Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro on page

When Jai Arjun Singh was approached by Harper Collins, his first thought was to do a book on the Kamal Hassan-starrer Pushpak. However, it took one mention of Kundan Shah’s 1983 comedy by commissioning editor Saugata Mukherjee to change his mind. “I realised this would be a compelling film to write about,” Singh said in an interview. “With Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, you just know there’d be an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Coincidentally, I’d just seen the film for the first time as an adult a few weeks back, after a gap of 17-18 years.”

While Singh does drop a warning coda early on in the book (“It is difficult to describe this film to someone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand”) chances are most of his readers would be familiar with this, Hindi cinema’s ultimate cult film. Nearly two decades after its release, fans still quote its absurdist lines, discuss the philosophical implications of Satish Shah’s highly entertaining corpse, and write mini-theses on the Marxist (Groucho Marxist) Mahabhratha sequence. Even dedicated viewers of the film, though, should find plenty that’s new in this breezy (yet thorough) piecing together of how the film fell into place. Singh speaks to most of the major players – among others, director Kundan Shah, screenwriter Ranjit Kapoor, actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani and Om Puri – and uses their first-hand reports to illuminate why the movie played out the way it did.

While Singh had written about this film on his blog Jabberwock, he decided to approach his first full-length by not “pre-deciding how the book was going to be. I decided I’d keep my mind open and if something interesting came up during the research process, I’d go with it,” he said. He stressed how different the film might have turned out if the script hadn’t been through multiple iterations, and the crew hadn’t been receptive to new ideas while shooting. Shah’s original English script had a talking gorilla and Anupam Kher playing an inept hitman called “Disco Killer”. These ideas were shot and subsequently dropped, as were many others, notes Singh in a fascinating chapter entitled “Outtakes from the Shadow Films”. This was as much due to the vision of the filmmakers and the legendary scissor-fingers of editor Renu Saluja (her contribution, along with Shah and Kapoor, is singled out by the author as most vital to the film) as it was to NFDC tax regulations, which stipulated that movies shorter than 2 hours 25 minutes fell under a different slab (Yaaro clocks in at 2 hours, 24 minutes).

The more one reads Singh’s book, the more one is struck by the fact that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro may not only be one of India’s best-loved comedies, but also the encapsulation of the possibilities of a moment when a supremely talented bunch of individuals decided to collaborate on a project that seemed jinxed from day one. Its cast and crew reads like a non-mainstream honour roll – besides those mentioned above, Pankaj Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Sudhir Mishra and Vidhu Vinod Chopra were all involved with the production – and Singh cites not only FTII, where the director and most of the actors studied, but also NSD, of which Ranjit Kapoor and Robin Das, the art director, were alumni, as important founding grounds for the film.

What makes Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro all the more unique is the fact that it has proved surprisingly resistant to imitation. When asked why, Singh mused “I don’t know if it’s too mystical to suggest that when Shah and Kapoor came together, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Maybe other directors didn’t have the same sensibility. Or maybe some did, but didn’t have a crew that was on the same wavelength.” In such a situation, what might Yaaro’s legacy be? The book points in some surprising directions. Sudhir Mishra, for instance, remarks how the harrowing scene where two cops beat up Shiney Ahuja’s character in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi had, to his mind, an undercurrent of black humour that was a result of his having worked on Shah’s film. Singh also mentioned Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City and Peepli Live as films possessing the same absurdist comic outlook. Ultimately, though, the best analogy for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s ethereal lightness, and well as its elusiveness, can be found in Akhtar Mirza’s advice to Shah: “Your script is like snow, so it’s floating. If you put all this logic into it, it will become ice and sink.”

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Two thumbs up for emotional writing. Two down for Wikipedia's reputation as a unbiased source. These are the site's concluding words on the Jessica Lal murder case:
"Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani...alleged that the High Court Bench had made up its mind to hold Sharma guilty. Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium submitted that there was sufficient evidence against Manu Sharma for his involvement in the crime. Yay."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bari Theke Paliye: DVD Review

Bari Theke Paliye is often described as India’s The 400 Blows, even though Truffaut’s masterpiece was released in 1959, a year after Ritwik Ghatak’s film. While the basic storylines - a delinquent boy runs away from home - are similar, the two films make an interesting study in contrasts. Ghatak’s protagonist is younger than Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, more of a Bengali Huckleberry Finn in his resourcefulness and cheerful defiance of authority. Bari Theke Paliye is a lot starker than Truffaut’s film – by the time it is done, the runaway has had to deal with hunger, poverty and death. But the most crucial, and least deserved, point of contrast is this: Truffaut’s film kicked off the French New Wave and is one of the most revered in film history, while Ghatak’s is a neglected masterpiece, little-known even in its country of origin.

