Interview: Shaji Karun

¡®MY STRENGTHS ARE THE VISUALS, NOT WORDS’

Shaji Karun’s first film was about a commoner. His forthcoming feature is about Raja Ravi Varma. The filmmaker talks about aspects of this interesting journey.

APR 23, 2006 – TYPE IN WWW.SHAJI.INFO AND you’ll be greeted by the photograph you see in this story. If this isn’t a worthy entry point to the web site of a renowned cinematographer, I don’t know what is. That’s Shaji Karun, corkscrewing himself towards us. But this pose is hardly as unusual as that handrail to his left, an electrocardiogram in metal winding past an eerie blue light from a window before disappearing into a gaping mouth of nothingness. “It means a lot to me, the way you look at a picture,” says Karun, when I ask if this picture means something. All he’ll say is that he was filled with a strange kind of emotion at this location, a church in Switzerland. “I felt this moment should be captured.”

Ever since he graduated from the FTII with a degree in cinematography, Shaji Karun has been capturing moments, not merely images. “I am influenced by Aravindan, with whom I’ve worked with on several projects. His films say a lot through silence instead of dialogue, so what you see on screen aren’t just pretty pictures. They are the primary means of communication.” That remained the philosophy when Karun decided to turn director in 1988 with Piravi (Malayalam). (He’d made a few shorts earlier.) “It’s about a father waiting for his son. The son is, in a sense, the main character, but he’s not shown at all. Instead, I tried to tell the story with the help of visuals _ the rain, the river, the storms, the skies…”

The universality of these visuals is possibly rivalled only by the universality of the acclaim for the movie. Piravi was widely hailed as the most stunning feature film debut in the country since Satyajit Ray burst on the scene with Pather Panchali. Cannes awarded it the Camera d’Or, for best feature film by a first-time director. It won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. (Trivia note: The bronze that year, for Where is the Friend’s House?, went to an Iranian filmmaker named… Abbas Kiarostami, who wasn’t quite the art house darling he is today.)

It’s perhaps inevitable that Piravi turned out the masterpiece it is. After all, 15 years of training and preparation went into it. “It took me that long to get ready, to convince myself that I could direct,” says Karun, who, even at the FTII, realised that cinema is essentially a director’s medium. It didn’t matter that by the age of 24, he had on his mantelpiece the National Award for cinematography _ for Aravindan’s Thampu. What he really wanted was to make movies from his own point of view.

But Karun doesn’t dismiss the years he toiled as cinematographer (for the illustrious likes of Aravindan, George and Vasudevan Nair). “A filmmaker is like a doctor,” he says, and the analogy isn’t as strange as it first appears when you learn that he got an admission to a medical college in Trivandrum, to do his MBBS. “But who is a doctor? He is one who knows about the whole of the human body, and who then goes on to a specialisation.” Now you know where the analogy is headed. “Similarly, a filmmaker has to have knowledge about all of cinema, whether he wants to end up as cinematographer or director. Even as cinematographer, I would look at something the director did and ask myself how I would do it if I were in his position. All this training helped me.”

But once Karun decided to take the plunge, things came together quickly. He got a loan from the NFDC. He made the film. And he got the luckiest break when it was picked up by Cannes. Piravi was released across Europe and proved a big success. Since then, though, he’s made only three features _ Swaham (1994), Vanaprastham (1998) and Nishad (2002). “In the earlier days,” Karun says, “I needed about Rs. 6 lakh to make a movie. That’s how much Piravi cost. Now it would cost almost Rs. 60 lakh. Almost ten times more.” It makes you think a minute, that this amount would merely cover the costs of Kareena Kapoor’s wardrobe in a Karan Johan production _ but Karun doesn’t have any issues with mainstream cinema. “That’s an entertainment, and human beings need entertainment.”

Besides, it’s a mainstream producer _ Bobby Mangal Pandey Bedi _ who will finance Karun’s next film, “a human passion drama that looks at Raja Ravi Varma from the point of view of a model from Maharashtra who inspired him.” Varma was apparently 35 when he met this muse, and after this meeting his painting is said to have acquired a different dimension. “What does it mean for a human being to be inspired?” asks Karun. “There’s a lot of information available today about Raja Ravi Varma, but not about the model. There was a scandal involving the nudity. She ran away and he went in search of her. That’s the story.”

At the moment, Karun wants Ajay Devgan as his leading man. But he’s still writing the screenplay and he says he doesn’t approach actors till he completes the writing process. “That’s because I don’t want the person in front of me to influence the characters I am writing.” But it’s Vishal Bhardwaj who’s writing Karun’s other project, based on a T Padmanabhan short story called Kadal. “Sometimes, I ask others to write,” says Karun. “I give the ideas, but my writing skills aren’t very good. My strengths are the visuals, not words.”

Sometimes, those words are not in Malayalam. Sometimes, as in Nishad, those words are in Hindi and Pali. The film was set in the Himalayan regions, in a Buddhist settlement, and Karun says, “My idea of language is that it should reflect where the actions take place. Language is a part of the landscape.” And now, in the Raja Ravi Varma project, though the artist is from Kerala, the film is set in Mumbai. So Marathi and Hindi will be part of the landscape. In any case, Karun feels the language shouldn’t be a deterrent in today’s multiplex scenario. “The multiplexes are great, even if they are only in the metros. The audience has begun patronising different kinds of cinema, and there’s hope that we may again see a period like the 70s, when all kinds of films were being made and everyone was enthusiastic about watching them.”

Karun hopes to start shooting by the end of the monsoon and finish in time for an October 2 release. That date marks the centenary of Raja Ravi Varma’s death. If it appears that there’s very little time between June and October, Karun says, “Once my screenplay is ready, I need only 45-50 days of shooting, and my post-production takes very little time.” And it must help that he’s been working on the movie for the past two years. “My first draft was only about Raja Ravi Varma. The second draft, I wrote from the viewpoint of the model. The third had location details. Now I’m onto my fourth draft of the screenplay, which even has details of the sound design.”

Karun says he can afford to take this kind of time with his films because he’s never considered cinema as something to earn his livelihood from. “For that, I just go and photograph someone else’s movies. Or I make short films, like the one about a blind man who did embroidery. For me, cinema is a craft. So I wait until I can make the movies I want to.” So does that make him a cinematographer first, a director later? Karun doesn’t hesitate. “Just call me a filmmaker.”

Copyright ý2006 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: K Balachander

‘I DON’T LIKE TO REST’

On the eve of the release of his 101st feature _ the young-love story, ‘Poi’ _ director K Balachander talks about the journey from then to now.

SEP 10, 2006 – Let’s start at the very beginning! When you first came into the movies _ from the theatre _ what was the scenario like? Obviously, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan were the big stars then…

By the time I came into films, I had become very popular as an amateur playwright. I was known in the film fraternity, and MGR asked me to write the screenplay-dialogue for his Deivathaai. Very frankly, considering the nature of MGR movies, I was a fish out of water, but the producer, RM Veerappan, helped me. He was adept at writing scripts for MGR. After that, I wrote Poojaikku Vandha Malar for Muktha Srinivasan. Then I got a producer for my first movie. At that time, most films were based on heroism. They were all male-oriented, male-chauvinistic films. I knew I had to be different, so I chose the area I knew best _ middle-class issues. I decided to remake Neerkumizhi, one of my favourite plays. Compared to the other films of the time, it was something new for the audience. It was shot mostly on one set. The concept, the structure appealed to everybody. It became a big hit, and I became a film director.

You just said that the films then were hero oriented. But even your stories, initially, centred on a male protagonist (if not a “hero”). I’m talking about Neerkumizhi, Major Chandrakanth, Edhirneechal… And slowly you became known for your women-centric subjects. How did that transition happen?

I never wanted to make films with big, established stars, with the exception of a few like Nagesh. I was very comfortable with Nagesh. I wrote scripts like Server Sundaram that were tailored for him. But he was a very busy comedian, and I couldn’t go on making movies with him. And I knew that the middle-class subjects that interested me wouldn’t interest any other hero. So it was a matter of convenience. With heroine-oriented subjects, I could do what I was comfortable with, without compromises. There’s another reason. In the theatre, I couldn’t always do the subjects I wanted to because those days it was difficult to get women to perform on stage. So most of my plays had male protagonists. In cinema, that restriction was no longer there.

These women-oriented films usually have tragic endings. You put these women in interesting circumstances, but they somehow fail to find happiness. Sujatha in Aval Oru Thodarkathai, Suhasini in Sindhu Bhairavi, Pramila in Arangetram _ their characters seem abandoned at the end.

In Sindhu Bhairavi, Suhasini decided that she could live without a man. She found happiness with those slum children. In my opinion, that is a positive ending. Marriage is not the be all and end all. Arangetram was a different case. That was a very acidic subject. I was showing a lower middle-class Tamil Brahmin family where the parents had several children, and the heroine becomes a prostitute to support this family. After showing her as a prostitute for most of the movie, I couldn’t give her a happy ending. In those days _ the early seventies _ the society was very traditional. I didn’t want to alienate my audience, so I tried to strike a balance between what I wanted to convey and what I thought my audience would accept. If I made the same movie today, she would have lived happily ever after, with or without marriage. As I said, a happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean marriage.

These heroines _ most of them were hardly the glamour girls of their day. Sridevi was probably the only one. Otherwise, you kept featuring heroines who were more powerhouse performers than pinup girls. It’s almost as if you wanted to prove a point to the box office.

