31 January 2007

Can films influence our lives?

The recent film ‘Blood Diamond’ attempts to influence our ethics, our sense of morality, as consumers while selecting a diamond for purchase (see my previous post). Does it stop us from buying diamonds? Certainly not. It only persuades us to choose a legitimate diamond over one that emerges from a conflict zone, such as those from the mines of Sierra Leone where thousands of the poor shed their blood, sweat and tears to search for diamonds which hope to transform their lives.

‘Blood Diamond’ is an example of a new breed of films, like ‘Syriana’ (from Hollywood) and ‘Rang De Basanti’ (from India), which are likely to influence our lives. Going back 25 years, a film like ‘Gandhi’ had done something similar. It not only presented a point of view of one man’s struggle for his country’s independence from British Rule, but also reflected the sentiments of an entire nation against colonialism. Its message of nonviolence has been universal.

Or, going back another 20 years before that, to a film like ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ which brought to surface the deep-rooted racism and injustice that prevailed in a small town, and in the hearts and minds of the White people, in the United States in the 1930s, and helped usher in a sense of equality for all citizens in that country.

Films like these and many others, and the books and stories that these films mostly originate from, help us understand events, emotions and human predicaments through the ages in various parts of the world, which we have no knowledge of or may never encounter in our lives.

Sometimes films, like fiction, have greater powers of persuasion than actual social or political debates, or protest marches, or strikes, or violent uprisings. After all, they shed no blood. Yet, they use the mechanisms of speech and drama to communicate their messages, to empathise with the experiences of those who lived and/or suffered – whether the films depict real-life people or fictional ones – to influence our minds and bring in changes in our attitudes, emotions and in our lives.

In short, to help us believe that, if we try, we can find solutions to global problems… even to those in our localities and in our families. Yes, I do believe films can influence our lives.

30 January 2007

Blood Diamond explains why This Is Africa (TIA)

It’s not everyday that you find a Hollywood film influencing social change. But, with ‘Blood Diamond’, director Edward Zwick may make a difference so global that his film may actually initiate political and economic change across the world. In fact, from the message at the end of the film and from reports in the media, I hear that, although the concept of a ‘blood diamond’ has already tainted the international diamond trade, Zwick’s Hollywood film is likely to carry this disgrace further.

The disgrace is the origin, or source, of blood diamonds: how thousands of the poor in Sierra Leone are forced to mine for diamonds in muddy pits, in the heat and the rain, for less than Rs.4 per day. Many of these diggers (as they are called) succumb to an early death or, as in the 1990s, either killed or get their hands chopped off by the rebels (the Revolutionary United Front – RUF). These poor live on the hope that if they find a diamond, and can take it out of the pits to the nearest buyer (the first point of purchase in a long trade channel), it could transform their lives forever.

At the end of that trade channel is the consumer, the woman, in the upper echelons of society, to whom a diamond is the epitome of love and beauty and glamour… forever. Little does she know that that sparkling little diamond on her ring is the product of blood shed by one, or many more, of the poorest of poor struggling to survive in a small country in Africa. To be fair to her, it’s difficult to know. It’s difficult to separate the blood diamonds (i.e. conflict diamonds) from the diamonds legally mined and traded in the world diamond market. After all, millions of diamonds are traded each year. The diamond industry is a US$60 billion a year business.

What makes the film ‘Blood Diamond’ extraordinary is that it aims to create an awareness of blood diamonds internationally, with the hope of influencing end-consumers into checking the source of the diamonds they purchase, and rejecting a blood diamond in favour of a legal one. This is, indeed, a mighty task since there are millions of diamond consumers across the world, and the World Diamond Council is not going to take all this negative publicity lying down. There is, of course, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (established in 2003) to monitor any abuses that may take place.

However, our film’s story relates to an incident in 1999 (much before the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme came into being), when a Sierra Leonean fisherman, who is forced to become a digger, discovers a large pink diamond in the Kono mines. Perhaps not the incident, but the history certainly checks out… adding authenticity to the film. That, in the 1990s, rebels in Sierra Leone (the RUF), with help from Liberia, financed the blood diamond trade, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, maiming just as many, and creating brigades of child soldiers who were brainwashed into committing atrocities, the seriousness of which they were too innocent to realise.

