Latest Entries »

It was April 2000, I was living in a basement apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had been in the United States for two months. The subzero temperatures of Northern New England were disorienting my biology, which was used to dealing with 100F temperatures in April. A strange place, cold days, colder nights, and nobody to call a friend. Naturally, I resorted to watching movies to kill my time. I bought a VCR and a JVC TV with some assistance from a colleague. There was a Blockbuster store near my apartment and I would rent random movies. One such movie was, “Scent of a Woman“, rented only because it starred Al Pacino. While Mr. Pacino chews up the entire movie, one other actor that stood out in his small role as the super-rich kid, George. I had no idea who this actor was, but his performance left a mark nonetheless. In the same week, I watched Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights. I spotted the same actor playing Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-1000-x-1000-1another supporting character, Scotty J who is hopelessly (secretly) in love with the lead character, Dirk Diggler. I had to look him up, and found out that the actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH). I still didn’t quite grasp why I was enamored by his performances, especially when they were smaller roles in the bigger scheme of both of these movies. Nevertheless, I scanned the Blockbuster store for more of PSH’s movies and rented – The Talented Mr Ripley, Magnolia, Almost Famous, and State and Main. In each of these movies, he played supporting characters and I was completely taken by each one of them.

To me, the greatest achievement in a performance is when I am never reminded that it’s a performance, when the character and the person playing the character become one, when they seem like people who could “be”. For every performance an actor has to adapt to the role, but yet, their personality somehow shines through the characters they embody (I don’t mean this in a negative way). For example, think of roles essayed by these legends of cinema – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Amitabh Bachchan, Meena Kumari, Jack Nicholson, Dilip Kumar, Humphrey Bogart, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, etc. I bet my cinematic eyes, there isn’t one performance that you can point out with enough conviction, where you could say – “I didn’t for once think that this was Al/Meryl/Jack/Amitabh…etc.” This is not to say that this makes them inferior actors, but to say that their personas are/were bigger than the people they played on-screen. Somewhere, their real star-self lingered on. With PSH, it’s the exact opposite – he makes the character he is playing bigger and more palpable than him. No matter how good or bad the movie, no matter the genre of the movie, no matter the quality or the target audience of the movie – whether it be artsy films like the Paul Thomas Anderson movies OR the low-brow Ben Stiller/Jennifer Aniston rom-com “Along Came Polly” OR the corny disaster flick “Twister“, PSH was always 100% in the character.

After the character gigs, Hollywood took heed and cast him in lead roles, one such being his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in “Capote“. While, I enjoyed the movie and his performance, it left me a bit “meh”. (Bring on the brickbats!). Let me explain the “meh”-ness. No doubt, it is a powerful scene stealing performance, but that’s what takes it away from what I expect of PSH- he is at his best when he embodies the characters who are away from the spotlight, who are not meant to be the “focus” of the narrative drive and our emotional attachment to the happenings in the movie. What he does with these side characters is remarkable – he brings them to life when the writers, the director, the cinematography, are squarely focused on the lead characters and the central narrative. It was this quality in PSH, that drew me to him. When he became the central character, the rest of the film-making machinery was also with him, and so in my head it meant – his performance got all the support to make it shine. I cannot emphasize enough that, this in no way made him a lesser actor, NO – I am merely talking about my perception about his performances in supporting versus central characters.

In part 1 of this series, I talked about why Farooque Shaikh was so dear to me as an actor – he connected with me at an emotional level, primarily because I watched his movies in the formative years of my life (early teens). His characters were recognizable and familiar (for the most part) and there was a sense of comfort watching them. Whereas, most of PSH’s characters lived on the sidelines of the worldly definition of “normal” – they were as unfamiliar (to me) as they can get. Many of them were twisted, evil, self-centered, uncool, reckless, pathetic losers, – people you would voluntarily avoid association with. And yet, he portrayed them with such a perfect mix of compassion and craziness that you saw the “human-ness” in them. Thus, PSH”s connection is more at a cerebral level. I got to watch his movies at a time of my life when I understood the art of “performance”, the fact that I knew that movies are all make-believe and yet I “believed” in his characters, believed that they are “real people”, he prodded me to understand these characters and empathize with them no matter how alien they were to me.

When the news of his untimely death flashed on my phone, I had a massive knot in my stomach, a gut-wrenching scream of “no” echoed between my ears. I did not know PSH as a person, but knowing the way he died, I can say that he had many demons inside of him that he battled through his living days. Did these demons, these battles make him what he was as an actor? I do not know, I do not care! He remains, to me a performer who made me keenly aware of those who live on the sidelines, he shone light on people who we quite regularly (to no fault of ours) ignore and carry on with our versions of a “normal life”. He showed that these un-normal people are “people” too with a beating heart, just like the one inside my anatomy. For that I am ever so thankful that such an actor existed and enriched my movie watching experiences.

Here’s a wonderful visual tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

6 BlindMost of us have heard the old parable of the six blind men and an elephant. To summarize it briefly – Each blind man is asked to feel a different part of the elephant and describe the animal. Of course, each one describes it in a very different manner. The moral of the story being that the perception of a matter is highly subjective and it is imperative to know the entirety of the matter in order to arrive at a reasonably well-formed view, and thereby the “truth” of the matter.

So why do I invoke this parable now?

