Sunday, July 30, 2006

Go watch Omkara...’s brilliant! Vishal Bharadwaj’s eye for composition and detailing is outstanding, I loved the salty dialect (though I didn’t understand all of it) and this was the best ensemble acting I’ve seen in a long time: a nod in particular to Saif Ali Khan’s Iago/Langda Tyagi. The effeminate touches he gives the character in places – the red nail-polish, the earrings, the way he puts a cummerbund around his head in one scene – reminded me of the things I’ve read about Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Iago (he played him as secretly lusting for Othello).

A few months ago I wrote a post about Ram Gopal Varma’s overwrought attempts at manufacturing realism. Well, watching Omkara, I realised that Bharadwaj gets a lot of the things right that RGV often struggles with, especially in the intense scenes. Extremely impressive though his framing of shots is, it rarely becomes an end in itself – it doesn’t cry out “Look what I’m doing here!” to the viewer. (Also, Ajay Devgan’s broodiness in this film is far more convincing than it was in Company.)

Was about to write a full-fledged post on Omkara but then I read this superb long review by Baradwaj Rangan and I threw my hands up. This is one of the most perceptive pieces of writing I’ve seen about an Indian movie in a very long time; do read it all the way through (preferably after watching the film).

Quick notes:

- Warning for anyone who’s conservative about these things or who plans to take elderly family members for this film: there’s plenty of profanity, including a large sprinkling of “chutiyas” and “bhenchods”. (Need I add that sections of the audience burst into spontaneous applause and whistling each time one of these words was heard?)

- Is there anything Konkana Sen Sharma can’t do? I’ve seen her in four completely different roles in the last fortnight and am awestruck by how she keeps pushing herself as an actress, all the while managing to seem effortless.

- Chap next to me spent the final 10 minutes chattering into his cellphone – thankfully he wasn’t too loud (or maybe the film’s soundtrack drowned him out) but I did gather that he was relating the onscreen developments to the poor wretch at the other end. Since this was the point in the film where the bodies start to pile up in the best gory Shakespearean style, the descriptions were mainly suchlike:

Ab woh isse bhi maar dega.”

Ek aur mar gaya.”

Lagta hai sab ke sab hee mar jayenge.”

Arre, itni serious picture hai.”

And while exiting the hall, this snatch:

Yeh toh real story hai. Shakespeare ka hai na – woh bahut real stories likhta tha.”

Link: Omkara official site

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Crash pom bang

Have read very little in the past 2 weeks: essentially just Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (the prize for my Indibloggie win), which I’ll blog about soon. So it’s a nice cosy feeling to have my hands on Vikram Chandra’s 900-page Sacred Games. (An earlier post on the charm of big books here.) The first couple of sentences immediately caught my attention:
A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls waiting for the St Mary’s Convent bus.
Tch, poor little Fluffy. But what a great start to a book! Move over, 'Call me Ishmael'. I’ll probably start reading this one sometime over the weekend.

Also, this reminds me that a couple of months ago my mom asked if I would put up a picture of her Pomeranian on my site. Thematically speaking this is as good a time as any to do it, so here goes:

Friday, July 28, 2006

Blog meet! Blog meet! Be there!

Just to inform Delhi bloggers about a meet taking place on Sunday evening. It's hosted by Soumyadip and you'll find the details on his blog as well as on Shivam's. I probably won't be able to make it but many luminosities should be present, so get thee hence in the pouring rain and genuflect at the altar of celebrity blogdom. It's an incestuous, back-rubbing circle, but it's ours and don't we love it? Besides, what better way to spend your Sunday? Don’t answer either of these questions.

Details here and here.

P.S. By fortuitous happenstance at least two worthy non-Delhi bloggers – JAP and Arka – are in town at this time, so maybe they'll be there too. Last heard, Falstaff was also lurking somewhere in Gurgaon, having sensibly reneged on his promises to meet some of us individually – so Shivam, if you can dig him out that will be the cherry that broke the cake's back, or whatever the saying is...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Film classics: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The very first shot in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is of a train pulling into a little railway station. Anyone familiar with the grammar of classic movie westerns will know that the railroad plays a very special role in these films: it’s a symbol of advancement, the bridge between the Old West and the New West; in some ways a bridge between savagery and civilisation. American mythology has it that before trains connected the Midwestern towns and frontiers with the East Coast, the rule of the gun prevailed. Authority figures were often irrelevant; the winner was usually the fastest draw.

On the train are the US senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), who have come to visit the small town of Shinbone where they had first met a long time ago. They are received at the station by an aging former Marshall, and one immediately senses the nostalgia in the air. “The place sure has changed, Link,” Hallie tells him, “Churches, high schools, shops…who would have thought it?” “The railroad’s done that, Hallie,” he replies. The tone of this conversation is telling. They are talking about the markers of civilisation, of human progress, yet there’s a residual sadness, a sigh of regret beneath the words. There’s something almost grudging about the acknowledgement that change has, on the whole, been for the better.

Stoddard and Hallie have come to Shinbone for the burial of an old friend named Tom Doniphon, a man hardly anyone in town even knows about. The editor of the local newspaper, thrilled at the chance to interview a possible future vice-president, presses Stoddard for details. Who was this Doniphon and why was he important enough for a US senator to take time off from his important schedule?

