Monday, December 31, 2018

The Film Awards of Hindostan: A 2018 Roundup

Right now, the jungles of Bollywood are lying in wait. All muscles tensed, all breaths held, not a leaf moving. As soon as the clocks turn 2019, the award ceremony panthers will leap out from their lairs and chew up the last grain of self-confidence left in every performer who cannot dance or doesn’t have a gym-scuplted body.
Wanted an award, did you? You dud? Chew cud! Grrr… snarl… chomp… and the best actor goes to Salman Khan for Race 3 and critic’s choice goes to Shah Rukh Khan for Zero and the lifetime achievement goes to Aamir Khan (which will be presented to him by Amitabh Bachchan as cameras focus on Fatima Sana Sheikh Kiran Rao).
But of course, I am kidding. Ranbir Kapoor (Sanju) and Ranveer Singh (Padmaavat) have set up a battle royale for the male acting prizes while in a delightfully romantic pairing, Alia Bhatt (Raazi) and Deepika Padukone (Padmaavat) are in the running for the female category. The stars are backed by awards-darlings like Rajkumar Hirani and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I wouldn’t like to bet this time!

What I’d like to bet is the following awards not being part of any ceremony!

Best Performance in a Leading Role to be Overlooked in Absence of Commercial Success
Vineet Singh trained in Mumbai, trained in Patiala, developed boxer-like reflexes at an age when most boxers retire. He trained for 700 days straight among real boxers. He trained while being treated for a broken rib. He trained so well that national level boxing coaches couldn’t make out he was an actor, not a professional boxer. He now has a gym-sculpted body as well. But Mukkabaaz made less than what Race 3 made in the first hour of its release so…

Most Prolific Performer (Theatrical Releases)
This is the category where just when the camera focuses on Radhika Apte (buoyed by Netflix’s active promotion of its star actress), the announcer calls out Taapsee Pannu as the winner who managed to pull off four theatrical releases including two solid critical successes (Manmarziyaan and Mulk), one reasonably known number (Soorma) and one Bermuda Triangle (Dil Juunglee).
Radhika Apte had three theatrical releases (Pad Man, Andhadhun, Bazaar) and three Netflix releases (Lust Stories, Ghoul, Sacred Games), taking her into the league of Govinda and Mithun of the 1990s.
UPDATED TO ADD: Anushka Sharma also had four releases this year including the year's top grosser (Sanju), one massive star vehicle (Zero), one well-acclaimed big studio release (Sui Dhaaga) and one self-produced horror film (Pari) but somehow 2018 doesn't feel like Anushka's year as much as it does for Taapsee or Radhika!

Most Egregious Accent Award by a Lead Actor
Akshay Kumar and Mouni Roy of Gold deserve the Wills Made for Each Other awards for producing the most atrocious Bengali pronunciations since Johnny Lever in the late 1990s. Punjabi Akshay Kumar can take refuge in his starry reluctance to get an authentic accent though Mouni Roy – a Bengali by birth – also seemed to have forgotten her mother tongue.  

Best Relaunch
Anil Dhawan said Tere galiyon mein na rakkhenge kadam and walked off into the sunset after a moderate and maudlin career as a hero in the 1970s. He kept returning as inconsequential elder brothers and fathers in the 1990s and 2000s, which we did our best to ignore. Nobody had bargained for the “Surprise” with which he leaped on to the screen in Andhadhun. A Pune property dealer with a sexy and shady wife didn’t need to have a Bollywood backstory but it did. And what a backstabbing backstory it was!

Best Newcomer Pair
Gajraj Rao has been around for two and a half decades, if IMDb is to be believed. (It lists Bandit Queen as his first screen appearance.) Neena Gupta has been around for three and we all believe her. But no other newcomer – beneficiary of nepotism or otherwise – managed to inject so much charm into their roles as they did in Badhai Ho. In fact, their romantic chemistry and comic timing are something newcomers should aspire for and not feel bad if they get only halfway there.

Best Dialogue
Race 3. Race 3. Race 3.
“Our business is our business, none of your business”, drawled Daisy Shah. “Har kahani ke do pehlu hote hai. Two pehlus”, deadpanned Salman Khan holding two fingers up. “I am sick of this Sikku”, snarled Saqib Saleem. Race 3 put the ult in cult, with the dialogues of Shiraz Ahmed and Kiran Kotrial (both veterans of the Race franchise) who had more cheese in the lines and more holes in the plot than a Swiss cheese factory!

Best Soundtrack to be lamented by Oldtimers as the Death of Film Music as they knew it
Amit Trivedi put the amrit back in Amritsar with the soundtrack of Manmarziyaan that took some getting used to. And Shelle’s Punjabi-infused lyrics needed a Reddit thread or two to unravel. While reviews found the soundtrack “to be so lit that we’re listening on loop” (Indiatimes) and called it a “riveting follow-up to Udta Punjab” (Milliblog), it was a DevDja-vu for fans of classic Bollywood!  

Orissa Presents Bollywood Sport of the Year
Hockey tumse pyara kaun? An unlikely hockey star returns to the field after fighting lower-body paralysis (Soorma). A Bengali manager puts together India’s first post-Independence team to prove all the Olympics golds weren’t flukes, after all (Gold). And a Punjabi sports-shop owner can’t decide between pyaar and fyaar as the soundtrack mocks her (Dhyan kitthe, Dhyan Chand? in Manmarziyaan).  

