylan Thomas at us. (“Do not go gentle into that good night” is recited about 4000 times.) And – in a touch that is sure to please the Nolan-is-God cult on the internet – he throws the Bible at us. The film is set in a future plagued by dust storms. (“The Lord will send dust storms and sandstorms on you from the sky until you’re destroyed…”) The space mission is named after Lazarus. In a key scene, the protagonists are threatened by waves as big as mountains. (Where’s Russell Crowe when you need an ark?) A long-suffering, Job-like character, who thought he had lost everything, says, “You were never tested like I was.” One man, a senior scientist, essentially plays God, while another (younger) man appears to be sacrificing himself to save mankind. And what do we hear on the soundtrack when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) falls through a wormhole? Organ music, of course. Nothing else would signify the momentousness of it all.

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Nothing in the Nolan universe is offhand – everything is invested with meaning (sorry, fans: Meaning), even the names. One character is named Murph (after Murphy’s Law). Another character, a space traveller, is called Amelia (after Earhart?). And the surprise guest star who drones on about mankind is literally named… Mann. Perhaps the name of the space station – Endurance – is a dry joke, a nod to the quality the audience needs most to withstand these three hours? But no, despite the occasional one-liners in his films, Nolan doesn’t do dry jokes. His speciality is transcending his material, the genre-based material, which, in other hands, might have resulted in a lot of fun. If he remade Jaws, there’d surely be a scene where Michael Caine, clutching a copy of Moby Dick, shows up in a subplot that references The Old Man and the Sea.

How else does Nolan try to convince us that he makes more than just popcorn movies? He gives us documentary-like talking heads, the way Warren Beatty did in the Oscar-baiting Reds. He gives us auteur-like casting, with actors appearing in multiple films. He gives us auteur-like tropes – for starters, the leading man with a dead wife. Then there’s all the Important Things he touches on, and all the time he devotes to explaining them. Then there’s the way he overstuffs (or needlessly complicates) the narrative so that we feel breathless trying to catch it all, when all we are, really, is restless, from being jostled from one unfinished scenario to another. People say you have to catch Nolan movies more than once to get it all. Of course you have to. His films are made that way – but is that a function of depth or half-baked writing? (Imagine the beginning of Inception had it not plunged us directly into a set of nested dreams, and had taken a bit of time to ease us into the conceit first – how much more thrilling this stretch would have been.) What I felt about Nolan’s filmmaking while watching The Dark Knight is what I felt about it while watching Interstellar : “[The film is] never content with doing one thing fully right when it can aim to dazzle you by attempting ten things with varying degrees of success.” Father-daughter bonding, meditations on Big Themes (love, aging, survival instincts), special-effects set pieces, disaster-movie drama, art-house aspirations… Interstellar has it all, the movie equivalent of a multi-cuisine restaurant that serves everything, but nothing really signature-special.

Inflating genre material, at least the way Nolan does it, is like building cathedrals in Disneyland. The films end up neither as entertaining as the plots suggest nor as profound as he wants. So much has been written about how accurate the science in Interstellar is – but does the average audience member really care? What we want is to be taken on a never-before ride, even if the equations on the board don’t really balance out. And that happens only fitfully. Save for a scene where Cooper receives some two decades’ worth of messages from his now-adult children (they’re aging faster than he is), the emotional moments don’t quite land – and even this scene feels rushed. Why not make us experience the passage of time that Cooper is experiencing? Even the big emotional scene towards the end feels rushed. The film has been working towards it for two hours and forty-five minutes, and we get a payoff that’s shockingly perfunctory.

There’s nothing special about the big action set pieces either (on water, ice, under a space station spinning out of control) – they have a been-there-done-that quality, which extends to parts of the script too. I was surprised to be reminded of Star Wars, from which we have the premise of a farmer who dreams of being a space cowboy. (Cooper sulks just like Luke Skywalker: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”) A scene where Cooper is rescued on an icy planet is a direct homage to Skywalker’s rescue on the ice world of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. And the production design takes a cue from George Lucas’s vision of space. Everything looks worn out, used. The superbly designed robot-helper looks like a chrome-plated Kit Kat bar, and it speaks like a normal human (i.e. not in a monotone like HAL). Even the wormhole isn’t the dazzling light show from 2001 but something that resembles a river of oil slicking through a city street at night. Kubrick’s saga, meanwhile, is referenced in a WTF-y scene towards the end, where Cooper glimpses the past and plans the future. Even Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is visible, in the premise of father and daughter separated by time and space.

All of which leads people to think I hate Nolan’s films. But that’s not what this is about. The man’s no hack – it would so much easier to dismiss him completely if he were one. He’s the directing world’s answer to Leonardo DiCaprio, who, for the magnitude of his stardom, consistently challenges himself by seeking out risky mainstream movies. It would be easy for Nolan to cash in on his name and keep making sure-fire blockbusters. Instead, he’s made a three-hour film that looks like the love child of Michael Bay and Carl Sagan. And when he wants, he can be an amazing filmmaker. The most stunning stretch of Interstellar, for me, was when Cooper, having decided to go to space, drives away from his home and, as he is driving away, we hear the T-minus countdown, and we cut directly to the space shuttle blasting off. We’ve already spent a good amount of time knowing this man and his love for space travel, and we don’t need any more scenes in between. This is dramatic, economical storytelling.

But why is it absent elsewhere? Why is there so much flab? Why – when compared to, say, Gravity – are there so few visuals that are truly mind-bending, like the shot of a corpse floating in the sea, or the grave sight of the burnt-out parts of a space station? Looking at the zero-gravity sequences here, I was reminded of Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars – not a great movie, but it certainly had a great stretch where a character cut himself and the blood streaming out formed wondrous patterns, and later, the leads performed a playful waltz in these conditions. Maybe it’s time Nolan rediscovered some of the breathless playfulness he so wickedly unleashed in The Prestige. I don’t know if he’s reading all that’s being said about him on the internet bulletin boards (that is, when they’re not poring over the significance of the titles in Cooper’s bookshelf, which houses Stephen King as well as Arthur Conan Doyle) – but if he is, I hope he’s not taking it too seriously. I read a recent profile in The Guardian which opens with an anecdote about how Nolan, while location scouting for Interstellar, walked barefoot towards a glacier. This sort of thing smells suspiciously like mythmaking. We shouldn’t be making a god out of him… yet.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

A walk through time

Thoughts on the remarkable “Before” films – “Sunrise,” “Sunset” and “Midnight”.

There’s a reason I kept putting off watching Before Midnight, the third and final instalment of Richard Linklater’s chronicle of the evolving relationship of Jesse and Céline. I wanted to catch up on the earlier two films first – and now that I have, I can say that this trilogy is meant to be watched at one go. I’ll go as far as saying that you’re probably not getting Before Midnight the way it’s meant to be got if you’re watching it in isolation, with just a faint memory of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Of course, we all remember the broad strokes. In Sunrise, Jesse and Céline meet in Vienna, and they walk and they talk and they walk and they talk and kinda-sorta fall in love, and by the end, they part ways, agreeing to meet again at a particular place and time. And then, in Sunset, nine years later, we find out that that meeting never happened. Life had happened instead. He’s now married. He has a son. She has a boyfriend. And when he comes to Paris to promote his book, they meet again, and they walk again and they talk again. But this time, there’s no heartbreak. At the end of the film, she says, “Baby… You are gonna miss that plane. He smiles, fingers his wedding ring, and says, “I know.”

So this is what happens before Midnight (which, again, takes place nine years after Sunset), but because plot means nothing in these films, just remembering the story outlines of the earlier episodes isn’t enough. It helps to remind ourselves, for instance, that Jesse and Céline met by accident, and that if the German couple on the train they were on hadn’t begun to squabble and make the others around them uncomfortable, then Céline, who was sitting opposite them, wouldn’t have moved to the seat near Jesse and he wouldn’t have initiated the conversation that courses through these three films. Seen one way, this is just the set-up for a meet-cute. You need to find a way to make Jesse meet Céline, and this is as good a way as any. But what significance this set-up assumes by Midnight, when Jesse and Céline have themselves turned into a squabbling couple. They’re together now, and they don’t resemble their younger selves on that train in Sunrise so much as the older couple creating a scene.