Recently, I have been surrounded by over 20 college interns (from various cultural/ethnic/economic backgrounds) who are helping out with a major event at our office. With a group of youngsters congregated in a small space, the environment becomes rife with many a colorful conversations. Given the proximity of my office from them, I get to hear every detail of these conversations. They range on all kinds of topics – Russia/Ukraine, Tinder, the missing 8-year-old girl who the city has been frantically searching for, which food trucks are the best, dating woes, hotness of a girl/guy, etc. While I enjoy this free entertainment, the number of times I heard them pass “judgmental” statements has startled me quite a bit. A few examples of these judgmental statements – “The Peruvian brothers truck has the best roast chicken….Yelpers are raving about it”, “Russia wants to bring back USSR”, etc. While these seem harmless, on listening the conversations a little more, these statements were from perceived information, information that they had not actively gathered and deducted but stumbled upon due to the very fact that this information is not only available in “excess” but is available with easy “access”. (The guy who said that Peruvian brothers’ food truck had the best chicken, had not eaten there himself!). When I pointed this out to the group, that they are passing judgments on things without collecting sufficient data (or first hand experiences where possible), I got quizzical looks from most of them. I admit, I must have come off a bit patronizing in my tone and very quickly, I realized that what I was saying was futile.

This subject goes beyond the formation of “snap judgments”. There is a sense of entitlement in a lot of us, of having and standing by an opinion with little to no credible information to back it. In a world where such opinions can instantly be transmitted to thousands, it only adds to the perpetual vicious loop. This may not sound like such a huge issue, but it beckons to look 10 or 20 years from now. I do not have kids of my own, but I look at my friends’ kids who are in the 1-5 year age group and I imagine what their world would be like in such an environment. How will they form opinions? How will they pass judgments? What impact that may have on their lives and the lives of others they have influence on? Its one thing to coexist with a generation which did not have ready access to information and had to cautiously and painstakingly gather it (anyone over the age of 30 may fall in this category – but I have also seen many 30 somethings pass judgments purely on hearsay!) AND an entirely another thing where all of the humanity will be coming from a place where access to information is a mere finger flick (or a voice command) away – a finger flick where the odds of landing the wrong information are exponentially higher as newer information accumulates at an unfathomable  rate.

The last decade has seen this massive explosion of “excess” of information and easy “access” to information (or misinformation). The immediate effect of this is that we have to deal with the herculean task of perceiving the facts from this constant unstoppable flood of information (in corporate jargon – drinking from an open fire hydrant). It is all very overwhelming – for every point there is a counterpoint, for every fact there are a million myths. The result is that we give up on sifting through the mountains of data and exasperatingly form a snap judgment, not because we want to, but because it is the easy way out. Very soon, I see this tendency to arrive at a judgment become a habit (if it hasn’t already) for the current and future generations. I don’t know how to say it without sounding preachy, but the fact remains that this habit will create a toxic environment if we don’t exercise caution and educate our children about the merits of a procedural approach of arriving at reasoned opinions on matters – no matter how small or big the matter may be.

The “snap judgment” phenomenon has become so commonplace that you don’t even notice it anymore. And I confess, I have been party to this myself more than I would like to admit. But, I do still have a part of my brain which keeps me in check and allows myself to retract my judgments and not repeat this behavior.

On re-reading what I wrote above, the entire piece sounds pessimistic and preachy, which is hardly my intent or deliberate style. I still have faith in us as a people who have the ability to course correct ourselves. This trend of “snap judgments” may just be a side-effect of the Information Explosion phenomenon. And by saying this I also do not intend to make a villain of the Information Explosion. It is certainly one of the greatest inventions of the last 50 years. However, the rate at which it is evolving is what makes it unpredictable and cautions us that if we don’t orient ourselves and our future generations now, we may not have the luxury of time to course correct.It will be people walking around like computers – all “information” no “knowledge”.

Our educational system, to an extent teaches us the benefits of data gathering, and data analysis prior to arriving at conclusions in the matters of academia. This however, does not translate too often to life situations – where we soak up information from the first convenient chunk of data we can lay our eyes/ears/hands on and just run with whatever suits our thinking.

If I had children of my own, I would narrate the six blind men story over and over to them – and not just for their benefit, but mine too, since it’s so easy to get carried away in the strong currents of the flood of information around me. The merits of the moral of this parable cannot be emphasized enough in these times, times when we have all become “judges” in our own right, times when these next generations will be the change agents, leaders, and policy makers of the world. I would not want me and them to be in a world where there are Six Billion blind men.

I do not usually get affected by the death of celebrities. Occasionally, I may feel a bit for them or their families out of a normal human reaction, but that’s all. However, this was not the case for two actors who passed away recently – Farooque Shaikh (FS) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) – actors who I have loved, admired, and respected.

This two part post is my little tribute to these two men who have left an indelible mark on my movies-loving self. Without comparing the two in their craft, I want to highlight a few similarities in their work – they were unconventional looking as per the showbiz definition of how an actor should look like (or at least how a lead actor should look like), they seemed to not care how big or small their character was in the overall scheme of the movie, they almost always rose above the material given to them -no matter how inconsequential their roles were, and they managed to leave you with a feeling of having seen a whole person, a person with a life, and a story of his own in any character they played .  You could believe that the characters they played went about their lives even after the movie had ended.

