Mar 29, 2009

Twilight झोन

It is after-afterhours, and the ever-deepening sponge of despair that is Dev.D is out looking for more spirit to swab his lesions. He runs into a Beelzebub-like Chunni, who beckons him into a limbo hidden to the world by steel shutters. While he sits at the table, lights go off except for a spotlight. Under which a man, dressed in a three-piece suit, stands in front of a wall with LOADING PLEASE WAIT splashed on it. He peels his coat off, then pauses, almost as if he was waiting for permission, but no, he's just waiting for the music to catch up.

When it does, this dancer begins to move, as if imbued with the ghosts of Marceau and Jackson. He is rooted, but his limbs move geometrically, tracing staccato phrases in the air. Inter-cut camera circling Dev and demon. Another man joins the spotlight, they cross, and like synchronised swimmers before the sync-point, take up their places. Then they go, cutting into each other's space with mesmerising finesse.

Danny Boyle's credit swirls and eddies round Dev at a lower frame rate, as the gravelly voice makes way for a sitar. Dev goes off to drown - literally - his blood and his tears, in a place no one would see. He re-surfaces. There are now three players, lithe and fluid.

As the beats turn urgent, Dev rises and has a Snorricam bursting out of his chest. As the world around him staggers to stay on its feet, he is the fulcrum of our vision. In two ticks, he has stumbled into yet another unfamiliar world. This one's pink.

Pardesi from Dev.D - a superbly psychedelic experience.

Mar 28, 2009

How to ask Vishal Bhardwaj a question

Why, you stand up abruptly and shout out in garbled English before he can get away!

Last week, I attended a seminar on Cinema and Literature jointly organised by the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Film Writers Association. Here's the precursor post about that.

Which brings us back to the titular figure of this post. The last time I'd seen Vishal, he was much less celebrated as a film-maker and chose to remain silent. Here, he began with expressing his trepidation at speaking in front of legends such as Mani Kaul and Prof. U.R.Ananthamurthy, and didn't even want to look in the direction of his 'gardener' Gulzar. He then proceeded to shake off his nervousness with a couple of 'shers' and spoke of how Maqbool came about. He began by describing the days before Maachis in the land where 'mediocrity is worshipped', and how he tried gaining producers' attention by trying to pass of his original songs as copies of Pakistani songs (incredulous laughter sweeps the auditorium).

Heeding Gulzar's prophesy that Vishal would be a film-maker someday, he decided to try his hand at making films, partly with a view to employing himself as a music director (since his career seemed to be ending!). After Makdee (a story that was partly inspired from childhood memories of Enid Blyton), he wanted to make a film on the underworld ("because I like guns, crimes, and chases"), but felt most films ended in a gangwar, and lacked depth. Plus, what do you do that Ram Gopal Varma hadn't? Serendipitously, Anurag Kashyap had pointed him to Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and Alaap Mazgaonkar (who plays 'Mughal-e-Azam' in Makdee) had given him a book of stories containing Macbeth. Until then, he subscribed to the common view that 'literature' was high-brow and had no pulp or entertainment to offer. But here was a drama that gripped him.

He then read the full Macbeth ("Shakespeare language ek taraf, English duusri taraf") cover to cover. He and Abbas Tyrewala began to write, not encumbered by convention of what was allowed and what wasn't ("we were blessed with ignorance"). Making the witches into cops or turning Lady Macbeth into Abbaji's mistress happened. Naseeruddin Shah loved the script and gave him the confidence this would work, volunteering to play one of the cops instead of Abbaji as originally intended.

There was also a reference to an earlier FWA seminar where Javed Akhtar said: "In Maqbool, Shakespeare failed you; in Omkara, you failed Shakespeare" (according to this account, JA and others had torn into Omkara). Vishal ended by quoting Prof. U.R.Ananthamurthy's speech on the 1st day where the Jnanpith awardee talked about the difference in adapting just the 'structure' as opposed to 'texture'. Vishal said he had been paying more attention to structure than texture (though this blogger finds texture and ambience to be Vishal's key strength) and now had the confidence to write his own originals.

After reciting a parting couplet, he sat down. Govind Nihalani, chairing the session, said Vishal was off to catch a flight, so may be we had time for just one question. No one stirred (most sessions had gone question-less, a pity), so he was about to wish Vishal goodbye, when I decided to shoot my hand up.

There were many things to ask (that after disregarding Yasho's suggestion to yell "Kaminey!" out loud) but I settled for one on Vishal's other main writing source. "Could you tell us a little about your work with Ruskin Bond, and we've heard you're working with him again". Nihalani was about to brush me off for being a tad too late, but Vishal was kind enough to answer. He spoke of how he liked the story for The Blue Umbrella, but couldn't see how it would make a film of more than 30 minutes. He then hit upon the idea of the red umbrella, met Ruskin Bond who seemed to like the idea, and made the film. And yes, he was working on a few ideas with Bond (he mentioned a couple of names, but sadly, I couldn't quite figure them out - did he say "A Season of Ghosts"?).