In flashback, we get the meat of the story: Ransom’s arrival in Shinbone as an idealistic young lawyer decades earlier, eager to bring education to the boondocks; his encounter with the savage outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who has the townsfolk in perpetual fear; his arguments with the rugged Tom (John Wayne), who believes that the only way to deal with Valance is with a gun; his attempts to get the people to organise themselves into a community governed by proper laws; and finally, his reluctant confrontation with Valance – in a shootout scene that lays the ground for the film’s most famous line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star personalities

John Wayne and James Stewart were 54 and 53 respectively when this film was made, and one of the standing criticisms of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that they were far too old for their characters in the “flashback sequence” (which is, after all, 90 per cent of the film). Makeup helps to an extent, and one of the most notable things about Stewart’s performance as the young Ransom is how he quickens his reactions and physical movements without making it very obvious. He’s a lot more alert and sprightly than he presumably was in real life (in fact, even as a young man, Stewart’s stock in trade was a shuffling, slow walk and a Midwestern drawl – so this performance, given in his 50s, is probably among his most energetic ever!).

The criticism about age is of course justified from the point of view of verisimilitude, but it’s impossible to imagine this film without these men in the leading roles, for their screen personalities are crucial to its effect. Stewart, a more nuanced actor, was the modern man – vulnerable, complex, unafraid to show a feminine side (in fact, he spends some of the key scenes in this film in an apron, which has led to much critical analysis of gender roles!). This was reflected in the roles he played in middle age, especially in films by Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Wayne, in contrast, was repeatedly used by Ford in their many films together as an emblem of the Old West – the macho cowboy who survived by his shooting skills. By all accounts, the screen image was not very far from the man’s real-life persona, for Wayne was known to be jingoistic, brow-beating, politically on the far right, pro-Vietnam War, full of notions about what “real men” must be like.

Watching him in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I remember a story told by Kirk Douglas in his autobiography The Ragman’s Tale. Douglas, who himself frequently did macho-man roles early in his career, had just stretched himself as an actor by playing the tortured Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. In his book, he recounts an incident involving Wayne, who was present at a private screening of the film:

[John] kept looking at me. We hadn’t worked together yet. He seemed upset. He had a drink in one hand, motioned to me with the other. Out on the terrace, he berated me. “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.”

I tried to explain. “Hey John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.” He looked at me oddly. I had betrayed him. I took it as a compliment; the picture had moved him, or at least disturbed him.
This is one side of the story. For the other side, you need to watch Wayne in some of his best roles in films like The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Red River – movies where he betrays a vulnerability, even a lack of self-confidence, beneath the posturing. Though a limited actor in many ways, he had the ability to convey the sadness and disaffection of a man who knows deep inside that his beliefs and values have no place in a rapidly changing world. Some of this can be seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: note the many scenes where Wayne watches Stewart with a curious little smile on his face, trying to figure him out. Or the way he observes
the growing closeness between Ransom and Hallie and realises that he is losing “his girl” (another phrase that has its roots in an old patriarchal system) to a more sensitive man, a symbol of progress. Above all, note Ford’s seeming iconizing of Wayne in scenes like the key conversation between him and Stewart near the end of the film (the slow dissolve where, for a couple of seconds, what we see on screen is the sort of image that would be perfect for a postage stamp). But what Ford is doing here is more complex: he’s inverting the myth. This isn’t a Wayne character who will ride off triumphantly into the sunset; he’ll fade away quietly, spend his later days forgotten and alone.

This great film is about the passing of an old world. Despite some sentimentalising (as in the suggestion that Hallie continued to carry a torch for Tom; that she made the practical decision to marry Ransom and become a modern woman, but on some level was still in love with the rugged, uneducated frontiersman), it isn’t a mere elegy, for it recognises that many things about that old world were undesirable – who would argue in favour of the “let’s settle this with guns” brand of machismo? However, it gently makes the point that even when change is for the better, it’s possible to mourn the passing of a simpler time. It reminds us that the present is, after all, built on the bones of the past, and that various phases of transition have seen the crushing of the dreams of decent, well-meaning people. (In the context of the story, the implication is also that law and order in the West might never have been set down if it hadn’t been for the heroes of an earlier time, who went about things in a less “civilised” way. “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” is the film’s ironical last line; but by this point we know better.)

Like many of the best Hollywood classics, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can be appreciated foremost on narrative terms. The story, the dialogue and the performances (including Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard, and of course Lee Marvin as the petulant outlaw whipping his victims with a belt – a Method performance that's delightfully incongruous to this film) are of the highest order, and held together by one of the greatest of movie directors. John Ford made so many superb films that one tends to take his oeuvre for granted – rarely is there a singling out of this or that movie, the way one often sees done with Welles or Kurosawa or Hitchcock or Bergman. But this latter-day film is undeniably among his very best work.

[This is a much longer version of a piece I wrote for the New Sunday Express earlier in the week. A few previous posts on classic films: Strangers on a Train, Yojimbo, M*A*S*H, 8 1/2, Spartacus, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Twelve Angry Men, Peeping Tom, The Passion of Joan of Arc.]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Train-stopping sadhoos, Perfect Man, imperfect honeymoon

Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?
Clarice Starling: Ants. The ants were screaming.
Lecter: They were slaughtering the ants?
Clarice: And they were screaming.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Ants? That was the audience at the Siri Fort auditorium!

(Conversation in my head during the screening of Scream of the Ants yesterday)

Late in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s bizarre new film Shaere Zobale-Ha (Scream of the Ants), there is a monologue spoken by a German tourist to one of the protagonists, the male half of an Iranian couple visiting India. With a goofy smile and a deadpan voice that suggests he’s spent much time passively inhaling whatever it is the Hindoo sadhoos smoke, this character directly addresses the camera and tells us that the universe is full of shit raining down on everyone. Different faiths, he explains, have different ways of dealing with this shit.
The Catholics say, “Shit happens.” The Protestants say, “The other guy is responsible for the shit.” The Muslims say “The shit is the Will of Allah.” The Jews go, “Why, oh why, is all the shit falling only on us? The Buddhists reply, “But there is no shit.” And the Japanese Zen masters whisper, “Listen closely and you will hear the sound of shit falling.”
I’m tempted at this stage to make an obvious snide remark about Makhmalbaf raining crap all over the Cinefan audience, but I’d like to cut the man some slack: he’s made some fine films in the past and maybe this one was just an elaborate joke. Really, it has to be an elaborate joke, because taken at face value Scream of the Ants is the most extraordinary bilge.