Farooque Shaikh

FS2My earliest memory of FS is from Chashme Buddoor. I remember watching it in the early 1980s in Aurangabad – I may have been 6 or 7 years old and am sure was unable to understand the movie, given my underdeveloped acumen for lives of adults. However, there were two scenes that stayed with me –  the Ms Chamko scene and the song “Kaali ghodi dwaar khadee“. Once in my teens, I rewatched the movie on Doordarshan and have loved it dearly and watched a number of times since then. During these same years, I watched a number of FS’ movies on Doordarshan  – Katha, Kisise na kehna, Garam Hawa, Noorie, Saath Saath, Umrao Jaan, Rang Birangi, Bazaar, etc. Remember, these were the late eighties/early nineties, a time when Hindi movies were all about mindless action oriented revenge sagas or over-the-top social dramas. You can very well say that it was an era of an absolute nadir in overall cinematic creativity.  FS’ movies were in the opposite spectrum as compared to these movies – they were mostly about light-hearted escapades of the everyday man. The revenge or social dramas – we mostly watched them in the theaters, but FS’ movies were reserved for the television screen. My logic for this was: the big stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, etc. were too big to fit on a TV screen (i.e. the characters they played were too big) and hence needed the big screen, FS1while FS (and Amol Palekar) were like my uncles or the two brothers in their early twenties from next door who were just beginning their independent adult lives. There was an immediate familiarity with the characters FS etched  – they were people I knew, and hence regular enough to fit on the Dyanora TV set we had and safe enough to be welcome in our living room. I also remember I used to be terrified of the movie villains of those days – Amjad Khan, Ranjeet, Ajeet, etc. In FS’ movies, there was nothing to fear for, there was never a sense of danger or darkness in them – they had a homely, comforting feel to them.

After the 80s and the 90s, there weren’t many movies that FS featured in. In the recent past, he was having a second coming of a sort. In this phase he etched characters which were quite different from the movies of his younger days :

- The manipulating secretary to Supriya Pathak’s Chief Minister (a contemporary from his younger years)  in Shanghaai . This was such a different character from what we expected of FS. It was a departure from him being the naive/likable guy in his earlier films to being the sinister one. Of course, he was stellar in this small role and brought out the right amount of bureaucratic sliminess that is required of this character.

FS4- The soft-spoken photographer Jayant from Listen…Amaya: He was paired with Deepti Naval after many years. I doubt if anyone will disagree with me when I say that FS and Deepti are one of the most endearing on screen pairs we have witnessed. Their chemistry was effortless and when they were on the screen together, the lightness they conveyed was unparalleled. The Ms. Chamko scene I mentioned above is just one of the scenes that is a testament to an effervescence and lightness that many actor pairs (and even real life couples) can only wish for. In Listen Amaya; this chemistry was still very much present and as effortless as it was in their first movie together. Them two were just two peas in a pod.

- The father to Ranbeer Kapoor’s Bunny in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani: His role is quite miniscule. In the few scenes that he has with Ranbeer you can tell what a seasoned actor like him can do with mere gestures. Watch the scene where Ranbeer insults his step-mother (played by Tanvi Azmi). FS and Tanvi just look at each other after Bunny has left the room, a look that conveys that they get why Bunny is the way he is, without having to say a single word.

In his younger days, he didn’t always play the every-day middle class youth of the pre-globalization urban India, but also etched some serious roles,  mostly in Muslim social dramas:

FS5- Sarju in Bazaar with Supriya Pathak: Everyone from the 90s had an audio cassette of Bazaar and Saath-Saath in their college days. The Bazaar side of the cassette had some dialog preceding each song. Having listened to them a million times, I can’t imagine the songs of Bazaar without the preceding dialog. Prior to the song “Fir chiddi raat“, the cassette had a flirtatious exchange between FS and Supriya Pathak where he is being a chudiwala(a door-to-door salesman of bangles – a profession long lost) who is trying to woo Supriya’s Shabnam. His enunciation of the Hyderabadi Hindi in “ab dhaani chudiyaan kahan se laaon, yehich itti mushkil se mili” still echoes in my ears.

- The lovelorn Nawab in Umrao Jaan: How does one portray a complete smitten-ness when one is a Nawaab without coming off as lecherous or juvenile : well, watch him yearn for Umrao in “In aankhon ki masti” (of course only if you can take your eyes off the luminous Rekha’s portrayal of Umrao Jaan Ada).

I believe he would have played a number of interesting characters in his second phase. Hindi cinema is dishing out films on a plethora of interesting subjects and I am sure it would have made good use of him. But, that’s not to be and the loss is entirely ours.

Not dwelling on what cannot be – he continues to live in his characters with me just like he does in those who grew up watching his films. Wouldn’t you agree that there isn’t a dull afternoon that cannot be cheered up by re-watching Chashme Buddoor or Katha? Dear Farooque Shaikh – Shukriya for all the heart-warming memories. I miss you.

Rani from Rajouri

It is a risky undertaking to make an entirely character driven film and doubly so when the character is female. No matter how well the character has been etched, the scenes have been staged, or the attention to detail in production design, or the cinematography, or the lighting, or the background music, or the dialogues, or the locations – all of them matter to nothing if the actor essaying this central character hits one false note in his/her performance. So it is of utmost importance that this actor completely “gets” the character and makes the audience root for him/her from the “censor board certificate” to “the end”. If the audience continues to cheer for this character even beyond the “the end”, then the actor has managed to pour life into the character which extends beyond the time we spend with him/her in the cinemas. By saying this I am not discounting other film-making departments, but emphasizing the importance that when the film’s core is a character and not its plot, then a large amount of heavy-lifting is invariably done by the actor playing this character. Examples in the recent past of a plot-driven and a character-driven movie are: “Kahaani” and “English-Vinglish“, respectively. In the former, Vidya Balan‘s role could have been played by another competent actor and we would have enjoyed the movie equally, since the hook is the mystery of her missing husband and the whodunit aspect of it. However, in English Vinglish, Sridevi’s Shashi is not in any kind of danger or trying to uncover any dark mysteries, it’s merely a journey of self discovery of an insecure person – there is no edge of the seat-ness to her quest. The success of that movie, hence, lies largely on the actor who plays Shashi.  

motion-poster1Vikas Bahl’s “Queen” is on similar lines – a journey of self-discovery of a girl – Rani Mehra of Rajouri - played by Kangana Ranaut. The movie is essentially plot-less, and relies entirely on us rooting for Rani in whatever happens to her. She is in almost every single frame of the movie : right from the opening sequence where she is beaming and smiling ear-to-ear because she is getting married (which seems like the only dream she has had until then) to the last frame of the movie where she is still beaming and smiling ear to ear, but for an entirely different reason. Everything that happens to her in the middle of these two scenes, we go with her with the flow of events, because of Kangana’s daring and carefully calibrated performance. After having witnessed her journey, I can confidently say, I can think of no other actor playing this character other than Kangana.  I was unable to tell if I was falling for the actor Kangana or the character Rani.

