Friday, February 19, 2010

I DISAGREE, MR SHAKESPEARE

Whatever happened to good, exciting, imaginative titles?

My English teacher in high school, whenever she wanted us to write anything good, used to tell us that a story is like a really good burger- a good beginning, an exciting end, with a really meaty middle. Since food analogies have an inexplicably successful way of succeeding with me, I believed that to be a really acute analogy. Imagine, though, if inspite of having the perfect burger in front of you, it was not called a “Whopper” or “Zinger”, but instead something as banal as “The Burger”- or “Bread with Meat in Between”. Who would order that?

You could, of course, argue that no matter what the name, once you discovered its quality, you would order it anyway. It’s a valid argument. However, there is a reason the fast food joints go for zippy names, rather than the aforementioned banalities. A good name, with due respect to that inimitable fellow from Stratford-Upon-Avon, can totally change your outlook and anticipation for its possessor.

I distinctly remember a time when, just because of the sheer strength of the title, a film could make me look forward to it. Imagine the days of “Hero Hiralal”. What a name! Even now, that title can draw out a smile, overpowering the sour after-taste of that film. Imagine the arrival of a film with such a name- who could possibly control their excitement and anticipation? Who would NOT want to see a film like that? The promise a good title brings forth is almost unquantifiably gigantic.

The 70s era art films were particularly rich in fantastic titles. With no stars nor any publicity, all they could hope was that a god title would bring in the crowds. Mr Saeed Mirza, God bless his soul, was a particularly inventive genius with his strange, off-the-wall titles incorporating the leading characters’ names. After all, once a man makes films called “Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan”, “Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho” and “Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro”, you have to take your hat off to him. Without even knowing that he also gave us perhaps the greatest title of all time: “Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai?”

The 80s, the unanimously heralded as the garbage bag of Bollywood, also had their peculiar trend- a title had to SOUND like it promised lots of action. Ergo, “Golimaar”, “Hatya”, “Qayamat”, “Mawaali”, “Ilzaam”, et al. These titles too, if you were the target audience - i.e. male, and between the ages of 10 (too young to remember a better time) and 70 (too old to remember a better time)- could send you into tizzies of excitement, what with the certainty of a plot with plenty of drama and action, spear-headed by the usual multi-star cast (almost every film had a pick-and-mix system of at least three stars amongst Jeetendra, Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha, Mithun, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor and Govinda).

The 90s had their own problem to deal with. I have come to believe that it was an unwritten rule that if a title had fewer than four words in it, financing was near impossible. If the title was a line from an old song, e.g. “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” or “Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke”, then lo and behold, the world was your oyster. This was a competition intensely fought, and the old war-horse, Anil Kapoor, was an unexpectedly strong candidate, having starred in both “Hum Aap Ke Dil Mein Rehte Hain” as well as “Humara Dil Aap Ke Paas Hai”.

Back when Ram Gopal Verma used to make cinema and RGV was not a leading contender to the throne of ‘the combination of three letters to fear most’ (others being HIV, STD and LeT), even his failures were entertaining. His funny but flawed yarn set in Bollywood, “Mast”, allowed him to make a comment on such titles: Urmila mentions that the film she is working on is called “Hum Aap Ke Dil Mein Reh Kar Hum Aapse Pyaar karne Lage”. At that point of time, RGV was fresh off “Satya”, and held as much promise as Raj Kumar Hirani- hence we laughed. We now realize, of course, that he was the prime force behind the advent of what I refer to as a ‘step-motherly’ treatment of titles.

His films titles, never more than one word long, started off inventively, with examples like “Rangeela”, “Kaun” and “Company”. Then, however, almost imperceptibly, yet harmoniously in sync with the quality of their possessors, the titles too began to sink: “Darling”, “Agyaat”, “James”, “Contract”, “Jungle”, “Naach” and- sacrilege!- “Aag”.

Just when his titles were getting too much too bear, along came a man who has, by the sheer success of his settings-masquerading-as-films, made a mockery out of both the Box Office as well as the National Awards. Madhur Bhandarkar, also known as the ticket to national awards (if you are either female or Atul Kulkarni), believes titles to be the greatest nuisance since tax planning. You can almost taste his disinterest and irritation when he names his films: “Page 3”, for a film based on Page 3; “Traffic Signal” for a film based around a traffic signal; “Fashion” for a film set in the world of… You guessed it. Hmmm… I wonder what he would title a film set in a jail?

These are not titles, Mr Bhandarkar, they are labels. I know it must have physically pained you to call you film on policemen “Aan”, as opposed to your trademark “Police”, but I will forever be highly grateful for small mercies.

Giving a film a title is as much an art as giving it music. However, this is an industry which is yet to understand it. Apart from the rare “Dev.D” or the magnificently titled “Kaminey”, when was the last time a film made you sit up and take notice simply by virtue of its title?

How I weep when I think of the amazing titles films could have had! Why favour the faithful-yet-bland “Omkara” over Bhardwaj’s original and far more evocative choice “Issak”? Why let ridiculous polls name your heroine-dominated rom-com “Jab We Met” instead of the spunky “Bhatinda Express”, or “Punjab Mail” as originally envisaged? I am glad that “My Name Is Khan” won out over “Khan”, but even that’s only slightly better. And “3 Idiots”? Come on- even Chetan Bhagat managed a better title!

