Talking heads

Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interactions with contemporary Thamizh directors on Film Companion reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. When Al Pacino introduced Lumet as he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, he said, “The director directs.” But what does that entail, exactly? This is the question that drives the book, as also this series.

This similarity is most evident in his three part long conversation with Mani Ratnam, which goes into much depth about what instructions he gives to his cast and crew, and what he expects in return. Thanks to the fact that these two people have had a whole book’s worth of conversations prior to this one, there is a level of comfort that makes this one riveting. Irrespective of your opinion of Mani Ratnam’s films, here is a peek into a maker’s thought process, and it’s fascinating how much is revealed.

The two part conversation with Mysskin doesn’t have the same fluency, but that director’s clarity of vision is impossible to miss. Here is a director with such a distinct style that one is naturally inclined to wonder how his mind works. Mysskin doesn’t disappoint.

It also makes for a study in contrasting approaches. For instance, Mani Ratnam’s instructions to Rajeev Menon for a particular scene in Bombay are elliptic bordering on cryptic. Yet you can see how it translates to a certain approach to shooting the scene. Mysskin, on the other hand, does all but specify how the DoP should hold the camera when he writes a script.

Some of the episodes have had a lot more to do with other aspects on the periphery of filmmaking. The one with Vetrimaran, for instance, has to do with the mechanics of promoting a film at the Oscars. The one with Balaji Mohan has to do with the whys and wherefores of making a web series.

I wonder if Baradwaj Rangan’s training as an engineer has had anything to do with how these conversations have unfolded. He is anything but prosaic in his writing (which other critic would think of using a phrase like lysergic rainbow?), but his approach here is akin to that of someone taking apart a gadget to see how it works. From what I could discern, the makers have been willing to oblige. You don’t find yourself listening to a high-concept metaphorical exchange about “the creative process”.

Aside: The language has a big part to play in this — most of these directors are very fluent in English, so the content is not limited by their expressive power. I do hope that the series eventually expands to cover directors who would prefer to have this conversation in their mother tongue, maybe with a smattering of English thrown in. I am sure they have as much to say.

I also wonder if the opportunity to peek behind the curtain robs us of our ability to immerse ourselves in a film. The next time I watch a Mysskin film, would I be more conscious of where the camera is moving? (To be fair, I have wondered about this even with regard to my own habit of blogging about the movies.) Honestly, I am not sure. I suppose in a day and age where live-tweeting a review is a thing, this isn’t the biggest threat to the viewer’s attention that one needs to worry about.

Or maybe our perception of cinema is as much about its making as it is about the end product.  A viewer today is highly unlikely to watch Citizen Kane without having heard about it first, but that foreknowledge does not rob the film of its power. In fact, I think it enhances our appreciation of it. When I watch The Third Man, the knowledge that it was shot in the bombed out streets of Vienna gives the film an additional charge.

This is not to say that you should view cinema the same way. If you’re the kind of person who prefers not to know how panchamritam is made, then this is not for you. I for one hope that these people keep talking.


Madras Talkers

At this point, I suppose, I should define “we”. I refer to peole like me, born in Madras in the nineteen-seventies and ripening into cinematic awareness in the decade that followed, in Mani Ratnam’s decade. We are possibly the most qualified to write about Mani Ratnam. We might also be the least qualified.

— Conversations with Mani Ratnam: Introduction.

The above passage might serve to explain why I anticipated the arrival of this book like no other non-fiction book before it. I too count myself among the “we” that Baradwaj Rangan talks about. Born in the seventies, struck by the twin Sicilian Thunderbolts of Mouna Raagam and Nayakan. Felt, in a strange little way, disowned when Mani Ratnam went on to be owned by a larger audience after Roja.

Add to this the other “we” that a growing band of us now consider ourselves part of. The people who, come Friday morning, find ourselves keeping one tab in our browser constantly open to Blogical Conclusion and refresh it every few minutes to see if there’s a new post awaiting us.

Does it make my ilk uniquely qualified to talk about a series of conversations between Mani Ratnam and Baradwaj Rangan? Perhaps not so much, but it certainly makes the topic personal enough to want to write about.

With a book on film that involves a filmmaker and a film critic, one is tempted to get all meta and assign movie-like attributes to the book itself. This is not as much of a force-fit as it sounds. Conversations can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between covering the stuff you want to talk about and allowing it to flow in whichever direction the topic takes you. At its best, the conversation is smooth, yet wide-ranging. Sort of like a film that draws you in so completely that the maker’s skill occurs to you only in hindsight.

