Saturday, October 3, 2009



(Quality on Y-axis, Year on X-axis.)

Go Figure!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Now That Harry Has Met Sally- Why Wait?

I have had one of the strangest conversations of my life today. And that is the reason for this hopelessly sentimental post. (What the hell- like you were missing my sarcasm!)

Two friends of mine (both girls- obviously) today had a long discussion with me about the need and the rationale of marriage. Perhaps I need to be more specific. Both their parents had approached the topic with them, and both of them are trying everyday to desperately avoid it. They see no reason for the urgency. They are both unanimous in their verdict- marriage, all things considered, should only happen once one is mentally ready. And, of course, the usage of that phrase every time in history has implicitly assumed that one is not.

I suppose then, in hindsight, that it was perhaps not the ideal moment to inform them that I had been proposing marriage to my girlfriend on a daily basis for the past five years.

Their verdict was once again unanimous- I am mentally unstable. (I can see you nodding your head in agreement. Stop it.)

After listing the numerous obstacles one would face after marriage- financial issues, responsibilities, compatibility, adjustments, compromises, and even horrendously hungry babies- they turned the spotlight on me and asked a stupefying question: Why was I so eager to get married?

Now, while that question itself is perfectly harmless, and a logical derivation of the above discussion, it had me dumb-founded. You see, I have spent all my energy and all my time so doggedly chasing the idea of marriage, revelling in my unshakable conviction of its merits, that I had, momentarily, forgotten my motive.

However, as I write this, wading in my reminiscence of today, the answer becomes startlingly clear; it is, after all, the simplest, and the most obvious thing I can think of.

Why was I so desperate to get married? Well, dear friends, why not?

Being mentally ready is like being in love- it is not a state you find yourself in, one fine day. It is also not a function of your age or financial stability (given, however, that maturity and a bank balance are always desirable). One doesn't simply stumble into it, strolling along the narrow, twisted pathways of life. You don't just wake up one day, saying, "Oh, I am now 28, and therefore mentally ready!"

It is a decision. One day, you look deep within yourself and decide that you are mentally prepared. Or that you are in love. And once you do that, the rest of your life simply falls in line. Mine did.

I understand all your arguments, friends, and I also admit that they are indeed valid.

I, however, know only one thing. Around five years ago, I discovered someone, and decided that that is the face I wanted to wake up to every morning of my life. I see no reason why I should wait. Or any way I possibly can.

That's it.

"...when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."
~Nora Ephron, "When Harry Met Sally"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

THINGS I FAIL TO UNDERSTAND (amongst others...)

I am a confused man.

This declaration should hardly come as a surprise to those who know me. I spend half of my time desperately trying to comprehend the goings-on of this world, and the rest of it simply marvelling at the levels of sheer absurdity prevalent around me. The world is a ridiculous, funny, absurd, mad place, and it is therefore no wonder that I love it so much.

In my "search for sanity" in this utterly insane universe, I come across things on a daily basis which make so little sense that they fit in perfectly with our world. However, at the end of day, there are certain things which deservedly get mention in the "Insanity Hall of Fame": things which simply do not make sense, no matter how hard I try, even by the shockingly low standards of sanity around us.

Following, then, is a list of certain things that do not make sense to me in the least. Those who know me well will vouch for one thing- this list is by no means comprehensive.

1. People who need to read the menu before deciding what to order at McDonald’s.

I just don't get these people. I'm sorry, many of you are very close friends, but come on! McDonald's is a wonderful institution which seems to have decided to stand as a pillar of strength and stability in this ever-changing world: not one thing has changed since its arrival here in India- the menu, the service, the decor, the prices, and usually even the clientele remain steadfastly the same. Yes, there are minor changes in the menu every 4-5 years (so we now have chicken nuggets! Woo-
hoo!) and the prices (the McGrill went from 20 to 25 to 30!) but more or less, I don't walk into that restaurant expecting any surprises.

And yet there are people who are simply unable to choose what they want to order until they see the menu! A menu which, just like laughter in Sidhu's throat, has remain fixed for the past ten years! Haven't you memorised it by now? Are you still in the dark about what are the burgers McDonald's serves?

