Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grapes over wine

Listen my friends, and I'll tell you about Moby Grape. They were tremendous and tragic, sublime and perverse. They had five members - Skip Spence, Bob Mosley, Jerry Miller, Don Stevenson and Peter Lewis. Spence played guitar, sang and wrote some of their best songs. Mosley played bass and howled like a white Otis Redding. Lewis also sang, and finger-picked beautifully. Miller was responsible for some of the most stinging lead guitar in rock history, Stevenson for some of the most kinetic drumming.

It doesn't end there. All five of the Grapes sang on record and in concert; one of the particular glories of their early work is hearing all those voices colliding with each other. Their incendiary guitar interplay was almost with parallel: at the time, only Buffalo Springfield could boast of three guitars playing in tandem (and they fought so much, it was usually two). In addition, all the members of Moby Grape were song-writers, right from the first album.

There's more. Moby Grape was a failure almost as soon as its first album released, overhyped by the record companies, embroiled in legal battles, destroyed by drugs and disagreements. Spence, and later Mosley, would wander off into the thickets of schizophrenia. What makes this even sadder is that that first album, Moby Grape, was an unmitigated masterpiece. Opening with the caterwauling, almost ridiculously exuberant "Hey Grandma", it runs through r&b ("Mr Blues"), country rock ("Ain't No Use"), delicate balladry ("Someday", "8:05") and jagged, jet-propelled rock ("Indifference").

And there's "Omaha", a song that should be bracketed with "Johnny B Goode" and "She Loves You" as one of the most unstoppable, shout-it-from-the-mountaintop unhinged force of nature rock 'n roll singles ever. It's a driving, breakneck love song to friendship, centering around the repeated phrase "Listen, my friends". The Grape were a product of the '67 Summer of Love scene, and it shows in the lyrics that go from earnest ("You thought never/ but I'm yours forever/ Won't leave you ever") to poetic (No more rain/ From where we came) to carnal ("Get under the covers, yeah!/ All of your lovin'/ Beneath and above ya/ Bein' in love!) in the space of a few paragraphs. Under, beneath and above are also where the guitars are at; never breaking for a second to admire themselves or see what the others are up to. I've added both the studio version and a live one from Monterey Pop below; the latter has an extra guitar break that arrives after the famous opening riff and before the vocals arrive. It is A) as good a reason for the enduring legacy of this band as any - those few odd seconds approach a ragged perfection that many other bands wouldn't be able to touch after a dozen albums and three reunions tours - and B) so good I could weep. Which is the way I feel about Moby Grape in general, and Moby Grape, the album, in particular.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: DVD review

For the majority of its running time, this Planet of the Apes reboot makes the same mistake that Peter Jackson’s King Kong did – it bleaches the original of all its frivolity and fun. Sure, times have changed since 1968, the year Franklin J. Schaffner’s silly but enjoyable Charlton Heston-starrer released. But have viewing habits evolved to the extent that we’re now making emotionally sensitive, psychologically acute movies about apes taking over the world? It’s like someone took Chuck Berry’s advice and decided there was too much monkey business going on.

So the first hour of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is solid and unremarkable. James Franco plays scientist Will Rodman, whose experiments involving a possible cure for Alzheimer’s come crashing down when a chimp they’re testing the formula on goes berserk and is shot. After it’s discovered that she’d just given birth, Will, hit by the sort of half-baked guilt that screams “plot furthering”, adopts the baby. The chimp, who he names Caesar, grows up so smart and sensitive, you’d almost think he was human. Oh wait, he is. Andy Serkis, master of performance capture (he was Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the ape in King Kong), plays – or more accurately, acts out the movements of – Caesar. It’s still the most compelling performance in the movie – beating out Franco, Frieda Pinto as primatologist and love interest, John Lithgow as Will’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad and Brian Cox as a very bad zookeeper. Whether or not it feels like there’s too much that’s human in the monkey’s body language is something for each viewer to grapple with individually.

The film finds its mojo in the last forty-five minutes, with the now-violent Caesar in a facility and plotting an ape revolution. Director Rupert Wyatt builds to the moment when Caesar says his first word (the earlier movies had talking apes), and from that moment on it’s a breathless rush to the climactic man versus money showdown. The ending, as with every other Hollywood action movie now days, is left wide open to the possibility of a sequel. No one stands to benefit from this more than Serkis, who, with an extra feature on this DVD all to himself, is clearly being seen as the franchise’s trump card.

A version of this piece was published in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is there livestock in any of them?

Superlative short film by the Coen brothers, starring Josh Brolin's character from No Country for Old Men. "World Cinema" was part of an omnibus film called Chacun son cinema ("To Each His Own Cinema").

