Music


Regular readers of this blog, such as there are, know that one of the genres I have a soft corner for is the one where a bunch of unlikely musicians get together to form a band. Bandslam approaches this from the point of view of a boy who wants to manage a band, not play in one — not a commonly taken PoV. Now, when I watched this movie a long time ago, I wasn’t all that taken by it. But somehow, one of its scenes kept popping up in memory often, and I have no idea why. So I went to Youtube and looked it up, and here it is.

The song being performed is by Steve Wynn, and is called Amphetamine. The original, frankly, is nothing to write home about. This one, on the other hand… the term pattaiya kalapparadhu (loosely translated to “bringing down the house”) barely does it justice.

The real pleasure for me, though, comes from watching Galean Connell (the one who seems to be coordinating the whole thing) — how often do you see someone enjoy his music like that?

This is not going to be about how good an album Kadal is, or how Rahman’s doing a great job of importing blues and gospel to our shores. This album may not rank among his absolute best, but it is certainly very good. More importantly in the context of his recent collaborations with Mani Ratnam, melodious — his work in Raavanan or Guru or Yuva, while undoubtedly good, did not burrow its way into my head and refuse to leave.

My reason for writing this post is more personal. For a long time, especially back when I was a grad student, I related to songs like Barney Stinson related to women — I couldn’t pass a good one by without wanting to pick it up.

Then the urge sort of died down. I have no idea why, really. I could say something like, “Oh, real life got in the way.” Truth is, real life didn’t get in the way of anything I absolutely wanted to do. I just didn’t feel like singing. My skills, such as there were to begin with, have been slowly diminishing. So now I don’t sing too well, but I still remember enough to realize it, which makes it even more difficult to sing without wincing.

But over the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to Anbin Vaasalae and Adiye and desperately wanting to learn how to sing them right. Okay, given how important the backing vocals are to these songs, if I were to belt them out solo while driving to work, nobody will want to carpool with me for sure. And since, like I said, I know how badly I sing now, I’m gonna have to pull out my shruti box, get started with sarali varisai again and get to the point where, when I sing a note, it doesn’t sound like a probability distribution around that frequency.

Still, this need has not made its presence felt with such urgency in God alone knows how long. And for that, A. R. Rahman, I am thankful.

I’ve heard Yerikarai poongaathe a number of times, but I never really listened to it until I read this sublime little description at the end of a Gautham Menon interview by the always-readable Baradwaj Rangan:

Think Ilankaathu veesuthe, or further back, the godly Yerikarai poongaathe, which, despite being sung by KJ Yesudas, is no solo but really a duet between the singer and the flute.

KJY: Yerikkarai poongaathe…

(Flute: Yeah, you talkin’ to me?)

KJY: Nee pora vazhi thenkizhakko…

(Flute: Perhaps. Why do you ask?)

KJY: Thenkizhakku vaasamalli…

(Flute: What about it?)

KJY: Yenna thedi vara thoodhu sollu…

(Flute: Hmm… lemme think about it…)

By the time you get to the second stanza, verbalizing the flute’s responses requires some of Tarantino’s calibre.

Amazing how the man’s music still manages to surprise us.

Nearly every review of Rockstar will tell you the following things:

  • Ranbir and Rahman are in top form.
  • They are let down by a meandering script that shines in individual moments but lacks brevity in some portions and depth in others.
  • Nargis Fakhri looks like a million bucks. Acts worth a dime, if you’re feeling generous.

For the record, I agree with all of those things. Let me focus, instead, on a few specifics that occurred to me. Sort of like Baradwaj Rangan‘s Bullet Point Review series.

