Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sach is life...

...and I'm envious of whoever at Neo Cricket came up with that line. It is unerringly, undeniably, unbelievably accurate on so many levels that one might argue that it's a summation of life itself. Or life in India. Or my life.

Years later, when they ask, tell them this is what you saw...

Monday, February 22, 2010


Ok. Posting directly to ze blog, so if punctuation and spelling go awry, don't say I didn't tell you. Also warning all that I am determined to work in a Robert Frost poem and a Warren Zevon song somewhere. No particular reason. If I find anything linking the two during the course of writing this, I'll let you know. Or you let me know. All good?

First off then, Funny People, long-awaited, released 2009. Judd Apatow's last, Knocked Up, was a warm, perceptive look at that part of the male psyche that never wants to grow up and never wants to abandon his guy friends, cloaked in the guise of a warm, perceptive, borderline-disgusting romantic comedy. Funny People takes the bitterness and bite that existed on the fringes of Knocked Up and builds an uncomfortable world around it. The stand-up comics in this movie compete for everything - applause, wealth, sexual and social standing. Like everything Apatow has done its bitingly funny, and for the first time there are no safety nets. Seth Rogen's friends in Knocked Up may be shallow, but they never abandon him. In this movie, it's literally every man for himself, whether he be a millionaire or someone working at Otto's diner, in need of compassion or a few decent jokes.

Ultimately, the movie is about missed chances, and how we romanticize them, and how they may not be worth crying over after all. The soundtrack may or may not be a reflection of this, depending on how much depth you credit Apatow and his music in-charge with. Included are songs from the solo careers of all four Beatles, as if to say, this is what you are capable of on your own, so stop wondering about what may have been and count your blessings. Articulating this even better is a Warren Zevon number off his final album. Its called 'Numb as a statue' and I'm assuming you're all going to rush off and hear it immediately (though in the off chance that you aren't, I'll re-print the lyrics below and add
a video link. I can do no more).

I'm numb as a statue
I may have to beg, borrow or steal
Some feelings from you
So I can have some feelings too

I'm pale as a ghost
You know what I love about you
That's what I need the most
I'm gonna beg, borrow or steal
Some feelings from you
I'm gonna beg, borrow or steal
So I can have some feelings too

I don't care if it's superficial
You don't have to dig down deep
Just bring enough for the ritual
Get here before I fall asleep

Ain't nothing special
When the present meets the past
I've always taken care of business
I've paid my first and last

And while we're on missed chances - 'What fifty said', Robert Frost. That line about giving up fire for form. Sigh. Exactly.

When I was young my teachers were the old
I gave up fire for form till I was cold
I suffered like a metal being cast
I went to school to age to learn the past

Now I am old my teachers are the young
What can't be molded must be cracked and sprung
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture
I go to school to youth to learn the future

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Notes on 'The Fallen Idol'

Carol Reed is justly famous as the director of the classic ‘The Third Man’. Set in post- World War II Vienna and starring Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles in a movie-stealing cameo, its noir shadings cast their influence far and wide (and, as Scorcese’s The Departed demonstrates, they still reverberate). The casting of Welles, though, had the unfortunate after-effect of people questioning Reed’s artistry and his role in the ultimate shaping of the film. Welles was never one to shy away from credit and many critics were over-eager to see his hand in every aspect of the film, right from its script to its marvellous use of light and shadow. This is part of the reason why ‘The Fallen Idol’, directed by Reed and released a year before Kane is such an important film for those looking to restore his reputation as a genuine auteur of the highest degree.

Like ‘The Third Man’, ‘The Fallen Idol’ was also was a collaboration with Graham Greene (Greene would also write the script for Reed’s ‘Our Man in Havana’). The story concerns the desperately sincere attempts of a little boy to shield his beloved butler, the titular ‘idol’, who he believes is guilty of murder. Though the camera takes a third-person stance, we are mostly seeing the tale through the boy’s eyes, resulting in a fascinating twist on Hitchcock’s ‘wrong man’ films. Under Reed’s direction, the remarkably clever script plays out like a miniature neo-noir thriller. Rarely depending on the night to provide darkness, he exposes the danger lurking in everyday lives - like a visit to the zoo, or the young boy’s fascination with snakes.

This material may actually have worked well as mid-period Hitchcock, though I believe it would have fallen short in one respect. Hitchcock, chronicler of phobias, ever mistrustful of the human race, would have had to reach somewhere very deep inside to create the warmth between boy and butler, something which Reed does beautifully. A great director of young actors, he coaxes something special out of Bobby Henry here, even though he later noted “A child of eight can't act. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create a role. But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him". When I first read that remark, it immediately reminded me of Spielberg, that other fine director of young actors, and it was no surprise when I later found that Carol Reed had been an important influence on him.