These are the kind of films where you feel awkward, almost embarrassed to list your favourite passages or lines of dialogue – to list them, to claim them as revelatory, would be to show others glimpses of the self you try to keep private. Still, it’s impossible to talk about these films without talking about these moments. I love the poem written by the “Viennese variation of a bum,” taking off on a single word (“milkshake”) supplied by Céline. I love her dress in the second film, the black dress that looks severe, at first, when she meets Jesse, but then, on the boat, as the wind whips around, proves surprisingly sensual, revealing her back. I love that Céline keeps saying things like “giving him a favour,” slipping occasionally into the kind of English one speaks when it isn’t the language one thinks in. I love looking at their faces. How young, fresh, untouched Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy look in 1995, in Sunrise, and by 2013, how much… stuff their faces have lost and gained. (She asks him in Midnight, “If we were meeting for the first time today on a train, would you find me attractive?”)

I love the long, uninterrupted car ride at the beginning of Midnight – I love thinking about the logistics of this take, how the actors must have memorised not only their lines but also the route, and how prepared the crew must have been for the unexpected, like another car or a curious onlooker. I love how, mirroring Jesse and Céline, most of the characters in the first film are single people and most of the ones in the third film are couples – even a receptionist at a hotel makes a reference to her husband. I love the casualness of the finish of the second film, the way Jesse agrees to stay back in Paris, making an offhand moment out of a life-altering decision. I love the fact that Jesse and Céline barely fight in the first film, and by the third film, their relationship has become one of arguments and taunts and snide attacks – because that’s how it is. The older the relationship the easier it becomes to hurt people. I laughed when, in the middle of the big fight that’s the centrepiece of Midnight, Jesse pours out wine for him and Céline. By this stage, strife is no longer something that brings life to a standstill. Life goes on – wine can only help.

Sunset and Midnight are terrific films, but I like Sunrise best. Obviously, in the sequels, some of the freshness is gone – we now know the format. Plus, I found it slightly unconvincing that, in Sunset, Jesse and Céline picked up pretty much where they left off, even allowing for the fact that movies, by necessity, compress time and cannot show us all the awkward pauses and weirdness that occurred before their conversation really got going this time around. I realise Linklater was going again for the “one day together” conceit, but maybe he should have just gone for the “walking and talking” conceit, over several days, especially as Jesse and Céline are in different places now and not naïve, unattached youngsters anymore. But here’s the thing. These films draw you in to such an extent that Jesse and Céline become your characters (and not Linklater’s), and you start envisioning how you’d do things. Watching Sunrise, for instance, I wondered what it would have been like if Jesse and Céline had nodded off – they are pulling an all-nighter, after all – and if the one who was awake had run into someone else, another escapee from another train with another squabbling couple.

There are boring bits, yes, and some pretentious bits and some random bits as well, along with lines that seem too thought-out (“Socrates, you should get a robe”) – but that’s part of the charm of these films. Because Jesse and Céline are now like family (I smiled when I saw them at the opening of the last film; it was like a reunion, almost), we treat them not like characters in a film (of whom we demand that they engage us always) but like a cousin or an aunt who goes on and on, but we don’t say anything and put up with it because we love them. More importantly, when we watch the film again years from now – when we are different people, with different life experiences – these “boring bits” may become interesting, even profound. Oh, and another thing. Just as Jesse and Céline change over time, we, as viewers, are going to change too, and the fluidity of their relationship is, in a way, a reminder of the fluidity of our relationship with movies. We fall in love with films, sometimes obsessively so. And then the ardour cools. The things we loved, we find, aren’t as loveable anymore. But life goes on, and there’s hopefully some wine at hand.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Hell on screen”

Thoughts on the violence in ‘12 Years a Slave’ versus ‘Lacombe Lucien,’ which was co-written by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I wanted to write about Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien when I saw 12 Years a Slave. The brutality depicted in the latter film bothered me, and it took me back to the question I keep asking whenever I see sex and violence on screen: How much is necessary? If the intent is to inform the audience that a couple has had sex, isn’t it enough to show, say, the couple kissing and then shutting the door and then cutting to them in bed afterwards? What purpose (other than pornography) do shots of the actual act serve? So too with violence. When is it enough to merely suggest violence and when does it become necessary to show whips landing on naked backs with flesh peeling off, as in 12 Years a Slave?

Sometimes, a filmmaker wants us to feel what the slaves felt, and one way of feeling is to flinch on seeing that whip land on that naked back and tear off that flesh – this may be nothing when compared to the flinching of the slave undergoing this torture, but at least we’re left with a physical feeling, 0.01 per cent of what that slave must have felt. (Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, had this to say about his methods: “I love the idea of just being in real time. Being present. Being there. That was the key for me… I wanted the audience to be there. And if you put a cut in there, then it would be [like] taking the air out of a pressure cooker. It was about keeping that tension going…”)

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But what bothers me is this: Is it a lesser skill to evoke a reaction in a viewer by showing him things that are guaranteed to disturb him? And if you do this, aren’t you really making a horror movie, which is the only kind of movie that seeks reactions by goosing the viewer? And will a really “evolved” and “sophisticated” filmmaker be more – what’s that word again? – subtle in going about this? These are bigger questions, but when I saw 12 Years a Slave, I was reminded of how relatively “non-violent” Lacombe Lucien is, despite covering a period of similar hellishness (the plight of black slaves under their white masters in 12 Years a Slave; the plight of Jews under the Nazis in Lacombe Lucien).

Lacombe Lucien­, in many ways, is the anti-12 Years a Slave – the physical is replaced by the psychological, the explicit by the implicit – and the reason I’m writing about this film now, the reason I’m remembering it now, is that its co-screenwriter Patrick Modiano won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. (This seems to be quite the year for cinematic-literary couplings. The just-announced winner of the Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan, co-wrote Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and directed the film version of his novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping.) A quick Wiki roundup about Modiano: born in a commune in the western suburbs of Paris… parents met in occupied Paris during World War II… father Jewish, refused to wear the star and did not turn himself in when Parisian Jews were rounded up for deportation to Nazi concentration camps… Modiano spent the war doing business on the black market and hanging around with the Gestapo…

With this background, it’s easy to understand why he was sought out by Malle to co-write Lacombe Lucien­, the story of a French youth named Lucien Lacombe who joins the German police during World War II and falls in love with a Jewish girl, who’s rather pointedly named France. This is another similarity with 12 Years a Slave; there, a plantation owner couldn’t help being attracted to one of his slaves. At one level, it’s not fair – or even very useful – comparing the two films. 12 Years a Slave is a more commercial, more Hollywoody kind of film – it’s more direct. Lacombe Lucien­ is made with a distinctly European sensibility – it’s classic art-house fare. 12 Years a Slave, though the story of one man, the slave referred to in the title, is also a chronicle of the times – it’s a more sprawling narrative. Lacombe Lucien­ is more intimate. Its actions are more confined.

But the primary point of interest is that both films depict exceedingly violent times in completely different ways. The violence in 12 Years a Slave is in your face, while Lacombe Lucien­ depicts violent acts without making a centre-stage spectacle out of them. When German sympathisers are killed, we see their corpses but not the actual killing. The whiplashes are more metaphorical, as in the scene where Lucien takes France to a party at the Gestapo headquarters and she’s called a “filthy Jewess.” (France later sobs, “I’m fed up of being Jewish.”) And yet, that’s enough to make us feel, even if we don’t flinch. When Lucien’s mother comes to visit him, she shows him what her boss gave her, a miniature coffin with Lucien’s name on it. Again, we feel for Lucien because he’s just a baby-faced boy who happens to have aligned himself with the wrong people, and at the same time, we hate him because he’s with those people. Perhaps the most violent shot in Lacombe Lucien­ is the one at the end. Over an idyllic image of the protagonist lying on the grass, staring at the sky, we get these lines: “Lucien Lacombe was arrested on October 12, 1944.  Tried by a Resistance military court, he was sentenced to death and shot.” Visuals and words have rarely been in greater conflict.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The critic doth protest too much?”

Thoughts on readers’ thoughts on my thoughts on “Haider”.

About the observation that I try to “find faults” with good films while giving lesser films an easy pass, here’s how it works (or at least, here’s how I think it should work). Firstly, it’s not “finding faults.” It’s not nitpicking. It’s gnawing, mental mastication. It’s considering every aspect of the film with respect – because the makers of “good films” deserve this respect – and going “hmmm… I wonder what this is about” and “hmm… I wonder where that fits into Hamlet,” instead of saying “Wow, Haider is so much better than Bang Bang!,” which is a no-brainer. Of course, even the worst Vishal Bhardwaj film is going to be a better movie-going experience than the best Siddharth Anand film. Duh.

