« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

August 24, 2005

Lip Synching Banned

Take a look at this: Turkmen President Bans Lip Synching.

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- He has outlawed opera and ballet and railed against long hair and gold teeth, but now the authoritarian president of Turkmenistan is determined to wipe out another perceived scourge: lip synching.

President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered a ban on lip synching performances across the tightly controlled Central Asian nation, citing "a negative effect on the development of singing and musical art," the president's office said Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, one can see on television old voiceless singers lip-synching their old songs," Niyazov told a Cabinet meeting in comments broadcast on state TV on Tuesday. "Don't kill talents by using lip synching... Create our new culture."

Under Niyazov's order, lip synching is now prohibited at all cultural events, concerts, on television -- and at private celebrations such as weddings.

Can you imagine if Bal Thackerey somehow got it into his head to do the same to Mumbai and, by extension, to Bollywood? The mind boggles. All those pretty vacant starlets forced to sing for themselves. It would have the same impact as silent movies being replaced by those with sound. Not all stars survived the transition in Hollywood. Someone like Vasundhara Das would do really well. As for others, well they better start brushing up on their scales. And as for the men, well we've seen Aamir Khan (Ghulam) and Amitabh Bachchan do their thing. The rest have spared our eardrums. So far, thanks to the good lord.

PS - Thanks to Amar Parikh for the link.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 24, 2005 9:03 PM // Bollywood , Select

August 23, 2005

Open Water and Small Groups

Open Wateris one of those efforts that can blindside you if you're not careful. If your thrills come from CGI extravaganzas or toxic horror films that spill blood like the Exxon Valdez gushed oil, this film is not for you. Rather, this is part of a rare category of films: "relationship horror." In other words, the real pain of this story about a scuba diving couple stranded in the ocean comes not from the sharks attacks or hostile weather, but from the way these circumstances affect the relationship of the two people thus trapped. How would you feel if your loved one battled death in front of you and you were powerless to help? Without giving anything away, the ending is a particular downer and I greatly admire the husband and wife duo of director/writer Chris Kentis and producer Laura Lau for sticking to their guns. For an indie feature, especially one they self-financed, it couldn't have been an easy decision. I suppose The Blair Witch Project, with which this film has been compared, didn't have a particularly cheery ending either and neither did The Perfect Storm, another human beings-vs-the-sea film. But both did business, so perhaps that gave Mr. Kentis and Ms. Lau some confidence.
On a technical level, Open Water has limitations - the picture was often jerky, as befitting digital video giving rise to the seasickness that many complained about Blair Witch, some of the framing was clearly amateurish and the dialogue was muffled in places. However, perhaps because of these flaws the film achieves a realism and immmediacy that wouldn't have come from a more polished production. Nonetheless, imagine our surprise when we found out that the filmmakers, in addition to conceiving and financing the project themselves, were often its only crew! They did this whole feature over a period of three years while Laura raised their daughter and Chris held down a full time job. In an interview with Salon, they explain their choices:

Chris Kentis, director: I was aware of the story for a number of years before I did this, just as a vacation scuba diver. I first heard about it in dive circles and newsletters, and it really sent a chill down my spine. I was horrified by it, but never really thought about it in any other way. But then with the advent of Dogma 95, Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and of course "Blair Witch" and those things, it became clear that you really could make a movie on this [digital] format and people are open to seeing it. I thought this story would work well in this format -- they would complement each other as opposed to just shooting a story because it's all we can afford.

You two worked very closely on this film, which sounds like a trial for anyone, let alone a married couple. And I noticed the relationship and the clashes between the couple in the film were very realistic...

Laura Lau, producer: That has nothing to do with our marriage!

Well, you two are perfect together, of course.

Lau: Of course. We work really closely. We've been together a long time. We made a film before this ["Grind"], we made a short before that, and we've written a couple of scripts together. We have a lot of fun working together.

Kentis: We're really a filmmaking team. There's really no job that isn't interchangeable. I did some producing, and we shot the film together.