Best Prequel
In 2018, Bollywood sent in a just-out-of-teens spy on a cover operation deep inside Pakistan to ensure that their 2017 film had the plot point it needed. In a way, **azi was the prequel of **azi as the plans of an attack were smuggled out of an Army officer’s house in the former (but later) film to help the soldiers in the later (but earlier) film.  
** censored to avoid spoilers and challenge quizzers

Yash Chopra Special Award for Promotion of European Destination
Given to T-Series for promoting Sweden by getting embroiled in a battle for the title of the ‘most subscribed YouTube channel’ with PewDiePie, an indy creator of video memes that seemed to go on for the better part of the year. And sees no sign of abating even now. Sigh.
In between, Bangladesh folks backed PewDiePie. PewDiePie mistook them to be Indians “working from the inside”. PewDiePie called T-Series “bitch lasagne”. And Aamir Khan walked out of a biopic of T-Series founder, Gulshan Kumar.

Twitter Presents Best CSR Campaign on Social Media
Thugs of Hindostan inspired a thousand memes among election followers, embracers, dog lovers and carpet lovers but wasn’t able to stop the stampede of people who started running away from theatres from Thursday afternoon. What was intended to be a cashfest of a long weekend ended up with the YRF social media team RTing every single complimentary tweet that came their way. By Friday morning, they were done with the RTs and ended up creating GIFs of the really effusive ones. Once those fifteen were done, they spent the rest of the weekend wiping tears off their keyboards and waiting for #DeepVeer wedding pics.

Ministry of Information & Broadcasting Special Award for Best Censorship Fiasco
Till a year back, Pahlaj Nihalani was throwing sanskari naseehat towards – who he thought were – truant filmmakers. This year, this film Rangeela Raja – starring his original favourite Govinda – got slapped with 20 cuts and Pahlaj suddenly saw the second pehlu!
(About a week or so out of his CBFC term, Pahlaj Nihalani hit the headlines when he ‘presented’ Julie 2 – a film billed as a “clean adult film”. That film got passed without a single cut!)  

Most Marvellous Merchandise
Easily the celeb with the highest paparazzi per year of living ratio, Taimur Ali Khan broke the internet (again) with the launch of a doll modelled on him. The doll pretty much hijacked stepsister Sara Ali Khan’s Bollywood debut as she ended up having to hug the doll on the sets of reality shows. #truestory
The doll beat Anushka Sharma’s Madame Tussaud debut and Katrina Kaif’s performance in Thugs of Hindostan in the Best Likeness to a Human That’s Not Coincidental category.  

Ching’s Secret Hindi Cheeni Bhai Behen Award for Best Diplomatic Relations
Rani Mukherjee’s well-intentioned but not-really-blockbuster Hichki got an almost-unexpected fillip in China as its sub-50 Cr domestic gross got quadrupled, thanks to it becoming the fifth highest grossing Hindi film in China. It also become a Top 5 grosser of the year and – BOOM – we have the announcement of Mardaani 2 and Rani Mukerji talking about self-defence in actor roundtables.

Best Hidden Easter Egg
Even before Sriram Raghavan fanboys could start counting the Tabu and Anil Dhawan references in Andhadhun, the Amrita Pritam curveball had been unleashed around Manmarziyaan.
Film dedicated to the poet – check.
Free-spirited heroine torn between two heroes – check.
Poetry quoted – check.
And yet, it took a perceptive Twitter user to point out the love triangle of the film seemed very similar to the one Pritam encountered in her real life.

'Awards' are done... so what are my favourite films of the year?
Here goes.
5. Mukkabaaz – Anurag Kashyap
4. Manmarziyaan – Anurag Kashyap
3. Raazi – Meghna Gulzar  
2. Mulk – Anurag Sinha
1. Andhadhun – Sriram Raghavan
Andhadhun will be that delicious bar of chocolate that I have saved in my Netflix watchlist and will keep going back to again and again, heart skipping a beat when a blind piano player ‘sees’ a pool of blood for the first time.

Wish you a blinder of a year in 2019!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Hero to Zero: The Phases of Shah Rukh Khan

This post was written for FirstPost and published here. It was somewhat edited, hence sharing the long piece on the 'site which doesn't edit'. 

When Shah Rukh Khan zoomed on to the big screen riding a motorcycle and singing a hit song in Deewana, he was challenging a hegemony that was created nearly twenty years back. He would become a ‘lover’ – arguably Hindi cinema’s most successful lover, breaking the formula of the ‘Angry Young Man’ created by Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1970s. It is to this trio’s credit that the Angry Young Man image transcended Salim-Javed’s partnership and Bachchan’s superstardom. All of 1980s and a big part of 1990s had heroes – Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff, Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor and even the ageing Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna – playing versions of Bachchan’s original act, the vigilante taking revenge for father’s death and/or sister’s dishonour.
Shah Rukh Khan changed that. He was the lover boy who turned the tide against the action hero. Of course, it can be said that Aamir Khan and Salman Khan came before him as chocolate boy heroes but neither of them matched SRK’s early successes or his virtuosity in playing a wide range of lovers. And his career can be neatly divided into segments where a certain kind of lover type has dominated, and each kind has brought him great success. Almost always.

His opening act was that of a ‘cute and (sometimes) bumbling lover’ – the type with a disarming charm with a raw edge. The Deewana character was a bit of a Hindi film stereotype – rebelling against parents for a quasi-forbidden love – but Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman was a guy who was knocking glasses off tables and creating minor messes that women found irresistible. Be it the less successful Chamatkar or the super-successful Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, the early SRK was tripping over himself and tumbling into women’s hearts. In Maya Memsaab, he was the charming youngster the older woman took on as a lover and the lovemaking had an energetic childishness that the character was displaying otherwise as well.

Almost intertwined with the bumbling lover was his ‘crazed lover’ phase – a character not seen before or since. Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam formed the trilogy that catapulted into stardom and audience reaction went from gasping surprise to starry-eyed adulation to eye-covering disgust! Much has been said about these roles but it is interesting to see how well SRK positioned them in his career to wrest the spotlight away from star sons, actors backed by bigger production houses or those considered more talented. This had an implication on the next set of films he did, all of which were with biggest directors of Hindi cinema. Rakesh Roshan, Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai and Mahesh Bhatt all worked with him in the year after these films.