The butler, Baines, is played by a doyen of the stage and screen, British actor Ralph Richardson. His vocation requires him to keep his manner measured at all times, which makes it even stranger the manner in which Richardson convinces us, minutes into the movie, of why his character is deserving of such unquestioning idolatry. His precise line readings amplify the nuances in Greene’s script, which is, as befits a slumming novelist, ever-sensitive to the small gesture. As his character gets further and further embroiled, one expects Baines to take it out on the boy. But he never gets cross, never cracks under pressure, and wins our sympathy all the more for it.

One reason this movie works so well is that there is barely a wasted scene in its entire running length. One scene in particular, half way into the movie, stands out for me as a perfect balance of plot furthering, social commentary, subtle class comedy and suspense. After a midnight run through London which is every bit as visually expressive and suspenseful as the famous stalking sequence in ‘The Third Man’, Phillip is brought to the station by a kindly policeman. The officers there try and get him to talk, but instead he goes to the nearest thing to a mother figure in there, a street walker brought in for questioning. Her attempts to try and talk to him are hilarious because she’s obviously forgotten how to carry on a conversation without propositioning someone. It is fitting that the scene ends with a remark concerning a character’s implied infidelity. It’s a seemingly throwaway moment, but on closer inspection illuminates the irony at the centre of the movie - how betrayals carried out without the intent to betray can be more dangerous than the regular ones.

Monday, February 8, 2010


When the camel finally shuffled off his mortal coil, he went, like all good camels, to heaven. Expressionless, he continued on his upward journey until he reached the pearly gates. God was waiting there. He looked exactly like everyone pictured him. His voice was deep and full of finality.

"Camel. You know why you are here. I am extremely pleased with the way you have conducted yourself. You have been, in all respects, an exemplary camel. Is there anything you wish for, which might make your stay here more memorable?"

The camel looked him up and down, face still impassive. After a long pause, he cleared his throat and spoke in measured tones.

"I've seen this before. You're not real. You're just a mirage"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ishqiya and Language

In years to come, Ishqiya may prove to be an extremely earthy quantum leap, both in terms of authentic dialogue writing and Censor Board permissiveness. I have never heard a fairly mainstream Bollywood movie curse as loudly and inventively as this one (Dev D recently did the same in English, but Hindi is obviously another matter). And the fact that the censor board let it all hang out is a great sign.

"Ped tale padenge aur nadiya kinare hagenge" Nasseruddin Shah tells a beaming Arshad Warsi. This is after everyone in the movie has called each other 'ch*****' (including the heroine, which is almost certainly without precendent, unless you include arthouse fare) and a pizza delivery guy has gone 'be*******d'. All this comes courtesy scriptwriter Vishal Bharadwaj, whose small-town thugs in Omkara cursed in a similar vein, but with less frequency. When Saif said 'ch******' in that movie it caused a seismic wave of shock and amusement and dissproval. Half the people wanted to ban it, the other half said that it was that one line which made the movie for them. It also demonstrated the dangers of having one single potent curse in an entire movie. The curse, as we saw so clearly with Omkara, became the talking point. Which would serve no purpose, because any new kid on the block can shock your pants off with a judiciously placed expletive. What's difficult is blending these expletives so thoroughly into the grammar of the protagonists that they do not stick out. The day someone in a Hindi film curses and no one notices (like Sahni saab on the bus in Khosla) - that day we would have made some real progress.

The only way our films will sound authentic is if they embrace the grammar of their protagonists. Nearly all the better films of the last decade or so have tried to move towards more accurate speech patterns, from the uber-cool retorts of Dil Chahta Hai to the authentic gangster argot in Satya to the middle-class Punjabi family in Khosla ka Ghosla. Ishqiya, with the first clearly enunciated 'be*******d' in living memory, may just have kicked open a very important door.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mrigya Live

Mrigya, India's best fusion band (with the possible exception of the Raghu Dixt Project), plays the DLF Promenade, Vasant Kunj, Delhi on Friday evening. I first heard this band play ten years ago, on a bitter cold night in North Campus. We were at Crossroads, SRCC's annual fest, to see some blighted fashion show of sorts. We didn't know about Mrigya then, but they got our attention as soon as they started. They had a sinuous, seductive sound; stately and yet never devoid of energy. Disparate styles melded together until it all became too difficult to classify, and a bit pointless as well. One song in particular stuck on in my memory. It started out with a jazz vocalist taking the stage, only to be joined later by a sufi singer for an audacious jugalbandi, with the band running through everything from rock to raag to jazz and blues. It sounds radical - and of course it is - but that night, the way they played it, it made perfect sense.

P.S. They also have their debut album out. If you miss the concert, buy the album. Trust me, these guys know what they're playing.