Sunday, July 26, 2015

Masaan: Review

Trains, both metaphorical and literal, are at the heart of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. They are a surprising metaphor for the stirrings of first love. As two young people fall in love, a beautiful couplet unfolds on the soundtrack: “Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai/ Main kisi pul sa thartharata hoon”. Like the locomotive that ran past fields of kash in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, train are also symbolic of escape. It’s no coincidence that both Devi (Richa Chadha) and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal)—the central figures of Masaan’s parallel story strands, each looking to escape Banaras and its limitations—find jobs working with the railways.

Trains also contribute to one of the gentler moments of heartbreak in the film, which won two awards in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. We already know that Devi wants to leave her home in Banaras, find a job worthy of her qualifications and escape the moral censure of her father, Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit teacher, now a pandit at the city’s holy ghats. She gets a job as a ticket seller at the railway station, informs her father she might move out. But one day, over lunch, her sweetly plainspoken co-worker explains that of all the trains coming to the station, only 28 stop, while 64 pass through. It’s easy to come here, he says, but it’s difficult to leave.

This is not what Devi—or the audience—wants to hear. The odds have been stacked against her ever since the opening minutes, when her maiden romantic tryst with her boyfriend at a motel is broken in on by the police. The boyfriend panics, locks himself in the bathroom and slits his wrist. Instead of hushing things up, the police officer in charge tells Vidyadhar that he must come up with Rs.3 lakh—a sum way beyond his means—to prevent a video of his daughter turning up online. Vidyadhar—conservative, shattered—takes his frustration out on his daughter, asking her why she brought shame upon him when he “let her free, like a boy”. Devi lashes out at him at well, accusing him of contributing to her mother’s death.

As Vidyadhar scrambles around for money and Devi gathers up the shards of her dignity, another, seemingly lighter story unfolds. Deepak, a young college student in a family of professional cremators, meets Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). She lives in a nicer part of town, and her surname—Gupta—indicates that her caste is a lot higher than his, in a city that really cares about such things. As the already-fragile relationship between Devi and her father frays, Shaalu and Deepak become close, a progression played with delicate humour by Kaushal and Tripathi.

By the end, you feel like you know these people very well: Vidyadhar, trying, failing, and then trying again to be a good man; Devi, whose mortification gives way to righteous anger; the small-town coquettishness of Shaalu and Deepak’s inability to keep whatever he’s feeling from registering on his face. Even the smaller roles are beautifully etched out—Devi’s railway station colleague (played by Pankaj Tripathi) is as loving a parody of a small-town government official as I’ve ever seen.

Masaan doesn’t strive for effect—it achieves it by degrees. No one stands out, but everyone does an outstanding job. Grover’s screenplay has a depth of observation and a sense of timing that point to his twin careers as lyricist and stand-up comic. Cinematographer Avinash Arun comes up with the same unfussy, simple compositions that marked his own directorial debut, Killa. Indian Ocean contribute three evocative songs (the score, by Bruno Coulais and them, is over-insistent). The performances are near-perfect: Mishra tortured and prickly, Chadha tamping down her natural combativeness until it’s no longer possible, and Kaushal making a supremely confident debut. And in his first film, Ghaywan (who assisted Anurag Kashyap, one of the film’s producers, on Gangs of Wasseyur) sees that everything comes together simply and movingly.

I don’t think there was any great need for the two stories to intersect—it’s one of the few times the film makes a decision that’s a nod to convention and not something that deepens our understanding of the characters. (One could argue, on the other hand, that the idea of sangam (confluence) is teased throughout the film.) Yet, apart from this, hardly anything happens that’s inconsistent with the film’s world or its elegiac tone. This could have been a film about gender rights, caste and small-town corruption, but these issues are only acknowledged to the extent that they affect the characters. We’re wrapped in their lives, and like any great film, we’re anxious for the future well-being in the end. I left the hall thinking not of pandits and funeral pyres, but of sooji ka halwa as atonement, of a young boy desperate to dive for coins, of red balloons loosed into the night-time sky.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Timbuktu: Review

For 10 months in 2012 and 2013, Timbuktu, a city in Mali, was occupied by the religious group Ansar Dine. The group, whose name means “defenders of the faith” in Arabic, imposed a radical form of Shariah. Music was banned, women had to cover their heads, ancient shrines were destroyed; the punishments included beatings and beheadings. The town was eventually liberated by French forces.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating Timbuktu tells the story of this occupation. The film begins with Timbuktu already under the control of Ansar Dine. Gunmen prowl the streets. The locals are scared into compliance, though small signs of rebellion pop up. Music is banned, but a group of youngsters can’t help gathering in a room at night and jamming. Football is banned as well, but there’s a marvellously surreal scene in which a group of boys is playing a match, very seriously, without a ball. Yet there’s a sense that something unpleasant is going to happen.

