Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010: The Year in Review

I've restricted myself to whatever I can recall from this filmic year without double-checks, this in the hope that memories strong enough not to require the crutch of Google are the ones that are ultimately important. In order, then...

Ishqiya, with each its characters more foul-mouthed than the next, played out like a Vishal Bharadwaj movie crossed with a Western and shorn of beauty. Vidya Balan was unsettling, and Arshad Warsi, looking at everything with kohl-edged eyes, was as good as everyone suspected he might be.

Karthik Calling Karthik was the underrated film of the year. Its secrets laid bare by halftime, the last half hour was a surprisingly poignant look at whether it is possible, in this wired age, for a man to disconnect.

Love Sex aur Dhoka was shot on digital, and the coldness of the technology found an echo in the lack of overall human feeling that ended up making the whole enterprise seem like a slightly sadistic prank. But there's tremendous control displayed by Banerjee, and a conflicted, strangely moving performance by Raj Kumar Yadav.

For those who remember their childhood as a time of doubt and humiliation, Udaan was the real 400 Blows. Ronit Roy's performance was a reminder that Bollywood's lack of good roles often gets mistaken for a lack of good actors.

A Single Man barely ran a week, but whoever saw it, raved. The cinematography was astonishing, as were the sets, as was Firth's performance.

Raavan looked stunning, and were it not for its two unredeemable lead performances, might have been a half-decent film. As the pursuing police inspector, Vikram was a lot scarier than Bachchan, whose role should have been played by Ravi Kishan.

The fact that Peepli Live had a month-long media blitz on the very channels it so caustically sent up was a slice of irony missed, or ignored, by all concerned. The film was black, black, funny and black.

Tere Bin Laden was the only comedy this year that took its job seriously. Everyone else tried to make a statement, TBL just made people laugh.

Inception bent spoons and, for some strange reason, divided the critical community down the middle.

The Social Network will go down as a late entry in the screwball comedy canon.

These ones didn't release, but...

Remember the ten minutes or so of Ray Liotta's really, really bad day in Goodfellas? That's every second of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Nicholas Cage atones for a decade's worth of irrelevant films.

Emma Stone in Easy A was this year's Juno.

Music-wise...did anything happen? Vampire Weekend's second was as strong as their first. K'Naan's The Troubadour I loved. The National's High Violet sounded like autumn. Eminem did a couple of decent songs and more importantly, stayed alive. Clapton's album was mellow, perhaps a bit lukewarm. Gaga, Perry, Swift, "New York State of Mind", K$sha - who cares? I heard more music than ever, but hardly anything recent. It was a bleah year.

Who knows where time goes? ¡Felíz año nuevo anyway. Keep warm.

His fearful trip is done

Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, died a few days back. His idiosyncratic sound influenced everyone from post-punkers to Lester Bangs to Tom Waits. Here's a Guardian obit, but the man's weirdness/greatness is best judged when it's played out loud. Start at the deep end with Trout Mask Replica. If you recover, try the Mirror Man Sessions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ten Reasons to Love The Wild Bunch

1. "Why not?"

2. The Treasure of Sierra Madre haunts it

3. John Woo's entire aesthetic's here

4. Peckinpah was as wild as any of those guys onscreen

5. "We're after men, and I wish to God I was with them"

6. How in the world did he film that bridge collapsing?

7. Robert Ryan is so crazy he had to die within the first twenty minutes

8. Warren Oates being denied the bottle

9. Never underestimates a child's capacity for cruelty

10. Ernest Borgnine's face just before the final shootout

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro on page

When Jai Arjun Singh was approached by Harper Collins, his first thought was to do a book on the Kamal Hassan-starrer Pushpak. However, it took one mention of Kundan Shah’s 1983 comedy by commissioning editor Saugata Mukherjee to change his mind. “I realised this would be a compelling film to write about,” Singh said in an interview. “With Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, you just know there’d be an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Coincidentally, I’d just seen the film for the first time as an adult a few weeks back, after a gap of 17-18 years.”

While Singh does drop a warning coda early on in the book (“It is difficult to describe this film to someone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand”) chances are most of his readers would be familiar with this, Hindi cinema’s ultimate cult film. Nearly two decades after its release, fans still quote its absurdist lines, discuss the philosophical implications of Satish Shah’s highly entertaining corpse, and write mini-theses on the Marxist (Groucho Marxist) Mahabhratha sequence. Even dedicated viewers of the film, though, should find plenty that’s new in this breezy (yet thorough) piecing together of how the film fell into place. Singh speaks to most of the major players – among others, director Kundan Shah, screenwriter Ranjit Kapoor, actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani and Om Puri – and uses their first-hand reports to illuminate why the movie played out the way it did.

While Singh had written about this film on his blog Jabberwock, he decided to approach his first full-length by not “pre-deciding how the book was going to be. I decided I’d keep my mind open and if something interesting came up during the research process, I’d go with it,” he said. He stressed how different the film might have turned out if the script hadn’t been through multiple iterations, and the crew hadn’t been receptive to new ideas while shooting. Shah’s original English script had a talking gorilla and Anupam Kher playing an inept hitman called “Disco Killer”. These ideas were shot and subsequently dropped, as were many others, notes Singh in a fascinating chapter entitled “Outtakes from the Shadow Films”. This was as much due to the vision of the filmmakers and the legendary scissor-fingers of editor Renu Saluja (her contribution, along with Shah and Kapoor, is singled out by the author as most vital to the film) as it was to NFDC tax regulations, which stipulated that movies shorter than 2 hours 25 minutes fell under a different slab (Yaaro clocks in at 2 hours, 24 minutes).

The more one reads Singh’s book, the more one is struck by the fact that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro may not only be one of India’s best-loved comedies, but also the encapsulation of the possibilities of a moment when a supremely talented bunch of individuals decided to collaborate on a project that seemed jinxed from day one. Its cast and crew reads like a non-mainstream honour roll – besides those mentioned above, Pankaj Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Sudhir Mishra and Vidhu Vinod Chopra were all involved with the production – and Singh cites not only FTII, where the director and most of the actors studied, but also NSD, of which Ranjit Kapoor and Robin Das, the art director, were alumni, as important founding grounds for the film.

What makes Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro all the more unique is the fact that it has proved surprisingly resistant to imitation. When asked why, Singh mused “I don’t know if it’s too mystical to suggest that when Shah and Kapoor came together, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Maybe other directors didn’t have the same sensibility. Or maybe some did, but didn’t have a crew that was on the same wavelength.” In such a situation, what might Yaaro’s legacy be? The book points in some surprising directions. Sudhir Mishra, for instance, remarks how the harrowing scene where two cops beat up Shiney Ahuja’s character in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi had, to his mind, an undercurrent of black humour that was a result of his having worked on Shah’s film. Singh also mentioned Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City and Peepli Live as films possessing the same absurdist comic outlook. Ultimately, though, the best analogy for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s ethereal lightness, and well as its elusiveness, can be found in Akhtar Mirza’s advice to Shah: “Your script is like snow, so it’s floating. If you put all this logic into it, it will become ice and sink.”