Let me talk about Saritha. I auditioned many girls for Maro Charitra, but I didn’t get what I was looking for. They all looked the same, and I wanted someone fresh. Then Saritha came in. She answered all my questions. I told her it’s a very difficult role. She said she could do it. I liked the way she talked to me. I asked her if she would sing, and she got up immediately and started singing and dancing. It was some Telugu film song, and she performed it in the same style as the hero and heroine. She did all this spontaneously. I was taken aback. And I said I’d take her. Everyone around me, including my hero, had reservations about this girl. But I was right about her. Earlier, there was Sowcar Janaki, another performer not exactly known for glamour. I wanted to cast her in a play _ Mezhuguvarthi _ and I didn’t know if she’d agree, being a popular film star. Finally, ¡®Major’ Sunderrajan talked to her and she said yes. That was the first play she did, and she became part of the family. Then I cast her in Edhirneechal, in a total contrast to the parts she was doing then, where she was always in tears.

You tend to find a few actors and stick with them. Among the heroes, it was Gemini Ganesan, Sivakumar, Kamal Hassan, Rajinikanth. And you repeatedly used heroines like Sowcar Janaki, Sujatha, Saritha. Is it just the comfort factor? Considering your stage background, did this cast become your “troupe”?

It’s the comfort factor. My actors were like family. It was like a gurukula, and I wanted to exploit their talent by casting them in various roles. But it was primarily the comfort factor. We used to do rehearsals for the stage, and the same set of actors would go for shootings too, as I’d begun directing a few films. But after a point, I had to leave theatre for good. My films had succeeded in a big way and I wasn’t able to concentrate on theatre any more. But these actors provided a comfortable working environment. The feel-good factor comes only if your artists are well-disposed towards you, if they treat the director as the captain of the ship. Nowadays, I don’t think that is the case.

Two of these actors are still at the top in Tamil cinema. Did you sense they would get this far? What did you see in them when they first approached you? And after these two, you haven’t done much work with big stars, except a Madhavan, maybe. Do you consciously avoid big names?

The way in which I spotted Saritha, the way in which I spotted Nasser, the way in which I spotted X, Y, Z that’s how I spotted them too. Something intuitive happens which tells me, This person will become a star or an actor.’ I cannot define it. The main thing is that they had a lot of potential and could be used in many roles. About using stars after that, it’s again just a question of the comfort factor. They can’t dictate terms to me. They can’t say, I will come at 10 o’clock.’ They have to be there at 8 o’clock. That’s the only way it will work for me. Some of these actors become stars after being in my films, and then they become unavailable to me. If I cast someone, they should be available to me always.

You make all these serious films. Suddenly there’s a Manmadha Leelai, a Thillu Mullu, a Poova Thalayaa. Considering that these are popular even today, why didn’t you do comedy more often?

When I made Poikaal Kudhirai, I wanted to relax myself. I’d made Agni Saatchi before that, and that was a very difficult subject. But after Poikaal Kudhirai was released, everyone asked why KB had made such a movie. I had become slotted as a maker of serious movies. After that, I didn’t want to take that risk of making a comedy. I can do comedy very well, but they are not letting me do it. Even today, people ask me why I don’t make something like Bama Vijayam or Thillu Mullu, but these people are very few.

You not only got branded a serious filmmaker, you also became known for a certain kind of relationship movie, with permutations of one-versus-many _ one husband with two wives, or three sisters in love with one man, or a socially taboo older-woman-younger-man angle. Do you like to shock people?

Yes. It’s rather inborn in me that I want to shock people. Of course, it’s risky when you do this, because I’ll have to consider my survival also. If I take on a shocking subject and it fails, then I immediately make a safe film _ for the audience.

Your serious films deal mostly with relationships. Even in Arangetram, which dealt with prostitution (and perhaps family planning), the overall structure revolves around a woman and her obligations to her family, her relationships. But there was a period where you made Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Thanneer Thanneer, Achchamillai Achchamillai _ and in these, the relationships seemed secondary to the social issues. How did that phase come about?

That came out of my urge to be different. I wanted to make something different from “my” type of movies. But even then, I never wanted to make fully political movies. I just wanted to touch a political backdrop. I decided to do Thanneer Thanneer the moment Komal Swaminathan said he was writing the play and told me it was the story of a village. It was simultaneously developed as a play and a film. The play was staged earlier and was a big success, but if I’d staged the film like the play _ with the village as the protagonist _ I don’t think it would have succeeded. The film succeeded because I made the woman the protagonist. I laid emphasis on one particular character and the whole story went along with that character. Achchamillai Achchamillai is also a political subject, but I kept it within the four walls of a house, as a story between husband and wife.

Now that we’re talking about Achchamillai Achchamillai, let me ask you about this character named Sudhanthiram _ a little person (I think is the politically correct term) whose stunted growth is a metaphor for the state of our freedom. Things like metaphor and symbolism _ that “Balachander touch” people keep talking about _ do these go back to your theatre background?

Not really. I didn’t touch on this issue when I was answering your first question. When I came into films, I was in a dilemma about how best to attract audiences. So I thought of new ways to present things. I wouldn’t call it gimmickry, but it was something like that. This became very popular and the audience gave this a name _ the “Balachander touch”. And then it became a must in my movies. They began to expect these touches in my films. Even now, people say they can tell it is my movie after just a couple of scenes _ even if they haven’t seen it before.

You mentioned Thanneer Thanneer earlier, and one of the things we remember about the film is the lovely number Kannaana Poomagane, composed by MS Viswanathan. Whether with V Kumar or MSV or Ilayaraja or AR Rahman, your films have had some very good music. What is your interest in music? Do you leave it to the composer, or do you know what you want and ask for that?

I don’t leave it to chance. I don’t leave it to the music director. I do sit with the music director when he is composing and there are times I’ve even rejected tunes. But all the song situations are dictated by me. Take the romantic song in Varumayin Niram Sivappu _ Sippi Irukkudhu. It’s my job to conceive such situations that throw a challenge to the lyricist and the music director, otherwise they will not come up with their best. The song you mentioned, Kannaana Poomagane, was a big challenge, because it couldn’t have many instruments in the background. It had to be simply sung, that is all. In Aboorva Raagangal, I told MSV that the entire climax is contained in a song. In Agni Saatchi, I wanted a song _ Kanaa kaanum kangal _ that would reflect the state of the heroine’s mind. I knew my shot would start from a close up of her head. So the music reflected that. But it’s different today. Vidyasagar, though, was nice to work with (in Poi), because he’s like someone from the old days. He was very happy that I had come to him, and he was happy to compose for song situations that were very specific.

You’ve remade a lot of your own movies in other languages. Varumayin Niram Sivappu, for instance, became Zara Si Zindagi. Iru Kodugal became Eradu Rekhagalu. What interests you in this process, having already gone through the whole story and dealt with the characters once? Is it possibly because you’re in love with your characters and can’t bear to let them go?

Nothing like that. It’s just a matter of convenience when getting into another language. With a proven subject, it becomes easier for me. A new subject could be a big risk. Yes, redoing something in another language is a big bore. But when I made, for example, Ek Duuje Ke Liye (from Maro Charitra), most of the cast was different. So some amount of freshness was there. Of course, when there’s an earlier movie, there’s always the element of comparison _ not only for the viewer, but even I start comparing my shots here with the shots I took in the original version. Sometimes they are superior, sometimes inferior.

In less than forty years, you’ve made about a hundred films. That works out to more than two per year. There’s hardly anyone around these days who makes movies at that rate. Why do you think this is so?

There are directors like Dasari Narayana Rao, who have done many more films. But in my case, I don’t like to rest. I am 76. How many other directors are still working at this age? That’s because I don’t have any interests other than writing for films or for serials. For the past ten years, I’ve been busy with my projects for TV. I guess it’s the constant urge to be in the limelight, or maybe to satisfy my own ego. Balachander has not become old.’ That’s what I want people to think.

I know this is a clichéd question, but I have to ask you this. What’s your view on Tamil cinema today? And what are the films you’ve enjoyed watching recently?

Of course, technically speaking things have improved a great deal. Last week I saw a film that was technically brilliant, technically excellent, technically… you can insert another superlative word. But after coming home, I couldn’t remember what it was about. I couldn’t recall scenes or dialogues that stood out. But some of the smaller films are good, like Chitiram Pesuthadi. I liked the format of the love angle. And there was no bloodshed or violence, despite the Mafia backdrop. I liked the fact that the love affair was treated with significance. (Then, when I prod him about Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu’…) It’s a good movie, very well done, very well enacted and all that. The moment I saw it, I sent for Kamal. He came here and we discussed the film.

When the audience for your films stopped going to theatres and switched to television, you followed them and made serials. But now you’re back with Poi. What made you want to get back to the big screen? And what’s special about this movie?

I was getting bored with what I was doing for the past ten years. If you look at just the writing aspect of it, writing for films and writing for TV are not very different. But with TV, your thinking becomes restricted, mainly due to the budget. For instance, you cannot have a song situation. So I decided to make a film. I consider Poi an antidote to the kind of films coming out today. It’s a simple love story. It’s about the lies we tell in our everyday lives, and how they play havoc with the life of a boy and girl. I think the KB audience will like it because I’ve done things like using a surreal character _ like the “conscience” in Moondru Mudichu.

You started with theatre, and now there are rumours that you are getting back to the stage. Is that true?

The rumour is right. I will be getting back to theatre soon. Actually, I want to come back with two plays. I have already written the script for one. It’s a middle-class subject. About the other one, I have some ideas. I have made a commitment for one more film, and after that I should be back on stage.

Copyright ý2006 The New Sunday Express

Review: Paruthi Veeran

THIS SON ALSO RISES

Sivakumar’s younger boy debuts in a showcase for how good filmmaking can (almost) overcome mediocre material.

