Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Bollywood’ Category

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.

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.

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.