Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dus Kahaniyan, Polish style: Kieslowski's Dekalog

[Putting up some of my recent columns; this one was for the Sunday Business Standard]

Many DVD-enthusiasts I know have begun wading in the vast ocean that goes by the generic name “World Cinema”, and one of the first things they discover is the Three Colours trilogy, made by the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski (whose films
are as simple and direct as his first name is daunting). But of late, I've noticed a growing interest among friends in an earlier Kieslowski work: the 10-part Dekalog (The Decalogue), which was made as a series of television episodes in the late 1980s. The reason for this interest, apparently, is director Vishal Bharadwaj, who has repeatedly referred to Dekalog as being a huge influence on his career as a film-buff and filmmaker.

Visually and thematically speaking, there is little to link Bharadwaj’s recent films (the energetic Kaminey in particular) with Kieslowski’s work, but that’s one of the charming things about movie influences – they don’t have to be blindingly obvious, with clearly connecting dots and “Aha!” moments. (Is anyone else fed up of the repeated channeling of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie whenever Bhardwaj’s latest is discussed?) It’s a reminder that entirely disparate films and filmmaking styles can call out to each other across space and time.

Kieslowski is, along with Satyajit Ray and Eric Rohmer, among the gentlest directors I know, and his best work is marked by a similarly intense, careful engagement with people’s lives and personal dilemmas. His movies aren’t cinematic in the flashier sense of the word – the camerawork is mostly at the service of narrative and dialogue, the editing is practically invisible – but they have a quiet, hypnotic quality that draws a viewer in; his use of close-ups is outstanding, and I can’t think of an instance of poor casting in any of his films. Each of the 10 films in Dekalog is around an hour long, set in a middle-class apartment block in Warsaw, and each of them is a modern-day reworking of one of the Ten Commandments. Thus, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” becomes a story about a staunchly rationalist professor whose over-reliance on the data provided by his computer leads to tragedy. “Thou
shalt not kill” becomes a study of a young murderer facing the death penalty (in an episode that would later be expanded into a longer feature titled A Short Film About Killing). And “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” is turned into a story about a conversation between a Holocaust survivor and the professor who had once refused to give her shelter. But you don't have to keep a specific commandment in mind while watching the film it corresponds to – this isn't a game of "connect the dots".

Kieslowski was agnostic himself, but he was very interested in the relationship between people and their faith, as well as the concepts of sin and punishment. The stories in Dekalog aren't morality tales with an obvious “message” or lesson; there is nothing one-dimensional about the situations they depict, many of which fall well outside the ambit of the Bible's Commandments. In one episode, for instance, a woman considers aborting the child she has conceived out of wedlock, but only if a doctor can assure her that her ill husband has a good chance of survival. What adds another shade to this story is that the doctor’s response is coloured by a tragic incident from his own past. As this painful story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the director is more interested in human beings than in stone tablets.

Dekalog can be slow going at times, especially for viewers who get impatient with movies driven more by content than form, or built mainly around dialogue. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to see all the films over a short period of time; a better idea would be to spread the experience over a fortnight or a month. And as a companion piece to Dekalog 1, I also recommend David Volach’s outstanding film My Father, My Lord, which I wrote about here. Both movies are about a father-son relationship that ends in tragedy and both are critiques of rigidity of thought - but they approach the subject from opposite ends of the spectrum and complement each other perfectly.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Extreme close-up + a launch

"Just to remind you that I'm cuter than any #@%!! purebred!"

Photo clicked by the multi-talented Abhilasha Ojha, who, in addition to holding down a day job at Business Standard (and putting up with me for much of the rest of the time), has recently embarked on the business of making greeting cards. She will also be on a panel discussion later this week, at the launch of the book Sarpanch Sahib: Changing the Face of India, a collection of stories about women panchayat leaders across the country, jointly published by The Hunger Project and Harper Collins. (Abhi is one of the contributors. Manju Kapur and Urvashi Butalia are also on the panel. More about the event here.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The post that twitted

Very Twitterish post, this, possibly the first of many. Some of the things I've been doing in the past week or so:

- Ingesting excellent Beef Fry at Gunpowder. Strongly recommend it. Might not be to the taste of those who like their steaks rare or medium-rare, but the Kerala spices, very strong though they were, didn't overwhelm the flavour of the meat.

- Watching some favourite old silent films on TCM, among them King Vidor's The Crowd (a fascinating historical document, with its depiction of the New York of 80 years ago as an impersonal, soul-sapping metropolis - and this was a time when even the Empire State Building hadn't yet been constructed) and The Big Parade. Found to my alarm that I had no memory of some scenes; maybe I should start tattooing notes on my chest when I watch movies. Also saw the (definitely non-silent) classic The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff as the evil chin-chooing doctor and Myrna Loy (looking very amused, or so I like to tell myself) as his daughter Fah Lo See.

