Here’s the first edition of my film column for Yahoo India. I was asked to do an introductory piece that touched on my journey as a movie-buff, but the column will get more specific from next time. Will add the full text of the piece to this post tomorrow. Meanwhile, comments welcome.
Update: the full post
A boy's notebook
This being an introductory column, I thought I'd say a little something about my journey as a movie buff - perhaps to provide a sense of the sort of mind that is going to be writing this fortnightly piece.
For me, the link between watching films and writing things about them goes back (at least) to age seven. It began, inevitably, with the most masaledaar Hindi movies, and a little notebook in which I would scrawl the titles and star casts of every film I saw, along with a conveniently pliable rating (love a film so much that you want to allot it 16-and-a-half stars? Can be managed).
At this point, like anyone who engages with films at a very elementary level, I saw them mainly as "pictures of people talking" (or singing, or dhishum-dhishum-ing). The actors and the fight scenes were the important things, one didn't think about the craft (or the art) involved.
It's notoriously difficult to pin down the first time one's cerebral circuits were lit up by a previously unfamiliar concept, but I recall the exact moment when the idea leapt into my head that a camera movement might be a deliberately engineered thing. It was while watching the very tense scene in, what else, Sholay, when the villagers turn hostile towards their mercenary protectors Veeru and Jai (because their arrival has made Gabbar Singh even more angry). This culminates in a fiery exchange between the Thakur and one of the more assertive village spokesmen. "Thakur jab tak jeeta hai, sar uthe ke jeeta hai," ("As long as the Thakur lives, he holds his head high") growls Sanjeev Kumar through clenched teeth, speaking of himself in the third-person, and the spokesman snaps back, "Arre, kab tak jeeyoge tum, aur kab tak jeeyenge hum, agar yeh dono iss gaon mein rahe?" ("How long will we stay alive if these two remain in the village?")
As he says the emphasised words "yeh dono", the camera swivels to place Veeru and Jai at the centre of the frame. "Wow!" I thought, "that meant something. There was probably someone out of view, moving the camera at just the right time. Hmm." Two seconds later, all traces of this epiphany had passed out of my mind and I was admiring the heroically unruffled Dharmendra and Amitabh as they stood shoulder to shoulder.
Incidentally Sholay may also have been my introduction to the non-linear narrative. At first and second viewing I remember being confused by the two major flashbacks - the early scene with the train attack, and the mid-movie massacre of the Thakur's family - and trying to work out (again, in my notebook) the right chronology of the events presented in the film. At what point precisely did Sanjeev Kumar go from being the uniformed cop to the shawl-clad landowner? Mulholland Drive it wasn't, but it was fodder of some sort for the mind of a young boy.
Around the age of 13 something happen that I can't really explain: I simply. Stopped. Watching. Hindi. Films. Perhaps, like the glutton who had overdosed on oily food, I had experienced a form of masala-movie dyspepsia and needed something subtler. Whatever the case, the leap was a sudden and extreme one, and it would be more than a decade before I returned to Hindi cinema. Meanwhile, I became obsessively involved with 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, followed by American and British cinema of a later vintage, and thence to foreign-language movies: the major French, German, Russian and Japanese filmmakers, and beyond.
It wasn't easy being saddled with such quaint tastes if you lived in Delhi in the early 1990s - the dying days of the videocassette era, and many years before "world cinema" DVDs became fashionable. But I visited embassy libraries to rent from their small collection of videos, dedicatedly watched the "100 years of cinema" series on Star Movies even though I had to prepare for my Board exams, kept an eye out for newspaper notifications about a tiny "film festival" in some corner of the city... and lost all my friends along the way.
The notebook (or its successor) was still around though, and so was Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, which I carried with me everywhere, even on the off-chance that we might drop by a video library, or that the uncle whose house we were visiting might have a selection of films to watch. Aided by the Maltin guide, I started compiling more detailed lists of actors' and directors' filmographies (this was pre-Internet, pre-IMDB; one had to work at these things), and from there I progressed to making little notes about the specifics of movies: a scene that struck me in some way; nuances of acting, directing, cinematography, editing. Eventually, I had unstructured notes for every film I saw.
Reading film-related books helped refine my thinking and writing about movies. I became influenced by writers like VF Perkins and Robin Wood, and the ideal of "pure cinema" - looking at a film not as an adjunct to literature or as a straightforward recording of stories but as a form that has its own distinct grammar and its own way of achieving things: using shot composition or recurring visual motifs to comment on a character or an event, for example. I developed an especially high regard for the directors who did these things really well - Hitchcock, FW Murnau, John Ford, Fritz Lang among others. But as I grew older I also came to appreciate that this wasn't the only way to make a great film.
In my view, the defining quality of a true movie buff is an unconditional open-mindedness about what you're willing to watch and engage with - an open-mindedness about different genres and approaches to movie-making. I get antsy when people draw a rigid line between movies that are "art" and movies that are "just good fun", or between the movies they personally love and the movies that belong to the Canon. (My rule of thumb: any good film is by definition a "fun" film. If I didn't enjoy watching it, it doesn't make it to my personal "all-time great" list, period.)
This column, generally speaking, will be about films, directors, even individual sequences that I love. Inclusiveness is key, so expect a discussion on anything ranging from Ingmar Bergman's musings on faith (knight tries to foil Death in chess game) to Manmohan Desai's musings on faith (Sai Baba statue restores sight to blind old woman) to Russ Meyer's musings on large-breasted women (which also is faith of an important kind). "Persistence of Vision" sounds like a weighty name, but as someone who persistently watches and thinks about movies, I'd prefer to emphasise its non-technical meaning. I hope you'll enjoy these night-outs.