This neglect is evident from the first frame; the picture jumps around alarmingly, and the quality of the image cries out for restoration. Even through the murk, Ghatak’s singular vision shines through. Kanchan (Param Bharak Lahiri, in one of the greatest-ever performances by a child actor) is irritated by the dampening effect his professor-dad’s disciplinary ways have on his shenanigans. He runs off, leaving his village home for the big city of Calcutta, vowing to make enough money to support his doting mother. With no money, friends or relatives, things look bleak until he’s befriended by a good-hearted trickster named Haridas (Kali Bannerjee). Ghatak incisively hones in on the distracted nature of children; even though Haridas is his best chance for survival, Kanchan keeps wandering off to have adventures.

Ghatak was just two films old when he made Bari Theke Paliye. In the coming years, he would go on to make some of the starkest films ever to come out of Bengal (or India, or anywhere) in Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. This film too has its strident moments – Ghatak’s startling overlays of sound and image, for example (and a tribute to their intellectual source – a brief visual homage to Battleship Potemkin’s famous image of an old woman with broken spectacles). But the mood on the whole is one of lessons learnt, and of hard-won forgiveness. The cinematography by Dinen Gupta is as heartfelt a tribute to Calcutta in the ’50s as Henri Decae’s in The 400 Blows was to Paris. The score, courtesy Salil Chowdhury, is another source of wonder, shifting from sitars and flutes to orchestras to emphasise the character’s journey from village to town. The director’s decision to construct the second half as a series of short vignettes upsets the film’s rhythm somewhat; the ends of some scenes feel like they’ve been loped off. But that’s a minor quibble. Bari Theke Paliye translates as The Runaway; given the relative obscurity of its status, it should have been The One That Got Away.

This review was published in Time Out Delhi.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What might have been

Movie buffs ceaselessly cast and recast the movies they see. Salon's outrageous piece inspired me to do some replacing of my own.

1. Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train
Granger wrecks every Hitchcock film he's in (he's awful in Rope as well), and in this one, Robert Walker's silky pyschopath runs rings around his quavering, ineffectual tennis player wimp. Hitchcock might have been served better by going with the other actor rumoured to have been considered for Granger's part - William Holden. The handsome soullessness he displayed in Sunset Boulevard would have been just the right quality for this role, something to make the audience doubt whether he actually wanted his ex-wife dead or not.

2. John Mills in Great Expectations
Simply too old to be a twentysomething Pip. It fairly ruined the film for me, despite all that lovely camerawork and Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. Replacement would have to be Brit, and young at the time. How about Marius Goring, the ernest conductor in The Red Shoes?

3. Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code
Hanks is one my all-time favourites, but he lacked energy and a certain Indiana Jones-ness in this movie. A terrific replacement, to my mind, would be the talented Hugh Laurie, who's proved more than capable of putting on an American accent when required.

4. Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood
PT Anderson is almost as good a caster as his friend, Quiten Tarantino, this is the only role I can recall where I feel he slipped up. Dano tries hard, but Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is monstrously powerful, and Eli ends up seeming weak. Edward Norton would have fit the bill a lot better in my book (though he's a bit old). And how about Jesse Eisenberg?

5. Richard Gere in Days of Heaven
It's a magical, painterly film, but Gere doesn't make half the impact he should, and Sam Shepard's low-key performance overtakes his easily. John Travolta, originally considered for the role, might have brought more charisma to the table, as might Jeff Bridges, or even (I'm going out on a limb) Kevin Costner.

6. Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-Wai had had some success with casting pop stars in lead roles before (most notably Faye Wong in Chungking Express). It backfired, however, with the beautiful but visibly nervous Norah Jones in this, his only English-language film. Cat Power's chemistry with Jude Law in a small cameo indicates that Kar-Wai may have cast the wrong smoky-voiced singer in the lead role. Natalie Portman (there's also Rachel Weisz, in case you think this film could accomodate any more astoundingly beautiful women), stealing scenes like a professional thief, would have done even better.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Let it all hang out

Just about the funniest song I've ever heard. This is the 1967 original by The Hombres.

A John Mellencamp cover of the same. Adds little in terms of musical value, but the video is sexy and hilarious, qualities that make it a perfect fit for this song.