Monday, April 22, 2013

Salaam Bombay: Takin’ it to the streets

I spoke to Mira Nair just before the re-release of Salaam Bombay! in theatres. A slightly truncated version appeared in print. This is the complete interview. 

During the making of Salaam Bombay!, director Mira Nair gave her cast and crew T-shirts that read “No guts no glory. 52 days 52 locations. What problem? No Problem”. The glory, of course, was to come. The film debuted at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Golden Camera for best first feature. It received Academy Award, Golden Globe and César nominations, and won a National Award for Best Film in Hindi. In the years since its release, it has become a touchstone for Indian and World Cinema directors. Subsequent Bombay films like Satya and That Girl in Yellow Boots are in its debt, as are international productions like Slumdog Millionaire and City of God.

Yet it’s what went into the making of the film – the problems that the T-shirts brushed aside – that made Salaam Bombay!’s success such an improbable Cinderella story. For starters, almost everyone involved was at the beginning of their feature film career. Nair, a documentary maker, had never directed a feature before; screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, her classmate from Harvard, had never one; cinematographer Sandi Sissel had never shot one. Nana Patekar wasn’t well-known in those days, and Raghubir Yadav was only one film old. Rawest of all were the street kids whom Nair insisted on casting, and whose performances became the film’s beating heart.

Nair combined several of her passions in her debut film. You can see the influence of Leacock and Pennebaker, masters of cinéma vérité; of Badal Sircar, who coached her in political theatre; and of Barry John, whose Theatre Action Group she was a member of. John helped her conduct a workshop with the children prior to the shoot; they started with 129 kids, and whittled the number down to 19. The shoot, which began during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, was chaotic, with Nair’s “no studios” policy necessitating a fair bit of guerilla-style filming. Money kept running out, and Nair found herself shooting during the day and talking to financiers at night. Yet, somehow, the film made it from Bombay’s crowded streets to Paris for the post-production.

Seen today, the film, which looks at the lives of Bombay street kids through the eyes of a tea-seller called Krishna (Shafiq Syed), still feels fresh and vital. Contemporary audiences have a rare chance to make up their own minds on the film’s 25th anniversary, as PVR is releasing a digitally restored version in theatres. We met Nair at her Vasant Vihar home and, under the gaze of a Vivan Sunderam portrait that looks remarkably like the brothel madam played by Shaukat Azmi in the film, asked her about the guts, the glory and the long shadow of Salaam Bombay!.

Mira Nair and Shafiq Syed. Photo by Sooni Taraporevala.
You had made four documentaries before Salaam Bombay!. What made you decide to move to features?
I wasn’t one of those people who were using documentaries as a stepping stone to features. I never studied features. What I really wanted to be was a documentary filmmaker. The frustration was not finding an audience, and I wanted one.

I liked cinéma vérité – pure documentaries, in a sense. We went, lived with people, and turned the camera on whenever things became interesting. Often, I never knew what the story was until I went into the editing room. But once I was there, I wished I had more control – over a gesture, where the light fell. So I found myself, organically, wanting those things that don’t come from hit-and-run documentaries. That was the second thing. The first was: kaun dekhega mera picture? They don’t believe this now, but even my family didn’t see my documentaries. Where could you go to see them in those days? It was like talking into a void.

Was there a specific point of origin for the story?
I remember two images. I was living in a flat in Antop Hill with these dancers whose lives I was documenting in [the 1985 documentary] India Cabaret. This “chaipau” [what Krishna is called by everyone in Salaam Bombay!] would come and wake these dancers up every morning with cups of tea. They’d tell him “Naacho” from their beds: a total role reversal. But more than that, it was being in this crazy traffic jam, and this gnarled kind of hand holding onto my taxi window. I looked down, and there was this kid who was just a head and torso and arms, on a wooden platform. He held on as the light turned green, and as the taxi picked up speed he let go and, in the middle of traffic, did this pirouette like there was an audience. It was startling to see a child who literally had nothing performing for himself.

You conducted a workshop for the kids with Barry John before the shoot.
We brought him in from Delhi. He had such a great facility – with children and with drama.