‘Blood Diamond’, the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio (as a White Rhodesian mercenary diamond smuggler), Djimon Hounsou (as the Sierra Leonean fisherman-digger who finds the large pink diamond and hides it), and Jennifer Connelly (as a journalist pursuing the blood diamond story), brings all of this to the surface in proper Hollywood style, with ample doses of heroism and thrill thrown in… along with love, introspection and some spiritual philosophy… amidst the brutality and the killings. It’s a grand film, over two hours long, highlighting the context of blood diamonds rather smartly. What I found missing in the film – as it was definitely downplayed – was the role of the conniving diamond industry executives who had allowed (and still allows) this to happen.

Perhaps there’s a reason for this. According to a recent Fortune magazine (cover story) on blood diamonds, titled ‘Diamonds Aren’t Forever’, Vivienne Walt in writes, “Diamond producers and dealers did not need Hollywood to reach that conclusion. As war raged in the past decade, they realized that so-called blood diamonds carried a risk to their business that was far out of proportion to the tiny number of stones. Even during the bloodiest years no more than 15 percent of the world’s diamonds were controlled by rebels in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

15 percent still amounts to a large sum in the US$60 billion a year business. So, how effective will ‘Blood Diamond’ be in stirring up a global controversy, persuading consumers to morally evaluate their diamond purchases, bringing about social change, and offering hope to those millions of the poor in Africa who are suffering because of this bloody trade? No-one knows. The real question is, does anyone care? After all, This Is Africa (TIA)… and God left this continent long ago.

27 January 2007

Preaching to the converted

In the past week, while writing about film directors Francois Truffaut and Satyajit Ray, I had brought up the matter of films influencing our lives. The question is (or was then): Do they? And, as an extension to that, what relevance do films have in our lives? More importantly, is there a connection between storytelling, truth, art and films? For, like Truffaut, Ray and many others, I, too, have spent weeks on end thinking about these questions.

Fortunately, as I see now, I’ve not been alone. Recently, while surfing the Net, I came across an interview of Indian actor (and Minister of Parliament) Shabana Azmi by Nermeen Shaikh on AsiaSource, going back to October 2002. In the interview, Nermeen Shaikh asks some pertinent questions on whether, and how, films influence our lives… and Shabana Azmi answers them competently, giving examples from her own life.

Here are some excerpts from that interview:

“…if the whole purpose of art is to sensitize people, how can you say that this sensitivity is only going to be directed towards yourself and giving a better performance? This is simply not possible since the best resources of an actor must come from life itself. So when you are in films playing characters struggling with social injustice and exploitation, then a time comes when you can no longer treat your work like a nine-to-five job.”

“I grew up in a family that believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. Both my parents practiced this principle: my father, through his work as an Urdu poet of great repute, as a film lyricist and also the scriptwriter of films like ‘Garam Hawa’, and my mother as a stage actress in India, who also worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Association.”

“Films have such a strong influence in India but when you try to bring about political or social change through art cinema, you are really preaching to the converted. In mainstream cinema, on the other hand, you have a much wider audience and a large number of issues to cover.”

There’s more, of course. To read the full interview click here.

26 January 2007

Blurred vision

“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product’, finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.”
– Pauline Kael, American film critic

It’s not surprising to learn that Satyajit Ray’s films do not find a large audience in India (see my post ‘A Ray of stories… and films’). Indian films, largely represented by the Hindi/Bollywood film industry, have always catered to Indian mass audiences and have been symbols of Indian mass culture since India’s independence.

In the Hindi/Bollywood framework, the film structure, the plot, the acting style, and much of the dialogue are standardised… engaging the audience in a fantasy world of good versus evil, and human melodrama, in fairly clear terms. Complications are sometimes introduced in the form of sub-plots, but they are resolved soon after. As far as film directors and producers go, Hindi/Bollywood films are functional – they satisfy audience needs and make box office cash registers ring.

The ‘art’ film from the independent director, such as Satyajit Ray, presents (and, therefore, represents) an alternative world. A world of films motivated by their richness in terms of aesthetic quality, realism, dialogue, acting, cinematography, editing and music. Most art films weave in a social commentary on the state of our country, on our culture, on human relationships… sometimes, even making a political statement.

