Monday, April 28, 2014

Master of Shadows: VK Murthy

What do we love when we love Guru Dutt? Most people simply love the films – Mr and Mrs 55 and Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool. Some direct their affection more specifically; at Abrar Alvi's writing, perhaps, or the idea of Dutt as a self-defeating romantic. Myself, when I say I love Guru Dutt, what I actually mean is that I love VK Murthy.

The only time I saw Murthy, who died last week at age 90 at his home in Bangalore, was when he travelled to Delhi in 2010 to accept the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. This is the highest cinematic honour in the country, and till then had only gone to actors, directors, producers and musicians. Not only was Murthy the first cinematographer to be given this honour, he was also the first awardee from any technical department. It’s fitting that he was the one to break this glass ceiling, for he was the only Indian cameraman whose name transcended the narrow boundaries of cinephilia. Put another way, a regular cinemagoer who’s never heard of Subrata Mitra may just have heard of VK Murthy.

His early years were spent learning the violin, watching movies for free courtesy a cousin who worked as an accompanist for silent films, briefly taking part in the Quit India Movement and learning cinematography at SJ Polytechnic in Bangalore. In 1947, he got a job assisting the great Fali Mistry, first at Laxmi, then at Famous Studio. It was there, on a film called Baazi (1951), that he got his big break. V Ratra, cousin of the film’s star Dev Anand, was the lead cinematographer, but Murthy – as he recalled in an interview with Raqs Media Collective – was doing “lighting, camera placement, operation – everything”. One day, the director, a moon-faced former roommate of Anand’s, was pondering over a camera angle for “Suno Gajar Kya Gaaye”. Murthy offered an elegant solution, the shot was successful, and the director – unknown but utterly ambitious – sought Murthy out and told him that they’d work together on his next film. And so it was that a 16-second shot in a little-remembered song in a minor film launched the twin legend of Murthy and Guru Dutt.

True to his word, Dutt hired Murthy as lead cameraperson on Jaal (1952). As in Baazi, there’s a strong noir feel to the lighting in this film, with large portions of the screen shrouded in darkness and patterned shadows everywhere. Aar-Paar (1953) was both a continuation and an improvement: Murthy’s increasing mastery of light and shade transforms one basic chase sequence into a mini-masterpiece. Murthy’s other great glory was the song sequence. In “Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni” from Jaal, the camera practically sighs as it dollies toward and away from Dev Anand and Geeta Bali. And the dramatic tracking shots at the beginning of “Babuji Dheere Chalna” in Aar-Paar are a precursor to the mujra in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, one of the great dance sequences in Indian cinema. Murthy attributed his success at filming dance to his musical training, though Dutt’s background as a choreographer probably came in handy as well.

While rushing through the Jaal shoot, Guru Dutt told Murthy that he’d soon do a film for the two of them, which Murthy could take his time over. That film turned out to be Pyaasa (1957), which established Dutt as the world-weariest hero of all time and Murthy as Gregg Toland to his Orson Welles (though there’s more Robert Krasker in his approach). There are sequences to admire in Pyaasa, and there are sequences to fall in love with: the barely-lit scene by the railway tracks, the haunting images of “Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye Toh Kya Hai”, the dramatic resurrection of Dutt at the end. It could have been a career high for both men, but there was more to come.

Get any two Murthy fans talking and chances are the conversation will veer towards a breathless discussion of ‘that shot’. It occurs during the “Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam” sequence from Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), when Dutt’s director meets his protégé and unrequited love Waheeda Rehman in an empty studio. The song starts out in near-total darkness, but then a strange beam of light shines down and falls between the two, emphasising their separation. (Murthy achieved the effect with two mirrors; one outside the studio to catch the light, the other bouncing it towards the floor.) In a moment of wishful fantasy, their shadows walk towards the beam. Murthy then binds the characters in a brief, heart-rending 180-degree pan, before reality intrudes and they walk away from each other. It’s one of the greatest cinematic what-ifs ever filmed.

In Nasreen Munni Kabir’s 1989 documentary In Search of Guru Dutt, Murthy relates how their signature look became so popular that other directors asked him to shoot in ‘Guru Dutt style’. But was the style Dutt’s or Murthy’s? The answer to this sort of question is usually found in the director’s films with other cinematographers, but Dutt never made a film without Murthy (if one counts Baazi as a Murthy film that Ratra got credit for). And Murthy’s work with other directors is a mixed bag. His colour films for journeyman Pramod Chakravorty are understandably uninspired. On the other hand, Raj Khosla’s C.I.D (1956) has some beautiful outdoor photography, while Tamas, a 1987 mini-series by his former student Govind Nihalani, utilises his penchant for dark hues and filming movement.

Ultimately, Murthy needed Dutt’s vision as much as the director needed his eye. In his declining years, interviewers would ply him for details about how Dutt ‘really was’, and he’d trot out the same answers he’d always given. Perhaps he understood that their stories would always be intertwined, like Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, or Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks. As he admitted in Kabir’s film, one of his first thoughts upon hearing of Dutt’s death at age 39 was “My technique is also gone with him.” Luckily, it hadn’t. Whether they know it or not, every time someone’s thanking Guru Dutt, they’re also thanking VK Murthy.