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Two thumbs up for emotional writing. Two down for Wikipedia's reputation as a unbiased source. These are the site's concluding words on the Jessica Lal murder case:
"Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani...alleged that the High Court Bench had made up its mind to hold Sharma guilty. Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium submitted that there was sufficient evidence against Manu Sharma for his involvement in the crime. Yay."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bari Theke Paliye: DVD Review

Bari Theke Paliye is often described as India’s The 400 Blows, even though Truffaut’s masterpiece was released in 1959, a year after Ritwik Ghatak’s film. While the basic storylines - a delinquent boy runs away from home - are similar, the two films make an interesting study in contrasts. Ghatak’s protagonist is younger than Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, more of a Bengali Huckleberry Finn in his resourcefulness and cheerful defiance of authority. Bari Theke Paliye is a lot starker than Truffaut’s film – by the time it is done, the runaway has had to deal with hunger, poverty and death. But the most crucial, and least deserved, point of contrast is this: Truffaut’s film kicked off the French New Wave and is one of the most revered in film history, while Ghatak’s is a neglected masterpiece, little-known even in its country of origin.

This neglect is evident from the first frame; the picture jumps around alarmingly, and the quality of the image cries out for restoration. Even through the murk, Ghatak’s singular vision shines through. Kanchan (Param Bharak Lahiri, in one of the greatest-ever performances by a child actor) is irritated by the dampening effect his professor-dad’s disciplinary ways have on his shenanigans. He runs off, leaving his village home for the big city of Calcutta, vowing to make enough money to support his doting mother. With no money, friends or relatives, things look bleak until he’s befriended by a good-hearted trickster named Haridas (Kali Bannerjee). Ghatak incisively hones in on the distracted nature of children; even though Haridas is his best chance for survival, Kanchan keeps wandering off to have adventures.

Ghatak was just two films old when he made Bari Theke Paliye. In the coming years, he would go on to make some of the starkest films ever to come out of Bengal (or India, or anywhere) in Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. This film too has its strident moments – Ghatak’s startling overlays of sound and image, for example (and a tribute to their intellectual source – a brief visual homage to Battleship Potemkin’s famous image of an old woman with broken spectacles). But the mood on the whole is one of lessons learnt, and of hard-won forgiveness. The cinematography by Dinen Gupta is as heartfelt a tribute to Calcutta in the ’50s as Henri Decae’s in The 400 Blows was to Paris. The score, courtesy Salil Chowdhury, is another source of wonder, shifting from sitars and flutes to orchestras to emphasise the character’s journey from village to town. The director’s decision to construct the second half as a series of short vignettes upsets the film’s rhythm somewhat; the ends of some scenes feel like they’ve been loped off. But that’s a minor quibble. Bari Theke Paliye translates as The Runaway; given the relative obscurity of its status, it should have been The One That Got Away.

This review was published in Time Out Delhi.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What might have been

Movie buffs ceaselessly cast and recast the movies they see. Salon's outrageous piece inspired me to do some replacing of my own.

1. Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train
Granger wrecks every Hitchcock film he's in (he's awful in Rope as well), and in this one, Robert Walker's silky pyschopath runs rings around his quavering, ineffectual tennis player wimp. Hitchcock might have been served better by going with the other actor rumoured to have been considered for Granger's part - William Holden. The handsome soullessness he displayed in Sunset Boulevard would have been just the right quality for this role, something to make the audience doubt whether he actually wanted his ex-wife dead or not.

2. John Mills in Great Expectations
Simply too old to be a twentysomething Pip. It fairly ruined the film for me, despite all that lovely camerawork and Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. Replacement would have to be Brit, and young at the time. How about Marius Goring, the ernest conductor in The Red Shoes?

3. Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code
Hanks is one my all-time favourites, but he lacked energy and a certain Indiana Jones-ness in this movie. A terrific replacement, to my mind, would be the talented Hugh Laurie, who's proved more than capable of putting on an American accent when required.

4. Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood
PT Anderson is almost as good a caster as his friend, Quiten Tarantino, this is the only role I can recall where I feel he slipped up. Dano tries hard, but Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is monstrously powerful, and Eli ends up seeming weak. Edward Norton would have fit the bill a lot better in my book (though he's a bit old). And how about Jesse Eisenberg?

5. Richard Gere in Days of Heaven
It's a magical, painterly film, but Gere doesn't make half the impact he should, and Sam Shepard's low-key performance overtakes his easily. John Travolta, originally considered for the role, might have brought more charisma to the table, as might Jeff Bridges, or even (I'm going out on a limb) Kevin Costner.

6. Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-Wai had had some success with casting pop stars in lead roles before (most notably Faye Wong in Chungking Express). It backfired, however, with the beautiful but visibly nervous Norah Jones in this, his only English-language film. Cat Power's chemistry with Jude Law in a small cameo indicates that Kar-Wai may have cast the wrong smoky-voiced singer in the lead role. Natalie Portman (there's also Rachel Weisz, in case you think this film could accomodate any more astoundingly beautiful women), stealing scenes like a professional thief, would have done even better.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Let it all hang out

Just about the funniest song I've ever heard. This is the 1967 original by The Hombres.

A John Mellencamp cover of the same. Adds little in terms of musical value, but the video is sexy and hilarious, qualities that make it a perfect fit for this song.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ace in the Hole

Those who appreciated Peepli Live’s vision of a cannibalistic media feeding off one man’s tragedy will find Ace in the Hole an intriguing companion piece. Made over half a century ago, this movie stars Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter forced to work for a small-town newspaper, who sees his ticket back to the “big league” in a man stuck in a cave collapse. Newspapermen – whether muckraking or crusading – were the basis for some of Hollywood’s best pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s; this movie is no exception.

As Chuck Tatum, Douglas is as enterprising and ruthless a leading man as Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He gambles with the victim’s fate, forcing the rescue team to drill instead of shoring up the walls because it would mean more time for him to whip up a media frenzy. He also strikes deals with the crooked sheriff, and the trapped man’s wife, who, in a way, is also trapped. The film intersperses the increasing despair of the man inside the cave with a savage indictment of society at large, as hundreds of tourists turn the sleepy town into a capitalistic carnival. The media’s attitude, meanwhile, can be summed up in Douglas’ practical assessment of the situation: “One man [trapped] is better than 84…that’s human interest.”

