Saturday, August 24, 2013

10 questions after Basu Bhattacharya's Anubhav

  1. Wouldn’t it have been fun if Amitabh Bachchan had played Shashi?
  2. Does Sanjeev Kumar begin to lose it at the end because he realises he’s being out-acted by Tanuja?
  3. Why don't we come up with more screenplays like this, in which adults get to act like adults?
  4. Don’t you just hate it when the only thing people can say about a film they like is “Oh, it has great songs”? 
  5. Did Nando Bhattacharya photograph anything else of note?
  6. Why is the sound sync so badly off?
  7. A homegrown reply to the new wave(s) of the 60s? (Read a related post by Jai Arjun Singh here)
  8. Could anything possibly be less appetising than Hangal giving Sanjeev Kumar a butt massage?
  9. “Mujhe Jaan Na Karo Meri Jaan” – best ever song shot on a balcony? Followed by “Door Kahin Jab Din Dhal Jaaye”?
  10. Did Vittorio De Sica’s Sunflower actually play in Bombay?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Long Goodbye

Whoever thought of getting Leigh Brackett to write The Long Goodbye (she was attached to the project before director Robert Altman) must have been hoping for a repeat of the screwball hi-jinks of The Big Sleep. Brackett had written the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ 1949 classic, which – like The Long Goodbye – was based on a Raymond Chandler detective novel. Yet, while Altman and Hawks saw the funny side of Chandler and his self-defeating but very quotable private eye Phillip Marlowe, the two films are very different in tone. The Big Sleep is the funniest of film noirs, The Long Goodbye a hip, melancholy shaggy dog story.

Elliot Gould, a graceful, shambolic presence in American fringe cinema of the ‘70s, plays Marlowe, a role immortalised by Humphrey Bogart in Hawks’ film. The plot is the usual Chandlerian yarn about Marlowe getting a case, poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, getting beaten up for his trouble, and still persisting. Altman takes this structure and, quite lovingly, satirises it. The Chandler novels and the earlier film adaptations were set in the 1940s, an era when the idea of a private eye as a modern-day knight was tenable, if not quite believable. But in 1970s, which is when Altaman’s film is set, Marlowe is an anachronism, and a bit of a joke. You can see it in the ruefulness that lurks behind Gould’s wisecracks.

Altman, as he so often does, scatters classic moments about casually – like the sequence when Gould is trying to fool his cat into thinking his favourite brand of pet food is being served. Sterling Hayden, drunk, bearded and imposing at six feet five inches, plays a Hemmingway-esque author. There’s a cameo by one Ken Sansom, rightly disappointed when his Walter Brennan impression isn’t appreciated. And audiences today will recognise a muscle-bound individual who turns up as an uncredited henchman for a few seconds. Who’d have thought, 30 years later, that this man would be governor of California and Gould would be known only as Ross and Monica’s dad from Friends? It’s an irony Marlowe would have appreciated. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chennai Express: Review

Before we begin this review, we’d like to clarify our stand on two burning issues. We do not believe that re-recording “Lungi Dance” as “Veshti Dance” will make it a better song. We do, however, think that Deepika Padukone’s Tamil accent has something to do with the cries of “Tone it down, girl” heard emanating from Mehmood’s grave.
Of course, it’s hardly fair to blame Padukone for what is basically a Hindi film viewer’s impression of a Tamilian speaking Hindi, especially when Chennai Express gets most of its laughs by trafficking in the same stereotypes. The film may be a tribute to Rajinikanth, half its dialogue may be in Tamil, but director Rohit Shetty knows that his audience is sitting squarely north of the Vindhyas. Shah Rukh Khan, the lone non-Tamilian in the film, is a stand-in for a Hindi-speaking audience. And Shetty, the son of a Karnataka action choreographer and importer of South Indian movie tropes to Bollywood, gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Furthering his commitment to playing age-appropriate characters who behave in age-inappropriate ways, Khan is a 40-year-old (probable) virgin called Rahul, whose vacation plans crumble when he helps Meena (Padukone), the absconding daughter of a Tamil don, and her pursuers, aboard the Chennai Express. The reference to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge might induce a chuckle, but then it’s repeated four times and you’re reminded that this is a Rohit Shetty joint. Soon, Meena’s minders have thrown a ticket collector off the train, and Rahul is taken to their village as the “sole witness”. There, faced with Meena’s unsympathetic father (Sathyaraj), her tree-like fiancée (Nikitin Dheer) and a village full of sickle-wielding toughs, he must either find a dictionary or the courage to fight for his love. 
Chennai Express is mild fun, if you aren’t too picky about whether you’re laughing with or at the movie. As usual, a lot will depend on how much you’re willing to indulge Shetty’s regular dialogue writers, Farhad-Sajid. No good line goes unpunished – anything remotely funny is repeated – and even Khan in motor-mouth mode can’t save their cheesier contributions. Even the “punch” dialogue – the stuff of Rajni legend – they provide is a head-scratcher. “Never underestimate the power of a common man,” Khan says over and over again. Flattery will get you nowhere.
Still, the one person everyone knows better than to underestimate is Shetty. Each of his last three films, Golmaal 3, Singham and Bol Bachchan, grossed more than Rs 100 crore at the box office. Odds are Chennai Express will do the same. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. One might look at Shetty as the bankable return that gives distributors the confidence to gamble on the Looteras and Theseuses of the world. 
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni

Soad Hosni starred in more than 80 films, became an Arab cinema icon, married four times, and finally, committed suicide in 2001. A straightforward biopic on her life would have been intriguing enough, but Lebanon-born Rania Stephan decided to go a step further. The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, which plays at Khoj Studios this fortnight, uses clips from the actor’s films, allowing Hosni to narrate her own “story”. Stephan spoke to Uday Bhatia about using an artist’s work to rewrite their life.