Short synopsis. An atheist and his wife, a believer, are in India for their honeymoon. They meet an assortment of characters including an unctuous south Indian journalist who tells them that most tourists who come to this country are foolish. “There are no such things as miracles,” he says to the wife. “To me, your beauty is a miracle.” They encounter a “holy man” who is reputed to stop trains with his eyes. The myth is debunked in an admittedly funny scene where the old chap admits that his “followers” force him to sit on the tracks with his arms stretched out, because when the train stops they get offerings of food from the passengers. “But after all, who can stop a train except for its driver?” he asks, not unreasonably. “Please save me,” he tells the couple, “I don’t want to spend my life sitting on tracks pretending to stop trains – I miss my family, I haven’t seen them in a long while.”

At night, the woman tells her husband the story of Gandhi refusing to have sex except to beget children. “Should we do the same?” she asks him. “I don’t want to be responsible for bringing someone into this crazy world,” he says (it’s unclear if he means the world of this movie or the crazy real world that the rest of us live in), and leaves her for a brief liaison with an Indian prostitute who speaks English in an impeccable French accent. (The liaison consists of the man requesting the prostitute to undress and bend over and pretend to be a table. It may or may not be important to mention at this point that the couple carry a chair around with them at all times; they appear to have no other luggage.)

The two Iranians wander about a deserted landscape looking for the Complete Man or the Perfect Man, which is apparently the reason the woman wanted to visit India. They meet someone who introduces himself as the Cow Man (no, not Amit Varma) but who eventually admits to be the Complete Man they are looking for. He writes something for them with invisible ink (onion juice) on a stone tablet. The wife is overcome by religious fervour. The husband is irritated: he didn’t come here looking for no Complete Man, all he wanted was a sex-filled honeymoon. They fight again. They go to the banks of the Ganga where the stoned German tourist speaks many sentences. Naked sadhoos materialise and bathe in the water close to where the woman is standing. Thus the film ends.

Sorry, I know that wasn’t a short synopsis, but there’s no other way to describe this movie. It must be allowed to speak for itself, or at least chant and blubber for itself. (While on speaking, most of the dialogue involving Indian characters is in very oddly spoken English or very oddly spoken Hindi. This is either the most brilliant naturalistic acting I’ve ever seen or incompetence taken to grand new depths, I can’t say which.)

I had a really hard time figuring this film out. Usually I don’t get hot and bothered about movies that “indulge clichés and stereotypes” by (for example) depicting poverty in India – clichés do after all have their roots in reality, and a filmmaker can chose any topic he pleases; the movie must eventually be judged on how it handles the subject. But there’s so much spiritual mumbo-jumbo on display here that it makes the conversations between Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in Siddhartha seem soaked with meaning. (“What is it, Siddhartha? What are you seeking?” “I’m looking for Truth, Kamala. Not external Truth but the Truth that lies hidden deep within me.”)

Earlier in the Cinefan week, It Could Be You made a strong case for all NRIs everywhere in the world being deported back to India immediately. Now Makhmalbaf’s film convinces us that tourism to this country should be banned as well.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Cinefan notes: Yun Hota toh Kya Hota?

[Minor spoiler alert, though why bother?]

Naseeruddin Shah’s directorial debut Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (What If...?) is advertised as a film about “people with distinct hopes and motives whom fate has randomly selected to play their assigned roles in one of the most terrible events of recent times”. The main poster shows the large cast standing together, the Manhattan skyline with the twin towers in the backdrop. At the start of the film, a voiceover tells us that the current date is August 31, 2001, and a dateline to that effect stays on screen for at least five seconds. This is immediately followed by talk about a US visa and about sundry characters who are leaving for America. A little later, a girl excitedly holds up a US tourism poster with the World Trade Centre on it. In an unrelated context a man, extolling the virtues of modest dwellings, says “Skyscrapers don’t even make good ruins.” Halfway through the film, there is a pre-figuring shot of a plane flying high above a very tall building.

So what do you think the terrible event being referred to might be?

Ya, well try telling that to some of the people in the audience at the Cinefan screening on Wednesday. Considering the abundance of visual and verbal clues, it’s remarkable that quite a few people at the screening seemed unprepared for where this film was heading until the final 15-20 minutes, when a calendar showing September 10 is flipped over to the next date and you feel paroxysms running through sections of the crowd.

Overheard, this conversation between two lads, more than three-fourths of the way through the film:

(Onscreen, someone mentions that it’s 47 rupees to the dollar)

Lad 1: Hey, isn’t the exchange rate 44 or 45 rupees?
Lad 2 (offhandedly, not really paying attention to what he’s saying): Ya, but this film is set in 2001, right?
Lad 1: 2001? How do you know?
Lad 2: It said so in the beginning. August 2001 or something like that.

(Onscreen, there are shots of airports, planes moving about. Visas, boarding passes, tall buildings.)

Lad 1 (experiencing epiphany attack) Arre, kahin yeh 9/11 ke baare mein toh nahin!
Lad 2: F#$!ing hell man, you’re right!

Yun Hota toh Kya Hota tells four unrelated but converging stories: a newly married couple (Konkana Sensharma and Jimmy Shergill) must briefly be separated because the guy is working abroad; a small-time organiser of foreign shows (Paresh Rawal) takes money from young girls to get them to the US; a brilliant but poor student secures admission to a foreign university with the help of a rich friend; and a crooked stockbroker (Irrfan) is falsely implicated in a murder. For most of its duration this is a smartly made film, especially for a debutant director. Shah juggles the narratives with aplomb, most of the characters are well-delineated, always a difficult achievement in a film like this (though the mad family Konkana’s character marries into could have come out of a David Lynch movie), and the script is good on the whole.