There seems to be an interesting theory that is often thrown in my face whenever I start my rants about this. Some say that seeing the images of the burgers, or any visual aid, helps the decision-making progress. While I understand that there may be some merit to this theory, it is irrelevant here because, just like McDonald's offerings, people's choices too remain the same! The McChicken lover will always order that, the Maharaja Mac fan will sick to his love, and the Veg Surprise devotee will continue to enjoy that only! The McDonald's connoisseurs are steadfast loyalists- and yet, these people need to look at menu, almost as if in a desperate bid to re-affirm their own convictions!

You are a strange, inexplicably insane bunch- I love you all.

2. “One-Time-Watch”.

This is an amazing phrase, one that I am convinced does not exist anywhere else on this planet. I suppose it is fitting in a way that the origin of this soon-to-take-over-the-world phrase is the nation which produces the highest number of films in the world.

All over the world, people judge films as being good, bad or simply 'okay', describing the mediocre. We, however, are a nation that is both full of obsessive film lovers, as well as inundated with mediocrity all around us. Most films, good, bad, or hideous, we will watch anyway; and most films, from the afore-mentioned spectrum of the good, bad or hideous, will fall in the cateogry of "okay". We know the latter is a fact; we have understood it over years and years of being confronted with mediocrity, and millions and millions of fridays of battling disappointment. And yet, with the unmatchable Indian optimism, we will watch every film that comes out.

Considering the sheer number of films that fall in the "okay" category every year, all Indian cinegoers soon realised that the term "okay" was simply inadequate both as a judgement as well as a catogory- there was an urgent need for further classification, lest we (God forbid!) misguide our friends and families, who would watch the film irrespective of what we told them.

Thus, the term "okay" was sub-divided into three major categories:
  • "Dekh le, par bakwaas hai"
  • "Ok-Ok only"
  • and the magical "One-time watch toh hai"
This phrase, "One-Time Watch", once upon a time used to be grammatically correct: people would say "ek baar toh dekh sakte ho", or "you can watch it once". Soon, people realised that these words were beginning to encompass an entire- and rapidly growing- category, and, just like with every other oft-repeated phrase, they shortened it, to a name they gave such films- "One-Time Watch".

One must finally understand that this glorious phrase points to two essential characteristics of us Indians, which perhaps justify it too to a certain extent: one, we often watch a film two- or more- times in a theatre if it is good enough; and two, we are so starved for entertainment, and so much in love with cinema (and perhaps possess such low standards), that a film being a "One-Time Watch" is a good thing.

I, for one, have never understood this phrase. As far as I am concerned, a "One-Time Watch" is a Titan with dead batteries.

3. Salman Khan’s Stardom

Forget, for a second, "WANTED".

Salman Khan is one of the veterans and the stalwarts of the film industry. He has always been considered one of the superstars of India Cinema, and is an integral part of Bollywood's ruling clan. And yet, what is amazing, is that I cannot remember the last good movie he came up with.

While he has been considered a superstar for the past twenty years, ever since the days of "MAINE PYAAR KIYA", this is is a man who has not had a single A-league film in recent memory. I mean, what was his last major release? "YUVVRAJ"?

According his filmography at IMDB, in the past 25 films he has done, right upto 2002, that is almost eight years, he has had four hits. Yes, FOUR- and those too are films like "PARTNER", "NO ENTRY", "TERE NAAM" and "MUJHSE SHAADI KAROGI". Two David Dhawan films, an Anees Bazmee and a Satish Kaushik- hardly A-Listers!

On what basis do we call him a superstar?

However, in the past twenty years, I defy you to find one person who can deny that this man is not a superstar. This is is a man whose last decent film was perhaps 1999's "HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM"- and yet there is no need for him to provide any evidence for his stardom. If any were needed, there is the opening collections of "WANTED".

Not one A-league film in over 25 releases, not one landmark movie, not one A-league production house- but Salman Khan's stardom is indisputable. This is a man who has gone beyond the Box Office, and needs neither hits nor awards to prove his stardom.

Salman Khan's stardom is a walking, talking example of the madness of country we live in. And a fabulous one at that.


While I end my post here, my confusion at this world obviously will not. Therefore, in all likelihood, I threaten to come back with a sequel.

Monday, August 17, 2009


India is a country defined by a collective mythology: no, I am not referring to religion or history here. I am talking about what constitute our modern way of thinking, our mental encyclopedia of images and our colloquial dialogue. I am talking about our pop-culture. That, I believe, has far greater influence on our day-to-day behaviour than anything else: who hasn't mouthed SHOLAY dialogues at some point of their lives, or thought the words "Thandi Hawa Ka Jhonka" every time they met anyone called Sameer?