- Reading for pleasure every now and again. Highlights include Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, Wodehouse's Piccadilly Jim (first read in school library circa 1988), and Pearls Before Swine anthologies. Just finished The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, an English translation (by Robert Hueckstedt) of Manohar Shyam Joshi's Hariya Hercules ki Hairaani. The first half was brilliant but I got a bit lost towards the end. More on it soon.

- Struggling horribly with the project that I'm supposed to be spending most of my time on - big problem with writer's block, or ennui, or whatever. Trying hard to put on a brave face instead of doing the sensible thing and drowning myself in a tub of liquified Prozac.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Lion in springtime: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Midway through Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s mammoth novelistic account of political intrigue and diplomacy in early 16th century England, there is a description of the making of spiced wafers. “The process involves a good eye, exact timing and a steady hand. There are so many points at which it can go wrong. The mixture must have the right dropping consistency, the plates of the long-handled irons must be well-greased and hot... If you miss a beat the smell of scorching permeates the air. A second divides the successes from the failures.”

This passage could just as easily be about the acuity required to survive (even if for a short while) in the boiling plate that is the court of Henry VIII, one of England’s most mercurial rulers. This is a place where people routinely go from being in enviable positions to finding their heads on the chopping block, and Mantel’s book takes us straight to the heart of a storm: the king’s desire to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry the young Anne Boleyn instead, a decision that will have strong reverberations since it will lead directly to the English Reformation (the separation of the English Church from the papacy of Rome, which refused to grant Henry his annulment). Historical figures such as Cardinal Wolsey (at his peak one of the most powerful men in Britain, but also the biggest casualty of the Anne Boleyn affair), his successor as Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk stride through these pages, but the central character in Mantel’s retelling is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being a blacksmith’s son to becoming Henry’s chief minister and one of the engineers of the Reformation.

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character – in conjunction with those of the others around him – came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.

From the beginning, Cromwell is an outsider: at age 15 he left his country to escape his violent father, and spent his youth in France and Italy (even serving in the French army for a while, something that is never forgotten even when he is most in favour). Shortly after the present-day of the novel begins, his patron Wolsey falls out of favour and then he loses his wife and daughters to the plague. Mantel’s restrained writing doesn’t stress his grief, but we sense the turmoil underneath – as we do when he enters a relationship with his late wife’s sister, a relationship which raises questions of morality that also surround the king’s liaisons with the Boleyn sisters Anne and Mary.

Cromwell’s circumstances and his detachment from the country of his birth seem to give him a certain elasticity in thought, which in turn aids his rise to power. In a telling passage, he reflects on the differences between himself and the inflexible Thomas More:
What’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away...with every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope’.
This ability to question in general – and the ability to question the authority of Rome in particular – will be vital to Cromwell’s career trajectory. But the above passage is also a reminder of how “perspective tellings” can bring nuance to historical events. Mantel’s portrayal of the antagonism between Cromwell and More is significantly different from that in Robert Bolt’s famous play A Man for All Seasons, which had More as the tragic, upright hero and Cromwell as his cunning nemesis. (Note: I haven't read the play but I've seen the very faithful movie version.) Which of these portrayals is truer to the real thing? Even if we had access to a time machine, we probably wouldn’t get a satisfactory answer to that question. More to the point, it may not be very important.

Of course, history can turn not just on clashes of ideology and character but on bedroom shenanigans as well – on a king’s hunger for a woman who is withholding herself from him. The Tudors were a horny lot and there is a lot of casual bawdiness in this book. People gossip about whether Anne Boleyn is a virgin and how far she has let the king go. (“She is selling herself by the inch,” says one, “She wants a present in cash for every advance above her knee...Anne has very long legs. By the time he comes to her secret part [the king] will be bankrupt.”) There is discussion of maidenheads, of who has done it with whom, and of the promiscuity of the French. A committee of elderly men is required to think up ways in which the marriage between Henry and Katherine might have been only “partly consummated”, so as not to make a liar of either party. Reading some of this made me think that perhaps the film The Private Life of Henry VIII was not as broadly caricatured as its reputation suggests.

Mantel mostly uses formal contemporary language (her epitaph “To my singular friend Mary Robertson this be given” is more old-world than almost anything in the actual text) and she locates humour in unexpected places, as in the passage where the unhappy, exiled Wolsey is met by a messenger bearing words of solace from the king. Weeping in gratitude for this unexpected – and ultimately hollow – act of kindness, Wolsey realises he has no gift he can send back for Henry. “He looks around him, as if his eye might light on something he can send; a tree?” (When he eventually does settle on a gift, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment.) This richly tragi-comic passage also includes a very modern-sounding remark about the manufacturing of reliquaries that are passed off as pieces of the True Cross.

