Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Open Letter to Pixar

Dear Pixar,

I was around 7 years old when "Toy Story" came out. It was one of only two movies that my school ever decided to take all its students to. Like every child, I loved animated movies and had grown up on a fair share of Disney classics like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” However, Toy Story was different from the rest. It looked like something I had never seen before. To my naive eye, the cartoons looked so real! It was almost as if I was watching real toys act out in a box; like I could just reach out in the screen and play with them myself. At the same time, the movie itself was exhilarating! I remember literally cheering in the theatre as Woody and Buzz Lightyear shot across and landed safely in Andy’s toy carton. It was pure joy and a rush I had never felt at the movies before.

That was 15 years ago. Little did I realise then that this was the beginning of a new age in animation which was going to revolutionise the genre like never before. There were several films after, each brilliant and each a classic: “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E” and most recently “Up.” As I recently revisited “Up”, I realised that some of my best memories at the movies, both as a kid and as an adult, I owe to Pixar. Hence, I wanted to write this letter to thank Pixar and all the people behind it, particularly Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich and Pete Doctor.

Thank you, for not only revolutionising animation and giving some of the most memorable sequences in recent movie history. Sequences involving Wall-E and Eve flying across the universe in balletic harmony; that of Remy sitting atop a building with an unforgettable view of Paris beautifully animated to perfection or the sight of Carl's house flying with the help of thousands of air balloons are not just stunning examples of mastery over animation but also great movie moments more generally. You have proven, over and over, that animation movies are not just for kids. Each of your movies, particularly the later ones, has successfully reached out to a universal audience. They have had themes which everyone can relate to, be it pursuing your own ambitions in “Ratatouille”, the environmental degradation of Earth in “Wall-E” or something as simple and inevitable as aging in the lovable “Up”. For once, family entertainment was not simply a euphemism to describe adults being dragged by kids to theatres to watch something no one but a 6 year old could enjoy or relate to.

Thank you for showing that animated movies can simply be great movies as well; for taking huge risks for the sake of creativity and for emphasising on a screenplay and story just as much as dazzling animation. In 15 years, you have told us stories involving toys, superheroes, fishes, monsters, bugs, odd aspiring chefs and robots. Each has been more endearing than the one before. In “Wall-E”, you gave us a love story with all the classic elements but involving two robots in post-apocalyptic earth. With sustained periods without dialogues, you showed us how much poetry can be found in silence; how much a nudge or furtive glance can convey. You gave us a movie that could be appreciated by kids and adults; romantics and sci-fi enthusiasts. In “Up” you used music and animation to tell the story of Carl and Ellie in such a poignant manner that many in the audience (including myself) were left teary eyed. These are not just great cartoons; they are great stories...great movies. You have made me laugh and cry; tapped into real emotions by giving me characters that I cared about immensely. In an age when movies like “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra” and “Transformers 2” rule the roost, your movies have shown that big budgets can still be used to create high art.

Just over 73 years ago, the great Walt Disney made one of the biggest gambles of film history and gave us the feature length “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. In so doing, he ushered in the golden age of animation where Walt Disney churned out one classic after another. However, over time, a formulaic approach crept in and today, even the best of Disney’s solo films fail to recreate the magic of the old movies barring “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”. In a time where marketing gimmicks and target audiences have taken precedence over aesthetics and original storytelling, the people behind you have emerged as the new age Walt Disney(s); taking risks with every venture simply for the sake of original story-telling, pushing the boundaries of animation and creating a universal audience for it. Yours is one of the few places (in the animation business and outside it), where passion is still integral to film-making. And the result is there for all to see. Thank you, Pixar.

Yours Sincerely,
Krishna Shorewala.
An Educated Illiterate.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

LSD: Dev D on Drugs

“Dev D” was the movie event of last year. Edgy and racy without compromising on the aesthetics, it was testimony to the fact that Indian cinema was finally growing up about issues like sex and sexism. It featured some of the most shocking moments in Hindi cinema since perhaps the rape scenes of “Bandit Queen”. Taking on the story of Devdas and turning it on its head, it, I think, finally exorcised the film industry of its fetish for the tale of the lover who takes to alcohol as self-flagellation for his doomed love for Paro. It revealed the inherent sexism of the story by choosing to show the “hero” as an insecure, chauvinist loser and gave us two of the most powerful female characters ever to grace the Hindi movie screen. For once, a film chose to depict sexual desire as an integral part of the female. It was a shocking film. But it was also high art.

