Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jai Ho Rahman, the new national hero

When i was growing up in my teens, there was only one thing world class in our country - Sachin Tendulkar. Years later, now, we have another to boast about - AR Rahman.

The music of "Slumdog .." is not Rahman's best but with its cosmopolitan and diverse compositions, it aptly sums up Rahman's kind of music. While his music summed up his worldview that celebrates diversity, his words on the Oscar night were a flash from his spirituality and beliefs. Rahman's message about 'choosing love' is apt in a world torn by terror. Is it not symbolic enough that a Muslim conveys that message on the stage of West's biggest entertainment night? It is an irony that when the most vociferous of Muslims worldwide are cultivating a hate for anything American, two Indian Muslims embrace their Oscars and flaunt them. Talk about Indian pragmatism!
And now after the Oscars, Rahman would obviously get more busy with the western productions and we Rahmaniacs should be prepared to hear less of him (Unless, of course, we Indians produce movies with universal tales, which is highly unlikely in next few years). That is the way to go. Jai Ho.

Friday, February 20, 2009

DILLI 6: A honest film falters

Hum sab par bhootsawaar nahi hai, bus kabhi kabhi bandhar bante hai ..
- a dialogue to that effect from Abhishek Bachchan in Delhi 6

Zarre zarre mein usi ka noor hai
Jhaank khud mein wo na tujhse door hai
Ishq hai usse to sabse ishq kar
Ishq hai usse to sabse ishq kar
Is ibaadat ka yahi dastoor hai
Is mein us mein aur us mein hai wohi
Is mein us mein aur us mein hai wohi
Yaar mera har taraf bharpoor hai

Delhi 6 is the kind of film that evokes comments like ‘I told you no, serious subjects are not to be made into films, they are only for documentaries!’. These self-proclaimed pundits think movies are always about entertainment and anyone failing in an endeavor to make a meaningful movie makes them feel vindicated and inexplicably happy! This is one such occasion; Delhi 6 is a noble failure, thanks to the writers.

How I wished Rakeysh Omprakrash Mehra would make these pundits eat their own words as he made them do with his ‘Rang De Basanti! Phew, It is not to be and not because Mehra did not have his heart in the right place. His passion and honesty are very much evident in the way he put together the many details of the microcosm that is Old Delhi. His vision is evident in the analogy he picks up with Ramayana and in the metaphors like the Kaala Bandhar and the mirror of the fakir. I don’t believe audience is so naive that they can’t get these abstract things as the pundits want us to believe. This very subtlety and analogy was very much there in ‘Rang De..’ and the audience understood and embraced it. However, ‘Rang De..’ rode on the collective public angst blaming ‘others’ – the corrupt politicians, comparing them with the erstwhile alien rulers. Here, in Delhi 6, we are asked to look within for the Kaala Bandhar. This could be hard to digest :). But the problem is not as much with this message, for it is well-intentioned and without being preachy as it is with the way Mehra tried to convey it.

Mehra lumped up details and ignored that there needs to be a thread to carry the movie from the beginning to the end. So the audience can be excused for wondering what the movie is all about before the second half. Instead of unraveling all the dark sides within us – the Kaala Bandhar, in the second half in one go, he should have worked out gray shades in the characters right in the first half. This would have facilitated to the second half smoothly and would have made the distrust and the riots look real and not abrupt. The first half should have been shorter and more focused.

The script was flawed as it took too long a time (the entire first half of the movie) to establish the milieu and not the characters. The love between the protagonists has not been handled well. Abhishek Bachchan is badly written for and he appeared equally unprepared for an American character. While Sonam Kapoor makes an impression, the lanky VijayRaaz appears menacing in his stunning portrayal.

More than anything else, the blasphemy is how the otherwise stunning music has been treated in this movie. Thanks to the lack of thematic flow in the film, here comes one of the poorest background score of AR Rahman. Its understandable if AR Rahman did not feel soulful. Songs were truncated and picturization of ‘Masakkali..did not do justice to that excellent score. Some of AR Rahman's best work goes down the drain.