As far as Indian audiences go, I would have expected these art films to be relevant and popular. To stand tall on integrity and human values… in a country which badly suffers from these. Yet, these art films are unsuccessful in stimulating Indian audiences. On the contrary, they seem to work in direct opposition to the needs and expectations of the audience… floundering at the box office. The mainstream Indian audience is repelled by art films, preferring their usual commoditised Hindi/Bollywood formula.

In turn, Bollywood happily churns out several hundred films every year in a standardised organised manner as popular entertainment for the masses. Asserting a hypnotic control over them, influencing almost all aspects of their lives, defining the cultural norms that Indians should live by.

I wonder if this Hindi/Bollywood and art film divide is just a matter of our blurred vision… or a representation of something more permanent in our culture.

25 January 2007

Conversations with Satyajit Ray

Like me, a lot of avid film-viewers and fans of Satyajit Ray may have wished they had met and spoken to the man Satyajit Ray. Whether you have or haven’t, here are two interviews with Ray which are worth reading:

1. BFI interview by Lindsay Anderson

2. Bright Lights Film interview by Bert Cardullo

24 January 2007

A Ray of stories… and films

It’s been said that Satyajit Ray used to believe that if storytelling is wedded to truth, then it is also wedded to art. Although I’m not sure whether Ray actually believed this – or said words to this effect – the connection between storytelling, truth, art and his cinema is inimitable. Through touches of neo-realism (Ray was greatly influenced by Vittorio De Sica), Ray’s films and his stories have always tried to portray the Indian reality, and therefore the truth, through art and film. To my amazement, barring a few occasions, Ray has achieved this magnificently without venturing beyond Bengal and Bengali society.

Like all Bengalis, Ray was greatly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and had made several films from Tagore’s collection of short stories. Films such as ‘Charulata’ (The Lonely Wife), ‘Teen Kanya’ (Three Daughters) and ‘Ghare-Baire’ (The Home and the World) are prime examples. Ray had adapted stories from many contemporary Bengali writers as well. ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road) by Bibhutibhushan Badyopadhyay is probably the best known. There were others too: ‘Jalsaghar’ (The Music Room) by Tarashankar Banerjee, ‘Devi’ (The Goddess) by Prabhat Mukherjee, ‘Kapurush’ (The Coward) by Premendra Mitra, ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited) by Manisankar ‘Sankar’ Mukherjee, ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) by Sunil Gangopadhyay… among others.

A master storyteller himself, Satyajit Ray had written many short stories which he made into films. His own ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger), ‘Shakha Proshakha” (The Branches of the Tree) and ‘Sonar Kella’ (The Golden Fortress), besides others, make up this collection. In fact, apart from a few films such as ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (The Chess Players) and ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance) both written by Munshi Premchand, and ‘Gonoshatru’ (An Enemy of the People) written by Henrik Ibsen, the stories behind Satyajit Ray’s films were predominantly Bengali, their settings mostly Bengal, earning him the reputation of a Bengali filmmaker, rather than an Indian filmmaker… which is probably what he intended to be.

Yet, Ray’s films were not always popular in Bengal, nor in India. After being rejected by a Bengali and an Indian audience, many of his films were highly successful abroad and received accolades which helped inspire his later films. Many Bengalis criticised Ray for having Western aesthetic values and making films with European rationalism. His admirers were not always Bengali, nor Indian. For instance, when ‘Shakha Proshakha” (The Branches of the Tree) went into trouble during shooting in 1990, it was French actor Gerard Depardieu (an ardent Satyajit Ray fan) who helped complete it.

20 January 2007

A bridge between Bengal and the world

Around the time Francois Truffaut was bringing in a wave of change in the world of cinema in Europe, closer home, Satyajit Ray was creating a similar history in India. In the 1950s, India was emerging from the British Rule as an independent nation, trying to build herself politically, economically, socially and culturally. Freedom of expression had taken on a new colour for the people in the new democracy… in continuation of the Independence Movement… and Satyajit Ray gave expression to the new India through the medium of film.

