Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Homecoming

Many years ago, I went to a b-school in Jamshedpur. One of their traditions is to have a weekend  in November when all alumni are invited to visit the campus with friends and family. This is - quite beautifully - called The Homecoming. 
The Homecoming Weekend is on right now. The following piece was meant for the souvenir printed on this occasion. Some of the names may be a little personal but I am hoping many people who want to go back to their alma maters some time in the future will identify with this.

When the auto had turned the bend, you had tried to peep out and take a look at the tree-lined campus that had been your home for the past two years. Blame it on the three others who crammed into the same auto and their embarrassingly large backpacks, you couldn’t do it. Oh, what’s the big deal, you thought. You will be coming back every once in a while. Every time you come home to Calcutta for a holiday, you can squeeze in a day trip to Jamshedpur. The Bombay-Delhi guys will not be able to do this. But you can easily… 
You were not alone among the alumni who made these highly optimistic ‘return’ plans and failed miserably. Even the guilt gave way after the first three-four years.

Every once in a while on a business trip to Bombay (or Bangalore or Delhi), you postponed the evening flight out and landed up at a batchmate’s place. He would always have the dregs of an Old Monk bottle left. Chatting animatedly with the couple of other friends, you would again make elaborate plans. Hey, did you know Kingfisher flies to Ranchi now? It is even easier now. Just fly and drive down in three hours. All objections about the bad Jharkhand roads would get lost in the nostalgic high. For the Jubilee Batch (or Jalebi, as you call yourselves unselfconsciously), the campus had changed the maximum since your departure. It would be so cool to go back, you thought as you downed the Old Monk. 

These plans became more and more difficult to make as you grew older. Many of you have moved abroad. Some had multi-locational teams reporting into them. Some had started their own business. It was bloody difficult to get away from work for 4-5 days. On top of that, this recession was not making anybody’s work-life easier. (Yaar, yeh recession ko postpone karao koi. You postponed project submissions with impunity. How difficult can this be?)

Then you had children and their schools, class tests to contend with. As you grew even older, too many of your earlier generation seemed to be going in and out of hospitals. Planning with friends became nearly impossible. Instead of shacking up with a friend in a different city, it felt right that you came back hoping to catch your daughter about to fall asleep.

But you must plan again – right from scratch.
You now want to take your son along. He knows what colleges are. He has heard of these good colleges called IIM. He has to be shown the difference between the good and the best. He has to be shown those tree-lined paths. He has to be shown where the computer centre used to be (You used desktops, dad?). You had to tell him about Jesu, Gango and Sarin. You also need to prepare an answer for when he asks, “Mom, what are they shouting? What’s the next line after Ek do teen chaar?”
He has seen all his ancestral homes. It is time to show him this one as well.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Yash Chopra's Kaala Patthar

It has been exactly a month since Yash Chopra passed away and the avalanche of well-deserved tributes has now more or less subsided. I waited for this time when I would be able to look at his films a little objectively (though that has never been my forte) and talk about some aspect that has not been covered in all those tributes.
And after a lot of thought, I decided to write on that rough hewn solid rock of a film – Kaala Patthar.

It is quite strange that the tributes hardly mentioned Kaala Patthar because it is a perfect example of what Yash Chopra did really well for the first two-thirds of his career: superbly written, conflict-driven, emotion-driven multi-starrers. Waqt, Daag, Deewaar, Trishul, Kabhi Kabhie were all in this mould. 
Here I would also like to point out that it is a little unfair / inaccurate to label him as the King of Romance. Of the 20+ films he has directed, I can count only 8 that were out and out romances, which included his most mediocre films (Veer Zaara and Dil To Paagal Hai for example). He pretty much defined that Angry Young Man was. In any list of the 10 Greatest Hindi Films of all time, Deewaar would be a sure-shot entry. How can you dismiss such a filmmaker as a chiffon-and-snow sort of guy? 
Emperor of Emotion would be a more apt title.

Kaala Patthar – shorn of the fisticuffs and action – was essentially a tale of very complex emotions and all its characters had incredible depth. 
A disgraced naval officer. An escaped convict. An idealistic engineer. A lady doctor. A bangle seller. A cards shark. Not only the stars but even the bit parts (Macmohan as the cards shark, Parikshit Sahni as a garrulous truck driver) were portrayed with intricate detail.

It is easy to ascribe a large part of Yash Chopra’s success to Salim-Javed and indeed, their scripts for at least three of his biggest hits were superb. But if you see Kaala Patthar, you would realize the value a great director brings to a great script. Of course, the tension of the rivalries, the exploitation and the eventual climax were brilliantly structured but Yash Chopra filmed them only as he could.
He framed Amitabh’s shots in close-ups and low-angles to accentuate his brooding and heighten his already towering presence. He framed Shatrughan Sinha's swagger in wide-angle shots to bring about his ‘lord of all I survey’ attitude. The miners’ colony – while not reaching the realism levels of Wasseypur – was coated with grime. The movie had a distinctly brooding undertone and the mine (as well as the colony) was decidedly claustrophobic. 