Monday, January 9, 2012

Every Picture Tells a Story

In Every Picture Tells a Story, song after song, Rod Stewart and band stretch for and find surprising depths of emotion. The wearing of hearts on sleeves for sustained lengths isn't common in rock ‘n roll, especially ‘70s rock. Even its rival for the other great English rock album of the ‘70s – Mott the Hoople’s Mott – relies on ironic posturing to get its horrors across. This album also seems to starts out that way, with the “Ballad of John and Yoko”-like title track and its cheerful numbering of legal scrapes and sexual conquests. But “Seems Like a Long Time” is poetry without the punchline. Soon, it becomes clear that this is an album about memory, and the consequences of holding onto it too tight.

There’s the brief distraction of “That’s All Right Mama”, a lot bluesier that Elvis’ version, followed by a slide guitar-led “Amazing Grace” and “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, a Dylan outtake that never made it onto the Freewheeling album. There’s a stately flashback, the medieval-sounding mandolin piece, “Henry’s Time”. “Maggie May” follows; this was Stewart’s big hit off this album. This story of a boy in love with a more experienced woman is wry and emotional and funny and sad, and even more interesting if you consider that there was also a popular Liverpudlian ditty about a prostitute called “Maggie May”.

The band consists of Mick Waller on drums, Pete Sears on piano, Ian McLagen on organ, Dick Powell on violin, Martell Brandy and Martin Quittenton on acoustic guitars, and Andy Pyle and Danny Thompson on bass. The only really famous musician here is Faces (and pre Rolling Stones) guitarist Ron Wood. Yet this bunch (with an uncredited Lindsay Jackson on mandolin) contribute some of the most heart-rending ensemble playing I’ve heard outside of The Chieftains or some of Van Morrison’s backing bands. It comes to a head in “Mandolin Wind”: Stewart’s voice sounds like it’s lit by a fire of regret, and the band plays around it like winter. On to the last two. Stewart's rowdy version of the Motown hit “(I Know) I’m Losing You” sounds like it’s off another album. Fortunately, the closing track, a Tim Hardin-penned number called "Reason to Believe", is the kind of finish this album deserves. “Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”, sings Stewart, sounding like he’s lived that line. The violin sympathises, as does the mandolin. The band musters up one last sigh, the singer, one last breath. They know they’ll never make music like this again.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The state of the stage

Longer-than-usual piece for Time Out Delhi's recent theatre issue.

A fortnight ago, we found ourselves sitting in the aisles of the packed Alliance Fran├žaise auditorium – even though we’d bought tickets beforehand. The show was The Weekend Cocktail, by Dramatech, one of Delhi’s busiest theatre groups. It wasn’t exactly untested material – the sources included Roald Dahl, W Somerset Maugham and Sholem Aleichem – but the troupe wasn’t taking any chances, splicing in five musical numbers. Though an unmistakably Indian twang often broke out from under their posh British accents, there was a real sense of giving the audience their 300 rupees worth.

A few days later, we were in a crowded basement in Panchsheel Park, where The Tadpole Repertory and a couple of their friends were putting on a show. The dramatic evening featured everything from skits to poetry readings, bossa nova songs and the inimitable Andrew Hoffland imitating accents of the world. Like the frequent performances Tadpole does in this basement lent to them by a friend, this was an informal gathering – a dog sat at our feet and watched proceedings, and there was hot punch to be had later.

This fortnight, we’ll be at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. Since its inception in 1999, BRM has become India’s largest, and arguably most prestigious, theatre festival. Organised by the National School of Drama, with all the intellectual heft and grand ambition you’d expect from that cultural behemoth, it has seen growth both exponential – from 58 productions in its first edition to over 100 this time around – and all-encompassing. The current edition has a primary focus on Tagore, a secondary one on Poland, includes productions from England, South Africa, Japan and France, and will bring Indian dialects like Santali and Tullu to Delhi’s stages for the first time. This is the red letter fortnight in the city’s theatre calendar.

Somewhere within the boundaries of these three productions lies Delhi theatre. There’s the old guard at Mandi House, surfacing every once in a while to remind people why they are special. There’s the sharp commercial focus of groups like Dramatech and Pierrot’s Troupe. And there are a handful of independent voices, trying to emerge from the basement. Delhi theatre is in a curious state of flux. Even as the quantum of public performances increases, the amount of new writing seems to be shrinking. Selling out a show often means selling out literally – making concessions, using hackneyed material, repeating old tricks.

It’s easy to forget while the Bharat Rang Mahotsav is on, but one gargantuan festival does not a theatre scene make. Put that festival aside, and Delhi’s theatre calendar starts to look rather bare. The only other time audiences get to see a bunch of plays from other cities is during the META festival, hosted by Habitat World. There are, of course, exceptions. Mumbai’s Akarsh Khurana brought the popular Classic Milds and The Interview to town this year. Lillete Dubey premiered the Broadway smash August: Osage County in the city where she received her first theatre training as a student in Lady Sri Ram College. Even this apparent victory was a compromise: the play was supposed to open in Mumbai, but the organisers couldn’t get bookings on the dates they wanted.