In Bengal, in Eastern India, where Satyajit Ray had been born and educated, the arts had always held a position of paramount importance. Ray was, perhaps, lucky to have been in the midst of its post-colonial development because Bengal is what inspired Satyajit Ray the most. Although gifted in fine arts, music and literature, it was his cinema which brought Ray international distinction. Barring just a few, all of his 29 films were of Bengal, presenting myriad images of Bengal and Bengali culture to the world beyond it. In his own words:

“I created a bridge between Bengal and the world. That’s how I want to be remembered.”

Like Truffaut, Satyajit Ray was also influenced by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir. In fact, Ray had the enviable opportunity to work with Renoir when Renoir had come to India to shoot for his film ‘The River’. However, unlike Truffaut, whose focus always remained on his main characters, Ray gave every element of his film equal importance. Moreover, Ray’s rendering of Indian life – whether he was filming poverty in villages as in his first film ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Little Road), or describing the trials of middle-class city living as in ‘Mahanagar’ (The Big City), or perpetuating a moral tale as in his last film ‘Agantuk’ (The Stranger) – is remarkably sensitive and accurate.

What’s equally remarkable is that Satyajit Ray had achieved this through such simplicity that it’s beyond words. His themes were universal, his scripts meticulously crafted to reduce complexity (Ray wrote his own scripts), and his treatment almost genius-like. He had a way with his actors, particularly children who were central to many of his films. His musicians (Ray had written the scores in many of his films) and technicians knew his mind well, and Ray had completed his films with embarrassingly small budgets and, sometimes, poor equipment. Yet, Satyajit Ray’s films were great accomplishments… leading to many Indian and international awards.

No doubt, Ray’s influence in Bengal, in Bengali cinema and over Bengalis has been tremendous. But, it has been the acceptance and applause of Ray’s films internationally that has built his reputation in India, outside Bengal. Sadly, most Indians haven’t even seen Satyajit Ray’s films.

18 January 2007

Truffaut meant something very special

“Truffaut’s passion for cinema, the desire that it stirred in him, animates every movie he ever made, every scene, every shot.”
– Martin Scorsese, in a tribute to Francois Truffaut in Time magazine

The title of this post is not mine. It’s a quote from a Time magazine tribute Martin Scorsese paid to Francois Truffaut. For, Truffaut was no ordinary filmmaker. Along with Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, Truffaut created the French New Wave in the 1950s that influenced generations and generations of filmmakers across the world. And does so even today.

Truffaut, who, in his 25-odd years in the industry, made as many films before his untimely death at the age of 52 from a brain tumour, began his career as a film critic. Even before that, Truffaut was a film buff (watching hundreds of films every year) and an avid reader (reading a book a week). As a film critic he was thorough, uncompromising and sometimes vicious. He spared no-one, not even his father-in-law who was a film distributor and whose films Truffaut reviewed scathingly. In 1958, Truffaut was banned from the Cannes Film Festival.

American film critic, author and educator, James Monaco, in his 1976 groundbreaking book, ‘The New Wave’, writes that Truffaut’s father-in-law had finally had enough and had taunted him with, “If you know so much, why don’t you make a film?” In 1959, Truffaut returned to Cannes with his own film, ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ (The 400 Blows), to take away the Best Director’s award. Thus began his career as one of the world’s best film directors, with masterpieces like ‘Jules et Jim’ (Jules and Jim) and ‘La Nuit américaine’ (Day for Night), giving pleasure to millions of film-viewers and influencing thousands of others.

But, for Truffaut, the going has not been smooth. He has received a great deal of criticism for his films. They’ve been cited as disappointing, private, introverted, complex and even cautious… too serious to be commercial successes. But, undeterred, Truffaut had gone ahead making films, experimenting with techniques, taking cues from those whose influences on him have been unmistakable: Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock.

The human dimension had intrigued Truffaut more than the story. He had always been more interested in his characters than his stories. He had always found ways to focus on his characters, isolating them from the background, punctuating their presence on screen with poignant dialogue. Where a Hindi/Bollywood film filled space with loud music or songs and dances, Truffaut’s films filled space with silence and carefully-crafted words.

But most of all, I think, Francois Truffaut had found filmmaking to be an adventure that gave life and meaning to his thoughts as a film documentarian.

