Friday, December 29, 2006

A Tribute to Ghalib

It was Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib' s birthday on December 27th. Like a ritual, a few events were organized in the capital to commemorate the occasion. A series of events at Ghalib's old haveli at Ballimaran, a handful of hastily organized mushairas, a couple of programmes on TV - and we had done our duty of remembering one of the greatest Urdu poets ever (in my opinion, The Greatest).

For me, however, Ghalib is more than just a poet. He is responsible for my foray into the delightful world of Urdu Adab. I'm still a novice when it comes to the Urdu language, but whatever I know and whatever Urdu poetry I've tried my hand at, it's all thanks to Ghalib. It goes back almost two decades when I saw Gulzar's television serial on Mirza Ghalib (in that respect I consider Ghalib and Gulzar as my poetry gurus). At that time I did not understand, leave alone appreciate, Ghalib's poetry. But the serial had such an impact on me that I decided to learn the Urdu language. I did not have a formal education in Urdu though. It started off with a "Learn Urdu in 30 Days" manual, soon graduating to reading poetry and prose in Urdu, of course with the aid of a humongous dictionary.

Even now, when my Urdu vocabulary is better, I cannot claim that I have the wherewithal to understand the meaning behind Ghalib's verses. Most of the time, I 'get' the words, but to 'get' the meaning is an exercise in mental calisthenics. Ghalib's uniqueness lies in the fact that his verses can be deceptively simple and annoyingly abstruse at the same time. His penchant for Persianized word constructions, non-traditional metaphors, innovative imagery, and complex thoughts earned him the dubious distinction of being called a creator of 'meaningless' and incomprehensible verses during his lifetime. In a remarkable demonstration of wit (even at the risk of being misconstrued as ego and false pride), he has written many tongue-in-cheek verses where he taunts his critics and detractors. See these lines for example:

न सताइश की तमनना न सिले की परवा
गर नहीं हैं मिरे अश`आर में म`नी न सही

( I have) neither a longing for praise, nor a care for reward
if there's no meaning in my verses, then so be it

This brings me to the other person who made me look at Ghalib in a completely new light (and even helped me understand the 'skill' required for the comprehension of Ghalib's verses) - Frances W. Pritchett, professor at Columbia University. Prof. Pritchett is an American but she has completely devoted herself to the Urdu Language, and her mastery over the language can put many native Urdu speakers also to shame. In one of her brilliant papers - "The Meaning of the Meaningless Verses", she has this to say about Ghalib and his detractors:
"Muhammad Husain ‘Āzād’, author of the great canon-forming literary history Āb-e hayāt (Water of Life, 1880), conspicuously dislikes Ghālib, and never misses an opportunity to take potshots at him. Introducing the classical ghazal tradition, Āzād explains that Ghālib’s work has grave problems as compared to that of earlier ustāds....

"Poor Ghālib, what a piquant situation: because of his love of ‘meaning creation’, his poetry is attacked as flawed and even meaningless. The situation is so dire, in Āzād’s eyes, that only one or two hundred of Ghālib’s Urdu verses are really satisfactory....

"Certainly Ghālib had to endure the hostility of those who genuinely preferred a simpler and more colloquial style, and of those who preferred an emphasis on romantic emotion rather than a more cerebral metaphysics. In general, people who liked their ghazal verses to be flowing (ravāñ) and readily, colloquially, intelligible, ended up furious at him: he could write such verses brilliantly when he chose, as his dīvān amply demonstrates, yet he so often didn’t choose! Why didn’t the wretch write more verses like (quotes a verse apparently appreciated by Zauq, Ghalib's arch rival who was like Salieri to Ghalib's Mozart) ? Behind the mockery of his contemporaries one can sense the deep irritation of envious colleagues and frustrated connoisseurs who see a major talent being misdirected into folly..."
(If you want to develop a taste for Ghalib's poetry, I strongly recommend Prof. Pritchett magnus opus - an online collection of commentaries on Ghalib's Urdu Ghazals- A Desertful of Roses is still work in progress)

What I like about Ghalib's verses is actually their apparent incomprehensibility. Deciphering the meaning behind those verses is probably infinitely more satisfying than cracking the Da Vinci Code. And to top it all, just when you think you have 'got' it, it has this annoying, yet challenging, tendency to slip out right from within your grip...and then you get back at grabbing it all over again. And what you might 'get' next might be very, very different. Sounds complicated? How about calling his verses 'elusive and multidimensional'? That is more comprehensible, isn't it?

Let me end with a verse I wrote yesterday. I have tried my hand at some wordplay here....can't say how successful I've been, but it's my own personal tribute to Ghalib on his birthday.

हर्ब-ए-इदराक में कुछ कम तो मुहारिब न हुए
जाँ लगा दी मगर अफ़सोस कि ग़ालिब न हुए

(In the war of understanding there were many warriors
Alas, they gave their lives but could not be victorious)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dhoom Again!

OK, so I finally got to watch the much talked about, overhyped sequel to the under-hyped sleeper hit of 2004. And I'm glad I did! It is what is called as the perfect time-pass, paisa vasool film.

What Dhoom-2 lacks in terms of a coherent plot and neatly crafted screenplay, it more than compensates through a clever and consistent sprinkling of awe-inspiring stunts, energetically choreographed dance routines, picture-perfect scene compositions and oodles of eye candy.

Dhoom-2, like its predecessor, is the quintessential cop and robber tale where there's neither the place nor the need for logic. The film opens with a breathtaking visual of a lone train running through a vast Namibian desert. Though the execution of this robbery is disappointing (it almost seems that the writer and director felt that once they had a great setting, their task was done), it sets the stage for what would unfold over the next 2 hours. From then on we are drawn into a high-octane cat and mouse game (so what if the robber always has the upper hand...right till the end?). The action explodes with such energy that one doesn't get the time to think about the loopholes in the plot.

Yes, after the movie is over you wonder if the film would have been much better had the writer made it into a mind game between the adversaries - a kind of intelligent one-upmanship. But as long as you're in the theatre, you're hooked on! You don't regret that the cop - who insists that such games are won by the mind and not the bullet - has virtually no plan except planting a mole. You don't mind that the mole - seemingly a consummate crook herself - doesn't show any skill except loads of sexual energy. And you certainly don't mind that Mr. Perfect Thief gets away unscathed every single time, thanks to - if I may use the word - a DUMB cop who appears dumber than his bumbling side-kick. All this, because of the charismatic screen presence of Hrithik Roshan.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that Dhoom-2 belongs to Hrithik Roshan (Mr. A, Aryan). Mind you, that's not a tribute to his acting talent. He is at best an above-average actor, but when it comes to screen presence no one among the current crop of actors can come even closer to him. And boy, what a dancer! His dance movements are more unbelievable and awe-inspiring than the cable-supported, SFX-created action sequences. It is absolutely clear that Dhoom-2 was designed to be his showcase. How else would you explain the terribly underwritten character of the cop, or the fact that Hrithik is on the screen in 90% of the scenes?

And then there's Ash (Sunehri). Could anyone believe that her 'plastic beauty' persona could actually set the screen afire? What has she done to her body! What a metamorphosis!! Ash's Sunehri is HOT. She and Hrithik come across as the most perfect screen pairing in recent memory. But, hey, what was all that hullabaloo about their lip-lock?

On the acting front, Ash is adequate. All she is required to do is to look hot and be a perfect foil to Hrithik. She does precisely that with great élan. It's sad that Abhishek (Jai Dixit) got saddled with a hastily written role. It's unpardonable that the character of Jai Dixit, the main connecting link between the sequels - is so one-dimensional. Numerous reviews have lambasted Abhishek's acting in Dhoom-2, but the blame here lies with the producer-director-writer. They seem so hell bent on making this a showcase for Hrithik that they've given almost a step-motherly treatment to Abhishek's character. On his part, Abhishek honestly portrays what he's been asked to do.

Uday Chopra (Ali) should find solace in the fact that his father and brother are the most successful producers in India and they will continue to find roles for him in their films. He has no acting talent whatsoever. Hats off to Aditya Chopra for using the clever ploy of giving Ali's character dozens of one-liners that manage to draw a few laughs from the audience and divert them from Uday Chopra's unbelievable yet unquestionable lack of acting skills.

Should I get deeper into the negatives? For one, The music is very disappointing - had it not been for the Shaimak Davar's and Vaibhavi Merchant's choreography or Hrithik's and Ash's fluid dance movements the songs would have been unbearable to watch on screen. Also, despite a larger canvas and more style it doesn't cover any new ground compared to Dhoom....nah, I wouldn't get into all this. If one were to start, the list of negatives for Dhoom-2 might be quite long but why dwell on that? I found the film very entertaining and that's all that mattered to me while watching the film.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Not been writing

It's more than a month since I posted anything here. The only excuse I have for that is that I've been too busy at work. But that's just what it is - an excuse. There were lot of things I could've written about in the last month: the films I watched and loved - Casino Royale and The Departed; the book I've been reading - William Dalrymple's delightful The Last Mughal; the new music releases - Guru and Salaam-e-ishq; the house that I've bought; the severe bout of uveitis that is affecting me yet again; or even my recent trip to Bangalore.... but the fact remains that I haven't written anything.

I was 100% sure that I would write a review of Dhoom-2 once I watched it, but thanks to the stand-off between YRF and the multiplexes in Delhi I still haven't watched it. And here the excuse of being busy comes in handy. Since the only places where Dhoom-2 is running are very far from my house, lack of time is a convenient excuse. The other film I'm keen on watching is Kabul Express, and being a Yash Raj film it also isn't releasing in multiplexes near my house. Damn!

My genes are playing up on me yet again. Last week uveitis came visiting my eye again (was it the sixth time?). But this time instead of the regular right eye, it chose to try out my left eye - my perfectly normal eye. Result - my left eye is all blurred, the right is weak anyway... so without my specs i can't even see properly. Add to that the long hours I need to spend in front of my laptop at work, and you have the perfect recipe of perpetual headaches!!!

