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.