In the end, despite the flaws, it’s hard to miss the honesty of the movie. The analogies and the metaphors work well and movie conveys the idea that our Masses are basically well-meaning but do become Bandar now and then quite successfully. We are not bhoot or unchangeable fanatics. We are likeable and understanding but are done in mostly by our hypocrisies and our fears (of the unknown). This creates the hopeful picture of us, gullible Masses as emendable. This otherwise complex idea has been conveyed beautifully without lengthy dialogues and with subtlety. This is where Delhi 6 succeeds in its core. If only it were more carefully scripted, it would have been an enjoyable fare and would have appealed to a wider audience.

A movie requires more than just honesty to succeed. It should be well-made. But then, Delhi 6 ranks much above all those well-made movies, flooding the theatres these days, which don’t even have pretence of honesty.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

AR Rahman: On his way to a Double Oscar?

Will he win both the Oscars? There is a very good chance he will. If he does, he would be emulating Howard Shore. In 2003, Howard Shore won 2 Oscars, one for the Best original score and the other for Best Original Song for the movies 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'. As the Oscar weekend arrives, interest is understandable high in India for the nominations of AR Rahman, Gulzar and Rasool Pookutty. Especially AR Rahman -'The Mozart of Madras' as the TIME magazine called him, has a very good chance of achieving what Pandit Ravi Shankar couldn't in 1982 for 'Gandhi'. Pt.Ravi Shankar was then nominated for Best Original Score.

He is expected to at least win the Oscar for 'Best Original Score' hands down. In fact, he has an unfair advantage with 'Slumdog Millionaire', which is shaped on the lines of a Mumbai-made Hindi film, where the music is as important as the imagery and the narrative. “We wanted it edgy, upfront. Danny [Boyle, who directed] wanted it loud,” says Rahman about the score. So his soundtrack occupies the central space and propels 'Slumdog..' with its zing and grandeur. Music in Other Hollywood nominations, obviously, do not serve that kind of impact. It is difficult to imagine how 'Slumdog..' would have shaped without that kind of score. He won the Oscar for the score at every major film festival in past few weeks, including the Golden Globe, BAFTA and the Critics Choice Awards in LA.

Now this brings us to his Double nominations in the Song category for the songs 'O Saya..' and 'Jai Ho..'. The other sole nomination is from “Down to Earth” from 'WALL-E'. Rahman, in addition to the 2 nominations, has an advantage here too. The Academy has always shown a tendency of shying away from awarding tracks relegated to a film’s closing credits. They believe these kind of songs are mainly tools to market the movie and the movie wouldn't suffer without the song. In other words, the academy looks not just at the merit of a tune but also how vital the tune is within the narrative of the movie. The Peter Gabriel's song from 'WALL-E' plays over the closing credits. So Rahman is undeniably the favourite and my favourite is 'O Saya..' which amidst all slum poverty brings out the joie de vivre of Jamal and Salim in 'Slumdog..'. However, it is also to be noted that the WALL-E song won the Grammy last week. But then 'Slumdog..' was not in fray. The Golden Globe was won by "The Wrestler" by Bruce Springsteen from the movie 'The Wrestler', which to the shock of many of the fans of 'The Boss', is not even nominated for the Oscar. But then, this song too plays over the closing credits.
The nominations show that the Academy is nodding to a world beyond Hollywood. That fits in well when they have a president in White House with Kenyan ancestry. It would be a great thing for Indian music. And considering that 'slumdog..' is not exactly Rahman's best when you think about what he dished out last year in 'Jodha Akbar' or the 'Delhi 6' stuff that's ruling airwaves these days, we can be sure many more young musicians would be ready to work hard and experiment with the many sounds - Western classical, Indian classical, jazz, opera, sufi, folk, African beats, Arabian sounds, reggae, hip-hop, rap, rock, pop, blues etc. Rahman has been fervently doing all this especially the last couple of years.