And that gave him the launchpad for his next phase – where he was the quintessential ‘lover boy’. The one known for his signature pose with extended arms, dimpled smile and tilted head. This phase officially kicked off with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, an iconic film that married sanskar with subdued sexuality and pretty much broke the cash registers at multiplexes abroad. He perfected this with Dil To Pagal Hai, Pardes and Dil Se… before hitting the partnership that would establish SRK as one of the greatest heroes of Hindi cinema. Karan Johar and SRK did Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kal Ho Naa Ho in a five-year period, films which – along with Mohabbatein in the same period – made him the face of the modern romantic hero. His clothes, his mannerisms, his songs, his style were all imprinted on the Indian – in India and abroad.
(While I mentioned only a few films here, his other films in the period after DDLJ were mostly in the ‘lover boy’ mould except for a couple of action films.)

Kal Ho Naa Ho was an interesting transition point because this is the point where SRK turned into his next persona – the ‘mature lover’. While he had played the older sibling in even K3G, Kal Ho Naa Ho had him in a role where he was lover and a philosopher rolled into one, dispensing advice and murmuring sweet nothings at the same time. Be it the older brother in Main Hoon Na (which also had shades of his bumbling hero phase) or the suave scientist of Swades and old convict of Veer Zaara, we had a ‘mature lover’ that we continue to see even today. If we keep aside the two Don films and Ra.One (the action hero outings), every other film of his from the mid-2000s has shown him with a mature or jaded side.
Fan’s Gaurav Chandna was a youngster but he was really a fan of the much older Aryan Khanna, nearly a SRK alter-ego. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’s ritzy Raj had a sedate Surinder while SRK’s character in Chennai Express declared himself to be 40+. 
(And fans have pointed out already that it is a bit of a travesty to put Kal Ho Naa Ho in the same bucket as Chennai Express or Happy New Year!)

Which brings us to the observation that this phase of his has lasted way too long. While the other phases – with very different characterisations – lasted less than five years each, we are seeing the ‘mature lover’ for more than a decade now. While there have been attempts to get in different shades, the SRK who pushed the envelope in characterisations is sorely missing. And so is the box-office fire. Or the gushing critical reception.
We were supposed to get a debauched older man in Jab Harry Met Sejal but the character turned out to be sweet and safe guy, befitting a superstar but not the edgy SRK we probably wanted.
Zero gives us hints of a craziness. A dwarf in love with a paraplegic scientist. How edgy will SRK get? How did the scientist become a paraplegic? Did someone throw her off a building? Did the dwarf?

Married Heroines and their Abandoned (?) Careers

I wrote this piece for a website but it didn't get accepted. Publishing it here. 

A top heroine gets married to the Indian cricket captain. She had acted opposite superstars in some of the biggest hits of Hindi cinema as well as some offbeat films.
A top heroine gets married to a top hero in a series of ceremonies, including one in her hometown. Among others, they had acted together in a high-profile historical film about a queen.

While these stories sound like they have been picked from 2018, they are actually from 1969 and 1979 respectively. Sharmila Tagore married Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi in one of the most high-profile weddings India had seen. Hema Malini tied the knot with Dharmendra in a secret ceremony in Madras (and their historical film together was Razia Sultan). And yes, we have grown up on high profile weddings of heroines!
When people discuss Bollywood’s patriarchal ways, heroines stopping work after getting married is usually cited as an example. The Kapoor family bahus are ‘not allowed to work’, the legend goes. The rest of Bollywood follow, they say. There’s another crazier view… married heroines lose their allure as a male fantasy and their box office drops, ‘industry insiders’ claim.

The point of heroines not ‘being allowed’ to work is not always based in fact. Top heroines have always got married to top heroes, often at the peak of their careers and it didn’t change anything.
Saira Banu had a dream debut (in the superhit Junglee), did some major films immediately afterwards and got married to the legendary Dilip Kumar within five years. And continued to deliver hits… Shagird, Padosan, Gopi, Purab Aur Paschim came within a few years of her marriage. She was a lead heroine till the mid-1970s and a major star all through. 
Sharmila Tagore too married within five years of her Hindi debut and her strike rate of hits improved. Some of her most memorable hits (Safar, Amar Prem, Daag, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, Chupke Chupke) and critically acclaimed roles (Mausam, Namkeen) came after her marriage.
Rakhee debuted in Hindi films in 1970 and got married in 1973. That year, she did several high-profile films like Heera Panna, Daag, Blackmail and Joshila. All were not hits but the confidence of big banners in her indicated that her box office wasn’t likely to be spoiled by news of her marriage. Post marriage, she delivered major hits like Kabhi Kabhie, Trishul, Kasme Vaade and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar.
Like Rakhee, Hema Malini too acted in a slew of big-budget extravaganzas right after her wedding – Kranti, Naseeb, Kudrat – indicating that she was still top of the heap even after a decade in the industry.
While some heroines retired after their marriages – Nargis, Vyjayathimala, Jaya Bhaduri – there were many who continued to work, achieving commercial and critical success. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that a number of top heroines – most notably Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi – left films after their marriage though Juhi Chawla did several big-budget entertainers like Daraar, Yes Boss and Duplicate after her marriage in 1995.

