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.