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March 31, 2006

Scavenging Samples

Ever wondered how snatches of Indian vocals seem to crop up in the oddest of places? Hip hop producer Blockheadtook Remix Magazine on a day tour of record stores in NYC where he bought a bunch of decidedly off center albums. After fortifying himself with a fat slice of pizza, he proceeded to extract disparate elements from a number of tracks and blend them into something uniquely his own. Here's how he worked an Indian LP:

Then an old LP from India called Hits of Shankar-Jaikishan, Vol. 1 (Angel, 1964) has a vocal sample with potential. "This is where time-stretching would work, but whatever; time-stretching takes the skill out of it," he shrugs. "If you have time-stretching, the only talent you need is to tell whether something is out of tune or not. I get a lot of flak for speeding up vocals, but I like to work with vocal samples the same way I do a horn or a piano: I don't care how fast or slow it is as long as it's in key."

The vocal line is lovely and haunting at the same time, and although it's troublesome, Blockhead is willing to go to some extra lengths to make it fit. The aging ASR-10 is unwieldy by today's standards, but Blockhead knows its functions inside and out from a decade of exclusive, nonstop use. His skills with the limited controls make a strong case for expertly mastering a select amount of gear/software rather than taking on a wide range of systems and knowing them only superficially.

"It's funny because it already sounds like it's backward," he comments as his fingers fly over the Ensoniq's buttons. “I'm doing a lot of filtering stuff to make the high part of it I like come out more. I don't know what these numbers (on the bare-bones LCD) mean, but when I move the slider, it takes out some of the crackle. Now it sounds like it's coming through the radio, which I like.

"I slowed this sample way down, and I think it sounds almost like a reversed instrument at times. Obviously, I don't speak any Indian [languages], so I have no idea what she's saying, but it resembles an African stringed instrument and Mickey Mouse at the same time. It works with the track because it's got this lighthearted feel to it. The sample itself is kind of fun."

Globalization in the backyard indeed. The complete track ("Big City Boy") is available here. Check it out!

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- March 31, 2006 8:18 PM // Music

March 28, 2006

Making It In LA

In a piece in Salon, veteran actor turned author, Peter Birkenhead, talks about the difficulty of making it in LA:

But I got better. I did some recurring roles on a few shows, and I was a guest star on a bunch of others. I even did another Steven Bochco show, "NYPD Blue," playing a fast-talking schmuck of a stockbroker (hey, wait a minute …), whom Dennis Franz "liked" for a murder, and I started settling into the Los Angeles version of the working actor's life.

Here's what that life is like: Only 5 percent of people who call themselves actors earn enough each year from acting to support themselves. So the number of actors who drive to work in a Porsche, or home through ornate electronic gates, is microscopic. I drive a Honda Hybrid, and I park it on the street in front of my apartment building. I did own a house once, with my ex-wife, but home ownership and marriage are pretty fragile things for people who sometimes wonder if they'll ever work again.

In response, a letter writer, only identifying herself as the wife of a desi actor in LA, confesses:

This is such a true observation. I support my husband's choice of career 100% (and thankfully, I have a great and steady job of my own). But life often feels like a rollercoaster for us, with my husband's career completely at the whim of casting directors who are failed actors/writers/directors themselves. He has a great audition for a really good part, and then we play the waiting game, and then we don't hear anything after 3 days, and then by day 4 or 5, I can see the disappointment on his face. It hurts my heart, even though I know he has better defense mechanisms than I do. We are also not white -- our families are from India --and the racist/stereotypical comments he gets really blow our mind. One casting director told him he's "not Indian enough" and proceeded to cast a very dark skinned, shorter Indian man with thick lips for that same part. The conceptions about race and ethnicity are so narrow, and casting directors are sometimes the most uneducated when it comes to the tremendous diversity out there in the real world.

