Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why, Mr Bachchan?

Dear Mr Bachchan,
Why are you telling us who you are and how big?
You think by putting your KBC ratings and Shahrukh's Paanchvi Pass ratings side by side, you will end the debate that who is the bigger star?
You will not.
Because there was no debate in the first place.

The only competition you ever had was yourself. The debate was never Amitabh in Shakti or Dilip Kumar in Shakti. The debate was actually Amitabh in Shakti or Amitabh in Trishul.
The debate was never Amitabh in Mohabbatein or Shahrukh in Mohabbatein. The debate was always Amitabh in Mohabbatein or Amitabh in K3G.

My grandmother thinks you are fantastic. My mother has been a fan since Deewaar. I still get a lump in my throat when I watch Shakti. And the other day, my 20-month old son unblinkingly watched you perform in Don.
That's four generations. You think my son will even know who Salman Khan is when he grows up?

You think numbers prove stardom?
That you had five back to back hits in 1978 is the reason why you should be the Big B?
Or maybe because you starred in the Biggest Hit of Indian Cinema?

No, sir.

You are not our biggest star. You are the touchstone of our emotions.
We never knew silence could be so eloquent till you showed us how in Sarkar.
We never knew grief can be angry till you showed us in Anand.
Hell, we never imagined one can be angry with God till you gave Him a piece of your mind in Deewaar.

And you think all this can be reduced to a TRP chart? By that logic, Alok Nath is a bigger star because he got even higher ratings for Buniyaad.

Sir, numbers are not what makes stars.
For me, you are the greatest not because of your best films but your worst.
Any other hero walking into a climax with a crocodile on his back would have got booed off. When you did that in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, the tension could have been cut by a knife.
That's my reason.
And every single Indian has a different reason - when you made them laugh, cry, happy, sad, wistful, aggressive, speechless...

That's a billion rating points for you.
And you are comparing that with 4.5 points of Shahrukh?

Why, Mr Bachchan, why?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On Location: Geographical Spread of Bollywood

Hindi films have mostly depended on amorphous identities and untraceable locations for their stories. This is not very surprising because traditionally, Bollywood has depended on stars and their personalities to project a characteristic. In such a scenario, character motivations become rather redundant. I mean, if it is Amitabh Bachchan who is playing the Angry Young Man, you hardly need any justification as to why he is angry!

Similarly, geographical characteristics are even lesser used. Traditionally, you have either a village or a city. But the characteristics of that city's inhabitants are hardly used.
Amitabh Bachchan zipped down an eminently recognisable Marine Drive in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar but the word Bombay is never uttered in the film. And there is nothing in the film to suggest that his go-getting character in the movie is a by-product of his upbringing in Bombay.
In Deewaar, his character is a North Indian who emigrates to Bombay but the underlying theme of the North Indian exodus to the City of Gold is never articulated. He may well have moved to Chennai for all its worth. And his gold would have landed on Marina Beach instead of Versova!
It gets curiouser... Anand is dedicated to the city of Bombay but the bon vivant in the film emanates from Delhi and is a Punjabi (Anand Sehgal)! The Mumbaikars in the film are rather long-faced, literally (Amitabh) and figuratively (Ramesh Deo). Of course, it is a comment on the cosmopolitanism of the city that the three male characters are from the North, East and West (in order of importance)!

Other films set in cities clearly identifiable by landmarks seldom refer to the psychographics. Bombay could well be Ahmedabad. The local trains of Saathiya were transported directly from the original, made in Chennai. The guide of Fanaa might well have taken his troupe around the historical monuments of Hyderabad. While on the topic of Hyderabad, Hero Hiralal uses the exact accent of the Dakhni Hindi and zips around the city in his auto-rickshaw.
On the other hand, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar works on the premise that the story is set in a small town (Dehradun) with a snooty boarding school for outsiders and a fatichar school for locals.

's brand of corrupt political leadership facing off with the idealistic youth could be common with many states of India but the firebrand activism has become synonymous with Calcutta!

There was a large number of films based on destinations - An Evening in Paris, Love in Tokyo, Love in Shimla, Night in London, Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong, Orgy in Bangkok (oh sorry, not that one!) - but again they were completely interchangeable as glamorous destinations.
You can easily have Johar Mehmood in Baghdad and the film will be just as funny. Night in London came right after the Paris film and the only difference was the brilliant music of the latter compared to the former's insipid score. Of course, Sharmila Tagore in a bikini would have lit up Mughalsarai Junction instead of Champs Elysses!
Maybe Kashmir Ki Kali is the only one in this genre which tries to draw a parallel between its pristine beauty and the heroine's rosy apple cheeks.

