Dear Santa, now that the Christmas rush is over…

I always love the bit where Bond meets Q and gets a bunch of toys, all of which, would you know it, get used in critical situations. Which leads me to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of an action sequence where 007 desperately needs an exploding pen and finds himself stuck with a portable defibrillator instead.

Anyway, the point is, I love the gadgets more than the other perks of Bond’s job. Not that I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve said to myself, “Man, I’d kill to have a watch with a laser beam right now” (which must’ve been how Richard III felt back in the day), but it’s really the principle of the thing. Besides, an Aston Martin DB5 is probably more low maintenance than Denise Richards.

Still, as Arundhati Roy says, for practical purposes in a hopelessly practical world, here’s what I’d like:

5. The computer they build in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that takes several million years to find the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. With a bit more RAM and a processor upgrade, I figure it can do wonders.

4. On days when I’m stuck in traffic long enough to start gong postal, something like the Batcycle which detaches itself from the Batmobile (The Dark Knight) would come in handy. Ideally, I’d like to hold out for quantum teleportation, but with my luck, some colourful bird would find its way into the chamber just before I hit the big green Beam-Me-Up button and I’d come out looking like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

3. That neuralyzer from Men in Black would be mighty helpful, especially when one is walking into review meetings for projects where one has spent a lot of time and money doing nothing. Hypothetically speaking, of course. I’ve never been in those meetings before. No really.

2. As helpers go, Jarvis from Iron Man or TARS from Interstellar sound like good bets. A certain sense of humour is always welcome in one’s AI. But really,  I’d give away all of these things in a microsecond if you could get me…

1. Chitti from Endhiran. Because Rajnikanth.

And while we’re on the subject, could we also see a bit more realism in the movies when it comes to technology? Like a nail biting sequence where the hacker desperately tries to fix a runtime error involving memory allocations for his double pointers while someone’s life (or his own junk, as in the case of Swordfish), um, hangs in the balance. I simply refuse to believe that they all get it right the first time around.

(But don’t mess with the virus idea on the alien spaceship, okay? When it comes to saving the world, it’s either that or Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call, and I’m not crazy about that song.)

ps: I originally wrote this for a GE blog, but now that I’ve left the company, they seem to have taken it off. Pondering the science in Interstellar got me thinking about the topic again, so I figured I’d remove the mothballs and air the old post out for a bit.

pps: In other words, the well’s running a bit dry at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your visit is very important to us.

Freeze Frame #162: Ardh Satya

The scene begins with a date at a restaurant, and Anant Velankar (Om Puri) reading out poetry to Jyotsna (Smita Patil). They get to one of her favourite poems: Ardh Satya, by Dilip Chitre.

When he finishes the first stanza, he looks up at her and smiles briefly. He’s still on a date, and this is still an enjoyable pastime. But watch how the context changes for him internally as he proceeds: by the third or fourth stanza, he is no longer on a date. The words are beginning to strike home.

Shifting gears emotionally in the middle of reading something out is not an entirely unheard-of phenomenon in the movies. But for me, this ranks among the best.

Is it the brilliance of those lines? Or the mesmeric nature of Om Puri’s voice as he transforms Velankar’s reading of someone else’s words into something deeply autobiographical? Or Smita Patil’s stillness as Jyotsna realizes that, at this moment, all she can do is watch this man try to come to terms with his own demons?

The poem is recited again right at the end, in a voiceover. Just to remind you that what you have witnessed is an ending, not a resolution.

Roger Ebert often used to say that the quality of a film is determined not so much by what it is about, but by how it is about it. Here is a gritty drama about an angry, honest cop dealing with a corrupt system. And even if you watch it today, over three decades and many such films later, it feels like a punch to the gut. To me, this poem is why it does.


I suppose I ought to begin this review with a disclaimer of sorts: My views on God and religion are nobody else’s business but mine.

A while ago, I wrote about Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, and how his strategy for satire was to approach our world through the eyes of characters in a very different one. So the things that we take for granted look strange, even funny to them. And we laugh at ourselves with them.