“With Prithvi in Bombay or Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, groups are assured of a theatre audience,” said writer-director Neel Chaudhuri, of the Tadpole Repertory. “With the exception of the NSD, which doesn’t lend its halls out, there is no space like that in Delhi.” That might be why Quaff Theatre omitted Delhi from its travel plans for The Real Inspector Hound. And while last year’s META brought a bouquet of great productions to town, it was unfortunate that only two plays found their way to Delhi before the festival. Chaudhuri categorised Delhi audiences as “hungry for culture, as opposed to Bangalore, Bombay and Chennai, who have actual theatre audiences.” Khurana, one of the rare frequent fliers to Delhi, was more guarded, saying he’d had satisfactory responses to his plays here. He did, however, mention a resistance to adult humour: “I remember someone at the Habitat mentioned to the management that our play [A Guy Thing] was a little vulgar. Since then, I’ve been a little cautious of doing stuff of that nature, or jokes that are a little political, over here.”

Even if we assume there are local playwrights too wary of audiences to actually publish, there’s no denying the paucity of original scripts currently emanating from Delhi. In the three editions of Writer’s Bloc in Mumbai, an annual forum for emerging playwrights to interact and come up with new work, Chaudhuri remains the sole Delhi writer to have been invited. It’s also telling that in each of the last two editions of META, only one Delhi play has made it to the final list of nominees (Tripurari Sharma’s Roop Aroop in 2010; Arvind Gaur’s Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, written by Rajesh Kumar, in 2011). Syed Alam, founder of Pierrot’s Troupe, recalled how different the scene was in his native Aligarh. “There, every play had to be original, contemporary, topical, otherwise it was not liked by the students,” he said. “Delhi theatre is suffering from intellectual bankruptcy. Everyone just does adaptations.”

While Pierrot’s Troupe is guilty of a couple of adaptations itself (Big B, Tale of the Taj), it does balance this out by presenting original dramatic work like the Tom Alter-starrer Ghalib and the impressive solo piece 1947. It’s also one of the few local groups that can afford to pay its members a salary. They’re a successful group by Delhi standards, alternating historical dramas and broad comedies; and unlike Arvind Gaur’s comparably industrious Asmita, they come with little socio-political baggage. “People here need to stop giving these social messages,” Alam said. “As long as you’re not doing burlesques, if you’re staging something and charging people for it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Both Alam and Chaudhuri stressed the importance of entering theatre with the awareness that it isn’t really a paying proposition. “I don’t see how people can realistically be expecting to earn a living from theatre,” Chaudhuri said. “I think it’s something you can foresee and work towards, but for that, you have to have something special and you have to toil, and I don’t think people are willing to do that.”

Set against this gathering gloom is NSD Director Anuradha Kapur’s assertion that the theatre scene in Delhi is amongst the most forward-looking in the country. “There are a lot of young people here who are trying to find alternate spaces, alternate ways of expressions,” she said, mentioning Aditee Biswas, Zuleikha Chaudhari and The Tadpole Repertory as examples of Delhi artists doing interesting work. She did admit that Delhi’s output of fresh plays had fallen, and that Bangalore had raced ahead in that respect. “Abhishek [Majumdar], Ram Ganesh [Kamatham], they have the pulse of the language,” she said. Kapur also voiced a concern about Delhi theatre suffering from a lack of internal communication. That’s probably an understatement; at present, there’s hardly any collaboration between playwrights and directors from Delhi’s different theatre circles, and no common platform (such as a Delhi festival) that might bring them together.

Still, Delhi theatre has made some important strides in recent years. For one, it’s started the difficult but necessary journey out of Mandi House. It’s begun to push an audience used to getting culture for free to part with the kind of money they’d pay for a movie ticket. There’s exciting work in new media, dance theatre and puppetry (Anurupa Roy in particular has gained a name across India for her puppet shows). And now, in addition to Bharat Rang Mahotsav and META, there are the idiosyncratic Ibsen and Short+Sweet festivals to look forward to – the former organised by Nissar and Amal Allana, the latter an offshoot of an international festival that began in Australia a decade ago and made its India debut here in 2010.

Perhaps what’s needed now is a dedicated venue like Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara, though it might be worth asking whether we have the material to currently sustain a place like that. Alam pointed to the ever-increasing number of public shows in Delhi as a positive. “We’re doing good, bad and average plays,” he said, “and to survive, you need to do good, bad and average plays. You also have to do many plays.” Forty-eight years ago, Ebrahim Alkazi directed a now-legendary production of Andha Yug against the backdrop of Feroz Shah Kotla. Bhanu Bharti’s recent staging of the play in October this year at the same site was, in a way, Delhi theatre’s salute to itself. With some luck, it might also prove to be a bookend for one Delhi theatre era, and the beginning of another, even more fascinating one.