Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Why I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter

In Celebs, Cinema, Culture and Society, Hollywood, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

“You are following Mila Kunis?” An ex-colleague smirked at me last week—if, that is, it’s possible to smirk in a text message. I was used to getting annoying messages from him, so I ignored it. But he later called and wanted an answer.

“I’m curious,” he said. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of me as the kind of guy who would follow Mila Kunis on Twitter.
“I am a Mila Kunis fan,” I told him. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“Dude,” he said “Mila Kunis doesn’t have a Twitter account. Go check it out yourself.”
I did. And he was right. I hadn’t paid attention. Both of her probable Twitter accounts—@RealMilaKunis with 392,422 followers and @MilaKunisOnline with 22,957 followers—distance themselves from the ‘real’ Mila Kunis, the one you might expect to fulfil the Cartesian promise offered by the famous philosophical dictum, “I tweet, therefore I am.”
I recalled that I had decided on @RealMilaKunis as the ‘real one’ because a: it had way more number of followers than all the other Kunis accounts put together; and b: (call me literal-minded) it proclaimed itself as ‘real’.
Fine, @RealMilaKunis may not be the real Mila Kunis. But what is the ‘real’ Mila Kunis anyway? Is that even a legitimate question?
Let’s go back to Rene Descartes for a minute. “I think therefore I am” is basically a way of saying: from the truth that I am thinking follows the truth that there must be a thinker in order for thinking to happen, from which follows the truth that I, the thinker of the thought, exist. But is this test of reality—clearly inapplicable to social media—relevant even in the offline world, given that we almost never have an unmediated access to reality? It is quite possible that you may not exist even though you think thoughts simply because it is not you thinking the thoughts in your head but Arnab Goswami. Take away mass media, and the ‘reality’ of Arnab Goswami disappears in a puff of TRPs, irrespective of whether or not there exists in the universe a carbon-based life form carrying a piece of paper identifying it as Arnab Goswami. Indeed, when Descartes set down his famous hypothesis, not only was there no social media, there was no media, period.
In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
Inundated as we are, by stories about celebs every day of our lives, and watching them perform, succeed or fail on our TV screens, we develop a relationship, and a sense of intimacy, with the image of these celebs that we carry in our heads. The Cartesian self will argue that this is a false sense of intimacy—that it is not real. But who’s to say that illusions are not ‘real’ for the one harbouring them? So we build temples for our celeb gods, turn violent when someone ‘insults’ our celeb-god (where are you, Sachin fanatics?), and follow our celeb gods on Twitter.
Social media, especially, is powerful in eliminating the existential distance between a star and an earth-bound star-gazer, and creating the illusion of a direct connection. Twitter has brought about Reformation in the Church of Celebrity: now the fan can directly talk to God, without the mediation of mass media or even Google. At least, so it seems.
A friend who worked as a journalist with me in Mumbai believed himself madly in love with Priyanka Chopra. He got on to Twitter with the singular intention of getting Ms Chopra to acknowledge his existence. The day that happened—either the diva retweeted or mentioned one of his tweets, I don’t remember which—he seemed to have discovered his inner Buddha, to put it mildly. He subsequently quit journalism to join the film industry. Would there have been any point in telling him, for instance, that Chopra doesn’t tweet, or that her social media manager does it for her?
A couple of weeks ago, Mila Kunis announced on her Facebook page that she was pregnant with Ashton Kutcher’s child. Her message read: “As you all probably know, I’m pregnant and I’ve decided to take the next nine months off with Ashton Kutcher in Hawaii. Don’t worry, my manager will be posting pictures everyday as usual so you can all see the progress and news. : ) I’m so happy. Any ideas for baby’s name? I love you all and thank you for the support. : )xx”
Reading this, as you can well imagine, I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: selfless joy at the fulfilment of her wish to become a mother, and selfish dismay that, of all people, it was Kutcher’s sperm that got to it first. I became so upset that I actually gave up the Internet for a couple of hours. I knew, of course, that this wasn’t Kunis’ real Facebook account, that it was maintained by her fans – but it made no difference—to my mood, or my sense of reality.
Thankfully, the whole episode ended happily when it turned out that it was just an April Fool’s joke, and Kutcher’s sperm still has a long and arduous trek ahead.
To come back to the original question, why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter?
Definitely not because I find her tweets funny or interesting. Here’s a random sample of tweets by @RealMIlaKunis:
“Stop waiting for the right moment, because sometimes it’s now or never.”
“The best revenge is to show them that your life is moving forward even though they left it.”
“We always ignore who adores us, adore who ignores us, love who hurts us and hurt who love us.”
“Hard times will always reveal true friends.”
“Spend your life with the people who make you happy, not the people you have to impress.”
You get the idea. This is decidedly not the Mila Kunis of Black Swan or Friends with Benefits or the Mila Kunis of my imagination. It is someone sitting on a vast treasury of platitudes, and releasing them to the world at a rate of two per day. But the miracle is that I find the tweets totally relevant to whatever I happen to be dealing with in my life when I read it. Just now, for instance, she tweeted, “Life is easier when you’re not complaining, worrying, or stressing about bullshit.” Soon as I saw it, I knew it was addressed to me, and I have to stop this piece right now.
So here you go. Why do I follow Mila Kunis on Twitter? Because she’s there.