In random order, then, here are moments, images and events from the past 25 years that- in my opinion- are now part of pop culture folklore and have defined this generation as well as the world today:

  1. Aishwarya rai, with wet hair, asking Aamir Khan for a Pepsi. We could totally understand Aamir willing to do anything to get that Pepsi. And oh yes- that slide under the shutter...

  2. Shah Rukh Khan throwing Shilps Shetty off the roof in Baazigar. Woah. The public stared, dumbfounded: "Huh? Isn't he the hero?" And thus, the anti-hero was re-incarnated. And a three letter acronym entered our glossaries: SRK.

  3. Kapil Dev breaking down on national television during the match-fixing scandal. Cricket has rarely given a more poignant moment, or a more heart-breaking one. Time almost stood still as the entire country sat shocked, betrayed and confused about one of its most intense passions.

  4. Papa Kehte Hain from QSQT- that song defined a generation. Just wasn't mine. But it gave us Aamir Khan, and Udit narayan, who went on to create many more such moments.

  5. Asawari Joshi, twirling her fingers, and telling us "Dhoondte Reh Jaaoge!"

  6. Mowgli and his boomerang. Didn't you ever throw sticks in the air after that and wonder why it didn't come back?

  7. Natwest Cup final. India defeats England after the latter posted a nearly-unsurmountable 326, and Sourav Ganguly celebrated by swinging his shirt. The new India was announcing its arrival: brave, ruthless, and armed with a never-say-die spirit. It brought promises of times unimaginable.

  8. Salman Khan took his shirt off and sang "O-Oh Janejana" for the girl of his fantasies. And became synonymous with the 'shirtless' tag.

  9. Sanjay Dutt finally channelled that attitude correctly and became a gangster in "Vaastav". For the rest of our lives, no one can replace him as the image that comes to our minds every time we hear the word "Bhai".

  10. The Undertaker stepping into the ring. A significant part of my childhood was devoted to WWF trump cards.

  11. Hrithik. Ek Pal Ka Jeena. A star was born, and a new dance form was created.

  12. Madhuri Dixit, stepping into millions of fantasies and making a rubbish film memorable with "Dil Dhak-Dhak Karne Laga". May that image live on.

  13. Urmila. Tanha- Tanha. Rangeela. Black vest. Beach... Anyone who was a teenager in 1995 knows the importance of that image.

  14. A.R.Rahman, swinging his hair, arms spread, looking upwards and crooning "Vande Mataram". Rock had just met patriotism, and suddenly it was cool to be nationalistic again.

  15. Shahrukh Khan rinsing his mouth with Pepsi after waking up in Dil Toh Pagal Hai. Pepsi could not have asked for a better endorsement or a bigger brand ambassador, and everyone who ever saw that movie was totally convinced about the need for leotards on women and Pepsi vending machines in their homes. That movie also turned an obscure western traditioncalled Valentine's Day into a national obsession- pretty much what Hum Aapke hain Kaun did for weddings, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did for Karva Chauths and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai did for Friendship Day.

  16. Alisha Chinoy burst onto the scene in an industry which only knew Baba Sehgal and Apache Indian with "Made In India". Both male modelling (Milind Soman) and Indipop had arrived, and film music was just so passe.

  17. The first Indo-Pak cricket match in years in 2004- India made 351, and Pakistan, with Inzamam in top form, looked ready to match it. Women forgot to make dinners, children forgot their homework, streets were literally empty and all shops were closed- an entire nation held its breath as Nehra took the ball for the last over. A last over that was heart-stoppingly exciting, suspenseful and involved a heroic, inspiring dive by Kaif. It was, ultimately, a victory we savoured- but one that Pakistan deserved just as much.

  18. Dil Chahta Hai. Three words which inscribe numerous images defining our generation- whereas Kuch Kuch Hota hai introduced us to the term "cool", DCH told us what it meant. Whether it is three friends lazing around in cars on impromptu trips, or dancing in clubs to trance music- all of us young, urban yuppies found our rolemodels, and started planning annual Goa trips. And ever since then, whenever anyone has thanked me for coming to their birthday party, I have had only one reply: "Cake khane ke liye hum kahin bhi jaa sakte hain".

