Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Citizen D

A few weeks after Slumdog Millionaire released in India, Dev D, a film loosely based (as the credits state) on the original Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and directed by Anurag Kashyap, hit the theatres. The phrase has not been used loosely - it actually hit the theatres. From the start of his career, Kashyap has proved an expert at ruffling feathers. Paanch, his maiden venture, was a searing look at upper-strata violence in suburban India, which no one managed to see because it never got past the censors. Black Friday, a docu-drama based on the Bombay blasts, was also banned, buried, finally released and promptly whisked off. And though his last, No Smoking, had a smooth release (discounting minor problems with anti-tobacco lobbyists) it underwent a critical savaging and achieved little commercial success. So suffice so say, for Dev D, all bets were off on Anurag Kashyap.

Indian audiences first heard of the movie through its audacious trailer, easily one of the most provocative teasers to emerge from the Indian film industry. It then took a disconcertingly long time to release, and Kashyap fans began anticipating another ban. But somehow it emerged in what appears to be an unscathed form, which is very strange, because Dev D takes risks like no other Hindi film before it. To start with, Devdas has been remade so many times, and is such a sacred cow of Hindi cinema, that it has reached perilously close to existing as a caricature more than anything else. Then there’s all the cussing (Kashyap has unearthed an interesting loophole – as long as you swear in a language other than Hindi, it gets passed), drinking, sexual high-jinks, pill-popping and hard drugs (not to mention promiscuity, prostitution, suicide and the perversion of the justice system by the rich). And these were just the surface – the stuff that the critics caught onto. They praised its daring, its invocation of night time Delhi, the strong performances from the two newcomers and industry anomaly Abhay Deol – but few stopped long enough to peer into the movie’s dark soul. As a result, most of them missed the many ways it departs from the genre constraints of a typical Bollywood movie, and in the process becomes a viewing experience that is both unique and path-breaking.

Consider the titular character of Dev. Previous Devdas’ have drunk themselves to death over their love for Paro, and have been largely melodramatic in the process. Abhay Deol’s Dev also drinks (and does drugs, and goes for long pointless trips) - but not out of love. When the enigmatic call girl Chanda advises him to accept that he cannot love anyone and should just get used to it, it is also the director asking us, the audience, to accept a character like that. Self-pity, hate and masochism have been constants in the character of Devdas, but have always been triggered by his love for Paro. By the end of this movie, however, both audience and character alike are left wondering whether he really loved her at all. Incapable for most of the film of any emotion that could be called real, Dev as a character is not only atypical, but almost unheard of in the cinematic history of this nation. I can think of no other character who does not care as totally and completely as he does not care. Never is this more evident than the scene in which Dev is reunited with a cab driver who drugged him and stole his money. Kashyap allows him one small sarcastic smile before the cab driver is hired again, without reproach or melodrama. It tells us volumes about the character, and also proves how sure Kashyap’s direction has become. In a movie that is often very loud, the quieter moments are equally revelatory.

Kashyap’s determination to keep his characters true to character is also what makes this a very unique Hindi film. For most movies made in India, screen time can be divided into heterogeneous scenes which have ‘comedy’, ‘drama’, ‘romance’ etc written over them in broad shades. Each of these elements is seen as ingredients that contribute to the unique ‘masala’ that is Indian cinema, but few movies take pains over the mixing process. Viewers in India have grown used to seeing characters lurch awkwardly from light-hearted family scenes to grandiose romantic scenarios to handing out beatings. Dev D takes no such shortcuts to achieve its ends. There is no comic relief. There are no heroes, no villains. There is no gap between what the characters are presented as and their actions. Every scene subsequent to their introduction simply adds another layer or provides another confirmation.