At the film’s centre is a Tuareg family—a cattle-herder called Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their charming 12-year-old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed)—living on the outskirts of town, among the dunes. When one of the cows Toya is minding breaks loose and wanders into a fisherman’s net, it is killed. Kidane, revolver concealed in his clothes, goes to confront the man. There’s a scuffle, the gun goes off, and the fisherman is killed. Kidane is picked up by the militia and, in short order, sentenced to death.

Timbuktu builds quietly but purposefully towards its last 20 minutes, when several acts of violence are unleashed. There are 40 lashes for the music-making youngsters, which results in the heart-rending sight of one of them singing through her tears while being whipped. There’s a mercifully brief scene of an adulterous couple being stoned to death, intercut with shots of a jihadi—whom we’ve just seen breaking the law himself by smoking—doing a sort of solo ballet. And there’s Kidane—more distraught that he can’t see his daughter than he is about his impending death.

Sissako is regarded as one of the great modern African directors, and after seeing Timbuktu, you’ll know why. Despite the overarching tragedy of the narrative, there’s a sly humour at work, especially the scenes pointing out the absurdity of workaday religious extremism (a fisherwoman who is told to wear gloves while selling her wares is so disgusted that she gets herself arrested). The unreliability involved in interpreting another’s words—which is what the extremists are doing—is underlined by the amount of translation going on: from Tamasheq to English to French to Arabic. Fittingly, Timbuktu finds its poetry not in the spare dialogue but in the images Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani (Blue Is The Warmest Colour) summon up: ancient artefacts used for target practice; a former rapper trying and failing to make a video renouncing his past sins; Kidane stumbling across the river at dusk; Toya, at the end, trying to outrun her life.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijaan: Review

To say Bajrangi Bhaijaan is geared towards maximum emotional impact is an understatement. It is engineered for it. Its parts have been carefully assembled so as to make you laugh every other scene, tear up every 10 minutes. One normally gets this kind of emotional walloping with a Rajkumar Hirani film, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan hits harder because its instruments are more blunt. Who says you need a girl and a gun to make a movie? This film proves that you only need the former, provided she’s a criminally cute six-year-old.

On the way back to her home in Pakistan from Delhi, a young, speech-impaired girl (played by Harshaali Malhotra, a year older than her character in real life) is separated from her mother. She ends up on a train to Kurukshetra, where she attaches herself to slow-witted, good-natured Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi (Salman Khan), known as Bajrangi because of his extreme devotion to Hanuman (to the extent that he folds his hands whenever he sees a monkey). He names her Munni, takes her to his sort-of fiancĂ©e’s house (an excuse to draft Kareena Kapoor, as Rasika, into the film) and spends the next few days slowly coming to terms with the fact that Munni, who refuses to leave his side, is Muslim, and from Pakistan.

After Rasika’s xenophobic father tells him he won’t allow a Pakistani to stay under his roof, Bajrangi realizes he has to get Munni home. He tries to hand her over to the Pakistani embassy, but that plan falls through when a riot breaks out. He pays a travel agent to sneak her across the border, a decision that almost gets her sold into a brothel (which in turn allows Khan to let off some steam and break stuff). That’s when he finally decides to take her across the border himself and find her parents.

At around half-time, the film seems to be in danger of overusing its trump card—cutting to a plaintive look from Malhotra. But then Nawazuddin Siddiqui appears and performs one of his famous interventions (he’s done this before, in The Lunchbox and Kick, turning up some way into the film and booting it into another gear). Here, he plays a Pakistani TV reporter who takes it upon himself to help Bajrangi find Munni’s parents and evade the authorities, who, not unreasonably, think our god-fearing hero is an Indian spy. As is often the case with Siddiqui, it seems like he’s improvising most of his lines, though it’s more likely scripted material that his delivery is lending crackle and bite to. At any rate, it’s a relief, both for the audience and for
Khan, who recedes into the background for a spell and allows Siddiqui to crack wise.