The longevity of Hindi film heroines is certainly a lot lesser than heroes (and reasons are a story for another day), which means most heroines exit leading roles in their mid-30s. This age barrier sometimes coincided with marriage but that was not necessarily a diktat from their families. Or the audience.
Even the Kapoor family – supposed originator of married-girls-don’t-work rule – had at least two exceptions to it in the 1960s. Shammi Kapoor married Geeta Bali, who continued to act in films till her untimely death. Shashi Kapoor’s wife, theatre actress Jennifer Kendall – after marriage – acted in a few memorable films with top directors like James Ivory, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen and Satyajit Ray. It was only Neetu Singh and Babita who left films after their marriages to Rishi and Randhir Kapoor respectively.
If the grapevine is to be believed, Alia Bhatt will be marrying Ranbir Kapoor in 2019. Anyone betting that she will give up her career and become a homemaker?

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Random Movies I Like: Darr

A rambling, almost incoherent post. Dedicated to the actor whose fans think he is edgy.

I have seen Sholay in a theatre but only in the 1990s, when the wide-eyed surprise at the film was long gone and it was more of a karaoke experience. I haven’t seen Mr India in a theatre. I named these two films because – before the 1990s – they had the two most iconic villains of Hindi cinema but I never experienced firsthand how an audience reacts to a 'popular' villain.
That changed one week in 1993 when I stared open-mouthed as a bushy-haired, bloody-faced, brown-jacketed youngster dug a knife into Bollywood’s resident he-man’s stomach. 
And the theatre erupted in applause and cheers.

Yash Chopra made the bold and beautiful Lamhe, a film too ahead of its times and too behind in the box office rankings. To recoup his losses, he made the ‘more conventional’ Darr. Bollywood does the Obsessive Lover character fairly often and fairly conventionally. A hero who was ready to slash his wrists or stab himself if he didn’t get his girl. And look what we got in the ‘conventional’ film… not your usual obsession, not your usual chocolate-faced boy next door. Or maybe he was chocolate-faced… but then as a wise woman said, you never know what you’re gonna get in a box of chocolates!

The role was offered to Rishi Kapoor first, given to Aamir Khan then and finally landed up on Shah Rukh Khan’s doorstep. Shah Rukh Khan was not yet a star when he was picked but by the time he had gone on stage to collect his Best Actor Filmfare award trophy, he had become one. He giggled and claimed that he had kept some cash handy in case he was asked to pay for the award. In the age where everyone touched everyone’s feet in Bollywood and the pretense of fairness in film awards was bulletproof, this was scandalous at best and sacrilegious at worst. It was this persona SRK carried to Darr and wowed a director like Yash Chopra. After Darr, Yash sahab never worked with another hero till the last film of his life.
Yash Chopra had a thing for flawed heroes. Deewaar had a smuggler. Trishul had an unethical businessman. Kaala Patthar had a deserter. Silsila had an adulterer. Lamhe had a non-committal wimp. And Darr had the most charming villain since – well – nobody.

Darr started a pair of legs teetering on the ledge of a skyscraper, playing a deadly game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. It progressed to the now legenedary K-k-kiran. It took stalking to the level of narcotics… addictive for some, illegal for the rest. It gave a violent, manic edge to Holi, a festival of romance and harmless teasing as popularized by Hindi cinema. It gave Hindi film actors a height… “Paanch foot dus inch”… and a dimpled smile.
And finally, it ended with that stunning stab… when the ‘hero’ (Sunny Deol) was beating up the errant ‘anti-hero’, the latter asked for forgiveness and the audience breathed a sigh of relief. This is when one forgives and the other reforms, right? Even Sunny looked quite relieved till of course, the anti-hero changed his Filmfare nomination from Best Supporting Actor to Best Villain.

Was there a justification to his evil? His mother’s untimely death, his father’s neglect? Not really.
He was so cute, so lovable, so articulate in the year before Darr that we relented. He threw his heroine off a multistoried building but we said that he did it as revenge. His entire family was wiped out by the girl’s father, after all. We had to give him the Best Newcomer and of course, the Best Actor.
But we were not ready to forgive him in Darr. No amount of justification was enough. We couldn’t give him a Best Actor prize after he stabbed the hero, could we? No, we gave him our hearts instead. The boy next door had gone rogue but he was still our boy, wasn’t he?

When SRK works with new age directors like Imtiaz Ali or Aanand L Rai, I am told it would be a love story but it is going to be very edgy.
A dwarf romancing a paraplegic is edgy? The SRK I knew once upon a time would have turned the girl into a paraplegic and then romanced her. Now that would be edgy!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: Travails With The Alien

Satyajit Ray’s reputation in India is based on his world-renowned films (which have sadly not been watched widely in India) and his Feluda novels (that have a decent readership via the English translations). His short stories are relatively lesser known, though a few of them had been made into a television series (directed by his son) in the mid-1980s. It is, therefore, very interesting that one of those stories – Bonkubabur Bondhu – was one of the first short stories he wrote, featured a benign alien and was the origin of what could have been his first Hollywood film.

Travails With The Alien is an amazing book, in the sense that it is probably the only full-length book on a film that was never made. It is not a short journey that started with an idea/script and ended with a major studio backing out due to a shady wheeler-dealer who had slithered into the project in a somewhat unplanned manner. I mean, that’s probably the ‘tweet summary’ but the book covers a journey that was much longer, much deeper and much more magnificent.
The book – designed like an album – starts with Ray’s earliest writings on science fiction as a genre in both literature and cinema, traces his journey as a SF ‘addict’ (and goes into his correspondence with SF legends like Clarke and Bradbury) before reaching the short story and the script for the TV show episode.
The Alien – like the hero of a blockbuster film – makes an appearance about a third into the book in the form of a fairly detailed script that was pitched to and accepted by Columbia Pictures. The piece de resistance comes after this – Ray’s account of what happened, narrated with his brand of sardonic humour and amazing detail. For fans of classic Hollywood, the narrative would be delicious because it features some of the top stars of 1960s in bit parts and Ray exhibiting an almost copybook case of the ‘impostor syndrome’. Like any middle-class Bengali, he asks about hotel room rents and is not fully placated when he is told, “Maestro… you can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!”
The book ends with two more tangential inspirations – two short stories by Ray’s father and Ray himself. The former could have been the starting point of Ray’s SF hero – Professor Shonku – and the latter a child-friendly tale of a helpful alien.
In between, there is this interesting theory about The Alien script being an inspiration to later-day films like Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – told from the perspective of noted film journalist, Aseem Chhabra, who did an investigative story on the topic as a journalism student. This segment is very intriguing and – if not anything else – should inspire readers to watch Spielberg’s films once again and check out the similarities between his aliens and Ray’s!