Unfortunately, the impact is diluted by an ending that’s much too explicit and expository. (“See, that’s the window the plane will fly through,” a cynical friend whispered to me when a character finds himself alone in a room on the 95th floor of the WTC late in the film. I laughed the idea off, but this is exactly what happened. And let’s hope the US government doesn’t see this film, they’ll interpret certain scenes to mean that the terrorists did what they did just because they were being annoyed by Indian co-passengers: “Hello. I from India. And yourself?” There, I’ve revealed too much.)

One understands what Shah is trying to do here: this is a statement on the quirks of destiny using the minutiae of various lives that will be impacted by a terrible real-life incident we already know about. The concept certainly is interesting; it would doubtless be possible to make hundreds of films about people whose hopes and dreams were altered or destroyed by 9/11. But there’s also an element of tastelessness in taking a real-life tragedy of this scale and then stylising it the way this film does in its final scenes. There are at least a couple of moments late in Yun Hota toh Kya Hota when the film, having made all its points, could simply have ended with grace and subtlety. Fade to black. Instead it feels compelled to go all the way, to show us everything, and this was always going to be a disastrous decision; you’d need the subtlety of a United 93 to pull it off. The final title card, “Dedicated to all those who died on that terrible day”, reads almost like an apology.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cinefan diary: Jean-Claude Carriere

Spoke with Jean-Claude Carriere, the celebrated French author, playwright and scriptwriter, at Cinefan yesterday; he's conducting a talent workshop on the adaptation of books into films. I had first met Carriere around 6 years ago when he was in Delhi for the launch of In Search of the Mahabharata, the English translation of his book La Recherche du Mahabharata (based on Carriere's experiences adapting the great epic to the stage, and later screen, with British director Peter Brook). It was one of my first interviews as a journalist, conducted in a hurry with plenty of people around, and I was very nervous. Yesterday was much better; we sat down on the steps outside one of the auditoria, away from all the noise, and had a nice one-on-one chat.

Over the years I've seen Carriere's name displayed prominently in the credits of many high-quality films, but the chief point of fascination for me is that he worked very closely with Luis Bunuel, one of my favourite directors, in the 1960s and 1970s. They collaborated on the scripts of six of Bunuel's latter-day films, including Belle du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. My favourite among those films is The Phantom of Liberty, a brilliantly subversive film that overturns conventional theories of narrative structure – first following one group of characters, then another, completely at random.

I asked Carriere about the film, and he related the story of how he and Bunuel got the idea for it:

"While talking, we stumbled upon the seed of a scenario that we were both fascinated by. It involved a man and a woman – probably a married couple – having a furious argument, a violent fight. While we don't know the exact reason for the fight, we learn that it hinges on the contents of a letter that is soon to be delivered to the house. The argument continues – the dialogue is very intense and engrossing, it holds the viewer's interest, and we're wondering what the letter could possibly contain. Then the doorbell rings, and it's the postman. He hands the letter over to the couple, they start to open it, but instead of staying with them the camera tracks to the right and follows the postman out the door!"

This scene wasn't used in the final film, but The Phantom of Liberty is full of such moments – little cul de sacs that can be very frustrating for a viewer. "It operates on an audacious principle," says Carriere. "First we follow one character whose story seems to be very interesting. Then his path crosses with someone else's, and we make a switch and start following the new character. It's like the camera is telling the viewer, 'hmm, this new person might have an even more interesting story for us, so let's take a chance and see what he's up to'."

"In a sense," he says, "it's the only film ever made about how to write a story."

That said, Carriere knows he could never teach young students about scriptwriting by using a film as unique as The Phantom of Liberty as a template. His workshop at the festival here will be conducted along more conventional lines. "The advice I give students who are just starting out and want to know how to develop a story – or at least get the starting point for it –– is: take a person or a group of people, make them desire something, and then introduce an obstacle to that desire," he says. "Some of the world's greatest stories have been built on these simple elements: the desire and the obstacle."

Adapting from book to film is a serious business, he says, because you have to know the language of film, which is very different from that of literature, or any other form. “When you're adapting a novel for the screen, you're looking for a hidden/invisible film within the pages of the book.” He talks about a scene from Jean Renoir's La Chienne: "A woman is on a bed, reading – she's using one of those paper-cutters people used to cut each new page while reading a book. Her lover enters, he knows she's been unfaithful to him; she puts the book down and starts talking to him. An edge enters their conversation. Just as things are getting tense, Renoir gives us the briefest shot of the paper-cutter lying on the bed, the light from the window reflecting on it. The camera is drawing the viewers' attention to something that the protagonists aren't even thinking about at this moment. But it's a way of introducing a new character – an element of danger, the possibility of murder – into the scene."

It's pure cinematographic language, says Carriere. No other medium can do something like this.

(I'm tempted to retort "what about the graphic novel?", but I think better of it.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Cinefan diary: Dosar

Quiet day at Cinefan, but I did see Rituparno Ghosh’s latest, Dosar, a very engrossing film about a young housewife Kaberi (played by Konkana Sen Sharma, who gets better with each performance) who simultaneously finds out that her husband has been in a near-fatal car accident and that he was having an affair with a married colleague. Her immediate reaction is that of extreme hurt disguised as vehemence, even callousness: she refuses to sign documents at the hospital, lashes out at her husband’s brother, makes sarcastic remarks at inappropriate moments, takes morbid pleasure in informing her injured husband that his ex-lover died in the crash.