I’ve seen ‘Himmatwala’ twice—can you?

In Bollywood, Cinema, Humour, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I saw Himmatwala twice. Ma Sherawali ki kasam—I’m not lying. I surrendered 300 minutes of my life toHimmatwala. Does this mean my life is empty and bereft of meaning and I have nothing to look forward to? No. Then I must surely be a friend of Sajid Khan or Vashu Bhagnani or the local multiplex owner? No, I’m not.

Ah, then I must certainly be a Ajay Devgn fan! Well, if anything, I’m the opposite of a Devgn fan. I once got lynched online by Devgn acolytes when I did a piece for a national newspaper comparing his nipples to bonsai cherries.
But I saw Himmatwala twice. Why? Because I enjoyed it. There you are—it’s out in the open now. Think what you will of me and my cinematic discernment.
I’ll admit one thing though: if I had read any of the reviews first, I would not have had the himmat to go for it the first time.
I am not a film critic, and don’t claim to know more about films than practicing critics. But speaking purely as a film lover, I would say Himmatwala has got a raw deal from the reviewing community. One reviewer, calling it “a seizure-inducing montage of everything that was wrong with our movies from the ‘80s,” warned, “if you have to sit through this movie for reasons best left unexplained, know that you, sir/madam, are the real himmatwala”. Another critic wrote, “When Himmatwala ended, I felt like I had aged a few years. Honestly, you need real courage to brave this one.” And a third one dismissed it as a “yawnfest”.
I’ll confess that I did have a moment of self-doubt on reading all this. Was it possible that I liked the film only because I was a Himmatwala—gifted not only with extraordinary courage but also extraordinary insomnia because I didn’t feel sleepy even for a second of the 18-hour-long film (one critic insists it has a run time of 18 hours because it “felt like” 18 hours)? I think not.
So why did the critics hate the film?
It’s one thing to pan a bad film. But it’s another to pan a film for wanting to be bad, and succeeding. The first is fair, the second is not. Himmatwala belongs to the second category. A film review ought to judge a film on what it sets out to do, and see how well it keeps its promise. Just as you cannot criticise an apple for being a poor orange, you cannot criticise a film that’s neither serious nor spoofy, for not being either serious or spoofy (which basically seems to be the grouse of the reviews I happened to read).
Khan’s Himmatwala is a remake—not just any remake but the “official” remake—of the 1983 film of the same name starring Jeetendra and Sridevi. It has no story—it has a formula. Its characters, already reduced to caricatures in 1983, are stand-ins for stand-ins in the 2013 version. The dialogues were already over-the-top in the original—that was their appeal. In this remake, they are over-the-over-the-top. Himmatwala has everything that a typical, mediocre 1980s potboiler had, but in industrial quantities.
Why would a presumably sane man invest so much of his time and resources to make a film like this? There can only be one reason: he loves such films. And that is the reason Khan has been giving to a sceptical media: he loves the idiotic 1980s entertainer so much that he decided to make one.
Back in 1964, before Khan was even born, in her Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag made a revealing observation about a culture that’s like a snake eating its own tail—which is what Bollywood (or at least influential sections of it) is today, given its ongoing love affair with retro. She wrote, “The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.”
Himmatwala is not camp—you cannot ‘try’ to be campy. But it is made from a campy sensibility, and seeks to appeal to the campy sensibility. Its only miscalculation lay in assuming that, in 2013, audiences and critics (or enough of them) who claim to love 1980s Hindi cinema would treat it as ‘camp’ and watch it with an ironic, playful distance—as a game. But the reality is that the “worst of the 1980s” is too close for many viewers. And without distance, you cannot enter the camp sensibility a film like Himmatwala resides in.
So when the vengeful Ravi (Devgn) tells the villainous Sher Singh (Mahesh Manjrekar), “Kasam hai mujhe apni maa aur apni behen ki, teri zindagi ki maa behen kar dunga,” or when Narayan Das (Paresh Rawal) tells his jijaji (Manjrekar), “Aap gutter hai to main uska ganda paani hoon” or when Ravi’s mother (Zarina Wahab) says, “Aaj ek maa ek bête ke pair chooyegi”—are they tacky dialogues? Yes, but they are as good as the tacky dialogues of a 1980 film can ever be, and therein lies the appeal ofHimmatwala.
Himmatwala is not a spoof of the 1980s potboiler. Humour is not its objective. Nor is it a straight remake. It is simply a playful remake of a bad movie. It is an act of love (seriously but playfully). It needs to be judged on two counts: its playfulness, and its love for, and faithfulness to, the 1980s cinematic ethos.
Khan takes pains to tick mark every one of the ’80s staple, which is easy if you remain faithful to the original. The orphan-hero with a question mark over his identity, tick. The shrew-turned-demure heroine, tick. Pleading with God in temple scene, tick. Annoying, over-smart animal that helps the hero, tick. Near-gang rape of sister, tick. Cruel landlord, tick. Hero’s dying best friend, tick.
If Khan’s faithfulness to the atrocious original (redeemed in retrospect by our learned reverence for Jeetendra and Sridevi) is not in question, neither is his whimsy. The Psycho scene where Mahesh Manjrekar is attacked in the shower, and the ‘fight scene’ where Devgn speaks in five languages are so supremely nonsensical that mere suspension of disbelief is inadequate—you have to suspend whatever else you have that you haven’t suspended yet.
The ‘homosexual’—either as a taste or as a person—is central to the camp sensibility. And Paresh Rawal’s character, Narayan Das, with his effeminacy, his dandyish curls, and his physical clinginess (he keeps wanting to kiss the male characters, and succeeds in kissing Devgn in the last scene), is the campy mascot of this admirably dreadful film. He is the gutless, himmat-less feminine Other who underscores the ultra-macho himmat of the eponymous Himmatwala played by Devgn.
Not surprisingly, after Devgn, it is Rawal who gets the maximum screen time. I am not sure if homosexuality was a recurring motif in the original Himmatwala, but in this remake, it leaps out at you, gelling neatly with the campy tenor of the film. It reaches its own narrative climax (pun intended) in the spooning scene between Paresh Rawal and Mahesh Manjrekar, where it is hinted that Rawal had his fingers in a certain nether portion of Manjrekar’s anatomy.
So on both these counts—faithfulness to the original, and frivolity—Khan’s effort deserves a 4.9 at the least. One critic got it partly right when he tweeted that this was an “audacious” film. It was audacious in its bid to remake an awful film keeping intact all of the original awfulness. If the film is awful, it is meant to be so. So, watching the one of the best awful films of the 1980s in 2013, and expecting that it would somehow be superior to, if not better than, the original, is to totally miss the point of the film.
The second time I went to see Himmatwala, there were more children than adults in the auditorium—and they laughed at every one of the puerile jokes. Maybe Himmatwala is a film for young adults, for those old enough to see a film but not old enough (physically and also otherwise) for their pleasure-taking to be circumscribed by expectations and cinematic values endorsed by the high priests of low (mass) culture.

