Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A wise man once told me that change cannot be inflicted upon people – it must be infected. A head-on confrontation will invariably face resistance from those who are set in their ways; for change to truly occur, it must be seeped in gradually, pushing the envelope one inch at a time.

I was reminded of this last weekend, when I was watching the delightful Shuddh Desi Romance. This is a film that, even if it doesn’t create change, will certainly create ripples. This essay is not a review – rather, this is a discussion about films (and this one in particular) as a barometer of changing attitudes amongst young Indians. Films are often said to be a reflection of society – but films need not limit themselves to mere reflection. When done correctly, they can lead, they can teach; they can force society to think, to believe, to question and sometimes even change.


This film is remarkable for the way writer Jaideep Sahni and director Maneesh Sharma create a world in which daring, revolutionary events occur, but so subtly and casually do they take place that instead of affronting sensibilities, they seem like the only natural course of action. Mr Sharma had shown sparks of this earlier too, in his near-perfect Band Baaja Baraat. In that film, Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh play business partners from lower middle class Delhi who run a wedding planning agency together. In an almost throw-away scene, she calls her mother after a hard day’s work and casually informs her that she will be staying over at Ranveer Singh’s house. They eat while watching TV, after which she promptly goes to sleep next to him in his bed. And that’s it: there is no drama created about what people will think, no scandalised reaction shown from her mother, no palpitations on sharing a bed, not even a “you sleep on the bed, I’ll sleep on the floor” discussion. The act itself was a big deal considering the social strata they were dealing with, but what made it all the more interesting is the steadfast refusal by all the parties to not create any fuss about it.

What is special about Shuddh Desi Romance, beyond the fine writing and pitch-perfect direction, is its insistence on not succumbing to the traditional behaviour and pay-offs associated with most Bollywood cinema. Prima facie, this is a film that deals with live-in relationships – which is hardly revolutionary new ground. An increasingly common phrase being brandished about today by mass media, advertising and TV serials, live-in relationships were introduced to mainstream Bollywood seven years ago, via a reasonably entertaining rom-com called Salaam Namaste. It was the story of a couple who were in a live-in relationship simply because, due to their different work schedules, they had no other way of spending time with each other. Since then, many films have shown couples who chose this lifestyle out of willingness, not as the last resort. However, Shuddh Desi Romance pushes this to a whole new level, and in the process challenges a lot of the classic Bollywood conventions – as well as those of the traditional Indian mind-set.


Live-in relationships in this film are approached with a refreshingly frank casualness. This becomes doubly important because this story, unlike Salaam Namaste, is not set in Australia. It is not even set in Mumbai or Delhi. The story takes place in a very middle class neighbourhood in Jaipur. The couple embarks on this living arrangement with an incredibly nonchalant attitude, wasting no time in bunking together literally from the second time they meet, and not for a second are they concerned about society, parents, etc. Sure, he is officially still introduced as her ‘brother’ in order to not offend some social fabric, but the film acutely observes that this fools no one; while simultaneously pointing out that the couple do not let the society comment on or intrude into their living arrangement. It tells us two things: living in is only as big a deal as you make it, and society will only matter if you let it.


The film is traditionally mainstream in that the characters eventually do succumb to love and progress towards a happy ending – however, these characters don’t necessarily believe that their happy ending should be the same as yours, or any of the ones we have been fed by films. Once all the romantic complications are resolved and the central couple has decided to settle down with each other, the film casually, almost inevitably, threatens to veer towards a ‘they-get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after’ conclusion – and then, in a reassuringly, blessedly confident ending, it shuns the entire notion of marriage as the only eventual destination. This is behaviourally consistent with these characters: after all, both the parties in this commitment-phobic couple have run away from weddings earlier, and the film thankfully does not try and accommodate a traditional happy ending by piling on a last-minute reversal of beliefs for them. This modern couple sees no reason for a marriage – they are in love, they are together, they are happy: where is the need for a big, exhibitionist wedding or the impositions of a marriage? If it is argued that the eventual aim of a marriage is to live together happily, then this couple is already doing that, without all the other unnecessary trappings.