This is a slightly expanded version of a piece that appeared in BLink.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2 States: Review

2 States may as well have been called 2 Films. At times, it’s an engaging love story with one foot in the real world and the other in Dharma Production land. But more often, it’s a dialled-up-to-11, take-no-prisoners melodrama featuring outsize caricatures who may as well be wearing signs that say “Chetan Bhagat just wants everyone to get along”. Bhagat wrote the novel Abhishek Varman’s film is based on, and, like all his work, it’s a homily wrapped in a middle-class drama. What’s surprising is that even with all its clichés and easy reductions, 2 States isn’t a total loss.  

Arjun Kapoor, who usually acts like he’s on uppers, reins himself in admirably to play an IIT-going-on-IIM wallflower. His Krish meets overachieving Ananya (Alia Bhat) over sambar and rasgullas in the canteen. They like each other pretty much off the bat, and though Ananya has to make the first, second and third move, they’re soon a very handsy couple. By the time their MBA is over, they’ve decided to get married. The only problem is, he’s Punjabi, she’s Tamilian, and both their families have major 1950s-size hang-ups about this.

So Krish goes to Chennai to woo Ananya’s family, Ananya travels to Delhi to return the favour, both families make a joint trip to Goa, and the film rapidly devolves into Ekta Kapoor Meets The Parents. Unlike Vicky Donor, where the Punjabi-Bengali divide was addressed in a fast, hilarious ten minutes, 2 States plods on with the regional caricaturing long past the time it’s funny or instructive. Do we really need another film which tells us that Punjabis are loud, uneducated, money-minded and dowry-obsessed, or that Tamilians are snobbish, effete and bookish? I happen to be part-Punjabi, part-Tamil, which basically meant that I winced through three-quarters of the film.

Yet, 2 States keeps pulling itself back from the brink, often with small, simple scenes, like the one in which Krish, son of an alcoholic, watches his potential father-in-law mellow over a drink. Kapoor seems happy to come across as a beat behind Bhatt, who gives her character a whole array of intriguing half-smiles and glances. Shiv Kumar Subramaniam is excellent as Ananya’s taciturn father, though Amrita Singh and Revathy as the moms stay just this side of all-out hissiness. The boldest bit of casting is Ronit Roy as Krish’s estranged father – his natural tendency towards harshness is just another disharmonious element in a film that’s teeming with badly-matched parts.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Out of focus: The slacker figure in Hindi cinema

An old piece I wrote for GQ and forgot to post.  

“We’re looking for a narrative…a focus…a direction” says an old producer in the first scene of Dev Benegal’s English, August. Narrative, focus, direction: three words that are anathema to what this 1994 film and its protagonist represent. English, August is a rare film that belongs unreservedly to a genre that’s never really taken root in India – the slacker film. That’s hardly surprising. The slacker film says that having no plan is okay; but in India, everyone from God to the tea-seller on the corner has a plan. The slacker film says it’s alright to drift in life; for the majority of Indian parents, drift equals death.

If one looks down the decades, it makes perfect sense why Indian cinema has so few slackers. The cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s relied heavily on historical and mythological sources, not the kind of material that lends itself to inaction. In the ‘40s, there was a freedom struggle to complete and partition to endure. Slacking wasn’t just a non-option in those days, it was anti-national. The same went for the ‘50s, a time of nation-building and Nehruvian Socialism. That decade is now considered the golden age of Indian cinema, with directors like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Mrinal Sen doing some of their best work, but it yielded few cinematic slackers.

Shammi Kapoor would have been a good candidate for Hindi cinema’s first slacker were it not for his tremendous energy (no true slacker is this kinetic). Other ‘60s stars also rule themselves out on various counts. Dilip Kumar is too earnest to qualify, and Rajesh Khanna put an unacceptable amount of effort into his onscreen wooing. Dev Anand, meanwhile, always seemed to be holding down a job; just look at the titles of his movies – Guide, Jewel Thief, C.I.D.

Come the ‘70s, it was angry young man time. While not every character Amitabh Bachchan played was gainfully employed, they were all men with a mission, decidedly un-slack. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s blissful comedies yielded a few slackers, though they usually spent the second half embroiled in some complex subterfuge involving the heroine’s dad which required them to be resourceful. On then to the ‘80s, and India’s first real slacker film.

From the very first shot tracing a cigarette’s journey from makeshift coconut ashtray to being passed between three hands (and a foot), 1983’s Chashme Buddoor is delightfully unpurposeful. Farooque Shaikh, Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi are three Delhi University students on holiday, both from college and that terrible Indian affliction – a sense of responsibility. The trio spend their time smoking, chasing girls, roaming around on uncooperative two-wheelers, and smoking some more. The film doesn’t appear to cover more than a few months in their lives, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it returned five years later to find them doing the same thing. That’s the essence of slackerdom: lives without upward mobility or downward spiral, in a state of perpetual drift.