Watching Murakami in Malayalam

In Cinema, Humour, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Many film festival regulars often have this strange competitive thing going on between them. Usually, it’s about who’s ‘caught’ the maximum number of the ‘best’ films on show. And of course, they themselves are the best judges of which are the best films. “Hey,” they’d holler from their stall in the auditorium loo, “have you watched ‘The Night of the Constipated Dead’? Dude! How could you have missed it? What superb cinematography! What brilliant sound effects, dude! See if they’ve another screening planned – it’s THE film of the festival!” and so on in that vein.

Of course, the truth might be the opposite. The fellow might have been so traumatized by the experience, so filled with rage at his own pathetic judgment, and so consumed by the desire to get even, that he’s trying to send as many gullible souls as he can to the cinematic gallows.

Screen-grab from YouTube trailer of In April The Following Year There was a Fire.
Yours truly became such a gullible soul not once, not twice, but three times in the course of a single film festival – the 12th Osian Cinefan film festival which concluded in the capital last Sunday.

The first time was with something called Ballad of Rustom, which came highly recommended by a film critic (never trust them). It was a 10pm show, and I hadn’t planned on catching a 10 pm show because the last metro home was at 11, and this was a two-hour film. Plus I hadn’t had dinner. But this critic was insistent that it was THE film to watch, and my companion (who I’d only just met at the festival, and who cunningly did not reveal, until much later, that he was a practicing sado-masochist) seconded the critic’s views about the film.