With every film he has made after the intriguing Kabul Express, director Kabir Khan has dissociated himself a little more from reality. Bajrangi Bhaijaan seems to suggest that he has finally bid the real world goodbye and entered the Bolly-verse, a mythical place where an Indian can easily navigate his way around Pakistan without currency, passport or visa. No wonder the Pakistani censors passed the film—it’s the most flattering portrait of the country to ever come out of India. Border officers let them through without a visa; a kindly maulana provides them shelter and an escape plan; even the hard-bitten police officer has a change of heart and helps Bajrangi get home. And wait till you see the orgy of goodwill that is the film’s ending.

It isn’t surprising that Bajrangi Bhaijaan goes out of its way not to rock the boat. I don’t think it is overly cynical to think of this movie as a brilliantly orchestrated PR campaign for its star. Bajrangi is devout, polite, truthful to a fault, almost childlike in his enthusiasm. That typical Salman Khan roguishness is missing—this is the kind of boy you want to take home to your conservative father (as Rasika does). Every few minutes, someone tells him “Tu bohot accha insaan hai”, or “Tum dil ke bilkul sachche ho”, or something similarly complimentary. This film is like a giant character witness, making a case for Good Samaritan Salman and then asking: “Do you really think someone this lovable should be in prison?”

It should be obvious that any film whose recurring musical refrain is “Tu dhadkan, main dil” isn’t operating on any kind of subtle level. Though this is probably the best Salman Khan film since Dabangg in terms of directorial competence and narrative novelty and some good old-fashioned giving-a-damn from the actor, it’s also—even by Bollywood standards—a particularly transparent appeal to audience sympathies, playing on our collective weakness for children in peril, for heroes with hearts of gold, for pronouncements of India-Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim harmony. Whether you’re a sceptic or a fan, it’s almost impossible to withstand Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s calculated emotional assault. But it’s also tough to shake the feeling that you’re being played.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Baahubali: The Begining: Review

Three years ago, S.S. Rajamouli directed the very strange and funny Eega, about a man reborn as a fly. This film, produced in both Tamil and Telugu, was so successful that it was dubbed in Hindi and released as Makkhi. Its success must have played a role in winning Rajamouli his next assignment, Baahubali: The Beginning, made simultaneously in Telugu and Tamil and rumoured to be India’s most expensive film. And though I’m generally wary of big-budget Indian action films—on the grounds that they’re mostly incompetent rip-offs of existing blockbusters—Baahubali, set in unspecified ancient times, does manage to convey its size and scale with a great amount of confidence.

It begins as any good epic should, with a baby being spirited away. The woman doing the spiriting dies, but the baby is rescued by local villagers. He grows up unusually strong and with a penchant for historically minded adventure sports, such as climbing up the sides of waterfalls and carrying a shivling on his shoulders. He answers to the name Shiva, but it is obvious that he is the Baahubali (strong-armed one) of the title.

A disappointingly by-the-numbers plot is set in motion when Shiva (Prabhas) meets Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia). She’s part of a group of rebel warriors who are trying to free their queen, Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who’s been imprisoned for 25 years by the evil Bhallala Dev (Rana Daggubati) and his father. Through a long flashback that takes up most of the second half of the film, it is revealed that Shiva is the son of prince Amarendra Baahubali (also Prabhas), who was in competition with Bhallala Deva for the throne. After helping defeat invading forces in an epic battle, Amarendra is named king. How he was subsequently killed, and how Shiva avenges him, we’ll only know when the second part of this film, Baahubali: The Conclusion, rolls around in 2016.

That Rajamouli knows his way around VFX was evident in Eega, but he negotiates the massive jump in scale well. Everything is designed for maximum impact—if there are bales of straws, you can be sure they’ll be set on fire so that a chariot can be driven through them. The vistas that unfold have a digitally enhanced grandeur that’s familiar from films such as Troy and Exodus: Gods and Kings, modern versions of the old sword and sandal epics. Bhallala Dev’s chariot even has a whirring scythe attached to it—a little visual tribute to Ben-Hur.

