Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Raga 2 Rock: My book on film music

April 3, 2022

I have previously written articles on film music on this blog. On one such article, I received a suggestion that I should write a book (rather than multiple articles). I have received such a suggestion on Quora as well before.

I don’t know whether the readers in question simply wanted for me to consolidate the articles under one roof. But I thought of undertaking an altogether fresh endeavour instead. I have compiled my thoughts on the great composers of the golden era of Hindi film music …as well as the three titans of Tamil music – MSV, Ilayaraja and Rahman.

It has some of the analysis that those who do visit this blog like. But it also tries to capture my experience of discovering the respective composer’s works. Some anecdotes about the composers (not all but some) have also been reproduced.

There is also, for good measure, a chapter devoted to top 10 albums of each composer. Yup, I have tried to tick all boxes.

And with that prelude, with no further ado, here are the links where you can buy the book:

Notionpress: https://notionpress.com/read/raga-2-rock (free shipping from tomorrow and for two weeks)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B09WYSNBBZ

Kindle/e-version is also available.

Oh, and as you can see, this time I have enlisted the services of a professional publisher so that the book is, well, professionally put together.

So do let me know both how the book (as in the writing) was and how the experience of purchasing and using it was.

Happy reading!

UPDATE1: Raga 2 Rock is now available on Flipkart as well as on Amazon.com/co.uk:

Dil Bechara and the fault in our screenplays

July 26, 2020

I watched The Fault In Our Stars a couple of weeks before Dil Bechara premiered on Hotstar.  I have never read the book.  But as I started to watch the film, I recognised Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver and Shailene Woodley from Big Little Lies.  I was also excited to see Laura Dern play Hazel’s mother though this would turn out to be a bit of a damp squib down the line.  I came away with a film that was sentimental in the way that Hollywood used to be before the subversive post modernism of Big Lebowski or Fight Club became mainstream in the noughties.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  But when subversive becomes a tone, we get used to it and it’s no longer as exciting as it used to be.  And the sincere emotions that we once thought corny become attractive to watch it again.  FIOS is part of a ginger retread back to sentimentality (Star Is Born also exudes a similar earnestness though its tone is much heavier) as Hollywood realises that maybe they over-corrected somewhere along the way.

Even as I watched FIOS, I wondered how the Hindi remake was going to shape up in comparison.  I could not see how they would have these honest, well articulated yet nuanced conversations (that help the audience understand the characters’ motives without giving away too much info) that shaped the film in a big way.  Likewise, the balance between brash irreverence and the tearful recognition of the bleak inevitability of death.

I need not have worried on THESE counts.  Dil Bechara did navigate these waters well, in its own, Indian, way. What the characters did not articulate was spelt out by their expressions or the wonderful soundtrack.  Here, after a long time, is a film that is not a historical and still uses music very well as an extension of its script.

Instead, the problem with the remake was a familiar one – the script.

Something very odd and unusual about Dil Bechara is it clocks in approximately 35 minutes less than FIOS. Where previously our remakes were bloated drags compared to the original, Dil Bechara is even more succinct than the original.  And sometimes, too much succinctness is a problem.

Here, the problem is conceits used in the original are re-used here without taking the time to establish the need for these conceits.

The cancer support group set up becomes meaningless here because Manny and Kizie have already met (whereas it’s where Hazel and Gus first meet; Gus is NOT low-key pursuing Hazel and just happens to find himself in the same place as her).  And where the exchange in the original is about wanting to be remembered v/s the inevitability of death becoming such wants meaningless, here it is about wanting to be Rajnikanth v/s “are everyday heroes not good enough”.  It is much more diluted here and, more importantly, does not serve a purpose in terms of contrasting the characters.

Instead of a novel with an incomplete ending Imperial Affliction, here the thing Kizie is after is an incomplete song Main Tumhara.  Being deeply affected by the question of how an incomplete song would end does not have the same resonance as how a novel would end because a song is still about a melody and a beat while a novel IS about the story.  Even so, Dil Bechara simply does not invest enough effort in setting up how much Main Tumhara means to Kizie.  With that, the need to go all the way to Paris to ask him why the song was never completed simply does not assume the pressing urgency that meeting Peter Van Houten in Amsterdam does in the original. The exchange with Abhimanyu Veer is also brief and feels, aptly enough, incomplete.

However, as I mentioned before, the music holds together these loose threads like a glue.  Also holding it together is the chemistry between the lead pair.  I have liked Sushant Singh Rajput in what I watched of him before (which was admittedly not much) but I still wondered how he would transform himself into college student for this role going against a then 20 year old Ansel Elgort in FIOS.  But he managed it with aplomb. Sanjana Sanghi too fits into the mould perfectly.

And one aspect where Dil Bechara scores over FIOS is in better defining the girl’s parents.  FIOS is so anxious to make Laura Dern and Sam Trammell fit the part of Midwest suburban mom and dad that they make them utterly devoid of colour.  Maybe that was what the part required but if so, why exactly waste Laura in such a role is not clear to me.  In comparison, Saswata Chaterjee and Swastika Mukherjee as Kizie’s parents are better defined, with a contrast established between the more carefree, laidback father and the controlling, protective mother. Also, Midwest suburban is replaced in this case by Bengali middle class and Bollywood gets to go to the well and dig into its favourite pastime of affectionately mocking the accent and mannerisms of Bengalis. As in Piku, dialogue switches freely between Hindi and Bengali, making the proceedings truer to the mileu.

So, if you have read thus far and are wondering why I am finding fault with a film I seem to have enjoyed:  well, because it had the potential to be more.  With more careful and coherent writing, the film could have been complete rather than adhoora.  As it stands, it is NOT the perfect, exclamation mark swansong for Sushant that we would have hoped for but is nevertheless an enjoyable, heartfelt film that evokes eerie parallels with his own tragic end.

When Manny is struggling with the disease and feels the end drawing near, he asks Kizie and JP whether they really will miss him.  It is difficult not to draw a parallel here to the real life Sushant.  Yes, Sushant, you have no idea how much we miss you.  If only you knew…

Just why was Joker set in 1970s/80s New York?