MAR 2, 2007 – IF FLAVOUR WERE TO DETERMINE THE WORTHINESS OF A MOVIE Paruthi Veeran is a classic, one for the ages. It begins with scenes from a thiruvizha — I would have said “folk fair”, but given the rustic context here, that just doesn’t sound right — and this is possibly the most bravura stretch of atmospheric filmmaking since the manjal neeraatu vizha in Kaadhal. People who’ve actually grown up (or lived) in villages may or may not find these depictions accurate, but for those of us from the cities, it’s a whirlwind tour of the rites and the rituals and the traditions that make up rural Tamil Nadu. There’s a staggering amount of detail here — dancers in exotic costumes, loudspeaker announcements, cattle with balloons tied to their horns, card players oblivious to the ear-shattering noise around them, eunuchs singing the praises of a local big shot to the tune of Gangai karai thottam… These opening frames so completely transfer us to a different world — thanks also to the burnt yellows of the cinematography and Yuvan Shankar Raja’s magnificently earthy score — that much later, when the hero discovers love and when Kaadhalin deepam ondru plays on the soundtrack, it comes as a shock. Yuvan may have chosen this number — one of his father’s loveliest creations — to underline the mood of the moment, but it’s too urban, too silken a song for Karthi’s coarse-cotton hero. (He’s named Paruthi Veeran, after all.) It’s when this song came on that I realised how completely the director (Ameer) had succeeded in immersing me in his (fictional?) Paruthiyoor.

This flavour — really — is the reason for the film’s existence, for entire stretches of screen time are devoted to nothing else. The infrequent bits of exposition are almost apologetic, as if Ameer is telling us that he’d rather show a bored Karthi entertaining himself by bullying a group of folk types into dancing than establish the framework of the narrative. And that’s why so much of Paruthi Veeran works so well. After all these years of the cinema, I doubt if anyone actually goes to see a “story” unfold anymore, and Ameer probably knows that his story is his weakest element. (It’s basically a spin on the Romeo-Juliet template, where warring families oppose the young lovers getting together.) This is a movie in no hurry to get anywhere real soon, and that’s because it centres on someone in no hurry to get anywhere real soon. Veeran is the kind of guy you’d club under the category of sandiyar. His life is spent in and out of the local jail — almost always for crimes involving the aruvaa — and his big dream is to land up in a big Chennai prison. But the way Karthi plays this character — and the way Ameer has written him — there’s a strange vulnerability to this young man, and we see this in a scene in jail where he reaches out through the bars and locates a hand mirror and inspects his face as he twirls the ends of his moustache.

This is how he defines his masculinity — and this is how he defines himself. If he weren’t doing these stupid things and ending up in jail, he wouldn’t have anything else to do with his life. He would be a nothing. So it seems only natural that he’d smile for the police photographer, for there’s no one else giving him that kind of recognition. His only friend is his uncle Sevvazhai (a very entertaining Saravanan), and the two cook up a routine so filled with laugh-out-loud one-liners that the real comedy track — one that’s quite funny, featuring Ganja Karuppu — appears redundant. But audience-pleasing apart, Veeran is an unusual kind of hero, because the things he does you’d usually associate with a villain — and it’s not just the constant drinking. At one point, he waylays a couple of lorry drivers who’ve brought a prostitute to their usual haunt, and for a second, you expect Veeran to slap them silly, give them akkathangachi advice, and send them packing. But he takes the woman inside for his enjoyment, promising the others that they can have her once he’s through. And his heroine (Muthazhagu, played by Priya Mani, who surely has the straightest spine ever in the history of Tamil film heroines) is even more unusual, for she knows that the man she loves is sleeping around, and yet she declares, “En odamba ammanama kaatturadha irundhaa onakku mattum dhaan…” Ah, true love!

And also something else. Watching Paruthi Veeran — or Pithamagan, for that matter — we see how far village-based cinema has come from the days of Bharathiraja. Where there was once sensitivity, there is now sensationalism. That dialogue of Muthazhagu is among the least sensational aspects of this film, for even if it makes you flinch, it’s only in your mind. There are scenes here calculated to make you flinch physically, as if it’s not enough that your mind experiences the revulsion, your body should too. Why else would we be treated to the image of Muthazhagu vomiting all over the screen, or Veeran’s shorts being ripped off to expose a bare buttock, or women being repeatedly slapped and smashed against walls and shoved and raped and murdered brutally? Maybe this is how those bloodthirsty villagers really are. Maybe the problem is with us lily-livered urban audiences. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a lot of this is just Ameer’s way of bludgeoning his audience into submission. He goes equally overboard with the cuteness. The colour-bleached flashbacks of the young Veeran and Muthazhagu are bad enough — though we do get to hear a beautiful number sung by Ilayaraja, Ariyadha vayasu — but when Muthazhagu sits down a group of old crones and jokingly tries to instruct them in the ways of Carnatic music, it’s impossible not to wince.

But then, the director probably felt he had to have something for Muthazhagu to do till Veeran reciprocates her love, which isn’t till late in the film. Ayyayyo, the number that plays soon after, is an instant classic, but the romance in the song isn’t matched by the romance on the screen. He is indifferent to her at first, she doggedly pursues him until he crumbles, and the moment this happens, we should have felt something — the mental equivalent of those giant sunflowers crowding the screen in the Bharathiraja movies. But I remained curiously unmoved. And from this point on till the end, I never quite cared about the characters, who simply seemed to be mechanically fulfilling plot functions — which is so different from what they were doing earlier on, just being. Priya Mani is quite good, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better she may have been had Paruthi Veeran been merely a love story — like Mann Vaasanai, where the boy and the girl were merely pawns on a chessboard dominated by the people around them — instead of a hero-centric love story. In today’s scenario, we’re asked to deal with a protagonist who won’t just switch off the lights, he’ll leap up and break the glass bulbs with his aruvaa. If you don’t giggle at this bit of macho insanity, it’s because of Karthi, who holds the screen with the assurance of a veteran. This is a superb first-film performance by any standard, and it makes you reach for that oldest of movie-myth clich¨¦s: A star is born.

Copyright _ý2007 The New Sunday Express

Looking back at Harry Potter

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY

As the world looks forward to the latest _ and the last _ Harry Potter adventure, here’s looking back on what made the series so magical.

JULY 15, 2007 – ABOUT TWO-THIRDS INTO Book Five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge, the hateful High Inquisitor of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sacks the flaky Divination teacher Trelawney, and there’s a brief moment where I thought: Why look for possible replacements for the post? Why not employ JK Rowling herself! Not that the most popular author in the universe would have magicked herself into her own story, but think about it: Who better to instruct students on ways of foretelling the future than someone whose fictional predictions about Harry Potter have ended up so eerily, so extraordinarily as fact? All the way back in Book One, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as the infant Harry is dropped off for safekeeping at his Muggle relatives’ home, Rowling wrote these lines for Professor McGonagall: “He’ll be famous _ a legend _ I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future _ there will be books written about Harry _ every child in our world will know his name.”

Has there been a prophecy more accurate? Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997. A decade later, it isn’t just children who await Harry Potter day _ July 21, when the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will finally zoom into the outstretched hands of slavering multitudes _ it’s also adults like Melissa Anelli, webmaster of the popular Harry Potter fan site named Leaky Cauldron, whose borderline-embarrassing passion for Potter was revealed recently when, quivering with indignation over the prospect of spoiler e-mails, she wrote, “If Harry dies, we don’t want to know about it until JK Rowling decides to tell us. And if you decide to tell us before that, you’ll incur the wrath of a staff of almost 200, most of whom have been waiting almost 10 years for these final revelations and can NEVER get back the moment you rob by spoiling them. That’s some wrath, right there. We own pitchforks, hot wax and feathers. And we’re not afraid to use them.” The last time an instance of popular culture fomented such frenzy, it involved either a member of the Skywalker clan or a quartet of mop-topped Liverpudlians.

AT LEAST ONE PERSON can’t understand what the fuss is all about _ Yale professor and literary scholar and critic Harold Bloom, who famously fumed that “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clich¨¦s and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.” Even the far less distinguished Stephen King _ horror novelist and self-confessed Harry Potter admirer _ conceded, in his review of Order of the Phoenix, that Rowling “never met [an adverb] she didn’t like.” Harry, he observed, “speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often _ given his current case of raving adolescence _ ANGRILY.” (Perhaps out of kindness, King chose not to mention the one recurrent adverb that I loathe the most: sleekly.) But whether literature or not, we’ll leave for the experts to duel out. What we fans love the books for are Rowling’s hardly insignificant gifts in spinning _ breathlessly, entertainingly, enormously inventively _ these yarns. If Book One tells us that the entrance to the common room of the Gryffindor House is guarded by a portrait of the Fat Lady, Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, expands this character’s horizons by giving her a friend, the witch Violet who flies in from her own portrait elsewhere to ensure that the Fat Lady doesn’t miss out on the latest Hogwarts gossip.

Part of the tragedy of facing the very last of the Harry Potter adventures is that we can no longer look forward to these slight revelations that snowball into Rowling’s staggering, fully-imagined magical world. She appropriated the popular tropes of children’s fiction as found in the Enid Blyton books (you don’t need to be Hermione Granger to make the leap from, say, Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog’ to Three Mystery-Solving Wizarding Students and Scabbers the Rat’, or First Term at Malory Towers’ to First Year at Hogwarts’) and possibly took a hint or two from the movies (the highlight of Ron Howard’s fantasy Willow was a sorceress who could transform into animals, which is essentially what Rowling’s Animagi are all about), and the ingenious way she brewed together these various ingredients would have gotten toothy smiles of approval from Severus Snape himself. The concluding portions of Book Two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are a particularly telling instance of Rowling’s inexhaustible imagination. Tom Marvolo Riddle is really the 16-year-old self of the Dark Lord Voldemort preserved in a diary? Who could have figured that one out!

