Jun 29, 2008

The (already forgotten) music of Haal-e-Dil

Perhaps the fates that govern the musical birthchart of Vishal Bhardwaj ordain that several of his works are intended to be criminally under-heard. A more earthly reason for hardly anyone noticing the music of "Haal-e-Dil" could be attributed to it being an under-promoted film featuring a bunch of not-so interesting newcomers in an average script. This album is also one of those multi-composer efforts, featuring Raghav Sachar, Pritam, and Anand Raj Anand in addition to Vishal.

(I'll restrict myself to Vishal's double-header in this post, but a brief review of the album can be seen at Karthik's MilliBlog.)

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan re-appears in a Vishal song after that superbly rendered cautionary ode to love in "Omkara". "Haal-e-dil" begins with what sounded to my untrained ears as the digderidoo (perhaps just some electronic consort), and fits into the category of songs usually classified as "soulful". Also featuring the backing vocals of Shreya Ghoshal, the song is melodious and measured, with a hint of a Sufi influence. Typically for Vishal, the arrangements are interesting with a couple of eclectic interludes (is that a mandolin we hear in the middle, or just a guitar?). With Rahat leading the way, the elements of the song come together wonderfully.

The other Vishal credit on this album is a reprise of the title song, by Rekha Bhardwaj. It's a more modern, rock-ish version, rendered in characteristic fashion by the talented missus who can zig-zag the registers nicely. It does come in second to the Rahat version, but these Munna Dhiman lyrics (also a variation of the other song) are perhaps a touch better here ("tere kohre me.n dhuup ban ke kho jaau.n"). And there's some nice guitar backing all through.

In all, a cameo by Vishal and gang which, though it won't set any cash registers or weekly top 10s ringing, is worth a devoting a quiet moment or two if you can catch it.

(Crossposted at the Vishal blog.)

Jun 22, 2008

Why 'Aamir' Can't

Rajkumar Gupta's Aamir came in for much praise in some reviews (like this one), which was great to hear. However, the flaws in the story and narrative blunted my own reception of the movie. Since this post will touch upon the ending, consider the post as spoiler-enabled, so you should not read ahead if you are still to watch it (which you probably should, since it is technically well made and well performed).

(Instead of the usual blank spaces to reduce the inadvertent-spoiler-sighting, here's some mindless trivia that resulted from the movie. The post resumes after this.)

Towards the end of the movie, I noticed an actor who looked familiar. Being interested in the lesser known world of Bollywood background fillers, I carefully read his name from the credits: Uday Chandra. I had seen a little bit of Basu Chatterjee's Baaton Baaton Mein the previous day, and I knew who this was - "Henry", who suffers in his unspoken love for Tina Munim's character. When I mentioned "Henry" to George, he said: "Oh, Mazhar Khan?". Turns out the actor formerly famous as "Abdul" was "Henry", and not my bloke! So where had I seen Uday Chandra? Another little bulb pops somewhere. I had also revisited Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro the previous week (both movies having been kindly provided by Yasho). This was Duryodhana! (behind the moustache and ab drama mujhe hii sambhaalnaa hogaa).

It turns out that Uday Chandra has appeared in several films by Vidhu Vinod Chopra (a co-JBDY associate), and some may even recall him in Mission Kashmir. It also turns out that he dropped out of IIT, took up music and acting, went to FTII, acted as Saigal in a play, learns music from a guru in Pune. Even the most )seemingly innocent) inhabitant of screen space can have an interesting tale to tell.

Back to Aamir. Many reviews (example) have pointed out several aspects of the story that end up distracting from the positives. In addition, mid-way, the pace of the film becomes sluggish, which is sad for a film that is just 90 minutes long. More than the puzzling choice of reluctant bomber, the ending was less than satisfying. Aamir wants to prove that he can impose his own will even in such constricting circumstances (viewers will recall the opening lines of the film), but why should that choice be clutching the case as it blew to smitheerens? Leading upto that moment, the (astute) viewer will already have begun to consider possible endings. Such as:

One, Aamir succumbs and lets the bus be blown up.
Two, he becomes the "hero" (the moral 'hero', mind you) and saves others, while blowing himself up.
Third (most unlikely, given what we had already seen), he becomes the 'filmy hero' and turns the tables on the anonymous menace.
Or even Four (sort of a MacGuffin), where there is indeed no bomb, and this is one big scare by Gajraj Rao's character to sensitise the secularised professional to the pressing needs of the community, to whose plight he has been awakened to.