And, what about the question (see my previous post) that had dogged Truffaut most of his life: ‘Is the cinema more important than life?’ Well, according to James Monaco, there may actually be more than one answer:

“It can be answered in the affirmative from two separate perspectives. From the point of view of Truffaut and Léaud [actor who played the main character in Truffaut’s earlier films] the film buffs, the phantoms of the cinémathèque, the answer is obviously – and unhappily – yes. But from the point of view of the media theoretician, the student of the sociological and psychological effects of film, the answer may also be a qualified yes; and this ‘yes’ then becomes the major premise for an important discussion of how the media have altered our existence.”

16 January 2007

Is the cinema more important than life?

“This question has tormented me for thirty years: is the cinema more important than life?”
– Francois Truffaut

Cinema plays an important part in the lives of Indians… at least, to those who can afford to see one. Going by some rough facts, globally, India is the largest market for films, which are produced in some 20-odd languages. It is the largest filmmaking nation in the world (close to 900 feature films are released in a year), with annual ticket sales notching up as much as US$2 billion (and expected to grow by 30% in the next 5 years).

To Indians, films are larger than life. The best ones encourage fantasy and escapism. In fact, there’s a premium placed on this, because of which both English (Hollywood) films and Indian art films depicting real life are ignored by the mainstream audience. Cinema is about images and Indian audiences don’t like to be presented images which surround their daily lives of pain and hardship. They like to be overwhelmed… by heroism and humour, music and melodrama, revenge and reunion, sensuality and female submissiveness. In short, Indians like to be presented a world which is unattainable in their real lives. For them, at least for the duration of the film, the film is more important than life.

However, it’s not just the Indian cinema-going audience which is overwhelmed by the cinema. Some, perhaps most, filmmakers are just as enraptured by it as the average Indian cinema-goer. To my mind, Francois Truffaut, French film critic and New Wave film director, is one such filmmaker who had been obsessed with the cinema from an early age. He was an avid film viewer and reviewed many films – sometimes, over-critically – before he began making his own films. His film world was also a world of fantasy and escapism. For, Truffaut, too, had wondered if the cinema was more important than life.

12 January 2007

Larger than life

Sanjay Gadhavi’s comment (see my previous post) that Indian audiences identify with larger-than-life characters in his film ‘Dhoom:2’ has a much wider connotation. Albeit, when it comes to Hindi/Bollywood films, and most other films from India, Indian audiences thrive on seeing their heroes larger than life.

On film, Indian heroes are capable of achieving many feats which heroes in films from other countries are incapable of. Mind you, if Indian film heroes were as physically fit as their Chinese counterparts, like Jet Li or Jackie Chan, or if they enacted the roles of Hollywood versions of comic book superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man, I would have no trouble accepting their celluloid achievements. But, when I look at some of the overweight, not-so-physically-fit Indian heroes who are constantly achieving the impossible, and the Indian audience is goading them for more, I wonder what it is all about. Are these feats, to borrow another comment from Sanjay Gadhavi, really “within the realm of reality”?

Indian film heroines, sadly, are not given equal status. Their feats are usually on the dance floor, next to their heroes or along with an entourage, although there have been a few police officer heroines who have done substantial damage to the villains before succumbing, and then being rescued by their heroes. The Indian audience has lapped this up as well, with the female sections of the audience enraptured by the song-and-dance sequences and the glitter of the heroines’ costumes. To the female segment of the Indian audience, life is one big glittering musical show in a Hindi/Bollywood film. As one film director (I think it was Rajeev Menon) who once asked: Take away the song and dance from Indian cinema and what do you have?

Really, what do we have? How does the Indian audience define on-screen reality?

Well, the alternative isn’t very exciting. There’s poverty, pain and death. See any film by Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govind Nihalani, Prakash Jha, Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghosh and the rest of the independent brigade, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Life isn’t a bed of roses. On the contrary, it’s steeped with hardship, helplessness and sorrow. And, who in India wants a repetition of that! What Indian audiences want are heroes who can not only protect them from the scum of the earth, but also promise them a few hours of respite through a romance that life really ought to be. Hence, the desire for something much larger than what life really is.

Most Hindi/Bollywood, and other Indian, films fulfil this need in Indian audiences. Leaving me with the question: Is film really larger than life?

10 January 2007

The allure of Hindi cinema

To whom is the Hindi/Bollywood film ‘Dhoom:2’ targeted?

