Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part II

40. Parineeta: Very rarely is a film carried through entirely by one powerful performance and that too of a new comer. “Parineeta” was one such rarity. Vidya Balan overshadowed seasoned actors like Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt to give the performance of a lifetime as Lalita. Shantanu Moitra gave his best score till date and Pradeep Sarkar’s eye for period and cultural detail and the delicate portrayal of the social differences at the time made “Parineeta” almost wonderful. The hackneyed climax was however, a real letdown and almost derailed the entire movie. The director’s attempt at the metaphorical breaking of the walls became a tad too literal and absurd.

39. Firaaq: Continuing in the vein of debuts, Nandita Das made her directorial debut with “Firaaq” in 2009. An intertwining tale of various lives colliding in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots and featuring an excellent ensemble performance from an army of seasoned actors, the film was well directed for a first timer. Das deserves kudos for selecting such a heavy subject for her debut vehicle and actually managing to make some sense out of the carnage that occured. It is also a delight to watch actors like Deepti Naval and Paresh Rawal in such form.

38. 3 Deewarein: A powerful work by Nagesh Kukunoor, 3 Deewarein was a powerful film which featured some terrific performances by the principal actors. The story is of 3 jail inmates on death row and a documentary filmmaker dealing with an abusive husband and a painful past who comes to the jail to film their last days. The movie reminded me a lot of Shawshank Redemption though that’s not to say that it was similar. It was deep, intense and featured believable characters. Watch it for Juhi Chawla who proves that she can do more than mere comedy and melodrama.

37. The Legend of Bhagat Singh: Certainly the best biography to be made in this decade, this little gem had everything right. Right from the impeccable casting and the high production values to the lilting score of A.R. Rahman, Rajkumar Santoshi created the definitive biography of Bhagat Singh’s life. Perhaps its greatest strength was an army of supporting characters that were not only cast appropriately but also fleshed out in great detail to create a great ensemble performance. The dialogues were fiery and the execution was just right. Unfortunately, despite all this, the movie sank due to two other movies on the same subject released around the same time.

36. Makdee: Vishal Bharadwaj’s directorial debut may have been his weakest film. But that is only testimonial to the brilliance he has achieved in his other films. Makdee was a lovely children’s tale featuring exceptional performances by Shweta Prasad and Shabana Azmi. It was believable, funny and made a strong message for children and adults alike. A simple tale told simply, Makdee is the best children’s tale to make it to the silver screen in the decade.

35. Zubeidaa: Shyam Benegal’s only decent film from the 2000s, “Zubeidaa” was an outstanding period piece that was authentic in its look and soul. Featuring some lovely performances by Rekha, Karishma Kapoor and Surekha Sikri Rage and a hauntingly melancholic score by A.R. Rahman, the film was technically flawless and delicate in its treatment of the tale of the doomed actress. I loved the way in which it portrayed royalty in all its elegance and claustrophobia. Long after the movie was over, I could hear the quivering voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing “So gaye hain, Dil ke afsane, Koi to aata, Phir se kabhi inko jagaane.”

34. Dor: Nagesh Kukunoor’s most mature work, “Dor” was a beautifully shot film about girl power which rested on the powerhouse performances of the two leading ladies: Ayesha Takia and Gul Panag. At the same time, Shreyas Talpade provides the humorous interludes and veterans like Girish Karnad, Pratiksha Lonkar and Uttara Bhavkar provide able support. Salim-Sulaiman’s score was as earthy as it was haunting especially “Yeh Hausla,” “Kesariya Balam” and “Imaan Ka Asar.” As we see the transformation of Meera (Ayesha Takia) from the happily subjugated wife and daughter in law to the emancipated independent woman is endearing and heartwarming. The performances, perfect pacing and the powerful dialogues make the film a highly memorable movie of the decade.

33. Mughal-e-Azam: Now this may be considered an odd entry by many. Originally released in 1960, K. Asif’s labour of love took over sixteen years in making and faced many hurdles. With an astronomical budget of INR 1.5 crores, the movie remains India’s grandest epic. The sheer scale on which the production was mounted (perhaps best seen in the legendary “Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya” and the 30 minute climax shot when Indian moviegoers got the first real taste of Technicolor in cinema) still evokes awe amongst most. However, K. Asif’s dream of releasing the entire film in colour remained unfulfilled at the time. In 2007, however, with an additional budget of Rs. 9 crore, the movie was digitally remastered and each frame was coloured using the latest technology. The result was an epic re-release of the opus which made a whole new generation watch and love the movie all over again. Coloured with great love and care, the movie was an absolutely magical experience. Each frame had the richness and sheen of a beautiful portrait and the re-release made the movie one of the most memorable of the decade.

32. Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye: The follow up to the awesome “Khosla ka Ghosla,” Dibakar Banerjee managed to deliver a memorable film yet again in “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye.” What was most memorable was the performance of the actor who played the younger version of the crook. The movie showed an aspect of Dilli never seen before. Instead of showing the usual upper middle/rich class of society which Yash Chopra specialised in, Dibakar Banerjee takes us through the little gullies and mohalas of Delhi and the people that live there. Alternately hilarious and interesting, it was a worthy, albeit lesser follow up to the superb “Khosla ka Ghosla”.

31. Rang De Basanti: Here is another film where the end was its undoing. This movie was remarkable for the fact that it really sparked a minor revolution among the media and the youth, where, for a few months, people took the problems of society more seriously. The convergence of parallel tales of freedom fighters and today’s apathetic youth was powerful and mostly relevant. However, the convoluted conclusion was the prime culprit in making the movie less than classic. Nevertheless, the flavours of North India were dished out with all the ghee and makhan characteristic of the area. The music of A.R. Rahman ranged from the earthy “Rang De Basanti” to the soulful “Tu Bin Bataaye” and the haunting “Khoon Chala” and “Luka Chhupi.” It had a distinct sound which continues to appeal to many even today, 2 years later. It was, ultimately, a hatke experience that oversimplified to the point of absurdity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part 1

As the curtain is drawn on the first decade of the new millenium, I began to ponder over the gone by in terms of the movies that came and went. This was the decade that saw, I believe changed the fundamentals of Bollywood. The rise of the multiplex culture provided a new exclusive urban audience that demanded a different style of cinema. As a result a number of different movies and subjects that wouldn't have worked 15 years back suddenly found a market for themselves. As a result of this, there was a lot of promising new talent and technique that found its way to mainstream audiences and made the decade memorable. This was the decade to be in for an Anurag Kashyap or a Vishal Bharadwaj. This and the fact that I still have to come across any decent list of the best Hindi movies online inspired me to create a list of the 50 best movies of the decade. Hindi, English, multilingual and bi-lingual films have been considered so long as they are made in Bollywood. The entry is split in five parts and

50. Namastey London: An unexpectedly quirky comedy, this surprise hit remake of the classic “Purab aur Paschim” was authentic, fun and funny for most part. It featured an refreshing and energetic performance from Akshay Kumar (before he got typecast in “Welcome” type roles) and gave Katrina Kaif a chance to use her Angrez accent to actually add authenticity to her character. The music was an eyesore thanks to the involvement of aapro Himesh. However, the movie was earthy, breezy and a perfect outing on any given Sunday.

49. Mithya: A black comedy to the core, Mithya was as entertaining as it was sad. Featuring an impeccable performance from Ranbir Shorey, the movie was extremely funny for the most part. Unfortunately, it was also a thin storyline stretched too long, like butter spread overdecade too much bread. However, solid dialogues, performances and a few well placed plot twists made the film a highly entertaining experience, a rarity in Indian dark comedies.

48. Johnny Gaddar: Had it not been for Neil Nitin Mukesh’s wooden performance, Johnny Gaddar would probably have featured much higher in the list. The movie is expertly crafted by Sriram Raghavan who makes a story that is at once a classical Western thriller and also postmodern tribute to the masala films of 1970s. With a plethora of superb supporting performances, the only problem with the movie is the fact that its leading man is far from convincing. Nevertheless, the confident direction and supporting performances make it a memorable film.

47. Parzania: A powerful film based on a true story with superb performances by Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika. A boy went missing during the Gujarat riots because of simply his name and his family is left behind to pick up the pieces. This could be a story of hundreds of families in Gujarat today. The movie was lacked the typical happy ending and instead gave us a disconcerting account of the atrocities that were committed and the chilling role that the government played in the carnage.