In short, the book is a sumptuous treat for movie fans. It is a treasure trove of previously unpublished articles, letters, photographs, news clippings to boost the main content of the script of The Alien, Ray’s reminisces and the short stories (which have appeared in print earlier). The book's layout (by Pinaki De) needs a special mention because it is very rarely that you see such a diverse set of visuals accompanying an even wider range of text, fitting in with each other so beautifully.

Review copy via WritersMelon and Harper Collins India.
Available on Amazon. Recommend buying the paper book.

Monday, February 26, 2018

10 Things About Bioscope AKA My Urge To Talk About My New Book

Bioscope has been used as the early name for cinema, to describe a travelling movie theatre, or as a generic name for a film camera (and sometimes a projector). I interpreted it loosely as a device to peek into the past.
For kids growing up in 1980s India, it is also the name of a squat, cylindrical machine (on a stand) with small windows in which you placed your eyes to see a passing montage of photographs (usually bunched together in a theme). I interpreted this as a collection of snippets that showed a progression.
Somewhere this ‘Past + Progression’ got collectively interpreted as ‘History’. To protect my reputation* as a Bollywood Trivia Hunter not given to serious analysis, I added a ‘Frivolous’ before the history.
[* among my 17 friends who have read my earlier books diligently]

Everything* about this book is in ‘ten’. There are ten chapters. Each chapter has ten points. Even the end-chapter boxes (yes, those are my favourite usually!) have ten entries each.
This ‘coincidence’ is due to the fact that my publisher – Hachette – has just completed ten years in India and is taking out – wait for it – ten books to commemorate the occasion. That explains the stenciled ‘10’ on the cover and the (ahem) subtle ‘10’s on the cover, spine and back cover.
[* In a glaring oversight, there are only six footnotes in the book. Should have been ten! Hopefully, readers will forgive this oversight.]

The cover is a stunner. The ten is a die-cut ‘hole’ on the yellow top cover through which you can see part of a movie poster (see left) that’s the ‘bottom cover’. I am usually a big fan of ebooks but I’d recommend a paper version of this book, just for the cover.
The cover is designed by Bhavi Mehta and her absolutely stunning portfolio can be seen here.

I wrote the book in one super-fast burst (June to December 2017, including planning at the beginning and editing at the end) – slightly shorter than even my first book (on cricket). Though I have been toying with the idea of writing a ‘history’ of Hindi cinema using stories and snippets for some time now.

The collection of stories and snippets for started – very strangely – with a script that I was trying to write for a live show on the history of Hindi cinema and its creators, characters, costumes, clichés and what not. That show didn’t happen but the research helped!

The best part of writing a book is always the editorial interactions. Given the breakneck speed of writing, the edits were full of comments like:
-          “Not clear, please rephrase.”
-          “Mention two of the songs here.”
-          “Had Gulzar spoken to him about the lyrics?”
-          “What about mothers-in-law?”
-          And my favourite: In the context of Indo-Pakistan wars, “Check. There was Hindustan ki Kasam in 1972.”

The other part of the writing was ‘research’ which – in my case – means (a) watching movies on YouTube, (b) reading books and magazines on cinema and (c) chatting with friends on movies. My go-to people for (c) was this cool group of people, who have encyclopeadic knowledge on everything in the universe including and certainly not restricted to Hindi cinema. They are like a kind of Illuminati (but much more modest), who have critiqued chapter drafts, improved my knowledge of modern Indian history and thrown dialogues at me to fit into various obscure parts of the book.
The book is dedicated to them.

The chapters are interesting… I think. They cover a wide range of subjects like:
-          A history of box-office collections
-          Leading pairs down the ages
-          The stories behind the scripts
-          Legendary composer-lyricist combinations
-          A brief history of bad men
-          Expats in Hindi cinema
-          How the language of Hindi cinema has changed
-          Filmi fashion highlights
-          Biopics in Bollywood
-          A Filmi History of Independent India i.e. how major historical events have been depicted on screen.

My favourite chapter in the book is No. 7 – the one on how the language of Hindi cinema has changed over the years, both dialogues and songs. How people express love differently then and now, how they come together and how they leave each other, how people pray… this chapter is full of wild generalisations, interesting song selections and some silly jokes. Had most fun writing it.

You can buy the ebook on Amazon. Paper also on Amazon and Flipkart. (Psst… you can buy multiple copies and gift them.)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: A Roundup

Came back to this slightly lonely place on the internet, but a very warm one for me - my first address on the worldwide web.
In action since 2005 though 2017 was its leanest period... this is the first and last post of the year. I had to come back here to complete that annual ritual of mine to list down my favourite book, movies and 'things' of the year.

TV Shows 
Surprisingly, the 'thing' that really surprised me this year was 'television' or whatever you call streaming services like Netflix or Hotstar or Amazon Prime. I watched a few but amazingly good shows that kept me hooked. Hadn't binged so much since I found 24!