Ah, the predicament of a film buff who can't watch a film!!

Who do I blame? Two parties haggling over a few extra bucks? Or the twisted, helical ribbons that form the basis of my very existence?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Umrao Jaan - A Mixed Bag

First, let's get a few facts right:

  1. J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan is not a 'remake' of Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version; it's another interpretation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa's novel. The screenplays of the two films are completely different. If there is anything common, it's the fact that both Ali and Dutta have taken creative liberty to change the tone of the original story to romanticize the character of Umrao Jaan and transform her into a tragic lovelorn heroine. Both follow the same adaptation 'device' of modifying the chronology of events and putting actual events from the book in a different context to lend more sadness to the protagonist's character.
  2. Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version was not a commercial success. Despite a plethora of well-deserved awards (except the hugely controversial National Award for Rekha), the film's business was below average (my memory fails me, but I think it was probably a box-office disaster…but, then, when did box-office returns become a measure of a film's quality?).
  3. Muzaffar Ali's 1981 version is not the 'original' adaptation of Ruswa's book. It's only the most well-known and authentic. There have been two eminently forgettable attempts before that – Mehndi (1958) and Zindagi Ya Toofan (1958).

It is important to keep the above in mind because many film journalists, with their shocking lack of knowledge and unpardonable disdain for research, would have us believe the contrary.

Now let me get to J.P Dutta's adaptation of Umrao Jaan. In my earlier post on Don I have made my disdain for comparisons very obvious, but that's precisely what I would end up doing here. However, I would compare J.P Dutta's film with the book which it is adapted from, and not Muzaffar Ali's film. If any reference to Muzaffar Ali's version comes up, it will only be in the context of the book. (I have only read Khushwant Singh and M.A Husaini's English translation of the book, so any observations I make about the book or any lines I quote are based solely on that reading)

J.P Dutta's film follows the same narrative structure as the book, where in her twilight years Umrao Jaan tells the story of her life to the author – Ruswa. In that respect J.P Dutta tries to be closer to the book than Muzaffar Ali. I was quite pleased with the way J.P Dutta chose to start his film. The initial unfolding of events was quite true to the book, except for the complete elimination of the character of Ram Dei – a girl who forms a short-lived bond with Umrao in captivity before she is sold-off to a rich Begum. The character of Ram Dei is quite important in the book, as she re-surfaces at a later point in the story to accentuate the irony of fate. So, in eliminating the character of Ram Dei from his film, Dutta set the stage for major changes that were to follow. As the movie progressed, one could see more changes creeping into the story.

I'm all for making changes to literary works to suit the medium of celluloid, so long as it doesn't alter the spirit of the original writing. Interestingly, both Ali and Dutta had to 're-arrange' their scripts (even though the re-arrangements in the two versions were very different) for exactly the same reason. They both wanted to focus on the romance between Umrao Jaan and Nawab Sultan and had to 'create' a plausible reason for their separation. In the book, Umrao offers no explanation. She simply says, "Alas! the heavy hand of separation fell upon our union" and moves ahead with her story. How could a love-story, especially the one that forms the crux of the film version, end so abruptly? So both Ali and Dutta play with the chronology of events, borrow from other episodes within the book and transmigrate them to the story of Umrao and Nawab Sultan. Quite innovative you might say, but Dutta goes a step further and creates a few entirely new events to add twists to the story. While that lends certain logic to the story as it unfolds, it transforms Dutta's Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) into someone completely unidentifiable with Ruswa's Nawab Sultan.

Also, the liaison between Umrao and Nawab Sultan had its foundation on their mutual passion for poetry. In the books their romance unfolds through a series of poetry sessions. But J.P Dutta's Sultan comes in purely for physical pleasure: his love is driven by lust, it seems.

Over-emphasis on the Nawab Sultan episode by Dutta - and also to some extent by Ali - does gross injustice to Ruswa's book. Ruswa's book portrays Umrao Jaan as a courtesan who has liaisons with several men during her life because of her profession. While she remembers each of them fondly, and probably even alludes to an extra soft corner for the Nawab, she does not admit to 'real love' for any of them. When she looks back upon her life and narrates her story to Mirza Ruswa, she does so in a matter-of-fact manner devoid of any self-pity – a far cry from her melancholic narration in Dutta's film. In the book she is "a woman of experience who has slaked her thirst at many a stream (ghat ghat ka paani piya hai)" who confesses that "no man has ever loved me nor did I really love any man" because she is "but a courtesan in whose profession love is a current coin". Now how can one create a tragic heroine out of a person like this without making significant alterations to the text? But why did Dutta have to make Umrao Jaan into a chaste courtesan who sleeps only with the love of her life – Sultan – and takes a vow of fidelity? What on earth happened to Gauhar Mirza, who was the "first one to pluck the flower"? Or Nawab Rashid who was fooled into believing that he was the chosen one to initiate Umrao into the profession by "deflowering" her? Or Faiz Ali who loved her (Umrao too continued to pretend that she really loved him)? Or several others who appear either as specific characters or mere mentions in the book?

Dutta seems quite confused about how he wants to project the kotha. The kothas of 19th Century Lucknow also played an important role as schools of culture and etiquette where young nawabs were encouraged to go to learn about performing arts and culture, in addition to learning the "facts of life". Dutta's kotha largely focuses only on the aspect of flesh trade. Yet, when it comes to portraying Umrao, he tries to transform her into a Pakeezah (the pure one).

The main problem with Dutta's script is that most characters have either not been properly developed or altered significantly. Gauhar Mirza (Puru Raj Kumar), Bismillah (Divya Dutta), Khursheed (Ayesha Jhulka), Faiz Ali (Suneil Shetty) – all had significant roles to play in the literary Umrao's life, but in the film all except Faiz Ali get very marginal roles, almost as if their presence was only incidental. Even Faiz Ali's character has been changed drastically. Except the fact that he's a dacoit who Umrao elopes with, every single aspect of his character and role have no relation to Ruswa's story. Ditto with Gauhar Mirza. The only character who comes across just the way Ruswa envisioned is Khanum, played with characteristic ease by Shabana Azmi.

After reading so much criticism of J.P Dutta's script, you might think that I 'hated' the film. Actually not. There were definitely some aspects of the film that I enjoyed, but each of these aspects had a flip side to it. For a moment, let me put comparisons with the book aside, and try to evaluate this film as an 'original' screenplay.

First and foremost, I appreciate Dutta's good intentions of exposing today's generation to the beauty of urdu zabaan and lakhnawi tehzeeb. It takes courage to do an Urdu film, in an age where Hinglish is fast becoming the lingua franca of people. It's a pleasure to hear the main characters of Umrao Jaan mouth dialogue in chaste Urdu. The problem is that except a few – Shabana Azmi and Aishwarya Rai who has evidently worked hard on her diction – no other actor can carry it off. At many places the lakhnawi flavour of the language is missing. And even chaste Hindi words like maan-maryada creep into the dialogue at times.

Next, the production values of the film are quite good. The sets are opulent, the costumes and jewellery exquisite. While the film is a visual delight, the objective of recreating 19th century Lucknow is not achieved. Nawab Sultan dons a Pathani look, Faiz Ali is more Afghani, and despite J.P Dutta's best effort, the Rajasthani element ends up making brief, yet damaging appearances in the art decoration. I was quite amused by the objections being made by some people from Lucknow about the side-parting of Ash's hair or the topa she wears or Nawab Sultan's turban, but after watching the film I tend to agree with them that spirit of Lucknow is missing from Umrao Jaan. Interestingly, though lakhnawis claim that Nawabs never wore a turban in Avadh, Mirza Ruswa in his book clearly mentions that when Umrao first sees Nawab Sultan he's wearing a "turban of gold brocade". So did Dutta get it right? Not really, because the golden turban Abhishek wears is worn in a Rajasthani style.

The narration of Umrao's story demands a bit of thehrav, a relaxed unfolding of events. That calls for some patience on the part of the audiences who are used to instant gratification. I don't blame people if they find the film very slow moving. However, I think J.P Dutta got carried away and completely forgot that a slow film need not be boring. Some of the sequences are so long drawn out that one loses interest after a while. When Nawab Sultan returns to the kotha in a drunken state, his scene with Umrao takes boredom to new heights. I wouldn't mind even a 15 minute scene where Umrao and Nawab might just exchange poetry or converse in high-flown Urdu. But here, there is no poetry to appreciate, there's no delicacy of zabaan to relish, and there's really nothing consequential going on. It hurts. The film is so long that by the time the film ends, it seems that you've been sitting at the theatre for ages. I did not get bored because I was carefully listening, analyzing and appreciating the language of the film. But for someone who does not appreciate Urdu it can be quite a torture. This confirms my belief that when the same person handles the editing and direction of a film, the film suffers because the director invariably takes over from the editor. We saw that in the recent Jaan-e-Mann and now again in Umrao Jaan, and even in some of Raj Kapoor's films.

I am probably one of the very few people who have liked Anu Malik's music in Umrao Jaan. After watching the film, people are cursing the movie even more because they think the songs add unnecessarily to the length of the film. I disagree with this. The songs, and the lyrics, are the highlights of this film. Instead of dialogue, the narrative moves through songs. If Umrao wants to say something, she says it through a ghazal (remember, Ruswa's Umrao is a poetess). I also think very highly of Vaibhavi Merchant's choreography. Her steps, movements and gestures are full of ada, as one would expect in a film about a 19th century tawa'if. However, I would have loved it even more if during the classical music interludes and 'thekas/ todas' of some of the mujras, she had focussed on the dancer's footwork instead of shifting the camera to the other characters.