It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if Terry Pratchett were to have written a novel about people on Discworld discovering/inventing the concept of God and religion. Alas, even in Discworld, this would be a bridge too far, so he assumed that Gods did exist in Discworld, and wrote one about God, faith and religion. It was titled Small Gods, and it remains one of the most interesting and deeply humanistic novels I have read.

Rajkumar Hirani starts with the hypothetical question I just raised: what would an alien make of our belief in God? He strands an alien — the eponymous PK — on earth and leaves him to discover all these concepts in his own way. At some point, someone tells him that God alone can help him, a phrase he takes quite literally. Hence his search for God. And just as our first experience of God is typically not with the abstract concept of an omniscient deity but with the practice of worship through whichever religion we were brought up in, this is what this alien encounters as well. The story follows his arc of discovery, belief, disillusionment and eventual insight. And since this is a Rajkumar Hirani film, the story is told with a certain amount of sweetness and light.

Just to be clear: the film does not have a problem with the idea of God, or even with the idea of religion per se. Its beef is with the way it is practiced, and how our rituals have replaced belief with mindless routine, and how cynical Godmen have found a way to exploit our need for hope in an increasingly chaotic world. This is not a new idea by any means, nor for that matter is the solution offered by our intrepid alien. Personally, I don’t think it’s offensive, but then again, I’m a lot harder to offend so what do I know?

Having said that, I do write a film-related blog, so there is much that offends me when it comes to the movies.

The idea of using PK’s naivete to expose some of the problems we have with religion is not a bad one. Trouble is, what might work as a decent short story feels stretched at feature length. What he learns about the subject and what he deduces seem to be driven, not by plausibility, but by what the script demands at that point, or what seems like an entertaining thing to put in. Somewhere, one begins to feel like the string-pulling is a bit too obvious.

Take a scene at a church: Our hero, having just discovered Hinduism, now walks into a church service, incense sticks and coconut in hand. Their reaction is predictably one of horror, so he gets thrown out. And one of the angry churchgoers ushering him out says to him, “He died for your sins.” To which our man’s response is, “But I just got here!”

Trouble is, I can’t think of a plausible reason why a conversation between these two people would’ve gotten to that exchange at all. Not within a minute of someone attempting to break a coconut at the altar during Sunday mass. That conversation exists simply so that the punchline could exist. And that, I am afraid, is simply bad writing.

Not that the film is all bad. There are moments of beauty in there. And although the film doesn’t have the serrated edge of Oh My God, it is not entirely devoid of bite. One of the first things the alien encounters is a man playing a song on a portable cassette player in the middle of a desert. The song? Altaf Raja’s Tum to thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaaoge? The story starts with this man stealing the alien’s “ET Call Home” device, leaving him with the cassette player.

Ignore for a moment, the very idea of a naked alien stranded in a hot desert with an Altaf Raja song for company. (Your homework assignment after you finish reading this blog post is to come up with at least three punchlines to describe this situation.)

Instead, consider this: Is the alien the pardesi? Or, from his standpoint, are we the outsiders? Or is it God, whom we shut out through our own pettiness?

There is a line towards the end that goes something like: We taught him how to lie. We did indeed.

Bullets over Stratford-Upon-Avon

This blog post probably won’t make much sense to someone who hasn’t read Hamlet and watched Haider, for which I apologize in advance. For the record, both are worth doing, and an infinitely better use of your time than reading this.

It helps, I think, to think of Haider as not so much an adaptation but a re-imagining of Hamlet. Sort of like Shakespeare in Love, but with a bit more violence. Or The Immortals of Meluha, but with a lot better writing.

The chronology of events is not the same as in the play. The encounter with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, comes at the midway point. The reference to Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy comes as part of a conversation. Like with Shakespeare in Love, there is a certain panache in the way the source material has been interpreted. A scene with two prisoners on a bridge turns out to be such a sublimely brilliant reference to the phrase “shuffling off one’s mortal coil” that I could barely keep myself from guffawing. There is a sly reference to the way Laertes (Liaqat) dies by his own sword, but done so beautifully that I didn’t even realize it until later.