5. Mindhunter
A delicious recreation of a period in the 1970s when two FBI agents were waking the Bureau up to the fact that many murders may be connected by a single killer, with motives that may be linked to their troubled pasts. And these murders in sequence may have been done by people whom they tentatively called 'serial killers'.

4. People v OJ Simpson
Strictly speaking, this is a 2016 show which I saw in 2017. The show did a great job of piecing together the bits and pieces we remember from the murder in 1994 and bringing them alive by connecting them to today's society, pop culture and people.

3. Stranger Things II
For the first time in my life, I was searching the 'net for merchandise of a TV show. That's how much Will, Mike, Lucas, Eleven and Dustin affected me.
And you know the strangest thing? It is not even among the top two shows of the year.

2. Dark
The biggest disadvantage this show started with was a ST plot similarity... a young boy goes missing in a small town with a mysterious industrial facility nearby. This is where it ended because the show then turned upside down, turned dark, turned timeless. If ST is Master Alankar, Dark is Amitabh Bachchan.

1. Black Mirror S4
They probably released this season on 29 Dec to mess up with a lot of show rankings that had been locked by then. And they did exactly that.
All seasons combined, it is probably the greatest TV show ever made. Main likh ke deta hoon...

2017 was the year of the small film. Feel-good, warm stories with low-key actors but on a range of topics that's as entertaining as they are heartening.

Honourable Mention: Meghnad Badh Rahasya (Bengali)
A neat part-humour, part-thriller, full-clever film that catches on to the Bengali obsessions of literature, food, nostalgia, intelligent humour and Satyajit Ray really well!

5. Machher Jhol (Bengali)
In terms of art design, locations, costumes, cinematography, this film matched international standards. And in terms of music and story, it matched Bengali standards. A wonderful example of a traditional story of homecoming told in a modern style.

4. Dunkirk
I am a bit of a Christopher Nolan fanboy, so this is kind of expected. What is unique about Dunkirk is how absolutely the film surrounds your senses of sight and vision.
I am told that the Academy members (who vote for films to be nominated and selected for Oscars) received an empty DVD case from the makers of Dunkirk with a note from Nolan stating this is not how the film should be seen. Hindi mein isse attitude kehte hain...

3. Meri Pyaari Bindu
This is the most unexpected entry in the list, even for me.
When I watched the film, I was bowled over by the subject but was left a little less than satisfied in the execution. Too many open strands that could have been brought together for a satisfying climax, I thought. But when I rewatched it on TV, the film made me smile unexpectedly so many times... So many times was I completely identified with the two fans of pulp fiction and Hindi film music growing up in 1980s Calcutta... So many times I wanted to make a 'mix tape'... that this just had to be in my list.

2. Bareilly Ki Barfi
One scene: A wimpish writer is being trained to become badass. After a few days of training, he blocks a busy lane of a small town with his bike, saunters off to buy paan and returns with swag as people around him scream and swear.
One man: Rajkummar Rao.
Oh babua!

1. Death In The Gunj
A luscious set in 1970s Bihar, a lot has been said about this film already. Can't think of a more assured debut by a director in a very long time.

A year in which I focused a lot, threw away a lot of distractions to read significantly (about 2x) more than my last few years. Managed to read a good number of Bengali books as well.

Honourable Mention: Movie Geek by Simon Brew
It is the type of book that casually, almost imperceptibly covers a whole lot of material about Hollywood in a shortish 240-page expanse. The type of book you love so much that you want to write a similar one on Bollywood. And then you remember that you already did!

5. Don't Disturb the Dead by Shamya Dasgupta
An in-depth look at the Ramsay family AKA Ramsay Brothers, the greatest purveyor of horror in India. Enough said!

4. Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
A fascinating deep-dive into Google's search trends to see what people all over the world are looking for, thus who they really are. And as the author establishes fairly early in the book... Google is what we are, Facebook is what we want other people to think we are. 

3. The Mahabharata Murders by Arnab Ray
The Mahabharat turns macabre in a serial killer tale, set in the city that is known for food and warm, fuzzy feelings. Both the original book and the city are big favourites of mine and this book does a fab job of blending the two in the most iconoclastic, most gory, most gripping ways possible.
And the protagonist seemed liked Abhimanyu to me. Except that she was a woman. A Muslim woman. Yeah, the book messes with you like that.

2. Peon Theke Prokashok (Bengali) by Badal Basu
You could call this a 'brief history of Bengali literature' written by the man who literally ran the biggest and most successful Bengali publishing company - Ananda Publishers. The author's ability to win friends, influence people and then remember the stories is truly phenomenal, resulting in a book that's one for the times.

1. Bongpen 75 (Bengali) by Tanmay Mukherjee
I will keep on saying this... this is probably the best collection of short stories ever to be published in Bengali.

It would be pertinent to point out that I had read about fifty books in the first six months of the year and only ten in the last six. The reason for this imbalance was that I was doing the only thing I enjoy more than reading - writing about my favourite subject.

So, this might also be a good time to quietly announce that a book of mine would be coming out in early-2018. It is a short book, a 'history' of Hindi cinema as we know it. And as people who have read anything of this blog or my books would know, the inverted commas around the history is very important. It is not deep, scholarly, bespectacled history. It is frivolous, silly, tongue-in-cheek history with lots of stories, trivia and random footnotes!
More details soon... watch this space.

Here's wishing 2018 be the year where you find success and happiness in abundance, in equal measure! 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Roundup

Started 2016 with a resolution to revive my near-dormant. The plan was to watch 100 movies (#100MoviePact) and write at least 100 words about each movie watched. Happy to report that I hit the target (110 movies!) but didn’t write after the first thirty-six.
As I usually do, here is a roundup of 2016… the things I loved the most. Listing them alphabetically…  

Afreen afreen  
Many years back, we used to play the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song at our b-school parties and get on our knees, dancing around a batchmate and embarrassing the hell out of her. The reprise – featuring Nusrat’s talented nephew – is almost as magical.
And Coke Studio. Oh, Coke Studio.
While at it, you can listen to my favourite songs of 2016. Includes a couple of Bangla songs as well.