The boldness of this ending cannot be understated. In all the films that have ever depicted a live-in relationship, it is viewed almost as an apologetic precursor to the eventual wedding. However, to this couple, and perhaps to many urban lovers in India today, living-in is not a rehearsal for marriage: it is the real thing; an equally valid life choice. The argument is simple: get married because you want to, not because you have to.


It must be remembered that this film comes from the house of Yashraj Films. Yashraj Films, in the world of Indian cinema, is effectively the embodiment of the establishment. It is a company which, for over thirty years, has fed us one wedding video after another. It is impossible to go to any wedding today without feeling like an actor in a ‘Best of Yashraj’ music video. Then again, it was this company that also brought us Salaam Namaste.

People often believe that Hindi Cinema will change because of the wild, experimental film-making of the outsiders in this industry: the Anurag Kashyaps, the Dibakar Bannerjees, etc. But that is a misconception – these film-makers live on the fringes on the industry. Those on the fringes can never bring change at a mass level. If an industry must change in anyway, change has to happen at its fulcrum, by people with substantial mass, and who can genuinely affect things – people like Yashraj Films. The fringe players at most are the missionaries – their task must be to convert, to infect; they must inspire change at the fulcrum. Arguably, this is starting to happen – not only are their films starting to affect the films of the Goliaths (be it in terms of actors, technicians, subjects or story-telling techniques) but the fringe players are increasingly collaborating with the latter to create change at the fulcrum. In fact, Dibakar Bannerjee’s next film is a co-production with Yashraj Films, starring Sushant Singh Rajput.

Thus, rather than the harbingers of change, the fringe players and the outsiders must be the missionaries – because real change will only happen when those in the fulcrum have been infected.

Someone told me that for a film that is so eager to severe ties with the conventionalities and coy-ness of the traditional Hindi film romance, it is ironic that the film is called Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure, Indian Romance). Perhaps. Perhaps it was intended as irony. I see it as extremely acute: when India is changing, why should the definition of the pure Indian romance stay the same?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Land Of Questions

Mr Aamir Khan, whose recent output ranges all the way from Mangal Pandey to Dil Chahta Hai, has often been hailed as a genius because of the quality of his work. His consistency in hitting the bull’s eye over and over again, by making films which connects with the nation, has been heralded unanimously. It seems like the man only goes from height to height: if being a part of Indian cinema’s biggest success story, 3 Idiots, wasn’t enough, he is now making people all over the country weep every Sunday through Satyamev Jayate.

Obviously, I have a slightly different take.

Mr Khan’s success has nothing to do with quality of the output: if quality work was the only criteria, we would not have witnessed Aamir Khan in Sunny Deol mode in that woeful remake, Ghajini. And like I have done over the past decade, I will continue to pretend that films like Fanaa and Mela do not exist.

The reason he seems to be so unerringly consistent is because of an altogether different – and in these marketing-heavy times, perhaps more important – reason: his razor-sharp understanding of the Indian audience.

He understands that the Indian audience is a particularly emotional one. Indian films are the only thing, besides cricket, that provide our people with a collective, common conscious – one which allows us to both take out or frustrations, as well be inspired to carry on with our daily struggles. Hence, his films always deliver on the emotional quota: they’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, and, crucially, they’ll make you think an important point has been raised.
That is the fulcrum of his success.

Examine the spread of issues he has dealt with in the recent past: the faulty Indian education system (3 Idiots), the faulty Indian media (Peepli Live), the faulty parenting styles (Taare Zameen Par – let’s face it, more than dyslexia per se, it was a film urging you not to force kids to conform) and now the many faulty things in our country. In each of these, he has made a point about how wrong things around us are. And we, burdened with the unimaginable weight of survival in our country as well as the stifling inability to do anything about our problems, have vigorously nodded in agreement. In the process, Aamir Khan has been hailed as a genius for the ‘insightful’ manner in which he confronts us with ‘uncomfortable’ questions.