Two and a half decades later, Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid celebrated – and slyly deflated – this idea of drift. Ranbir Kapoor played Sid, a rich scion who’s content to watch the clouds roll by. So far, so drifty, except then he argues with his dad, who throws him out of the house. Sid moves in with Konkona Sen Sharma’s self-sufficient journalist, but continues to potter around. Kapoor’s gentle performance separates Sid from the kind of rich, brash loafers Shah Rukh Khan used to play in the ‘90s. He’s just a man without a plan, and though he eventually finds a job as a photographer, the movie makes it clear that his slackitude was a character trait, not just the lethargy of the privileged.

In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones usually surfaces as a trivia question (What was Shah Rukh’s first onscreen appearance? What 1989 film did Arundhati Roy write and star in?) What isn’t acknowledged – perhaps on account of it never having released in theatres or on DVD – is that this is one of the most acute, true-to-life films ever made about young people in India. It’s certainly the best Indian film about slackers. Radha, Annie, Kosozi, Mankind, Paapey may be in their final year at the Delhi School of Architechture, their theses may be woefully incomplete, yet no one seems to care. The movie goes by in a rooster-chasing, ping-pong-playing haze. Even the climactic gesture of rebellion by Radha – who makes her final presentation in a sari and a hat – is offhand, a futile protest in a losing game. In a movie whose soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Beatles songs, these are kids who’ve taken John Lennon’s advice in “Revolution” to heart: they won’t do anything concrete, but they know it’s gonna be alright. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Jal: Review

Just before Jal got underway, a blurb from a Hollywood Reporter review flashed onscreen. “A breathtakingly photographed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” it read. This is hyperbole of Shakespearean proportions, but over the next two hours, our thoughts did turn to the Bard – specifically to slings and arrows, mentally aimed at screenwriter Rakesh Mishra, and to the quality of mercy, dropping like the gentle rain on co-writer and director Girish Malik.

That Jal is overheated is no surprise: it’s set in the salt-encrusted desert of the Rann of Kutch. Naturally, water is an immensely valuable commodity here – something the film never fails to remind us of every five minutes. It’s so valuable, in fact, that you can make a living, as Jal’s protagonist Bakka (Purab Kohli) does, as a water-diviner. Bakka’s success rate is middling: a result, perhaps, of his rather hopeful modus operandi; he twirls a couple of rods, puts his ear to the ground and spends the next couple of days digging and reassuring sceptical villagers.

Water divining is an actual profession in desert regions of India, and Jal might have done well to explore the trade in some depth. Instead, the film wanders off into a strange parallel plot involving a Russian ornithologist, Kim (Saidah Jules), who’s trying to save the migratory flamingo population, dying due to the brackish water. She enlists Bakka, who successfully points the giant drills she’s hired to the right areas and earns the goodwill of his temperamental but water-starved village. But his moment in the sun is short-lived: Bakka’s in love with a girl from an enemy village, and if Ram-Leela taught us anything, it’s that residents of Kutch take their Romeo and Juliet posturing seriously. Soon, there’s a murder, a pregnancy, a sandstorm, an excommunication, a near-rape and an actual rape.

In recent interviews, Malik has insisted that Jal isn’t an art film. He’s right about that. From the title down, the film goes out of its way to be literal. Twelve songs on the soundtrack reference water or the lack of it; one particular piece of background music goes “jal jal jal jal jal jal”. There’s hardly a single important piece of information that isn’t tossed back and forth between characters and verbalised in different ways, so that the audience isn’t left in the dark. Perfectly simple bits of information are further simplified (my favourite: “We’ve located two spots. This is spot one and this is spot two.”) And everything is blown out of proportion – Kim can’t just be a visiting conservationist, she has to have gone to “some of the best colleges in Europe”. Similarly, the village males can’t see her as another pretty white-skinned girl; they have to imagine she’s there to shoot a blue film.

Purab Kohli, in a rare lead role, tries hard to match the film’s conception of Bakka as a randy, preternaturally confident water god. Casting the good-natured Kohli as a virile charmer is a bold move, but he’s too easy-going an actor to get the audience worked up. (It might have been interesting if he’d dropped hints that Bakka is making it up as he goes along, like Shreyas Talpade did in Dor.) Kirti Kulhari brings some fire to her Juliet role, but has little to do in the second half besides look to her lover for solutions. Saidah Jules gets all the worst lines – “Take care of my birds, they’re like babies” are her last words – though it’s debatable whether better writing would have helped her performance.

As Ram-Leela and The Good Road have recently shown, there are few landscapes in this country as photogenic as the Kutch desert. Cinematographer Sunita Radia goes somewhat overboard – zooming over salt deposits, panning around camels – but at least we’re given something pretty to look at as the storyline becomes progressively sillier. Malik deserves some points for ambition (this is his directorial debut), but there’s no denying that Jal takes an interesting premise and runs it comprehensively into the ground. After about an hour, we were begging for closure, but the shadow of an ending we saw was only a mirage.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.