May 21, 2020

At long last, I got to Joker, the much celebrated origins story movie starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role.  And it left me feeling baffled in some ways.  And I also found it troubling, though not for the reasons that SJWs seem to cite.

No, I did not see it as a movie that glorified or condoned violent and deplorable behaviour.  I did not see it as celebrating toxicity or creating excuses for bad behaviour by white males.  I am not saying those who feel that way are wrong.  Maybe if I lived in America, I might share that perspective, who knows.  Just that from my vantage point, no, I did not find it troubling for THOSE reasons.

Instead, what I felt was never satisfactorily explained was why did the film have to be set in 1970s/80s New York City.  See, it isn’t set in that mileu in the way Batman films usually are.  This looks very authentically like the NYC of that period, with bags of accumulated garbage lying around and the subways overrun by graffiti. Like the NYC of Taxi Driver, basically, from which this film derives a lot of inspiration.

The question again is, why.

Taxi Driver does not play to the gallery in the way this film does.  It does not cast the protagonist as the neglected and ill-treated underdog pitted against the unsympathetic powers that be.  In fact, in those respects, Joker seems to evoke and capture the pathologies of today.  MAYBE these were equally true in the 1970s too, but the fact that they are relevant now begs the question why it couldn’t be set in contemporary America.

I will get to that in a bit but let me dwell on how it evokes the America of today.  In a brilliant subversion of the Batman origin story, Thomas Wayne is revealed to be not such a nice guy behind his noble facade and his disdain for the 99% is unwittingly exposed when he makes a tone deaf comment.  That seems to evoke politicians like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney.  The comedian Murray Franklin, whom Arthur (Joker’s birth name) idolized at one point, turns out to be rather unsympathetic in his search for the barb and to have no compunctions about punching down.  In some respects, it evokes Stephen Colbert’s disquiet with Bill Burr’s rage comedy.  When Arthur as Joker points out to Murray that they (the elite) make up the rules of what is right and wrong just as they decide what is funny and what isn’t, he could as well be talking about the political correctness imperative and the backlash to the same.

So where exactly was Todd Phillips going in painting this as a tribute to Taxi Driver AND Dark Knight at one and the same time?   I think Glenn Kenny writing for Rogerebert.com has hit upon exactly what.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/joker-movie-review-2019

Quoting the relevant excerpts:

“In mainstream movies today, “dark” is just another flavor. Like “edgy,” it’s an option you use depending on what market you want to reach.”

“Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “Taxi Driver.””

“Do you think Todd Phillips really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society?”

Yes, sort of this.  But to go a little further, Phillips was both playing safe and hedging his bets.  By evoking the Taxi Driver aesthetic, he appeals to those Boomers and Gen Xers who DON”T want yet another Disney remake and are sick of it.  He also appeals to millennials and Zoomers who seek a gritty tone or aesthetic (a flavour, as Kenny put it).

The rhetoric unleashed by Joker in his appearance in the Murray Franklin show appeals to those who dislike the political correctness imperative (it would verily fulfill a wild fantasy for those in his contingent to get up on the Colbert show and get him to ‘STFU’).  By going so far as to have Joker kill Franklin, Phillips slyly reduces the verisimilitude to reality and reminds us, just in the nick of time, that this is Joker we are talking about.

Speaking of which, Batman fans would most certainly have been lured into watching a Joker origins story.  Seeing as there would be overlap between this contingent and the above ones, there wouldn’t be too many angry Batman fans telling their acquaintances not to watch this film.  It was a risk, but a calculated risk.  And it clearly paid off, bigly.

There is another purpose to thus evoking the 1970s aesthetic.  It gives Phillips an alibi to deny he wanted to be political.  While at the same time, there is enough polemic that appeals in a political way without really being political.  A sly dog whistle.  In a meta moment, Joker himself denies being political when asked about it in the Murray Franklin show, moments before he will launch into his tirade.

But while this Houdini act spares Phillips the lightning rod of cancel culture (though it didn’t dissuade the SJW brigade from trying all the same), it dampens to some extent the impact of the movie.  When Bane plots an insurgency in Dark Knight Rises, it made more of an impact BECAUSE the mileu felt contemporary even if a little too hi tech and not entirely resembling the real NYC. But in Joker, we find ourselves in a period that neither corresponds to the present day nor what could roughly be the origins of Joker himself in an authentic comic book heritage sense (say the 1940s-50s).

Instead, Joker invents a crossover of mafia/Scorsese genre and superhero films.  As one review predicted, Joker could potentially change superhero films forever.  Similar to the effect the Nolan trilogy had on other superhero films, Joker could potentially make your typical high FX, super-unreal superhero films look very shallow in comparison.

The problem, as Kenny astutely observes, is what Joker leaves us with too is an aesthetic, a tone, a flavour.  Marty’s films (or Coppola’s for that matter) were so much more than that. To draw a parallel to a cultural event from earlier this year that appealed to the right wing and the non PC left alike, it’s like Ricky Gervais throwing sharp jabs at Hollywood aristocracy from the Golden Globe awards stage.  It’s just a show, end of the day.

 

 

The pros and cons of Raju Bharatan

November 11, 2018

I recently finished reading Naushadnama, Raju Bharatan’s loftily titled unofficial biography of the late, great music director Naushad Ali.  As always, Bharatan’s writing left me with very mixed feelings.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore Bharatan if you love the ‘golden era’ of Hindi film music, especially the 1950s and 60s.  For those more interested in the work of R D Burman, there are other excellent sources like Anirudha Bhatacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s R D Burman – The Man, The Music.  But there is nobody else who could have actually cared to publish his account of Naushad’s career in 2013.  And there is nobody else who could have done a better job content wise.  As Anil Biswas himself once dryly remarked to Bharatan, “Nobody can beat your knowledge of the history of film music.”

Hindi film music, to be precise.  Not that Bharatan seems to care.  There are stray mentions of, say, Sivaji Ganesan but otherwise there is no evaluation, even in passing, of the greats of Tamil music like M S Vishwanathan or Illayaraja.  This would ordinarily be irrelevant, except that Bharatan loftily declares Naushad the composer of the (20th) century.