But really, what stands out is the level of detail in the script. Over the course of his three adaptations, Vishal Bharadwaj has slowly moved from using Shakespeare as a source to using him as a medium to tell his own story. We understand Shakespeare’s plays in terms of their characters, perhaps because the audiences of his time would have related to those settings better than we do today. Bharadwaj reimagines the setting, and What the Bard summarized as “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” turns into a two hour long meditation on the state of Kashmir circa mid-1990s. It helps that the screenplay is co-written by Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night.

There is a moment right at the beginning when Ghazala (Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) asks her husband, “Which side are you on?” The question is very pertinent, given the context in which this adaptation is set: people in Kashmir at the time probably did not feel like they had the luxury of an apolitical viewpoint. And it is this enmeshing of the political and the personal (Haider and Hamlet, or Peer and Bharadwaj if you will) that makes the death of Hilal Meer (Hamlet’s father) and Haider’s thirst for revenge a lot more complex than a straightforward adaptation would have probably allowed for. As a result of the tumultous climate the characters find themselves in, what is a largely internal battle in Hamlet is externalized to a great extent in Haider. And this inversion is complete when you consider what happens to the key characters in the end.

The detailing extends to the characters and their relationships as well: Ophelia (Arshiya, Haider’s girlfriend) gets more to do, seeing as how she also has to play the role of Horatio. Her relationship with Hamlet is a lot less dysfunctional than in the play, and a certain conversation involving English pronunciation is such a wonderful mix of hilarity and warmth that it almost belongs in a different film. Polonius (Pervez, the father of Haider’s girlfriend) has a meatier part, and while his lines have a lot more matter and brevity, he is definitely not lacking in art. Khurram (Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather) is more than just an unctuous usurper of his brother’s throne and marital bed — watch what he does in the end when all about him are doing something else altogether. But the real standout is Haider’s relationship with his mother, and the character of Ghazala herself. Rarely has Hindi cinema ventured to portray something this complex. And frankly, I suspect we won’t see its like too often again either.

As for the performances, I have rarely found myself wondering whether to write “the performances live up to the writing” or “the writing lives up to the performances”, and finding equally good reasons to put it either way. The weakest link is Shraddha Kapoor as Arshiya, and even she isn’t half bad (apart from an unfortunate tendency to blink under stress, as though she is reading her lines in Morse code). Shahid Kapoor does brilliantly in the title role, and lives up to the promise I feel he’s wasted in a series of bad roles in the past. The only problem is that he is in the company of actors whom he cannot overshadow. Kay Kay Menon does what Kay Kay Menon does, as does Irfan Khan, and when you see them, you realize that you cannot imagine anyone else playing that part. The standout, though, is Tabu. I consider her the most underrated actress in Hindi cinema: not because people don’t realize how good an actress she is, but because it is impossible to come up with superlatives to do her justice. Maybe one ought to initiate a Kickstarter project to keep her clothed and fed, just so she wouldn’t have to do something like Jai Ho.

ps: My wife and I watched the film in a largely empty cinema hall on Monday night. Apart from the fact that collections drop significantly after the weekend, the word on the street is probably that this film is not for everyone. I wouldn’t disagree. Two cases in point:

  1. A bunch of folks whom we overheard complaining that they only came to watch this movie because ToI gave it nine stars, or something like that. They vowed henceforth to watch only films rated three stars or less.
  2. A couple who brought their five year old daughter to watch the film. Thankfully, she seemed to have slept through a good portion of it. I hope.

Freeze Frame #161: Kai Po Che

I have to confess that I only watched the last 15 minutes of Kai Po Che. My wife was watching it, and she gave me a 3 minute synopsis so that I could understand what was going on. And yet, I found myself moved by the closing shot of Ishaan’s face, just before the end credits started rolling.

I couldn’t figure it out — why would something like that work for me, when I had watched so little of the film? What follows is an attempt to explain it to myself.