Yes, he is certainly a genius – but of an entirely different kind. He is a genius because he has understood a peculiarly idiotic thing about us: we seek neither insight, nor discomfort. We like affordable, comfortable revolutions, ones which demand nothing more from us than to murmur outrage. While we are smart enough to understand our issues and start uproar over injustice, we are too lazy and near-sighted to seek a resolution. To us, the uproar is the resolution. Once an issue has been raised, we are content to mull over it, express our agreement, voice our conviction that something must be done, and then patiently wait for the next issue to be raised. Brought up in a country where we continuously rely on others to solve our problems, not one of us notices that we have conveniently skipped over the resolution.

Think about it yourself: in which of the afore-mentioned works has he ever provided a viable, practical solution? No. But has that lack of a possible way out being shown ever disturbed us? Not at all – seeking solutions is not a part of our nature, and he knows that. He knows that we are content that someone has raised the question. The more populist and obvious the issue, the more we appreciate it. Honestly – did we need Aamir Khan to convince us that there are faults in the Indian education system, or that dowry is a widespread disease? What we needed was information on how to change – something that is unavailable. And I’m sorry – it is a ridiculous argument to say that at least someone has raised the question. These questions have always been raised, standing tall and erect in our hazy collective conscience, always relegated to the distant horizon, where they will be promptly returned to once we find a newer question.

We are worse than armchair activists – we are philosophical hypochondriacs. We love discussing all the things that plague us, but somewhere are morbidly afraid of finding a solution. Which is why films like Swades and Yuva, which have offered semi-practical solutions to our national problems, never work here. And Aamir Khan, the ambassador of psudo-transformation, has understood this better than anyone. Aamir Khan is simply the man who looks at his neighbor and says that the streets are too dirty. He is never going to pick up a broom – and neither are we, so we nod in agreement, convinced that having nodded, our part in this revolution is complete.


In James Cameron’s sci-fi classic “The Terminator”, we are warned of an impending future when the machines will take over and rule us. Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the machines are waiting for the future anymore.

Technology was created by man with a very simple aim: to help him reduce his work. Telephones, refrigeration, automobiles, air travel, microwave ovens, the internet – all were supposed to reduce his efforts and enrich his life. So at which point of time did they start governing our lives?

Certainly, life is easier today than it was a hundred years ago because of technology. Travelling is easier, health care is better, communication is simpler. Yet look deep into your heart and tell me – when was the last time you felt the Facebook actually lessened your work; or has browsing through it become another addition to your daily tasks? Has your Blackberry made your life comfortable by bringing you e-mails everywhere, or has it allowed the ghost of your office to haunt you anywhere, anytime? Has the microwave made heating food up less of a hassle, or is it creating a lazy generation who is always on the hunt for a quick solution?

In case you have not been able to guess so far, I am not really a technophile. I like books that are made of paper, I like seeing lips and teeth convey a smile rather than a colon and a bracket, and I can’t imagine how cloud computing functions in the monsoon. And, at the risk of being slaughtered, I must confess that I don’t worship Steve Jobs.

I believe that technology, instead of making life simpler for us, has created a whole new system of rituals, customs and manners that has superimposed itself over our existing order of codes and conduct. Life isn’t necessarily simpler – it is just different, albeit equally complex.

The truest proof of anyone getting engaged is the facebook relationship status changing. We only believe someone is married when we see the photos on facebook. More than the holiday itself, we look forward to the comments our holiday photos will get when we post them online on the first day back at work.  My weekend must have better than yours because my photos got more ‘likes’. The mid-morning stroll to the water cooler to chat up our colleagues has given precedence to the quick mid-morning scan through facebook updates when our bosses are busy – probably doing the same.

Yes, I concede that technology has certainly made life quicker. However, the trouble with finishing off tasks in increasingly lesser spans of time is that we then have to struggle even harder to occupy what we have left over. A frenetic lifestyle leads to an even more frenetic search for newer, crazier experiences – because we get tuned to a perpetually rising bar. And after we are exhausted by the insane pace of our lives, we all pop for a quick break into a relaxation or meditation spa, and pay to slow our lives down.