A few other such dubious pronouncements aside (like Bharatan waxing eloquent about Priti Uttam Singh’s vocals on Naushad’s last film score – Taj Mahal), Bharatan overwhelms you with his truly impressive ability to collate and present a zillion factoids, sometimes compressed into a single page.  This, combined with his peculiar writing style, doesn’t make for the most enjoyable reading experience.  I don’t have the book by my side just now and when I do, I will edit this article with a delicious (!) sample of Bharatan’s inimitable style.   For now, I will just say that it is, well, fascinating that someone so fond of Naushad’s music with its sheer symmetry, elegance and aesthetic purity would choose to write in a manner so devoid of these very qualities!

Thankfully, the factoids make up for it and not just from the perspective of a trivia freak.  Bharatan digs deep and brings up aspects of these performers that may sometimes belie their public perception.  At the very least, you will find unexpected insights into their personality, their working style, views, so on and so forth.

Whatever else may have been his drawbacks, Bharatan was certainly not insufferably politically correct and sycophantic in the way most of our film journalists are.  He challenged these personalities and put them on the spot, getting them to articulate the considerations behind their choices.  For example, why Naushad swiftly moved away from Talat to Rafi.  It is explained, in Naushad’s own words (at least as quoted by Bharatan), that this had nothing to do with Talat’s fondness for alcohol or cigarettes.  A wonderful explanation summing up Talat’s strengths and limitations as a singer follows after which one would find it hard to deny that he didn’t quite fit into Naushad’s sweeping, epic, semi-classical vision of film music.  At least the vision he adopted from Baiju Bawra onwards.

Bharatan also engages with the question of whether it was a wise choice on Naushad’s part to so restrict himself to high minded classical based stuff and cede so much market to his rivals.  And yes, it was a rivalry (contrary to the friendly image presented in public) with the others like C Ramachandra, Biswas and Shankar Jaikishan resenting Naushad’s handsome pay packet.   But we were on the subject of his classical based  approach and, whether or not you agree with Bharatan’s own conclusions, I find it impressive that he chose to grapple with these questions.  Questions which are increasingly thought of as irrelevant in film music where the primacy of a composer’s own style and signature has long been lost.

These and many other insights, including a detailed analysis of Mughal-e-azam straight from the horse’s mouth, are compiled lovingly by a person who clearly seems to be a devoted fan of Naushad.  And yet not so devoted as to cross over into fanaticism and become blind and deaf to his flaws.  Thus, Bharatan is able to humanise not only Naushad but the many other luminaries who make lead or guest appearances in the book (Talat’s superiority complex vis a vis Rafi is another such example).  Bharatan shows that it is possibly to deeply adore and admire an artist’s work while also embracing his/her flaws.  Possible indeed for Bharatan devoted his career to it and carved out a Naushad-esque niche for himself in writing about film music.

There are other such tomes that Bharatan has published over the years and, in spite of my initial misgivings when I bit the bullet w.r.t Naushadnama, I plan to eventually get to them as well.  The cons of Bharatan’s page-turners (he will exasperate you into turning the page!)  and at best quixotic and often ludicrous turn of phrase have to be weighed against the pros of what he brought to the table through his frank and intimate interactions with the legends of Hindi film music. In this case, the pros win the day with ease as nobody else even thought it necessary to chronicle the exploits of a composer of whom it was once said, “chaalis crore mein ek Naushad”.  Guess our population went up too much!

 

Aboorva Sagotharargal: The overlooked apotheosis of masala phillums

November 4, 2018

Aboorva Sagotharargal is, of course, the very popular Kamal Haasan triple whammy with, notably, the character Apu being a dwarf version of Kamal.  The circumstances in which he becomes a dwarf set up fertile ground for an avenging angel trope, which is what it turns out to be.  No spoiler alerts required here, as a good deal of the movie concerns itself with said trope and there is no great suspense that would be ruined for anybody who still hasn’t watched the film.  If you haven’t, you must.  Even if you don’t understand Tamil, make do with the Hindi dubbing or try to get Tamil with good subtitles (a better choice imo).

The film was undoubtedly a blockbuster in its time and still recalled fondly when Kamal’s achievements are discussed.  So why do I say it is overlooked?  Because most of the attention focuses, deservedly, on Kamal’s essay as the avenging dwarf and not enough, unfortunately, on the film itself which masterfully brings together many elements of masala and yet rises above its weaknesses without morphing into proto-multiplex/art cinema.

The avenging angel theme here is in itself loaded and evokes shades of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man roles.  From Tall Bombay Star as Kamal sometimes snidely refers to him to dwarf, what are the parallels here?  The parallel is that Appu’s congenital condition (induced by poison forced into his mother’s mouth as she was expecting) leaves him constantly stigmatized, indeed ‘othered’.  Not to get too social engineering on ya, but dwarf could all but be a proxy for Dalit here in that Appu is punished for something that is not his fault.

For a time, he enjoys an impoverished but mirthful existence as a circus clown but this illusory equilibrium is disturbed when he mistakenly believes the circus owner’s daughter has feelings for him.  The predictable disillusionment – and to hear his own mother (brilliantly enacted by Srividya) tell the circus owner that Appu hardly has the stature, socially or physically, to marry his (owner) daughter – does not merely lead to heartbreak for Appu, as it would have for any number of masala phillum heroes.  It leads him to utter despair and disgust with the world he inhabits.  The realisation that his only true friends are his fellow dwarves and as they remind him of all his birth defects, he loathes their company too.  All this depicted in a beautiful passage where Appu speaks not a word and merely reacts with his eyes while Ilayaraja’s outstanding score does the talking. Watch from 6:09 to 7:40:

That is a hallmark of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  Its effective use of visuals and music rather than monologues to convey tons more than said monologues could have.  Another example, moving on, Appu’s mother stops him as he is about to hang himself to death and decides to finally spill the beans on why he is the way he is.  Appu spends time in the town llibrary with old newspaper articles learning of the men who killed his father, Inspector Sethupathi (Kamal senior in a short but effective cameo).  As he reads on, Ilayaraja introduces the ‘revenge theme’ which will make further appearances in the film hereon.  And the clown you saw in both Puthu Maapillaiku and Unnai Nenachen reappears but he is neither ecstatic nor devastated.  Instead, he is angry but, clown that he is, wears his anger not with a scowl but an evil smile with a frightening intensity in his eyes.  By reprising the clown introduced previously in songs, Sangeetham Srinivasa Rao brings us up to speed with Appu’s metamorphosis from gentle dwarf to sinister avenger in one frame.  When this new avatar of Appu first appears as he kills Anbarasan (Delhi Ganesh), we don’t question why he looks so different and yet so similar to the Appu we knew.  Because through a masterful sleight of hand, Rao has already acquainted us with Appu 2.0.

