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