Friday, May 07, 2010

Persistence of Vision: an introduction

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.


  1. Not keen on 'buzzing up' to leave a comment on the forums, but this is really lovely stuff, Jai. Looking forward to future installments.

  2. Roswitha: thanks! Hope I can find some sort of tone for the column and sustain it. And yes, that "buzz up" thing confuses me too, though I may have to engage with it at some point.

  3. Great start!
    What a coincidence!After reading your piece, I came across this Top 5 Film Books Poll on BFI's Sight and Sound website:
    How many of these have you swallowed(in the Baconian way,that is) already? Name your favourites and influences,if possible.

  4. The tone in the Yahoo Column you have linked is quite different from your blog, and I must say - more appropriate. And yeah, another positive aspect is the fact that it is short - I mean relatively!! :) Quite interesting to know about your passions at earlier stages of your life. I have a friend who is very similar to you and is adamant about directing a movie anytime soon - I am not quite sure about you, on this topic ;) And yes, do keep it simple and short in the column - there are a lot of Aam Aadmi's like me reading them!

  5. Great stuff. Very engaging.

  6. "The tone in the Yahoo Column you have linked is quite different from your blog, and I must say - more appropriate."

    excITingIP: Surprised to hear this. Obviously the introductory column was meant to be a little more basic, considering it's for a (presumably) new readership - but essentially, I don't expect the overall tone to be too different from my blog writing. In fact, I've written blog posts about my early days as a film buff, the Maltin diary etc.

    Glad you liked the first column though.

    Aditya: haven't read quite a few of the books mentioned there, though I have read essays from some of them (the Sarris one, for example). Also, as I think I've written before on this blog, I'm not crazy about the Hitchcock-Truffaut book myself - but that's probably because my own level of engagement with Hitchcock's cinema has gone further than the discussions covered in that book. I agree that it was a very important book in terms of getting people to take Hitch's work seriously.

  7. "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."
    That goes for a foodie as well, but I don't know if that is applicable to literature. More about that later.

    One thing I notice in your writing-its very even.You rarely use complex sentences and it seems that every thought is carefully etched in your mind before you begin to put it on paper. Do you do this purposefully? I miss a certain,how to put it, excitability in your writing.

  8. Liked the last para the best! Nice column name too.

    Aditya: Thanks for the link. This excerpt on the BFI site from one of Sarris made my day :

    There is a time in every film critic’s life when he thinks that Billy Wilder is more profound than John Ford, and that nastiness is more profound than nobility. However, the acquiring of moral wisdom comes with mortal awareness, and vice begins paying back all its youthful debts to virtue.

  9. shrikanth: do you post from a heavily virus-ed computer or something? Because 1) I don't get notifications of your comments any more, and 2) Each comment seems to be posted multiple times.

  10. J'wock: Awfully sorry for the multiple comments. There was a typo in the first comment. Hence, I deleted it and reposted. But there was a fairly long lag in the appearance of the new comment as well as the deletion of the first comment. Which prompted me to post again, resulting in three near-identical comments.

    Don't know why the notification isn't happening though. Blogger commenting system is a pain.

  11. Yes, there have been lots of general problems with comments on - I saw many complaints about it in the "Help" section the last time I visited.

  12. You rarely use complex sentences and it seems that every thought is carefully etched in your mind before you begin to put it on paper. Do you do this purposefully?

    Rahul: can't really say, but the lack of "excitability" could be because I'm not confident of my ability to write in a really dynamic, complex-sentence way and still convey what I want to. So it's easier to keep things simple. That said, the next "Persistence of Vision" will be about the film Gumnaam, and it'll be quite a challenge not to sound excitable while discussing that film!

  13. As everyone else has already said, this was lovely.

    (I disagree with Rahul, though - I think you convey geekful excitement very well indeed)