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So here’s the other thing. I walk into a Siddharth Anand film with almost no expectations, so if I’m vaguely entertained, if the film isn’t a total write-off, then that’s enough for me. But that’s not enough when it comes to Vishal Bhardwaj. It’s the difference between a play staged by kindergarten kids and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You cannot analyse the former in any meaningful way, so you settle for simplistic good/bad evaluations. But the latter, you have to analyse. You have to consider it very, very seriously. If something bothers you, you have to talk about it. That’s not just respect you owe to the art form. That’s respect you owe the filmmaker.

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That’s also the respect you owe an auteur. And Vishal Bhardwaj is most certainly an auteur.

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If the things that bothered you exceed the things that you find good, that doesn’t mean the film is bad. It doesn’t mean you’re dissing the film. It just means that you may have to return to it a few times until the things that bothered you cease to bother you. Of course, that may never happen. But the fact that you want to keep returning to the film is what makes it a “good” film, not the fact that it’s “perfect” or “a great watch” or whatever. Any piece of art that makes you want to keep talking about it, that makes you want to keep engaging with it, that makes you want to keep digging into it and (hopefully) discover new things is worthwhile art. Worthwhile. I’ll take that qualifier anytime over “good” or “bad”.

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And yes, this is what you do when you’re a critic. If you’re not going to keep having a constant “conversation” with the movie, if you’re just going to sit back and “watch it” like the lay audience member, then why call yourself a critic? This is your job, and you better do your damnedest to do it well.

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I’ve been saying this for years now, and I’m still not sure how to say this in a way that can be understood – because some people just don’t seem to get it. What’s important is not whether the critic liked the film or disliked it (based on your perception of his review). What’s important is not whether his thumb is up or down or pointing north by northwest. What’s important is what the critic has to say. This isn’t an evaluative profession but an analytical one, even a forensic one. Put differently, a critic isn’t a judge with a gavel but a scientist with a microscope.

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Yes, I found quite a bit of Maachis in Haider.

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No, I didn’t have an issue with the way the army was portrayed. This is the army seen through the eyes of these particular people in this particular story. This is what a viewpoint is. This is what fiction does. I found it far more offensive when, at the end, we get this trite, tacked-on coda about how the army helped during the recent floods in Srinagar. It came off like the desperate act of someone who wanted to be thought of as “balanced” and “non-judgmental.” But how can those positions produce art?

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Of course I’m going to be thinking about Hamlet when I watch Haider. Firstly, the film is being advertised as an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Secondly, even if we didn’t know about the Hamlet connection, it is so famous. It has influenced so many other works. The play-within-the-play has inspired people as far-ranging as Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap) and Subhash Ghai (Karz). As for the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, is there anyone who hasn’t heard of it, straight or parodied? (My favourite: Woody Allen going “TB or not TB… that is the congestion.”) So, of course I’m going to be thinking about Hamlet.

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But I didn’t feel Haider needed to be based on Hamlet. With Omkara/Othello and Maqbool/Macbeth, the attempt was to simply retell a story – but Bhardwaj is a more ambitious, more “important” filmmaker now (another reason his films are always… worthwhile) and he wants to do more than just transpose Hamlet to a desi setting. He wants to offer a commentary on that setting. And I felt he’d have been better off adapting (co-screenwriter Basharat Peer’s) Curfewed Night rather than keep returning to the Hamlet-isms that now look shoehorned in. The staging of the Bismil song sequence and the one with the gravediggers is extraordinary, but they’re also show-offy, standalone pieces. Do they really belong in this realistic tale of strife?

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When you’re hewing too close to reality, when your political backdrop isn’t just a…backdrop against which the human drama is framed, when this backdrop becomes the throbbing heart of the story, then I’m not sure Indian-movie fixtures like flamboyant music videos work. Of course, one day a filmmaker may come along and show that it can be done, but at least, on the basis of Haider, I’m not convinced they work. The segues to the song sequences in the films of Vishal Bhardwaj 2.0 don’t seem as seamless as those in the films by his earlier avatar.

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Organic. That’s a word that often comes to mind while watching a film – any film. Are the events organic? Are the characters, their actions organic? Is the narrative carried forward in a great organic surge? Without this invisible binding quality, we’re left with brilliant individual moments that make for great discussion, but that’s not the same as the film itself working as a whole.

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Not that that’s a problem. A handful of brilliant individual moments can send you home very, very happy

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You have to be careful when you convert archetypes to characters. King Hamlet is an archetype. All we know of him is (1) he was a king, and (2) he was killed. We don’t question, for a second, his reaching out from beyond the grave to goad Hamlet. But the equivalent character in Haider is a humane doctor. The word “intequam” (revenge/vengeance) sits very oddly on his tongue. With fleshed-out characters, we questions things we take for granted in archetypes.

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Also, some things come easier to some filmmakers. In the battle of the new-gen Bollywood directors with Saptarishi surnames – staged in the arena of my mind, I admit – Anurag Kashyap is far more comfortable handling playful changes in tone. The pomo pranks – the two Salmans, the grand “masala” entry of the ghost – would have seemed more, yes, organic in Kashyap’s universe. With Bhardwaj (on the evidence of recent films like 7 Khoon Maaf and Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola), there’s the sense I get that he’s trying for something and he hasn’t yet got a grip on it. (I’m reminded of Polonius’s exhortation: “To thine own self be true.”) And yes, this includes the chutzpah-peppered obsession with (often mispronounced) words, which goes back at least to Omkara, to the scene where Vivek Oberoi tells Kareena Kapoor that the correct way to sing I just called to say I love you is by pronouncing bottom as baah-dum.

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All of which is to say that a film like Bang Bang! is all surface, while something like Haider is all depth. Do you think you’d be doing – or that you could be doing, that it is at all possible to be doing – half of all this handwringing with Bang Bang!?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “ ‘Impure’ Tamilians? ”

The reviews for the Tamil film ‘Madras’ suggest that most English-language writers are divorced from a certain kind of reality.

Pa Ranjith’s Madras is the work of a good, thoughtful filmmaker. It’s a supremely well-made film, but not especially well-written. The narrative superstructure is derivative, and Ranjith doesn’t do enough to make his film different. Or so I thought till I posted my review and began to receive comments. The context is this: I saw the film as one of those many films about the nameless, faceless masses that make up the poorer parts of Madras (given this film, it wouldn’t do to call the city Chennai). But where I – and, apparently, almost every other English-language reviewer – saw a generic group of lower-income-group people, commenters have been pointing out instances from the film to make a case that these characters are from a specific community. They’re Dalits.

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I reproduce (with some editorial intervention, for clarity) what a commenter called masilan said, because I think it needs to be heard: “Madras is a film which speaks about contemporary Dalit politics in TN. The character Anbu personifies that section of the Dalit youth who wanted to uplift Dalit society by achieving political power whereas the character Kali stands for that section of Dalits who have used the affirmative policies of the Indian constitution and remain aloof about the condition and empowerment of Dalits. What Kali wants/is concerned about is his happiness alone.”

“Conversations between Anbu and Kali are very important as they send out the message to the audience (Dalits in particular) that what is needed to bring a real change in the conditions of this community is political awareness along with education. Only a person with political awareness (Anbu) will be able to fight against the oppression/injustice the society has done to the Dalits… There are enough instances of scenes and dialogues which scream out loudly that this film is all about Dalits and their politics and how they are kept suppressed eternally. This is also about the betrayal of their own men towards their community… In India, Ambedkar is now reduced to being only a Dalit leader and his photo is seen in Anbu’s house… Anbu’s wife is named Mary and Anbu is shown placing a document before the photo of Mother Mary, suggesting they are Dalit Christians (large numbers of Dalits converted to Christianity to escape the oppression of Hinduism)… Kali is shown reading a book on the atrocities committed on Dalits living in Andhra… Even Thirumavalavan’s (leader of a Dalit-based political party) poster finds its way into the movie.” And so forth.

The question he asked me was: “While all this was so clear, why wasn’t there any reference to this in your review?” The answer is simply that I drew a blank. (And I suppose most other reviewers did too.) We saw and responded to a generic story, but missed out the specifics. These specifics don’t change the film, exactly – at least in the larger sense. The narrative problems remain. The story arc is still derivative. The ending still looks gracelessly tacked on. A couple of songs still feel redundant. And even the Dalit pointers don’t seem to have been integrated all that well – for instance, if the point is to send a signal to the audience, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show the well-meaning Anbu (rather than the self-serving Kali) reading that book about atrocities committed on Dalits? But seen through this reading, how much more interesting the characters become. I see Anbu and Kali in a new light. I see Kali’s engagement ceremony in a new light. I even see why this ending needed to be there, whereas earlier I had casually dismissed it as “a disaster, the result of one of those do-gooder impulses that strikes filmmakers on occasion, when they feel they have to not just make a movie but remake a society.”

