Reels of Magic

Tale of three movies

In the past three weeks, I saw three very good movies. Each remarkably better than the previous one.

I did briefly write about Paan Singh Tomar in my previous blog entry, where I believe Irrfan Khan had surpassed himself. I have always loved Khan, who is the best of the current Khans in Bollywood, since watching him in Miya Maqbool many years ago. But in Tomar, Khan depicts the best in cinematic portrayals. He has transformed himself in mind, body and spirit, depicting the pathos and mirth in a unique character, with several deep shades of grey. Yet, Khan ensures that everyone in the hall roots for the anti-hero.

However Paan Singh Tomar is not just about Khan’s acting. It’s also about telling a story that needs to be told. And at the end of movie, leaving a message that’s important. What are we doing about of our old sporting heroes? Why do we forget them so fast? The message is delivered, without being very preachy.

The director and the crew have obviously done enough home work to get the mood of a period film. I could not find many flaws with the way the story was told. There were no real bloopers or flaws. This was movie making at its best.

A week later, I saw Kahaani, and it turned out to be even better. And I must say that Sujoy Gosh has created a master piece, which one day would be seen on par with the best Bollywood has produced. It was so gripping, that I missed some of the background music. Especially the lovely rendering of some Rabindra Sangeet by Amitabh Bacchan.

A hallmark of a good thriller is to leave the suspense till the last. In many ways, I think Kahaani is in the same league as Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief, minus the music. What’s incredible about Kahaani is not just the twist in the end which leaves you breathless. The movie does throw a few red herrings. The twist in the end does make you replay the entire movie in your mind. And you’ll start searching for answers, and you’ll start finding them. You search for loop holes in the story, and find that there are few.

Vidya Balan is now among the best actors India has seen. I was very impressed by her debut in Parineeta. And I was completely bowled over by her in Ishqiya. However in Kahaani she has proven that she’s a performer who is incomparable. But the movie is not just about Vidya Balan, though for an average Hindi movie buff, she’s the only recognizable face, other than Darshan Jariwala. Some of the other actors who are from Bengali cinema or theatre give the movie the realistic touch.

I have seen popular cinema falter when an actor tries to play a character that needs to have regional distinctness. Most Bollywood stars end up as caricatures when they try to play the role of a Bengali, a South Indian, or even a Pathan. However, majority of Bollywood has its roots in Punjab, they are able to play a Punjabi very easily. Parineeta (2006) was a lavish attempt in depicting Calcutta of the sixties. While to a large extent, the mood of the period and the city was captured, I felt the male lead actors (Sunjay Dutt and Saif Ali Khan) looked so not-so-Bong that it was funny. That’s why Sujoy Gosh’s casting was pretty good. I am sure he could have signed on some of the leading Bollywood veterans, but I guess they could not have delivered the way the supporting cast of Parambrata Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saswata Chatterjee have done.

 But there is more to this movie than the twist, Balan, and her supporting cast. One of them is the way the director captures the city of Kolkotta during the Durga Pujo. Gosh manages to transport the viewer to Kolkotta that when you leave the cinema hall, you feel you are leaving the erstwhile Indian capital behind. You can almost smell the city in the theatre. You’ll suddenly recognize the Bongs among the fellow cinegoers in the cinema hall, because they are so excited that they can only speak in Bengali.

The humour in both Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani is very subtle.

Finally, I saw The Artist. An Oscar award winning movie does set your expectations. However recent Oscar winners were not very impressive. I thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrible. The Artist is an almost flawless attempt at film making. It does not have a story which is one per cent as gripping as Kahaani. In fact we have heard the story before in both Hollywood and Bollywood.

First of all this is a silent movie. It’s in black and white. But when it comes to telling the story, which is very predictable, the makers of the movie have left little for you to complain about and have managed to keep you rooted to the chair.

I have been a huge fan of good old Hollywood cinema. I have watched hundreds of thirties and forties Hollywood flicks, and have a good eye for detail. The Artist captures late twenties and thirties perfectly.

In a period film, it’s so important for both main actors and the supporting cast to capture the mood, emotions and the looks of the era. Each decade had its own distinctness in terms of style, attire, body language, emotions, and expressions.

Both mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood have been pretty poor when it comes to delivering period films, off late. There’s no doubt that Hollywood, is better than Bollywood, but I guess they have more money to invest.

