Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lagaan: 11 and counting

I wrote this appreciation of Lagaan for the  Time Out website.

In early 2001, long before it travelled to the Oscars and inspired MBA case studies, Lagaan was just another Bollywood release in search of a strong opening. Not many pundits were confident that would happen; Ashutosh Gowariker’s film had risk written all over it. Hindi film directors had all but given up shooting outside of studios; Lagaan was set in a fictional village and shot on location in Kutch, Gujarat. The only big name in the cast was that of Aamir Khan – and his last three films had been failures at the box office (Gowariker, who started his directorial career with two flops, had fallen off the grid). The dialogue was in Awadhi, a dialect from Uttar Pradesh that was tricky, though not impossible, to understand. The shoot, as a making-of documentary attests, was long and often in danger of being scuttled. But Lagaan had a secret weapon, one that was cannily hidden until the film’s release. It was about cricket.

Lagaan wasn’t the first film to combine cinema and cricket, India’s two great obsessions. There was a 1984 film called All Rounder, in which Kumar Gaurav played an up-and-coming cricketer. Six years after that, there was Awwal Number, directed by Dev Anand and starring, in one of his early outings as lead actor, Aaamir Khan. As a film, it was just bad; as a cricket film, it was an embarrassment (the nadir being the soul-scarring Bappi Lahiri ditty “Yeh hai cricket”). Though he’d never admit it, Lagaan might have been Aamir’s attempt of atoning for that terrible wrong done to the Indian cricket fan. At any rate, Lagaan, his first film as producer, was a watershed as far as cricket on the big screen was concerned.

Set in 1893, the film’s about a group of villagers who accept a British Captain’s challenge to a cricket match. They’ll be exempt from paying tax for three years if they win; if they lose, they’ll pay three times the regular tax. The first half shows how Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan and the other villagers go about learning the game, which at that time was only played by the ruling British. The rest of the film is taken up by the match itself. That the on-screen cricket looked authentic (and true to the period – no paddle sweeps were used in the making of this film) was vital to the film’s success. After 20 years of increasingly detailed cricket broadcasts, the Indian public would have rejected anything with a false ring to it.

Another source of delight was the many sly references to the modern game. The match features live commentary, runners for injured players, non-strikers leaving their creases and being run out. The screenplay was peppered with tactics the modern-day fan would recognise – the field closing in to cut off the single, a new arrival to the crease being subjected to sledging. Match-fixing was very much in the news in 2001, and it makes an appearance here in the form of an Indian team-member who under-performs as part of a deal made with the British. Other details, like the pitch taking spin only after a day’s cricket’s been played on it, are used as dramatic plot devices.

More than anything else in the movie, it’s the character of Kachra, a lower-caste spin bowler with a withered arm, which makes evident just how well the makers of this film knew their cricket. Kachra is a composite of two real-life Indian spinners: Palwankar Baloo and Bhagwat Chandrashekhar. Baloo overcame massive odds to become one of the first Dalits to play for India; his 118 wickets on the 1911 tour of England remain one of Indian cricket’s great unsung feats. Chandra, who was part of the great trinity of Indian spinners in the 1970s, had polio as a child, which resulted in a withered arm much like that of Kachra. To this composite, the film adds a dash of Shane Warne, as seen in the cheeky recreation of the Australian’s “ball of the century” (Kachra bowls a befuddled Brit round his legs, the same way Warne did in his first Ashes series).

It might be another decade before we can assess Lagaan’s true place in the pantheon of Hindi cinema (it was definitely the beginning of brand Aamir, that canny mix of populism and smarts). As far as Indian sports films go though, it stands unequalled. Lagaan can be seen as a precursor to Chak De India and Iqbal (maybe even Paan Singh Tomar), films that put sports front and centre, and got the mechanics right. Also, in introducing Bollywood to cricket, Lagaan predated that very peculiar soap opera series, the IPL. Lalit Modi might claim that it was he who brought cricketers and movie stars on the same pitch, but history will show that Lagaan did it first, and arguably better.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gone with the Wind: DVD box set review

It’s three and a half hours long. It has an interval. It’s wildly melodramatic. It has masters and servants, evil landowners and sacrificing wives. Gone with the Wind is the most Bollywood of Hollywood movies. That might explain why so many Indians are fans of the movie, and why this staggeringly expansive (and fairly expensive) five-disc box set has been placed on shelves here.