There are many more such scenes as the one where Raja (the other offspring of Sethupathi, a village idiot transposed on the city) stumbles into Appu’s mother and even has to hold a knife to her to ward off assailants chasing him after they see a reward announced by the police for his head (as a murder suspect).  He promptly apologises to her, saying he would never hurt anyone and had no other choice. In this instance, she recognises him as her other son and reacts in disbelief.  Nothing is said except for Raja’s violins seemingly coming in from thousands of miles away (thus evoking a nostalgic memory?).  When the bumbling Clouseau played by Janakaraj shows a drawing of the suspect of Nazar’s murder to Jaiganesh and Nagesh, Nagesh suppresses a gasp of shock as it reminds him uncannily of Sethupathi.  He never says this; the film treats its audience with respect and is largely devoid of the spoon feeding that is the bane of much of commercial Tamil cinema (or its Hindi counterpart for that matter).

Indeed, it required my wearing out the video cassette of this film that I once had and to rewatch it every time I caught it by accident on TV for me as a lay viewer (as opposed to a professional critic) to unpack the myriad subtexts of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  One last such example of an unspoken observation in the film is the denouement itself.  It is staged grandly in the circus (Appu’s own den like those of arch villains like Gabbar or Mogambo) with Nagesh given an opportunity to confess to his crime before he is fed to the lions.  And who all make up the audience at the circus but people roughly of Appu’s own social class?  Maybe slightly more financially able because they can afford the tickets for the show.  But they are certainly far removed from Nagesh’s own stratum.  Or of all the other influential villains who together plotted Sethupathi’s demise.

Note here that they escaped the long arm of the law (in spite of Sethupathi nabbing them and prosecuting them through presumably the state prosecutor) and would have continued to do so but for Appu taking the law into his own hands.  The sub text then is that the underclass has to take the law into its hands to obtain justice while the upper class remains above the law they themselves wrote (and profess faith in its ability to deliver justice).  Indeed, Appu has to surrender to the police after this last epic crime and will spend what remains of his life in prison.  Thus, he has to take a bullet on behalf of everyone else in his class and, more pertinently, his family and friends to bring the culprits to book.  The Indian justice system summed up without much ado, without any grand AB-esque monologues.

I could go on and on about Kamal’s brilliant three-pronged performance and especially as Appu (imo the highlight of his career, especially the second half), about Crazy Mohan’s rip roaring dialogues, about Ilayaraja doing as Ilayaraja does, faithfully providing magnificence in spades.

But most of all, what makes Aboorva Sagotharargal notable and note worthy is the way it appropriates the must haves of masala (romance, comedy, action, villainy, even the time tested Amma sentiment – Nagesh makes a meta reference to it, spot it if you can) and yet rises above them, offering a more mature treatment of these tropes without compromising on the high octane emotion and entertainment we associate with masala at its best.

Perhaps, the film is a victim of the same circumstances that drove Appu to a destructive path.  After all, a dwarf can be entertaining, funny or sad but never iconic, can he? In a way, the everlasting fondness for Aboorva Sagotharargal combined with the inability to engage seriously with its cinematic achievements hold a mirror to our own innate prejudices.  Even the act of rooting for the little guy has perhaps not stretched far beyond sympathy at the end of the day.

 

 

The mystery of David Suchet’s grey cells

October 26, 2018

Last year, Murder On The Orient Express was remade by Kenneth Branagh with him also starring as Hercule Poirot.  I missed its theatrical run but caught it the other day on TV.  It took some time for me to warm up to Branagh but I gradually came to appreciate his take on Agatha Christie’s iconic creation.  At least more so than Albert Finney’s own essay of said role in the 1974 version of Orient Express.  I had to think that this was at least partly because, unlike Finney, Branagh had David Suchet as a reference.

In fact, like most Poirot fans, I couldn’t not wonder what Suchet would have done with the role all the while that I was watching the film.  That I felt strangely empty at the end further convinced me that, yes, Suchet would have done the trick.

Interestingly, it was another famous ‘Poirot’ – Peter Ustinov – who told Suchet that he would play Poirot well.  Suchet describes feeling reluctant, initially, because (a) he had grown up believing Agatha Christie wasn’t great fiction and (b) Poirot was a joke, a kind of clown.  Indeed, Suchet’s elder brother, a newscaster by profession, strongly advised him against it.

It was when I read this that I realised why the previous renderings of Poirot had felt so ‘wrong’ to me as a fan of the Poirot novels.  I understand why others, specifically those who don’t particularly like Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot, may have related to the way Finney played him. Or even Ustinov.  Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal fictional detective, is all action, fencing and all, flamboyant and of singular personality.  And this has perhaps shaped general expectations of what a detective ought to be like.  Vigilant, restless for clues with magnifying glass readily at hand, keen eyed, this is what a detective is supposed to be like.  And if he isn’t any of that, then maybe a bombastic, loud jerk who happens to be gifted with intellect will do.  Which is kind of how Finney plays it.  Watch at 2:19 in the trailer of the 1974 Orient Express.

But, but, you see, for a Poirot fan, this is pitched too loud.  Mais oui, Poirot is arrogant and not afraid to boast and yet he is introverted and self contained.  He is fond of admonishing Hastings for wishing to see action, saying he would prefer to do nothing but sit in the chair and close his eyes and think (which only lulls Hasting into sound sleep).

