Seethakathi: State of the Art

How did a film like Seethakathi even get funded in the first place? The story lends itself to a kind of dryly comic narrative (Isaac Asimov’s One Night of Song comes to mind), but here’s the thing: the contemplative mood that permeates much of the film is not the one you might imagine while hearing it.

The first 40 minutes are so sedate, so quietly affecting in their depiction of an ageing theatre actor’s life, that you wonder if you just stumbled into a Balu Mahendra feature. (Archana’s presence as his wife helps.) There’s a moment when Ayya Aadhimoolam, the aforementioned artiste, returns home by auto after a stage performance that only a handful of people have attended, and passes by some youths watching something on their mobile phone. The film just shows him observing them, but the earlier scenes have made his reaction unnecessary. Watching this film on the Prime app on my phone, I felt vaguely guilty when that scene played out. Lovely.

Even when the film goes on to take a slightly supernatural turn, the elegiac tone doesn’t change. If at all it morphs from a Balu Mahendra film, it is into an M Night Shyamalan one.

And then, when you least expect it, the film finds a funny bone. A film shoot in a park goes horribly, hilariously wrong. That Balaji Tharaneetharan has a deft comic touch has been evident from his debut feature, but this sudden shifting of gears is, well, startling.

There’s obvious comedy featuring some of the best bad acting I have seen in a while, but the straight guy in the scene plays it so beautifully straight that his performance becomes a stand-in for the movie it has been so far. It feels as though the humour is somehow finding a way to bubble up through the layer of sombre contemplation that the film has wreathed itself in. The effect on the viewer is unexpectedly cathartic.

It goes on a bit too long, and there’s a similar sequence later on where you really wish they’d get on with it, but this is, to be honest, a minor quibble. I still found myself laughing both times.

And then, even more amazingly, the film turns into a sort of satire on the prevalent state of cinema, our tendency to worship our stars, and our rigid notions of what the A, B and C centres want to see. While it appears a bit preachy at times, the script finds room for nuance. Even the stereotypical I-want-every-cliche-in-my-film producer is not depicted in an entirely unsympathetic manner – he is simply a man who has invested a lot of money in the film and cannot afford to deal with an actor who refuses to turn up. The notion of cinema as a collective, as well as commercial, art is driven home in more ways than one.

Perhaps the film’s most interesting reading, for me, comes from a meta perspective. Here’s a mostly well-reviewed venture featuring a great actor who loomed over the film’s promotions in much the same way that his character looms over the story it tells. It enjoyed but a modest run at the box office, and yet, soon after its release on Prime video, I find a slew of complimentary posts about it on my Facebook timeline.

Seethakathi lives on.

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Raindrops on roses etc.

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.

Thanksgiving

Whenever I hear of gated communities in Bangalore occupied by recently-returned-NRIs, I can’t resist asking if they celebrate Diwali with as much fervour as they do Halloween and Thanksgiving. Even though I have friends who fall into that demographic and live in places like that. I’m kind of an asshole that way.

So, by way of making amends, 24fps is going to celebrate Thanksgiving. Which, as per my understanding, involves something to do with turkey, families and acknowledging things we have to be thankful for.

Full disclosure: I have never been to America and really have no clue what Thanksgiving is all about. However, as I have mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I work on applied statistics and data mining for a living — in our line of work, we never let data (or a profound lack thereof) come in the way of our conclusions.

More posts coming up this weekend. Watch this space!

If we meet again, we shall smile

I watched a movie today called Once. It’s a beautiful movie, the sort that will remain in your mind for a while after you’ve seen it. Like Before Sunrise, it is tough to describe in terms of plot or character, but equally tough to forget after you’ve seen it. You might remember that its stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008, for a beautiful little number called Falling Slowly.

But here’s the thing: While I was watching the movie, I realized that my mind was automatically making notes on how a scene was shot or edited. Or worse still, finding ways to describe it for my blog post. This has been happening for a while, but to a lesser extent than it is now. I don’t mind it so much when it happens with a not-so-great movie. But with this one, I was genuinely pissed off at my blogging self for intruding upon my movie-watching experience.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I have decided to take a break from writing about the movies. I might post the occasional piece on other topics on this blog. But otherwise, for all intents and purposes, 24fps is on hiatus until further notice.

So long and thanks for all the comments. I have appreciated it more than I can tell you.

ps: Do watch Once if you haven’t already. It’s definitely worth it.

pps: Title courtesy — Julius Caesar, Act V, Scene I (Brutus to Cassius).


Locomotive 38 movies

My English curriculum in school was usually a collection of short stories. And what stories some of them were! Abridged prose versions of classics like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Greek mythology and what not. Stories like A table is a table, about an old man who decides to switch around the names of various objects he encounters (to counter boredom, I think) and slowly withdraws from society simply because he can only speak his own language in the end. Ray Bradbury’s Fog Horn, possibly the saddest short story I have ever read. This entertaining one about a smuggler named Chris Selby who tries to cross the border with two thousand Swiss watches placed in a false floor in his car, only to come undone when he finds that some moron wound them all up and their combined synchronous ticking made quite a racket at the border checkpost. I could go on.

Some of them have become shortcuts for me and my friends to refer to certain experiences. When we discuss language and jargon, A table is a table comes up. When we discuss loneliness, Fog Horn comes up.

It is in this spirit that I propose to name a certain sub-genre of movies as “Locomotive 38 movies”.

Locomotive 38, the Ojibway is a short story by William  Saroyan. I think I encountered it in my ninth grade textbook. It is about an American teenager called Aram who is befriended by a native American who comes to his small town and asks for his help in buying a car and driving him around. The stated reason being that he does not know how to drive. So the teenager becomes the man’s chauffeur during the summer, and they strike up a sort of friendship. The man’s name in his native tongue translates, it seems, to Locomotive 38. At the end of the summer, Locomotive suddenly disappears, and when Aram enquires about town, he learns that the man drive off in his car. The story ends with the following lines:

He was just a young man who’d come to town on a donkey, bored to death or something, who’d taken advantage of the chance to be entertained by a small-town kid who was bored to death, too. That’s the only way I could figure it out without accepting the general theory that he was crazy.

Every once in a while, I come across a movie that is so bad that I refuse to believe it could’ve been made with a straight face. Like Dharmesh Darshan’s Mela, a movie of such wretched, overblown masala excess starring Aamir Khan, his brother Faisal and Twinkle Khanna. It was supposed to be a riff on Sholay, I think. In terms of cinematic quality, it rates alongside Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag. However, I am almost convinced that Dharmesh Darshan made it as a spoof of Sholay. to quote William Saroyan, “that’s the only way I could figure it out without accepting the general theory that he was crazy.”

I am sure you, dear reader, can think of a few like that. So come forth and tell me.

Oh, and henceforth, if you see me use the tag “Locomotive 38” in a movie review post, you know what to expect.

I’m back!

It’s been a busy and depressing few weeks. I moved to Mumbai, lost a good friend to cancer and generally didn’t feel like blogging. Not to worry, though. Normal service will resume shortly.  In the pipeline: some posts about my initial impressions of Mumbai.

Happy New Year, folks!