My friends have often me that I am inherently an old man. I have never bothered to understand the reason behind that. Perhaps because I can sit in one spot for over half an hour, patiently, without talking, getting frustrated, or – God forbid! – checking my phone. Perhaps because I can get through a journey by looking out of the window, instead of depending on my mp3 collection. Perhaps because when the internet breaks down at my house, I don’t feel an empty, endless void in my life.

I am not sure where this leaves me. I understand that I am a member of an increasingly endangered species of people who don’t aspire for things that are prefixed with an ‘i’. I realise that I am perhaps one in very few who still cringe at grammatical and punctuation mistakes in an SMS. I know I am the only person left who misses the kitschy value of a perfumed love letter.

Don’t get me wrong – this is not a “good old days” rant. I have no hesitation in admitting that technology has improved our lives in innumerable ways. However, I often have incredible difficulty in calming a nagging feeling that we may be paying too high a price.

When My Girlfriend Met Holden Caulfield

“If you truly want to understand me,” I said to my long-term girlfriend one day, “you must read ‘The Catcher In the Rye’”.

She stared at me blankly. We had been together for about five years by then, so a peek into my tortured soul probably wasn’t a particularly effective incentive. Then again, in my defense, Salinger’s masterpiece does not really need one.

A story without a plot, the novel follows the iconic Holden Caulfield over four days as he travels around New York after being expelled from his boarding school. In four days, his holidays begin, and going home before that would mean telling his parents why he is home. So he whiles away time in various places across New York, and we travel with him, watching films, meeting people, going to bars and generally watching life. And by the time the novel reaches its conclusion, we realise that we have grown up in many ways – even though Holden may not have.

Essentially a rites-of-passage novel, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ virtually defines the phrase ‘bildungsroman’ in modern literature – and with good reason. Observing a boy trying desperately to grapple with the complexities of life, while constantly letting his frustrations out on the people around him, we see ourselves in every one of his dilemmas.  The genius of the novel lies in creating a completely irreverent yet not totally unsympathetic character as its protagonist and narrator. He is not a bad person – he believes in charity, loves his family – but is rebellious, insolent, extremely judgmental and believes himself to be above almost everyone around him. So while we see him go through many a life lesson, his sheer refusal to learn them, along with a strict contempt for pretty much anyone around him, simultaneously creates a distance which avoids uncomfortable sentimentality while actually underlining the growth even more acutely. Salinger does not need to explain the morals of the story – Holden’s scorn for it, while lampooning them, ironically highlights them also. In the process, although he may not have really matured, we witness a much better, un-manipulative and thought-provoking story than can be expected from this genre.

The novel is peppered with incidents that illustrate this complex, confused character, without having anyone explain him to us. We see him urge a prostitute to have a conversation with him before the night progresses; we see him feel sympathy for nuns; we see him watch ducks blissfully with his sister; and gradually we begin to recognize this confused boy, raging a war against the world, as a former shadow of ourselves.

Teenage years are a particularly difficult time in everybody’s life. While we don’t actually have more problems at that time, we seem to think we do. Every high is higher, every low is lower. Our gross misjudgment of our problems comes partly from our incomprehension of their long-term magnitude and partly from our frustrating inability to articulate them in such a manner that they can be resolved. This is apparent in every one of Holden’s quirks: he hates most of the people around him, but he cannot explain why. He gets irritated and restless at a party, but is at a loss of words when asked for a reason. He hates hypocrites (‘phonies’, as he calls them) but does not really understand the term.

Salinger’s brilliance is that by having such a narrator, he does not need to – and honestly, cannot – explain these feelings. And yet, somehow, we know. We understand. We shake our heads, smiling ruefully, recognizing our younger selves in Holden’s desperate rants and confusions. We relate to his idiosyncrasies, because we have also had them. And we know that one day he will leave all this behind, and grow up to become a more sorted, balanced individual. We don’t know when – it may not happen by the novel’s end, or by the end of the year, or maybe even in the next ten years. But we know that he will one day, eventually, grow up.

