The crap that is Braveheart

The epic that portrays Scotland’s fight for freedom from England starring Mel Gibson.

This is not a review of the film. I am not qualified enough to review movies. What this is, though, is an expression of disappointment; disappointment over a lost opportunity.

Every nation’s fight for freedom/independence is an epic story. When individuals fight for their own freedoms, their own rights, it presents an intriguing story. Now, consider an entire nation fighting for its values. Consider how much poetry there is to it. Thousands, maybe millions, of people fighting together for a common cause. The emergence of leaders. When civilians take up arms, or sometimes fight a non-violent battle, leaders have to emerge from within the sea of humanity. These leaders are ordinary people who have made a choice from the multiple choices that circumstance offered to them. There is an internal struggle involved in overcoming the self-doubt, the resistance from within, the dilemma that the choice involves. That is the creation of a hero…a hero from an ordinary human being; and it does not happen through accident.

Far too many times, movies give this internal struggle a pass. I wince as I watch our hero William Wallace emerge from the shadows without so much as a warning. Where is the dilemma ? where is the agony ? where is the internal struggle, pray ?

Maybe it is my fault. I was expecting a character-driven narrative while what I was watching was a “shoot-em-up” westerner (albeit in a different landscape).
Alas, Braveheart does not have spirit ! Going by the box-office, nobody is mourning this lack of spirit apparently.

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Aag Vs Sholay

I was struck by this review of Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag by award-winning film-critic Baradwaj Rangan.

And yet, each time Sholay shows up on TV, we can’t tear our eyes away – and that’s because of scenes such as the one where AK Hangal’s Imam sahib discovers that his son (played by Sachin, who contributes a cameo in Aag as well) has been killed. The way this sequence spools out is a master class in masala-movie screenwriting. Just a little earlier, we’ve seen Sachin reluctantly take leave of his aged, blind father, and now, as his horse returns to the village of Ramgarh with its lifeless rider (who’s been murdered by Gabbar Singh), we already feel for Imam sahib. After all, the son didn’t want to go; it’s the father who forced him to take up a lucrative job in a beedi factory in another town, and it’s during the travel to that other town that the boy met his untimely end.

And the scene keeps building. A crowd gathers. Jai and Veeru haul the body off the horse, just as Imam sahib joins them and breaks down. Kashiram reads out a note from Gabbar, which says that unless Jai and Veeru surrender, there will be many more such deaths. The terrified villagers urge Thakur to see reason. And then, Thakur lifts what has so far been standard-issue melodrama into the realm of myth. He issues a rallying cry, pointing out that down the ages – “Yug yug se…” – people have fought back against tyrants, and such efforts have always involved an element of sacrifice.

But the villagers are still unconvinced. They protest, “Hum is musibat ka bojh nahin utha sakte,” that they can’t bear this burden anymore. And then comes the stunning closure to the scene, the big bang that releases the slow-fuse tension that’s been building all along. Without raising his voice, Imam sahib rebukes the cowering villagers by reminding them of what he’s just lost, saying that if he is willing to support Thakur, the others had no business opposing him. And look how beautifully he puts this thought across, by picking up on the word bojh that was tossed around barely a moment ago: “Jaante ho duniya ka sabse bada bojh kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhon par bete ka janaaza.”

I have seen Sholay… God knows how many times.. and I have liked it every time. However, there hasn’t been a single instance where I have been to able to say why I liked it. When you watch a good movie, you are able to come out and say “that was funny..” or “what suspense !” or something to that effect. With great movies, you just walk out dazed. It takes you several viewings just to figure out what you liked about the movie. That is because good movies talk to you on a conscious level while the really great ones are able to seep into the sub-conscious.

Sholay is one such movie. There is a feel to it (for lack of a better word) . You feel the shadow of Gabbar Singh hovering over the village of Ramgarh…you feel the terror seeping into the villagers.

Sholay is a fast-paced movie (relatively speaking i.e). It does not have time for deep/rich characters..flashbacks are sparingly used (relatively speaking, again). You are not told why Veeru and Jai are so nice as to save the thakur when he is injured on the train fighting the dacoits. You are not told what makes the two stick together when they have so little in common. But Salim-Javed paint these characters with a few master-strokes (“Tumhara naam kya hai Basanti” from Jai was unbelievable). That is only one of the things that makes this movie so great.

It takes someone of Baradwaj’s class to bring all this out for us. Like Baradwaj is trying to say in his review, you would be wondering whether RGV got all this when he watched Sholay. Or maybe, he just got a 70’s masala revenge, romance, action fare which he tried to remake.

You find yourself asking : Which movie did RGV remake ? coz it certainly doesn’t have Sholay in it !

Thanks Baradwaj ! I haven’t watched Aag myself…but I thank you for bringing Sholay to me all over again…

Thank you Sir !

Notes on Telugu Cinema

I have been regularly watching Telugu movies for the past couple of years (most of these have been 2 or 3-year old movies on DVDs). With that background, I feel I have developed a sense of what to expect every time I watch a new (in my world, “new” means something that I havent watched before as opposed to a newly released movie…)

The Telugu movie industry revolves mostly around stereotypes and set patterns: the college students always have a violent streak, the boss is always stupid, the housewife is always loyal and the parents are always loving.

The most astounding trend I noticed was the way in which a typical Venkatesh movie is structured. The whole process seems to be: think up a few funny social situations involving a couple of people and then think of a suitable plot to wrap these situations in. Of course, it helps if you can bring the whole shazam to a happy ending — the masses still love happy endings ! Malleswari, Vasu, Nuvvu Naku Nacchavu — all outcomes of this process. Most of these films, I am told, have been successful at the box office. All this only seems to feed the belief of film-makers in “the process”.

To digress, this “process” is very reminiscent of the way Hindi movies were structured: the “angry young man” around the Big B in the 70s, the “prankster with a villainous streak” theme around SRK in the mid 90s, the “young man dealing with an old man with a mental block” theme around Amol Palekar and Utpal Chatterjee.

To get back to our story, there is nothing wrong with set patterns if it brings box office success (isnt that a major reason for making movies ?). The only problem I have with it is that it is starting to come in the way of finding out what more can be achieved. There are some brilliant actors today (Kota Srinivasa Rao and Tanikella Bharani to name two) who really have potential for far better roles. It is almost as if the set patterns have choked the artist out of them and reduced them to mere automatons who perform assigned tasks — nothing more, nothing less.

For instance, in Gharshana we get the opportunity to watch Venkatesh in what you would dare to call an “off-beat Telugu movie” (there was nothing off-beat about the movie— the mere fact that it departed from “the process” made it look different, if you get my drift). His failure to carry what would have been a very straight-forward role in ordinary circumstances, was stunning (His theatrics in the climax almost make you feel sad for him and wish he had never taken up this role in the first place. Dr. Rajasekhar Rao has patented this kind of role and a younger version of him, if available, would have carried it off better). Now, Venkatesh did not start off as such a one-dimensional actor. Some of his performances in his earlier movies (Swarnakamalam, Prema, Shatruvu come to mind) were fair, if not great. Somehow, due to a vane in popularity (or due to advancing age ???), he has chosen to carve a niche for himself and settle down. Needless to say, it disappoints me immensely. I do not know if he would have turned out into a great actor, after all. But it does make you wonder what if…what if he had explored himself a little more.

The advent of RamGopal Verma was a bookmark in Telugu cinema. When he started off, he had this peculiar habit of making very mainstream cinema look offbeat (Shiva and Gaayam are prime examples). He was successful because he had the ability to borrow from real life, to make his audience laugh at everyday situations and to scare them with everyday sights and sounds.

But Telegu cinema cheerfully carried on after Verma stopped making movies here. I wonder if there will be a storm wild enough to shake its roots. Every now and then you do get a strong breeze blowing, but that’s about it. I had hoped that the newer generation of directors and producers would bring in fresh ideas and use the medium for their experiments. Sadly, however, what they have brought in is technical finesse. The tone of the movies is still too loud to make any difference in the scene. Maybe, it is us, the so called “masses” who refuse to approve of change. I still believe that its only a matter of someone taking the mantle and giving it a shot. Change is inevitable. We will have to wait and see who takes that proverbial first step.

I am no expert of cinema…I do not understand half of the so-called “classics”. I do believe, though, that good cinema can attract the masses without being too loud.

Lets wait and watch….

Aamir Khan’s blog..

I found this while going through my usual quota at India Uncut

Yes. You read that right : this is the Indian actor Aamir Khan and his blog we are talking about. Yes, his grammar and composition is low quality. Yes, it looks like he has never heard of a spell-check. However, I think these are the dangers of writing a blog without having enough time for doing it. (don’t think that is 100% acccurate though. I have all the time in the world and I write a lousy blog !)

The USP of the blog, though, is the true actor that it reveals to you. I have written here about acting and building characters, so this should help me make my point more clearly. Listen to him talk about constructing Bhuvan, the protagonist in Lagaan:

Creating Bhuvan was tricky because he is such an all round good guy. No weaknesses. Characters like this have a tendency to get boring. I began at his core. What is his strongest quality? What is the quality about him that stands out the most? Based on the script I felt it was his inner strength. He’s got tremendous courage, inner strength and resolve. How do I project that physically? I went for two imp body signals for this. One I kept my back ramrod straight at all times. I conciously avoided stooping or slumping my back. Two, I divided my body weight equally on both legs. Meaning, I avoided standing with my weight on one leg. So, feet shoulder lenght apart, weight evenly distributed on both legs, back straight and head held high, not too high (makes you look proud). Thats the clasic Bhuvan posture. Then his eyes are very steady. They hold your look if he is looking at you. He is not in a hurry to look away from your eyes. And when they do move they move very steadily. (Unlike Aakash from DCH whose eyes are constantly darting around. Akash is slouchy, neck jutting forward and twinkling eyes, always uyp to some mischief).

(Like I said, watch out for the grammar and spelling !)

He goes on in this post (and this is my personal favorite from his blog so far) to give us a glimpse at the real reason why so many of our “star directors” hesitate to work with him:

The one other physical aspect that Ahsu and I argued for very long was a moustache. Not a fake one. But a real one that I would grow. Ashu did not want it so I finally went with clean shaven, but consider this; it hasn’t rained for a year, last year it hardly rained, this year 2 months of the monsoon have passed and no signs of clouds. Water is a big issue and is potentially a VERY BIG issue… and Bhuvan shaves every day!!! The rest of the villagers should beat the shit out of him. Pani ke vaande hain aur tu sala roz shave kar raha hai. I felt Bhuvan first off all should have a moustache as any villager in a small village in 1983 in India would, then, because of lack of rain he should have a stubble at most times. Maybe he’ll shave on Janmmashthami or a few other imp occasions but by and large he’ll have a stubble.

The Vikram Bhatts and the Rajesh Roshans of our age cannot be bothered with such trivialities about building a character. They are too busy writing chocolate-faced super heroes and serial kissers !

This should be a fun blog to read, what say ?

Notes on my favourite actors

Rajat Kapoor and Boman Irani are two of my favourite contemporary actors in Hindi cinema. I will elaborate.

You see, these are probably the actors who borrow from real life most while playing their characters — Baman Irani more so than Rajat Kapoor. In cinema, scripts are written to convey a story and to move the narration. And characters are an important part of this script. Without properly fletched out characters, the script becomes incoherent and without direction. The protagonists, the bit parts, each one of those characters (human or otherwise) need to be written with consistency. For example, if the scriptwriter sketches a character who is pessimistic, you cannot have this character buying lottery tickets at some point in the story — it takes away credibility from the character, and consequently from the story itself.

What about caricatures ? Unfortunately, Indian cinema is laced with caricatures: the superhero, the dumb comedian, the homely wife, the villainous mother-in-law … call them caricatures, call them cliches. They are withdrawn from real life. As such, the viewers find it difficult to identify with them. As a result, most of the burden for success is borne by the story and the so called “masala elements” in the movie. Very rarely do we find a film standing proudly on the shoulders of a well-etched character. For me, this is also one of the reasons why Indian cinema churns out movies with almost the same basic plot and practically the same narration.

This is where my favourite actors come out tops. I particularly like Baman Irani for his versatility. The estate agent he plays in “Khosla Ka Ghosla”, the middle-aged christian gentleman in “Honeymoon Travels”..these are characters that borrow heavily from real life. We have all, at some point in our lives, come across these gents in real life. That’s what makes us love them, hate them, feel disgust for them, pity them. Its the small things that give the character a life of its own. Of course some characters are written as caricatures and there is nothing wrong in that. But even with caricatures, great actors are able to bring in an iota of reality.

Scriptwriters write characters with their foundation in real life. They, then, exaggerate it to suit the narration. For example, you have a normal middle class, middle-aged man with two kids. To suit the story, you give the man a little more anger, a little more pessimism than usual. The challenge for the actors is to find that foundation and build on it. He or she has to ask why the character is angry or pessimistic.

I believe our “stars” do not spend enough time on such trivialities. And more often than not, they are playing super heroes (or villains) which makes them believe that they do not need to give the character a life in the real world. I hope for the day when our “stars” take that kind of time and do the homework. It is just not enough to spend time on building mannerisms (a la Hrithik Roshan in Koi Mil Gaya). I hope for the day when these otherwise gifted actors start using their brains and find that bridge that links their characters to ordinary human beings. That is when we will start seeing good entertaining cinema. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

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