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.