Archive for May, 2012

May 31, 2012

A genius actor – Charlie Chaplin

An actor’s ability to adapt to external physical stimulus is what makes him great, and what more encouragement does anyone need than to be placed inside a cage with a lion!
This is magnificent stuff from the great man himself, Charlie Chaplin.

May 16, 2012

Withnail and I

Stranded at the doorstep

Withnail and I‘ talks about a problem that is probably the most central to my life – that of growing up. As a kid, to me grown ups were all about leading a humdrum life deliberately doing boring things when they could really be enjoying. The whole hub-bub about being a grown up and being responsible and important was, obviously, a load of crap. The only thing that seemed good about grown ups was that they had access to money but that too they didn’t spend on buying ice-cream. In short, being a grown up was pointless.

Now as a grown up, my views haven’t changed much. Yes, I have discovered intoxication as a grown up but that’s about it. The whole concept of being a grown man (and not a boy) seems over-hyped. What point is it if you spend the larger part of your life doing something that largely bores you, makes you sick and does’t help anyone else much either? Being mature, taking charge and maintaining a poker face is all there is to be an adult.
But this is that one thing that you just cannot avoid. At the fag end of your college life (when you are still allowed to be not grown up) when you ask, “Can I remain like this? Just like this?” the slap-in-your-face answer is “Hell no!”
Thereby begins the journey of becoming obnoxious. The successful ones are held up in society as examples. The who suck at it just wither away.
‘Withnail and I’ is a rather pungent take on that. And one that tickles too. And the exploits of the two – Withnail and I (Marwood) give a heady feeling to those of us who have experienced it on our own before. There is a certain romance in struggling to make one’s ends meet especially, if one is a student or a young bachelor trying to make it on his own. Success, the goal of this struggle, is also inexplicably looked upon as the bitch. Success often means betrayal. Certain conditions of existence, universally agreed upon to be unfavourable, bring about a certain sense of camaraderie which transcends those conditions in turn. And then, somehow, that camaraderie requires those unfavourable conditions to keep going on in a perverse manner. It is this buddy feeling, garbed under many a facade – creativity, revolution, alternate living, subversion etc., that underlines this very difficult juncture of life. When Withnail and his friend don’t have enough to eat but still crave for booze, have to go through hell to survive in the countryside…only then do they perform at their magical best. That ‘performance’ may include mouthing lines like “Warm up? We may as well sit around a cigarette” or just keep downing large pegs of scotch.
There isn’t much that makes one logically agree with Withnail. Probably even he didn’t agree with himself. But ‘Withnail and I’ shows that the problems they face are important. The shifts in life that have been designed by the society may not be smooth for everyone especially if they are not ready or willing for it. The film makes (or tries to make) one realize that such people can be brilliant without producing any brilliant result. The point is that only the ‘grown ups’ refuse to realize that. Grown ups who are actually douchebags.
May 12, 2012

Indian cinema is celebrating its 100 years.

Part 1: Memoirs

It is hard to concentrate Indian cinema in one space; any space – geographical, textual or even visual. With so many different languages and genres being shot out of varied political and physical regions of the Indian nation, it is impossible to define or classify Indian cinema as a single comprehensive unit. I would love to meet the true Indian film buffs who have been privileged and dedicated enough to have watched cinema from Assam, Orissa, Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil, Kashmir, Himachal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra…and the many more I have missed. These fanatics may have a complete idea of Indian cinema that goes beyond this hugely informative but hardly insightful Wikipedia entry. I, on the other hand, don’t even know what kind of films or which broad school of cinema do many of these regions conform to. And I have only lived a little over a quarter of what Indian cinema has, limiting my cinema further. But I am definitely not complaining; having watched some of the most magnificent cinema through these years and harbouring some cherished cinematic experiences that are sacred. This is a reminiscing ramble about some of these memories and moments…

My sharpest memories of Indian cinema are undoubtedly bollywood. I lived the first four years of my life in the heart of everything filmi – the suburbs of Bombay. It was not a city of dreams to me, and it never will be, but it was definitely a city where dreams could be watched on screen with eyes wide open. The big white screens with patches of grease and paint looked like an artist’s canvas waiting to be projected upon. The seats were hard, covered with rexine (it could not have been leather! Surely) that was usually a dark shade of brown or red depending on how old, or new, the cinema theatre was. In Bombay there was a unique concept of independent theatres lined one beside the other forming a sort of inside-out multiplex. The idea of watching cinema was much more precious back then and no audience could be denied the experience just because one theatre had a house full board outside. And no, there were no popcorns, at least not where I went. You had to go outside the theatre complex and buy yourself a bhelpuri during the interval. I remember watching Hatya (1988). Govinda was slim and Neelam was beautifully pure. Even the antics of Johnny Lever made people go crazy in the theatre. It was a mystery, with some comedy thrown in and some song and dance, obviously. I like that film even today. There was a scene where Govinda’s car broke down or something and he got out of it to see what the problem was. What ensued was a tremendous fight sequence where Govinda used a wheel’s rim as a flying disk, much like Krishna, and defeated the villain. I clearly remember renting a VHS of Hatya many years later, in Delhi.