Aishwarya looks stunning as Umrao Jaan. It is also evident that she has worked hard on her performance and dialogue delivery. I always considered her as a beautiful face with no acting talent. But in Umrao Jaan she is quite good, if only by her standards. So while it cannot be rated as a great performance in absolute terms, coming from Ash it certainly is a good job. Sadly, Abhishek disappoints big time. And I wouldn't only blame the script for that. His performance is very flat, something one doesn't expect from an actor who has shown considerable improvement over the years. The only actor who is consistently good in the film is Shabana Azmi (what else did you expect?)

On the whole, while J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan has some positive aspects to it, it doesn't come across as a genuine attempt at recreating Ruswa's novel. And the length of the film, just kills it!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Music of Umrao Jaan - Sublime

When J.P Dutta announced Anu Malik's name as the composer of his version of Umrao Jaan (based on Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa's celebrated urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada), I was a bit apprehensive. But this time the apprehension was not about Anu's calibre – his association with J.P Dutta has never been short of magical, after all. I was more concerned about his ability to compose something that could live up to the standards set by Khayyam in the 1981 version of Umrao Jaan. If Anu could achieve even a fraction of what Khayyam and Asha Bhosle achieved 25 years ago, that would be enough to wipe off all the sins he might have committed by imposing his noisy 'inspirations' on us.

When I first listened to Anu's score for J.P Dutta's Umrao Jaan, my most obvious reaction was to directly compare it with Khayyam's. Then I thought to myself, is that fair? Can I listen to - and enjoy - this score without any comparison? It was difficult to start with, but then I asked myself one question. What if this score belonged not to 'Umrao Jaan' but some other film based on the life a courtesan? Could it then qualify as a good score? The answer is a resounding YES!

Anu Malik's compositions for Umrao Jaan are melodious, deceptively simple yet multi-textured, and truly Indian. In keeping with the setting of the film (19th century Lucknow), the instruments used are all Indian and the compositions are based on Hindustani classical music without being too self-indulgent. His compositions do complete justice to Javed Akhtar's delicately worded ghazals. This is probably the first time Anu Malik has tried his hand at the ghazal/mujra genre, but he doesn't let his inexperience show.

Mirza Ruswa's Umrao Jaan 'Ada' was a poetess in her own right, who mostly composed her own poetry for her public performances. Her poetry was neither profound nor philosophical. Given the fact that she had to entice her audiences with her performances and at times flirt with them, she always wrote on traditional ghazal themes of love and betrayal, using metaphors and imagery that are well established in the ghazal world. Javed Akhtar has done an outstanding job at penning some truly evocative ghazals for Umrao Jaan. The language is simple, and the thoughts traditional; yet with his careful choice of words he has penned couplets that you can instantly relate to without struggling to delve into deeper meaning. This reflects a perfect grasp of the story, where an amateur poetess composes poetry to woo her clients or to express her sorrows and heartbreaks.

For example, the lines below: perfect couplets for the debut performance of a courtesan – teasing, coquettish, yet maintaining a veil of decency.

First, in a boastful manner she tells her lover that one glance from her is enough to make people her slaves, yet she has fallen for him.

ये दिल है जो आ गया है तुम पर वगरनह सच ये है बन्दापरवर
जिसे भी हम देख लें पलट कर उसी को अपना ग़ुलाम कर लें

Then she changes her tone and challenges him to be 'a little audacious' so that their name is also immortalized like the legendary lovers, Laila-Majnu or Shirin-Farhad. (A professional Tawa'if would say these lines in a manner that every one in the audience would believe that they are addressed to him)

वो लैला मजनूँ की हो मुहब्बत कि शीरीं फ़रहाद की हो उलफ़त
ज़रा सी तुम जो दिखाओ जुर्रत तो हम भी उन जैसा नाम कर लें

Or, the lines below, where Umrao urges her lover not to 'show' her any dreams if he can't 'show' her their meaning/ fruition...

या तो ताबीर बताओ मेरे सब ख़्वाबों की
या कोई ख़्वाब इन आँखों को दिखाया न करो

...and then goes on to complain that her lover comes to her only as a matter of routine.

अभी आये हो अभी बैठे अभी जाते हो
सिर्फ़ इक रस्म निभाने को तो आया न करो

There is one song in Umrao Jaan that I'm confused about. It's a brilliantly worded Avadhi song about the plight of women, but the whole concept of a girl urging God not to make her a girl in her next life is entirely alien to the milieu. Umrao Jaan is essentially a story of Muslim characters and Muslims do not believe in rebirth. I wonder how Javed Akhtar, a Muslim himself (though a very secular one), could overlook that aspect! Maybe the film will explain some of this. Till then, this remains my only problem with the songs of Umrao Jaan. Yet, it's outstanding poetry. Read these poignant lines:

अब जो किये हो दाता ऐसा न कीजो
अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो
हमरे सजनवा हमरा दिल ऐसा तोड़िन
ऊ घर बसाइन हमका रस्ता मा छोड़िन
जैसे कि लल्ला कोई खिलउना जो पावे
दुई चार दिन तो खेले फिर भूल जावे
रो भी न पावे ऐसी गुड़िया न कीजो
अगले जनम मोहे बिटिया न कीजो

No analysis of the music of Umrao Jaan can be complete without a word about the voice of Umrao – Alka Yagnik. Despite a very good voice, Alka Yagnik was beginning to fall into the rut of similar sounding songs which did not give her any opportunity to explore new grounds. With Umrao Jaan, Alka Yagnik has reinvented herself. She sounds mint fresh and imbues just the right amount pathos to her renditions. If Lata and Asha immortalized the tawai'f (courtesans) of Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan (1981) with their voices, Alka almost achieves the same status in J.P Dutta's version.

In my opinion Anu Malik's Umrao Jaan is one of the best Hindi film soundtracks of 2006 (along with Vishal's Omkara). I just wish J.P Dutta has been able to do with the film what Anu-Javed-Alka trio has achieved with the music of Umrao Jaan. One more week to go…

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

In Defence of Farhan Akhtar's Don

I'm shocked by the thrashing Farhan Akhtar's Don has been getting since the day it was released. Agreed, it's not path breaking cinema or a really outstanding entertainer. But does it deserve the lashing it's got? The same critics and journalists, who have had good things to say for even the most mediocre of films, somehow seem to have ganged up against Farhan Akhtar with vitriolic pens and caustic tongues. But why?

Before I get to my theory for this anti-Don tirade, there are a few things I want to be clear about. One, this is certainly not one of my favourite films or something that I would call a classic (people who’re today proclaiming the 1978 Don a classic are making a huge mistake. That never was and never will be a classic. If at all, it got the classic tag only after Farhan chose to remake it). I found it entertaining despite its flaws, but it still isn't one of the best films of 2006. Then, much as I want to avoid comparisons with the original, others are perfectly justified in making comparisons. By all means….if Farhan chose to remake a popular film, comparisons were bound to happen. Only, the conclusions drawn from such a comparison should confine to the limits of objectivity and logic. And this is something I haven’t seen in any review or interview thus far. Also, I respect the belief of people that remakes represent a dearth of creativity, and people should let the originals be. If anyone doesn't like the remake of Don for this reason, I don’t have any problem. But please be honest about it. It's the concept you hate, not the film per se.

Now let me come to the point. According to my theory, people have trouble accepting Farhan's Don because of one or more of the following four strong beliefs:

Belief 1 - new can never match the old or Old is Gold: While this might be true to a large extent, the corollary that everything old is great is not true. So while the 1978 Don was a good thriller, to say that it was a great, perfect film is a big mistake. It was an entertaining film with many, many flaws (just like Farhan Akhtar’s Don). But today, when our esteemed film experts want to pass a judgment, they do as if the original was perfect; and if the new one has a few flaws, it's a trashy film. For them, Amitabh was great, SRK not so great (true); Helen was hot, Kareena not so hot (maybe, but contestable); Zeenat Aman fantastic, Priyanka so-so (really???). I thought that Zeenat Aman was the worst thing about the original Don - Priyanka was better than her in the remake. Anyway, without digressing any further, I think that when critics are making comparisons, they are starting from the assumption that the original Don was a perfect film (which it certainly wasn't). They're not comparing Farhan's Don with Chandra Barot's – in fact they're putting Farhan's film against their notion of a perfect film, against which obviously it is bound to fall woefully short. I challenge anyone to view the two films side by side and then make an objective comparison.

Belief 2 - Amitabh is God: Even to me, Amitabh is God. I think he’s the greatest living actor in India, but that doesn't mean that if someone else makes an honest attempt at re-interpreting a character played by Amitabh he has to be bad. It almost seems to me that as soon as Farhan announced that SRK would play Don's character in his version, the critics had started writing SRK's and the film's obituary. And again, when we compare SRK's Don with Amitabh's, sub-consciously we’re comparing him to Amitabh’s entire body of work and not just his Don. This is quite natural given the demi-god status that Amitabh has achieved. But one expects film critics to be a little more discerning. To be fair to Shahrukh, he's done a fairly competent job. This whole thing makes me wonder how the critics would react when the tables turn and Amitabh plays Gabbar (immortalized by Amjad Khan) in RGV's interpretation of Sholay. My guess is that even if Amitabh comes up with an ordinary performance (which is quite unlikely), the critics would still say that he’s bettered Amjad Khan….we’ll have to wait for that.

Belief 3 - Triumph of Good over Evil is the only legitimate theme in Hindi Cinema: I'm quite surprised that many detractors of the new Don have put forward this idea. They feel that the original Don worked because it had the traditional theme of good over evil. The Good – Inspector D'Silva, Vijay, Jasjit, Roma – finally triumph over the Evil – Don and his gang. The twist that Farhan gives to his story, turns it all on its head and we finally see the game of one-upmanship being played between two Evils. If the original was a moral tale, the new version is amoral! Is this logic justified? Haven’t the times changed since 1978? Just because the new version is not a lesson in moral science, does it automatically become a bad film? I certainly don’t think so.

