Freeze Frame #169: Airlift

Airlift ends with a surprisingly affecting song: Tu bhoola jisse. It begins with the tricolour being hoisted in Jordan. And when I saw this film in the movie theater, I found myself wanting to applaud.

This doesn’t happen often. The only other flag hoisting scene in the movies that has well and truly worked for me is Shahrukh’s sardonic line in Chak De India. More often than not, movies don’t earn the emotion they wish to evoke with the flag — they’d much rather let the flag do the filmmaker’s job for him, which is pretty lazy. This one earns the reaction it gets.

For the entire stretch of the film, the anchor for these refugees has been simply: I am Indian. In the beginning, this is not patriotic fervour so much as survival instinct: if you’re an Indian in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1990, it’s like a suit of armor. Funny thing about armor: wear it long enough and you can no longer tell the difference between yourself with and without it.

The idea of a national identity is stress-tested in strange ways. Knowing you’re Indian and proving it to a man with a gun are two different things. And when you have a bunch of trigger-happy young men with guns, even this may not be enough.

Their identity, which has been the only thing between them and a bullet, is tied to a country that is far away. For some, like the protagonist played by Akshay Kumar, that distance is emotional as well. It is when they turn their eyes back in the direction of home that they realize how far they have traveled, and in how many ways.

By the time these refugees have somehow managed to get themselves to Jordan, they are at the end of their tether. They have escaped a war zone and are stuck in limbo: what they need is for their country to recognize their plight and bring them home. That is what the flag represents to them. And to us, who have journeyed with them for the past two hours.

The other wonderful moment comes right at the end, when the bureaucrat Sanjeev Kohli (an absolutely fantastic Kumud Mishra), who ran from pillar to post in Delhi trying to coordinate the Government’s response, stands in a corner and smiles broadly while the External Affairs Minister accepts plaudits for a successful rescue operation.

It would have been so easy to make this a cynical moment and focus on him being sidelined. But the man’s smile says it all: this is not about him, or about who gets credit. This is about people coming home.

When that tricolor is hoisted, it isn’t just saying: you have a country. It is saying: you have fellow countrymen.

Freeze Frame #168: Udta Punjab

I started thinking about this post because of this song:

Aside: The version in the film is sung by Shahid Mallya — this version is a reprise on YouTube, sung by Diljit Dosanjh (who is part of the film’s cast) and tells part of the Alia Bhatt character’s back-story. It’s an interesting idea.

In one scene, Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is seen noodling with his guitar, trying to come up with a new song: that’s where you first hear the opening bars. The smoothness of the guitar work suggest that you’re seeing a talented musician who has lost his way. But that’s all you hear of the tune at that point. He’s stuck — musically and otherwise.

A few scenes later, you hear those chords again again, as a background score in a fight sequence. He’s not the one doing the fighting: he’s witnessing a girl go medieval on some punks, and with a hockey stick at that. (There’s a lovely little moment in there when you see her setting up a stone as if for a penalty shot, a neat little reference to her background as a hockey player before straitened circumstances forced her to a life as a wage laborer in Punjab.) And the song begins to coalesce in his head.

A few more scenes pass before the vocals are heard: this time, he’s locked himself in with a guy in a hospital room and is trying to get the name of the village where the girl can be found. The man demands a song as payment, and this is the one that bursts forth. The serene, somewhat reflective tone of the opening line is such a contrast with the frenzied tone of the conversation preceding it. It’s almost jarring, but that is sort of the point.

When he starts, his voice has to compete with the sound of the cops rattling the door from the outside, trying to get him to open it. Two lines later, it’s just him. The visuals suggest that they’re still banging on the door, but you don’t hear them. And, the film suggests, nor does he or his rapt audience in that hospital room. There’s just the music.