  • It is now well known that this was Shammi Kapoor’s last performance. He appears in just a handful of scenes, and speaks probably 4 lines in all. But I will say this: if the man had to bow out with a brief role, he can be glad it was this one. What stands out, though, is an image of him that appears in the opening credits in lieu of an “In Memoriam” line. That image says everything you need to know about Shamsher Raj Kapoor.
  • Every so often, during the musical performances, you find yourself pulling back for a moment to reflect on Rahman’s genius. My favourite moment came during the Katiya Karoon sequence in Kashmir, when one of the interludes seemed to hark back to the keyboard intro to Pudhu vellai mazhai (Yeh haseen vaadiyaan) from Roja. You could almost see him winking at you.
  • What makes Ranbir’s performance so good is the fact that he manages to create something credible out of an extremely confused character. We aren’t talking about a rebel without a cause — we are talking about one without a clue. Having said that, the scene where he tells his manager (Kumud Mishra is a pitch-perfect performance) that he doesn’t want his heart broken is, well, heart-breaking in its urgency and need. Much of the film shows a character who has erected walls around himself. Even his romance seems not so much experienced as played out, what with all the epigrammatic dialogue and sex-obsessed bucket-listing. This is the scene where the walls crumble. The following scene in the ICU is just as good — it starts off exactly like a lot of melodramatic scenes if that ilk, but quickly descends into a shocked silence.
  • The screen time seems to be more or less equally divided between his romance and his life as a rock star. The bridge between the two — how his life feeds his art — is not built. A few scenes detailing the creative process would’ve really helped.
  • Also, the film seems to suggest that Jordan’s popularity is linked to clever marketing of his negative image. Is that all there is to it? What do his listeners really feel about his music? I would’ve loved to see that.
  • Two siblings (one of each lead character), two shades of loyalty. There is a moment when you see what looks like Ranbir Kapoor staring at his own poster, then the camera pans to reveal his sister. Outstandingly done.
  • The songs are extremely well-staged. Be it Harshdeep Kaur providing a playful soundtrack over the lead pair’s escapades, or the way Sadda Haq builds slowly and then virtually explodes on stage. And if there is a better point in the movie to play Naadaan parinde, I am not sure what it is.
  • Finally, that little gem of a conversation the movie ends on. This is not extraordinary dialogue per se, but its nonlinear placement in the film elevates it. And watch Ranbir’s expression when he looks back at the screaming crowds and sees them as if for the first time. Here is a musician realizing that the music, really, is all he has left.

ps: I was reading a couple of lovely blog posts on the film (here and here) and the term “accidental rockstar” seemed to resonate. So I weighed in with this comment. Thought I’d reproduce it here:

I wonder if Jordan’s career progression as a musician is supposed to be sort of an ironic riff on his mentor’s initial comment about pain being the engine that drives a musician. It appears that his general air of being a bit pissed off and disconnected from the world around him allows his music to mean whatever it does to his listeners.

The Sadda Haq sequence, for instance, shows a whole bunch of folks shouting out that slogan, and none of them probably mean anything to Janardhan, nor does he mean anything to them. But is that the point Imtiaz is trying to make, that the music could mean different things to different people, and that Jordan’s image, however marketable it is, doesn’t really mean a thing to either Janardhan or his listeners when it comes right down to it?

For me, the key moment comes right at the end when the man seems to see the audience for the first time. It’s as if he’s thinking, “So this is what Khatana bhai was talking about. Damned if it didn’t turn out like he said it would.”

Now, the answers to Trivia Challenge #1:

1. The connection I was looking for is Joseph Conrad. Apocalypse Now was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Coppola’s wife made a documentary on the making of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness). Amitabh’s character in Kala Paththar was indeed based on the protagonist in Conrad’s Lord Jim (watch the flashback sequence where he is a naval officer). And the spaceship in Alien was named Nostromo, after a Conrad novel. In the script, another spaceship was named Narcissus (after another Conrad novel, The Nigger of Narcissus). Ridley Scott appears to have been a Conrad fan — his debut was based on The Duellists.

2. The connection is the phrase For whom the bell tolls, originally by John Donne (pic 1) from his work that begins famously with No man is an island</i>, borrowed by Hemingway for the title of his novel. The third pic is a still from the movie version of the Hemingway novel.