Even renowned directors such as Shyam Banegal have failed miserably when it comes to getting things perfect. His Zubeidaa is a good movie, with some great music. However the music, the choreography, or even the body language of the cast never depicted the forties. The Artist comes a winner in this respect. Jean Dujardin depicts the persona of Douglas Fairbanks and oozes the charm of Clark Gable. The way he grins, smiles, nods his head, or expresses depression has the late twenties written all over. There’s nothing about the current generation in looks, body language, attire or expression of any actor including even the extras in the movie. The way the camera rolls  to the way movie has been been edited, is simply the silent era.

And the background score by Ludovic Bource is sublime. The music director has borrowed from several old films, and the resemblance makes it even better. Finally, the real star of the movie is Uggie the dog, who literally stole every scene in which he appeared.

So friends, here are three films that you must watch. They are all different, but they all celebrate the best in film making.

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Good Bye Dev Saab

Death is something you never associated with Dev Saab. If my memory serves right in he died exactly two times in his movies. Once in Guide, and then in his last commission-earner Lashkar in 1989.

He was eternally ever green, someone whom you’ll associate with life and the extreme highs of life. You would never have read that he was not well. If you have been lucky enough to read his autobiography Romancing with Life, you’d realize that he was human too, but was incredibly in love with his own evergreen image, that he very tactfully managed to keep everything regarding his health or lack of it away from the public life.

It feels almost surreal, as I write these words. The feeling has not sunk in. It feels that anything can happen, but Dev Anand cannot die. Everyone will die, but Dev Anand will never.

But that’s not the case, the legend indeed has bid adieu to legions of his fans, well wishers, and lovers of good old cinema. Reports say that he died  around 10 PM GMT, following a massive cardiac arrest.

As I write these words, I also read that his family has taken a call to cremate in London itself, which I believe is the best that they could do to keep his image alive.

While the media has been frantically covering the news, a public display of his mortal body, and a cremation that would be covered by half of the electronic channels and print media is not something that Dev Saab would have liked. As a true fan, I would like to remember him being alive, than conform to the reality of his death.

I remember when Raaj “Jaani” Kumar passed away in 1996, not a single soul came to know outside his family. His sons cremated him, and the only interview which the electronic media managed was that of a watchman at the crematorium. Hence Kumar being frail, weak, and unhealthy never stayed in memories of people.

Everyone will remember Raaj Kumar as being the badass hero who unflinchingly uttered the most nonsense of dialogues with the conviction of an experienced preacher.

They were true stars of the celluloid. Dev Saab or Raaj Kumar never endorsed products, or even if they supported a cause commercial or charitable, they never took a rupee. To them film making was all
Their private lives were enigmatic. And their stardom was real.

I have idolized Dev Saab for much of my life. I still remember watching Jewel Thief as a 12 year old on Television and the incredible joy that some of his lesser known films like Solwa Saal (1958), Asli Naqli (1962), or even Patita (1953) gave me.

Critics have always panned him as all style and no substance. These days people prefer to point to his Box Office duds since the late seventies. It’s unfortunate that they do that rather than look at the immense joy that he has provided over time. There are few who can boast of his body of work. I am not going into that. You can read it all over the net.

I have met Dev Saab thrice. Twice in Mumbai, and once in Bangalore. He in fact recollected meeting me, when I last met him during the launch of his autobiography.

I could write pages on him, having watched his movies multiple times, and devoured much of the literature on him.

I would write couple more posts later. Let me leave you with a song from his hit Tere Ghar Ke Saamne. If there were a breezy romantic musical this was it. And has romance been expressed better than this duet…

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The Incredible Santhosh Pandit!

In my home state Kerala, the God’s Own Country, there’s just one question in the minds of all people young and old, male and female, urban and rural – Is Santhosh Pandit an exceptional genius or a complete dimwit with an accidental Midas touch?

I first came to know about Mr. Pandit through my colleague Vinil Vijayan who keeps sending me Youtube video links. I had dismissed Santhosh Pandit as another wannabe trying his luck, whose creative efforts would be murdered by a discerning Malayalee audience, and surely dismissed without disdain. This was some time in May 2011.

If you search for Santhosh Pandit on Youtube, you will come across hundreds of videos, with thousands of comments, where 99 percent of the users would be abusing him. In fact, if you need to get a PhD in Malayalam cuss words, you just need to browse through comments on his videos. Some of them are so creative, that it enlightened me as I found that my vocabulary of swear words was limited, despite four years at an engineering college hostel.