The film also has a level of studied self-awareness that erects an unseen barrier between it and the more organic, spontaneous fare that Bollywood is associated with. The use of the uber-cool Twilight Players and the uber-cliched ‘Presleys of Patna’ for the musical sequences is entertaining in its own right, but also gives one a feeling that the director’s intent is to provide the viewers with a subversive ‘meta-experience’ rather than a more direct ‘experience’. A popular example of a similar ‘meta-experience’ is the Jack Rabbit Slims sequence in Pulp Fiction, in which Tarantino plays on our collective pop culture memories of ’50 rock ‘n roll, French New Wave and Travolta in Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Even as we are enjoying the dance (on a direct level), we are also experiencing a meta-level of thoughts and feelings about the experience we are having. Similarly, the contrast between the impossibly slick dance moves of ‘Pardesi’ (which would definitely have been highlighted in a regular Bollywod movie) and its setting (a seedy bar, with no one really watching) is not just another exercise in random. Neither is the sight of two Indian Presleys singing about ‘Emotional Atyachaar’ at a wedding. Kashyap lures us in with things familiar (songs and dances, weddings and bars), and then before we realise that the (Bolly)world we know is askew, he cuts us loose.

It helps that Kashyap now has the visual props to back the extreme moods of his story. Initially, the cinematography is simple and earthy, the only radical element being the unusually quick, but sure, cutting, and the boldness of some of the visual metaphors accompanying the brazen speech of the characters. It then becomes white and dreamy for Chanda’s back story, almost as if it were a twisted fairy tale. Finally, in Delhi, as the drugs and alcohol take over, it alternates between trippy kinetics and grainy impressions of the seedier parts of Delhi. Interestingly, Slumdog Millionaire's director Danny Boyle gets a thank you in the opening credits. Kashyap has specified that the help received was with some of the visuals, but without prior knowledge it is almost impossible to separate the Boyle-influenced visuals from the others, which is a huge tribute to both Kashyap and his trusted cinematographer Rajeev Rai. Very few directors in India can claim to have a unique visual style of their own. And almost no one has displayed the ambition (or felt the need) to create multiple visual styles for the same movie.

The end has been seen by many here as a compromise by the director, a typical ‘happy ending’. It is anything but. At best, it could be called cautiously optimistic - Dev is going to surrender himself to the police and will probably have to go to jail, but he has also realised that he really likes (one still hesitates to associate him with the word ‘love’) Chanda, which is more than he has felt for any other character in the movie. Previous adaptations have ended with Devdas dying melodramatically at Paro’s doorstep. Here however, he rejects his love for her as an illusion, and in doing that gives himself a chance at true happiness, something which no previous Devdas was seen as deserving of. Turning the accepted ending, the ‘only possible ending’, on its head is truly daring. It is a victory, redemptive and unexpectedly touching, for both Dev and Chanda. Paro, in another clean break from tradition, already has some measure of domestic happiness - and a chance to put Dev in his place after all these years (which of the two makes her happier?) It is also a comprehensive cinematic victory for Kashyap. He could simply have gone on autopilot and made another Devdas die at Paro’s door. Like every other easy solution he could have taken, he rejects this one too, and it is this attitude on the part of the director which makes this movie so uncompromised and unique.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Bollywood at heart

The West has never really come to terms with Bollywood. They have grudgingly come to accept that it is wildly popular, and that it has a market base with whose potential is still just starting to be unlocked. However, very few have been able to accept the unique genre constraints that come attached with this popularity. Hong Kong action movies, it could be argued, are every bit as formulaic as an average Bollywood flick, but they were embraced by Hollywood in the early ‘90s and still continue to be a key influence on their films. Somehow, Bollywood has not proved to be such an easy fit.

Indians have also become more defensive about their cinema. A decade ago the refrain was more likely to be a fatalistic ‘We cannot change’; it has now become a defiant ‘Why should we change?’ Commercial reasons have a lot to do with this – when you have a potential audience of a billion, it makes sense to keep making movies exactly the way you always have, instead of adapting them to Western tastes. Like call centres queries re-routed to Bangalore, like retractions from the Australian Cricket Board, the expectation is that the West will just have to come around to accepting the power of numbers and a growing economy. Which may not be the greatest recipe for artistic growth, but hey, it’s an industry. What do you want, what do you expect?

Bollywood movies have maintained an undeniable consistency for decades - stretching back, some would argue, almost to the time of their inception. Technical advancements aside, most situations, storylines and character types are identifiable (and meant to be so). Identifiable and, to the surprise of many in India and abroad, a potential source of imitation. Baz Luhrman, a melodrama junkie from the start, weighed in with the overrated Moulin Rogue, a movie more Bollywood than most Bollywood movies are. Bride & Prejudice perpetuated the dubious genre of NRI Bolly kitsch. And now, with 8 Oscar wins, we have Slumdog Millionaire, a movie set in India, with more than one Bollywood actor in it, and incorporating, in more ways than is apparent at first glance, the spirit (if not the style) of a Bollywood movie.