  19. Anil Kumble coming back onfield after his injury with his head wrapped up in a bandage. Wow. Heroism does not get more gritty, or more inspiring.

  20. Shahrukh Khan playing the mandolin amidst mustard fields, Kajol in virginal white, a cow-bell, and the strains of the refrain from "Tujhe Dekha To Yeh Jana Sanam" playing with the wind. I personally know people who wanted to buy the "DDLJ wala chhota guitar". It is solely because of that image that an entire generation grew up, totally unaware of what a mandolin is, pretending to be SRK everytime they held a guitar.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Joys of Brevity

A short story is usually a task of both extraordinary skill as well as extreme precision. Not only does it involve the development of both character and action in a short span of time and narrative space, but it is also required to provide a satisfactory denouement to the plot in order to etch itself in the reader's mind. On top of that, the quality of a short story often hides behind the "twist-in-the-tale" tool to be effective: its real test is, in fact, its brevity- the utilisation and the economy of each word the author uses. In the best short stories, each word adds to the action, the character development, the narrative or the creation of an atmosphere-not a single word, not a single punctuation mark is wasted.

Therefore, when I came across the following story, I agreed with the popular opinion- it is truly, perhaps, the greatest shortest story ever written. I have gone through numerous contests and lists of the 'shortest stories ever', but this one is utterly unparalleled. Written by Ernest Hemingway in a fit of inspiration, the untitled story uses exactly six words, one colon, one comma and a period to create a suffocating world of shattered dreams, pathos and tragedy. This is, undoubtedly, pure genius:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Observe the way the full stop creates the finality here; also consider how hollow the story might have been had Hemingway replaced the last word by "used". Although the meaning remains the same, the focus while using the word "used" goes to the shoes, while in the original, the brilliant choice of words leads to a focus on the deceased baby. Like I said- Genius.

Mr Hemingway, here's saluting you.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Even Humphrey Bogart could not resist the charms of this city.

But then, he had Ingrid Bergman with him, and what would not be charming with her around? I had, as my company, an old American friend from school and two of his college friends whom I had never met before. And having spent the day touring Paris with them, I have understood a great truth- what fascinates me about this place is light years away from what fascinates them. Or other, normal, rational people.

Sure, the city is extremely visually appealing- the Eiffel, the Louvre, the Champs-Elysees, the Arc D’Triomph- you know the works. Ultimately, however, I am hard to impress- after all, I come from Delhi, and we have the Qutab Minar, the Rajpath and the India Gate. As for the Louvre- well, we have Sarojini Nagar. Hundreds of people walking aimlessly in herds, looking around at things they wished they owned, wondering which way to turn- it’s pretty much the same thing.

The big things in Paris do not fascinate me- I am, however, pretty astounded by small, insignificant, everyday things. This is interesting, because I grew up in Berlin- and most of all, Paris reminds me of my childhood. However, living in India for the past seven years has conditioned me to a given way of looking at the world and a given set of expectations- I believe those seven years allow me to look at little things in Paris and appreciate small comforts with a new-found vigour. When I would enjoy them in Berlin, I was perhaps too young to truly understand their significance. I don’t know about wiser, but I am older now.

Take, for example, wall-to-wall carpeting. What a wonderful, wonderful thing. My feet have never felt more at home. I had it at home in Berlin too, but wearing slippers for seven years on cold, uneven floors (often competing for space with cockroaches and mice) has given me a new-found respect for floor coverings. I wonder why they are not common in India- perhaps because they are hard to clean with jhadoos by our maids- and of course, who would trust them with something as expensive as a vacuum cleaner? Perhaps because our food is almost always wet (and therefore spill-able) as opposed to the usually dry food Europeans eat. Perhaps because we are so consumed in buying big gold-and-maroon carpets to show off under the centre tables in our drawing room, we have never had the time to consider its practical implications.

Then there are the magical taps. Once you get used to the ever-available hot and cold water, turn them on: the water comes out in a thick, white, tempestuous, foamy stream. It’s truly amazing- I am so used to the limp, transparent cold waterfall in Delhi that I can- and sometimes do- spend hours just watching the water come out of a tap. I don’t know how it’s done, but it should be done more often, in all countries, and when I do buy a house in Delhi, I will make sure the taps function the same way.