Dibakar Banerjee is one of a few new age directors (which include Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj, Onir and Nagesh Kukunoor) who choose interesting and different subject matters for their films. With a repertoire which includes the old school comedy “Khosla ka Ghosla” and black crime caper “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye”, it is easy to expect something different from him every time. However, despite such expectations, the promos of “Love, Sex aur Dhokha” did manage to surprise me. Shot in a Blair Witch Project style, the movie featured a cast of all new actors and seemed to be all about love, sex and dhokha (i.e. deception). The only thing that provided any credibility to the movie was Banerjee being credited as the director. Going into the theatre, I, like all others, expected something truly hatke like "Dev D".

As far as shock value is concerned, LSD is basically like “Dev D” on cocaine. It is an absolute shocker of a film that grabs you from the first frame and holds on to you till the last. In fact, I think, in “Love, Sex aur Dhokha”, India has finally found a good exploitation film. Sensationalist and disturbing to its core, “Love, Sex aur Dhokha” stays with you for a long time after it’s over as you go over the several memorable moments of the film in your mind. It explores the theme of voyeurism in a way no Indian movie ever has. In fact, LSD might just have set a new benchmark for using the adjectives “bold” and “daring” for films in Hindi cinema.

The story is actually 3 stories. First is about a seemingly typical rich girl-poor boy love story set in the backdrop of a film that the boy is making as a part of his film school project. The second is about a down on his luck man who decides to make a quick buck by making a pornographic clip of himself with a store employee through the store’s CCTV camera. The third is about sting operations and the extent to which people are willing to go for their few minutes of fame. All the stories are inter-connected in often unexpected ways.

Kudos to Dibakar Banerjee for giving the film that distinctive feel by shooting it in the style of CCTV and hand held cameras. In so doing, he almost makes the audience a spectator to the tales. Also, he achieves this without making the audience annoyed/nauseous through shaky camera movements etc. The editing and cinematography is crisp and helps weaving the movie into a seamless whole. The unknown cast of actors gives the film a very realistic feel that made me squirm several times. The realistic, faux-documentary style is well used here.

That being said, I do think that the film is a highly imperfect one. There is nothing aesthetic about the movie as such. The individual stories are, by and large, predictable. The filming technique is well used in places. However, there are moments where the camera adjustments look obviously deliberate and considerably dilute the impact of the film at those points. It is essential to a film like this that the camera usage be completely independent of the actors. The exploitative nature of the film is both, its biggest strength and weakness. While it helps shock you and give you a very different movie-going experience, it can hardly be regarded as a classic or high art. I can imagine 5 years later people looking at the movie and saying, “So what?” If one goes beyond the story telling technique, there is little which is really great about the film. While Banerjee will always be credited for introducing the technique successfully in the mainstream, there will be better movies made using this technique. His movie is to the technique what (in an exaggerated sense of course) “Fantasmagorie” was to animation. While it will always be seen as the first of its kind, it will be surpassed by several other better films in the future.

Having said that, LSD still is the most shocking mainstream movie Hindi cinema has seen in the recent times. It has a unique story telling technique and the execution is remarkable though not perfect. It is an exploitation film, but is a good one at that. The movie will shock you and make you think about the times we live in. It shows the ugly side of reality entertainment and may just make you squirm every time you look at a CCTV camera or MMS clip again.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nine: A Bittersweet Experience

Rob Marshall is a Guido Contini of sorts. He seems to have peaked with “Chicago” and subsequently fallen from grace. He knows how to make each frame look gorgeous, be it the jazzy, stagey feel of “Chicago” or the magnificent colourful grace of “Memoirs of a Geisha”. His problem is that he seems to think that that, by itself is enough. “Chicago” was a relatively easy film to make. It is a firecracker of a tale that needs to be tangy, saucy and larger than life. Those ingredients, by themselves, were enough to carry a film successfully, and they did. The audience never needed to believe in the characters much. They were meant to be cartoonish. However, his subsequent films are both, personal and intimate in different ways. In the story of Chiyo, there are myriad emotions that come together to form a beautiful tale of love, perseverance, penitence and redemption. However, there was no joy in the film which was its ultimate failure. I never judge a movie by its source material. I have read Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” but unlike the movie, the book has tremendous soul. But the failure of the movie was on its own terms rather than merely in comparison to the book.

