Sunday, January 31, 2010

Detectives, drunkards and vampires: same role, different actors

[Was asked by Crest newspaper to do this piece about characters played by many different actors onscreen. Fairly assembly-line and hurried, as such write-ups tend to be, but fun to do – reminded me of the light cinema pieces I used to write for the Cafedilli website a decade ago. Only putting this up here because the blog is malnourished these days]

When Robert Downey Jr took off his shirt for an action scene in the new Sherlock Holmes, movie historians dashed to their research hubs: was this the first onscreen Holmes to get into a topless fight? We may never know the answer – the legendary detective has been portrayed so many times on film that keeping track of “firsts” is impossible. It’s best to stick with the subjective assessment that Downey Jr has the most impressive pectorals.

Fine actor though Downey Jr is, he isn’t the best Holmes; the competition is too stiff. Consider Christopher Plummer, nicely sardonic in Murder by Decree, which pitted the detective against no less a quarry than Jack the Ripper. Or Michael Caine,
playing an actor hired by Dr Watson - who's the real star of the show - to impersonate Holmes in the genre-bending comedy Without a Clue. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes in the 1980s series was probably the most “authentic”, but that was television so I’ll only give it an honourable mention. My personal vote for best feature-film Holmes (and I haven't seen them all, I should add) goes to the urbane Basil Rathbone, who played the part in a very popular series of films in the 1940s. The profile, the cap, the voice... everything about Rathbone was exactly as readers of the original stories envisioned, even if the plots were sometimes updated to fit then-contemporary events.

Conan Doyle’s sleuth is one of many fictional characters that the movies never tire of; his closest competitor in the popularity stakes (pun unintended) is Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel. The Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi initiated the portrayal of the bloodthirsty Count as a darkly attractive figure, Christopher Lee sank his teeth even further into the part in the British Hammer films, and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version had Gary Oldman playing a dashing combination of Dracula and Vlad the
Impaler, with a bit of werewolf (!) thrown in. But the creepiest vampire portrayal ever is from the great silent film Nosferatu. With his lean physique, spidery fingers and rodent-like face, the German actor Max Schreck was perfectly suited to the part. His vampire was repulsive and otherworldly – so otherworldly, in fact, that it was possible for another film made decades later to play around with the premise that Schreck was a vampire in real life! Nosferatu gets extra points for being decidedly unsexy, unlike the vampires in popular culture today.

Dracula is famously undead, but Death has a long tradition of appearing in human form in movies, the most iconic representation being in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, about a medieval knight being shadowed by the Grim Reaper. Brad
Pitt made a luscious Death in the overlong drama Meet Joe Black – the camera was clearly in love with this toy boy – but my favourite is the Grim Reaper parody in the goofy comedy Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. In Bergman’s film, the knight challenged Death to chess; in this one, Bill and Ted make him play Twister and electric football, and beat him like a drum. Cheating Death was never such fun.

It’s difficult to choose just one among the actors who played another death-cheater, James Bond, but we’ll do the purist thing and stick with Sean Connery. Timothy Dalton, George Lazenby (remember him?) and Daniel Craig were more laconic – arguably closer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels – but Connery’s roguish charm and litheness gave 007 a dimension that even Fleming hadn’t envisioned. Roger Moore comes a close second. Pierce Brosnan? Fine actor, but for anyone who watched Remington Steele for more than one season it’s impossible to associate him with another recurring character.

From the ultimate man of action to a tragic hero burdened by indecision: Shakespeare's Hamlet has long been a litmus test for actors, and its screen adaptations are innumerable. Laurence Olivier won the best actor Oscar for the atmospheric 1948 version, and Mel Gibson gave one of his better performances (which isn’t necessarily saying much) in Franco Zefferelli's 1990 film, but I have to go with Kenneth Branagh, whose sumptuous-looking four-hour version retained the entire text of the play, yet still managed to be gripping throughout. Branagh was a wonderfully energetic Hamlet; his recitation of some of the key soliloquies was so vivid that I can still hear the words in my head years after I last saw the film.

