Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pronounced bowels and digestible consonants: Piku

There is only so much you can guffaw when the bowel is a muse.
But beyond the ablutions lie the intuitions that provide a richer variety of humour.
Piku is brilliant. Beyond its toilet humour lies a sense of character and souls trapped in a rubble of conditioned habits and ways of the flesh. The richness of cultures ingrained and established is nothing when worlds collide between souls in search of harmonious understanding. 
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi excels in a matrix where characters are stripped naked of their habits and social mannerisms to a point where you see the constant permanent over the variables of everyday idiosyncrasies. Shoojit Sircar's ability to weave in little oddities and rich textures of culture within single-frame detail and short-lived gestures is amazing.
We are quite used to excellence from Amitabh Bachchan, but he can excel himself sometimes -- and the more weird the character, the more is his ability extract the juice of mannerisms, twitches and eccentricities. 

Irffan Khan, by now Bollywood's uncrowned king of understated elegance, can somehow combine the ruffianesque with the sensitive as only he can do, it seems.
But what is fascinating alongside is Deepika Padukone's ability to retain a sense of modern, independent, aesthetic style even as she sinks into a messy role that reflects a character steeped in the hallowed weight of traditions and responsibilities beyond what her tender shoulders might permit. Some things, when chewed well, can be very digestible and delicious.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Gangsta Chic Rum in Vintage Wine Glass: Bombay Velvet's Underwelming Underbelly

Smart Alec Parsees and uprooted Punjabis melt with tycoons and labour leaders in a cauldron that brews struggles for power, status and wealth amid rising skyscrapers and squalor. This is an excellent setting for a saga of wounded souls embracing and conspiring in romance and lust.
But overambition is a crime, be it an urban underbelly's anti-hero serenading a Portugese-scarred songstress or a Banaras boy trying to be a desi avant-garde Hollywood icon.
Anurag Kashyap, like Johnny Balraj played by a dedicated Ranbir Kapoor, shows spunk in a montage of taut plot, moving lyrics and nostalgia jazz. Yet Bombay Velvet underwhelms. It gets caught in a crossfire of style and crafting flaws. 
The characters jump too quickly in, with little etching. They all shake hands in curt Hollywood fashion in clumsy self-introductions. Close-ups make up for lack of aesthetic long shots or zooms. There is too much of Sphagetti Western influence that eats into the jazz mood. The characters are strong in some way but are way too middle-class in articulation. 
Karan Johar tries too hard as a manipulative wannabe, Ranbir shines with sincerity and Anushka Sharma fits the role despite her persona of not being a vulnerable screen figure. The music, inspite of the staccato violence that peppers the movie, stands out in poignant elegance. A lot of hardwork has evidently gone in: Sri Lankan locales, a pastiche of double-deckers, old-world brands and sepia knick-knacks.
But still...

Because India is not America, 1960s isn't 1930s, gangsta chic is not period authenticity, emotional trignometry is not social history.
And Kashyap is not Scorcese. 
Rum in a wine glass.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Calcutta Remixed, with some overcooking - Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (mini review)

Trams and hand rickshaws. Japanese agents and Chinese gangs. British power and Bihari workers. Murders, betrayals and shaky notions of love, loyalty and idealism. Dibakar Banerjee uses Detective Byomkesh Bakshi's thriller-sleuthing as a wonderful excuse to capture the dynamic 1940s in Calcutta, when Imperial lines and impoverished Indians crossed path in an ugly global game that involved opium peddlers, street politics and conspiracies of many hues. The movie is a magnificent high for a Bollywood Renaissance, but its end is overcooked, giving us a David Lean like period feel with a questionable aroma of the blood-and-psycho realism of a Tarantino.  And the use of disco and rock occasionally in the soundtrack is a jarring throwforward in a nostalgic high.
Costume design (inlcuding some by Manoshi Nath) give an authentic feel in a strange aesthetic that involves worn out cottons, long dhotis, Raj-era uniforms and loincloths amid mildewed walls and industrial machinery. And K Venugopal Menon's daughter plays female lead in a role that reminds you somehow of Smita Patil. Classic wine in multiplex bottle.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crazy art with desi heart: the importance of Happy New Year