Stylistically, a minor irritant is Mantel’s use of the pronoun “he” for Cromwell as if it were a synonym for his name, even in passages where two or more male figures are present and where it isn’t self-evident who the “he” refers to. In principle this is a good way of keeping the reader tied to Cromwell’s consciousness (the book never leaves him), but the device hinders lucidity in places, so that you have to reread a paragraph (and perhaps the one before it too) to make sure you’ve correctly understood a conversation or sequence of events. As if it weren’t hard enough on the reader that so many of the men in this story are named Thomas and so many of the women, Mary!

Wolf Hall presupposes a reader’s familiarity with the basic facts of Henry VIII’s reign; given its vast canvas of characters and complicated interrelationships, it helps to have more than a passing knowledge of the period (I had to consult a couple of encyclopaedia entries early on). It’s useful, for instance, to know that one of the book's peripheral characters – the young lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour – will eventually become another of Henry’s brides and that her destiny will be closely tied to Cromwell’s (this isn’t covered in the novel’s time-span, but the ending points towards it); that Anne Boleyn’s baby daughter – a source of disappointment to a court desperately awaiting a male heir – will become Elizabeth I; and that Cromwell himself, though he ends this book at the height of his powers, will eventually meet with the same fate as Thomas More did. This may be a 650-page book, but it’s always aware that it covers only a tiny sliver of a fascinating period. This makes the abrupt ending - with Cromwell left suspended in time, seemingly on the brink of even more compelling events - all the more apt.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Chintu-ji, and a Q&A with Ranjit Kapoor

Ranjit Kapoor’s film Chintuji had a very low-key theatrical release earlier this month; almost predictably, it lasted only a week. This is a pity, for Chintuji is a charming movie that deserved a bigger audience – and probably would have been appreciated by that bigger audience if it had got the right kind of publicity (I don’t think any of the major newspapers carried reviews). I watched it on Tata Sky’s “Showcase” yesterday, though I don’t know how long it will show on that channel either.

Chintuji is a couple of films in one. The better of these is a parable about small-town life in danger of being corrupted by the world outside. This isn't, of course, a new theme but it's done here with restraint and economy, right from the very compact opening scenes where we are introduced to the residents of a town called Halbahedi. They turn to the camera and speak with quiet pride about their town; they know they don’t have all the conveniences of modern life (they get electricity only eight out of 24 hours a day, the local newspaper is published only once a week) but things will gradually improve – and, after all, “baaki sab theek hai”. One of them pointedly says, “You city-dwellers think of us as a village, but we’re not, we’re a town.” It’s a beautiful, idyllic place and there’s even a small airplane landing strip nearby – so what if it isn’t technically theirs, being named for a larger, neighboring town called Trihalla?

The second film within Chintuji is a commentary on the nature of celebrity, and it begins with the discovery that the actor Rishi Kapoor was born in Halbahedi in 1952. Since Rishi – or “Chintuji” – now has his sights on a political career, this makes for good press – an opportunity to present himself as a “son of the soil” – and he arrives in Halbahedi with a contingent that includes a public-relations agent, Devika (played by the feisty, likable Kulraj Randhawa). But the star is a spoilt brat: he complains about the food, the (lack of) air-conditioning and just about anything else he can think of, and he is completely unmindful of how the townsfolk are bending over backwards to accommodate him. He does approve of a 35-foot wooden stand-up of him, though: after all, in Allahabad they only have a 25-foot stand-up of Amitabh Bachchan, and Chennai has only a 30-foot Rajinikanth figure.

Though Chintuji has just been released, it was completed in 2007 and in some ways it anticipates the self-referencing we've been seeing so much of in Bollywood recently, notably in Luck by Chance and Billu Barber. Rishi Kapoor has had a commendable second wind as an actor in the past 2-3 years, and this is one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in a while. He is "Rishi Kapoor" here and the film makes references to his roles in movies like Chandni, and to his wife "Neetu-ji" (who is busy vacationing in Switzerland!),
but he isn't so much playing himself as he's playing a version of any big star who has become disconnected from the fact that he owes his success to the adoration of the "little people" – the people that he dismissively refers to as "my fans".

