Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: A Roundup

If you have a blog and you don't compile a Best of Year list, they revoke your account, report you to the nearest police station and send you a DVD of Neal 'n' Nikki. Now, much as I am a fan of Uday Chopra, I don't think I can do without a blog. Hence, here goes... 
My lists of some of my favourite things of the year. They are not the best. They are not the most popular. They are simply the ones I felt happiest after reading. 

Books
Last year (2012), I promised myself that I would read 48 books and ended up reading less than 30. This year, I took a GoodReads Challenge of 52 books and I am happy to report a 110% achievement. (All my ex-bosses are muttering under their breath, "Saale ne sales target toh kabhi kiya nahin tha...")
Okay, all you pedants - the GoodReads list shows only 51 books because six books (and some very good ones too!) are not listed on the site yet. 
From the many worthies, here are my favourite five books of the year. (Cheated a bit to sneak one extra one in.)
5. Behind The Silicon Mask - Eshwar Sundaresan 
A great thriller, set in Milwaukee where a serial killer is targeting immigrants while a group of Indian software engineers go about their daily life. Edge-of-the-seat tension and very real views of the techie life in USA merge seamlessly to create a very strong debut novel. And oh - the real life parallels of the software company and its founder are very amusing. 

5. Bongpen - Tanmay Mukherjee 
His blog, his Twitter feed are to my regular corporate life what a dab of Boroline is to the cheek after a rough shave. This book is a slim one - a collection of some of the best pieces from his blog, with some new material added on. It is a delightful, keep-on-the-bedside-table-read-when-you-feel-like book. I hope to read a lot more of Tanmay in the coming years, online and offline. 

4. Hatching Twitter - Nick Bilton 
Hatching Twitter is a thrilling read as well as an informative one. Midway through it, I realised that of the four founders, one was a lot like me. When I was almost through, I realised the founder I was rooting for was not the one who was similar to me. I have read (and hated) many business/self-improvement books but none of them pointed out my own shortcomings as well as this one did. 
Also, I got to know that two of my favourite websites - Blogger and Twitter - were incubated by the same person's company. Ev Williams, you are my hero.

3. Flashback - Avijit Ghosh, Srijana Mitra Das, Sharmistha Gooptu
A compilation of the various articles on cinema from The Times Of India, this book is a great archive with a great perspective. From Tanuja to Tanisha, from Rajinikanth to Uttam Kumar, from Raj Kapoor to Ranbir Kapoor, it has it all and it is luscious.  
(And compiled by three Bengalis, FTW!)

2. In the Company of a Poet - Nasreen Munni Kabir & Gulzar 
When Gulzar stars talking to a film historian on his life and times, you just pray the conversation never ends. Gulzar talks about his films, his lyrics, his life, his father, his daughter with the clarity and sensitivity we have become accustomed to. 

1. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith 
An one-legged detective, recovering from a bad relationship. An assistant whose fiance doesn't want her to waste her time with the detective. A supermodel dabbling in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And the supermodel's dysfunctional family. One second, this is a detective novel - you said? Well, it is. And if you haven't read it already, you must do so right now. 

Cinema 
This was a relatively lean year for me at the movies though I liked pretty much everything I saw. I even enjoyed watching my son watching Chennai Express. But the films I just loved this year are: 

5. Raanjhanaa
Kill me, sue me, ex-communicate me. But I enjoyed this trivial tale of romance and retribution just too much. Maybe it was Banaras. Maybe it was the East UP panache. Maybe it was AR Rehman's soaring music. Maybe it was the heroine who was also the villain. Maybe it was Dhanush. 
Why I loved Raanjhanaa was illogical but then, that's what love is all about. 

4. Fukrey
This has got to be the most under-rated of 2013's films. I feel that Fukrey is going to be a cult film of the generation, for the oh-so-real people who populated its script. Four wastrels trying to leak exam papers and play roadside matka games touched a chord because I knew these guys. Unlike the lead characters of Raanjhana whom I didn't know, I had met each of the lead characters of Fukrey. Who knows, I might have been one of them even. 

3. Bombay Talkies
When four - okay, three - of my favourite filmmakers got together to make a film celebrating hundred years of cinema, I had mentally placed this at the number one slot anyway. It did not turn out to be as fantabulous as I hoped but it was a wonderful piece of memorabilia anyway. 
And Dibakar Banerjee's film is the best short film in the history of Hindi cinema. I will kill you if you disagree. 

2. The Lunchbox
If I told you in Jan 2013 that in a film starring Irrfan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the best performance will be by a newcomer, you would have laughed - right? But Nimrat Kaur - sigh. 
There are so many people punching logical holes in The Lunchbox and generally agreeing that it is not Oscar material. But fellow 90s fans, pause and tell me this - if the hero's name is Saajan and you are the director, what song would you choose for the soundtrack? Yes, correct
And Nimrat Kaur - sigh. 

1. Kai Po Che 
After a lot of deliberations, I realised this is the film I loved the most while watching and would love to watch the maximum times in the coming years. The setting was perfect. The friends were perfect. The soundtrack - oh, the soundtrack - was perfect. And as realists cribbed, even the ending was perfect. But what would you rather see? Rioters being given clean chits and Muslim boys getting slaughtered in riots? 

Overall, 2013 turned out to be decent for me. 
Apart from work, I managed to meet a lot of cool people, do a lot of cool stuff - much of which will hopefully be presented to you in the not-so-distant future. That means, 2014 is also looking quite good and hopeful too. And in these troubled times, that is never a bad thing. 