We had the fourth draft of the screenplay by that time, but we didn’t bring that in until the fourth week of the workshop. We were finding out what these kids were, what they spoke about. In the sixth and last week, we brought in the camera, because I wanted them to feel the pressure.

Aneeta, Irrfan and Raghubir were part of the workshop, but I kept Nana distant because I wanted that tension [between him and the kids]. It became pretty clear during that time that Shafiq would be chaipau.

You also used cartoons to help the kids with the screenplay.
Well, that was done mainly for continuity. And of course, they couldn’t read. Dilnaz, the assistant director, would make these stick figure-like cartoons, just to give them an idea of what will happen. We only had to use those in the workshop, though, because by the time we were shooting, the kids knew it backwards.

The film was shot entirely on location. Not many Indian films did that then.
We didn’t even know it was unprecedented for its time. I didn’t know any other way. It’s taken me years to go inside a studio. What’s crazy was that we didn’t have all our locations mapped out. We found locations in the middle of the shoot.

We were always on the lookout for rains, because we had no money for a machine. For this one shot, we’d staked out this particular spot in a brothel. When the time came to shoot the scene, we literally had to climb over three pairs of intertwined legs!

Nana Patekar wasn’t your original choice for the role of Baba.
I’d always worshipped Naseeruddin Shah. I’ll never forget seeing him on stage in The Zoo Story at the American Center when I was 17 years old. I always wanted him to play Baba. So I went to him, knocked on his door, bit my nails. He called the next day, and said he couldn’t do it. He said, “I just don’t like the guy”. I think it was him who told me to go and see Marathi theatre. So I did. When I saw Nana in Purush, that was it.

Were there any filmic inspirations for Salaam Bombay!?
Bunuel’s Los Olvidados was an early eye-opener, but the film that gave me the courage to actually make Salaam Bombay was Héctor Babenco’s Pixote, a fantastic Brazilian film on street children. I happened to be at the New Directors/New Films festival [in New York] in 1986 when I was plotting the budget of Salaam Bombay. Babenco was there that night, and he spoke after the film. I was just blown away. I remember coming out thinking, if he can do it, I think I can do it.

Though you came from a vérité background, there isn’t much handheld camera in this.
I didn’t see it as purely handheld, because I wanted a really photographic quality. I’ve always being inspired by photographs. I also didn’t want that overly jagged thing – I wanted a stately film, but full of life.

NFDC was one of the producers. What were they like to work with?
It’s very different now, but NFDC then was a tyrannical place. They used to summon me from shooting, and I’d go sit there. Sometimes there’d also be Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, the three of us sitting there like lulloos as someone would tell us ‘Aapne mineral water ka receipt nahin diya’.

The post-production happened in France. How come?
The budget we’d worked out was 860,000 dollars. We only had 450,000 when we started I decided to make a very beautiful film, with 35mm and the whole nine yards, but that meant I had no money to spend on post-production. I would shoot all day, and at night I would raise money on the phone with Europe and America.

I had a friend, a filmmaker called Gabriel Auer, in France. He came in the sixth week of shooting to Bombay. He saw what we were doing, and raised money for the remaining 50 per cent. The only thing was, it was French money, and it had to be spent in France. That’s why the post-production was in France. I did the cutting in New York, but I had to come there for the mix and the post and the negatives.

What was Cannes like?
Gabriel [Auer] suggested that we offer it only to Director’s Fortnight, the alternative to the main competition. The premiere took place in the old Palais, home of the Cannes festival before the new Palais was made. That was the year the Palais was going to be pulled down, and Salaam Bombay was the closing film in that building. That night, they called all the directors who’d ever had their films shown there.  There were 30 directors on stage, from Manoel de Oliveira to Wim Wenders. And in the end they said “And the youngest baby of the Cannes set…”, because I was 30 at the time. After the film was over, there was a 20-minute ovation. The response was astounding.

When Danny Boyle made Slumdog Millionaire – a film that has more than a little of Salaam Bombay! in it – he was accused of poverty porn. Was criticism of that sort thrown at you?
I expected more of it, but there wasn’t much. In a way, I was protected by the NFDC chhaap [the National Film Development Corporation was one of the producers]. That government seal must have helped.