In recent times, Bollywood has started to venture into identifiable cities - and even started to use the milieu of the place in the development of characters.
It started with Yash Chopra – who promoted the Punjabi way of life unabashedly in his films. First, they were not articulated but in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Amrish Puri intoned to the pigeons of Piccadilly that he wanted to return – “Mere desh ko, mere Punjab ko…
And these cities – more often than not – are all small towns in the Hindi heartland.

Bunty aur Babli came from Fursatganj and Pankhinagar but it was a completely real-life district headquarter town of UP they were coming from. And each one of their exploits happened in real-life locales, sometimes identified by name.

Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag opened with a song that described the city of Banaras really well and the only redeeming feature of the film was that the characters remained rooted to their small-town beginnings. Rani Mukherjee sleeping her way through to a Napean Sea Road flat, notwithstanding!

And now has come the clincher - Tashan. No film – apart from how Woody Allen does with New York - has used a city so intrinsically in its screenplay as Tashan does for Kanpur. Bachchan Pandey (Akshay Kumar) and his antics as Raavan, crimes as an electricity thief, dialogues as a collection agent, sighs as a Roadside Romeo and most stunningly, his language are so Kanpuriya that its unbelievable!
And after a high-voltage fight scene, Saif pays homage to the city of Kanpur in a perverse sort of way by saying – “In logon ke beech mujhe zinda rehna hain, to mujhe akalmand banna padega, khatarnaak banna padega, Kanpuriya banna padega…
Waah waah – people are dancing in the aisles of Alankar Theatre!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Knight Rider

Last night, after Kolkata Knight Riders were tottering with four wickets down and fans had shifted to other channels, yet another Bengali with an unpronounceable first name was sighted. Wriddhiman Saha - a diminutive boy with a giant name (but certainly simpler than Mpumelelo Mbangwa) - scored a brilliant 59 off 32 balls in an innings which was quite explosive even by IPL's slam-bang standards. At one point, he and David Hussey looked very close to pulling it off - but that was not to be.
Today, reported his heroics by calling him Shah instead of Saha.
Can't blame them as this is probably the first time they heard the surname. Just as we heard the surname Dhoni for the first time, some 4 years ago.
That good, huh?

While on the subject of IPL, I was rather happy at the prospect of watching the tournament because I felt I would be able to follow several teams without heartbreak as all my favourites were spread across teams.
Mcgrath was in Delhi (where I stay), Dhoni was captaining Chennai (where I started my career), Rohit Sharma and Laxman were representing Hyderabad (another favourite city of mine), Sachin was in Mumbai (where I have stayed as well) and when all else fails, Preity Zinta's smiles would have lit up my life. Or so I thought.
Inexplicably (or otherwise), the sadness I feel every time the Knight Riders slide to a loss is rather distressing. Every single chromosome of mine seems to be programmed to support Mohammed Hafeez's half-volleys and Ajit Agarkar's full-tosses.
Despite having a plethora of choices, I remain shackled to the City.

My father, who has even less of a choice than I do, was rather concerned the other day when he asked, "What team will Joy support when he grows up?"
I broke the news as gently as I could. My son - who is known as Joey, DJ and Jai in different circles - will probably choose between Kings XI Punjab and Delhi Daredevils. He has no obligation towards King Khan's Knight Riders!
Whether that is fortunately or unfortunate, I have no clue of...

Those who lived in Calcutta in the mid-80s would remember a medium of great entertainment called Bangladesh TV. In the days of rickety aluminum antennae, we occasionally got lucky when we could receive a grainy version of Bangladeshi television. They showed some of the top rated US shows - Dallas, Dynasty, Scooby Doo - and we were very impressed in between episodes of Chiching Phnaak and Ektu Bhebey Dekhun. Those days, there used to be a programme called Knight Rider in which David Hasselhoff was the male lead and was about his adventures with a super-car (that talked, emoted, swam, drove at super-300 kmph speeds and what not).
No reasons or connection with IPL. This blog is famous for its pointless ramblings, I guess.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Jonoiko Mahapurush-er Kahini

For almost 30 years without a break (from the mid 50s to the early 80s), Satyajit Ray churned out one film a year. In his characteristic modesty, Ray had claimed that the reason for his prolific output was the need to keep his filming unit busy as most of them were exclusively associated with him and they had to be given work.
While most of these films have won numerous awards and have been accepted as masterpieces by diverse audiences at home and abroad, some of them have received reasonably harsh criticism as well. Though, the criticism – like in the case of most icons – was seldom balanced.