BUT ROWLING’S REAL TRIUMPH is in rooting all this fantasy in an instantly recognisable reality, in setting this magic amidst the mundane. That her world is fathoms removed from its fictional predecessors like Narnia (whose chronicles CS Lewis laid out in seven _ again, seven _ installments) or Middle-earth is evident right from Book One, when a tall, thin man with silvery hair and beard long enough to tuck into his belt rummages in his cloak, finds what seems to be a silver cigarette lighter, flicks it open and clicks it. The nearest street lamp goes out, and he does this till all the lamps are extinguished and the street is plunged in darkness. Now this is no ordinary man _ he’s Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (we had to wait till Order of the Phoenix for the full name), Headmaster of Hogwarts, Order of Merlin (First Class), Grand Sorcerer, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and oh, just about the only wizard that Voldemort fears. He could have most certainly put out the lamps with a swish of a little finger; instead, he uses a near-mechanical contraption _ one that Rowling charmingly labels a Put-Outer _ which appears tangible enough to be on sale at a neighbourhood electronics outlet.

Rowling’s wizarding world is cluttered with many such artifacts of Muggle civilisation _ with non-Muggle equivalents of everything from newspapers (whether legitimate ones like The Daily Prophet or trashy tabloids like The Quibbler) to governing bodies (The Ministry of Magic) to student exams (first the OWLs, Ordinary Wizarding Levels, then the NEWTs, Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) _ just as our world brims over with magic. We only need to look, and we’d understand that the next time we hear things going bump in the night, it could well be The Knight Bus barreling past our homes, causing mailboxes and trash cans to jump out of its way as it approaches them and back into position after it passes. Rowling’s most tongue-in-cheek extrapolation of this conceit (that the magical and the non-magical blur into one another) is her revelation _ in Book Three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban _ that witch burnings were, quite simply, a waste of time because “the witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle tickling sensation.” (Passages such as this one are, no doubt, why Christian groups have branded the Harry Potter books as satanic, as gateways to the occult, but Rowling is nothing if not catholic in detailing her universe. Hogwarts does celebrate Christmas, though with the decidedly unholy tradition of suits of armour being bewitched to sing carols.)

THIS WEALTH OF IMAGINED information is why re-reading the Harry Potter books is such a joy. Like many fans, I have gone back to Books One through Six in anticipation of number Seven, and despite the groaning flab of the later installments _ did we really need the episode in Order of the Phoenix about Harry and the others ridding a house of creatures called doxies? _ there’s always a terrific nugget somewhere that you missed the first time around, when it was all you could do to simply keep up with the major plot points. The Sorting Hat song in Goblet of Fire, for instance, is something I merely skimmed through earlier, but now I learn that the hat _ whose function is to determine which of the four school houses a new student will best fit into _ once belonged to Godric Gryffindor, the wizard after whom the house is named. And reading the series-so-far at one stretch _ and not with two-year gaps _ also allows you to appreciate how much of the story was already in place in Rowling’s head. Very early in Book One, when the half-giant gamekeeper Hagrid delivers Harry to his new guardians, he arrives on a flying motorcycle. “Young Sirius Black lent it to me,” he says _ and there’s no further mention of Black till Book Three, where he’s revealed to be Harry’s godfather.

This interconnectedness has certainly fuelled the anticipation for Deathly Hallows, having engendered a veritable cottage industry of guessing games about The End. I think, for one, that we can count on help from Peter Pettigrew (a.k.a. Wormtail), a servant of Voldemort whose life Harry saved in Prisoner of Azkaban. (As Dumbledore says, “You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt… When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them…”) And while it’s a no-brainer, thanks to the prophecy, that either Harry or Voldemort will end up dead, I’m wondering if Rowling will actually lean towards Harry. She has, after all, been steadily upping the ante when it comes to killing off her characters. We gasped when poor Cedric Diggory, one of the good guys, got it in Goblet of Fire. (To remember how shocking his death was, you only have to go back to Book Two, where the students who looked into the eyes of the murderous basilisk did so conveniently through a mirror or a camera, thus ending up merely Petrified, not dead.) But at least Diggory was a minor player; Sirius Black is killed in Book Five, and in Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore himself drops off. Book One began with the destruction of both good (Harry’s parents) and evil (Voldemort), so will Book Seven come full circle? It’s only a while, now, before we know if Rowling will conclude her remarkable series with the death of The Boy Who Lived.

Copyright ý2007 The New Sunday Express

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

THE WIZARD OF AWES

JK Rowling gives her deservedly celebrated series a rousing _ and very satisfying _ sendoff.

JULY 23, 2007 – IT IS OMINOUS, but perhaps not entirely unsurprising, that JK Rowling prefaces Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a couple of quotes about death (one of them from Aeschylus _ “…the stroke that hits the vein, the haemorrhage none can staunch” _ that makes you wonder if the wily old Greek actually knew a thing or two about the aftereffects of the Sectumsempra spell). Ever since Professor Trelawney glimpsed the Grim around Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Prisoner and Azkaban, death has stalked our young hero _ and those around our young hero _ in increasingly unanticipated ways, and if there’s one question on everyone’s lips before opening this most awaited of adventures (other than, of course, Am I going to be able to resist the temptation of flicking to the last page?), it’s this: Does Harry Potter survive his inevitable wand-off with Lord Voldemort?

But a more pressing question would be this one: Does Harry Potter have what it takes to survive his inevitable wand-off with Lord Voldemort? After all, he’s merely seventeen a few chapters into Deathly Hallows, and he’s barely had six years of magical school education, while his nemesis is not only much older but also with far more _ now, how shall we put this politely? _ real-life experience. No less a wizard than Professor Dumbledore himself appears in awe of the Dark Lord, for he confides to Harry during his customary post-climactic-battle chat in the Headmaster’s office, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “I knew that Voldemort’s knowledge of magic is perhaps more extensive than any wizard alive. I knew that even my most complex and powerful protective spells and charms were unlikely to be invincible if he ever returned to full power.”

Professor Snape minced far fewer words in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when he spat out, “[Harry] has fought his way out of a number of tight corners by a simple combination of sheer luck and more talented friends,” and Voldemort himself sneers, in Deathly Hallows, “That Potter lives is due more to my errors, than to his triumphs” _ and our overriding concern for Harry, as we plunge feverishly into his seventh and last adventure, is our sinking feeling that Snape and Voldemort are right. Even with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger beside him, however is he going to acquire, in such a short time, the knowledge and the skills to complete the task that Dumbledore has set for him, which is to first unearth the remaining Horcruxes _ those magical objects that house splintered parts of Voldemort’s soul, and which need to be destroyed if Voldemort is to be destroyed _ and finally go mano-a-mano (rather, boyo-a-mano) with the greatest Bad Wizard of all time?

It’s to Rowling’s credit that, for a significant part of Deathly Hallows, she does absolutely nothing to alleviate our apprehensions. (It’s surely no coincidence that the very first time we meet Harry, we find him at his most vulnerable: “Harry was bleeding.”) Harry, Ron and Hermione appear, more than ever, three silly kids in over their heads _ bumbling across the countryside, stumbling into the right people, lucking into crucial magical objects, chancing upon important information at just the right moment. But the magic _ and yes, this is sheer magic _ of Rowling’s narrative design is that her story could exist, could function no other way. It’s just right _ and by the end of it all, by the time we absorb the inevitability of the final revelations, even sceptics may find themselves staving off a fighting urge to slap their foreheads hard and cry out, “But of course!”

While the verdict is still out on Rowling’s literary gifts _ rather, the apparent lack of them _ no one who’s followed the series can fault her facility for spinning one heck of an involving yarn, and Deathly Hallows proves, yet again, that this author is nothing if not an expert puppeteer of audience emotions. Slowly, surely, she manipulates us _ interspersing fond remembrances of what we already know with teasing snatches of what we are dying to know. Saying farewell to his home on Privet Drive, early on, Harry pulls open a door under the stairs. “And under here, Hedwig,” he exclaims to his snow-white owl, “is where I used to sleep! You never knew me then _ blimey, it’s small, I’d forgotten…” We haven’t _ but that’s hardly the point. We know what our loved ones looked like ten years ago, but that doesn’t prevent us from pulling out albums of old photographs from time to time, and that’s the effect that Rowling creates here. Harry’s nostalgia _ along with the reappearances of everyone and everything, from Sirius Black’s motorcycle to the snitch that Harry apprehended in his very first Quidditch match _ is a sentimental reminder of a magical world that we’ve known for a decade, that we’re now saying goodbye to forever.

What’s new in Deathly Hallows, however, is that this is the first time it’s all-out war _ and while the rousing arc about a small group of rebels fighting to bring down an unstoppably evil regime isn’t exactly new to pop-culture storytelling (think Star Wars or Terminator 2), Rowling hints at real-world underpinnings. It’s impossible not to think of Anne Frank when Harry and his friends are holed up in a desolate house to escape the stalking Death Eaters, just as Voldemort’s pure-blood obsession harks back to Hitler _ and these parallels bring about some inevitable dissonances in a book written with children in mind. When Hermione runs over her checklist before launching into a particularly dangerous offensive, we note, with some alarm, that her ammunition consists of the Invisibility Cloak, Polyjuice Potion, Decoy Detonators, Puking Pastilles, Nosebleed Nougats and Extendable Ears (although, later, Rowling does acknowledge these preparations as “laughably childish”). Another factor that eats considerably into the element of danger is that practically every move of Voldemort’s is sensed comfortably ahead-of-time by Harry, thanks to his psychically-connected scar.

That’s not to say Deathly Hallows is anything less than a nail-biting read. A rescue operation inside the Ministry of Magic is thrillingly written, and the climactic battle is a real rouser, what with the magical creatures of the world uniting against a common enemy the way they did in another fictional universe, many decades ago, when another fantasist wrote about a quest to destroy a near-indestructible magical object. (Harry’s mission to eliminate the Horcruxes parallels Frodo’s journey in other respects too, particularly in the revelation that a Horcrux has the power to cloud the possessor’s mind.) Along the way, there are nods to the Arthurian legends (a sword is retrieved from a lake), Gothic romances like Jane Eyre (an embarrassment to the family is locked up inside her own home), and perhaps even our own Ramayana (a magical deer that may be trap for three people living in a forest, go figure!) _ but then, Rowling has always been an equal-opportunity appropriator.