Belief 4 – While remaking a film one should not make any changes to the original: This is the belief of the purists. While they do have a point, I think that if someone attempts a remake it should not appear as a facsimile copy of the original. I salute Farhan Akhtar for introducing significant twists in the plot in order to make his version dramatically different in terms of its denouement, yet keeping the feeling of nostalgia alive in the minds of the audiences.

Final word for film critics and journalists - If you hate the new version of Don for a legitimate reason, there's nothing wrong with it. But if any of the beliefs that I mentioned above are playing in your mind and clouding your judgment, I have only one request – Think again, and this time be a little objective!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Don - Well (Re)made!

Now this is how a remake should be 'made'! Take the theme and spirit of the original, and rework it to present something 'different', something that adds that extra zing to the original. When I had watched the remake of Omen, despite being a good watch, I had a problem with it because it was too faithful to the original, almost like a replica. My point was - why remake a film when you have nothing new to add by way of treatment and interpretation.

Farhan Akhtar's Don is a perfect example of how a hugely popular and successful film can be remade without compelling the audiences to make comparisons with the original. Yes, the risk of comparison in this case runs huge especially because the original happens to star the greatest superstar of Indian cinema. But the way Farhan Akhtar has interpreted the original I didn't feel the need to make any comparison. Having watched the original just 2 weeks back, it was natural I had the original at the back of my mind all along, but not once during the two and a half hours did I consciously look for 'differences' and 'shortcomings' in the remake. All this is to Farhan's credit.

If Chandra Barot's Don was a suave, no nonsense, smooth talking smuggler; Farhan's Don has a certain amount of madness, a certain obsessive fringe to him. Whether this added dimension was due to the fact that Farhan had chosen Shahrukh Khan to play the part or he chose Sharukh because of this interpretation of the character, I'm not sure. But what's true is that no other actor could've done justice in portraying the character as visualized by Farhan. When it comes to going over the top, no one can beat Shahrukh Khan. Farhan Akhtar successfully manages to contain Shahrukh's penchant for excessive hamming, and helps Shahrukh in providing just the right amount of flamboyance and over-the-top quality to the character. Comparisons with Amitabh? Well, that would be unfair. Suffice it to saying that Shahrukh doesn't make you want to miss Amitabh, except when he plays Don's look-alike - Vijay.

Farhan Akhtar's take on Don is glitzy, hip, trendy and hugely entertaining. While he has remained largely faithful to the original script, he has taken certain liberties - kahani mein twist, which would unnerve the purists, but which, in my opinion, only add positively to the overall impact of the film. In keeping with the genre of the film, the technical aspects are all first rate. The cinematography, the editing, the background score - everything is in tune with the theme. The music of the film has a retro charm, borrowing liberally from the original yet adding a unique stamp on it. The only downer I found in the film was its erratic pacing. Even though I went to watch the movie with a clear intention of avoiding any comparison with the original, at times I did feel that the original moved at a tighter and faster pace than Farhan's version. And that probably means that Farhan needs to take a crash course in screen writing from his illustrious father and his estranged friend Salim (this comment is strictly based on what I saw in the credits - 'Adapted from the original screenplay by Salim-Javed' and 'Written and Directed by Farhan Akhtar')

With Don, Farhan Akhtar proves yet again his versatility as a director. He shows that a good director doesn't always have to stick to similar style and themes. Something a certain Mr. Johar could learn from.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shattered Mind

It's been 10 days since I saw Woh Lamhe, but the film continues to haunt me still. More than the film, it's Kanagana Ranaut's schizophrenic character the refuses to leave me. While this is surely a tribute to her acting talent, the real reason is that her honest and real portrayal of the character brought alive long forgotten memories. I've met a few people who felt that her character in the film was weird and quite unbelievable, but having come in close contact with a person affected by schizophrenia I know very well how 'weird' a schizophrenic can appear to others.

When I was in college, there was a guy in my immediate circle of friends who was schizophrenic. We all used to have great fun at his expense and lost no opportunity to pull his legs and tease him. On his part, he was quite sporting and never took offence. He seemed perfectly normal, but somewhere in the second year we could feel that his behaviour and reactions were gradually inching beyond the limits of normality. Soon he started behaving 'weirdly' with his insinuations that we - all his closest friends - were conspiring against him. We thought it was just his over-reaction to our leg-pulling and didn't give much heed. But after a while, we observed that he started pulling himself away from our group. He started believing that his room in the hostel was haunted and he was shit scared to sleep there at night, so much so that he would beg people to let him sleep in their rooms at night. There was more to come. He started telling everyone that someone was throwing a dead cat in his room at night. One morning we found him shouting at the sweeper because he had started believing that it was the sweeper who took the dead cat away from his room every morning, so that people think he's going mad. Now we knew for sure that things were indeed serious, so we took him back to his parents. I must add that all this while, he was perfectly normal most of the time except when his hallucinations suddenly took centrestage. Finally, he had to drop out from the college and we never heard of him again.

It's been 18 years since that time. I had completely forgotten about this, till I saw Woh Lamhe and was immediately transported back in time.

Schizophrenia is a complex psychiatric condition that hasn't been completely understood. While it is largely known to be genetic, there is no way one can predict the exact cause that triggers that condition - it could be a curious mix of genetic, environment and neurobilogical causes. What's worse, it cannot be cured. I has to be managed.

The word Schizophrenia is derived from Greek, literally meaning 'Split Mind', or better still - 'Shattered Mind". Not only does it 'split' the sufferer's mind in that the affected person starts living in alternate reality where he/she has hallucinations and delusions and is convinced about things/events that do not exist, it also completely 'shatters' the lives of the victim and those close to him/her.

Just imagine what it would feel like to see things that everyone around you says do no exist! Instead of empathy, the obvious reaction of people - as I must confess it was mine too - is to laugh it off and calling the person 'mad'. Actually, patients of schizophrenia have to be treated with a great deal of empathy and compassion. One has to maintain a balance between caring and being overly sympathetic, which can have an adverse impact as well. In that respect I think Shiney Ahuja did a brilliant job in the movie in achieving that fine balance.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Small is Beautiful

This has been an unusual year for the Hindi film industry. On the one hand we have BIG films – big banner, big names, big moolah: films like Fanaa, Krrish and KANK, which have been enormous commercial successes thanks almost entirely to their marketing muscle. These films were watchable – even enjoyable at times, but they cannot be counted by any stretch of imagination as the year's best when it comes to artistic or aesthetic expression.

On the flip side, there were many small films which were 'different', sometimes innovative, and quite superior in terms of content. They proved that big-bucks and technical finesse are not necessary ingredients for the recipe of a satisfying movie going experience for the audiences. They prove yet again that small can indeed be beautiful, so long as the emphasis is on good and strong content.

I saw three such 'small' films last week – Dor, Khosla Ka Ghosla, and Woh Lamhe. They were all very different from each other, but all three were well-written, well-executed and immensely appealing. Their appeal, however, was for different reasons, but they had one thing in common – a good script supported by neatly fleshed out characters.

The first thing that strikes you about Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor is the simplicity – be it in the form of its narrative structure or its well-etched characters. Actually it is quite a complex tale told in a remarkably simple and endearing manner. At the obvious level it is the story of two women from diverse backgrounds brought together by a queer stroke of fate. But through them the multi-layered texture of the tale unfolds itself. What makes the film truly remarkable is the honesty in Nagesh Kukunoor's direction and the performances of the lead actors. Ayesha Takia, as a young Rajasthani widow, is quite a revelation. Only, her refined and convent-educated dialogue delivery plays spoilsport with an otherwise polished performance. Gul Panag and Shreyas Talpade also do justice to their characters.

Next I come to Khosla Ka Ghosla, where realism meets farcical comedy in the style reminiscent of Hrishikesh Mukherji. It can be called the truly middle-class film of the post-Hrishikesh Mukherji era. It tackles a very real problem in a light-hearted way – somewhat akin to Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. The middle-class setting of a Punjabi family from Delhi's Karol Bagh is outstandingly realistic. The setting and the characters are so real that it doesn't seem like watching a film. The plot does progress on very filmi lines, but the milieu remains true to life all along. Another reason why it reminds one of the films of Hrishikesh Mukherji films is that all actors fit their characters to a 'T' and do a good job, but none of the performances tower above the film itself. That, in a way, is the strength of the film. Interestingly, the premise of Khosla Ka Ghosla, with its emphasis on tit for tat, is the very anti-thesis of the recent blockbuster Lage Raho Munnabhai that propagated Gandhian values.

Mohit Suri's Woh Lamhe is the biggest among the 'small' films I saw last week. It has a bigger budget, bigger canvas and bigger aspirations. But it still remains a small film – the entire budget of the film would not be more than remunerations of the lead actors of, say, a Fanaa or a KANK. Woh Lamhe is a sensitive and, at times, disturbing insight into the schizophrenic world of a film star. Based on 'moments' taken from the relationship between Mahesh Bhatt and Parveen Babi, the film is largely fictitious with actual incidents presented with a slightly different background. The maturity demonstrated by the director (25 year old Mohit Suri) in depicting the complex world of a schizophrenic person is worthy of applause. No doubt he has the support of strong, real characters and able performances, but it is very easy for a director to go over the top with material like this. Yet, he exercises restraint and lends a very strong emotional quotient to the film. Shiney Ahuja and Kangana Ranaut are first rate. For Kangana, this almost seems like an extension of her role in Gangster at first glance, but her character here is more complex and difficult. It is to her credit that she makes her character entirely believable and evokes sympathy with her plight from the audience. Woh Lamhe was also quite disturbing for me personally because it took me back many years when I had seen schizophrenia from close quarters…(read this)

Just last week, I was telling someone that we're almost nearing the end of this year, but I can't count beyond 4 or 5 while putting a list of 10 'good' Hindi films in 2006. After this week, my count has gone up by 3

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Lage Raho Munna Bhai - Carry on Bro!