Santhosh Pandit has handled every department including production, direction, stunts, choreography, script, dialogues, lyrics, music, recording, costume designing and even the story of his maiden venture Krishanum Radhayum (Krishna and Radha). In a recent interview, he claims that he would soon be featured in Guinness Records, for his multifaceted feat of handling all aspects of film making except the camera.

He plays the lead and he has introduced around five heroines in his magnum opus.

The videos of the songs were heavily criticized for its extremely poor choreography and ultra low production values. Youtube viewers took offense to the fact that Santhosh is not good looking, and definitely not hero material. They alleged that the heroine looks way too young for a hero in his late twenties or early thirties. I found that to be hypocrisy, as the reigning super star Mammootty is sixty years, and the other two super stars Mohan Lal and Suresh Gopi are well over fifty years. They act with heroines who are in their early twenties.

The low production quality aside, everything except the music looks very, very tacky. It’s so tacky that movies made by Kanti Shah appear to be slick and sleek flicks.

The music is the film’s highlight, and I must confess that five out of the eight songs  have foot-tapping music, even though the lyrics are sub-standard. Listen to this song, and be amazed by the video. Check the expressions, the choreography, and production values. You don’t need to know Malayalam to appreciate the tackiness.

Santhosh and his team have managed to create a huge awareness albeit through negative publicity by publishing some of the videos, and a 14 minute trailer on Youtube. More than two dozen videos have more than 50,000 views, and several over 200,000 views. Apparently Pandit is getting paid Rs. 4 per click. He has given numerous interviews to both print and electronic media for extra publicity.

On October 21, 2011, the movie released across several theatres in Kerala, and to everyone’s surprise all theatres reported cent percent collections.

The movie to no one’s surprise turned out to be worse than what was projected by the trailers and the songs released on Youtube.

A friend of mine from Kochi said that he was so curious about the movie that he secretly went and watched it on the second day. “I was amazed by the crowd, mostly consisting of youngsters. They were screaming and verbally abusing the hero and the cast. The movie at best was unintentionally funny. People were laughing their hearts out whenever the hero mouthed dialogues, danced, or cried.”

Manorama News said that during the first day, the Police had to be called into control the crowds. Many of the viewers told the news channel that they would return to laugh, abuse, and dance for a later show within the week. Repeat audience indicates the chances of the movie having cult following.

With teenagers doing the Ganguly act in the theatres, there’s little doubt that the movie would easily breakeven and return profits. Some say that Pandit could pocket one crore rupees through gate collections, and television rights.

Pandit has managed to do the impossible. He has managed to bring back the Malayalee cine-goers to the theatres. And he is laughing his way to the bank.

Meanwhile he is busy working on his next movie, Jeethu Bhai Enna Chocolate Bhai (Jeethu the Chocolate Hero) and has announced a third film, Kalidasan Kavithayezhuthukannu (Kalidasan is writing a poem). Both movies will have him man all the departments except the camera, and play the protagonist role.

If movies of Shah were prime examples of the phenomenon It’s so bad; it’s good, Pandit takes the cake.

I guess, deservedly too!

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It’s so bad; it’s good

My first experience of this great phenomenon happened, on a rainy night in Bangalore’s Infantry Road. Bangalore rains being very unpredictable and harsh, I was forced to take refuge at the nearby Sangeeth Theatre. With rain showing no signs of stopping, I decided that it may not be a bad idea to catch a movie. Since I had never watched a movie till then sitting along with the front benchers, I bought a ticket at Rs 5 for Marte Dum Tak (Till I die), circa 1995.

The movie is a prime example of all the B grade movies of the 80s, and most reviewers of the present day generation would have given it a half star. You have a bevy of buxom aunties dancing in the background while the hero and heroine gyrate; you have bad men and their henchmen wearing the most hideous of all wigs; and above all you have the one and only Raaj Kumar, sporting a wig himself mouthing the most nonsensical of all dialogues with such conviction that it’s almost convincing for the audience. They are loud, gaudy, and horrible.

I sat between an auto rickshaw driver (identified by the uniform he wore) and a wide-eyed restaurant cleaner boy (who later introduced himself), aghast! Normally, if I am watching something that outrageous, I would have walked out. But it was raining outside.

Now enthusiasm is an emotion that’s positively contagious. The restaurant cleaner boy, about 14 or 15 years old, had obviously watched this movie half a dozen times at least. In his excitement he kept pulling my shirt sleeves. Usually such an act would initiate an acute sense of irritation and anger inside me, but I decided to leave behind my intellectual cap and made friends with him.

Thus, the new, colourful, gaudy, brash but brilliant, raucous yet enjoyable, illogical and brainless world of B grade movies opened up to me.

Now for die-hard fans of Raaj Kumar a memorable scene from Marte Dum Tak.

According to a friend who worked as an assistant director in Bollywood before returning to a corporate job, while candy floss romantic flicks dished out by the Johars and Chopras of the world can flop; the B grade movies have a market that ensures that almost all of them get a return of investment. Their low production costs aside, they have a mass following in the cow belts of UP and Bihar, in the Gangetic plains, arid zones in Rajasthan and Gujarat, up in the foot hills of Himalayas, in rustic Punjab and Haryana. Yes, there’s a captive market, a 500 million population out there.

They are all enamoured by the many cliches. You have gun trotting villains with evil grins, firangs who can speak Hindi and even Bhojpuri albeit with an accent, sisters of the hero just waiting to be raped, villagers dressed alike in all the movies so much so it’s almost as if it’s a uniform! You have smart animals usually a monkey, a dog, or a horse with an IQ close to 140; a busty heroine with padded posteriors with an IQ of 40; middle-aged men with long hair wearing t-shirts posing as college students, and a hero who with all his stunts will undoubtedly make Rajni look like a school boy.

The story line invariably is about revenge, with gargantuan holes in the script. The action is gory and gruesome with a geriatric hero bashing up a million men, killing some of them with bare hands! Songs filled with double entendre at the best merely catchy have dances replete with obscene gestures that always bring in whistles from the front benchers. There are customary comic scenes usually slap-stick, placed to bring in relief that actually stand out like a sore thumb. The actors are over the top, hamming away like there’s no tomorrow.

Being an avid researcher, I started reading about B grade movies, though there’s little literature about them, since that night, Much to the chagrin of my intellectual friends, I even started watching them.

I discovered that there were many like me, who were equally enthralled and enchanted by the B-grade yore, but did not quite belong to the rustic class. There were alumni of IITs and IIMs, PhD scholars, CEOs, CXOs, other top honchos of multinationals, scientists, writers, and thinkers. Most of them as comfortable with the Mithun-da starrers as they are with French cinema, who consider both forms to be pure art. To quote a friend, “One is art, the other one is raw art.”

Consider the cult classics Gunda or Loha by the genius of the Z-grade movie making Kanti Shah.

Gunda has exclusive fan sites on Orkut and Facebook, reviews by fans and even an FAQ web site. According to a reviewer the movie is a favourite among IITians and has been shown in every hostel in the country. It is known to have grossed in excess of Rs 30 crores, and by today’s standards is a bigger sleeper hit than Three Idiots.

You have a PhD scholar quoting dialogues from Gunda and citing the movie in almost every other post on his popular blog.

Yes, the impact on the intelligentsia of such movies is real. Many of the brightest minds get inspired by similar stuff. These movies are so terrible that there are terrific. They are so tasteless that they taste great! They are so trashy that they turn out to be gems!

I will not write about any one of the movies, and especially not about Gunda, as there have been enough analysis by real fans over the years that any attempt from me would be a waste. Instead, here’s the intro from this cult classic. And if you feel like watching the entire movie, go here.

After the classic Heer Ranjah (1970) directed by Chetan Anand, perhaps no movie has had dialogues written in verse. Heer Ranjah was written by the famous Urdu poet, Kaifi Azmi, and the dialogues of the movie are still revered by its fans for its poetry. Until Gunda. The dialogues from Gunda not only rhyme, they resonate with a deep meaning. Deeper than what Kaifi saab could think of.

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50 years back

A photograph of the triumvirate or the ‘trimoorthy’ taken on December 14th, 1960 at Raj Kapoor’s 36th birthday bash in Bombay. The photograph appeared in the January 1961 edition of the Filmfare magazine. 1961 marked the beginning of the end of the reign of the triumvirate, as new young stars such as Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, and Sunil Dutt started delivering hits.

