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’.