We know that because we did.

I had the privilege of reading this fine work of art when I was a teenager, and, over fifty years after it was written, I felt this novel was written just for me: it spoke in my language, it voiced my feelings, it gave shape to my teenage angst in a manner I could not. Ultimately, it helped me understand and control my inner Holden, and become a more mature and sensitive person.

And for that, Mr Salinger, my girlfriend will forever be grateful.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Karan Calling Karan

The recent version of Agneepath, a film which Mr Karan Johar and Mr Karan Malhotra sold to us under the disguise of a remake and as "redemption for the failure of the original which was my father Yash Johar's dream", has been receiving inexplicably rave reviews, and unprecedented box office earnings. I had a few things to say about it and, well, I have no other platform. So here goes. We are well beyond the stage of ‘bear with me’.

Suffer with me.

1. This is not a remake.

Just think for a second. If I change only two names- Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Kancha Cheena- this is only a story of a boy who grows up to avenge his father’s death at the hands of a drug smuggler, and uses another gangster on his rise to the top. Now consider the sheer plethora of films that alludes to: everything from countless Bachchan and Mithun films, through Parinda, to Soldier. Yes, I agree that these arguments apply to the original film also, but the original film was a pretty generic film: if you are going to remake a generic film by revering it, you may as well remake it exactly, instead of turning it into an even more generic film. Dharma Productions should simply have stuck to their guns and given us a full throated 80s style potboiler (and, as Dabangg and Singham have clearly shown us, such films are virtually unbeatable at the box office right now) instead of using an established film’s name and cheating us.

2. The 80s Renaissance.

It seems that the 70s are over. We re-discovered the 70s, re-made a bunch of Bachchan films, celebrated the decade affectionately with Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om and Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, and then called it quits. We have now moved on to the 80s. So films are now largely remakes of Southern blockbusters (and, apparently, only the language changes, not the volume), ‘Heroes’ are back with their dialogue-baazi, larger-than-life villains have returned, and, as Agneepath has shown us, so have the Thakurs and Munim-jis. I am incredibly, extremely petrified. Nothing has prepared me for films which would make Jeetendra nostalgic.

3. The Bifurcation.

This is a very interesting time in the industry, akin to the late 70s and the 80s, when the burgeoning art film movement and the increasingly crass masala movies were clearly dividing the audiences. On one hand, this unexpected and inexplicable 80s renaissance that threatens us currently seems to be sprouting films and almost pushing our helpless selves back by about three decades (or more, considering the films of the 80s were old-fashioned even in the 80s); on the other, we are also being pulled forward, as we are served regular helpings of the modern and beyond with films like Love, Sex & Dhokha, Rockstar, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Delhi Belly. The net result is, I suppose, that we are standing still.

4. Don’t change genres.

The 1990 Agneepath was a gangster film. That is a well-established genre, with roots ranging back to the 1930s, with its own rules, conventions and tropes. The 2012 Agneepath, on the other hand, is a vendetta film, which is an equally well-established and explored genre, with its own specific rules, conventions and tropes. The former charts the rise and fall of a criminal- the alliances, the betrayals, the unexpected love of a good woman which humanizes him, the injustice doled out to the gangster so that we root for him, and ultimate punishment in death- these are the beats every gangster must invariably hit, be it The Public Enemy or Vaastav. The focus here is on a compelling character. A vendetta film, however, must pit a smaller, weaker being against a larger evil where the former must eventually take his revenge against the latter for some past injustice. The focus is on plot. You can’t change the genre of a film when you remake it! Because when you insist on changing the genre, you change its grammar. The narrative changes from a character-driven story to a plot-driven one. That is why the older version, at a shorter duration and containing several more sub-plots, seemed to narrate a fuller, more spacious tale. That is why we unfairly spend the entire duration of the new film waiting for the inevitable confrontation between Hrithik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt, making everything else before it is simply a prelude- unlike the previous one, which had several memorable set pieces sprinkled throughout (like Bachchan’s entry, the muddy sequence in the slums, the Ganesh Visarjan). And that is why it makes no sense why Hrithik Roshan must suddenly seek his mother’s approval of his actions before he can die in peace when all through the film he, frankly, hasn’t given a damn.