Hopefully, the director can be persuaded, at some point, to expand on all this, but what struck me, after this discussion, was how we see the things we’ve been conditioned to see. You can learn to appreciate cinema by watching films made by great directors and poring over sites about cinematography and writing and editing – but that can only tell you how the film is made. And while that is very important, it’s still only half the story. The other half is what the film is about, and picking up on that, as Madras proves, depends on a great many cultural and social factors. A reader on Facebook pointed out that my body of work remains incomplete as none of my writing involves either social or political commentary. I agree with one part of this, that I don’t really talk about these aspects – but I disagree that this makes a review “incomplete,” because there are many ways through which one can approach a film, and screenwriting/aesthetics is my prism, just as someone who speaks about the political and social aspects may not necessarily talk about the filmmaking as such. It’s all these people, with all these concerns and all these viewpoints, that will bring about a corpus of writing that comprehensively represents the film. No single review/reviewer can hope to do that. Commenters have to chip in.

The other cultural factor is that most English-language writers (and therefore reviewers) are divorced from a certain kind of ground reality. They are schooled in English, and they take their cues from English sources – by which I mean, for instance, that a “well-read person” from this milieu is more likely to have read Anna Karenina than Silappadikaram. Socially, too, his milieu is similarly chalked out. Most of the kids in school are like him. Most of the people at his white-collar office are like him. Ideally, it would be both – we would have the best of worlds, bits from here and there. But this rarely happens. I am reminded of an anecdote from my book Conversations with Mani Ratnam, when we were talking about Roja and he recalled the time he narrated the story to the producer K Balachander. KB liked the story but didn’t like the title, which reminded him of a brand of paakku thool, crushed betel nut. “I was amazed,” Ratnam said. “I thought the title represented Kashmir because the rose is something beautiful but with thorns… But he said [it’s like paakku thool]. Trust a pure Tamilian to come up with that.” I asked Ratnam, “Don’t you consider yourself a pure Tamilian?” He smiled and said, “Tamil medium-la padichaa dhaan pure Tamilian.” (“You’re a Tamilian only if you’ve studied in a Tamil-medium school.”) He was being somewhat facetious, but then again, maybe not. Sometimes we become so global that we forget the local.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “All the world’s a screen…”

In light of the upcoming ‘Haider’, a look at a 60-year-old Hindi version of ‘Hamlet’. Plus, ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and Uttam Kumar as Othello.

When we think of non-Western (and non-Vishal Bhardwaj) adaptations of Shakespeare, the mind settles, instantly, on Kursosawa. Throne of Blood. Ran. But a quick Google search reveals some fascinating Indian productions. A partial listing here – from Hamlet (Khoon-E-Nahak, 1928, Silent; Khoon Ka Khoon, 1935, Hindi); from Twelfth Night (Kanniyin Kaadhali, 1949, Tamil); from The Merchant Of Venice (Savkari Pash, 1925, Marathi; Shylock, 1940, Tamil; Zalim Saudagar, 1941, Hindi); from (of all plays!) Cymbeline (Katakam, 1947, Tamil); from King Lear (Gunasundari Katha, 1949, Telugu). Then, we have the more recent (and to me, more familiar) films: the two Tamil versions of The Taming of the Shrew, both with ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan (Arivaali, 1963, and Pattikaadaa Pattanama, 1972); the two Hindi adaptations of The Comedy of Errors (Do Dooni Chaar, 1968, and Angoor, 1982, both preceded by the Bengali Bhrantibilas, in 1963); Kaliyattam, the 1997 Malayalam take on Othello; and, of course, the numerous iterations of Romeo and Juliet, from the 1948 Hindi version with Nargis and Sapru (called Romeo and Juliet) to last year’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela.

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Shakespeare is also found in tracts of his plays performed within films, and it’s oddly coincidental that two superstars of the 1960s, ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and Uttam Kumar, both played Othello, and both played the scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, and both played the scene in English, “that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster” and so forth. This may have resulted from the Tamil film (Ratha Thilagam, 1963) being adapted from the Bengali one (Saptapadi, 1961). I haven’t seen the latter, so I can’t say for sure, but the two films do share similarities – the backdrop of war, the star-crossed lovers, and, of course, the staging of Othello, which, in both films, appears to have been dubbed by the same voices (Jennifer Kapoor, Utpal Dutt). The Tamil film makes way for a bit of comedy before the play. Nagesh is supposed to play Othello, but he gets the jitters and is replaced by ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. Now that would have been something, seeing Nagesh tackle Othello.

On to Hamlet, which was made by Kishore Sahu in 1954 – 60 years ago. (He called it “a free adaptation.”) You may remember Sahu as the actor in a number of films featuring Dev Anand, most notably Guide, where he played the archaeologist Marco. But he was also a filmmaker, whose most well-known works are probably Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai and Hare Kanch Ki Chooriyan. This Hamlet isn’t, like the Vishal Bhardwaj films, a localised adaptation – Hamlet is called Hamlet, Denmark is Denmark. Seen today, this, inevitably, leads to some snickering. The ghost of Hamlet’s father – who wears some sort of gauzy veil, like a bride – is referred to as “shahenshah-e-Denmark,” and Ophelia’s (Mala Sinha, in one of her early lead roles) father is called “vazir-e-azam Polonius.” Hamlet hails his friend thus: “Khushamdeed Horatio!” Queen Gertrude coos, “Hamlet, mere laal.” More dialogues arrive on these lines: “Humne apni bhabhijaan ko apna malika bana liya.” “Laertes, tum humse kuch arz karna chahte thhe.” Best of all, Ophelia wails, “Hamlet, maine tumko dil diya, tumne mujhko rusvaa kiya.”

These lines don’t need translation. The meaning isn’t as important as the juxtaposition of these very “Hindi film”-sounding lines with those very Shakespearean names. (This was a problem in the Dilip Kumar-starring Yahudi too, which was set in ancient Rome, and which had lines like “Theek kehti ho, Octavia” and “Rome kabhi tumhara daaman nahin chhodega.”) We snicker because we find it odd that these Shakespearean characters speak in this style, and because “O zaalim chacha” sounds so… well, filmy, whereas “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” (the equivalent in the play) sounds appropriately dramatic. So too with “sanyas le le, jogan ban jao” and ‘Get thee to a nunnery.” And when Ophelia cries, “Ya Allah, yeh kaisi qayamat hai,” it’s most weird, because the line invokes a religion that’s not to be found in this palace, in these clothes, in these names. Now you see why Vishal Bhardwaj transforms Macbeth into Maqbool, Othello into Omkara, Hamlet into Haider.

But once we get used to this apparent dissonance, once we settle into the film (to extent that a modern-day viewer can settle into a film where the acting is so flagrantly silent-film-ready), the lines do begin to make sense. In the scene after the one where Hamlet kills Polonius, Gertrude says, “Hamlet ki deewangi samundar ki toofani ki tarah roz ba roz badhti jaa rahi hai.” But if the line appears overwrought and excessively… well, theatrical, that’s because the source is itself theatrical, and, by today’s standards, wrought very differently. Shakespeare’s equivalent line pitches wildly on the same metaphor. Gertrude: “Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier.”

Some of the equivalencies are quite exquisite, with the dialogues rendered in verse, the way they were in Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha. (The “to be or not to be” speech, though, is done fairly straight: “Zindagi ya maut, kisko apnaaoon…”) Here’s the rendering of Hamlet’s “frailty, thy name is woman” soliloquy: Tu woh jaam hai jo sharab-e-makr aur daga se bhara hai / Tu woh chaman hai jo hawa-e-fareb se bhara hai / Bewafaai… tera naam aurat hai / Afsos… mere baap ki maut ko muddat mein guzarne ko aai / Ke tuney shaadi rachaai / Khushi manaai / Aur woh bhi kisse, jo mere baap ka bhai / Ae aurat, ae harjaee / Tujhe yeh surat kyon pasand aai… The dialogues are by Prof. BD Verma and Amanat Hilal, and if Shakespeare had lived and plied his trade in Lucknow, you can imagine him lapsing into these locutions.