The circumstances of Ishaan’s death are still fresh in the memory,  but what really stands out during the rioting sequence is how Omi’s stony passivity forms a counterpoint to the frenzied emotions of everyone else around him. When he picks up a gun and starts looking around for a target, what makes it fearsome is that he is utterly expressionless while doing it. You can counteract emotion with emotion, but what to do about this?

The moment of Ishaan’s death itself is not dwelt upon — we very briefly see the shock and the reaction of everyone around, and Omi’s slow, stunned realization of what his actions have wrought, before the film cuts to the present.

The scene is a cricket stadium where Ali, Ishaan’s prodigy whom he died saving during the riots, is about to play his debut ODI. And it is in the stands, in the arms of Ishaan’s sister, that we finally see Omi breaking down. When the dam breaks within him, that is when the enormity of what happened begins to register emotionally.

Abhishek Kapoor adds to that by cutting to the first delivery of the innings, which Ali dispatches to the boundary. And the reaction shot you see is not that of the bowler, but of Ishaan.

Well played, Mr. Kapoor.

ps: That closing shot is also reminiscent of the one in Iqbal that I wrote about, except that the happenings off the cricket field (concerning the other religion, as Baradwaj Rangan would say) impart an additional emotional charge here.

Eh Shetty, kya bockwaas picture banaati?

Spoilers ahead! Does that bother you? For a Rohit Shetty film, no less? Really? WhoWhat are you?

It helps, I think, to think of Chennai Express as a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu for the benefit of non-Tamilians. The film often feels like a distilled cinematic expression of the benign bewilderment with which the North often views the South, set inside a madcap plot about a North Indian stuck in rural Tamil Nadu among a damsel in distress and a bunch of aruvaal-wielding goons. Which is surprising because Shetty probably isn’t all that clueless. Look at the song picturizations, for instance — Shankar would’ve been proud.

As a native Tamil speaker, I found myself getting quite distracted by the bewildering array of accents on display — Satyaraj speaks like he normally does, his goons speak like they are from Chennai rather than from a little village in Tamil Nadu, the villain and heroine speak like they were raised elsewhere, maybe Mumbai… I don’t think it would be noticeable to people who don’t know the language, so their experience of the film might be quite different.

Having said that, it’s surprising and somewhat gratifying that Rohit Shetty had the courage to make a film where more than a third of the dialogue was in a different language, and unsubtitled to boot. Or that it found so much favour with the masses (100 crores already, I hear) despite that. I suppose it accentuates the whole fish-out-of-water scenario and makes one identify with the hero’s predicament.

The trouble with the strategy, unfortunately, is that we aren’t seeing a character out of his element. We are seeing an actor looking uncomfortable — apart from the scenes where he gleefully spoofs his own career (and I have to admit he does that pretty well), SRK doesn’t look like he’s having much fun. He either comes across as desperate (when he’s doing broad comedy) or unconvincingly flat (when he’s doing romance or action).

The writing doesn’t help. His character, a 40-year old virgin who has been brought up by his grandparents, is supposed to go to Rameshwaram to immerse his late grandfather’s ashes. His plan is to go to Goa with his pals (apparently in search of hot NRI ladkiyaan) and immerse them there. Now, had he planned to go to Rameshwaram after his vacation in Goa rather than the other way round, I could’ve believed it. While Shahrukh Khan has traditionally been very good at playing douchebags of a certain kind, this one just doesn’t seem plausible.

On the other hand, Rahul’s relationship with Meena, the Tamil girl he runs into (their meet-cute is a delightful riff on his biggest hit), is a strange beast. While the story itself moves in fits and starts, their relationship progresses more or less logically from fear (mostly his) to irritation to tentative acceptance to love. Except, that is, when Shetty feels the need to throw in “romantic complications”. Falling in love while running for your life is easy — people have been doing it in the movies for decades now. But doing it while your characters are being yanked around by a writer like that can’t be much fun.