Slumdog starts with the most vedantic premise of all – ‘it is written’. Any producer here would agree with that. This is the philosophical basis of masala – once the end is a forgone conclusion, it’s the journey that matters. Wild coincidences, inconsistencies in plot and mood, characters going from funny to weepy to violent – all written. Slumdog, like any good Bollywood movie, does not attempt to justify these wild twists beyond a point. Instead, it revels in them, defying the audience to say real life is not like this. Despite its visually accurate depiction of Mumbai’s sprawling ghettos, this is not a film centered around hard reality (See Salaam Bombay for an interesting contrast). When reality (or what passes for reality in a movie) is not required – like explaining how two slum kids suddenly start speaking in English an hour into the movie – it is dispensed with. ‘Reality’ thus becomes just another ingredient in the mix, a minor factor soon to be dwarfed by the biggest player of them all, destiny. As with countless Bollywood movies that suffer from similar quasi-amnesiac tendencies, there is nothing wrong in this approach, beyond the very real peril of viewing these movies as accurate social or historical documents.

India, both as a source of cinema and as a country (and, it must be said, a idealistic construct in Western minds) seems to confer a certain freedom on visiting filmmakers. It gives them the elusive opportunity to be able to tell their story unencumbered, without having to make it as credible as if it would have to be if it were set somewhere else, and without burdening it with ironic, intellectual or philosophical devices. Of course, there are movies made here that are not melodramatic, not predictable, that defy audience expectations. But if one is honest, it’s fair to say that these films are not the norm. Bollywood has little use for distancing devices, even less for irony. Neither does Slumdog Millionaire. The Slumdog phenomenon (and it is a phenomenon, meritorious or not) is proof that audiences and critics abroad can be receptive to a brand of high-emotion, destiny-driven drama that questions little but entertains whole-heartedly, the kind of cinema that continues to work in this country after six decades. But it’s also important to make them feel like they’re on the outside, looking in. Like Colonel Nathan Jessup, they expect you to ask them nicely.

Yesterday, in his Oscar speech, Danny Boyle especially mentioned the choreographer of the ending dance sequence. While I may be reading too much into this (he forgot his name in the credits, and wanted to apologize), I think the seriousness with which this part of the film has been handled gives us a clue as to how it should be viewed. It seems clear that this sequence, set to the thrilling ‘Jai Ho’ and as unabashed in its exuberance as any great Bollywood dance sequence, is not presented as an end credits novelty, unlike, say, the bloopers in a Jackie Chan movie. Everyone comes back and dances – the dead, the living, the young and old – and their moves are via Bollywood, not Hollywood musical. The story may have concluded, but this is the real ending. I think this sequence is emblematic of how this film sees itself – a Bollywood movie at heart (or whatever that represents). Call it globalization. Lately, we have seen a growing number of Indian movies which limit their soundtracks as a background to the action, defying age-old Bollywood traditions of all songs being sung by the characters on screen. Meanwhile, the West is finally managing to say ‘song-and-dance sequence’ without sneering. It's catch-up time all around.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


15th Century Russian Fable

I had begun to question their loyalty. Michal was leading them astray, telling them how the pack did not need me as their master. So I had their heads removed and attached them to their necks with scarves of red. "Desert me, and the scarf will vanish" I told them. "Your blood will turn the snow red, and I will know where you have died"

NBA Finals, Pre-game Peptalk

Phil Jackson to Michael Jordan: "For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack"

Fleet Foxes, White Winter Hymnal

I was following the pack
all swallowed in their coats
with scarves of red tied ’round their throats
to keep their little heads from fallin’ in the snow
And I turned ’round and there you go
And, Michael, you would fall
and turn the white snow red as strawberries
in the summertime

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trailing some new kill

Rockstar suicides are supposed to make them legends. Elliot Smith's case just makes you wince. Death by stabbing is the least glamorous option possible. No gunshot, no noisy overdose, no plane crash; just a simple distillation of what suicide really is - painful and private.