This hardboiled outlook will come as no surprise to those familiar with director Billy Wilder’s films. His black comedies took aim at those aspects of life that America held dear – corporate zeal, the institution of marriage – and turned them inside out. His leads were often unsympathetic; Fred MacMurray helps an adulterous wife murder her husband in Double Indemnity, and in Sunset Blvd, William Holden is a kept man who leads on an ageing star. Ace in the Hole may be the sharpest of them all, the grainy darkness of the dust-covered faces matched every step of the way by the blackness of the humour.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi. Also, an earlier post of mine on Peepli Live.

Monday, October 25, 2010

If you like your poetry hardboiled...

"And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about that forty grand"

(Out of the Past, 1947. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Script by Daniel Mainwaring, who also went by Geoffrey Homes, important in this case because a certain Geoffrey Homes wrote Build My Gallows High, the novel on which the film is based)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts on the CWG closing ceremony (even as it continues to continue)

  • Why are they singing English songs?
  • Why is Shiamak singing at all?
  • Why did they resurrect the ghost of Usha Uthup?
  • Why does Kalmadi give such long speeches?
  • At least they aren't messing around with intricate classical dance moves that no one can see from the stands...
  • ...or large laser-generated outlines of people doing yoga
  • Maybe there's a level of self-understanding that set in post-opening ceremony that made them say, look, this is us. We are Indians, and we are best at large-scale synchronised dances set to a medley of random film songs. All that talk about showcasing culture and heritage was a way to spend the ginormously inflated budgets that we were given to...well, to do exactly those things. But that's the past. Today, we sing, we dance, we rationalise

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Canis lupus

An excerpt from an interview with Jason Schwartzman, who describes his favourite scene from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Its mine as well. It comes out of nowhere and plays like an old Disney scene, full of wonder and an elemental sense of fear. Also, as Schwartzman tells us, it has an uncredited contribution by Bill Murray.

Q: What is your favorite part of the movie?
JS: I love this one part of the movie, but it’s in the end. What should I do in this situation? Can I tell it anyway?

Q: I think it’s okay.
JS: Well, okay. I’m just gonna say it. There’s a scene at the end of the movie when George Clooney’s character, myself, my cousin and the opossum, Kylie, are all on a little motorcycle driving back to our home. And we’ve just rescued my cousin. And we stop and we see a wolf on a distant hill, and it’s a really beautiful, beautiful scene. It’s like so heart-warming because it’s just a beautiful moment between these foxes and little animals and this really like mysterious wolf who we’ve heard about the entire movie and who doesn’t talk in this scene and he’s not wearing clothes. He’s kind of, he represents I guess, the wild. He’s a wild wolf and animal, and it’s a beautiful moment where they have this great connection, and in that moment, it really like to me the point of that scene is let’s keep on being free. Let’s keep on being animals. And it’s such an uplifting moment, and like when I’ve seen it with audiences, a bunch of people break into huge cheers and hooting. It’s such an awesome, awesome scene. It really just blows my mind.

And actually, when we did the movie, you know, we did the movie basically live together as a cast. We didn’t do the scenes, none of us really did it separately in recording booths, which is how typical animated movies are done. This one, Wes Andersen had us literally go and move onto a farm together and we all lived together. And we’d wake up in the morning, have breakfast and then if there was a scene, for instance, that took place underneath a tree, George Clooney and Bill Murray, everyone, would walk over to the tree that we’d find, we’d take our scripts out and we’d just start acting out the scenes. And it was basically like doing a movie just with no cameras. So there were actors, the director, Wes, and a sound man. And we were running around, growling and hooting and hollering, and if we had to eat a bunch of food like in the movie we always are eating like French toast or biscuits, we would literally be eating French toast and biscuits and toast, I mean it was so much fun.

Anyways, one day when we were doing this particular scene with this wolf, we were all about to shoot it and then Wes said, you know we should really get someone to play the wolf so that the guys have someone to act opposite, and we looked around and Bill Murray was standing there with his hands in his pockets. He took his hands out and said, “I can be the wolf.” And Bill Murray just took off running, or I guess trotting. And he ran, ran, ran, ran really far away until he was tiny. And he turned around and actually became the wolf, like he, it’s almost as if he embodied the wolf. And he acted it out for us, and it was so inspiring and so beautiful. And Wes actually took out his camera phone, filmed it, and then sent that footage to the animators to base the wolf off of Bill Murray, so Bill Murray is the uncredited wolf in this movie. And he actually, it was so good, it was as if he practiced it. I mean, it was incredible, his wolf performance. So, I think because of what the scene means, what it represents in the movie and the great warm message that it has in the scene, plus knowing the behind the scenes, what went into that scene, I think that’s my favorite scene in the movie.

Full interview here

Superman: DVD Review

Some movies are better viewed young. As we grow older, we become less susceptible, more jaded. We start to pick holes in our childhood fantasies. Superman is great for picking holes in. For starters, it’s very, very square. The screenplay is turgid, despite having names like Mario Puzo (Godfather) and Robert Benton and David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) attached to its earlier drafts; characters say things like “I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” The adolescent Clark Kent looks very little like the older one. The scenes on Krypton are stagey and visually unimpressive. And no matter what Marlon Brando does as Jor-El, Superman’s father, all you can see is that ridiculous wig.

Superman was always the square one – the all-American superhero mothers wanted their daughters to bring home. Batman was a brooder, Spiderman was a troubled teen, Superman was blander than bread. It’s a miracle that Christopher Reeve manages to make Superman so appealing without deviating from the original template. His belief in the character pulls the audience along. The movie’s original marketing hook was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. What Reeve does is even more impressive, because he makes you believe it while decked in bright red underpants. Thirty-two years after Superman’s release, this much is clear: his performance makes the movie. It’s also fair to point out that some of the flying scenes still look pretty nifty, and that Margo Kidder is a hoot as Lois Lane.

If you’re the kind who values footnotes as much as the novel, you’ll enjoy the bonus features included. There are three documentaries: one on Superman’s pre-production, another on its development, the third concerning its visual effects. Reeve, Kidder, principal villain Gene Hackman and gravel-voiced director Richard Donner all turn up to reminisce. Also included is Reeve’s screen test, proof that he had the character down from the very beginning. The commentary track, though, is a rather dubious error – the disc advertises one by the director, instead we get producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind, who fired him after he’d shot a major portion of Superman II. Apart from that, it’s an interesting glance at a movie which, for better or worse, set the standards by which future comic book flicks would be judged.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Away We Go: DVD Review

Ever since he debuted with American Beauty in 1999, Sam Mendes has, in his polished way, spent his career taking different aspects of American life apart in films like Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Now, with Away We Go, he’s given himself a chance to deconstruct his own process. By doing something that few big-ticket directors ever come around to – making a small movie, writer-led and not dependent on stars, as he states in a making-of segment – Mendes is pushing himself to see whether his art remains relevant when one removes the advantages that Hollywood affords.