It’s also a brave performance when you consider how fact merges with fiction in this film. Rishi wasn’t really born in Halbahedi, but Chintuji appears to validate this idea with a photograph of Raj and Krishna Kapoor holding their baby. And one of the
most affecting scenes involves a brief appearance by Kseniya Ryabinkina, the Russian dancer who played the role of Marina in Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (which was the 16-year-old Rishi Kapoor’s first movie). Again, Ryabinkina plays not quite herself but a variant on herself: when she hands Rishi a book of photos from the Mera Naam Joker set and the music of "Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din" plays gently in the background, we get a moment that should enchant any Hindi-movie buff. The facile “message” of this scene (“Your father was a great artiste, but he was a greater human being,” she tells Chintu) is almost beside the point compared to the pleasure of seeing these two performers improbably together on screen again after 40 years.

I thought Chintuji was a film of vignettes rather than a consolidated whole; it's episodic and has the feel of TV serials such as Nukkad. The sub-plot about a newspaper editor (Priyanshu Chatterjee) with a possibly murky past isn’t too interesting, but there’s a lot else to enjoy, including a drily funny scene about the shooting of a B-grade tribal movie that "Chintuji" is acting in. This is where Sophie Chaudhry gets to lip-sync to one of the strangest songs you’ve ever heard in a Hindi film, its lyrics made up entirely of the names of famous movie directors. It’s safe to say that this is the first and last time a Hindi-movie song will contain the lines “Wyler, Hitchcock, Wajda / Mizoguchi, Coppola...” – the song will, of course, sound like gibberish to anyone who isn’t familiar with the names. There’s no point to it exactly, but it’s eye-popping (and ear-popping) fun.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve spoken a couple of times with Ranjit Kapoor in the past few months (in another context), though that has nothing to do with the above review; if I hadn’t liked Chintuji, I wouldn’t have written about it. Though this is Ranjit’s first film as a director (at age 61), he has worn many hats over the course of a distinguished theatre and screen career. National School of Drama (NSD) alumni still speak with awe about his staging of plays like Woyzeck, Bichhu and Mukhya Mantri. He has written the dialogue for such movies as Jaane bhi do Yaaro, Bandit Queen and The Rising, and composed music for others like Aadharshila. I did a short Q&A with him about Chintuji for Business Standard a few weeks ago. (I hadn't seen the film at the time.) Here it is:

After decades of experience as a stage director, why did it take you so long to make your first film?
There were offers in the mid-80s but there was also interference by producers and I was very rigid too – I wanted the creative freedom to do what I felt was right without being told to cast so-and-so actor or to put this many songs in the film. Having come from a theatre background, I identified more with strugglers; I didn’t want big stars doing roles they weren’t suitable for.
Around 1984, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah had been signed up for a comic thriller I had written, a mystery set over one night, but there were too many demands from the producers and it never got off the ground. I was told to use Jagjit Singh's music for a film that required a very different soundtrack. Later, Yash Chopra asked me to direct a film version of the play Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, which I had staged, but I was facing a few personal problems at the time. Eventually, Basu Chatterji did the film.

So you returned to the theatre?
Yes, I returned to Delhi, to NSD, and did the kind of work where I knew I could be in control. Theatre satisfied my creative urge and made me feel like a king. Of course, I went to Bombay when there was a decent offer – such as writing Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na with Kundan Shah, with whom I had worked on Jaane bhi do Yaaro. And also for Bandit Queen, which I wrote after shifting to Gwalior and locking myself in a hotel room for 17 days.

How did Chintuji come about?
It came from this idea I had that if even a moderately well-known actor goes to a small village for a shoot, he becomes an object of respect and awe. His presence can change their lives, for good and for bad. There’s potential in this situation for examining reality and illusion, the screen image and the real person, and I thought Rishi Kapoor, a wonderfully spontaneous actor, would make an interesting subject. He was very enthusiastic when I told him I wanted to do a script based partly on his life.
Around the same time, producer Bobby Bedi saw an open-air play I had directed in Pune and was impressed – he told me “Aapne toh iss stage setting mein film bana di.” ("You've taken this simple set and turned it into a movie set".) So things came together.

Would you call Chintuji a comedy?
It’s a comedy all right but it isn’t slapstick or farce; it draws on the little moments of humour in daily life. You won’t find the actors explicitly playing a scene for laughs. And it does get emotional towards the end – there’s a bittersweet quality to it. It’s a small film, but what I’m proud about is that it’s original – no “borrowed” ideas.

