Lists


A few weeks ago, when my 15 year old cousin was visiting and wanted to watch a funny movie, the first one the came to mind was Arsenic and Old Lace. He loved it, of course.

Once I managed to convince my cousin that my recommendations weren’t hopeless, I went on to recommend The General, Chupke Chupke, Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Pushpak… all of which would make my list of all-time favourite funny movies. Had he been older, the list would’ve included a few more gems. But even if I had a Groundhog Day experience and found myself having to recommend a funny movie to my cousin ad infinitum, I suspect I’d always pick Arsenic and Old Lace first. So there you go.

Drama is a tougher genre, but if I had to come up with just one recommendation, it would be The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a reason why that film is perched atop of IMDB’s Top 250 films list, even above The Godfather.

Action is easier — Sholay, no question. If someone were to screen the movie today in a multiplex and sit among the audience, he’d probably find a whole bunch of voices mouthing the dialogues in sync with the characters. Including mine.

Musicals — Top Hat, I guess. The sight of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing is enough to make anyone smile. Even those who have memories of its remake (Hadh Kar Di Aapne), intruding upon the experience, and that’s saying something.

Romance is tougher. I don’t know if I could pick Mouna Raagam over Once or When Harry Met Sally, or vice versa.

I could go on about other films that stand out in memory. Rashomon, for instance, has had a greater impact on me than any other film I have seenCitizen Kane inspired me to write the short story I am fondest of.

But here’s the thing I realized while trying to compile this list. As much as picking a “favourites” list is subjective, the very act of picking a favourite presupposes, I think, a desire to find someone who likes your favourites as much as you do.

Even when I pick a film like Before Sunrise as my all-time favourite (and it is), I know it isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone. But by making this statement, I am also expressing the hope that someone who hasn’t seen or heard of this film will be tempted to seek it out. Come to think of it, that is as good a reason for blogging about the movies as any other.

Because let’s face it: there’s a certain pleasure to be had in hearing someone else shriek in delighted laughter when Cary Grant says in Arsenic and Old Lace, “When you say others, you mean… others? As in, more than one others?”

Through their experience of discovering those films for the first time, I relive my own.

ps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com.

I wrote this for the GE Global Research blog – Edison’s Desk. An excerpt:

We go to the movies for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is vicarious wish fulfillment. For the more scientifically inclined among us, much of this aspect has to do with the cool gadgetry in the movies. It’s almost like a litmus test: which of the scenes in a Bond movie do you like best? The ones with Q or the myraid action sequences? If you fall into the former category, read on. Otherwise… well, humour me for a few minutes and read on anyway.

You can read the rest of this post here.

Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat has a brilliant section about the protagonists making a list of things to take with them on the boat trip. The first list they make turns out to have so many items that the boat would likely sink under the weight of it all. Then one of them suggests that they ought to make a new list, not of the things they could use, but only of the things they couldn’t do without.  This would’ve been the end of it, but Jerome elaborates on the wisdom contained in that line:

I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber… It is lumber, man — all lumber! Throw it overboard… Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing (sic).

In some ways, that moldy old cauliflower we have sitting atop our necks is just another kind of boat. The difference is, every once in a while, we come across something that doesn’t make that boat heavier. It makes it bigger. And for having encountered more than a fair share of those moments in my life, I am truly thankful. I don’t know if I will ever get around to writing down the entire list of such things, but here are a few (in chronological order):

Opening notes (1985)

My dad has an almost maniacal love for old Hindi film music. Years ago, he bought a tape that contained a compilation of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs called Magic Moments. The first song I heard from that tape was Mera Dil Yeh Pukaare Aaaja from Nagin (Track 1, Side B). Much of my childhood seems like a blur to me now, but my memory of how that music affected me is crystal clear to this day. It still affects me the same way.