And these appropriations, in Deathly Hallows, come together as well as you could wish for. Rowling may leave you dissatisfied with the surprisingly slapdash way her villain goes about his nefarious business, and she may leave you quibbling over her seemingly inexhaustible stock of narrative coincidences, but you brush aside these concerns because you care about the characters. You care for Harry when he gets hold of a letter written by his mother, and you care that she made her g’s the same way he does. (“He searched through the letter for every one of them, and each felt like a friendly little wave glimpsed from behind a veil.”) These relationships _ between friends (Harry and Ron and Hermione), between whether-or-not boyfriends and girlfriends (Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione), between parent and child (Lily Potter and Harry, Molly Weasley and her brood, Narcissa Malfoy and Draco, Xenophilius Lovegood and Luna, the Grangers and Hermione) _ are the reason we buy, yet again, one last time, into Rowling’s writing. Spells, enchantments, jinxes and curses all have their place, but as the wise Dumbledore once put it, the greatest and most powerful magic is love.

Copyright ý2007 The New Indian Express

Bergman, A Tribute

GETTING PERSONA

Ingmar Bergman has left behind a number of films to remember him by. Here’s looking at one of the most baffling — and most beautiful.

AUG 5, 2007 – RUMOUR HAS IT that Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard spent a few tense hours in their homes this Monday last, wondering if the next knock on the door would come from a cloaked man with a scythe. That’s what it seemed like on the day that claimed both Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, as if the Grim Reaper were assiduously whittling his way through a list of the last few great European directors, who defined — and dominated — the most self-conscious, self-indulgent of cinema in an era where filmmaking was as much meditation as masturbation.

Bergman and Antonioni certainly aren’t the first practitioners of what we’ve come to call Art Cinema — an intimidating, yet mildly condescending phrase which suggests that cinema weren’t already an art form, that we needed these artists to infuse the medium with art — and they certainly won’t be the last. But the films that they made are foremost among those that we instantly look towards in order to frame discussions about a cinematic age — mainly the fifties and the sixties — whose output could induce equal parts nirvana and narcolepsy. Slow, surreal and obstinately resistant to facile interpretation, these films came with the daunting precondition that your first viewing could not be your last, because you needed each subsequent revisit to illuminate — in the manner of a gemstone being rotated under a table lamp — an aspect that never caught your eye before.

And, truth be told, these aspects, sometimes, could be seen only by you. While it is true of almost all cinema that what a viewer brings to the screening contributes to half the experience — the other half being what is being screened — Art Cinema would not exist without audience participation. Exhibit A in this contention would be Bergman’s Persona, if only for the early scene featuring a hypnotic close-up — in a film filled with hypnotic close-ups — of Liv Ullman. There she is, at first fully lit by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and you think, “What a sad face!” And as the light gets progressively dimmer, different facets of this sad, immobile face get thrown into relief — a curve of cheek, the shadow below the nose, the barest pinpricks of brightness in the eyes — and as there’s no dialogue, no exposition, no aid of any kind to tell you what’s going on, the only thing you can do is project yourself into her mind and theorise about what’s going on.

Bergman has many other films that are equally inscrutable — rather, he leaves the scrutiny to you — but those other films are at least about something. You could debate unto eternity whether the shot, in Wild Strawberries, of a clock without hands indicates timelessness or death or merely carelessness on the part of the manufacturer of the timepiece, but at least you knew that the film was about an elderly man looking back on his life, just as you knew that The Seventh Seal was about a knight attempting to buy time from Death, and Winter Light was about a pastor experiencing a crisis of faith. That overarching sense of narrative purpose is utterly absent in Persona, which begins by appearing to be about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) tending to an actress (Ullman) who fell silent during her last performance of Electra and hasn’t spoken since, but goes on to be about whatever you want it to be.

The film unfolds with one stunning Nykvist frame after another — with the exception of a remarkable tracking shot, reminiscent of Kurosawa in its dynamism and depth, Persona is almost entirely a series of still lifes with the faintest flickers of movement — and viewers have attempted to make sense of these images with any number of theories. That the film opens with a carbon-arc lamp, with reels of celluloid flying by, with light coming out of an aperture — that is, the physical aspects of film projection — has been interpreted as Bergman’s deconstructionist declaration that his art is artificial, that what he’s showing is not reality, that it’s just a movie. (How strange, this, when those who look down on our masala cinema’s elements of fantasy end up benchmarking films like Persona as “real!”)

But it’s with the characters that the interpretations get really interesting. The startling mirror-image formed by the juxtaposition of one half each of Ullman’s and Andersson’s faces — a moment whose momentousness is underscored rather ominously (and, as viewed today, somewhat hilariously) with a crash of dissonant chords — probably represents two sides of the same woman. But this theory has been negated by those that point out that the strange intimacy between Andersson and Ullman’s husband — towards the end of the film, when nothing earlier has given any indication that the two are even aware of each other’s existence — suggests that it’s actually the transference of personality from one woman to another.

But the reason Persona hooks me every time is the possibility that the film is simply a form of therapy for Bergman, confused as he may have been about his attraction to Andersson (with whom he’d ended a relationship) and Ullman (with whom he was in a relationship during the making of the movie). One of Andersson’s tirades directed at Ullman is possibly a tirade against Bergman himself. (“You have used me. For what, I don’t know. Now that you don’t need me anymore, you throw me away.”) And if further proof were needed — to the extent that our guesses about a filmmaker’s motivations can be “proved” — there’s the scene where Andersson slits her arm and allows Ullman to suck the blood. Ullman being the artist in the film — and therefore a stand-in for the artist that is the director — this act has been widely interpreted as Bergman’s acknowledgment of his vampirism in feeding off the lives of those around him.

And that, above all, is what defined filmmakers like Bergman. They were intensely personal filmmakers who left behind shreds of their personality in everything they touched. They weren’t exploring cinema so much as exploring their selves, which is why their films ended up looking like they couldn’t have been made in any other way, or by anybody else. If red was a predominant colour in Cries and Whispers, it was because Bergman “pictured the inside of the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red” — it wasn’t artistic choice so much as artistic inevitability. And now that he’s yielded to the inevitability of life — and despite the sadness — you can’t help smiling that he finally has answers to at least two of the questions that he explored throughout his career: whether there’s a God, and whether He’s really a spider.

Copyright _ý2007 The New Sunday Express

Between Reviews: Love Letter to a Love Story

LOVE LETTER TO A LOVE STORY

APR 6, 2008 – ONE REASON THEY’RE CALLED “MOTION PICTURES” could be that they’re never at rest inside your head. They infiltrate, then gestate, then mutate _ sometimes combining with memories from other movies and morphing into a different genetic creation altogether, and sometimes overlapping with your own wishful thinking to become an amalgamation of the film you saw, the film you thought you saw, and the film you wanted to see. The latter _ the film I wanted to see _ came up recently when a recent acquaintance, a film-school student, and I were jamming about the movies in general, and about Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai in particular.

We both agreed it was one of our favourite films, and I said what was most fascinating for me was the unresolved sexual tension between Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (well, between the characters they play, actually, but then you knew that). Seen from one viewpoint, there’s nothing stopping them from nudging the emotional aspect of their relationship towards a more physical plane (in fact, he firsts meets her in a brothel, where he picks her from a lineup, and surely not because he wants to coo Kanne kalaimaane into her ear) _ but on the other hand, acting on this impulse would border on paedophilia, because she has regressed into childhood. After hearing me out patiently, this film-school acquaintance _ RS Prasanna, who’s recently completed a documentary on Balu Mahendra (more about that later) _ had just this to offer: “But none of this is explored in any way in the film.”

And I countered that it was there, if you looked for it. It’s buried in the landscape of the film’s narrative _ and if you marked an X and started digging at the point where Kamal discovers that a local has tried to rape Sridevi, if you stopped to think about the fury that this discovery engenders in him, you’d see it right there. Couldn’t Kamal’s rage be as much the result of the would-be rapist’s actions as the fact that this man has dared to look at Sridevi as a woman _ an impulse that Kamal is no doubt suppressing every minute of his life with her at home.

Every time he tries to think of her in grown-up terms, she’s made him revise that notion. He gets her a sari to wear, and he imagines her in front of him, the very vision of womanhood _ even motherhood, if you want to mine these frames for further subtext, for in this dream, she cradles him in her arms, nestles his head near her bosom and feeds him a glass a milk _ but when she finally comes out of the room she’s gone in to change, she’s back to being a child, the sari bunched around her in hideous, hilarious tufts. So after this rebuff, couldn’t you view Kamal’s anger towards the man who tried to rape Sridevi as the explosion of these festering frustrations? “Here I am, controlling my every hormonal impulse, letting the lover inside me be quashed by the father and the brother and the tender caregiver inside me _ and you think you can just barge in and have her body?”

This contention, of course, led to a lot of heated debate _ the kind where no resolution is possible because both parties are right; we are, after all, talking about subjective and hypothetical interpretation _ and the good that came out of this is the advance copy of the Balu Mahendra documentary that Prasanna dropped off subsequently, for my viewing. (Note to self: The next time you’re railing at the heavens at your choice of profession, at having to sit through One Two Three and Race and Rama Rama Kya Hai Dramaaa, remember these rare moments of grace.)

Titled Balu Mahendra _ Art & Craft: A Master Class Session, the film has the director talking about various aspects of his craft and career, and revealing unexpected shades of his personality. I never got this from his films, but the man comes off as something of an unabashed romantic. His first viewing of Pather Panchali was at a film society he formed in his college, and when the screening got over, he recalls that it was raining outside. “I went out and got drenched and danced and laughed,” like Durga and Apu in the film. “That was our way of celebrating Pather Panchali.” And later, a different kind of confession, that one of his hobbies is “butterfly watching, if you know what I mean.”