It’s not all good news. Prabhas is massive and muscled, but not very graceful; it’s not as much fun seeing him hurl himself around as the film thinks it is. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to flagrantly bad, though Sathyaraj has a nice turn as a brave but conflicted warrior. A huge drawback of the film is its writing. The dialogue in the Hindi dubbed version is terribly stilted; I don’t know what Prabhas says in the Telugu version, but in this one he tells Bhatia: “You are a girl. I am a boy. I have come here to love you.” (Not very smooth, but infinitely better than placing a snake on her so that he can draw on her shoulder. Don’t ask.) Baahubali could also have done with some humour. The best joke arrived at half-time and wasn’t even part of the movie. “Baahubali: The Intermission”, the intertitle read. With cinematography by KK Senthil Kumar and some fantastic art direction by Sabu Cyril.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Amit Trivedi: King of the 10%

When the line-up for last year’s NH7 Weekender was announced, there was one name that caused a small but definite flutter. It was the inclusion, in a festival known for its indie leanings, of someone who has composed nearly all his music for Bollywood movies. Yet, there it was: Amit Trivedi to headline the Dewarists Stage. After seeing his set during the festival’s Pune leg, Lalitha Suhasini, editor of Rolling Stone India, fired off a worried blog post. While admitting that Trivedi was a “fantastic composer” and that some 8,000 people turned up to listen to him, she lamented: “If anyone ever needed more proof that Bollywood reigns supreme, then it was here.”

When I asked Vijay Nair, head of Mumbai-based event and artist management company Only Much Louder, which organizes NH7 Weekender, why the festival lent its stage to a film composer, he argued that Trivedi was almost like an independent musician in Bollywood. “Even if kids are into rock or electronic music, (Trivedi’s) the one person whom they like. You can see that his influences come from outside Bollywood. He was an easy choice.” There’s a cellphone video from Trivedi’s Pune set that is up on YouTube, a performance of "Ha Raham (Mehfuz)" from his first film, Aamir. I wouldn’t have bet on any crowd—let alone an indie fest one—knowing the song, but everyone is clapping in time, singing along, swaying to the music.

Is Trivedi that giant circus tent under which music fans of different feathers can gather? It’s true that he’s the first composer since A.R. Rahman to appeal to a broad swathe of music listeners while maintaining the integrity of his sound. Metalheads can thrash about to "Emotional Attyachar" and "
"Dilli". Mainstream rock fans can sway to "Aazaadiyan" and "Kinare". More experimental listeners can wrap their heads about genre-bending soundtracks like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. And for those who desire nothing more than a dance-floor-ready Bollywood thumper, there’s "Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol" and "London Thumakda". Trivedi has worked with Bengali influences in Lootera, and Gujarati in Kai Po Che! Sometimes, it’s all done within the space of a song. "Badri Badariya", composed for MTV's Coke Studio, moves seamlessly from rock to Rajasthani folk to jazz scatting.

Trivedi’s pre-eminence in the industry today is so complete that it’s easy to forget that he’s only been doing this for some eight years. That’s nothing in the life of a Hindi film composer: Shankar-Jaikishan worked together for 20 odd years, R.D. Burman’s career spanned more than three decades. Even Rahman, Trivedi’s hero, has nearly completed a quarter-century in film. Will people be humming "Shaam" 20 years down the line, the way they still do "Chhoti Si Aasha"? It’s impossible to say, of course, though of all the composers working in Hindi film at present, 36-year-old Trivedi seems to have the best shot at longevity.


I met Trivedi on a miserable Saturday afternoon at his studio in Andheri (West), Mumbai. He’d been working since morning, and was now in a meeting with lyricist Irshad Kamil. As I waited, I looked around the room and noticed framed silhouette drawings on the wall. They turned out to be scenes from Mozart operas. My mind jumped to an ill-advised comparison—Trivedi as tuneful Mozart to Rahman’s blustery Beethoven. But this juxtaposition seemed to fall apart as quickly as it suggested itself: neither Rahman’s nor Trivedi’s music lends itself to such simplistic categorization. It further disintegrated when Trivedi said that the panels were a gift and that he wasn’t a particularly devoted listener of Mozart.

Trivedi hasn’t had the easiest year so far. His latest, Guddu Rangeela, doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression. But the big blow was his other release, Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s gangster film set in 1960s Bombay, which seemed to have perplexed the public at large. There have been jazzy songs in Hindi movies before, particularly in the 1950s with C. Ramchandra and Shankar-Jaikishan, but this is perhaps the first Hindi film soundtrack to be entirely predicated on jazz. Even this had to be filtered through a Bollywood sensibility. “Jazz has no audience in India,” Trivedi says. “The music of Bombay Velvet is me adapting that which is not ours. I had to make sure it didn’t sound superficial, but also keep the film industry in mind.” What’s unfortunate is that this is one of Trivedi’s most satisfying albums, with impassioned belters like "Dhadaam Dhadaam", slinky torch songs like "Mohabbat Buri Bimari" and the O.P. Nayyar-aping "Sylvia". Perhaps the balancing act itself was his undoing—too Bollywood for jazz fans, too esoteric for regular cinema-goers.