Among the Bard's heroines, Lady Macbeth has had a long and varied screen life. In Roman Polanski’s excellent 1971 Macbeth, the fragile-looking Francesca Annis performed her hand-washing soliloquy in the nude, whimpering as she is supervised by nurses. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool gave us a fine desi Lady Macbeth, Nimmi, all the more effective because we never thought the ethereal Tabu could be a manipulative vixen. But the best Lady Macbeth by a country mile was in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Throne of Blood. Isuzu Yamada’s chilling performance as Asaji isn’t rooted in psychological realism – the film is based on the Noh theatrical form, and Yamada’s face is made up to resemble an impassive mask – but when she’s on screen it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

One character it’s surprisingly easy to take your eyes off is Indian cinema’s favourite tragic hero, Devdas. Here’s a role that can make a lazy performance look good: produce a distant, glaze-eyed expression, slur a little and you’ll be admired for “understated acting”. This is what most actors from K L Saigal to Abhay Deol have done over the decades, so why not judge the role by its very limited requirements and hand the trophy to that master of self-conscious “understatement”, Dilip Kumar, who played Devdas in Bimal Roy’s 1953 movie? (Yes, this IS a back-handed compliment.)

Of course, recurring characters don’t have to be fictional. Historical figures can be very popular too, and the more colourful the better: take England’s Henry VIII, famous for dispatching wives and ministers to the royal chopping block. The mercurial monarch has been played by some fine actors, including Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days), Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons) and, most recently, Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl), who took the modern, interior approach and avoided being influenced by stereotypes. These are all fleshed-out
performances, but ironically the best screen Henry of them all was a deliberate caricature of the king as a gluttonous buffoon. The 1933 British film The Private Life of Henry VIII makes no pretence at being historically accurate, it just has a grand old time depicting Henry’s boudoir shenanigans, and the great Charles Laughton (who, incidentally, also gave the definitive screen performance of other popular characters such as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) chews up the scenery magnificently, in an Oscar-winning role.

In fact, so iconic was Laughton’s performance that it ended up defining Henry for generations of viewers. Which returns us to Downey Jr and a troubling question: will future generations think of Sherlock Holmes as that dude with the rippling muscles?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Four mini-reviews (mews?)

Quick notes on some books I've read recently: I’m doing full-length reviews of a couple of them but will only be able to post those once they’re out in print.

- H M Naqvi’s Home Boy is a very energetic debut novel about three Pakistani men in New York coming to terms with a changed, post-9/11 world – a world where “everybody is busy parceling myths and prejudice as analysis and reportage, and everyone has become an expert on different varieties of turbans”. I thought it was similar in some ways to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which I wrote about here) but in form it reminded me equally of Gautam Malkani’s very ambitious Londonstani. The narrator, Shehzad (nicknamed Chuck), and his “metrostani” friends Ali Chaudhry (AC) and Jamshed Khan (Jimbo) exude “coolth” and speak a language that mixes gangsta-rap with Punjabi slang, but underlying their hipness is cultural unease, and Naqvi brings this out really well. Lots of droll humour too.

(Longer review coming soon)

- Tranquebar has a very good-looking “short fiction” series out – novellas between 100-150 pages in length – and Kalpish Ratna’s The Nalanda Chronicles is the perfect book for this format: richly comic, written with surgical precision and hardly an extraneous sentence. (As it happens Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, who jointly write under the “Kalpish Ratna” pseudonym, are surgeons. I can’t work out how they manage to be such prolific writers too.) There are many sharp character sketches here, including Mr Thomas the wisdom-dispenser; Maya and Arun, who “belong to a generation that is powerless to be anything but polite in public” and who must therefore content themselves with seething quietly rather than quarrelling openly; Farheen, whose long, white and solid legs set her apart from “the dowdy company of shins squamous or hispid, lurking within saris or salwars”; and Francis Figueredo, a spy who worries a great deal. These people and others are members of the Nalanda housing society and they travel to Nariman Point in a red-and-cream minibus, which, as the story move into fourth gear, is hijacked. Much chaos ensues.

(Also in this series: Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s fine translation of Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s Urdu novella “Numberdaar ka Neela”. More on that later.)

- The Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein is something of an anomaly in a world where every major fiction writer is expected to produce at least one mammoth novel (or “baggy monster”, as Amit Chaudhuri once called it). Hussein is more the miniaturist, specialising in short stories and delicate narratives. His new book, Another Gulmohar Tree, runs a mere 150 pages, and in the first 40 of those it’s common to find only a few sentences on a page (this is a standalone section containing fragments of fables, the purpose of which we learn later in the book). But less is more in this case. At the heart of Another Gulmohar Tree is the unlikely romance – culminating in marriage – between a Pakistani man named Usman and an Englishwoman named Lydia. This is a moving, elegantly told story about the trajectory of a relationship and how people come to find meaning and personal fulfillment in their lives.