This is something we've noticed - the desis cast in TV shows here invariably tend to be short, dark skinned with hilariously fake Indian accents, more a reflection of US perceptions of Indians rather than being representative of desis as a whole. You'd think the casting directors never met anyone from Punjab! Said wife continues:

The thing that keeps us going, with all of this, is his passion for the craft, our belief that he can and will succeed, and the support of family and friends. And a sense of humor about all the b.s. that you do experience in this career! We keep ourselves entertained with the foibles of big stars -- people that he's worked with on various tv shows. Which actor wears a tooth whitening retainer in between each and every take? Which actor can't pronounce any names at all? Which actor fumbles medical jargon really badly, and she works on a hospital drama?

Not Parminder Nagra, surely?

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- March 28, 2006 9:12 PM // TV

March 22, 2006

3rd I Shorts At SFIAFF 2006

Not all films are created full length. Short films are what aspiring directors and producers create while waiting for the inspiration (and funding) for the big one. Though sites like youtube and ifilm have become popular outlets for mini-movies, a big screen at a festival is still a great way to soak in the latest and greatest. In particular, the 3rd I shorts program at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival offers an excellent opportunity for catching up with the emerging South Asian directors. Here are some brief thoughts on the pieces featured in this year's festival.

India 2005 | 22 mins
Director: Umesh Kulkarni

Shot and set in India, this is the story of a boy and his mother trying to make ends meet by purchasing a grain grinder on loan. The sounds of the girni, however, eventually starts to drive the boy insane.

Probably the best of the batch. I particularly admired its use of sound. A scratchy print but well worth catching nonetheless.

In Whose Name?
USA 2004 | 11 mins
Director: Nandini Sikand

A well meaning work that tried to sound warnings against religion corrupting politics in India. It started off strongly but ended up being too earnest in tone (and too jumpy in narrative) to make a serious case.

UK 2005 | 20 mins
Director: Avie Luthra

A Zulu boy is sent to live with his uncle in Durban, South Africa. His mother has just died of AIDS and his uncle barely tolerates the kid, warning him to "avoid the colored woman down the hallway. She hates Zulus. She'll eat you. With Curry."

That the colored woman and the kid will form a link is a given. But the story arc is handled with grace. It did feel like an excerpt from a more full length work though. Still, nicely done.

Viva Liberty!
UK 2005 | 20 mins
Director: Dishad Husain

Poor Woody Ali finds himself in the USA's notorious Camp Liberty detention center. All he did was pick up a kid's water pistol by mistake on the plane ride over to the USA. Some start to his dream vacation!

This had a great premise and started off really well. But it failed to sustain the momentum and what could have been a great update of the antics of General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove petered out like a plateload of cold puris.

Time And The Hour Run
USA 2005 | 15 mins
Director: Samir Patel

From director Samir Patel comes this entry about an old motel owner in the middle of nowhere. A recent widower, he continues to be haunted by visions of his late wife and of celestial beings from the Hindu pantheon.

More a mood piece than anything else, I found it to be wonderfully moving meditation on death, loneliness and grief. I particularly enjoyed the way the widower's visions were handled. Grafting Indian iconography into wide open western plains is not an obvious thing to do but here it felt totally natural.

6 ft. in 7 min.
USA 2005 | 15 mins
Director: Rafael Del Toro

Hands down the most disturbing of the lot, 6 ft in 7 min. is a black comedy about an 18 year old kid who suddenly discovers he is the owner of a mechanical heart which, his parents casually inform him, will stop working in roughly seven minutes.

While the premise is wonderfully acid and was mostly well executed, overall it felt like an empty exercise in bravura filmmaking. Given the writer/director isn't of South Asian origin, his decision to set the story in a desi household simply seemed to be an excuse to spout a whole lot of guff about karma. This stood out in dire contrast with Time and the Hour Run which actually exhibited more of an understanding of death from a Hindu perspective.