How did you get Kseniya Ryabinkina to appear in the film?
I was watching Mera Naam Joker [in which the young Rishi Kapoor had a small role] and it struck me that I would like to trace this actress, to make her a part of this story. We made enquiries, found out that she had been with the Bolshoi Ballet, and we finally contacted her in France. She plays a key role here in the development of Rishi Kapoor’s character – I won’t reveal it, go and see for yourself!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Scattered thoughts on Inherit the Wind

Even when you’re aware of the extent of Christian fundamentalism in America, it’s surprising to read this news item about the British film Creation not finding distributors in the US because Charles Darwin and evolution are still considered loaded subjects. I was talking recently with a friend about religious intolerance/sensitivity in India probably being greater today than it was 50 years ago, when a revered prime minister was known to be agnostic; today, it’s highly doubtful that an Indian PM or a state chief minister (in north or central India at least) would be able to criticize organised religion or the idea of a personal God as sharply as Nehru did in Discovery of India (a book that was recommended reading for the country’s youngsters). Perhaps this is true of the US too.

A few days ago I re-watched a favourite old film, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind, about the trial of a schoolteacher arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The movie is based on the real-life Scopes Trial of 1925 and it stars one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, the 60-year-old Spencer Tracy, as a rationalist lawyer who defends the schoolteacher, fiercely challenges literalist interpretations of the Bible and refers to the Book in a decidedly offhand manner. In light of recent developments, this film seems more topical and bolder than ever.

Stanley Kramer (whose work I wrote about in this post) wasn’t renowned for cinematic inventiveness – his films were mainly issue-based, with lots of dialogue – but Inherit the Wind opens with a sinister, visually striking scene, as the camera draws back from the Hillsboro Courthouse. A group of men silently walk across deserted streets, the opening credits appear and the soundtrack plays the gospel song “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, its lyrics a paean to unquestioning belief:
That old-time religion...
If it’s good enough for Joshua,
It’s good enough for me
If it’s good enough for dad and mother,
It’s good enough for me...
The men are joined by a reverend and there’s something menacing about the group – they’re like a sheriff's posse in a Western, heading in single formation for a shootout, or to haul in a notorious criminal. It turns out that this isn’t far from the truth, except that the “criminal” in question is the mild-mannered teacher Bertram Cates, and his crime is explaining Darwin’s theory to his students and encouraging them to think for themselves.

For townsfolk living in America’s “Bible Belt”, such an act is intolerable. It’s also against the law that states that nothing that contradicts the Bible’s version of Creation can be taught in a school. The incident draws countrywide attention and gets politicized; the veteran conservative politician Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is called in to prosecute Cates, while the liberal-rights champion Henry Drummond (Tracy) leads the defence. For the duration of the trial, the town turns into a carnival, with barkers sitting about displaying chained monkeys to people and handing out placards that say “I’m not descended from no ape!” and “Don’t monkey with us”. Meanwhile, inside the courthouse, the two men go hammer and tongs at each other. “Is nothing holy to you?” asks the exasperated Brady at one point. “Yes. The individual human mind,” replies Drummond. “In a child's power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘amens’ and ‘holy holies’ and ‘hosannas’.”

“An idea,” he continues, “is a greater monument than a cathedral.” This is the nub of the film – Drummond’s impassioned defence of the schoolteacher’s right to think and question, and to encourage others to do the same. "The Bible is a good book," he says, "but it is not the only book."

More than one critic has said that Inherit the Wind scores an easy victory against Creationists by turning Brady – the exemplar of the religious fundamentalist – into a soft target, a caricature. My two responses to this: 1) Anyone who sincerely believes that the earth was created at 9 AM on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and who tries to throw someone else into jail for teaching an alternate theory, is already a "caricature" beyond anything that the drunkest scriptwriter can create (also see Poe’s Law, which states that a parody of a religious fundamentalist can be indistinguishable from the real thing), and 2) Though Brady is deservedly portrayed as a pompous, closed-minded old fool in the courtroom scenes where he gives speeches and stirs up the general public sentiment, the film spares time to show shades to his character. One of the most moving scenes in the film is the one where he quietly admonishes a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher for being too harsh on his daughter (though again, his objection is voiced in Biblical terms): "I know you speak from the great zeal of your faith,” he says, “but it is possible to be over-zealous, to destroy that which you ought to save, so that nothing is left but emptiness...He that troubleth his own house will inherit the wind.”

The other great sequence in this vein – and I insist that it's great, even though it plays like a scene that was carefully designed to give two giants of American acting a non-antagonistic moment together – is the one where Drummond and Brady sit together on two rocking chairs late one evening, more old friends reliving the past than courtroom adversaries. "Why is it that you’ve moved so far away from me?" asks Brady. "Maybe it’s you who moved away by standing still," Drummond says laconically. Understanding the implication of this remark, Brady replies that he has no time for “progress” if it means abandoning God. Then he gets reflective, and you see a shadow moving beneath the surface of the Bible-thumper. "These are simple people," he says, “they are poor, they work hard and they need to believe in something ...something beautiful...something more perfect than what they have, like a golden chalice of hope.” (It's an argument often employed by those who believe that religion is essential for the world; even if you don’t agree with the argument, you believe that Brady does.)

