Saturday, August 31, 2013

BALL-E-WOOD- The Land Of The Plenty

Understanding a genre

The scene is an Indian Wedding. But contrary to the usual air, the earsplitting band-wallas are nowhere in sight, and the mood is bitter and funereal. In the hands of the groom is lying a wounded man writhing in his death throes. The stunned bride, in a blinding Gulmohar-colored dress, is sobbing with occasional pauses letting the dying man speak in those intervals. The hurt man has totally grasped the situation and knows, as a matter of fact, that he doesn’t have a lot of time left (clearly with not a single soul from the whole wedding crowd having the common sense to call in an ambulance). Panting and gasping, he is giving a vote of thanks speech addressing his best friend, the groom, and his wife-to-be, the lady in the shocking red-gone-wrong. (It’s really not gonna help here to know that earlier, the dying man had sacrificed his love- again the crimson lady- for his best friend). Then he has a last wish (we Indians generally plan on it since day one), which is to hear his friend (wait for it…) sing his favorite song! (Well why not try if music really can heal, since they have obviously forgotten the ambulance). Now, u might think that the best friend is mighty upset about the whole death-scene and will be unable to perform. But since last wishes are honored with a kind of tenacious commitment in India, the groom, who was, up until then, expressing his grief in actions louder than his orange bride, clears his throat and breaks into a musical routine. He has noticeably switched to his ‘other voice’ that he reserves specially for music and occasions such as this. Now you don’t have time enough to wonder if he really came prepared to sing that at his wedding, as in the middle of that orchestrated song, “plop!” the wounded man croaks with a jerk. Loud cries and other displays of grief stricken family members follow, and the whole episode ends with the funeral service of the unfortunate man attended by people in wedding costumes.

Now is when you zoom-out and take a look from the outside. You were, all this time, standing inside a parallel universe called the Bollywood. The scenes are from the climax of the 1978 Bollywood drama Muqaddar ka Sikandar that was one of the highest earning blockbusters of the decade. The dying man is none other than the numero uno of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, and the Bride and the groom, Rakhee and Vinod Khanna respectively, both sort-after stars of the time. Dramas with exceptionally high emotional intelligence such as this with lavish number of songs, with a mind of their own, forming a part of the narrative are a trademark of Bollywood, and like some might already have noticed from the above scene, logic, here, sits on the window, ready to jump out on cue, which is most of the time.

Call it schmaltzy, or daft, but Bollywood is a genre by itself whether you like it or not. There is crime, then there is Bollywood crime; there is romance, which is not like Bollywood romance, and there is also Bollywood action, Bollywood comedy and Bollywood thriller, each of which has nothing whatsoever to do with its non-Bollywood counterpart you’d get to see anywhere else on the globe. And Bollywood musical- let’s not even get started there- is simply an unparalleled specialty!

Musicals are perhaps what Bollywood is universally identified by. But since more than ninety percent of the films of all genres have songs and dances (they are a part of even suspense thrillers and action drama) a major chunk of the films produced in Bollywood must qualify as musicals. Often scoffed universally for its “poor taste”, “over-the-top”ness and “the song and dance” routine, Bollywood has been under the world entertainment radar for quite some time already. And, like we all know, it’s a harsh, harsh world out there, for especially people who are different or who view at things differently. Before jeering at the strangeness of this kind of cinema in totality, let’s pause and take a look at where it all comes from.

In India, dance has been used to entertain people from time immemorial. Dance-dramas like Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak, Satriya and Koodiyattam, different types of total theatre that adopted varied styles of storytelling through dances have evolved along side, adapting stories plentifully from the Hindu mythological texts. 

These classical dances and dance dramas adhered to the codes set in the Natyashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on dramaturgy by Sage Bharata, which is primarily where all the so-called unrealistic “over-the-top”ness begins to unravel. This Sanskrit compendium classifies acting (abhinaya) into two styles namely lokadharmi (realistic) and natyadharmi (conventional) of which the latter has always been emphasized more in the text. The conventional natyadharmi abhinaya, which is considered as artistically superior of the two, involves stylized rendering of stories with gesture-language and symbols. Lokadharmi abhinaya involved realistic interpretation and presentation of stories adhering to popular taste. This artistic snobbishness is probably what began to keep “plain-real” renditions and narrative techniques from being viewed with any respect at all.

Then there is also the extremely popular folk theatre (Ramlila, Yakshagana, Bhavai, Nautanki, Jatra and Terukkuttu) that unrestrainedly employs music and dance to tell stories of mythological heroes, socio-political events and medieval romances that patronized customs, beliefs, rituals and legends, providing audience with what was considered as “wholesome entertainment”.

With all these forming the artistic background, what was to follow when films as a medium took shape and prominence as a form of entertainment, was not exempted from the     influences of the existing tastes shaped by the conventional elements of traditional theatre. And the practice of banking on mythological themes (the first Indian feature film Raja Harishchandra, 1913, is based on a story from the Indian epic Mahabharata) brought along the opulence and the ‘larger-than-life’ness related to them.

All those who associate films exclusively with realism (proponents of the Lokadharmi thought of abhinaya), could easily find Bollywood a tough cookie, not just concerning the presentation techniques but also with the themes dealt with- Siblings separated at birth, mind-numbing patriotism, rebirths in abundance, and acute bromance that any non-Indian audience will most likely find as “too gay”, not to mention the trite and formulaic syrupy romances and soppy family “sagas” set in mansions with chandeliers maybe even in toilets. One of the key deciding factors in films here are also the stars that it features rather than the storyline or any other technicalities whatsoever involved. So Amitabh Bachchan, and Shahrukh Khan, and Madhuri Dixit, and Anil Kapoor ruled the roost.

No doubt, Bollywood looks at, and deals with things differently, but when the term “intelligent audience” is used to address only the admirers of realistic cinema, the views certainly seem narrowed and biased. There have always been firm believers of realistic cinemas in Bollywood land as well, although the sheer thought might mess up numerous stunned eyebrows. Films by Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Chetan Anand and Guru Dutt were known to deftly integrate the glitters of commercial cinema and the brutal realism of the art-house cinema in the past. Today, the number of these realistic cinemas with mass-appeal has only gone up, if not to an all time high, with a lot of experimental works with new themes gaining acceptance. The Masala films (meaning commercial potboilers) have however not declined in popularity and never ever will. Some things don’t go out of fashion with some people.

Bollywood or the Hindi film Industry accounts to about 20% of the total films made in India, which is the largest producer of films anywhere in the world. The term Bollywood has emerged as a portmanteau of the terms ‘Bombay’ (former Mumbai where the industry is based in) and ‘Hollywood’, the popular American film industry. With Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire bagging the Academy Award and Baz Luhrman’s notorious obsession with Bollywood, the Industry has certainly earned a worldwide attention on a serious note. But to enjoy the real essence of Bollywood films, one has to approach it with an open mind, not one that is jaded with clichéd motifs, unlike back in the day how Natyadharmis looked down at Lokadharmis.

So, now follow the camera…

It is slowly zooming out from a TV screen playing the opening credits of a mushy soap opera. The TV set is perched high on a cabinetry inside a small shop, and is watched by a group of people, when abruptly sounds of gunshots stuns everybody. Before any of them get time enough to turn around, a few of them along with the cracked TV set go down in a hail of bullets. The camera quickly pans out into the night and the narrow street adjacent to the shop front, in time to catch a red van lurching to a frenzied halt, and out jump a few armed men with AK 47 rifles threatening the rest of the few open shops to roll down the shutters. They menacingly advance through the deserted street flanked by old derelict clusters of close-knit buildings, occasionally firing free rounds. (Intermittent clatters of closing metal shutters ring out loud in the background). More men, all armed, from crossings ahead, join them. The din of footsteps and heavy breathing is all that one can hear in the dead of the night. The gang finally arrives at a guarded house where more gunshots terminate the guards. They then break in, and some men surround the house. What follows is a savage eruption of bullets and bombs. In the silence after the commotion, the leader of the gang dials a number on his cellphone. The scene cuts to a petrified family, of mostly women, crouched in some hiding place, startled by a mobile phone that erupts into a loud and kitsch Bollywood song. In terror with baited breath, they all wait for the insensitive ring to end. Back to the gunmen- there is a faint glimmer of a smile on the leader’s face when his call is unattended. He is pleased, and mumbles, “They are dead, c**ts!” then turning to his men, a little louder, “Friggin Faizal Khan is gone! The villain is over”. Inside the van, on their way back, sensing an ambush, they unleash another round of fire at a police checkpoint and- BANG! - the scene freezes and the title slides in.

(Opening shots of Gangs of Wasseypur, 2012)


Many thanks to my good friend Shweta Raina who suggested the scene from Muqaddar ka Sikandar that could help understand the excesses of Bollywood in the actual sense.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Besides the fact that it’s from the guy who made us Drive, there were three things in the rushes that urged me to watch Nicolas Winding Refn’s new bloody and Oedipal Only God Forgives- the neon lit surrealism, Kristin Scott Thomas’ eerie new avatar and the exotic setting. Does it really have that flashy rotund worm pegged in there or is it just the unkind hook? That remains to be seen.

Only God Forgives tells a story about settling scores in the devious corridors of Bangkok underworld glowing in the entrancing crimson radiance of neon. Ryan Gosling plays a low-level drug dealer who is caught up between the rightness of his brother’s murder and the mother who has sworn to avenge the death. Kristen Scott Thomas who plays the widowed mob mother here, as Lady-Macbeth-in-Donatella-Versace-get-up is ruthless and unapologetic with a menacing grip on her surviving son. In addition to these two leads, there is a chilling performance by Vithaya Pansrigarm as the calm but merciless police officer who is at their ass functioning by a rule of his own moral justice. The remaining peripheral faces and forms strictly stays within the margins maintaining the sanctity of the scantily populated frames.

Although Gosling wades through familiar waters similar to his previous taciturn characters, Scott Thomas’ powerful presence stuns you as his deviant foul-mouthed vamp of a mother. What is even more compelling and wicked is the dynamics between the firebrand mother and the submissive son.
Refn drifts through the entire trancelike narrative with deft handling of the material and mood. From the very start you have come to terms with the fact that you are inside of a hypnotizing red nightmare. You are in a particular state where you are ready to accept a lot of things you wouldn’t have in your normal state of thinking. There are instances you wait with baited breath across very long pauses in silence. There are also blood-curdling scenes that leave the impact of the shudder long after it’s over. The splashes of blood are lavish, its color often used to create unsettling collages. (Many a number of times, the creative excesses of Tarantino and Wong Kar Wai flash in front you in lush and lurid colors and surreal imagery).

Only God Forgives is brilliant at places and to an extent is consistent till right before the final scenes, which steers towards an anti climax with a kind of reckless abandon. When all that crossing through the ultra violent phantasmagoria of the disturbing region washes down to a rushed job to wind up tour, one start to wonder, “That’s it?” suspecting if it really was thought through. The story shuts out leaving the audience sadly yearning for a superior closing. Or it’s a very personal perspective since it’s apparent that everybody involved with the film was very serious about what they were doing, and the ending was exactly the way they wanted. And it really might work for some.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


In one of them, a gleaming spread of uncooked sausages is presented in a visceral heap that makes you gag, and in another, the unfortunate cellulite on the thighs bulging out of a pudgy middle aged woman’s over-tight bikini leaves you clueless as to what is appropriate to think at the moment. All lurid aspects of the visuals apart, the shock wave that every Martin Parr Photograph sends through the viewer is definite with a scare of being watched, of persecution of personal space, of covert surveillance- one might as well feel trapped in George Orwell’s menacing1984- part of which roots from the fact that we all love to deny the absurdities of those unsophisticated details associated with every candid moment we live through in each breath.
When one gapes up at a Parr photograph, one has to be prepared to shudder at the brazen realism emerging from them. His unflinching depiction of brutal albeit undeniable humor in every corner of everyday life amuses everyone (obviously not when the joke is on you!). And more often than not his humor is built around the mundane. They are mostly scenes that have played and replayed in front of us all our lives. But in Parr’s light, and color, the truth with all its ironies and imperfections are stamped in grotesque, often unforgettable frames of kids gawking at boobs, splayed legs of men and women sun bathing but occasionally clipped out of context, food-remains stuck in teeth, and dirt under fingernails holding half eaten doughnuts. The list just goes on, and there is no dearth to the clumsiness and follies of life, so to say, revealed to you through the eyes of this genius who has been at it since the 1970s.
It cannot be denied that the so-called clumsiness is all about the way one looks at this celebrated British documentary photographer’s works. They are not clumsy, but may extensively display subjects that are clumsy. Most of them tell us about things we may not like to know about us, or rather not like to know ever existed around us, and above all, ever not want anybody else to know or notice about us. Parr’s pictures, with its great sense of wit, harass this relentless human denial, as they are life instances at its most unassuming moments. 
His photo documentaries unflinchingly exhibit social paradoxes of modern life across the globe. It demonstrates human insecurities, inequalities, and insensitivities along with greed and consumerism among other things that you otherwise feign to have conveniently overlooked in your stride. One such major area of concentration is the lifestyle and motifs of the rich, which he has recurrently ridiculed as a rule.
The details that appear in the Parr pictures are unique and anything but subtle, and time and again they have appalled people with their intrusive nature with garish colors and unappetizing close-ups captured with the use of flash. But you take it or leave it one can’t deny a marked style in this satirist’s works (even though the influence of colors and urban tableau in the works of William Eggleston is apparent in his pictures) and his vignettes make statements that makes many uneasy.
In short his images are like Brit humor. They hurt often, but are distinctive and sidesplitting when it’s not on you. And like he says, “… you still have the legal and moral right… to photograph anyone in public place and do what you like with it.” 
So bring it on baby!
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