But after the initial shock, as she tries to get down to the business of carrying on with her life, we see a more complex, human side to her. There’s also a subplot involving two of her friends who are in an extramarital affair of their own – their conversations about the conflict between love and security help illuminate the nature of the relationship between Kaberi’s husband and his mistress, but also serve as a contrast to it. And most telling are Kaberi’s interactions with the dead woman’s husband, who is initially quite callous himself (he coolly hands her a box of condoms that he found in his wife’s bag after the accident – “she won’t be needing them now, but your husband might”) but who later shows the frustrations of an utterly powerless man – unable even to confront his wife the way Kaberi can confront her husband.

This might seem like a facile comparison, especially to those who are more familiar with Bengali cinema than I am (what I’ve seen has mostly been limited to films by four or five of the best-known directors), but many elements in Rituparno’s films remind me of Satyajit Ray’s best qualities as a filmmaker: the embellishing of a straightforward narrative with basic moviemaking tools - a compelling script, excellent acting, tight editing - and most of all, the ability to empathise with the situations of many different characters. (Ray famously said once that villains didn’t interest him, and a lot of Dosar’s power comes from the recognition that the worst qualities on view here are basic human failings that any of us are vulnerable to.) Incidentally Dosar is shot in beautiful black and white, which may be another reason why it reminded me of Ray’s early work. (There was a touch of Charulata in the last scene, with its hint of acceptance and/or reconciliation.)

P.S. There’s more adult content here than any other Bengali film I’ve seen: all the talk of clandestine weekends in hotel rooms; a couple of love scenes (very artistically filmed of course, with much poetry in voiceover!); a prostitute joking about her client’s “energy”; the condom references. Speculated to a friend that the film might have been an endeavour to prove that Bongs can have exciting sex lives after all, including extramarital ones.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Cinefan diary: Faltu, It Could be You, Paradise Now

Watched four films at Cinefan today, two of them really, really terrible. First there was Anjan Das’s Faltu, which I fear may have been intended as an allegory for the rape of Bengal by communists, or the rape of something by someone. What can one say? This film is a compendium of some unusual camera angles (e.g. a tracking shot taken from ground level as a boat approaches a little dock), unnecessarily repetitive close-ups of the faces of sundry men as they shuffle about and looked awkward when asked the question “So who is Faltu’s father?”, and scenes where a madwoman writhes about on the ground while ugly bald men rape her or make plans to rape her. (By the way, don’t expect a CD of this movie’s soundtrack to be out anytime soon. The aural experience is almost unbearable for anyone who has delicate ears – enormous quantities of moaning, grunting and screaming.)

I had just about decided that the acting in Faltu was the worst I’d ever seen in a film, but then I popped across to the next hall to catch a film titled It Could Be You (in the Indian Competition section, no less), and the ranking had to be promptly re-thought. This is an unbelievably bad NRI movie that takes every imaginable cliché, blows it up, and smears it all over the viewer’s face (and I’m speaking here as someone who’s witnessed some very extreme NRI behaviour firsthand, and who knows how filmi it can get in real life). Watching this film is as edifying as two hours spent watching a man trying to milk a long-dead cow on the roadside; after just 20 or so minutes I was crying out for the restrained, tasteful sensibility of a Govinda-David Dhawan movie. It meanders from unfunny slapstick comedy to unintentionally funny morality tale about the relative importance of family and money, to an inept hired-killer yarn with a family solemnly planning the demise of their patriarch (in a scene that’s around 15 minutes longer than it needed to be).

There’s Kirron Kher doing a pathetically contrived accent: pronouncing “you” as “jew” and “wishes” as “bishes”, and declaiming each sentence as if she’d just finished rehearsing it in her mind four or five times – which she probably had. And I’ve lost faith in Naseerudin Shah, or at least in his choice in films; could it be that he’s become overenthusiastic about this supposed “experimentation” that’s happening in Indian cinema (the crossover blah blah for instance), and is agreeing to be part of any nonsensical project that comes his way? He’s in at least four of the movies being telecast at the festival, and I have no idea whether the others are any good. (Incidentally, Soumitra Chatterjee was in Faltu, which made it a generally bad day for great actors. Last year, sitting in exactly the same hall, I watched him in Charulata and Sonar Kella. What a fall.)

The day was salvaged by Paradise Now, a powerful, moving film about two young men training to be suicide bombers in the Palestinian cause. This description probably makes it sound very political (and violent), but it isn’t; it’s a simply told story about two youngsters struggling for a cause, struggling to make sense of their lives and impending deaths. It manages to be thoughtful and fast-paced at the same time, and is even lighthearted about a couple of things without detracting from the poignancy of the subject matter. Excellent end to a mixed day. Note to anyone who doesn’t know anything about the films being screened and is confused about what to watch: the Arabesque section is always a good bet. (Aruna Vasudeva makes a special point of mentioning it each year and she’s right: in my years of watching Cinefan, I haven’t yet been disappointed by any film in this section.)

Reviews of Paradise Now here.


Emcee (introducing Conrad Rooks’ Siddhartha, starring Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal): “In this film, Simi Garewal is unrecognisable from her present-day avatar.”
Anonymous shouts from audience: “She better be!”

Update: Nikhil weighs in with some tips for Cinefan-goers. To which I'd like to add that I'm happy about the addition of a canteen this year. (It's another matter that at one point today I found myself eating seekh kabab with kulcha - no typo - and tomato ketchup. Quite experimental even by my high standards.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Updates + mini-review: You Must Like Cricket?

Been busier than usual on other fronts, so reading and writing have been on a downward curve. Most of the professional writing I’ve done in the last few days has been patchwork-ish - hurriedly put together lists, little reportage pieces here and there - not the kind of stuff I put up here. Plus I’m feeling very lazy and it occurs to me that for once it might be interesting to spend a week or so just doing things without writing about them immediately afterwards. Hence decline in blogging.