3. The reason is Good Will Hunting, which was set in MIT. When it won a bunch of Oscars, they lit up the building to celebrate.

4. Ah, the one question people didn’t get! What people did was put the stamp on envelopes and sent it to junk addresses so that they would get it back with the words Return to Sender stamped on it. Which, in case you don’t know your Elvis, is the title of one of his hits.

5. Modern Times was supposed to be a critique of the mechanized world we live in. Therefore, all sounds in the film are mechanical. Even human voices are not heard directly, but over a device such as the radio/loudspeaker.

Good show, Shafeek and PV! Srikanth, I’ve seen it referred to as a poem in some places, but I’ll take your word for it being an essay :-)

I will do one on Hindi films soon. Hope you folks enjoyed this one. Let me know if it was too tough/easy/boring.

I am, or at least used to be, an avid quizzer with a special interest in movie trivia. (To the point where my wife used to turn to me during a screening of, say, Jodhaa Akbar, to ask me if I knew the name of the second elephant from the right in the battle scene right at the beginning.)

Then I got into this blogging business and found that most people around knew more than I did about the movies. So here’s a set of questions aimed at you movie buffs. Depending on the response, I may do more of these in the future. This one’s centered around Hollywood, but in case that’s not your preferred area, I’ll do one on Indian cinema soon enough.

1. I like to come up oblique connections, especially between literature and the movies, so here’s a relatively straightforward one to begin with: Connect the following:

2. Again, as Margaret Schlegel would say, only connect…

3. This is a photograph of a building at MIT, taken sometime in early 1998. Why was it lit up like that?

4. Not quite a movie question, but one I really love. When this stamp came out, a whole bunch of Elvis fans did something very curious with it. What exactly did they do?

5. Modern Times was supposed to be Charles Chaplin’s first full sound film. But there is something unique about the sounds in the film; something to do with the film’s theme. What ?

Answers in a day or two.

Okay, so here’s my excuse: I was so engrossed in what was happening on screen (Karthik making his first movie in Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya) that I didn’t even notice that Aaromaley was playing in the background.

This weekend, I finally listened to this song. Really listened.

To the gentle plucking of guitar strings right at the beginning, somewhat reminiscent of Floyd’s Wish you were here. To that blues/rock/whatever wail in the foreground that you can’t make out a single word of other than the title. To the chant-like chorus in the background.

Amazing how much work that song does when you see it in context. The almost tortured lead vocals, sounding like they’re coming from a man who has had his heart torn out (which is exactly what has happened). The more sedate chorus, with lyrics about wishing a bride on her wedding day — which is sort of why that foreground is what it is. You might as well call those two tracks Karthik and Jessie.

This isn’t a sad song in the tradition of slow, melodious sad songs in Tamil cinema. Nor does it fit the stereotype of the angry, I’ll-show-her sort of song when the protagonist rises from the ashes of a failed relationship to build a life for himself/herself. This is the sort of blues-rock number that we thought fell into a different category from Tamil film music.

Until a man named Allah Rakha Rahman showed us different.

There is a moment in Bandslam when the hero Will Burton (played with appropriate geekiness by Galean Connell) is being consoled by his mother (played with appropriate kookiness by Lisa Kudrow). She begins to explain why she got married to his dad, and we’re thinking, okay, we know how these conversations go. Until Will interrupts her with, “Mom, you’re doing that thing again where you speak to me like I’m Oprah.”

Which makes me wonder: how does a film that is capable of dialogue like that also find itself capable of useless mush, weak character development and musical performances that are far more lacklustre than the actors headlining the cast would lead you to expect.

Not that it’s all bad. Vanessa Hudgens has a natural appeal that shines through when she isn’t playing the generic teenage vixen in her music videos. Aly Michalka takes what is a horribly written character and sells it by creating someone who is charming enough on the surface that you don’t really worry that there might be nobody underneath. Galean Connell manages the near-impossible feat of looking terrified and repulsed by the prospect of kissing a beautiful girl, and for that he deserves kudos.