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- March 22, 2006 8:02 PM // Film , Review

March 21, 2006

Punching At The Sun

USA 2006 | 82 mins | Super 16 | English
d. Tanuj Chopra

Indian Niggas ... Pakistani Niggas ... Bangladeshi Niggas ... haven't y'all heard? We're the new niggas! So starts Punching at the Sun, a film by Tanuj Chopra, that explores the lives of urban desi teens in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. In the sweltering heat of a NYC summer special, Queens homeboy Mameet (Misu Khan) is struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother, local basketball legend Sanjay ("his jumpshot was icewater"). Sanjay was shot in the cornershop owned by their parents. Reasons for his death are never made explicit - it's not clear whether it was a hate crime, although that would be the natural guess, or something else entirely. Furthering Mameet's problems, his sister Dia is starting to run wild, his basketball coach refuses to let him start on court during actual games and his brother's legend follows him wherever he goes. His main source of relief is his girlfriend Shawni (Nora Edmonds) - if only he would let her in through his rage and frustration. His homies Parnav and Ritesh alternately calm him and drive him to distraction through their bickering. And finally, the ongoing rap fest at the local club, particularly the MCing of Uncle Sonny, punctuates the film with staccato musings on desis and politics in the Bush era.

Shot in Super 16 with a cast primarily consisting of amateurs, Punching At The Sun's scope far outweigh its budget, which, by the director's own admission, is "lower than you think" and which, as he joked in the QA, he financed by "selling samosas in the street." That it falls short is more a testament to the muddled narrative than heart or passion, which Punching has in spades. Nonetheless, there's much to savor here. The rapport between Mameet and his sidekicks is effortless. Their variation on the "ya mama" jokes ("Ya mama uses ketchup for her bindi", "ya mama wears a snakeskin sari and fedora" and "ya mama gives elephant rides around the Taj Mahal", amongst others) had the festival crowd in stitches. Their escapades could well have been expanded into a standalone comedy in its own right. Nora Edmonds is a natural presence and the film truly shines when she's onscreen. Finally, Uncle Sonny is electric on the mic - his enunciations are on point. I want to see the man in concert!

Choosing to set this film in a culture of NYC basketball and hip-hop was a brave decision. While it's wonderful to see a South Asian film avoiding the usual identity crisis cliches, I can't see such thematic material being palatable to first generation desis. But by inviting comparisons against urban classics like Do The Right Thing, He Got Game and Boys N The Hood, the film once again suffers as there isn't enough here to differentiate it from others in that genre. Excerpting a Bollywood film and mentioning Amitabh Bachchan don't quite count. Nonetheless, director Tanuj Chopra has clearly marked himself out as someone to watch and his next project, set in the Bay Area during the dot com boon and featuring an army of "super-desis", sounds intriguing.

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- March 21, 2006 6:40 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review

March 18, 2006

Carma Update #2

Carma, the Bay Area indie from Ray Wang, keeps rolling! From the festival circuit:

  • Delray Beach Film Festival, Palm Theatre, Boca Raton Embassy Suites Hotel, 661 Northwest 53rd St, Boca Raton, Florida 33487, Tel: +1-561-994-8200 (Yelophant - Official Selection by Invitation, Carma - Official Selection by Invitation, Screening Back-to-Back on Friday, March 10, 2006 at 11:59 PM as a special midnight screening with FREE coffee, look out for legendary filmmakers Roger Corman and Julie Corman at the screening!). More news about Delray here.
  • Stanford Alumni Association Special Screening by Invitation, Stanford University, Exact Venue TBA (Carma - 04/14/06 8 pm)
  • Bare Bones International Film Festival, One of the "Best Truly Independent Film Festivals," Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide ( Carma - Official Selection - 04/22/06 10:30 PM, playing at the Roxy Theatre, in Muskogee, Oklahoma)
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- March 18, 2006 6:24 PM // Bay Area , Film

March 16, 2006

24th SF Asian American Film Fest

The 24th San Francisco Asian American Film Festival starts tonight onwards and it promises to be as manic and comfy as ever. What a roller coaster ride it's been!