“In other words, they’re window-shopping,” snaps Drummond, and he gets the final word with a story about a beautiful rocking horse he had coveted as a child, which turned out to be made of rotting wood. “All shine and no substance, and that’s how I feel about your religion. As long as a prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”

March and Tracy are both superb in this scene (arguably even better than in their more flamboyant courtroom confrontations), which is all about two actors listening carefully to each other and reacting, with smiles, grimaces and nods of the head, rather than thinking about their own lines.

In praise of Fredric March

When two different acting styles – one subdued, the other loud – occupy the same frame, there's a kneejerk tendency in some circles to rate the former more highly, even when both performances are completely true to the characters being portrayed. Note: I'm not talking here about personal preference or sympathy for a character. It's one thing to prefer Amitabh's Jai over Dharmendra's Veeru because the former is quiet, intense and ultimately tragic while the latter is boisterous and gets his girl. But it's quite another thing to devalue Dharmendra's superb performance because you're confusing the unsubtlety of the character with that of the actor, or because Veeru's cartoonish romantic exploits don't pull at your heartstrings the way Jai's wooing of the widow does. (Longer post about Dharmendra in Sholay here.)

Fredric March's Brady in Inherit the Wind is a classic example of the sort of performance I'm talking about. It's unsubtle, it plays to the gallery, it's marked by very visible and repetitive character tics ... and it's utterly authentic. Brady is, above all, a showman: as a rabble-rousing politician who has run thrice for president and made numerous self-aggrandizing speeches over the decades, certain traits have become intrinsic to his personality, and March displays this masterfully. One of Brady’s defining mannerisms is when he thinks up a "witticism" (usually something quite banal) in response to something that has been addressed to him, and March's performance allows us to see the whole process: the light-bulb appearing over the man’s head, his “Aha!” moment, and how he ostentatiously says the words for maximum effect.

In his first scene, where he is addressing the adoring masses after arriving in Hillsboro, a man shouts out "We all voted for you, three times!" Brady initially just smiles and looks set to continue his speech, but then he does a sudden double-take, wags a finger at the man and says "I trust it was in three separate elections!" This is followed by a short laugh; it's hard to say whether this is because he's genuinely impressed by his own wit or because he's giving the audience their cue to laugh with him. You see the same thing on a number of other occasions, including when he tosses off the line “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the age of rocks!”, in response to Drummond holding up a fossilized rock and asking him how old he thinks it is.

P.S. March is one of my favourite actors. He was hugely respected by critics and by his peers for his stage and screen work, but he never became part of the star system to the same extent as his contemporaries such as Tracy, Bogart and others did. For anyone interested in seeking out his work, these are some of my recommendations: Nothing Sacred (one of the best screwball comedies I’ve seen, co-starring the great Carole Lombard), A Star is Born (the first of many film versions of the story about an acting couple whose careers follow different trajectories), Death Takes a Holiday, The Best Years of Our Lives, An Act of Murder, The Iceman Cometh.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (and "Be Black, Baby")

Tata Sky has recently added TCM, MGM, NDTV Lumiere and WB to its package of movie channels, which means I have to rethink my reluctance to watch films on TV. It’s a joy to have access to TCM again after all these years – brings back good memories of gorging on Old Hollywood on TNT in the early 1990s shortly after cable television first came in. I’ve been carefully checking schedules for the next few days on the Tata Sky menu and setting reminders, but it usually isn’t possible to keep two hours free at a specified time, given my very erratic work schedule these days. So I’ve been contenting myself with re-watching bits and pieces of movies I first saw a long time ago: the early Paul Newman-starrer Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Yearling (which turned out to be a darker film than I’d remembered – much more the story of a struggling family than a boy and his cutesy little fawn), The Merry Widow, Inherit the Wind, The Asphalt Jungle, many others.

And from a much later era, a movie that I saw in its entirety: the early Brian De Palma film Hi, Mom!, with the young, pre-stardom Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, a would-be movie-maker who sets up a camera at his window to videotape people in the building across the street from him. But this description makes it sound like a straightforward, narrative-driven film, which it definitely isn’t.