Wish all of you a great 2014! 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Filmi Fridays: The Coolest Bikes of Bollywood

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here

As Bullett Raja kick-starts its ride across cinemas today, it is just the right time to look at the cool bikes of Bollywood. Two-wheels have always been the choice of cool people in Hindi cinema. Here are some of the best.

One of the most famous bikes of Bollywood doesn’t have two wheels. When small-time crooks Jai and Veeru escaped with someone’s bike, they got a side-car free. Riding the bike (licence plate MYB 3047), they zoomed across highways and sang a happy song. Within the song, they managed to steal a cap, lose the side-car, try to put line on a girl and convince us of their friendship.
Many years later, the real-life Jai and Veeru’s sons – Abhishek Bachchan and Bobby Deol – reprised the scene with yet another bike-with-a-sidecar, for a film called Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Everyone agreed classics shouldn’t be messed with.

Reprises – especially with the same set of stars or their offspring – are loved by audiences and filmmakers alike.
Forty years ago, a young pair – Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia – acted in a teeny-bopper romance called Bobby in which the hero took his girl around in a cool new bike. While the bike looks a little clunky now, it was the cool thing at that time.
Thirty years later, the same pair acted as two oldies falling in love again and this time also, they left their sedans and convertibles in favour of a cruiser bike. They bike was way cooler than the original as were the leading pair.

The most exhilarating bike sequence in Bollywood is when a poor orphan is urged by a fakir to forget his sorrows and laugh out loud. As the sound of his laughter grew louder, the scene changed from his dark childhood to the bright seaside roads of Bombay. The music reached a crescendo when Sikandar zoomed on to Marine Drive on his bike, singing Rote hue aate hain sab, hasta hua jo jayega... Amitabh Bachchan was super-handsome and the peak of his stardom when Muqaddar Ka Sikandar released and this bike-song went up a few notches because of his charisma.

Bikes got a starring role when a ruffian tried to reform and got a job in a bike factory. The film was Hero and the ruffian was Jackie Shroff in his first leading role.
In an early form of product placement, Jackie dada worked in the Rajdoot factory and was inordinately proud of the ‘best bike in India’. He picked fights with NRIs who thought Indian bikes weren’t good enough and finally, participated in a bike race where the irresistible Jackie and Rajdoot combo beat the Jimmy Thapa (Shakti Kapoor) and Honda combo with panache.

You see, all bikes don’t win races and roar into life at the flick of a key. Sometimes, they have to kicked and cajoled to start. And sometimes, they don’t start at all. Especially if you are a poor Delhi University student, living from money order to money order.
Sai Paranjpye’s classic Chashme Buddoor had three friends – Siddharth, Jomo and Omi – and with Jomo’s recalcitrant bike, they formed an unlikely quartet. The bike was used to pick up girls at the drop of a hat though it stopped running, also at the drop of a hat. Except when the three friends had to sing a song, the bike worked just fine and the trio threw caution and helmets to the winds as they rode their steed with gay abandon in the open streets of 1980s Delhi.

As a famous two-wheeler ad asks, why should boys have all the fun?
In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Katrina Kaif picked up her friend’s motorcycle and helmet to race after the man she realised she was in love with. Hrithik Roshan got the most  pleasant surprise of his life when the devastatingly good-looking Kat came up to his car in a bike, took off the helmet nonchalantly and smooched the hell out of him.
In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, it was Anushka Sharma’s turn to snatch a super-bike from her wimpy companion and get into a duel with a biker gang. She looked super-cool as the salwar-kameez-wearing Punjabi kudi who blazed around on a super-bike. Her companion hung on for dear life.

When Anushka revved her bike, the background music was from another film from the same production house – Dhoom.
The Dhoom series is all about fast women, faster cars and fastest bikes. It started with the first film where the whole heist was dependent on nitrogen-fuelled super-bikes zooming down Mumbai’s Western Express highway. And in the forthcoming Dhoom 3, Aamir Khan is another super-thief who is about to zip off on a bike and even slipping an inch away from a mega-truck. It keeps getting bigger and faster.

In the recent past, action superstar Jean Claude Van Damme performed an amazing stunt in an ad for Volvo trucks that has gone ‘viral’ with vengeance.
What we tend to forget is that the origin of the stunt happened in our very own Bollywood. Nearly twenty years ago, Ajay Devgn made his debut in an action-romantic-thriller called Phool Aur Kaante where he made his appearance standing on two bikes and doing a split even more amazing than Van Damme’s.

You see, bikes and Bollywood are just made for each other! 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Film Fridays: KJo Ke Karnaame

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here

Having looked at heroes, heroines and character actors of new films in this column, we change track this week and look at the producer. This is an easy thing to do since the producer is as articulate, good-looking and glamourous as some of the stars in Bollywood. And we look at just that… the times Karan Johar was in front of the camera instead of being behind it.

Karan Johar’s acting career started on television, in a series called Indradhanush. He used his chubby, goofy looks to great effect in a comic role among a bunch of teenagers. The TV series was a sci-fi story where a precocious youngster started out to build a computer and ended up with a time machine instead. Karan played a schoolboy who offered potato wafers when ‘chips’ were required for the computer and landed up in pre-independence India thanks to the time machine.

Karan Johar’s big-screen debut was not only auspicious but explosive. His name is part of the acting credits of the longest-running film in Bollywood history. Unofficially, he was also an assistant to the director Aditya Chopra in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge though he got noticed as SRK’s bumbling friend, Rocky. Wearing geek glasses and a mop of unruly hair, he did a fab job in that standard Bollywood role of ‘hero’s friend’. He did an even better job of convincing SRK to act in his directorial debut.   