Nine years ago the festival had a record four Asian American narrative feature films, with the rest of the slate filled with documentaries, shorts and a large number of international features. This year it has 12, culled from about 250 submissions, beginning with Thursday's opening night film at the Castro Theatre, Eric Byler's "Americanese," an adaptation of Shawn Wong's breakthrough novel "American Knees."

"There were twice as many (submissions) as last year," says Yang, the festival's director. "What's amazing is there is almost no market in the traditional sense for these films, yet they are being made. ... So we need to do a better job of getting the films beyond the festival. It's the only way that Asian American cinema is going to grow. That's so critical right now."

FYI, Third I will be co-presenting the following:

3rd i South Asian Shorts 2006
Sun 3/19 2:30 PM, Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco
Sun 3/26 6:45 PM, Camera 12 Cinemas, San Jose

An exciting and inspiring array of South Asian short films from India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States

Water (Director, Deepa Mehta in person)
Sun 3/19 | 6:00 PM | Castro Theatre
In the long-awaited and magnificent conclusion to her “Elemental Trilogy,” Deepa Mehta builds upon her explorations of desire (FIRE, SFIAAFF Closing Night ’97) and nationalism (EARTH), to take on religion and the resilient power of the human spirit


Sat 3/18 | 9:15 PM | Castro Theatre
The works of Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee have proved a popular source of material for Indian cinema over the years, most notably the recent lavish production of DEVDAS by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Equally beloved has been the love story PARINEETA, filmed four times beforehand. It is now brought to life by veteran producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra


Punching At The Sun
Fri 3/17 | 7:00 PM | Kabuki 8 Theatres
Sat 3/18 | 7:00 PM | Pacific Film Archive
Fri 3/24 | 7:00 PM | San Jose Camera 12

Set during the sweltering heat of summer in post-9/11 Queens, PUNCHING AT THE SUN concerns a South Asian teen, Mameet Nayak, who is consumed with both personal and social demons after his older brother, a local streetball legend, is murdered in their family’s corner store


View From A Grain Of Sand
Mon 3/20 7:00 PM, Kabuki 8 Theatres
Three remarkable Afghan refugee women consider the effects of the past 30 years of Afghan politics in Meena Nanji’s new work, which continues her exploration of “the global diaspora of post-colonial peoples and the disruption of cultural values, traditions and ideologies that result from these migrations”


Memories in the Mist
Sat 3/18 4:30 PM, Pacific Film Archive
Tue 3/21 7:30 PM, Kabuki 8 Theatres

A shy Calcutta office clerk is haunted by memories of his father in this Buñuelian fable of family relationships, class, and global politics from Buddhadeb Dasgupta, director of THE WRESTLERS (SFIAAFF '01) and “India’s foremost director today” (International Film Festival of India)

We hope to attend most of them save for Parineeta which I couldn't sit through, even at home. Enough with the hokey melodrama already! Writing the reviews should be fun, the better half (Shari) permitting of course :-)

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- March 16, 2006 9:33 PM // Bay Area , Film

March 15, 2006

India At The Oscars Part II

In a previous entry, I looked at Indian presence at the Oscars over the past fifteen years or so. Slim pickings, as you can imagine. The famine continued this year, cool self aggrandizing ad from M. Night Shyamalan notwithstanding. "Why should Indians care about winning at the Oscars?," I hear you ask. Reasons about national pride and filmmakers' lifelong dreams aside, I would simply suggest it is good for business. Succeeding on such a global stage opens more doors and confers more visibility for the industry as a whole. Result? Beaucoup bucks and more smiles for Bollywood financiers than the entire back catalog of Govinda, Johnny Walker and Johnny Lever put togther. Hence, every year, the Indian newspapers flagellate themselves into a frenzy over this issue. A typical article from Rediff reads:

The Oscar nominations announcement for the 78th Academy Awards was certainly bad news for Bollywood film lovers and the Indian media.