So hungry, thirsty (for some reason the security guards took away my water bottle. The festival organisers did not allow you to hydrate yourself while watching a film – isn’t that against the law or something?) and excited about catching an Indian cinematic masterpiece, me and my friend (he shall be referred to as Mr M from now on) trooped into the auditorium, and patted ourselves on the back when we saw a sizeable crowd. If we were making a mistake, at least we won’t be the only ones. (Bet that’s what lemmings say to each other when they jump off a cliff.)

Ballad Of Rustom, as I shortly discovered, is about a telephone repairman called Rustom who does three things again and again over a period of 117 minutes: 1. He cycles through beautiful landscapes; 2. He washes his face; and 3. He tinkers with bulbs and electrical wires.

Actually, that’s a gross over-simplification of a very complex, very multi-layered, very moderately pretentious film with extraordinary cinematography. But unfortunately, it was wasted on someone like me, whose cinematically under-evolved faculty was ill-equipped to see a metaphor when it saw a man splashing cold water on his face. What it saw instead, was a man splashing cold water on his face.

On more than three occasions I was tempted to walk out so I can grab myself something to eat, but Mr M – praise be upon him – forced me to stay till the bitter end. And I was glad I did, because I did not want to miss the ending. The last time I’d seen a film in which mostly nothing happened, the last 15 minutes had a rape, a murder and a suicide. I was hoping this one too would throw up something like that. I couldn’t have forgiven myself if I missed it.

And we were justly rewarded for our pains – for more than one person died at the end. One was a suicide by drowning, though I had no idea who he was or why he died, while another probably perished in a fire. But both were exquisitely shot sequences — of a corpse floating in a pond, and a burnt out office, respectively.

This obsession with pretty-looking visuals, where the camera is in love with itself, as it were, was what kept me out of the film. Either the filmmaker is king or the camera is – in Ballad of Rustom, the camera executes a silent coup. And cinematic art becomes collateral damage. The place where this film’s non-existent action takes place has no discernible connection with any particular geography or history or time, while characters with no discernible roots in history or geography or time pontificate on the state of the nation and the futility of political action.

After the film, in a post-midnight interaction with the director, one learnt that the film was ostensibly an attempt to capture a universal reality about the destruction awaiting nature and the dark clouds of predatory human development hanging over natural beauty everywhere. But lacking roots in a specific historical reality (or any reality for that matter), what we get are so many beautiful scenes searching, like orphaned souls, for a narrative body that can give them something akin to life.

But Ballad of Rustom was not my only case of having the wrong tooth pulled. The other one, which is my fault entirely, was a Thai film called In April The Following Year There was a Fire. Not many people who landed up to see this film lasted as long as its title. Unlike Ballad, however, the main character of this film, a construction worker named Nhum, is not really a character at all but a stand-in for the director in a film that suddenly turns into a semi-autobiography of the director himself – I didn’t make this up, it says so in the synopsis of the film.

Anyway, all this is very well, except that this Nhum, like Rustom, does three things over and over again: 1. He smokes; 2. He walks; 3. He sleeps. There is only so much a man can take of a man smoking and walking and sleeping, and I regret to say that I cannot really say anything more about this film because I walked out shortly after Nhum’s 17th cigarette.
But in the evening the following day, there was a film we saw that made Ballad and the Thai film with the lengthy name seem like the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. It was a Malayalam film, officially a short one – just 15 minutes, though each minute was about 10 minutes long, effectively making it a two-and-a-half hour film.

Titled Cat People, it was an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, ‘Man-eating Cats’. Now, in the normal course of things, Murakami’s stories are not easily comprehensible. Strange things happen, people disappear for no reason, humans form intimate relationships with animals who are more than just animals. A lot is going on that is never explained and you don’t really mind that because you’re reading him more because you like the world he’s created and want to spend time with his lonely, alienated, and yet strangely self-sufficient characters.

As an old Murakami junkie, I was practically jumping up and down in joy when I discovered I was going to see one of his stories rendered on screen. But Mr M (who wouldn’t miss a Malayalam film for nothing) brought me down to earth, saying, “Buddy, this Murakami is in Malayalam. So don’t get your hopes up too high.”

And sad to say, he was proved right. The cultural distance to be traversed – from Japan to Kerala via English on a story set in Greece — seems to have overwhelmed the young director, who mixes three tea spoons of puliyattam (a tiger is a big cat, after all) with a few drops of Onam, three dead cats, a man, a woman, and a nightmare, to come up with a mélange of cinematic memes signifying nothing.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to my Mallu friend, in the hope that, being a native speaker, he would’ve caught more of the nuances of the film than I could by reading the English sub-titles.