Gandhivaad has a new incarnation - it's called Gandhigiri. The revered and deified Mahatma has metamorphosed into an approachable, identifiable and friendly chum. He still sticks to his values and beliefs, but rather than throwing them at us from the high pedestal of a preacher, he puts an arm around our shoulders, and with a friendly wink convinces us that he is as relevant today as he was in the pre-independence era. The archaic, seemingly anachronistic and irrelevant concept of Gandhian values is suddenly hot and happening.

Tension nahin lene ka....Bapu hai na

Rajkumar Hirani gives Bapu a new avatar and demonstrates that you don't necessarily need to recycle the gags that worked so well in the original to come up with an enjoyable sequel. The second episode of Munnabhai (I prefer to call it an 'episode' rather than a 'sequel'), is strikingly original, extremely funny; and at the same time, carries an important message without being preachy at all. Gandhivaad has been re-packaged as Gandhigiri to make it relevant for today's generation, and it's not surprising that it has caught the imagination of the youth today. Cynics might argue that the film is 'unreal' and the solution to problems by applying Gandhian values too simplistic and improbable. Yet, you can't deny the fact that the film has achieved what it set out to do - entertain people with dollops of fun, yet convey a strong message. Our lovable goons - Munna and Circuit - have done more service to propagating Gandhian values than what even decades of deification could not do.

When Rajkumar Hirani made Munnabhai MBBS, he was still struggling to emerge from the shadows of his high-profile mentor, Vidhu Vinod Chopra. But with Lage Raho, he has clearly come up on his own. There's no doubt that he is the most promising filmmaker of the commercial format today. His originality is his strength. If Hollywood bought the rights of his first film and commissioned Mira Nair to remake it as Gangsta MD, I'm sure Lage Raho too deserves to be remade. Only, I can't think of which historical person would take Gandhi's place in the Hollywood version. Martin Luther King? Probably.

Raju Hirani has started working on the script of the third 'episode', where Munna is likely to go to the US and probably come face to face with George Bush (?). That should be an interesting film to watch as well, but it’s still early days. As Raju Hirani mentioned in an interview, it will be 2-3 years before we get to see Munna's next escapade. I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.

Lage Raho Rajubhai...Carry on Bro!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Art and History

When I had visited Agra two months back, I had lamented the fact that we Indians have no respect for our national heritage and have no qualms about desecrating historical monuments. After visiting Italy this week, I'm wondering if I can generalize this to the whole world. That may be a bit too much, but I witnessed exactly the same thing in Italy as I did at Agra. Whether they were the 2000 year old ruins at Rome, or the precariously tilting walls of the Leaning Tower of Pisa - all bore witness to the regrettable proclamation of love by irresponsible lovers.

Anyway, I had a great time at Italy. I have always been fascinated by history, and what better place to witness history than Rome. I can't think of any other city with such a rich treasure of history - from ancient to medieval to modern. Every street corner, every piazza is so steeped in history that you really need a lifetime to see everything that Rome has to offer. Given the fact that I had less then 3 days to explore the Eternal City, I'm sure there was a lot more I didn't see. However, I still managed to see the usual touristy stuff - Piazza del Popolo, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Fontana di Trevi, Colosseum, Vatican city....

If I were to pick up a few of my favourite places in Rome, they would certainly be Fontana di Trevi and St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican. It was quite an experience to behold Michelangelo's Pieta at the church. The figure of Mary cradling the dead body of Christ is so real and lifelike, that it is sure to evoke the emotion of compassion even in a non-Christian.

It was a coincidence and my good luck that I was in Rome during one of the biggest events in Rome - Notte Bianca (White Night). On September 9th, the city refused to sleep. Shops were open all through the night, there were concerts at the major piazzas, and almost the entire population of Rome was on the streets. Nobody seemed to have any idea what they were doing on the streets....On Via Corsa (the main street in Rome) all you could see was a huge ocean of people just walking aimlessly from one end to the other. You had to be there to experience it.

I know for sure that I will visit Rome again (and that has nothing to do with the fact that I threw a coin at the Fontana di Trevi). And then I will hopefully get to see the one place I regret missing this time - The Sistine Chapel.

My next stop after Rome was Florence. Florence is very different from Rome. If Rome is all about history, Florence is nothing short of a huge art gallery. There are very few cities that can match Florence in terms of its art collection. Michelangelo's awe inspiring statue of David and Doni Madonna, Botticelli's colourful and allegorical Birth of Venus, Calumny and Primavera, Leonardo's incomplete The Adoration of Magi and visually deceptive Annunciation, Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch, Titian's erotic Venus of Urbino (which incidentally was dubbed by Mark Twain as 'the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses')....the list is endless. I'm not much of an Arts person, but this visit to Florence has fuelled my interest in Art

Speaking of David, it's called the most perfect representation of human form on stone. And rightly so. You have to see to believe it. Every muscle, every nerve, every body part is so painstakingly and realistically sculpted on marble that you can't help but marvel at Michelangelo's brilliance. Actually, as I later found out, David is not really perfect in that it is not proportionate. The top half of the body is disproportionately larger than the bottom half. But there's a reason to it. It was sculpted with the intention of being placed on a high pedestal, so in order for it to appear perfectly proportionate to a person viewing it from the ground level, the top half of the statue had to be larger. Similar visual deception was also used by Da Vinci in his Annunciation. When seen from the front, it appears truly disproportionate. But then this painting is meant to be seen from the right at an angle because of the position it was to occupy on the wall when it was painted.

Apart from art, Florence seems to be a shopper's paradise. You can get everything from from inexpensive trinkets on the streets to unaffordable designer wear in swanky designer outlets. We visited the shops of all the major designers....I can't forgive Armani for burning a huge hole in my pocket :)

From Florence, we took an excursion to Pisa. To climb up the Leaning Tower and get a panoramic view of the city was an exhilarating experience, and to climb down the slippery and tilting marble steps was scary!

This trip to Italy is certainly one of my most memorable trips. How I wish I had more time!!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Which Tune Shall We Sing?

The Vande Mataram controversy is nothing new. Ever since the song was first penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1876 and it later appeared in his novel, Anand Math, the song has found itself mired in unnecessary controversy. And now the UPA government has given this controversy a fresh lease of life, only to be lapped up eagerly by the BJP and the so-called Hindu Nationalists (read fundamentalists) to give it a twist that suits their communal agenda.

The genesis of resistance always lies in force. If you force someone to do something, resistance is the natural outcome. That's what's happening now. One section wants to make singing of the song compulsory, another opposes it as being anti-Islamic. While the saffron-hued fundamentalists are quick to label those who don't want to sing the song as traitors, the green wing calls it against their religion not only because the song supports idolatry but also because the novel it appears in talks about Hindus using the song as a sort of war-cry against oppressive Muslims. Both these opposing views are completely misplaced.

Let's look at the saffron version first. How justified is it for them to call those who don't want to sing Vande Mataram as traitors? Is patriotism all about singing a song? Does patriotism mean imposing one's views on others? Remember, Vande Mataram is the national song of India but nowhere does the Constitution make its singing compulsory for all Indians. How many Indians know the meaning of the song anyway? Ours is a secular country; and in a secular country if a people of one religion think - rightly or wrongly - that something is against their religion, you need to understand their apprehensions and address them instead of questioning their patriotism. If you really read the entire song, it resonates with Hindu symbolism and you can't expect a practicing Muslim to subscribe to that. That's the reason why only the first two stanzas were chosen as the national song. Even in these stanzas, the word 'Vande' is open to interpretation. It can mean 'worship', which is un-Islamic. Sri Aurobindo's English translation, which is the most widely popular translation of the song, further complicates the matter as it translates it as 'bowing' or 'sajda', which again is anti-Islam. However, 'vande' can also translate as 'salute' or 'salaam' (as in A R Rahman's Maa Tujhe Salaam) or 'tasleem' (as translated in Urdu by Arif Mohammed Khan). In that case there is nothing that goes against the basic tenets of Islam. So if we want the Muslims of this country to accept Vande Mataram, we need to help them interpret the words appropriately, rather than getting into unnecessary offensive against them. Again, the basic question remains - why can't singing this song remain a matter of personal choice?

On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalists and religious leaders also need to look at this issue with an open mind. Only the first two stanzas of the song are classified as the national song. These lines don't promote idolatry (as the subsequent stanzas do), and, if interpreted appropriately, they also don't talk about 'worship' and 'sajda' which Muslims find offensive. As for the other objection about Anand Math being anti-Muslim, it's akin to viewing the context of the song in an extremely narrow and partisan fashion. True that the novel has strong Hindu under-currents, but in the end it is about opposing repression. Now what's un-Islamic about that? Also, the novel was written much after the first few lines were composed by Bankim Chandra. To equate it to the seemingly anti-Muslim stance of the novel is grossly incorrect.

This brings me to a larger issue of the perils of stubbornly attaching something to a particular context. The right-wing people have been fuelling this Jana-Gana-Mana vs. Vande Mataram controversy for a long time now. As you would have seen in the spam that was doing the round a few years back, they think that Jana-Gana-Mana is not the right choice for our National Anthem because it was written by Rabindra Nath Tagore as a welcome song in "praise of George V', and hence amounts to subjugation to foreign rule. How real is this view? The fact that Tagore was commissioned to write a song for George V is true, but it is also true that Tagore balked at this idea and wrote a song that was cleverly ambiguous and hence open to interpretation. In his mind, he addressed it to 'God', while others construed it as a hymn in praise of the King. If the right-wingers feel that they're justified in their stance about Jana-Gana-Mana, then how are the Muslims wrong in saying that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic, with its Hindu symbolism and a place in a book that talks about Hindus fighting the Muslims? Interestingly, Anandamath ends with a character actually welcoming the arrival of the British as saviours to oppressed Hindus. That's not very nationalistic, is it? The key here is to look at these two poems out of their original context and go strictly by what the words mean. While one is an invocation to God, the other is to the Motherland. Going strictly by that interpretation, I would personally like to believe that Vande Mataram is more suited to be the National Anthem. But Jana-Gana-Mana has been chosen as our National Anthem and there's no point in creating a big issue out of it. Those who do it, do it for the wrong reason, mostly with a sole purpose of giving it a communal twist and propagate their brand of medieval Hindu Nationalism.