It isn’t surprising that Trivedi feels gutted by the drubbing the film received. His involvement with the project goes back to 2009, when Kashyap handed him some jazz CDs and a sliver of an idea. “A lot of time has gone into it, a lot of labour,” he says. “But when the film doesn’t work in totality, everything sits down.” He says this has happened with him once before—the soundtrack suffering because the film didn’t connect—with Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a lesser-known Trivedi offering that blended rustic Punjabi folk, Ennio Morricone-ish backing vocals, drum and bass, and the least celebrated Yo Yo Honey Singh cameo ever ("Kikli Kalerdi"). “Nobody had heard about him at the time this was recorded,” Trivedi chuckles. “We never knew he would become a superstar one day”.


I wonder if anyone who knew Trivedi before he was a film composer guessed that he would be a superstar one day. He grew up in Santacruz, Mumbai, the son of Gujarati parents, neither of whom was particularly musical, though Trivedi does credit his mother with introducing him to a lot of “good Gujarati music”. Film songs were not played in the Trivedi household, only bhajans, kirtans and lok geet. This changed when, around the age of 13, he heard Rahman for the first time. “I heard Roja, Thiruda Thiruda, Humse Hai Muqabla,” he says, a sudden spark enlivening his thoughtful, soft-spoken manner. “They blew my head off. I was like, what is this? We don’t make music like this in India.”

How did Trivedi go from listening to Rahman to being called the next Rahman? He insists that there was no grand plan. “The first instrument I ever played was an electronic disk that I borrowed from my neighbours when I was 13,” he told FT Magazine in 2013. “Honestly, I have no idea what you’d call this thing. All I know is that it was round and when you touched it, it played different notes, sort of like a keyboard.” He got a little jazz and Indian classical training, but mostly taught himself. He listened to Boney M., R.D. Burman and Michael Jackson and, later, Pink Floyd and The Beatles. He was composing by the time he was in class X. In college, he gave background scores for a few stage plays. By the time he graduated, he’d decided music was his calling.

His first recorded work was as a keyboardist and arranger for Om, a fusion band he formed in 2003 with Shriram Iyer, Amartya Rahut and a couple of others. The band did release an album but was never more than mildly successful, and its members gradually drifted apart. Trivedi worked in advertising, composing jingles and scores, and as a freelance composer supplying tunes to pop singers like Abhijeet Sawant and the band F4, which comprised former participants of the TV show Indian Idol. “I never thought of being a Hindi film composer,” he says. “I didn’t think that the kind of music I wanted to do, Hindi films would ever be ready for that.”

Luckily, he was about to meet someone who would build up a reputation for doing things Bollywood wasn’t ready for. Shilpa Rao, a playback singer whom Trivedi knew well and had worked with before, introduced him to Anurag Kashyap, who by then had already directed Paanch and Black Friday—both hugely controversial—and the Kafkaesque No Smoking. Trivedi didn’t specify what he made Kashyap hear in those initial meetings in 2007; the Sawant and F4 tracks that survive online are pretty undistinguished, so it might have been his own demos. Whatever it was, it worked. Kashyap told Trivedi about a film he was planning, a modern-day version of Devdas set in Delhi.

Dev.D’s soundtrack was, for many listeners, the first Roja moment since Roja. I remember hearing the soundtrack when it released in early 2009 and wondering—much like Trivedi had when he first heard Rahman—what on earth is this? Trivedi’s first release was actually Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aamir (it was recorded after Dev.D, but released earlier, in June 2008), but while that had seemed like an interesting experiment, this sounded like a statement of purpose. It ran contrary to all that was prevalent and popular: as Trivedi reminds me, at the time he was making the album, Himesh Reshammiya ruled the charts. It was unusually long, with 18 tracks, and dizzyingly eclectic, from the trip-hoppy "Saali Khushi" to the bouncy pop of "Yahin Meri Zindagi" to the heavy metal charge of "Emotional Attyachar". Most people at the time assumed that they’d only use about half the songs in the film, but that wasn’t the case. All 18 were featured in their entirety. What’s more, the music seemed to embed itself deeply into the narrative—at certain points, take over the function of the narrative itself.