Burt and Verona, unmarried but very much in love, are expecting their first child. When Burt’s parents, their reason for being in Denver, inform them that they’re going abroad for a few years, the couple sets off on a cross-country trip to find a place they can call home. The film subscribes to a brand of deadpan eccentricism pioneered by Mendes’ own American Beauty and more recently, Little Miss Sunshine. Nearly everyone Burt and Verona meet is more than a little unhinged, from a mother who calls her daughter a dyke and asks her to do a “tough-girl walk”, to another who believes that strollers are evil. While the supporting players are all talented (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Dianels, Allison Janney) there’s no real sympathy for any of their characters, and the scenes involving them end up a compendium of outlandish, if inventively humorous, situations.

The leads, though, are fleshed out beautifully. It helps that the writing team – writer and columnist Dave Eggers and novelist Vendela Vida – are husband and wife. They have a great ear for the speech patterns of married people, with all the assurances given and compromises made from sentence to sentence. John Krasinski is funny and endearing as Burt, a bearded, bespectacled, supportive square. And fans of Saturday Night Live will find Maya Rudolph’s performance as Verona a revelation. With Krasinki the more animated of the two, she sails just under the radar, her unconventional-by-Hollywood-standards face registering half smiles and occasional panic. These two are the main reason Mendes’ film ends up being touching and relatable, when it might otherwise have been ironic or arch. Included are a nice set of bonus features, including interviews with cast and crew, audio commentary by the writers and director, and a segment on how everyone who worked on this film tried to keep the process eco-friendly.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

I Confess

I Confess may fall short of the sombre power summoned by Hitchcock in The Wrong Man, released three years after it. Yet, as the making-of featurette points out, these two films are of the same feather, and ought to be grouped together. Both are shot in black and white. Both are austere by Hitchcock’s standards. Both lack his trademark playfulness, which may have something to do with the fact that religion, a subject rarely given to humour, is a big part of both these films.

Father Logan, a priest in the Canadian town of Quebec, hears a confession of murder. He is barred by the rules of his faith from telling anybody, and matters become even worse when the evidence starts to point towards him and he becomes a suspect in the case. Montgomery Clift plays Father Logan as a man whose faith is so unwavering, it could cost him his life. Though Hitch was no fan of method acting (he never believed in instructing actors beyond a point) this doesn’t seem to have affected Clift’s performance. His face betrays only the tiniest signs of emotion as he finds himself further and further enmeshed, unsurprising in an actor who knew a thing two about keeping a secret (he hid his homosexuality from the public to protect his career).

The supporting players are very good as well, especially OE Hasse as the frightened, desperate killer, and Karl Malden, taking down his usual blustery style a notch, as a detective who’s convinced of Logan’s guilt. Bleak from start to finish, I Confess is a film that grips rather than thrills. In a key moment, the murderer tells the priest that he would be doing him a favour by killing him, because his life is so empty. Hitchcock doesn’t follow up on that insinuation here, but it obviously intrigued him enough to explore more fully in The Wrong Man, the implications of emotional deadness.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Zangoora - The Gypsy Prince: Theatre Review

What do you get when you cross two soapstars, a dancer, three directors, the latter half of Salim-Javed, a hall with giant LED screens, an infinite numbers of dancers and a flying witch? The next big Abbas-Mustan release, you might say, and you’d only be half wrong. All of this adds up to Kingdom of Dreams’ new production Zangoora - The Gypsy Prince, billed as the “world’s biggest live Bollywood musical”. One assumes that they have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams in mind when they say “world’s biggest” because it’s India’s only. Zangoora goes where no Indian theatrical production has had the money, inclination or imagination (you can argue on which combination of the three) to go before.

Funny then, that it all felt so familiar. You realise the makers really meant what they said when they promised “Bollywood on stage”. The directors, Vikranth Pawar, Darshan Jariwala and David Freeman, seem to have decided that since there was already 80 years of popular Hindi cinema to choose from, why risk untried material? So you have Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in charge of the music, but there’s just one original song; the rest are all interpretations of older hits (of which only one, a sinister version of the previously sunny “Chaand Taare”, sounds markedly different from the original). The makers play on the familiarity of cultural signposts; “Chura Liya Hai” is still seductive, “Mehbooba O Mehbooba” still has tents in the background. It was hardly surprising to hear the hero’s mother say “Iss din ke liye paal pos kar bada kiya hai? [Did I bring you up to have to see this day?]”. When you play to the gallery, there are no points given for originality.

The story exists mainly as a hook to hang songs on. It unfolds like this: kindly royal couple is killed by scheming minister, their infant son spirited away by loyal courtier. Son is left at gypsy camp where a couple pronounces him a sign from God. Grows up to be Zangoora; is loved by all but especially by fellow gypsy Laachi. Fly in her ointment comes in form of visiting princess whom Zangoora is smitten by. Many, many dances later, loyal courtier returns to tell Zangoora the “truth”, rest is about prince reclaiming his “destiny” and choosing between two women throwing themselves at him. The dialogues (Javed Akhtar might have been better employed here than on script duty), familiar riffs that involve heroes saying “I don’t understand who I am” and heroines saying “Bachao [Help]”, skirt banality. Luckily, there are dances, aerial sequences, magic tricks and other impressive distractions every ten minutes or so.

Though they may not admit it, the sheer scale of the production may have left the directors with little choice but to go with the tried and tested. And it’s all credit to them that they imbued it with as much energy as they did. There were 20-odd dance numbers in Zangoora, and almost every one of them was thrilling, ecstatic fun. The choreography by Shiamak Davar used the massive stage to good effect, adding line after line of dancers until the bodies were a moving tapestry and each song a mini-crescendo. Giant LED screens created backdrops for the action that gave a 3D-like effect. This effect was overwhelming in its sheer scale, even when the animation wasn’t up to scratch. It also allowed the makers to create scenes like the courtier galloping across the desert without having to get an actual horse on stage (though if that had to happen anywhere, you’d bet on Kingdom of Dreams).

Zangoora was played by TV actor Hussain Kuwajerwala, whose dancing abilities (he won season two of Nach Baliye) must have gone a long way towards winning him the role. Limited to weepy TV melodramas for most of his career, he seemed to enjoy playing a larger-than-life hero who dances, lip-synchs, fights, romances and takes off his shirt (let the record show a six-pack). The two leading ladies were just as much fun. Gauhar Khan, pegged as an item girl despite an excellent performance in last year’s Rocket Singh, played Laachi with stares withering and hips slithering. And television actress Kashmira Irani gave Princess Sonali a sense of humour and an appealing coquettishness. The rest of the performers hammed it up, all except Savita Kundra as the wicked witch Chambuti; her shrieking laugh was all the more impressive when one took into account that her entire performance was conducted in mid-air, suspended by wires.