And that was that.

A Times of India interview on the sidelines

Update: 5 Apr 2009
Ajay Bhramatmaj has a transcript of Vishal's speech here (the previous link is in Devanaagarii, here's a Roman script version).

Cross posted on our Vishal blog

Show and Tell: notes from a seminar on "Cinema and Literature"

Last week, I (along with a couple of fellow itinerants) attended a seminar on Cinema and Literature jointly organised by the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Film Writers Association (a trade union mainly of Bollywood writers). The idea was interesting: to explore the relationships between cinema and literature (sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic). There was also the appealing prospect of watching (gawking?) and listening to people this blogger is quite a fan of.

The opening ceremony saw bodies spilling out of the little FTII auditorium (we had to uncomfortably stand/squat/sit for about 4 hours that day). The principal reason for the interest was perhaps the presence of both Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. True to perception, the former's speech contained the romance of wordplay as well as some pithy observations from film & lit history, while the latter made some strident points without mincing words. Akhtar spoke of the cinema-lit connection involving a love triangle: that of the audience, which affected what was adapted and how it was received. Refering to the ghastly 80s when mainstream Hindi films hit their nadir, he drew a connection between "sarkailo khaTiyaa" and "sarkailo masjid". Gulzar, on the other hand, asked whether it was necessary to be so aware of the audience all the time, and preferred films & literature to dance their duet. He asked an interesting question: how would cinema be if sound hadn't crept in? Would people still come looking to literature, now that words were not needed?

A common reference point throughout the two days was Saratchandra's Devdas, both in terms of number of adaptations, as well as its recency. Gulzar (or was it JA?) refered to it by pointing out that once upon a time Devdas would have been the lowest common denominator of its times! In the session on novel adaptations, Anurag Kashyap didn't bother trying to justify his choices too much - he described how he went about it. In general, there were two kinds of speakers: 'theorists' (usually writers, who spent a lot of time bemoaning adaptations and musing on its fickle nature) and 'practitioners' who seemed to be 'doing' things, trying them out, failing, learning, and moving on. It was the second category that produced the most engaging talks, and Kashyap was one of them.

A writer who spoke wonderfully, and had contrarian views to Kashyap, was Mamta Kalia. But in all, the sessions on novels, short stories and folklore were disappointing. A majority of panelists kept regressing to existential arguments (such as splitting hairs on words like 'inspiration' and 'adaptation', and didn't spend much time in discussing the nuts-and-bolts or challenges of these respective forms). Shama Zaidi tried to show some examples of how changes were made for Shatranj Ke Khiladi, but spoiled things by being too petulant and dismissive. Even the second day's session on mythology kept tracing issues of history and philosophy, but unlike the earlier sessions, it was considerably livened by a set of excellent speakers.

It helped that Kamalahassan was chairing the session. He didn't make a speech of his, but kept insisting the atheist in him was spoiling for a fight on the topic. Gollapudi Maruthi Rao, noted Telugu actor, spoke eloquently on the history of mythology in films (appropriately so; I think the Telugu film industry has made the best use of that material). Kamalahassan then made one his many clever sound-bite interjections: "According to me, mythology is spiritual cosmetic surgery for history; makes the truth more palatable". The man knows how to press all the right buttons on an audience!

Dr. Devdutt Patnaik was the next speaker, and he delivered a very interesting talk. Once a man of medicine, he's now a 'mythologist' and carries the rather exotic title of "Chief Belief Officer" at the Future Group. He spoke of mythology as the 'truth' of a culture, compared Western films about religion with Indian ones, and then plunged into an analysis of 'sanatan' vs social truths (which I found a little slippery to grapple with). At some points, it seemed he was about to invoke Hindu-glory-of-the-past (Kamal later quipped that he thought Patnaik was going to start distributing prasad on stage), but to his credit, he stayed on the side of sobreity throughout. I recommend a look at his presentation, which is available on his website here.

In response, Kamalahassan mentioned how he liked films that tried to be subversive about accepted wisdom, particularly mythology, and cited the example of (one of my favourite movies) The Life of Brian by Monty Python. He spoke of films like Hey! Ram into which elements of the Ramayana are interwoven. And did he blush ever so slightly when someone praised Dashavataram? The man is worth paying to go and listen to, I think.

The last session, the one on drama & plays, was the most well-rounded one: the speakers spoke both of theory and craft. Playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar spoke lucidly about his two experiences of writing his plays for film, as well as dealing with different constraints in the two media. Asghar Wajahat did the same later. Govind Nihalani, who directed Party from an Elkunchwar script, gave the view from the other side. Dr. Jabbar Patel spoke extensively of his collaborations with Vijay Tendulkar and Gulzar, and mentioned that in plays, it was the writer who ruled, while film was the director's medium.