The interesting part is how they all are transformed when they make music. Hudgens plays an introverted loner who suddenly looks like she got herself a portable nuclear reactor when she gets up on stage. Michalka plays a sunnier character to begin with, but the effect is no less dramatic. As for Connell, there is something very pleasurable about watching someone who enjoys his music that much. All this, even though the music is nothing to write home about.

As a whole package, it doesn’t work as well as I wish it had. But it does provide the occasional laugh, some interesting performances and that priceless Oprah line. One could do worse.

ps: The plot, you ask? Misfit teenager moves to new school, gets entangled with a bunch of misfits and helps form a band. There’s a high school rock band contest in the end. You can fill in the rest.

pps: Oh, and there’s David Bowie. If that helps any.

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how to write a coherent review Paa before I realized something. The entire publicity machine for Paa focuses on the fact that Amitabh Bachchan plays a twelve year-old with Progeria (a genetic disorder that makes him look like he’s pushing seventy) and Abhishek Bachchan plays his dad. Now, the easiest way to look at this is as a gimmick — considering how the only function Progeria really plays in the story is reducing the protagonist’s life expectancy, one could just as well have cast a young kid with Leukaemia or something and ended up with much the same movie.

Now, casting gimmicks aren’t bad per se. As long as they work well and don’t distract from the overall experience, there’s really no reason to complain.

Take Perazhagan, for instance. The hunchback Chinna would rank among the best Surya performances of all time. If I didn’t already know that it was Surya in that role, I might not have guessed it. Would the film have worked if someone else had actually played that role? Probably just as well. But his knockout performance doesn’t hurt at all.

Contrast this with Dasavatharam: Kamal’s performances as the priest, the chemist, the cop and the old woman were beyond awesome. The other six, I could’ve readily done without. If anything, they diminish the experience.

What I am trying to get at through this extended rant is that I could essentially write this review in two parts: one about Amitabh’s performance, and the other about Paa minus Amitabh. Makes my job simpler, doesn’t it? Therefore, without much more ado:

Amitabh’s performance

Paa begins with a prize distribution ceremony for an art contest in a school, presided over by a young, popular politician named Amol Ppte. The winner is a twelve year-old named Auro who suffers from Progeria. When he is announced as the winner, he is just about to enter the auditorium. His classmates notice him and start cheering. It makes him want to open the door and go back the way he came. And as he does that, you hear the opening notes of the theme tune. Just a few notes, as if to suggest that the music inside his head isn’t the cheering outside it. As everybody cheers him on, he gains confidence and lopes towards the podium and the theme music starts up again. He goes up, does a little monkey dance along with his classmates in the audience, receives his trophy and walks off.

Here’s the thing: Until that scene ended, I hadn’t even noticed that the boy was played by Amitabh Bachchan.

This isn’t just make-up, although the movie does well enough in that department. This is an actor becoming invisible.

And yet, there are moments where he sheds his adolescent skin ever so briefly and lets the seasoned performer with the amazing screen prescence take over. Consider the moment in the hospital where Amol Apte (Abhishek) finally realizes that Auro (Amitabh) is his son. Auro beckons him close, whispers: Tumhaare pichle se pichle se pichla mistake and points to himself. Not a twelve year-old gesture, but done so brilliantly that I’m disinclined to object.

Paa minus AB Sr.

Had Amitabh’s performance been stranded in the midst of a sub-par film, it would have been a huge disappointment. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.

The story itself isn’t new: a single woman raises a child she bore out of wedlock, and the child runs into the other parent in due course with neither of them being aware of their relationship. Shortening the life expectancy of the child simply puts a time frame to the proceedings.