What made Hosni such a compelling subject for you?
I was born and raised in Lebanon, but I did my cinema studies at the University of LaTrobe in Melbourne. We studied world cinema, from Hollywood to experimental cinema, from new wave to Japanese cinema, everything except Arabic cinema. One day, I stumbled upon a Soad Hosni film at an aunt’s place. She used to watch Arabic films on VHS [tapes] that she’d borrow from the local Lebanese grocer.

I was subjugated by Soad Hosni and the film and realised that I didn’t know this popular Egyptian cinema. I decided to do my BA Honours thesis on Soad Hosni. My fascination dates from back then. Ever since, I always felt that I owed her something, because she brought me back to a cinema that spoke my language, Arabic.

What did Hosni mean to viewers of Egyptian cinema?
Soad Hosni is the symbolic daughter of modern Egypt, that of the 1952 Revolution. Her career spanned from the late ’50s until the early ’90s, a golden age of Egyptian cinema. At the time, cinema reflected the concerns at stake in society as well as issues the Revolution wanted to promote, such as mixity between girls and boys, marriage of love versus the old-fashioned arranged marriage, girls in public spheres, schools, leisure and work places. Hosni was not the only actress embodying these roles; however, her particularity stems from this unique persona she created, a mix of sensual, sweet, affectionate, naughty, cute, physical and witty, which is rare in cinema.

She was neither the stereotypical femme fatale nor the effaced girl next door. She was versatile, she could sing, dance, act as a comedian and a tragedian. The “Zoozoo” character she plays in Take Care of Zoozoo (1972) made her a star, because in representing this special mix of qualities, she epitomised the modern Arabic woman at the time.

You’ve used clips from Hosni’s films to present a portrait of the artist. What were the advantages of working in this fashion?
Soad Hosni died in a tragic manner in London in 2001. This provoked a shock wave in the Arab world. Nobody believed that “The Cinderella of the Egyptian Screen” could die. For me, it triggered the desire to make a film and pay homage to her talent.

The only person that I would have liked to meet, talk to and film was her, but she was gone. So I thought that the best way to know an actress was to investigate her body of work, to revisit it, question it, and ask, what does this material tells us? This is how the idea of using only excerpts from her films came about. It was the first fundamental principle of the film.

The second was this intuition that the use of fictional elements could create another fiction in themselves. This intuition was confirmed only when I finished editing. During the whole time, I was oscillating between great pleasure in working with images from cinema and fiction films and great anxiety, not knowing if it was going to work.

You were working on the film during your residency at Edgware, which is where Hosni died. Did that affect the way you went about making it?
The project started in 2001, right after Hosni disappeared. I started to collect the VHS material, view the films, break them down etc. The film took ten years to achieve! The Edgware Road Residency, which came in 2010, was a great opportunity to reflect on my work and further confirm my intuition – being around the place where she died – that I didn’t want to dwell on her “real” life but only deal with her filmed existence, her persona.

How did you get hold of the hundreds of clips that make up this film?
All the material comes from tapes that I brought from a local VHS store in downtown Cairo – 76 films out of the 82 of her body of work.

You were quoted in an interview as saying that the film is “a tribute to [Hosni’s] work, not about the person”. Would you argue against viewing this film as a biopic?
The film is built as a tragedy in three acts, told by a dead actress. It works on many layers. I did a lot of research about her and there are many references in the film to her “real” life. But one of the main points of the film is to show how an actress is forever stuck in her image and can’t escape it; even when she dies, it is she who cries on her dead self.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni will screen from Sat Aug 3-Sun Aug 18 at Khoj Studios. 

Chor Chor Super Chor: Review

If you’re a Deepak Dobriyal fan, you might want to skip Chor Chor Super Chor. It’s too much to take, watching him light up the screen every chance he gets and yet be reduced to mouthing lyrics like “Gaali dete hoton ko main pappi deke jod doon”. A song sequence, by the way, in which he and his friends literally abduct his crush and push her around on a moving bus. In Delhi. At night. Sometimes you have to wonder whether our filmmakers actually think about what they’re putting on screen.

Even those familiar with the post-interval self-destructiveness of our films will be surprised by the nosedive this one takes. Some crisp direction by first-timer Rajesh K sees Chor Chor Super Chor through to the interval without any major dents to its pride. Satbir (Dobriyal) is part of a gang of conmen, but wants to go straight. He meets a nice girl, gets a job dressing up as giant samosa, the usual. But once he and his former associates are exposed, he has to undo the damage by pretending – and here’s where the film loses the plot – that the cons they pulled were all a big joke.

