Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Clever Verse

One of my favorite songs these days is from Sudhir Mishra’s forthcoming Khoya Khoya Chand. What drew me to this song was that it had elements of qawwali (I have always been fascinated by this genre of music), and, more importantly, absolutely outstanding lyrics by Swanand Kirkire….

आज शब जो चाँद ने है रूठने की ठान ली
गर्दिशों में हैं सितारे बात हम ने मान ली
अन्धेरी स्याह ज़िन्दगी को सूझती नहीं गली
कि आज हाथ थाम लो एक हाथ की कमी खली

Aaj shab jo chand ne hai roothne ki thaan li
Gardishon mein hain sitare baat humne maan li
Andheri syaah zindagi ko soojhti nahin gali
Ki aaj haath thaam lo ki haath ki kami khali

The meter used in these lines, alternate long and short syllables, makes the rhythm easy to grasp and instantly appealing.

While listening to the song, I was quite stumped by one line:

क्यूँ तू आज इतना वहशी है मिज़ाज में मजाज़ है ऐ ग़म-ए-दिल

Kyun tu aaj itna vahshi hai mizaaj mein majaaz hai aye gham-e-dil

I just couldn't understand the usage of the word 'majaaz'. Of course, this word sits very well phonetically with the earlier 'mizaaj', but what did the line mean? Mizaaj means temperament/ disposition; Majaaz on the other has multiple meanings like metaphor, allowable, artifice. So this would translate as:

Why are you so mad today, there’s ‘metaphor’ in your temperament, O sorrow of the heart!

This does not make much sense, does it? I kept struggling to decipher this one, and even thought that the poet was trying to use a Ghalibian metaphor… Till I read a post on PFC, that made me understand this line and go “aha, that's a clever verse”.

The Majaaz in the line refers to the poet himself!

It seems that the lyrics of this song are inspired by a very famous nazm called Awaargi by the late poet Majaaz Lakhnawi (Javed Akhtar’s maternal uncle). One of the lines in this nazm goes:

ऐ ग़म-ए-दिल क्या करूँ, ऐ वहशत-ए-दिल क्या करूँ

Ae gham-e-dil kya karoon, Ae vahshat-e-dil kya karoon

But why would Majaaz the poet suddenly make an appearance in this song without a context? Actually there is a context. Just preceding this line is a chorus that describes the level of madness of the heart (vahshat-e-dil). It goes:

जी में आता है मुर्दा सितारे नोच लूँ
इधर भी नोच लूँ उधर भी नोच लूँ
एक दो का ज़िक्र क्या मैं सारे नोच लूँ

Jee mein aata hai murda sitare noch loon
Idhar bhi nooch loon udhar bhi nooch loon
Ek do ka zikar kya mein sare noooch loon

These lines are adapted from Majaaz’s original nazm.

Now everything falls into place:

First you have a description of the 'madness of the heart' in Majaaz’s words, and then you get this line that almost taunts the 'heart' for taking on a Majaaz-like temperament.

I would have loved it if for the chorus the lines from the original were used as is, instead of modifying them to fit the song’s metre; but maybe then it would have been simply 'Majaaz' and not 'Majaaz-like temperament'.

What an original way to pay tribute to a poet! I wouldn’t say that this line is great by poetic standards, but the cleverness of composition cannot be disputed. What else can you say about this…subtle hints of the original verse by use of the words vahshi and gham-e-dil, reference to the poet by his takhallus (nom-de-plume) that also literally has an affinity with poetry (i.e. metaphor), and the deliberate soundplay created by putting two similar sounding words (mizaaj and majaaz)…

What a clever verse, indeed!

P.S. Old Hindi Film Music buffs will recall that parts of this nazm have been immortalized in Talat Mahmood’s silken voice in a film called Thokar (composed by Sardar Malik) from the early 50s

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Om Shanti Om - No Method in Madness

As I walked out of the theatre after watching Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om, there was just one question in my mind – what will she come up with next? Rather, what can she come up with next? If all that inspire her are the masala movies of the 70s and the only thing she can do is spoof, then one thing is guaranteed – we will not see many movies that will have Directed by Farah Khan in the credits. After all, there's only so much you can do with spoofing. And going by what she has done in Om Shanti Om, there isn't much left to be played around with– or spoofed - in her subsequent ventures. It's time she re-invented herself.