Cinefan reminder: it started today, though for some reason the “opening film” is tomorrow evening. The schedule is up on the official site now, also downloadable in PDF format.

R.I.P. Syd Barrett. The man is at the centre of one of rock music’s greatest “what ifs”: what sort of a band would Pink Floyd have become if he had retained his sanity for even a few years more? It’s so pointless asking these questions, but it’s also such fun. Here's a fine profile from the Observer.

Also, a tip to anyone who’s ever been fanatical about cricket (or about any other sport. Or, I’m tempted to add, about anything): pick up Soumya Bhattacharya’s You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan. Very enjoyable book about three decades in the life of a cricket obsessive. (The sub-title is misleading: Bhattacharya isn’t just any “cricket fan”. He’s the sort who, when asked when his daughter was born, answers, “Um, well...the year India beat Australia after following on. Laxman’s double, you know.” Later, he interrupts the handycam filming of her first attempts at walking because of a rerun of a rerun of a minor landmark in a Tendulkar innings. He knows he’s too far gone, he’s aware that he’s been disappointed by the Indian team more often than not, but he can’t help it, and he doesn’t want to help it. This is obsession at its purest.)

What I most enjoyed about You Must Like Cricket? is how the writing style approximates the enthusiasm of a frenzied fan who can’t wait to share his opinions and experiences - Bhattacharya moves from one memory or anecdote to another, breaks the flow of a passage by putting in a lengthy observation in parentheses; and it works. The effect is that of the author sitting in front of you, relating stories, opinionating, gesticulating wildly, all without pausing for breath. This is very unselfconsciousness writing: whether he’s explaining how he simulated the sound of clapping and roaring inside a stadium when he was role-playing as a child, or recounting how he and his friends quietened a group of rowdy north Indians on a train by producing a radio while a match was on: “[it was like] those films in which explorers win over tribes by showing them colourful trinkets”. Or telling a woman at a party that he is more interested in the Indian team’s progress in South Africa than in the Gujarat riots.

Despite the freeflowing style, there is a cursory attempt at structure. Bhattacharya starts with his initiation into the game as a five-year-old living in England, watching Wadekar’s team humiliated in the summer of 1974 and bemused by his parents’ reactions to the Indian loss; then moves on to his growing years in the small town of Bankura, where radio commentary was the only avenue of entertainment; his first genuine hero G R Viswanath, who stirs in him the partisan protectiveness that most sports fans know only too well (he admits to being pleased by Gavaskar’s failures in the 1983 World Cup because everyone in his family preferred Gavaskar to Viswanath). And this is only the beginning of a long (and continuing) odyssey.
Cricket gives me a sense of time,” he writes, “I tend to think of every major event in my life in terms of something that happened on a cricket pitch...the truth is, it is the only way in which I can remember anything at all.”

Monday, July 10, 2006

Perceptions part 2

A few categories of reactions to the WC final (and the head-butt incident that will have newspaper subs around the world dredging up old clichés and dreaming up new puns):

1) If Zinedine Zidane isn’t a personal hero and you didn’t support the French team: you shake your head in smug self-righteousness and make noises about a great player ending his career in disgrace, condemned to be remembered for all time for one shameful incident. All the while you’re shivering with the very particular excitement that comes with watching heroes being toppled off pedestals.

If you belong in the above category and you’re also a Calcuttan, you earnestly explain to TV channels that you’re pleased Italy won because they beat France, and France had earlier beaten Brazil, which is of course the best team in the world. Intermittently you scream “Ronaldinho! Ronaldinho!”

2) If you’re a middle-of-the-road Zidane fan you brush off tears, mutter darkly that he must have been provoked beyond human tolerance to do something like this; you talk about the red mist in a great player’s head, about the thin line between genius and madness – you point out that both qualities spring from the same source, that one cannot exist without the other, and this is why the careers of many great sportspersons make for such fascinating studies.

3) But if you’re a genuine Zidane devotee – like a dear friend with whom I’ve had some immensely stimulating discussions about sport and life – this is what you say (and I’m quoting as best as I can remember):
I mean sure, he had to be red-carded, no question about that. But did you see that head-butt? If you have to end your career with a head-butt, this is the perfect way to do it. It was as graceful and effective and beautiful as everything else the man has done in his entire career. Marco is a hulking six-footer and he went down like a tree. And what’s with this idiot Times correspondent going on about how Zidane’s career didn’t end on the poetic note he was hoping for? Has the man ever actually read any poetry? Or was he talking about Westlife songs? What happened with Zidane here was positively Homeric.
And later:
Watching a man like Zidane, whether he’s playing or head-butting, you realise that all you’re ever going to be is this poncey little journalist carrying a laptop around, pretending that your life is actually worth something.
And then you spend the whole night practicing artistically executed head butts against the wall of your room.

[Clarification: I haven’t been following football long enough to fit in any of the above categories myself. But if I did, it would probably be somewhere in the second.]