And the bath tubs.

Bath tubs are singularly my favourite place in any home. They were in Berlin, they were in Cyprus and they are here. I suppose space is the major reason for their unavailability in most homes in Delhi. All we need in Delhi to have a bath is a running tap, some form of soap and a mug (the last is optional, as one can see on many streets at dawn). But a bath tub is like the caviar of the bathroom- it turns the cleansing of your body into such a luxurious, fulfilling and heavenly experience, that nothing else is ever good enough. What can’t you do in a bath tub to make bathing a better experience? Everything is possible- you can read, eat, drink wine, use aromatic oils, play with plastic ducks (actual, not proverbial- although that too I suppose is possible) or take a companion and make it a social, recreational experience! Bath tubs have permanently transformed the experience of having a bath- I am for ever spoilt, and you will be too.

It’s a bit strange to discuss all this when asked how I liked Paris. I suppose my feelings are unusual. I am sure it’s a great city and all, and lots of people would do anything to be here, but these are the thoughts I have been living with for the past week- I can’t help it. Not how pretty the city is, not how wonderful the Mona Lisa is (I failed to see what the hype was about. The chandeliers at the Louvre were pretty amazing though) or how it is the most romantic city on Earth. Let me tell you the secret to making a city romantic: it doesn’t matter whether you are in Casablanca or Paris- all you need is your Ingrid Bergman with you.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


It is said that every system in the world is self-monitoring: that is, given the cyclical nature of life, every system, when it is at the peaks of success, will also create a reason of collapse out of that success. This is visible in the world around us right now, as we are thrown from an economy at the height of a boom to the depths of a recession.


Similarly, however, systems also have the necessary self-protective function also in-built. Therefore, when things are going wrong, the system also throws up the solutions, and things eventually improve. Take America, for example. In 1932, the combination of fear and inner questioning due to the Great Depression resulted in a political upheaval, and the election of Franklin Roosevelt. A similar thing happened in the before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. This just proves that fear and inner questioning are not ideological but are the components of a change in mind-set- or, perhaps, a mind-set in change. In 2008, this combination resulted in a decisive win for Barack Obama, hailed as the flag-bearer of hope for the world.


There is perhaps no better case study for this than the Indian film industry. We as Indians have a tendency to stick to the tried and tested- wherever we see, taste or smell success, we go and do what those Romans are doing. After all, the sunflowers turn whichever way the sun shines. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that in around a hundred years of Hindi cinema, even though the prototype film remains the song-and-dance filled, melodramatic masala flick, we can divide the timeline by typical films of each era.


The one thing we still have not learnt, however, is that too much of something can truly be a bad thing. After a point of time, there is nothing left to be milked out of something: that is not an understanding we have chanced upon till date. For example, when the recent spate of comedies tasted big success at the box office (starting with Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri) we suddenly saw comedies mushrooming everywhere. In the beginning they worked, but after a point, the audience grew weary, and, in a vicious cycle, the films became increasingly derivative and farcical in an effort to be funny. Thus, what was a nice trend had been milked to the last drop. The same thing happened with the trend of the semi-porn, soft-core flicks which got a lease of life with Jism, peaked commercially wit Murder, and gave birth to a spate of B-Grade sexploitation films and actresses like Meghna Naidu and Sherlyn Chopra.


While both the above trends had started out as a response to an environment that was clearly bereft of and was ready for them, they died out because everybody (the proverbial fools) rushed in to cash in on it.


The ‘Nouvelle Vague’, or the ‘New Wave’, or the New Cinema, or the Art Film Movement- or whatever else you may want to call it- tends to define an exciting, tumultuous episode in cinema all around the world, and came about in the same way. It was a response to a long chain of spectacularly failing big-budget, claustrophobic, visible artificial dramas masquerading as cinema in France, Italy and subsequently both Hollywood and Bollywood. What is ironic is that during the time when this wave reached its peak, the mainstream commercial films figured out what was going wrong, what the public now wanted, and- having incorporated selected feasible elements of the art films into their own films- started being successful again, while the art films began their gradual descent into commercial and critical failure. This is the story of the ‘New Wave’ world over.


My argument in this essay, however, is that India is the only country to have experienced not one, not two, but three separate waves of the Art Film Movement. This is my theory and description of each of them, and both the reasons for their growth and decline in each phase.