In the end, Zangoora works as spectacle (not as theatre, sadly) largely because the makers had a venue like Nautanki Mahal and enough visual sense to know how to use it. Sheer economics should rule out potential imitators, even if India’s first attempt at a quasi-Broadway musical is a hit (audience reaction seemed to suggest it might). The real test will be the extended run its creators have planned. Theatrical productions in India run for a week or two at most. If Zangoora breaks the one month barrier, this might be the point when this fairy tale-mimicking production starts becoming an actual one.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

The Wrong Man

Tell us if you’ve heard the story before. An honest man, trying to make ends meet, is picked up by the police. They tell him that he matches the description of a man who’s been conducting hold-ups in the neighbourhood. He accompanies them back to the station, and things start to unravel. He is identified by two witnesses as the criminal, his handwriting is a match as well. He is put in jail, insisting all the while that he is innocent. In another story, he might have been a faceless victim in a Kafkaesque nightmare; here he is Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man.

The “wrong man” theme was one of Hitchcock’s favourites – he had already used variations on it in a number of his movies. However, as the director himself warns in the narrated opening, The Wrong Man differs significantly from what one might expect from a Hitchcock film. It is based on a true story, and remains faithful to it. There are no MacGuffins. No black humour. No toying with the audience. The tone is somber, often harrowing. Regular collaborator Robert Burks, shooting in black and white, keeps the camera trained on the stricken face of Fonda, while Bernard Hermann contributes a moody, modal score. This austerity, combined with the Catholic references of the second half, reminds one of a Robert Bresson film – even though it’s hard to imagine two directors more dissimilar.

Released in 1956, The Wrong Man was one of Hitchcock’s best-received films. Its impression on the French was especially strong. Godard, then a critic, wrote a lengthy piece about it which invoked everyone from Murnau to Dreyer to Griffith; Truffaut declared it “probably his best film till now” (this in 1957, with Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Rear Window behind him). Having gotten it out of his system, Hitchcock never returned to this unironic, spare style. His next “mistaken identity” movie was North by Northwest, a caper so entertaining as to seem light-years removed from The Wrong Man.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Angel: DVD Review

What is it that drew Francois Ozon, director of sensual character studies like Water Drops on Burning Rocks and Swimming Pool, to romance novelist Elizabeth Taylor? Angel, his first English-language feature, is based on her novel of the same name and set in Edwardian England. Angel Deverell starts the movie as schoolgirl who dreams of becoming a writer. A couple of reels and one sympathetic publisher later, her dream is on its way to being fulfilled. The only problem is that by now everyone dislikes her – the other characters, the audience, and most surprisingly, the film itself.

What do you do with a lead character who is self-absorbed, shallow, vain, manipulative and melodramatic? Liking her is out of the question, though one might have respected her if she had talent to back her spunk. However, even here the film seems to suggest that she’s little more than a hack. Still, the camera refuses to leave her. She’s in almost every frame, the undeserving cynosure of everyone’s eyes. The more we will the movie to dig deeper – to explain her motivations and give us a reason to sympathise – the more it pushes its Mills and Boons agenda.

The cast does their best – a quiet Sam Neill as the publisher, a wasted Charlotte Rampling as his wife. Michael
Fassbender, playing her love interest, has a cruel glint in his eye reminiscent of a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Ramola Garai, meanwhile, has the thankless job of playing a lead character who, as she admits in the cast interview included as a bonus feature, is far from admirable. She tries hard, but it’s a losing battle, what with her own film setting her up from the beginning.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Fables of the Reconstruction: Reissue Review

An album review I did for Time Out Delhi. I leapt on it because it was R.E.M and if you think this review sounds generous, I assure you I was holding back. In a happier, more R.E.M-literate Delhi, I would have written a straight rave. And try and get your hands on the Reckoning reissue, it has a bonus live disc that's just one long glorious garage-punk set.

It’s been 25 years since Fables of the Reconstruction first confused R.E.M fans who expected them to continue in the direction established by their debut Murmur, or its follow-up Reckoning. These two albums set the template for that early R.E.M sound – guitar-driven folk-rock with a hint of punk, mumbled vocals by Michael Stipe, gorgeous three-part harmonies and elliptical, evocative lyrics. Fables broke this template in ways that expanded on the band’s sound even as they departed from it. Now, the I.R.S label, home for their first five albums, is reissuing Fables (and the rest of their catalogue, to coincide with each record’s silver anniversary).

This album, with Joe Boyd (Fairport Covention, Nick Drake) on board as producer, is described by guitarist Peter Buck in his liner notes as a “doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, a nightmarish mix of scratchy guitars, strings, and Stipe’s insistent voice telling you about a “Man Ray kind of sky”. This feeling of unease runs through the album, in songs like the creepy “Old Man Kensey” and the hurtling rockers “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” and “Life and How to Live it”. There’s also the flat-out weird soul-funk pastiche “Can’t get there from here”.

There are, however, moments that are more easily identifiable as R.E.M. “Driver 8” is a perfect encapsulation of their early jangly sound. “Green Grow the Rushes” combines Peter Buck’s unmistakable Rickenbacker sound with obliquely political songwriting that would grow more strident on their next few albums. "Good advices" appears to be a happier flipside to "Camera", a song off Reckoning which would have fit right in with this album's haunted, off-kilter universe. And the album closer, “Wendell Gee”, is a country ballad, complete with banjo and the sublime backing vocals of bassist Mike Mills.

The reissue comes with a bonus disc of demos. All the songs on Fables get a run through, and the band must have been well-prepared by the time they performed them, because they differ very little from the finished product. Still, fans will probably appreciate the bare bones versions of “Auctioneer” and “Kahoutek”, as well as two discarded songs - the enjoyably daft “Bandwagon” (a different version from the one on Dead Letter Office) and a number called “Throw Those Trolls Away”. Fables of the Reconstruction may not be R.E.M’s greatest album, but it’s an experiment that is brilliant in flashes and intriguing throughout – and coming from by a band that can list Radiohead, Coldplay, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain amongst its admirers, that should be enough.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is cross-listing bad for the soul?

A version of this post did not appear in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Unishe April: Review

Though Hirer Angti was his first film, Rituparna Ghosh truly arrived on the national scene with Unishe April. A loose remake of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, it won Best Film and Best Actress (Debashree Roy) at the 1994 National Awards. Like its acclaimed inspiration, at the heart of the film is the relationship between a famous, talented mother and the daughter who she neglects. The similarities end here - Ghosh’s approach may be spare, but it’s hardly as stark or unforgiving as the Swedish maestro’s.