P.S. My friend also called my attention to a press conference by the Israeli prime minister, telecast Live on CNN this morning, where the man spent the first five minutes congratulating Italy on their WC win, and only then moved on to the subject of violence in Gaza and the need for Israel-Palestine peace. Lovely.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Still on tennis:
"All this hatred of Nadal reminds me of Agassi when he first came to play at Wimbledon," [says] Richard Rouse. "He was brash, flash and wore daft clothes and everybody wanted him to lose. When Nadal's hair falls out and he doesn't seem so enviably young and exuberant, we'll all be big fans." The man's got a point.
More on the great Rafa debate: "I've been musing over Senor Garcia's question" says Nick Westacott, "and I've decided that while I find Nadal a perfectly amiable bloke, I just can't trust a man in three-quarter-length trousers."
Enjoyed this game-by-game commentary on the Nadal-Baghdatis match from the Guardian website. It's smartly written, very tongue-in-cheek but it's also insightful about how we form perceptions about sportspersons - often after watching them in just a couple of games. Oh, Baghdatis seems so friendly, likeable, puppy-doggish. This Nadal chap is so clinical, cocky, there's something just not-very-nice about him. Of such vague impressions (many of which, needless to say, have nothing to do with what the player might really be like) are our sporting loyalties formed – and except in a few rare cases, these loyalties change constantly depending on the situation, the context, even our frame of mind at any given time. One might find a player intensely annoying because he keeps winning all his matches without giving any opponent a chance; but then, when he unexpectedly loses a really important tie, one suddenly feels sorry for him. (I briefly felt this way about Federer when he missed the chance to complete his "Roger Slam" at the French Open last month.) It's a fascinating process because it says much more about us, the spectators, than it does about the players we are constantly watching and judging.

(And what about blogging, where some people carefully analyse every little thing you say, sometimes extrapolate it into something else, and then use it to decide what sort of a person you are. But we won't get into that now.)

Also, see this entertaining piece which likens Nadal to Marlon Brando and Federer to Fred Astaire, and also throws in some bizarre quotes by Mats Wilander:
"Rafael has the one thing that Roger doesn't: balls," Wilander told Sports Illustrated in Paris. "I don't even think Rafael has two; I think he has three."

Wilander backed off a bit for L'Equipe: "[Federer] might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size."
Trivia: this is the first year since 1952 that the French Open and Wimbledon men's finals are being contested by the same two players. It's never happened before in the Open era. That gives you some idea of how difficult it is to do well on both surfaces.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Tennis youngsters; and in praise of Nadal

So I know it’s a bailable offence to talk about tennis while the football WC is on, but what about Marcos Baghdatis’s superb showing against Lleyton Hewitt in the Wimbledon quarter-finals yesterday? Amazing mix of skill and confidence, and did anyone see that return of serve in the fourth set? He really is a player for the future, as was first suggested by that great run at the Australian Open early this year.

There’s a chance now that Baghdatis will play Rafael Nadal in the semi-final, and what a match that could be! Two incredibly talented youngsters: Baghdatis brilliant on his day but still a bit mercurial, still susceptible to the follies of youth; Nadal much more focused and disciplined, but can he progress much further in a grass tournament?

To my own surprise, I’ve become a Nadal fan in the past few months. First, obviously, there’s the sense of gratitude and relief about his bringing some competitiveness to the men’s game, which had become painfully predictable (what with everyone slogging it out for the second spot, behind Federer). Even if Federer wins every single title in the rest of the year (as he might well do), we’ll at least know that he was beaten in four consecutive finals in the first half of 2006 - and all by one man.

Second, I enjoy many aspects of Nadal’s actual play. I think he’s a much better all-round tennis player than is suggested by the epithets “force of nature” and “brutal power”, which are repeatedly used to describe him. It’s easy to see why his clashes with Federer are labelled “Beauty vs the Beast” (Federer’s grace can make anyone seem beastlike by comparison), but Nadal can be subtle, and very effectively so, when the occasion demands it. And what about the work ethic. And the discipline (which is at such odds with his flamboyant personality). How many people do you know who had all this at age 20?

Best of all, his attitude, in terms of wanting to become a more complete player. It’s been common in the past for clay-court specialists to take it easy during the grass season (and even part of the hardcourt season); to stay in their comfort zone. But this guy says “Wimbledon is a great tournament and I want to do well in it, even if it takes a few years” - and then he puts himself out there, in the face of the danger that he’ll do badly on an unfamiliar surface (and consequently lose some of the respect that his number 2 world ranking and his wins over Federer have brought him).

This year it’s paid off: despite being an admirer of his, I never expected him to move beyond the third round this Wimbledon. But he’s in the quarters now, and who knows what more he can achieve in future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win the tournament sometime in the next 3-4 years.
For now though, set your sights on the possible Baghdatis-Nadal semi-final tomorrow (that’s only if Nadal wins his rain-delayed quarter-final today).

Here’s another reason to like Nadal: he has a blog! It was set up by ATP a few months ago and was maintained throughout the French Open, though it’ll probably die a natural death now.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Samit’s put up a fantastic series of articles/interviews on speculative fiction in India - as seen in children's literature, the work of the south Asian diaspora, and comics/graphic novels. Just go here and keep scrolling down – these are long and comprehensive posts, and there are many of them. Highlights: interviews with Vandana Singh, Matthew Cheney, Jeff VanderMeer, and a really long one with Ashok Banker. (I'm also pleased to note that the duckling has prudently censored a couple of bits from my interview, since some of the responses I sent him on email were facetious and not all that well thought out - I didn't realise the thing was going to be published, otherwise I would never, never have said those vulgar things about Hanuman-ji and the Lankan women!)

Holy boney, Batman!

For copious chuckle-inducement, see this site called Seduction of the Innocent, which has scans of old comic book covers/panels with inadvertent sexual innuendo (link via Maud Newton). I especially enjoyed this one about Batman and the Joker intent on giving each other “boners” (I’m not even sure what the term might have meant in the original context). There’s also one about Archie “beating off” a lot of guys to save Betty, and another with a cowboy trying to "ride" and "break" superman (broke-back mounting?).