The story isn’t helped by the fact that one the the subplots doesn’t work. The whole business about the do-gooder politico dealing with a corrupt environment doesn’t work too well and is at odds with the rest of the proceedings. I understand Balki’s intention — he wishes to flesh out Amol’s character and not just focus on his relevance to Auro’s life — but the writing leaves much to be desired. When the film turns its focus back to two parents, two grandparents and a child, it works much better. Much of the credit for that must go to the performances.

I’ll be honest with you: when I saw that Abhishek had a clean-shaven look in this movie, my hopes went down. I mean, the last time he shaved this carefully, he came up with Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke. But he acquits himself beautifully here.

Although the title refers to him, the movie is more about Auro and his mother. Vidya Balan gets one of the meatiest roles of her career and gives it a performance to match.

The grandparents deserve mention. Both characters are fiercely protective of their offspring, although the manner in which they demonstrate it differs. Paresh Rawal (playing Amol’s father) is his usual dependable self. But Arundhati Nag is the real standout here. Her conversation with her daughter when she finds out that the latter is pregnant is fantastic.

Much as I loved all these aspects, what I found most interesting was what the movie reminded me of.

Ilayaraja’s work on the background score, for instance, is the sort of stuff we grew up with in the eighties and early nineties. The sort of stuff that preserved our sanity in movies where Mohan died of cancer in the end. The sort of stuff that took a good Mani Rathnam or K Balachander or Kamalhassan movie and made it better.

In some ways, that is the key to my experience of Paa. There are scenes that feel like they came out of a Mani/KB-Kamal collaboration that got scripted and never got made. When I imagine them watching this movie, I see a lot of nods and smiles.

KB, for instance, might smile at the portrayal of strong, single women or way the music and visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting. There is a conversation between Amol and his father where it seems like each of them is lit up in a separate box. Beautifully done from an aesthetic standpoint, of course (PC Sreeram in top form here). But more importantly, notice the way it emphasizes their viewpoints in that conversation. KB would’ve been proud.

The way Amitabh handles the aforementioned “mistake” scene at the hospital is vintage Kamal. (The Moondram Piraiesque monkey dance doesn’t count except in a very superficial sense.)

Mani would probably find the economy of dialogue and the portrayal of strong, sassy women familiar. He would certainly chuckle at the Nayakan-inspired scene where Amol gives a bunch of reporters a taste of their own medicine by getting slum dwellers to take over their homes.

Much as I may have given you the impression that this is an eighties drama with cellphones and webcams, I do not mean any of these comparisons as a put-down. These people were the reason why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If anything, Balki gave me a reason to fall in love with them all over again.

Poscscripts:

  1. Why do so many of Vidya Balan’s roles involve her dealing with men of the love-em-and-leave-em variety?
  2. The opening credits are spoken by Jaya Bachchan, a neat touch. Exactly how much temptation did Balki have to resist in not casting Ash in the Vidya Balan role?
  3. I looked up Baradwaj Rangan’s essay on Paa and found his entire review to be based on the thesis that Balki adores the Mani Rathnam of the eighties. It almost made me not post this one –  I mean, why bother when someone else says the same thing but does it better than you do?

I was discussing the beauty of old Hindi film lyrics with a couple of friends here and the following observation came up: Most of these songs use some Urdu word or the other.

There seem to be two reasons for this. First, the “softer” sounds in Urdu are well suited to convey the sort of emotions usually expressed through songs (love, sadness etc). There is in fact a field of study called phonetic grammar where one looks at word choice from the point of view of how it sounds. More on that later. The second reason I can think of is that a number of lyricists working in the industry (past and present) are/were Muslim.

There are, however people (living in eastern UP or thereabouts) who speak what they call Shuddh Hindi, which doesn’t involve words borrowed from Urdu. But how many songs can you think of in Hindi films that use that form of Hindi? I can’t think of too many.

The first one that came to mind was Chandan sa badan. Nain ladh jai he from Ganga Jumna is another although I don’t understand the dialect well enough to be sure.

Can you think of anything else?

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