If you’re a Windie (fans of the movie call themselves that), this pack might actually look like value for money. The first two discs are devoted to the movie, after which begins a deluge of extras. There are portraits of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh (leads Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara), and recollections by Olivia de Havilland, who plays Melanie. There’s a feature called 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year and a made-for-TV movie on producer David O Selznick’s search for the perfect leading lady (a process which lasted two years and included rejects of the stature of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis). The pick of the extras, though, is a documentary on the making of the film. Written by the irreverent David Thomson (The Biographical Dictionary of Film), it’s an engaging look back at a production that threatened to fall apart at every step.

As for the film, what’s left to say? It is over the top. It’s very condescending towards the African-American characters. Those who aren’t sold on the novel will have to come to terms with Scarlett’s selfishness and frequent tantrums. Yet, somehow, it just about holds together. Gable was the obvious person to play Butler – or maybe the way he played him made it seem obvious. Olivia De Havilland and Leslie Howard provide some welcome moments of quiet, while Hattie McDaniel as the maid is such a charged presence one wishes she had her own film. There was key work from Max Steiner (score), Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan (cinematography) and William Cameron Menzies (production design). Victor Fleming was the main director (George Cuckor was fired early on), but the captain of the ship was undoubtedly Selznick, who did everything from rewriting the script to sending memos about the actors’ eyebrows.

Normally, the biggest grouse we’d have with this pack is the missing audio commentary. But that oversight pales in comparison to what’s been done to the movie on behalf of our delicate moral sensibilities. All major kissing scenes in the film have been censored. We appreciate the concern of whoever felt that the sight of Gable and Leigh locking lips might send us into a frenzy of moral turpitude. Even so, we wish they’d taken a gamble and left the kisses – the payoff in any romance movie – in. Selznick, who fought long and hard with the censors so that “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” didn’t become “Frankly my dear, I just don’t care”, would not have been impressed.

A version of this review was published in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sound and Fury: Ishaqzaade

This is Ishaqzaade's storyline till half-time. Parma and Zoya are a small-town UP Romeo and Juliet. They meet cute when he barges into her house and holds her at gunpoint. That’s as personal a gesture as anyone makes in this movie, and soon they’re falling for each other despite belonging to different religions and rival political families. They marry, and just when you begin to wonder why things are going so smoothly, he tells her he wasn’t actually marrying her, just playing with her and destroying her reputation. She responds by shooting him. Only, he’s taken the bullets out. And so on.
That Habib Faisal's Ishaqzaade is entertaining is undeniable. It achieves this not by subtle suggestion, or by building a mood and maintaining it, but by keeping the viewer constantly occupied. The hits keep coming at you: chase sequences, love scenes, item numbers. There isn't a moment of stillness – not for the characters, or the story, or the roving camera. But if piling set piece upon set piece were all that mattered, Shaitaan would have been the best film of 2011. Ishaqzaade is an attractive collection of arrows whizzing towards a target that doesn’t exist.
Maybe it was intended to be so. Perhaps the very act of mulling over things – of characters forming an opinion that has some basis in reality – is antithetical to this film’s existence. Maybe Parma doesn’t change his worldview because his mother is killed, but rather, because she tells him to do so. That's a key difference. Changing his mind towards Zoya, a ‘musalla’, on his own would require him to pause and do some thinking. The film doesn’t encourage either of these activities. But a dying mother’s instructions – now that’s a whole lot easier to follow blindly. This refusal to examine the self extends to this film’s attitude towards its audience, especially the expectation that we’ll swallow the “social message” at the end without questioning whether a film like this has any right appropriating it in the first place.