Do you think Salaam Bombay! helped foster a certain kind of gritty Bombay film?
I don’t want to say it started with me. But there was definitely a thrill to see films after Salaam Bombay! getting life back on the street, because that territory’s so rich. And of course, when you see the same shot, you know it’s the same shot. For example, Satya has the same scene as the one where Chillum is dead and the kids are taking his body around the corner. I used to pull Ramu’s leg about that.

How have other directors reacted to the film over the years?
I remember being president of the jury of the African Film Festival in Milan in 1995. One day when I went back to the hotel, I met my co-president [Iranian filmmaker] Jafar Panahi. He’s a taciturn kind of guy, and he just kissed my hand, lay down and said “Salaam Bombay”.

How did this re-release come about?
We made it happen, to be honest. This is the 25th year of Salaam Bombay!. My son is 21 and a lot of children in our family are around that age, and most of them haven’t seen the film on the big screen. Because PVR was doing such a comprehensive release with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I approached them to release some of my other work.

Jolly LLB: Review

Munna Bhai MBBS, a huge hit in 2003, was a turning point for two of its supporting actors. Back then, very few had heard of Arshad Warsi or Boman Irani. Since then, each has carved out a distinct niche – Warsi as a sidekick with leading man charm, Irani as a versatile character actor for hire. Now, ten years after Munnabhai, Jolly LLB has the pair inhabiting the same character types that made them famous – the charming hustler and the obnoxious authority figure.

Jagdish Tyagi (Warsi), more commonly called Jolly, is a Meerut lawyer who comes to Delhi in search of fame and fortune. He finds neither, and in desperation, files a PIL in a case involving a rich businessman’s son mowing down six homeless people while driving drunk one night. He’s out of his depth, of course – arguing for the defence is top-flight advocate Tejinder Rajpal (Irani), the alleged vehicle is missing and the case has already been thrown out once. Still, he perseveres, first out of self-interest, and then because he’s grown a conscience.

Subhash Kapoor’s film, his second after the enjoyable Phas Gaye Re Obama, takes this promising setup and burdens it with every hokey contrast imaginable: small town versus big town, English-speaking versus Hindi-speaking, the integrity of the poor versus the callousness of the rich. Jolly, very predictably, turns into a crusader for the downtrodden, and the film compromises its satirical edge when it descends into preachiness. It might have been more impressive if Jolly managed a breakthrough or two through his own smarts – like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, a 1992 film which Jolly LLB bears a passing resemblance to. Too conveniently here, key evidence and witnesses seem to materialise as a reward for Jolly’s good intentions.

Yet, Jolly LLB is fitfully funny and engaging. Writer-director Kapoor’s training as a journalist stands him in good stead – he has an eye for strange details, like a judge sending a lovey-dovey SMS before she calls the court to order. The casting is immaculate. To the already potent Warsi-Irani tag team, Kapoor adds Saurabh Shukla as the presiding judge in the case. The scenes in court, with Warsi grinning sheepishly, Irani hyperventilating and Shukla firing ironic asides from the bench, are comic gold. If only the movie wasn’t constantly trying to impress its good intentions upon us. With Amrita Rao of the baleful gaze as Jolly’s girlfriend and conscience.

Review appeared in Time Out Delhi a while back. Forgot to post it here and, quite shockingly, no one reminded me.

Nautanki Saala: Review

Late one night, theatre director Ram (Ayushmann Khurrana) happens to drive by just as Mandar (Kunaal Roy Kapur) is about to commit suicide. Ram foils the attempt and takes the stranger home. Not content with saving the man’s life in the literal sense, he sets about fixing him in every other way possible – intercepting Mandar’s suicide note before his grandmother reads it, getting him an acting job in his theatrical production, and hatching plans to reunite him with Nandini (Pooja Salvi, miscast in a faux-Marilyn Monroe role), the girl who broke his heart.

For the first hour, this remake of the French film Après Vous is aware that it’s a comedy, and that its values are comic values. We can ignore Ram’s obsessive behaviour precisely because of this; as long as the laughs keep coming, we’re happy to play by the genre’s rules. But in the second half, Rohan Sippy’s film raises the emotional stakes and suffers as a result. Are we meant to take Ram’s falling in love with the guileless Nandini seriously? The film certainly does – and leaves the clinically depressed Mandar and Ram’s long-suffering girlfriend to just deal with it.

