Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kanti Shah: Grapes of Lust

This piece was written in October 2010, at the request of a newspaper (probably for their Sunday supplement). Udaan was making waves at that time. So was Kanti Shah since it was his movie (Angoor) with which Udaan took flight. Since I have not heard about the fate of this piece from the paper, I am posting it here.  

Kanti Shah’s movies, for me, have a strange association – the stench of urine.
They never seemed to release in cinemas where toilets were cleaned. Hell, they never seemed to release in cinemas that were cleaned. Some people even say that they did not release in cinemas. Going through his prolific output on IMDb, I realize that may well be true. For I have hardly heard – let alone seen – most of his films.
But the few of his films that I do know of seemed to release in rather schizophrenic establishments. They were not sure if they were cinemas with bars attached or bars with cinemas.
There were more lungis than trousers in the audience. More banians than shirts (no AC, remember?). More whistles than popcorn.  And if there were any women in the audience, they seemed to be auditioning for a part in Kanti Shah’s next! 

As we grew up with Phoolan Hasina Ramkali, Veer, Loha and yet-to-be-legendary Gunda, there was a sense of embarrassment. When writing this piece, I was asked if I had any VCDs of his films with me – that can be scanned for the pictures. And I realized that it had come a full circle where people felt it was okay to have Kanti Shah movies at home. When I was in college, you would have had to tear off my fingernails one by one to get me to confess that I even know Kanti Shah’s name, let alone seen his films.

All that has changed.
His films have started being hailed as ‘cult classics’. Like Francois Truffaut’s admiration of Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino’s lionization of the American grindhouse genre led to a surge of interest in them, we suddenly have a whole lot of Kanti Shah-watchers who have become successful. And they are confident enough not to feel guilty about ‘guilty pleasures’ – which probably comes closest to describing Kanti Shah’s area of expertise.
Naam hain mera Bulla, rakhta hoon main khulla” – a line like that (apart from being untranslatable) sent out frissons of excitement and hails of coins & whistles every time it is said on screen. A decade on, people are starting to re-discover and re-enjoy the political incorrectness and the manic levels to which disbelief could be suspended with many lines like this!

When we were in school / college, it was at best a gang of four (remember Udaan!) in a class of hundred who needed to take in movies like addicts inject heroine. And Kanti Shah’s films came handy when it was the only film running in the vicinity and it was always in theatres with affordable (read: dirt cheap) tickets.
The heady excitement of heaving bosoms, bulging eyeballs, ripped bodices and thunderous voices – that too, for only Rs 15 – was unbelievably economical and a little embarrassing afterwards. Discussing such films – that too in culturally evolved Calcutta – was a strict no-no. In any case, where would you find more people who watched – or admitted to watching – Duplicate Sholay?
Now, with the aggregation and anonymity of the Internet, Kanti Shah and his magnum opus Gunda are popping up with increasing frequency in message boards, movie sites and Facebook. And they have found not only a vocal following, but devotees. After all, the Gunda page on Orkut is reverentially listed under ‘Religion & Beliefs’.

Movie critics and fans across the world always rate the quality of a film on a linear scale. For those who have grown up with Kanti Shah and his ilk rate films on a circular scale – which makes a 0.1 perilously close to 9.9 and films are often so bad that they are good. Kanti Shah walked on the sharp edge of this scale with every single film of his. He was unapologetic, aggressive and bloody entertaining in a primitive hunter-gatherer sort of way.
And he played the linear scale really well too! On the Internet Movie Database (, fans of Gunda have given the film an average rating of 7.7. Sholay is 7.6. 

Note: The last line is no longer true. In the last 7 months, Sholay has risen to a rating of 8.1 while Gunda has dropped to 7.6.  

Sunday, May 08, 2011

My Reading List

I have a very eclectic book backlog right now.
The backlog has happened thanks to my abandoning of the Delhi Metro - which takes away 2 hours of reading time every day. Add to that a son, a daughter, a wife and some assorted excitement at work & play... and there is now a pile of unread books on my bedside table.
Take a look...

RD Burman: The Man, The Music
In his review of this book in yesterday's Mint, Jerry Pinto calls the subject of the book 'arguably the most important man in Hindi film music'. And the only grouse I have is with the word 'arguably'. How can there be any argument about that? No other composer in Bollywood has demonstrated as much range and as much durability as RDB.
Proof? Reading this book in the Metro today, I was on the chapter around Hare Rama Hare Krishna. And I was pleasantly surprised by a ringtone going off - Dum maro dum...