Some parts of this Hamlet are stunningly faithful to the original text. You’d think that the inevitable songs (the music is by Ramesh Naidu) would kill the mood or look out of place, but they’ don’t. The female solos go to Ophelia, and they’re structured around the typical situations we encounter in Hindi cinema (a flashback to a couple’s happier times, a he-doesn’t-love-me dirge), but this is actually as per Shakespeare’s vision, because, in the play, the only woman who sings is Ophelia, after she loses her mind. And the only song with male voices goes to the gravediggers, who sing in the play too. (Hamlet wonders, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?”) Other aspects of the film take liberties with the text (hence, I guess, the note about this being “a free adaptation”) – most puzzlingly, in the placement of the play-within-the-play. While Shakespeare intended this to occur midway, here it takes place after Ophelia dies, and segues into Hamlet’s climactic swordfight with Laertes. Still, watching this film only reaffirms that Shakespeare is made for Indian cinema. Hamlet alone has the rich-boy-poor-girl angle (prince Hamlet and commoner Ophelia), the I’ll-avenge-my-father angle (in the case of Hamlet), the I’ll-avenge-my-family angle (in the case of Laertes), the girl-going-mad-after-being-spurned angle (in the case of Ophelia). There are songs, swordfights, low comedy with the gravediggers, a loyal best friend (Horatio) – the Bard, it appears, was one heck of a Bollywood screenwriter.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Police story”

Recalling the superb writing in ‘Khakee’, one of the great masala movies – it turned ten this year.

I wish I’d thought of this piece earlier, this January to be precise.  That would have marked, exactly, ten years – a nice round figure – since the release of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee, which has been coming up in discussions on my blog, after the recent crop of masala movies. The film was invoked, by me and others, as an example of how to do masala right, with dignity and integrity, instead of simply hiring a big hero and winking ironically at tired old masala tropes, and I watched it again, recently, to see if it still held up. The answer is a thumping yes. A few things haven’t aged well. Some of the supporting actors aren’t impressive. (I’m thinking about the stammering photographer early on.) I felt Atul Kulkarni’s flashback could have been meatier, less generic. I wish Amitabh Bachchan’s respiratory problem (asthma? wheezing?) had been referenced a little more – he’s afflicted by it only during the action scenes. And the songs – Dil dooba, Aisa jadoo dala re– look, today, like speed breakers. (Vaada raha, though, holds up well; it’s vital to what happens later.)

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That’s it. We wouldn’t even be talking about these minor issues in another movie, and the only reason I bring them up is because the rest of Khakee works like gangbusters. And though the film is extremely well crafted and acted, its success is mainly due to the writing. I cannot think of a better-written masala movie that came after Khakee – namely, in a whole decade. Rajkumar Santoshi and Shridhar Raghavan share the writing credits, and you can sense from the writing their affection, their respect for the masala movie, their intimate knowledge of its inner workings, and their joy at the prospect of resurrecting it after it practically died from cliché and indifference and neglect. Khakee, too, is based on a cliché, but it’s a Hollywood masala cliché: a ragtag team comes together for a dangerous mission. And this template is fleshed out with flavourful Bollywood masala, the kind where the villain snaps his fingers and the lights reappear in a darkened house. And this isn’t larky masala but the serious kind, the Salim-Javed kind. (Go figure. The story is set in Chandangarh, which sounds like Ramgarh, and here too we have a senior and two juniors – one wisecracking, one dead-serious – trying to outwit a deadly villain, who even has a Kaalia-like sidekick named Kalwaa.)

Khakee knows that one of the most irresistible (and important) aspects of a good masala movie is the character introduction. When we first see Bachchan, he is sleeping on a stage where a gassy politician is giving a speech – and this instantly tells us that (a) he is old, and (b) he has little patience with bureaucracy. Akshay Kumar’s introduction – the actor, seen today, doesn’t seem to have aged at all in ten years; and in those ten years, he doesn’t seem to have gotten another role this good – sets up the character’s sleaziness, his corruptibility, his eye for women. Aishwarya Rai, at first, is mistaken for someone else – and how apt this intro is, given how she’s eventually revealed to be… someone else. And Ajay Devgan – he still had the “a” in his last name then – has a great “villain entry” scene, where he shows up with dark glasses in a photographer’s dark room, bathed in red light. The photographer has done something stupid, and he’s going to be punished. But not by a simple bullet through the head – that would be too easy, too un-masala-ic. So we’re introduced to the photographer’s family, a wife and a daughter who wants to become a singer. Asked to sing, she launches into Har ghadi badal rahi hai… But we don’t hear the last line of the mukhda. That’s left for Devgan, when he steps out and sets off the explosives he’s planted in the house, tunelessly completing the song: “Kal ho naa ho.”

Even better is how Santoshi and Raghavan shape the Atul Kulkarni character, who we think is a villain. He doesn’t say a word for almost half the running time, and then, during an intense verbal showdown between Bachchan and Akshay Kumar, when the tension is at an all-time high, he speaks. This is how you extract maximum mileage from your characters. Kulkarni’s mother, played by Tanuja, is also used beautifully, to emphasise the maxim that, in the masala universe, the mother is the supreme moral authority. Bachchan’s mission is important not because he promises his superior that he’ll bring Kulkarni to court but because he promises Kulkarni’s mother that he’ll bring her son to court, so that the law can take its course. But the writers don’t simply adhere slavishly to the masala tradition – they also tweak it. Bachchan is unable to keep his promise to Tanuja – and this is but inevitable in a story where nothing goes per plan. Compare this arc of the mother (even when she’s not on screen, we feel her presence) to the lazy way a distraught mother is used in Singham Returns, simply to amp up the melodrama.

The characters are from everywhere. There’s a man named Naidu. Bachchan’s wife speaks Tamil. And this diversity seeps into the story’s texture, when we see, for instance, that Bachchan has a personal side too, that his daughter is getting married, and he rues the fact that in the pursuit of duty he was rarely at home. Even the action scenes are textured. Not only are they painstakingly staged, like set pieces (the brilliant Saving Private Ryan-like early stretch comes to mind), we also get a sense of the cost of these exercises, when we learn, for instance, that the police armoury had defective guns and only four bulletproof vests. Unlike Singham Returns, this isn’t a one-note rah-rah ode to the police. Bachchan and his cohorts – a microcosm of the police force, comprising the spotless and the corrupt, the well-off and the middle-class – are constantly disillusioned. And yet, for every criticism of the police (“Yeh log lena jaante hain, dena nahin jaante”), there’s a moment that showcases their undervalued service to society. These “messages” aren’t cordoned off into a crude summing-up stretch at the end, but woven into the narrative throughout.

Most importantly, Khakee really lives up to that title – it’s really about these men in khakee. There are overt references to the uniform, in the numerous speeches delivered by Bachchan and others. (One of these speeches is addressed to another cop, reminding him of his duty.) And there are unstated references to the uniform as well. We see, through their blood-stained khakee shirts, the price these policemen pay, and in the film’s grandest masala moment – during the climactic fight – Bachchan whips out his belt (after showing us the IPS insignia in close-up) and uses it against the axe-wielding Devgan. The next time someone refers to a film as “just a masala movie,” or suggests that you “leave your brains at the door” because it’s a masala movie, you should point them to the entertaining, deeply affecting Khakee, which proves that good, textured, layered writing isn’t just for art films. Ten years later, it’s still a great reminder that masala doesn’t automatically mean “mindless.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A normal boy who does stupid things…”

Thoughts on ‘Njan Steve Lopez’, and the problem with email interviews.

Slowly, surely, Rajeev Ravi, known to most people as “Anurag Kashyap’s cinematographer,” is creating an identity for himself as a filmmaker. His superb first film, Annayum Rasoolum (“Anna and Rasool”), was about a young man who falls in love. The girl rebuffs him at first, then she says she loves him – and then fate throws a big, fat spanner in the works. The young man gets involved, somewhat tangentially, in some criminal activity, and things are never the same again. One of the marks of an auteur is the recurrence of themes, motifs, events, and it’s certainly too soon to even be considering Ravi an auteur – but his second film, the fascinating and deeply atmospheric Njan Steve Lopez, follows pretty much the same trajectory. Young man. Rebuff. Love. Spanner-throwing fate. Tangential involvement with criminals. It’s all there – but in a different form. Annayum Rasoolum was essentially a love story, while Njan Steve Lopez (“I am Steve Lopez”) is a coming-of-age saga.