“One day in the life of a Malayalee,” he said. “Wife goes out to work, husband stays at home and either smokes or mopes.”

“So who is this Malayalee guy?” I persisted. Save the fact that he was injured in one leg and liked to read the newspaper, I couldn’t make out much about him.

Mr M was silent for a while, watching the screen intently. And I realised then that the film had already ended – gone before I could ‘get it’. All my reading of Murakami was of little help in ‘reading’ this film.

As we were walking out, Bald Mr M explained, “Only a Mallu intellectual can understand Murakami in Malayalam. It’s not for everyone – so don’t blame the filmmaker if you didn’t get it.”

“So why don’t you tell me what that was all about?” I said.

“It’s elementary, my friend,” he said. “It’s a random film about a random woman, a random man, and a random nightmare.”

I stared at him. Of course! Now it all made sense! Even the other two – Ballad and the Thai one – were just that. Random films about – er – random stuff. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. Does everything in life have to make sense? No, it doesn’t.

“You’re right,” I said to my friend. “These could well be the three best films of the festival. If I didn’t get them, it’s my fault.”

“You bet,” he said. “After all, two out of the three have won awards.”

Watching Mama with Papa

In Cinema, Hollywood, Humour, Relationships, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm

If you’re a resident of India, you don’t actually have to pay money to get terrified. All you need to do is pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV, or just take a walk down the road outside your gated community. This, in brief, is Father’s position on horror movies. As for going to the movies in general, there can ever be only one reason to do so: the opportunity to nap peacefully in a darkened, air-conditioned room in a snug, cushiony seat.

Though I follow some directors in the horror genre, I’m not a big fan of ‘ghost movies’ per se. But Wife is. And every new horror movie that releases, has to be ‘seen’.

I’ve put ‘seen’ within quotes because, as will soon become clear, there is a big difference between going to see a film and actually seeing it when you’re in front of a giant screen in a darkened theatre.

So last week when she began badgering me about going for Mama, Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering, I knew what was coming. But there was one complication: we were visiting my parents in Chennai after a long time, and as a model daughter-in-law, she wasn’t comfortable leaving her parents-in-law out of the ‘outing’. Mama, of course, wouldn’t be caught dead watching a film called Mama. But Father was persuaded to come along “for the experience”.

When it comes to movie reviews, Wife swears by the NYT critic Manohla Dargis, and this is what Dargis had to say about Mama: “Horror … rarely gets more enjoyable than Mama.”

Less than 10 minutes into the film, she was finding the film so enjoyable she couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to leave. “This is too scary, let’s go now,” the inevitable litany had started.

Father, on the other hand, was snoring so nicely in sync with the film’s scare moments that some in the front rows were turning around in wondrous confusion, trying to figure out the mechanics of the exceptionally good 3-D surround sound.

As always, I was the only one genuinely interested in getting my money’s worth of scares. But this time, over and above my usual challenge of paying attention to the film while keeping Wife in her seat, I had the additional one of not letting Father’s snores – which were gradually rising in volume, and establishing their own identity as a composition distinct from those approved by Mama’s sound designer – distract me.

I am not sure about the physiological rationale behind this, but I was amazed at how he slept through all the loudest scenes in the film – the sudden crashes, screams and clangs – but would wake up in the quietest moments, look around in surprise, and then gently close his eyes again.

Father’s longest and most lucid phase of wakefulness came just before the interval, by which time Wife was concentrating hard on her Blackberry. She had switched to her old tactic of screening out any sensory input from the film by clearing important official mail that would require her full attention.

In what I’m sure was the defining scene of the film, when the ghost seemed like winning, Father woke up. He woke up because his cell was playing Carnatic music at a decibel level higher than that of his snores. He then did something nobody – neither me nor Wife – expected: he took the call. And started saying things like, “I told that idiot not to get involved with that woman …no, no, I am in a cinema hall….HELLO….can you hear me? HELLO…HELLO?”

I tried to snatch the phone from him. But he turned away, signaling to me that it was an important call, and he kept talking, and wouldn’t go out of the hall. What was most bizarre — nobody objected. Even as I sank deeper into my seat in shame and mortification, our neighbours gave him indulgent glances. Perhaps they were shit scared by the movie and welcomed the intrusion of reality into the world of make-believe. Wife, who usually lost no time pouncing on any ‘cell phone loonies’ couldn’t stop grinning.