It is such a crying shame that I had to abandon Pamuk's best book for the 'most important man in Hindi film music'. Because three-fourths through the book and I realised that it was actually a book on Calcutta.
Be it the need for a Tintin adventure to be set in the city, the dilapidation of once-grand architecture or that amazingly accurate description of huzun, Istanbul is where my heart is.
For those of you debating whether to read it or not, let me tell you about huzun, which can only be partially described as 'collective melancholia' - a state of being I am intensely familiar with.
Pamuk talks about the feeling associated with "1950s Chevrolets that would be museum pieces in any Western city but serve here as taxis... the man who has been selling postcards in exactly the same spot for forty years... of the booksellers who wait interminably for a customer to appear..."

Amar Chitra Katha 5-in-1 Volumes (Regional Folktales of India, )
This is actually a batchmate's gift for my son. But while he is busier with the other gift (a Zoozoo mug), I am planning to relive my childhood by reading about Thugsen (a thief who returned everything he steals), Sakshi Gopal (about the man who made Lord Krishna his witness) and other characters of history and mythology.
Having read some of them earlier, I did not expect to like them as much as I did. The stories - obviously picked up from obscure texts - come alive in pithy word bubbles and simple yet descriptive illustration.
Anant Pai lives on!

The Dialogue of Pyaasa
Aamir Khan has done more for the publicity  of this film than Guru Dutt ever did. By repeatedly naming it in his list of the best films ever made. While I don't subscribe to the 'best' theory, Pyaasa remains a favourite. When I first saw the film, I was in college and any talented person who rejected fame & fortune was the subject of eternal admiration.Blame it on Calcutta's huzun, but I was completely taken by Vijay, the poet who returned 'from the dead' in his own memorial meeting and poetically denounced the world. What a Bengali!
The publisher of this volume - Om Books - is doing a stellar job of bringing out a series of classic Bollywood screenplays. They have already done two of Vinod Chopra's productions (Lage Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots). Hope they bring out many more.    

The Dead Guy Interviews
Don't you want to ask 'obnoxious and intrusive' questions to some of world's most controversial and charismatic figures? The author 'interviews' Alexander, Beethoven, Caesar, da Vinci, Einstein, Lincoln, Shakespeare and Nostradamus... among others. He does 'ask' Frida Kahlo if she waxed her brows and 'call' Napoleon Napster but there seems to be quite a bit of research under there. After all, the book is classified as 'History/Humour' and not 'Fiction'.
Oh - he didn't interview Elvis. Because he's alive, you know?

The Low Brow Guide to World History
I opened the book at a random page and the title of the chapter was 'Which of Henry VIII's wives was the most beddable?'. Other chapters include The Cold War according to Hollywood and How many balls did Hitler have? (with x-ray evidence).
I have a life-long addiction to books of inconsequential trivia and I realised that I should be in the USA because that's the only place in the world where they churn out
I also have unalloyed admiration for trivia buffs and that's where the next book comes in.  

The Know-it-All: One Man's Humble Quest to become the Smartest Person in the World
Here is a guy who read through all 33 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z - all 32000 pages of it.And that's not the best part - his father gave it a shot and gave up after Borneo. One of my childhood ambitions was to own the full set of the Britannica (yes, yes - don't ask) and therefore, this is the kind of book that excites me no end. And if you are the kind of person who figured out that I got it wrong in the first line, you will also love this book. The Encyclopaedia has 32 volumes and 33000 pages.
PS: I do own the full-set of Britannica. Its in 3 CDs and lies in a drawer.

10 Bad Dates with De Niro: A Book of Alternative Movie Lists
This is the book I will read last. Because I have a feeling this is going to become one of my most favourite books of all time. I will just excerpt a bit from the blurb. And drool.
"What are the Top Ten movies for making cigarettes look cool? Greatest opening-credit sequence? Most tragic farewell? Most gratuitous use of sex and violence?"

I did not buy the last 4 books. I got them as gifts.
Can you imagine how well someone knows my reading tastes that he comes up with such exotic titles and I am glad to have them all? Well, that's what happens you are unsocial like me and spend every waking hour of college with pretty much one guy.
Yes, I know... our wives have a cursed existence!

Just remembered that taking advantage of Amazon UK's Super Saver Shipping to India, I have ordered three books from them - Pixarpedia, Chinatown Screenplay (long-searched for) and Roy of Rovers (35-year old Bengalis, ring a bell?). I have to buy a second bedside table, I think.