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And the protagonist, Steve Lopez, certainly needs to come of age. At first, he’s just an amiable loser. He drinks. He sleeps all the time. The girl he likes, Anjali, says he lives in a fool’s paradise and has no plan. (She’s more focused. She’s moving to Bangalore, which is where all young Malayalis, at least the ones on screen, seem to be heading these days.) Then, one day, he witnesses a brutal attack – men he doesn’t know are hacking away at a man he doesn’t know. Probably for the first time in his life, he does something for someone else. He gets a sense of… purpose. He sets about saving the victim. This is where the film really takes off. Coming-of-age stories are usually woven around dysfunctional families or an ill-fated romance, but Njan Steve Lopez locates the protagonist’s arc in the midst of the kind of paranoia thrillers Hollywood made in the 1970s (though in a more muted form). Deep cover-ups, an unyielding establishment, mysteries that are best left untouched – that’s the kind of stuff Steve gets into.

The film is really about a quest – a quest for answers, a quest for identity (note the “I” in that title), a quest for the political in a life that’s so far been only about the personal – and I was a thrown off, a little, by the Camus quote at the beginning: “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” Because I didn’t see much rebelling here, at least the kind you find in the average angry-young-man movie. I asked Ravi (via email; he was in Cochin) what the quote meant to him, and he replied, “Basically, the film is about this boy who realizes that his dad is not on the right side, the side that his parents and society have schooled him about. A decision to go against this is itself a rebellion for me. The thought of Steve going against his father and the time he takes to take the step is the act of rebellion… It’s an internal rebellion, going against everyone’s advice.”

I then asked him about the film’s dreamy, hypnotic pace, which is one of its greatest strengths (just as it was in Annayum Rasoolum) – and yet, commercially speaking, probably one of its drawbacks as well. Wouldn’t he be able to look at a larger audience with a film that moved faster? He said that he gets a grip on the pace of a film as he goes about the process – “it’s an inherent pace that develops. I don’t believe in manipulating the pace for commercial purposes. My basic intention is to tell a story, and the pace sets in during the filming.” When I asked him about his music – gentle, plaintive background scores, with lots of acoustic guitar, even in the fight scenes – he said he didn’t have an explanation. “It’s the instinct or the feel. I prefer to have a kind of narrative in the music as well – an interpretation. I am unable to give you a technical explanation. It’s just the feel. I had two people doing the background score.”

I was also curious about the second half of the film being a mirror of the first. There’s another woman named Anjali. Another scene where Steve peers through a barred window and sees a housewife doing chores. Another out-of-the-blue attack that he witnesses. Another wounded thug that he takes to the doctor. Another reason for his father to be upset with him. Another status update on Whatsapp. Another run-in with cops who suspect he may have been drinking. Ravi said, “Steve is drawn out from his world into another space, which is actually not alien to him. There are similar incidents, which are supposed to be reflected in a different way. So this was intentionally done.” This is when I wished I had spoken to Ravi directly about the film. Emails just don’t give you what you want. You just end up with a fraction of what you are really after.

There are questions, too, that cannot be adequately expressed through email. Face to face, you ask a question, and the interviewee responds, and then you tweak the question, make it sharper, and he gives you a more accurate answer, and then you zoom in more, and he zooms in too, and you finally get the answer you were looking for. For instance, I wanted to ask Ravi about the scenes (this is really an editing thing) where something minor, like a grace note, happens after the point of the scene is over and done with – the long shot that shows Steve staring at a gurney being wheeled away, the shot of feet running down a flight of stairs. But I knew this kind of nuts-and-bolts question would never work over email. I asked him, instead, if he felt that Steve could be labelled stupid by viewers, for not minding his own business, especially when he’s not really lit with a big enough fire inside to do the things he does, to rebel as he does (if that’s how you want to read his actions, following that Camus quote). Ravi said, “Yes, Steve will be called stupid by everyone. For me, Steve is anyone in that age group. He’s not a hero. He’s just a normal boy who does stupid things.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Cutting questions”

So we know now the censor board is corrupt. But how necessary is it in the first place?

About the recent fuss around the censor board chief caught taking bribes, I have just this to add: I am not surprised. This was bound to happen. Over the years, censorship has become some sort of minor annoyance, something that has to be done or else your film won’t get released. It’s like making prints or booking theatres or putting up posters and banners. It’s just another bit of logistics in the long chain of events leading to a film’s release – and it’s an utterly unimportant step. Once the censor certificate is obtained, no one cares about it. Filmmakers don’t care to showcase the rating in any meaningful way. Theatres don’t take care to implement this rating. And we don’t seem to care whether our children end up seeing films they shouldn’t be seeing.

So who, really, is being benefited through this rating? At least in Tamil Nadu, there seems to be some sort of financial gain from obtaining a “U” certificate, some sort of tax exemption. But elsewhere? The system is broken because the people on the censor panels are often people who have no real relationship to films except as viewers. They seem to be unable to differentiate, among other things, between implied and overt sexuality, between psychological and physical violence. The minute there’s a lovemaking scene, the censors get uncomfortable and reach for a more adult rating, but they routinely let pass dance sequences where the suggestive, rain-soaked choreography is pretty much like lovemaking, except the participants have a bare minimum of clothes on. And let’s not even get to the bleeping out of “offensive” words, with scant regard to context.

Someone who wants to bypass this system can easily do it. Many skilled dialogue writers and lyricists have gotten away with double-meaning lines or lyrics that seem to have flown over the heads of the censor committee. And we’ve all heard of filmmakers who include a lot more blood and gore (or swear words, or sexual content) in the print they submit to the censors. The censors cut a bit of all this and feel they’ve done their job. The filmmaker comes away smiling because he still has the adult content he wants. And now, with the Internet, this sort of censoring is even more suspect. At least in earlier days, you could justify these cuts saying that you are protecting young viewers (or whatever), but now, when the most hard-core material is just a mouse click away, what is really being achieved? I am not saying that censorship is unimportant or unnecessary. I’m saying that we need to have a long, hard look at what it aims to do and whether these aims are being achieved.

Instead of focusing only on censorship, do we need a campaign to target parents and tell them that this ratings thing is a serious business and they have to be careful about what they expose their kids to? Let’s consider violence. When I was in school, I routinely watched action sequences, but the action choreography then was just a bunch of karate or kung fu moves – what used to be called dishoom-dishoom – and no one took any of it seriously. Even the blood looked fake. It looked like the red paint it was. So there was no question of being traumatised or becoming immune to violence – because it was all so clearly make-believe. But now, stunt choreographers take more trouble to ensure that the fights look real, the blood looks real. Is it okay, then, for kids to watch the endless shootouts in Singham Returns or the scenes in Anjaan where one bad guy is shot in the forehead and another one’s head is smashed in by a rock?

Perhaps the best kind of censorship is no censorship at all. I realise this sounds extreme, but when little children on TV end up doing the kind of dance moves that were once the prerogative of cabaret dancers in the movies (and with proud parents approving), and – of course – with the Internet all around us, do we really need a panel to decide what’s good for us and what isn’t? How many parents ask their children to change the channel when one of those lewd Govinda-Karisma Kapoor dances come on? Without censorship, at least the adult-skewing foreign films would come to us intact, without being butchered because, say, a demure housewife on the panel couldn’t handle Quentin Tarantino’s brand of violence. This, to my mind, is a worse crime than taking bribes.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Goliaths and Davids – 2”

On “Jigarthanda.” On the current state of Tamil cinema. On criticism, and why it’s important to not just praise a film because it’s… “different.”

Last week, I wrote about how the very existence of a film like Jigarthanda in the current Tamil-cinema climate is a miracle – but while we should celebrate films like Jigarthanda, we should also remember to evaluate them based on the bar they set for themselves. This is not “criticism.” Well, yes, it is criticism, seen one way – but not in the sense of… well, criticising. “Critic” is a horrible, horrible word because it is the root of negative-sounding constructions like “criticise” and “being critical” – and that’s really not what being critical about a film is about. When we speak of films like Jigarthanda from the vantage point of a critic, what we are really doing, as a reader wrote on my blog, is “conscious and meticulous noticing and cataloguing.” Also analysing. How much happier I’d be if I were known as a film “analyser.”