Cover art

The other aspect of these conversations is the comfort level that the two people seem to have with each other. The first chapter, which talks about, among other things, how Mani Ratnam came to be a director, is more in the nature of get-to-know-you chitchat. The tone is more biographical than conversational, but that is not to say that it is a dry, factual account. But as the book hits its stride, the dialogue gets more bilateral. There are questions where the man is predictably cagey, such as when he is asked about moving from Ilayaraja to Rahman. Then again, this isn’t meant to be a tell-all tome. For the most part, he is both articulate and detailed in his answers.

There are a few jarring transitions —  for instance, a conversation about Manisha Koirala in Bombay suddenly jump-cuts to a question on actors knowing how to enter and exit a scene, before getting back to her again. A conversation on tangled relationships in Dil Se suddenly gives way to one on the spiritual undertone to his songs. But these instances are few and far between. By and large, the shift from one topic to another seems organic and not forced. Towards the latter chapters (Kannathil Muthamittal onwards, especially), you just wish they’d keep talking.

The conversations are further enlivened by gentle tug-of-war between a critic’s intellectual viewpoint and a filmmaker’s refusal to let his work be mined for subtext. But this is not to say that Mani Ratnam is a purely instinctive filmmaker who doesn’t think in layers — his closing remarks in the chapter on Iruvar, and his comments on micro- and macro-conflicts in Kannathil Muthamittal are cases in point. His viewpoint, I suppose, comes from the fact that the final product we see is a function of what he originally conceived as well as what transpired on set.

Somewhere in the first chapter, Mani talks about the challenge of translating an abstraction (a scene as it is written) into reality (the scene as it is filmed) and being flexible about the things that change while not letting go of its essence. A macro version of the same idea comes up in the chapter on Mouna Raagam, where he reveals that the whole Manohar (Karthik) subplot was put in as a way of making Divya’s viewpoint more credible/palatable to audiences. Entertaining as it was, it might not have been there at all, had Mani made this film later in his career. Other instances, such as the case of a window in Kannathil Muthamittal, pop up here and there.

But at the end of the day, the fact is, we don’t notice the scaffolding. Or want to, for that matter.

Freeze Frame #155: Sarfarosh

Sarfarosh holds fond memories for me: it was the first film I saw with my wife. We had barely become acquainted and had gone out to watch it with a mutual friend. Not exactly a first date, but hey. But even if you ignore my personal bias , I think there is much to admire.

I was reminded of it last weekend when I was channel surfing and chanced upon a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Clips from his films, with a voice-over providing critical analysis, were interspersed with clips of the man himself, talking about his work. Despite his slow, pedantic way of speaking — like lecturers who used to put me to sleep back in college — I was riveted.

My favourite part was when he was explaining the bomb principle. I’d read the two line version earlier in an Ebert review, but this was the first time I actually heard him explain it. It goes something like this:

Imagine two people sitting at a table and talking about, say baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb that had been placed under the table suddenly goes off. You, the audience, feel surprised and shocked for maybe 30 seconds before the movie has you in the grip of some other emotion. On the other hand, what if you knew right off the bat that there was a bomb under the table and that it was primed to go off in five minutes? Those two guys would be talking about baseball and you would be spending five minutes wondering if they would realize that there’s a bomb under their table and that they need to get away or disarm the bombright away.

Sarfarosh is like a movie-length illustration of this principle, in the guise of a police procedural about uncovering an arms supply chain that leads from a green-themed neighboring nation to a tribal leader with a penchant for mayhem. Not so much a whodunit as a whoalldunit. The film tells you this right at the beginning, so the rest of its running time involves a group of policemen trying to figure out how a tribal leader got his hands on an AK47 rifle and following the clues all the way to the source. Barring a few surprises along the way, you’re mostly just watching them find out what you already know. And yet you find yourself drawn into the process.

Which is why my favourite scene in Sarfarosh is the title song sequence that plays over the opening credits, where they show you the supply chain. There is such admirable economy in the depiction of a streamlined arms smuggling process with several links in the chain. It all seems simple, until you realize how painstaking it is to start with a spent cartridge at a crime scene and work your way backwards.

RIP Sidney Lumet

As a director, he made some of the most memorable films I can recall: Twelve Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon

As a writer, he gave me, through his book Making Movies, a much better understanding of the craft of filmmaking than anything else I have read.