- I liked the first 50 or so pages of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, but slowly the book wore me down. I thought it struggled to find the right balance between being an investigative thriller and a commentary on one of the ugliest aspects of Indian society: female infanticide and the treatment of girl children in small-town India. Desai, who has worked as a journalist for many years, examines the nexus between wealthy families and policemen who cover up their crimes, gives us statistics and no-holds-barred descriptions of how baby girls are killed (or otherwise treated, if they happen to survive infancy), but this is sometimes too heavy-handed for the thriller format; it reminded me of the weaker stretches of Stieg Larsson's Millennium books, where the real-world information weighed down the narrative. However, Witness the Night has a winning protagonist – a 45-year-old social worker named Simran Singh – and Desai intends to do a series of books featuring her, which is worth looking forward to.

And with that, I’m off to Kerala for a week – a work-related trip but hopefully with spots of fun. Back on the 8th.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Izz aal well? Some thoughts on mainstream Hindi cinema

[Okay, I know I already did this post about 3 Idiots, but here’s a somewhat related piece I wrote for Business Standard recently. Was moderately satisfied with it given the 1,000-word space and the very short deadline, but I do think the subject deserves to be discussed at much greater length, and with many more examples from contemporary Hindi cinema]
“So what IS 3 Idiots, really?” asks a friend, “Is it mainly a ‘fun film’ or an ‘issue film’?”
Now, of course there doesn’t have to be a cut-and-dried answer to this question. But the intriguing thing is that you might easily get two different replies from a single fan, depending on the context of the discussion. There are those who endorse the film because of its social consciousness (about the flawed educational system and the unfair expectations many parents have of their children) but who do a quick 180-degree turn when you try to move beyond a very basic level of engagement. Why is teacher’s pet Chatura repeatedly mocked (not just by the three leads but by the film itself) when he’s as much a victim of the System as anyone else? Why does the film set up a pat climax showing that the Aamir Khan character has become more successful than Chatura (who is pretty darn successful in his own right anyway), when the supposed “message” all along was that you should do what you love doing?
“It’s just a fun film,” say the fans when you raise these questions, “Don’t analyse it so much!”
None of this is to say that 3 Idiots is a deeply flawed movie. The reason we can have impassioned discussions about its shortcomings is because it gets many things right in the first place. But the way in which it goes somewhat awry post-intermission tells us something about the conflicting forces currently at work in mainstream Hindi cinema. It tells us about an industry that has to tread carefully while making “issue” films, because one eye must always be on the needs of the mass audience.
This isn't meant to be a negative summary of things. The fact is, commercial Hindi cinema is in an important transition phase just now, one that any major movie-making industry can be expected to pass through. In the last few years we’ve seen improvements at many levels: the films are much more technically polished than before, scripts and characterisations are generally more nuanced, there are young directors and writers with serious talent as well as exposure to the best of international cinema, and the different components of a movie are better integrated. (Remember the Terrible Eighties, when nearly every film had a “parallel” comedy track that had little or nothing to do with the main characters, inserted at random intervals?)

In Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sriram Raghavan,
Dibakar Banerjee and Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others, we are arguably seeing the emergence of mainstream “auteurs” – the term used by French critics of the 1950s for directors who managed to stamp their personalities on their movies, even amidst the hurly-burly of the commercial filmmaking process. The best of Bollywood today can be compared with the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s when directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks did much great work despite the many constraints of the studio system. Even the best of their films show traces of the compromises that had to be made: the back-stories include accounts of a director being forced at the last minute to incorporate a happy ending or to desist from turning the film’s leading man into a criminal.
So it is with our cinema, especially when it comes to attempts to make "issue-based" movies. On the one hand, there is a felt need to deal with problems that, in the real world, can’t be easily resolved or simply made to vanish (whether it’s a terminal disease corroding a human body or a malaise eating away at society). But on the other hand there’s the kowtowing to the viewer who goes to films expecting not internal consistency but a few enjoyable scenes strung together, ending with a heartwarming sense of affirmation, usually provided by the star who assures us that “aal izz well”.
And we all know how important the cult of the Star Personality is in India. An Aamir starrer (or a Shah Rukh or Salman starrer) will always carry a very particular set of expectations. When the leading man makes his first appearance, we’ll see him in silhouette, walking in slow-motion towards the camera (as we do in 3 Idiots), a mild halo effect supplied by a background light. He will be the one eavesdropping from behind a pillar and shaking his head sympathetically as a martinet professor berates a student for thinking outside the box. His will be the catharsis-providing voice that will whisper words of reprimand into the same professor’s ear after the student has committed suicide. He will get to spell out exactly what is wrong with teaching methods and exactly how they need to be amended.
The integrity of 3 Idiots suffers slightly from these in-your-face moments, but in fairness it’s still many rungs higher than our more tedious “social awareness” movies. Like Madhur Bhandarkar’s work, which deals with social ills by setting up polarities and placing an innocent Red Riding Hood figure (the Konkana Sesharma character in Page 3, Bipasha Basu in Corporate, Priyanka Chopra in Fashion) in a big bad world where she is in danger of losing her soul at every corner; she is saved just in time. In these films, nearly every person and situation is presented in black and white terms, and you rarely get a sense of the slow process by which well-meaning people can become part of an accepted system.
At an even lower level are movies like Ajay Devgan’s astonishingly confused directorial debut U, Me aur Hum, which started as a screwball comedy and then changed tack midway to become a shrill drama about Alzheimer’s, before staggering towards an unconvincing feel-good ending. In comparison, R Balki’s Paa - centered on a Progeria-afflicted child – was a much more engaging film, but that’s because the medical condition was essentially a pretext to cast the 67-year-old Amitabh Bachchan as the 13-year-old Auro; the real focus was a Parent Trap-like story about a child getting his estranged parents together. (When the film did deal with Progeria head-on, it changed its tone completely, trading in breeziness for forced solemnity.)
But the past couple of years have also seen some very promising developments. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, an excellent portrait of class aspiration and the difficulties of moving up the social ladder, made sharp observations about the contradictions and hypocrisies in middle-class Indian life without once getting preachy. And Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, though a consistently enjoyable movie with many classic “inside Bollywood” moments, didn’t gloss over the heartbreak faced by millions of people who fail to make it in the film industry – or give us the comfort of an ending where the most likable and sympathetic character gets what she wants. These were deeply satisfying movies that knew how to integrate lightness of tone with seriousness of purpose, without falling apart in the process. So here's hoping that mainstream Hindi cinema grows enough in confidence to produce such films on a more regular basis.
[Some related posts from the archives: U, Me aur Hum, Luck by Chance, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!]

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tidbit post 2: a mini-rant about film books

(Continued from here)

One thing I’d really like to see in 2010 is a big improvement in our film-related literature. What’s badly needed in this field is writing that’s accessible yet intelligent, personal yet written with some rigour and background knowledge.

Most of our movie writing tends to fall into either of two extremes. On the one hand there are heavily academic, almost willfully abstruse books, guaranteed to chase off even the most engaged reader; on the other hand, booklets that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. The result: shoddy writing, indifferent editing and abysmal fact-checking – all by-products of the need to quickly throw books together for a mass readership.

The lack of basic discipline can be embarrassing. Take a biography of Shyam Benegal, one of the key figures in the “New Wave” of Indian cinema in the 1970s. It looks well-produced enough from the outside, but open it and you discover an episodic work that doesn’t even pretend at narrative coherence. Inserted randomly into a section about Benegal’s early life is an autonomous mini-chapter comprising laudatory quotes (presented in ugly, visually jarring italics) from various people about the director. A recent book about Om Puri – an actor who deserves to be the subject of more than one well-written biography – similarly throws information haphazardly at the reader. Typos proliferate: the contents page even manages to spell Ardh Satya, a seminal Indian film and one of the most important in the actor’s career, as Ardh Staya. (More about this sort of thing in an old post about Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History.)

I suppose one shouldn’t really be surprised, given the attitude to movie reviewing in the country – starting with the minuscule space available for film reviews in our mainstream media. Given just 300 words to work with, even the most skilled writer can’t do more than make a cursory evaluation and give “marks” to each of the major elements of the film: acting, direction, music, script. At any rate, it’s assumed that the star rating is what the “casual reader” is really interested in; who has the time or attention span to read even a 300-word piece?