After sitting through Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om I emerged thoroughly confused. Why was it that I didn't care much for the entire film, even though I was laughing uncontrollably at almost every single gag (the faux Filmfare Awards sequence, for one, was a hoot!!)? Why did I think it was a bad film, when there wasn't anything that I particularly disliked? I still don't have the answer but it was like watching multiple episodes of brother Sajid Khan's shows on TV – they are usually hilarious but never fully engage you. That is my main problem with Om Shanti Om.

I read somewhere that Farah wrote the script for Om Shanti Om in 2 weeks flat. It shows!! The film is nothing but just a collection of Bollywood in-jokes spread over a dangerously thin plotline. Rather, the plot seems like an afterthought. Of course, one knew it all along that it was a spoof on the masala film genre and the film industry of the 70s, so expecting a 'plot' was foolish. But is it too much to expect a coherent flow, even in a masala movie? Even the worst masala movies of the 70s had a coherent and smooth structure. Om Shanti Om, on the other hand, just goes on the overdrive jumping from one spoof to another with complete disdain for coherency. How could someone who made the hugely entertaining Main Hoon Na, which was also a spoof on the masala genre, get it all wrong the second time round? That brings me back to my original thought – there's only so much you can do with spoofing.

Not only that, the difference between Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om lies in the screenplay – the much ignored aspect of film making in the Hindi film industry. Main Hoon Na was a very intelligently woven script executed skillfully by a director who juggled through seemingly ridiculous situations with the amazing legerdemain of a cardsharper. It spoofed the masala movies without being so in-your-face, and it had such a remarkable flow that some people actually didn’t get the spoof part of it. Then why did Om Shanti Om stumble so badly in the screenplay department? Was it because Abbas Tyrewala didn't collaborate on the screenplay this time? Or was that by design? Maybe it was Farah's way of making fun of a film industry where the writing department is criminally neglected... Now I’m being a bit too charitable.

The first half of Om Shanti Om, with its disjointed montage of truly hilarious spoofs, was something that I could sit through, but once the real 'plot' (or whatever it was) took over in the second half it was a bumpy ride downhill . After a while, I just didn’t care if the reincarnated Om took his revenge or not. The writer/director also seemed confused about how she wanted to wrap up the story. After wanting to do a Karz like resolution, she suddenly changes tracks to impose a Madhumati on us. Nothing wrong with that, but why did it have to be so hasty?

I must say that the irreverence that Farah shows in Om Shanti Om is commendable. She doesn't believe in being politically correct and can be very blatant in spoofing prominent personalities. Not only that, her ability to laugh at herself and her producer (Shahrukh Khan) is noteworthy. To laugh at oneself requires a very mature sense of humour. The best part is that she managed to convince other people to be party to ridiculing themselves (Subhash Ghai and Shabana Azmi for example).

The other thing I really admire Farah for is the importance she gives to her crew. Both in Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, she lets the audience see the faces behind the camera, the people who have a big role to play in making a film but never get their due. My truly 'emotional' moment from Om Shanti Om was when Pyarelal (the surviving half of the LP duo) walks the red carpet during the end credits. It was great to see him emerge from oblivion through this film. Truly a superstar in his heydays (along with partner Laxmikant), it is sad that the only role he gets to play now is that of an arranger. I appreciate Farah's intentions of asking him to be the arranger for a song that captures the spirit of the 70s, but I would've loved it if Pyarelal had composed all the songs from the first half of the film at least. After all, the posters of 'Dreamy Girl', the film within this film, prominently display 'Music by Laxmikant Pyarelal'.

