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October 26, 2005

Blackface

In Blackface, a collection of reminiscences of African Americans in the movies, critic Nelson George writes on how black filmmaking might be sustained or expanded in the future. The book was published in 1994 but it is still interesting to draw parallels with desi independent filmmaking. In the final chapter, he writes:

The cost of making major motion pictures has always daunted anyone challenging Hollywood. It certainly is a big roadblock for the traditionally underfinanced black community. Perhaps the model to look at is the world of bootleg tapes and cassettes. Any major motion picture of interest to the black community is available before release in any swap meet, flea market, or sidewalk vendor in most urban areas...

The development of a direct-to-home-video market for African American films will be crucial in any strategy to build a black film institution. The programming must be made as inexpensive and easily accessible as the bootlegs purchased by blacks. In fact, whoever starts this company might be well-advised to advertise their films as "legal bootlegs."

Fast forward a decade and it's true that there does exist a direct-to-video market for black films. However, the titles I keep hearing about seem to be rapper exploitation flicks like Master P's I Got The Hookup. Desi films have a direct to video market in the USA as well - it's called renting DVDs from your local Indian grocery store. Of course, there are dedicated screens that show only films from the subcontinent but they exist only in major metropolitan areas. Anyway, most of the rental demand is for mainstream Bollywood fare, most of which tends to be, you guessed it, exploitative.

Additionally, rampant piracy continues to be a problem for Indian films too but with an additional twist. File-swapping sites like desitorrents.com have taken the problem online and global. So, why not take the book's suggestion and utilize an existing distribution network, which currently is being used for piracy, for legal distribution purposes? The desi audience is clearly technically savvy - when I was talking to Netflix, I found out that when they first switched to their all-you-can-eat subscription model, they were initially sustained by rentals of Bollywood movies, made presumably by folks who lived too far away from desi grocery stores. P2P network Kazaa tried this with the Bollywood film Supari. The article, dated December 2003, reports 200 download sales but I haven't heard anything since, so I don't know what became of that initiative. Of course, we have to make a distinction before we go any further - in the USA, Bollywood is considered niche and indeed it is. But to Indians, Bollywood is the mainstream. And I'm more interested in brainstorming about distribution for desi independent filmmaking - this in the USA becomes a niche within a niche. Yikes! Later in the chapter, Nelson George offers a way forward:

Similarly, there is an emotionally rich, financially lucrative mother lode in the catalogue of unfilmed women's literature. The Color Purple, which I personally didn't like but which was embraced by women of all colors, didn't inspire a wave of novelistic adaptations but I'm confident that by the end of the century one of the most substantial wings of African-American cinema will be the filmed works of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Ntosake Shange, Bebe Moore Campbell ,etc. No question that this is a vital catalogue of great, very human stories waiting to be told.

Moreover, as book sales have testified, a national audience for the voices of black women clearly exists. The audiences have been consistently multiracial, though the works have been seeped in the African-American experience.

Clearly, he was on the money - I don't know about the latter two authors he mentioned but Terry McMillan (Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Toni Morrison (Beloved) have had major films made from their books. Once again, however, you can extend this pattern to Asian American cinema (Amy Tan and Joy Luck Club) and, more recently, to Indian-American literature. I refer to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake which Mira Nair, a true desi independent filmmaker if there was one, is adapting into a motion picture. Another example is Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni's Mistress of Spices, a recent feature from Paul Mayeda Berges. Of course, the advantage these films have is they have a pre-sold audience that's bought the book. Desi male indie filmmakers without access to such best selling female authors' works might either have to go the M. Night Shyamalan route i.e. tackle high-concept scripts and directly aim for as broad an audience as possible or explore new ways of reaching an audience through other means, such as online, particularly as NRI audiences have not proven to be particularly supportive of non-Bollywood diaspora films in general.

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- October 26, 2005 2:24 PM // Books , Film

October 24, 2005

Domino and the Scavenger Hunt

Recently, we finagled free passes to a screening of Tony Scott's latest, Domino. That it was being marketed to an urban audience became abundantly clear when we arrived at the AMC Kabuki at San Francisco's Japantown. Bag search? Check. Extra security? Check. Hip hop playing through a separate soundsystem in the hall? Check. Hip hop and R & B stars present in the film? Check. The movie itself was dressed up Hollywood masala and not particularly memorable. Nice summary from Ain't It Cool:

Its biggest problem is that we can never see what the hell is going on. Every image Scott uses is toyed or tinkered with. Sped up or slowed down. Every shot is washed out colors, grainy images, or littered with those stupid flashes of light in the background, that would pose a problem to people with epilepsy. Tony Scott needs to just chill out for a little bit. Calm down. Take some Ritalin. Or a Xanax. And call his brother in the morning or something. Domino is so hyper-stylized it makes Oliver Stone look like Gus Van Sant. The other problem is that the film lacks a heart. It’s all sizzle and no steak. What’s the story really about? Three misunderstood misfits who join forces to eliminate the bad guys of the world? Why did Domino want to be a bounty hunter so badly? And why should we root for them? At no point in the film did Domino, Ed, or Choco feel like a hero.