5. Don’t end with the character’s death.

This may seem like a petty complaint, but it bugs me no end. Living in Cyprus, I used to watch Hindi films on pirated VHS tapes, which were often chopped off according to the pirate’s whims to fit the length of the tape. When I saw Devdas in 2002, the film ended with Shah Rukh Khan closing his eyes. It was a bit sudden, and I kept wishing for days after that that the film had a few more shots to round off the ending. When I saw the actual cut later, I was relieved to see shots of the lamp blowing off, and the incomplete tattoo on his hand. For some reason, this makes a big difference to me. I truly detest it when a film ends with the shot of the main character dying. It almost ruined Maqbool for me. The film is not the character- the character is part of the film. Is it that difficult to spend fifteen more seconds and finish the narrative with a couple of establishing shots? It brings a beautiful sense of closure, as evidenced in greats like Anand, Braveheart, Philadelphia, American Beauty and Guide. Mr Karan Malhotra, you made us sit nearly three hours- would thirty more seconds have killed you?

I didn’t like this film at all. I am not at all surprised that it has now taken the highest opening of all time. This is the same world, after all, where Bodyguard and Ready are the second and third highest grossers ever. One of these days I must create a mathematical formula describing the inverse relationship between the quality of a film and its box office earnings.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Perpetual Spectator

A friend recently downloaded "Mile Sur Mera Tumhara" on her new phone (the original version of the song, don't worry) and played it on a loop throughout lunch, singing along with it continuously. Even where she didn’t know the lyrics, she managed to imitate the sounds pretty well, betraying how often she must have heard it before. It was clearly a tune etched in her memory, and the sheer frequency of exposure she had had to it had ingrained everything about it in her mind- the beats, the instruments, the visuals- so much so that even years after she must have last heard it, she could replicate it perfectly.

And I understand that this is no great feat. Every person of my generation can apparently recite this song with fluency comparable to the national anthem, and shot-by-shot relay the video also.

So I was not unprepared for the surprise on her face when she discovered that I had only heard the song once or twice, and knew next to nothing about it. “Sacrilege!” her eyes screamed, as she tried desperately to find some reason to retain whatever little positive opinion she had of me.

Once again, I came face to face with my muddled past, and once again, albeit after quite a while this time, I blamed my father and his transferable job for not leaving me with a grounded sense of history.

Growing up around the world has several instantly recognizable advantages- the opportunity to see so many places, the chance to experience so many cultures, learning different languages, access to great schools, and the concomitant ease of faking sophistication and worldliness. What lies beneath, in the shadows beyond the glitz and the limits of myopic eyes, is the side no one wishes to acknowledge. The darkness where constant upheavals and repeatedly trying to make new friends and losing good, old ones dance uncomfortably with a confused sense of identity and a lack of a solid, grounded sense of belonging.

Living in India for the past 7-8 years (the longest I have ever stayed in one place) has thankfully cured me of the suffocating lack of belonging that plagued me greatly during my late teens. However, every once in a while- as it did on that day at lunch- my culturally fragmented childhood resurfaces, and makes me pine for a more… normal past. Certainly, I would have to give up on many a wonderful experience, but what I wouldn’t give to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere. What this constant uprooting and the inability to properly immerse myself anywhere has made me, I think, is a permanent tourist; the eternal outsider, the perpetual spectator; who can only observe life and cultures and experiences from a distance- quietly and unobtrusively, without ever being able to take centre stage.

That is why, I think, I value cinema so much. There’s a famous quote from Scorsese that sums it up beautifully: “It's as if movies answer a quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory.