The first wave occurred in the late sixties/seventies, when commercial potboilers were at an all time low: films were big budget multi-starrers, all had the same stories, most were revenge dramas; acting, dialogues and settings were totally artificial and melodramatic, and the box office simply was not smiling upon the commercial film-makers. At a time like this, a handful of filmmakers and actors (mostly from the FTII, Pune, and heavily influenced by Truffaut and Godard) brought an alternative cinema to the Indian audiences, one that was much cheaper to produce, needed lesser returns to be successful, had no stars, and put the emphasis sorely on stark realism in every sphere: from the storytelling, to the story; from the acting to the overall look of the film. This wave was aided by the then recent introduction of hand-held cameras which were cheaper, lighter, easier to use and allowed greater flexibility to the cinematographer in terms of shooting on real locations. This movement was wildly greeted with both critical and commercial acclaim, and fueled by the idealism of those filmmakers.


By the time this wave ended, several artists had become household names: Naseeruddin Shah, Om puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, et al. The end came when, post an overdose of art films, not only did the films lose their novelty value, but, in an effort to constantly impress, they also became too gimmicky and complex until they defeated their own purpose and alienated the viewers. These films which had started out as a way for committed film-makers to express themselves had now simply become a sinking ship which many frustrated directors hung onto having no avenue into commercial cinema.    


At the same time, many of the main players of this wave were lured to the commercial cinema due to many reasons- greater remuneration, greater fame, and often, frustration with the ‘art’ film movement. Commercial films had by now become slightly more sensible, having incorporated several aspects of the at film movement, and a new genre had emerged which combined the best of both worlds: the middle-of-the-road cinema, which was both sensible and entertaining, and involved everyone from Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra to Amol Palekar and Farooque Sheikh. Added to this, failure of the art films in terms of marketing, distribution and the sudden upswing in the box office fortunes of the commercial films sounded the death knell on the first wave.


Post this time period, and the end of the dreaded eighties (a nightmare for every Hindi film lover), the nineties came as a breath of fresh air, with the arrival of several new faces (Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, Shahrukh Khan, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, etc) and filmmakers (Sooraj Barjatya, Mansoor Khan, Aziz Mirza, Aditya Chopra and later Karan Johar) who pumped up Bollywood with newer stories, newer storytelling, a world view which was truly worldly (worthy of the post-liberalization era).


However, buoyed by the success of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and even Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the late nineties and the first couple of years of the new millennium saw a suffocating flood of clones all about love, romance, soft-glow photography, melodrama, family drama, huge starcasts, actresses in pastel shades and stories usually set in London. The writing was very clearly on the wall when Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, with perhaps the most ambitious starcast in history, was severely criticized for its been-there-done-that storytelling in the face of fresh storytelling of Lagaan, Chandni Bar and Dil Chahta Hai. This was when the second wave occurred.


The second wave was the invention of the Hinglish film: a trendy, up-market genre consisting of stories and protagonists set essentially in the Metros. These stories were largely told in English, with a smattering of Hindi, and dealt with issues which were too sensitive for the mainstream audiences, such as homosexuality, mafia and cultural identities, all handled with a dash of humour.


While the first such film is considered to be Dev Benegal’s “English, August” in 1994, the stars of this genre were essentially a young actor called Rahul Bose, who, with his English sensibilities and diction, created a new prototype of the urbane, confused hero; and a director called Nagesh Kukunoor, who, with his NRI mentality and experimental films burst onto the scene with “Hyderabad Blues” and proved that this genre could also be profitable. Others to later on join this bandwagon were stalwarts such as Kay Kay Menon, Tara Deshpande, Sanjay Suri, etc.


These films were aimed at an audience who had grown up on English films (as opposed to their parents, who had seen the odd “Towering Inferno” and “The Guns of Navarone”), had urbane sensibilities, and were comfortable not only conversing in English, but also dealing with sensitive themes. They enjoyed black comedis, and liked films they could relate to.


Soon, however, this profitable genre turned into a hurricane which everyone wanted to latch onto- budding filmmakers, veejay-turned-actors, models, et al. This meant not only people who had no talent or ability, but also a falling quality of films. The death knell was sounded when switched to Hindi films with “Teen Deewarein”, and Rahul Bose and Kay Kay chose to do films like “Thakshak”, “Jhankaar Beats” and “Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena”.


