Monday, February 15, 2010

In defence of the Shiv Sena

You have to give it to the Shiv Sena. All along, when they created all this hoo-haa over My Name is Khan’s release, we thought they were fuming over SRK’s remarks about Pakistani players and IPL.

Not true.

I'm sure there is something called as ‘Won’t-let-you-watch-it-since-its-a-bad-film’ clause in our constitution.

The Shiv Sainiks already knew it’s a terrible film - thanks to the large network of pirated DVD hawkers they help flourish. It is perhaps Karan Johar’s worst film and the Shiv Sena votebank would be cheated of precious ticket money, bringing more gloom over what is not a very rosy picture of household expenses these days.

So the accusation on SRK and Karan Johar was of cheating (Tu gaddaar aahe!) and not what we thought (Tu gaddaar aahe!).

I’m also told Thackeray wanted to wrestle his way into the lead role of the film. He had set up his goons to convince Karan Johar to change an important dialogue of the film.

From ‘My Name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist’, he wanted it changed to ‘My Name is Thackeray and I am a terrorist. (Based on a true story)'. This was when the film was in its scripting stages. But when he saw the first cut of the film, he suddenly turned messiah for all cinegoers. He couldn’t tell Karan Johar straight on his face that his film sucked. Hence, all this gaali-galoch.

I’ve just come back from a late night show of MNIK at the Regal cinema. I generally do not give advice to people on what to watch, what to skip.

But this time, I will. Do not watch this film.

Yes, it has its high points- SRK is very good, as is his chemistry with Kajol (Chemistry text books in school should have their photos on the cover, rather than atoms and molecules), Ravi K Chandran’s photography is a treat, as is Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music (Sajda sent me on cloud nine).

But when the Exit signs in the auditorium start glowing more brightly than the events unfolding on screen, you know that the director has completely lost it. It’s not Karan Johar alone to blame – his intent is sincere and heartwarming, as is his direction in most parts - it’s Shibani Bhatija’s screenplay which is a complete letdown.

(Spoiler alert!)

The plot sounds sweet when you hear it for the first time – a young Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome travels across the United States to meet the President and tell him that he is not a terrorist – but when you walk out of the theatre, you feel cheated. Meet the President! For what? You told him you’re not terrorist. He already knows it, which is why you’ve been allowed at such close proximity to him. Has it changed the fate of millions of Muslims in the States? I’m not sure.

Why does Kajol do a sudden about-turn accusing him that his surname was responsible for her son's death? And the scene where her son dies, is a clear example of high-school bullies going overboard, rather than a racist attack.

The film's biggest weakness is that it does not generate sympathy for its characters. When Mandira (Kajol) dumps Rizwan (SRK), you do not feel sorry for him. You do not feel ecstatic when help pours in for the Georgia flood victims.

And when Rizwan is stabbed out of the blue and there's a melodramatic hospital sequence, you find yourself groaning. Ditto in the scene where Kajol breaks down with her dead son in her arms. Because you know it, the director has overdone it.

There is buzz about the box-office collections of MNIK overtaking that of 3 Idiots.
I think its complete hogwash. Spin doctors are behind this new trend of tom-tomming Rs 100 crores, 200 crores within weeks of a film’s release.

3 Idiots, like most blockbusters, made its money by repeat viewing. MNIK certainly does not fall in that category. It would be a telling statement of the viewing tastes of the audiences of today, if they supported mediocrity like this.

Highpoint of the film: When Mandira asks Rizwan to marry her. My cheeks started aching, I was blushing so much.

Lowpoint of the film: SRK being stabbed. I wanted to head to the Exit door.

ROFL moment of the film: The scene where Khan walks into the kitchen and finds Mandira there chopping vegetables. Says, "Mandira, can we have sex, please?"

Verdict: **

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The perfectly outrageous motion picture

I've had the most fantastic past two hours watching Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network. I don't intend to write a review of the film here - I'm speechless right now, to be honest - and I've had similar feelings after watching three of my all-time favourite films, Sunset Boulevard, Shawshank Redemption and The Clockwork Orange.

Network inevitably adds to that list.

A common thread between all three films is that after I've seen the film, I've felt richer - in emotion, intellect and wisdom - thanks to powerful screenplay writing. The performances are equally astounding and Network is far more closer to life than I imagined, thanks my own closeness in some manner to the working of the television and media industry.

And would you believe it...when I begun watching the film, I thought it was the original of Ram Gopal Varma's Rann. Thank God, it isn't. It can't be.