Anyway, coming back to Jigarthanda and films like it – Soodhu Kavvum, Pizza, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, and so on – these are the works of filmmakers who aren’t just toying with the content (i.e. the “story,” the WHAT) but also the form (the “style,” the HOW). Earlier filmmakers, when they wanted to be different, contended themselves with telling a new story, but now, the style has become important too. From having everything explained to us through dialogue, for instance, we’ve come to a point – at least in this handful of films – where things are so subtly welded to the narrative that these films reward multiple viewings. So if you like cinema – not just as a popcorn-munching pastime, but as art – you could label any criticism against these films as the equivalent of a thirsty traveller lost in a desert who finds a puddle of water and, instead of just being grateful, begins to “criticise” the quality of the water.

But that is what criticism is really about – and it isn’t the act of criticising so much as that of appraising, evaluating. There are many things we could say about a film like Jigarthanda that exempts it from any kind of criticism. We could say: “This is just the director’s second film. Many filmmakers go through their whole careers without coming anywhere close to such an ambitious, technically proficient work…” We could say: “When the rest of Tamil cinema is so star-dominated and bent on mere spectacle, this film actually moves closer to the ‘world cinema’ ethos everyone likes to talk about but few have the guts to emulate…” We could say: “Look at the writing, Look at how the love triangle is resolved in the film’s second half, not through the actions of the people actually constituting this triangle, but by an unexpected appearance by a random character who is also some kind of homage to an earlier film…” We could say: “Look at the symmetry in the don character – he begins his career as a don when an audience laughs at him, and he ends his career as a don when an audience laughs at him…” And we could say: “Look at how much there is to laugh at – even for us, the audience outside the film – say, in the scene where the acting coach massacres the ‘Behold, I have a weapon’ passage from Othello…”

But we must also say (if we end up feeling this way): “The film’s first half was excellent, but the second half is less than the sum of its parts…” We must say: “The film’s problems aren’t in the WHAT but, especially in the second half, the HOW, the way too much happens too quickly, without quite convincing us about things like character transformations…” We must say: “Despite a lot of entertainment value, the ‘big picture’ doesn’t quite cohere on screen the way it probably did in the filmmaker’s mind…” We must say: “Let’s laugh, but once we’re done laughing, let’s see if these jokes are an organic part of the film, and let’s examine if the film would lose anything (other than the jokes) if the acting coach scenes weren’t there at all…” We must say: “Some scenes were tonally off…”

None of this means that Karthik Subbaraj is a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, this kind of “critical” engagement is needed because he’s a good filmmaker, and if he’s attempting to give us a world-class Tamil film, then we must return the favour by evaluating his film not according to the standards of Tamil cinema but according to world-cinema standards. (In other words, returning to the point already made, we should engage with a film on its own terms, and see if it clears the bar it sets for itself.) I suppose this kind of involved engagement is a little difficult in this social-media age, where a film is either terrific or terrible, “it sucks” or “it rocks,” when most films fall somewhere in between. But this is how we must “criticise” a film, by engaging with it at a micro level – not just sitting back and saying we had a great time. If the filmmaker sets his sights on an international standard of filmmaking, surely as viewers we must set our sights on an international standard of critiquing, evaluating, appraising, noticing, cataloguing.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Goliaths and Davids”

On “Jigarthanda.” On the current state of Tamil cinema. On criticism, and why it’s important to not just praise a film because it’s… “different.”

Sometime last month, in the coverage of an interaction that had something to do with the teaser of the Suriya film Anjaan, the star was thus quoted: “Expectation about every film of mine is getting bigger and I have to satisfy the classes, masses, families and kids. My kids, wife and parents have to watch and enjoy my films. The business of my films is big and it has a market in Kerala, Andhra, Hindi and overseas. So the content and presentation has to match the sensibilities of all these audiences. So my responsibility is huge.” This is easily among the more depressing things I’ve read lately. I’d be thrilled by Suriya’s criterion for choosing films if I were a distributor, but as a viewer, as a fan of cinema, I’m left wondering: “Does he only care about ‘satisfying’ these various audience segments? What about ‘satisfying’ his creative urge? How about, once in a while, using his stardom to prop up an offbeat venture? Or is that not allowed to happen anymore, once you become a huge star?

And yet, at some level, I understand why someone like Suriya, who’s easily one of our better actors, doesn’t experiment as much as he used to. As his stardom has increased, his films have become unsurprising – they’re just well-oiled machines. But these machines make money, and that’s important – for his career, certainly, but also for the industry, if only because some of the profits may end up financing a smaller, edgier film, which cannot hope to have the kind of audience a Suriya film has. In the same report, he was quoted as saying, “Working with [the director] Lingusamy was a pleasure and there was no pressure at all. It was happiness from day-one to last day of shoot and when it was pack-up time, I felt like the last day in college. He knows how to satisfy the audiences and hence I was relaxed.” If that’s what Suriya wants from his on-set experiences – no pressure, happiness, relaxation – then that’s his choice, and he’s only voicing what most people want, once inside the theatre.

But if Suriya and the other big stars are taking care of the fun side of cinema, who’s looking after the serious side, the artistic side? Who’s making the kind of films that are more than just about satisfying kids and wives and parents? Who’s making the kind of films that we can be proud of, that sticks in the mind long after we’ve left the theatre, that we can sit down and discuss and analyse and lose our minds over?

Let’s backtrack a bit and consider something else, the tax levied by the state government (30 per cent in Chennai city; less elsewhere in the state). I spoke to a prominent trade analyst to get a sense of this, and discovered that there is a special committee set up by the state government that reviews films that are (a) certified “U” by the Censor Board, and (b) have a Tamil title, and decide whether or not to exempt this film from tax. In other words, a film like Jigarthanda, which was certified “UA”, will not even be considered by this committee. Plus, unlike in other metros, there is a government-mandated cap on the ticket price: Rs. 120. So Jigarthanda, when it plays in Mumbai or Delhi, will earn two, three, four times the amount per viewer than what it will earn in its primary market, Tamil Nadu.

Then there’s the question of profit sharing between the distributor and the theatre owner. In the first week, usually, it’s a 55-45 model – 55 per cent of each ticket sold (with or without entertainment tax) goes to the distributor, and 45 per cent to the theatre owner. In the second week, it’s usually 45-55, and in the third week, 30-70. With every successive week, the theatre owners get more, the distributors less – so it’s a cause for celebration for theatre owners when a tax-exempted film like Dhanush’s Velai Illa Pattadhari (VIP) becomes a blockbuster. This also explains why, despite that film being two weeks old and despite the enormous buzz around Jigarthanda, the latter wasn’t able to get the biggest theatres in the multiplexes last week, when it was released. It’s UA-rated, and so theatres stand to make less from it (in its first week) than they would from VIP (in its third week). And if this is the case in Chennai, which is the only major market for offbeat films – unlike Hindi films by filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, that play in metros across the country – then one can only imagine what it’s like elsewhere in the state, in the B and C centres.

The system, thus, is loaded against any filmmaker who does not want to make the kind of films that Suriya wants to make. So, in this climate, the very existence of a film like Jigarthanda is a miracle. The chorus of praise for the film is understandable, perhaps even necessary – if social-media hype can get more audiences to theatres to see such a film, then so be it. This film must become a hit – if only as a sign of encouragement to others who want to make such films. And yet, there is the feeling (maybe only to me) that this is the sole reason for the film’s near-hysterical critical raves – namely, the miracle that it was made in the first place. And this piece is about the need to celebrate films like Jigarthanda, while also remembering to evaluate them based on the bar they set for themselves. It is difficult, yes. We feel churlish and nitpicky while talking about the things that don’t work in these films when even with these “flaws” they’re far superior to ninety per cent of the films we see. But to not do so would be unfair to the film, and unfair to the filmmaker.

(to be concluded next week)

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Slumming it…”

On good actors in not-so-good movies. Or sometimes downright terrible ones, like “Kick”.

It’s sometimes a bit of a shock to see a good actor in a bad movie – and it’s always actors that make us feel this way. We say nothing when a famous lawyer takes on a case that doesn’t deserve his experience or time, or when a renowned painter, for a lark, accepts a cartooning commission – but with actors we sigh, “What is he doing in this crappy movie?” We ask this (rhetorical) question despite knowing the probable answers, that the actor is (a) acting, which is what he’s supposed to do, (b) making money, which is what all of us want (and most of us have) to do, (c) keeping himself from getting rusty (or going mad) by sitting at home and waiting for the perfect project, (d) participating in projects that will help him make contacts, get a foot in the door of the “camps” we keep hearing about, and (e) maybe just having some fun.