There are numerous occasions in the movie where a lesser actor would have hammed away: there is a scene where Rani is drunk and is dancing on the sidewalk to a song (from the nightclub she was at prior to this scene) which is playing only in her head. She is trying to get the attention of a taxi-driver who is standing by his taxi and is busy (or is pretending to be busy) with his smart-phone. She has no dialogues and continues to perform some awkward contortions to get the cabby’s attention who probably encounters many such drunks in his profession and hence continues to ignore her presence. It is silent acting of the highest caliber. What follows after this scene is a montage of scenes where Rani is spilling her guts out about her broken marriage, her upbringing, and  the predicament she is in in front of random Parisians and her new-found friend Vijaylaxmi ( A drop-dead gorgeous Lisa Haydon with a French accent and a pair of lithe, endless legs). Her performance here should be shown in acting schools on how to do drunk scenes. We laugh with her and we queen1-dec22empathize with her. Never for once does her performance make us laugh at her.  Kangana’s raw and infectious honesty in the portrayal of Rani makes Rani a flesh and blood person. I forgot its a performance.

I had not seen any of Kangana’s movies in their entirety save for Tanu Weds Manu, which had its moments but the movie as a whole was quite a muddled affair. Kangana’s performance of Tanu was too affected and too self-conscious in my opinion. I am not sure if it was the director’s ask or her interpretation of Tanu, but I had a hard time believing in her Tanu. In this movie too, there is a scene where she is drunk/high and her performance is off-key. To me, one of the joys of movies is observing actors grow in their craft, just as we non-actors season in whatever we do with time and experience. I must say Kangana has shown a remarkable growth from Tanu to Rani/Queen. It might be a bit presumptive of me to say that this is one of the top 10 performances in character-driven Indian movies that I have seen. I will reserve that judgment until I have watched Queen a few more times over the next few years, to see if her act ages well with time. At the moment, I am basking in the joy of having known Rani from Rajouri.

Rarely do I find myself completely taken in by my surroundings to an extent that I get in a trance like state where all things “me” dissolve and disappear (no, I am not talking about being under the influence of psychedelic drugs). I found myself in this state, on an afternoon on one of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago, an island called Floreana.

galpsa

To get some geographic bearings, the Galapagos are a group of islands straddling the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 600 nautical miles from the coast of Ecuador in South America. These islands are mostly known to the modern man due to Charles Darwin‘s famed voyage of the Beagle and his eventual inspiration for the greatest discoveries of the past century – The Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. The Galapagos islands are thus, revered in the scientific community as a laboratory of “life” itself.

It was November of 2013 and I was with a random group of 15 tourists from around the world on a small ship which was taking us from one island to another. Most of these islands are not inhabited by humans and are preserved with great diligence by the National Park Services managed by the Republic of Ecuador. As a result, save for the islands where there is civilization, the rest of them are untouched and lack any facilities that we take for granted that come by default with civilized settlements. Floreana falls in this category. It was late afternoon, and we made a wet-landing (the actual boat/ship is anchored near the shore and people are ferried to the shore on a small motorized raft called ‘Panga’, since the islands have no facilities for harboring large boats) on the northern shore of the island called ‘Punta Cormorant’.

Galapagos_Islands_topographic_map-enAs we waddled in the waters of the Pacific and walked to the dry land, we encountered a number of endemic species that are common to these islands. This was my third day on the trip and the presence of the wildlife had become the new normal, I had started to expect them to be around. It was about 4 PM and the Sun was still fairly high in the sky. It’s rays shining off brilliantly from the gentle waves of the ocean. We walked past the beach and ventured inland. The marked trail that we were walking on was surrounded by plants which were unique to these islands, plants which had adapted to trap as much moisture as they can during the dry season.  There was a gentle breeze which combined with the warmth of the Equatorial Sun was making me feel a bit intoxicated. My reverie was broken when our naturalist, JV, started narrating a story of some strange people who had made Floreana their home in the late 1920s.

Dr Fredrich Ritter, a German doctor and one of his patients, Dore, decided to leave their lives in Germany and begin a new life on Floreana. They had occasional visitors who were drawn by a sense of adventure, but then left rather quickly due to the harsh living conditions of these islands. In the early 1930s, a certain Mr Wittmer arrived on the island with his wife and a teenage son. They set up their own place on the island and lived there with little to no contact with the Ritters. This peaceful co-existence was disturbed when a mysterious woman from Austria, who declared herself as a Baroness arrived on Floreana. She was accompanied by her two German lovers and an Ecuadorean lover. The Baroness led a flamboyant lifestyle and anointed herself as the Queen of Floreana. The legend goes that the two lovers had a spat and there was also a feud between the Baroness and the Wittmers. The Wittmer had a pet donkey which was found dead, shot allegedly by one of the Baroness’ lovers. Then mysteriously the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared from the island, never to be heard from again. The Wittmers claimed that they had left on a boat for Tahiti. There were accusations by Dr Ritter, that the Wittmers with the help of the second lover of the Baroness, murdered the Baroness and her other lover and disposed off their bodies. The strangeness continued, a few months later, Dr Ritter was found dead from apparently eating a sick chicken. This was also considered strange since, the Doctor was known to be a devout vegetarian. Mr Wittmer’s wife, Margaret who died in 2000 and did not shed much light until her dying day on the mysterious disappearances and deaths. She continued to claim that the Baroness had left for Tahiti. The descendants of the Wittmers and Ritters still live on the island. These events were the subject of a documentary called “The Galapagos Affair”.