Sarojini, a dancer utterly devoted to her craft, keeps her daughter Aditi at arm’s length. Aditi, having lost her father to a heart attack and her mother to dance, is the bhadralok version of a rebellious teen: she is studying to be a doctor, and gets on her mother’s nerves by being excessively polite. Early on in Unishe April, Sarojini learns that she’s been selected for a prestigious award, resulting in her making immediate travel plans. This triggers off Aditi’s long-repressed feelings of abandonment, and when her mother unexpectedly returns that night, the resentment spills over.

Ghosh displays great assuredness for someone at the start of his filmmaking career. He patiently layers long, dialogue-heavy scenes one onto another, until the cumulative effect starts to show its power. At times one wishes that the visual flourishes – like the beautiful first shot where the camera pans away from the dancers, or the silhouette of Aditi lit by a single candle - were more frequent. The performances, however, keep one from straying. Roy gives Aditi a complexity often missing in such roles – her change in demeanour from the time she demands that her boyfriend call her long-distance to her break-down when he does, underlines the illusory nature of control. And Aparna Sen goes from affected to affecting as her character’s past is illuminated. Films made in this country often have teary endings, but few earn them the way this one does.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Odd Couple

In all its incarnations on stage and screen, the definitive Odd Couple is inarguably Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (other combinations have included the likes of Martin Short and Eugene Levy, and Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane). Matthau, part of the original Broadway production, reprised his role as Oscar Madison, and Lemmon replaced Art Carney. It was a dream pairing - Lemmon’s natural fussiness as an actor was a hilarious contrast to Matthau’s brusqueness. Their chemistry has the crackle of a Bogart-Bacall exchange: no wonder we never see their wives in the movie.

Screenwriter Neil Simon adapted his own play for this 1968 movie. Felix is a worrywart, an obsessive neat-freak, who’s recently been divorced; Oscar, also a divorcee and concerned about his friend’s well-being, invites him to stay at his place. But the two are oil and water, and we watch as they start to get on each other nerves. Rounding out the cast are their poker buddies and two very giggly women.

Even though Gene Saks is the man in charge, it’s obvious who the real director is –Simon’s script. With the exception of Lemmon clearing his nose in the diner, every laugh is derived from it - the wit on display is never visual. The on-screen movement remains constricted, as if the camera and the actors had been given a fixed space and told not to move beyond it. One wishes that someone like Billy Wilder, who was originally offered the chance to direct, had had a go at it. As it stands, it feels stillborn, like watching a very funny play on film. The Odd Couple is great theatre, but not necessarily great cinema.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Being There

An outrageous piece of punning transforms Chance, the gardener, into Chauncy Gardener. As often happens in movies, he is pushed into outlandish situations (like advising the president on economic policy), and though its clear he’s talking rubbish, everyone around decides that he is brilliant. “You have the gift of being natural”, he is told by Melvyn Douglas’ character, a dying king-maker whose wife brings Chance (played by Peter Sellers) home after inadvertently injuring him. Natural, sure, but at what price interesting?

Chance is of the same ilk as characters like Forrest Gump and Rizvan Khan, but he has nothing of their charm, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the viewer to forge any sort of connect with him. In fact, the only character who comes close to engaging the audience’s sympathies is Shirley MacLaine as a sad widow-to-be. It’s almost degrading when she throws herself at Chance - one just cannot see where the attraction lies. Chance isn’t enterprising, or funny, or perceptive – he just walks around making vague pronouncements, and inexplicably, the world is his stooge. But that’s a movie world, and those watching this in the real one may ask themselves exactly why they have to pretend to be so stupid.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Unstructured thoughts on Peepli Live

Even in the years before it gained a cult following, this much was clear about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron - the builder-politician nexus was just a smokescreen. The film’s real target was a larger, equally malfunctioning entity – India. Two decades later, Peepli Live, even though it is set in a village and looks at the specific problems of its inhabitants, is aiming at that same target, which is both changed and unchanging. Is it depressing to think that the same issues Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron provoked people into laughing about in 1983 – political opportunism, media manipulation, the crushed spirit of the average citizen – feel so of-the-moment when raised by Peepli Live today? It should be.

It’s a premise both audacious and completely probable. Natha, a farmer unable to feed himself and his family, decides to commit suicide with the misguided notion that the government will pay his family one lakh rupees in compensation. However, the media gets wind of this story and puts his ‘live suicide’ attempt on primetime. From then on, the decision of whether he will live or not is virtually taken out of his hands by TRP-crazed journalists and power brokers at different points along the political chain. The media sets up fort in Peepli and follows Natha everywhere, even to the fields to catch him during his early morning business.

There are times when the film is reminiscent of The Gods Must Be Crazy, but there’s at least one significant difference. That film sailed along on the helium of the supposed ‘innocence’ of the bushmen, while in Peepli, no one is completely innocent. Buddhia, Natha’s brother, and the one who plants the suicide idea in his head, certainly isn’t. Even Natha isn’t especially naïve; you always get the feeling he knows that something is wrong but before he can put his finger on it someone else has said something new and confusing. I liked that the director refrained from showing the villagers as necessarily nobler than the urban folk who invade their village (and also from employing the canard that they’d be happy if only they were left alone). It leaves the decision about whom to like and dislike up to the viewer, in a way that most films in the recent past haven’t. I found myself drawn to the character of Rakesh, a small-town journalist who badly wants to impress the imperious English-speaking reporter who breaks the story. Also fascinating was the near-wordless farmer who keeps digging (for reasons I am unable to explain, he reminded me of the master swordsman from Seven Samurai).

Peepli differs on a couple of counts from most of the breakthrough Hindi films of the past few years. For one, it focuses on a people whom mainstream cinema has less and less time for today. Though it may seem callous, I don’t think one can condemn this trend – one which started mid ‘90s and picked up steam in the aughts. If anything, it’s an accurate reflection of literate society’s urban bent of mind. If talented filmmakers are choosing to tell stories set in urban India, they’re simply making films about subject matter they’re familiar with. That may not be very civic-minded, but decades of making films that were set in a rural milieu didn’t do much for the people there either. If the truth is that there’s an ever-widening gulf between village and city life, then this urban bias on the part of movies is simply art imitating life (and also going where the money is).

The second way Peepli differs these films like Omakra, Dev D, recently Udaan, is stylistically. While these films employ considerable cinematic high-jinks to get their stories told, Peepli is unobtrusive by comparison. Apart from the occasional cranked-up frame for comic effect, Peepli refrains from showy camera movements or dramatic lighting. Instead of dazzling audiences, it seems content to wait and watch as events unfold. There are few moments of beauty – no waving fields, or villagers ‘forgetting their troubles’ and dancing, and Ghar aaja pardesi-type sentimentality to emphasise a return to roots. The structure was almost orchestral – moments of stillness broken by flurries of movement, every character an instrument contributing to the larger sound.