Well, it all seems so predictable now — but my eloquent appeals to reason and the logic of paisa vasool didn’t work. Wife didn’t want to go back after the interval: “Let’s watch it at home – you can mute it when it gets too much.” Father clearly saw no reason to go back. “Not a bad film,” he said, “but how can anyone sleep with all that noise?”

O kayar, tera Rockstar tu hi raq

In Bollywood, Popular Culture, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:29 am

G Sampath | Saturday, November 12, 2011

First published in DNA
Nothing is funnier than an Indian pretending to be a rock star. At some level, we all know this. Which is probably why India hasn’t produced a single genuine rock star till date.
We have produced world class musicians, and truly great singers, but not a rock star.
But we keep making films about rock stars. Recently Katrina Kaif was a rock star in a film about finding a wife. Now Ranbir Kapoor is a rock star in a film about, I am told, love.
Well, we must love rock stars if Bollywood thinks there is money to be made in films about rock stars. But being a rock star is not only about the music. An integral part of the rock ethos is rebellion. All the drugs and alcoholism and free sex and wild parties synonymous with rock began as acts of rebellion against a prevailing social order that was as socially straitjacketed as it was morally claustrophobic.
But rebellion is also a good pose. We all adopt it at some point in our lives — usually in our teens — but rarely when it matters. This is because today all social, cultural, and even moral norms — all matters of principle — have been re-engineered and made contingent on the demands of the new god — Lord Market.
Therefore, any rebellion worth its name will have to be a rebellion against the Lord Market. Rest assured middle-class India is not going to be at the forefront of this rebellion. But all the same, they still want to experience the emotion of rebellion. Because it’s so cool, you know?
And for a nation of conformist blatherers whose basic instinct is to suck up to power rather than defy it, the rebellion implicit in the persona of a rock star is a delicious fantasy. For urban India’s middle-class youth in particular — who will lap up Imtiaz Ali’s film, I’m sure — it is a rebellion app they can download and daydream about freely, at no cost to their MBA dreams.
Indeed, the controversy surrounding Ali’s Rockstar is a perfect case study that illustrates why India has never seen a true rock star outside the silver screen.
Here’s the plot summary: An influential Bollywood director wants to shoot in a Tibetan monastery near Mcleod Ganj. It’s not just any scene that he wants to shoot — it’ll be a rock star singing about freedom, and demanding your haq. The Tibetans want to know whether they can place ‘Free Tibet’ flags in the backdrop, since the song is about freedom anyway. Ali gives them his word that the flags will be displayed in the song. The trusting Tibetans don’t ask him to sign a contract stating he will do so. They just let him shoot in their monastery without further ado.
After the film is made, the censor board suggests to Ali that the Tibetan flag be either blurred or deleted. Ali, if he had wanted to, could have easily appealed against this suggestion, and most probably he would have got the film passed with the flag intact.
If his appeal had failed, he could’ve called a press conference and lambasted the censor board for curbing freedom of expression, and kowtowing to China, perhaps without even being asked — for last I checked there wasn’t a Chinese representative in the Indian censor board.
One would have expected Ali to have at least expressed his anguish at this cut. That would have meant something. He could have used this opportunity to highlight the Tibetan cause. But that would have required him to do something no Indian businessman or professional or celebrity ever does — take a political stand.
In fact, not only did Ali not take a stand, when contacted by DNA, he said something dumb. He said, “The song (Sadda Haq) was more about personal freedom rather than any geographical or political issue.” Hello! Try telling that to a Tibetan, or a Kashmiri, or a Manipuri, or an Iraqi, or an Afghan. Or even a Dalit. Or even your gay or lesbian friend. As they would clarify, freedom is always a political issue. The only kind of ‘personal freedom’ that is not a political issue is the freedom of a consumer, which is apparently the only kind of freedom Ali is concerned with.
Perhaps it’s not fair to pin the blame on Ali alone. By all accounts, the director is sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, and his next film is apparently on this very subject. But his good intentions aside, Ali is a cog in the wheel of showbiz. Had he appealed against the censor board’s cuts, it would have delayed the release of the film, screwing up the marketing and distribution schedules, resulting in losses running into crores of rupees. And there goes your principled stand. But what are these losses compared with the ‘losses’ the Tibetans are toting up: 11 fatal self-immolations in the last 8 months, and a generation lost to imprisonment, torture and executions. Ali did not (perhaps his financiers did not let him) think of this when he chickened out from contesting the censor board’s cuts.
I haven’t seen Rockstar yet. I am sure it will be a successful film. And Ali is certainly a good director. But he needs to publicly apologise to the Tibetans for breaking his promise, and for letting them down. Until he does so, as far as I’m concerned, he can stuff his Rockstar.