If there’s one aspect of Trivedi’s music everyone agrees on, it’s that he has a knack of finding the right song for the right situation. Lyricist and singer Amitabh Bhattacharya, whose witty, evocative turns of phrase one most often finds attached to Trivedi melodies, says he thinks of his friend as a “film-maker’s composer”. “Amit understands the tone of the film very well,” he adds. “His music somehow becomes synonymous and resonates with the world of the film. He has that rare quality of not just creating songs which will become blockbusters but capturing the true essence of the film he’s working for.” Sometimes, both happen. When Trivedi was doing the background score for Wake Up Sid (the songs were by commercial favourites Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy), director Ayan Mukerji asked him if another song could be introduced somewhere. Trivedi looked hard at the script and saw an opening. The result was the wistful "Iktara", a huge hit and a perfect encapsulation of the romantic confusion that Mukerji’s characters found themselves experiencing at that point in the film.

Trivedi says he insists upon seeing the script, or at least hearing a narration, on all his films. “When I know the world of the film, it helps a lot. I go very deep into the characters’ headspace, their thought process, the chemistry between people. So I have to think about music from a very cinematic point of view.” He gives the example of his climactic anthems, something of a Trivedi trademark by now.
"Aazaadiyan" from Udaan and "Kinare" from Queen—both of which start off slow, pick up pace halfway through and end up in full-throated Springsteen territory—have a common structure, he says, because the films in question have similar climactic sequences, involving characters slowly building up the confidence to leave their past behind.

Sometimes, the film’s milieu is a bigger influence than the structure of the screenplay. I had always wondered if the glockenspiel that Trivedi used in "Sawaar Loon" was a tribute to "Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya". Turns out it was: Lootera director Vikramaditya Motwane and Trivedi wanted to pay tribute to early masters like S.D. Burman and Jaidev, and this was the easiest subliminal link from a 1961 Dev Anand-film to a Dev Anand-referencing film set in 1950s West Bengal. On the other end of the spectrum is his work in No One Killed Jessica. Director Raj Kumar Gupta wanted a song to kick the movie wide open, something that reflected the in-your-face nature of Delhi life. Trivedi came up with Dilli, a thrash metal number that’s still the most extreme thing he’s recorded.


Trivedi has been responsible for 25 feature film soundtracks till date. Like most Bollywood composers past and present, he tends to form partnerships with directors: he’s worked thrice with Gupta and Kashyap, twice with Motwane and Vikas Bahl. Yet, he differs from popular contemporaries like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam in his choosiness. He seems to prefer, even seek out, a certain kind of film: slightly left of mainstream, story-driven, not entirely indie but never out-and-out “masala”. He says he likes working with writer-directors, a distinction few other composers are likely to have considered. He received dozens of big-budget offers after Dev.D. He turned them down. Till date, none of his films have starred any of the three Khans.

Trivedi takes things like directors and script narrations seriously because they influence the kind of music he gets to produce. “In India, music that sells the most is either love songs, heartbreak songs, party songs or item songs,” he says. “This has been the template for years. But with films like Udaan or No One Killed Jessica, where there’s no love story, no chance for an item song, this rules out that 90% chunk, and brings in that 10% kind of music.” Collaborating with open-minded directors means that he’s able to push the envelope more often. Once, while working on Ishaqzaade, he was asked to come up with a score for a short promo director Habib Faisal had cut. The visuals were particularly pacy, and he had the idea of matching their speed and then suddenly dropping the tempo, Skrillex-style. Faisal heard it and, to his credit (in a making-of video, he admitted that it was like “factory sounds” to his ears), asked Trivedi to use the effect in a song. That’s how Aafaton Ke Parindey, Bollywood’s first dubstep track, was born.

Of course, there’s an obvious downside of working on films that take risks. Trivedi feels that, when it comes to subjects and approaches that are alien to audiences—Bombay Velvet, for instance—the failure of the film can take music down with it. “This isn’t an in-your-face hit song like 'Baby Doll', this is music created for the narrative. If the situations don’t connect, when the film goes flat, the music will not work.” The failure of a film he’s involved with hurts him more than criticism of his music, he said. “Bombay Velvet was a huge blow. After this, nothing will affect me.”