Vishal Bhardwaj also spoke, but this is already such a long post that I've forked that encounter off into a separate post here.

In summary, it was a mixed set of talks. I liked something that Prof.U.R.Ananthamurthy said in his talk: that finally, all that really matters is how engaging the film (and I generalise it to all art) is for the individual viewer - whether you understand the content or crib about the fidelity of the film to the book is not all that important.

Times of India reports: Day 1, Day 2

Mar 27, 2009

Soft skills

Mulayam Singh Yadav has been in some lukewarm water with the Election Commission over a speech of his in which he was shown as saying, among others,:
"She (the District Magistrate of Mainpuri, his constituency) is a woman and that is why I am not making any comments on her. She should get her brain checked and should be aware of the fact that Mulayam is contesting from here (Mainpuri)", Singh was shown by local news channels as saying at the rally.

Among other improprieties, this comment has been found to be sexist because it makes references to the gender of the person involved. An observation here is that the comment is indeed sexist, but not misogynistic. In fact, the UP chief minister is kind enough to refrain from making further comments (untoward, we can guess) about the lady precisely because she is a lady. One would not like to imagine the fate of any male DM in her place.

One can see why Mr. Yadav opposes reservations for women in Parliament - it would severely cramp his style.

Mar 15, 2009

Glimpses of a genius: Buster Keaton

It's a pity that many of us ("even I") haven't seen much of 'Buster' Keaton's work. He does appear in quizzes, usually for the origin of his nickname, or as the name you'd guess in case the answer "Chaplin" was wrong.

Kamalahassan refers to Keaton quite often in some of his interviews. My first film viewing of Keaton was, ironically, in Chaplin's brilliant "Limelight", where the two giants of the erstwhile silent comedy era came together for a memorable duet (youtube link). The magic of this partnership is that both are playing out their own styles of comedy in tandem.

I have also watched some parts of The General, perhaps the most famous Keaton film, and was able to watch all of that stupendously choreographed locomotive sequence. In fact, Keaton's films are like great magic shows or symphonies: exceptionally well-timed and intricately designed.

In an article on PFC, Shripriya writes about another Keaton stunner called "Sherlock Jr." and points to two astoundingly crafted sequences. Look very carefully at both of them: even after you know how they were put together, you will still be rubbing your eyes at the ingenuity of it all.

Mar 10, 2009

Once I could see, now I have been blinded

Those of us who grew up watching sterile DD newscasts could scarcely imagine news programmes would become so annoying in the 21st century. Progress was flying cars and teleportation, not a 24x7 itch.

My latest peeve concerns the tendency of news videos to come with bright red lassos or arrows that move in relation to the video. Originally used to point our attention in grainy videos, this visual annotation now appears in almost every other news report. It is very reminiscent of the times when a similar 'innovation was handed to cricket commentators to emphasise some vague point they wanted to make. Invariably, the pointer would slip resulting in some unholy scribbles that even parents of kindergarten kids would be loath to praise.

The problem arises when perfectly clear pictures are defaced by a circle or an arrow. The end result is like watching the victim of a laser pointer attack - the poor chap has no idea a red circle is following him all over the screen. Worse are animated arrows that repeatedly keep poking the object of its affection - reminds me of all those "fling a shoe at Bush" flash games that did the rounds a few weeks ago.

This last mentioned menace appeared in a Times Now news report this evening about Sachin Tendulkar's absence from the next cricket match thanks to injury. In addition to a caption saying Internal Bleeding, an arrow kept poking at Tendulkar's rib cage. Despite the fact that it's internal. That we can eventually see him grimacing and holding his stomach. Forget about leaving it to the imagination, I haven't lent my eyes to Crimemaster Gogo to play marbles with. Another prominent member of the sac-red circle has been Ramgopal Verma while touring the Taj.

These marks have the unpleasant side-effect of instantly bumping anyone inside the circle to the level of an alleged criminal. What other conclusion could any visiting alien (from however advanced a civilisation) come to about a person thus outlined, other than he was worse than a dreg of Plutonic moondust: why else would the red circle keenly keep him in its sights like a hunting dog? To illustrate my point, see this composite image of the best of Indian TV (I hope NDTV doesn't sue me for saying that!): fine, upstanding journalists, with intensity and intent to break news written all over. And then observe, milord, the same exhibits with outlines straight out of The Omen.

You begin to sense the malignant cursors compelling you to haul them in front of the Inquisition. Brr.