'In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.'
-       Bertolt Brecht


 When critics belonging to a narrow clique sharpen their claws to rip apart a successful Bollywood film, they usually sink their steely knives into their own social and emotional illiteracy. Farah Khan, on the other hand, thrives on precisely these literacies that define the structure of such cinema. But where she scores as an artiste (yeah, right), is in the robust creativity with which she approaches what is disparagingly called the Formula Film. 
Ms Khan turns the formula into a cult celebration and cliches into raw material with which she weaves a patchwork quilt of dubious aesthetic but colourful originality. She turns escapism into an act of self-conscious evolution. She turns enjoyment into an introspection of sorts. She makes a thinking film for the feeling types who do not know how to think. Her formula to achieve this is to convert the conventional formula into a spoof so that you can have an out-of-the-body experience: you know you are watching a film even as you are immersed in it. You feel a fictional narrative woven into a Bollywood documentary that becomes a toolkit of the stereotypes, mannerisms, situations and cult lines. It is an experience in which you jump in and out of the movie with a dolphin intelligence – the way dolphins jump in and out with amphibian aplomb in one of the scenes of Happy New Year, her latest work.
Happy New Year clearly defines its ground with several cult lines, the most audible of which is a simple statement: There are only two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers. If we look hard enough, the trick to produce a Bollywood winner is to focus on the losers as an audience, and give them a feeling of being winners in an immersive experience.
So we have identifiable characters: the cowardly, liquor-loving Mumbai “Ghati” Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan), the rugged northern workman Jag (Sonu Sood), the South Bombay “Bawa” Tammy (Boman Irani), and the bar dancer Mohini (Deepika Padukone) in the company of more urbane losers:  the English speaking, entrepreneurial Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) and the Uncool Geek Rohan who won’t get a date but will happily hack into powerful computers to prove a point (Vivaan Shah).
The Diamond Heist is an old formula. So is the hero’s revenge for the wrong that visited his father by the villain.  What works in Happy New Year is the way diamonds can be turn into a metaphor: For the geek, a Wall Street IPO is it.  For a Marathi speaking girl from the dingy lanes of Parel, it could be winning a reality show that rewards her dancing skills. For Charlie-like anti-hero hucksters, it may be small business. When various skills come into a collective experience, it even connects with nationalism. At a deeper level, Happy New Year could be a subliminal tribute to the social dynamics that took a tea-seller to the prime minister’s chair in the year of its release. After all, building a coalition of political supporters is just like making a hit Bollywood film: a hundred crore people there, a hundred crore rupees here.
HNY’s biggest secret is the plot-less plot that indirectly asks questions that need to be asked: Why must every film necessarily mimic reality or try to craft a realistic pattern? Indeed, why must it even try to be real? Why can’t it celebrate the dark times of danga and panga with a salute to the tiranga in a mish-mash song and dance pastiche of reality shows, gloss, high-rise Dubai buildings and such? In craft, such a film may be compelled by box-office necessities or multiplex requirements, but hey, there is nourishment even in popcorn fantasies.
Happy New Year mocks the stereotypes even as it supplies them with a how-to manual that draws liberally from films such as Lagaan or Chak De India: Play on your skills, work as a team, celebrate the magic of life and yes, keep your izzat up. These are not soulless, heartless characters. They just do not have the life skills and have not heard of psychiatrists and even less can afford them. So they need a Bollywood director with a mother-like warmth (with triplets for proof) to tell them the stuff: “You are okay!”
It is difficult not to like Deepika –who manages to ooze grace even in a caricatured role a bit outsized for her elegant shoes.  SRK may be just adding his tadka of Red Chillies to the masala film. What works is the pastiche of cinematic clich├ęs – like Bollywood laughing at itself.
As a cinematic experience, it is spoof as high art with a heart. As formula it is difficult not to imagine the Indiawale song at new-year DJ-blessed bashes. It is difficult not to enjoy crossword-solving moments where old Bollywood scenes, lines and situations are recreated with self-conscious we-are-like-this-only attitude. Ms Khan could well be regarded as a Bollywood impressionist, with more historical significance than she might herself realize. In Om Shanti Om, she played on Karz, the re-incarnation drama. In Happy New Year, she subtly plays on the Deewar formula at some deep level as she crafts King Khan into an angry young man who must dance, joke and conspire in the new century to achieve the same objective that Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay did in the cult movie of the 1970s.
In that sense, Ms. Khan’s tribute to cinema becomes an extension and a celebration of the Bollywood masala film – with its special undercurrent of social relevance with a soul.  There are characters you can sympathise with, lost in a big bad world where the calculating mind triumphs over the innocent, joyful heart. In turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, HNY does what shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati have been doing on prime-time TV, contributing to a new Indian awakening with a new sense of confidence.  If Shah Rukh Khan’s Charlie shows an extension of Deewar’s Vijay, Deepika’s Mohini is a 21st Century of Mother India that Nargis played – a moral icon, a striving figure seeking respect and justice.
You can sing and dance in dark times. Stereotypes and archetypes can create a new mythology. So what if they are a spoof? They have hearts that beat and souls that reflect. To laugh is a necessity. To cry is a compulsion. And losers must be made to feel like winners. In a reality show called Bollywood, ticket-buyers are judges.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gangs of Wasseypur II - a quick mini review