This March, Trivedi appeared, for the third year running, on Coke Studio, with a new song. It was called "Teriyaan Tu Jaane" and featured the electrifying Nooran sisters, who sang Rahman’s "Patakha Guddi" for Highway last year. When the video went up on YouTube, several comments alleged that the horn arrangement was similar to the “Chaand ki main choodi pehnawa” melody line from Trivedi’s Gal Mitthi Mitthi Bol (no one seemed to care that the guitar riff was cribbed from "Roxanne"). I don’t know if Trivedi saw these comments, but if he did, they probably brought back memories of the time when he went online and found that he was being called the next Anu Malik. An orchestral movement he had written for a Lootera track, "Shikayatein", was similar to Rachel Portman’s theme for the Anne Hathaway-starrer One Day. Trivedi says he had no idea that One Day or its theme existed, describes the similarity as “bad luck” and says he even wrote to Portman’s people clarifying his position but received no response. Even today, he seems a little shocked at how virulent the public reaction was.

This might have been the one time when the public turned on Trivedi. A couple of his albums (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu; Aiyyaa) have been clunkers, but all in all, his has been a very consistent career: Dev.D soundtrack and Iktara in 2009, Udaan and Aisha in 2010, No One Killed Jessica in 2011, Ishaqzaade in 2012, Kai Po Che! and Lootera in 2013, Queen in 2014, in addition to appearances on Coke Studio and MTV Unplugged—and that monstrously ear-wormy "Hello Honey Bunny" jingle for telecom brand Idea.

When you’re being called the next Rahman, though, consistency may not be enough. It’s been a while since Trivedi’s done anything that’s truly out-there—a lot of his music tends to inhabit a tuneful middle ground. The last time he caused a truly seismic change was with Dev.D, whereas Rahman has done this at least a couple of times during his career (as did Sneha Khanwalkar in 2012 with her Gangs Of Wasseypur soundtrack). This is why Bombay Velvet is important—it may not be Trivedi’s best-received work, but it shows that he’s up for the challenge. Motwane, one of Trivedi’s favourite directors, feels he might still be exploring his range, and that his future work was likely push in directions not attempted before. “Amit has no ego,” he says. “He’s totally open to any kind of feedback. He likes to be pushed.”

Trivedi is currently working on Shaandaar, a “destination wedding film” by Vikas Bahl, and Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, an adaptation of Great Expectations set in Kashmir. He’s also doing the soundtrack for Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, which he describes as “very trippy, urban, edgy, lots of attitude, lots of rap”. He’s planning to release a non-film album sometime in the near future, though what it will sound like or whether he will be doing all the singing is undecided. Though his resonant voice has featured on nearly all of his albums since Aamir, he considers himself a “kaamchalau bathroom singer”. What seems to be exciting him most, however, is the prospect of finally meeting Rahman in person. “When that happens, I’ll be the interviewer,” he says.

There’s one story that remains to be told. While composing for Bombay Velvet, Trivedi realized that the showstopper, "Dhadaam Dhadaam", would require something special from the singer, Neeti Mohan. Instead of giving her the song right away, he spent time getting to know her. One day, he told her that he wanted her to sit locked in a dark room for an hour, think about tough times she had been through and how she had soldiered on. It was only when she emerged that he gave her the music and asked her to bring the feelings going through her head in that room to the song. Her performance—bruised, soaring, cathartic—was a high point of the soundtrack and the film. So if it seems at times like it all comes very easy to Amit Trivedi, just remember: He did all this for one song.

This ran as the July 4 Mint Lounge cover story.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Terminator Genisys: Review

What’s worse than a dumb Hollywood summer movie? A dumb Hollywood summer movie that thinks it’s smart. That’s Terminator Genisys for you, the fifth instalment in a series that should have ended, despite promises made to be back, after the note-perfect second film, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The first film, also directed by Cameron, was about a cyborg assassin—a Terminator—sent back in time by Skynet (a rogue artificial intelligence system that’s destroyed most of humanity) to kill Sarah Connor. She fights him with the help of Kyle Reese, also from the future, who tells her she’ll give birth to the future leader of the resistance. The film made an unexpected star of its villain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, so Terminator 2 had him return as the good guy—or good cyborg—sent from the future to protect Sarah and her son, John.