IMO, Options 1 and 4 need a lot of guts to write in and present. Option 2 is the easy way out, and though it sustains drama, it does not achieve anything beyond perhaps some sympathy for the now wasted life of Aamir. 4 would have been very interesting. Though it may seem sort of like a "it was all a dream" cop-out, but it would have had the advantages of tying in a positive slant and importantly, also avoiding a slightly dangerous side-effect. The way the narrative pans out, so many people are involved in the bombing conspiracy. A PCO operator, several hoteliers and waiters, hoodlums, not so innocent gawkers (and there's a lot of gawking in this movie) - it's as if the entire "qaum" was in on it. Is that the impression the makers wanted to leave us with?

Personally, I would have liked to see Option 1: Aamir puts his family above lots of people he's never met before, underlining the helplessness that permeates the movie. That would have presented a much more compelling dilemma than what we ended up with, which left us focusing on exactly why anyone so ruthless as the dark mastermind would run a risky operation as strategic as any of Adenoid Hynkel's.

Several years ago, I watched a televised short story where Shekhar Kapur played the role of an avaricious executive who is visited by a "Yaksha". This figure makes him an offer, which Kapur's character feels unable to refuse. The offer was: I'll pay you an immense amount of money. If you accept, as a consequence, somewhere someone will die. You won't even know who that was. Do you accept? Kapur accepts and this leads to a lot of soul-searching. Unlike this story, Aamir never hits the highs in dealing with such possible moral complications. Which is why we are left discussing what Aamir could have been.

Jun 11, 2008

A Poet Is Cornered

There was a baker named Roger
They said he baked by magic
He served up golden bagels
And many a brown breadstick

He thought they were quite sweet
His customers begged to differ
"Your produce is beautiful", they said
"But God! it tastes so bitter"

"Moo!" said Roger
in his white jacket
"I score great music here"
"not an infernal racket"

And then came Paris where
Some Muscles from Mallorca
Dished out his own dough
It was called A Special Rafa

"'The bagel's acerbic", said Roger
"The breadstick too, I'll pass"
"My medicine doesn't taste too well"
"Should I try eating some grass?"

Roger Federer, ATP artist, can still write better on-court poetry than I can with words. But of late, the symphonies have been unfinished and the notes have jarred. Now, I don't think this is the beginning of some long-term decline, for we're still talking about a World No. 1 who made the finals of the last three most important tournaments on his least favourite surface. But it's the manner of the approach (literally) that should send a twitter down some Swiss shoulders.

Nadal's come back strongly from injury; Djokovic's been tracking the top two with the intensity of a Serbian Defensive Dog - these you would expect. What you wouldn't expect is how certain aspects of Federer's game have become entangled with the mind, which at times, just seems to be milking Alpine cows.

The mind as mental barrier
In Fredric Brown's short story "Arena", the central character (Carson) finds himself fighting an alien being - one who wins will guarantee victory of his species. But neither can get to each other: they are separated by am invisible barrier that turns out to be purely a mental creation, one that the conscious mind cannot get through. It's an apt metaphor for Roger Federer's problems at the tennis net.

At the more visible barrier, he's fumbled. He's smashed and caressed balls into the wires. He approaches the tape with all the enthusiasm of a lamb to the slaughter. Even against the likes of the lowly Monfils, he was visibly reluctant to surge ahead. Cerberus guarding the doors of hell would have been easier to get by.

At any rate, this presents a challenge worthy of a champion. If and how Federer does tame these devils will be worth watching. Like Carson, it'll involve both sweat and creativity. Surely, the memory of that bitter breadstick and bagel at this year's Roland Garros final should keep him piqued.

Jun 10, 2008

No Moss

A beer-swilling A.R.Rahman who used to "talk nonstop"? Glimpses in perhaps _the_ definitive Rahman interview. Here's the feature by Baradwaj Rangan.

Jun 5, 2008

The Continuum

I had never heard of a musical instrument called The Continuum until A.R.Rahman mentioned it in a recent interview.

From what I could read, it's sort of a continuous keyboard which should help glides, mii.nds, gamakas. More info on the Wikipedia page or articles from the Dept. of ECE, UIUC website such as this one.

Jun 4, 2008

Linky Pinky Ponky

If you didn't already know (I didn't until Santosh pointed to it), Ram Gopal Varma is blogging. What's good about it is that the font size is readable and there are challenge-responses such as the following:
13. Your films like AAG, Nishabd scared me and I don’t want to watch your films anymore.
Ans: Thanks

Roger Ebert is journalling here.

Help Firefox (v3.0 coming up) create a world record.

Mulva is not just a famous typo (a la Moops). George just got the wrong person.

Jun 3, 2008

Dot, dot - who's there?

Ever notice how a lot of people (especially Indian neti-jans) seem to use a lot of ellipses in casual text? (passing aside: commentary applies to only those who are textually active).