My cinema equalled bollywood even when I moved to Delhi. The unique pleasures of the single screen theatres that we have all grown up with were definitely there, but the technology was taking over. There was a VCR that could play all the latest, and old, Hindi cinema. Then there was the Doordarshan as well. One of the biggest anticipated blockbusters that turned out to be a complete dud was the great grand Amitabh starrer Khuda Gawah. Usually all Hindi films came in a set of 2 VHS tapes, but this one was a foursome! Such a long movie that is all about revenge, pathans, Amitabh, Sridevi and that awful music of Laxmikant Pyarelal. Maybe Tarantino would have made some sense of the script but Mukul Anand definitely could not. The biggest advantage of home viewing was that you could watch some old classics too, like Devdas (Dilip Kumar’s), Pakeezah and Chalti Ka Naam Gadi. Doordarshan also showed some documentaries (it still does) and though I do not remember any of them but I know I saw many. The range of Indian cinema was widening for me, slowly but surely. Then came the deluge. We got cable television at home. And like a blood thirsty dog, the entire family devoured cinema. Zee and Star became gods and goddesses for us and we prayed in front of everything, from the silly Ajooba and Mere Mehboob to the superstar hits like Aaradhna and Zanjeer. Even black and white became a colourful experience with Dev Anand eyeing Madhubala languidly and Dharmendra looking dashingly handsome in his dinner jackets. But Indian cinema was still bollywood and remained so for quite some time.

The rush of television passed as the daily soaps and western media took over. Watching English films was considered cool and it was certainly a fresh experience. But an Indian never misses out on his dose of bollywood and as the Maine Pyar Kiyas and DDLJs kept hitting the big screens, I kept visiting the theatres. Not with much passion, but with a sense of duty and commitment to the modern films and their stars. In this new era of films that were highly inspired and heavily production oriented, I found my passion coming back in sync with the rise of an actor – Aamir Khan. I loved to see him act on screen, I still do. He is one of the finest modern actors that Indian cinema has seen. My watching films, first-day-first-show, religiously is attributed completely to Aamir. I remember going to see Lagaan on a humid morning in August 2001 and getting the fifth row ticket. The crowd was going mad as the match was reaching its climax. The funniest part was that no one watched the prayer song that happens on the eve of the final match day; the public was rushing out to pee! You can’t blame us, it was a long movie. One day I did the unthinkable. Going against my norm, I watched a non-Aamir film first-day-first-show, and not by chance but by choice. Getting out of bed was not worth it unless it was Aamir on screen, but this was definitely an exception. Mughal-E-Azam – in all its coloured glory and grandeur. Seeing the screen presence of Prithvi Raj Kapoor was mesmerizing. I had seen the film before but a theatrical experience of the same was not to be missed. One of the most revered films in Hindi cinema, even Indian cinema, Mughal-E-Azam justified all the hype and craze. Those eyes of Madhubala were to die for and the battle scene at the end gave me goose bumps. I remember it all too clearly. It’s sad that I don’t watch first-day-first-shows anymore. It is even sadder that there are no more first days and first shows. Maybe I should go watch a Friday morning show soon. Maybe I will.

They say that Indian cinema has changed over the years. It must have. A 100 years is a long time and definitely for something like Indian cinema which is the most prolific of all cinemas in the world today. But what about the magic of cinema? The euphoria you feel when you see a flying wheel cap, a diving catch or a marching army, what is that if not magic. I still marvel at the wonderful Mr.India in which the person wearing a watch simply disappears. And the best part was that he could only be seen through something red. The film catered to the two extremes and met in the middle, it was as ridiculous as it was political. The villains were made to eat stones and sand, literally! And I can never stop being amazed by the audacity of Shekhar Kapur to shoot that song sequence with Sridevi where Anil Kapoor hides himself as Mr. India and the lady continues to move most erotically, all alone. Mind you, this magic is not just because cinema can make people disappear at will or do other such gimmicks. Cinema is a magical filter of emotions too. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa captures the pathos of the protagonist in scattered and scarred lighting, makes him die in darkness and resurrects him to life through a glow as intense as is required for such miracles to happen. This understanding of cinema, for me, is not about watching Bunuel or Godard or Eisenstein. It is a gift of Indian cinema, through and through. It’s just that my evolution is chronologically screwed, from Mr. India to Pyaasa, with all the others fitting in the middle somewhere.

May 2, 2012

Sonar Kella – It was 9:35 AM when the train left Howrah

Having grown up on a healthy dose of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, it would be really difficult for me to name one favourite Ray film. Even though I would probably go with Aparajito, in my mind I am not sure if Charulata, Pather Panchali, Aranyer Din Ratri aren’t as great as Aparijto. Then there is his city trilogy. And his ‘children’s’ film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirok Rajar Deshe which of course, brilliant political satires that continue to grow in relevance even today. And having named these, one does not even say half the names of his films which can be considered great by any cinematic standard in the world.