Despite the fact that Om Shanti Om has been such an underwhelming experience for me, I will still look forward to Farah Khan's next. Who knows, she might stick to what she knows best and surprise us with an innovative take on the masala movies of the 70s. Or she might completely reinvent herself and come up with something drastically different. Whatever it is, she needs to redeem herself.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Saawariya–A Bhansali Composition in Monotone

It must have happened something like this. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is watching Raj Kapoor's Awaara from his private DVD collection…the 'ghar aaya mera pardesi' song comes up and a flash appears in his mind…"Why can’t I make a film on this?... I've just read a short story where the heroine is waiting for her pardesi to come home… I can ask my art director to come up with a bizarre, dream-like set, complete with the enormous Nataraj head that occupied centre stage in the Awaara song… I have Raj Kapoor's grandson as my assistant, so he can be the hero with the name same as his illustrious grandfather… I know Raj Kapoor’s oeuvre like the back of my hand, so sprinkling the scenario with references should not be a problem… Come on let's make a tribute to Raj Kapoor".

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya is probably the first true blue (pun intended) tribute to the man called Raj Kapoor. Only, it makes it so obvious it starts to grate on one's senses after a while…subtlety has never been SLB's forte anyway. The film opens in a bar called the RK bar, with the title written in the manner of the unmistakable RK banner. Nice, you think. Then we see the vagabond-ish hero – that's Awaara for you. He rents a room from a matronly Christian lady who starts loving him like her son – Anari…. Got it Mr. Bhansali, but can we move ahead? Not yet my dear, don't you wanna see the 'junglee' scene from Awaara, or the classic Barsaat pose that went on to become the trademark of RK films, or the references to the pyar hua iqraar hua song from Shree 420, complete with rain and an umbrella….why stop at the great showman, you also get his father in a scene from Mughal-e-Azam, Ranbir referencing dear daddy in Karz, trying the dancing style of his granduncles – Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor – and giving an accidental peek of his butt much like his father in Bobby….Phew!! Why did SLB have to make this simple love story into the most expensive promotion vehicle for the Kapoor khandaan? And does he realize that he missed out Ranbir's uncles and cousins....or was Rani Mukherji's character meant to evoke memories of Kareena's Chameli?

Now that I have my biggest grouse with the film out of the way, I can move on…

If there is anything that strikes you about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, it's the opening credit sequence. One can't help but appreciate the director's honesty in crediting his source of inspiration – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights. When was the last time you saw a film that did that? The plot of Dostoevsky's story doesn't naturally lend itself to adaptation on celluloid. A 'dreamer's' narration of his meeting with an enigmatic girl over four nights doesn't have the necessary twists and the drama we have come to expect in a Hindi mainstream film. It is just for this reason that the film seems so monotonous. Not as in boring, but as in musically i.e. having a sameness of tone.

I always see Bhansali's films as a bandish (musical composition), which starts with a slightly unstructured alaap and quickly moves through the jod to its crescendo with an intricately structured jhaala and gat. Through his characteristic use of melodrama he creates complex rhythmic patterns that go out of sync with the taal at times, only to emerge harmoniously in the final moments. For Saawariya, the story that SLB chooses does not have the breadth where he could demonstrate his virtuosity as a 'composer'. He could have easily gone his usual way and provided multiple dramatic twists to the plot, but he resists the temptation and creates a composition that uses the most basic notes of the mandra saptak (lowest octave) and pretty much remains at the alaap all through. That is something that worked well for me. The story demanded a slow and static feel, which SLB provides it with. He has managed to remain fairly faithful to the original story (except for a completely unnecessary addition) and created a vision that is uniquely his own.

But hang on, simplicity and Bhansali don’t go hand in hand. If the tale and the narration is simple, SLB lets his Art Director (Omung Kumar) go completely over the top to create a setting that looks straight out of a fairy tale. You get an architecture that's a curious mix of all possible schools of architecture you can think of, and the use of a palette with an overabundance of colours blue and green gives the setting of the film a surreal painting-like character . This is where the problem with the film lies - a simple story gets completely lost amid SLB's trademark larger-than-life scale and visual opulence that has no place in a tale like this.

