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 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,
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
Before my voice becomes
Immune to their ears
And their ears shut close
It is best to depart.
--Ganesh Venkatraman

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rediscovery of Captain Haddock

When does a schoolboy comic figure become a literary character?
Perhaps when the pre-teen reader turns to his magical years in nostalgia as an older man. The events are now a plot and the dramatic personae are now characters. More still, you begin to see the authors behind the words, the curiosity of the creator behind the sketchy visage of the protagonist he has created.
Tintin came back to me this week in three dimensions.
Make that four, as the special glasses borrowed from the multiplex staff was supplemented by an Einstenian fourth. Time.

Memories come tumbling, and suddenly, two facets emerge. One is of how a book reader, more so a schoolboy, essentially paints the works he consumes with his own vivid imaginings -- and then does his own editing. Every comic box in a graphic-novel mind is as dwellable or as skippable as one chooses to do.
I remember Snowy and his dogly antics. The little corners of the frame were always special for Tintin lovers for the cute white thing in very wordly wags of the tails, discoveries of the nose and the little politics pets play with other non-human animals. They were largely intact in Spielberg's audacious remake.
So was the curiosity of Tintin. It turns out Tintin is us. Or, if you please, Mr. Herge. I remember that my first visit overseas was to Belgium, where, a complete desi lost in a European autumn, I groped for comfort. And then I learnt Tintin was Belgian. I stayed in a hotel run by South Asians and it overlooked a chocolate factory on top of which lay the icon of the intrepid reporter with the tuft. Suddenly, I felt I was staying at a cousin's place.
And then, there is Captain Haddock, making his debut, in the comic book and in the world of cinema, as the secret of the Unicorn unravels.
Now, there is a twist in the tale that never really changed.
I now see Tintin as a Western character with a cultural location in Francophone Belgium, poking fun at the British Scotland Yard in a humour that now has shades of European rivalry.
I now see the bumbling Thomson and Thompson twins as a caricature. We have, you see, a French author who takes a Sherlock Holmes agency and turns it into an Enid Blytonian Mr. Goon in the form of fumbling Scotland Yarders!
Exotic locales in Morocco now tell me the tale of colonialism. And suddenly I imagine George Clooney playing the main role in a remake of Casablanca, colourfully remade to capture the spirit of Humphrey Bogart in a different age. My ideas fly in different directions -- though the story is the same.
Bianca Castafiore now reminds me of Tansen's lighting of the lamp with his song, and, as she breaks a glass case with her operating highs, I think of the masterly way in which the author combines the classical excellence of her art with the popular imagination that hears comical sounds in her falsetto sounds.
And then I see Captain Haddock.
The crazy man with a fantastic vocabulary for creative abuses is in my mind now a loser with a strong work ethic and a sense of family pride. I see him in a different world, the stuff of serious literature, not comic books. The seafarer and his lonely quests overpower the billions of blistering, blue barnacles in my mind.
Did Herge read Joseph Conrad, I wonder.
Beyond the 3D magic, the action-packed climax, the sights and the sounds in the etching out of the action sequences that I used to kind of skip in my schoolboy visitations of Tintin -- and the sheer razmatazz of a Spielberg movie -- I rediscover Captain Haddock, lonely and proud, lying in the bottom of the sea like the lost treasure that goes with the secret of the Unicorn.
I am Tintin, still,looking for new clues.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Designer puns in Hindi, anyone?

Here is an exchange (edited) between me and Shunali after we heard about Hermes making a saree for Indians at Rs 200,000

Madhavan: And at the wedding, with Hermes di saari, they'll take Saath Ferragamo? ;-)

Shunali: Will also say: Kuch aur bhi Dior na ladkey waalon ko.

Madhavan: Aunty will say: Dulhan ke liye kuch aur Cardin?

: Ladki khush rahey hamaare to yehi Armani hai. Khoob Giorgio or aur khush raho.

: Aur nazar utar te hain. Kisi Moet ka nazar na lag jaaye hamari beti par ;-)

: Shaadi khoob Dom (Perignon) dhaam sey honi chahiya.Have I made myself Cristal clear?

: At ladies sangeet, many old women will dance with their Hilfigers ;-)

Shunali: And will say: Shaadi sey kabhi mat Gabbana.

Madhavan: Honeymoon Goa ke monsoon mein. Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh Versace ki raat