But I have no intention of discussing Ray’s oeuvre of work here. I want to share some thoughts over one of his films that, for me, has been pure indulgence since childhood. That film is Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). Ray is perceived by many as a high brow auteur who had no connections with popular cinema or the masses. While Ray was a self-admitted European cinema enthusiast and also denounced much of Indian popular cinema, the popularity of his own work among Bengali audiences (and to some extent Indian audiences) goes contrary to the common perception about his aloofness. Sonar Kella alone, along with other films, bears testimony to the fact that generations of Bengali cine-goers have lived with Ray’s work in such a way that the films are part of their lives. Quoting from Ray’s work, recalling scenes from his films, paying tributes to his work in film after film – all this show that he might just be the most popular Bengali cultural icon, ahead of even Tagore.
Sonar Kella is a detective story with the sleuth Feluda and his assistants Topshe and Jatayu (who first appears in the Feluda series in this story) as the main characters. As was typical of Ray, we are aware of the crime and the criminals from the very start. The author hides nothing from the audience. It is the process of Feluda deducing the modus operandi of the crime and getting to the criminals that forms the body of the story. Having read many detective stories in my life (including the entire Feluda series), I have come to realize that the reason for the endearment with Sonar Kella (the film) cannot be ascribed only to the detective and fact finding element.
For me, Sonar Kella is a travelogue and a story of fantasy and then a detective story. At the start of the film, we see the 2 villains kidnap the wrong kid because he is a namesake of Mukul, their target. On realizing their mistake, they tell him that they have come from Baluchistan and are not conversant with the roads of Calcutta. Even though this is purely hogwash, the very name ‘Baluchistan’ at the start of the film opens up a land of fantasy in an otherwise humdrum setting of North Calcutta. This theme of ‘travel’ continues throughout the film at 2 different levels – actual travel and traveling of the mind. With a mission to rescue a clairvoyant Mukul from the clutches of 2 rogues, Feluda and Topshe set off for picture postcard Rajasthan. Their entire train journey, through Indian states of Bihar, UP etc., is shown in great detail. While traveling Feluda and Topshe meet Jatayu and their conversation not only touches upon the almost mythical dacoits of Aravalli but also allude to even the Sahara desert! The discussion between Feluda and Jatayu on the mode of punishment adopted by the Aravalli dacoits remains the strongest association of Bengalis with bandits to this day! Then, of course, there is the villain Mandar Bose (played brilliantly by Kamu Mukhopadhyay) who claims to be a globetrotter. When he talks about his (claimed) travels of Brazil, Kenya, China and numerous other places of the world we cannot help but admire even though we know that his stories are false.
When placed in the context of Ray’s body of work, we can probably trace certain continuities through this sense of travel in Sonar Kella. In his acclaimed Apu trilogy, Apu is shown as the simple village boy who comes to the big city with eyes filled with wonder. As Apu talks about his autobiographical novel in Apur Sansar, he talks about a young village boy who is blessed with a thirst for knowledge and he wants to see, feel and experience. The coming of age of Apu is characterized with a sense of wonder that accompanies discovery. Be it the iconic coming of the train scene in Pather Panchali or Apu’s coming to Calcutta in Aparajito or his discovering love with his wife in Apur Sansar, this sense of amazement is recurrent. Travel, as a theme, is also used in his last film Agantuk where Utpal Dutta’s character is a globetrotter (vagabond would be a more apt descriptor).As is the case with many an auteur, a part of their subjectivity rests with the characters they create. It wouldn’t be a mistake to say there was a part of Ray in Feluda, Manomohan (Agantuk) and even Apu even though he was a village boy in contrast to Ray’s urban, aristocratic upbringing. And this is crucial to understand the explosion of cultural abundance Bengal had seen at one point of time in history. Ray, like Feluda or Tagore or Salil Choudhary or Manomohan, was what we today call a global citizen. The expression of that cosmopolitanism wasn’t through MNCs or big brands or foreign investments. As artists (each in their own right) they interacted with the globe at the level of ideas. Ray was a student of European cinema and Feluda considered Sherlock Holmes his guru. The Ray version of Bengal (and India) was one which kept itself open to other cultures, influences and ideas. It wasn’t the inward looking, cliquey, parochial collection of communities that our country is (and was even then). This refusal to open up and interact is a sign of mediocrity that had no place in the world of Satyajit Ray. And art that bears this honesty and openness eventually finds its takers. It isn’t a surprise that Jaisal fort in Jaisalmer is now popularly known as ‘Sonar Kella’!

As Feluda says in his reply to the eccentric genius Sidhu jyatha in Sonar Kella, “Aamio moner janala gulo khulei rekhechhi.” (I, too, have kept the windows of my heart open). Travel is only a metaphor for that.
May 1, 2012

Happy Birthday Manna Dey!

Celebrating May day & Manna Dey’s birthday!

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