Where does Peepli’s ending – with Natha escaping his village and finding work far away in the big city, as a labourer in a construction site – leave us, the audience (maybe I should say urban audience)? Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron had an unhappy ending too, but it was played for laughs. Peepli doesn’t – a sign, perhaps, as to how the makers really saw the project. Rizvi had said in an interview that she’d be happy if her audience was made uncomfortable by her film. I think Peepli Live is ultimately a bit too successful in inducing the laughs to leave a lasting feeling of unease with its viewers. That’s hardly an indictment – the laughs earned by this movie are of a rare sort, in that they stem from understatement, not exaggeration. Peepli Live’s humour taps into something that is uniquely Indian; it flies in the face of the widely-held belief that humour is the truth narrated in a funny manner. Out here, it could simply be the truth. Our crazy country takes care of the rest.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fancast #5: Beta Band/ Dirty Projectors/ Feelies

The Beta Band

The ultimate rainy day band. A mishmash of styles - folkie strumming, subdued harmonies, new age bleeps and blips, drum machines, chipmunk noises, the occasional rap, and a tendency to gravitate towards movements like the second half of "Hey Jude" - all held together by sad-sounding melodies. It sounds terrible written down like this. Its the most originial thing you're likely to hear.

Album to hear: The 3 EPs

The Dirty Projectors

Demented arty pop, with the most suprising harmonies ever. They sound like a grapefruit.

Album to hear: Bitte Orca

The Feelies

Strum, mumble, churn. Like a cross between R.E.M and The Velvet Underground. For some people, that's enough said.

Album to hear: The Good Earth

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Umberto D.

In the 1930s and ’40s, a group of filmmakers in Italy decided, in the words of one of their practitioners, to show the world their rags. Neorealismo, or Italian neorealism, favoured natural locations to studio sets, untrained actors to matinee idols, and were a key influence on the French New Wave and Indian cinema’s golden era of the ’50s. Vittorio De Sica was perhaps the most representative of this genre, and Umberto D. was one of his most critically successful films (though it never won at Cannes, as the DVD cover erroneously claims).

Like most of his movies, it’s a simple tale – Umberto Dominigo Ferrari, a pensioner down on his luck, is evicted by his landlady and wanders around Rome in search of money, shelter and companionship. His only friend is his dog Flike, a mongrel with “intelligent eyes”. It’s a Chaplainesque conceit, but De Sica denies his main character the charm that could have turned this story into saccharine. Umberto, played by non-professional actor Carlo Battisti, turns his piercing gaze outward on the world (inward as well, in a heartbreaking moment when he almost considers begging) and receives in return occasional pity, but mostly indifference and contempt.

His mood darkens as the film progresses, and the general feeling of hopelessness is complemented by GR Aldo’s camerawork, which takes us, via the dog pound and the hospital, on what is decidedly not a Roman holiday. The film, however, is let down badly by the score. Too melodramatic for a film of this nature, sweeping when it ought to have be spare, it compromises De Sica’s approach by making the viewer feel manipulated into feeling sympathy. Apart from this, Umberto D. manages to remain clear-eyed and unforgiving.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Canceling stamps at the University of Ghana post office

There's a strong element of faddishness involved in declaring oneself a fan of 'world music'. But that's the label 'Canceling stamps at the University of Ghana post office' would probably fall under, and how can one not be a fan of its effortless buoyant charm? For a listen, and a nice write-up, stamp here...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A certain tendency of Indian cinema

You know that feeling when you’ve been waiting a long time for a storm to come? How every time the wind picks up, you think it’s arrived, but then the clouds clear up and it’s hot again. And then, one day, you know it’s arrived. Its not even there, yet you know for sure. This is that time for Indian cinema.

It’s been getting clearer, at first with every passing year, now with even more regularity. It is all falling into place; visions are getting surer, scripts are getting tighter. A few years ago, it might have been impossible to pace a film like Karthik Calling Karthik the way it was done, with the potential twist done away with in the middle, and the lucrative prospect of a thriller sacrificed for a meditative, rewarding second half. Filmmakers are learning to relax, make films in a minor key. If you were disappointed by the absence of a climax in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance or Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, its likely you were looking to play by a rulebook that hasn’t quite been thrown out, but has begun to be wilfully misplaced.

In the midst of these gathering winds comes Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, its very title a provocation to take flight. And make no mistake, the stakes are high now. Every blow which Ronit Roy strikes in this film, he strikes for orthodoxy, for respect demanded without being earned, for sons following their fathers. And every time Rajat Barmecha picks himself up, he does it because something within is telling him it’s important that he do his own thing. It is this instinct that led Anurag Kashyap on the uneven path from Paanch to No Smoking to Dev D. It’s this instinct that must have led him to see the same drive in Motwane, and clear the way for the young director the way Vishal Bharadwaj has done for him earlier. One must also note that Kashyap producing Udaan or Bharadwaj producing No Smoking is hardly something that smacks of a sound business decision. If motives must be implied, let it be put down to a burgeoning sense of collective responsibility to not let this precious momentum flag.

The first generation of Indian filmmakers who grew up in the post-cable TV era borrowed the gloss and bombast of movies made outside this country, but ended up attaching them to the same old stories. In a way, these were the necessary practice years: the industry sharpened its technical skills, while audiences waited for original stories and people who could see things through without making the whole experience seem compromised. When the stories finally started to arrive, and screenwriters with a ear for everyday dialogue like Jaideep Sahni found the correct key to pitch them in, things began to fall into place. They found their champions in an increasingly demanding and discerning multiplex audience, and on the internet, where a new breed of critics were emerging, cine-literate, candid, equally at home with Resnais and Ratnam.

Udaan was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes film festival, one of the few Indian films to have done so. That this honour came to fall on a debutante director is even more exciting - one wonders what might happen if directors such as Vishal Bharadwaj or Dibakar Banerjee take this as a gauntlet thrown down. Udaan is also reminiscent of another very well-known film, with similar subject matter and protagonist, shot in a similar grainy style. That film, of course, was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a lyrical meditation which marked the beginning of the most influential of film movements, the French New Wave. Is it a coincidence that the key scene in both movies is a long triumphant run? Or that Motwane choose to end his film the same way Truffaut did: with a freeze-frame of the young protagonist? One way or the other, it really doesn’t matter. What’s important is to acknowledge this: something is up. It’s been a long time coming, but the air is full of it now. It could start raining anytime.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Catch-22: DVD Review

After the resounding success of 1967’s The Graduate, it wasn’t surprising that Mike Nichols felt encouraged to take on Catch-22, one of the most celebrated American novels of 20th century. It seemed like a good fit as well - Joseph Heller’s novel about a bombardier named Yossarian who is increasingly frustrated in his attempts to escape the war has a blackly comic outlook that seemed allied to Nichols’ sensibilities. The shoot that followed, however, was anything but smooth.