The sole reason why it works even partway is the presence of a leading lady who, bit by bit, has become an actress capable of being better than the material. Not that the material offers much competition here, but still. Deepika Padukone gets top billing in the fim’s opening credits and fully deserves it — she is far and away the best thing abut this film. I didn’t expect her to handle Shetty’s brand of broad comedy so well — her thickly accented Hindi, which I would normally be a bit miffed by, works well in the context of the film. (Her Tamil is another matter altogether, I’m afraid.) There is the odd dramatic scene where the accent disappears, leaving the ungrammatical Hindi dialogue just hanging there, looking around desperately for voice support. But I’m inclined to forgive and forget in light of how well she does otherwise.

Her best moment is a wordless scene where SRK has to carry her up a long flight to steps to a temple. While he is focused on doing the literal heavy lifting, she is the one who has to do it in the acting department, and manages to create a thing of beauty in the middle of all the sporadically manufactured mayhem that is this film.

What bugs me about her characterisation, though, is the ending, where Rahul gets to deliver an impassioned rant at the oppression of women, declare his love for Meena and fight off a bunch of goons to win her hand. This whole development feels completely inorganic to the proceedings (surely there was a lighter, sweeter, funnier way of handling things?), and SRK seems oddly unsuited for material that has, for him, been a cakewalk for so long (this is essentially a reworking of the DDLJ/Pardes ending) . But what really gets my goat is how Deepika’s character is reduced to a simpering bystander while men fight men and her dad plays referee. Here’s a girl who has proved herself to be resourceful, funny and free-spirited through the course of the film. Not to mention the girl who impressively kicks butt in one the film’s more memorable comic scenes. Why make her a lawn ornament when it comes to the crunch? I know better than to expect a feminist masterpiece here, but letting the damsels in distress stand up and rescue themselves would’ve been a more powerful statement than putting the heroine’s name first in the opening credits.

Musings on Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

Beware: Here be potential spoilers!

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s not a brilliant one either. But if Race 2 is a hit, this one deserves to be the blockbuster it has turned out to be, so there you go. I don’t have the patience to write a full-length review of this film, and it’s highly unlikely that I will offer a point of view that others haven’t, so I’m just going to focus on a few things I noticed.

  • When we were discussing the film afterwards, my wife Lakshmi made an interesting point: Apart from the fact that one of them has a failed bar and another is some kind of doctor, do you know anything else about these people that doesn’t pertain to the plot? I wonder if even their private conversations revolve around Bunny’s life and not their own. I’m sure there was a way of writing a few more character details into the script if one wanted to. This is just lazy writing.
  • Having said that, I’m glad the characters aren’t all “fixed up” by the end of the film. (And I’m especially glad that Bunny didn’t do the fixing.) They end up where they are comfortable ending up at this point in their lives.
  • Although the story focuses on Ranbir and Deepika (the latter of whom is particularly luminous in the film), it’s Kalki Koechlin and Aditya who make that four-way dynamic work. Lovely work! Kalki especially is delightfully uninhibited in her role.
  • As good as Ranbir Kapoor is as an actor (and let’s face it, he’s head and shoulders above his competition right now), it takes just a three minute scene with people like Farooque Sheikh and Tanvi Azmi to show how far he still has to go. True, they’re playing mature adults and he’s playing a nomadic man-child who still has some growing up to do. But the difference in their comfort levels cannot entirely be attributed to this. Watch that quiet moment between Sheikh and Azmi when Ranbir leaves the room after a particularly nasty comment directed at his stepmother. Years of married life and an understanding of each other and their son, condensed into a two-second wordless exchange, and not even shot in close-up. Sometimes, that’s all a couple of seasoned actors need to make their characters come to life. Unfortunately, sometimes, that’s all they get.
  • For me, the most disappointing part of the film is the scene where Ranbir speaks of his father’s death during a car ride with Deepika. His face is lit intermittently, as though from the headlights of oncoming traffic. I suspect Ayan Mukherjee borrowed the composition from a similar scene in Million Dollar Baby, except he doesn’t quite get it right. The light pattern is too rhythmic to have come from traffic, and Ranbir doesn’t yet have the vocal skills that the scene demands. Had they gotten it right, the scene could’ve been the emotional centerpiece for the character — it could have even made the ending somewhat plausible. Pity.