Despite that, the pace of the film was breathtaking and he followed Manmohan Desai’s dictum of entertainment – “one item every nine minutes – to the tee. Look at the roster of events:
“Teesre badshah hum hain” – Shatru’s badass card trick.
A very underplayed but critical scene of labour rights (which had distinct shades his earlier hit, Deewaar).
Multiple scenes of Amitabh’s explosive dialogue delivery, including one in which he wrenched off a knife from a goon with bare hands.
A symphonic build up of the Amitabh-Shatru rivalry – using tea, beedi and tablets for fever – that eventually ended in a mind-blowing fight scene.
And of course, the final mine-flooding scene that was a mindboggling piece of cinema considering the primitive technology of Bollywood at that time.

Bollywood never believed in genres. Every hero – especially in the 1960s – did a little bit of everything to make a complete masala potboiler with action, emotion, music, romance, drama, comedy, tragedy thrown into one giant blender. Yash Chopra bucked this trend in the 1970s. 
Each one of his lead characters remained true to their mental makeup throughout the films. So, the fiery dockworker remained steadfastly anchored to his simmering rage while his happy-go-lucky brother sang a couple of songs with his fiancée. Even in his later films (though a little less so), the young Kunwar transformed into a sober bore while his bald friend remained resolutely hilarious.  
Kaala Patthar is one of the best examples of this where a disgraced naval officer took anonymous refuge in a mine. Amitabh Bachchan’s intensity reached unprecedented levels (even including Deewaar) as he seemed incapable of smiling for an overwhelming part of the film. His backstory came much later in the film and Yash Chopra added some subtle hints of his past (his picking up of an English paperback in the doctor’s chamber, for example).
When he burst out in Raakhee’s clinic with that iconic line – “Pain is my destiny and I cannot avoid it” – it hit you like a sledgehammer.

Kaala Patthar remains his most under-rated film and thanks to it being sandwiched between Trishul and Silsila, almost undiscussed. It is a blazing testimony of Yash Chopra's non-romantic talents and also a fine example of how serious can also be entertaining. 
Wish there were a few more like him... RIP, Yash-ji.

Do read my other eulogies of the man who is undoubtedly my favourite Bollywood director.
He was one of the great brands of Bollywood. He was a dream merchant. He has two films in my list of thirteen favourites. And I have seen one his movies 72 times.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bond as Loser


When Quantum of Solace had released, I had mourned the death of Bond. While some agreed with my contention that Bond needed to be a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur", people felt the more (physically) rugged, more sensitive, less articulate avatar of Bond was better suited (pun not intended) for the new age.  

According to my minuscule mind, a James Bond movie has to unfurl in the following way:
1. A context-free action sequence (mandatorily involving a chase in an exotic location) in which Bond saves day and ends with a punchy one-liner 
2. Revelation of nefarious plans of a megalomaniac seeking world domination 
3. Briefing, kitting up and arriving at exotic location ending with introduction of the 'Bond girl' and an initial skirmish with the villain's henchmen (where Bond wins on points, not a knockout)
4. Revelation of the end-game plans, enabled by active use of arms, ammunition and gadgets 
5. Final showdown at villain's lair, leading to its destruction and triumphant closing with Bond getting into a clinch with the girl 
(Oh, there is also the Bond song. That was done wonderfully this time.) 

In many ways, a Bond film is a Bollywood film. However, it needs to update itself with new technology, new issues and new contexts. When one sees the Sean Connery films now, the gadgetry is cringe-inducing and the politics of the villain (SMERSH, for example) is outdated. However, the character of Bond endures as does the OTT-ness of the villains.   

To bring in the audiences, the new-age additions have to be made. 
Make Q younger and more smart alecky. Mock the pen-bomb silliness. Update the politics. Bring in YouTube. Make Bond useless with a Walther PPK but great with a hunting rifle. But for God's sake, make him a hero and not a mere protagonist. 

In Skyfall, Segments 1, 2 and 3 happen somewhat satisfactorily though the opening sequence doesn't end with Bond's triumph but it kind of merges with Segment No 2 (where a crisis is precipitated). Segments 3 and 4 tick off all the boxes but Bond remains rather subdued in all of it. When all Bond does to catch a villain is to switch on a GPS locator and MI6 commandos do the rest, then you are not modernising him but changing him into a handsome Q. 

I loved the fact that the final showdown did not happen in the villain's lair but in Bond's own backyard. But I have a serious, serious issue with the climax. And that is the point of this post. 

Dear Mr Mendes and fans of Mr Mendes - 
You have gone on and on about Bond suddenly becoming real, the character becoming more contemporary and the overall series getting heft and depth. But have you considered the following? 
The villain's objective was to kill M. And he succeeded
Did you realise this? Did you even notice - in between your breathless celebration of Craig's hunk factor - that Bond actually failed in Skyfall? All his Home Alone antics came to a gigantic naught because the villain killed the woman who was Bond supposed to protect. Without getting into the need for the villains to have goals crazier than killing the MI6 boss, the bottomline was that Bond couldn't stop a toothless computer hacker. 
Is this the new Bond? A loser? 

By all means, modernise the series. Make Bond grapple with new things, new problems, a new world. 
But please, please, please don't turn him into a Lester Burnham.