Why the book is always better than the movie

In Hollywood, Literature, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

G Sampath | Saturday, October 29, 2011

First published in DNA
Last week, after a long time, I read a novel that I’d seen as a film already — Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.
One problem with this is that your experience of the novel is pre-filtered through the cinematic rendition.
So I imagined the main characters, Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh as Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem respectively. But you also find that the novel evokes a far richer experience of the story than a film ever could. I guess you can put it down to the limitations of the medium. When made into a film, a novel gains in terms of spectacle and reach, but loses out on depth and complexity. This is partly also due to the nature of the reading process, which is not as linear, and passive, as watching a film.
For those not familiar with the story, here’s the plot summary: one day Moss, a welder, while hunting antelope in Texas, stumbles on the scene of a drug deal gone bad: dead bodies, guns, a stash of heroin, and a satchel with $2.4 million in cash. He could either walk away, or grab the money and run. Moss chooses the latter, setting off a chain of events where Chigurh, a killer, is hired by one of the drug bosses to track Moss down and recover the money, while Sheriff Bell tries ineffectually to investigate the drug-related killings and protect Moss and his wife.
Unlike the film, the book resonates with multiple layers of meaning. For instance, it explores the endlessly fascinating question of whether a human being can take what is not his, and expect to live without consequences — his life unstained by that crime. Moss only attempts to take what is anyway illegal money, and it does not belong to him. Is this then, an allegory about the American nation itself — which stole the continent from native Indians, and yet has always believed itself to be destined by god to be a leader of the Free World (the doctrine of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, etc)?
Will the theft and genocide on which America was born, and continues to live off — the theft of land from the Indian peoples, the theft of the lives of millions of slaves trafficked from Africa, and today, the theft of oil from the Middle East, not to mention innumerable other thefts of lives and resources from different parts of the world — catch up with it someday, as Moss’s theft catches up with him?
Moss knows there is little chance of his getting away with $2.4 million of drug money, but he thinks maybe he can because he is special. Perhaps, in this dilemma, and in this choice, McCarthy, often hailed as the true heir of Hemingway and Faulkner, has managed to capture the existential history of America, and the radioactive nature of the American dream.
In the book, Chigurh’s character, who the film depicts as the purest incarnation of evil, doesn’t see himself as evil. He believes himself to be the instrument of fate. Hence his use of the coin toss. When a victim begs him for mercy, he flips a coin and asks him to call it. Invariably, the ones he knows he’ll have to kill call it wrong, and those who call it right are people he knows he can spare.
In a brilliant scene, Chigurh has a chat with Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, who knows he has come to kill her. When she begs him not to kill her, he offers her a glimmer of hope: a coin toss.
She calls ‘tails’, but it is ‘heads’.
Chigurh says, “I’m sorry.”
A terrified Carla tells him, “You make it like it was the coin. But you’re the one.”
In a revealing comment, Chigurh tells her, “I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”
Here was a bad guy, so to speak, who killed seemingly good people — not out of greed or jealousy or hatred, but almost from a sense of duty, as a matter of principle. In the film, you are either terrified of Chigurh or you hate him. But as you read McCarthy’s novel, you find the evil of Chigurh refracted through the prism of your own self — the evil things we do, and justify, as a duty we have to perform. The patriotic killings of a soldier comes to mind, as do the lay-offs a CEO perpetrates as part of his professional duty, or the peculiar logic that justifies the evil and forcible displacement of adivasis from their land in the name of economic development and progress (a logic apparently as inexorable as fate and Chigurh).
While watching the film, you’re rooting for Moss, but it is not until you read the novel that you understand that in real life, our allegiance, whether we like it or not, is with Chigurh.

Akshat Verma: He knows how to produce (Delhi) belly laughs

In Bollywood, Celebs, Cinema, Interview, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:48 am