What cinema allows me is a sense of shared history, of a common mythology. Sure, I didn’t have any classmates in 1998 who wore chains saying “COOL”, but just like you, I too started playing basket ball after watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. So what if Hrithik Roshan was just an actor to me in 2000 and not a hysteria-inducing name; I have also tried to imitate the ‘Ek Pal Ka Jeena’ steps in front of a mirror. Mowgli and Bagheera may not have visited me every Sunday, but I have also thrown sticks in the air and waited for them to come back in my hand. I may have no experience of playing cricket in gullies, but I too cheered for Bhuvan. I also got a hair cut after Dil Chahta Hai, I also cried at Jai’s death, I also dangled out of trains hoping to catch a girl’s hand, and the first song I also learnt on the guitar was “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam”. I may not have grown up the same way as you, I may not have played the same games, roamed the same streets, celebrated the same festivals or had the same experiences, but when it comes to films, even though you and I may be strangers, we have seen and laughed and cried at the same things.

Years later, I will be able to discuss a scene from a film, and you will tell me how you also loved that scene, and while we may not have met before and may never meet again, for that one miniscule, meaningless moment of our lives, we will be connected- we will have a shared past, one that is exclusively ours and yet simultaneously universal.

And that one moment will immediately fill me with a confluence of calming peace and an exciting awareness.

That I finally belong.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I saw Band Baaja Baarat this weekend.

For the third time.

In four weeks.

People have been asking me for some time now why I find it so great. So I thought I should let them know. After all, everyone has a right to my opinion.

I can’t remember which was the last film that gave me so much repeated joy… Khosla Ka Ghosla, in all likelihood. That was a tremendous film- brilliant characters, a novel story, undervalued actors and the most subversive heist tale I have ever seen. Band Baaja Baraat, on the other hand, has neither of these things- yet I have seen it thrice, and can happily go see it a few more times. And there is only one man to thank.

Mr Habib Faisal.

While the film can boast of excellent direction and spot-on performances (which we shall discuss in a moment), it is ultimately the spectacular writing which makes this film click. Habib Faisal, fresh off directing that sweet little middle-class-Delhiite film called Do Dooni Chaar, clearly understand the living-in-Janakpuri-dreaming-of-GK mentality, and paints his words with hues and rhythms we have not witnessed since… Well, since Khosla Ka Ghosla.

However, what I really wish to examine here is how amazingly well Band Baaja Baraat can serve as a textbook in screenwriting- that is how flawlessly Mr Faisal scripts his narrative. Be it Syd Field’s three act “Set-Up/Conflict/Resolution” structure, or the classic Indian “Introduction-Masala-Interval-Drama-Happy Ending” format- Band Baaja Baraat holds on to traditional structures in a steadfast yet light manner.

In the process, it also ticks all the boxes of classic cinema story-telling. We understand the two characters inside out by the time the titles are over (the ‘Tarkeebein’ montage captures the protagonists perfectly), so that our story can begin right off the bat- and indeed, the first sequence after the credits has the two leads meeting each other, and their company takes off twenty minutes into the film. Right when the film requires a character for the protagonist to talk to about his conflicted feelings, pat appears his friend (otherwise, a godforsaken mirror monologue seemed to be on the cards!). And just when the story seems to be dwindling in self-pity and melancholy, we are thrown into the third act with the big Sidhwani wedding. It really takes several viewings to appreciate how wonderfully this film is constructed.

I have always believed that a film is dependant most of all on the small moments. These moments are what stay in our mind after that film and are lifted through nuanced acting and snappy words ; it helps, then, to have sparkling dialogue- and Faisal’s dialogue positively crackles. With words dipped in typical Dilli slang and marinated with the city’s atmosphere, he creates lines that almost smell of DTC buses. How can one not love a film which gives us words like ‘kaand’, ‘thulla’, ‘jhand’, ‘bhasoodi’ and ‘cheapda’? Mr Faisal creates moments which in lesser films would merit entire scenes, but here are almost throwaway moments, heightening their charm- be it Bittoo practicing how to say ‘shit’ with a posh accent, or teaching Shruti’s mother how to spell his name; be it Bittoo’s friend agreeing that “haan, kheer nahi, raita hi phaila hai”, or Shruti greeting her would-be husband with an ironically expression-less “Kaise ho?” It is a film full of such moments, and any film that glitters itself with such lines deserves all the applause it gets. Watch the brilliant scene between Bittoo and his father, and you will understand what I mean.