As Parma, Arjun Kapoor seems bent on projecting a sort of animal magnetism, and ends up dangerously close to self-parody. He settles down after the break, but by then film’s been taken over by Parineeti Chopra. As she did in her debut, Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl (also written by Faisal), Chopra emerges as the best reason to watch this film. Whether Zoya’s gifting herself a gun or attacking Kapoor with a stick, a pistol or a shard of glass, Chopra comes across as believable and good-humouredly independent. Priyanka Chopra, Parineeti’s sister, essayed a similar take-no-prisoners role in Kaminey to widespread acclaim. Parineeti improves on that by seeming utterly at ease in the male-dominated small-town milieu of Ishaqzaade. If Zoya undermines patriarchic assumptions, it’s not because she’s out to provoke or be rebellious. This is just who she is.
It might be short on insight, but Faisal's film looks and sounds great. Chaturvedi’s camerawork recalls his work on both Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool and (particularly in the chase sequences down narrow lanes) Ram Gopal Varma’s Company. Amit Trivedi’s music is dependable as always, and it’s supported by a fine background score by Ranjit Barot. Faisal’s debut film was Do Dooni Chaar, which was as becalmed as Ishaqzaade is jumpy. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. He has a knack for creating feisty female characters (Shruti in Band Baaja Baraat, the daughter in Do Dooni Chaar), and he’s gained visual style since his last outing. He’s lost substance, though. If his scripts for Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl and this film are any indication, he might be a writer-director in search of something worthwhile to say.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jhumroo: Review

Joining a mini-cottage industry that’s responsible for dozens of compilation albums, countless bad remixes and a reality show called K for Kishore is Jhumroo, Kingdom of Dreams’ new musical. Not only does it feature 19 of Kishore Kumar’s most overplayed hits, The Great Brown Yodel himself figures in the play. Jhumroo has been in the works a while, presumably so that the makers could get it just right. Unfortunately, it’s turned out just wrong.

Right from the opening scene, which launches us without preamble into a dance sequence set to “Om Shanti Om”, Jhumroo seems to be working on the assumption that the songs will do the play’s work for it. The plot – that flimsy device linking the musical numbers – concerns young Bholenath and his all-consuming passion for Kishore Kumar. His singing voice, though, is an unmusical bray. This changes when the spirit of Kishoreda, a singing aid from beyond the grave, enters him. Ignoring the fact that he’s coasting on borrowed glory (rather like Jhumroo itself), Bhole enters “India Super Singer” with a mind to woo his co-worker Meena (it’s her favourite TV show). That’s about it for storyline, though we’re subjected to running gags involving a South Indian boss out of central casting, a suspicious prima donna of a judge, and Thakur and Gabbar Singh from Sholay on a suspended tricycle.

Jhumroo will run alongside Zangoora, Kingdom of Dreams’ first musical, and audiences will most likely end up comparing the two. If this happens, it’ll be to Jhumroo’s disadvantage. Zangoora, though formulaic, worked because its leads were genuinely charismatic. Jhumroo’s stars try hard, but fall short. Gaurav Gera is pleasant as Bhole, but he doesn’t command the stage the way Hussain Kuwajerwala did. Shweta Gulati as Meena fares even worse; her character only exists as a reaction to whatever Bhole’s doing. Jhumroo’s choreography is the most inventive part of the show, but the sheer volume of musical numbers – each done with typical Kingdom of Dreams bombast – is exhausting. We love Kishore Kumar, but two and a half hours of songs we’ve heard all our life is too much of a good thing.

Of course, Zangoora didn’t seem like it had it in it to do 640 shows (and counting), so director Vikranth Pawar and his team could well be expecting another hit. However, unless divine intervention works on more than Bhole’s vocal chords, this is unlikely to happen. What’s sad is how one of Hindi cinema’s funniest, most irrepressible figures has become the subject of a play that lacks wit, verve and self-confidence (to the extent that it uses canned applause). “They’re stretching everything. I liked Zangoora better,” one of two kids sitting behind us during the interval said. The other agreed, adding, “I like their shoes.” We couldn’t agree more, though we’d also like to suggest that these particular shoes might have proved a bit too big to fill.