For example, Chiriyakhana (The Menagerie) was panned by the critics. Ray acknowledged that his involvement in the film was perfunctory to start with and he took on the director’s mantle only because his name lent a certain commercial weightage to the project (coordinated by his assistants). But the film went on to win the Best Director prize at the National Awards for the year. Ray was quite amused at this and wrote as such in a letter to Marie Seton.

The other film, which is generally felt to be one of Ray’s lesser works, is Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man) – a double bill of two short films, of which the second one (Mahapurush) is generally considered to be a rather weak adaptation of a landmark work of Bengali literature.

Of course, my problem is that I liked Mahapurush (the film) way too much and feel more than a little surprised at the rather cavalier attitude towards the film, shared by critics and some of the viewers as well. In fact, one comment to this effect is the reason behind this post – which is an attempt to defend Mahapurush’s stature as a great comedy as well as a brilliant adaptation equaling, if not surpassing, the original, which is a novella by Parashuram (Birinchi Baba). It has an extremely contemporary theme, that of the Indian social dependence on gurus and the large number of con-men in this field.

It tells the story of a god-man who lands up at the household of an affluent lawyer, spins a web of fantastic stories and looks to usurp the lawyer’s mansion as his ashram and the entire family as his disciples. The spanner in the works comes in the form of a suitor of the lawyer’s daughter, who sees the Baba as a serious threat to his romantic pursuits. His group of friends – who are more than a little appalled at the Baba’s tall tales – join to expose the Baba.
Apart from the Baba – brought to life on screen with great panache by Charuprakash Ghosh – the story had a series of excellently executed cameos. The Baba’s disciples, the friend circle of the suitor and even the smallest of characters were brilliantly cast and performed. The biggest addition to the film is probably the character of the Baba’s assistant (which is insignificant in the book), which is played on screen by one of Bengal’s finest comedians – Robi Ghosh.

In any story about a conman, there can be two parts.
The first part is the build up of the conman’s stories, which establish his aptitude and attitude. The second part is the puncturing of his spell by the hero(es). In the film, Ray inserted a very humourous third part in between, which was the hatching of the plan after seeing the conman in action. Here, the central character acknowledges the talents of the god-man as a erudite, intelligent super-actor. Somehow, this scene reminded me of Sherlock Holmes describing Moriarty as one of the most intelligent men ever. And indeed, Birinchi Baba was no ordinary mortal. For somebody who had seen Nebuchadnezzar as a nabalok!

I think the film did a great job of translating the verbal humour of the film into visual elements and this led excising some of the great one-liners from the book. Obviously, this rankled for anybody who had read and loved the novella (including me). But when you see the quality of the additions, the deletions become more acceptable.

The book had a perfunctory sentence to declare that the renowned advocate (identified as Buchki’s – the ‘heroine’s - father) had taken up a guru. The context in the book was a discussion between a group of friends on the proliferation of god-men in the country. While the descriptions of the various kinds of Babas were hilarious, they were essentially word sketches and translating them on screen would have meant having reams of dialogue or depicting them live (leading to long running times devoted to peripheral elements).
Instead, Ray chose to write a scene (not in the book) in which the Baba meets the lawyer and his daughter on a train and they get completely taken in by a psychological trick. The Baba made him believe that the Sun rose that morning because of him!
Every one of Baba's tall stories was presented in a different style, with perfect visual buildup that one is forced to hang on to every word. Be it Eisntein's consultation with the Baba or having roast hippos for lunch - the stories come thick and fast.

Mahapursh - despite critics feeling contrary - is, in my humble opinion, a great comedy as it follows all the requirements of one. A tight plot, brilliantly performed ensemble roles, snappy one-liners and a rousing climax. The film does a perfect job of threading together all the visual elements of a cult classic.

And if that was not enough, there is the ultimate depiction of the transience of NOW.
Imagine your right index finger to be the indicator of past and the left index finger depicting future. The right index moves clockwise and blazes away. The left index moves anti-clockwise and hurtles towards you. The point at which they meet is the present - Now. You cannot catch it. You cannot stop it. It comes and goes in a flash.
Those who have read A Brief History of Time would remember the two cones of past and future, with their vertices meeting at present. Only, Birinchi Baba said it about two-and-half decades earlier. And yes, while you are at it - you might as well try moving your right hand in a clockwise direction and the left hand anti-clockwise - simultaneously!

The greatest cinematic genius this country has ever produced wrote novels, drew pictures, designed book covers, invented fonts, composed music, designed costumes & sets, translated, made advertisments - and as the index-finger-rotation-in-opposite-directions suggests, was not behind a few parlour tricks either.
And 87 years on, they still don't make 'em like that any more!