I mean sentences like these:

umm the colour combo is great. black and green.....
if you fix the terrible things above it will be good....
In fact, it's more than the average three act ellipsis. You see a lot of mutant dot trails, leading to what I call 'comet sentences'. And in cases such as
the width need to be increased....too small....include some letters.....(at the side)
the author is loath to ever decisively finish a sentence, or even let go in the middle of it. Breathlessly, he holds on to both phrases, joining them in dotted lexical forms.

Now, since I deal with text for a living, I can either rail against such punctured notation, or I can try learning to deal with it, even if with clip on nose. Following language literature, we see evidence of several such mutations on a regular basis. Our reading also tells us that many of the language styles and meanings we cling to dogmatically today would have been blasphemes from the past. Elliptical prose is perhaps the same.

What I do wonder of course, is how this started, and why many people have taken to it naturally. What is the linguistic, economic or even evolutionary advantage of doing so, assuming there is no aesthetic reason for doing so?

Jun 1, 2008

Exploring the music of Iruvar :: 'uDal maNNukku'

song: uDal maNNukku
recited by: Arvind Swamy

uDal maNNukku tells the tale of how Anandam (unofficially representing M.G.R. in Mani Ratnam's fictional universe) in Iruvar becomes a star. Like the previous two songs dissected so far on this blog, this poetic recital comes from within a 'mousetrap'-ed film ("Veeraprathaban"). But unlike the other two, this is the first song to carry interesting political connotations (that reach their climax in the magnificent 'aayirathil naan oruvan' song.)

Note that MGR's first success as 'hero' came in the 1947 Rajakumari, written by one M.Karunanidhi.

film context
After suffering the ignominy of seeing his first film as hero shut down due to financial trouble, Anandan has finally found new hope in a historical. This is also a good time to introduce his good friend Tamilchelvan to films. In addition to being a budding political activist, he also writes commanding prose and poetry. Given the situation by the director ("a brave Tamil revolutionary has to rescue a kidnapped 'rajakumari'"), Tamilchelvan starts to pen his lyrics. We switch to the picturised song and end with great applause and adulatory mayhem in the cinema theatres.

the music
In what is more of a recitation than a conventional song, the arrangements are extremely spare, with just a string section (violins mainly) accompanying a deep string swipe. Briefly punctuated by strong percussions and "fight" music, the staccato melody returns with choral accompaniment. This provides a perfectly belligerent mood to the on-screen action.

I don't think the music references any work of that period, and in that sense is quite different from the other songs in the album which at their core had elements reflecting the times.

the playback
Perhaps the kindest explanation of why Arvind Swamy provides the voice for this song (and another lyrical narration later) is that Mani Ratnam saw him as some sort of lucky mascot, what with both of his previous Ratnam appearances turning into hits. Swamy's diction is poor in places (jarring for a song that significantly extols Tamil chauvinism via its lyrics) and his voice tends to get hoarse at the end. Perhaps lyricist Vairamuthu could have taken the mantle upon himself for these songs?

the lyrics
Though the music does not seem to make any explicit allusions to the age, this is not the case with the lyrics. The lines "uDal maNNukku, uyir tamizhukku" (body for the Tamil soil, life for Tamil itself) was a major clarion call during the 60s. The DMK used it as a rallying phrase in their anti-Hindi protests, so this is a politically loaded phrase. The rest of the lyrics invoke an ominous gravity through the choice of words, a hallmark of DMK writers epitomised by M. Karunanidhi.

You could, therefore, interpret the song as an example of how the politically active film-men of the times wrote with two objectives in mind: one, meeting the ostensible goals of the screenplay, but importantly, two, of creating material that would have a life outside the theatre. Each chant in this song invokes Tamil pride and the determination of those 'revolutionaries' who thought themselves as its protectors in the face of the northern imposition.

the picturisation
The song presents several set-pieces from the historical movies of those times: horseback hero wielding cutlasses fighting off enemy soldiers; sceneries involving chains and bells and ropes; the hapless belle waiting to be rescued; stylised fighting (we saw this right upto the nineties!). In B&W, this song introduces Ramani (Gowthami) in the film, ending with the leads being overwhelmed by the huge reaction of the crowds to what has become a massive hit. Anandan is now a bona fide star.

Useful references
1. The chapter on The Anti-Hindi Agitation in Vaasanthi's book "Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars"
2. I can't seem to find any lyrics online

Next post: 'Hello, Mr. Ethirkatchi'
Previous post: 'Poo KoDiyin Punnagai'

Mahaquizzer - results update

The Mahaquizzer 2008 results were finally released a couple of days ago. Doing better than expected on the overall rankings, I halved my 2007 ranking to end at 11.

Any resulting euphoria can be tempered by the facts that 6 other city winners finished above me and the winner (Arul Mani) was 30 points in front of me!