Learning to fly (1992)

Back in high school, my friend Swami lent me his copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull with a strong recommendation that I read it right away. If I had to pick a word to describe how it felt after reading it for the first time, that word would be “sunrise”. It is, in some ways, the only truly religious experience I have ever had. It didn’t influence my thinking so much as it crystallized it. When  I thought about doing a doctorate and worried about the time it would take, the elder gull’s advice on seeking perfection and not worrying about speed came to mind. (My dissertation is far from perfect, but you get the idea.) Even my advisor was like that. He would say stuff like: If you have to go fast, you have to go slow. (I even asked him at one point if he learnt how to teach by watching kung-fu movies.) But he was my elder gull, and he changed my life.

A second playlist (1994)

Until I reached college, my exposure to Western music had been pretty limited. The usual diet of Michael Jackson, one song by Phil Collins (Another Day in Paradise), some Bon Jovi, that’s about it. It was nice enough, but it didn’t really draw me in. The music shows at BITS Pilani used to have two distinct parts — two-odd hours of Indian music, a half hour break, then some Western music. I’d usually leave at the halfway point. One night, sometime in the beginning of my third semester, I stayed for some reason. They started playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond to kick off the proceedings. At first, it seemed to me like they were just jamming. I remember thinking: This isn’t so bad after all. Then they launched into those four notes and it was all over. My list of musical favourites was crammed full with Madan Mohan, S. D. Burman and Ilayaraja at that point. After I heard those four notes, I knew I needed a new list.

What is math for “cauliflower”? (1999)

My friend Sridev, who was a few years senior to me in the doctoral programme, used to tell me that the honeymoon period in the programme comes just after one has finished the coursework and is looking for a problem to work on. You get to read books and papers on a wide variety of topics and try and find out what you’re interested in. I initially started off reading papers on neural networks and fuzzy systems when my advisor recommended that I try reading a book called Computational Learning Theory, by Martin Anthony and Norman Biggs. It was a slim little book, and I got started on the preface while I was walking back from the library. It began with the line: Computational learning theory is a tentative attempt to build a mathematical model of the human cognitive process. It was, as they say, love at first sight. At that point, I had no idea of the sort of mathematical hoops I’d have to jump through in order to work in this area. I still don’t understand a lot of it, come to that. Like Elvis sang, Wise men say/Only fools rush in. But it’s true, I couldn’t help falling in love with it. And I never fell out of love either.

Blinkers off (2000)

I’ve been in love with the movies for a long time, but it was when I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon that it became more than just a medium of entertainment for me. It wasn’t just that it had a brilliant concept — it was the message it set out to convey. We get bombarded with so much information over the course of our lives that it becomes easier, at some point, to just take it for granted and believe what we see or hear. On top of which, we slowly, almost unconsciously, program ourselves to hear only what we want to and filter out the rest. But every once in a while, the memory of Rashomon tickles a corner of my brain and makes me stop and look around. That doesn’t make life any easier, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the oldest cliches I’ve heard pertains to how life is such a great teacher. Sure it is, but you know what, it mostly doesn’t offer any compulsory courses. They’re all electives. These are the ones I chose, and the syllabus has been awesome so far.

ps: Thanks to Ratul, who pointed out that beautiful passage in TMiaB to me many years ago.

pps: Okay, most of you who read this blog already know it’s about the movies. So how many of you, after seeing the title, first thought it was a reference to Jaws?

ppps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

 

I owe my abiding love for B-movies to Dabba.

The official name was Sri Ganesh Talkies ad it was located a couple of kilometres from the campus gate at BITS, Pilani. It had four walls, a makeshift ceiling, and the projectionist’s dhoti for a screen. I’m guessing he diligently washed it every February 29th. Front bench (and I really mean bench) seats cost 3 bucks, back bench seats cost 4 bucks and luxury seating in the back row cost 5 bucks. When they increased ticket prices across the board by one buck, we even bargained with the guy at the counter for a few weeks and got a discount. The front row seats were convenient — you could stretch your legs out on the bench. (The fact that there were rats scurrying around might have had something to do with it as well.) They changed the movie every 3-4 days  — not enough film-goers around to run a movie for a whole week.