Indians who won Oscar earlier -
Bhanu Athaiya, shared the Oscar with John Mollo for "Costume Design" (1982) for the film "Gandhi".
Vanita Rangaraju-Ramanan, was credited with an Oscar in the "Technical - Lighting" category for the animation film "Shrek" (2002).
Satyajit Ray, won the Lifetime Achievement Special Oscar (1992).

There could be others of Indian origin in technical crew in Hollywood productions who won an Oscar. Starting this edition, we many not have search on the net for our winners :)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dev D: Devdas On Dope

"It appears that I was born to write Devdas because you were born to re-create it in cinema."
- Sarath Chandra Chattopadhyay to PC Baruah after watching latter's adaptation in 1935 Nearly a 100 years after its written, here is one more re-creation. One with an open mind wouldn't mind watching Dev D, an ambitious and audacious rework of the classic Devdas. And yeah, this is not at all for the weak-hearted conservatives, who would anyway prefer to call this Emotional Atyachar. This is a rework and not a remake. And a rework of not just the characters' names and the backdrop (Devdas becomes Devender Singh Dhillon, a spoilt brat, and is relocated to Punjab and Delhi from Bengal) but the core - love between Devdas and Paro. Dev D is not as much about heart-aching lost love as it is about confused youth trying to make out what he actually loves and that is the biggest negative of this film, getting bereft of the soulful love story. So no wonder, Abhay Deol, despite such a fine performance could not elicit sympathy for his character. And in all probability, sympathy is not what Anurag Kashyap or Abhay Deol were counting on for this Devdas. Dev D is set in the new milieu of fast food, fast cars and fast cash. Few minutes into the movie, we are introduced the sexual escapades of Dev D and Paro that would later define this 'love story'. No pussyfootedness here. We are on Anurag Kashyap's turf. Later, the Chandramukhi here, a product of Indian-Canadian mixed parentage, follows suit in her baby-doll prostitute avatar. And importantly, feudal culture, caste, status and affluence are not what drove apart the love birds (if at all you can call them that) here. Despite the differences in statuses, Dev D's father has been dreaming to make Paro his daughter-in-law. This truly celebrates our egalitarian age! It is in fact misunderstanding and ego that drives Dev D and Paro apart. Paro's husband here is no more the one who is reminiscing about his dead first wife. Paro tells us that he is a cracker in bed. And he does not mind Dev D calling Paro even after her marriage. And Paro visits Dev D, chastens him for not taking care of himself, washes his clothes (like Ava Gardner tends to Howard Hughes in 'The Aviator') and tells him he is incapable of Love! Well, that's the catch. While our original tragic protagonist Devdas lost his love because he was a coward and was a victim of the then prevailing class differences, this Dev D defies all social norms. However, he is either too headstrong and selfish to love someone else or is too confused to know whether he actually loves Paro (or for that matter what he wants in his life). And so he looses her. Somehow, the film did not persist with this story line into the climax, maybe because of the compulsion to give a happy ending.

And of course, alcohol here is not just alcohol but fully complimented with cocaine, tobacco and thumps up. Don't be surprised if Abhay Deol soon turns into the poster boy for Smirn-Off! If the goal is to show the contemporary times, this Devdas version succeeds as much, if not more, as the Bimal Roy's and the Vedantam Raghavaiah's Telugu version did in 1950s.
What works for the movie is this fine interpretation done into our times in terms of writing and dialogue. And Good casting and superlative performances from Abhay Deol and Mahie Gill. More than anything, its the propelling soundtrack from Amit Trivedi. We can as well call this as Dev D - the musical, a much relevant musical to our times than the Bhansali's. When we get a little restless watching repetitive images of Abhay Deol smoking, drinking (Thumps Up + Vodka), doing drugs and passing out, it is the music and 'The Twilight Players' that keep our attention more than the 'camera tripping away' technique which Anurag Kashyap thanked Danny Boyle for in the opening credits. With the many drug shots and subsequent surrealistic underwater reveries, Anurag Kashyap pays an ode to Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting'. This could a cult film if it affects a change in perception of 'hero' and 'heroine' of Indian films. It looks like a long shot though.