Yet, I am relieved to say, there is hope. Just like in the 70s, the off-beat films come your rescue. Dibakar Bannerjee is particularly ingenious, what with “Khosla Ka Ghosla”, “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye” and the forthcoming “Love, Sex aur Dhokha (LSD)”. Shimit Amin too holds a lot of promise: “Ab Tak Chhappan”, “Chak De India” and “Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year” are all fantastic titles, making the products seem twice as intriguing.

In an age when the news of a just announced film can reach the entire world within seconds, a smart title can make all the difference with respect to both the promotions, as well as the curiosity factor. With “Kaminey”, a film that intrigued its audience for months before its release with both its excellent title as well as the secrecy of its plot, Vishal Bhardwaj proved a very simple fact to his favourite source: A rose will indeed smell as sweet by any other name. But would a Juliet covet it were it called a Cauliflower?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

THE GREAT ADAPTATION DEBATE

I am truly exasperated of those “the-book-was-better-no-the-film-is-better” discussions. I have gone through so many of those- and strangely, many in the past few days- that I am compelled to write this. I plan to refer whoever has an issue in this regard to this entry.

I have often heard- usually prompting impatient sighs from me- about how books are always better than the films they inspire. With all due respect to all those who believe this- that’s not true. Don’t mistake my opinions for the ranting of a passionate cinezine: what I am saying is simply the result of a lot of thinking and almost-scholarly analysis.

It is true that great books almost never translate into decent films- the mind buzzes with examples, right from various horrifying Shakespeare adaptations to recent tragedies like ‘The Kite Runner’ and the Harry Potter films. Moreover, even when good books do spawn good films, the latter always pale away in comparison to their literary roots- be it ‘The Godfather’ or ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Then there are some classics which are virtually unfilmable- ‘Catch-22’, for instance.

However, it is important to note that there are several great films that have been adapted from rather mediocre books. Be it ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, ‘Masoom’, ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and even ‘L.A.Confidential’. This, then, just reinforces the question- which are better, books or films?

The answer, I’m afraid, isn’t as simple as all that. We can’t just tally up the number of film adaptations which were improvements on the book and compare it as a number to adaptations which were disasters. In order for us to arrive at the spectacular moment of truth where we all discover the hidden wisdom behind all this (perhaps accompanied by a collective “Ooohhhh”) we must take a slightly scholarly detour around this subject.

Let us take an example- say, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (TKAM), my all time favourite book. It was also turned into a surprisingly good 1962 Robert Mulligan film starring Gregory Peck (in his career best performance- but then, what a role!). Nevertheless, it was clearly not in the same league as the book- which, let’s face it, given Lee’s experiential, observatory, first hand narrative, it never could be. There are many who defend this film with the argument that there are certain basic differences in storytelling between a book and a film; and, in cinema, with its constrained framework of time and space, it is not possible to translate the story in a better fashion. While that may be true- and even I have difficulty imagining a better adaptation of the novel without using a TV serial format (which has lesser constraints and allows one to examine and depict finer details) - allow me to propose another theory.

Given the story and theme of TKAM, it is possible to relay it using various formats- for instance, as a short story, a poem, a drawing, etc, besides the novel and the film which it already is. These different formats are called ‘mediums of expression’, and, for every given message/story/idea that is to be conveyed, there are several such mediums of expression, of which one must be chosen such that it is the best suited for the material at hand. For instance, when Javed Akhtar was moved by the things he witnessed on a visit to Kargil in 1999, he felt a need to express his feelings- and, after a lot of thought, rejected his usual mode of poetry in favour of cinema- and ‘Lakshya’ was born.

Now, ideally, the medium chosen must be the one in which the material attains maximum effectiveness. So, while the story of TKAM may be effective in various mediums, it would clearly have the maximum impact as a novel, since that medium allows it the space to document each and every one of the fine details which make the story such a heart-warming, touching affair.




All this theory about mediums of expression- while scholarly and reasonable- still doesn’t explain the debate between books and films. Then, you are justified in asking, why have you been reading all this, listening to me going on and on? Well, friends, it is because it is this theory of mediums of expression on which the next segment is based.

Yes, there is another segment to go.

Once a piece of art achieves its ultimate form in a given medium of expression (say, the way TKAM does in novels, or Citizen Kane does as a film, or “If” does as a poem) then it cannot achieve the same level of quality in another medium. That is to say, every piece of art has a given medium of expression in which its form and impact is maximized- the ideal medium for that piece, if you will; once that content has been put in that ideal medium of expression, it will not achieve the same effect in any other medium.

Therefore, a general debate on “books vs films” is rather na├»ve. The question is, has the piece of art achieved its utmost form? If so, then no other medium will equal it. That is why, a great book like TKAM will lead to a good, albeit disappointing film adaptation, while a mediocre book like “The Bridges of Madison County” will lead to a great film.