In between, filmmaker K Hariharan lauds Balu Mahendra as “an emotional Hitchcock,” and Kamal Hassan remembers fondly that, at first, he thought, “Either this guy is a genius or he’s mad.” A pause. “He was both.” Proof comes through clips from Balu Mahendra’s work, mostly from Kokila, Moondram Pirai, Sandhya Ragam and Veedu _ and thankfully, none from Neengal Kettavai, that steaming pile of contempt he hurled at his audience _ and once again, I was struck by a scene from Moondram Pirai, the one where the dinner that Kamal is preparing gets burnt and he vents his bile on poor Sridevi.

I haven’t seen the film in a long while and I’d forgotten what an accumulation of Kamal-isms this stretch is. He needs to go out and buy food now, so he hurriedly pulls on a pant and a shirt. He opens a drawer in this haste (to locate his wallet) and its contents crash to the floor _ among them a bottle of ink, now reduced to a spreading stain of red. Kamal _ the peerless manipulator of props that he is _ skirts around the mess and tries to push the drawer back into its recess. No amount of fidgeting helps, so he drops it in irritation. He continues tucking his shirt into his pants, and locates the wallet in another shirt hanging on the wall. He grabs it and tries to stuff it into the front pocket of his pants, and he tries again, and then discovers that these pants have no pockets, so he places the wallet inside his shirt and strides out. People often point to Kamal being inspired by Marlon Brando, but Marcel Marceau is a more likely progenitor in this case. It’s a masterly physical performance by an actor at the peak of his powers, in a film by a director at the peak of his powers _ and it’s just one of the reasons Moondram Pirai will never meet the fate that befell its protagonist. This is one film that will never end up sad, alone, forgotten.

Copyright ý2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Between Reviews: Dutt¡¯s Entertainment

DUTT’S ENTERTAINMENT

AUG 10, 2008 – THE FUSTY CLICH_ ABOUT LIFE IMITATING ART and art imitating life sprang to gruesome life on the evening of October 9, 1964, when Abrar Alvi went to Ark Royal, Guru Dutt’s flat on Peddar Road, to flesh out the final scene of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, in which the heroine dies a “sad, lonely, disappointed death.” Each one of those qualifiers would, in a matter of hours, apply to the demise of Dutt himself _ who had, that day, committed himself to a series of agitated phone calls to his estranged wife, Geeta Dutt.

Alvi remembers, “She had refused to send across their baby daughter so that he could spend time with her, and with each call his anger mounted. At last, he had delivered an ultimatum… or so he seemed to suggest. ¡®Send the child or you will see my dead body…’ You know, the kind of things one says when one is angry and one’s tongue gets a bit out of control.” Alvi finished his scene close to midnight and sat down for a late dinner. Dutt was monosyllabic throughout the meal, and finally said he’d like to retire. Alvi concludes, “I never saw Guru Dutt alive again.”

It is bit of a masterstroke that Sathya Saran opens Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey with this death scene, for the author instantly establishes what the rest of her book emphasises in no uncertain terms _ that Alvi and Dutt were inseparable during their decade-long relationship, which began when they met on the sets of Baaz in 1953 and ended that fateful night of 1964. The highlights of the intervening years are recounted with great gusto by Alvi, and Saran does well to stand back and simply listen.

The thing about someone else’s story is that there’s no real way of arriving at the veracity of the chapters, at the truth of the characters, and the best recourse, sometimes, is to let this teller himself tell the story. Accordingly, large portions of Ten Years with Guru Dutt are chunks of Alvi’s reminiscences, with Saran alternating each stretch with some editorialising of her own. The effect is that of thumbing through the very entertaining transcript of a those-were-the-days interview, laden with nostalgic nuggets as much about a bygone age of living as a bygone era of filmmaking.

Given his moment, finally, under the sun _ after decades of malicious speculation whether it was really he that directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam _ Alvi seizes the opportunity like a Saharan wanderer prostrating before the first well that’s not a mirage. He emphasises that Guru Dutt was involved only with the song sequences. “We were shooting a difficult scene,” he says, “Rehman is in bed, paralysed, and I had shot it in a way that neither Y.G. Chavan, the editor, nor Guru Dutt could make sense of. There were shots of flying leaves interspersed.”

Chavan, perhaps, went and complained to Dutt, for Alvi soon received a summons. No sooner had Alvi entered Dutt’s office than Dutt started shouting, “Who do you think you are? Is it your film? It is my film.” Alvi waited till his producer calmed down and replied, “If Chavan had told me that you wanted an explanation of the way I have visualised and shot the scene, I would have stopped my work and come.” Alvi left the room, went back to his house and dashed off a petulant note to Dutt. “Do what you want with the movie. I want no credit _ I have nothing to do with the film.” And Dutt wrote back, “You have directed the movie, the credit is yours, and the discredit, if any, is yours.”

Having peddled his most significant ware _ “I still have that precious letter with me” _ Alvi relaxes to regale us with how, for instance, Waheeda Rehman’s rise to the big leagues may not have been possible in the absence of a driver suffering from night blindness and a buffalo that was startled by the horn of a car. We learn, along the way, that not even Guru Dutt was free from being “influenced” by Hollywood (The Man with My Face is mentioned in the same breath as CID, which Dutt’s assistant Raj Khosla directed), though Alvi’s account makes it clear that it’s one thing to sniff out what’s interesting about a film and distill that essence into a brand new bottle and quite another to assemble a frame-to-frame copy.

Later, Alvi tells us how Guru Dutt’s visit to a kotha _ in preparation for Pyaasa _ led to one of the most unforgettable moments in the film; he was sickened by the sight of a heavily pregnant girl being forced to dance, and that repulsion forced its way into the song, Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai. It was SD Burman who tuned that immortal piece of verse, but not all his experiences with composing the film’s music were as elevated. Upon being commanded by Dutt to compose Sar jo tera chakraaye along the lines of a number from the film Harry Black and the Tiger, Dada Burman, Alvi recalls, came to him and wondered, “What is this that Guru is asking of me, public mujhe maarega.” A creator in nervous apprehension of being caught red-handed before a wrathful public _ how endearingly quaint this notion appears today.

Copyright ý2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Ram Gopal Varma

FACTORY TALK

Ram Gopal Varma opens up about being a certain kind of director, about why Contract didn’t work, and about why the upcoming Phoonk is more than just a horror film.

AUG 15, 2008 – ABOUT FIVE MINUTES AFTER SITTING DOWN across Ram Gopal Varma, I’m beginning to realise he’s hijacked the interview. There’s a sheet of questions in my hand _ a list that I frequently look at, in the desperate hope of launching a counterattack to this blatant act of terrorism. But he keeps talking, and I keep listening. (Let’s face it: would you look Varma in the eye and ask, “Excuse me, but there are some things that I need to ask. Would you mind letting go while I try to do that?”) And as he talks, it’s almost as if he’s amassed a clutch of interesting things to talk about, and he’s got to check items off that list before the close of day _ a theory that is confirmed later, when I see he’s gone over those same anecdotes during most other interviews he’s given that afternoon. It’s either that _ or the fact that every single interviewer has put to him questions of unvarying insipidity, and, with these choice quotes, Varma is doing the best he can to keep himself entertained.

Even so, it’s an entertaining experience. The arrogance that you detect in Varma the filmmaker isn’t, as you’d expect, there in Varma the person. At least that afternoon in Chennai, he’s a delightful conversationalist, with a healthy amount of perspective on his work and a hearty sense of humour. I’m barely a couple of words into my first question, when he cuts me off and observes that my review of his Sarkar Raj was interesting, but I “completely missed the point.” Defensive hackles rising, I begin to argue that a review is just a point of view and so forth, but he cuts me off because he gets it. What interests him, he smiles, is to note people’s reactions to his films. But, I venture, he doesn’t seem to be the sort of person who cares about what others think. He agrees, and clarifies that even if he doesn’t bother, it’s interesting to “study” the way people react _ as if filmmaking, to him, is nothing but an expensive laboratory with the nation’s audiences scraped into a petri dish. And I can’t help but wonder…

Is that why you make films _ because it “interests” you to see how others will react?

My belief is that any filmmaker makes films for two reasons. One, he makes the film for himself _ that is, he’d like to see a film like this. Second, he would like to imitate a successful film. “If Jaane Tu… worked, let me make a film like Jaane Tu…” So you’re trying to copy, but your ego doesn’t permit you to say you’re copying that film, so you would say, “The audiences like this kind of film.” Otherwise, your only choice is… [the first one]. Because I can make a film for me. I can’t make a film for you. Because I don’t know you, I don’t know your sensibilities. And if I cannot know that about one person, how can I group a whole mass and label them an “audience” just for my convenience?

So you’re basically talking about someone who makes a movie as a personal statement versus someone who makes a movie as a business venture.

Yeah, I would say that. But it’s a business venture not only in terms of making money, but also in terms of fame. Someone would want to make a movie to be paid more than, say, David Dhawan or Anees Bazmee _ because if Anees Bazmee is the benchmark for commercial success today, he may want to be bigger than that. Still, I don’t think people really come into the industry to make money. Today, actors come to Mumbai to become Shah Rukh Khan. They don’t come there to become Naseeruddin Shah. And that’s because of the glamour, the fame quotient _ to be looked up to, to be adored. That’s not really the passion for acting, and neither is it the greed for money. It’s the same thing with filmmakers. They want to be called the most famous or the most successful director. That becomes more important than why you want to make the film.

But then how do you explain the careers of people like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, or even yourself? You have your fame, your money _ so why do you keep making movies?