46. Om Shanti Om: An absolutely entertaining reincarnation tale, the movie was a classic big budget Hindi movie. However, what made it interesting is that it drew inspiration from and made references to a plethora of movies ranging from the usual Karz and Madhumati to Gone with the Wind, Phantom of the Opera and many more. A stunning comeback for Arjun Rampal as the menacing Mukesh Mehra, it also gave us the dewy eyed Deepika Padukone. At the same time, it was a celebration of the Hindi film industry with all its stars and its larger than life appeal. Needless to say, it proved to be one of the highest grosser of all time. 46.

45. A Wednesday: This sleeper hit, a phenomenon rarely witnessed on this side of the world, was timely and relevant in its subject matter. Unlike most terrorism films, it put the common man at the centre stage rather than the terrorists or the government. The dialogues were sharp, biting and reflective of the popular sentiment on the matter. The performances of veteran actors Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah as well as Jimmy Shergill and Aamir Bashir were absolutely fantastic. While unrealistic, the plot achieved its objective in delivering an excellent thriller that was thought-provoking without being jingoistic.

44. Kabul Express: This was perhaps one of the most underrated films of this decade as it was a refreshing departure from anything portrayed on the Indian screen before. Shot on the tough landscape of war-torn Afghanistan, the film was technically flawless and had a tight screenplay. The story was entirely original and haunting in its implications, a tale hard to dismiss offhand given the director’s extensive experience with the country. At the same time, it was an entertaining road movie with the requisite humour, thrills and a great background score.

43. Morning Raga: Directed by celebrated theatre personality, Mahesh Dattani, the movie was a poignant and emotionally resonant tale of three people haunted by the past finding redemption in their love for music. The movie was interesting as it introduced Carnatic music to a wider audience (including myself) and featured some lovely fusion versions of “Thaaye Yashodha” and “Mahaganapatim.” It also featured a haunting performance by the always bankable Shabana Azmi. A lovely outing because it was fresh, metaphorical and pure.

42. Cheeni Kum: The tale of love between a 64 year old chef and a 34 year old woman; sounds familiar? Not really. And that was the USP of this film. Absolutely wonderfully enacted by Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu in title roles, the film was very well written in places and always interesting. The ideas of ageing, death and social stereotypes were dealt with the required delicateness and care. The sub-plot about the little kid may be slightly off-putting for some. However, the success of Cheeni Kum reflected the changing sensibilities of the moviegoer. No longer were subjects taboo (as had been the case for movies like “Lamhe”).

41. Being Cyrus: Bollywood has always been weak on thrillers, primarily due to a lack of originality. “Being Cyrus” was one of those rare thrillers that actually worked wonderfully. Darkly comic and macabre, the tale of Cyrus Mistry and his days with the Sethna family at their house in Panchgani is twisted and allows us a view of the deep recesses of characters’ psyches. It reminded me of Tolstoy’s saying that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. As we are exposed to the Sethna family’s secrets, we laugh, we gasp and in the end, are left with a sense of wonder and melancholy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar: The Motion Picture Event

I had been reading up on "Avatar" ever since the first images surfaced at Comic Con 2009. James Cameron is one of my favourite film makers and I looked forward to the film with immense anticipation. For the first time in 5 years, I actually bothered to get the tickets for an English movie in advance (the last being "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"). I had a gut feeling that this would be to Cameron what "Star Wars" was for Lucas. And I was right! For me, the movie not only lived up to the hype but surpassed it. Naysayers be damned! James Cameron is still the King of the World.

The first thing that struck me about "Avatar" was its visuals. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was filled with that same childlike wonder that I felt at the age of 5 as I sat and saw "Jurassic Park." "Avatar" draws you into a new world and provides you a visual feast never witnessed on the screen before. The colour palate is beautiful with a wide range of primary and fluorescent colours. Every aspect of Pandora (the world of the Na'vi) is conceived with great imagination and an eye for detail. The plants, animals, birds, creatures have been conceived in such detail that it is hard not to be in awe of it. The Na'vi are also created with care and given a language, history, culture that is well thought out, highly imaginative and at its core, believable. They are beautiful and hell, even sexy. Their world is one where the spiritual and the biological combine and symbiosis is the basis for their existence. Only James Cameron could pull off something on this scale. He takes his time to introduce us to this world and its inhabitants, get involved and ultimately care for them and their fate.

While the first half is awe-inspiring, the second half is like a punch that knocks the wind out of you. Unlike a District 9 which started with a highly interesting premise but finally degenerated into mindless action, the action sequences of "Avatar" are emotionally gut-wrenching. That is because by now, like the main character of the film, I (and the people around me in the theatre) had picked my side, decided that I cared and despite all cliches, I gasped, choked up and cheered bang on cue at all the right moments. It's a tried and tested tale but one told so convincingly and with such passion, that you can't help but buy into it.

What I love the most about James Cameron movies is that he doesn't sit around and wait for a sequel. He puts together everything he wants to say in one movie. This is also probably why his (rare) sequels are all the more stunning. At a run time of nearly 3 hours, there was only once I checked my watch and that too to see how much more time I had to experience this movie. Cameron proves with "Avatar" that his imagination really knows no bounds. Unlike other great epic movies like "Lord of the Rings" trilogy which had a brilliant literary base, "Avatar" is an absolutely original creation and that makes the work all the more admirable.

With "Avatar" Cameron reinforces the fact that he is the only person in Hollywood who can consistently take obscene amounts of money and churn out classics. Lets look at his repertoire: The Abyss ($70 million, obscene for 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the first movie with a $100 million budget), True Lies ($100 mil), Titanic ($200 mil) and now Avatar ($250 mil). He plays only in high stakes and delivers the required value in both monetary and aesthetic terms.

At the same time, I think what makes "Avatar" special over all his previous movies is that it is not only ridiculously entertaining but also has a very interesting subtext. The movie can be seen as an allegory for many things: it's pro nature, anti war and is an excellent representation of the process of othering. The complex subtext and the stunning scale of production make second viewings practically mandatory (I intend to revisit the movie next week!).

Technically, the film is flawless. The cinematography, the editing, sound work and visual effects produce a feast for the senses. Just when I thought that special FX teams in Hollywood had traded their sense of imagination for a quick buck (see 2012 and you will know what I mean), this little gem came along. The music of James Horner also deserves a special mention. This is certainly his best background score with "Titanic," "Braveheart" and "Troy." The impact of each sequence is heightened by his compositions. Come Oscar season, "Avatar" may just sweep all the technical awards.

On a final note, nothing of what I have just said can adequately prepare you for what you will see. I recently wrote about the Hollywood practice to churn out big budget bullshit and sell it through effective marketing. "Avatar" is a rare exception to that. For 3 hours, I was a five year old kid again: simultaneously frightened and awed. "Avatar" is the epic film you have been waiting for. It is the motion picture event of the year and more than makes up for the 12 years Mr. Cameron took to make this film. Movies like these are a good reminder why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“LGBT movies:” On nomenclatures and other nonsense

Warning: Marginal Spoilers

As a movie lover, I watch all kinds of movies. In more recent years, particularly after Brokeback Mountain, I have seen and enjoyed a number of movies which have gay themes running through them. I honestly find it increasingly difficult to accept that the recognition of gay/bi/transgender themed movies as a distinct category of “LGBT films” is really warranted. I mean, a romantic comedy is still just that whether it involves straight or gay people as protagonists. Sure, movies are a powerful tool through which gay themes can be mainstreamed and be given greater acceptance in society. But I think by distinguishing the movies now as a distinct genre is to remove such themes from the mainstream and increase typecasting.

A good example of this I thought was “Latter Days.” Apart from the fact that the protagonists were gay, the movie was a standard romantic comedy. Man makes bet with friends he will sleep with any person they pick, meets that person, falls in love and after some clichéd trials and tribulations, they live happily ever after. I could name dozens of romantic comedies with a similar plot line. The only thing added to the mix is the whole sub plot of one of the protagonists being Mormon allowing the movie to go on a tangent and make political statements about how being homosexual is not immoral in anyway and belts out the whole liberal society song.

That brings me to another issue with most of these movies. They try to make political statements without taking away from the “masala” elements of the movie. There is the romance, drama and comic moments and at the same time, there is a political message sought to be put across no matter what. The result is a number of muddled movies that sit uncomfortably on the fence. They try to be entertaining and enlightening but end up being neither. This is, however, not to say that there haven’t been great gay themed movies which have made some strong and powerful political statements. “Milk” is the most recent and perhaps the best example of this. The story of Harvey Milk is one that empowers not only homosexuals but almost every marginalised community in society and Gus Van Sant prioritised the politics and had a very clear vision of the movie he wanted to present to the audiences. Another lesser known, but nevertheless powerful movie I saw and loved was the HBO film “The Laramie Project” which was based on the play by the same name. Based on hundreds of interviews, the film was a docudrama on the aftermath of the Matthew Shephard murder in 1998 and had some powerful performances by the cast including Christine Ricci and Laura Linney.