I asked this question around Mumbai, indiscriminately, sometimes stopping people in their rush-hour sojourn or upsetting them in their daily stupor. I got the general response “everyone.” Certainly, in my circle of friends, almost everyone had seen it and, going by the film’s Box Office success, I believed it. Yet, when I spoke to a few friends in media and marketing, they informed me that ‘Dhoom:2’ is targeted at the youth. Specifically speaking, they said, it’s targeted at the male urban youth (and aspirant) in the 15-24 years age group.

I guess that explained the big-budget sponsorship ‘Dhoom:2’ received from brands like Coke, Pepe Jeans and Suzuki motorcycles. Besides the usual in-film placements for the brands, there were TV commercials, print and outdoor advertising, posters, ringtones and promos on Coke bottles. Not to mention the film’s two leading stars, Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai, were brand ambassadors for Coke and must have contributed substantially to brand recall.

Pepe, a much smaller brand compared to Coke, did something innovative. It launched ‘D:2 Collection’ – a line of jeanswear especially for the film – which was supported by an elaborate media campaign and appropriately merchandised in retail stores that stocked the D:2 Collection (although I still haven’t noticed it much). All this, besides signing up as the sole merchandising brand partner for all fashion apparels and accessories for ‘Dhoom:2’.

Suzuki motorcycles, on the other hand, showcased three of its super-bikes (a 1000 cc and two 600 cc models) and its advanced technology. Going by the male urban youth target segment, I would have expected a computer game as well, but this was noticeably missing.

But, what about the female audience, or the non-urban audience, or those who aren’t any longer in their youth, who watched ‘Dhoom:2’ by the millions in packed cinema halls and multiplexes? How does anyone explain that? If the film has as much appeal to other audience segments as it does for the male urban youth, then perhaps my friends in media and marketing are wrong. Maybe ‘Dhoom:2’ has a more universal appeal than any old brand tailored for a niche market. Maybe the emotions a film like ‘Dhoom:2’ exudes are not the sole preserve of male urban youths, but many others.

In a recent article, ‘Gadhavi on why Dhoom 2 is a cult film’, in the entertainment section of www.oneindia.in, one of India’s leading portals, Sanjay Gadhavi, director of ‘Dhoom:2’, makes several interesting comments on his film and its audience. Here are some excerpts from that article:

“As far as Dhoom 2 goes, it’s too early to say if it’s a cult film, but it is a very clever sequel. Dhoom 2 is a universal hit; its appeal is not restricted just to the young males.

Dhoom 2 has become a family-going experience. For Dhoom, my producer Aditya Chopra had told me that the target audience was the age group 16 to 25; but for Dhoom 2 it was everybody because everyone had gone to see Dhoom.

If I were to analyse what the 16 to 25 group want, I would put my finger on speed, an adrenaline rush, cool behaviour and the idea of living on the edge. In clothes, it’s short skirts, bikinis. In accessories, it’s accessories, tattoos and all that stuff. But the two Dhooms appealed to all age groups because they are typical Hindi film packaged in a distinct new way. If you notice, both in Dhoom and Dhoom 2, there are no peripheral characters and all the major characters are in their 20s. My films don’t have a mother, father or sister ... and the audience is not disappointed because I have prepared the viewer for what he should not be looking for in the film.

So, while I did incorporate characters who were young and ideas which were new, I was confident that their appeal would cross all age barriers.”

Maybe, simply, the allure of a Hindi/Bollywood film like ‘Dhoom:2’ is such that, no matter how you classify it, it will always find its audience. And, in India, there’s no dearth of it. Perhaps, that’s the allure of Hindi cinema.

09 January 2007

Extraordinary Dhoom:2

Storytelling. Truth. Art. And the cinema. It’s not easy to bring all these elements together, but great filmmakers know how to achieve this extraordinary feat. I believe ‘Kabul Express’ and ‘Babel’ (see my previous posts) have the semblance of such extraordinary-ness. But, tragically, they have very few viewers. I say ‘tragically’ because these two important films of 2007 are likely to be ignored by the world in which they are trying to bring in some meaning.