Published: Sunday, Jul 17, 2011, 8:00 IST | Updated: Sunday, Jul 17, 2011, 0:44 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Akshat Verma answers all your questions in a voice that reminds you of coffee on a cold, rainy afternoon. As it happens, we are having coffee on a cold, rainy afternoon in a coffee shop somewhere in Khar. The rain is outside. The cold is inside, thanks to the AC. And the man who thought up Bollywood’s most intelligent laughathon in a long, long time is telling me about all those years of doubt and struggle before his script attained salvation on screen earlier this month.
Verma had to wait 15 years for Delhi Belly to be made into a film. He wrote it in 1996, when he was 25, and doing a Masters in screen-writing at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). “When I think about the time it has taken, it really depresses me,” admits Verma.
It all began in Karol Bagh
The writer and associate director of Delhi Belly, who now divides his time between LA and Mumbai, is a Delhi boy. Both his parents were professors in Delhi colleges — his dad taught English literature at Hansraj college, while his mom taught Hindi literature at Miranda House. He grew up near Karol Bagh, and went to Springdales school. He went to college at Kirori Mal, where he studied English literature.
Verma was always interested in telling stories, and in writing. So post-college, there followed stints in the writing professions —eight months as a journalist, two years as an advertising copywriter. Going by the evidence ofDelhi Belly, where, of the four main characters, one is a copywriter and three are journalists, these early years ended up supplying plenty of material to the budding film writer.
After an inexplicable diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi, Verma took off to the US to hone his script-writing skills at the UCLA. “UCLA was the best thing that happened to me,” he says. Soon after he wrote Delhi Belly, he made a trip to Mumbai to try and sell his script, but there were no takers back then.
Going nowhere fast
So he went back to LA, where he flipped burgers, walked dogs, and did a series of writing jobs. He ghostwrote a screenplay, assisted established Hollywood names, and even took on a day job giving Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films. In case you’ve ever wondered, it was he who gave those terrible subtitles for Lawrence Of ArabiaMen In Black, and one of theSpiderman films.
But subtitling doesn’t pay well, and assisting someone wasn’t the same as working on your own script. And as the years passed, his screenwriting career was going nowhere fast. “You reach a point where you begin to question your own abilities, and you wonder if you are ever going to be able to get out of this,” says Verma, remembering those days. “Assisting someone else is also very depressing for me because I can barely run my own life, but to be responsible for somebody else…? You do a lot of work, but at the end of the day, what have you produced? Nothing.”
On Wiltshire Boulevard
Verma then tells me about the darkest point in his career as a writer, the day the absurdity of his life hit him on the head like a crashing ceiling fan.
“I was in LA, working as an assistant to this big-time Hollywood production designer. My work involved planning meetings, making hotel reservations, sorting out travel schedules, etc. In LA, there is this really busy street called Wiltshire Boulevard. One day I find myself transporting a large table across the street in the middle of traffic. It was a big table, and I had to carry it across because there was this birthday party and it had to be set up with cake and everything…..and right there in the middle of traffic, it suddenly struck me, wait, I have a f— Masters in screenplay writing from a top American university, I am a qualified writer, I could teach other people to write badly…so what the f— am I doing? At which point, I decided, you know, f— it. I am going back to advertising.”
But to get back to advertising, you needed a portfolio, and Verma’s work was all Indian. American ad agencies would not consider his work on Indian brands. “So I had to go back to portfolio school — make up fake ads for known American brands so they can see the quality of my work.” Verma eventually did get a copywriting job in the US. But soon, “my luck being what it is,” disaster struck, in the form of the recession.
“I was working on a real estate client, and this was one of the biggest companies in the sub-prime lending sector. When that company went under, a large section of the creative department, myself included, was laid off.” This proved to be a blessing in disguise for Verma, as he could then turn his attention back to the Delhi Belly script. He teamed up with Jim Furgele, who was with him at the UCLA, and set up Ferocious Attack Cow Productions. They made another trip to India, and then slowly, with Aamir Khan on board, things started moving for Delhi Belly.
Slapstick versus physical humour
If there is one thing that upsets the affable Verma, it is when “lazy critics” dismiss Delhi Belly as slapstick or potty humour. “Delhi Belly is physical humour, not slapstick,” says Verma. “The two are different. Physical humour is played straight, unlike slapstick.
Let’s say someone slips on a banana peel. If he falls down and is hurt, or something else happens, it is physical humour. But if you have funny sounds and exaggerated expressions to go with it, it becomes slapstick. I mean, slapstick ends up caricaturing, whereas physical humour is completely straight. Laurel and Hardy is slapstick, but Buster Keaton is physical humour.”
Verma has a point. One reason why some critics didn’t get it could be because Delhi Belly is indeed a path-breaking film — it is difficult to think of another film after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that has multiple layers of humour working at the same time. Not only are there funny lines in almost every scene, the script is infused with situational humour as well as the humour of character. Plus it is an accomplished film by most cinematic parameters.
Most of all, what distinguishes Delhi Belly is a comic sensibility that you cannot pin down to any one aspect of the film but has to do with the quality of mind of the writer — say, the x-factor that makes a Woody Allen film a Woody Allen film. That is why Delhi Belly cannot be turned into a formula for other Bollywood copycats to replicate. And hopefully, that should mean less struggle, and more demand, for intelligent, funny screenwriters like Akshat Verma.