Coming back to the fiction, an obsession with gay themed movies is the idea of coming out of the closet. The concept has been done to death and continues to be explored in a lot of movies. “Latter Days,” “Shelter” and many others fall in this category. The problem is that it is rarely done in an interesting or unique manner. A rare exception to this is the movie “Beautiful Thing” which is an excellent coming of age film which deals with teen sexual realisation in the most beautiful manner. Armed with some stunning performances by a cast of mostly teens, it approached the issue with great sensitivity and care. Some of the crucial scenes in the movie have been beautifully written and executed. Moreover, it avoids unnecessary political speech and refrains from type casting teen protagonists and addresses issues like peer pressure just like any other good teen movie. And I mean that in the best way possible.

However, there is often another problem with such movies and even “Beautiful Thing” falls prey to that. It presumes that coming out of the closet is the only thing that matters and everything is fine after that. No doubt coming out of the closet is often the most difficult part. However, there is more to life than that and by failing to realise that, even the most realistic movies like “Beautiful Thing” are reduced to mere fables: good fables but fables nevertheless. It reduces the protagonists to one-dimensional characters who will eventually grow up, become more mature and complicated and look back at their former selves with immense amusement. Very rarely do movies deal with what happens after or the ordinary lives of homosexuals. That way, often television offers interesting counter examples in shows like “Skins” and more recently, “Glee” in which the lives of teen homosexuals have been dealt with greater sensitivity and care. A good movie I thought was “Transamerica” that explored the idea of family for a man who is in the middle of the process of becoming a woman. It featured some fabulous performances by Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers and dealt with alternate sexualities beyond merely coming out of the closet. Another good example I thought was “The Object of My Affection” that was a romantic comedy that explored some interesting ideas of love, family and friendship. Although the movie itself could’ve been scripted better, there was no denying the fact that the plot was refreshingly different and refrained from stereotyping homosexuals. In fact, I think its ending was one of the most well thought out endings I have seen. If only the movie had been scripted better especially when dealing with its supporting characters!

Speaking of romances, although the movie is regarded as a landmark by some in gay themed movies, I personally thought “Brokeback Mountain” was a beautifully crafted bore. I loved the short story by Annie Proulx. However, the movie, while beautiful to look at, well acted and with a beautiful background score courtesy Gustavo Santaolalla, was dull, tedious and overlong. Moreover, I didn’t care much about the characters till the very end unlike the short story which had me involved from start to end. The last half hour of the movie was stunning but it was too little, too late I thought. As regards sexualities, I thought "Cabaret" as a film dealt with alternate sexualities, their complexities, the prevalence of sexual decadence and the place of love in a time of moral anarchy spectacularly well.

A refreshing movie with strong gay themes was yet another work of Gus Van Sant, “My Own Private Idaho.” An audacious movie, this loose reworking of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” featured, in my opinion, one of the most interesting characters ever in the form of River Phoenix’s Mike Waters. The character is quiet, gay and narcoleptic. He is an astonishing representation of the human need for love and care. His love for Scott (Keanu Reaves) is unrequited, undoubtable and ultimately, unfulfilled. Sexual orientation is central to his character and yet, underplayed to perfection. Scott, on the other hand, is interesting for different reasons. He is daring in his rebellion, loves Mike but is straight, selfish and ultimately belongs to another world. The interplay between these characters and between the real and the abstract is what makes “My Own Private Idaho” an excellent film. It defies categorisation.

Coming back to my main point, the classification of certain movies as “LGBT movies” is unwarranted and sometimes, unfair. It reinforces, I think the notion that gays/bisexuals/transgender people are somehow different and a fringe group in society. It also limits often the way in which such themes are explored in films. They get caught up in stereotypes and muddled political talk. The tag also often drives mainstream audiences away which is unfair for good movies like “Beautiful Thing” and others which deserve to be watched. The good films that I have discussed above are good because they are well made. They take a daring subject matter and do complete justice to it. That is what finally matters and should matter.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Channel Hits: Iconic Music from the 90s Pop Scene

Greetings again. It’s been a while since I updated my blog since I was away for two weeks. Now that I am back and have tons to write about, hopefully, the updates should be steadier. Last night, I had a sumptuous Eid dinner at a friend’s place. On our way back, Bhavya, Priyanka, Rachita and I started going over 90s Hindi pop songs for some reason. One song after another, we reminisced about the explosion of pop music in the 1990s and its quiet death subsequently. Pop music in the 90s in India included not only very chic and hip songs but also the revival or mainstreaming of a lot of folk/earthy music with a new sound. These were the songs we grew up on, and I decided to draw up a list of the most iconic and evergreen pop songs of the 90s. So here goes:

“Pari Hoon Main” – Sunita Rao: Now this was one of the earliest of the pop songs and remains supremely popular even today especially in the Dandiya circuits. Sunita Rao’s most popular number by far, it was used for fashion shows, dance shows, dandiya nights and more! Even after more than 15 years, it is still hip, cool and retains a certain appeal.

“Pal” – K.K.: My absolute favourite pop song of the time, “Pal” is just perfect. Beautiful lyrics and a haunting tune make it one of the finest love ballads in Hindi ever. It is one of those evergreen songs which never seems to age. A powerful debut by K.K., there were other songs in the album like “Aap Ki Dua” which were also very popular. However, “Pal” remains his best song. It is powerful and resonates for a long time after it is over.

“Afreen Afreen” – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Javed Akhtar: Now, I know it is blasphemous to include Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in this list and call his music pop. However, many of his songs were given a new sound and released to great success. Of them, this was one of the most popular collaborations of the 90s. The song and the album were super successful and made Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a household name in India.

“Roop Tera Mastana (Remix)” – Shaan: One of the earliest remixes, well before the idea took to the mainstream, Shaan’s version of the sensuous original R.D. Burman composition from “Aradhana” was surprisingly…cute! The video was one of the funniest and sweetest ever. In retrospect, (especially with all the raunch that dominated the pop scene in the remix phase particularly) it still retains a distinct appeal primarily because of the soft vocals of Shaan and the adorable video.

“Made in India” – Alisha Chinai: A super chic and hip song for its time, it is amazing how badly this song has aged! The video is insanely funny today and absolutely ridiculous. However, this is not to take away from the fact that it is one of the most iconic songs of the 90s. Everyone remembers the video: the tiger, Milind Soman, the princess Alisha etc. etc. Time has not been kind to the song or the video. But that is something to be thankful for. 

“O Sanam” – Lucky Ali: This one had a video which was as exotic as it was inscrutable. Lucky Ali’s breakthrough album “Sunoh” was embellished with one stunning song after another. My personal favourites included “Sunoh,” “Pyar Ka Musafir” and “Milegi Milegi.” However, the most popular of them was “O Sanam,” a tale of unrequited love and heartbreak. The video was perhaps the most popular of the lot here featuring pyramids, an archaeologist and a strange love story in ancient times. Even today, the song is popular and is arguably the best Lucky Ali had to offer, at least as an album.

“Deewana Tera” – Sonu Nigam: Sonu Nigam has really worked the ropes to achieve all that he has from the “Achcha Sillaa Diya Tune” days to pop albums to become the voice of actors like SRK and Hrithik Roshan. “Deewana” was perhaps a career defining move as the album demonstrated his range and quality of voice quite well. “Deewana Tera” was a wildly popular song from the album. A typical pop song, it’s a great song largely because of the vocals as Sonu Nigam belts it out for all its worth. A solid song from a wildly successful album, it is still remembered as one of the iconic songs of the 90s.

“Saare Sapne Kahin Kho Gaye” – Alka Yagnik: This is a relatively less known pop song from the time. It was a part of the album “Tum Yaad Aaye” which was the result of the collaboration of Alka Yagnik of Javed Akhtar. I added this here as it was a beautiful song with a lilting tune and is sung really well by the Melody Queen. The album also had some other wonderful songs including “Tum Yaad Aaye” and “Zaraa Zaraa Si Baatein.”

“Chhapan Chhuri” – Ila Arun: The album “Chhapan Chhuri” gave a huge jumpstart to Ila Arun’s career. It also was iconic as it mainstreamed Rajasthani folk music dramatically. All of a sudden, it became cool and trendy to listen to folk music. Daler Mehendi’s “Bolo Ta Rarara” did the same for Punjabi folk music.

"Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lagi" - Phalguni Pathak: The undisputed queen of Gujarati dandiya made quite a splash in the pop scene with this song which was the starting point of a short lived career which spanned many hits. An amusing video with an unknown Riya Sen as a school girl going for a Dandiya night with her friends, the song was an instant hit at the time and remains one of the more popular songs of the 90s.

There were many others as well. The Models with their "Bollywood" and "Mehendi Ki Raat," Jagjit Singh and Gulzar with "Marasim" and other albums, Colonial Cousins and many others. However, pop has died a quiet death subsequently with a limited market remaining only for Sufi pop music like that of Kailash Kher and the ghazals of Jagjit Singh. But the 90s was a time when pop was at its peak and delivered some fine music, some of which remains in the minds of people till today.

Monday, November 2, 2009

“This Is It”: For the Concert and the Man

The thing I loved most about “This Is It” was that it is first and foremost a movie about the concert that was not to be. It isn’t an examination of Michael Jackson’s life, his controversies and his contributions. The entire footage assembled is purely of the concert itself and not a single frame of external footage has been used. Not once does it go into all his philantropic work, his personal life or his past. It is about this concert and the work that went into it: not only by Michael Jackson but also Kenny Ortega, a group of stunning dancers and musicians and a legion of professionals: costume and production designers, technicians, visual effects supervisors. These people went to great lengths to conceptualise and create a concert that was not only technically brilliant and visually awe-inspiring but was representative of Michael Jackson’s larger than life personality and his work. The best of talents were assembled for the concert who seemed to have been in awe of the King of Pop and put their heart and soul into making the concert memorable. It is almost heartbreaking to see the amount of effort that has been lost due to MJ’s untimely death. From this movie, it seems clear that the world missed out on a great concert.

Told in an episodic fashion with the creation and (intended) execution of each song, “This Is It” covers most of the popular MJ tracks and demonstrates how the concert aimed at giving a fresh look to his works. The reworking of “Thriller,” “Earth Song” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” in particular looked stunning. The original songs themselves are testimony to the legacy of work that MJ has left behind. One may love or hate the man but one cannot deny the contribution he has made to the world of music and dance. He perfected his steps, be it the pelvic thrusts or the moonwalk, practically to a distinct and unique dance form. His music was contemporary, edgy and most importantly, very socially relevant. This, I believe is one of the reasons for their wide appeal. He was the man behind popularising the music video and MTV owes a lot to him for its success. The movie is a fitting reminder of these things, and more.

In assembling the footage, it is inevitable to catch glimpses of the King himself and drawing inferences about him therefrom. It is clear that MJ was always a performer first and singer second. He rarely got by without an army of background singers. However, he always was entertaining as hell. From the movie, MJ comes across as a kind, patient and a very soft spoken person. Not once did he raise his voice for anything. At the same time, he was clear on what he wanted from the musicians and dancers and was determined to work with them as long as necessary to get it. There are sequences where he works with the Music Director for “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the musicians on stage for “Beat It” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” that testify to this. At 50, he surprisingly has all of the energy and vitality that was characterisitc of him in the 80s and 90s. However, most importantly, it is clear that here was a man who was ambitious and audacious. He had his quirks and oddities but was never once apologetic about them. There were several moments in the movie that illicited guffaws from the audiences as MJ acted like his usual self, be it when he is dancing, talking or merely existing. Such responses were probably typical for him especially in the last few years of his life. However, never did he try to change them for being more acceptable. All this and more and is well reflected in the documentary.

All in all, “This Is It” is a well made documentary. The closing scene and performance is a particularly haunting one. For MJ fans, it is a fitting tribute to one of the most extraordinary performers of the century and his work. He is now a part of the greatest jam session ever with the likes of John Lennon, Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and more. Even otherwise, it is a solid music documentary that will appeal to music and movie lovers alike. Is it one of the great music documentaries like Woodstock? I don’t really know as I haven’t seen any other music documentary. However, it is a worthy documentation of the concert that was not to be and the labour that went into it. Most importantly, it is worth the price of admission and must be seen on the big screen.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Musical Moments: Chicago: The Cell Block Tango

As a 14 year old, “Chicago” was the first (non-animated) musical I had ever seen from start to finish and it marked the beginning of what now appears to be a life long affair with Musicals. However, even more generally, I believe that “Chicago” as a movie was probably one of the most important movie events in Hollywood in the last 20 years or so. Thanks to the sassy performances of its sparkling leads, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger, and Rob Marshall’s confident direction, the movie was a gigantic success and almost single-handedly resurrected the Musicals genre in Hollywood. Unlike “Moulin Rouge” (which was released a year before in 2001) it was a better motion picture and enjoyed greater financial success and accolades. It presented the Musical as a much more attractive financial proposition than it was seen previously. It proved once again that musicals aren’t restricted to a tween audience in animated features (a la Lion King, Aladdin etc.) or “wholesome family entertainmeners” like “The Sound of Music” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It can be just as gritty, biting and adult as any solid drama or black comedy. This was proven by Bob Fosse way back in the 1970s with musicals like “Chicago” and “Cabaret” inter alia. However, musicals practically died out by the late 1980s. A new form of music movies emerged headed by successful films like “Flashdance,” “Footloose” and “Dirty Dancing” which weren’t really musicals as much as they were dance movies. A number of musicals went kaput like “Xanadu” and “Wizard of Oz” (taking the acting careers of those involved, Diana Ross and Olivia Newton John most prominently, with them). Consequently, musicals were relegated to the stage save for the Disney features. However, post “Chicago” a number of musicals were revived for the big screen leading to a number of successful films including “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia” and more.

Now, one of the most iconic moments in the movie is the Cell Block Tango. A grandiose picturisation that is set on a cinematic scale while retaining that stagey feel, it is one of those jaw dropping sequences in the movie, for several reasons. For starters, it is about a bunch of female convicts telling their tales of crime set to a tango. All of them have stories involving love, lies, betrayal and revenge. Some of them are victims, some the vamps and all are bit insane. Their tango is hot and their stories are distubingly amusing. The Cell Block Tango shamelessly celebrates these criminals, their lives and their exploits and we love it for that. The humor is black as coal and has all the bite of a blood-sucking vampire. It represents not only great music and picturisation but a fascinating exploration of several dark (and often taboo) themes which is a sharp departure from previous works on the same. The movie glorifies the villians by pointing out that the lines aren’t as distinct as often made out to be.

What I also loved about this sequence in the film in particular is that it makes the background actors rise above being merely extras. Each of them is given the spotlight, a story to tell and even Zeta-Jones is not given any special preference over the others. They are all equal, at least for this song. And thereafter, whenever you see one of them, you see them as more than just fillers or background vocalists. Each of them has a character to portray which has its own tale, its own distinct personality. Each of them plays a woman who went dramatically against societal norms at a time when ideas like feminism were restricted to the right to franchise. They are each independent, fiery and a reflection of a bygone era. And yet, even today, they shock you. Therein lies the timelessness of Bob Fosse’s work revived here by Rob Marshall most successfully.

To conclude, “Chicago” marked the beginning of a new era. Even if it is not seen so now, it will be without a doubt some day. It revived an old genre with all the style and flair that was most typical of the best works therein. At the same time, it boosted the careers of its actors considerably scoring Oscar gold for Catherine Zeta-Jones (who hid her pregnancy to get the role). But most importantly, it reinvented the old musicals format in various ways, by bringing a stronger cinematic feel to the work and making the transformation from stage to film a much more creative, innovative anbd consequently, worthwhile enterprise. Its financial success only cements my position further. The Cell Block Tango is an excellent example if this; as is the puppeteering sequence in “Oh Yes, They Both Reached for the Gun.” The result not only appealed to the lovers of the stage version but also won over a whole new generation of fans, for both, the movie and the genre. Subsequently, it has been applied for teens in shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” franchise. It has resulted in investment of relatively astronomical sums into musicals like “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia” with phenomenal returns. “Chicago” was the film that started it all. I can’t wait for Rob Marshall’s “Nine” which brings Daniel Day Lewis and a bevy of beauties including Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie and Dame Judi Dench together in a musical adaptation of an Italian play inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½”.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Girls with Gumption: Part II

Here, I had to draw up a list of female actors with gumption when it comes to take on risky roles and delivering on them in the currently active ones. This, as it turned out was a lot more difficult as I struck off one name after another in my head. However, there were some clear contenders. Once again, in ascending order of awesomeness:

Shahana Goswami: She has played some excellent supporting roles in "Rock On!" and "Firaaq" which show her great potential as an actor. She also has some interesting projects to look forward to in "Mirch" and "Basra." With a career filled with eclectic choices, she definitely qualifies in this list.