Which brings me to a troubling question: is this a case of a society getting the film literature it deserves? I’m tempted to answer yes when I overhear people (including people in my own house) animatedly discussing movie reviews in the most superficial terms. (If their assessment of a film conflicts with the reviewer’s, the only possible explanation is that he was “paid off” – either by the producer of the film or by the “rival camp”. And why do these writers deal in such big words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, they ask, if they chance to encounter a reviewer who really knows how to use the language and articulate complex ideas. Why can't they simply tell us if the film is Good or Bad?)

But I like to think the general situation can improve, if publishers provide the right support. (That’s a big, big “if”.) A start of sorts has been made. HarperCollins is currently doing a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, and the involvement of such writers as Anuvab Pal (he’s doing the book on Disco Dancer, which I’m really looking forward to), Meghnad Desai (Pakeezah) and Vinay Lal (Deewaar) is good news. (Full disclosure: I’ve recently finished my own contribution to the series, though I have no idea when it will see the light of day.)

A bit of this and that: forthcoming books

Blogging will be sparse in the next three weeks because of the travelling (and don’t expect any live updates from the Jaipur festival either), so here are a couple of “tidbit” posts.

First, a few books I look forward to in the next three or four months:

- It’s always nice when you can claim an association with a forthcoming book. In this post about a lunch interview with Amitava Kumar, I mentioned Amitava asking me to stop the car so he could take photographs of some “wanted” posters. “I’m becoming very interested in the language used to describe terrorists, and how we are expected to recognise them,” he said at the time, “people who conduct terrorist attacks don’t usually look like stereotypes.” Well, this interest has spawned Evidence of Suspicion, which examines the hidden impact of the war on terror on our lives through interviews with S A R Gilani, Hemant Lakhani and others who have been caught in the eye of the storm. Amitava is one of our most methodical non-fiction writers, and I think he’ll have some insightful things to say about this incendiary – and very relevant – topic.

- One of the great "sleeper hits" in recent Indian publishing was the delightful (and wonderfully well-produced) Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. The sequel is being published this year and will include a horror story by a Singaporean Tamil writer (you read that right) and a vintage Karate Kavitha adventure comic, among many other goodies. It's one of the books I'll be looking forward to most. Blaft will also continue its English translations (by Sudarshan Purohit) of novels by the enormously popular Hindi crime fiction writer, Surendra Mohan Pathak.

- While on crime writers in translation, the revered Urdu crime writer Ibn-e Safi – author of the popular “Jasoosi Duniya” and Detective Imran series – is also set to be introduced to English readers. Random House India is publishing two books, The
House of Fear and Shootout at the Rocks, and Blaft has a series of four Jasoosi Duniya novellas planned. Agatha Christie’s endorsement “I don’t know Urdu but I know about detective novels in the subcontinent and there is only one original writer – Ibn-e Safi” will no doubt be widely used in publicity material. The quote doesn’t have to be taken very seriously – why would Christie know how many "original" crime writers there were in the Urdu-speaking world if she wasn’t familiar with the language? – but these books should be a lot of fun nonetheless.

- The reticent Siddharth Chowdhury (who wrote the excellent Patna Roughcut) returns after a hiatus with Day Scholar, a novel about a young boy from Bihar who joins Delhi University in the early 1990s, as the Mandal Commission and Ram Mandir sagas start to unfold.

- And two of India’s funniest and most popular bloggers, Arnab Ray and Sidin Vadukut, have first books out. Vadukut’s Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese is about a loser who makes it to the top of the corporate ladder, while Ray’s May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, described as a sarcastic look at Indian popular culture, will supply a “read and weep” strategy for handling terror attacks, discuss what goes into the making of successful TV serials, and attempt a deconstruction of “the NRI who loves his country by staying outside it”. If you don’t already know Vadukut and Ray’s online writings, it’s a good time to get acquainted.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jaipur, lit

So here's the usual annual reminder about the Jaipur Literature Festival; it's on from the 21st to the 25th of this month and the list of attending writers is very impressive, as you'd expect. The day-by-day schedule is on the website, but do keep checking because there will undoubtedly be some changes in the next few days.