Gangs of Wasseypur II: Loved the first part better but the parts together are a brilliant slice of contemporary social history, viewed from the points of view that escape metropolitan worldviews. A seminal work. It is a Mere Apne of its times, which had great new finds.
This one includes Richa Chadda, Huma Quraishi and a couple of actors whose names still not familiar. The surprise is Zeeshan Qadri, who apart from being "Definite" in the movie, is also its story writer. Downside: the climax reminded me of Gulaal. Come on, Anurag Kashyap, you could have fixed that!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Deconstructing Aromale

Music, as it goes, a meandering waterbody, sometimes a river, sometimes a stream, sometimes an ocean, connected and yet not, in a melange of notes and rhythms, caught in a gurgle of sounds....yet, like picking up a handful in the seashore and measuring where the little drops come from....is a challenge, is a joy!
Here's what I heard last night...


And memories came tumbling on the possible influences that A.R.Rahman may have had (and probably did) in coming up with clearly a work of world music embedded in a connected world.
Here are some I could smell...
Watch the guitar plucks and the humming here.


And then go on to how Black American music retained and lost its identity in a brilliant lecture-demo chat by Ali Farka Toure



Go back now, and listen to a raga alaapana (aalap) by Shreya Ghoshal) in reprise of the original Aromale



And catch the original, purer, raaga here....more subtle..and yet in a clearer etching of the tones that make up the raga, with the gravitas of the veena



Go on to the jazz influence back again....this time Reethi Gowla (with a touch of other ragas in the free fusion) acquires a majestic flow in the guitarwork of John McLaughlin...but watch the violin as you ago along




If you had listened to the violin, you could catch the final snatches of Shreya Ghoshal's alaapana mixing with the violin. And in the stepped-up chord, accompanied by the orchestral arrangements, I could catch a glimpse of the Moody Blues classic, Nights in White Satin.



Catch a handful of water on the seashore. Measure where they come from.

Catch again the chorus of a crescendo in Aromale. There is now Abba's Eagle.



Soar, like the Eagle. Soar, like the breeze coming from the mountains that Aromale talks of. The majestic bird becomes the Beloved!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Resignation - A poem



by Ganesh Venkatraman
(Translated from Tamil)


The thought occurred
to quit.
When I arose from my seat
the hands were tied.
A pair of golden handcuffs?
Or a slender, sacred thread?
As I shook off my hand,
uncaring,
a wail arose.

"Don't go!
Don't leave me!"
Took a while to learn
it was my manager.
"Oh! Don't leave us!"
-- said the Manager's Manager


Well done!
Everybody can hear me get up
Clearly
Before my voice becomes
Immune to their ears
And their ears shut close
It is best to depart.
--Ganesh Venkatraman