We left when the film began showing diagrams on screen to explain the plot points. That's diagrams with a "d" complete with pictures and arrows. I kid you not! There's only so much dumbing down you can take.

Anyway, the most interesting part of the evening was prior to the screening. In the theater, an MC got up and asked for three volunteers to come onstage. Four folks (three guys and a girl) l did the bumrush. The MC then asked them to go on a scavenger hunt inside the theater. They had to find the following:

  • A large shoe
  • A quarter dated 1994
  • A Palmpilot
  • An old movie ticket
  • A $100 dollar bill

The prize was a pair of tickets to an auto show. The person who collected the most items from the list would win. Of course, nobody parted with a 100 dollar bill! Or a palmpilot. But they did find folks willing to give up shoes, quarters and movie stubs. There was a tie which the MC broke by asking the audience to cheer and picking the contestant who received the most noise. The lone girl walked away with the tickets and I picked up some insight into "street marketing" techniques.

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- October 24, 2005 12:36 PM // Bay Area , Film

October 13, 2005

Shubho Bijoya

Happy Durga Puja to all! In case you were wondering what's that all about, Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of the Hindusthan Times has a famous piece entitled What 'Pujo' means to a Bengali. An excerpt:

It's like Christmas, they told me. Imagine Christmas in New York: Puja means that to a Bengali. Others found more home-grown parallels. It's like Diwali in North India, they said. You know, the shopping, the parties, the festivities and all that stuff.

Actually, of course, it was nothing like Christmas; and certainly nothing like Diwali in North India.

Nothing, in fact, can prepare you for the magic of Puja in Calcutta.

To understand what it means, you have to be here.

As the years went on and as I went from Puja to Puja, I tried to work out why nobody could explain to outsiders what it was that made Puja so special. Why was that I failed as completely as everybody else in communicating the essence of Puja? Why did all the time-honoured comparisons not really ring true; with Dushera, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and God alone knows what else?

The answer, I suspect - and after all these years, it is still a suspicion, I have no solutions - is that you can't understand Puja unless you understand Calcutta and unless you understand Bengalis.

Of course, none of this really explains what Durga Puja is about. There's a very funny flash animation that explains it more. Click on the image to view. In addition, there's more stuff available here. Thanks to Anindya Basu for the original link, BTW!

Coming back to Vir Sanghvi's statement on understanding Bengalis and Calcutta, he has another great article on this very subject. Naturally, I can't resist quoting:

Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud of the fact. Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contempt for mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph ofintellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human existence.

Hear, hear! Why else would I slave over this site when I could be (theoretically) figuring out newer ways of making money in Silicon Valley? Sanghvi continues:

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer; Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

Having highlighted all these good words, I should add I did find the city had changed in my last visit. But that's for a future entry.

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- October 13, 2005 12:06 PM // Bangla

October 12, 2005

What's Up Bolly Lily?

Here's an idea whose time has come. What's Up Tiger Lily started it all, Wayne's World used a similar device for chop socky and Mystery Science Theater milked bad sci fi for all it was worth. Now, as Sumana Harihareswara writes in Salon, "Uncle Morty's Dub Shack," a TV program on the ImaginAsian TV network, extends it to Bollywood:

The conceit of the show is that four loser friends -- Trevor, Alladin, Jimbo and John -- earn a little extra cash dubbing martial arts, action and Bollywood films into English at the Dub Shack, run by an old crank named Morty. Uncle Morty doesn't have the translated scripts, so the friends turn the movie scenes into sketch comedy. For those of us who didn't warm to MST3K, "Uncle Morty's" is easier to love, because it's only half an hour long (the films are significantly, and mercifully, edited down), and the writers create believable alternate narratives for the flicks instead of merely smirking at them.
For Bollywood, their main attraction seems to be re-writing the song sequences:
Is it easier to write funny commentary for Chinese kung fu/action movies or Bollywood musicals?