Thankfully, Habib Faisal’s script has the two things it very badly needed to be fully realized: a director and a cast who both clearly understand Delhi and Dilliwalas, and- highly misunderstood in our cinema- human beings and their behavior.

Mr Maneesh Sharma, in his debut venture, directs with a lightness of touch and the surefootedness we witnessed in the legendary debuts of Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Farhan Akhtar and Dibakar Bannerjee. Here is a man who truly has guts- he stops in the middle of a frenetic, humourous narrative to observe the quietest, most sensitive love scene we have seen recently, and shoots it with magnificent sensitivity. It is a ten minute sequence in a 150 minute film, and the proportional space given to it demonstrates how important the man feels this scene is.

It takes immense courage to construct a love scene that is so nervous and tender for such duration, to have faith that the audience who likes everything underlined and scored to a laugh track will not get restless. Sure, I heard several nervous giggles each time in the hall, but that just goes to show that the audience too was experiencing the same dry-throated, heart-thumping anxiety that the characters are going through.

Notice how the tense build-up to the first kiss is played out in utmost silence, with the soft music only kicking in once the act has commenced- we can almost hear the two leads breathe, and we can almost feel their heartbeats. This scene works because of the way it contrasts the silence of this lovely moment with the loud music of the preceding celebration party- he understands that the memories of our first kisses are invariably still and silent, and scored to thumping heart beats rather than pop music. He also understands the sheer awkwardness of the post-coital morning: the avoiding each other’s eyes, the nervous silences and how it invariably changes things forever.

And then there are the performances.

You know that a cast is good when the most meaningless role is played by Manu Rishi (although I have a feeling that his role must have been chopped off on the editing table). Ranveer Singh comes up with a debut that is the most self-assured and confident that I have seen in years, perhaps since Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai. His is the true success story, for here is a man who faced near universal rejection and ridicule when he was first shown in trailers. I remember words like ‘lallu’, ‘chhichhora’ and ‘champu’ being used to describe him. His victory lies not in proving all these people wrong- but instead in proving them all right; after all, he was a chhichhora character and only after seeing the film do we realize how perfect this performance is. And once you consider that this is a boy from Mumbai pulling off a totally authentic roadside Dilliwala, a standing ovation does not seem too much to ask. Here is a man to watch out for. Observe how naturally he complains that the clients “pay in ghaas-phoos, and ask delivery of kukkad”, and you understand how pitch-perfect this performance is.

Anushka Sharma has the less dynamic role, as the laws of rom-coms require one of the characters to be more subdued and sorted than the other (we all know what happens if both are equally in-your-face: remember Kambakkht Ishq?) Yet, for some reason, I have always believed that characters which are slightly more mature and level-headed suit her (case in point: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi vis-à-vis Badmaash Company). She may not have a Kareena’s vivaciousness to pull off a Jab We Met, but she exudes a sweet, sincere and smart personality, and that is what she utilizes here. It is a brave, solid performance, one that alternates between the sheer joy of successfully pulling off a wedding to anger at having fallen for the wrong guy; from the trepidation every time Ranveer starts giving impromptu speeches to clients, to the typical Delhi-lass bravado with which she keeps men at bay. Of course, it helps that she’s quite a looker, and has eyes that shine like… well, like her smile.

And finally, in a sensational moment, the film redefines love as fun- ‘mauj’. And it is shocking to realize that it took our cinema so long to realize this- that, at the end of the day, love makes you enjoy life. Every moment one spends with their loved ones is full of fun. And in a world pushing us relentlessly, isn’t that moment of fun what we all crave?

Finally, all one can say is that you know a film is special when, for the rest of your lives, it removes your ability to pronounce 'BUSINESS' without at least once considering if you should remove the ‘S’.