If we're so fascinated by controversy and want to indulge in inconsequential and irrelevant debate about changing our National Anthem, I would like to start a new one. I would say that Sir Allama Mohammad Iqbal's Tarana-e-Hind aka Sare Jahan Se Achchha is more suited to be our National Anthem, because it is written in an easy to understand language. More people would know the meaning of this song as compared to Jana-Gana-Mana or Vande Mataram . So what if it's written in Urdu by a Muslim who was among the earliest proponents of an independent Muslim State, and has been granted the status of the National Poet of Pakistan?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Balanced View

Fact #1: A man kills his wife

Fact #2: He kills her after they go to watch a film together

Fact #3: The film they watch is Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna

Fact #3: A similar case happens in another part of the country

Conclusion: Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna is pushing people to commit heinous crimes.

You must be thinking I'm crazy. Not at all! I'm only trying to tell you what a few so-called news channels would have us believe a few days back.

Now consider some other facts:

Fact: In the first case, the couple had been living separately. The husband called his wife under the pretext of a reconciliation with an offer to watch Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. They didn't even get to the theatre - the husband killed the wife before that

Fact: In the second case, the murder was pre-meditated, with every move carefully planned. The choice of movie was only incidental.

Why did these channels jump to conclusions without even bothering to get the facts right? Because it ensured that they got the eyeballs they wanted. Despite all the mixed reviews KANK is getting, it is without doubt the most talked about film in recent memory. What better way to get eyeballs than to create a 'controversial' story about the film.

I'm completely disappointed with the quality of programming of the 24 hour news channels. Not that I like the other channels. But if those channels show saas-bahu sagas ad nauseum and show little innovation in their programming, they also never pretend to do anything else. But here we're talking of news channels. They're meant to inform, to educate, to shape opinions. Is this the way they're supposed to achieve that? Forget information, it's gross misinformation and de-education they're propagating.

Take the example of a 'story' i caught last night about the 'miracles' happening these days - from sea water turning sweet to idols drinking milk all over again. Maybe I'm too stupid to have understood the story, but as I saw it, the channel was only trying the highlight the miracles, with little or no effort to present the scientific explanations behind that. OK, let me correct myself here. The commentator did mention about these scientific explanations in the passing, but the words and the tone he used were clearly dismissive, almost amounting to saying that these scientists have no business countering the people's 'faith'.

I'm myself superstitious about certain things, and have nothing against superstitions and matters of faith. But news channels have no business propagating superstitions, they better leave them to the Aastha and Sanskar channels. I expect news channels to provide a balanced view of events, even if the event is as unbelievable as these 'miracles' or, as I'm reminded now, an instance of rebirth. A few months back one news channel carried a major report of a an incident of a rebirth of a child. While interviewing the mothers of the children, the channel used captions the said "XYZ's new mother" or "XYZ's old mother". What do you say about that?

An excuse that I hear often these days is that in the days of 24x7 programming, how can news channels get real news to report? Crap! Aren't BBC and CNN 24 hour channels? Or, how does the fact that 24 hour news channels have little else to report preclude them from reporting actual facts and giving a balanced view?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna

Let me start with a confession – I love the Karan Johar brand of film making and derive great pleasure from his penchant for excesses and emotional manipulation. Enormous scale, an all-star cast, larger than life characters, excessive melodrama, saccharine sentimentality, sumptuous designer clothes, visually arresting foreign locales, lavish song and dance routines – everything about his films is as divorced from reality (at least the reality I see around me) as, say, a Satyajit Ray film is from the world of make-believe. Yet I love it, because it is done tastefully; and that differentiates his films from the routine masala Hindi movies you get to see every Friday.

So obviously, I was very keen to watch his latest flick – Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. The tremendous pre-release media hype ensured that I saw it on the very first day of its release. I have never been more confused about any other film. It had all the ingredients I expect (and enjoy) in a Karan Johar film. Also, the theme was touted to be 'bold', especially in the context of Indian cinema. As far as the execution of the film is concerned, I have no complaint – it is entertaining, true to Karan Johar's style. But the script has some basic flaws. I have thought a lot about it; and even though I still can't put my finger on what exactly was wrong with the script, I don't find it convincing enough.

It's all about loving someone else’s spouse (remember the tagline of K3G!). Why? Because in the first place you got married for the wrong reason, and found your soul mate only after your marriage was on the rocks. Well, infidelity and extra-marital affairs are common and people indulging in them have their own reasons – right or wrong. I don't have a problem with that. But somehow the single-line theme Karan Johar had in his mind – what do you do when you meet the love of your life and you're married to someone else - gets completely lost in the overly contrived screenplay that loses focus every now and then. After pondering over the movie for a while now, I still can't comprehend how Dev and Maya found a soul mate in each other. True, their similar circumstances drew them together and they could probably identify with each other, but the realization of 'love' and a 'soulmate' connection just doesn't come across convincingly on screen. What void do they fill in each other’s life that their spouses cannot? I am sure there was something, but it eludes me completely. The script writers needed to cut down the excessive flab from the film and focus on that aspect.

Dev is supposedly a very complex character. He is a failure in life, his wife is more successful, and his son refuses to help him fulfill his dreams vicariously. So far so good, but why does he have to turn into such an obnoxious character? Shahrukh Khan with his characteristic hamming goes way too over the top to strip Dev of any sympathy you might have for him, which makes you wonder how anyone - and I mean anyone - can fall in love with him! Least of all Maya who is so dreamy eyed about love that even her loving and expressive husband fails to stir her. Is it because Love is Blind, Mr. Johar?

Talking of Maya, she is the most confused character in the film. What does she want? She has pre-nuptial jitters, which is understandable because she feels her marriage is like a compromise, an obligation. But it is just not clear why she is unhappy even after four years of marriage. What is it that she wants to 'discuss' every time? Karan Johar keeps her husband, as well as the audience, in the dark all through. Maybe, her character was meant to be confused and ambiguous!! On her part, Rani tries her best to do justice to her character the way it's written.

Again, I am not trying to pass a value judgment on the rights and wrongs of extra-marital affairs. It is very much possible that people can find 'love' outside marriage, even though they might be married to 'nice' people. My only point is that Karan's script needed to focus more on the Dev-Maya relationship and their motivations than anything else.

To be honest I was a little apprehensive about the script when I saw the credits – Shibani Bhatija as the screenplay co-writer. Karan might have tried hard to restrain her predilection for clichés and corny sequences, which we found her using so blatantly in Fanaa, but a few sequences still made one wince. Especially the 'Dev mujhe lauta do' bit. Also, the ending had a strong sense of déjà vu, and it was also completely unnecessary. The film could've ended when Dev and Maya separate from their respective spouses. This is one place Karan might have done well to restrain his liking for high-voltage melodrama. To be fair to KJ and Shibani, it was a good thing that they didn't paint Preity's or Abhishek's characters in a negative shade to 'justify' their spouses' infidelity. Preity's character had all the trappings of turning into a vampish ambitious-woman-bad-wife cliché, but the writers tried their best to avoid that. And Abhishek's character is the most credible.

Now let me tell you why I still found the film entertaining despite its flaws. First of all, the Bachchans. The father-son duo is simply adorable in the film. Abhishek's is easily the best-written role among all the actors, and he demonstrates remarkable honesty and conviction in his portrayal. Amitabh's over-the-top flamboyance is likeable too. I can't think of any other actor who could carry off this role without making it appear vulgar and cheap. And his final expression in the dinner sequence shows yet again what a great actor he is!

Karan, the director, should also get credit for handling a few sequences with panache. His handling of the tiffs between the couples is uncharacteristically mature and deserves applause. Also, the scene where Dev and Maya check into a hotel to make love captures the true spirit of the scene – a curious mix of guilt and intensity. My favorite, however, is the scene where Dev is taking flowers for Maya, and his wife comes there. This scene is done in true KJ style – exaggerated and overplayed.

The music is just the right blend of melody and rhythm. The opening piano piece of the title song is extremely evocative, so is the Mitwa song. My only problem with the music of the film is that it suffers from a strong Kal Ho Na Ho hangover. Still, Shankar Ehsaan and Loy come up with an above average score.

So after reading all this, what do you think? Is this a good film? I'm still thinking...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

चाँद गुलज़ार का

चाँद और कवियों का बड़ा ही पुराना रिश्ता है। शायद ही कोई ऐसा कवि या शायर होगा जो चाँद से प्रेरित न हुआ हो। पूर्णिमा का सम्पूर्ण गोलाकार चन्द्र होता ही इतना मोहक है कि भला कौन उससे प्रेरित हुए बिना रह सकता है? यदि हम समय के उस दूसरे छोर पर जायें जहाँ संसार की पहली कविता का सृजन हुआ हो, और फिर वहाँ से कविता के इतिहास का पल्ला पकड़ कर आज तक का सफ़र तय करें, तो निश्चय ही हम पायेंगे कि पीढ़ी दर पीढ़ी कवियों ने चाँद को सुन्दरता का प्रतीक माना है। फलस्वरूप कविता में ‘चाँद’ के उपयोग का दायरा कुछ महदूद सा रह गया है। महबूबा के हुस्न की तुलना से आगे जैसे चाँद का कुछ वजूद ही नहीं।

एक कवि जिन्होंने अपनी कविताओं में चाँद को एक बहुआयामी व्यक्तित्व और अनगिनत संभावनाओं के साथ प्रस्तुत किया है, वो हैं गुलज़ार। गुलज़ार का चाँद एक बहरूपिया है। कभी वो रोटी बन जाता है, तो कभी भीख का कटोरा; कभी भीख में दी गयी कौडी, तो कभी एक फल जो पक कर पेड से टपक जाए। कभी वो कुहनियों के बल चल कर शरारत पे आमादा हो जाता है, तो कभी पुखराजी पीला रंग ले कर सुस्त पड़ जाता है। एक तरफ़ वो अब्र की मैली सी गठरी में छिपा चमकता खन्जर है, तो दूसरी ओर एक चमकती हुई अठन्नी। कभी एक चिकनी डली जो घुली जाती है, तो कभी दामन-ए-शब पर लगा हुआ एक पैबन्द।

मिसाल के लिये:
माँ ने इक चाँद सी दुल्हन की दुआएँ दी थीं
आज कि रात जो फ़ुटपाथ से देखा मैंने
रात भर रोटी नज़र आया है वो चाँद मुझे

रोज़ अकेली आये, रोज़ अकेली जाये
चाँद कटोरा लिये भिखारिन रात

हाथ में लेकर बैठा था मैं दिल का ख़ाली कासा
रात भिखारिन चाँद की कौड़ी दे कर चली गयी
और भिखारी कर गयी मुझको, देखा, एक भिखारिन

रात के पेड़ पे कल ही देखा था
चाँद बस पक के गिरने वाला था
सूरज आया था, ज़रा उसकी तलाशी लेना!