Mahi Gill: Not many actors would choose to play a sexually charged partly egoistic and partly obsessive lover for their debut vehicle. In “Dev D” Mahi Gill stunned one and all with her performance of a modern day Paro, one who is not only madly in love with Dev but also independent, fiery and spirited enough to stun even the most liberal moviegoers. Barely 3 movies old, she has the potential to carve a niche for her much like Tabu did. In fact, she comes across as a mix of Shabana Azmi of the 80s and Tabu. A girl with gumption without a doubt, see her scene in “Dev D” when her character meets Dev in the rundown hotel for the one last time to know what I mean.

Priyanka Chopra: Once again, like Kajol, she is perhaps the only mainstream actress worth mentioning for having any gumption when it comes to take on challenging roles and delivering on them. Among the host of movies that she has done which range from conventional to pure crap, there are some truly sparkling performances from different points in her career that show her to be an actor with substance. First in line is “Aitraaz,” a reworking of “Disclosure” where she played the role Demi Moore played in the original. A powerful performance for a relative newcomer, she single-handedly made the movie worth watching. Then came “Fashion” last year where her pheonix-rising-from-the-ashes act in the backdrop of the fashion industry was pure gold. And recently, her performance in “Kaminey” was brilliant and practically re-wrote the role of the heroine in the masala movie from a damsel in distress best known for running around the trees to a gun-totting, fiery and yet down to earth urban babe who can do just about anything. All of this and more, certainly qualifies her for this list.

Chitrangada Singh: Now this was another gutsy actor in choosing her debut vehicle. Sudhir Mishra’s “Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi” was perhaps the only political epic in its truest sense to ever come out on modern India. And her role was one of at once a woman experiencing political confusion and emotional catharsis as she is caught between two men, one she loves and one who loves her. A complex and difficult role, she wowed me with her performance. Following this was “Kal” (which I have not seen) and “Sorry Bhai” (another risky role involving an affair between her and her brother-in-law to be), both of which were eclectic choices and showed her acting prowess and range quite well. Striking in her resemblance to Smita Patil, this unconventionally beautiful actress is capable of a lot more than what she has already shown and only time will tell if she fulfils her potential or not.

And finally, (drumroll sounds)

Konkana Sen Sharma: Lets let her work speak for her. She played a married conservative Iyer wife who falls in love with a Muslim man in “Mr. And Mrs. Iyer,” a struggling actor who realises the true meaning of success and failure in “Luck by Chance,” the schizophrenic girl who thinks she loves in an imaginary house with her loved ones in “15 Park Avenue,” a naive gossip columnist lost in the world of glamour in “Page 3,” a swinging wife in “Mixed Doubles,” a woman in search of her identity in “Amu” and more. Truly the best and most courageous female actor in the industry today by almost any standard.

Honorary mentions: Rani Mukerji for movies like Yuva, Hey Ram and Black though they are three films in over a 15 year career spanning nearly 40-50 films;

Vidya Balan for "Parineeta" and the upcoming "Ishqiya" in which she looks promising after a long time and a dozen crappy mainstream movies.

Anyone I have missed out? Do tell!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Girls with Gumption: Part I

“What I can understand is that his co-star, Deepika Padukone, abandoned a promising start as a badminton champion to become a model and actress. She is breathtaking, which of course is standard in Bollywood, where all the actresses are either breathtaking or playing mothers.”
- Roger Ebert (on Chandni Chowk to China)

Recently, the above passage from Ebert’s review got me thinking: is beauty really the only determinant of the success of an actress in India? I mean look at the mainstream female actors in India today. The first ones that come to mind are Priyanka Chopra, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and the like. They all look gorgeous and they all rarely act (and most of the times they do, the standard set is quite a low one). Few experiment with roles and practically none dare to consistently take on bold, challenging and career-wise risky roles the way actors did once upon a time. This led me to prepare of list of female actors of both, the past and the present who had gumption and took on some daring roles and delivered unforgettable performances. In this first part, I look at the women of the past in ascending order of brilliance:

Kajol: She is probably the only mainstream actress to have some interesting career choices worth considering. Not the conventionally pretty gal, she has given some fabulous performances in difficult (and consequently, unbecoming of an actress on the top) roles. Apart from the iconic roles of Simran in DDLJ and Anjali in Kuch Kuch, she has also taken on the role of the vulnerable sister in “Dushman,” the sinister and obsessive vamp in “Gupt,” the Alzheimer stricken wife in “U, Me Aur Hum” among others. While the movies themselves might have often been below average at best, her performances have never been faulted by anyone.

Manisha Koirala: Before she became known for doing movies like “Ek Chotisi Love Story” and “Chaahat – Ek Nasha” and a string of exotic boyfriends, MK was a highly respectable actress with several impressive performances in demanding movies like “Bombay,” "Khamoshi," “Grahan” and “1942: A Love Story” to her credit. She took on roles which were, while mainly of a victim, highly challenging and required a considerable amount of acting prowess which she proved she was capable of over and over. Sadly, those days seem long past now.

Nadira: Now one may see this as an odd choice. Nadira was never a mainstream actor as such and certainly not the leading woman. However, she was one of those first women who made the vamp look good on the silver screen. With a host of powerful performances in the black and white era, she very much reminds me of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.” In fact, if any actress could have carried that role off in India, it would have been her. Absolutely unrestrained and extremely powerful, she was, at once, intimidating and alluring in all her roles. A truly powerful actress with more balls than most men can lay claim to.

Helen: The first bombshell of Bollywood, she brought the oomph factor to the silver screen with her cabaret numbers. She isn’t an actor but a performer. But through her performances, she has built a position and reputation few can lay claim to. She was bold for her time and showed great courage in the kind of numbers she did. For what she did, she sure had the gumption required to pull it off, and it shows even today.

Pooja Bhatt: Despite all the poor mainstream choices and the occasional bad publicity offscreen, Pooja Bhatt has the guts and the gumption that has made Mahesh Bhatt, the director a force to reckon with. Her career as an actress is much like her father’s as a director: some highly sparkling works littered across wastelands. In fact, her best performances have come when she has worked for her father. Memorable roles include the powerful role of the daughter in “Daddy,” the mother in “Zakhm,” the prostitute in “Sadak,” the unwanted daughter in “Tamanna,” the small town girl in the big city with a bad husband in “Everybody Says I’m Fine” and more. Sure, there were plenty of bad choices in movies. However, when one mentions her name, these are the performances that immediately spring to mind and each of them is as difficult as it is different from the previous one. Rarely given the credit due to her, Pooja Bhatt is one girl with gumption.

Shabana Azmi: She is one of the two goddesses of the parallel cinema movement of the 1980s. Need I really say more? With tons of national awards, critics awards etc. etc. in her bag along with performances like “Arth,” “Godmother” and “Fire” to name just a few, she is without a doubt, one of the most diverse actresses to arrive in the film industry. An Indian Meryl Streep of sorts, she is a powerhouse of talent with oodles of elegance, charm and personality.

Smita Patil: She is the second of the goddesses. Her career is much like Guru Dutt’s: an impressive list of performances within a short time, a highly controversial personal life and an untimely death that robbed Indian cinema of one of its finest talents. What more she could have achieved, we can only guess. Her good performances? “Arth,” “Bhumika,” “Mandi,” “Waaris” and lots more.

Tabu: Without a shadow of a doubt, she is the most talented actress of her generation in India. With the (very) rare exception of movies like “Tu Chor Main Sipahi” and “Vijaypath,” she has given one knockout performance after another in movies like “Maachis,” “Hu Tu Tu,” “Astitva,” “Cheeni Kum,” “Maqbool,” “Chandni Bar” and more. She has never enjoyed the spotlight in the industry and her work speaks volumes of her talent. There is no role she cannot do. She can play the wronged Sikh terrorist in “Maachis,” the unapologetic adulterous wife in “Astitva” and the woman in love with a man twice her age in “Cheeni Kum” with equal aplomb. With a piercing gaze she can cut any man to size and one long sad stare is enough make the audience weep. Nearly no role of hers is ever conventional or similar to her previous one. It’s a pity she has been working lesser and lesser in recent years. Much like Gulzaar this one is.

