Sphere of Influence

I was witness to one of the stranger variants of Tu jaanta nahin main kaun hoon recently.

I was traveling in an auto from Nandidurga Road to my place. My auto driver was a rather portly, elderly gentleman, the kind who could moonlight as Santa Claus in the mall if business was tough. The traffic police had barricaded a road near the Ulsoor gurudwara and were diverting traffic towards the lake, ie, away from my house. I thought it might make sense to just get off there, but before I could ask him to stop, my driver had decided to go straight through the barricade.

The policemen who stopped him seemed somewhat put out by his behaviour, which was understandable. But what wasn’t so easy to understand was why my driver was the one who lost his cool. He pulled himself up to his full height (which was about the same as mine, so not hugely impressive), puffed out his chest (which, when it expanded to match his potbelly in the y Axis, was truly impressive), and vibrating with the sort of inner anger befitting a man who has just found out after spending ten years in jail that his defence lawyer had colluded with the prosecution, said, ‘Naan yaar gothha nimge?’

So I stand there thinking, ah, this is going to be fun. I’m still waiting for my change, but that’s now secondary; I’ve never seen this sort of thing play out before. So I settle down to watch. The cops don’t quite know or care who this guy is, but they’re more worried that he might pop a couple of blood vessels right there, given how he’s puffing up (honestly, he could’ve given lessons to puffer fish). They ask him to relax, and enquire how old he is, but my indignant and apparently quite influential hero is not to be deterred. He goes on to inform the cops that he does not have a single document in his auto. No license, no rc book, nothing. How a confession of this nature is supposed to help his cause is not immediately apparent to a clueless individual such as myself. (To extend my earlier analogy, it sounded like the wrongfully incarcerated prisoner had confessed to being the Zodiac killer, by way of a threat against his defence lawyer.) The cops either get it and don’t care, or are still focused on making sure this guy doesn’t die on their watch.

The reason for this strange confession soon becomes relatively clear. The man says, call the police commissioner and give him my auto number, and you’ll know why I drive around without a single piece of paper in my pocket. By now, I’m practically in paroxysms of delight at having encountered a virtual emperor in disguise, but by then a more senior cop decides to come by and spoil my fun. He simply barks at the emperor and asks him to move his chariot out of the way and keep going. Against all reason, His Highness decides to comply. Affecting the sort of calm demeanour that Buddhist monks take decades to attain, he gives me my change and lets me go on my way.

ps: My grasp of kannada is sketchy at best, so this might not have been what actually happened.

pps: But you gotta admit, it sounds more fun if it did.

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Empire

I felt a strange sort of dissonance while reading Devi Yesodharan’s Empire. The story is told from the point of view of two major characters, and while the inner monologues and the descriptive sentences feel exquisite, the dialogue itself feels stilted. Does the fact that Thamizh is my mother-tongue have a part to play in how I feel? I suspect it does. Your mileage may vary.

As for the novel itself, it is a splendid work of historical fiction. I shall not comment on the veracity of the period descriptions, since I know very little of the period aside from what I have read in historical fiction (notably Ponniyin Selvan). I assume that Devi has done her homework, and done it well, and used artistic license wherever appropriate.

The novel, in any case, is a lot more interested in the emotional landscape of Aremis, the heroine of the story and a member of Rajendra Chozha’s guard, and Anantha, a much-decorated, weary general tasked with carrying out the emperor’s plans to wage war on the Srivijaya empire in South-East Asia. There is much by way of palace intrigue and internecine quarrels between factions in the King’s court. Some of these plotlines are resolved, some others not. But the plot is more of a clothesline to hang these two individual stories. And they are fascinating.

Aremis has to deal with being a foreigner (she was offered as a vassal by a captured invader from Greece after a defeat) in this land, being a woman in a mostly male army, and the burden of a centuries-old prophecy. This is a character with a lot on her plate, and Devi does a great job of making us see her as an interesting, complex individual.

And then there is Anantha, her captor, and the general of Rajendra’s army. There are moments during his section of the narrative when I found myself reminded of Thomas Cromwell’s narrative in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Not the characters themselves — Anantha comes across as a simpler character than Cromwell — but in the sense of watching a man trying to do his King’s bidding and the difficulties that accompany the task.

One could argue that the story is essentially one of how these two characters relate to each other. There is an early scene where Devi describes Anantha’s relationship with his dogs — he explains how the ones most likely to rebel turn out to be the ones most loyal. The obvious parallel being drawn is to Aremis, one thinks.