As JV was narrating these events, I started to view the place in a different light. I started to imagine the lives of these people as they lived on this spectacular and yet inhospitable place. Far from the civilized world, far from any hints of societal rules and dogmas. I imagined living in a place like Floreana, and strangely enough I found myself quite “OK” with that idea. With a smile, I brushed these thoughts away. We continued to walk and arrived at a small beach which is known as the “green beach” due to its green tinted sand crystals. As I descended on the beach and the scenery unfolded in front of me, it was a sight like no other. The water was crystalline blue and the sand a strange shade of green. There were sea lions sleeping on the beach as the gentle waves washed ashore around them. We had walked all the way to the Southern end of the island and the Sun was behind us. The fluffy white clouds were catching the late evening Sun and were glowing all kinds of orange and pink.

The Green BeachI stood still, I had never been in a place of such absolute isolation and such singular beauty, where every single element entirely belonged within itself while being connected harmoniously with every other element. I felt I was an uninvited visitor, I felt like I was a massive disturbance. I made my way to the water, while standing in ankle-deep water I let the lapping water take away the feelings of being an alien. I started to feel less and less aware of myself.

We wanted to go back to the Southern shore before the Sun set, and decided to walk back. After about a 20 minutes walk, we came across a small fresh water lake. It was late in the evening now, and JV said that this lake at this time is usually visited by pink flamingos. At a distance we did see a flock of flamingos feeding themselves by dipping their unique beaks in the waters of the lake. There was nothing to do but stand still and try to be as invisible as possible, and observe them.

IMG_4410

IMG_4406

IMG_4412

IMG_4415As the Sun started its rapid descent into the Ocean, we walked back to the beach where we had landed. Just as we were emerging from the trees, the Sun had touched the water. There were a few mangrove trees dipping their branches and roots into the ocean and under one of these branches a few sea-lions were napping quite contentedly (these sea lions, they don’t do much, than swim and nap – a fine lifestyle if you ask me).

IMG_4405I made my way away from the rest of the folks in our group and stepped into the water. The water had taken in all the gold the setting Sun was throwing at it. I had never felt so inconsequential, so “island of my own” before – I, on an island, on a planet which is an island, looking at a Star which is an island in itself – all of us islands drifting, constantly drifting. There were no thoughts in my usually chaotic mind (those who know me, know that this thoughtlessness is an exceptional rarity), there was no purpose to my standing there, to my breathing in and out, to my being! I had no idea that another friend I made on the trip (JB), was quietly taking pictures of my silhouette, while I stood there for a long time. I think her pictures quite beautifully captured the state of my being and my mind (thanks JB). I was a mere dark outline which had blended into the island, an island which has stood there for millions of years. I was a mere blip (if that) in the celestial certainties of this planet and its universe.

IMG_7165I have come to believe that travel makes me know myself a little more, it helps me understand what I am, and what I have. This was never more truer, than that day on Floreana. I found a bit of myself that evening. A few months back, I was having a conversation with a good friend about what brings each of us “true” happiness. I can very assuredly say, that what brings me true happiness is when I find myself in a place where I do not have to make any effort to feel one with the place – when the place becomes me and I it. That happened on Floreana, and I will be ever grateful for having experienced it.

The SquareI am neither an activist (not even the arm-chair/facebook/twitter/etc. kind) nor an Egyptian, and yet, I found myself visibly shaking as I was watching “The Square“. I went through a roller-coaster of emotions through the 95 minutes of this extraordinary film – I was exhilarated, shocked, enraged, overjoyed, frustrated – I felt utterly hopeless and extremely hopeful – I felt defeated and I felt victorious.

The film shows the tumultuous period in Egypt’s ongoing revolution over the past two and a half years. It’s primarily focused on the happenings in Tahrir Square in Cairo – beginning from the first gathering of people in 2011 to protest against the 30 year totalitarian regime of Hosni Mubarak (which was heavily supported by the “pro-democracy” West), to the Egyptian Military taking over after Mobarak’s fall, to then the Muslim brotherhood seizing the power with Mohamed Morsi as it’s leader and to the latest departure of Morsi. The revolution continues.

The film depicts how a movement with no clear leadership is shaping Egypt’s history at this very moment. It shows how people unite on a singular idea of “basic rights and fair governance”. How the fall of one regime brings out the opportunism in another faction leading to a newer version of the very thing the people protested against in the first place. It also shows how these opportunistic leaders pit people against people – a friend against a friend – to foster their hold on power. (None of this should be new news, the leaders of the free world and the not-so-free world have been doing this for years). What makes watching it unfold in this film  so impact-ful is because it’s happening NOW – and not just in Egypt. Its happening across the globe – its happening in India. There is similar movement of the people for “basic rights and fair governance” – a movement which is chaotic, which lacks a clear leader, which lacks a clear direction. But there is a sense of restlessness in the people. There is a need for change. What ‘The Square’ demonstrates is that this ‘restlessness’ this ‘need for a change’ is enough. So what if there isn’t a clear path, so what if there isn’t a clear leader! Ahmed, a bright eyed boy, with a sunny disposition and a fire in his heart, who is a key character of the film, says something to the effect that “just the fact that people have realized that they can do this…is for him hope enough”.