The DVD featurettes go into more detail on their choice of shooting formats: apparently, DV gave them much more flexibility in terms of grabbing extra footage and pickup shots. They could sneak mini-DV cameras surreptitiously and shoot locations and gatherings without having to carry a full film crew. Guerrilla filmmaking indeed - good to see that it isn't confined to student filmmakers.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 23, 2005 9:12 PM // Film

August 17, 2005

Santosh Sivan, Roger Ebert and The Terrorist

Recently, Roger Ebert picked acclaimed Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan's feature directorial debut, The Terrorist, as part of his Great Film series. And of course it is - beautifully photographed on a shoestring budget by Santosh Sivan himself, the film manages to be one of those efforts that appears to be placid on the surface, yet cyclonic emotions roil just underneath. Roger Ebert writes:

This is not a film about the rightness or wrongness of her cause or the political situation that inspired it. It simply and heartbreakingly observes for a few days as a young woman prepares to become a suicide bomber. Her story is told with a minimum of onscreen violence and little in the way of action scenes; if Truffaut was correct, and war movies argue for war by making it look exciting, The Terrorist looks the other way.

I watch the film in horrified fascination. To die of disease, age, accident or even in combat is a condition of the human destiny. But to choose the moment of your own death and take other lives because you believe an idea is bigger than yourself: What idea could justify that? At least in battle you hope to survive. To me, consciousness is the all-encompassing idea; without it, there are no ideas, and to destroy it is to destroy all ideas.

The Terrorist is actually not the first Indian production to deal with suicide bombers. Gulzar's Hu Tu Tu and Mani Ratnam's Dil Se both came out earlier. So why did The Terrorist receive the acclaim that eluded the other two more lavishly budgeted efforts? A big reason, I believe, is because they were more standard Bollywood productions, hence severely hampered by the usual Bollywood idioms. By going indie, Sivan was able to tell his story without any affectations and the material itself was powerful enough to connect - at least with art houses outside and probably inside India.
On a related note, his website
santoshsivan.com, is packed with sage advice for the budding cinematographer and auteur. For example:

The Low Budget Film...

A low budget film has to begin with the conviction that the film must be made, whatever the circumstances are.

A filmmaker has to get obsessed with his ideas to give it form, shape and body. The crew... small but highly motivated and enthusiastic. Individuals who are totally in the film till the end and sometimes beyond it.

A film created with an inherent sense of panic is usually driven by various constraints like financial limitations, deadlines and other pressures that give it a fair chance of going beyond its expectations.

Pressure brings out the greatest potential in a filmmaker. Necessity is the mother of invention.

You have to be really, really sharp with your vision and know what exactly you are looking for especially with a low budget film. It is very easy to lose direction mid-way.

Wise words for us wannabes ...

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 17, 2005 11:39 PM // Film

August 15, 2005

The Diaspora Strikes Back

In The Lost Subcontinent William Dalyrmple summarizes the state of Indian and Indian diaspora writing. As he notes, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things heralded the commercial viability of Indian litertature:

.. Roy's international critical and commercial success in 1997 radically changed perceptions of Indian writing in English, and not just in Delhi. Roy's book was immediately recognised as a major literary achievement: it won the Booker and sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for several months: by the end of 1997 it had sold no less than four million copies in two dozen languages.

The results were predictable:

There quickly followed a major publishing feeding-frenzy: international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.

Several other writers had of course prepared the ground for this success. Roy could not have happened without VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth: in particular Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece Midnight's Children liberated Indian writing in English from its colonial straitjacket. It also gave birth to a new voice, one that was exuberantly magical, cosmopolitan and multicultural, full of unexpected cadences, as well as forms that were new to the English novel but deeply rooted in Indian traditions of storytelling. It won the Booker, as did Naipaul's Bend in the River. Then, in 1993, Seth produced his massive - and magnificent - A Suitable Boy. Rushdie's prediction that "Indians were in a position to conquer English literature" seemed about to be vindicated.

Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out..

The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy.

Additionally:

As far as prizes are concerned, since Roy, we have had Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Monica Ali on the Booker shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri winning the Pulitzer; while off the prize-piste there have been two exceptionally brilliant novels by Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist and Transmission) and a fine book each from Manil Suri (The Death of Vishnu) and Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers

Many of the folks on this list are diaspora writers. Could they be coming into their own?

The big uncertainty in the years to come, however, is whether it will continue to be Indians in India mediating this country in the future - or will this increasingly come to be the preserve of the diaspora. Here a big and daily growing question mark remains. In Britain during the last four or five years, the waves have been made less by authors from south Asia, or even from the immediate south Asian diaspora, as much as British-born Asian writers such as Nadeem Aslam or Meera Syal, and particularly what Rushdie might call "chutnified" authors of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, in Zadie Smith's famous formulation, "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks".


The diaspora, however don't quite see themselves carrying the torch:

When he was in Delhi last summer launching Transmission, Kunzru surprised many Indian interviewers by emphasising that he was a British author, not an Indian one, and that he was very happy living in London with his British identity: to one interviewer, he remarked that although his books have some Indian characters and partly Indian settings, he is not "one of those expatriate Indian writers who scours the Indian landscape looking for my roots", adding that he "abhors the nostalgic writing that many writers of Indian diaspora usually indulge in. My next book will not have anything to do with India at all." For him, he said, India was a place where his cousins lived and where he came for weddings and winter holidays.

In Hong Kong, he confirmed this: "I am very careful never to describe myself as an Indian writer," he said. "I am a British-born, British-resident author. I have connections to India and I feel they inform what I do to some extent, but more than this I cannot claim. What I and Zadie are doing is British writing about British hybridity. It is a completely separate story to that strand of writing which is about Indian-born writers going somewhere else. People should not confuse the two."

I could sense the politics of this when reading Transmission. There were three plotlines within the book: one dealt with a desi computer nerd finding his way from Gurgaon to Silicon Valley, the second was about a really put-upon Bollywood starlet on location in the UK and the third described the shenanigans of a high class British man. Somehow, I felt the third thread was somewhat superfluous to the overall narrative. The first two narratives came together quite nicely in the end but the third seemed to be more about Mr. Kunzru saying to the readers, Look - I can do non-brown too! Given that his first book, The Impressionist, dealt, once again, with an Anglo-Indian desi during the times of the British Raj, I found Mr. Kunzru's statements interesting. Unlike Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, both of whom dealt with Bangladeshi first and second generation UK immigrants in their debuts, I don't quite see the second generation hybridity in his work. If that's not there and he is disavowing any serious connections with the subcontinent, then there's the faintest whiff of opportunism about the whole thing. Writing about India is "in" - use it's exoticism while you still can. Move on when the masala runs out. Hopefully that's not the case.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 15, 2005 9:41 PM // Books , Diaspora , India

August 14, 2005

Lady In A Cage

The success of Psycho opened the doors for Lady in a Cage, a low-budget chiller set in an anonymous city over a July 4th weekend. Cornelia Hilyard's (Olivia De Haviland) son Malcolm (played by William Swan) is leaving for the holidays. We get to see a close up of a note he's leaving for his mother suggesting he may be close to killing himself. Cornelia is disabled by a hip injury, hence they've installed an elevator to transport her in-between the ground floor of her house and the top floor. Malcolm's departure kicks off a series of coincidences which cause the power in the house to go out while Cornelia is in the elevator. She is trapped - she rings the external emergency alarms but there is no one to listen. The house is on a main thoroughfare and everyone is busy trying to get out of town. Finally, a vagrant (Jeff Corey) finds his way inside but he is not there to help. His looting and subsequent attempts to pawn off his findings attract the attention of a couple of local hoodlums (James Caan in an early major role) who then find their way to the house. Cornelia must find a way to save herself while still pinned between floors.

There are a surprising number of themes at work in Lady In A Cage: the ease with which order descends into chaos, barbarians at the gate, the brutally impersonal nature of urban life, youthful rebellion and the Oedipus Complex, to name a few. Helmed by veteran TV director Walter Graumann, the film is rarely less than believable, once you accept the Rube Goldberg-like nature of the premise. Unlike Psycho whose impact has diminished by virtue of over-exposure, Lady in A Cage is a buried nugget which hasn't lost its power to thrill and shock.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 14, 2005 8:39 PM // Film , Review

August 9, 2005

Rising Khan

The Rising finally releases this week. If nothing else, it's been an effectively marketed film. The trailer has been available for a while, yet:

For the past six months, irrespective of the film being screened, the audience at Chennai's Melody theatre gives a standing ovation to the trailer of Mangal Pandey - The Rising. The 90 seconds theatrical trailer showing Aamir Khan walking in shackles with the patriotic song Mangal ... Mangal ... , tuned by A. R. Rahman, in the background creates a stir.

What took so long? Well, there were personnel changes:

Aishwarya Rai has been thrown out of Ketan Mehta's The Rising starring Aamir Khan. The film that has been in the news for a year now was once again hit with controversy when Ash's international agents demanded that the producer Bobby Bedi double her fee after initially having agreed to a nominal one. They argue that the film will be released internationally as it is being made in English and Hindi so Ash should get her international price of 3 crores. Bobby Bedi refused and cast Amisha Patel instead. Bedi says that Ash had given him a content letter in May, and the shooting for the film was due to start in January - so how can she be so unreasonable at such a later stage. It seems Aamir Khan tried persuading Ash but she was incommunicado. On the other hand, Amisha Patel is thrilled to bits about doing the film.

And of course, there is the famous Aamir Khan attention to detail (a quality conspicously missing in much of India's film output). From BollyWhat:

Before every take of the sword fight, Aamir Khan would snarl to get into character. 'I've already shot one man,' he said. 'I'm sweating with the madness of complete violence.' A doctor was standing by. On Aamir's first swipe, he bends Toby's aluminum sword. Another take, and the sword is bent again. Another, and Toby's sword is broken in two. 'Shite,' Toby said. Then another breaks. 'He chews up swords like candy, yaar,' Ketan Mehta said, walking over. Only three swords are left for Toby.

The swords are kept in a bucket of ice water to keep them cool on the fighters' hands, and there is a discussion about whether the cold water is making the metal brittle.

Aamir insists on fighting with different, stronger swords. The audience will see what we've shot here and say, 'They're not really fighting,' he said. He wants to show the feeling of violence, or else get rid of the sword fight entirely. The next day, swords made of stainless steel are brought from Mumbai, and a day later the sword fight scene is shot again.

Naturally, there's the usual share of controversy:

Mumbai, July 30: Several theatre artistes organised a protest in Ballia (U.P.) against Aamir Khan starrer 'Mangal Pandey-The Rising'.

As the director Ketan Mehta did not shoot the film in the revoltionary's native village Nagwan in Ballia district. Asserting that if portions of the film were not shot in Mangal Pandey's native village Nagwan , they would also protest against the films screening . The protestors also burnt effigies of film's director Ketan Mehta.

Bwahaha. One of the master strokes in marketing this film was Aamir Khan's endorsement deal with Titan watches during production. In ad spreads, Aamir appears in full sepoy regalia and manages to pull it off. His mustache and long hair made for near universal saturation of the Mangal Pandey image in the Indian market. Talk about synergy!

But how is the actual film? Advance word seems to be really positive! Variety writes:

Bollywood cracks the epic code with The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a gorgeously lensed, well-structured audience-pleaser that harks back to classic Hollywood blockbusters of the '50s and '60s. Based on the 1857 Indian Mutiny that signaled the slow decline of BlightyBlighty's rule in the subcontinent, pic sidesteps the usual pitfalls of historical action-dramas made with Anglo-local casting for a good old-fashioned tale of heroism with a political slant. Opening-night attraction at the Locarno fest goes out worldwide through Yash Raj Films Aug. 12, and could cross over to fractionally wider bizbiz than usual Bollywood fare.

Largely shot in English, the movie has none of the awkwardness in dialogue or playing that's afflicted similar productions in the past, despite being directed by an Indian, Ketan Mehta ("Mirch Masala," "Sardar"), and using a largely Bollywood crew. Dialogue falls naturally into English or Hindi as circumstances dictate and, apart from a couple of overplayed supporting roles, the Brits come over as real characters rather than colonial stereotypes.

Thanks to good perfs by leads Aamir Khan ("Lagaan") and Toby Stephens, the personal conflict -- which, in true epic style, mirrors the wider drama -- is socked over at a human level that's finally very moving.

Interesting. From the trailer, The Rising had seemed to me to be India's answer to Braveheart. At any rate, perhaps this might be the next breakout film from India after Lagaan. And with the same star. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 9, 2005 11:47 PM // Bollywood , Film

August 1, 2005

Sarkar

Somewhere in the course of the past two decades, Amitabh Bachchan went from an "angry young man" to being an ubiquitous old man. Oh sure, in between there were the dog days of the collapse of his ABCL venture and his subsequent rehabilitation via the Kaun Banega Crorepati (Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire) TV show. Post career resuscitation, Mr. Bachchan seems to have tucked into his new onscreen career with relish. But for the rest of us, it's a case of too much pickle ruining the chapati. If he's not invoking that distinctive voice of his for a film voiceover, he's busy lecturing some young buck on family values or hectoring the audience on patriotism. Even if he's not on the bill, there's no escaping a cameo appearance from the man. These days, a major Bollywood production is made notable by his absence. And of course, if you turn on Indian TV, he's selling something in a commercial near you!

Thus, director Ram Gopal Verma chief achievement with Sarkar, as far as I am concerned, is that he restores Amitabh Bachchan's grandeur as an actor. He does this by stripping away the bombast and the many layers of acting tics Amitabh has accumulated over the years. Here, Amitabh speaks volumes via the stillness of his face and eyes - gone are the usual dramatic flourishes. Of course, if you see Ajay Devgan's performance in Company, you'll see this is a tactic often used in Verma's productions. But the danger there lies in underacting the role, particularly as Indian audiences are not usually served up subtlety very often in their cinematic diet. All credit then to Amitabh for communicating with a look or a glance what would take pages of exposition and thundering soundtrack to convey in a standard masala flick.

If only the rest of the film stood up so well! This film was tirelessly publicized on two fronts: first, as the Indian answer to the Godfather and, second, as a vehicle for both father Amitabh and son Abhishek Bachchan. It may be argued that the marketing went overboard on both counts. Certainly, the sight of the two stars walking to the Siddhivinayak temple on foot for "personal reasons" on the eve of the film's release didn't hurt it's chances.

As for the film, even if you were holed up in an ashram in the Himalayas, Ram Gopal Verma explicitly reminds you that this is a tribute when the film starts to roll. Unfortunately, this tactic distracts from enjoying the film on its own merits. Matters aren't helped when, in the opening sequence, a man trudges to the Sarkar's residence, looking for retribution for his raped daughter. Okay, there is no wedding going on at the time, but still ... Thus, throughout the film, I was left drawing comparisons between it and the original. Would Sonny get killed this time around? How about the Godfather? How would they handle the transformation of Michael Corleone? Where the hell was Fredo? And Sarkar suffers by comparison. There are places where it hints at some original twists but it doesn't explore them in sufficient detail. What remains is Godfather-lite, a place where the head honcho, Sarkar, really is a good man who eschews organized crime, where the women are mere window dressing and where Abhishek Bachchan and Kay Kay Menon's fine performances are wasted because their roles are so poorly developed. Don't get me wrong - this is a polished production that is an order of magnitude better than Verma's last film, Naach, although the music is too bombastic in places, frequently building to false climaxes that lead nowhere. Like the bulk of Ram Gopal Verma's productions, it's eminently worth watching. It just doesn't scale the heights of the maestro's previous achievements.

Spread the dishum:  digg it del.icio.us reddit furl My Web

- August 1, 2005 11:56 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select