However, this phase too left its marks on the mainstream industry: films became more urbane, wittier and relating to identifiable, relatable characters who had other things to do besides dance in big, multi-starrer weddings. The clearest indication of this was a film called “Dil Chahta Hai” (2001) which was almost an English film in Hindi. Now that the mainstream cinema could do what the Hinglish makers were attempting, the smaller genre had to die out.


A few years later, a peculiar phenomenon occurred which single-handedly gave birth to the third art wave in India: the multiplex. Having smaller halls meant less people were now needed to make a film run successfully, and one could now aim at smaller sections of the audience rather than making a potboiler which aimed to please the entire country. Thus, a set of filmmakers and actors emerged who, with smaller budgets and tight, entertaining storytelling, seduced the metropolitan crowds, while not even getting a release in the interiors. These were, among others, Abhay Deol, Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Imtiaz Ali, Konkona Sen, Gul Panag, Shreyas Talpade, and the father of them all, Anurag Kashyap.


We are therefore living in an era today where almost every week one such film is released- be it an Abhay Deol drama, or a Vinay Pathak (a superstar after “Bheja Fry”) comedy. However, a dangerous trend can again be seen, mirrored perfectly in Vinay Pathak films- after the success of “Bheja Fry”, a whole slew of films started with him in the lead, all with comic elements- be it “Oh My God”, “Dasvidaniya” or the yet-to-be-released “SRK”: none of these films proved of any great quality or of box office status.


While actors from this club migrate to the mainstream cinema (Vinay Pathak in “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, Ranvir Shorey in “Chandni Chowk To China”, Konkona Sen in “Aaja Nachle”), and mainstream films integrate aspects of those films into theirs (both “Taare Zameen par” and “Rock On” were both aimed at given, selected audiences in the meros); and revenues of these small multiples films fall- especially in the face of the recession- these films must coordinate and go back to why they started in the first place: provide excellent entertainment or a terrific quality product.


In a world ruled by marketing rather than the product, these multiplex film directors cannot hope to compete on a mass-market level. Therefore, their future too seems bleak unless the lessons from the past two ‘waves’ are learnt and acted upon.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whispers From The Mirror

A friend mentioned recently how she was extremely depressed after watching “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. Her reason? She had seen people get stuck in marriages that might have had love somewhere, but totally lacked passion. She had seen people who thought they wanted to get into a marriage, but after taking the plunge, kept looking for the ever-elusive escape route. Seeing all that around her in her daily life, she didn’t want to come back and see it on the screen too. After all, aren't movies supposed to be all about escapism?


Talking to her got me thinking- as it always does. (She’s a strange person who sees a lot of films and thinks a lot- my favourite combination, one that’s always dangerous and fun- but I have met very few people who think more logically than her. That is why arguing with her is so much fun.) True, cinema is indeed the ultimate form of escapist entertainment- the key word here being not only escapist, but also entertainment. If cinema is our refuge from the pain and drudgeries of real life, why would we want to see on screen the same things we are trying to run away from? To quote her, she’d rather see an “Iron Man” after a long day as opposed to a “No Country For Old Men”. Makes sense, I suppose, on some level.


My take, however, is slightly different. Yes, I value escapist entertainment immensely, and will fight anybody who frowns upon them by calling them a cheap art- if anything, I don’t know what is more difficult than making a crowd-pleasing entertainer (proof? Consider the success ratio of the imitators of “When Harry Met Sally” or “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” or even “Sholay”.) However, there is something extremely exciting and compelling when I see someone portraying on screen the exact thoughts, situations and problems that I encounter in my daily life, without compromising on the complexities.


It is extremely easy to think of a situation (friends falling for each other, say) and make it into a film which pretends to tackle this (“Kuch Kuch Hota Hai”, or the horrible “Just Friends”, and countless other chick flicks). However, popular films rarely have room to examine the complexities of real life. The reason I like “When Harry Met Sally” is that even tough it only ostentatiously examined the above, it had a moment of genuine complexity towards the end: the loneliness which engulfs you when you fight with someone you love, who just happens to be your best friend also. Who do you talk to? The scene with Billy Crystal celebrating New Year at home while watching TV alone is my favourite scene of the film- and I have yet to meet someone who appreciates the truth of the scene, rather than finding it dragging. This is something I could personally relate to, and the loneliness is murderous.