I'm pasting below some lines from the film. Each line is self explanatory and can be etched in gold. I do not need to explain the context in which they were told. They're statements by themselves, a quality which timeless screenplays have always had, apart from being able to project and predict a future which we now live in. I think this is why some lines are called classics.


"I want you to get mad. I don't want you to protest, I don't want you to riot, I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression, the inflation, the Russians, or the crime in the streets. All I know is that first... You've got to get mad." - Howard Beale, the lead protagonist in Network (A video of this dialogue will do complete justice to this piece. So here's the link.)

"Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those *are* the nations of the world today." - Arthur Jansen, promoter of the network, to Howard Beale

"I was married for four years, and pretended to be happy; and I had six years of analysis, and pretended to be sane. My husband ran off with his boyfriend, and I had an affair with my analyst, who told me I was the worst lay he'd ever had. I can't tell you how many men have told me what a lousy lay I am. I apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely, and can't wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom. I seem to be inept at everything except my work. I'm goddamn good at my work and so I confine myself to that. All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating." - Diana Christensen, programming head of UBS Television

"It's too late, Diana. There's nothing left in you that I can live with. You're one of Howard's humanoids. If I stay with you, I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain... and love." - Max Schumacher, Diana's lover and retrenched newsroom editor of UBS Television
There are many more memorable lines and I suggest you watch the film to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

For starters, here's a link to its official trailer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes from the Strand Book Festival

I’m absolutely delighted with the collection of books I picked up at the Strand Book Festival. I went there on the Festival's second day itself. Can’t say I’d been saving for this – I now buy books on a regular basis, Superfreakonomics, The Book Thief, A Case of Exploding Mangoes are some recent buys – but generally, browsing in a room full of books, with bibliophiles from in and around Bombay, can be quite therapeutic. For example, that’s one reason many of us visit Landmark bookstore on weekends, buy nothing and come out feeling better.

This year, Strand’s done things a bit differently. I’m not sure if this is how it always is, but they have not put up ‘everything’. So for example, you can’t come here looking for Jeffrey Archer, Coetzee, Murakami or JK Rowling. I spotted just one title by Jhumpa Lahiri and Orhan Pamuk's latest, that's all. One can argue that you don’t come to a book sale to pick up an Archer novel, but then, well.

The arrangement of books at the Festival is a blessing. I’m tired of craning my neck at bookstores to read the titles. Why don’t you just arrange the books horizontally? Ten brownie points to Strand for this simple change.

So what interested me the most? I think it's is an excellent opportunity to pick up some great coffee table books at throw-away prices. I also found some interesting titles about Tarantino, Satyajit Ray, but I didn’t give in to temptation, as frankly I found myself overspending by quite a bit. Last year, I spent about Rs 1,500 on about 6-7 books. This year, I’ve bought 10 titles and spent about Rs 2,750.

What made me overspend was the high number of non-fiction titles (see list below). Was also keen to buy more titles here – Inside Steve’s Brain, Inside Rupert’s Brain and Rana Dasgupta's Solo – but convinced myself to postpone the purchase for another time.

My keenness to buy non-fiction was the simple fact that I think learnings from these books can lend much so more to daily conversation. Which is why books like Tipping Point, Freakonomics, The World is Flat, and Superfreakonomics are such absolute must haves on your bookshelf. I cannot imagine discussing The Kite Runner or A Suitable Boy or Milan Kundera for over 15 minutes. I can rave about them, listen to you talking about it and nod, but that's about it.

Coming back to Strand, I was disappointed to see very few youngsters at the Festival. Most of the visitors were in the age group of 35+ and that included a lot of people in the 45+ range. My fears of youngsters – 18 to 30 year olds – not reading enough books are confirmed. Is Facebook and Twitter making us stay away from the fresh smell of paperbacks? I’d like to agree.

Billing done, I came home (Ambarnath, that is) carrying these books in a Khopoli fast local, keen to spend the weekend with my parents. 14th February, Valentine’s Day coincides with their marriage anniversary and my availability over the Valentine’s Day weekend has absolutely convinced them that I do not have a girlfriend. Not that they doubt it, or are opposed to it; they’re just sure of it now – hardly any conversations on the phone, no calls after 10pm, one can easily tell who is dating and who is not.

So paperback diet it will be for the next few months. And I hope that in the near future, when you and I are having a conversation, it will be much richer than it is now.

Here’s a list of books I bought and since it’s sale, I would be charged guilty if I did not mention the prices that I bought it for.