De Palma is one of my very favourite directors and I would find it very difficult to make even a short list of scenes I love in his movies (there’s an attempt in this ancient post, but it’s woefully incomplete). His best work has an energy, an understanding of how to use the camera to manipulate an audience’s emotions, that you rarely find elsewhere. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Hitchcock devotee, but I sometimes find myself in reluctant agreement with Pauline Kael’s assertion (in her review of De Palma’s The Fury) that “no Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense or ever went so far”. I love the way he uses devices like the split screen (notably in Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Carrie and Snake Eyes) and other camera tricks (the superb, hallucinatory climax of Body Double) to constantly remind us that we’re watching a film, and to comment on the relationship between the movie and its audience – it isn't incidental that many of his plots involve characters who are secretly watching or being watched by others, and that some of his most thrilling scenes have the viewer (us) being made privy to something that the protagonist is unaware of.

If you’re familiar mainly with the films he made from the mid-1970s onwards (the ones that led to him being unfairly labeled as a copycat Hitchcock), you probably won’t realise what a political filmmaker he was at the start of his career. Hi, Mom! is two movies in one: the first is the (relatively) conventional narrative about Jon Rubin’s shenanigans, but the second is an enormously disturbing short film (or film-within-a-film) made in the Cinéma Vérité style. Titled “Be Black, Baby” and shot in black-and-white with a handheld camera, this radical “documentary” has black actors interviewing randomly chosen white people and trying to show them what it feels like to be black: they force them to eat "soul food" and apply shoe polish to their faces, and then things get even more claustrophobic and cringe-inducing - until, in a classic example of the tearing down of the Fourth Wall, Jon Rubin makes a sudden appearance as a policeman.

Exactly how “Be Black, Baby” ties in with the main Rubin narrative is too complicated to explain here (I’m not even sure it can be explained in realist terms) but suffice it to say that taken together, the two threads have a lot to say about an audience being forced to actively participate in the film they are viewing; to stand in the shoes of people whom they've been accustomed to watching from a safe distance (much like the documentary's white respondents who had no idea what they're in for). Hi, Mom! makes it very difficult to maintain that distance. It didn’t get wide release back in 1970, but
its off-kilter take on the civil rights movement must have had a very strong impact on the few people who did see it.

P.S. Anyone who’s ever thought “Robert De Niro can’t do comedy” should watch this film, especially the bits where Jon attempts to seduce a girl by trying to be a sensitive, sexually reticent young man. (Just prior to this, they have a hilarious conversation about a movie they just watched together – a conversation that also touches on the viewer as participant; how people sometimes define themselves in terms of the films they watch.) It isn’t a brilliant, show-stopping comic performance but it has a freshness and an unselfconsciousness that you would never see from De Niro in a film like Meet the Parents. It’s an experience in watching a talented, charismatic young actor before he became subsumed into a star persona – not unlike watching Amitabh Bachchan in Anand or Reshma aur Shera. Incidentally, there are traces of De Niro’s Travis Bickle in this performance too, especially in the anarchic final scenes.

P.P.S. An earlier post on meta-movies here.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Foxie Chronicles, contd

Curious: has anyone else encountered a dog who sits like this? I'd really like to know.

This is one of the strangest things about Foxie, and we don't know exactly why she does it: is it because her hind-legs are disproportionately long (they are) or because her backside is very high (it is) or did she just pick it up through careful observation of us humans sitting on our chairs and sofas in the early days of her pupdom? My mother's unscientific view of things is that she was a mermaid in her last birth.

(Note: the photo above doesn't capture the best version of the pose, which is when she puts up just one of her hind legs on a chair seat and allows the other one to dangle. If I get a better picture at some point, I'll put it up here.)

Another possibility could be that Foxie greatly treasures her behind and wishes it to be in a state of maximum comfort always. (The first thing she does each morning is come to me for her daily back massage, turning her head sternly if the rubbing isn't vigorous enough.) But it's still not a very dog-like way of sitting.

Being long and gangly, she also has issues moving about in small spaces. One of the sofas that she likes to sit on is located 3-4 feet away from a bed that she also likes to sit on, and when she moves from one to the other there's a peculiar moment of undulation where the front part of her body is climbing up one item of furniture even while the back part is still in a state of descension. The sight reminds me of this description of the mighty dragon Glaurung in Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, from a passage where a group of people hidden in a ravine mull their prospects of survival:
"But how can he come forward so?" said Dorlas. "Lithe he may be, but he is a great dragon, and how shall he climb down the one cliff and up the other when part must again be climbing before the hinder is yet descended? And if he can so, what will it avail us to be in the wild water below?"
And while I'm on the subject, a few more pictures:


Afternoon siesta

In which we are very aware of the camera

Expression of bliss as evening head massage occurs

How many other doggies have such a big pile of books to bury their chewy bones in?

