Saturday, March 31, 2007

Freeze Frame #26: Black

Black is a dramatic movie in every frame. The way it is composed, shot, acted and scored - it is as if the entire movie is climactic. I was quite impressed by it when I first saw it, but regrettably, the movie hasn't aged that well in my mind. I still think it's a beautiful movie with two extremely good performances, but it falls a mite short of being a great one. Who knows, maybe my opinion will change again with time.

There is, however, one scene that I consider great. It comes right at the end of the first half, when Debraj Sahai (Amitabh) has just managed to break through to young Michelle McNally (Ayesha Kapoor), teaching her how to say "water" in sign language. This entire first half has been about irresistible forces and immovable objects (you can pick who is which), with neither party refusing to give. At the end of that scene, when Michelle goes away, Debraj sits there, begins to compose a letter to his friend Mrs. Nair about his breakthrough, and halfway through that sentence, just breaks down and cries.

Freeze Frame #25: Hum Tum

Now here's a rom-com that works. Kunal Kohli's loose adaptation of When Harry Met Sally (arguably the best romantic comedy of all time) makes a few mistakes, but does a better job than most other Hindi movies in this genre. Saif Ali Khan, who spent years in the wilderness before breaking into the A-list with Dil Chahta Hai, shows here why he is India's best urban actor. The guy has a flair for comedy, an ability to understate things (a rarity in that industry), and is great looking to boot. The film also came at the right time for Rani Mukherjee - the actress has had a fairly steady growth over the years (abominations like Hello Brother notwithstanding) and this movie is about the time she hit her peak form.

My favourite scene in Hum Tum is a quiet one. Saif and Rani are sitting in his apartment discussing the issue of Rani marrying again. They play-act a situation where a guy comes to "see" her - it's funny initially, but during the course of that little game they play, they manage to reveal much more of their feelings than they had perhaps intended. In most movies, this would have been a very obvious watershed moment - in most Hollywood movies, they would've slept with each other that night, and in most Hindi movies, they would've gone all the way to Switzerland to sing a song. Not in this one. The camera just holds on them long enough to underscore the importance of what transpired, then moves on.

Friday, March 30, 2007


Prakash Raj's Duet Films has been making some fairly interesting films. There was Azhagiya Theeye, which I regard as one of the best romantic comedies ever made in Tamil. Then there was Kanda Naal Mudhal which was nearly as good. And now Mozhi, a movie about a man's love for a woman who is deaf and dumb. The premise has so much scope for melodrama that you stay on tenterhooks most of the time, waiting for the movie to make a mistake. Surprisingly, Mozhi hardly ever missteps.

The humor in this movie is of an everyday kind - the jokes are the sort you or I might come up with. Which means that, while it's not always laugh out loud funny, it is very often chuckleworthy. Prakash Raj, in a comic role after a while, is fantastic.

But outside of that, what really worked for me were some deft little touches. The scenes where the friendship between Karthik (Prithviraj) and Archana (Jyothika), and their friends Viji (Prakash Raj) and Sheela (Swarnamalya) develops is interlaced with music, and the interesting thing is how the deaf-mute Archana responds to music. Like a language she's hearing for the first time, she seeks patterns. She notices the rhythm, and begins to vibe with it. The way this is done is obvious, yet not overdone. You don't see her move her head too much, or start dancing suddenly. You just see her nod, almost to herself, hardly noticeable to an unknowing outsider. Nice touch, that.

The other moment that worked was towards the end, when she takes a cold, hard look at herself after Karthik has just read her the riot act. Her instinctive reaction is to clench her fists in anger - the reaction she has had all these years, and which we have seen so often before. But she kinda realizes that this refuge won't work anymore, unclenches her fists and just screams out in grief. And her grandmom, sitting outside, looks concerned for a moment, and then smiles.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Monsters up close

Today seems to have been Monstrous Dictator Day for me. I watched a couple of movies - Den Untergang (aka Downfall) and The Last King of Scotland. The former tells the story of the last days of Adolf Hitler, seen through the eyes of his secretary. The latter tells the story of the reign of Idi Amin, seen through the eyes of his physician.

I wish I could say more, but I am too drained to continue. Both films feature scenes of gut wrenching cruelty. The one that I expect will haunt me for a while is the scene where Magda Goebbels sedates her children and then poisons them one by one, so that they will not have to live in a world without Nazism. You hear the soft crunch as she inserts a vial of cyanide into their mouths and forces their jaws shut so the vial would break. You see them shudder for a moment, then become still. You see her cover their faces with their blanket. Not once. Six times.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Nishabd is, as the title indicates, a movie constructed almost entirely out of silences.

As anyone who has seen the trailers or caught a bit of the endless coverage of Jiah Khan on television will know, it is about the relationship between a married 60 year old man Vijay (AB) and an 18 year old girl Jiah (Jiah) who is his daughter's friend. Some love stories are not meant to be understood, the tagline says.

However, in many ways, the movie is not about this story, about this relationship. It is about who these people are, and the stories in their past that has brought them to this point in their lives. These stories are not told in the movie, but they are what give this movie its meaning and impetus.

It is not that he is trapped in a bad marriage. It just has become one where he finds that he has nothing to say anymore. Nothing that matters to him, anyway. And it is not that Jiah understands everything, either. Just that she listens. She, on the other hand, is the product of a broken marriage. Her dad has left, and her mom has found someone else. There is much residual hurt there, much anger, much longing. She doesn't speak of it too often, but it underlines so much of what she does. He has learnt to retreat within himself over the years, to find solace in his passion - photography. She hasn't had that much practice.

These are not stories that are elaborated upon or articulated by the characters. They let us guess at them through the things they say, and don't say. Silences, like I said.

The movie has just three supporting characters - Vijay's wife Amrita, his daughter Ritu and Sridhar (Nasser), his friend and brother-in-law, in that order. None of them has a single weak moment in the entire movie. Revathy plays Amrita as a woman who has, in many ways, lost the same things that Vijay has, but finds solace in her household routine. Neither of them sees the other's loss - they just see what the other did or did not do. In a sense, that is the movie's tragedy. Nasser plays the understanding friend who nonetheless advises him to do the right thing. Shraddha Arya has the least heavy lifting to do as Ritu, and is adequate.

Jiah is electric in her debut role. There isn't a single moment when her inexperience shows - this is as close to a pitch-perfect performance as one can expect. Sadly, though, it's mostly downhill from here. Unless she's really careful with her choices, she's gonna be playing some random hero's arm candy or Emraan Hashmi's latest femme fatale.

Amitabh was never a bad actor, but somewhere in the last few years, something has clicked into place. His roles have gotten more interesting, and his ability to play them so well has inspired people to make interesting movies with him. He has taken a nearly-dead market for people in his age group and breathed life into it. Say's Law, as they say in economics: Supply creates its own demand.

Here, he creates a character that he could not have assembled from spare parts of other roles he has done. It's not like he's created an unrecognizable character from thin air, like Johnny Depp did with Capt. Jack Sparrow. This is still an Amitabh you can recognize. But the thing is, he embodies the character to such an extent that you are not reminded of anything he has done before when you see him in this movie. His

Which brings us to the director, Ramgopal Verma. Like with his other intensely personal venture Naach, he slows things down considerably and lets the characters take their time. A lot of directors seem to do this when they make something they really love - it's like they want to savour the moment a bit more. Watch Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Ekalavya, or Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black - same principle in action.

The other commonality seems to be the visuals - Amit Roy's work here is definitely on par with what Ravi K. Chandran did in Black and Nataraja Subramanian did in Ekalavya. Less showy, but no less gorgeous. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the shot compositions. Watch the scene just before the interval, and how the camera pans in a certain direction and draws your eyes to something, yet doesn't press the point by zooming in. Interesting choice, there.

The curious thing I noticed was how RGV seemed to have brought a horror movie sensibility to the way this movie was shot, chopped or scored (to borrow a Robert Rodriguez phrase). The way the background score keeps sounding premonitions at key moments, the way the camera moves relative to the action... It's a strange strategy to adopt, but effective nonetheless.

Watching this movie, I wondered who put up the money to make it. There is no way on earth that this could become a commercial success in this market. It is concerned with these characters, content to let them be who they are. It doesn't care that there might be an audience. Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why it is so good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Strange chords #3: Duet Theme

Duet is not the best film K. Balachander has made. A remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, with assorted additional nonsense and a dash of Alibaba thrown in for good measure, the movie never really manages to get itself out of the way and reach the heights it could. It is, however, one of the most interesting movies I've seen, from a musical standpoint. The main reason why I'm somewhat fond of that movie is its music.

They key, for me, came during the opening titles itself. I didn't notice it when I saw the movie for the first time, since I didn't know the whole plot then. But when I went back home and listened to the album, I realized what KB and Rehman were doing in that opening piece.

It is a Kadri Gopalnath saxophone solo in Kalyanavasantham - a beautiful, beautiful raga (best known example: Nadaloludai, composed by Sri Thyagaraja - yet another of his little gems). In the movie, you see Prabhu playing it.

He plays a character named Guna, a talented musician and sax player, who forms part of a successful music duo with his brother Siva. Guna is overweight, and doesn't have much luck with women as a result, whereas Siva pretty much has them eating out of his hands. A minor early crisis causes them to move to a different city, where they begin their career afresh. Their life settles into a comfortable routine when love comes in the form of Anjali, a film choreographer who lives next door. She loves Guna's music, but thinks Siva is the one composing it. Things get a little heated when this truth is revealed, but before it can be resolved between the three of them, additional complications arrive in the form of Sirpi, a psychotic movie star with designs on Anjali. It all ends in a violent and senseless climax where all extra characters are bumped off and only the hero and heroine are left.

Crazy plot, and there's really no obvious reason why I should narrate it here. But now that you know this plot, go back and listen to the theme music and see how it is patterned - how it starts off slow, breaks for a moment when the waves crash against the rocks, starts again, settles into a rhythm, then picks up the pace, then begins to have more ominous notes sounding in the background, and ends with the waves crashing against the sea. When you think about it, this could have been pretty much any piece - most movies have random instrumental music playing over the opening titles - but KB showed here what he could do with it.

The entire story is told in flashback from Prabhu's point of view, and you realize, after watching it and harking back to its musical set pieces, that this was a man who used his sax as a narrative intrument. Listen to the interludes in En kaadhalae, and you see how he expresses his feelings - his frustration, his despair, his love - through his instrument. Amazing piece of work.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Strange chords #2: Paruvamae

Yet another gem from Ilaiyaraja, from the movie Nenjathai Killadhe. The picturization involves Mohan and Suhasini jogging together, and the song plays in the background. What's amazing is how much of the visualization has crept into the piece itself.

For one thing, the singers (SPB and Janaki) sound like they're shivering in the cold morning weather - their voices aren't strong and clear. Plus, there's the rhythm of footsteps to cover the jogging - it adds another layer.

But my favourite little addition comes in the second interlude: it fades in, then out slowly, as if the joggers just ran past a bunch of musicians playing the interlude. Again, this is one of the things Rajesh told me - I didn't notice it myself until he did. He called it the Doppler Effect song!

Strange chords #1: Kanne Kalaimaane

Beautiful, beautiful song. Written by Kannadasan, composed by Ilaiyaraja and sung by K J Yesudas. One of the greatest songs of all time. To me, it's one of the finest examples of pathos expressed in a song. Yesudas' voice is perfectly suited to this sort of mood.

However, what I didn't realize until a friend of mine named Rajesh told me, was that Ilaiyaraja hahd used a little trick t enhance the effect of his voice. If you listen very carefully to the song, you will notice a single violin playing the tune that Yesudas sings. It plays only when he's singing, not otherwise, so it's difficult to catch. But once you do, it's hard to miss afterward. It's a really small thing, almost trivial, but it makes a difference.

Strange chords

This series of posts is aimed at educating the teeming millions reading my blog (okay, three people including me, if I'm optimistic) on some lesser known aspects of well-known songs. Things like an odd instrument playing an odd note somewhere in the background that adds something to the song. Read on, and you'll find out more...

Passing the musical buck

Another sub-genre of film songs that I am very fond of is - for want of a better term - the relay race song. These are songs where one singer falters somewhere in the middle for whatever reason, and someone else picks up from where he/she left off and completes it. Here's my top three in that category:

3. Beeti na bitaye raina: Sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Bhupinder, from the movie Parichay. Jaya Bhaduri starts singing, falters, and Sanjeev Kumar steps in. Beautiful number - R. D. Burman at his very best.

2. Chinnanchiru vayathil: Sung by Janaki and K. J. Yesudas, in the movie Meendum Kokila. Sreedevi plays a young woman whom Kamal Hassan has come to "see" (a concept familiar to anyone who knows about the arranged marriage system). She is asked to sing a song, picks this one and promptly forgets the lyrics halfway through. Kamal steps in and finishes it. It's a beautiful song, and beyond just the musical qualities it possesses, Janaki manages to bring out the girl's shyness and embarassment, and her reaction to her husband-to-be singing the rest of the song, in a manner that very few other singers can even aspire to, let alone achieve. Okay, I admit, that wasn't a great sentence. Aw, heck, you know what I mean.

And finally, the Numero Uno in this category:

1. Dorakuna: S. P. Balasubramaniam and Vani Jayaram, from the movie Shankarabharanam. This album was one of the big reasons why I wanted to learn Carnatic classical music when I was a kid, and this song remains my all-time favourite. J. V. Somayajulu plays a great singer who has since faded into obscurity - this is supposed to be his comeback concert. Predictably, he collapses due to ill health right in the middle, and his disciple takes over his mantle, both symbolically and literally. The moment when Vani Jayaram continues where SPB left off after a coughing fit still gives me goosebumps.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

... because this door tonight has been opened

I remember being absolutely blown away by Halle Berry's performance in Monster's Ball. And her victory at the Oscars, while expected, was also a sweet moment because it was part of a trifecta for African American actors - Denzel Washington won Best Actor for an amazing performance in Training Day, and Sidney Poitier won a Lifetime Achievement award. Poitier's acceptance speech was a study in dignity and barely controlled emotion - even if you were only barely cognizant of the history, as I was, it was a very moving moment.

The title of this post is from Halle Berry's speech. I quote more of it here to provide some context:
Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored.
Looking at the Oscar winners since then, it does seem a bit like the door has indeed been opened. Jamie Foxx for Ray, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls... even Eddie Murphy nearly joined the party with Dreamgirls but apparently he's lost a lot of goodwill recently. Not to mention the ones who came damn close - Don Cheadle made me cry in Hotel Rwanda, and Terence Howard (Hustle and Flow) was, I felt, the most deserving of last year's Best Actor nominees.

I wonder why this has happened: have Academy voters suddenly decided to believe in affirmative action? I think what has happened is that filmmakers have started looking more at movies with black protagonists, and the producers no longer feel that it might not be as commercially viable. That's the door that I think has been opened.

And the winner is...

This is my I-told-you-so post, the one where I get to gloat about how accurate my predictions were. I'm discussing the filmfare awards, about which I had made my predictions at the end of last year. Permit me this moment of self-congratulation: rarely have I been this accurate. Here's how I fared:

Best Picture
My prediction: Rang De Basanti
Winner: Rang De Basanti

Best Director
My prediction: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Winner: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Best Actor
My prediction: Hrithik Roshan or Sanjay Dutt
Winner: Hrithik Roshan

Best Actress
My prediction: Kajol
Winner: Kajol

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
My prediction: Abhishek Bachchan or Siddharth
Winner: Abhishek Bachchan

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
My prediction: Konkona Sensharma
Winner: Konkona Sensharma

Best Actor/Actress in a Villainous Role
My prediction: Saif Ali Khan
Winner: Saif Ali Khan

Best Actor in a Comic Role
My prediction: Arshad Warsi
Winner: Arshad Warsi

If you count the toss-ups as correct predictions, I scored 100%. Even if you don't, that's 75%. Not bad, eh?

This was also a safe year to make Oscar predictions in most of the acting categories and in the directing category, but I hadn't watched all the contenders by the time the ceremony came around, so I didn't.

I did watch, and was extremely impressed by Helen Mirren in The Queen. I've been quite fond of her ever since I saw her in Calendar Girls (another movie that cannot be anything but British) and Gosford Park, and this was quite a welcome event. As for Kate Winslet, whom I loved in Little Children, she's already been nominated a handful of times at a very young age, and will continue to get nominated. I'm fairly certain she'll win herself a statuette before she's 40. And I'm sure I'll be watching and cheering.

My happiest moment, of course, was when Scorsese won. They say the winners' names are kept secret until the envelope is opened, but somehow, it seems to me quite unlikely that they brought Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas up on stage to give away the award if there was any chance that anyone other than Marty might be the winner. I'm not sure if he was the most deserving winner this year, but it's not a bad movie to pick. Besides, if they could award Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love in order to make up for slighting Mrs. Brown the preceding year, then the Academy has a lot more to atone for when it comes to Martin Scorsese. Anyway, I was pretty thrilled when he won - I was rolling around on the floor and making animal noises when he came up on stage.

But Best Picture? You gotta be kidding me!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Freeze Frame #23, #24: Salangai Oli / Saagara Sangamam

Salangai Oli was one of those movies that characterized the best of its era in South Indian cinema: individualistic, dramatic and comprising a clutch of bravura moments. It also happens to feature one of Kamal Hassan's greatest performances, as a classical dancer whose love for his art, and for one woman, are pretty much the only things that hold him together. Not surprisingly, the two most powerful scenes in the movie focus on these two aspects.

The opening scenes introduce Kamal as Balu, a dance critic and an alcoholic - he staggers into an auditorium where a young woman named Sailaja is giving a Bharatanatyam performance. Most people around him seem quite impressed with her performance; he, however, begs to differ and writes a column that suggests that the lady in question is inspired more by the primates she evolved from than the art itself. Infuriated by the solitary negative review, she and her boyfriend storm into the newspaper office to demand a retraction. And Kamal silences her by an impromptu performance of how she should have danced, in a number of classical dance forms. Sure, this sort of scene has been done before and since, and it will be done again a million times, but to me, Kamal's performance in that scene is the gold standard. The anger, the contempt of people who cannot understand or appreciate his art... I must have watched this movie a million times, but even today, that scene makes me want to stand up and cheer.

The other scene is comes in the final third of the movie, right at the end of the song Thakita Thadhimi. Yeah, the one where he gets drunk and dances on the parapet of a well. Jayapradha, the love of his life who he sent away with her now-dead husband, has tried to hide from him so far in the proceedings, but realizes that her appearance might be the only thing that stops him from killing himself. But since she wants her widowhood to remain a secret from him, she goes up, puts on some sindoor, and goes up to him to persuade him to step down from the wall. He sees her, steps down, realizes that the rain is washing away her sindoor, and puts a hand up to protect it. Nothing about that moment is anything less than obvious, but I find it quite affecting.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Rocky Balboa

Rocky Balboa is a curious movie. As the latest movie in a series that went steadily downhill after the first installment, the expectations were as low as they could ever get. But, like Rocky himself, it is a surprising triumph. Not a universal one, though - it is about an old boxer coming back to the ring for one last fight, but the only thing about it that doesn't work is the fight itself.

For more than three-fourths of its running time, the movie is just a quiet, well-observed portrait of a man we cheered for three decades ago, when he landed an unexpected title bout with the reigning champion and won his self-respect, and the love of his life, by going the distance. Now he runs a restaurant named after his beloved Adrian (who passed away a few years ago), does a few pull-ups from the bar outside his house every morning, and lives a quiet life surrounded by the relics of a life long past. "If you live in a place long enough, you become that place," he says at one point. This segment is slow, patient and has an emotional power that defies all explanation.

A lot of screen time in this segment concerns Marie, the girl he once walked home and gave some advice to in the first Rocky movie, who has now become a bartender with sad eyes and a beaten-down attitude. When he becomes reacquainted with her, he does what little he can to improve her life. In a lesser movie, she would've become a love interest; Stallone, however, understands Rocky better. He still sees her as "Little Marie", the girl who he tried to straighten out when she was a kid. She needed help then, and she needs it now; they've both grown older, but relative to each other, they're still the same. There's even a quiet little moment when she wonders about this, but recognizes his feelings for what they are. The gentle, unforced nature of this relationship is one of the best aspects of the movie.

And then there's the fight. Rocky decides to get back into the ring, mostly just because he wants to return to the one thing he loved the most other than Adrian. He plans to fight a few small-time bouts. But fate has other plans. A computer program that simulates how he would've performed against the reigning heavyweight champion (had he been in his prime) throws him up as the winner, and the money-makers are suddenly interested. They convince him to fight an exhibition match against the champ, the obviously nicknamed Mason "The Line" Dixon. He agrees.

What follows is the customary montage of him jogging through the cold weather and doing push-ups and weights and what not, ending with him pumping his fists on top of the steps at the Philadelphia art museum - I suppose Stallone realized that, if he didn't do that, longtime Rocky fans would be offended beyond all belief. Following which there's the fight, where Rocky turns up, as usual, to be more than a handful for his celebrated opponent. This part not only stretches credibility, but also feels strangely obligatory. You root for Rocky, sure, but only because you've grown up rooting for him.

However, that glitch apart, this is a solid motion picture with more to offer than the standard sports movie. If this is, as Stallone says, the last in the series, it is indeed heartening to see it going out on a high.