The additional subtext here is about how this singer’s music affects his audience. In an earlier scene, two teenage drug addicts talk about how he and his music inspired them: one of them says that it was his face he saw when he took drugs for the first time. Even in his drug-addled state, the horror of what he has come to represent, what he has inadverdently inspired (the kids are in jail for having killed their mother for drug money) doesn’t escape him. Here, when he’s in full flight, belting out Ikk Kudi like lives depended on it, the man on the hospital bed tells him the name of the village. That moment, that song, is redemptive for both of them. It’s a thing of beauty.

The pieces of the song come together right at the end. Its arc is complete alongside that of the characters it is about — its creator and his muse.

We are pretty used to songs in our films, much to the puzzlement of Western audiences. Sometimes they’re used for crass commercial reasons (Chikni Chameli and its ilk), as filler, sometimes as a punctuation mark, sometimes even as a storytelling device.

Rarely does a song get its own story.

Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.

If music be the food of love

Forget the drama about who might win, the post-performance gushing or even the insightful commentary from some of the judges, the “comedy track” about fat kids and Tamil accents and whatever else the producers’ desperate, picayune imagination can come up with in order to fill the airtime with something other than just music. Here’s the single biggest reason why I love this show, and the others like it. Thanks to the song choices of the contestants, I have found my list of favourite songs growing longer, and in unexpected ways. They have, to extend a Jerome K. Jerome analogy, made my boat bigger. A few highlights:

Udhaya Udhaya Ularugiren (Udhaya, A. R. Rahman): The song has its idiosyncrasies: the word kaadhal often involves an abrupt jump from one note to another, and Hariharan’s rendition of that part is hit-or-miss. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the song. It’s rare to hear a duet with two distinct voices and feel like you’re hearing one soul. Thanks to the film deservedly sinking without a trace, this song, I believe, got undeservedly sidelined, until it was popularized by kids in competition wanting to cut their teeth on a really tough Rahman number.

Enakkoru Kaadhali Irukkindral (Muththaana Muththallavo, M. S. Viswanathan): A dear friend introduced me to this, and it was steadily climbing the charts in my head before a recent Super Singer performance gave it another ratings bump. I’ll be honest: MSV is not my favourite singer, except for certain specific songs that I don’t think anyone else would’ve done justice to. When viewed in the context of the film (MSV sings for Thengai Srinivasan, SPB for Jaiganesh), it works fine. But forget all of that and listen to how it is composed.

Also, there’s something to be said for the experience of hearing a kid perform a song that’s probably more than twice his/her age, and feeling like you’re hearing it for the first time. I think part of it is because you’re not hearing it in the context of the film, so even if someone’s voice is too lightweight, or not raspy enough, or too strong for a particular song, you don’t care much. You end up focusing on how *their* rendition makes you feel. It is, of course, easier with songs you haven’t paid much attention to before this. But even with ones that you’ve had on repeat loop in a corner of your brain for years, there’s the occasional Eureka moment. Like listening to Divagar sing Neeye Unakku Endrum Nigaranavan and realizing that, until then, I had never even considered the possibility of that song being done solo.

Thanks to these performances, I’ve found myself really listening to these songs. I’ve found myself trying to figure out, in my head, how I would break down the difficult parts of a song and teach it to myself. The music is no longer just helping me relax after a long day at work or during a long commute. It’s saying good morning.

Postscript: While composing this piece in my mind, I started skimming through my old posts on music. Here’s what I discovered: I have written petabytes of stuff about bad moviesbad performances, bad directors, bad screenwriters, even bad acceptance speeches, but I have rarely written about bad music. Oh, I’ve made the odd snarky comment, but otherwise, it’s been mostly about how much I’ve enjoyed listening to this song or that. I’ve written thank you notes to composers, singers, sometimes even to music itself.

Now, part of this is due to the sample size: I write more often about the movies, and therefore find more opportunities to complain. But I don’t think it’s just that, really. (Not that I let data get in the way of my conclusions anyway.)

I think it’s simply the fact that music was the first thing I fell in love with.

Begin Again

A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?


Freeze Frame #160: Bandslam

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.