After the announcement, a Google search of the word Paheli generated the following news headlines -- Paheli fails to get Oscar nomination (The Times of India), Paheli misses race for Oscars (The Hindu), Brokeback in, Paheli Out (Rediff) and even Paheli, Morning Raga out of the race for Oscars (Webindia 123).

Apparently, the expecation was that after Lagaan's nomination, the floodgates would open. Alas, that didn't turn out to be the case. The reactions for Devdas, India's entry the following year:

One committee member later said the following to this reporter: "We just didn't like it," he said referring to Devdas. "The girls were beautiful, but the story was out of whack. At least last year's one (Lagaan) had great humour. But (in Devdas) everybody was shouting and screaming. They weren't pleasant people."

Perhaps they had seen far too many tedious foreign language films that week, but nearly half of the 250 to 300 committee members reportedly walked out of Devdas' official screening during the intermission. That pretty much sealed the fate of Bansali's film.

And for Paheli:

A member of the Academy's foreign language film committee, contacted by this reporter after the January 31 Oscar nominations were announced, failed to recall details about Paheli.

"It didn't go down very well with the group," he said, on the condition that he would remain anonymous. "I can't remember why though."

The article tries to blame a lot of this on bad luck. Voters were, unfortunately, unable to remember much about Paheli after they had seen it. Similarly, Devdas wasn't handled as well as Lagaan which was shown on a Sunday afternoon and included a lunch intermission that mitigated its three and a half hour running time. Devdas was screened in the middle of the week - so poor Devdas continued to be denied even after his death.

Hogwash. Lagaan is a far superior film and one of the few gems to come out of Bollywood over the past couple of years. It fully deserved its success. As for the rest, here are some candid remarks from a member of the Academy's foreign language committee:

"We look at the films from the American point of view," the Academy's foreign language film committee member said. "What happens (in Bollywood films) is that in the middle of the scene suddenly (the actors) start jumping up and dancing and singing, which, to us, is ridiculous. When we see an Indian film and that happens, we don't know how to react to it. That's the problem."

He added that he was not suggesting that Bollywood filmmakers should change their filmmaking style. "Obviously, they are making the films for the Indian market and not for the American market."

From an Indian standpoint, film critic Raja Sen ("Why can't we win an Oscar?") opines:

ki : Is Indian cinema truly global in terms of standards? I mean, look at the production overseas and you see the difference

Raja Sen : No, we have a long way to go. It's not just budgets and production values, but we work on a very limited creative canvas as well. We need to explore different kinds of cinema, not typical box office-friendly fare.. but I think things are beginning to slowly change.. now if only we had some original stories.

As any follower of Indian films will tell you there is hope, however. Raja Sen, again:

NYSocial : Where do we think Indian Cinema is going ? Our producers just follow trends...comedy movies...shooting abroad..and all that. The basic creativity is missing. What do you think ?

Raja Sen : I know, but there is fast emerging the newly-branded culture of 'multiplex films'. Which means it is actually possible to make a tiny-budget film the way you want to, and keep it profitable. There are creative people in the industry, and they just need avenues to express themselves. I think things are getting better (despite the fact that mainstream films are getting worse and worse, like you said), and I'd like to be optimistic about Indian cinema's future.

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- March 15, 2006 7:43 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

March 14, 2006

India At The Oscars

My memories of India at the Oscars can be divided into three vignettes, all seen on TV. The first is that of the Lagaan crew gamely clapping when No Man's Land won the Best Foreign Film award in 2002. The second is the director of Little Terrorist, Ashvin Kumar, bowing his head in prayer, moments before the 2005 winner for Best Live Action short was announced. And no, Little Terrorist didn't win either. The third, and the most poignant, is that of Satyajit Ray receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. A pyrrhic victory since it was handed to him when he, literally, was on his deathbed.

The Chronicle describes it through the eyes of UC Santa Cruz history professor, Dilip Basu, who was charged with delivering the award to Ray in Kolkata:

Though a proud day, the journey was also bittersweet: Ray, his body ravaged by heart attacks, lay on his deathbed in a Calcutta hospital.

"When I saw his condition, I couldn't say a word," Basu said recently in his deep, patient voice and lilting accent. "He looked like a skeleton of himself. I had tears in my eyes."
With Basu's hands supporting Ray's, too weak to hold the Oscar, the trembling filmmaker delivered his acceptance into the video camera. Ray talked of his long love affair with American cinema and the opus-length fan letters written to stars and directors like Billy Wilder, Deanna Durbin and Ginger Rogers.

I've tried to find the full text of Ray's acceptance speech but was unable to locate it online. Regardless, it was a very moving moment to say the least. Here was a colossus slowly reducing to rubble right in front of us. Within months he had passed on. The only consolation out of all of this is at least he lived long enough to receive the award in person, a fitting testimony to an extraordinary life and career.

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- March 14, 2006 9:09 PM // Bangla , Film

March 9, 2006

NRIs and Cricket

In this Time (Asia edition) article about the lucrative market for cricket in India, comes this nugget:

Even in the U.S., cricket is catching on. There, pay-per-view cable subscribers forked out roughly $50 million to watch the 2005 Test series between India and Pakistan, making the U.S. the third-biggest revenue source for that tournament. (The ICC says those statistics are partly explained by 2 million ethnic South Asians living in the U.S.)

$50 million? $50 freakin' million?!! I've always wondered about the entertainment purchasing power of the "South Asian" demographic and this is a hard data point. For reference purposes, a Bollywood movie is doing really well in the USA (at least in the NRI market) if it makes about $1M in the theatres. For example, Black, according to ibosnetwork made close to that. Of course, the DVD sales figures are unknown - it's probably fair to double the movie earnings to come at a combined amount (say $2M). Compared to that, $50 million is heavy considering the pay per view channel is only available on DISH, something for which you need to install an additional external receiver pointing in the right direction! I wonder what's the revenue stream from an online streaming concern like willow.tv that many desis use as a substitute for satelite TV. Still, not too shabby, eh?

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- March 9, 2006 7:59 PM // Diaspora

March 7, 2006

Denied At The Oscars

Now that the 2006 Academy Awards are over, note that though Martin Scorsese may be the most conspicous ongoing Oscar omission, spare a thought for poor Kevin O'Connell who continues to toil unheralded and yes, unawarded. Memoirs Of a Geisha is his 18th nomination (for sound mixing) and he was robbed yet again. His past nominations are:

Spiderman 2 (2004) -- Nominee, Sound Mixing

Spiderman(2002) -- Nominee, Sound

Pearl Harbor (2001) -- Nominee, Sound

The Patriot (2000) -- Nominee, Sound

Armageddon (1998) -- Nominee, Sound

The Mask of Zorro (1998) -- Nominee, Sound

Con Air (1997) -- Nominee, Sound

The Rock (1996) -- Nominee, Sound

Twister (1996) -- Nominee, Sound

Crimson Tide (1995) -- Nominee, Sound

A Few Good Men (1992) -- Nominee, Sound

Days of Thunder (1990) -- Nominee, Sound

Black Rain (1989) -- Nominee, Sound

Top Gun (1986) -- Nominee, Sound

Silverado (1985) -- Nominee, Sound

Dune (1984) -- Nominee, Sound

Terms of Endearment (1983) -- Nominee, Sound

What was that about "if at first you don't succeed .." again?

PS - Hat-tip dailykos.

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- March 7, 2006 7:47 PM // Film

March 3, 2006

Dhamaal Collective @YBCA


(Above) Maneesh The Twista (clot of darkness on the left of the picture), Samba Guisse (center), and Farhan Qureishi (on tabla) play at the YBCA Forum as part of the Young Artist At Work program. A lovely blend of dub chillout from vinyl with live vocals and tabla. Maneesh proved to be a really approachable, nice guy too. I'm hoping to speak more indepth with him in the near future.

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- March 3, 2006 9:14 PM // Bay Area , Music