I spent four delightful days at the festival last year but this time my visit will be more rushed - I'll only be there for a day and a half, because I have some more work-related travelling to do at the end of the month (and need some time to prepare for it). However, I will be moderating a conversation with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle (author of the Barrytown Trilogy, the Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and my favourite among the books of his I've read so far, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors) on the 24th. That should be fun. In my short time there I also hope to meet the filmmaker Stephen Frears, who directed the screen adaptations of two Doyle novels, The Van and The Snapper (as well as many other fine films such as Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons and Dirty Pretty Things; he was also assistant director on Lindsay Anderson's great 1968 film If..., which is a personal favourite).

Too lazy to link to individual posts now, but see my January archives for 2009, 2007 and 2006
for reportage from earlier editions of the lit fest.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Demons in the grassland: Shindo’s Onibaba

One of the iconic images from the Japanese horror film Ringu (and its American remake The Ring) is a view from the bottom of a deep, dark well: a circular patch of sky occupying the centre of the frame, the rest of the screen dark. When the mouth of the well is covered with a makeshift lid, the image becomes the sinister glowing “ring” of the film’s title.


I’m not sure about this, but the patch-of-sky view could be inspired by a similar shot in Kaneto Shindo’s creepy 1964 film Onibaba (The Devil Woman), which I watched on one of those fabulous Criterion Collection DVDs a while ago. The shot comes very early in the film. The first scene is an overhead view of a windy grassland, the reeds – more than six feet high – swaying in the breeze. The camera moves closer to show us a large pit in the ground and the next shot is from deep inside the hole, looking up. Then the film’s opening credits begin, accompanied by a strident, percussive music score.

The pit's existence is known only to a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law, who live in squalid conditions in this large marshland. Struggling to make ends meet (this is medieval Japan and the son/husband is away fighting in an army), the two women murder wounded Samurai who stagger into the grass looking for shelter, dump the bodies in the hole, and then trade the armour for meagre rations of food. Meanwhile they also get by with killing rats, dogs and whatever other creatures they can get their hands on, and generally live like wild animals themselves.

Things change when a neighbour, a man named Hachi, starts making advances on the daughter-in-law. Their clandestine relationship terrifies the older woman, who fears being left to fend for herself. She tries to dissuade them by talking about hellfire and divine punishment for carnal sins, but to no avail. Then she gets her hands on a demon mask and an idea presents itself.

Onibaba isn’t a scary film in the usual sense – there isn’t a single jump-out-of-your seat moment. But it’s a very disturbing one, creating atmosphere through hand-held camerawork, eerie aural effects (including bird sounds in the scenes where the young woman, her face rapturous, races through the grass to meet her lover), and of course the unusual setting itself. The stark black-and-white photography creates a very vivid, particular world. (The colour footage of the film’s shooting in the DVD Extras felt all wrong to me; it was difficult to imagine that this movie was actually made by a crew – some of them dressed in T-shirts! – who set up camp near the marsh.)

On the face of it, the deep hole, into which the bodies of the murdered men are thrown, seems like an obvious sexual symbol – implying the woman as predator. But the two protagonists aren’t evil or insane. They are doing what they need to do to survive. The grassland – and the little hut in its centre – is their home, and outside its borders great battles are taking place: kings are trying to usurp each others’ territories, men are dying by the thousands, villages are being pillaged and burned to the ground, once-proud warriors are fleeing in fear. (Though the story is set in roughly the same period as Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, there is no place here for the codes of honour that were central to that film; chaos and degradation rule.) There are rumours that a black sun rose on a nearby land a few days earlier. In a world gone so rotten, what’s so wrong with hastening the deaths of a few men who are doomed anyway?

Despite the film’s title, there are no “devil women” here, only human beings – a point underlined by the unforgettable final scene, a series of jump-cuts punctuated by a cry of anguish (I can’t reveal more, you have to watch the film for the spine-chilling context). More than anything else, the scene leaves you with a sense of sadness for wasted lives; for people struggling to get by in the face of hunger and loneliness.

“Take off your mask,” whispers the old woman to a Samurai who has just told her that he has a beautiful face underneath the mask he is wearing, “I’ve never seen anything really beautiful.” The words open a window to a lifetime of deprivation, but they don’t prevent us from seeing that the mask is terrifyingly beautiful itself. It’s also just as impassive as the grassland where this human drama plays out.