Mar 8, 2009

The importance of an allegation

In recent times, eagle-eyed readers of the Times of India would have observed a curious typographical phenomenon in that newspaper. In stories such as this one about a crime in Pune, the word allegedly is italicised. Thus, in print, the article looks like this:
"The Haveli police on Saturday arrested Shekhar Shettiyar (28) of Kurla and booked five others for allegedly murdering Nathibai Chaudhary..."

"On June 26, 2001, the gang allegedly entered the shop posing as customers and stole the jewellery by threatening employees."

The motivation behind this oddity is unclear, and in the absence of the ToI style manual (if there is such a thing) in the public domain, it is hard to guess why this would be so. What is so special about the word "allegedly" that it needs to be highlighted thus?

Making it curious-er is the fact that there are many occurrences of the word in other ToI articles where it does not get such a treatment. Strange! (but not unusual for a paper whose curious 'case' of the perpendicular pronoun was remarked upon by this blog here.)

Incidentally, the ToI epaper doesn't provide the Pune edition any more, so I can't check if this formatting shows up in that version. It doesn't in the plain vanilla web version linked above.
Another blogger has made the very same puzzling observation.

Mar 6, 2009


If you are a Vishal Bhardwaj fan but you haven't heard of Kaminey, you have got to read the Bardwatch here (or at George's).

Mar 1, 2009

Indian 'Word of the Year' - February updates

A note on the idea, words from Jan 2009, Feb 2009
February 2009's words

  1. Pink chaddis and other pinker-stinkers: February is the season of moralist protests in India, with forces for and against such manifestations of Western culture as Valentine's Day making headlines. This year took an unusual turn with a protest group launching a 'Pink Chaddi' campaign ('chaDDii'=='underwear') in reaction to an obscure radical group's actions. The coinage is clever and provocative, since it conjures up an instantly imaginable symbol and because 'chaDDii' is not always part of polite speech. From the point of view of this exercise, the phrase became even more interesting when counter-reactions applied the 'pink X' template to other apparel, including prophylactics. Is pink on its way to becoming the colour of Indian feminist action?

    Incidentally, the phrase moral police ought to be sent into some sort of Indian-ism 'Hall of Fame'. Though a phrase that is seen throughout the world, we seem to be the most fervent users of the phrase, as evidenced by a couple of anecdotal tests. 90% of the first three pages of Google search results for the word are India-related; this is also true of an archival news search.

  2. Jai Ho!: Remember Chak De? A phrase that sports crowds shouted lustily, a phrase that became synonymous with a coincidental and short-lived revival of Indian hockey, a phrase that hardly anyone uses. Does a similar fate await the aptly titled refrain from the Oscar winning song from Slumdog Millionaire (which also gave us another candidate last month)? The phrase, which is easy to utter and not unfamiliar to Indians, appeared in some newspaper headlines unrelated to the film . Just how much damage the constant drone of TV stories on the Oscar triumphs have done to us will be clear in a year's time.
A question to sign off: some of us have been using Slumdog as a sly euphemism to refer to scatalogical situations, usually to piss off our queasier colleagues. Tell me if you have noticed anything like this elsewhere.
January 2009's words

  1. Slumdog: a word that still has no entry in most dictionaries but shot into prominence after Danny Boyle's film and has even caused a lawsuit. Wow! An auspicious start for this list.
  2. 'Emosanal'/Emotional atyaachaar: A fertile phrase, coined by lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharyya director Anurag Kashyap, from the film Dev.D's soundtrack. I have seen several variants of this on some forums and music channels, using the phrase as X atyaachaar, which suggests a possible snowclone.
The fact that both of the above are connected to films says a lot about us Indians (or perhaps just me). We'll see how things evolve in the rest of this year.

The Whys
As a language and trivia enthusiast, I've always followed the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Why not an Indian Word of the Year?

Instead of trusting my cheese-like memory at the end of the year, it would be easier to record possible candidates along the way. This also opens up the possibility that some random observer will correct errors and add to the list.

What qualifies to be the Indian Word of the Year? I'm looking for interesting words or phrases that have been sufficiently interesting or news-worthy. This is not to be confused with a pure term-based 'Zeitgeist' - so Satyam will not be considered. Newly coined words will be invited. I'm also looking for words with 'potential' - that people mutate or mix with other words to form interesting variants. Perhaps even phrases that can become snowclones. So if people start making interesting things out of the word Satyam, then I'll include it. I admit I don't have it all figured out, but will do so as I do this.

Only English words? Not really. But limited by my own readings, my candidates are likely to be limited by language and geography. I'm hoping I'll be pointed to words by others.

For instance:
In Dec 2008, the relatively unknown phrase non-state actor would have been on the list.
In 2004, feel-good factor would have shone right in.
In addition, we would have take note of dard-e-disco last year - a strange phrase with some flexibility for reuse.

So to summarise: words that are interesting, not just news topics; words that have character; words that have newly entered our lexicon, and so on.