Much of what made its way to Dabba came direct from Ooty, where Prabhuji Mithun Chakraborty ran a film factory that produced movies as often as Ram Gopal Varma  (but with less variance in quality or box office appeal). The immutable physical laws that govern the universe state that Prabhuji must have either a sister (who usually gets raped/killed) or a brother (who gets killed, leaving him to look after said brother’s girlfriend/fiancee/wife who may also have gotten raped in the process). It seemed to us that there was a virtual glut of interchangeable, well-endowed starlets vying for this role, because I don’t remember seeing the same actress playing his sister twice.

Mithun didn’t have a monopoly on this industry either: a movie called Rakhwaale (not to be confused with the Anil Kapoor starrer, Rakhwaala) remains seared into my neurons for all time. Sure, it had a preposterous plot and a no-name hero who delivered the Great Sequoia of wooden performances. What really made it special was that, every once in a while, there would be a shot of Mukesh Khanna in a tan overcoat and matching fedora watching the action from a discreet spot and then glowering significantly at the camera. Right at the end, it is revealed that he is a CBI officer or some such thing. Absoslutely sublime, I tell you.

But here’s the thing: I do not remember disliking any of these movies. They were honest, sincere efforts at making a B-movie and we received them in that spirit. Nobody went into Dabba expecting Citizen Kane. Nobody came out disappointed.

It was when I went to watch some big name star/director make an ass of himself that I came away disappointed. Mithun delivered exactly what he promised. But Aamir Khan in Mann — that was another matter entirely. These were the real cinematic turkeys, the ones I plan to roast in this post. This is a short, non-exhaustive list of some of the worst such offenders that I have come across. These don’t fall in the category of Locomotive 38 movies — they’re just plain crappy, period.

Aside: You’re probably wondering whether I really needed to take this long to get to the point of this post. I like to digress, okay? If you ever hear me say Abhivaadaye, you might notice the name Polonius slipped in between Bhargava and Jamadagni.

1. Mann: Indra Kumar’s remake of An Affair to Remember, starring Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala. The first half, set aboard a cruise ship, involves ninety minutes of such abominable filmmaking that it ought to have been banned by the Geneva Convention. A few scenes from that nightmare :  as soon as Manisha boards the ship, she collides with…  no, not the hero, as usually happens, but a desi version of Mike Myers in all his shagadelic glory.  (Funny as the original?  Not so much.)  One character on the ship who keeps laughing like a hyena being sodomized by a cattle prod inside a room filled with nitrous oxide.  Imagine hearing it at the end of one scene, and just to make sure that you stay on the wall you’ve been driven up, a continuation of that in the beginning of the next scene. On top of which, Aamir and Manisha act like a Lifetime Achievement Razzie is up for grabs on the strength of this one performance. I have never prayed harder for icebergs.

2. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: You get Abhishek Bachchan, Priety Zinta and Amitabh to act in the same movie and what do you do? Put them in something that looks like a musical, sounds like a musical and wants to be a musical but ends up being a pile of guano gone bad. Dress Amitabh up like he had an unfortunate incident involving a peacock and a quantum teleportation device. Painful to the point where regular readers of this blog, such as there are, will immediately understand what I mean when I call a movie a JBJ experience. (Full review here.)

3. Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag: Apparently, the Large Hadron Collider has been working fine for a few years now. RGV tried to produce antimatter by running Sholay from two separate projectors and smashing those beams together. The result so unnerved the scientists at CERN that they shut it down and made up a story about eddies in the spacetime continuum and somebody stealing magnets for their fridge.