I can’t speak for Vinod Chopra, but I make films because of a desire to make films. Ultimately, the filmmaker is a storyteller. I can have a conversation with you or I can write an article or I can make a film. The difference is, with cinema, you can use the various aspects of the medium and enhance the effect. More than telling you about a scene from Phoonk, for example, which is a horror film, I can use the various tools at my disposal and enhance the effect of what I want to impress you with. My passion is to make you feel that _ rather than what you think of it, or how much money you will give it for gratifying you. I don’t think of those two aspects.

But you are working in a very expensive medium.

I’m not denying that. I’m talking about my motivation. I’m not saying that it’s right. But having said that, how can I guarantee that you would like it? Suppose I want to scare you, what could happen? (a) It scares you. (b) It doesn’t. So why would I deliberately do something thinking that you will like it? What I tried to do, you may not like _ but that is an aftereffect. It’s not the primary reason. It’s not that I don’t care whether you like it or not. I’m not saying that. There’s no way of knowing whether you’ll like it or not. That’s what I’m saying.

Even then, when a filmmaker has been on the scene for as long as you have, aren’t there certain patterns that he learns to discern _ whether this will work, or this won’t, and so on? Doesn’t he begin to “know” the audience after a while?

In fact, I think the reverse is true. The more you are around, the more disconnected you become _ because you get corrupted with the industry’s thinking. They tend to think of the audience in terms of groups _ “youth” films, “family” films… Also, when you are looking at cinema, in a theatre, with people around you, it’s a very different way of looking at it. At that time, your exposure level, your knowledge is very different. But when you become a director, you tend to lose that way of looking at films. Today, I can’t watch a film anymore, because I don’t watch a film to be entertained. I see a film to judge it. I am constantly looking at camera angles, sound, this, that _ which is not the way audiences look at the film. So the film that everybody loves, say something like Taare Zameen Par _ this is just an example _ the point is, if in the first five minutes I disagree with the way the scenes are being captured, I will miss out on the content of the film, which might be the main reason the film clicks. So I think that the more you understand cinema, the more you become disassociated from the audience.

In that case, how do you explain the careers of people like Prakash Mehra or Manmohan Desai _ apart from the fact that they worked in an era where more people went to the theatres because there were no TVs and VCRs?

See, their intention of making a film was different. Now, where did the word “formula film” come from? Formula films are like thali meals, you know? You get your curry, your dal, your rice, your chapatis _ you have a good time, but also, your expectation isn’t going to be very high. You know exactly what you’re going to get there. So they kept on serving good helpings of that, with varying degrees and ranges, but, more or less, the soul was the same. And that’s why the word “formula” came about _ because it can’t fail. Like the Coke formula, which is sent to various outlets _ it will still be the same. But when you try to make a film that breaks convention _ when I made my first film, the prevailing trend at the time were Balakrishna’s and Chiranjeevi’s films, so Shiva was a complete change _ you have no way of knowing if it will work.

I didn’t know that then _ and even now, I don’t have any idea why it worked. But it was liked. Whether it was liked for the reasons I made the film, or whether they saw something else in it _ even that, I do not know. Even with a movie like Satya, I’m not sure that its commercial success has anything to do with what the critics liked it for. There were people who said they loved it because it was the first time they heard the word “chutiya” in the theatre. Reactions are as wide-ranging as that. Now, the critics gave four stars to Satya and they gave four stars to Maqbool, but Maqbool didn’t work anywhere as well as Satya. That’s what I’m saying. Each person likes or dislikes a film for unique reasons _ and you can’t generalise them.

Do you think that the audience has become more fragmented today and it was more homogenous earlier?

I would think they were always fragmented. There are more choices today, and because of the Information Age, people are more aware of what is available, plus the freedom of communication is so strong that… When Doordarshan was the only option, I used to watch everything. I used to watch the Nirma ad. I used to watch the Surf ad. But the moment I’m given 50 channels and a remote control, I’m not going to watch TV with the same mindset anymore. The same thing applies to films too. I think very fast, and I can follow a very fast-paced film. But someone else may process things slowly and may want the film to linger on its scenes. Now who do you take as a benchmark for the guy sitting in the theatre? That’s why I feel when you make a film the way you want, there will hopefully be enough people out there wanting to watch it.

To give an example, Dhoom 2 is the biggest hit of last year. It collected some twenty crores in the Mumbai circuit alone. At an average of a hundred rupees a ticket, twenty lakh people saw the film. Now, this is the kind of film that has a repeat audience, so if you halve that figure, ten lakh people saw Dhoom 2. If ten lakh people out of a population of six crores can make the year’s biggest hit, what are the other five crore and ninety lakh people doing? Do they watch films or not? Another interesting question is: are the same people watching Welcome and Taare Zameen Par? There’s no way of knowing, which is why predictions are so often wrong. So the point is, you want to make a film and, secondly, you want people to like it. But which people? I can’t have a conversation like this with, say, my driver. And my driver is also a part of the audience, just like you and me. So do I take you as my mean audience, or do I take my driver?

And that’s why you say you make films for yourself…

The fact is that I understood that it’s impossible to group the audience into one whole. And because of this, you either decide that you want to copy a successful film, like Jaane Tu… When I made my first film, if I’d made something like a Balakrishna film, it might have also become a superhit, perhaps a bigger hit than Shiva. How should I know? Or, you choose the second option and you make films for yourself. And I decided that I want to make the films that I want to see. That’s just my decision. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. Now, coming to what you were saying, yes, film is an expensive medium. Apart from the costs, various actors and technicians are putting their trust _ along with their time and effort _ in your vision. And they all have some expectations. You have a responsibility towards them, not to let them down. But take the time I made Daud. It had everything going for it _ the success of Rangeela, Urmila’s image, Sanjay Dutt after Khalnayak, AR Rahman after Rangeela. Nothing should have gone wrong, and yet it went wrong. And when I started Satya, people said nobody wanted to see bearded, sweaty faces. But that film worked.

So, in retrospect, my decisions may have been wrong, but at the time I took these decisions, they were right. Whether it was Rangeela or Satya or Daud, when I made the decision to make these films, I was serious. It is possible, en route, that I would have missed the target. Because at a human level, I could have been sidetracked, or I could have lost sight of my final purpose. But again, what is the benchmark for a flop or a hit? For example, Sarkar Raj cost 20 crores, and it was sold to one wholesale distributor at 41. He then sells it to another bunch, making a 15-20% profit. Those guys will make another 15-20% by selling it to sub-distributors and fixed hires. So the street value of Sarkar Raj, by the time it hits theatres, would be in the range of 65 crores. So even if it collects 60, it will be called a flop. Now, I made it for 20, and so even if it collects 25, it’s a hit. And the bottom line, for me as a director, is how many people saw the film.

Let’s assume 60 lakh people saw it. Does it mean anything, maybe that 59 lakh people hated it? I don’t know that. So the collections do not necessarily mean that people liked the film. So if film is an idea, film business is about taking that idea to the maximum number of people as effectively and as widely as possible. Along the way, different people have different agenda and motivations, all for their own purposes, and the only true, pure result is on a one-to-one basis. Did you like the film or not? That’s the only concern of the consumer. The producer has invested money. The distributor has invested money. With Sarkar Raj, the wholesale distributor made a lot of money. So in that sense, it’s a superhit. But on the street, if a distributor paid an MG amount of five lakhs, and he only made four lakhs, it’s a flop for him. That’s an informed decision he’s taken, based on his expectations from the local territory or the promos or X or Y factors. Now, that, as a director, I will never be able to control.

But why do you find so many contrasting figures? In the US, for instance, box office reporting is such a streamlined system.

I don’t really deal with the business end. But I think, earlier, there was a lot of cash business, and slowly, with the corporates, all that is getting cleaned up. The multiplexes are very streamlined, while the single screens and the small-town theatres are not. And unless there’s accountability from top to bottom, it’s difficult. But I think we’re getting there.

You just said that you define the success of a film by whether it achieved the aims that you wanted it to achieve. Let’s take Contract. What made you say you wanted to see this vigilante movie? What made you persist with it and put it out in a market that’s no longer responsive to such films?

I’ve answered this question already. You either make what you want to make, or you make whatever kind of movie is working.

But I’m talking about gangster films, in general, not doing well of late…

I don’t agree with that. I’ll agree with you if you say you don’t like Contract as a film. But I don’t believe the genre has anything to do with it. No genre will ever fail. It’s the film that fails. It’s a question of how interesting you make it and how you pitch it. Maybe they didn’t like what they saw in the promos, or they didn’t like the actors or what they heard about it. There could be so many reasons for people not going to a film. It’s not a question of genre. A horror film and a romantic comedy and a family film can work on the same day.

With Phoonk, you’re coming out with your first horror film after Bhoot. Has it shaped up according to your expectations, according to the way you saw it in your head?

It’s a big fallacy that a director can know if the film has come up to his expectations. From the time it was started, whatever concept of the film was there inside your head, it’s rarely there by the time you’ve finished. By the time you’ve broken it down into scenes and done location shooting and editing and so on, you have no idea _ because you’re looking more into the details of the technical aspects. You may have begun the film to make people laugh or cry or scared or whatever, but by the time you finish, you won’t be able to feel it. At best, you can try to analyse the reaction of someone who’s seeing it for the first time, and see if you’ve reached your goal. But you, on a personal level, cannot do this. Because in each decision you’ve taken, there’s so much thinking you’ve done about the shot or the performance or the line, you take it for granted that all the information you’re using is in the audience’s head. But it might not be there, and they will look at it in a completely different way. So regarding whether the film has come up to my satisfaction, no film can ever do that.