This setting would have worked well had the director not introduced the completely unnecessary angle I talked about earlier. Dostoevsky’s narrator was the protagonist himself - a 'dreamer'. Obviously, his narration would have a dream-like quality. In Saawariya, SLB gives the part of the narrator to a completely superfluous character called Gulaabji, a streetwalker (who is always walking the streets but we never get to see even a single customer) with what else but a 'heart of gold'. Although Rani Mukherji does complete justice to the character, it is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, if one were to compare Saawariya with the director's earlier work, it is obvious that this is probably the director's most subtle work yet. Melodrama is kept at a minimum and the emotions of the lead character - Ranbir - never go ballistic as in SLB's earlier films. But as I mentioned earlier, subtlety doesn't come naturally to the director and it shows in a few scenes. Like the one where the Raj accompanies Sakina to her home....we see a lane full of potholes...anyone with even the most average IQ would guess what it means, especially when you see that these potholes are designed and crafted so painstakingly that is is obvious they're meant to convey a message. But, no, SLB wants to spell it out by giving Ranbir some heavy-duty dialogue to mouth about zindagi ke raaste...

Music has always been the high point of SLB's films. In Saawariya, you again get some nice compositions but they fall a trifle short of being great. You sorely miss the intricate compoitions of Ismail Darbar here. I have never understood why someone like SLB who always projects a picture of being an aesthete would settle for a lyricist like Sameer, who pens words that are adequate but don't do complete justice to SLB's vision. In my opinion, only Gulzar's abstract words would have gelled well with the abstruse backdrop of the film. Only Gulzar could have added more layers of depth to this film.

Saawariya being the launch vehicle for Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, everyone is curious to know if they have it in them to make it big in this industry. I can't say much about Sonam, for she is very pretty but just an average actress. Moreover she gets a terribly underwritten and ambiguous part. Ranbir, on the other hand, shows tremendous promise. He has the meatiest part in the film, and despite a few raw edges his performance is of a fairly high standard - he shows the out for him!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

No Smoking - Arrogance isn't such a bad thing

Why this floccinaucinihilipilification of Anurag Kashyap's phantasmagorical expression in the form of incongruous juxtaposition of surreal images that beat comprehension?


Anything that beats comprehension at first glance is invariably dismissed by others as worthless. No surprise then that Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking has met with universal rejection.

Let me come back to the very first sentence above.

What do you make of that sentence? It is without doubt self-indulgent, meant to flaunt one's vocabulary (which probably doesn't come naturally), and definitely contrived to sound complicated. If you have a good vocabulary, you will find that it is actually a very simple statement. Alternatively, you could flip the pages of the dictionary only to realize that the effort wasn't really worth it (you might not find one of the words in some dictionaries). But for a moment, just forget the meaning, go over each word slowly and try to grasp the inherent rhythm and rhyme contained within the sentence.

Why this floccinau…
Of Anurag Kashyap's
Phantasmagorical expression
In the form of
Incongruous juxtaposition
Of surreal images
That beat comprehension
Get it?

If you do, you have the key for enjoying and appreciating Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking.

The film opens with a brilliantly conceived sequence, which is so bizarre that you know it has to be a dream (nightmare would be a better word). Desolate landscape of Siberia, a trapped man watching himself on TV, Russian soldiers, Vodka, a bath tub in the middle of nowhere, a cigarette packet out in the snow, chase, shoot....Smoking Kills! What else would a smoker dream of if he is constantly been asked to quit smoking by all and sundry? But why Siberia, Russian, bath tub? Does it really matter? Do dreams ever make complete sense? If they did, Freud would be out of business. All of us who have dreams can relate to the fact that dreams have this intrinsic quality where seemingly disparate elements from the subconscious get uncannily juxtaposed. There's just no point in trying to find a cohesive thread through a dream.