Dev, Raj and Dilip

A snap that appeared in Filmfare 1961 Jan edition

In fact, Raj Kapoor never delivered a solo hit again. His only major success for the rest of his acting career being Sangam (1964) which had Rajendra Kumar as his co-star.

Dev at 37, and Dilip who was 38 at that time had longer legs as matinee idols delivering some of their better films in later years. Raj, the original showman delivered landmark movies behind the camera for his home production such as Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Mera Naam Joker, Prem Rog, and Ram Teri Ganga Maili.

Dev had another 20 years as a busy leading man with some of his best work ahead such as Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, Guide, Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam, Des Paredes. He rightfully grabbed the mantle of evergreen hero, before venturing into an expensive, self-indugant hobby of making box-office duds created merely for his own satisfaction.

Dilip delivered hits such as Ganga Jamuna, Leader, Ram aur Shyaam during the next 10 years, before graduating to stellar character roles, maturing with age and time. In fact, he is the only leading man to have delivered at least a hit in every decade from 40s to 90s.

Raj died in 1988, Dilip has retired, Dev has not even slowed down.

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Oh Mere Raja…

One of the lesser known poets and lyricists of Hindi cinema was Rajinder Krishan. Born in 1919, at Jalalpur Rattan, in present day Pakistan, Krishan started of as a screenplay writer and lyricist in the late forties, and worked as one till his death in 1988.

Despite writing many memorable songs, Krishan is not considered in the  same league of legendary lyricists such as Sahir Ludhyanvi, Shailendra, or Majrooh Sultanpuri. Though he was essentially a poet, Krishan wrote several screen plays for Hindi and even Tamil films (mostly for AVM Studios). One of his notable screen plays was for Padosan (1968) starring Sunil Dutt, Saira Banu, Mehmood, and Kishore Kumar.

In 1970, Gulshan Rai of Trimurti films had contracted Rajinder Krishan to write songs for his movie Johny Mera Naam starring Dev Anand, Pran, Hema Malini, Prem Nath, and Jeevan.

It’s said that and has been confirmed by the hero Dev Anand, that Rajendra Krishan never turned up  for the music sessions for the first song in the movie, where noted music director duo Kalyanji-Anandji had already created the tunes.

A cheesed off film production unit including Vijay ‘Goldie’ Anand the director, called him up and accused him of his unprofessional attitude.

Krishan’s excuse was that he had just won a jackpot of Rs 46,00,000  in horse racing, and had to pocket the fortune. This was very huge money in those days and would easily be worth Rs 50 crore today. The reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna, used to earn less than ten lakhs for a movie, and even established stars such as Dev Anand or Dilip Kumar used to pocket around seven lakhs in 1970. Apparently, Krishan told them that he would finish the song by evening. He is said to have written the song in the taxi on the way to the studios.

The lyrics were,
Khafa na hona, der se aayi.
Door se aayi, majburi thi.
Lekin waada to nibhaaya…
Loosely translated, it means, ‘Don’t get angry because I came late. From a distant place, had a commitment, yet I kept my promise.”

It was certainly the heights of quick wit and imagination!

The song picturized on Dev and Hema was a huge hit.

You can check the song for yourself.

I had an opportunity to check with Dev Saab on the picturisation. It was at the famous ropeway at Nalanda in Bihar.

 

The story goes that during the shooting (check the video), the ropeway carriage was stuck midway for hours, with Hema firmly perched in Dev Saab’s lap. Gossip magazines of those days quoted Hema as saying that Dev was a thorough gentleman.

Johny Mera Naam went on to become a huge blockbuster that released almost simultaneously with Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. A total entertainer, Johny Mera Naam  is regarded as the biggest hit of Dev Saab’s career, while Mera Naam Joker, despite its multi-star cast bombed at the box office. Kapoor stopped accepting roles of the traditional quintessential Bollywood hero, and opted to be behind the camera for the next decade and a half after that.

Johny Mera Naam gave a much needed filip to Dev Saab’s career, and he went on to work as a commercially viable  leading man for another decade, churning out hits such as Amir Garib, Jaaneman, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and Des Pardes among others. He continues to make movies albeit uncaring of box office results.

Johny Mera Naam, the movie, is considered to be an ultimate hand book for anyone wishing to make a pot boiler. Perhaps another day, I will write about why it’s such a cult classic.

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