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Still, it’s not easy to reconcile our image of, say Laura Linney, with the part that she played in Congo, whose plot was eloquently summed up by Rotten Tomatoes as “Good gorillas meet bad gorillas while human beings search for treasure…” In order to make sense, today, of this good actress’s presence in this far-from-good movie (though it certainly has its so-bad-it’s-good moments), we have to consider the point in her career she was then, in 1995, when Congo was released. She had played “Young Teacher” in Lorenzo’s Oil, “School Teacher” in Searching for Bobby Fischer, and in the oddly prescient Dave, she played the cute young thing the president of the United States was having an affair with. Her only major role till then had been in the television miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. You can see why she took off to the African jungles with a vengeance. It was a question of visibility – and look at the films that followed: Primal Fear, the well-regarded Richard Gere drama, Absolute Power, directed by Clint Eastwood, and The Truman Show.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the cases of actors who have truly arrived and yet take on parts that some would consider beneath them. Consider Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, or Cate Blanchett as the campy villainess in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull. From the production’s point of view, the presence of these “serious” actors classes up the project, and from the actors’ viewpoint, these films offer the opportunity to cut loose. When Blanchett made Crystal Skull, she was coming off playing prickly parts in Little Fish (heroin addict), Babel (bad marriage, dead child, mortal wound), The Good German (a Jew in Nazi Germany), Notes on a Scandal (student seducer, victim of blackmail), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (beleaguered royal) and I’m Not There (Bob Dylan, enough said). You can see why she wanted to go skull-hunting while bellowing in a Rrrraashan accent.

These thoughts sprang to mind after watching Kick, the Salman Khan starrer which really didn’t need anyone else – after all, it’s the hero the adoring fans are coming to watch – but still managed to rope in a superb supporting cast. There’s Rajit Kapur in a white coat, pretending to be a doctor. There’s Saurabh Shukla, playing the heroine’s father and the fool, in that order. (In one scene, he’s stumped seeing Salman Khan at the door and forgets to invite him in. Khan asks if this is his idea of hospitality. A flustered Shukla says, “Please come to the hospital.”) Sanjay Mishra, who was the centre of the superb Ankhon Dekhi, gets to play a cop who’s reduced to standing in his underpants. Randeep Hooda, at first, has nothing to do but listen to stories of Khan’s exploits and respond with oh-that’s-amazing reaction shots. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui hams it up as the villain.

What a powerhouse cast. These actors could be the ensemble in a terrific offbeat film – but here, they’re satellites around the hero. One scene unintentionally comments on where they stand with respect to him. Hooda is on the streets, looking for Khan, who is on a nearby bridge. Khan looks down at Hooda and says, “Tu hamesha mere neeche hoga aur main tere oopar.” (“You will always be beneath me, and I’ll always be above you.”) For a minute, I felt bad for Hooda, but then he has everything to gain from this film – a lot more people will end up watching him, and he’ll get a lot more money than he usually does, which will hopefully help him make the kind of films he really wants to make. The best wisdom about this subject was delivered by Michael Caine, to whom, apparently, no movie was low enough to refuse. A year after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and her Sisters, he starred in Jaws IV: The Revenge. Asked about the film, he said, “I have never seen it but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The genre and the specific”

“Gay movie.” “AIDS movie.” “Chick flick.” Thoughts on the informal tags we slap on films…

By the time you read this, the Chennai International Queer Film Festival (or to call it by its proper name, Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival) will be on its last day. And if things go according to plan, I would have inaugurated it a couple of days earlier. The press release informs me that the three-day event will screen “shorts, documentary and feature film submissions that explore the intersections among sexuality/gender identity and other forms of marginalization, including those based on gender, disability, immigrant/refugee status, caste, religion, socio-economic class, age, and race/ethnicity.”

So there’s no question about it. This is a vital and very necessary event – a corrective to the sad and inadequate representation of gays (and immigrants and refugees and the disabled and everyone else in that list above) in mainstream cinema. Just one question, though: Isn’t this festival itself a kind of marginalization? Doesn’t it also ghettoize the films being shown as “queer films”? Yes, these are “queer films,” in the sense that these are films that deal with queer issues. But if one of the purposes of this festival is sensitise the non-queer population to queer issues, then does the tag of “queer cinema” help or hinder in bringing in non-queer viewers? And if they don’t come, aren’t these festivals essentially just preaching to the congregation?

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I’m looking at this from the angle of cinema, where genres exist simply to define what kind of movie awaits us. When we hear about a Western, for instance, we know it’s most likely going to be a story set in the frontier, with lots of cowboys and Indians shooting at each other. (I’m being deliberately reductionist here.) So a potential viewer is going to have one of the following responses. “Great! I love Westerns. I can’t wait to see this film.” Or, “Crap! I can’t stand Westerns. There’s no way I’m wasting two hours of my life on this.” Or, “Hmmm… I neither love nor hate Westerns. If it appears to be a good movie, then I’d like to watch it.”

But it gets trickier when you get into loosely defined sub-genres – the “chick flick,” say, or “the gay movie,” or the “AIDS movie,” which, like it or not, carry a bit of taint among some sections of the audience. If I label Notting Hill a “romance,” then you may not have a problem watching it, but if I call it a “chick flick” (which it certainly is, seen one way), then you may find yourself dithering.

That’s where I’m coming from. In my opinion, The English Patient is the story of two people who want to be together but are unable to do so because of societal restrictions – and so they have to meet secretly. The exact same description could be applied to Brokeback Mountain as well – so, in theory, if you consider yourself the target audience for The English Patient, then you are also the target audience for Brokeback Mountain. But it doesn’t quite work that way. Nobody takes the trouble to call The English Patient a “heterosexual romance,” but Brokeback Mountain is almost always described as a “gay romance.” Doesn’t the “gay” tag end up making the movie sound somehow more… different or marginalized than it needs to be? Is Dallas Buyer’s Club a life-affirming movie about an ordinary individual bucking the System – very much like the crowd-pleasing Erin Brockovich – or is it an “AIDS movie”? If the latter, then don’t the numbers of its potential audience drop instantly?

I’m not sure if the assumption I’m operating under is true – namely, if you remove the taint, the tag, then large numbers of audiences will rush to embrace the film in question. But doesn’t it help even if a few extra people who may not have seen the film end up seeing it now? Maybe you’ll call it cheating. But if you are able to get someone to see something under slightly false pretences (and calling Brokeback Mountain a “tragic love story,” like The English Patient, certainly isn’t a lie), and if that someone slowly warms up to the film and is able to come away with a different worldview, then isn’t it worthwhile?

And yet, at another level, when you see films not just as cinema but as mirrors to society, these tags do become important. Because they show that movies are being made about specific cultures and sub-cultures, many of whom remain voiceless until a big movie is made about them. And let’s face it, whether Hollywood or Bollywood, there’s nothing like a big movie to shine a big light on a big issue. Just look at how common discussions about dyslexia became after Taare Zameen Par. So with these thoughts swirling in my mind, I turned to Deepan Kannan from Orinam, one of the organisers of the film festival, for some clarification.

This is what he said: “I feel labelling or tagging films a certain way is a challenge for all movies that deal with important social issues. It is not limited only to queer films. For example, a movie that has a female central character, even if it has only commercial elements, continues to carry labels such as ‘women-centric’ or ‘feminist.’ Kahaani had to bear that tag and was celebrated for being a box-office hit ‘despite being women-centred’. Fandry, the critically acclaimed Marathi movie, had a coming-of-age love story at its core (at least partly). But this was projected as a “Dalit” movie, because it dealt with the issues of the marginalized community. That could have been the choice of the filmmaker. But such a tag could restrict the film from reaching a large audience due to two reasons. One, because of the tag, these movies come to be viewed as ‘alternative’ and ‘offbeat’ (when, in reality, the film could be a very commercial prospect) and may be avoided by mainstream moviegoers.”

“The other reason is that people entrenched in bigotry may largely tend to avoid it. For the second reason alone, these tags are important. They are an affirmation of the silenced voices, and they represent a fight against such bigotry. Such a tag for any art form, not necessarily movies alone, will help communities create a space for themselves, which is otherwise denied. That way, these labels become very important. And at least in Indian cinema, stories based on sexual and gender minorities have seldom been told. So, in a way, giving a tag to these films will help create a platform to tell these untold stories. As a movie buff, I definitely feel that labels, in some cases, may give a very reductionist view of the movie. But at the same time, as a ‘feminist’ (yes, that’s a label I’ve given myself), I believe that these labels definitely help marginalized communities to rightfully demand that their voices are not silenced by the privileged and mainstreamers.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.