The ‘Karan Johar film’ has become the new touchstone of success in Bollywood and having been in one assures sure-shot stardom and regular presence in Page 3 parties.
Vivek Oberoi played a newspaper columnist-cum-screenwriter in Sujoy Ghosh’s Home Delivery (Aapko… Ghar Tak), who was trying to write a script for a Karan Johar film – a Holy Grail that would take him to success and – maybe – happiness.
As Vivek Oberoi juggled his many priorities and whooshing deadlines, Karan kept popping up at regular intervals enquiring about the script (or not).

It went one step better in Salaam-e-Ishq.
Here Priyanka Chopra played ‘item girl’ Kamini who was looking to hit big-time with a role in a Karan Johar film. To do it, she did what starlets in Bollywood keep on doing… created a fictional affair. She claimed to be madly in love with a fictional character called Rahul, hoping the furore over her affair would cause the director to notice her. What she hadn’t bargained for a real Rahul landing up at her doorstep and proposing to her at the exact moment when she received a call from Karan Johar.
You could say this entry is a bit of a cheating since K Jo never ‘appeared’ but was only heard on the phone.

As time went by, the star aspiring for a role in a Karan Johar film became bigger and bigger.
In Luck By Chance, Hrithik Roshan played Zafar Khan – the star who wanted to become a superstar with a K Jo film. To do the role, Zafar did a series of shady moves to wriggle out of a film he was committed to do – leaving a producer (Rishi Kapoor) in the lurch. Towards the end of the film, Karan Johar appeared as himself – as something like the voice of conscience – and told how his machinations had left the door open for a young competitor (Farhan Akhtar) to come in.

After being the aspirational director in so many films, Karan Johar appeared on-screen as his other popular avatar – the awards show host.
In Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, he was the presenter at the Filmfare Awards ceremony and delivered a cool pun to kick off the proceedings: “Kehte hain heere ki kadar johri karta hai. Par hero ki kadar toh Johar hi karta hai.” As the laughter died away, he announced the nominees for the Best Actor category and then introduced Subhash Ghai and Rishi Kapoor to give away the prize. Just like real life.
And just like real life, his favourite actor won the prize!


It looks like his biggest role is going to be Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet. In this saga about how Bombay became Mumbai, Karan Johar is playing a Parsi tabloid editor said to be based on the flamboyant Rusi Karanjia of Blitz. The much-touted character supposedly has negative shades or is an out-and-out negative one, depending on which site you read about it. Having lost ten kilos and charged only eleven rupees for the role, Karan has completed one schedule of the film and fans are looking forward to the film’s December 2014 release. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Filmi Fridays: O Ramji

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

As Ranveer Singh proceeds to earn eternal hatred of Indian men by wrapping himself around Deepika Padukone in hundreds of cinemas this week, we look at some of his illustrious predecessors. Who are the most famous Rams of Bollywood?

Dilip Kumar was Ram. Dilip Kumar was also Shyam. Actually, Dilip Kumar was Ram Aur Shyam – the favourite Bollywood formula of twins growing up to be as differently as chalk and cheese. As Ram, Yusuf-saab was the docile brother whipped to a pulp by Pran while Shyam Rao was the flamboyant avatar where he was about to give back a few of the lashes.

After the comic brilliance of Chupke Chupke and the action extravaganza that was Sholay, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan came together as Ram Balram (respectively). This was Deewaar with a twist as Ram became a smuggler’s henchman and Balram became a police officer – with none of the original intensity. Ram sang hit songs with Balram (Ek rasta do rahee) in traditions of Jai-Veeru. He fought with Balram in traditions of Vijay-Ravi. And then reunited with their mother in traditions of Amar Akbar Anthony.

Rajesh Khanna was not only Ram but his incarnation in Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar. A satire on the Indian political system, Ram Avtar was a politician’s barber who was made to stand in an election and who became the MLA despite all odds. Rajesh Khanna was the bemused barber who was everyone’s favourite till he won the election. Then, he became a corrupt bastard. Now, where have I heard this story before?

Amitabh Bachchan was Dr Ramprasad Ghayal in Mrityudaata – the surgeon who could only operate when he was stone drunk! In his comeback film produced by his own company, Amitabh acted in one of his worst written roles of his career. And just in case, we didn’t get the Ramayan connection, his wife (Dimple Kapadia) was called Janaki and his brother (Arbaaz Khan) was called Bharat.  

Following the footsteps of Dilip Kumar, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, SRK also became Ram. Ram Jaane, to be exact.
As a foundling orphan child, he asked a saintly soul what his name was. When he philosophically said, “Ram jaane” (God knows), he took that on as his name. As he went on to become a small-time criminal, he started wearing suits without shirts (ugh!), romancing Juhi Chawla and singing a ‘title song’ around his name (Kehte hain log mujhe Ram Jaane…).

While Anil Kapoor was the bigger draw in the Subhash Ghai blockbuster, Jackie Shroff was the opening name of Ram Lakhan – Inspector Ram Pratap Singh. While Anil Kapoor pranced around singing the hit My name is Lakhan, Jackie also had a (lesser known) song – O Ramji, bada dukh dina tere Lakhan ne – sung for him. And like to the original hero, he was the brave, virtuous one.

Aamir Khan was a Ram – Ram Shankar Nikumbh – in his directorial debut, Taare Zameen Par. As the Art teacher who had a special knack for understanding children and their weaknesses – not to mention their strengths – he was an unusual character with an unusual name. His first name did not feature too much in the film as his colleagues and students called him by his surname.

