Monday, March 31, 2008

The Kite Runner – A Review

Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel “The Kite Runner” (published 2003) became an international bestseller and features on the list of favorite books of many a book readers and reviewers. I got to read the book when I was in India about two years ago. I will not call the book a literary work of art (I am no connoisseur of books, but I do understand when a book is good or bad), its style is simple and easy to follow, and it wins you with its story – which is tragic and hopeful at the same time. The book transported me to the alien world of Amir and Hassan, the two central characters of the story set in Afghanistan of the seventies. In the two and half days that I took to read it from cover to cover, I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. At the end of the book I was wearing a smile for a couple of hours and a slouch posture due to the draining effect the story had on me (anyone who has read this book knows what I am talking about and probably felt the same).

When, I first heard that a movie is being made on this book, I was skeptical. I was apprehensive that the extremely complex and delicate emotions and the tragedy of the characters will be turned into – a) a sappy Hollywood’esque drama b) an overtly political viewpoint of Afghanistan and Taliban or c) a verbose movie with a lot of voice-over narration to help the viewers understand the subtext.

Then I IMDBed the movie, saw that Marc Forster was directing and that no known stars are a part of this project. I learnt more, the majority of the movie will be made in the local dialects of the Afghans – Dari, Pashto and Urdu. These factors helped me qualm my initial fears to a large extent. Marc Forster’s impressive resume – the hugely tragic “Monster’s Ball”, the incredibly optimistic “Finding Neverland” and the quirky but brilliant existential dramedy “Stranger than Fiction” made him an eligible candidate to captain this project.

I was still a little jittery when I popped in the DVD this past Sunday afternoon. The movie started and I was transported back in the life of Amir and Hassan, in the harsh but humbling landscape of Kabul (Kashgar, China posing as Kabul), in the innocence of the actor playing “Hassan”, in the kite flying and kite running. The final effect was not as draining as the book had, (not the movie’s fault) but it did not disappoint me.

I must praise the brave decision of the filmmakers to use the local dialects instead of English. Using English would have killed the impact, sure more people would have watched it, but the scriptwriters and the directors stuck to their instincts and it was a wise decision. (I do not understand why people are so put off by movies which are of a different language and they have to read subtitles. They are robbing themselves off of a treasure of good movies out there). Although the movie was shot in China, I personally think the scenery was very close to what I had imagined when I was reading the book.

The child actors are perfectly cast – Zekeria Ebrahimi as young Amir looks like a rich Pashtun kid that he is and displays the vulnerability, diffidence, confusion and helpless guilt of the character with tremendous maturity. But the part that was the key to the story was of young Hassan, a Hazara (lower caste) boy with a pudgy nose. Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, who plays young Hassan, is impeccable. He brings out the emotions of his unconditional love and devotion towards his friend Amir Agha very gracefully. The metamorphosis in his demeanor and mannerisms after the ghastly act which forms the turning point in the story is meticulous. Watch for his eyes before and after the key event, it’s heartbreaking. The reason I say that this was an important role to cast is because, the audience needs to understand the devastation and constant persecution that this character undergoes in order to understand the drastic actions that the Amir character will take in the later part of the story.

The book goes to great lengths in explaining the persecuted Hazara clan throughout the Afghan history, the movie skips over this aspect. The movie leaves out a lot of such details depicted in the book which help in understanding the Afghani way of living, the motivations of the characters etc. The character of Amir’s father is described extremely well in the book, but the movie chooses to sideline that character. I am sure this was to keep the screenplay focused on the two main characters and the central storyline. The scenes from the book that had a universal appeal have been retained and I am extremely glad for that. For example – the pomegranate tree scene, the conversations between Rahim Khan and Amir, the storytelling scenes between Amir and Hassan.

Let me talk about the background score now. When one reads a book, the reader visualizes the story, the characters, and the locations but does not weave music with his or her visualization. In the movie version of stories as powerful as this one, music (and lighting) creates an environment that the book does with pages of description of the place or the characters. Alberto Iglesias (a Spanish composer) has composed a soul-stirring score and has helped the movie in achieving that impact of tugging at your heart. His music in the kite flying scenes is especially noteworthy, it soars high just like the colorful flying kites in a blue sky with white fluffy clouds.