Goodbye, Mr. Lumet. You will be missed.


Karan Johar

In recent times, I’ve been a regular reader of the Bolly Woods column on rediff. The woman writers pretty sensible stuff on the whole, and it’s good fun to read. Her latest column titled The Mind of Karan Johar made a reference to a recent interview with the man in question. It was a fairly laudatory piece, despite the fact that she admitted to being less than impressed by his work. The interview excerpt was quite interesting, so I went and read the whole of it on Tehelka.

I must admit, the man has a good head on his shoulders and a fairly clear vision of who he is, how he got there and who he wants to be. Take this particular Q&A, for instance:

What explains your obsession with perfect colours, perfect figures, this sort of saturated opulence in your films? Is it revenge for being fat?

I think it comes from my need for beauty and good looks, which all through my childhood I didn’t have. The good-looking clothes I coul – dn’t fit into, everything I always wanted to be and couldn’t be — it’s all of that. Also, I suppose my need for opulence comes from the fact that I grew up in a 1,000 square feet house. So it’s all a very aspirational lifestyle that I’m portraying. But I’ve also always loved glamour. I love Yash Chopra’s movies — Silsila, Kabhi Kabhi. I saw his cinema first, then went back to Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor. People ask me why there’s no poverty in my films — but I’ve lived a very, very sheltered life. The only trauma I had to deal with was being fat, so my films were about the things I knew about. My first film had to be about heartbreak and first love. I was such a good friend to so many, that’s what I’d always hear about. Then I made Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham — that was just about me being given this big toy called cinema and I wanted to show off with it. I couldn’t believe I had actually become a filmmaker. All through your life you never think you’ll do something and then it happens — your first film is applauded by the world — and then you just want to show off. K3G is all about me trying to show off, nothing else. It’s me saying, look, I’ve put up this big set; look, I’ve put up this star cast; look, they’re wearing beautiful clothes, look, look, look. Today I’ve become a school of cinema, and whether you like it or hate it, you club it like a Karan Johar film.

I might not always like what he makes, but I like that kind of self-awareness, and his ability to convey that in good clear language. His comments on where he felt he went wrong with some of his movies were quite interesting. With Kal Ho Na Ho, he talks about how he should’ve stuck to his original vision of just having SRK walk away and not do the whole elaborate death scene. With KANK, a movie I utterly hated, he talks about how he wanted to make a stark, simple film about four people but screwed it up.

I don’t necessarily buy his logic that he could only make films on the basis of what he knows about. But I can see how it would be where he would feel most comfortable. Besides, he is still only three films old. So he might end up doing some very diverse stuff in the fullness of time.

When I sit down to write, I often find myself writing about the things I am familiar with. I would take elements from my own experience — things I have seen, snippets from past conversations — and play with them like Lego blocks to create new lives and experiences. I do not think that this is the extent of my creative ability, but I have had doubts about the credibility of stuff I’ve written from other viewpoints. Muse, for instance, had a narrative thread that was from the point of view of a woman, and I have always wondered if I did justice to it.

Here’s something I found a bit problematic, though:

You must understand that a lot of filmmakers who’ve made great films have been through a cycle of work and life before they’ve made a film. I wrote my first film when I was 24. A sheltered 24, over indulged 24, spoilt 24. But I appreciate all kinds of cinema. I’m not brilliant, I’m just hardworking and sensible, sensitive and aesthetic, I’m not brilliant. But I hope to be one day. So I get really amused when I read people like Anurag Kashyap who writes blogs on Yash Chopra and my kind of films. I’m like, I appreciate Black Friday, I think you’re talented but I don’t like your attitude. All kinds of cinema can co-exist, so why attack a bigger banner just because they’ve made successful films. Writing blogs on a legend like Yash Chopra? You have some guts and gumption to do that. And you want to get away with it? This upstartish attitude really angers me.

I buy his logic that all kinds of cinema can co-exist. I also buy Suparn Verma’s logic that the big banner, big budget extravanganzas are usually the ones that rake in a lot of money and create a buffer for the niche films to coexist. I can also understand why he would be angered by Anurag’s opinions and attitude. But what is this about having “guts and gumption” to write about Yash Chopra? I didn’t know you needed qualifications for this job.

All said and done, he does come across as a fairly sensible chap. I just wish he’d make better movies.