Whether the screenwriters ran out of ideas or decided that they didn’t want to do a movie full of little cons is up for debate. Whatever the reason, by the time the film starts to skewer – or mildly poke – reality TV, it’s all over. Yet, there’s enough in that enjoyable first half to suggest that Rajesh and his crew, especially cinematographer Rakesh Haridas, have a smarter caper movie in them. As for Dobriyal, he’s the Nawazuddin who never got a break. Someone give him a proper role in a good movie.

This review appeared in Time Out.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Pope is Dead: Phil Ramone (1934-2013)

This appeared a while ago under the title 'In the Backroom of Pop' as an op-ed in Indian Express

Last week, on March 30, Phil Ramone died of a brain aneurysm at 79. If you feel like you’ve heard the name before but can’t quite remember where, go fish out your old Billy Joel or Paul Simon CDs. Chances are, one of them will have “Produced by Phil Ramone” written on the back. Four words, seen on scores of album sleeves; words that meant the difference between an unfinished thought and a hit single, a limited release and a gold record. Ramone’s fingerprints are all over rock, pop and jazz history. From the tortured sounds of Blood on the Tracks to the polished Genius Loves Company, his discography was — to borrow a phrase from another of his collaborators — river deep, mountain high.
He began as a musician himself. A violin prodigy, he moved from his native South Africa to New York and studied classical music at Juilliard. A stint as an assistant in JAC Studios was his first up-close look at the world of sound recording. In 1958, at 24, he launched his own studio, called A&R. Soon he was working as an engineer on albums by John Coltrane and Ray Charles. It was in these early years that he made one of his most famous recordings. Remember Marilyn Monroe breathily singing, “Happy Birthday Mister President” to John F. Kennedy in 1962? Phil Ramone recorded that — and received a thank-you kiss from the star later on.
An important breakthrough came via a 1964 album that paired saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Antônio Jobim with guitarist João Gilberto and his wife, a charmingly monotone singer called Astrud Gilberto. Getz/ Gilberto set off a bossa nova craze in the US and won Ramone a Grammy for Best Engineered Sound. Ramone later explained that the “hushed intensity” of songs like “The Girl from Ipanema” was achieved by miking the session as if it was a nightclub gig, huddling the musicians together and dimming the lights. Over the next few years, he’d record Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra (both of whom he’d have long associations with), Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, Paul McCartney’s Ram, Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me” and BJ Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head”.
As the 1960s came to an end, Ramone made the shift to production. When Paul Simon’s regular producer Roy Halee couldn’t make a session, Ramone oversaw the recording of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. This led to Ramone producing several key Simon albums (the two reunited on 2011’s So Beautiful or So What). More successful still was his partnership with Billy Joel. On the 1978 album The Stranger, Ramone helped the singer achieve a bigger, tougher sound. Joel, in turn, never forgot to mention his fellow New Yorker’s role in his transformation from semi-successful singer-songwriter to stadium-filling rockstar. In between, Ramone also helped Bob Dylan spill his guts on record with the alternately vitriolic and self-lacerating Blood on the Tracks.
Self-effacing though he was, Ramone’s suggestions often had a transformational effect on the tracks he engineered and produced. Talking to Alec Baldwin on the internet radio show Here’s the Thing, Joel likened working with Ramone to collaborating with a great musician. “He knows how to play the studio like we know how to play our instruments,” he said. He recalled how Ramone rescued “Only the Good Die Young” from its early avatar as a reggae number, and how he came up with the idea of a “backward samba” rhythm for “Just the Way You Are”. A similarly innovative solution was provided by Ramone for the two Duets albums Frank Sinatra recorded in the 1990s. He devised a fibre-optic system that connected singers in different locations, allowing Sinatra in Los Angeles to duet, in “real time”, with Tony Bennett in New York and Liza Minnelli in Brazil.
With 14 Grammys — 15, if you count the lifetime achievement award he received in 2005 — Ramone is one of the most successful producers of all time. Still, it’s difficult to deny that many of his clients tended to be inoffensive and radio-friendly. Unlike Phil Spector or Jerry Wexler, Ramone would never become synonymous with a particular genre of music; unlike Sam Phillips, he’d never be credited with birthing a new style. (“If you think you have a style and you perpetrate that onto people, you’re hurting the very essence of their creativity,” he said in an interview with Billboard magazine.) Even his moniker, “the Pope of Pop”, seems to connote wealth and success, rather than energy or daring.
Debates over his artistic legacy notwithstanding, Ramone’s place in music history is secure. “Am I fussy?” he asked in his 2007 memoir, Making Records. “You bet, and the music world is a better place for it.” He extended that fussiness to everyone who sought his help, from André Previn to James Morrison. That he was not just respected but loved by his collaborators is evident from the tributes that poured in after his death. “His immense talents were only surpassed by the gigantic size of his heart,” posted Quincy Jones on his website. Stevie Wonder was even more emphatic: “Truly a tragic loss for us on earth but what a wonderful blessing for heaven”. Amen.