That was the hopeful side of these events. But revolutions are never without a cost. The collateral damage in the power struggles of the power hungry are almost always people. The Square shows this with a stark nakedness – it has some incredibly shocking scenes of everyday people being literally run over and crushed by military tanks. I do not mean to romanticize these events by writing about them here. I am barely qualified to write anything about what people who are actually fighting across the globe are going through. I am a mere observer. What I want to say is, across the globe, its these people who just want to lead a peaceful life are the ones who bear the brunt of the greed for power of the few. It reminded me of a few lines from a song from one of Gulzar’s long forgotten movies “Hu tu tu”:

tin tin taare, log bechaare,
til til marne waale, til til tarne waale,
keedon aur makaundon jaise log bechaare…
tin tin taare log bechaare…

ghiste ghiste fat jaate hai..jooton jaise log bechaare..
tin tin taare log bechaare…

pairon mein pehene jaate hai jalse aur julooson mein,
sageenon se seele sipaahi wardi ke malbooson mein,
goli se jo fat jaate hain…..cheethadon jaise fenk diye jaate hai saare…

tin tin taare…tin tin taare…..log bechaare.

This film has been nominated in the best documentary category in the 2013 Academy awards. Whether, the film wins this award or not is entirely besides the point. As mentioned above, I am neither an activist nor someone who has had to fight for anything remotely close to what people are fighting for. I almost feel guilty writing about this film, but yet, I want to urge each one of you out there to watch it. To watch it just for the sake of those who are literally laying their lives for nothing more than basic human rights.

Notes on “Her”

her-movie-joaquin-phoenix

  • The visuals are so meticulously crafted, they made a sub-conscious impression and stayed with me long after the movie was over – specifically two motifs: 1) that shade of orange that is in almost every frame (Theodore’s shirts, the lamp shades, a distant flicker of light, a pillow cover, a window pane, a purse, a painting),2)  all the extras in public places in futuristic Los Angeles carry a bag – a shopping bag, a backpack, a purse, a messenger bag, a briefcase, etc.. I kept thinking what these two visuals signified in the overall scheme of the movie.
  • For a movie where one of the central characters is virtual and which shows that our futuristic selves as surrounded by many other virtual entities (if they aren’t already in today’s world), it brought out the “physical” world quite beautifully. The scenes where Theodore touches or feels objects, places, etc. gave me minor but very real pleasures: when he walks in the snow, when he sees smoke come out of a sewer, etc. His scenes with his interactions with the virtual world were funny and sad (like the one with the video game where he has to find a way out of a planet) but his interactions with the physical world were much more satisfying to me personally – when he is knee deep in the snow, when he lays on the sidewalk or the beach, etc.
  • I loved how the movie tries to show the human race as a people who want to hold on to the old ways of things, romanticize them, but have others do the old ways of doing things for us: the main character works at a place which writes hand written letters for others, Amy’s apartment has a giant old-world phone as a home decor item in a corner, etc. This fits perfectly with the central themes of the movie of alienation and desperation to grab on to the familial.
  • Joaquin Phoenix is practically in every frame of the movie. I could not help but relate his Theodore with Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, Ryan Stone, from Gravity. Both the characters are portraying very similar emotions – loss, alienation, isolation, hope, and optimism (of course in my opinion). To have both the movies come out in the same year with very similar central characters could be coincidental, but could also be a testament to “art imitates life”. Back to Joaquin, he gives a very restrained, nuanced, and empathetic performance.
  • All the major characters in the movie seem to be earning their livelihoods from businesses which create nothing tangible – Theodore writes letters for other people, Amy designs games (like farmville), etc. Both these characters are incredibly lonely, incredibly distant, like they don’t have any tangible things to hold on to – they don’t “produce” anything, just like their jobs.
  • All the  montage shots with Theodore and his wife can be called as quite rom-comish, but were mighty effective in letting me feel his pain and his hesitation to let go of his marriage. The scene where they wear traffic cones on their heads has stuck in my head (and yes these cones are….you guessed it: “Orange” in color).
  • I am still processing a lot of this movie (which is a good thing, it means, that the movie challenged me, it means that the movie moved me) and I am certain I will revisit it sometime soon. There was something about the whole premise that made me think of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which is one of my favorite movies of all times.

Dhoom 3 – Doom all around…

How do I say this without offending Aamir worshippers? You know what, there is no way to say it politically correctly, so I will just let it all out.

D3Aamir Khan single-handedly casts a shadow of deadly doom on the third installment of the Dhoom franchise. Hrithik Roshan and even John Abraham were much better and believable as dare-devil thieves in the previous installments. They embodied the physicality and they projected the “I don’t give a fuck about anything/anyone, coz I am so fucking cool” attitude with subtlety. What Aamir does is, he widens his eyes and wears a scowl which is quite embarrassingly funny (see picture above) – the kind of funny, where you don’t so much as laugh at him, but pity him. He hits all the wrong notes in this performance. And yes, I know this is not the type of cinema where you go looking for the textbook “performance”. But that does not discount the fact that you still need to bring a credibility to your performance, so that the outlandishness of the proceedings become palatable – and this is no mean task. After seeing Aamir’s performance, I have new found respect for Hrithik and John. They prove that “cool” cannot be acted, it needs to be embodied. Aamir does what Aishwarya’s “Sunehri” did in Dhoom 2 – try too hard to “act” all kinds of cool, and fuck it up.

We just do not buy Aamir as a thief/robber, and while a large part of it is because of his ham-handed approach to his role, another responsible factor is the script. The biggest flaw being: there is not one scene where we see how he pulls off the heists. All we are given is, him fleeing the scene after the heist. We are just supposed to believe it and run with the idea that he just did it. It’s like the writers were too busy writing some of the most retarded dialogues (see below), that they had no time to think and write a heist in a “heist” movie:

“Banker: Do we know who did this?