Risking criticism from those millions of film-viewers (which, sadly, included me), and critics too, who’ve helped a utterly meaningless film like ‘Dhoom:2’ achieve Box Office success, I wish to put on record that ‘Dhoom:2’ from India’s Bollywood possesses none of the greatness of a great film. Storytelling, truth, art and the cinema do not feature in ‘Dhoom:2’. They are noticeably absent. Yet, the film has achieved what many films haven’t: extraordinary Box Office success.

‘Dhoom:2’ has three heroes: One, a senior police officer (with an expecting wife at home who is always talking to her husband in Bengali, although he never responds to her in Bengali… which made me wonder why it was included in the film), always fully clothed and not too hot on the dance floor, but intent on chasing an international crook. Two, an international crook of Indian origin (we’ve gone global now), who, apart from being a master of disguise, loves to take off his shirt and show off his rippling muscles, and is capable of fantastic acrobatic feats… including great dancing. Three, a simpleton and somewhat imbecilic police officer, die-hard partner to our first hero, who brings in the comic relief we expect in a typical Hindi/Bollywood film.

‘Dhoom:2’ has three heroines (or is it really two?): One, a fabulously sexy senior police officer, who remains fully clothed throughout her short role in the film, is really hot with a handgun, and is chasing our second hero, the international crook. During a chase she breaks a leg and her role is aborted. Two, a fabulously sexy crook who, apart from being a great dancer and sometimes shedding her clothes just for a little attention, is really the bait for the international crook set up by our first hero, the police officer. However, she brings in a twist in the tale by falling for the international crook, our second hero. Three, an absolutely dim-witted, non-Hindi speaking, scantily-clothed and fabulously sexy sister of our first heroine (our fabulously sexy police officer in a double-role), who is doing something or the other on the beaches of Copacabana, Brazil, which has nothing to do with the film except provide a home for our two police officers who are hot on the heels of the international crook whose next big heist is planned in Copacabana.

The first two heroes meet, seemingly coincidentally, sizing each other up and suggesting that, under different circumstances, they could have been friends as they are really the same kind of people. Well, circumstances are different, and so ‘Dhoom:2’ turns out to be a cat-and-mouse game of a Hindi/Bollywood action-thriller with great-looking actors but little acting, bad songs but great dancing, intermittent comic relief from our third hero, and an unexpected love scene towards the end of the film (the only thing I enjoyed as it was well-executed)… all leading to a finale which is, predictably, a touch reminiscent of the earlier ‘Dhoom’ film.

Storytelling, truth, art and the cinema? ‘Dhoom:2’ is not about any of these things. But surely, you can’t expect such filmmaking from a Hindi/Bollywood Box Office superhit! That would indeed be extraordinary.

06 January 2007

Babel: what's the connection?

In the beginning, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film ‘Babel’ is disconnected and confusing. There are four stories: two in Morocco, one crisscrossing the US-Mexico border, one in Japan. Each story reveals characters living in their own self-contained world; cocooned, isolated lives which are suddenly thrown open to the world and the film-viewer by accident. Slowly, the walls that separate the characters and their stories from the outside world collapse, and the stories begin to converge.

It all starts with a rifle shot. Two Moroccan boys, while playing with their goatherd father’s rifle on a mountain top (the rifle was bought to kill jackals which preyed on the goats), shoots at a passing tourist bus and accidentally hits an American woman passenger. This sets off an international incident with the media blowing up the story as an act of terrorism, while the critically-injured passenger’s husband tends to his wife by taking refuge in a Moroccan village.

The American couple in the middle of this controversy in Morocco, i.e. the injured passenger and her husband, has a story of their own. They are on a holiday to reconnect with themselves, to put their marriage back on track, after the recent death of their baby. But things don’t go so well for them. They’ve left their two older children (a girl and a boy) back home in San Diego with their Mexican nanny, and are concerned.

The Mexican nanny has plans of going to her son’s wedding in Mexico. She is trusted by her employers, but when she learns that her employers are unable to return home on time (because of the shooting accident in Morocco), and failing to make alternative arrangements to look after the two children, she decides to take the children with her to her son’s wedding in Mexico. All goes well till she is about to cross the border back into the United States in her drunken nephew’s car. She is stopped at the border check-post and when her drunken nephew makes a run for it in the car, her world falls apart.