4. Baba: I don’t mind the fact that Rajni wanted to showcase his spiritual side in this movie. Nor the fact that he and Manish Koirala looked like the Hobo and the Hippo (some people look good with a quadruple chin, but she isn’t one of them). What I do mind is the fact that Rajni thought he could mix up little bits from the Amman movie genre (the bits involving magicians with diabolical plans and much sinister laughter) with standard Rajni movie staples, add some mystical stuff about immortal ascetics in the Himalayas and get away with it. And that a whole raft of actors and a director like Suresh Krishna (who, as it happens, directed Baasha) went along with him. Couldn’t somebody — anybody, really — have whacked him upside the head with something hard, blunt and radioactive? Was the money really that good?

5. Anjali: Of the lot, this is the most disappointing. Its child stars won special National awards for their performances. It has a few really good moments and a beautiful story about prejudice and acceptance in various forms. But to get to all of that, you have to get past a bunch of loud performances, annoyingly precocious kids and and scenes set in an apartment that Howard Roark would’ve blown up on general principle. And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Rathnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

Dedication: I don’t know if there is such a thing as dedicating blog posts, but I would like to dedicate this one to two of my friends, Renugopal and Tarun, with whom I have watched more crappy movies than anyone in their right mind ever would.

Thanks to his Golden Globe for Slumdog Millionaire (and the possibility of an Oscar), Rahman is now the flavour of the month. While I haven’t been too impressed with much of his recent work, it made me think about his career over the years.

I heard Roja when I was in high school — to say that we were gobsmacked would be an understatement. It was like nothing any of us had heard before. But while it was new and exciting to us, there were also many who felt it was too synthesized and artificial and wouldn’t stand the test of time. Seventeen years later, it now seems fair to say that he has accomplished enough to earn his place among the greats of Indian film music.

This post is not about Rahman’s contribution to Indian film music (I may do that later), but simply a recollection of five Rahman moments that have surprised  and delighted me over the years.

  1. The repeated shehnai notes in Yeh jo des hai tera (Swades). The song is nice, but what makes it unforgettable is the use of the shehnai. (Aside: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy achieve a similar effect with bagpipes in the title tune of Salaam-e-Ishq.)
  2. The use of the tanpura in Hai Rama (Rangeela). My friend Ratul brought this one to my notice. Who would’ve thought of using a tanpura to bookend a steamy song involving Urmila Matondkar and Jackie shroff prancing around in their underwear?
  3. M. S. Viswanathan singing Vidai kodu engal naade (Kannathil Muthamittal). Instead of any of a dozen conventional singers, he picked a veteran composer with a voice that belied his age and got him to sing this one about leaving one’s homeland. (More on his unconventional choices for singers here.)
  4. The second sax interlude in En kaadhalae (Duet). The credit for this probably goes at least partly to the director K Balachander. Nonetheless, what he accomplishes here is beautiful. Two brothers (one a singer, the other a composer and sax player) in love with the same girl, singing a song at a function where she might make an appearance. When she does, the sax player announces it with four happy notes that are the musical equivalent of jumping up excitedly, then launches into his theme for her (Anjali Anjali). But as he gets into it, he is reminded of the fact that he is estranged from his brother because they both love this girl, so he quietly segues into a sadder theme. It was so well done that I didn’t even realize until later that it was all done through a musical instrument.
  5. Tu Bole Main Boloon (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na). Exactly how often have you heard a jazz tune in Hindi film music?

Memsaab has a lovely post on her favourite Rahman numbers. Worth a dekko.

The title of this post refers to a compilation of Roger Ebert’s reviews of movies he hated. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sells very well.

Every once in a while, someone posts a message on this blog saying, “I’d like to read your review of Ramgopal Verma Ki Aag” or something along those lines. The implication being that a nasty review of a bad movie is a lot of fun to read.

I wish I could say something noble, such as that I don’t enjoy being an a**h*** but someone’s gotta do it. Truth is, I do enjoy writing those reviews. When I watch a movie I don’t like, I spend some of its duller moments circling the material, looking for a punchline. So sue me.

Anyway, I was wondering today about savage reviews I personally loved, and decided to list them down for your pleasure.

3. Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo: This review by Roger Ebert gave his book its name. I had the singular misfortune of seeing this movie and I could see why he didn’t like it. Incidentally, he also wrote a nice article much later, when its star Rob Schneider sent him flowers when he was recuperating from surgery.

2. The Hottie and the Nottie: This review by James Berardinelli has what is probably the best description of Paris Hilton I have read so far: professional celebrity and amateur porn star. Let’s just say the rest of the review lives up to that line. His review is so good, it makes me want to see the movie.

1. Freddie Got Fingered: Pretty much everybody hated this movie (unseen by me). The reviews were so savage, it wasn’t even funny. But the most savage review I read was this one by Ebert. The sheer venom dripping from the last line still has me speechless.

No, I still don’t like Himes-bhai‘s voice. Although I will admit that the occasional Mika number works for me – Mauja Hi Mauja from Jab We Met being an example. This post is mostly about A. R. Rehman. Not his singing voice (which I’m not very fond of but works well for some songs), but his uncanny ability to pick the right singer for a certain song.

Rehman has had his favourites over the years — Hariharan and Sukhwindara Singh come to mind instantly. But every once in a while, he has made an inspired choice that completely transforms a number from good to great. These aren’t conventional voices, and wouldn’t work for most songs. But you cannot imagine how certain songs would sound if sung by someone else. Here are my top five picks in this category (links attached, in case you wanna lusten to them):

5. Raasaathi (Thiruda Thiruda): My favourite song in that album. Also, one of the songs that Shahul Hameed is best remembered for, other than Usilampatti pennkutti in Gentleman. Other than probably a base guitar somewhere in the background (and I’m not even sure about that), this song is a capella, with a lot of humming in the background and Shahul’s plaintive voice in the lead. (Listen here)

4. Chikubukku chikubukku rayile (Gentleman): Basically, this one makes the grade because of how it reinvents Tamil pronunciation. If someone spoke the language like that in my presence, I would have to physically restrain myself from punching his lights out, but the song… well, I can’t imagine any other way to sing it. (Listen here)

3. Lukka Chhuppi (Rang De Basanti): I love Lata Mangeshkar, okay? My dad’s an old Hindi film music buff, so I grew up listening to her. But hearing her sing Jiya Jale in Dil Se was the musical equivalent of seeing Rajni romance Deepika Padukone. Her voice sounded tired, strained, and clearly much older than the woman being depicted on screen. To me, that song is one of Rehman’s eminently forgettable choices. But Lukka Chhuppi… who else could have conveyed Waheeda Rehman’s heartbreak at losing her son so well? The opening lines are simple enough: We’ve played enough hide and seek/Now come out and show yourself. The tune isn’t exactly a sad one either. But the evident ageing of Lata’s voice and the tragedy being depicted on screen make it what it is. I don’t think there are too many instances where Lata’s voice would qualify as unconventional, but my guess is that most music directors would’ve ended up using a much younger voice here. Rehman chose well, and it made all the difference. (Listen here)

2. Veyilodu vilayaadi (Veyil): Not a Rehman number, this one. But since it is by his nephew G. V. Prakash Kumar, I guess you could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Four singers, but the ones that stand out are Kailash Kher (who could make Happy Birthday sound soulful) and Jassi Gift (who I liked much better here than in his acclaimed Lajjavathiye). The other two sing the song like they would sing any number, but when Kailash lets rip with pasi vandha kuruvi muttai, or when Jassi goes Nandoorum nari oorum, the song simply catches fire. (Listen here)

1. Vidai kodu engal naade (Kannathil Muthamittal): The scene depicts a village of Sri Lankan Tamils being evacuated before the airforce bombs the place into oblivion. No matter what your politics, the sight a bunch of people leaving the place they had called home for so many years is, you will agree, heart-rending. The lyrics convey a sense of loss that remains with you long after the movie has ended. But what truly elavates the song is the quality of M S Viswanathan’s voice. You don’t hear finely modulated sorrow, but something raw and visceral. (Listen here)

Have I missed out any really good ones? You tell me.

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