Trevor: I think they each have their advantages. The kung fu films tend to have these great, expressive, comic-relief characters that are just so easy to write jokes and come up with voices for. And the Bollywood films have all of those musical numbers that you can write songs for.

Jimbo: I love writing new songs for the Bollywood musicals. It's great to watch with the sound off and think, "What are they just not singing about?" and then have them sing about it.

Apparently, the guys don't try to do bad Indian accents. Jimbo says:

For instance, we never use outrageous Asian accents on our characters. That would just be lame, predictable and insulting. We do, however, use outrageous French accents and such, because it's just absurd and silly. The French have a right to be offended at our show! We consciously don't use stereotypes as humor, because to us it's just not funny. Our viewpoint is, "Hey! Let's have some fun with these old B films!"

Are you listening, Apu?

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- October 12, 2005 11:36 PM // Bollywood

October 11, 2005

Mangal Pandey - The Rising

Over the course of the history of Indian films, us desis have evolved our own rating terminology. These include "it's ok," "timepass" and "don't expect anything." This is in addition to the usual "good", "great music!", "xxx Khan is wearing cool clothes in the movie, yaar!" and "big in Chennai!" Okay, I made up the last two but, on a more serious note, there is a phrase I do use: "honorable effort." This refers to Bollywood films, often by directors who made a name for themselves on the art film circuit, that attempt to tackle worthwhile issues yet are too flawed to earn a "good" rating. A good example is Thakshak, directed by Govind Nihalani of Ardh Satya (Half Truth) fame. Page 3 is a more recent illustration. The Rising, helmed as it is by former art house darling Ketan Mehta (Mirch Masala, Maya Memsaab), barely escapes falling into this category. It is a rousing effort with epic aspirations that is ultimately marred by the little things. It's a good, but not great, film.

How best to bring well known events alive for an audience? That's a key challenge faced by a historical epic. How do you hold an audience's interest over a story for which the ending is already known? One possibility is to get the ending over with first and retrace the steps that led up to it. Nine Hours to Rama tried this approach, starting off with Mahatma Gandhi's assasination. When The Rising opens and we see Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) getting ready to be hung, my first thought was the film was attempting the flashback approach, since anyone familiar with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or the first Indian War of Independence) will know that's how Mangal Pandey met his end. But Ketan Mehta and writer Farrukh Dhondy have other ideas and, just before the signal is to be given, a messenger comes running with the news that the executioner is nowhere to be found. No local will hang this man. The execution is stayed and we are left with sufficient doubt so as to focus on the proceedings that follow. A nifty twist.

Rewind to a skirmish in Afganistan in 1853 where we see the bravery of sepoy Mangal Pandey as he rescues officer William Gordon (Toby Stephens) from certain death, becoming gravely injured himself in the process. As both men recover, we see the disparate way the East India Company treats its officers who are housed in tents vis a vis the native Indian soldiers who are left outside. William is powerless to help Mangal but he does gift him his own gun for protection. Thus, a bond starts to form between the two men. By 1856, the division is housed in Barrackpore in Calcutta and Mangal and Wlliam are becoming inseparable. But there are clouds looming over the horizon regarding the origins of the grease used for the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles. A combination of cow and pig fat, it is equally abhorrent to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys who must bite down on them as part of the loading process.

One of the interesting curveballs the film throws at us is that it's agenda is not necessarily anti-colonialism. Sure, there's talk from the British officers about the "burden of the white man" but it's all intended to justify the policies of the British East India Company. Those were all about profit - specificially, draining as much wealth as possible from the Indian countryside. This involved forcing the farmers to grow poppy seeds which then could be sold to China as part of the opium trade. By paying the farmers fixed prices and using the Indian sepoys to keep them in line, the Company reaped huge dividends. In that sense, most of the film is more about the evils of capitalism, monopolies and globalization. That the film includes a sympathetic British character and points out some good accomplished by the Company, namely the banning of sati, supports this notion. It's the profit motive then that ultimately leads to the uprising as the Company tries to cover up the origins of the grease because replacements would be too costly to the bottom line. The sepoys, smarting at their inferior treatment, finally have had enough.