So, this is it. These are the only women in the past I can remember off hand who can lay claim to have taken on bold and courageous roles consistently and excelled at them. They are one of the reminders of the fact that Hindi movies aren't, after all, all song and dance and its actresses aren't either breathtaking or playing mothers. They can be raw, powerful, sensuous and aesthetic; all at the same time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Bastardism and Judaism

An interesting alternative perspective on Inglourious Basterds within the larger issue of the depiction of the Jewish identity in recent movies was recently written by A.O. Scott of the New York Times. The same is available on the following link. Hope you like it as much as I did.

P.S.: Thanks AT for the link. :)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Of Historical Inaccuracies and other Irrelevancies

History-writing, as Madame E pointed out to me (and the rest of my class) has more to do with ideology than accuracy. While historians are increasingly becoming aware of that, movies still seem to value “factual accuracy” (if there ever was any) over all else not realising how much of a role the ideology and entertainment value play in the way in which such movies are made. Cinematic liberties can only extend so far when dealing with historical issues. Then, one fine day, Quentin Tarantino comes along and throws the rule book out of the window.

With “Inglourious Basterds” Tarantino gives us his best work since “Pulp Fiction.” The result of 10 years of labour, it is basically one gigantic “Fuck You!” to both, History and the English language. Rich in both, ideas and movie references, Basterds is not merely a spaghetti western merged with a war movie. It is so much more than that. Tarantino takes a fair few risks with Basterds and explores territories that are a far cry from his usual comfort zone. Perhaps, in many ways, for me, this was his most intellectually stimulating work, though not necessarily his most intelligent. Even with 20 minutes of blood and gore edited from the original in the theatrical version released in India, this is one movie meant to be seen on the big screen.

Basterds has a smart plot and the story is told in chapters similar to “Kill Bill.” However, there is much more meat to the story here than any of his previous movies. One might argue that no one really goes to a Tarantino movie for the plot, which is true. But the fact that there is one, and a fairly ingenious one as this, is only a good thing. I do not want to give out the plot here. There is Wikipedia for that. What I do want to discuss is the climax. Now, without giving away the details, it is safe to say that Tarantino breaks all the rules when it comes to concluding the movie. His conclusion is audacious, unabashed, unthinkable and for that reason, according to me, simply brilliant. Tarantino chooses to take a deliberately retrospective look at history which leads to some shocking results. The symbolism and the subtext left me thinking for a long while after. It is the conclusion of the tale that makes Basterds such a heady concoction. You think you know how it will all play out. You think you know how it will end. But you don’t. That is where the sheer genius of the film lies.

Another master stroke of Tarantino lies in his execution of scenes. It is extremely heartening to see how much he has grown as a film maker from “Pulp Fiction” when it comes to creating atmosphere and tension. He summons all the tools at his disposal: the art, the actors, the sound, and the background score; to create scenes that strike the perfect note and make you laugh and squirm uncomfortably in your seat at the same time. The opening scene and the bar sequence were simply fantastic. It is an excellent return to form after “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” where the pivotal scenes between Bill and the Bride were just disappointing, even yawn inducing. The dialogues were a clunky mess and he just failed to create the right atmosphere there. With Basterds, he makes up for it, and more.

Basterds is also Tarantino’s best independent script so far. The movie is replete with references: from old classics like Cindrella, King Kong and Wizard of Oz to propaganda movies, war movies, westerns and more. Certain parts of it even reminded me of Cinema Paradiso though I’m not sure if it was intended or not. His dialogues are devilishly sly in places; his characters are extremely well sketched out. In terms of technique, the film is par extraordinaire. The detailing in the art, the make up, the costumes and the cinematography is simply breathtaking. It has all the style and flair of any other Tarantino movie.

Lastly, every Tarantino movie has at least one standout performance and Basterds is no exception. Enough has been said about Christoph Waltz’s performance. Just give him the damn Oscar already! In Hans Landa, he gives us the most interesting villains I have seen in recent times. He is sharp, diabolical, cold, and logical and is armed with most of the best lines in the movie. His performance to this movie is what the combined performances of Jackson and Travolta were to Pulp Fiction. His mere presence on the screen sent a chill down my spine. Next in line is Melanie Laurent, the French beauty who gives a fantastic performance as the runaway Jew out for revenge. She looks ethereal throughout and outshines all the remaining actors. Eli Roth also pitches in a brilliant performance as the Bear Jew. With barely four lines in the entire movie, he leaves a remarkable impact as a sociopathic baseball bat wielding Basterd. Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger are both impressive. Daniel Bruhl perfectly captures the underlying aggression of his character.

All in all, Basterds is the most ambitious and audacious World War II movie I have ever seen. It is a unique movie I think, even for Tarantino fans. It is powerful, effective and (literally) mind-blowing fun! Tarantino re-imagines the past and comes up with a solution that is satisfying and disturbing for that precise reason. A part of me even wished that the climax was based on fact and that is what, I think, Tarantino sought out to achieve. The implications of the end he has to offer are simply insane and warrant a second viewing. As far as the “facts” are concerned, history be damned!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is Hollywood in the Age of the Big Budget B-Movie?

Well, first out, what we need is to explain what is meant by the term “B-movie” here. Now, I use the term highly loosely here in terms of a movie which is thoroughly commercial, campy fair with little content whatsoever. The movie usually uses a theme or tool to exploit like the blaxploitation, the sexploitation, cannibal films etc. It is certainly not a reference to the B movies which involved a high degree of craft or ingenuity like some of the sci-fi movies of the 1950s etc. The main point of departure from the usual B-movie fare is that while such movies are a low budget fare, the movies I seek to discuss here aren’t. For a more detailed idea of B movies, kindly Wiki either “B Movie” and/or “Exploitation Films.”

A month back, I had the misfortune of watching Michael Bay’s latest offering “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” I know what is usually expected from a Michael Bay film: eye candy (in the form of women and special effects) and a bare plot for tying all the eye candy sequences together. Nevertheless, the sequel to the wildly successful “Transformers” was shocking in its shallowness and its pathetic excuse of a plot. Sure, the effects were eye-popping. But the entire film was just a (very) poor excuse for one set of special effects after another. It was an unashamed, headache inducing big budget extravaganza, and I mean that in the worst way possible. As I exited the theatre, a thought came to me: are we living in the age of the big budget B movie?

I immediately started collecting data on the big budget movies that Hollywood has churned out in the past few years. In several genres this trend to churn out trash that sells can be seen. However, by far the biggest bucks for the studios have been earned in either (a) sequels; (b) remakes; (c) comic book adaptations; (d) children’s books adaptations; (e) adventure / sci-fi epics. There is one factor that runs commonly between all of these categories: special effects/technology. Despite the sheer quantum of special effects visuals that have been generated over the last 20 years with the technology boom, viewers can’t seem to have enough of it. As a result of which, I think all of the abovementioned movies can be collectively clubbed in a newly emerged B movie sub-genre: texploitation i.e. movies that exploits technology to lure people into watching and making a box office killing.

While special effects have been exploited to sell a film to viewers since decades, it has become increasingly unashamed, crude and in-your-face (not to mention, almost fool proof and highly profitable) in recent years. Studios are willing to empty their coffers for a “Transformers.” Budgets have spiralled out of control. While not so long ago, betting $300 million on a Lord of the Rings franchise was a risky bet, today shelling out $200 million on one movie is really no big deal. Also, who cares if creativity in effects is lacking so long as it is bigger and better in every other movie: more destruction, more mayhem, more explosions, more detailing, these are enough to sell a movie. With globalisation, the international market for Hollywood movies has grown by leaps and bounds which has only proliferated such reckless budgeting further.