Arguably, the funniest Ram in Hindi cinema is Ram Prasad Sharma of Gol Maal. His father was also Dasrath Prasad Sharma, as he never failed to remind us. He also had a brother called Laxman Prasad Sharma, who fell in love with a girl whose name was (mythologically appropriate) Urmila.
One second, he had a brother? Well yes, a happy-go-lucky chap who went by his nickname Lucky.
Are you sure about the brother? Well, it is a long story then…

Ram Prasad Sharma and Laxman Prasad Sharma reappeared recently as Major Ram and Lucky (pronounced Luck-hey!) in Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na. Paying a tribute to the Hrishikesh Mukherjee original, the director borrowed the classic names and gave them a modern twist.

Not all Rams of the titles are present in the film.
Ram Teri Ganga Maili borrowed its title from the plaintive cry of a saint who cried out to Ramakrishna Paramhans about the Ganga that flowed by his ashram. The Ram in the title was not physically there in the film but by naming the hero Naren (Rajeev Kapoor), the director ensured a spiritual presence. Ramakrishna’s most famous disciple was Swami Vivekanand, who birth name was Naren.

And the final name in the list is not a Ram.
In Andaz Apna Apna, Amar (Aamir Khan) consoled Prem (Salman Khan) with a quart of rum and said it was the best companion for a broken heart. “Gham ka saathi rum”, he said. Devout people would say, “Gham ka saathi Ram” is also true!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why the best Google ad is not the one you saw

I have never written about advertising and marketing on this blog. Since my day job involves an overdose of both, I try not to delve on those topics outside office. But the excitement over the new Google ad became so much that I am now scared they will revoke my diploma if I don’t write on it.
For the benefit of Mr Van Winkle, here is the ad.

This ad got 5 million views in the week since it launched. To give you a perspective, the official Ram-Leela trailer got 7.7 million views in two months. The ad was also the subject of hectic discussions on authenticity of the Lahori accent of the characters and #AlternateGoogleAd was a hilarious rage on Twitter. In terms of emotional impact, it was a triumph. 

My interest in the ad was somewhat academic (and prosaic). Like any real-life Marketing Manager, my first question is usually: “Objective kya hain?” That is, what did the ad set out to do?
You see, whatever I recall from my Marketing classes from fifteen years back is that advertising is supposed to bring about a change. A change in action (“go out and buy Axe”) or thought (“Hitting women is a bad idea”).
I am unclear as to what the objective of this ad is. Get people to use (more) Google? Get them to check flight timings and weather on Google? Think Google is a cool brand? Love Google?
There was an outpouring of love for Google after the ad but the love was always there. This ad just provided an occasion to demonstrate it. Purely from a business point of view (and that should be done because Google’s business in India is still fledgling compared to, say, Unilever’s), is just a show-your-love ad justified?  

People who are on the ‘net use Google. This is not restricted to young people only. Working professionals of a wide age group – because they have access – use and are now familiar with the ‘net and Google.
The only group of people who are somewhat less familiar with Google are older people and women. For the former, it is a question of familiarity since they spent a large part of their lives without knowing about computers. For women in a male-dominated society, it is a matter of access.

This begs the question why did the ad not show the old grandpas doing on Google what their grandchildren were doing. Grandfather remembers childhood friend in Lahore, goes on Google, locates him, calls his grandson and gets him over. I am sure O&M would have figured out a way to keep some surprise element for the emotional high at the end.
Incidentally, a Vodafone ad showed how their 3G internet services are ‘made for the young’.

Just showing two youngsters using lots of Google services was somewhat obvious, I thought. Of course, the huge positive outburst was a great win for the brand but I doubt if people started using Google more after this ad.
Even the shorter follow-up ads showed the grandfathers as helpless Luddites who depended on someone else using Google to answer their questions. Again, a wasted opportunity – in my humble opinion.

Google has always focused on increasing the penetration of internet usage. For example, it organises an annual shopping festival – Great Online Shopping Festival (GOSF) – where the stated aim is to get people to start shopping online. Google is not into e-commerce but it does GOSF because it has figured out that if people spend more time (and money) online, they are more likely to click on ads and if they click on more ads, Google will make more money.
Wonder why they didn't follow the same principle for their 'brand campaign'? 

Which brings me to a brilliant Google initiative that – I hope – you will hear a lot of.
Helping Women Go Online (HWGO) is a guide for women to start using the ‘net. It starts from using a computer and goes on email, chatting, watching videos and all sorts of things we take for granted but our mothers are in need of. They even have a helpline number, for those who feel comfortable talking.
And how will they promote HWGO?
Through ads – which will actually help people change what they think (“Internet has tons of useful stuff and is very easy to use”) and do (“Let me log on”). These ads, I believe, will actually go some way in changing the internet landscape of India. 
And that is something I expect Google to do and leave Partition stories to MS Sathyu. (Oh wait...)

Watch the ads here, here and here

These ads don’t have the emotional kick of an India-Pakistan reunion but I recognised my mother in one of them. Didn’t you? 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

41 Films. 2 Books. 2 Reviews.

Read two interesting books on cinema in recent times. And wrote two reviews.
Read the reviews. Buy the books. Then *cough* buy my book also.

40 Retakes – Avijit Ghosh
Having been a lifelong sucker for lists myself, I feel a listmaker succeeds the moment someone disagrees with the list. It is a sure sign that the reader has gone through the list, processed the entries, thought about it a little and was then provoked to say, “WTF, how could he not include <insert name of cult classic>?”
Secondly, the whole point of a list is to put some sort of order to a relatively lesser discussed/known topic. Making a list of the Top 10 Amitabh Bachchan Films is an exercise in futility. What will you keep? What will you drop? And what additional perspective will you bring to Deewaar that everyone and their Rahim Chachas don’t know already? Making a list of – say – Amitabh Bachchan’s ten best guest appearances is a better idea. It is something everyone has a sense of but not complete knowledge. There is enough fodder to pick and choose ten, leaving out some. And you set up the stage for disagreement with a few passionate souls. [See above.]