Monday, July 03, 2006

The unknown writer: That Summer in Paris

There was something serendipitous about reading Abha Dawesar's That Summer in Paris shortly after finishing Philip Roth's Everyman, given that much in Dawesar's book is reminiscent of Roth and his work. There are, first, the superficial connections: her protagonist is a prolific, world-famous 75-year-old author, a Nobel laureate (Roth hasn't won the big prize yet, but don't bet against it happening) named Prem Rustum (ahem, note initials). Two of the chapter epigraphs in That Summer in Paris are from Roth novels: "When you admire a writer, you become curious. You look for his secret. The clues to his puzzle" from The Ghost Writer, and "Sex is also revenge on death" from The Dying Animal. And in a playful touch there's even a cameo appearance by Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of some of Roth's finest books.

These are of course tenuous links – if you have to take the simplistic route of relating Prem Rustum to a real-life writer, you could just as easily make a case for V S Naipaul or a couple of others. And it isn't necessary anyway. Prem doesn't come across as a derivative character, and besides the setting is evocative of a very different era – a time when literature was a more exclusive preserve than it is today and it was possible for three writers to be singled out as the most accomplished novelists in the world (Prem is hailed as one of the "three Ps").

More to the point, Dawesar's book covers some of the themes that Roth has often dealt with over his long and distinguished career: a preoccupation with aging, with the decay of the human body (something that forms the basis of Everyman); the connection between sex and death; the dichotomy between a writer's work and the person he really is behind the words. That Summer in Paris is a cool, elegantly written (if occasionally affected) story about the relationship an artist has with his work and with the people whose lives are profoundly affected by it.

The story begins with Prem, who lives in New Jersey, making his first tentative forays into the world of the Internet. On a dating website, he finds the following invitation:

Spiritual twenty-something aspiring novelist with hot buns and yoga body seeks another. Write like Prem Rustum, think like Prem Rustum, speak like Prem Rustum, be Prem Rustum. Worship at his altar like I do.

These words are written by a young woman named Maya. (Note: this is a name that's been annoyingly overused in Indian fiction in English, especially when the character is intended to be illusory or symbolic in some way. But here it performs the function of inside joke – this Maya is an American whose father named her thus because he loved Indian literature!) Prem replies to her message disclosing his identity; naturally she refuses to believe him at first, but then they meet, and when he learns she's going to Paris on a fellowship he finalises what had thus far been a sketchy plan to go there himself.

In Paris, Maya gets into a casual relationship with a Frenchman while Prem spends most of his time with his friend Pascal Boutin (a famous writer himself, another of the three Ps), but the two of them are clearly drawn towards each other. They go to museums, discuss painting and sculpture and the private and public lives of artists. All this is intercut with flashbacks to Prem's various relationships and how they impacted or were impacted by his writing: most importantly, the deep childhood love between him and his sister, which turned into incest (and became the subject of one of his most popular books); and an encounter with two Lolitas during a long and erotic summer in Paris 10 years earlier. I enjoyed the way Dawesar presents these interludes, quietly slipping them in between the pages of the present-day narrative. (The effect is very like scenes in Fellini's 8 1/2, where for instance a glimpse of a large woman's legs, a conversation with a priest and the sounds of birds chirping in the background would take Guido back to his childhood encounter with the prostitute Saraghina.)

Prem's writing has played a therapeutic part in Maya's life, but gradually she comes to see the difference between the man and his work. "You aren't the person who healed me," she tells him, "You are now a person I know. But what healed me was the unknown writer. And the real you is as vulnerable as I am." That Summer in Paris is built on this uneasy relationship and the effect it has on both their lives.

This isn't a book that will have universal appeal. The subject matter is such that it will be of most interest to people who are enthusiastic about writing themselves. Nor is that the only barrier: some of the discussions about painting and sculpture went over my head, I was puzzled (to say the least) with the bit on Prem’s elaborate “blueprints” for his novels, and then there's that little cheese-tasting scene in a restaurant where the cheese is a lot more than just cheese. But on the whole there's a lightness of touch here that makes it easy to get through. Some of the better moments are the ones between the aging authors, Prem and Pascal. These are giants among men of letters, but they are old now and a little weary, one senses, of long, indepth conversations about their art. The general tone of their talks is laidback, not necessarily what one would expect from erudite writers, but it rings true. ("It's getting nearer and nearer, this death business," one says offhandedly to the other when the subject of an ex-wife dying from cancer comes up.) However, the basic egotism and insecurity of their tribe is also very well depicted in their banter, as it is in the tetchy exchange between Prem and his agent early in the story.

The story should strike a chord for many readers who have been strongly affected by someone's work and then felt a measure of disappointment (or at least a missed connection) on meeting their idol in person. Such kinships often turn out to have fragile foundations, for however much one might identify with the work of a particular writer, no person can ever claim to have the complete measure of another. (Of course, this applies outside of the writer-reader context too. Some of our deepest relationships with other people are formed when we find ourselves on the same wavelength regarding issues we feel strongly about; but the true test of those relationships is whether they survive once the important differences come to light.)

Early on, there's an example of facile connections being made between an artist's work and his real life: an online article about Prem Rustum wonders why he is so inarticulate about sex in his writing, when he is known to have had a long line of liaisons in real life. In a sense, the rest of That Summer in Paris is an answer to this question. It’s about writers and readers sparring uncertainly, discovering things about each other
but even more vitally, about themselves.

P.S. Some interesting photos on Dawesar's site, based on things and places mentioned in the book.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


The Sunday Times of India has a story titled "Could you be bisexual?" Nothing too remarkable about the piece either way; among other things it informs us that both chimpanzees and starfish exhibit bisexual tendencies (though hopefully not with each other). But what to make of this intro:
Like blogs and iPods once were, this is the new buzz today. Everybody is saying that everyone else is "bi".
iPods are passe? Already?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Can't freaking believe this!

Those morons at Star Sports are showing a dead ODI between England and Sri Lanka instead of the Agassi-Nadal match!!

*shakes head in disbelief for 107th time in last 10 minutes*