The all-star cast (Alan Arkin, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles) spent six frustrating months on an island with Nichols trying to recreate World War II and cinematographer David Watkin insisting that they only shoot between 2 and 3 in the afternoon because of the quality of light there. One AD leaned out too far from his helicopter and fell to his death while shooting one of the aerial sequences. Heller’s novel also proved stubbornly resistant to transfer. Key characters were dropped, back stories condensed. The end result, pitched somewhere between broad comedy and graphic depictions of war, was possible to follow if one had read the novel, but only just.

Despite its distinctive blanched look and convincing turns from Alan Arkin as Yossarian and Jon Voight as Milo Minderbinder, Catch-22 today appears too anxious to live up to its famous source and ends up looking like an uncertain shadow. Film lovers and Nichols enthusiasts though, should consider buying this for the illuminating audio commentary, conducted as a conversation between Nichols and director Steven Soderbergh. Besides being a fascinating look into the nuts and bolts of making a major studio movie, it is also a lesson in humility, with Nichols admitting, “I could have scored it, I could have used a warmer actor for Yossarian, and most of all, I could have made it for half what it cost…there was a certain arrogance in all that.”

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Prairie Home Companion: Review

Of all the renegade filmmakers who emerged from Hollywood in the ’70s - Coppolla, Scorcese, Spielberg, dePalma – the one with the least amount of commercial success was probably Robert Altman. Yet, few directors have seen such adulation from amongst their own, and his idiosyncratic influence can be seen in films as varied as Magnolia and Monsoon Wedding. A Prairie Home Companion was his last film (he died the same year it was released), and in many ways, it feels like the final film of a great director – a summation of personal style that also functions as a gently comic look at mortality.

A Prairie Home Companion is an actual radio show that broadcasts from St Paul, Minnesota. It is hosted by Garrison Keillor and features a mix of musical numbers, vignettes and fake jingles. In this film, scripted by and starring Keillor himself, the show is about to be closed down by the sponsors. Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a radio programme, this film is also Altman’s way of orienting us with his views on impending death and how a true artist should deal with it.

Trademark Altman touches - an ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue - lend this film an off-kilter feel that recalls some of his best work (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs Miller). The cast, replete with Oscar nominees, is charming. Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly are performers on the show (and do their own singing), while Keillor plays himself. Tommy Lee Jones is a morose corporate hitman and Kevin Kline is hilarious as a cut-rate Raymond Chandler-esque private eye fascinated by Virginia Mardsen, who is credited as “Dangerous Woman”. Watching all these actors bounce off each other, with their constant movement from backstage to live-on-air choreographed as intricately as a dance, one is left to conclude that Altman never lost his powers till the very end.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Six from Steely

I think when I'm 60 years old I'm going to be listening to Mark Knopfler, Paul Simon and Steely Dan. I can't believe it took me so long to hear a single damn song of Dan's, and I credit my buying their boxed set as one of the better impulse purchases I've made over the past few years.

The Boston Rag

Greil Marcus described it as ‘inexplicably apocalyptic’ I can’t think of a better description for this song. The savage guitar stabs that accompany almost every line are played by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the only (semi) permanent guitarist to ever play with the band (Fagen and Becker decided after a couple of albums to disband the original lineup and work exclusively with studio musicians).

Kid Charlemagne

For those bordering-on-gospel backing vocals that are so unexpected that every time you hear the chorus, it’s a surprise. And the brainiest of solos, courtesy Larry Carlton.

Any Major Dude Would Tell You That

Steely Dan has a reputation as a dense, difficult band (and they can be that as well, musically at least), but so many of their tunes have moments that belie this; simple, melodic progressions that seem as natural as an arpeggio. The piano figure that follows the chorus in this song is one of them.

Any World (That I’m Welcome To)

“Perhaps I'll find in my head/ What my heart is saying/ A vision of a child returning/ A kingdom where the sky is burning/ Honey I will be there/ Yes I’ll be there”. Their most affecting song. A plea to escape one’s roots, upbringing, neighbourhood, country...who knows, except that it sounds desperate. Those who know their rock history will note that that’s Hal Blaine on drums.

Sign in Stranger

I guess it isn’t the most obvious of pairings, but doesn’t Warren Zevon and Steely Dan together make great sense? Both have a cynical, blackly humourous edge to their writing, both compose jagged pop songs backed by great sidemen. “Sign in Stranger” is typical Dan: genuinely funny, yet also dripping with unsubstantiated menace.

Time Out of Mind

The reason I like this track so much is because a) Mark Knopfler is on it and b) it sounds like everyone concerned must have had a great time making it (a ridiculous assumption, since everything down to the last beat in this song is so meticulous that it must have taken 48 takes and Knopfler threatening to set fire to his guitar before it got done).

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Battleship Potemkin

The year is 1905. Stretching before us are the great steps of Odessa, where townspeople have gathered to support the mutineers who have rebelled against their Tsarist officers and taken over a battleship. The atmosphere is joyous, all smiles and waves. Suddenly, the crowd starts running. At first we don’t see why, but then a line of Cossack soldiers comes into view, guns at the ready. They fire at the crowd. A woman is shot at point-blank range, a child is trampled on. Thus unfolds The Battleship Potemkin’s most famous sequence; manipulative, vivid, controversial till this day.

Released in 1925, The Battleship Potemkin was Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatisation of the unsuccessful anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1905. Sailors aboard a battleship refuse to eat maggot-infested meat and revolt. They take control of the battleship and later use it to blow up the enemy stronghold. The theory of Soviet montage is used to great effect here, with contrasting images of innocence and brutality presented in a series of rapid cuts. Predictably, it was labelled propagandist in the West and banned. There may have been more than an element of jealousy involved - the Americans and the British would make their own “war films” in years to come, none as stirring as this.

Sacred cow status aside, is there a good reason to see Potemkin today? Its methods of audience manipulation (personalise protagonist, dehumanise antagonist is always handy) have long since become part of cinema’s DNA. Montage was radical then, now it’s a Nike commercial. The Odessa steps sequence has been parodied and imitated in films ranging from Woody Allen’s Bananas to De Palma’s The Untouchables. 85 years after its release, there’s little that Battleship Potemkin can still teach us. Neither was this a film made to entertain. One might end up watching it for the same reason one visits monuments of old - to seek out the foundation of everything that came up after it.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.