Avijit Ghosh’s book – 40 Retakes: Hindi Film Classics You May Have Missed – meets both the above criteria with flying colours. Instead of going the route of 100 Bollywood Films and flogging Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Sholay, DDLJ to death, he has chosen to do forty films which should have been watched more. For many reasons ranging from poor promotion, poor timing, poor luck and poor box-office clout, these excellent films did not become huge hits. They did not become cult classics – in the truest sense of the word – either.
He tells us why he believes they deserved better – plot, performances and the hidden nuggets. He also tells us lots of inside dope, culled from interviews with stars, directors, technicians. It is easy to create nostalgia around known films. I think this book manages to create a fair amount of ‘pull’ towards unseen films. (It is unlikely you would have watched too many of them.)

Like any film fan worth his movie ticket, I believe several others like – for example – My Brother Nikhil, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Sooraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda, Drohkaal, Khoj, New Delhi Times should have been included... and we can debate this till eternity and beyond. The author can, of course, say the list is his. But of course, the right to disagree is entirely mine. But by fostering this disagreement, he has won his battle.
Overall, a delicious book that makes you trawl YouTube and order DVDs to catch up on some great films. I just hope 40 Retakes gets a wide audience and doesn’t become a missed classic among books on cinema.

Amar Akbar Anthony – Sidharth Bhatia
An entire book on one film is fraught with doubts.
Was there enough masala in the scenes so that a detailed narration of the plot doesn’t become boring? Or can the author bring out hidden facets to make it interesting? Was there enough drama behind the scenes to savour? Were the opinions of the film – typically appearing in diverse sources – interesting enough to make a story of their own? By placing the film in the social context it was made in, is there more drama?
And – to my mind – the most important factor: Does the author love – as in, LOVE – the film so that if the story falls short, the passion pulls through?  
By ticking of all of the above boxes, Sidharth Bhatia, who had earlier written a book on Dev Anand’s Navketan Films, has done full justice to the Masala, the Madness and Manmohan Desai with his book on Amar Akbar Anthony.

When you choose a film like Amar Akbar Anthony to write a book on, you have won half the battle. And if you do a good job of it, you have won the remaining half and set yourself for a sequel really.
I couldn’t tell if the book has suffered from the fact that Manmohan Desai himself wasn’t there to recap the madness but his son – Ketan Desai – and his associates – Kadar Khan, for example – bring out his madness well.  Manmohan Desai’s brand of filmmaking is described in vivid detail and – thankfully – there is no attempt to analyse it. How do you analyse madness really? 
It also answers some questions many people would have about the film. Like, why did Amitabh Bachchan – then India’s biggest star by a long margin – allow himself to be beaten unconscious by his biggest rival? How did educated, logical people like Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor get in the mindset to film scenes that violate every laws of logic and physics?
And of course, there are the delicious anecdotes like the time Manmohan Desai overruled the views of the country’s biggest star in his most successful year and said, "Lalla, after the movie is released, whenever you walk down the street, people will call you Anthony."

The only crib about the book is that the book gets a major dialogue – probably the movie’s best – wrong. The correct dialogue is “Aisa toh aadmi doich time bhagta hai. Olympic ka race ho ya police ka case ho...” But that is a minor blemish in an otherwise memorable effort.  

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Filmi Fridays: History of Computing in Bollywood

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

As Mickey hopes to go ‘viral’ today, it might be a good idea to look at the times Bollywood has used computers to catch thieves, impress women, get a job and kill villains. Bollywood has always been more partial to hand-pumps than hard-drives but here is a small selection from the history of computing in Bollywood.

The first time a computer was mentioned in Bollywood was way back in 1978 – in Trishul.
When Shashi Kapoor returned from abroad, he called Raakhee (his father’s super-efficient secretary) a ‘computer’ ek aisi machine jo har sawaal ka theek jawaab deti hai! Clearly, this ‘computer is always right’ notion was before GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out) was coined. Rakhee’s ability to remember cement quotas, her boss’ appointments, design files – while remaining unflappable all the time – was the reason for the nickname.

The computer made a reasonably high-profile entry in a high-profile film, starring a Tam-Brahm engineer – Roja.
Arvind Swamy was the good boy (presumably a computer engineer from IIT) who had a computer at home, which was quite a big thing in 1992 when the movie released. He turned out to be a ‘cryptologist’ who was hired to crack codes in Kashmir and he did so with a computer which had wildly blinking signals on the screen. From his facial expressions, we didn’t know if he cracked the code because he retired to sing songs in the snow with his wife immediately afterwards.

Sooraj Barjatya’s films are full of heroines who start off ambitiously on the academic path before settling down in happy domesticity. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Suman (Bhagyashree) stood first in her Inter(mediate) exams by scoring 87% but instead of attending college, became a house-guest at her father’s friend’s house. 
In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, heroine Nisha (Madhuri Dixit) had moved with the times and was studying ‘Computers’ but no device was visible in her vicinity.
By the time, Sooraj Barjatya made his next film – Hum Saath Saath Hain – Alok Nath had graduated to tinkering with computers and staring at long sheets of dot-matrix printer output.    

Probably the first online banking transaction in Bollywood happened in Ajnabee.
In typical Abbas-Mustan style, an elaborate cat-and-mouse game played out between Akshay Kumar and Bobby Deol as the former tried to make off with a fortune by framing the latter. The climax happened in a cruise ship and Bobby finally pulled a fast one by transferring back the $100 million Akshay had got as his dead wife’s insurance payout. How? Hacking was still some years away in Bollywood but smart ol’ Bobby just guessed the nineteen letter password. Everything was planned, you see.