With “Nine”, Rob Marshall took on the unenviable task of bringing the Broadway musical “Nine” to life on the big screen. The difficulty lay in the fact that the musical itself was inspired by the neo-realist classic “8 ½” by Fredrico Fellini. However, the stage seemed to be set for “Nine” to be the redemption vehicle for Marshall. It had perhaps the casting coup of the century: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cottillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie). All apart from Fergie and Kate Hudson were Oscar winners. The look of the film: from the art direction and costumes to the cinematography looked simply breathtaking in the trailers. The sound of Fergie belting out “Be Italian” sent me in a tizzy. On seeing the movie, I was both delighted and frustrated.

The story is of a master director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis) who is about to shoot a new movie “Italia” but he has to script to work with. With his mind blocked, he sees his life spiral out of control as the women in his life: his dutiful wife (Marion Cottillard), loving mistress (Penelope Cruz), designer friend (Judi Dench), mother (Sophia Loren), muse (Nicole Kidman), fan (Kate Hudson) and a woman from his childhood memories (Fergie) all come together to both, inspire Contini and show him who he is to them and in so doing, who he really is. One listens, another learns; one seduces and another haunts. As Contini struggles to find his film, he realises that his life is his biggest stage of all.

The delights first: the cast is simply impeccable. Each actor fits the character to such perfection that it is hard not to get mesmerised. Daniel Day Lewis is marvellous as always. He brings the required intensity to the character of Contini and makes us love him and hate him, just like the women in his life. The women, however, really make the movie worth everything. Marion Cottillard is towering as the dutiful wife. Her final number “Take it All” is powerful and showcases her tremendous range as an actor. Fergie is the showstopper of the film. With a role of merely 7 minutes or so, she haunts you with her bold sexuality and her unforgettable vocals. Her performance is one of the high points of the film and her character is key to providing an insight of where Contini is coming from. On the other hand, “Take It All” is a key sequence to lay bare Contini for what he really is. Penelope Cruz is gorgeously titillating as the mistress who is in love with Contini and is tiring of the secrecy of the their relationship. Sophia Loren and Judi Dench are grace personified in entirely different ways. Nicole Kidman has a minor role, but leaves an impact as the muse. Kate Hudson looks lovely and is excellent in her song sequence (“Cinema Italiano”).

The technical aspects of the film are truly flawless. Very rare is a production which is so gorgeously mounted and executed. The sets are gorgeous; the costumes are spot on; the art work so successfully recreates the 60s look. The cinematography deserves special mention. The switch from black and white to colour and back, the angles and the interaction with the actors and their bodies is simply outstanding. It is a pity that a film like this should lose to Avatar for cinematography at the Oscars despite the latter being 60% CGI. The production numbers are stunning in their look and choreography.

The story is brilliant and the script by Minghella and Tolkin is just about right. I am a sucker for movies about the movies. And “Nine” had all the ingredients to be one of the great ones about the movies. The frustrations of a director struggling to find his voice and looking to his past and present to find answers are both, appealing and intimate. The marriage of the past and the present and the culmination of the story are both well thought out. One only wishes the end had a little more drama to it. There is no build up and no climax of sorts. However, that is a minor dampener, if at all.

However, what frustrated the hell out of me in this movie was the direction of Rob Marshall. Just as in “Memoirs of a Geisha” his direction is detached and distant. He makes the frame look gorgeous but is unable to present the story with the required intensity and passion. One cannot treat “Nine” as another “Chicago” because, unlike the latter, the characters of “Nine” have real emotions and problems beneath their feisty and vivacious exteriors. There are few moments in the movie where the director is able to capture this difference on camera: the execution of “Be Italian”, “Take It All” and “My Husband Makes Movies”; the meeting of the Guidos in the end. He succeeds to a remarkable extent (remarkable when seen in the context of his failures with the rest of the film) in dealing with the complex relationship of Guido and his wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard). Credit here also must go to Cotillard who outshines all the women in portraying her character's restrained passion and intense alienation from her husband. However, for the most part, the adaptation is more chaotic than emotionally intense. For Marshall, it seems that the dialogues are merely a bridge between two dazzling production numbers. He seems to forget that he is narrating a story and the result is absolute chaos. The actors do all they can to give grace to the film and they do, in their individual capacities, succeed to a great extent. Marshall, on the other hand, seems to take the opinion of Lily (Judi Dench) to heart: a director’s job is an overrated one. All you say is yes or no! The mother-son track (so essential to understand the character of Contini) is very poorly done. Sophia Loren brings the requisite grace and charm but Marshall really fails to bring out the influence of the mother and the reasons for the same. Further, the culmination of the story had all the potential to give the audience goosebumps. But in the direction of Marshall lies the failure of “Nine”. The story of “Nine” has several layers (that sort of mandate multiple viewings to understand where the characters are coming from). However, this multi-layered story is given an almost pathetic execution which is indeed a travesty! It fails, monumentally so, to find the depth to the story that was inspired by the real life of a maestro, Fellini. It just struggles along, from one great production number to another, and the problem is Marshall’s direction or rather, his failure to give the film much needed direction.