It is not difficult to see why this would probably not play out so well on the big screen.  Add to that his quirky physical features and traits and habits – eggheaded but with a beautiful moustache, fastidious and neatly turned out and yet awkward, belligerently firm in his conviction that he cannot approve of murder and yet possessed of almost feminine and feline like grace. These do make for a very interesting character (and hence why Christie’s Poirot novels sold fabulously well) but not for a whole lot of action.

And yet, Suchet, upon reading the books, did see what we Poirot fans can and always have.  He visualised Poirot exactly the way we did. That is it, really.  When you see Suchet playing Poirot, you don’t wonder to what extent he is doing justice to it, you KNOW he IS Poirot.  Like he just leapt out of the book.

I quote his words:  “The Poirot in the books was nothing like the character I’d seen on screen: elusive, pedantic, and most of all, more human.”  –  yes! yes! yes! – and “I was convinced that I could bring out the true Poirot, as Agatha Christie had written him, to life.”

And thank God he did!  For, without Suchet’s marvellous insight, we may have never had a Poirot who actually embodied the character.  Having watched many adaptations of books, there aren’t many TV/movie characters I can think of who live their original fiction inspirations to the extent Suchet did. Maybe Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy TV series but because Suchet essayed Poirot in so many episodes, we got to see many more shades of the character over a period of time.

In spite of being warned by his brother that Poirot would not be taken seriously, Suchet, already then a well known theatre actor, took up the labours of Hercule Poirot and gifted us Poirot fans something to cherish for a lifetime.  If you ever wondered what those delightful Poirot short stories would look like in visual form, all you have to do is watch one of the many episodes of the Suchet-Poirot TV series. And it’s not only Suchet, to give credit where due, but the entire cast and indeed the environment that is true to the book.  It’s Christie’s quaint old England coming to life.  Why, even the title music was perfect. Quiet but mysterious and with a sense of foreboding.

And so, after watching Branagh’s competent and visually striking but somewhat laboured film, I trawled through the internet ocean and learnt that, yes, ITV had in fact made a TV movie based on Murder of the Orient Express and, yes, it had none other Suchet playing Poirot.

I found it on YouTube and watched it post haste.  I am afraid I can’t say the film itself was much better than the other two versions.  A little better, maybe, but the problem, perhaps, is the story itself is uncharacteristic of the Christie mould.  There is less ‘logical deduction’ here and it’s more of a morality play.  These, again, may be the reasons it is seen as an appealing one to adapt.  Its issues are more relatable to cinema.  Add the sunset of the Empire settings and it offers a visually dazzling and emotionally charged canvas.  Branagh is strangely subdued in the climax though Pfeiffer rises to the challenge in the one scene where she gets to utilise her acting chops (as with most multi starrers, the star studded cast including Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench has not very much to do).

*SPOILER ALERT* And that, mon cher ami, is where Suchet makes all the difference.  For he understands Poirot like no other actor.  And he knows his beloved little Belgian friend does not approve of murder and, therefore, how painful the moral dilemma he is confronted with here must be for him.  The torment comes through as he counsels against condoning revenge, warning that we will all become savages as we let this pass.  And yet, when asked why, when they did seek due legal recourse, were they denied justice he has no answers.  With anguish that is not fully quelled even as he walks away from the scene, Poirot must, for once, go against his own moral credo.  And Suchet brings out exactly what that means to Poirot and yet why Poirot, of all detectives, can be thought of as possessing the necessary humanity to make such a judgment.

Till the very end, till Curtain was essayed bringing down curtains on the TV series once and for all, Suchet exerted his own formidable grey cells to bring to life the peculiar nuances of this most peculiar detective.  And did it with the greatest respect for the character, rising above the temptation to titillate by caricaturing him.  Yes, there but for the grace of God, goes David Suchet. Au revoir!

 

A Star is Born reignites the old art v/s commerce debate

October 13, 2018

I watched Bradley Cooper’s excellent directorial debut A Star Is Born starring himself and Lady Gaga in the lead roles.  I have not watched the previous iterations of this film and therefore cannot say how watching them would have influenced my reaction to this one.  However, going by the plot descriptions I read of the previous takes, Cooper does bring a different and significant insight to his telling of the tale, one that’s perhaps coming out of his being a passionate fan of music.

Cooper claims to have learnt singing and playing guitar for the film and if that is the case, then he has done a very fine job.  But that is not what is most interesting about the film.  What is interesting is the reaction of his character Jack Maine to the music that takes Lady Gaga’s Allys to instant stardom.

The previous versions would appear to have focused on the resentment of the older male protagonist to his lover’s success (which overshadows his own career).  This is the narration that aficionados of Indian cinema would also be familiar via Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan.  There is just plain envy, no artistic critique involved.  But that is NOT what Jack Maine feels about what Allys is doing (though she obliquely accuses him of it in an angry argument).

It is the music itself that he is reacting to.  To him, Allys is the one-in-a-million voice that captivated him in a drag bar (yes!) and in whom he discovered great, untapped songwriting talent.  He is dismayed to find this talent, one whom he heartily promoted in his own shows, being ‘wasted’ in dance music with lyrics he regards as inane.

It is the classic art v/s commerce debate.  But, unlike many critics and journos who feel compelled to make politically correct plebeian arguments whilst discussing this, Cooper frames the debate in a manner that would soothe the hearts of musicophiles.  No, he says, the problem isn’t that it’s popular.  As a matter of fact, Jack Maine is very popular too in the beginning when he meets Allys for the first time.  He can’t get anywhere without getting recognised and photographed and this attention creeps out Allys.

No, the problem for him is this new music is not true to who Allys is.  She may not think so herself but she duly submits to a complete image makeover and learns to dance, all at the behest of a controlling manager who can take her to paradise but only if she absolutely doesn’t compromise on any of his instructions.  Individuality, anyone?

When he returns from Alcoholics Anonymous and Allys asks him why he didn’t show her a bunch of lyrics he had written for a romantic song, he says he was waiting for “you to be you again”.  And though there is no vocal acknowledgment of this on her part, she does start to work on one of his songs at his home out in the woods.

For those who only know Lady Gaga from the tranche of very successful dance music albums she made in the mid/late noughties, her heartfelt rendering of material leaning more to country or a more old school variety of pop and her fabulous dynamic range would be a pleasant surprise.  It shouldn’t be.  She had a natural talent for music, learnt piano from the age of four and even studied music at NYU.