Pouring over a suicidal singer-songwriter's back catalogue can be very rewarding for those parasites who are bolstered by the sad lives that some famous people lead. Unfortunately (or fortunately) these people never make it much further than wearing second-hand Nirvana T-shirts, but they would get a lot more pain out of Smith. Pain in its varying shades of grey and blue, words that seem to cut and wound the singer more than anyone else, all of it delivered in a whisper that makes one want to scream. Watch him perform 'Miss Misery' at the Oscars. He took a sad song, and made it sadder.

But for sheer discomfort and bleakness, you can't beat 'Angeles'. There's a line in it ('And be forever with my poison arms around you') which is so unnerving that every time I hear it I hope Elliot Smith is referring to the shady music biz agent this song is supposed to be about, and not to himself.

Elliot Smith - Angeles (live)


Someone's always coming around here trailing some new kill
Says I seen your picture on a hundred dollar bill
And what's a game of chance to you,
to him is one
Of real skill
So glad to meet you

Picking up the ticket shows there's money to be made
Go on and lose the gamble that's the history of the trade
Did you add up all the cards left to play to zero
And sign up with evil

Don't start me trying now u-huh u-huh u-huh
Cos I'm all over it

I could make you satisfied in everything you do
All your secret wishes could right now be coming true
And be forever with my poison arms around you
No one's gonna fool around with us
No one's gonna fool around with us
So glad to meet you

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Hold Steady: Lord, I'm Encouraged

There are some bands whose sound lends itself to adjectives like 'full', 'rich', 'robust'. The Band comes to mind straight away. So does Springsteen and the E-Street Band. Blind Faith. Everything Van Morrison did after Astral Weeks. Bob Dylan's incredible current lineup. Maybe Traffic at their peak. It has something to do with the the instruments used (try finding that sound without a piano, guitars, bass, drums at least), the vocals (honest, artifice-free) and that wonderful feeling one gets when one hears something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has nothing to do with how the band should be rated, and is a rotten way to compare bands with disparate sounds (Barenakedladies could classify as a unison band a lot easier than Radiohead, but only a pedantic bore would actually try and make that comparison).

This richness, robustness and fullness, is precisely what defines the sound of The Hold Steady. They came out with an album last year ('Stay Positive', their fourth in all) which trod over the weak hip-hop and R&B bleats populating radio circa 2008 with a sound so instantly memorable you knew you were going to be listening to it the next summer, and the next. It kicks off with the best opening lines of an album since that British group with the weird name said something about her being just seventeen - a voice boasting over a jagged guitar riff "Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life'". They follow that up later with the equally brilliant "Me and my friends are like double whiskey, coke no ice" but the point has already been made.

But as Leonard Cohen fans know in their hearts, you can say whatever you want, but you better have a sound that supports it. The Hold Steady have perfected theirs. It has a lot in common with Asbury Park-era Springsteen, with its slurred, gurgled vocals and the breadth and ambition of the music surrounding them. But there are apparent punk and classic rock influences, and nods to country and raggae as well. There are memorable shoutouts to Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer and even John Cassevates ('Slapped Actress') and some beautiful songwriting when they decide to slow down (the distressing 'Lord, I'm Discouraged').

I speak for myself (and with every successive post, I feel like I am also speaking to myself alone) when I say that this is the best album of the year gone by (I challenge impartial listeners to say 'Viva la Vida' is more memorable). I also hope I speak for the larger majority of those who like their music honest and rousing (if it still exists), when I say that this is the kind of album we would like to see more often in the future. Saving rock 'n roll is what every promising post-Nirvana band is charged with. That's small fry - on the evidence of this album, these guys could save your soul.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Magnolia and Genre

A perceptive piece about movies that refuse to subscribe to the limitations of genre. Particularly interesting is the writer's slotting of 'Magnolia' (P.T Anderson, 1999) as a unique example of a film happily co-existing in a multitude of genres at once. I came across the article after seeing the movie. It caused everything in my head to unravel and made me go right back to the movie again. Every review should do that.

Frank in his satire

Earl in his melodrama

Jim in his crime film

Claudia in her harsh drama

Jim in his romantic comedy

P.S. The author's slotting of 'The Apartment' as a film suspended between genres is also spot-on, though that's the least of the reasons why one ought to see it. No film has ever captured the essence of bitter-sweet romance in a unsympathetic world as heartbreakingly as this one.