The second point is what I think of it. Bhoot had the scare element of making you jump in your seat, and then you laughed because you were caught unawares. And then you waited for the next scare to come. But with Phoonk, the subject matter is very serious. What I mean by “serious” is that it could make you question your faith. It ¡®s a debate between a believer and a non-believer and a person who’s on the wall _ but it’s not a drawing-room discussion. At the centre is a girl with something happening to her. (Picks up pen) Let’s say this pen rises in the air like this. You can say it’s a miracle, or you can call it a trick, or you could say you’re just imagining it. But you have to take a decision soon, or your loved one will die. Now you’re desperate to find a solution and you may find yourself asking some guy who’s supposed to know about all this _ as you’re a non-believer. But if this guy’s explanation about this trick is not satisfactory, and he’s not giving you a solution, how do you decide? Phoonk is like that. The interesting part for me is that it’s beyond a horror film, beyond the “scary” genre. It is very scary, because of the backdrop itself, but the more interesting part _ which I think is novel in such a film _ is that I’m hoping it will create a debate among both believers and non-believers.

Is this an extension of your own feelings about such things _ because you’ve often said you’re a non-believer?

Yes. I think the protagonist is, more or less, playing me. But then, every protagonist has some bits of me. “Mujhe jo sahi lagta hai, main wohi karta hoon” from Sarkar is me. “Main jagah se nahin, dimaag se kaam karta hoon” from Contract is also me. I said that when I lost my office. And most importantly, “Faisle nahin, nateeje galat hote hain” _ that’s me too.

You come across as more interested in the darker side of things, and when I think of you doing a romance, I think of something like Naach. The love story of that scarily independent woman _ that’s how I’d think Ram Gopal Varma’s idea of a romance would be. What made you do frothy films like Rangeela and Mast?

Not really. I’ve done light films in Telugu. There’s no doubt I have an affinity for dark films, because that’s the kind of cinema I enjoy _ but I’m basically, by nature, a very funny person. I’ve done films in almost every genre. My first film was about student politics. Raat is a horror film. Kshanam Kshanam is a caper. Kaun is a psychological thriller. But because of the hard-hitting nature of the underworld films and the horror films, because of the intensity, I think they tend to be remembered more easily. Anyway, what happened with Rangeela is that I had a friend called Ramesh in college. He was actually a street goonda, not a student. Those days it was like Shiva _ a lot of hobnobbing between students and goondas. He was in love with this girl, but he’d never go up to her. We used to encourage him to go and speak to her. He always used to wear these dirty chappals, and one day, he wore brand new Nike shoes. We all laughed and he was hurt. Then this girl started seeing this guy _ very good-looking, very rich, the only guy who had a car in those days _ so we chamchas of Ramesh would goad him to go and beat that guy up. And in a choked voice, he turned to me and said, “She deserves someone better than me.”

That was the birth of Rangeela. I wanted to capture his emotion, and the Nike shoes he wore became the scene where Aamir Khan dresses up. So each film of mine has one basic thought behind it. Ramesh’s line, for me, was the soul of Rangeela. But from the time he said it to the making of the film, it must have been a ten-year journey. Now, when I saw how Mani Ratnam had shot the songs in Roja, I was blown away _ and for the first time, I had a desire to do songs. Then, in The Sound of Music, I was very impressed with the character of the Countess, the way they resisted the temptation of making her the vamp _ that became the basis for Jackie Shroff’s character. And I was watching Singin’ in the Rain, when I noticed my mother _ who’s very conservative and who used to hate watching the Sarkailo khatiya kind of songs _ didn’t mind this film, which actually had more exposure, girls baring their legs and all that. I realised that it was because these girls take pride in flaunting their body. It was there in their expressions _ whereas in Sarkailo khatiya, which was done only for commercial reasons, you can see the hardness in Karisma’s face. So I told Urmila to take pride in being beautiful _ and that’s what comes across in Rangeela. The bodies of all women are the same, but the way they feel about it is what the audience will take home.

So a lot of thoughts were grouped into Rangeela, but still the basic point is Ramesh’s line. The Countess, the woman’s pride in her beautiful body, the songs _ all that became the atmosphere. And the humour element, which was so different in the film, I took from watching a lot of Hollywood musicals at the time. And the conversations that Munna and Pakia used to have were the kind of conversations that we used to have. And I’ve seen that, any time, if my first thought behind why I wanted to make the film happened to be right, the film happened to be right. And if that thought was wrong, the film went wrong. With Company, I was sitting with this guy called Manish Kadawala, who knew the Dawood Ibrahim gang. We got talking, and he told me, “So many people died in the fight between Dawood and Chhota Rajan. They are bent on killing each other. But even today, if Dawood Ibrahim calls, if Chhota Rajan is smoking a cigarette, he’ll keep it aside. He has that much respect for his mentor. They hate each other because they love each other.” And that line _ “They hate each other because they love each other” _became the basis for Company. The rest of the film has nothing to do with Dawood Ibrahim or Chhota Rajan. It’s all my office politics, in the Factory. Because jealousy and one-upmanship and wanting to be better than the other _ all this is part of any company. Now the point I’m trying to make is that with Contract, I was trying to make a Rambo kind of film in a realistic setting. That line, that idea, by itself, was wrong. And therefore the film went wrong.

With these ideas, is it possible to stay “pure” and true to yourself, or do other voices begin to influence you and corrupt your thinking?

It’s not possible, after a point, to retain your purity. And besides, you will yourself forget the feel that was there when you first had the idea. I had a story for a film. Anybody I told this story to was amazed, and the way I narrated the story, they didn’t even realise it was Sholay, till I told them. Then why did I make Sholay the way I made it? It’s because the day “Kitne aadmi the” became “Kitne,” and Holi became Diwali and so on, the people around were so mesmerised that they created an atmosphere _ not intentionally _ and I started thinking along the lines of audiovisual bites. It was no longer a film. I didn’t think whether the audience should hate Babban or if they should empathise with Thakur…

But isn’t that also how you make films, by concentrating on key moments, key aspects?

I’m not very sure that’s my intention. It’s not so much about the technical aspect of it. I’m a person who gets bored quite fast. I want to excite myself. So depending on what you’re seeing and why you’re seeing it, my mind will create a visual which will highlight it, at least for me. Some of them get it, while others think I’m needlessly exhibiting dramatic angles. I saw an incredible visual the other day, at Versova beach, at about 6:30 in the evening, just as it was turning dark. There were ten or twelve couples, holding each other and standing in almost the same pose. It looked very ghostly. I just couldn’t understand how it happened _ till I figured out that night is falling and it’s time for them to part , so they are holding on to that one last moment, all of them. So the night falling is the trigger for them to feel that emotion at that time. It’s one of the most romantic images I’ve ever seen. Now the mistake I do is this. I’ve explained this visual to you for five minutes _ but if I hadn’t, you’ll think it’s so artificial. That’s what even I thought at first. In fact, it was very bizarre for me. The moment I understood it, it completely changed my perspective. I do that a lot. I think the more you sit with the film in your head, the more you take it for granted that it’s come out exactly like that on celluloid. That’s where the disconnect possibly lies with me and the audience.

Copyright ýThe New Indian Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Films & Feni: Bonding And Betrayal

BONDING AND BETRAYAL

NOV 25, 2008 – IS THERE ANYTHING AS REASSURING ABOUT the future of the human race as the sight of people being angrily shushed as their mobile phones announce an incoming call in the middle of a film screening? Or people unafraid to walk into movie theatres alone, simply to enjoy the film in question, without feeling the depressingly social need to lean to someone by the side to whisper irrelevant asides? Or an audience member (who clearly kneels, every morning, at the altar of celluloid) suggesting to the girl who introduces each film that people not be allowed into the auditorium once the film begins? Or films being screened in their blessed entirety, without being cleaved in two at an arbitrary point, so an “Interval” card can be tacked on?

THE FESTIVAL’S OPENING FILM, PETER CHAN’S THE WARLORDS, was screened again the next day, and it played to four packed theatres at the same time. That makes it the equivalent, at least in these arty climes, of a blockbuster starring Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan as bosom buddies, with Aamir Khan as the wily antagonist. It’s easy to explain the rush. One reason is the top-heavy star cast, with Jet Li and Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro playing the trio of blood brothers who negotiate bonding and betrayal in 19th-century China. But more importantly, The Warlords is _ to use a much-mangled qualifier _ an epic, an astoundingly shot martial arts drama that commandeers (and deserves) every square inch of the big screen. If I could go back and watch it again, I would.

AMONG THE CINEPHILES SHAKEN BY THE BRUTAL BRILLIANCE of The Warlords was K Rajasekaran, HoD of Editing, FTII, Pune. I made the stupid mistake of asking him what he thought of the film, as an editor _ a brain addled by too much movie-viewing can never be the fount of intelligent conversation: old Chinese saying _ and he replied, with tremendous patience that you can never notice the editing of a film on a first viewing. After mentally slapping myself on the forehead, I embarked on the task of redeeming myself ever so slightly, by arguing that this was not always the case, but, yes, it isn’t possible to pin down cut points and transition points while the film is flashing before your eyes. And then he proceeded to explain the nature of his job and left me with barely disguised envy. Imagine a life wherein you do nothing but delve into the deep, dark mysteries of film, one frame at a time.

A COROLLARY OF THAT OLD CHINESE SAYING is that opinions formed about movies, in an atmosphere of too much movie-viewing, shouldn’t be taken too seriously _ so can I not go on record when I say how irritated I was by the twee whimsy of Mermaid? Anna Melikyan’s Russian film begins with a fanciful image that’s going to scar the mind for years to come _ let’s just say it involves the most pendulous pair of on-screen breasts since Fellini’s Amarcord _ and the story keeps slipping into preciousness that’s at once richly imagined and hard to take. To make things worse, they paused the screening after ten minutes, so they could hand out bouquets to the director and producers (who walked in late), and the announcer invoked athithi devo bhava to remind us to not disrespect our guests. But everyone secretly agreed with the irate audience member, who yelled, “But what about the disrespect to cinema?”

Copyright ý2008 The New Indian Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.