In Japan, a deaf-mute teenage girl is fighting against the whole world to be accepted as normal. She has lost her mother recently (suicide) and feels her father is not caring enough. Feeling affronted and unloved, she mixes up her emotions – anger with her coming-of-age sexual desires – and indulges in brazen acts of promiscuity. The girl’s isolation – the barrier between her inner ‘silent’ world and the world outside – is beautifully portrayed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Even though this fourth story in Japan has very little connection with the other three (won’t tell you what the connection is; see the film and find out), and therefore, the main film, it is the one I loved the most. It’s in this story that Alejandro González Iñárritu magically, and sharply, brings out the pain of being isolated, of being disconnected with the world.

Naturally, communication, or the lack of it, is central to ‘Babel’. Apart from language being a barrier, particularly when people of two countries or cultures interact, all the characters in the stories seem to have problems expressing themselves, and being misunderstood, adding to their disconnectedness and isolation from the world. But, there’s more. Right from the first rifle shot, there’s a sense of destiny taking control of the lives of the characters in the stories… and helplessness setting in.

In ‘Babel, all four stories converge slowly over two days, and over two hours for the film-viewer, making watching the film rather laborious. Moreover, with sudden cuts between the stories, I felt annoyed. The moment I settled into a plot, González Iñárritu transported me to another one, leaving me hanging. Perhaps, González Iñárritu adopted this technique to string together the fragmented stories and bring about their interconnectedness; but I’m only guessing.

There is one thing, however, that González Iñárritu succeeds in communicating through ‘Babel’. That, human isolation and interconnectedness are really two sides of the same coin called life. Therein lies their connection. ‘Babel’ is worth watching, if only for this realisation.

04 January 2007

Kabul Express: no song and dance

The coming of the New Year was a somewhat poignant moment for me. It slipped quietly over two days without a song and dance, leaving behind a vision of how isolated yet interconnected we are as human beings. No, it wasn’t a personal tragedy, nor loneliness, that brought this enlightenment in the form of a paradox. On the contrary, it was entertainment.

Specifically speaking, two films opened my eyes. The first was, strangely, a Hindi film called ‘Kabul Express’. I say ‘strangely’ because I’m rather critical of Hindi/Bollywood films, as I am unable to accept their meaningless song-and-dance routines and open shameless plagiarism. But ‘Kabul Express’ was no ordinary Hindi film. The second was an international film called ‘Babel’ – a tribute (if that’s the right word) to this paradox of human isolation and interconnectedness I mentioned earlier.

‘Kabul Express’ is an intelligent film. Its intelligence lies in its treatment and presentation of human nature and world politics through a simple plot: Two television journalists (both men) from India visit post-9/11 war-torn Afghanistan in an attempt to do a story on the Taliban. Their Afghan guide takes them through the desolate Afghan countryside (beautifully captured on film) in his jeep in order to trace the Taliban, who are still purported to be operating in Afghanistan, and interview them. They meet an American journalist (a woman) there who is still looking for ‘one great story’ to advance her career.

For the Indian journalists and their Afghan guide, their meeting with the Taliban is unexpected. They are captured by a fleeing Taliban member who holds them hostage, engineering a journey to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border so he can escape/return to Pakistan. ‘Kabul Express’ is about two days that these five characters – two Indian journalists, an Afghan guide, a Taliban (terrorist) and an American journalist – spend together and the emotions that run within them, leading to the end of the film.

In ‘Kabul Express’, the war and the politics happen in the background; yet, they are very much a part of the film. The film is universal in its theme and it’s a remarkable achievement by documentary filmmaker Kabir Khan. It has no songs, nor dance sequences. It has no melodrama, nor action. In fact, the acting is quite subdued… with touches of humour and strong human emotion.

‘Kabul Express’ presents a facet of human nature that always amazes me. And that is, how we, humans, isolate ourselves through our ideologies and our ambitions, sometimes taking it to an extreme end, before realising that, underneath, we are all one. That, the ground beneath our feet is the same, no matter what our beliefs are, no matter which culture we belong to, no matter what language we speak.

‘Kabul Express’ is a very unlike Hindi/Bollywood film, but one of the best I’ve seen.

02 January 2007


"Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune – I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them. "

[Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road, from ‘Leaves of Grass’]