That Mangal Pandey is able to raise these issues in an entertaining manner is its biggest strength. However, a number of nits ultimately prevent the film from rising to its potential. First, Mangal Pandey himself is just not sufficiently well developed. Though well acted by Aamir Khan, we really have no information on his background and he remains a cipher. Whatever dramatic license the script takes, namely his relationship with the prostitute Heera (Rani Mukherjee), is controversial and arguably unnecessary. On the other hand, the character of William Gordon is much more well rounded - perhaps because it is completely invented. Next, the device of having some fellows on an elephant chanting out "mangala, mangala" at periodic intervals serves no discernible purpose and can get annoying to boot. Additionally, some of the song sequences, particularly in the second half, are unnecessary and impede the flow. Also, the climax and ending of the film somehow left me unsatisfied. With a title like "The Rising," I was expecting more on the actual rebellion but the film just ends with the incidents that triggered the whole thing. Finally, a small fashion blooper nearly took Shari out of the film - she noticed that Heera's nails were manicured in the French style, quite in vogue currently and, therefor, unlikely to be used by someone of that era in India. All in all then, the film could have been much more. But, if it serves to remind folks that there was much more to India's fight for independence than one half naked fakir, it will have served its purpose.

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- October 11, 2005 9:56 AM // Bollywood , Film , Review

October 10, 2005

The Newspaper Dilemma

Remember my rant on how newspapers were becoming "all-singing, all-blogging, all-linking, all-tagging, all-podcasting, all-streaming, all-dancing wunder critters?" Well, it turns out there's a reason for this. They are not doing well. David Carr writes in the NY Times:

The newspaper business is in a horrible state. It's not that papers don't make money. They make plenty. But not many people, or at least not many on Wall Street, see a future in them. In an attempt to leave the forest of dead trees and reach the high plains of digital media, every paper in the country is struggling mightily to digitize its content with Web sites, blogs, video and podcasts.

David Carr's solution is a portable newsreading device that could do to newsreading what the iPod did to music downloads:

Consider if the line between the Web and print matter were erased by a device for data consumption, not data entry - all screen, no baggage - that was uplinked and updated constantly: a digital player for the eyes, with an iTunes-like array of content available at a ubiquitous volume and a low, digestible price.

Sure, there are tablet PC's and so-called viewpads out there, but they need to boot every time they are used - they are just computers without keyboards. The iPod was not a new kind of CD player, it was a new way of listening to music. And the dangling white headphones became something that brought joy to the ears and also cachet to the wearer.

But then, what am I supposed to use to line my shelves?

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- October 10, 2005 11:45 AM // General

October 9, 2005

Man Of The Heart

We first met Drama Professor Sudipto Chatterjee when he conducted a drama workshop under ENAD's aegis about two years ago. It was an exhilarating experience and, needless to say, we were looking forward to his latest performance, Man of the Heart, on the UC Berkeley campus.

This was a one man show on the life and times of Lalon Fakir, a 19th century Bengali mystic and folk singer. Such minstrels, or Bauls as they are known, have played an integral role in Bengali folkore:

Bauls (Bangla: বাউল) are a group of mystic minstrels from the Bengal region, now divided into Bangladesh and West Bengal. Bauls are a part of the culture of rural Bengal. They are thought to have been influenced greatly by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart). The origin of the word is debated. However, it is widely agreed that is comes either from Sanskrit batul, meaning divinely inspired insanity or byakul, meaning fervently eager.

The music of the Bauls, bAul saMgeet refers to a particular type of folk song of sung by Bauls. It carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance.

Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the bAul for his boshTomi or lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion, and some of the most famous baul composers, such as Lalon Fakir have been of muslim birth.

The actual show itself was a blend of monologues, live singing and dancing, pre-recorded songs and sounds, video clips and projected slides. Nothing if not ambitious! However, while the technical production values were impeccable and Prof. Chatterjee a real live dynamo onstage, the show could have benefitted from a real narrative spine. There were many tantalizing nuggets buried in the material bespeaking the importance of Lalon in 19th century colonial India. For example, while the British were busy creating a buffer class of brown sahibs to better administer the sub-continent, bauls such as Lalon played a big role in resisting these divide and conquer tactics. I thought it was great for the production to contextualize Lalon's importance thus but I didn't really get a clearer picture as to how he really accomplished this. Instead, the bulk of the presentation was on how Lalon deliberately shrouded his origins in riddles and how, scholars on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide, went to great lengths to claim him as one of their own. Interesting stuff but I would have preferred to get an idea of why was gathering proof of this type so important. Perhaps an Indian audience would be better placed to understand the significance of this quest but, most probably, not an international one. Similarly, towards the end, we learned of some of the practices Lalon (and his female spiritual companion) perfected after years of sadhana. These techniques, which seemed to have tantric roots, were left unexplored after being hinted at.