If Nautanki Saala is worth watching, it’s mainly because of its young cast. Khurrana’s fast-talking, increasingly monomaniacal performance carries the film. Kapur’s character’s defeatism rubs off on his acting, but even his downbeat turn has moments of animation reminiscent of the hyper-excitable Nitin from Delhi Belly. VJ Gaelyn Mendonca, as Ram’s live-in partner, gives her facial features permission to roam about, and displays ditzy comic potential. Sippy, meanwhile, shows a rare facility with the sight gag – especially one in which a Mean Streets poster on a wall fires at Khurrana. Out of the four films he’s directed, the “serious” ones (Kuch Na Kaho, Dum Maaro Dum) have been non-starters. Whereas Bluffmaster! and this film work just well enough to suggest that, one day, Sippy might direct a great comedy.

Thomson on Ebert

Of the many heartfelt tributes to Roger Ebert, I'm re-posting this one by David Thomson.

RIP Roger Ebert, Sharp Critic, Generous Spirit


It is characteristic of Roger Ebert, speechless for some years, that he should take his life departure just a day after admitting that he would have to drop down from doing 300 reviews a year. I daresay that rate of work was some compensation for not being able to talk, retort, tease, laugh, and snort. Ebert was a big man in every way who had charged through so many obstacles. The first of those was that he continued to write when beset by complicated and disfiguring cancers. Another was that he insisted on being a popular critic of a medium that sometimes seems to have lost its mainstream audience. Yet one more victory is that, with Gene Siskel, he was the only person who had made film criticism viable in this country on television. So he was famous as a TV figure, but he would tell you always that he was a newspaper man.

Then there was Siskel. It’s fair and necessary to say they did not get on, and probably sought to be contrary just to prove which one was which. They agreed on one thing: that their hostility (which is nearly the right word) was the secret of their show and the way they could spar and wisecrack like a couple of guys in a film from the ’30s.

It doesn’t really matter how good a critic Roger was—though he won the Pulitzer for his verve and enthusiasm. He was a great guy, long before the illness: When much younger he had overcome a need for alcohol. He wrote books. He used to do a one-man analysis of Citizen Kane, he had written a script that got made, by Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He was a very good interviewer at film festivals. He was generous to all and sundry. He had the great Chaz, his wife, by his side. And he was the last film critic just about everyone had heard of. So let’s forgive him for thumbs-up-thumbs-down, a televisual gesture that only encouraged the idea that a film could be summed up in 2.5 seconds. Roger could write long and talk very short. He was always on schedule—even if we did not guess how close that last deadline was.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Chashme Baddoor (2013)

We never thought we’d say it, but we’re suddenly jealous of those who haven’t seen Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor. At least they have the option of dismissing David Dhawan’s remake as a painfully unfunny comedy and not, as anyone who’s seen the 1981 film would, as the desecration of a classic. Gone is the innocence, which is hardly surprising. Gone too is the wit, the subtlety, the idea of comedy arising out of everyday life. All that’s left is the basic story – three roommates falling for the same girl – and the title with one vowel altered.

Though the setting’s been shifted from Delhi to Goa, Chashme Baddoor still centres on two roommates who are lying skirt-chasers and a third who’s a serious sort. This time around, the never-been-kissed character, Sid, is played by Ali Zafar – a strange bit of casting, seeing as this particular actor could wear an anorak and a bald wig and still not be short of female attention. We wait while his roommates, Omi (Divyendu Sharma) and Jai (Siddharth), try their luck with Seema (Taapsee Pannu) first. Since Omi deals in bad poetry and Jai in what can only be called bad acting, they strike out. All that’s left is for Seema and Sid to fall for each other and the film to grind on pointlessly for another hour.