This review was published in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why I didn’t like Hugo (much)

It’s interesting how this year’s Oscar frontrunners were a Paris-set film made by an American, and a Hollywood-set film made by a Frenchman. Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist eventually won the Academy Award, as well as another, less-publicised battle over Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The Artist is an affectionate, plausible recreation of silent-era Hollywood. Hugo, on the other hand, is set in a city that would be unidentifiable as Paris were it not for a couple of stray baguettes and the Eiffel Tower outside the window. You could argue that authenticity has no place in a fairy tale, but the three-dimensional Hugo is twice removed from reality. 3D visuals make even the familiar look fantastical; here, they replace the organic richness of Dante Ferretti’s production design with something that’s spectacular but devoid of weight.

I believe that critics, guilty of ignoring many fine Scorsese films over the years, are now queuing up to pronounce everything he does a masterpiece. Hugo is a well-made film, one that pushes 3D to be better than it has in the past. I won’t deny that some of the set pieces are brilliantly fluid (though I hate it when the 3D camera ploughs through solid objects – there ought to be a law). There’s nothing wrong with Ben Kingsley’s or Michael Stuhlbarg’s or Helen McCrory’s performances, and nothing to recommend in the others. Some of the writing is inexplicably bad (“It’s Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped into one,” says Chloe Moretz’s over-eager Isabelle); it’s been a while since a Scorsese film had a truly great script.
Those who accused Spielberg’s War Horse of having stock characters (they weren’t wrong) should have applied the same yardstick to Hugo. You have the wide-eyed youngster, the Shirley Temple friend, the drunk uncle, the moustachioed villain, the crusty old toy-maker who happens to be a film pioneer (maybe that last one is okay). In the beginning, it seems a very strange choice of material for Scorsese. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear why the director was attracted to Brian Selnick's source novel. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the titular character “discovers” a washed-up Georges Méliès running a shop in a train station. Méliès was a film icon on the level of Lumiere and Griffith. Yet, when he gave up directing, many of his films were destroyed and he was forgotten by the public. Scorsese uses Hugo to champion, via the romantic figure of Méliès, who really was re-discovered in 1929, a key cause of his – film preservation. Hugo becomes a cautionary tale about forgetting one’s heritage, a cinephile’s Pocohontas.

My problem isn’t just with the film itself, but also the technology it so wholeheartedly embraces. For something that adds an extra dimension to the viewing experience, 3D is nevertheless incapable of (or under-ultilised in) producing the depth-of-field effect that enables you to take the whole scene in in one go. Actors tend to tower over you in 3D close-ups, and the background becomes an irrelevant blur for those few seconds. If it isn’t used carefully, 3D could be the death of the democratic image, the legacy of filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. Cinema has always stood for two things – a spectacle, and a mirror held unto our lives. 3D is well-suited to the former, but the latter still eludes it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


(“Come as you are...”)
By Rabindranath Tagore

Come as you are, tarry not over your toilet.
If your braiding has come loose, if the parting of your hair be not straight, if the ribbons of your bodice be not fastened, do not mind.

Come as you are, tarry not over your toilet.
Come with quick steps over the grass.
If your feet are pale with the dew, if your anklets slacken, if pearls drop out of your chain, do not mind.
Come with quick steps over the grass.

Do you see the clouds wrapping the sky?
Flocks of cranes fly up from the further riverbank and fitful gusts of wind rush over the heath.
The anxious cattle run to their stalls in the village.
Do you see the clouds wrapping the sky?

In vain you light your toilet lamp; it flickers and goes out in the wind.
Surely, who would know that with lamp-black your eyelids are not touched? For your eyes are darker than rain clouds.
In vain you light your toilet lamp; it goes out.

Come as you are, tarry not over your toilet.
If the wreath is not woven, who cares? If the wrist-chain has not been tied, leave it by.
The sky is overcast with clouds; it is late.
Come as you are, tarry not over your toilet.

78 years later...

No word yet on whether Kurt Cobain was a closet Rabindrasangeet listener. He would have killed that "In vain you light your toilet lamp" line, though.