Clearly, Sudipto Chatterjee and director Suman Mukherjee hold Lalon very close to their hearts - in the post-show Q&A, both spoke of discovering their mutual interest while roommates in NYC in the early '90s. Given what we witnessed was an edited version of a full length script, which reportedly ran to a couple of hours, its turgidity was understandable - as a matter of fact, the whole event was advertised as a work-in-progress workshop. Hence, I would expect the whole thing to take better dramatic shape with more performances. Nevertheless, there were many things to enjoy and learn here. As mentioned before, Sudipto held the audience's attention easily and, in addition to his other skills, possesses a fine singing voice. Of late, I've been noticing the technique of an actor or dancer using one's own robes to intercept the images from a projector - this distortion technique was used pretty effectively in the production. The musical accompaniment, lighting and sets were also good - mention must be made of ENAD-ites Sambit Basu and Bodhi Das who helped out so capably.

I have mixed feelings as to Baul music itself - in some sense, it is similar to the blues, and hence can be an acquired taste. Too much of it can end up sounding the same. Plus, Baul music has been all the rage in Kolkata of late and many Bengali rock bands (yes, they exist) have actually jumped on the bandwagon. So there's a bit of an overkill involved. It might be blasphemous to admit, but I actually prefer the hybridized version as practiced by bands like Bhoomi. But the standout in this genre is the drum'n'bass/baul fusion of UK based State of Bengal and Purna Das Baul's collaboration Tana tani. Anyway, overall, the show contains much to ponder over and our best wishes to Prof. Chatterjee and Suman Mukherjee in actualizing a dynamite final version.

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- October 9, 2005 4:49 PM // Bangla , Bay Area , Theater

October 5, 2005

Why I Hate The Term "Blog"

James Berardinelli has it right when he writes in ReelViews:

"Blog" is an ugly word. It sounds like something that comes out of the nose when a person is sick with the flu. As I'm sure nearly everyone reading this knows, "blog" is short for "web log." (I prefer the term "online journal.") Initially, it was a noun, but its versatility has been expanded. It became a verb (to blog). Then the verb became a gerund (blogging). So the ugly word has legs and has become an official entry into all comprehensive dictionaries.

A weblog, from a technical standpoint, would refer to the trace from a web server. Hence, "online journal" is more appropriate. But quibbles aside, blog is an ugly word. It's one "l" removed from "bog", which according to webster,

is a poorly drained usually acid area rich in accumulated plant material.

Hmm, that sounds about right, "bog" is also UK slang for the loo. Not only that, blog doesn't even rhyme with anything interesting. Only "frog" comes to mind. Again, not a pretty thought. So, when I read stuff like "AJ Reinhold is blogging on the environment!", I think, "good lord man, what's mother nature ever done to you for you to dump on her this way?" Or when I hear that "Shanachie Kitmer is live blogging from the courthouse!", my immediate response is to pray for the sanitary wellbeing of that edifice.

Speaking of blogs, newspapers have embraced the whole phenomenon like nobody's business. All of their staff reporters seem to have blogs these days and when they're not busy podcasting, another lovely buzzword, they are linking to each other's blogs. Their motto seems to be blogito ergo sum i.e. "I blog, therefore I am." But then, why blame newspapers? Seven years ago, everyone had a website, including the vending machine at CMU. Back then, a friend and I used to joke it was only a matter of time before a toilet had its own website. If so, the visitor site counter (This site has been visited 12687 times) would have another meaning entirely! Can you imagine? Now, of course, everyone and their dog has a blog ("dog blogs", what else?), usually on blogspot. How much longer before the aforementioned toilet has an exclusive blog, I ask? No wait! It's already been done!

And never underestimate the power of blogs for procrastination! These days, the very first thing for anyone who's thinking of doing anything is to open a blog and link to someone else droning on about the very same thing. There are blogs on books in progress, films in progress, albums in progress, gardens in progress and on life in progress. No, I'm too lazy to link any examples of these - this is meant to be a rant - but you know exactly what I mean!

Of course, as you no doubt have realized by now, a lot this venting comes from jealousy. When a new media form is invented, there exists a small window of opportunity for amateurs to jump in before established content producers jump in and become all-singing, all-blogging, all-linking, all-tagging, all-podcasting, all-streaming, all-dancing wunder critters. As for desi-come-lately's like us, perhaps there's still a little bit of time to jump on the video blogging bandwagon before the big cheeses take over. Maybe, I'll start a new blog on video blogging and link to other video bloggers who then will link to me. Yeah, that's the ticket...

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- October 5, 2005 5:05 PM // General