Chashme Baddoor doesn’t as much tickle your ribs as poke them every five seconds with a bony finger, to ask “Why aren’t you laughing yet?” There are several conceivable reasons. One, the clowning of Sharma and Siddharth is so broad, it makes Govinda look like Buster Keaton. Two, there’s a ton of rhyming dialogue, a worrisome throwback to the days when Indian directors used this device for cheap laughs. Three, a heavily tattooed Rishi Kapoor (in the Saeed Jaffrey role) is hardly credible as a Goan Christian. Four, not the slightest effort is made to integrate popular gags from the earlier film – the Chamko washing powder demonstration, for instance – into the fabric of this one; they’re just lifted and inserted wholesale, a lazy attempt to appeal to people’s memories of the original.

A lot of unfair comparisons might have been avoided if this film had not been branded an official remake. One would not, for instance, have to pit the four young leads of Baddoor against Buddoor’s sublime quartet of Farooque Shaikh, Deepti Naval, Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Baswani. It’s a no-contest, though Zafar is at least watchable, something that cannot be said for either Siddharth or Sharma. Pannu, whom Tamil cinema fans might remember from Aadukulam, spends most of the movie as a fetching smile and a pair of legs (she comes to life towards the end, when she has less grinning and more scolding to do).

We will not expand on how tasteless some of the dialogue (by the duo Sajid-Farhad) is, except to say that when one character is approached by an emaciated beggar, her response is to praise his “willpower” and remind herself to go on a diet. Our only takeaway from the movie is on the signboard outside the café Rishi Kapoor’s character runs. “Nostalgia”, it says, and we’d advise you to give in to that emotion and watch the original film, re-released on the same day as its pale shadow.

Chashme Buddoor (1981)

Those who expected Sai Paranjpye’s second film to be anything like her first, a sensitive romance set in a school for the blind, must have been surprised. Her 1981 follow-up to the National Award-winning Sparsh was a slapstick comedy that amiably parodied consumerism, slackerism and the Bollywood mainstream. Chashme Buddoor was released exactly 30 years ago, and, like its more political ’80s cousin Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, shows no signs of dimming popularity.

The story is slight. Three roommates – Siddharth (Farooque Shaikh), Omi (Rakesh Bedi) and Jomo (Ravi Baswani) – fall for Chamko washing powder salesgirl Neha (Deepti Naval). Skirt-chasers Omi and Jomo are dispatched almost as soon as they enter the field, but the studious Siddharth makes more of an impression. Soon he’s contemplating asking her father, who’s also his boss, for her hand in marriage. But there’s still the matter of a kidnapping, a fight scene and a moment of doubt – none of which are meant to be taken in the least seriously. How could they be, in a film where the end credits substitute “Action Director” with the straightforward “Maramari”?

For all its slapstick clowning, Chashme Buddoor also opens a window to everyday life in the ’80s, complete with Campa Cola ads and bikes that refuse to start no matter how much you kick them. Viewers familiar with Delhi will have fun identifying landmarks like Talkatora Gardens, where Shaikh and Naval have their first date, and Tughlaqabad Fort, desolate enough at the time to make a convincing robber’s den. It’s also fascinating how, contrary to the way we’re encouraged to remember the decade, everyone in the film is very brand-conscious. Bedi wears a fake Adidas t-shirt, and Baswani changes his cigarette brand as soon as he comes into money. This pairing of individual and brand reaches its apogee in Naval’s character, initially identified as Miss Chamko on the basis of her sales pitch.

A key factor that separates Chashme Buddoor from other comedies is its depth of comic detail. Several brief, sublime gags unfold on second viewing, like the hollowed-out coconut that serves as an ashtray; a romantic song sequence on a boat that’s rescued from cliché by the cross-cutting between the couple and a herd of water buffaloes; “Maafi” being pronounced, ’30s style, as “maufi”; the camera zooming in after a character puts his hands to his eyes like a pair of binoculars; the line “kali ghodi pe gora saiyya chamake” that accompanies a fair-skinned Shaikh riding in on a black motorcycle.

Baswani, debuting here, and Bedi, just three films old, work hard for their laughs but are upstaged by Shaikh’s appealing reticence and the jovial shtick of Saeed Jaffrey as Lallan Mian, their paan and cigarette supplier. Naval walks away with the movie; she’s pretty enough for each of the three to fall in love with at first sight, and grounded enough not to let this go to her head. Paranjpye has directed several features since then, and while some of these have been critical successes (Katha, Disha), it is Chashme Buddoor that has proved her most enduring, and endearing, work to date.