Hacking came into age by the time Om Jai Jagdish was made in 2002 (the year after Ajnabee).
In Anupam Kher’s directorial debut, Abhishek Bachchan was the ‘ethical hacker’ who illegally entered his college’s website to leak exam papers for his friends. After he was rusticated for his troubles, he became a pizza delivery boy in Bangalore and tried for a job in India’s leading software film – Softcell Technology. By finding out who hacked the company’s website in 100 seconds, he got himself a deal to make anti-virus software. And in true Bollywood style, he named the software Om.

A Wednesday was full of gadgets we use in our daily lives that can be transformed into deadly weapons of terror with a bit of information from online tutorials. Terrorist (Naseeruddin Shah) used a combination of changing SIM cards and a laptop to create a web of fear. When the regular efforts by the police cyber cell failed, a cool dude – who turned out to be a college dropout – was brought into trace the calls being made. In an interesting shift of power, the heroic police force was left to do the brawny things (fighting, chasing, interrogating) while the young hacker did the delicate tech tinkering.

When the personal computer revolution reaches a peak, you need people to sell them. That was exactly what a shady computer company called AYS Corporation was doing. They were doing the standard computer industry practice of over-promising and under-delivering till Harpreet Singh Bedi joined them and questioned them all.
After a lot of software, Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year was about the computer hardware industry with its aggressive sales managers, porn-addicted maintenance guys and exasperated customers. The whole activity of closing a sale, assembling the order and delivering it was shown wonderfully well.

Computer games came to the forefront when geeky game designer – Shekhar Subramaniam – invented a super-villain called Ra.One. The game was created to please his gaming addict son, who went by the online name Lucifer and who could beat even the super-villain. But in a fantasy twist, the super-villain got livid at losing and came out of the game into the real world. All hell broke loose. Till a super-hero called G.One emerged out of the game as well.

Himesh Reshmaiyya starred in Radio as a RJ with Radio Mirchi, who was probably Hindi cinema’s first socially active character. As RJ Vivaan Shah, he chatted on Facebook while his less-enlightened colleagues were still figuring it out (‘Yaar, yeh Phesbuk hota kya hai?’). His relationship status was ‘complicated’. His listeners complained about boyfriends on porn sites. And he was supposed to be super-cool.
A more complicated take on Facebook happened in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, which poked a lot of fun at the practice of cyber-stalking and online-despogiri. What Bollywood sidekicks have been failing at since time immemorial – wooing heroines – suddenly became very easy with assumed online identities. A complicated love polygon ensued when people posed as each other on Facebook (or something like it) and fell in love with online avatars and out of love with offline ones!

A South Indian woman came to Kolkata to find her missing husband and landed up at the Kalighat Police Station to file a missing person report. The officers turned out to be grappling with the Kolkata Police Database software they had to install on the police station’s computer. When she saw them getting hassled by the beeping ‘System Error’ message, she effortlessly moved in and helped them out. Her knowledge of the computers would come handy later in the film when she had to extract some information clandestinely. After all, she was a software engineer just like her husband. Except her husband turned out nothing like what she had said.
And that was the Kahaani

UPDATED TO ADD:
My friend Asha (also an acclaimed VO artist, who has worked in Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai) has this to say: "All those fancy glowing and beeping buttons in Shaan and Mr India were computers too. Just that we did not know it then. And you deliberately missed the image of a CPU-hugging Emraan Hashmi running to safety in a riot-affected, curfew-declared wannabe-Shanghai?"
Whatay brilliant addition!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Boss Kaun Hain?

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

Joke of the day: Why did the Communist parties condemn Akshay Kumar’s latest movie? Because the Boss is always right!
Today’s theme is based on the latest movie from Action Kumar a.k.a. Khiladi Kumar a.k.a. the Boss. Who are the bosses of Bollywood?

Sujoy Ghosh’s debut film was a feature-length tribute to Sholay and the Boss. As two music-crazy ad guys went about writing copy for condoms, managing wives and mothers-in-law and practising for a music contest (called Jhankaar Beats), we were introduced to their Boss. The head of their ad agency was Vijayendra Ghatge. He wasn’t the Boss. Sanjay Suri’s wife was Juhi Chawla, a perfectly sweet woman. She wasn’t the Boss. His mother-in-law was a bossy, pain-in-the-ass. But she wasn’t the Boss either.
Boss kaun hain, maloom hain kya?
Oh come on, you know who the Boss is! He is the one who makes you listen to him. Riiii raaaaa tu ru tu ru tu ru tu ru tu ru tu ru...

Shah Rukh Khan was looking for a fast track to success. And he was prepared to be all sycophantic and shady about it. In short, he was saying Yes Boss every step of the way.
In Aziz Mirza’s morality tale about a sleazy boss (Aditya Pancholi) out to sleep with a girl (Juhi Chawla) his subordinate is in love with, SRK was the young, upwardly mobile upstart torn between his boss and his love. Add to that a heart-patient mother, the boss’ wife and a superhit soundtrack by Jatin-Lalit to get a very popular film that took SRK to stardom.

Sleazy bosses looking for a bit of a sex on the side are not in short supply in Bollywood.
Kay Kay Menon in Life In A Metro was one such character, who was sleeping with Kangana Ranaut in his subordinate’s (Sharman Joshi) flat. The subordinate was happy to let out his flat for his superiors’ amorous adventures till he realised that he was in love with the girl who was coming in with the boss.
This twist is obviously the same as Billy Wilder’s classic film, The Apartment, though this is not the first time it has been used in Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan starred in Raaste Ka Patthar in 1972, in which he also played the bachelor executive who let out his flat to his boss (Prem Chopra).

Not all bosses make out with your lady love though. (To be fair, most bosses don’t.) However, Bollywood bosses are shady if not sleazy.
In Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, SRK was a junior architect who was coerced to cover up his firm’s incompetence by his firm’s big boss (Naveen Nischol) and his daughter (Amrita Singh), who seemed to have a soft corner for him. Aziz Mirza directed this morality tale which explored the favourite Bollywood theme of innocent hero losing his honesty in the big bad corporate world.
Abhishek Bachchan did a similar role, playing an upcoming executive in a media company owned by big boss (Jackie Shroff) and the voice of boss (Sushmita Sen). The name of the film was Boss Itna Sa Khwaab Hai. (Ahem.)

Bosses and secretaries are drawn to each other like a moth to flame.
In the definitive canon of this genre – Pati Patni Aur Woh – Sanjeev Kumar eschewed the charms of wife Vidya Sinha and tried getting cosy with secretary Ranjeeta, weaving an elaborate web of lies to garner sympathy, though not sex!
Hrishikesh Mukherjee borrowed the plot of Pati Patni Aur Woh for his comedy, Rang Birangi, in which Amol Palekar was the boss. He tried to bring in a spot of spice in his boring married life by wooing secretary Deepti Naval and repeating the same wooing techniques with wife Parveen Babi.

Basu Bhattacharya’s Griha Pravesh was a more serious take on the boss-secretary relationship as Sanjeev Kumar (yet again!) strayed from his seemingly happy marriage with Sharmila Tagore to seemingly fall in love with Sarika. The couple’s quest to buy a house for themselves hit a roadblock as Sarika wanted to enter her boss’ life formally while the boss was not completely sure if he wanted to let his family go.

As a tail-piece, it might be frivolously apt to invoke the abusive boss – DK – from Delhi Belly.
Okay, okay... you nitpickers can keep cribbing that he is actually a Bose and not really a Boss but we aren’t really writing a PhD thesis here, you know? This Boss is wildly popular in many parts of the Hindi heartland, his name is taken sometimes abusively, sometimes reverentially and by all accounts, the mention of his name is a sure-shot warning to take cover. Bad-ass boss, he is!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

More Conversations with Mother

Ding dong o baby sing a song comes on the car stereo.
My mother breaks off mid-sentence from another conversation and says, "This fellow's son is about to join films."
I say, "Yeah, Tiger."
My mother says, "After Mithun's son, I am always scared about star son's debuts."
<pause>
Now, my mother changes track and says, "Amrish Puri became a top villain after this movie."
Me: "Yeah."
Mom: "Was Shakti before this or after?"
Me: "Shakti would be before."
Mom: "Yes, so Shakti and this would have made him into a star and after Mogambo, there was no looking back."
Me: "He did the Indiana Jones film also around the same time."
Mom (murmuring): "Pasha ki bhasha... Pasha ki bhasha..."

By this time, my wife has fallen asleep and my mother starts recounting - pretty much line by line - an interview of Biplab Chatterjee (a Bengali actor known for his negative roles) where he praised Amrish Puri and called him the only villain who could match up to Amitabh Bachchan.

Do me a favour. Check out Amrish Puri's filmography on IMDb and realise the Kya cool hain hum song was actually written for me and my mother.
And read this post. The phrase We are like this only was also written for us. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Amitabh Bachchan's Many Jobs

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here

Today, India’s biggest star and best actor turns 71. His versatility has been demonstrated in many ways and I look at it by looking at a few of the most popular professions he has played. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy... what did he play the most?

Police Officer
This is a no-brainer. Amitabh Bachchan has been an upholder of justice (on the right side of the law) in nineteen stupendous films. The first time he played a police officer was in Zanjeer, which was something like Sachin Tendulkar scoring a 49-ball-82 the first time he opened. As Inspector Vijay Khanna, he took on villainous smugglers and large-hearted Pathan outlaws with a silent aggression, hitherto unseen in Hindi cinema.   
After that, there was no looking back and he was a police officer in The Great Gambler, Ram Balram, Parvarish, Dostana, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, Mahaan, Inquilaab, Geraftaar, Aakhree Raasta, Shahenshah, Indrajeet, Akayla, Insaniyat, Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, Aks, Khakee, Dev and Bunty Aur Babli.
Incidentally, five of these films have him playing at least one more role apart from being a police officer. In The Great Gambler, his twin was – well – a great gambler. In Mahaan, his twin was a comic actor and their father was a fugitive tycoon. In Aakhree Raastaa, the police officer was after his vengeance-seeking father. In Shahenshah, he was corrupt policeman by day and crime fighter by night. And in BMCM, his alter ego was a con-man causing many mistaken identities.
Surprisingly, he has last played a police officer in 2005 (Bunty Aur Babli) and we haven’t seen him in khaki ever since.
In Jagdeep’s Soorma Bhopali, he played a police officer in the guest appearance he did.

Armyman
Be it the domestic front, be it the country’s borders, a tall and earnest figure inspires confidence. Amitabh Bachchan is that inspiring figure that leads jawans to war and gives confidence to civilians.
He first played a jawan in Roti Kapada Aur Makaan – the patriotic paean, where the common soldier lost his arm for the cause of the motherland. From a jawan, he was promoted to Major Saab in his next Army outing as he went about disciplining cadets at the NDA. He was also a Major and prisoner of war in Pakistan in Deewaar: Let’s Bring Our Heroes Home. He got a promotion to become Colonel Damle in Lakshya (where he led forces in Kargil) and Col. Balbir Sodhi in Kohraam (where he rebelled and went after corrupt ministers). He was promoted yet again to become Major General Amarjeet Singh in Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo, where his son and grandson followed his footsteps into the Army.
Apart from these active Army roles, he was referred to by ranks in Kaante (Yashvardhan ‘Major’ Rampal) and Ek Ajnabee (Col. Suryaveer Singh) suggesting Army antecedents there as well.