The protagonist (Mr. K, an obvious reference to Kafka's protagonist) wakes up from his nightmare, and we, the audience, expect the regular sequential narrative to take over from there. But no, the director is in no mood to oblige. He structures pretty much the entire movie in exactly the same fashion - surreal, jumpy, lacking a cohesive thread. That can be very taxing for a viewer to bear for a duration of 2 hours plus. Well, not if you choose to get into the intrinsic rhythm of the film and refrain from applying logic or finding a reason for everything that unfolds on the screen. See it as a dream, try to get into the protagonists head. Even seemingly illogical things might start making sense then. I cannot claim that I have still 'understood' the entire film. It's been 4 days since I watched it, and I'm still trying to decipher the finer elements and unravel the narrative, but it has been an intellectually stimulating experience. For me, the film was thoroughly engrossing, and even though I had a momentary feeling of being cheated by the open-ended closing, I came out of the theatre supremely satisfied.

During those 140 minutes, Anurag Kashyap took me on an intense round of mental calisthenics, after which I emerged exhausted - not tedium but a euphoric state of intense hang-over. Did I just come out after watching a Hindi Film? If this is not the quintessential 'hat ke' film, then what is?

The feeling I had was just like the one I had when I watched Pink Floyd's The Wall (directed by Alan Parker) for the first time. While The Wall was all about the protagonist's insecurities and shadows from the past, No Smoking goes a step further than just being a surrealistic dream. It is metaphorical – with smoking being a metaphor for freedom and independence. That makes this a very personal film for Anurag Kashyap (as he mentions in his blog), and in way pardons the self-indulgent texture of the film, which most people have found annoying.

Of course, the film is unashamedly self-indulgent. In complete disregard of the audience, Anurag Kashyap films what he wants to, how he wants to. He eschews any possibility of providing any pointers that might help the audience share his vision. He simply leaves it for the audience to use their own interpretative skills to make sense out of the film. That, in my opinion, opens up a plethora of possibilities. In a way, that's the freedom the director metaphorically depicts in the film. You're free to interpret what unfolds on film just the way you can, or want to. There's no handholding, no spoon-feeding, no explanations – almost like a swimming instructor who pushes you in deep waters so that you learn on your own. Learn without being taught. Obviously, such arrogance (if one can call it that) on the part of the director will not be taken positively by an audience that has been dumbed down for ages by most of our filmmakers, who believe that everything needs to be hammered down the heads of the audiences in order to make them understand.

I talked about flaunting one's vocabulary a while ago….I got that feeling while watching No Smoking. There are so many references to other films that it almost seems like the director is boasting about his knowledge of world cinema. Not a problem for me, as I derived great pleasure in catching those references. However, some of the in-jokes seem very forced and contrived. What does one make of a dialogue like "Beedi Jalaile ke Vishal desh mein cigar Gulzar"? Of course I get this in-joke, but it is definitely contrived. But again, as I said, the key lies in ignoring the 'vocabulary' and getting into the flow and rhythm of the film.

On the whole, I found myself completely immersed in the flow of No Smoking, so much so that I brought a lot of it along even after leaving the theatre. That is my yardstick of a good film. And that's the kind of film that would find a prominent place in my DVD collection.

Talking of arrogance, I'm reminded of an arrogant verse….

न सताइश की तमन्ना न सिले की परवा
गर नहीं हैं मेरे अश`आर में म`नी न सही

Neither a longing for praise, nor a care for reward
if there's no meaning in my verses, then so be it

(Translation by Frances W. Pritchett)

Immortal words of an arrogant man, a man who didn't care two hoots for appreciation from others, a man who believed his thoughts were way beyond anyone's comprehension, a man who toed the line sometimes but largely remained fiercely independent , a man we now consider a genius – Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib'.

With No Smoking, Anurag Kashyap tries to follow the same path. Whether he will be considered a genius at some point later is debatable, but he surely shares the same attitude. Don't get me wrong here….I'm not putting Anurag Kashyap on the same pedestal as Ghalib, for that would be blasphemous…just trying to say that arrogance isn't such a bad thing afterall.