Until one realizes that, sooner or later, everyone is someone’s dog.

 

Movie Review: Kapoor & Sons

Short review:

Dear filmgoers,

I am terribly sorry about K3G. Please accept this by way of reparations.

Sincerely etc.

Karan Johar


Longer review:

What a marvel of a script this is!

The premise is not new. Dil Dhadakne Do, for instance, was also based on the same pressure cooker premise: throw a dysfunctional family and a few supporting characters in, close the lid, turn up the heat and film the result. I’m sure you can name a handful of Hollywood films with the same premise as well. What is rare, at least in Hindi cinema, is the felicity with which it is written, performed and directed.

Director-writer Shakun Batra and his co-writer Ayesha Dhillon get so many of the little things right. When Arjun walks into his old bedroom upon coming home, the first thing he sees is an indoor bicycle in the corner. At the same time, Rahul — the favoured son, the Golden Boy who could do no wrong — enters an immaculately maintained room. It’s a small detail whose purpose is to indicate the contrast between how the two sons aren’t treated the same way, but here’s the thing: a lesser film would have made that room an utter dump. This one just shows a room that has been repurposed a bit. What you see here is the result of a natural sequence of events (the cycle was probably purchased after a visit to the doctor by either or both parents, and a vast majority of people who buy that thing put it in a spare bedroom where there’s some space) combined with semi-conscious choice (his bedroom, rather than his brother’s).

Rahul and Arjun have a somewhat fractious relationship as siblings who have enjoyed varying degrees of success; the same is true of their father and his brother at some level. Every major character (the parents, the siblings, the girl) carries around a load of guilt, most of it having to do with the secrets they’re hiding; no wonder the happiest man around is the ailing potty-mouthed grandfather who doesn’t seem to have much use for the term “impulse control”. Tia’s statement around her fear of flying isn’t simply meant to set up a gag around Rahul’s fear of rats — it serves to set up a later, more dramatic conversation. Even the ending, where people seem to have achieved some degree of happiness/peace, isn’t entirely forced: it recalls an earlier conversation between the brothers on stories having happy endings. Like I said, so much, so right.

Then there’s the dialogue: This film envelops you in a wall of sound when more than two characters are in the frame. The work of Richard Altman comes to mind. It takes a certain skill to make that sort of thing work.

The most impressive example of this comes in a scene where the siblings and their parents are all arguing while a plumber tries to fix a leaking pipe in the background. It’s amazing how they carom off each other — the conflict keeps shifting, and not one of the characters is uninvolved. Not even the hapless plumber, who, when asked how much he is owed, gets probably the funniest line in the script.

The other great example comes late in the film, when the characters are supposed to assemble to take a family photo. The writing sets up the whole sequence wonderfully: the previous night is spent partying and the characters go to sleep more or less happy. The calm before the storm, if you will. The next morning, things begin to unravel slowly. In separate scenes intercut with each other, each character finds out something about the other and is set on a collision course. Batra even uses the weather (gathering clouds threatening to make a mess of the photography plans) to punctuate the action — I know it’s a cliche, but he doesn’t use it like one, and has the sense to close the loop with another photography session on a warm, sunny day.

The way these narrative strands cohere as the family ties themselves are unraveling — the whole thing is so fluid, it’s an absolute delight to watch.

If at all there is a misstep here, it is in how Batra doesn’t quit while he’s ahead. From a film-making standpoint, everything in that sequence is more or less a logical consequence of things that have already happened. The contrivance is only in having it all happen at once. But the sequence is supposed to end when an external force disrupts the rhythm, i.e., when a character dies unexpectedly. But where the narrative rhythm is broken, the fluid editing rhythm isn’t — we cut smoothly to the funeral, when we should be pausing to register what has just happened. It robs that disruptive moment of its impact.

But look at what I am complaining about: Too many secrets come out at the same time, whereas in real life such coincidences are improbable. A great sequence has a less-than-great ending because the editing is too smooth. How wonderful is it that these are the film’s major faults?

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.

Oye Santa Singh!

On the personal front, there’s a heck of a lot of chaos right now: we’re moving back to Bangalore after two very enjoyable years in Mumbai, and there seem to be a gazillion things to do before we drive out on Christmas morning. I doubt I’ll be able to even think about blog posts for a few weeks.

Which is why it feels absolutely wonderful when someone sends me a gift! It’s a scene I mentioned in a freeze frame post ages ago, so I love it. On top of which, it’s a virtual gift, so I can put it up and feel like I’ve posted something 😀

Thank you! Merry Christmas!