There was a third, and a fourth, film too, but they’re ignored here, as they should be. But Terminator Genisys is very much in awe of the first two films. In fact, it ties itself in knots trying to pay tribute to them. In the absence of an actual reason for the film existing, Terminator Genisys’ writers have come up with an excessively layered, barely coherent plot. Here’s a brief—and spoiler-containing—summary: John and Kyle are fighting Skynet in the year 2029; Kyle is sent back to protect Sarah in 1984, where he’s saved from the Terminator of the first film by an aged version of the same cyborg (both played by Schwarzenegger); he and Sarah time-travel to 2017, where they find a younger version of John. John is killed by a Terminator; then John turns out to be a Terminator; and then I fell asleep.

I didn’t actually fall asleep. At least I don’t think I did, though hearing Schwarzenegger say “That boy is an alternate timeline version of you” is fairly nightmarish. Why Alan Taylor, who’s directed some of the best episodes of TV in modern times—Baelor from Game Of Thrones; the Mad Men pilot—got involved with something so convoluted and uninspired, I don’t know. But there’s nothing he can do to arrest the downward slide that begins when Schwarzenegger circa 1984 gets into a fist fight with future Schwarzenegger. There’s a lot of timeline trickery, but the film doesn’t have the smarts to pull this off convincingly, or the style to smooth over the silliness and pretension.

Taking over the role of Sarah, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys “Khaleesi” Targaryen from Game Of Thrones) is a fairly convincing replacement for the scrappy Linda Hamilton, who played the role in the first and second films. Australian actor Jai Courtney, who replaces Michael Biehn as Kyle, becomes the answer to a great trivia question (“Who was the second lead in Terminator 5 and Die Hard 5?”). As for Schwarzenegger, he’s still a massive, vowel-extending, slow-moving piece of stunt casting. Why he’s still being force-fed to audiences who don’t know Total Recall from True Lies is beyond me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Guddu Rangeela: Review

Initially, on paper at least, Guddu Rangeela seemed mildly promising. Director Subhash Kapoor had made two uneven but enjoyable social comedies, Phas Gaye Re Obama and Jolly LLB. This one was rumoured to be in the same vein and starred Arshad Warsi, who suffers through more bad movies with less damage to his reputation than any actor working in Hindi cinema today. Then came the warning signs. The tendency nowadays is to stuff all the best lines into the film’s promos. If you find yourself cringing during the trailer, you can be sure you’ll be doing a lot of that while watching the film.

Rangeela (Warsi) and Guddu (Amit Sadh) are two small-time crooks wandering around Haryana. In urgent need of money, they reluctantly take on what seems to be a straightforward kidnapping assignment: Pick up a deaf-mute girl, return her to her family and collect the money from Bangali (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who does “PR for the underworld”. Yet, once they land in Shimla with their hostage, they realize that the girl (Aditi Rao Hydari) can not only hear, but she’s the one who masterminded the kidnapping. Turns out she wants their help to blackmail her brother-in-law, a khap leader and minor politician who has killed, at different points in time, her sister, Guddu’s father and Rangeela’s wife. It also turns out her name is Baby. I honestly don’t know which revelation is more shocking.

The brother-in-law is played by Ronit Roy—and if there’s one Bollywood actor who needs a change of pace, it’s him. It’s not just that he plays a rage-filled borderline psychotic in every film he does; the problem is his presence, central to films such as Udaan and Ugly, robs films such as Guddu Rangeela of their fun. This is essentially a lesser Ishqiya, and it deserved an Ishqiya-style villain—sardonic, slightly comical. Instead, we get Raging Ronit, burning and killing and glowering, forcing the heroes to also burn and kill and glower.

There’s a lot else that’s wrong with Guddu Rangeela. Logical sinkholes open up along the surface of the plot; the humour is mostly SMS-level; Guddu asks Baby “Degi?” and “Legi?”—easily the worst trend Chetan Bhagat has initiated; and there’s a lot of anti-khap sermonizing, which no one can take seriously coming from a film like this. All the audience gets is a couple of small victories. There’s some nice work on the edges by character actors such as Bhattacharya, Brijendra Kala and Rajiv Gupta. The camerawork by Jamie Fowlds is flashy and impressive; he seems particularly fond of aerial shots and brings a jumpy energy to some of the action scenes. As for Warsi, he doesn’t embarrass himself (he rarely does), but the film doesn’t tap either his comic skills or his shaggy charm, and ends up with very little to watch.