आओ तुमको उठा लूँ कंधों पर
तुम उचक कर शरीर होटों से
चूम लेना ये चाँद क माथा
आज की रात देखा न तुमने
कैसे झुक-झुक के कुहनियों के बल
चाँद इतना क़रीब आया है।

गुलज़ार का चाँद जैसे नये नये रूप धरने से थकता ही नहीं। हर बार एक नया चोगा पहने हमारे सामने आ खड़ा होता है। अब दाद बहरूपिये को दें या उसके ‘दर्ज़ी’ को?

इस बहरूपिये से ख़ुद गुलज़ार भी परेशान हैं और उसकी गिरफ़्तरी के लिये समन (summons) भेजना चाहते हैं –

रोज़ आता है ये बहरूपिया इक रूप बदल कर,
रात के वक़्त दिखाता है कलायें अपनी
और लुभा लेता है मासूम से लोगों को अदा से!
पूरा हरजाई है, गलियों से गुज़रता है, कभी छत से
बजाता हुआ सीटी –
रोज़ आता है, जगाता है, बहुत लोगों को शब भर!
आज की रात उफ़क़ से कोई
चाँद निकले तो गिरफ़्तार ही कर लो!!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Omkara - Shakespeare will approve

Shakespeare's Othello is an outsider - culturally and racially, that is - and that adds the flaw of 'insecurity' to his already complex character. Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara too suffers the agony of being reminded of his blood being 'impure'. And, like Shakespeare, Vishal merely alludes to this fact rather than bringing it centrestage and making it a significant plot device.

Othello's fate is driven not by his obsessive love for Desdemona, but by his own insecurities and the eternal conflict between the toughness demanded by his vocation, and the softness expected in love. He is exploited by Iago because of weakness in his character: despite his tragedy, that elicits sympathy from the audience. In Roger Eberts's words "(Othello is) a hero brought down by his own flaws." Omkara's predicament is the same.
It's not Iago, but Barbantio (Desdemona's father) who sort of warns Othello of Desdemona's potential infidelity; and possibly strengthens the insecurities in Othello's mind, though it isn't until Iago starts playing his game that the seed of mistrust sown into Othello's mind by his wife's father starts blooming. Vakil Saheb does the same to Omkara.

Barbantio to Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
(Act 1, Scene III)
Vakil sahab to Omkara:
जो लड़की अपने बाप को ठगे, वो किसी और की क्या सगी होगी?
Vishal's Omkara ranks among the best adaptations of Shakespeare's work in India. With this he proves that "Maqbool" was no flash in the pan. And mind you, if he calls his films 'adaptations', they're precisely that. With both his films based on Shakespeare's tragedies, he has painstakingly - and successfully - captured the plot and essence of the Bard's work and put it into a context that's Indian to the core: he has adapted the plays, not simply translated them to the medium of film. Adaptations invariably calls for realigning the original plots in the new cultural milieu; and Vishal seems fairly adept at that. It is easy to give all the credit to Shakepeare for the universality of his theme, but you have to the see other 'adaptations' or 'inspirations' of his work to realize that writers and directors can go horribly wrong even with such universal themes. Vishal deserves the credit for getting it! And, getting it right for the second time.

Vishal is the real hero of the film - he's the director, screenplay co-writer, dialogue writer, music composer, and even singer. And he excels in every single of these departments. He is in complete command here, never letting the performances or any other aspect overshadow the film. If Saif as Langda Tyagi and Konkana as Indu do a fabulous job, it's as much a tribute to Vishal's pen than their own performances.

While adapting Othello, Vishal has taken a few liberties, but given the final result, there's no reason to complain. Shakepeare's Iago is a heinous villain, who is ambivalent about his true motivations. Vishal, on the other hand, paints his Langda Tyagi with a slight sympathetic tinge, without compromising one bit on his vile and evil core. Saif does a marvelous job at portraying this, especially in the scene where Omkara anoints Keshu as his successor. In trying to make Langda Tyagi a shade more human, Vishal has avoided one aspect of Shakepeare's Iago. Iago wants to destroy Othello, not only because he's not made his lieutenant, but he also suspects Othello of an affair with his wife, Emilia. This makes Iago a person sure of his ultimate aim, but unsure of his motivation...and that, in a way, makes him more black than grey. He kills his own wife when she comes in his way. Langda Tyagi wants revenge only because he's been treated unfairly (and he doesn't kill Indu)...Vishal makes you empathize with him. This is probably the only place where Vishal has deviated from the original. Otherwise, he's remained completely true to the spirit of Othello, despite shuffling and altering a few events here and there.

Truth be told, Ajay Devgan and Kareena, who have pivotal characters in the film, fail Vishal. They aren't bad, but somehow their portrayal of their characters needed more sincerety. Ajay Devgan's character graph is fairly flat, although there are flashes of brilliance in a few fleeting moments, but you can't help but get a feeling of deja vu. He's done all this before; there is no innovation. Kareena is normally BAD, but here she is bearable. It's to Vishal's credit that he understood her limitations and didn't make her do anything she couldn't, even if that meant making the character a little sketchy. However, one character that sticks out like a sore thumb is Billo Chamanbahar, played by Bipasha Basu. Forget her acting skills, she looks just too refined for the role she's playing. Her character demands gaudy make-up, garish clothes and a coarse tongue. But what we get is perfect make-up, designer clothes (despite an unsuccessful attempt at making them look garish) and someone you can expect to start talking in English anytime.

A word of acknowledgement for newcomer Deepak Dobriyal - his portrayal of the bumbling Rajju, is so real that it hardly seems like an act. Quite an achievement for a newcomer who could easily have got lost amidst the galaxy of stars.

Technically, the film is top-notch. Tassaduq Hussain's brilliantly non-intrusive cinematography captures the mood of the film with some breathtaking visuals. Some of the shot compositions are truly remarkable. So is the editing and the background score that heightens the tension.

I must talk about the film's soundtrack. Vishal is essentially a musician who became a filmmaker by default. He impressed me a great deal with his divine score in Maachis. He is one of those music composers who would never compromise with their convictions. He didn't get much success as a music composer, because he refuses to work like other composers. He demands more involvement in the process of film making, so that his music blends with the film rather than stick out. That's just not the way our industry works, is it? That's why, Vishal only composes for himself these days. His scores always go with the theme of the film. His songs do not have an instant appeal, rather they always fit seamlessly within the context of his films. The beauty of his compositions is that they blend so well with the film that they have limited appeal outside the context of the film. That's the irony - a composer needs to compliment the mood of a film, but he's not considered 'good' till he's had a chartbuster to his credit. Omkara can be seen as a compromise by Vishal in that he's produced two 'item' numbers for this film. Yet, the structure of these compositions is very much rooted in authenticity and thematic veracity. The entire soundtrack of Omkara ranks highly amid Vishal's magnificent, though non-prolific, oeuvre.

Talking of songs, how can I avoid mentioning my favourite lyricist and poet - Gulzar. Vishal and Gulzar are a package deal - if Vishal makes a film, Gulzar writes the lyrics and if Gulzar makes a film, Vishal has to compose the music. Gulzar's brilliance lies in his use of simple words, but profound imagery and meaning. I call him a visual poet - his words form an instant image in your mind. Even when he has to write a pedestrian 'item' number, he manages to leave his indelible mark. Listen to the lyrics of "Beedi" and "Namak". They are naughty and saucy as intended, yet uniquely Gulzar. Can you imagine any one else writing these lines (notice the imperfect spellings and pronunciations)?

न गिलाफ़ न लिहाफ़, ठन्डी हवा भी ख़िलाफ़
जबाँ पर लागा लागा रे नमक इस्क का

My favorites, however, are these line

1) आँखें तेज तत्तैया दोनों, जीभ साँप का फुँकारा ;
बिजुरी सा कौंधे सर पे जिसकी तलवार का झँकारा- ॐकारा

2) नैनों की जुबान पर भरोसा नहीं आता;
लिखत पढत न रसीद न खाता … नैना ठग लेंगे

One of the complaints that I expect from people is that Omkara moves forward at a leisurely pace. I think that's precisely what gives the film its dark and brooding character, which was so essential to this theme. The other would be the strong language. The language used in the film , liberally interspersed with expletives in hard core Hindi, is authentic: that's exactly what you would expect these characters to speak. The film sets the tone and expectation right upfront in the very first dialogue, which made many people in the theatre very uncomfortable, even some sniggers and nervous laughs.

As a final note - I thought that Maqbool was a cool Indian name for Macbeth. Vishal takes that a step forward in Omkara. All the main characters in Omkara share the same starting alphabet or sound as their counterparts in Othello. So Othello becomes Omkara, Desdemona is Dolly, Cassio is Keshu, Emilia is Indu, Bianca is Billo, Roderigo appears as Rajju....but why is Iago Lagda Tyagi?