English August - Upamanyu Chatterjee - 225
Love and Longing in Bombay – Vikram Chandra - 150
Smoke and Mirrors, an experience of China – Pallavi Aiyar - 195
Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping – Paco Underhill - 490
The Undercover Economist – Tim Harford - 350
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ – The paradox of Modern Iran – Hooman Majd - 225
Tricky Business – Dave Barry - 200
Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry – (Hardbound) – 275
The Art of Conversation - Catherine Blyth - (Hardbound) - 300
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaleid Hosseini - 295 (to be gifted to my cousin, I hope you're not reading this, Debo! :))

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Of Chetan Bhagat and unlimited parking in our brain

There’s a scene in Wake Up Sid where the editor of a magazine (Rahul Khanna) smiles mockingly, almost in disbelief when his colleague (Konkona) tells him that she does not enjoy jazz music.

Mujhe purane Hindi filmon ke gaane pasand hain,” she says. “Unko gaa toh sakte hain.” (I like Hindi film songs...the classics. Atleast one can hum them.)

For me, this scene was one of the high points of the film. The argument was spot on and I wanted to congratulate the film’s scriptwriter for penning this scene. Here's why.

For long, I’ve been amazed at how journalists, especially senior editors, editors, literary critics or Sunday edition reporters have consistently mocked popular choices in entertainment.

If you like jazz, you’re cool. If you like Singh is King, you’re uncool. If you’re a fan of Coetzee, you’ve arrived. If you’re reading Chetan Bhagat, you don’t have any taste in literature. And your sense of humor is down in the dumps if you’ve laughed your ass off in 3 Idiots.

Generalisations like these have often baffled me. Are you trying to suggest that your tastes are superior to mine? I've seen 3 Idiots in two cities - Mumbai and Kolkata - and I've never seen housefull auditoriums laugh their ass off like they did while watching this film. And then I've met some - all in the journalist/media fraternity, who can't seem to make out what's so great about a film. I think I'll send them a DVD of The Blairwitch Project.

In November, I remember, Indian Twitterati, friends in the media drummed up hot air (mostly negative) about how Chetan Bhagat’s books do not deserve to be read, what a terrible author he is, etc. I was hysterical when I heard about this, since I've seen from close quarters how students, first time novel readers have pored over Chetan Bhagat novels in the most crowded trains. I travelled to Kolkata recently by train and in my compartment, out of the roughly 7-8 people reading book during the journey, 5 of them were absorbed in Chetan Bhagat novels. That’s quite an achievement. And then they say that the bugger can’t write.

I was at a day-long conference recently where Bhagat was part of a panel discussion and despite his Delhi-ised English accent, he made absolute sense in every word he said. But to many in the audience, most of whom seemed to be the 'discerning snob' types, he remained the butt of all jokes. Even during the networking lunch, very few walked up to him to greet him. The best-selling Indian author was not hounded, like he is when is amongst his fans.

I’ve come to recognise these people as the ‘new age snobs’. They’ll consume Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, Truffaut films and appear like they’ve seen the world and they’ll conveniently skip the biggest blockbusters from the country – Ghajini, 3 Idiots, Om Shanti Om, Singh is King – dismissing them as utter crap / entertainment for the masses. They won’t travel by train – they might as well describe it as cattle class. My best friend is a film critic and I admire him not because he bowled me over with his understanding of world cinema, but also because of his maturity at accepting popular cinema targeted at the masses.

What worries me is that most media houses are run by the 'snobs'. And they always have been. When you’re running a newspaper for an audience that comprises the masses, how can you have such different tastes than them? This is why typically film critics’reviews and audience reactions vary to a great degree.

Does that mean that we must encourage people like Taran Adarsh (who are trade experts and not film-critics per se) to review films for us? I’m not so sure. It’s a very debatable topic, particularly because of his trade background. But I think over time we need art and literature critics who are good at recommending the most deserving choices to their audiences. Rather than those, who aiming to send their CVs to The New Yorker.

I think the ideal consumption of literature is one that includes the good, bad and the ugly. So read all you can gather on a platter. Read the masterpieces, the classics, read the chick lits, read the thrillers. Also read the Mills & Boon and Nicholas Sparks. A Titan commercial quotes Aamir Khan saying, “Be born everyday. Aaj rockstar, kal pilot. Kabhi kisi anjaan station pe utar ke dekho. Kabhi kisi gumnaam sheher ka ticket katao...Be more.”

Ratatouille, the delightful animation movie about the adventures of a rat who wants to cook, also elucidates the same point wherein the food critic, Ego, admits as to how literary critics often forget to appreciate the simple things. Like a plate of ratatouille.

Absolutely true.

If you’re going to confine yourself to only certain kind of authors, certain kinds of films, then you’re a one-way street, with no parking.

Our mind is best conditioned as a two-way street, with unlimited parking.