Criminal
If he upheld the law really well, he broke it with equal panache. Now, there are several shades to his unlawful activities.
He played an extra-constitutional power in Sarkar and Sarkar Raj (as well as Department) who did not think twice about breaking the law to uphold justice but the role was clearly heroic.
He was an out-and-out villain in Don while his role of an underworld boss in Boom was largely comical. He was supposed to have been a fearsome villain in Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag but that film ended up making everything in it comical. He was a Mafia boss in Family: Ties of Blood as well though nobody noticed that film.
Different types of crime – without much seriousness – have been his calling in Bbuddah Hoga Tera Baap (a sharpshooter), Mr Natwarlal, Shaan, Do Aur Do Paanch, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan (con-men), Sholay (petty criminal) and Kaalia (smuggler of indeterminate goods).
In two films, he has been a murderer on the run – Faraar and Aakhree Raastaa – but both were acts of righteous revenge.
Quite surprisingly, he has looted banks in two movies – Kaante and Aankhen – though the former was a more positive role while the latter had him as a complete villain. Probably his baddest role has been in Parwana, where he murdered a man and framed his rival for it – showing virtually no remorse till the very end.
His iconic anti-hero roles were, of course, Deewaar, Shakti and Agneepath – which are still the gold standards of anger in Indian cinema.

Poet / Author
If Vijay was Amitabh’s angry young avatar, Amit was his soft, sweet, poetic persona.
Most famously in Yash Chopra twin romances – Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila – Amitabh was a man of the arts. In the former, he was a poet whose stirring verses won him many admirers. In the latter, he was a playwright out to woo the world with his words.
Early in his career, he was an author in Bandhe Haath (in one of his two roles in the film) and a poet in Ek Nazar.
In the later part of his career, Baghban saw him become an author after he retired from his regular job and penned a brilliant novel that won him the Booker Prize.
He is no stranger to literary prizes since he won a prestigious one for his book in Anand. While the book was based on his diaries, he was also a poet in the film. Right from his college days (where girls were majorly impressed with his verses), he ended up contemplating death in the final scenes – Maut, tu ek kavita hai...

Doctor
Talking of Anand, we have to remember it for his most famous doctor role – the dour cancer specialist faced with the impending death of a patient, whose zest for life was infectious. The role pitted him against the reigning superstar, Rajesh Khanna, and he came up trumps in a silent but impactful role.
The doctor roles did not happen during his super-successful phase as he was required to fight and sing songs (not something medicos are usually called upon to do). It came back in Mrityudaata where he played an eccentric surgeon, who could operate only when he was deliriously drunk. (For the record, he soon transformed into a vigilante in the film and even managed to sing a song with Daler Mehndi while on the run from the police. As you can see, Dr Bachchan is called upon to fight and sing songs.)
He played an altruistic doctor in Armaan who wanted to build a hospital for the poor and passed on his dream to his son, Anil Kapoor. In Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, he was a psychiatrist who was entrusted with the task of treating Mafia don played by Sanjay Dutt – somewhat reminiscent of Analyse This (starring De Niro and Billy Crystal). In Aetbaar, he was the doctor father of Bipasha Basu but there was very little medical stuff in this tale of John Abraham stalking his daughter.  

Professor / Teacher
With a voice and screen presence like that, Amitabh Bachchan is a shoo-in for the post of any teacher anywhere in the world.
He kicked off his teaching career with Chupke Chupke where he played a professor of Literature masquerading as a Botany professor, grappling between Julius Caesar and the functions of a corolla. Soon afterwards, he was a mild-mannered professor of Hindi in Kasme Vaade but most of his time was spent in breaking up fights of his belligerent younger brother, who was a student in the same colleges.  After that, he was Master Dinanath in Desh Premee but he did very little teaching and was gainfully employed in maintaining communal harmony in the slum he was a resident of. (Master Dinanath became the name of his father in the classic, Agneepath.)
He made a solid impact when he played the principal of Gurukul in Mohabbatein, a stern disciplinarian who had to deal with a flower-throwing, poetry-spouting music teacher and three students not sold on to his concept of anusashan.
In two films, he played a Professor only by name. In one short film of Darna Zaroori Hai, he was Professor – visited by a student but their academics were disturbed by supernatural goings-on. In Teen Patti, he was a professor of mathematics who spent more time in casinos than classrooms trying out a ‘theory of probability’.
In two films, he was a true teacher. In Black, he was the eccentric, ill-tempered teacher of a triple-handicapped girl who showed her the light at the end of the tunnel. In Aarakshan, he was idealistic teacher who didn’t mind giving up his job and teaching needy students for free.

God
The final ‘profession’ in the list is a full-time job, which many aspire for but only Amitabh Bachchan can stake claim for being one.
In Hello Brother, Amitabh Bachchan did not make a physical appearance but was heard as a ‘Heavenly Voice’ who urged angel Salman Khan to come to heaven. The role became bigger with yet another Salman Khan-starrer, God Tussi Great Ho (a remake of Bruce Almighty) where Amitabh Bachchan was the God who let a madcap run his universe. In both films, he was the epitome of looks, philosophy and voice that convinces you of Amitabh Bachchan’s divinity.
Apart from being a religion-neutral God, he has also played Indra – the king of Hindu Gods – in Agni Varsha, a play in which Indra’s blessings were sorely required due to a drought threatening a village.