[Click pics to enlarge. Earlier Foxie posts here, here and here]

Friday, September 04, 2009


It's been five years since this thing began. Nearly one-sixth of my life. To mark the occasion, here are five of the most pointless posts on this blog over the years. Any one of them is guaranteed to ensure that the reader never returns. (But you did, which says more about you than these posts say about me.)

- A nine-line masterpiece about a fish in a Zurich hotel. Serves absolutely no purpose other than to inform readers that I like sushi (which could easily have been done in three words).

- I donate blood and endure soggy biscuits. How gallant of me. Mainly written to remind viewers that I was spending a lot of time in hospitals.

- I go to the golf course and write a post that's nearly as scintillating as watching caddies walk around behind Jyoti Randhawa at 3 in the afternoon.

- Completely random lament with a gratuitous reference to a food blog that I never intended to start.

This is the sort of thing that gives blogs a bad name, adding to the perception of a blogger as a social misfit who walks about with a camera in his neighborhood, taking photos of houses just so he can put up a half-witted post. The sort of thing people do on Facebook nowadays.

Anyone who wants to add to the list, feel free to browse the archives.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Two out of three ain't bad

Seen on a DVD shelf in Planet M this morning, a box-set titled "Black and White gems from Hindi cinema". Three films - Ardhangini, Kath Putli, Ram aur Shyam.

And on the cover of the DVD, a large, urgent sticker that reads: "The film Ram aur Shyam in this package is in full colour."

GOB-smacked and khor2core: Like a Diamond in the Sky

At the Jaipur literature festival earlier this year, a group of authors were asked about the role their home countries played in their work, and whether they felt the need to be spokespersons for their cultures. The standard reply (and the one you’ll hear from most cosmopolitan writers) was, “No, I don’t carry that baggage.” But the Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam admitted that she felt a strong responsibility towards her country, “perhaps because there are so few writers who are presenting the realities of Bangladesh. I’m not saying that I want to write a history textbook disguised as a novel, but I do have political stakes”.

I was thinking about this while reading Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky, a fine new addition to Bangladeshi fiction in English. This is a fast-paced story set in Dhaka, about young heroin addicts whose “fixes” help them temporarily cocoon themselves from life’s rough realities (and from well-meaning family members). It’s driven by characters and vignettes, centering mainly on an alienated young junkie named Deen and his friend AJ (“Khor2core”, they call themselves, Khor being Bangla for “addict”), but it’s also a book that has political stakes. There are little asides about the social and economic issues facing modern Bangladesh: the disaffection of youngsters who regard themselves as both God-forsaken and GOB-forsaken (GOB = Govt of Bangladesh), the widening of the rich-poor divide, the conflicts between conservative and liberal attitudes, the frequent hollowness of the country’s democracy.

It isn’t easy to incorporate such material into a novel without interfering with the flow of the narrative, but Omar cleverly filters some of it through the staccato musings of a drug-addled mind (as Deen’s thoughts lurch from one subject to another – capitalism, organised religion, power structures) and through the Dylan lyrics that these youngsters use as reference points for the world around them: “Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/ Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten”. This prevents the book from turning into a polemic – though it does come close in a caricature of a Quran-thumping Sergeant whose puritan notions are a denial of his own baser instincts.

The title has different meanings. There are, of course, the real diamonds used by the country’s drug traffickers in their big-money transactions. But “diamond in the sky” can also be seen as code for something that’s brilliant, life-affirming and just out of reach. For Deen, this could be the beautiful Maria, whom he’s so besotted with that he can barely see that she has problems of her own. For people like the drug-peddler Falani, on the other hand, God is the ultimate diamond in the sky. “We poor people are happy,” she insists. “Allah has given us that strength. It’s no small blessing, let me tell you.”
Deen frowned. He could not figure out if Falani was really happy, or if it was a false consciousness she had been conditioned into during childhood. Be content with what God’s given you. System justifying bullshit. Opium for the masses. And if that was the case, was her happiness fake? Was it less real? Once in her reality, who cares how it got there? Maybe that’s what she needed, promises of bliss hereafter. What was bliss, anyhow?
Like a Diamond in the Sky is overwritten in places and some of the speech is stilted (“It’s not the weight of our fears that keep our ideas from growing wings and soaring in the sky,” says Maria, “it’s concrete reality hitting us like a wall”), but no more than I'd be willing to overlook in a debut novel. More importantly, it has humour, rhythm and some very vivid passages, such as the one where Deen notices a sudden profusion of unnaturally bright red colours in certain objects around him, during a conversation with a boatman. I also thought the descriptions of his “turqing” had the frenzied, speeded-up quality of the addiction scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s film Requiem for a Dream. This book is a skilful account of a junkie’s single-minded pursuit of a high...and a slightly less successful one of a nation in search of its own fix.