Indeed, she chose to explore her voice in the context of more conventional music starting with her jazz album with Tony Bennett.

 

In Lady Gaga’s case, there’s nothing to suggest there was a bossy manager supervising and imposing her transformation from soulful singer-songwriter to manufactured pop idol.  She was just canny enough to know where the music industry was headed to.  But it’s doubtful that she would have landed a recording contract with a major label for an album with piano and old school sensibilities (i.e. the artist Allys comes across as before she turns pop star).  On similar lines, Fiona Apple delivered a multi platinum album with 1996’s Tidal before moving more and more into the singer-songwriter niche.   However, Apple was already making fairly singer-songwriter oriented stuff even on her first album.  It would appear that with the passage of time, the gap between songwriting and the requirements of chartbuster pop only grows ever wider.

But what’s wrong with making some money, right?  And if supposedly inane dance music is what the public wants, why not give them their heart’s desires?  Nothing wrong indeed.  But Cooper offers an alternative proposition right at the end (SPOILER ALERT).  I won’t explain under what circumstances but Maine commits suicide and his elder brother Bob arrives to condole Allys (who got married to Jack along the way but you worked that out already).  Bob tells her he heard a boy performing one of Jack Maine’s songs and was initially angry, thinking what did these people know about the real Maine anyway.  And then, he told himself that if a kid was singing Maine’s song, then maybe it had all been worth it after all.

That is the proverbial last laugh that the artist earns over the commercial star.  The legendary guitarist Alan Holdsworth died penniless and didn’t have a single hit album in his long career but friends and fans (numbering in the thousands) crowdfunded his funeral because they cherished his musical legacy.  J S Bach’s greatness was only fully appreciated a century later when Mendelssohn revived his work.   An alternative tune that Madan Mohan wrote for the song Dil Dhoondtha Hain for his last film Mausam found its way into the soundtrack of Veer Zara years later and became a hit under the name of Tere Liye!

In his parting shot, Cooper seems to be telling us that the soul that the artist has invested in his/her creation never truly dies, kinda like the Hindu concept of an atma that has a life beyond the body of one’s current birth.  Or maybe this is all just the biased reading of one who does appreciate musicians who prize soul above all.

In thus concluding the film, Cooper creates a new beginning, beyond death, for Jack Maine.  Though the film doesn’t depict anything like this, when Allys performs Maine’s last and unrecorded composition at this grand concert hall (couldn’t tell which one) as a tribute, the song probably goes viral on the internet and earns Maine a bonafide hit.  At last, in death, a star is born!

Arth: Reel v/s real meaning

August 6, 2017

The subject of how to judge a film based on real (usually ‘historical’) events is debated heavily in cinema circles and I have been part of a few such discussions on the blog of film critic Baradwaj Rangan.  The discussion usually centres around whether focusing too much on the film’s inaccuracies in portraying events is missing the forest for the trees, considering that a film is after all an artistic expression (assuming film as fiction as opposed to a documentary).  That facts may be altered slightly or a little more than slightly to further the filmmaker’s beliefs/ideology (by whatever name) is another aspect that is often debated.

This subject is particularly pertinent when it comes to Mahesh Bhatt’s landmark film Arth.  As is well known, the film is based on his relationship with the actress Parveen Babi even as he was married to Lorraine Bright.  He parted ways with both as it were and married Soni Razdan in 1986. In a tribute to Babi after her death (the tribute was published on Outlook), he expressed profound sympathy for her plight.  He also mentioned that she had in fact inherited schizophrenia from her father.  So why is it then that in the film, Kavita’s mother tells Pooja that Kavita is paying for her sins through her madness?

In fact, it is interesting that a film purportedly about the Bhatt-Babi affair is told from the wronged wife’s perspective.  From this perspective, the husband Inder falls prey to lust far too easily to give her any semblance of security and utterly fails to make decisions until he is pushed to the wall (by which time it’s too late).  Kavita is, until the end when she finally “sees the light”, a mostly unsympathetic and insecure woman who responds to Pooja’s entreaties to leave her husband be by doubling down on pulling him away from her.   Inder’s assistant Harish respects Pooja and disapproves of his master’s extra marital affair but ultimately has to be loyal to Inder until the latter makes him perform an errand that finally gets him to tender his resignation in utter disgust.   Anil is well-intentioned and extremely helpful to Pooja in her time of need but his unstinting faith in the institution of marriage comes across as bizarre given a husband who is hell bent on severing all ties with her.  A prospective employer of Pooja molests her and would have raped her had she not escaped in the nick of time.  Basically, in the world of Arth, the sensitive ghazal singer Raj is the only man of much use to Pooja as his support is entirely unconditional even in the face of unrequited love.  A feminist treatise, in other words, culminating with Pooja walking away with a child who is not hers but who, as she says, will give her company in the solitary existence she has now chosen for herself.

That is, until you consider the plot line in light of the real events it is based on.  How exactly did we traverse from a supposedly hereditary psychological disorder to the curse of a woman scorned?  To be fair, the film does give us an early indication that Kavita is troubled and seeks shelter in Inder’s, ahem, reassuring embrace.  Still, when her mother says her near-insanity is but well deserved punishment for what she did to Pooja, it raises the question whether she is really the only guilty party here.

Yes, she made love to a married man.  And, driven by her insecurity, pushed him to part ways with his wife.  But he is an adult, dammit, does he not have agency?  It was he who consented to do whatever she asked of him, smitten as he was by her.  So where did that leave him at the end of the story?  Deprived of both the women who had once loved him.  Too bad, but is it such a bad deal compared to schizophrenia?

Let us bring in the real events here. Parveen Babi was one of the leading actresses of Bollywood at the time of her affair with Mahesh Bhatt (as also depicted in the film).  Schizophrenia robbed her of a successful career whereas Bhatt won critical acclaim for Arth and went on to make many successful films.

And make no mistake, the jarring background score is the only false note in this unusually sensitive, grown up film.  Rarely are films of such quality made in Bollywood (though, strictly speaking, this was parallel cinema and struggled to find distributors willing to take a punt on it after it was made).  So nothing said here is intended to take away from his success.