I have been in Bangalore for a little more than a year now and have not ceased to marvel at this bookstore. As social media laments the closure of bookstores all over, Blossoms not only survived but managed a new branch just down the road from their original outlet. Both store have mindboggling range, chaotic displays, helpful staff and a genuine desire to sell books.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham
It is now fashionable to say she was the wrong candidate to be pitted against Donald Trump but for all the charges you can throw at HRC, there was no doubt she was simply the best-prepared candidate to run for the US President. She did many things right but I loved for this one tweet (that came after she lost)… which is still pinned to the top of her Twitter page.

An important character is unable to watch a critical wrestling match in the film. As he sits helplessly in a room, he suddenly gets to hear the first strains of the national anthem. As he realizes the significance (only the gold medallists are honoured by playing their anthems), he stands up – almost as reflex – as do cinema halls across the country. Much has been said in praise of Dangal but writer-director Nitesh Tiwari won it for me when he made me stand up in this scene.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
For fans of the seven legendary books, this was like the highlights package of an epic World Cup victory with some bonus DVD features thrown in. Many fans didn’t like it. Many were disappointed that it was a script (dudes, read up on JKR!). But I loved it. Time travel and alternate histories – always the theme of satisfying stories – didn’t disappoint this time either.

Jeffrey Archer
With two books of the Clifton Chronicles bringing the saga to a satisfying close, Jeffrey Archer managed to reaffirm his position as the number one storyteller of our times. His Harry Clifton turned out to be that perfect English gentleman who would be missed long after he is gone.

Kapoor & Sons
This – along with Phogat & Daughters – was the movie of the year for me. A difficult story of a dysfunctional family soared and uplifted me with a crackling script. Established stars, established actors and an established producer came together to make us really look forward to the forthcoming works of Shakun Batra, who became an established director with his film.
Earlier review on blog.

MAMI (JJWS, Old Stone, After the Rain)
At the beginning of the year, I had promised myself that I’d watch a few films at a film festival. I fulfilled that promise by spending three days at the MAMI Film Festival, watching nine films – including five on day one. A Chinese (Old Stone), Japanese (After the Rain) and an Arabic (Barakah Meets Barakah) film stand out from what I watched as did a nostalgic reunion of the stars of my teen-favourite, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. What I really enjoyed was the unplanned forays into unknown films, rushing from one screening to the queue for another, gasping at particularly felicitous moves on screen and occasionally dozing off (!) during not-so-interesting ones.
Planning to do Kolkata International Film Festival in 2017.

Nasir Husain
One of my favourite directors got an authoritative biography – Music Masti Modernity – that caught the magic of his cinema through a thoughtful lens. Drawing extensively from past interviews as well as fresh interviews of his family and colleagues, MMM shows how well-researched and readable books on cinema can really be.

Amitabh Bachchan played – with his customary aplomb – a mentally unbalanced lawyer fighting for three victims of sexual abuse. His mental affliction was probably symbolic of the disadvantages anyone taking up a cause like this faces in our country. Bachchan and the three actresses made a slogan out of ‘No means no’ and one wonders if this line is half as effective as Bachchan’s other clarion call for polio (‘Do boond zindagi ki’), he should be given all the public service awards – in addition to the acting ones.

Produnova, PV Sindhu
An unknown Russian gymnast became the talisman of a billion (exaggerating here, but it's okay) people as people stayed awake cheering a girl from Tripura make her mark at the highest sporting stage of the world.
PV Sindhu suddenly showed us how badminton can be the next big thing in India - short matches, lots of drama, glamorous adversaries and a fair bit of talent.
They didn't win but hey, we waited 28 years for a second World Cup in cricket. Surely, we can wait (ahem) four years for the other sports.

Raman Raghav 2.0
I don’t think I will have the stomach to watch this film again but will remember it – along with Ugly and Gulaal – as part of Anurag Kashyap’s Underrated Trilogy. It was somewhat expected that RR2.0 won’t set the box office on fire but somehow, it didn’t even managed to get a lot of fanboy praise.
Earlier review on blog.  

Yasser Usman followed up on his biography of Rajesh Khanna with an equally readable book on Rekha. Rekha’s heady life in Madras and then Bombay has been chronicled with a rare balance that is usually missing Bollywood biographies. Rekha is a polarising character and this book does a great job is looking at her life from the multiple perspectives.

Sultan of Delhi – Ascension
The first part of the saga of a gun-runner-turned-Emergency-era-fixer-turned-Delhi-mover-and-shaker took the pulp fiction saga template – underdog rising to the top of his profession – and gave it a solidly desi twist. The book ends tantalizingly, with the promise of a sequel coming up next year.

Udta Punjab
I don’t know if I am including Udta Punjab the soundtrack or the movie. As a music album, it was fantastic – a heady mix of the crazy and the soft – picking up the flavours of Punjab and created a modern soundtrack around it. The movie was studded with some fantastic performances, most notably Shahid Kapoor.
Earlier review on blog. 

Virat Kohli
No further comments required.

Again, one of the underwatched movies of the year. Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin put in brilliant performances in a superbly written film.
Earlier review on blog. 

Zen Pencils and other web comics
Got to know of, got addicted to and ended up buying two volumes of Zen Pencils, a simple yet thought-provoking compilation of comics around famous, inspirational quotes. 
Found other cool web comics like Lunar Baboon and Shuffle Photo

2016 wasn't the greatest of years, maybe for the world at large. It wasn't too bad, for me personally.
I guess it was the 'could have been better' kind of year. Hoping to get into 2017 with a lot more reading, a lot more writing, a little less movie watching (110 was too much!) and a lot more fun-having. 