Well, Langda Tyagi's real name is Ishwar, though he's always called Langda all through the movie....and, don't you think Tyagi has a phonetic affinity with Iago?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Knowledge and Poetry

Appreciation of poetry is a complex process, especially in the context of Urdu poetry. Besides a good understanding of the language, it is important for a reader to understand the cultural backdrop and conventions of Urdu poetry. Many metaphors used in Urdu poetry will make no sense to a person who has no knowledge of the culture, myths, fables, conventions and the context that cause these metaphors to resonate with inherent, at times obvious meaning. That's what makes translating Urdu ghazals in English (and consequently their appreciation by non-native speakers) such an arduous task.

Let's take a very simple example - if you've had any exposure to Urdu poetry, or for that matter even Hindi film songs, you would have heard the word 'jigar' (जिगर) very often, too often in fact. (this word has been abused so badly by many of our Hindi film lyricist, that I consciously refrain from using it in any of my poetry... I have probably used it only in one or two of my couplets)

'Jigar' is normally used in the context of love. Now, what is 'jigar'? It means, liver i.e. lakht-e-jigar (लख़्त-ए-जिगर) or jigar ka tukda (जिगर का टुकड़ा), literally meaning piece of liver and hence someone extremely dear. Liver and love - what's the connection? A person exposed to English poetry, or even Hindi poetry, would always associate the heart with love. Even in Urdu poetry, the heart is associated with love, but so is liver. Why? This is brilliantly explained by Frances W. Pritchett in the following lines:

"In ghazal physiology, the liver is the organ that makes fresh blood; thus it's an emblem of fortitude, steadfastness, endurance over time. The heart, by contrast is always consuming blood: bleeding constantly, pumping blood to the eyes so the lover can weep tears of blood, and then tearing itself into fragments as a sign of its proper lover-like self-destruction. For the heart to be done for is an initial state of passion, since more blood can be sent for from the liver. But when the liver is finished, the game is up."
In other words, the association of love with liver implies greater depth.

This example is very basic. Once you understand the 'ghazal physiology', the association is complete and there's no need for any further exposition. 'Jigar' now finds a place amongst the accepted conventions of Urdu poetry. The next time you hear the word 'jigar' in a poem you don't need any explanation or background information.

Yet, there are many great examples in Urdu poetry where knowledge of history and myth is so essential that you just cannot understand a verse without that knowledge. And in many cases you will probably not come across the same imagery again for it to become a 'convention' of poetry, like the way 'jigar' has become. Let me take the example of the opening verse from Diwan-e-Ghalib (collection of Ghalib's verses). It is a particularly interesting verse because the entire meaning of the verse rests on the knowledge of a quaint custom in Persian history, so much so that many commentators have declared this one to be a 'meaningless verse'. No other verse in Urdu poetry has been the subject of so much debate and analysis as this one. Here it is:

नक़्श फ़रयादी है किस की शोख़ी-ए-तहरीर का
काग़ज़ी है पैरहन हर पैकर-ए-तस्वीर का
(about whose mischievousness of writing is the image/painting a plaintiff?
of paper is the robe of every figure of the picture)......translation by Frances W. Pritchett.

If your really look at this verse, it seems completely meaningless. It's not only the typical Ghalibian complexity and abstruseness that makes this verse seem meaningless. This verse demands a certain basic knowledge. What's this stuff about a plaintiff, a picture and a paper robe!!! Now let's see how Ghalib himself explains this verse. (There are very few verses that Ghalib has explained in his own words. The fact that he chose to do that for this one, makes it obvious that people called this particular verse 'meaningless')
[Writing in 1865:] First listen to the meaning of the meaningless verses. As for नक़श फ़रयादी : In Iran there is the custom that the seeker of justice, putting on paper garments, goes before the ruler-- as in the case of lighting a torch in the day, or carrying a blood-soaked cloth on a bamboo pole [to protest an injustice]. Thus the poet reflects, of whose mischievousness of writing is the image a plaintiff? --since the aspect of a picture is that its garment is of paper. That is to say, although existence may be like that of pictures, merely notional, it is a cause of grief and sorrow and suffering. (Arshi p. 159)

Now that you know about this Persian custom of a plaintiff putting on a paper garment, doesn't this verse suddenly resonate with meaning? Read a delightful collection on commentary on this verse (Frances W. Pritchett).

I am very tempted to quote one of my own verses, where knowledge of ancient Persian myth is very essential to understanding it. How can I even think of quoting Ghalib's most intriguing and, in my opinion, the most brilliant verse in the same breath as one of my own? Before someone gets offended and accuses me of blasphemy, let me clarify that I'm just trying to make a point... anyway, here's my verse:

मेरी तक़्दीर पलटने के भी दिन आएँगे
मेरे सर पर भी हुमा बालफ़िशाँ होता है
(one day my fortune too will turn
on my head the 'Huma' spreads its wings)

I don't blame you if you don't get this. If I tell you that 'Huma' is a mythical bird, does it make you any wiser about this verse? Probably not. Now if I were to tell you that Huma is "the king-maker bird of Persian story tradition: anyone upon whom his shadow falls is destined to wield royal power", isn't the meaning of the verse crystal clear?

To be honest, I don't really like this verse of mine - primarily because once the 'secret' is revealed, the thought is quite run-of-the-mill. Moreover, the verse smacks of self-indulgence! But it does prove my point about the importance of 'knowledge' in understanding poetry.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

At your service, Uncle Sam

"A key Bush administration official on Monday advised India to rely on hard evidence before drawing conclusions in the Mumbai terror attacks, while obliquely criticizing New Delhi for implicating Islamabad in the blasts and calling off talks."

Sure, Uncle Sam. Your 'advice' is our command. You, after all, have the onerous responsibility of being the benignly just guardian of this world. You lead by example, and we, your subjects, must follow. If my memory doesn't fail me, you had incontrovertible evidence before you drew your conclusions about Iraq and pushed almost the entire world into a war. How does it matter that nobody could find any evidence of the WMDs that you said Saddam possessed? Your word was the evidence - so strong an evidence that the war became a necessity.

What evidence do we have? We only 'suspect' a Pakistani hand in the Mumbai blasts. But, Uncle Sam, even though it's just a suspicion, wouldn't it be better if we held off for a while before continuing the so-called 'peace' talks? We haven't gone on an offensive, it's just that the 'confidence building measures' have been deferred. Or do you think we should follow your example, manufacture some 'hard evidence' and launch a full-fledged offensive?

We're too inexperienced when it comes to terrorism, right? What is 20+ years of ceaseless terrorism compared to just one spectacular act on your land not even 5 years ago? So why don't you let your 'experienced' hand guide us?

We're at your service, Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Caché - A Hidden Gem

Those who know me are well aware that I'm a complete movie buff. I simply love the experience of watching a film, no matter how good or bad it is. Of course watching a good film is satisfying, but I 'enjoy' watching bad films as well!

My problem is that when I go to watch a Hindi or an English movie, I always go in with an expectation. By the time I get to see the film, I would already have read or heard enough about it or would have some preset notions about the cast and crew, etc. etc. This leads to a situation where my opinion about the movie is influenced by my expectations. In many cases this might happen completely at a sub-conscious level, but it does happen. Very rarely does one get a chance to watch a film one has never heard of - rather a film that hasn't registered in one's memory more than a casual reference in a list of films having won a major award.

I got this chance when I was flying to London last month. The in-flight entertainment was playing a French film on one of the channels. It was only in the last leg of my flight that I tuned in to that channel. Thank God I did.
The film in question is called Caché (Hidden). Never before have I been so enthralled by a film where the characters live in a milieu I can't relate to and speak a language I don't understand. I was so impressed by what I saw, that I bought the film's DVD at the very first opportunity (two days later from Heathrow).

Caché is an intelligent thriller. True to its title, it hides more than it reveals. At one level it's about a family that's terrorised by a faceless person, who keeps sending them hours of video footage of their home - an indication that they are under surveillance. Expectedly, this creates havoc in the lives of the family. As the film unfolds, you realize that this is much more complex than it sounds.

Caché is intricately layered, with each layer revealing itself just at the appropriate moment and with just the right amount of emphasis. As the minutes pass by you realize that there's a lot that is hidden - the most obvious thing being the 'hidden' camera. Within the first 10 minutes, you get a feeling that all's not well between the couple - what exactly, you don't know: it's 'hidden'. You could dismiss that as an obvious result of the discovery that they're being watched, but it isn't really that....the sub-text remains 'hidden', yet makes its point. Then, the husband's hidden past, and the consequent guilt, is carefully and subtly revealed - the director is in no hurry, and that actually makes us empathize with the characters on the screen.

The film also has strong political undertones - strong in terms of implication, rather than depiction (Paris massacre of 1961). At the most obvious level, it's about a man's guilt about a seemingly innocuous act as a kid. The director, however, uses that as a metaphor for a nation's guilt about ill-treating its immigrants, without explicitly stating it anywhere. Everything here is implied - or in other words, 'hidden'. That's where the brilliance of the film lies - in subtlety.

I was completely blown away by the final scene. OK...let me admit it. When I first saw it on the flight, I did not realize how important this final scene was. I thought that the director wanted to end the film just the way with he had started i.e. with a prolonged, distant video shot. At first look it seems that there's nothing going on in the scene except for a crowd of people just moving haphazardly across the screen. It was after a few days when I watched the film again on DVD that I realized what a masterstroke the final scene was. Careful viewing of this scene opens up completely new possibilities for the resolution of the film. Again, the director leaves it 'hidden', completely open to many different interpretations. (I could explain this scene, but let it be 'hidden'. Watch the film to understand what I mean!)

The story doesn't lead to a resolution (which one surely expects in a thriller), but it is the lack of resolution, and the countless possibilities it consequently opens up, that makes Caché one of my most satisfying movie experiences in recent memory.