But the ‘real’ takeaway from the film seems to be that the punishment for a homewrecker enchantress is mental breakdown whereas that for the unfaithful husband is untold success.  This is in stark contrast to the inspirational yet realistic reel ‘takeaway’.

There is, of course, no compulsion for the filmmaker to have his fictional characters do what their real life inspirations did.  Yet, the stilted portrayal of Kavita remains an unresolved aspect in an otherwise finely balanced film (as between the three main characters).

Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who essayed Inder’s role, also touches upon this aspect when he says that they (the makers of the film) had essentially taken the easiest way out by narrating the story from the perspective of the wife when it could have also been done from that of the love interest (a good example of the latter is Bajirao Mastani).   Kharbanda also alludes to the societal difference in the way sexually overcharged men and women are regarded, saying the former is called casanova (which almost sounds like a compliment) whereas the latter is called nymphomaniac.

To that extent, perhaps, Arth is true to the society it reflects.  But considered this way, it is a more bitter pill to swallow than a plain ‘unbiased’ (by real events) reading of the film’s message would leave one with.  Its message then is not necessarily that a woman can and should fight back against her unworthy, disloyal life partner and lead an independent life if she has to but that even if she does all these things, she is still only a woman in the eyes of society.  A distinction that Pooja implicitly reminds Inder of when he asks that she forgive him.

P.S:  Mahesh Bhatt also suggests that had he remade the film, he would have characterised Kavita as more humane than in the original film.

Deepika Padukone v/s Times of India: Of captions and cleavage

September 22, 2014

Deepika Padukone, she of Finding Fanny, Ramleela, Chennai Express, Cocktail, Om Shanti Om and variously fame, is in the news for taking on the leading English daily of the country, Times of India.  She lashed back at a twitter post of TOI captioned “OMG so much cleavage” and later told NDTV that she felt violated.  TOI haven’t been wont to lie low.  They retaliated, first through an opinion piece penned by Pooja Bedi and then through this here article: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/Dear-Deepika-our-point-of-view-/articleshow/43084705.cms?.    Deepika’s stand against the big bad newspaper has received much support from the film fraternity.  She has pointed out that when she reveals skin in films, it is because the role demands it.  Indeed, if there ever was a time for her to act in a film that depicted the sexist underbelly of Bollywood, this would be it.  Perhaps, she could produce it herself if the subject finds no other takers.

Or perhaps such a film, or something to that effect, has already been made.  The Vidya Balan-starring sleeper hit of 2011, Dirty Picture, portrayed the life of Silk Smitha.  In the early portions of the film, the young, aspiring Silk is shown as trying to get an audition but, finding nobody willing to give a rank outsider and rookie a chance, goes down the skin route to find success but, ultimately, disenchantment and discontent.  My memory does not serve me well but it was probably in the 2012 Filmfare awards ceremony that the host, probably Shah Rukh Khan, joked that only Khan, Karan and Kleavage sold in the industry.

Maybe you should blame it on my memory again but I remember nothing but complete silence from one Miss Deepika Padukone on that subject at that time.  Sure, everyone knew it was a joke but following the logic put forth in the last week, was a joke on cleavage really necessary?  And was it not a cheap shot at an actress who had attracted the audience to her film for the quality of her performance and not her skin show?  And was it perhaps a subtle hint that an actress can only be defined by her cleavage even if she can carry a film on her shoulders purely on the strength of her acting skills (I may be reading too much into it but isn’t everybody doing that just now with regard to the cleavage controversy)?

So, is Deepika Padukone willing to be a spokesperson for the fight by Bollywood actresses against big bad media and their objectification of women?  Or is she only concerned when she herself is the target?  And if it’s the latter, should anybody other than herself and TOI really be interested in it at all?  And is she ok with any number of cheap jokes by fraternity members, especially if they are influential and she has reason to be loyal to them?

Readers have complained about the perceived arrogance of TOI in loftily declaring BCCL one of the largest media houses in the world in the above article and questioned their lack of responsibility as a leading daily.  That, I am afraid, also raises troubling questions about the tastes of the English news readership in India.  I do not recall a newspaper like The Hindu getting into trouble for printing distasteful captions.  So why is it that TOI enjoys such a massive lead in readership in the country if their standards are so bad?  Is it, ahem, because of such captions and, ermmm, the accompanying pictures?  Again, I am fully aware that I am simplifying it.  But it is precisely such simplistic logic that has been put forth in rants against the newspaper in the last week or so.

The other issue such a stand raises is:  are standards to be maintained only by news media?  Are the film industry and its performers not beholden to standards of any sort?  Yes, I get it, Deepika Padukone has the right to do as she pleases in her roles.  The question is does she necessarily HAVE to indulge in skin show? We have been hearing about this being a new golden age of Bollywood. So why is it that neither production houses nor directors feel assured that roles for women that do not have to involve a pretty face or require skin show can be written for actresses willing to perform them?  And there would surely be plenty such actresses in this new Golden Age, raring to take on roles with depth and substance?  In the apparently less golden 90s, I do not recall the actress Kajol being particularly renowned for either her looks or the alluring appeal of her embodiments.  So why is it that the leading ladies in Bollywood today rely heavily on their looks to grab roles?

This is not say either Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif or Priyanka Chopra do not make a sincere effort to bring their characters to life on screen.  But you only have to consider the case of Konkona Sen Sharma to know what happens, eventually, to actresses who don’t win in the skin race.  It is often said that art can only imitate life and films hold a mirror to the state of society as it is. So is it at all surprising that Bollywood is every bit as sexist and just as keen to objectify its actresses as the media?

It has been variously alleged that Deepika Padukone was seeking payments from TOI for a photograph they shot without her permission and this was her way of getting her own back.  Or that she was simply running a cynical publicity drill for Finding Fanny.  I submit that there may well be an alternative, simpler, explanation.  Although it is increasingly used as a publicity tool, Twitter is also (in)famous for knee jerk reactions and celebrity reactions.  Miss Padukone may have only indulged in one such.