Abhishek: No, all we know is, it’s a thief!”

I got the chills, I tell you!

Instead, a lot of time is spent on the chase sequences which get painfully mundane after a while with the overdoses of extreme sl0-mos and more scowling. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind these elaborately staged sequences, had there been any sense of danger or urgency in any of these scenes OR if I could care that “I want X to escape or I want to Y to catch X”. None of that, you just don’t give a fuck what happens at the end of these chases. All these chase scenes accomplish is that they show you fast shiny modes of transports doing some loopy shit, and then demand that you forget about everything else, as if to underscore the statement from the makers – “look we spent millions on this junk, how dare you question anything?”. So let us cut to another scowl in another extreme slo-mo.

I am not even going to talk about the other absurdities that are presented to us  – and I am quite aware that this genre is laid on a foundation of absurdity. But there is a fun kind of “absurdity” (see Johnny Gaddar, Ocean’s Eleven, Dhoom 1) and then there is a mentally retarded kind of “absurdity” – and Dhoom 3 is the latter.

So is there anything that’s good about Dhoom 3? Yes – Katrina Kaif. Katrina’s character seems to be the only one having some fun here. She has, maybe, all of 18 minutes of screen time from the 172 agonizing minutes, but when she is on the screen – she owns every pixel of it. Watch her in the Kamli song sequence, she is infernal. Another character who is not taking this whole circus seriously is Uday Chopra’s Ali, who I surprisingly did not mind much, but that’s probably because both Aamir and Abhishek were in a “who can shit on this thing the most?” competition. (In case you want to know – Aamir wins by piles and piles).

Now can someone make a real action movie with Hrithik and Katrina please? Just to show them how it’s done.

Song: Bass ek chup si lagi hai

Movie: Sannata (1966)

Singer, Composer: Hemant Kumar

If there is one song that envelops me in a melancholic atmosphere, it’s this gem from one of Gulzar’s earliest forays as a lyricist. This song puts me in a mood which is undescribable. I especially savor it the most at dusk all by myself watching the last of the light slowly fade away to reveal the mysterious black of the night. Quite often, we find ourselves in a pensive mood, where we just want to be left alone, left in peace, in silence, not because we are sad or depressed, but just because. Gulzar weaves his words on this premise and how beautifully fragile his poetry is, just like that silence we seek which can be broken by the slightest of a whisper. There isn’t a word which is out of place, which jars in it’s placement or its being.

The song has two versions – one sung by Hemant Kumar and the other by Lata. The words are same, but there are differences in the arrangement. Hemant’s version has minimal use of instruments, I could hear a tabla and a harmonium, while in Lata’s there are many instruments – guitars, violins, sitars, etc. I am not going to choose which one’s better than the other, or which one I personally prefer. I have found myself liking one over the other on different occasions.

Hemant Kumar’s version:

Lata’s version:

Lyrics:

Bas ek chup si lagi hai
Nahi udas nahi
Kahi pe saans ruki hai
Nahi udas nahi
Bas ek chup si lagi hai..

Koi anokhi nahi
Aisi zindagi lekin
Khub na ho
Mili jo khub mili hai
Nahi udas nahi
Bas ek chup si lagi hai

Sahar bhi ye raat bhi
Dopehar bhi mili lekin
Hami ne sham chuni hai
Nahi udaas nahi
Bas ek chup si lagi hai

Wo dastan jo hamne kahi bhi
Hamne likhi
Aaj wo khud se suni hai
Nahi udaas nahi
Bas ek chup si lagi hai….

————————————————————-

While I absolutely love the entire song, my favorite triveni is right in the middle of the song:

seher bhi yeh raat bhi,  dopeher bhi mili lekin, humee ne shaam chuni hai!

Recently, I found myself on an isolated beach in the Galapagos islands. The equatorial sun had just set and the sky was on fire, the waves of the Pacific were gently kissing my feet, the balmy ocean breeze my face, it was all quite blissful. It was one of those times when you feel that you don’t wish to be any place else. I stood there in a trance for I don’t know how long. A friend I made on that trip quietly took some pictures of mine without my attention. The pictures and the line above quite brilliantly capture my mood in that time and place. Just goes to prove there is a Gulzar line somewhere that perfectly describes every mood of life (I speak for myself, of course!).

IMG_7164

IMG_7165IMG_7168

The customary list at the end of the year. Here are songs that were my personal favorites from 2013. They are listed in no particular order of liking.

Legend :Movie Name – Song – Music Director – Singer(s) – Lyricist

Kai Po Che – Manja – Amit Trivedi – Amit Trivedi – Swanand Kirkire

Kai Po Che is a movie about growing-up, about boys becoming men, and above all – friendship. The spirit of the three protagonists and the overall theme of “optimism” portrayed in the movie is represented very well in Swanand’s simple poetry:

“Roothe khaabon ko mana lenge
Kati patango ko thaamenge……suljha lenge ulajhe rishton ka manja…”

Amit Trivedi sings these words with a lazy abandon which almost sounds like someone is singing these words casually and not in a purposeful manner – like how a youngster would hum a song while doing other chores. 

Go Goa Gone – Babaji ki booti – Sachin,Jigar – Anand Tiwari, Kunal Khemu – Amitabh Bhattacharya

Is this the first true stoner song to feature in a Hindi movie? The entire song is a trip – the lyrics, the steady rhythm, the singing, and the way its shot.

David – Tere Mere Pyaar Ki – Prashant Pillai – Naresh Iyer, Shweta Pandit – Gopal Dutt

While it’s an ear-pleasing melody, this song features on this list primarily because of the perfect lighting in every frame of this song. I know, it’s got no relation with the musical aspect of the song, but it’s my list, so deal with it! Prashant Pillai showed his technical chops in his debut film “Shaitaan” (which I quite liked) and continues to display his flair with the camera, lighting, and the overall composition of a shot with his second outing as a director.