[Other recently bought Criterion DVDs of old Japanese films: Misaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous Kwaidan, and Kon Ichikawa’s Nobi/Fires on the Plain. Will write about them if I get the time]

P.S. An old post on Koji Suzuki’s Ring series

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Analyse this (and a quick note on 3 Idiots)

The most entertaining put-down I’ve read recently was a long blog comment directed at all those annoying people who ask movie reviewers the question, “Why can't you just enjoy the movie for what it is? Why do you have to analyse it?” Do read the full comment on Aishwarya’s blog.
The “don’t analyse, just enjoy” line is very familiar; I hear it whenever I try to discuss a hugely popular film using any sentences more complicated than “This movie rocks from beginning to end!” Take Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots, a film I enjoyed a lot on the whole. It’s full of some really good bits and the first half in particular was outstanding. But watching the second half, I couldn’t help wondering why so many good Hindi films take the trouble to establish a nuanced thought process and then simply cop out of it at crucial times. Why does it feel like five different writers were sitting in a room, each trying to tug the film in a different direction?
For an example of what I’m talking about, consider a superb 20-minute stretch close to the film’s midway point: the scene where the three heroes (fun-loving students at an engineering college) make a public spectacle of their colleague Chatura, a teacher’s pet who learns everything by rote. The sequence begins by placing us, the viewer, in a position of identification with the three leads. When one of them plays a phone gag on Chatura while another switches around the words in a Hindi speech he has to recite (“balatkaar” for “chamatkaar”, etc), we approve of the prank; after all, Chatura is such a smug little toady. We then laugh our heads off at him as he makes the unintentionally ribald speech (it’s one of the great paisa-vasool/taali-maar scenes you’ll ever see). But then – in the scene that follows – the film briefly turns the tables on us by allowing us to see his anger and humiliation; to see him as a victim of a flawed educational system.
Taken together, the whole 20-minute section is a brilliantly sustained sequence of moral complexity – one of the best I've seen in a mainstream Hindi movie. It builds up in such a way that when Chatura denounces the “three idiots” on the rooftop, he's also denouncing us in a sense. (At any rate, anyone who has been through the formal-education grind in India - and done even moderately well in school or college - should find it very difficult to take any sort of higher moral ground against Chatura. To varying degrees, we've all done what he does.) But this train of thought is never really followed through. Instead, the film makes the predictable, feel-good, mass-audience-pleasing decision to let Chatura remain a buffoon and a comic foil, as if he were personally the villain of the piece instead of a tiny cog in a giant broken wheel.
This also leads to a disconnect between the film's (over)stated “message” and what actually happens at the end (something I felt was a problem in Taare Zameen Par as well). 3 Idiots spends over two-and-a-half hours preaching about how personal satisfaction and following your dreams are more important than “success” as society defines it (status, bank balance, size of car, etc). But in the last 10 minutes it can’t resist giving the audience the very superficial thrill of seeing that the Aamir character has ended up in a position where he can make the pompous Chatura grovel. (And besides, isn't his Ladakh lake bigger than the rich NRI’s indoor swimming pool?)
There are a few other examples of loose writing. Like the Javed Jaffrey sub-plot, thrown in only because they couldn't find another way to justify the Aamir character cutting himself off from everyone after college. And the lazy handling of the "10 years after" scenario, with Kareena improbably on the verge of getting married to the same moron she was engaged to a decade earlier (you get the impression the writers stuck with the fellow only because he was such a soft target for humour).
When I spoke to a friend about these little short-cuts, he said, “Well, yes, but we expect our Hindi films to be wishy-washy about these little things, right?” I know what he meant, but I’m starting to wish that our default expectation mode about basic internal consistency in our movies didn't always have to be set low – especially when the film is so good in many other ways, as 3 Idiots undoubtedly is.
P.S. Another gripe I have with the
"don't be so analytical" complaint is that most people use it in a manipulative, selective way. The thought process goes something like this: "Whoa, you didn't love the film I loved?! *Hmm, rationalise, rationalise* That can only mean you're over-analytical/you think too much." It's the same thing as people telling you to be "objective" about a movie when what they really mean is "Agree with my [subjective] view of it."

P.P.S. Some related thoughts on analysing and enjoying in this old post about Om Shanti Om.