Perhaps, her disproportionate rage at something that is, like it or not, rather commonplace in the media, was an outpouring of pent up frustration over the inability of her industry to regard her, even 7 years since her debut, as anything more than a sex bomb who can act (necessarily in that order).  Disgust at the fact that even after reeling off performances that won critical claim, it is indeed cleavage that continues to define her career in the eyes of a certain kind of audience, and a kind that is large in number.

Queen: feminist humour or a mirror that shows us the India we don’t like to see?

March 17, 2014

In terms of timing, Vikas Bahl’s new film, Queen, strikes it sweeter than a Wawrinka backhand.  With rape and sexual abuse becoming a nationwide menace (or finally being highlighted in the media as such) and sexist comments routinely being passed by people in power but out of touch, a film about a young woman confidently asserting her independence was bound to be received sympathetically.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it’s a pretty well-made film.  The audience has also been waiting for the right moment to fall in love with Kangana Ranaut, a talented actress searching for some truly iconic roles, and in all likelihood this film could spark a Kangana-wave, much like the Vidya Balan-wave of 2011.  Oh, and it was released on International Women’s Day.  As I said, couldn’t have timed it better.

But is that all there is to it?  Is the film only about treating women ‘properly’ and respecting their rights?  If that is the case, why does Vijay (played by Rajkumar Rao) look so, well, normal?  It is hard to shake off the feeling that he is very much like somebody you probably know and for the most part a nice enough guy to be friends with.  Can his views on what his Rani is allowed or not allowed to do (yes, note the word ‘allowed’) be ascribed simplistically to male ego alone?  Or do we, perhaps, need to dig deeper?  The director helpfully drops a hint to prod us in the latter direction.  In the last passage of the film, Vijay’s mother tells Rani how happy she is to get company in the kitchen and expresses the notion that kitty parties are exciting.  In other words, the thought of Rani taking up a job of her own is inconceivable even to another woman from her point of view as a mother in law.

Consider also the nature of things that Rani finds out she is ‘allowed’ to do when she lands up in the more liberal pastures of Paris and Amsterdam.  She finds out there is nothing wrong with kissing each other on the lips, nothing wrong with enjoying oneself in a pub or a rock show with abandon and without worry of what people might say, nothing wrong with consuming alcohol (apart from what it could do to one’s health, that is), nothing wrong with sharing a room with members of the opposite sex and even striking a friendship with them that doesn’t involve sexual overtures, and nothing wrong, finally, with just daring to dream and daring to live the dream.

The above do not necessarily attack only women-centric taboos in India.  Many of these things are considered a no-no for men too. What you wear, what you eat can be the basis of numerous personal judgments about you made by observers who probably don’t really know you very well at all.  If you are male and wear long hair, you are irresponsible.  If you would like to utilise your personal leave quota to travel outstation to watch your favourite rock band perform, you are irresponsible.  Related to that, if you would like to utilise your personal leave quota to travel outstation to attend the wedding of your cousin’s cousin’s cousin’s in-law whom you haven’t met in a decade or so, you are NOT irresponsible.  Au contraire, you ought to attend if your schedule and bank balance permit.  If you burn money on stylish apparel or a sporty bike, you are irresponsible.  But if you burn that on any quantity of gold, you are a wise man.

But my point is not to rant about Indians and their priorities. Rather, I wonder whether we fully acknowledge that  this is the India we have created.  We have this fanciful image in our head of India being a bindaas, chilled out nation where anything goes, where life is simpler than the sophisticated West.  But is that really the case?  Do we fully appreciate the enormous strain we exert on each other by obsessively judging the other person’s choices?   The point, after all, is not whether you as an individual would like to own a sporty bike or find use for it.  The point is whether it’s any of your business if somebody else would like to.  There’s a word for it: privacy.  When we seek to advice, out of our eternal compulsion to show how caring and well intentioned we are, we intrude the privacy of the other person.

And the reason to start respecting each other’s boundaries is not because it is done in the West and we need to ape them.  It is because our compulsion to judge others’ choices hampers our collective ability to make decisions.  There is a poignant scene in Queen where a chef invites Rani to participate in a culinary competition where she will get to sell her products to visitors and keep a part of the profits if she wins.  Seeing that she is hesitant and apprehensive, he asks her if she has the guts to step out and try (or something to that effect, cannot recall the exact words now).

Right now, the nation does need some political equivalent of that chef to exhort us to step out of our cocoons and dare to try.  When Indians make a decision, they do not only focus on the cold financials or their instinct and passion or both.  They also worry about what other interest groups would have to say about it. And since Indians already have a low appetite for pushing change, they shelve many initiatives that could help improve productivity and effectiveness in a small or big way in the organisation.  Yes, shelved not because it wouldn’t benefit the organisation in the foreseeable future but shelved because the manager might have something to say or the head of some other department would not like it and he/she might rant to somebody else who is in top management and so on.  We are gifted with  great analytical ability, which we use brilliantly to work out the myriad reasons why some long overdue change is not worth seeing through. We are so concerned with pleasing everyone that we would much prefer to inflict a median level of misery on all to be happily endured.

There is a price to be paid for living with inefficiency (and even giving it the name of jugad and celebrating it as an uniquely Indian trait).  It’s called inflation, mehengai. The govt alone cannot be blamed for allowing inflation to spiral out of control.  The govt is only a microcosm of India and its lethargic pace of implementation is not particularly far removed from how Indians, in general, work. When we are told what to do, we attack work with the ferocity of tigers.  But when it’s decision time, we tiptoe back into the cage.  It’s no coincidence that Rani had to run off to Europe to find herself for she probably couldn’t have managed it within India, hounded constantly by relatives and well wishers all too keen to part with unsolicited advice and judgments.

It’s time to make decisions, changes have got to be made.  It is time to truly live up to the ideal of unity in diversity…by respecting the other person’s rights, his/her choices, preferences and values.  It’s time to stand back and let people make their mistakes and applaud them for being brave enough to take the chance instead of laughing at their expense because they were not intelligent vegetables like you.  It’s time to stop clinging onto a set of values the source of which nobody is perfectly sure of and to let the idea of India evolve, through the free will of individuals bold enough to own their choices.


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