I am fascinated by Woody Allen because- leave his exhilarating writing aside- he considers issues which lesser filmmakers never have the courage or the intelligence to explore fully. Take “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, for example, a film while nowhere near his best, is still pretty darned good. Imagine Vicky. What do you do when, in a sudden flash, you start feeling that maybe the comfortable, secure lifestyle you are on the brink of attaining is not what you want after all? You can’t share your feelings with anybody- people will think you have lost your mind! Not only have you always wanted that lifestyle, but the person you have chosen is absolutely wonderful! At the same time, even though you are thinking about rejecting it, the only other option that you would have considered is both unavailable as well as impractical. What do you do?


Imagine, now, Juan Antonio. You love a woman, but somehow, when you are with her, you are ready to kill her. And yet, you can never find the same connection and passion with anyone else. What do you do? And what f the only possible stabilizing element is another woman? Then?


Another example is the Michael Caine- Mia Farrow- Barbara Hershey track from “Hannah and her Sisters”, where a nice, respectable accountant falls into love and has an extra-marital affair with his wife’s sister. Any other director would have shown dramatic scenes of contemplation, hysteric arguments, and a final, melodramatic moment where he must choose between his two women. Mr Allen decides to show it as it is: a man who momentarily- albeit passionately- thinks he loves another, sleeps with her and enjoys it, yet is not sure whether he truly dares to give up the comfortable life he has made for himself. He’s confused, thinks about confessing, yet never manages to tell his wife. The affair simply fizzles out, both parties agreeing with time that it was impractical and myopic. In my opinion, that is far more realistic. And Mr Allen ensures that it never seems forced, as you recognize scene after scene as if it could happen to you, and you would behave exactly the same way.


Another terrific example is the yo-yo love story of “Manhattan”, where Woody Allen’s character breaks up with the 16 year old Muriel Hemingway, only to realize at the end that she is whom he waned after all, and yet, so absorbed is he in his self-pity and ‘glamorous’ loneliness, that he has the audacity to ask her to leave her studies and stay with him.


One of the most depressing phases in my life was in my 12th standard, a period of intense loneliness and tempestuous introspection, when I realized I was extremely fed up of the moral decay I saw around me and, if I could, I would just take a gun and blast everything away. During those highly implosive days, almost as if it was meant to be, I discovered Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. And it is till date my favourite film- a storyteller in direct contact with me, saying and doing things I could relate to, almost as if reading my mind.


A similar thing happened the first time I saw Aditya Chopra’s “Mohabbatein”, and was amazed to see Shahrukh Khan saying aloud things about the nature of love in the tense climax which I thought only I had felt. I could perfectly well understand loving someone so much that even after her death you can still feel her around yourself, see her all the time, talk to her whenever you wished. I nodded along, as I saw Mr Khan speak- “Mohabbat mein shartein nahi hoti, mere dost. Maine usse kabhi yeh shart toh nahi rakhi thi ki woh mere se zyada jiyegi. Uske marne se se meri mohabbat bhi khatam nahi ho jayegi.” Absolutely.


These are all moments where I have seen a film hold a mirror to my face and show me things I see all around myself. While it never depresses me, I get strangely excited- how can a man I have never met, a film I have never seen, words which I have not written convey exactly the thoughts that I have, and that too so vividly?


The best part about Mr Allen is that he never provides answers. Perhaps he doesn’t have any. As he says in “Manhattan”, when he wonders who would jump off a bridge to save a drowning person- he cannot swim. But that does not make his stories and his scenes any less profound. He may not be able to swim, but he knows that there are people drowning in the world, and we will probably not jump in to save them. And we are indeed quite shallow people who will then sit in cafes and explain our handicap. The fact that someone else understands this fascinates me. It amazes me. The fact that he can say this directly to me makes me jump up with joy and salute the power of cinema.

We don’t always like to look at a mirror without make-up on, knowing fully well it will show our flaws- our warts, our blisters, our dry skin, our expanding waistlines, our receding hairlines. But sometimes, just sometimes, if you listen carefully, the reflection speaks to you. In a whisper, it tells you to relax, to breathe, and to smile- this is life, it tells you. It’ll go on. And then it winks at you and assures you that you are not alone.