It must have been a difficult film to make logistically – a German director, an Afghani cast, a Chinese crew, an American script writer, a Spanish music composer, Pashto-Dari dialogues. Imagine this – you as director have to explain the scene to the Afghani kids and at the same time explain the shot to the Chinese crew. Marc Forster has demonstrated a keen understanding of portraying children and extracting beautiful performances from child actors. He did that in “Finding Neverland” and he proves himself once again. Having non-English speaking child actors makes it doubly difficult but he emerges victorious.

Fans of the book will not be disappointed in the movie; they will once again be reminded of the universal appeal of this story that takes place in a land largely unknown to the rest of the world. Even for those who have not read the book, the movie will be an enjoyable experience. There is no requirement of having read the book for this one.

The movie has the same impact when young Hassan says to his Amir Agha “For you, a thousand times over”. Those words pack an emotional blow in the movie as it did in the book.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar - A Review

Ashutosh Gowariker (AG) started his directing career with duds like "Pehla Nasha" and "Baazi". Both the movies sank without a trace save for the image of Aamir Khan in drag in a song in Baazi. "Lagaan" hit the theatres in 2001 and AG was catapulted to the "A" list of directors. Despite its length and a predictable plotline, Lagaan was an enjoyable movie. Its heart was in its right place, it had a clear agenda. Then came "Swades". Despite its not so good fairing at the box office, Swades was also a focussed attempt, AG was in control, the purpose was crystal clear and he managed to extract a controlled performance from SRK.

Jodhaa Akbar (JA), sadly, is a big disappointment. AG as a storyteller seems lost and confused in this magnum opus. He got too distracted with the mega sets, the costumes and the beautiful leading pair. As soon as a director looses his or her grip on what is that he is trying to convey, no amount of SFX, million dollar jewellery and wide angle war scenes can cover up the lack of a seamless narrative.

Do not get me wrong, JA is not all that bad - It has its strengths - the costumes, the sweeping locales, the Moghul palaces, the war scenes, the glorious beauty of Hrithik Roshan (HR) and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan (ARB) , AR Rehman's soulful music. Sadly though, it does not use these strengths to tell a neat story. At the end of three hours and twenty minutes you feel empty. You leave with the awesome jewellery around ARB's slender neck and an ARR tune to hum.

Let's talk about the lead character - Aamir Khan's Bhuvan in Lagaan was a classic underdog hero, SRK's Mohan Bhargava in Swades was a confused individual coming to grips with his roots - all text book protagonists in the art of cinema. Hrithik Roshan's Akbar, however comes across as a manipulated character who reacts in an episodic narrative. In order for the audience to connect or empathize with the hero, they need to see the compelling reasons for his actions. JA lacks in this basic formula. It falters badly, it goes from one sweeping palace to another sun soaked battlefield to another grand palace and takes it characters along with it who seem only to react (and not act) to the situation they are in (which itself seems forced).

I am not looking for historical accuracy in such movies (let's leave that for the History channel). Historical epics are more a vision of the director and the scriptwriter of a certain episode in history and I am willing to let them take liberties at that. This is exactly why I did not understand why JA was banned in certain places (Indian sensitivities are a subject of much intrigue). Fictionalizing history can be made into a fascinating product - Mughal-e-Azam is a fine example. It had all that JA has - palaces, fierce battle scenes, costumes and a strong script where the focus was always on the tainted love of Salim and Anarkali and the conflict that arises from this affair. JA's middle act forms for a complete movie. The moment Akbar and Jodhaa consummate their marriage should have been "The End".

Lets talk about HR and ARB's performances. I must say they look royal and their physicality is regal. HR is like a Calvin Klein underwear model in Moghul period costumes. He tries too hard, he seems sincere but does not have the brooding, burning aura of a King. ARB looks stunning and luminous. But as soon as these lead actors talk - you know you are watching 21st century individuals reciting 14th century dialogues. There is a laziness, a slow drawl, a unique way of delivering dialogues in such movies. An Urdu word "Nazaakat" aptly describes this quality. If you want to know what I mean go watch Dilip Kumar, Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, go watch Rekha in Umrao Jaan, hell even Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob. These actors got it right, they mouthed their words slowly yet with a certain weight. HR and ARB completely miss the boat, in some scenes their dialogue delivery is just like it would be in Dhoom2.

Other performances are not noteworthy (Kulbhushan Kharbanda continues to talk like he has some fishbone stuck in his gums and is trying to take it out with his tongue ). There are too many unnecessary distractions and sub-plots in the movie. The battle scenes are mounted on a massive scale but when the soldiers on the two sides engage it reminds you of the battle scenes from Ramayana or Mahabharata. That's all I will say about that.

ARR's music as always is of exceptional quality. "Marhaba" and "Jash-e-Baharaa" make for classic musical pieces.

Overall, it seems like AG got caught up with the high expectations of a big budget extravagant historical epic and lost his attention from what he does best - tell a simple story well.

Holi Hai!

Scenes from Holi 2007

Scenes from Holi 2008

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Anthony Minghella – R.I.P.

It was April 2000. I was living in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had been in the United States for barely 3 months. There was still snow on the ground and the temperature was in the teens. I did not know that April in New Hampshire could be that cold. I did not know anyone in town and thus movies were my only way of passing time. A blockbuster was a block away from my apartment. I must have watched one movie every weekday and probably half a dozen over weekends. It was the age of VHS tapes. One chilly night I rented the “The English Patient”. I am not sure what made me pick the movie, but then I would rent anything and everything in those days. From the first frame of the movie to the last, I did not realize how 162 minutes of my life had passed. The film consumed me completely, I was left exhausted and exhilarated. I was introduced to Anthony Minghella.

The English Patient has one of the most memorable opening sequences – you see a shadow of an aircraft on the sand dunes of a vast desert, the camera slowly reveals a still, slightly sun-burnt face of a woman sitting in an open cockpit of a twin propellor aircraft with the wind blowing her scarf and her red hair. You don’t know what a beautiful woman like her is doing in that aircraft flying over a vast desert. As the story unfolds, you find out who the woman is, but the image of her in that aircraft keeps coming back to you and then comes a moment when you realize the purpose of it – and that moment stays with you long after the movie is over. The movie is filled with rich characters, sumptuous cinematography, crushing emotions, spirited performances and a background score to match the emotional high drama. The movie is almost lyrical, in a way it is like reading a book or listening to a symphony. There was a Seinfeld episode where Elaine and Jerry mock this movie – I smiled when I saw the episode – you know when Seinfeld makes fun of something, it’s earned its fame.

Minghella made “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” in later years- all adaptations of books. Minghella treated his characters with respect – you discover them one frame at a time, just like you would while turning pages in a book, gradually. The locations and backdrops of his movies formed an important part of the narrative - be it the Sahara desert in English Patient or Italy in Ripley or the North Carolina countryside in Cold Mountain. He captured the beauty of these places and made them integral with the story, never for once would the placement of the characters in a particular location seemed like a gimmick. The characters belong there. There is a clear purpose to their being in that precise place at that precise time.
Examples - The heartbreaking scene of Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas) character dying in a dark cave all by herself, the scene between Hana the nurse (Juliette Binoche) and Kip (Naveen Andrews), the Indian Soldier in a dilapidated church in the Italian countryside.

It’s easy to dismiss it by saying that the novel already had these scenes written for him. However, it’s quite easy to get carried away with the visual representation of the written word. Minghella’s focus never deviated from the soul of the characters, he understood their bearings and their pulse, and he gave shape to them and brought them to life. This is what made him a great director when it comes to adapting books to movies. He will be missed.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Gulzar: Kuch khoye huye nagme - 4

Every Hindi film music aficionado knows about the greatness of this man named Sampooran Singh Kalra aka Gulzar. We have all heard his famous songs a thousand times now, such as: “Tere bina zindagi se” from Aandhi, “Hazaar Rahen” from Thodisi Bewafayee, “Mera kuch saaman” from Ijaazat, or “Kajra re” from Bunty aur Babli. This series is about those lesser known songs penned by this master poet.
Movie: Masoom (1983)
Music Director: Rahul Dev Burman
Singer: Aarti Mukherjee

Do Naina aur Ek Kahani,
Thoda Sa Badal Thoda Sa Paani, Aur Ek Kahani
Do Naina aur Ek Kahani

Chotisi do jheeloon mein woh beheti raheti hai
Koi sune ya na sune kaheti raheti hai
Kuch Likh kar kuch zubaani
Thoda Sa Badal Thoda Sa Paani, Aur Ek Kahani

Thodi si hai jaani hui Thodi si nayee
Jahan ruke Aasun wahi puri ho gayi
Hai to nayee phir bhi hai puraani
Thoda Sa Badal Thoda Sa Paani, Aur Ek Kahani

Ek khatm ho to doosri raat aajaati hai
Hoothon pe phir bhulee hue baat aajaati hai

Do nainon ki hai ye Kahani
Thoda Sa Badal Thoda Sa Paani, Aur Ek Kahani

By now, you are probably familiar with the pattern used in this song and have recognized it already - yes I am referring to TRIVENI.

Masoom was directed by Shekhar Kapur way before his Elizabethean days. It was written by Gulzar and tells a touching story of a child born out of wedlock trying to bond with the legitimate family of his father. It had spirted performances by the entire cast (even the ham-queen Urmila was tolerable). The music was composed by RD and songs were written by Gulzar. Other songs like "Tujhse Naraaz nahi zindagi" and "Lakadi ki kaathi" became immensely popular in those days and can be heard on Aakashwani and RD-Gulzar CD compilations even today. This song however got over-shadowed by the popularity of the other songs. It was sung by an unknown singer, Aarti Mukherjee. Her voice works for this simple and fluid tune belonging to the lullaby mould.
The RD-Gulzar team have given Hindi music many timeless compositions. RD, for sure, did not quite understand the complete meaning of Gulzar's poetry, but neverthless was probably the only composer who could compose tunes to such bizarre poetry as "Mera kuch saaman" and "Is mod se jaate hain" to name only two of the hundreds of gems these two creative moguls produced. Quoting Forrest Gump - Them two were like peas n carrots.

Take us with you Tony

This is our pitch for the "No Reservations" Fan-atic contest. The winner will be declared in April 2008. Until then wait and watch.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

He who has never sinned

Remember the Mary Magdalene story that has been told for ages. She was being stoned on a street for being a sinner, for being a prostitute. Jesus then comes to her rescue and challenges the crowd - "He who has never sinned may willfully hit the woman". Not a single man comes forward.

Well, Mr Elliot Spitzer was the stone thrower and now finds himself on the receiving end. There is one thing common in the this recent spate of such sleazy episodes involving prominent politicians. Everytime a sleaze-bag (Bill Clinton, Jim Mcgreevy, Spitzer, that 60 yr old senator from Minneapolis) comes out in public to apologize the wife stands next to him with a dignified face. Are these women really supporting their husbands? Would a wife stand by her husband for cheating and then apologizing on the very next day he has been caught? In my opinion, its pseudo and 100 percent driven by political motives. What are they are trying to project here - is it - "look she stands by me and forgives me, you kind people who out me in the office should also forgive me (ohh btw next time I will make sure I do not get caught!)"?. Vomit. I want to see what a husband will do if his politically powerful wife is caught sleeping around.

(On another note, ancient history is replete with such incidents - The Roman nobility was known for its amoral ways and the husbands and wives were quite OK with the infedilty of their spouses. Again, the motives were 100 percent politically driven. )

Friday, March 07, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Very rarely do you come across a movie which makes you think real hard on where you stand, which side you are on. In the recent past, "Million Dollar Baby" made me question my stand on death and euthanasia. Ben Affleck's directorial venture "Gone Baby Gone" raises another moral question, this time its about "Life".

I had no idea what to expect before watching the movie, and I must say that ignorance paid off. I knew it was a story about a little girl gone missing. It is about that and much more. Without giving much of the storyline away, the movie is about two private detectives who get involved in the search of a missing girl from a rundown Boston neighborhood and then how this impacts their professional and personal lives.

Ben Affleck filmed this movie on location in Dorchester. He used people from the neighborhood to play small parts in the movie and this creates an atmosphere of being there, walking and living amongst the lives of those people. This makes the neighborhood a character in itself which is so essential for such a story. The cast gives a very sharp performance - Ed Harris, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Freeman - watch for one scene where the Morgan Freeman character looks out of a car window and the camera stays for about 2 seconds on his face, those eyes and that expression convey volumes - it will stab our heart. The real find however is Casey Affleck. Ben's little brother makes "Medium Patrick Kenzie" his own - he lives and he breathes the part to perfection. His baby face vulnerability and his fearless demeanour are in such contrast with each other, it works wonders.

In the end the movie does not try to answer the moral question it raises. It asks you to take a side just like Angie and Patrick in the movie. Ben Affleck, every bad movie you did - Jersey Girl, Daredevil - we forgive you - yes, even "Gigli" is forgiven.

Parental Warning: There is foul language abound, shocking sudden bursts of violence and extensive drug usage.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Third World Optimism

The other day I was watching one of my few addictions on TV - Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations". The episode was "Argentina". For those of you who do not know Tony's style of travel and food shows, he is not your typical travel show host. His style is more - in your face and borderline rude. He usually visits the parts of cities and countries which will not even make a mention in the regular travel books and shows. So here in Argentina he was strolling in the slums of Buenos Aires and describing the decrepit conditions people live in that neigborhood. To me, it did not look any different from a slum in India. Then Tony made a very beautiful statement:

"And there it is the essential symbol of the third world optimism". The camera panned to the top of a single story cement house and there were those steel rods poking out of the pillars from the rooftops. I could not find an exact picture but here's one to give you an idea what I mean. You can see these in countless houses and buildings in India too.

Tony continued "What I mean is that the owner of the house is saying that - No sir, I am not done yet, I am going to build one more floor up there when the time is right. "

I had never looked at these ugly steel rods poking out of roof tops in that way. Perspective, aye!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Zilleilaahi Sachin

"Sachin cannot win matches" : Many a cricketing journos and ex-players yelled from their tin roof tops. What follows: Unbeaten 117 at Sydney and 91 at the Gabba.

A resounding, thumping 2-0 defeat of the Australian Marsupials in a series known for more off the ground antics was mostly scripted by this Man and his willow.

Manjrekar, Imran and the rest of your kind - SHUT THE F$%K UP!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Gulzar- Kuch khoye huye nagme - 3

Every Hindi film music aficionado knows about the greatness of this man named Sampooran Singh Kalra aka Gulzar. We have all heard his famous songs a thousand times now, such as: “Tere bina zindagi se” from Aandhi, “Hazaar Rahen” from Thodisi Bewafayee, “Mera kuch saaman” from Ijaazat, or “Kajra re” from Bunty aur Babli. This series is about those lesser known songs penned by this master poet.
Movie: Lekin (1990)
Music Director: Hridaynath Mangeshkar
Singer: Suresh Wadkar

surmayee shaam is tarah aaye
saans lete hai, jis tarah saaye

koi aahat nahin, badan ki kahin
phir bhi lagtaa hai, too yahin hain kahin
waqt jaataa sunaayi deta hain
tera saaya dikhaayi deta hain
jaise khushboo nazar se chhoo jaaye
saans lete hai, jis tarah saaye

din ka jo bhi pehar guzarta hain
koi ehsaan sa utarta hain
waqt ke paanv dekhtaa hoon main
roz ye chaanv dekhtaa hoon main
aaye jaise koi khayaal aaye
saans lete hai, jis tarah saaye

Suresh Wadkar – he is probably the most “non-filmy “ singer for playback singing. His voice is more suited for an evening mehfil in an open air lawn setting on a chilly Indian winter night. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant singer, it's just that his voice is not suited for some Bollywood hero’s lip-synching.

The poetry is laden with the sense of a feeling of intense immobility, stillness and longing. The words create an environment of time slowed down, an evening that refuses to move forward. There is a generous dose of personification of abstract objects and feelings:
- waqt ke paanv dekhta hoon main - I watch the footsteps of time passing by (in the form of shadows moving or elongating as the evening passes by)
- waqt jaata sunayee deta hain - (I) can listen to the time passing by
- saans lete hain jaise saaye - Like shadows breathing

But the one line that defies all logic and yet somehow makes sense is:
- jaise khushboo nazar se chhoo jaaye

Not only is a sensory feeling - khushboo: fragrance - being personified here, it's being used in conjunction with another feeling which is not related to the sensory feeling of "smell". He associates it with - nazar: vision. He does not stop there, but associates the sense of "seeing" to the sense of touch - "choo jaaye". In essence (no pun intended), the line means - "as if fragrance touching my sight". Something tells me a lot has been lost in that translation.

Gulzar's sense of "senses" is mysterious indeed!