Happy 2017.
Like the number, may the year also be a prime one of your life! 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

36. Dishoom

There are some actor combos that become just dynamite when they come together. One of the best examples of this is what Beth Watkins calls Shashitabh. Of course, these two people were huge stars and great actors in their own rights but their on-screen chemistry was just magical. They presented such a fine balance of acting that even bad scripts became watchable.
Of course, the combos need not only consist of stars. In Hollywood, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill come to mind. They started as non-entities and even the peaks of their stardom were nothing in the greater context of Hollywood but their films were definitely greater than the sum of their parts.
When I talk about star combos, I think stars have to be equal (or at least, similar) in stature for the chemistry to be effective. For example, Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi can form a great hero-sidekick pair (as did Aamir Khan and Raj Zutshi in a few films) but the star status of the two were just too far away to be perceived as a 'duo'. Basically, Aamir-Salman is a duo in my book but not Govinda-Shakti Kapoor.
In Bollywood, star egos and salaries have effectively put paid to the hopes of having two big stars in the same film, as equals. Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan did a few films in the 1990s, playing disparate characters, showing some good comic timing and an enjoyable chemistry but they never became a franchise or even close to the number of films - say - Shashitabh did.

Anyway, the point is that John Abraham and Varun Dhawan show promise to become an unlikely but effective 'actor duo' in Dishoom. They have similar star statuses and opposing images. John plays the khadoos police officer well (because it fully utilises that one expression he has). And Varun is perfect as the lovable rogue, smiling a little too much and not going out of the slapstick character ever.
Dishoom is one of those crazy-ass plots of Bollywood where every twist is just an excuse to show the actor flex something or the actress to drop something. "Two policemen rescue an Indian cricketer in 36 hours before a final against Pakistan" is all that you need to know and no, nothing is a spoiler in this one. You didn't expect the Virat Kohli equivalent to get killed by terrorists and India bringing Sachin back from retirement, did you?
David Dhawan's two sons - Rohit as director and Varun as actor - prove that the apples haven't fallen far from the tree as they pull out every trick from the Dhawan playbook and give it a modern twist. Cricketers Mohinder Amarnath, Rameez Raja and Atul Wassan make brief appearances. A Sushma Swaraj-lookalike is the political figurehead who give the carte blanche for the mayhem. Item numbers are thrown here and there. Non-sequiturs abound and old favourites (like Satish Kaushik) pop up every now and then.
Varun Dhawan is hilarious as the bumbling cop. Be it uttering inane lines with aplomb ("Arre Bradman, tu toh Byomkesh ban gaya!") or doing extreme physical comedy (standing on two bikes a la Ajay Devgn as his crotch gets whipped repeatedly - don't ask!), he looks good for a string of such outrageous roles. Dishoom itself looks good to become a long-standing franchise. Which is great because it will keep John and Varun away from films like No Smoking and Badlapur.

[Frivolous Footnote: Wonder why it took so long for a Hindi film to be named after its signature audio effect. Maybe, the sequel of Dishoom will be called Tarantara!]

[Frivolous Explanation: Why did I use a picture of Nargis Fakhri after going on and on about John-Varun? To appeal to the 61% of Indian internet users, who are male. #sexist #sorry]

35. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

In one scene of the movie - taking place in an Indian Maharaja's place - a sumptuous banquet is laid out. The first course is a coiled python, with a surprise. As you cut open the snake, smaller snakes (snakelets?) slither out and Indian royals greedily put them in their mouths. This is followed by some sort of caramelised bugs and the dessert is chilled money brains served in what looks like monkey heads. When the American heroine asks for something simple like soup, bloody eyeballs stare back from the pink liquid.
As I understand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was banned in India at the time of release and even during the shooting, the then government refused permission unless they read the script and/or the right to censor scenes shot in India. After seeing the banquet scene described above, I could see why. Nothing justifies a ban of a book or movie but this scene comes as close to justifying a ban as any.

Even if we discount the blithe stereotyping, Temple of Doom is a rather slow and boring film by Indiana Jones standards.
The opening sequence is chaotic (as it should be) but not thrilling. And it is completely devoid of reason, which is different from all the other films because they lay down a suitably outlandish reason for the archaeologist to get involved into the mayhem in the first place.
The thrills can be seen from a mile away and the usual gross-out-with-creepy-crawlies technique is so badly overdone that it grates after a point. The climax is way too long and, except for a collapsing bridge sequence, seems rather boring.

The one bright spot in the film is Amrish Puri.
Amrish-ji brings the best of Bollywood OTT dramatics into play and reduces Harrison Ford into a sweaty wimp. His Mola Ram is deliciously evil and when he bulges his eyes and utters the cult "Kaali, mujhe shakti de... tere aage bali chadhaoon..." lines, you cannot but cheer him on.
Amrish Puri is tall - but only by Indian standards - but in most scenes, he seems like a hulking presence eminently capable of ripping everyone's hearts out with his bare hands. It just shows how a good actor can lift a mediocre script and get all eyes to be trained on him despite the presence of bigger stars.
After the film, Spielberg said, "Amrish is my favorite villain—the best the world has ever produced and ever will!” I concur wholeheartedly and can only wonder why he didn't manage to get a thriving career as a villain in Hollywood.

Frivolous Footnote: Mola Ram's headgear seems to have been reused by Kabir Bedi in Mohenjo Daro while his red vat of acid/fire was later borrowed by Mogambo! You could say Temple of Doom has contributed a fair bit to Indian cinema.

For more trivia on the film, check this out