Another frustrating thing is that the music is only so-so. The new songs fit uncomfortably with the original score of the musical. While “Take It All” has a Chicago-esque feel, “Cinema Italiano”, though well executed, feels out of place as a song when seen with the rest. That also is because it doesn't drive the plot forward. It is a little forced and unnecessary. The song may have been good as a promotional one like "Love is a Crime" in Chicago. The mother’s lullaby is just boring and does little to bring greater depth to the relationship between the mother and the son., which is the most frustrating part. Of the rest, it’s only “Be Italian” that you really take away with you. While the production numbers are uniformly dazzling, the songs themselves unfortunately leave you fairly underwhelmed.

At the end of the day, “Nine” is a colossal loss of a magnificent opportunity. The cast and the story are the stuff that movie masterpieces are made of. However, Marshall’s direction leaves so much to be desired. I love the production, the cinematography, the actors, the story and its love for the movies. However, I dislike much of the music and l loathe Marshall for squandering all the money and the talent and coming up with a final product that in the words of Contini, is a dream that has been killed at every stage and failed to be brought back to life in the editing room. Do I recommend it? Yes. It is great eye candy! But am I disappointed with it? Hell yes!

The Great Indian Masala Movie

Masala movies have been the fodder of the movie going audiences in India since decades, particularly I think since the late 60s and 70s. From the classic noir and literary themes that were explored by the likes of Raj Khosla, Shakti Samanta, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy in the 1950s, Hindi cinema got increasingly colourful, both literally and metaphorically from the late 1960s onwards. Action, comedy, drama, music, romance: these were all wrapped up into one delectable paapdi chaat dished out to the masses by the truck loads. The 1970s were, I think, the time where the masala movie really reached its peak and made stars out of actors like Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and so many others. The 1970s are worth remembering in Bollywood for primarily two reasons: the socially relevant serio-comic movies of Hrishkesh Mukherjee and the like and the masala movies of Prakash Mehra, Ramesh Sippy and others. The duo facilitating this explosion of masala movies was Salim-Javed. From their pen emerged some of the most memorable moments of Bollywood. Although parallel cinema saw its birth in the 1970s, it only consolidated its position in the 1980s. The demand for masala movies arose once again in the late 1980s and the 1990s with movies like Tridev, Aankhen, Shola aur Shabnam and several others making a killing at the box office. However, it could not match the success the genre (an oxymoron of sorts for the concept) in the 1970s. Post 2000, Bollywood seems to have shifted for “intelligent cinema” where new, path-breaking stories are finding an audience. Masala movies seem to have completely lost dominance entirely. However, I think that is not a problem of a lack of audience but a problem of lack of good masala movies. It is true that the audiences have gotten a little wiser about bad masala movies and hence, are wary of movies like Chandni Chowk to China, Tashan, Veer and the like. Of course, they do buy into marketing gimmicks making mediocre films like Singh is Kinng and others blockbusters. However, in the last year or two, that seems to have become rarer. Even if these movies do work at the box office, they don’t really enjoy much of a fan following because it is one thing for a whole lot of people to watch your movies and an entirely different thing for them to actually enjoy or remember it. At the same time, there are out and out masala movies that are also blockbusters like Kaminey, Main Hoon Na, Wanted, Om Shanti Om, etc. This makes me think that it is not that the demand for masala movies has gone completely. It’s just that the audience has gotten more and more selective about the movies they go to watch (greatly because movie-watching has become such an expensive affair). But even now, a great masala movie does find its audience, What makes a great masala movie though? According to me, the following are the important ingredients of the masala movie:

The Plot: The masala movies are not often known for very original plots. However, the great masala movies have plots that are mimicked by lesser ones. They are made up of the stuff of epics and must have a good v. evil plotline. Great movies often even play with shades of gray with an anti-hero (Deewaar and Khalnayak). However, more importantly, a great masala movie is one which keeps up with the times and respects its audience. Deewaar was inspired by the real life story of smuggler Haji Mastan. Today, a movie about a dacoit today terrorising a village (Chinagate) doesn’t really work as the idea is so passé. Even a remake of a classic like Don needs a reinvention in terms of the manner in which the story is conceptualised and executed in order to meet success. An outdated plot (worse still, an unbelievable one like Tashan) is the death knell for the movie. Take the concept of reincarnation which was immortalised by Subhash Ghai in the classic Karz. In Om Shanti Om, it got an update as not only a typical reincarnation movie but also a comic yet affectionate look at the film industry as well. Sure, there are rare exceptions. But they are few and far between. Secondly, a good masala movie is one that respects its audience and is well aware of the extent to which they are willing to suspend their beliefs in order to be entertained. That is the difference between a Tashan and a Kaminey. The plot must engage the audience. It must evince a strong reaction from them. Take the final twist in the remake of Don. It ensured that the audience was guessing till the very end, a fact that the audience clearly appreciated.

"Yeh Haat Mujhe De De Thaakur!": Every great masala movies has at least a few great dialogues. Classics like Sholay have too many to count! A solid masala movie is one where the audience hoots, cheers and claps at dialogues, laughs hard at the punchline of the jokes. Great dialogues were a key ingredient in the Salim-Javed brand of screen writing. Take any of their major works: Trishul, Deewaar, Don and others. Each of these has at least some dialogues that are used till today. Without great dialogues, the movie has no punch. In the recent movies, Kaminey and Ishqiya (both masala movies penned by Vishal Bharadwaj) have had some of the most memorable dialogues in recent years.

"Mogambo, Khush Hua.": A great masala movie has a villain that sends a chill down the viewer’s spine. He has to be the stuff of nightmares and certainly one that is not easily forgotten. Gabbar Singh, Mogambo, Dr. Dang are all the great villains of Hindi cinema. They are either over the top and slightly comic like Magoambo or may even be plain and simple vicious like Gabbar Singh or Shakaal. Another trump card is when the villain is a vicious, remorseless woman. When executed well, it can result in a Karz or Gupt. Without an effective villain, you have a movie like Jo Bole So Nihaal where the greatest terrorist in the world is named Romeo and is portrayed by Kamaal Khan. If that doesn’t make you want to stay clear of the theatres, nothing will!

"Phata Poster, Nikla Hero!": Another important ingredient of a great masala movie is a powerful hero. The most common avatar of the hero is, of course the angry young man, of which Amitabh Bachchan is considered to be the most iconic. There are also actors such as Dharmendra, Salman Khan, Shatrughan Sinha, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor who have played such roles. The hero often is a common man rebelling against the system: the corruption, cops, mafia or politicians. He must be able to make you laugh (Amitabh in Amar, Akbar, Anthony), cry and cheer for him against all odds (Amitabh in Deewaar). The audience must be able to relate to the hero in some way or the other. And yet, the character has to take on a larger than life persona to become the hero of the masses. He is the quintessential man.

"Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?": The music has to be catchy! At least 2-3 numbers must be chartbusters of the time. The masala movies are known for wholesome entertainment. There is action and drama but there is also elaborate song and dance. Without great music, the movies often get too tedious, too tiresome for the audience to really care or bother. As a kid, I remember watching movies like Khalnayak and Rangeela in the theatre and watching the audiences hoot, cheer and even dance to the tunes of the movie. Today, the dancing may not happen, but that sentiment is still important. The audience must be entertained. A great example of this is the work of Subhash Ghai: Hero, Karz, Karma, Ram Lakhan and Khalnayak were all blockbusters and boasted of amazing music. Movies like “Aashiqui” succeeded solely on the strength of their music! Good music is a key ingredient of a great masala movie.

All in all, the audience has to be entertained. And all of the above are essential for providing such entertainment. A classic movie is not only one which is rooted in a particular time, but in doing so, transcends it. Sholay is, without a doubt, the best example of this. Even today, the character of Gabbar Singh scares the hell out of many. Thakur, Jai and Veeru are considered as the heroes of the masala movie.