Look at the last few years. While the biggest grosser (worldwide) include an occasional “Lord of the Rings” and a rare “the Dark Knight” the list is abound with crap superhero/comic book adaptations like “X Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Spider Man 3,” “Hancock,” crappy book adaptations like the “Harry Potter” series, “The Da Vinci Code,” “Eragon” (which actually managed to gross $250 million worldwide), sequels like “Terminator: Salvation,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” and big budget disaster/epic movies like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Troy” etc. The list goes on and on. The trend for this probably started out small with movies like “True Lies” (a respectable but nevertheless obvious big budget spoof of action films), “Independence Day” (campy but fun), “Armageddon” (crap, plain and simple) etc. But these were fewer in number then and better in entertainment quotient at least. Further, it is painful to see that “Star Trek” (arguably the most wildly entertaining sci-fi epic in recent years, certainly the best of the series) grossed only (relatively) $382 million worldwide while “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (one of the most disappointing sequels ever made with all gloss and no content) grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Hence, the motivation for investing $150 million in a “Star Trek” is much lesser than investing $300 million in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

What perpetuates this trend? I think we can single out two factors: first, the marketing people know that the audiences are a sucker for visuals and play on that to hype a film. I mean, the visuals of “2012” really blew me away. I know the movie will be crap, I mean its Roland Emmerich. But the effects are gorgeous. Secondly, they often throw in either a good actor or a hot actor or both for good measure. Megan Fox worked wonders for “Transformers” and herself in the process. “2012” has John Cusack, an odd choice which is intriguing nevertheless. Secondly, of course, is the fact that the audiences are willing to buy into that hype and waste good money on such movies. Of course, this is not to say all is lost. Texploitation has been used advantageously in many movies to make memorable films. The best example I can think of is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which took special effects to a whole new level without sacrificing on the quality of the story itself. But it is true that such movies today are few and getting fewer every year. Word of advice: don’t buy into the packaging. Don't perpetuate this trend!

Friday, September 25, 2009


Apologies for the delay in updating the blog. I have been swamped with work and haven't been able to watch too many movies, at least none interesting! So I started toying with a new idea which required a fair amount of background work. Hence, the delay. There are two posts in the pipeline, at least one of which will be up soon!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Taking a Walk along Revolutionary Road

Recently, I had the absolute privilege of watching Sam Mendes’ latest work “Revolutionary Road.” Arguably his most mature work to date, it is embellished with superlative performances by Michael Shannon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Coming together after over 10 years after the unforgettable (for better or for worse) Titanic, it is a delight to watch the two actors in roles which are a far cry from their Jack & Rose act. Seeing them one realises how much both have grown as actors over the years. 2008 was clearly a great year for Kate Winslet with her stunning performances in “The Reader” and this one. She is unarguably the best female actor of her generation. Here, she is at her boldest best and delivers an unrestrained and powerful performance.

Coming to the movie itself, while it starts off slow and it takes a while for the viewer to get involved or really care, Sam Mendes deserves kudos for delivering a movie that is, ultimately, gut wrenching in its emotional impact. Do not, even for a second expect the idyllic world of “Happy Days” or even the comic relief or the optimism Mendes’ “American Beauty.” Revolutionary Road is a raw, painful and stark portrait of the realities of a suburban couple in the US in the 1950s. The adaptation of the John Yates novel is well written, wonderfully shot and extremely well enacted. The bright, colourful and picturesque frames are juxtaposed well with the darkness of its characters and their tale. The characters are very well developed over the two hours of runtime and the conclusion of the movie left me numb for the longest time.

However, I quickly found myself drawing comparisons to the movies which were actually made in the 1950s on similar issues. Particularly, I was increasingly drawing parallels between “Revolutionary Road” and Nicholas Ray’s iconic “Rebel without a Cause,” a culturally significant film that raised more questions than it answered. While “Rebel without a Cause” presented the problem, it could not (or did not) explain or rationalise it, let alone provide an answer or solution. However, “Revolutionary Road” owing to, I think, its retrospective look at the 1950s, displays a greater sense of awareness of the problems of life in the American suburbs then. It captures the sexism and the frustrations of the time and its people. Its sense of self-awareness is perhaps best embodied in the character of Michael Shannon who understands more than he lets on. No one wants to listen to him because no one wants to know the truth. In that sense, his character is somewhat similar to that of James Dean who embodied the confusion of “Rebel without a Cause.” He saw things: the peer pressure in school, the messy relations at home, but he didn’t understand how and why. Moreover, no one helped him understand and that drove him nuts. Here, it’s Michael Shannon’s character’s willingness to speak out the truth and the repression that is forced upon him that makes him unstable. The two characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. However, they both embody the central point that the movies are trying to make. The self-awareness of “Revolutionary Road” is inevitable. However, Sam Mendes’ confident direction and an author-backed script help avoid reducing this self-awareness to a set of clichés.

Overall, “Revolutionary Road” is a deceptively quiet little film that is powerful and resonates for a long time after it’s over.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Kaminey Experience: An Addenda

As my friend was kind enough to remind me, I would recommend everyone who likes the movie to watch it again in an inebriated state. Particularly, watch "Dhan Te Nan" in such a state at the very least. :)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Kaminey Experience

As I sit at the airport awaiting my flight, even now, 24 hours later, the “Kaminey” experience lingers on. Very rarely have I seen a movie that has been such a stunning experience. From its opening frames to its closing ones, the movie is one rollercoaster experience that keeps you throughout. It’s trippy, quirky, complex and occasionally even moving. Movies like this and Dev D remind me time and again why I so strongly defend Hindi movies to all and sundry.

Now, the greatness of “Kaminey” was not at all surprising. It came from two of the most dependable names in the Hindi film industry today: Vishal Bharadwaj and Ronnie Screwvala (of whom I have blogged previously here). Now, Vishal Bharadwaj comes with classics like Maqbool and Omkara behind him. Therefore, one cannot argue that the man knows his craft. So when he decides to make a movie named “Kaminey” the expectations are bound to be high. Ronnie Screwvala’s name is practically synonymous with the hatke mainstream cinema. While his films are commercially viable, he has the guts to make the movies unconventional at the same time. Add to that, lyrics by Gulzar, two mainstream stars (Priyanka and Shahid) and a host of character actors and you have one delectable combination that is hard to miss.
However, what is surprising is that Kaminey delivers on the expectations and how! It is one of the most engrossing fares in recent years. Now, a lot of ink, real and digital has been spilt on the plot, the performances etc. Therefore, I won’t go there. What I want to point out are only three points that I think set “Kaminey” apart from the usual fare.

First, with Kaminey, Vishal Bharadwaj steps into the territory of original story telling, an area which is particularly tricky when it comes to thrillers. Sure, he still draws inspiration in certain scenes from several sources but he definitely makes them his own. In fact, an outstanding feature of Bharadwaj’s work is that the brilliance with which he draws inspiration from both Indian and International cinema. It would be unfair to name just people like Tarantino as an influence. In Kaminey, he pays homage simultaneously to the retro era where movies like Jewel Thief, Teesri Manzil, The Great Gambler and others gave their audience an unforgettable thrill ride. This is a complete director’s movie and Vishal Bharadwaj executes it in a manner which is slick without losing its desi flavor. At the same time, he debunks the myth that commercial cinema cannot be artistic. His visuals are trippy and stylish. His execution in places is inspired and novel. The dialogues are devilish and bold. There is spontaneity to every scene which ensures the energy to be maintained throughout and doesn’t let the viewer lose interest for one second. All in all, this is a heady cocktail for any cinephile.

However, what perhaps is even more important with Kaminey is that it not only delivers a thrilling affair, but also conveys deep social and political understanding of a city which takes it to a whole new level. Kaminey surpasses even movies like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire in the view of Bombay it has to offer. The latter was a fairytale; a gritty one, but a fable nonetheless. However, Kaminey keeps it more bad ass and real. It covers Bombay beyond the elite areas and Dharavi, to the nook and corners; the underbelly and the glitz. It provides authenticity to every aspect, from the locations to the language and clothing. Moreover, in its 140 minutes odd runtime, it references and encapsulates some of the most important, often forgotten events Bombay over the last 20 years: the nexus of narcotics, police, politics; the international links in the business of cocaine; the hypocrisy of politics on linguistic lines and much more. Bharadwaj doesn’t develop all these themes in detail, but he doesn’t need to. His mature understanding of the themes he is engaging with and his willingness to push boundaries and offend the politically correct is what makes Kaminey an intelligent thriller rather than merely an exercise in nihilistic violence.

Last, but certainly not least, Vishal Bharadwaj combines characters and actors with rare dexterity. In Omkara, he made an actor out of Saif Ali Khan. Here, he does the same with Shahid Kapur who plays the double role of a bad ass and a simple guy with an equal measure or flamboyance and restraint. With Priyanka, he redefines the heroine of Hindi cinema. She is dashing, dangerous, forward and yet caring, real and looks gorgeous without make up. But more importantly, he never lets his characters act inconsistently. They may act mad, instinctive, strange but never out of character. There is a rational explanation for every action of theirs. This makes a flaw difficult to spot. This also probably sets him apart considerably from Tarantino and the like, and in my opinion, for the better.

Of course, the film is not without its flaws. The end could have been slightly tighter. There are some scenes that may have been better done. However, these are minor and forgivable flaws in an otherwise outstanding motion picture, which is, without doubt, the best we have seen this year so far. Take a bow, Mr. Bharadwaj, take a bow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Under Scrutiny: Gulzar, the Lyricist and Writer

“Ek Chhota Sa Lamha Hai Jo Khatm Nahin Hota
Main Laakh Jalata Hoon Ye Bhasm Nahin Hota
Ye Bhasm Nahin Hota”

- Maachis

I was recently going through some of the songs written by Gulzar and I came to realise how much lyrics have changed over the years. Every generation has had its pulp lyricists who churn out lyrics by the dozens each day for the masses to mouth and forget the very next day. Every generation has had its Sameers. Our generation has its spatter of such mainstream lyricists. There are of course the occasional gems that were given to us by Anand Bakshi and Javed Akhtar (the latter more so before he started producing standard template lyrics, yet there is still the occasional “Sapnon Se Bhare Naina”). But very rare have there been lyricists who have consistently delivered superb lyrics. One such person is Sampoorna Singh “Gulzar.”

In fact, it is very interesting to compare Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. Both wrote films before lyrics. The latter along with Salim Khan gave us some unforgettable entertainers like Sholay, Zanjeer, Seeta aur Geeta etc. But, like his lyrics, the areas where Gulzar scored over Javed Akhtar always were his depth and certainly his originality. Even when drawing inspiration from Shakespeare (“Angoor”) or classics like “Sound of Music” (“Parichay”), he brought a lot of originality into his work and made it his own rather than a mere imitation. Furthermore, unlike the large canvas of Javed Akhtar, Gulzar always told stories that were simple on the face of it but staggering in their complexities. Gulzar always showed a rare maturity when dealing with human emotion and created such real characters that it was impossible not to care for them. Be it the rocky relationship of Mahinder, Sudha and Maya, the love of Aarti Devi and J.K., the wisdom of Raghu, the greyness of Sanathan, or the chaos cooked up by Dr. Parimal Tripathi, Gulzar has never shied away from the complexities of seemingly simple stories and relationships. He has dealt with some explosive subject matter in movies like “Aandhi” and “Maachis” and has shown amazing restraint and insight. Many of his dialogues are classics. For example, take this one from Aandhi in the middle of “Tere Bina Zindagi” as the two characters reminisce about their relationship:

J.K.: Yeh jo chaand hai na, issye raat mein dekhna..
Yeh din mein nahi nikalta..
Aarti: Yeh to roz nikalta hai..
J.K.: Haan lekin beech mein Aamawas aa jaati hai...
Waise to Amaawas 15 din ki hoti hai..
Lekin is baar bahut lambi thi.
Aarti: Nau baras lambi thi na?

The same is true for his lyrics. Gulzar is perhaps the best lyricist that Hindi cinema has ever seen. I read somewhere that Gulzar’s lyrics are not for the common masses. They are too heavy to comprehend for most. However, barring a few exceptions, I would seriously disagree. In fact, very few lyricists captured the beauty of individual situations and relationships the way Gulzar did. His words are honest and extremely relatable for the most part. For example, take the situation in Ijaazat where “Mera Kuchh Samaan” plays. Mahinder is reading the letters of Maya who is reminiscing the memories they share and she asks him to return some of them. Some of my favourite lines from the song are as follows:

“Ek akeli chhataree main jab aadhe aadhe bheeg rahe the,
Aadhe sookhe, Aadhe geele, Sukha to main le aayi thi,
Geela man shayad bistar ke paas pada ho,
Woh bhijwa do, Mera woh samaan lauta do.”

This song is perhaps one of the best examples of Gulzar’s lyrical prowess. While most lyricists (if not all) are content with bringing out the ideas of love, friendship, anger, joy in the simplest ways, Gulzar showed a remarkable understanding of human experiences embodying these ideas and thus was able to evoke real emotions through his lyrics. Also, at the same time, another remarkable feature of his lyrics is that he writes them very specifically keeping his characters in mind. This understanding is rare among lyricists and partly associated with the fact that Gulzar also created many of these characters. It is easy today to take a Javed Akhtar song from one movie and put it in just about any other. That is not true of Gulzar though. In the above song, for example, he takes the simplest examples of the relationship two lovers share and uses them to write his song. At the same time, these examples are highly specific in the context of the characters. It is easy to see Maya’s boldness, longing and consequent frustration emanating from the words. It is difficult to place it in any other movie with any other character. The same can be said for “Tujhse Naraaz Nahi Zindagi” in relation to Shabana Azmi’s character in Masoom or “Dil Hum Hum Kare” in relation to Dimple’s in Rudaali.

Another rare distinction that Gulzar holds is the ability to do justice to a large number of themes in his songs. Be it songs for children (“Jungle Jungle Pata Chala Hai” and “Lakdi Ki Kaathi”), about melancholic loneliness, (“Paani Paani Re”) or life in general (“Filhaal”), the longing for a loved one (“Mere Yaar Milaade” from Saathiya) or the madness of gangsters (“Kallu Mamaa”). Most recently, he even wrote a song about AIDS and contraception for the upcoming “Kaminey” (“Fatak”). Truly, there is no situation of which he cannot write songs about. One of his finest songs about life include “Ae Zindagi Gale Laga Le” from Sadma:

Ae zindagi gale laga le,
Ae zindagi gale laga le,
Hum ne bhi tere har ik gam ko,
Gale se lagaaya hai
Hai na?”

Overall, Gulzar is the best lyricist and amongst the best writers of all time. Over the last four decades, he has put together a highly impressive body of work in both capacities. As a writer he has done dramas, comedies, political epics, romance and much much more. In an age where movies like Kambakht Ishq and Om Shanti Om rule the roost, one misses the sensitivity and the insight that Gulzar has to offer. As a lyricist as well, he has become increasingly reclusive and works with very select movie makers like Vishal Bharadwaj, Shaad Ali and some others. However, his contributions to the world of cinema are invaluable and his work is, and shall forever remain, unforgettable.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Great Musical Moment: Cabaret

Set in 1931, there are two themes that are running parallel to each other in the movie. The first is, of course, the political turmoil in 1930s Germany with the rise of Nazism. The second sees the time as an era of sexual decadence and moral anarchy. Nothing is wrong, nothing is right. Either people are too poor or too rich. Old structures and ideas are disappearing and new ideas are emerging quickly on the horizon. All this and more is explored in “Cabaret” with a mix of style, splendour and yet, an acute consciousness to the underlying issues. There is beauty here but with a bleakness and honesty that is bold and brilliant! Bob Fosse (also the man behind the much-celebrated “Chicago”) deserves maximum credit for demolishing the existing clichés of musicals and providing us in “Cabaret” with a work that, even 35 years later, is fresh and daring in ideas.

The movie is strewn with one great moment after another. Each song symbolises the stage at which the story is. The narrative is different from the usual musicals and somewhat similar to “Chicago.” It is particularly bold in exploring the area of alternate sexualities in cabaret numbers. And ultimately, the fun and life of the cabaret numbers is stands in stark contrast to its historical and political setting. The performances, particularly those of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey (for which, both won Oscars) are passionate and uninhibited. There is an authenticity throughout (partly arising from the fact that it was in fact shot in West Germany) which accentuates the impact of the glamour and the grime.

Arguably, the greatest moment in the film is the final song. As Liza Minelli is singing “Cabaret” on stage, it may be easy to assume that it represents the song, dance and cheerfulness of the cabaret. However, there is a much stronger emotional under-current to the song when seen in the context of the rest of the film. Liza Minelli’s performance, while entertaining, represents not happiness, but a sense of impending doom. The song has an underlying tone of anguish, loneliness, disappointment and frustration. The most obvious link one could draw is the rise of the Nazis. The political threats are being quickly dealt with and the popular sentiment is in their favour. Nothing seems to stop them from gaining power. Conservatism is quickly taking over the liberal sentiment. The stage at which its characters are only reinforces that view. *spoiler!* Sally (Liza Minelli) has just had an abortion and been left by Brian (Michael York) who has gone back to England. She no longer enjoys the affections of the Baron anymore either. The Jewish couple is doomed although they may not realise it just yet.

What makes the song truly a great musical moment is the fact that it represents all of the above sentiments and lays bare the futility of its attempt to divert one’s attention from what is really happening to the world. A solo performance with little gloss of any kind unlike the other songs of the film, it is easily the most powerful moment when seen in the context of the rest of the film. Liza Minelli’s superlative performance and Bob Fosse's direction are the reason why "Cabaret" remains an enduring classic. A truly great musical moment.