David – Yun hi re – Anirudh – Anirudh, Shweta Mohan – Turaz

Yes, this is the same Anirudh of the Kolaveri sensation.  If these two songs are a sampling of his talent, then I am optimistic he has a long career ahead of him. After all, he is only 23!!

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – Ilaahi – Pritam – Arijit Singh – Amitabh Bhattacharya

YJHD had at least three songs that I warmed up to big time – badtameez dil, kabeera, and ilaahi. I picked Ilaahi over the other two because it gave me a sense of wide open spaces and an unapologetic nomadic freedom. The way Pritam uses voices of children in the chorus is quite delightful and works very well to lend an innocence to the lost soul of the protagonist. And what do I say about the poetry? It describes the state of the nomadic existence quite succinctly:

“Meraa falsafaa kandhe pe mera bastaa

Chalaa main jahaan le chalaa mujhe rastaa

Boondon pe nahin, Boondon ke samandar pe…..”

Amitabh has clearly proven himself as a prolific poet – he has written beautiful poetry to a number of situations & emotions with elan –  YJHD, Go Goa Gone, and Lootera – all in the same year. Bravo!

Fukrey – Fuk fuk fukrey – Ram Sampath – Ram Sampath, Yash Divecha, Amjad Bagadwa, Vrashal Chavan – Vipul Vig, Munna Dhiman

Paradoxical that there is such a zany energy in a song about vellas and vella-ness. The composition and singing are brimming with masti and mischief, but it’s the lyrics that make you grin:

“Bhaga bhoot langoti leke chaddar taan ke tu chhup re”,

“Ban gayi fukron ki toli
Utthi kangalon ki doli
Ek pant hai ab bhi pehni
Doosri dho rahi hain mummy”

And is this the first time I hear the use of dubstep in a Hindi song?

Fukrey – Ambarsariya – Ram Sampath – Sona Mohapatra – Munna Dhiman

An instantly ear-pleasing melody sung with a delicate twang by Ram’s wife, Sona Mohapatra. The minimal use of instruments not only enhances the simplicity of the tune, but allows us to focus on Sona’s delicate singing.

Raanjhanaa – Tum tak – A R Rahman – Javed Ali, Keerthi Sagathia, Pooja Vaidyanath, Irshad Kamil

After a mediocre 2012, Rahman struck back with this stellar soundtrack. I have already written much about the central character and the importance of this song to this character here. Rahman uses many traditional Hindustani musical instruments: shehnai, sitar, mridang, temple bells, taals, etc. to create an immersive experience. Listen to this song on a good pair of headphones to really hear each instrument complimenting the other. And tall above the composition, stand Irshad Kamil’s luminous words, which are nothing short of a devotional ode to the idea of love itself:

Nainon ke ghaat le ja, nainon ki naiyyaa. Patwaar tu hai meri, tu khewaiyya!

Raanjhanaa – Banarasiya – A R Rahman – Shreya Ghoshal, Anwesha Datta Gupta, Meenal Jain – Irshad Kamil

Irshad Kamil has written a perfect song for all things Banarasi: the famous banarasi paan “gaal mein jab yeh paan chabaye, paan banarasiya“, the banarasi tashan- “teen taal mein chalti jaaye chaal banarasiya“, the colors, the bhaang, the music, the ghaats: “ghaat kinaare umar guzaari, ghaat banarasiya“! While all the girls do a swell job in the singing department, Shreya obviously steals the show. This is a song meant for a young Lata, and Shreya did not make me miss the young Lata.

D-Day – Alvida – Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy – Nikhil D’Souza, Shruti Hassan, Loy, Sukhwinder Singh – Niranjan Iyengar

This song packs a gut-wrenching emotional wallop in it’s melody, singing, and above all its poetry. Especially, these two lines:

Umr bhar ka saath de jo, Kyun wohi pyaar ho!
Kyun na mit ke jo fanaa ho, Woh bhi pyaar ho!

Nikhil and Shruti sing it with the required pathos, but I personally feel Sukhwinder’s part is slightly out of sync with the rest of the song.

Lastly, a special mention to the director, Nikhil Advani, for the creativity in the way this sequence has been shot. Watch it below:

Lootera – Zinda – Amit Trivedi – Amit Trivedi – Amitabh Bhattacharya

If I had to pick a personal favorite of the year, this is my favorite soundtrack. Every song is a gem and only grows with repeat listening. Of all the songs,  I have realized I have become very fond of this one song for some intensely personal reasons. Amitabh’s words may have a casual conversational feel – “zinda hoon yaar, kaafi hai“, but you can peel the layers to reveal some great wordplay in poetry related to existentialism:

“Hawaaon Se Jo Maanga Hissa Mera
To Badle Main Hawa Ne Saans Di…”

Lootera – Manmarizyan – Amit Trivedi – Shilpa Rao, Amit Trivedi, Amitabh Bhattacharya – Amitabh Bhattacharya

Shilpa Rao completely owns this one! It’s no secret that I am deeply in love with her singing and her vocals. Aside from her singing, Amitabh once again shines in his simple poetry:

Hosh khoya, par sambhale…Manmarziyan!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFNmDyBKqk8

————————————————-

Soundtrack of the year: Lootera

Male singer of the year: Javed Ali – Tum tak

Female singer of the year: Shreya Ghoshal – Banarasiya

Composer of the year: Amit Trivedi – Lootera, Kai Po Che

Lyricist of the year: Amitabh Bhattacharya – YJHD, Go Goa Gone, Lootera

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers

%d bloggers like this: