Indo-Indie Roundup

Catching up on some of the more notable Indo-Indie multiplex releases over the past couple of years.

Manorama - Six Feet Under [2007]

Manorama, Six Feet Under - (Netflix DVD) set in a remote Rajasthan town, this noir features Abhay Deol as an author struggling with writer's block when he's drawn into a spying assignment which, as you'd expect, leads to a murder he's compelled to solve. Really enjoyed the denouement on this one and the sparse, arid landscape lends it a very different feel. Yes, there's a debt to Chinatown, but it's a homage, not a blatant copy.

Udaan Pictures, Images and Photos

Udaan - (Netflix Streaming) I find Indian films are at their best when they look into small towns and the lives of quiet desperation therein. A little gem, Udaan deals with the return of a 16 year old boy, rusticated from his Simla boarding school, to his father's household in Jamshedpur. We learn his father is a strict disciplinarian, his mother has long passed away and he has a kid brother he barely knows. And yes, his father regards his return as a major wrench in the works. The subsequent conflicts never feel melodramatic and the characters are all utterly grounded in reality. The ending stays with you long after the film is over.

Peepli Live

Peepli Live - (Netflix Streaming) dark, dark, absurd and dusty, "Peepli Live" is the film Ram Gopal Verma's "Rann" should have been. Anusha Rizvi's script takes the decision of an impoverished farmer to commit suicide as a starting point and uses it to viciously skewer the news media, the political system and just about anything else in between. The take no prisoners style isn't for everyone but for those of you who like their films to come with a heavy dose of Catch-22, Network and No Man's Land, this is it.


Road, Movie - (Netflix Streaming) describing Dev Benegal's film ("Vishnu, bored son of Hair oil maker in smalltown Rajasthan decides to drive dilapidated truck doubling as mobile movie theater across desert tracks to a museum") makes it sound like a road version of "Cinema Paradiso" by way of Bollywood. It actually isn't. Even though these are Bollywood clips being shown by the theater-on-wheels, the international crew behind the film, the sparse locations and the subject matter lends "Road, Movie" quite an otherworldy feel. And yes, Abhay Deol plays the titular character in yet another film set in the Rajasthani desert. Must like sand a lot.

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- March 27, 2011 8:46 PM // Bollywood , Film

Extra Contagious — My Hollywood Experience

Crossposted on Sharidelic.

A couple of weeks ago, while idly facebooking away, a shared link led to me an article talking up a Hollywood production, "Contagion", starring Matt Damon, being shot in San Francisco. And yes, they were looking for extras. In general, I don't really do that stuff because my agent doesn't think it's particularly worthwhile. However, I was curious about this one. First, it was a big budget shoot. Second, it was directed by Steven Soderbergh. Wouldn't look too bad on my resume at all! So, on a fine sunny Sunday morning, I went up to San Francisco, stood in the long line outside the YMCA at the Embarcadero and submitted by headshot. I saw some recognizable faces - apparently the whole town had turned up to try their luck! I also overheard that a couple of thousand people had already submitted their photos the previous day and they were expecting another couple thousand that day. Daunting but that's showbiz, isn't it?

A week went by and I heard nothing. Then, lo and behold, the phone rang and it was the Contagion casting agent. I'd been selected for the role of an office worker at the FBI building in SF for the coming Friday. I was also told I'd be getting another call later in the week with more details. That call directed me to a hotline number I was supposed to ring the night before the shoot for directions/wardrobe details. Ringing the hotline yielded a recorded message asking us to bring a couple of sets of clothes to the shoot. Resisting the temptation to lug half my wardrobe to the set, I decided to stick to the basics because from my experience, that's usually sufficient.

My actual reporting time was 8:30 in the morning. Early but miles better than something like 5 in the am. Phew! I took BART to the Civic Center stop and walked to my assigned location, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Getting closer to the building, I saw Grove Street had entirely been blocked off and people were unloading equipment from trucks. They were putting up big yellow signs that said "Vaccination Center" on the top followed by instructions in English, Chinese, Arabic and another language I couldn't recognize. As I wandered confused through this activity, a crew member was kind enough to point me to the entrance of the extras holding area. Inside, I checked in, was handed a form to fill and directed to inside to the huge auditorium where the rest of the cast were waiting. The space was full of small tables and chairs occupied by well-dressed men and women, mostly attired in business suits, working on filling out their forms. One side had been converted into a makeup area with ten or so dressing bays lined with chairs and surround lights and being manned by makeup artists. In another corner, there was the wardrobe area with clothes racks lined up against the wall. Actors stood in line to be inspected by two ladies. Most folks carried luggage filled with clothes or garment bags of business suits. I realized that the initial message about the FBI building and business attire must have created some confusion. Finally, there were two tables with breakfast food, snacks and beverage in the center of the room.

The form we had to fill out was quite elaborate and I could see enlarged photocopies posted around the room for reference. A woman came around the tables checking everyone's form along with IDs and signing them off. She was quite particular about mine. I ended up having to call home several times to get information. After all this, one of the makeup folks called me to do my hair. She spent a lot of time straightening it out but took off what little makeup I had on. Apparently, we were all supposed to look tired and somewhat ill, like, in their words, "after being stranded in the airport for three days." I suppose extras in a film entitled "Contagion" aren't supposed to resemble partygoers in Club Med, more like the poor hordes stranded in European airports over Christmas! I didn't understand, however, why then would they spend so much time on getting my hair to look so good?

My actual wardrobe check was quick as I had the right outfit on - my experience of dressing for auditions proved to be useful. Each of us extras were given different types of masks to cover our faces. I appreciated the depth of thinking by wardrobe department here. After all, if this was supposed to be an epidemic, many would be wearing makeshift masks of various types. They shouldn't look alike.

We sat around chatting for the next couple of hours while we waited to be called in. Ages and background varied widely from opera singers, SAG affiliated actors to kids, moms, tourists, retirees and regular office workers who had taken the day off to be a part of this experience. Some actually came for the free food and the paycheck! There were doctors and medical professionals in the mix as well as SF policemen and members of the National Guard, here to lend authenticity to the proceedings. I even spoke to a systems engineer who was very excited to have been selected. It felt more like a big block party than work!

We were finally called for the shoot and asked to line up in front of the building. The set was ready by then with more signs on the building and border patrol trucks parked all over. And we had an audience - passers by had gathered around the cordoned area to watch. We were given fake vaccination cards to hold. We were also told that Jude Law would be on the set, so we should control our urges to throw ourselves at him .. er .. not get in the way or take pictures. Then, a couple of assistant casting directors came by, picking some of us out of the line to appear in a special scene. A mother and her young daughter standing in front of me were asked to step aside. Next, an African American girl a few feet behind me. Just when I started wondering if I would be that lucky, I was asked to join them as well! It turned out seven of us had been selected for a special scene with Jude Law. In addition to the mother/daughter and the girl, we also had a mother/son, myself and a middle aged Asian lady. SF diversity represent!

What followed was a series of rehearsals and practice takes to determine the exact sequence. We had to walk through the park situated across the auditorium while Mr. Law passed us on his way to take some photos of the building. I believe he's playing a journalist. The director, Steven Soderbergh, along with the rest of his crew were present at the location, shooting from a distance. There was a small black tent for the monitors as well as editing equipment but the rest of the folks stood around in the sun in between takes. All of the actors waited near a snack area that had been set up next to the border patrol trucks that provided some shade. Jude Law stood a few feet from us, sipping some water and waiting. It was pretty amazing to see the level of professionalism on the set, nothing like the stories of high maintenance Hollywood and Bollywood divas and their entourages.

While waiting, the seven of us started chatting in a bid to take our minds off Jude The Not-So-Obscure standing close to us. "Where's the director?", one of the mothers asked. When we pointed Steven out to her she said, "oh, he was just talking to my son a little while ago, showing us pictures of his kids on his phone!"

The way the scene ended up being structured, I had the privilege of walking past Jude Law in one of the shots. If it makes it through edit, I hope to see myself on the big screen! A couple more takes and it was over. We were asked to go back inside the building and wait. In a while, we were called back again, this time for a group shot of all us walking out of the building. And that was it for us. We were given the option of staying for lunch or leaving early. I was starving by then, so I decided to stay for the elaborate spread. By the time I left, about 6 hours from when I arrived, the whole set was wrapped up and the crew had left for the next San Francisco location for another scene.

PS: A special thanks to the set crew for letting me take pictures after the shooting was over!

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Shari Acharya - March 6, 2011 7:40 PM // Bay Area , Film

It Starts With A Word

Word leads to

Sentence which leads to

Paragraph which naturally runs on to




Championing by obscure art lit critic


Out of print fishwrap.

Discovery by out-of-luck down-to-his-last-cocaine-line film director at an Inland Empire bake sale.

Indie Film Adaptation


Director's Cut DVD with unrated, unnecessary extra footage containing nothing lurid.

Poorly dubbed Telenovela on Univision.

Included on re-release Director's Cut 10 Year Anniversary Edition DVD.

Criterion Collection

Endless marathon reruns on Star TV in between pan parag and Vicks commercials with all the good bits excised

Bollywood "adaptation" with much denial by producers that this is not a frame by frame ripoff of the original.

Entire "adaptation" almost instantaneously available on YouTube in 10 minute chunks.

Fan Tamil dub edit goes viral.

Hipster bloggers tweet up a storm.

Gritty dark re-imagined remake or origin story prequel greenlit in Hollywood. With money from Indian conglomerates.

Untimely death of original auteur in tragic hot tub accident observed in back page of The Big Sur Times.


Hat tip.

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- June 11, 2010 3:50 PM // Bollywood , Film , Humour

Review LOL

Sex and The City 2 has been garnering almost universally derisive reviews. Now, I am no fan of the original franchise and I thank the stars Shari isn't either. However, it has been interesting to see the novel approaches critics are taking to savage the film. I found James Berardinelli's takedown particularly insightful, especially the following lines:

It's astounding how a movie this long could accomplish so little. Sex and the City 2 could qualify as fashion porn - there are endless images of dresses, shoes, jewelry, and so forth - and plenty of shopping spree money shots. There are times when director Michael Patrick King's cameras linger on the wardrobe and accessories rather than on the actors, establishing clearly (as if there was ever a doubt) where his preferences lie.

He could have been talking about pretty much any big budget Bollywood masala flick, at least up to mid 2000s.

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- May 27, 2010 9:24 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

East Indians in American Media

Cross posted on sharidelic.

Over the past few years we certainly have seen more South Asians in the American media though the term “South Asian” is becoming obsolete. I see more ads looking for “East Indians” than anything else. Not quite sure why but my guess is because India is becoming more prominent amongst the South Asian countries and hence taking over the identity. Anyway, though the numbers have risen, the roles in Hollywood still fall prey to stereotypes. As filmmakers, Soam and I have watched this evolution closely and have had long discussions on what the requirements might be for Indian actors in Hollywood. About 10 years ago, it would definitely be the short, dark, simple looking Indian guy who was non-threatening and could be a cab driver or, if he got lucky, a doctor. 9/11 opened up the floodgates for Indian actors to play terrorists. However, the cabbie, the doctor and the New York street vendor continue to appear.

The few actors who have been able to make a breakthrough in recent times are Naveen Andrews (Lost), Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes), Mindy Kaling (Office), Rekha Sharma (Battlestar Galactica) and Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation). Though Andrews was typecast as an Iraqi soldier (falling into the “terrorist category”), it was good to see Kumar’s character break away from the stereotype. That being said, Kal Penn played a doctor and a terrorist subsequently in House and 24….poor guy has to make his living after all! Ramamurthy plays a nerdy scientist in Heroes who drones on with profound insights….oh come on, can there be no normal Indian guy ever? I know his character has evolved from the first few episodes I saw but I haven’t re-visited Heroes since then, so pardon me if I’m blatantly wrong. As for Kaling, she created her role herself being the co-executive producer and writer of Office! The role of Sharma in Battlestar Galactica is probably the most experimental out of the lot, though she doesn’t quite play an East Indian. I haven’t seen Parks and Recreation yet but from what I’ve read Ansari’s character is pretty interesting. He is called Tom Haverford, again not an East Indian name. Color blind casting at work?

Apart from these few successes there seems to be very few opportunities for the majority of East Indian actors in Hollywood. I’d say it’s worse for the desi sistas – they have to make do with the occasional demand for a brown face in a “diverse” crowd or a bit role as an exotic girl friend/coworker.

Being an actor/model myself, I’ve been noticing the trend over the last few years. Though I’ve been cast as a doctor and as part of an East Indian family, most of my gigs were for ethnically ambiguous roles where they needed a non-Caucasian. For example, for one of my auditions from a few weeks ago, I was supposed to play an East Indian doctor for a well-known Pharmaceutical company. My agent hadn’t briefed me on the details but the moment I arrived at the casting, I was quite certain that I would not make a good fit. I was a little too glamorously dressed for the occasion. And here I was thinking in terms of Scrubs and House while choosing my wardrobe. Go figure! I guess the same rules don’t quite apply to East Indian actors! You would think all the talk of Bollywood and seeing Bollywood actresses like Aishwarya Rai and Freida Pinto in the media would change perspectives a bit? I guess it will take longer for the casting directors here to realize that East Indian actors/models can be “versatile” too! However, my experience is limited to San Francisco and doing this as a side profession, which means I don’t go to that many auditions. So, I welcome my desi brothers and sisters to fill me in on this, if I’m wrong.

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Shari Acharya - April 25, 2010 5:49 PM // Diaspora , Film , India , TV

Buddha Casting Call

From the author of this posting on Deadline Hollywood:

"dunno. I’m sure these projects sound great on the celebrity Buddhist circuit, when you’re saying “namaste” to Richard Gere or Uma Thurman, but I just don’t know how much appeal they have in Des Moines."

What do you think? While Buddha won't play like Passion of the Christ in Des Moines, isn't it still worthwhile to get these kinds of projects off the ground and into the western media mainstream?

Here's the link.

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Biraj Lala - April 22, 2010 8:24 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , DishumDishum , Film , India

Loins Of Punjab Presents

Manish Acharya's debut film is finally out on DVD in the USA and not a moment too soon. I remember it taking the 2007 Third I San Francisco South Asian Film Fest by storm. I recall hearing the audience not letting him go until he had obliged them with a vocal rendition of a song in the film (Manish appears in the film himself in a small role). I remember being introduced to Manish at the reception over there and coming away impressed by the two minutes we spent together (for the record, we were also both featured in a Sandip Roy article, interestingly enough). I also remember apologizing for not being able to see the film myself - Virj was due to be born in three days. Last night, with the fruit of our labors knocked out after a day's worth of mall mayhem, we finally had a chance to sit down and view Loins in all its digital glory. So, how was it?

Loins of Punjab Presents is a sweet, mostly gentle film with many moments of laugh out loud hilarity that nonetheless conceals great craftsmanship. There are no deaths in the course of this film. No change-the-game plot twists. Characters don't stumble into massive insights. Relationships mostly remain intact. About halfway through, someone (it turns out to be co-writer Anubhav Pal in a bit role) actually gives away the ending. It doesn't make a whit of difference. The fun here is the ride, not the destination.

The setup is simple enough - over a weekend in New Jersey, a number of contestants gather for a "Desi Idol" type contest complete with auditions, judges, audience selections and a $25000 first prize. Of the contestants, we have your garden variety honors student Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma) and her driven Patel clan, scheming socialite Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi), aspiring Bollywood actress Sania Rahman (Seema Rahmani) sadly hampered by not knowing a line of Hindi, an original Sikh OG, Turbanotorious BDG (Ajay Naidu), a white-on-the-outside-brown-on-the-inside fellow (Michael Raimondi) and his supportive desi girlfriend (Ayesha Dharkar) and the director himself as a suddenly unemployed financial analyst Vikram Tejwani, a fellow living in the land of logs and probabilities. Shepherding the proceedings are the Loins of Punjab representative Mr. White (Kunal Roy Kapoor) and event organizer Mr. Bokhade (Jameel Khan). This is not counting the numerous other contestants, bit parts, MCs, irate hotel managers, judges (of which, musician Trance Sen played by Samrat Chakraborti and fashionista Chris G, played by Sanijv Jhaveri, are standouts), wise cracking bystanders and audience members that pepper the proceedings. My knees buckle when I think of the sheer number of speaking parts and the shooting challenges - the exterior shots were filmed in NYC but the bulk of the interiors, set in a New Jersey hotel, were shot on specially constructed sets in Mumbai's Film City. The latter was ostensibly for cost savings, yet, as Manish acknowledges in the commentary, shooting for the USA in India posed its own set of difficulties such as finding appropriate light switches, and caused the film to actually come in over budget. As a first time feature director and producer, Manish certainly did not make things easy for himself!

As you can imagine, with the huge cast of characters it would have been very easy to reduce each to cliched stereotypes. That everyone has their moments in the spotlight is a tribute to the strength of the script and the actors. Once again, it was enlightening to hear in the commentaries that Manish genuinely feels casting is 50% of directing and the pre-production involved a grueling series of auditions. It works. Not a bum note in the entire lot and, as I mentioned before, many, many bright moments. Consider the opening monologue from Mr. White who strolls into view holding a cup of coffee:

Mr PK Singhal. He came into this country with nothing. Zero. And then ... he got into loins.

Pork loins.

In 1960, Mr Singhal started a wholesale meat company, "Loins Of Punjab." Today, we are the largest supplier of pork loins on the East Coast. In the biz, he was known as ... "The Loin King."

Loins of Punjab are proud to present "Desi Idol."

He then takes a sip from his coffee cup, revealing the bottom of the cup shaped as a pig snout.

Puns, visual humor, deadpan delivery and the American Dream. Left unsaid is the subversion of the general imagery of Punjabis as the lions of India into a generally lubricious lot, something illustrated with great gusto by Mr. Bokade throughout the film:

All of this achieved by a brilliant title that appears to be a typo but is far more.

Similarly, the Patel clan could have easily degenerated into a mess of badly accented, kanjoos (stingy) cliches. Consider the haggling at a strip club: "$20 for topless? I’ll give you $10, show me one breast." Here though, it works since their primary motivation is a sweet one. They are helping a family member win.

Finally, Turbanotorious BDG - the film is careful to show that beneath the bluster, there lies a deeply vulnerable man. It doesn't hurt that Ajay Naidu is an accomplished rapper and B-Boy. Consequently, not only is the dancing excellent, but his lyrics actually makes sense. "The Goonda Philosophy" indeed!

All in all, well worth 88 minutes of your time. Can't wait for the followup.

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- April 11, 2010 9:37 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film

A Desi Filmmaker's Manifesto Part I

If I ever get around to finishing something creative, its title will not have the words karma, masala, chutney, chai, namaste or curry in it.

It will not star Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Nandana Sen, Rahul Bose or any of the Jaffrey clan. I will make an exception for Tabu and Irrfan Khan, however.

It will not be about identity crisis.

It will not be a Fish Out Of Water film.

It will not feature well off programmers yearning for meaning beyond Atherton mansions.

There will not be any straight up Bollywood dance pastiches in the film.

There won't be fake Gurus taking advantage of gullible Westerners. Tempting, I know.

There's more to be added. Let me know of some of the things you'd like to see and some you'd rather never ever see again.

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- March 7, 2010 10:45 PM // Diaspora , Film

Music Biopics

Danny Leigh from The Guardian weighs in on the new crop of music biofilms coming through:

Among the foremost "buzz films" (sorry) delighting Park City has, for instance, been The Runaways. A biopic of Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and their legendary posse of 70s proto-riot grrrls ....

... Witness in recent weeks alone the excitement around Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Mat Whitecross's excellent portrait of Ian Dury, and the less justifiable fuss about Sam Taylor-Wood's sudsy young Lennon saga, Nowhere Boy. After the visionary Hunger, meanwhile, Steve McQueen is to turn next to the fascinating life of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. By the time that makes it on screen, there will surely have been any number of others coming down the pipe, if not from here then Hollywood.

He concludes with a wishlist of musicians he'd like to see on film:

But the prize catches for me lie elsewhere – in the diverse forms of Afrika Bambaataa and Syd Barrett. The first could follow its hero from gang leadership in the South Bronx to spiritual epiphanies in Africa and the introduction of the world to hip-hop (Warriors meets Malcolm X meets 8 Mile, in the parlance of the studio executive); the second, in all its fractured melancholy, would surely be the last word (finally) in the 40-year celebration of 60s rock gods.

This set me thinking - what would my preference be for musicians I'd like to see on film. Obviously, it has to be cinematic, a life staid lived wouldn't translate well onto screen. Here are some candidates:

  • Marvin Gaye: There's been numerous rumors through the years about some kind of project taking off (here's an example) but the music rights have always proved too painful to surmount. Regardless, the man's life would make a helluva film. Starting off as a doowop singer, then Motown session drummer, rising all the way to the top on his own terms then getting sidelined by drugs and his own inner demons, mounting a comeback only to be shot by his own Minister father? Are you kidding me?

  • Fleetwood Mac: The recording of Rumours alone had enough illegal substances, dalliances and breakups for an entire book, never mind the entire history of the band. Should be fascinating.

  • Ravi Shankar: If you read his autobiography, the talent and the prickly nature of the man comes through. He also loosely touches on his own private life and his "a woman in every port" approach. Given the amazing arc of his career, this one is a no-brainer as well. I have no idea how commercially viable this is but I do worry about how sanitized it would be if an official version ever comes out.

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- January 31, 2010 7:02 PM // Film , Music

Godard In Gorakhpur

From the Times of India:

Bollywood, with its tiresome stream of brain-dead movies, might just need to watch out-world cinema via film festivals and clubs is creeping up in the unlikeliest of places, giving hitherto clueless audiences a few lessons in cinema literacy. Apart from Gorakhpur, there's Gaya, Bhilai, Yamunanagar, Jaipur, Surat and Adipur in Gujarat and many more small towns where audiences are responding to something more than the antics of Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan. Admittedly it's a small wave but cineastes see no reason why it shouldn't lead to bigger things.

Very cool. I remember hearing about Kolkata film clubs being very popular in the days before the Internet and DVD availability, but perhaps that was more due to the opportunity for discerning punters to get in their quota of skin as well as Antonioni. That may well be part of the reason here, but hey, as long as it opens the doors of perception wider, it's all gravy. Plus, there's an emphasis on local non masala fare too:

Joshi, who takes his festivals to different parts of north India, picks and chooses films to suit the place and the taste of the people there. His resistance cinema fest, for instance (which he prefers to call pro-people rather than anti-establishment), comprises films and documentaries that portray the plight of a particular area. "We screen Indian documentaries by directors like Anand Patwardhan and the cinema of film-makers like M S Sathyu and Girish Kasaravalli,'' he says. "We have foreign documentaries too, like we just showed a Brazilian documentary on land reforms. This year, we chose films with the theme Freedom From American Imperialism.'' Joshi says that Cinema Of Resistance is getting a tremendous response.

Sanjay Sahay, another cinema enthusiast, screens films for the people of Gaya from his enviable collection of DVDs, which are often borrowed by other film festival organisers. His festivals showcase the best of world cinema but there's also a special focus on films related to, and made in, Bihar. "We have a cultural centre where we conduct regular theatre and film workshops, he says. "At times, we have live performances as well. We want to generate interest in world cinema so that people are exposed to it and are able to understand, for instance, why Lagaan missed out and No Man's Land won the Oscar.

I found the following particularly heartwarming:

In Surat, a town that's as far removed from film culture as David Dhawan from Federico Fellini, a group of three youngsters has started a film festival. Says Rajarishi Smart, one of the organisers, "It was begun to expose the people of Surat to a certain film culture, as no international film is released here nor are the DVDs available. We booked a hall with a capacity of 250, unsure of how many people would turn up. But to our utter surprise, the entire hall was jam-packed and we had to send people back.''

I am actually wondering whether doing something like this for the SF Bay Area makes sense. While I am fairly sure the cinema savvy public in Palo Alto or Burlingame are sufficiently familiar with Tarkovsky, there's a whole bunch of smart, well made films starting to emerge from India and the diaspora that deserve to be seen. Local film festivals (such as the one organized by Third I) definitely highlight a great selection but it only occurs once a year and worthy multiplex films often miss out due to falling in between the extremes of Bollywood on one end and alternative films on the other. At any rate, it isn't hard to see why there might be thirst for more intelligent fare when crap like this passes for controversy:

If you thought that Vidya Balan has become “shameless in front of the camera”, as she recently admitted in a TV interview, after hearing her bold dialogue in Paa and the expletives she has used in Ishqiya (as is evident in the promos), this one is for you.

ZOMG - bad language! Bring on the soap, forsooth!

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- December 8, 2009 7:13 PM // Bollywood , Film

Indians Can't Write For Indians?

Caught this comment from a Sendhil Ramamurthy (who plays Mohinder on Heroes) interview with The Onion's AVClub from 2007:

AVC: One thing they should be happy about is you've helped break stereotypes for Indian actors on TV. Do you think there's still an ingrained racism in the way Hollywood writes and casts for Indian actors?

SR: I think so. There isn't any question about that. I've managed to luck out that they've given me a fully rounded character on the show, but in general, yeah. And you know, now more than ever I get everything "Indian" that's ever written. It all comes across my desk. Since Heroes started I've probably had about 15 or 16 film scripts sent to me with Indian characters, and out of those maybe one was good. And the depressing thing is, they're all being written by Indians! Like, how many more scripts can there be about an arranged marriage or an abusive husband? It's the same thing over and over again. I think that Indian writers think this is the kind of thing that people want to see, and it's kind of sad. I literally fling those scripts across the room as soon as I start reading them. [Laughs.]

Fascinating, if somewhat downbeat, observation.

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- October 25, 2009 6:38 PM // Film , TV

A Nice Line

I will admit to have read The Time Traveler's Wife and quite enjoying it as well. I did wonder how would Hollywood translate it into a film. Looks like the makers wisely kept the focus on the emotional logic and not as much on the narrative paradoxes. The early Variety review is positive but what I really enjoyed and highlight here is the concluding line:

The story may fall apart the minute the credits roll, but any movie that can wring fresh emotion from the image of two lovers running toward each other across an open field is clearly doing something right.

You hear that Bollywood? Lotsa ripoff potential!

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- August 11, 2009 6:58 PM // Film

Teaser Trailer for "Patang"

Some notes about Patang, the upcoming debut from writer/director Prashant Bhargava:

  • it's set during a kite festival in Ahmedabad, India. This is India's largest festival. Prashant did about 4 years of research for the film.
  • It was shot entirely hand held.
  • Prashant held a workshop for the child actors in the film. There were 12 actors, all from different regions.
  • It features established Indian actresses such as Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen, Ek Hasina Thi, Zindagi Rocks) and up and comers like Nowaz (Dev D) and Sugandha Garg (Jaane Tu Jaane Na, My Name is Khan).
  • About 90% of the cast are non-professional.
  • The film is being put together in post even as we speak. Prashant is holed up in Chicago editing, aiming for a 2010 release.
  • The crew went to great lengths to preserve the local atmosphere, tough in such a crowded, traffic packed environment. The sense of place though comes brilliantly in the footage.
  • The music you hear in the trailer is temp. The completed film will feature an original score.

One of the pleasant side effects of the success of Slumdog (other than catapulting Ms. Pinto to it girl status) would be in easing the way for more original desi brewed voices like Prashant's. You've tasted the restaurant-made, now it's time to try the homecooked.

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- March 7, 2009 2:25 PM // Film

Slumdog Millionaire: Video Remix

From Digital Arts online:

...the folks at Pathé recently approached the London based creative duo Addictive TV with an offer to create a remix for the Oscar-tipped Slumdog Millionaire, the new film from Trainspotting and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle.

"It’s great Pathé are taking a lead in the independent film sector like this, and sharing our vision of film remixing," says Addictive TV front man Graham Daniels. "With our style of work, Slumdog Millionaire is an amazing film to play with, it’s so cinematic and evocative in both sound and picture, it's really colourful and vibrant, and with Danny Boyle known for his cutting edge approach to music and film, making this kind of remix for his movie seems like a natural fit."

Very interesting use of multiple picture within picture and repeated video sequences from the original film to visually mirror the layers and loops within the audio soundtrack.

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- December 25, 2008 2:03 PM // Film

Meipporul The Movie

Earlier this century, in the beginning of our tenure in the Bay Area, Shari and I found ourselves singing to a hall full of people. In Tamil. This by itself might not remarkable except for one fact: we are utterly clueless when it comes to that language. And the fact that the occasion was the Tamil New Year's celebrations in the Bay Area enlivened the entire experience all the more. Of course, we weren't singing entirely by ourselves - we were part of of an a cappella group that did standards in Hindi and Tamil. That group wouldn't have been possible without the drive and enthusiasm of our friends, Rani and Nari, an indefatigable couple who worked like maniacs during the week, but devoted their weekends to the practice of the higher arts.

All of us have gone our own ways since then. However, it was with great pleasure I heard about their latest venture: a Tamil film set in the Bay Area. Meipporul The Movie:

MEIPPORUL is the pioneering venture of three Bay Area friends who aimed to set a new trend in Tamil cinema. With the goal of creating a movie without the standard formulas, MEIPPORUL aims to be a "Hollywood-style movie in Tamil." Filmed entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area in the USA, MEIPPORUL has an diverse all-new cast and crew spanning different ethnicities and professions.

The movie tells the story of Sam (Krish Bala), a successful neurosurgeon, who leads a contented life with his wife Devi (Anusha), a reporter for a Tamil-language magazine. The entry of old (Narayan Sundararajan, Ritu Bhargava, rani) and new friends (Suren Vijaykumar, Natty Kumar) wreaks havoc with Sam's emotions, causing ripples of doubt and mistrust. In the meantime, Devi finds friendship elsewhere, leaving Sam to wallow in his own despair. Amidst all this turmoil, Sam tries to hold on to his marriage and cling to his rational side.

As the suspense heightens and the movie reaches its climax, Sam is unsure whom to trust, and you will yourself looking for the truth behind every phrase and every corner. Little do Sam - and you - know of the dangers that lie ahead...

In addition to their filimic venture, Nari and Rani have also produced a different kind of release recently: the one with dirty nappies and nocturnal vigils. Our best wishes for both!

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- October 5, 2008 8:48 PM // Diaspora , Film

Chandu The Magician

Move over Gunga Din:

Based on a popular radio series, “Chandu” could almost be the missing link between the great silent European crime serials (“Les Vampires,” “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler”) and their more modest American cousins, the Saturday matinee serials of Republic and Columbia. Edmund Lowe stars as Frank Chandler, an American who has spent three years studying the mystical arts in a highly implausible Hindu temple (the first of the film’s many commanding blends of set design and miniature work).

He becomes Chandu, a fighter-against-evil with irresistible hypnotic powers. He needs them all when he takes on Roxor — a red-meat role for Bela Lugosi, here in his “Dracula”-era prime — a freelance madman with plans to destroy the world’s capitals with a giant death ray.

This is nothing recent, mind you, but the directorial fruit of William Cameron Menzies:

a fascinating figure of the classical Hollywood era whose credits range from “Gone With the Wind” to low-budget independent horror movies


“Chandu the Magician,” a 1932 production that Fox Home Video recently issued in a set called “Fox Horror Classics 2”

Apparently, there are at least two sequels, The Return of Chandu with Bela Lugosi as Chandu, and Chandu on the Magic Island.

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- September 16, 2008 8:34 PM // Film

Mocking Gurus

The Guardian's William Leith take on why The Love Guru flopped:

In The Love Guru, the main character is a new-age guru in the style of Deepak Chopra – in fact, he's the number two guru, always coming second behind Chopra himself. He's supposed to be a man of eastern mystery, meditation, and so on. (The character is actually pretending to be Indian.) Myers must have thought that this would be another rich seam to mine for dick jokes and jokes about flatulence and sex. But it's not. That's the problem. It's just not – partly because we don't know enough about the world of gurus and India and eastern mysticism, and partly because we're queasy when somebody takes the mickey out of it.

In other words, you can mock slackers, and you can mock 60s spies, but you can't mock gurus – it gives the audience a sort of shudder, as if we were watching It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, the 70s comedy set in the Raj.

Whereas I don't think Gurus/Indian spirituality are necessarily immune to humor, the approaches thus far have probably been too crude to succeed. Try this following sketch from the late lamented BBC program Goodness Gracious Me:

I think this works because:

  • The humor is gentle.
  • It's immediately apparent to both desi and non-desi audiences that this guy is in fact clueless. The humor stems from how our guru manages to continue fooling his gullible disciples.
  • Presence of elements audiences of all types can dig: brand names as pidgin Sanskrit, conflation with Star Wars and so on
  • .

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- August 12, 2008 7:13 PM // Film , Humour

Tarsem's AVClub Interview

Following up on my earlier post about The Fall here's a lengthy interview with Tarsem in the Onion's AV Club where he reveals himself to be quite a character. Some excerpts follow.

On his love for his work:

All I can say—a lot of people do music videos so they can do commercials, they do commercials so they can do films. I happen to be like a prostitute in love with the profession. I keep saying, "I'd fuck 'em for free. But they pay me money, and I'm very grateful."

The film required the lead actor, Lee Pace, to play a paralyzed man. Apparently, Tarsem neglected to tell his crew and cast that Lee actually was fine in real life:

I thought, "How long can we carry this façade?" And funny enough—it was such a big lie, it was so audaciously big, and we isolated everybody from everything else, and after about a week and a half, it was absolute. Only one person on the set knew, and that was a nurse who would take him to the toilet. Lee would go to the gym, and once, he said, "Today, I almost got caught, because one of the actors walked right past me!" It was just like nobody could see him walking. They were all day working with him in a wheelchair, so they didn't see him when he was standing up. And a lot of times, with men in the gym, you don't want to look at a person. It's like a nightclub, you know? It might be seen as making a pass. So literally, people don't make much eye contact in a gym. So he'd go to the gym, and just he would see these people and say, "Oh my God, I'm caught!" And they'd walk right by him.

On he was drawn to filmmaking:

Basically, I told my dad that I wanted to study film when I saw a book in India. It said, Guide To Film Schools In America, and it changed my world. If you come from a culture like Japan's or India's, you think you just go to college to study something that you hate and your parents love. And for me to see a book called Guide To Film Schools, it was like a book called How To Sleep With Blondes 101. I said, "I'm fuckin' there!" They teach this in school?

On his journey through film school:

And then the first guy that tried to pick me up on Santa Monica Blvd. was going to City College. And I went out there and realized how great it was, and I got admission straight away. After one term, I realized didn't have any money, so I had a friend register whose name was Randy Marsh, and I got my education under his name. Just made a fake ID, and then I used that to basically make a film that got me a scholarship at the Art Center, changed my name back to the same, and said, "Here I is! Let me fuckin' shoot!"

On his relationship with his parents and reconciling with his estranged father who never forgave him for entering film school:

A little late, I think. He passed away three years ago. But with my mom, it never made a difference. I mean, first-born Indian son—as far as she's concerned, I've shat marbles since I was 2 years old. My dad, no.

On his sensibilities:

And as far as colors—Indians love colors. Especially the poorer you are, the more red and yellow you put in. And let's just say I come from a poor background, and leave it there.

I could go on and on. Do check out the interview - it has a lot more.

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- May 25, 2008 11:47 AM // Film

The Fall

Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar's followup to the The Cell is generating attention, not only for its imagery:

an underwater shot of an elephant swimming gracefully overhead, a palace courtyard built out of interlocking staircases that might have been designed by M. C. Escher, a village clinging to a mountainside where all of the buildings seem to have been individually painted in subtly different shades of inky blue.

but also for how the visuals were created:

These images amaze precisely because they are quite evidently real, bursting with the life and detail that elude even the most advanced digital artist. “I decided it wasn’t going to be C.G.I.,” said Tarsem

And, how did Tarsem find the money to shoot all of this?

Then he went to work on the fantasy sequences, saving time and money by piggybacking on his commercial assignments. “I shot first in India, then in Namibia. The crew got smaller and smaller. I would only do adverts in areas where I wanted to shoot: China, Argentina, Bali.”


“Had a studio done what he did, it would have been an $80 million movie. But he’s so experienced at it and knows people in all these countries and knows how to shoot with a tiny crew. That’s how he got away with it. But still, he spent his own money, which is insane.”

On the insanity issue, Tarsem concurs: “It had to be made by somebody at a mad junction in his life.”

Ha! The Onion's AV club writes of the film that "it's the most glorious, wonderful mess put onscreen since Terry Gilliam's Brazil."

The trailer is here:

and another extended sequence:

Should be glorious eye candy.

Update: Hidef trailer here.

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- May 17, 2008 9:07 AM // Film

Shooting By Docuwallah

As a film, I found Shootout At Lokhandwala, to be rather meh. The only new thing it really does, at least by Bollywood standards, is weaving flashbacks into a present day narrative via having certain police officers recount the events leading up to the shooting in front of their superior. If anything, I found the title to be far more memorable than the film itself. However, it looks like there was a behind the scenes documentary that might actually be really interesting. Andrew O'Hehir lists his top discoveries of the recently concluded South By Southwest Film Festival and amongst them is:

"Shot in Bombay"

This fast-paced, immersive documentary from London-based American Liz Mermin (whose last film was the peculiar and compelling "Beauty Academy of Kabul") plunges you into the off-kilter chaos of Bollywood filmmaking, behind the scenes at an atrocious-looking action-adventure based on an infamous 1991 Mumbai shootout between cops and gangsters. The film's star, Sanjay Dutt -- a beloved Indian cinema icon run slightly to seed -- is himself under indictment on a weapons charge that's dragged through the courts for 13 years, and the crew spends more time with Dutt's double than with him in person. Mermin navigates between the film and the real-life crime story behind it, between Dutt's legal problems and his lengthy troubled-heartthrob career, with remarkable flexibility and sharp, dry humor. (Here's director Apoorva Lakhia, after every take, no matter how bad it is: "Cut! Mind-blowing! Let's move on!")

Mind blowing! I love it! Reminds me of John Cleese's clueless Scottish director from Monty Python's "Scott of the Antarctic" sketch:

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- March 13, 2008 8:08 PM // Bollywood , Film

Diaspora vs Avant Garde

In an interview with the Guardian, Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akın has this to say about his audience, in particular the Turkish diaspora vs those in Turkey itself:

This can make pleasing everyone a bit tricky: his films tend to meet with a better reception in Turkey itself than among the emigres, perhaps because any uprooted traditionalists are more liable to be rubbed up by Akın's unvarnished, street-level portraits. He sees it as purely a matter of numbers, the same problem faced by any director working outside the mainstream: "It's just the avant-garde who like my films. In Turkey, you have 60 million people and an avant-garde of a couple of hundred thousand. But in Germany, you have just 2.5 million. Most came here for economic reasons and work, and they're not from well-educated circumstances - so the audience for my films is probably only 2,000 to 3,000."

This is a challenge faced by any diaspora filmmaker. Take South Asia - are desi diaspora films likely to do better amongst NRIs in the USA or in India directly? NRIs tend to be better educated, yet their tastes tend to stick to whatever fare they were seeing back in India. However, those in India are likely to be more adventurous. Akin's argument about the sheer numbers making an avant garde audience possible even more the case here. Lack of box office numbers and the weak rupee prevent my listing any diaspora films that did better in India than abroad though. Perhaps Hyderabad Blues?

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- February 19, 2008 10:47 AM // Diaspora , Film

Designing A Denzel Poster

Flickr user littletinycowboy has analyzed all the Denzel Washington movie posters in existence so that you don't have to. His findings:

1) The bigger the head, the better.

2) Brown and gold color scheme. Red if you must.

3) Full body shots should show Denzel doing nothing in particular.

4) Two facial expressions to choose from:
--- a)Confused

--- b)Badass

5) Vague movie title.

Too funny!

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- January 11, 2008 3:59 PM // Film

Pyaare Posters II

Happy New Year everybody! There were a couple more posters I wanted to share, so here goes. First, we have David Fincher's Zodiac. It's become cliche for any Bay Area related visual to feature the Golden Gate bridge in some way, shape or form. We've seen the bridge in twilight, at night, in the morning and various points in between. Yet, the poster for Zodiac, which takes place in San Francisco, still manages to take a familiar landmark and imbue it with a sense of atmospheric dread. Very fitting for a film about a serial killer.

On a much lighter and saucier note, here's the poster for The Rules of Attraction. Ideal if your idea of fun involves stuffed toys in various compromising positions. Yet, given that the film concerns itself with the shenanigans of over-hormonized students at a New England college, pictures of bunnies getting it on are not entirely inappropriate!

The third poster, Shaft In Africa>, is more straightforward and straight outta the blaxploitation movement. Sticking it to the Man indeed!

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- January 6, 2008 6:50 PM // Film

Some Movie Posters

What better way to say Happy Holidays than some cool movie poster designs (by way of Flickr and friends)? I'll try to avoid the more obvious ones (i.e. no Jaws, Clockwork Orange, The Shining etc).

First, Get Carter, the British version that is, not the Stallone atrocity:

Manhattan comes next:

The German version of Breakfast at Tiffany's follows. Just love the color scheme:

Choose Trainspotting, a lesson in how to make an arresting poster just out of words:

Continuing with the rebellion theme, here's Big B in Deewar . There are better Bollywood posters than this but this one is pretty representative of the '70s:

Finally, going back to the 1930s, here's the poster for Bringing up Baby, one of the all-time great screwball comedies:

That's it for now. Next time, I'll limit myself to posters from more recent times.

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- December 26, 2007 5:49 PM // Film

Press For Devi Brown

Sandip Roy writes about the new Bollywood (The New Bollywood: Slick, Sophisticated and High-Tech) in New American Media and we're in it! Go read the article, it's good. Not because we're in it mind you but because it's a succinct summary of the current state of affairs in filmiland. First, some excerpts to set the context:

“The films are definitely far more slick and technically really smooth,” says Ivan Jaigirdar, artistic director of 3rd I, whose annual festival of South Asian cinema opens today in San Francisco. A festival that showcases “independent South Asian cinema” might once have turned its nose up at Bollywood’s crass commercialism. But no longer. “Bollywood is definitely part of the language of cinema coming out of South Asia,” says Jaigirdar.


Globalization has been good for Bollywood,” says India-West’s Tsering.

It’s opened up a whole new market in the diaspora. It’s also opened up the industry to a new pool of talent. Indians, like Manish Acharya, who went to film school in the United States, are returning to India with new ideas and tech savvy.

That's a good thing. In addition to there being more Acharyas in the industry (sadly, Manish is no relation - although I am certain if we spoke at greater length, somewhere some connection might emerge, particularly if he goes on to attain Shyamalan levels of success :-), the influx of talent from abroad and the emergence of multi screen film complexes has allowed the proliferation of multiplex films, something I've talked about before.

However, there are consequences. In addition to increased audience fragmentation,

“Rural India has fallen off the map,” says Shyam Benegal, probably India’s most famous art house director, who made a landmark rural quartet of films in the seventies. “When your revenues come from overseas or from the cities, it influences the kinds of films that are being made.”

Finally, there are issues such as external audience perception and others that crop up regularly in dishumdishum entries. This is where we come in:

But the bigger issue is Bollywood’s image. “Even the term Bollywood implies it’s a copy of something,” says filmmaker Soam Acharya. Bollywood’s image in the West is still all about camp and kitsch. Soam gave up on Bollywood years ago until his wife Shari reintroduced him to the films as a condition of their marriage.

Now their short film, Devi Brown, a blaxploitation-style twist on Bollywood action films of the seventies, plays with everything that he once hated about the industry. Stripping the macho hero out of the plot and overdubbing it, the Acharyas created Devi Brown, kickass heroine out to avenge the loss of both her honor and “her famous egg biryani recipe.” At four minutes, Soam says Devi Brown is “the deconstructed Cliff notes version” of a Bollywood film that has mayhem, romance and everything else. But more importantly, it’s been a way for a new generation to come home to an old faithful.

To be mentioned in the same column as Shyam Benegal and other industry heavyweights? We're still pinching ourselves.

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- November 18, 2007 9:49 AM // Bollywood , Devi Brown , Diaspora , Film

Vanaja Part II

Earlier, I wrote about Vanaja, the little indie Indian film that could. Even though it's budgeted at around $20K, I'd always wondered how such a film would be able to recoup its costs, thinking it to be tales of credit card debt and blood donation money that the director would later recount in his (or her) memoirs. I was speaking to Ivan Jaigirdar from 3rd I the other day and he pointed out Vanaja might have earned back its initial outlay already. "How?", I hear you ask. Well, film festivals pay you a small honorarium once they accept your film which is typically around a couple of hundred bucks. Multiply this by the 85 or so festivals where Vanaja played and you can see why Ivan was right. There's serious chump change involved here. Of course, this only really works with microbudget films but still!

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- October 6, 2007 9:33 AM // Film



A word of praise here about Vanaja, probably the most successful Indian film to come out in quite a while. Never heard of it? Well, very few folks in India have either. That's because I'm defining success by film festival acceptance. Toronto, Berlin, Vancouver, Cairo ... the list goes on. I counted 85 on the website alone. And Vanaja has racked up the awards too including "Best Debut Feature" for director Rajnesh Domalpalli at Berlin. However, coverage of it in the Indian papers have been limited. Why is that?

We saw Vanaja earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival and were blown away. However, I can understand the recalcitrance of journalists in hyping a film of this type. It's a complex effort that defies categorization and its frank exploration of teenage needs makes it even less of an easy sell, particularly in India. It is also absolutely astounding coming from a first time director. As a wanna-be myself, I am suitably envious. At first, the story seems to be about Vanaja, a lower caste girl in rural South India, who somehow persuades the local landlady to give her dancing lessons. "Aha!," I remember thinking, ""Flashdance" in Telugu!" Hardly. Quickly, the plot changes when landlady's son comes back home and subsequently takes advantage of Vanaja's youth and inexperience. "Aha!," I remember thinking again, ""The Accused" in Telugu!" Wrong again. Regardless, with its constantly shifting plotlines and lovely visuals, Vanaja is a slow burn film that stays with you long after the last reel has unspooled.

The story behind the film is interesting as well. Rajnesh was an Engineer in the Valley prior to quitting and leaving for film school in Columbia U. Vanaja is his thesis film cast exclusively with non-actors. In the QA following the SF screening, I remember Rajnesh describing the setting up of a lengthy workshop at his village house in India dedicated to training his cast. That reminded me of a similar process used by Mira Nair in Salaam Bombay. The dedication showed by the filmmaker in setting up his film is also reflected in his tireless promotion of it (as evidenced by the number of festival screenings!). It is playing in select US cities and the hard work is starting to pay off with critics like Roger Ebert lavishing praise. Whatever happens next, Mr. Domalpalli has already made room for himself as a filmmaker to watch.

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- September 16, 2007 9:53 AM // Film

Foreign Films In India: 2007

"Arr mateys, prepare to be boarded!". Hollywood is having a banner year in India for 2007. Variety reports:

Boosted by other hits including "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," Hollywood's market share is tracking at around 8%-10% this year. That's whammo in a country with an all-powerful tradition of watching Bollywood and other local-language movies. And it compares well with a short while back when 3%-4% for Hollywood would have been considered good.

And why?

What's making the difference is India's hurtle toward economic modernity and the willingness of distribs to mix it up and experiment with such things as multiple-language dubbed versions.

The multiplexing of India is making more screens available, and an increasingly world-wise Indian population doesn't want to wait for entertainment that is available elsewhere.

As five or six screeners replace single theaters, there is much more choice for cinemagoers and room for programming diversity.

I wrote about relatively low budget desi multiplex films benefiting from this trend but it looks like Hollywood is starting to make inroads as well. And they're not the only beneficiaries:

Korean record-breaker "The Host" grossed a solid Rupees8.39 million ($208,000) in its maiden week in Indian cinemas.

Release, thought to be a first for a Korean movie in India, was handled by indie Indo-Overseas Films.

Interestingly enough, I wonder if the low budget horror films by Ram Gopal Verma ("Bhoot", "Darna Mana Hai") intended for multiplexes actually opened up the audience to fare of this type. In any case, competition is good for the consumer - the resulting pressure will hopefully force Bollywood to raise their own game.

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- August 11, 2007 10:33 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

Three Films: Fanaa, Guru and Nishabd

Whereas New Zealanders might be the world's most enthusiastic cinema-goers, writes the Economist, it is the Indians who made the most visits to the movies in 2005 - 1.6 billion. At 1.5 per person, that makes for a skimpy per-capita average, but hey, it must be the quantity that counts, not the quality, right? Maybe. As for the films themselves, I finally got a chance to catch up with three of Bollywood's more recent releases. Here goes.

Fanaa is pure old school masala served up a in spanking new thali. This is a typical Yash Raj production where characters spend hours exchanging Urdu couplets and extolling the glory of Pyaar (Love) with a capital P. In Yashland, parents are always madly in love with each other, every smile is intended on moving factory loads of Pepsodent, security guards are called Jolly Good Singh and house roofs are color coordinated to match the dupattas worn by their inhabitants. Plotwise, all you need to know is that Aamir Khan plays a Kashmiri terrorist who, while masquerading as a Delhi guide, falls for the innocent blind Kajol. Three hours of moping, sermonizing and mewling later, Kajol must make a terrible decision. I am not saying the film is without its bright points, chiefly the stunning cinematography and exceptionally high production values, but diabetics be warned for your condition is likely to worsen with the sugar shock.

I won't deny it - I had high hopes for Nishabd, a Ram Gopal Verma quickie where he tries to continue the rehabilitation of Amitabh Bachchan the actor. Sadly, Ramu's take on a robbing the cradle type tale whereby sixty year old photographer falls for eighteen year old girl is no Lolita, Venus or American Beauty. Though the acting overall is top notch, what could have been a provocative work is scuttled by the stylistic choices. Too often the camera swoops and soars and the music crescendoes to climaxes that aren't actually there in the scene itself. Both the music score and camerawork belong in a horror movie, not a mood piece like this. It's overkill for so slight a plot, reminiscent of playing ping pong with a cast iron saucepan. Though the creative team deserves hosannaas for sticking to their guns and producing a flab free film with a desolate ending that doesn't feel like a copout, I am still hoping Ram Gopal Verma can return to form with his next one.

The last effort of Mani Ratnam I saw, Yuva, fell below his usual standards. An attempt to follow the lives of three separate couples in Kolkata, Yuva was too bogged down by the weight of its ambition. Abhishek was a standout there though and, wisely, Mani Ratnam makes him the titular character in his latest, Guru. Abhishek does not disappoint - his performance is the best thing about Guru, one of the biggest hits in India this year. In my mind, it marks his coming of age as an actor. Guru relates the saga of Gurukant Desai from his days as a village school dropout to a textile tycoon. A thinly veiled re-telling of the story of Dhirubhai Ambani and his Reliance conglomerate, it's easy to understand why the struggles of Guru to grow his business despite crushing government bureaucracy really resonated with the Indian audience. Mithun Chakraborthy has a nice turn as a newspaper owner who gives Guru his first big break but turns against him. Their fallout and subsequent bizarre relationship forms the emotional core of Guru. Certain scenes involving peripheral characters seem out of place, but overall it's worth watching if only to see the son step out of his father's shadow for good.

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- June 17, 2007 8:53 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Apu vs Abby II

So, post Apu vs Abby, a reader asked my reasons as to thanking Quentin when Naveen Andrews appears in the Robert Rodriguez directed section of Grindhouse, Planet Terror and not Death Proof, Tarantino's segment. Well, from all accounts, this was very much a joint project and, yes, Rodriguez has done a tremendous amount for the hispanic commiunity in terms of casting and more power to him. But, Quentin's gone out of his way in the past to create the United Colors of Benetton with his picks (Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Lucy Liu, Pam Grier ... do I really have to go on?), so giving him the benefit of the doubt seemed the right choice. Plus, we have this:

Maybe actor Naveen Andrews has been "Lost" on a hit television drama for the past three seasons -- but he's not so far out of reach that a huge fan of the show can't pluck him off the mysterious island for a few hours to enjoy a wild trip to the "Grindhouse."

The fan is none other than pop culture nut Quentin Tarantino, who along with filmmaking buddy Robert Rodriguez has effectively recreated the experience of the B-movie dives of the 1970s '80s with the aptly-titled "Grindhouse." The bloody, back-to-back horror thrillers -- with fake trailers thrown in-between the double feature for good measure -- opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

Andrews, of course, plays Sayid on "Lost," one of the pivotal characters on the show since its inception in 2004, and he's thrilled that Tarantino's been tuning in.

I know that Robert was aware of 'Lost,' but Quentin was and is a big fan of the show," Andrews said in a recent @ The Movies interview.

There you go - straight from the brotha himself.

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- April 8, 2007 5:23 PM // Film

Apu vs Abby

Hold on to your hats folks, 20th Century Folks have come up with one cunning plan to promote the new Simpsons movie. It involves none other than the 7-Eleven chains:

To help hype July's "The Simpsons Movie," the studio is working to enlist 7-Eleven to turn several of the chain's stores into Kwik-E-Marts. The fronts of about a dozen stores would be transformed to look like the cartoon's famed convenience store, and shoppers could pick up everything from Krusty-Os cereal and Buzz Cola to Slurpees dressed up in cups that say Squishee.

Yessiree, Yankee marketing at its best! Will there be lifesize Apus working the counters, dripping hair oil into the slurpee machine, one wonders? Thank you, come again.

On the other corner, we have Naveen Andrews (Lost, The English Patient), appearing in Grindhouse as Abby, an ass kicking zombie body part collector.

Thank you, Quentin.

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- March 31, 2007 9:30 PM // Film

Odd Titles

From the Beeb comes this entry about a contest for odd book titles. The finalists are:

  • How Green Were the Nazis?
  • D. Di Mascio's Delicious Ice Cream: D. Di Mascio of Coventry: An Ice Cream Company of Repute, with an Interesting and Varied Fleet of Ice Cream Vans
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
  • Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan
  • Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium
  • Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence

Love it, particularly the one about the seaweed. These titles reminded me of a game of movie charades I played in my grad school days. When came my turn, my adversary, his grin a mile wide, whispered in my ear, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl."


"You heard me."

This being an informal game and with my pride at stake, I had no choice but to proceed. Needless to say, nobody understood a single gesture I made. Adding insult to injury. many guffaws could be heard during my contortions. But, when came my tormentor's turn, I was ready. Thank you Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for helping me get revenge!

In general, Indian film titles tend to be terse. With that in mind, here's the longest/oddest one that I know of. Cue drum roll...

It's Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (Why Is Albert Pinto Angry?). This 1980 examination of the life a typical Indian Christian sank without much fanfare shortly after its release. But the title alone ensures its place in desi film folklore.

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- March 11, 2007 7:48 PM // Books , Film

Netflix, "Watch Now" and Bollywood

Netflix made waves last month by launching "Watch Now", their snazzy Video On Demand feature. The New York Times reports

Netflix-by-Internet, in other words, is deliciously immediate, incredibly economical and, because it introduces movie surfing, impressively convention-shattering.

It will not, however, change the way most people watch movies in the short term, for many reasons.

First, it works only on Windows PCs at the moment; a Macintosh version is in the works.

Second, only 1,000 movies and TV shows are on the Play list. There's lots of good, brand-name stuff here -- ''Zoolander,'' ''Chinatown,'' ''Jaws,'' ''Sleepless in Seattle,'' ''Twister'' and so on -- but Netflix's lawyers and movie-studio negotiators have a long way to go before the number of movies online equals the number of DVDs available from Netflix (70,000). Still, the company says that at least 5,000 movies will be on the list by year's end. So far, the sole holdout among major movie studios is Disney, perhaps because of its partnership with Apple's movie service.

Netflix is rolling out the service over several months, so not all subscribers can access it the first time around. For those wishing to jump the queue, however, Hacking Netflix describes a possible workaround. It worked for me and I was able to check out the service. First, kudos to Netflix for an impressive start and a very cool online viewing model - I've now upped my subscription level to five discs out at a time. Next, Netflix wasn't kidding when they said the number of online titles are limited. I actually counted them last weekend (my list of all the "Watch Now" titles are here) and it came to around 750. This includes such classics as Mulva 2: Kill Teen Ape! and Bad Movie Police Case #2: Chickboxer. Okay, okay, I'm kidding! As NYT points out, there is good stuff (and many documentaries and old Doctor Who episodes) in there. The good news is Netflix is continually adding new titles. Consequently, this week I see new items such as Round Midnight that I didn't find last week. I was surprised, however, by the Asian fare on offer. Here are the Indian related films I could find on the "Watch Now" list:

Aadmi Sadak Ka (1977)
Aamne Saamne (1967)
Aas (1953)
Abhimaan (2000)
Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)
Basant (1960)
Baton Baton Mein (1979)
Bhagam Bhag (2006)
Bollywood / Hollywood (2002)
Charno Ki Saugandh (1988)
Charulata (1964)
Chhalia (1960)
Chhote Nawab (1961)
China Town (1962)
Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan (1959)
Dayar-E-Madina (2006)
Dharkan (1972)
Door Ki Awaz (1964)
Dus Lakh (1966)
Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka (1975)
Ek Phool Do Mali (1969)
Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986)
Ek Saal (1957)
Ghar Ek Mandir (1984)
Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (1970)
Howrah Bridge (1958)
Immaan Dharam (1977)
Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987)
Jaali Note (1960)
Jai Santoshi Maa (1975)
Joi Baba Felunath (1978)
Kapurush (1965)
Kitaab (1977)
Lakhon Ki Baat (1984)
Lakhtar Ni Ladi Ne Vilayat No Var (2006)
Maa-Baap (2006)
Madhubala Song Compilation (2006)
Madine Ki Galian (2006)
Mahal (1949)
Mahapurush (1965)
Mamta (1966)
Meharbaan (1993)
Nanha Farishta (1969)
Nayak (1966)
New Delhi (1956)
Night in London (1967)
Prem Geet (1981)
Pyaar Ka Saagar (1961)
Pyar Mohabbat (1966)
Ram Aur Shyam (1967)
Rishta Kagaz Ka (1983)
Sara Akash (1969)
Saraswati Chandra (1968)
Swarg Narak (1978)
Swarg Se Sundar (1986)
Swayamwar (1980)
Thodisi Bewafaii (1980)
Us-Paar (1974)
Vachan (2006)
Zahreelay (1990)

That's about 61 titles out of 750, or about 8%. Not too shabby, particularly as the number of non-desi Asian titles on offer are minimal. As a matter of fact, I only counted Ghost In The Shell and Ninja Scroll but there could be more by now. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Satyajit Ray films available online (Nayak, Kapurush, Mahapurush, Joi Baba Felunath, Charulata). The print on these will, hopefully, be better than the scratchy VCD transfers.

Look at the Bollywood titles, however, and a pattern starts to emerge. There are some real oldies here. Don't be fooled by the release dates on some of the titles - those aren't correct. In fact, there's nothing here from the past ten to fifteen years. Other than Abhimaan and the Satyajit Ray films I didn't see very many of what you would call classics either. In fact, it's mostly filler.

I'm sure a lot of this is due to the difficulties in obtaining broadband rights from the distributors. However, as I noted earlier, desis tend to be tech savvy in these things (just check out some the desi torrrent sites if you don't believe me) and, in fact, were early Netflix adopters. "Watch Now" can be a real trendsetter here too. If I was a desi grocer depending on renting out Bollywood titles for a lot of ancillary income, I wouldn't be worried just yet. But that could change soon if Netflix play their cards right.

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- February 10, 2007 7:56 PM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film , Technology

Brown Power or Kung Fu? - Hollywood Tries To Pick

Variety writes about the ongoing debate in Hollywood regarding where to invest next. India or China?

Nearly a decade ago, Sony opened a Chinese-language production office in Hong Kong. But the unit has had trouble finding success on the scale of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In fact, it hasn't made a movie in the past two years.

By contrast, India has proven bountiful for Sony Entertainment Television, which has become an established TV player in the country and is now expanding from movie buyer into local production.

Kaiju Shakedown elaborates more on the difficulties facing Hollywood in China:

China is the world’s biggest movie market but with four times the population of the United States it only has 2,396 movie screens, one fifteenth of America’s 38,000. Hollywood is eager to sell movies to what it views as an underserved market, but China only allows 20 foreign movies to be imported each year. Hollywood wants to increase the screen count by building multiplex chains across rural China, but China won’t allow foreign companies to own more than 49% of cinemas outside of the seven major cities. Hollywood is desperate to stamp out piracy, but China’s efforts to cooperate are sporadic at best. And so China is the beautiful, unattainable market that drives Hollywood crazy.

China does its best to flummox its suitor. Their State Administration of Radio, Film and Television is a massive Mao-era bureaucracy that operates like an eccentric uncle.

They recently baffled the world by banning all foreign movies that mix live action and animation, such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Space Jams”. Then they ruffled feathers further by yanking “The Da Vinci Code” from theaters at the peak of its successful run, with no explanations given.

In addition to being more open, India offers a number of additional advantages. From Variety:

  • Due to a wave of multiplex construction, the theatrical market is expanding. That's allowing the first steps toward nationwide (rather than state by state) releasing.
  • The pay TV market may boom if mandatory set-top decoders allow subscription revenues to flow to rights owners, rather than mom-and-pop cable pirates. The country is expected to have five DTH satellite platforms by the end of 2007.
  • The development of an organized retail sector of chain stores and supermarkets is driving growth of home entertainment, even as it looks wobbly in the rest of the world.
  • With cell phone numbers growing at more than 5 million per month, mobile entertainment is delivering real gaming and music returns. Because TV penetration is low compared with other, more developed countries, including China, some analysts expect mobile ownership to even outstrip TV.

Other distribution channels like Madhouse and SeventyMM are also emerging. Both adopt the Netflix model with one crucial difference - DVDs are not delivered by mail (the public mail service is utterly unreliable) but via private courier services.

However, as Variety notes, all is not peachykeen in the Indian market. Roadblocks remain:

India's big drawback has been that the level of overall economic development is significantly behind China and its entertainment industry is largely isolated from the rest of the world. Local-language movies account for 95% of the box office, and the soundtracks of Bollywood dominate the music industry.


Indian regulators are just as capable of infuriating congloms. Barely a month had passed after a new policy was put in place for mandatory conditional access systems, or set-top boxes, in order to curb cable TV theft by mom-and-pop pirates. But then regulators decreed that pay channels should not be allowed to charge more than 1 rupee (2 cents) per month, in order that the poor also can afford their shows.

Appeals are ongoing, but the notion that either country will enact reforms for the benefit of foreign interests is somewhat ridiculous.

In the big picture, however, the Indian film industry still lags behind that of China in the global sweepstakes:

Although Bollywood is bigger in absolute terms, the Chinese industry has been more successful on a world scale.

"The Chinese films generally have had larger success outside of China than the Indian pictures have had outside of India," says Sony's Michael Lynton. "The market outside India is largely people who are part of the Indian diaspora."

True enough. That's why, while all the cine buffs keep track of Zhang Yimou's latest release (Curse of the Golden Flower), events like Dhoom 2 racking up close to a million bucks in the USA over Thanksgiving weekend while playing in just a handful of screens, continue to surprise. I'm not saying the film is any good mind you - but it just goes to show the power of the brown dollar (and rupee for that matter) cannot be underestimated.

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- February 10, 2007 11:46 AM // Bollywood , Diaspora , Film , India , TV

Screenwriting For Dummies

In his memoir, Hollywood Animal, screenwriter and Tinseltown bete noire Joe Eszterhas, writer of such films as Basic Instinct and Flashdance, shares an anecdote about the Golden Age of Hollywood:

Charles MacArthur was a celebrated playwright/screenwriter who believed that studio executives were some of the dumbest people he'd ever met and didn't know anything about writing. So he decided to prove it.

At the gas station one day, he started chatting with the young Englishman who was filling up his tank. The young man lamented that he was only making $40 a week and Charles MacArthur asked him if he wanted to make $1000 a week. The young man said, "Whoever I have to kill, I will happily do it."

Charles MacArthur bought him a new tweed suit and a curved-stem pipe. He took him in to the studio head and introduced him as "Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist who is against doing any movie writing because he insists there's no room for creative talent in the movies."

The studio boss did everything he could to persuade Kenneth Woolcott, the well-known English novelist, to be a screenwriter at his studio. He finally offered him $1000 a week. The gas station attendant grudgingly accepted the offer.

The studio was so pleased with Woolcott's work that they kept him under contract at $1000 a week for a whole year. After which Kenneth Woolcott went back to pumping gas.

Later on in the book, Joe Eszterhas confirms our suspicions about LA - yes, everyone there has a script in development of some kind. Consequently, though he lived outside LA and flew in for his meetings, he stopped taking cabs, mainly due to desperate drivers who staked out the lobbies of the hotels where he was staying, waiting for an opportunity to ambush him with their masterworks.

Their Mumbai counterparts, on the other hand, are still apparently too busy terrorizing their passengers and hapless pedestrians with their kamikaze tactics to worry about plot points and story arcs - whatever Bollywood dreams they have are still confined to starring in films, not writing one. But that may change soon. As DNAIndia reports, desi screenwriters, that long neglected arm of Bollywood, are finally getting more than chai and buttertoast for their services, sometimes as much as 25 lakh rupees (that's $50K) a script!

Industry observers point out that till recently, anybody could have scripted a Bollywood "formula" film with its trademark twists and turns. The concept of a script did not exist in the industry for the longest time. So, there was no real need for writers, says trade analyst Amod Mehra.

The script, however, is changing in Bollywood and the storyboard is moving in a new direction.

Though, scriptwriters are yet to get the recognition they deserve, they are suddenly sought after. And new voices are being heard all the time. As producers churn out films for different, even niche audiences, the opportunities for scriptwriters are increasing.

"A screenplay is now being viewed as the most important tool to make money," says Monga. This spells good news for writers who are paid better now-anything between Rs1 lakh to Rs25 lakhs, say industry sources, depending on the budget of the movie.

Time to reach into the desk drawer and dust off that screenplay, methinks. If there's no screenplay, why, a foreign hit DVD will do nicely for "inspiration." And invest in a tweed jacket and hookah.
PS - Thanks to Amar Parikh, as always, for the tip.

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- August 4, 2006 10:12 AM // Bollywood , Books , Film

Lady In The Waterloo?

Many moons back, the Society For India (SFI) at Cornell held a screening and QA for a thesis film from a fresh out of school NYU filmmaker. Only about ten folks showed up. The treasurer and president had a heated discussion afterwards about whether precious funds should be spent on events with such poor attendance or whether such monies were better utilized on organizing meat market .. ahem .. social gatherings on campus. The filmmaker himself was quite a nice, approachable guy and was clearly happy to receive his $500 honorarium. The treasurer remembers writing out the cheque himself. As well he should. M. Night Shymalan has yet to make that film, his first, Praying With Anger available on video but it's safe to say he no longer has to trudge up to college towns in the dead of winter and cadge speaking engagements for a living.

Following The Sixth Sense in 1999, it was impossible to meet a desi who didn't have a connection with Manoj. I remember meeting the proprietor of the Manali Cafe in Ann Arbor who swore she and Manoj's mum were best buddies. Likewise for a resident doctor at the University of California San Francisco - why she'd had dinner with Manoj and his entourage just the other day! And so it went. He was the guy who had defied his parents' wish that he become a good little doctor boy and had followed his dreams to the pot of gold lying at the end of the rainbow. What desi kid could possibly quibble with that? And he'd done it on his own terms, staying back in Philly when it clearly would have been better for him to be with the movers and shakers in LA. He was living proof that an NRI filmmaker could find a massive worldwide audience without kowtowing to the nacha-gana obsessed feudal families that had hermetically sealed off Bollywood.

But somewhere, all of that began to change. Perhaps it was the fact he kept putting himself in his films instead giving chances to other struggling desi actors who could definitely use the break. Perhaps it was his insistence on promoting himself as a brand a la Hitchcock or Spielberg. Perhaps it was that American Express commercial. Maybe at some point he began believing in the myth he'd created around himself. Who knows? What I can tell you is last week, on Friday 21st, on the eve of the opening of Lady In The Water, a couple of us held a heated e-mail roundtable on all topics Water and Night.

Prem kicked it off with:

It's getting horrible reviews and the book about his rift with Disney is being deemed an unintentional laugh riot. Newsweek even suggests it's time for an intervention (I thought so too after I saw Signs). Has the next Spielberg hit the iceberg? Apparently he got his knickers all bunched up because a Disney exec didn't give the LITW script the proper respect and eventually he fled to Warner Bros. Does he expect studio heads to perform elaborate Vedic rituals to honor his supernatural offerings? Shyam-a-crazy like a mental patient or crazy like a fox? Maybe neither. I think his problem is more
mundane. In terms of creativity he hit the skids after Unbreakable. But perhaps the same self-belief and faith in his inner voice that served him so well early in his career is also making him blind to his creative decline.

But if I was a studio exec I'd let him be -- at least for now. I may cringe watching his recent efforts or, better yet, sneak out the back door at the private screening, but his movies are a great business bet. They are modestly budgeted compared to your average summer flick and the built-in audience for the Shyamalan brand generates solid returns. That's as good a bet as there is in Hollywood.

What do you guys think? If you go see the movie let me know your opinion.

Devdoot replied:

I read an article about him in E Weekly (an excerpt from the book) where it described a meeting between the Disney execs and Shyam at a restaurant in his beloved Philly. At the end of the meeting, he had decided to take the script elsewhere and after the execs left, he began to cry uncontrollably. Um, I ordered the book - can't wait to read it.

But you make a good point Prem. Leave him be for now -- his movies come in at budget, the built in audience spans the globe, and returns on the investment are healthy.

I pointed out that the bidgets on his previous films were as follows:

Lady In The Water (LITW): $75M
The Village, Signs, Unbreakable: all around $70 - $72M
Sixth Sense: $55M

With the possible exception of the Sixth Sense, these weren't "modest" budgets. Prem's ripose:

Certainly not Wayans brothers-cheap, but for a major summer movie still quite reasonable. The fact that average Hollywood movies cost $60-70 mil is ridiculous, but we can save that for another day.

I read somewhere his movies have grossed 2.5 billion. He has lost street cred among hollywood-types, but that town is still all about the bottom line and as long as he's bringing in the profits there will be a studio willing to let him continue drinking his own kool-aid.

He added:

He needs to stop talking to the aliens and fairies in his head, step out of the supernatural environs of his Pa. mansion and mingle with the earthlings again. But if LITW does good BO I'm afraid he will use the critical slams and Hollywood putdowns as fuel to continue down the creative deadend.

Devdoot did something funny amidst all of this back-and-forth. He actually went out and saw the movie in question.

In the spirit of this roundtable discussion, I went out and just watched LITW.

Spoiler alert: do not read any further if you will be seeing the movie.

OK, so I didn't dislike the movie as much as I expected. Surprisingly funny, although his use of the stereotypical Korean girl as a means of explaining the fairy tale was nothing but a weak way to get through the exposition.

A lot of fine actors like Bill Irwin and Jeffrey Wright are way underutilized.

The numbers came in on Sunday night and they weren't particularly encouraging. From boxofficeguru:

Suffering his worst opening since becoming an A-list director, M. Night Shyamalan saw his latest thriller Lady in the Water struggle in its debut grossing an estimated $18.2M from 3,235 theaters. The PG-13 film about a mysterious creature from the water who must return to her world averaged $5,629 per site. The opening was less than half the size of the $50.7M bow of Shyamalan's last film The Village and less than one-third of the $60.1M that his previous film Signs took in when it opened in 2002. Critics panned Lady which was promoted as being a "bedtime story" as the Oscar-nominated filmmaker earned the worst reviews of his career.

Ouch! So, what do you think we as a roundtable did next? Yes, it was true Night needed to come to grips with his roots and all of that but it was possible to take that sort of stuff way too far. In typical desi style, we were hardly short of advice. From Prem:

He's been obsessed with magic realism for so long one wonders if he can make the transition to stories rooted strictly in an earth-based reality. Hey Night, can you create characters who are NOT leading tortured lives, burdened with knowledge of other dimensions? Can your characters NOT mumble awful lines in hushed, portentous tones...for the length of the entire friggin' movie! Just for a change, ya know. Mix it up a little, dude.

Anyway, I hope he can recover from this because I'm a sucker for comebacks.

As am I. As is the USA for that matter. Actually, I have no doubt M Night will return in full force in his next production - he's too talented not to. However, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction from magic realism i.e. urban in-yo-face-ism. Consequently, we came up with a list of films that Manoj should absolutely not be doing next. Here goes:

  • The Seventh Sense - I See Rich People: A tough, tell-it-like-it-is thriller from the mean streets of Philly where LaShawn and Devawn are carjackers with hearts of gold - they only rob SUV driving people who deserve it. Plus no one actually sees Devawn 'cause he's a ghost! But he doesn't know it yet.
  • Unbreakin' II - Electric Vindaloo: After failing for the umpteenth time to get "AtMan", a desi soul food joint, going in Center City, PA, Devi Shah hits upon a curry recipe guaranteeing wild gyrations for three hours upon consumption. Alas, AtMan is located next door to a Pottery Barn and Devi's clientele is really testing their "if you break it you own it" policy. Hilarity ensues.
  • Signs 'N' The Hood - Somebody's been scrawling wild graffiti on the SEPTA buses in Philly and those are attracting some really freaky riders.

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- July 28, 2006 12:31 AM // Diaspora , Film

"How Comfortable!"

In Lost In Transcription, I wrote about the poor quality of subtitles in an Indian film. Those, along with bad dubbing are also mainstays of Hong Kong cinema (and parodied in Wayne's World, amongst others). In Once Upon A Time In China, Jeff Yang's concise history of cinema from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, there's this:

Of course, any Anglophone who's watched a subtitled Hong Kong movie knows that the process is far from perfect. Often hastily produced based on half completed (or nonexistent) scripts - and sometimes without even basic knowledge of the storyline - translations have ranged from amateurish to comical. Some problems are due to inherent linguistic differences: Spoken Chinese uses few gender-specific terms, so subtitlers often must make arbitrary pronoun choices based on context. Sometimes errors are due to poorly translated idioms, with curses and expressions of affection or lust the most frequent victims. For the most part, however, enthusiasts say that learning "subtitle English" is like picking up a specialized dialect. Experienced Hong Kong movie fans know that "How comfortable" is an expression of sexual pleasure, while "How come?" is what people say when faced with something shocking and inexplicable.

The book is fascinating - I've always wondered how cinema from that part of the world has been able to shine so well on the global stage while offerings from India continue to be consistently mediocore, with occasional exceptions. I hope to share some of my thoughts later.

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- July 8, 2006 8:26 AM // Film

Lost In Transcription

Make no mistake, Being Cyrus is an effective little indie thriller and has a chance to find accepting urban audiences everywhere, desi or otherwise. But not with the English subtitles on the DVD release. The film itself is mostly in English but I usually have the titles on by default when watching stuff from India. I was fishing around for my remote when I realized something wasn't quite right with the onscreen words.

Right at the beginning of the film, our anti-hero, Cyrus (played by Saif Ali Khan), presents himself to an aged Parsi couple, Dinshaw (Naseeruddin Shah) and Katy Sethna (Dimple Kapadia). "I've come regarding your poetry school," he says. Except, the Sethnas actually run a pottery school. Otherwise, the subsequent scenes of Cyrus massaging mud doesn't make sense - unless the director was trying pass an oblique comment on the virtues of verse.

I was willing to let one typo slide. But just after that, Cyrus claims some of Dinshaw's works are on display at the "grooving museum" in New York as opposed to, oh, the Guggenheim. That's when I realized either the subtitlist had either partaken of some strong herb or his ability to transcribe English was sadly deficient or he was hard of hearing or he had performed his duties inside the engine room of a steam locomotive. Perhaps all of the above. Whatever it was, his (or her) transmissions from Spaceship Ganja definitely added an extra dimension to our viewing experience.

For example, did you know that Mars was a "marshal planet" and that your half baked aspirations could turn into "half day desperations?" Katy could be played like a "vilon" and, given Dimple Kapadia's continuing oomph, I want to know what a "vilon" is and how does one play it. Apparently, it was also possible to "live like a popper" and you could do so in a place called "Punch Gun" which, presumably, is not far from Panchgani, the initial setting of the film. This must be a magical place because in order to bite the hand that feeds them, you had to "buy 100 feet." Hope they use deodorant over there.

As the film progressed, the transcriptions grew more poetic, wistful even. "He has a very bad sprain" became "he has a very bad spring." A police officer complained death was "starring at him all the time." Must be tough to play second fiddle to the Grim Reaper. In his presence, "handcuffs" morphed into "hand coughs" and "you have a way with words, inspector" soared to "you have ways to hit the words, inspector." Indeed.

The language grew more heated towards the end and our intrepid subtitlist spared no efforts in hiding our blushes. "Sweet old bugger" was censored to "sweet old baba." Frustrated teens might argue they are one and the same but still! Apparently, you also cannot make an "amlate" without breaking eggs. And, once you've made a mess thus, do you clean with "meticulous care?" No, our man felt you have to clean with "medicare." Strong comment on the lamentable state of US healthcare perhaps but a little out of place in a thriller from Mumbai. Finally, being a bit of a showman, our man saved the best for last. Towards the end of the film, a character emoted with great sadness, "no matter what happens during a chess game, the king and the porn always go back to the box."

Intent as our transcriptor was in deciphering the mysteries of the universe, he had an omission I found quite perplexing. In some parts of the film, the dialogue shifts to non-English. Those had no subtitles.

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- May 11, 2006 7:04 PM // Film , Select

Local Productions

Catching up on local productions, we start with Hijra, a production by the New Conservatory Theatre Center . The Chronicle has the goods:

Ancient gender-bending traditions of South Asia reach into the New York of the Indian diaspora in Ash Kotak's "Hijra" at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Sometimes funny, at times enlightening and generally engaging, the handsomely designed American premiere that opened Saturday is a mildly promising effort a bit too weighed down by sitcom ideas and filmic structures to take flight onstage.

What's most interesting about "Hijra" is the extent to which Kotak sheds light on its titular subject. This is "hijra" not as one of the more common alternate spellings of the "hegira" of Muslim history, but as the ancient group of male-to-female transgenders of mysterious origin and long tradition who often appear, uninvited, to dance at and bless weddings in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The role of hijras in South Asian customs is apparently a blend of Islamic and Hindu traditions, and many held high positions in the courts of the Muslim kings.

Though the review of the production itself is lukewarm, Dishum Dishum patron Maya Capur escapes unscathed. To wit:

It isn't always easy to tell how much in love Nils and Raj are supposed to be. Kotak's dialogue is much more quip- and plot-driven than concerned with character or emotional development, and neither director Andrew Nance nor his actors have been able to fill in the blanks. From Venkatesh's boyishly standoffish performance, it's hard to tell whether Nils has any more real interest in Raj than Sheila until late in the second act. By then, Raj, disguised as a woman, has arrived in New York -- and so have Madhu, Sheila and her ferocious mother (crisply played by Sukanya Sarkar).

With an exceptionally nosy neighbor (a very nice turn by Capur) stirring the pot, Kotak sets the stage for farcical complications he only partly develops.

Way to go, Maya!

Meanwhile, could Carma be the first indie film to promote itself using a Flash mob? The idea involved four women dressing up as one of the characters from the film and chanting:

Normie Burns took an axe
Gave his mother 40 whacks,
When she saw what he had done,
She said proudly, "that's my son!"

This went down at a screening in Stanford last weekend. Here's a picture of the mob:

Also, FilmThreat has a review of Carma here.

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- April 17, 2006 8:11 PM // Bay Area , Film , Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indiana Jones and The Geritol Quest

Ain't It Cool reports that The Beard Himself (aka Spielberg) is starting to talk about his followup to Munich. Seems like it could be the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series. No title is known yet but given the age of the principals (Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas) involved, the wags have already started speculation. Some are excerpted below:

Indiana Jones and the Colonoscopy of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Trip to Florida
Indiana Jones and the Flatulence From Hades
Indiana Jones and the Hip Replacement Surgery
Raiders Of The Lost Colostomy Bag
Indiana Jones and the Gargantuan Doctor Bill
Indiana Jones and the Slow Moving Supermarket Line
Indiana Jones and the Ben Gay Pilgrimage
Raiders Of The Last Depends Package
Indiana Jones and the Phantom of the IHOP
Indiana Jones and the Damn Kids Who Won't Get Off My Lawn
Indiana Jones and Harold and Maud
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of Social Security
Indiana Jones and the Sponge Bath of Doom

You get the idea :-)

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- February 20, 2006 11:35 PM // Film

Review: Brick

Brick.jpg What do you get when you cross Heathers with Chinatown? Brick, that's what! The central conceit of Brick, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is that it transplants film noir conventions into a high school setting. The most obvious result of this collision is the lingo. The characters here speak in an argot so thick, the screening pass comes with a little guide. In addition to the more obvious "shamus," we have "reef worm" (referring to a stoner), "take a powder" (to slip away eg. "Why'd you take a powder the other night?"), "scape" (a patsy to take the blame, abbreviation of "scapegoat"), "bulls" (cops), and "gum" (to mess things up eg. "Bulls would only gum it."). Yet, don't worry if you have trouble following the lines. You'll be so busy appreciating the fine acting and cinematography, you'll forget the linguistic incongruities and after a while, the setting of the film, a coastal Southern California town, will seem like vintage Raymond Chandler territory.

Our Phillip Marlowe here is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock From The Sun), a self imposed high school loner who is intent on locating his recently disappeared ex (Emilie de Ravin, Lost). Then she turns up dead and Brendan has to find out why. His quest leads him through teenage intrigues, schoolyard brawls and, ultimately, local drug kingpin Pin (Lukas Haas). Part of the delight of the journey we take with Brendan is our realizing how artfully writer/director Rian Johnson has drawn from hard boiled archtypes in creating his characters. These inclde femme fatale Kara, the diva in the high school drama, the gangster moll Laura and, of course, the authority figure (the assistant VP of the high school, played by Mr. Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree). Yet, all of them are totally in place within the high school ecosystem of cliques, low IQ sports jocks, outsiders, and it girls.

As with any film noir, dashes of humor prevent the proceedings from becoming too turgid and Brick is not above in poking fun at the absurdities of the world it has created. For example, in one scene, so called gangsters (in reality, kids in trenchcoats) who have gone to the mattresses, are served glasses of milk by the mother of one of the characters. Similarly, during heated negotiations in the basement of a house, one character announces to another, "it is time to go up to the real world." In the next shot, we see both of them sitting in the kitchen of the house. One is munching cereal, the other is trying to look threatening over an oatmeal cookie.

Brick is an object lesson in creating a standout low-budget independent film. DP Steve Yedlin conjures up images worthy of a film ten times more expensive. The acting is solid throughout with many of the principals having put in long hours in the TV trenches. Ultimately though, it is the twisty plot and the language that elevates Brick into the rarefied heights of '80s teen classic The Breakfast Club and the film noir masterpiece, Chinatown. There aren't very many films that inspire comparisons to both! Unfortuantely, it is also the language that might also prove its biggest hindrance to general acceptance. Releasing in the US theaters later this spring, this paean to loners everywhere, like Donnie Darko, seems destined to find its real audience on DVD.

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- February 15, 2006 7:14 PM // Film , Review

After Sundance

So how did the desi films do at Sundance? If you recall, three were playing. After digging a little, I was finally able to find some info. First, from MTV Music News:

Another film that would have a hard time debuting anywhere but within the experimental embrace of Sundance is "Punching at the Sun," a heart-tugging New York-set drama that has studio scouts drooling over the urban tale's crossover appeal. "It's the story of a boy whose older brother is murdered, and he's dealing with the death and going through a tough time," writer/director Tanuj Chopra recounted. "It has some redemption in it. We shot in Elmhurst, Queens, with kids from the community, and it's a completely independent film."

According to star Misu Khan, the film offers a distinctive mix of politics, hip-hop and inner-city sports. "The basketball element is that my brother who dies in the movie is one of the greatest players in Queens, and I try to follow his footsteps and take things into my hands. ... The audience really loved it."

"We're one of the smaller films in this festival," admitted Chopra, a passionate film-school student. "This film has a lot of heart, but people are going to have to come find it and discover it. Sundance is about big films and small films; it's supposed to be about finding new people, new talent and new discoveries."

You can find some pictures of the Punching crew at Sundance here. And as for Man Push Cart, they attracted attention from none other than Mr. Roger Ebert himself:

PARK CITY, Utah – On the last day of Sundance 2006, I went to see one final film, named "Man Push Cart." It was playing at 8:30 a.m. in the Prospector Square Theater, which is a large room filled with fairly comfortable folding chairs. The movie tells the story of a young man who was once a rock star in his native Pakistan, but now operates a stainless steel push cart on the streets of Manhattan, vending coffee, tea, muffins and bagels ("You want cream cheese?").

The room was filled. In front of me were a woman from Ogden and her brother from Philadelphia. They said they attend Sundance to see films that are really about something. After "Man Push Cart" was over, they said they loved it. So did I. But I loved it not only for itself, but because of the conditions of its making.

At the end of 10 days and hundred of films and hype about movie stars and swag bags and midnight parties, this is what Sundance is really about: This man pushing this cart.

The movie was written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, an American born in Iran. It stars Ahmad Razvi, an American born in Pakistan. It was shot in less than three weeks, on a small budget, with Bahrani grabbing a lot of his shots by filming from across the street.

Going by the todo list of every indie filmmaker (1. make low budget film, 2. get accepted at Sundance, 3. build buzz and get noticed by Roger Ebert, 4. score big distribution deal), these guys have knocked off the first three. Can item #4, the all important payday be far behind? Watch this space!

PS - Photo courtesy Anand Chandrasekaran - the Carma crew went to Sundance as well. More here.

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- January 31, 2006 7:53 PM // Film

Hollywood India Box Office

Something we observed in our visit to the snazzier INOX multiplexes while visiting India in early 2005:

... purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees!

For example, there was a huge publicity campaign underway for The Incrediblesat the time. Dubbed in Hindi, featuring the voice of Shahrukh Khan and entitled Hum Hain Lajawab (We Are Fabulous) it didn't really cause any stir - nothing that we could see anyway. Rediff has an article confirming our observation - India resisted Hollywood's advances last year.

According to market estimates, the box office share of Hollywood movies in India has declined from a high of about 9 per cent, to around 4 per cent last year (about Rs 150 crore in all).

Hollywood representatives are tightlipped on individual takings. But they do accept a reversal. "What is noteworthy is that 2005 was really big for Bollywood," concedes Vikramjit Roy, head, publicity and acquisitions, Sony Pictures Releasing of India (SPRI), "and that newer multiplex screens have been added."

Not that Hindi cinema ever lost its charm. But, for a while, it looked as if Hollywood's domination was inevitable, as its dubbed blockbusters began to do almost as well as Hindi cinema's biggest hits. That fear has now abated. Says Pooja Shetty, director, Adlabs Films, "There were some good movies from Hollywood studios. Yet, last year clearly belonged to Bollywood, especially the new-genre of crossover films. Hollywood could not match its performance of previous years."

Despite this reversal, India remains too big a market to ignore. An alternate strategy seems to be emerging:

That might end once Hollywood studios enter domestic film production, having already managed a foot through the door in distribution. Sony, for example, has announced that it will co-produce Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest venture Saawariya. This will be a first. And an experiment to be watched closely.

Lastly, Ibosnetwork has a list of the top non-Bollywood grossers in India for 2005:

Top non-Bollywood hits for India
*Collections where available*

Tamil - Chandramukhi (Rs. 60 crore Gross)
Telugu - Chatrapati (Rs. 25 crore gross)
Kannada - Jogi
Malyalam - Rajamanikkam (Rs. 8 crore)
Bhojpuri - Sasura Bada Paisewala (Rs. 17 crore)
Bengali - Juddha (Rs. 5 crore)

The domestic collection for Chandramukhi, the Tamil hit, is easily at par, if not better, with the biggest Bollywood hits of 2005 (Black, Bunty Aur Babli). Just a reminder that Bollywood is not the be all and end all of Indian cinema - as if we needed one!

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- January 28, 2006 5:39 PM // Bollywood , Film , India

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi

Student revolution in the 1960s wasn't just confined to street fighting men in Paris or US campus agitations against The Man. Inspired by the new noises coming from the West, Che Guevara, the rise of China and the Soviet Union, and the Naxal movement in India itself, well-to-do students in elite Indian universities began to agitate as well. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A Thousand Dreams Such As These) traces the intertwining path of three such students, Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh), and Vikram (Shiney Ahuja), through this period in their lives and beyond. In doing so, Hazaaron touches a section of recent Indian history not often explored by mainstream Bollywood.

The film opens in 1969 with Siddharth's return from Calcutta (which he found to be an "awesome" experience) to St. Stephens College in Delhi. He has an on-again off-again relationship with Gita, a student who has mostly been educated abroad. Both are activists with Siddharth the hot-head and Gita swept up in the emotion. Both have relatively well off parents. Completing the triangle is Vikram, who loves Gita but doesn't share her politics, preferring to observe from the sidelines. His father is a retired Congress leader who chooses not to benefit from his power, hence Vikram knows indulging in these activities is not a luxury he can afford. Every movement has its poseurs and the film has fun lampooning those upper class doyens who believed in The Cause yet found scholarships from US universities too tempting to pass up. Matters come to a head when Siddharth announces he'll be moving to the backwaters of Bihar to try to exhort the peasants. With threats of police crackdowns and better opportunities beckoning, his fellow revolutionaries drop out one by one.

After the prologue, the film resumes in 1973, several years down the line. Gita is now married to an IAS officer, yet she often leaves for Bihar for secret trysts with Siddharth who is waging his own lone war against the government. Vikram increasingly finds himself being known as a "fixer", a middleman who can pull strings in politcal circles to gets things done. However, he hasn't let go of Gita and when he sees her at a party, his passion reignites.

Epic in its narrative sweep, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is, first and foremost, an examination of how youthful ideals fare when faced with reality. That it does so with the Naxal movement and the Emergency as a backdrop is nothing if not ambitious. I found it impressive that the script was original, it was reminiscent of many Bengali novels of that period (of course, most, if not all, Bengali novels of the '70s had the Naxal revolution in the background). The acting by the leads, particularly a luminous Chitrangada Singh and the charming Shiney Ahuja contribute greatly towards maintaining viewer interest. Additionally, the way the film is able to effortlessly veer from comedy to tragedy to horror to pathos ensures a feeling of off-balance throughout - you never can quite predict what's going to happen next. However, once the final frames roll, the final feeling is that of an elegy for the post partition generation. Perhaps the title of the film itself, taken from a poem by the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, is an allusion to their loss.

Overall, director Sudhir Mishra has crafted a worthy followup to Chameli, yet a few flaws prevent Hazaaron from being an international sensation on the lines of Farewell My Concubine and other films of that ilk. First, there isn't enough context here for a foreign audience - anyone unfamiliar with Indian politics might find it hard to understand some of the events occuring in the film. Second, the film itself doesn't always flow very smoothly - characters appear and then disappear. Sometimes, it feels parts of the exposition are missing as well. Nonetheless, the nits don't prevent Hazaaron from being a strong entry into the growing genre of "multiplex" films, so called because the additional screens afforded by such theatres allow non-masala fare such as this to find an audience. It's just a shame that audience could have been a global one with a little bit more care. As Hazaaron shows, all the necessary pieces are in place!

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- January 22, 2006 11:19 AM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Punching At The Sun

With the Sundance film festival starting soon, DutchDesi tells us about the South Asian presence over there:

"Punching at the Sun," directed and written by Tanuj Chopra -- In the aftermath of 9/11 and his older brother's murder, a fiery South Asian teen struggles to find a path between rage and redemption on the streets of Elmhurst, Queens.

"Man Push Cart," directed and written by Ramin Bahrani -- The story of a former Pakistani rock star who now sells coffee and donuts from his push cart on the streets of Manhattan.

"I is for India" directed and written by Sandhya Suri -- A tale of migration and belonging, told primarily through Super 8 films and audio letters sent between India and England over a period of 40 years.

Punching at the Sun is apparently the first second generation desi feature film (note the qualifiers) to be picked for Sundance. In a rollicking interview with Rediff, director Tanuj Chandra, a film student at Columbia, tells more:

How did you start on this film?

I met a lot of very talented, unique teenagers with great stories to tell, at SAYA! A lot of these teens wouldn't get a shot to act in Bollywood or mainstream cinema – not immediately though. But, to me, they represented a story I wanted to tell. I met one kid in particular that I saw had enormous talent, Misu Khan, who would eventually act in my film.


And why should a desi see it at all?

The film was made for desis. The question really is why shouldn't desis go see it? Because they don't want to see themselves on screen? Because they are happy with the way they are portrayed on TV and in Hollywood? Because they like Apu on The Simpsons? Because they are broke? These are all good reasons for desis not to see Punching at the Sun.

Why is showing the film at Sundance important?

I don't think there has been a second-generation desi feature film ever at Sundance, so it's another glass ceiling we've broken. It's important that our experience is given credibility at top festivals like Sundance. It's progress and I hope to see many more over the years.

What was your reaction when you heard your film had been accepted?

I got drunk, went to my high school reunion and ran my mouth off at non-desis the whole night.

If you were to get an offer to make an out and out commercial film in Hollywood some day, would you accept?

Hell yes. I have to pay back student loans. Does anybody have a gig out there for a desi in LA - LA land? Harold and Kumar Go to Iraq? Holla Back!

The volatile aftermath of 9/11 in NYC has led to a lot of New York based South Asian filmmakers and writers finding their voices. In that context, Punching at the Sun reminded me of Rehana Mirza's play Barriers:

"Barriers" uncovers the silent story of the Muslim families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks. However, these stories were often overlooked as many Muslim families witnessed their "missing" fliers marred with atrocious vandalism. Asian American Theater Company found Rehana Mirza's script poignantly opened up this untold story and explored the human experiences behind this tragedy," says Sean Lim, Managing Artistic Director of the Asian American Theater Company.

Barriers, which we saw in San Francisco, is a flawed yet powerful work. But, along with Punching At The Sky, it also illustrates the fact that second generation desis are moving on to second generation issues. As Rehana Mirza points out in a Rediff interview for her film Fillum Star: The Peter Patel Story:

Don't you think there have been too many films on desi life in America in the last four years?

I don't think there is a limit [for such films]. Besides, Fillum Star: The Peter Patel Story is different from the films made in the US and Canada.

And why is that?

Many of those films, like American Desi, dealt with identity issues. Some of us are moving beyond that. We are making films now, for example, about the struggle [for meaning] in our communities and in the world at large.

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- January 14, 2006 10:46 AM // Diaspora , Film

Christopher Doyle Interview

I came across this Fall 2005 Filmmaker interview with Christopher Doyle when he was in the NYC area, shooting M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water. First, the introduction:

Save for Gregg Toland and perhaps Vittorio Storaro, no cinematographer in history has achieved the kind of iconic status as the kind currently enjoyed by Chris Doyle. An Australian by birth, Doyle has lived in Asia for nearly 30 years, and his work has largely defined the look of new Asian cinema. Best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai on such films as Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love (which won him the Technical Grand Prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival), Doyle is equally comfortable with a handheld camera as he is with meticulously composed, static imagery. Yet despite the variation in technique, Doyle still manages to leave an indelible authorial stamp on every one of his films, even though it's nearly impossible to say why Zhang Yimou's archly formal Hero and Wong's hyperactive Fallen Angels both feel like a Chris Doyle shot movie except for the fact that his mastery is apparent in every shot. He's also directed one feature, 1999's Away With Words.

As befits the title of the article (The Wild Man), Christopher Doyle minces no words when it comes to his thoughts on Asian Cinema and the state of US independent films. An excerpt:

FILMMAKER: You are currently working on a U.S. film. Is there a fundamental difference in the process of filmmaking between the U.S. and Asia?

DOYLE: No. I think the real difference is the level of energy. In Asia now it's like the Australian new wave, the cinema novo in Brazil, the French new wave. Why? Because there was this confluence of intent and economics, and all those elements sort of matched up at that time. What is strange in the west is - well, not strange I guess - is that people are lost. Let's be honest. [laughs] People are lost, whether you blame 9/11 or whether you blame the lack of education in schools. Whatever you blame it on, it doesn't matter. Whereas in Asia, people are finding their voice. It's been a long journey, you know. Everyone in China is on a roll, [laughs] there's no question.

And, he was just getting started:

FILMMAKER: Do you feel like you're in hostile territory right now?

DOYLE: You know, I was in Kazakhstan two weeks ago, and that was nothing. This is hostile territory, this is bullshit. I dont know if it should be said so bluntly, but [laughs] every people gets the government they deserve. Sorry, that’s a reality. The present climate in most of the western world is of course anti-artist, because the function of an artist is to open people's eyes, and that's not the function of a Texas oil-based meritocracy. Hello! And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me.

FILMMAKER: Don't you think these bloated Hollywood films are an easy target? Do you watch any American independent film?

DOYLE: Does anybody? Hello! Come on. Come on, you can't be so naive that you don't know that the only thing they do in the U.S. is look at the box office. It's not a film industry anymore, it's an accounting department. [laughs] There's only two departments in American cinema - the insurance department and the accounting department. There are no filmmakers anymore.

FILMMAKER: You don't think so?

DOYLE: No, absolutely not.

FILMMAKER: There are no more filmmakers in America?

DOYLE: Uh-uh. If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.

Some parting words of advice:

DOYLE: I mean, I go to NYU, and all the teachers are there, and then they're interpreting what I say. I say, "Just do it. "And the teachers say, "What he really means is if you really work hard within the system, then you'll get somewhere." [laughs] So what can we do? Well, there's a lot we can do that is not expensive. You could send a DVD to your friends, it could be online, and you could be in all these film festivals. And just with a digital camera. In other words, you could even make a film with your bloody phone now, you know what I mean? [laughs] Isn't that fantastic in a certain way? It's so strange that young people are actually hedging their bets instead of just going out there and starting to do stuff. The only way that any of us became so-called filmmakers is by not hedging the bets, and trying, and then seeing if something works. Don't worry. Yeah, people can steal your ideas, but they're not going to steal your heart. [laughs] What are you going to do? Are you going to wait?
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- December 23, 2005 9:59 AM // Film , Politics

Carma Update

Last week, we were talking to Anand Chandrasekaran about the difficulties of getting an indie flick noticed, let alone distributed. Typically, you submit a film to the festival circuit and hope to pick up representation and, if you're lucky, some type of distribution. The producer's rep is invaluable in this process, particularly in the USA. Filmmaker explains:

Regardless of whether filmmakers are hoping to cover a new Saab or just back rent, when faced with the job of selling their film, most still wind up in the arms of the one person who might be best able to broker that big-ticket deal - the producer's rep.

"producer's rep" has become a catchall term for an agent, manager or anybody who works on selling a film," says Ruth Vitale, co-president of Paramount Classics, the distributor of You Can Count on Me and The Virgin Suicides. "[producer's reps] know the business, know the players, and can give the production team guidance where they need it."

According to attorney and longtime rep John Sloss of Cinetic Media, who has repped such indie milestones as Boys Don't Cry, Ulee's Gold and, more recently, [Michael Almereyda's] Hamlet and [Richard Linklater's] Waking Life, the producer's rep has to be something of a chameleon. "The ideal producer's rep would actually be two people," Sloss says. "One is the ingratiating good cop who beats the drum for a movie and is all of the distributors' best friends. The other is the quote-unquote bad cop, strategizing behind the scenes and manipulating interest, once created, to obtain the most beneficial deal for the filmmaker."

Getting a good producer rep is tough, particularly for an unknown. In that case, they won't even talk to you unless the film gets into a reputable festival. But, a good producer's rep can also help you get into one. Bit of a catch-22 situation there! That didn't stop the Carma team of director Ray Arthur Wang and Anand from upending the order of things and approaching top producer reps directly for Carma. And it paid off:

CARMA Signs Prominent Producers' Representative Harris E. Tulchin Thursday December 15, 5:34 pm ET

Gripping Debut Film From Director Ray Arthur Wang (RAW) and RAW Power Productions Teams Up With Top Producers' Representative En-Route to World Premiere

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--(MARKET WIRE)--Dec 15, 2005 -- Raw Power Productions, Inc. announced that it has teamed up with Harris Tulchin and Associates, prominent producers' representatives, to release the company's debut feature length film, the thriller CARMA, featuring Academy Award nominee Karen Black.

Harris Tulchin has repped such films as Monster, the Charlize Theron starrer, so this is quite a coup for Carma. Impressive!

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- December 20, 2005 10:09 AM // Film

Spike Lee Talks To Slate

Slate has an interview with Spike Lee where he's his usual direct self. His current project:

Lee: We're doing the score for my new film. The film is called Inside Man. It's about a bank robbery that becomes a hostage situation. Denzel Washington is a New York City detective; he runs a hostage-negotiation team. He has to match wits with the mastermind behind the bank robbery, who is played by Clive Owen.

As always, he has choice words about the state of film today:

Slate: A friend of mine has started using the word "business" as a verb, and I think that's right. Everything's "businessed" these days. Do you think a movie like Do the Right Thing could be made now?

Lee: It would be really hard.

Slate: Would audiences even respond?

Lee: Oh, I think they would. I don't think it's the audience's fault. I'm putting that on the studio.

Slate: But people don't seem to like discord.

Lee: There is that part of the moviegoing segment, but I'm still convinced that a larger segment wants to be stimulated. People are getting tired of seeing TV shows remade, or movies from the 1950s, and comic books, and sequels. People say, well, it can't be the films; it's the video games, it's the 900 channels, it's this and that. All those things are a factor, but I think the biggest factor is that films aren't connecting with the audience. I mean, look. March of the Penguins. How much did that movie make?

Slate: A fortune.

Lee: I'm telling you, it's my belief that people went to see that film because there was nothing else to see. If there were good movies in the theater, they're not going to see a documentary about penguins.

Nicely said. There's more here.

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- December 2, 2005 12:12 PM // Film


Anand Chandrasekaran, in addition to a scorching career as a Bay Area entrepreneur, is proving himself to be a real renaissance man. He is the executive producer of Carma, the feature debut of self-taught filmmaker and former Bay Area resident Ray Wang. The synopsis is as follows:

Taking place 04/04/04 over the course of four days, CARMA is a chilling American tale about an abandoned car haunted by psychopathic killer's dead mother. Trapped in the car, the spirit of the deceased Kate Burns (the voice of Academy Award nominee Karen Black) encounters four average Americans who each discover and use the car for their own personal gain. But Kate has other plans, namely a reunion with her son, recently escaped convict Norm Burns.

Sounds suitably chilling! You can find a teaser trailer here. The film is going on the festival circuit next year.

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- November 30, 2005 9:42 PM // Bay Area , Film

Diaspora Director Roundup

Ever wonder what our favorite diaspora directors upto these days? Never fear, here's a summary:

  • Mira Nair has bought the rights to Munnabhai MBBS with the intent of remaking it into English as Gangster, MD. According to Rediff, this is actually not the first remake for Munnabhai MBBS:
    The film went on to become such a big hit that it inspired Kamal Haasan to remake it in Tamil (called Vasoolraja MBBS), and Mira Nair to buy the rights of the film. She hopes to remake it in English as Gangster MD, and cast Chris Tucker in the lead.
    IMDB classifies Gangster, MD as being in production currently.
    Thanks to Amar Parikh for the tip.

  • As for Gurinder Chadha, Guardian Film reports:
    It looks as if there may be extra time for Bend it Like Beckham. The Sun reports that Gurinder Chadha, who directed the British footballing hit, is making a sequel to the 2003 film. Apparently she also has signed up the film's stars, Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, to reprise their roles.
    Bride & Prejudice was nowhere near as big as Bend It Like Beckham, Miramax's marketing efforts notwithstanding. Remember Aishwarya Rai's "most beautiful woman in the world" USA tour earlier this year? Perhaps this Ms. Chadha's insurance in case any of her intervening projects don't work out.

  • After opening the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, Deepa Mehta's Water has been released in Canada. Eye weekly writes:
    Water marks a return to relevance for Deepa Mehta after the twin disappointments of Bollywood/Hollywood and Republic of Love.
    Don't know about the US release date. Meanwhile, looks like the plagiarism case filed against Mehta may be coming to a settlement:
    Famed Bengali litterateur and former Mayor of Kolkata, Sunil Gangopadhyay, was irked a few years ago when a journalist, Anuradha Dutta, pointed out the almost word-for-word resemblance between his classic novel, Sei Somoy, and an upcoming film. ...
    Crossover filmmaker Deepa Mehta, predictably with much fanfare, had announced a film called Water in the year 2000, and Datta was aghast at the script's resemblance to Gangopadhyay's book and its English version, Those Days.
    In March 2000, the incensed journalist filed a case against Mehta, the self-alleged writer of the film, on behalf of Gangopadhyay, publisher Badal Basu and translator Aruna Chakravarthy. The claim was a simple case of utter and blatant plagiarisation. ...
    Finally, things seem to be coming to a close now as Mehta informed the Delhi High Court on November 8 that she is "willing to settle" the case. The writer, who has not been directly involved in legal proceedings, is merely relieved. Speaking to us over the phone from Kolkata, Gangopadhyay said, "Though I was not too involved in the legal wrangle, and did not keep a tab on the case's progress, I am relieved to know that Mehta wants to settle it amicably."
    Sei Somoy (Those Days) is a landmark book in modern Bengali literature - I'll be curious to find out how closely the film tracks the book.

  • Finally, the teaser trailer to M. Night Shymalan's latest, The Lady In The Water is out. You can find it here. Thanks to Aintitcool for the pointer.
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- November 25, 2005 1:18 PM // Bangla , Bollywood , Diaspora , Film

Dwarves Living In Oblivion

It had to happen eventually. Remember Living In Oblivion? There was a great rant in it about dwarves and dream sequences. Specifically:

Tito: Why does my character have to be a dwarf?

Nick: He doesn't have to be.

Tito: Then why is he? Is that the only way you can make this a dream, to put a dwarf in it?

Nick: No, Tito, I...

Tito: Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who's had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I've seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! "Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!". Everyone will go "Woah, this must be a fuckin' dream, there's a fuckin' dwarf in it!". Well I'm sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up your ass!

"How much longer," I hear you ask, "before dwarves start appearing in Bollywood dance numbers?" After all, for all intents and purposes those are interchangeable with dream sequences anyway and India is progressing so rapidly on all fronts. Well, worry no more. On the bonus materials for the DVD to D, a recent offering from Ram Gopal Varma's Factory production arm, we spotted the music video Dhokebaz replete with muscled men, vamp and, yes, this:

We've come a long way, baby.

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- November 9, 2005 11:29 PM // Bollywood , Film , Select

Cary and Doris

Sometimes, desis will pop up in the oddest of places. In this particular instance, in the middle of North By Northwest, we are treated to the sight of Cary Grant spending some quality screen time with "UN Reception Girl" aka Doris Singh. Click on image for bigger picture. Unfortunately, I couldn't find much on Doris, other than that link.

Of course, finding Indians in Hollywood films is not particularly easy now but back in those pre-Civil Rights days, even Yetis were more visible. Perhaps Hitch wanted some ethnic flavor what with Cary Grant heading into the UN building and all. There was one exception to this scarcity of course: Sabu, the first desi to make it big in Hollywood, pre-dating Kal Penn by a couple of decades.

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- November 1, 2005 1:12 AM // Diaspora , Film


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 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

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

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

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.

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

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, 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 ...

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

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.

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

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.

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

Definition of Dishum Dishum

So, what exactly does "Dishum Dishum" mean? The actual origin of the name comes from the fight scenes in a Bollywood film, specifically from the sound of the punches thrown. They have a distinct cardboard drum like sound, not surprising because perhaps that's what was used in the foley process! Here's an audio sample. In a more general sense, however, dishum-dishum refers to action as an ingredient in a Mumbai potboiler. People will tell you, "go see this film, there's a lot of dishumdishum in it!" In that context, dishum-dishum conjures up images of a very specific type of stylized action sequence i.e. cheesy blaxploitation/kung-fu type gyrations. Think of it as the Indian version of chop-socky!

Want more? Have a look at this clip from Dil Hai To Mangta Nahin, a huge Bollywood blockbuster from the early '90s. In this excerpt, Aamir Khan single-handedly beats up the baddies and rescues the damsel in distress. Wasn't that fun?

However, for the record, dishum-dishum, like chop-socky, has evolved with the '90s and beyond. Serious productions from Bollywood have genuinely thrilling action sequences and Aamir Khan is one of the main folks responsible for this update. Check out his work in Ghulam for example - serious jaw-dropping material. However, current frivolous efforts, instead of being lame kung-fu knockoffs, are now lame Matrix copies.

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- July 31, 2005 10:08 PM // Bollywood , Film

Deshploitation - The Films

Outside India, the primary sources for desi themed diaspora films are North America (US and Canada) and the UK. The latter deserves a separate entry and I'll focus more on that later. For the time being, let's look at what I call deshploitation films. Why the name? Recall the definition of blaxploitation:

Blaxploitation is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation", and refers to exploitation films that targeted the urban African-American audience during the 1970s. The films featured primarily black actors, and were the first to have soundtracks of funk and soul music. Although protested by civil-rights groups for their use of stereotypes, they addressed the great and newfound demand for afrocentric entertainment, and were immensely popular among black audiences.

So, we have the confluence of "desh" and "ploitation." Get it? However, there is a big difference between films such as Lonely In America and The Guru that have been directed by white folks and those that have been put out by the US diaspora. Exploring the latter, what are the themes of interest in these films? Here's a "theme matrix" that attempts to summarize. Enjoy:

Film Title Description Identity Crisis Nasty FOB Alert! Obligatory Bollywood Parody Sequence Wisecracking Sidekicks Cardboard NRI Parents
American Desi (2001)

College freshman Krishna Reddy, who has never cared for his Indian-American cultural heritage, looks forward to a new life on campus but is surprised to find that he has been assigned Indian roommates.


Yes. Fake Indian accent ahoy!

Some. Dishum dishum at the end as well.

Yes: "..somewhere in Jersey there is a black man driving around in a Honda Accord and praying to Lord Ganesh."

ABCD (1999)

The only goal of an ageing Asian-American widow is to see her son and rebellious daughter married off to respectable Indian families

Yes Not really No No No
American Chai (2001)

Sureel is a first generation Indian American college graduating senior music major who's controlling father still believes that he is pre-med.

Yes. Also, choices choices: should I be Ravi Shankar or Prince?

Yes Yes.

Yes. "Don't worry, chicken curry... "

Chapati flat

Where's the Party, Yaar? (2003)

While the desi scene may be hip and happening in Hari's new home of Houston, Texas, the guardians of cool don't want the FOBs, with their funny dance moves and their white sneakers, crashing their Desi Fever dance parties.


Yes. With exaggerated bad Indian accents to match. Sorry mates, ABCDs just can't seem to do desi accents and vice versa.


Yes: "Did you know I'm good at math? Let's add you and me, subtract your clothes, divide your legs and multiply..."


Green Card Fever (2003)

This is the story of a young man in the United States who overstays his visa in the pursuit of a "Green Card". He naively muddles through an underworld of illegal immigrants, immigration lawyers and the INS, and the love of an American girl of Indian origin.


"Nasty" only in the womanizing sense.

No Yes Sadly so

The biggest theme these films share is that of identity crisis. This isn't surprising given that they are mostly made by second generation Indian Americans. Of these, ABCD is the most hearfelt exploration of this issue. Otherwise, the rest of the films show this is really not a strong enough subject to carry an entire picture. Green Card Fever recognizes this and adds a lot of immigration stuff as well, but while it has strong moments, the final product comes out somewhat muddled. And what about the FOB bashing indulged by so many of these films? Why would you purposely want to alienate a large chunk of your potential audience? Box office wise, American Desi opened strongly but the rest suffered increasingly diminishing returns in the US market, suggesting the novelty value was wearing thin.

I don't include films such as Mississippi Masala, Masala, Praying With Anger, Chutney Popcorn, or Flavors. The first two films, while containing many deshploitation elements, rise above them. They are also of an earlier era, having been made in the early 1990s. I haven't seen Praying With Anger - apparently, it's not available on DVD and I haven't seen Chutney Popcorn. Flavors is more from the point of view of Indian immigrants and chooses to entirely sidestep all of this angst. More on that in the future.

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- June 26, 2005 7:53 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review , Select

American - The Brand

As befits a superpower, especially one so obsessed with marketing, the USA has invested much in the word American. Putting that adjective in front of another word somehow makes the combination bigger than the sum of the parts. For example, there is "dream" and then there is the American Dream (and you have to say it in a basso profundo voice for maximum effect). Somehow, no one talks about the Mali Dream or the Belgian Dream! Moreover, if you're not content with just American, there's All-American of the blue eyed square jawed variety. And this has long been a favored tactic for harried screenwriters looking to juice up their title. So, searching on IMDB for titles with the word American in them yields something like 1170 titles, amongst them such notables as American Kickboxer, All American Chump, American Dog, American Cowboy (is there any other kind?) and American Pimp. Of course desi filmmakers are getting in the act as well. Hence, we have American Desi, American Chai, and last but not least, Indian Fish in American Waters. How's that for fusion? I tried similar searches for British, French, Chinese and Indian. None came close but at least for Indian, I found such gems as Bollywood - the Indian Dream, Running on Indian Time, I...Proud To Be An Indian and Indian Uprising. So, perhaps brand Indian is not so far behind after all! I'll have to get cracking on the "All American Curry" script though before that title gets taken!

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- June 19, 2005 10:29 PM // Film , Select

$145 Million Film Deal In India?

Mid-Day is reporting that a Mumbai based production house, Percept Picture Company, is all set to announce Tree of Life, a $145 Million dollar project:

The film is a drama and will star Hollywood bigwigs Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell, and will be directed by Oscar-winner Terence Malik (Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands).


Fifteen per cent of Tree of Life will be shot in India, while the rest will be shot on locations abroad. A source from Percept, who does not wish to be named, says, This film will take India places in the Hollywood circles.

Not confirming the news, Shailendra Singh, managing director, Percept Picture Company says, I cannot comment on this right now. When I have something to say, we will announce it officially.

If true, it's safe to say it'll be unlike any other Indian production. Frankly, I find it a little hard to believe myself. Firstly, the most expensive Indian films have had budgets in the tens of millions. This is an order of magnitude higher. Also, the most recent films produced by Percept (Makdee, Phir Milenge) have been relatively low cost affairs, even by Indian standards. Secondly, the star power - again next level stuff. Thirdly, the director, Terrence Malick, is one of the most reclusive and slow working auteurs out there. All I can say is, grab your popcorn as sparks are sure to fly!

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- June 17, 2005 12:06 AM // Bollywood , Film , India

Retrospective: Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Pt II

wbhh-tourists.jpg In a curious sequence of affairs, an ad copy writer, Punit (Arshad Warsi), finds himself on wrong end of an sixteen hour bender, initiated by his brother's death and his subsequent eviction from his girlfriend's house. He wakes up in the midst of a gangland shootout and unwittingly saves the life of one of the biggest hitmen in Mumbai. In the days that will follow, he, again without any clue whatsoever, will be responsible for the demise of two of the Mumbai underworld's biggest gangs.

Writer/director Shashanka Ghosh makes no bones about hiding his influences. The film opens with the statement "the plot has been plagiarized from several films" and concludes with the statement: "This film is a reaction to Bollywood." Then follows the name of a list of directors including R. G. Verma, M. Manjrekar, R. Sippy, and B. Kitano, Q. Tarantino, and J. and E. Coen. The inclusion of R. Sippy is signifcant - as director of Sholay, Sippy was responsible for the first "curry western." Presumably, Ghosh is aiming for quirky curry pulp fiction in the line of films such as Snip, Mumbai Matinee and so on.

The film opens with the inevitable music video shoot, a staple of Bollywood directors trying to shoehorn a song sequence into the film flow. If your impression of India just came from watching films made in Mumbai, you'd think half the folks there are nothing but film directors, ad copy-writers and singers struggling for a living and the other half were somehow connected with the underworld. Not promising. But, the lyrics of the song being sung (something to do with smelly lovers reeking of onions) and the fact that they are being lip synched by some very fat crew members immediately tells you this film is trying to make a statement. Cut to a Baristas coffee house, where a disaffected trio of two desis (who talk in Hindi) and an Aussie gentleman (who speaks in English but has no trouble understanding the other two) provide running commentary on the headlines of the day. Cut to a bunch of rowdy Sikh mundas crowded into a Tata Sumo, careening towards Mumbai and looking for some fun. And this is just Aisa Bhi Hota Hai Part I! We then get titles for Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II. Will the rest of the film be as madcap as the first five minutes?

The short answer is no. But it does entertain greatly in many places. Arshad Warsi plays straight man with aplomb to a procession of ruthless gangsters and even more fearless, psychotic women. There is much grandstanding and cursing a la Tarantino, severing of body part (a la Tarantino and Kitano) and, of course, quirkiness (a la the Coen brothers). Using the Barista trio as Greek chorus is a great idea as well. However, I just couldn't help the feeling that I'd seen all of it before. Given that Ghosh himself claims the film is inspired from various sources, perhaps that's not surprising. But whereas Tarantino is past master at filching from many places and producing something original out of the mix, that spark of demented genius is missing here. Two songs are standouts: Allah Ke Bande and Gurdeepa (which really should be called Punjabi Rap although it features no rapping, not in the strict sense of the term, anyway).

Okay, rant alert: do all of Mumbai parallel cinema have to feature the shenanigans of ad agency employees? Just off the top of my head I can think of Jhankaar Beats, Mumbai Matinee, Phir Milenge, and I am not even thinking of mainstream Bollywood!

However, the film did turn heads, deservedly so, and I'll be following what Shashanka Ghosh does next with great interest.

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- June 12, 2005 8:54 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Ismail Merchant: An Appreciation

There have been many tributes following Ismail Merchant's untimely passing. Some are here and here. From a personal standpoint, while I enjoyed a fair number of Merchant-Ivory films, they weren't necessarily must see events. However, I did appreciate the craft and thought that went into every frame. Most of all, I admired Ismail Merchant for being such an independent maverick, for exploring his Indian sensibilities, and for being able to mount such lavish affairs on peanut budgets. Apparently, he could "get money off a dead porcupine." His early productions (Shakespeare-wallah, Bombay Talkie, The Householder) had Indian themes, yet were free of the Bollywood song-and-dance constraints even when commenting on them (such as in Bombay Talkie). Lacking in the dishum dishum arena, they weren't blockbusters in India and only found a niche audience abroad. Unperturbed, Merchant/Ivory pressed on, achieving their greatest successes much later with several adaptations of Victorian novels. This is what Merchant, in an interview with Salon, had to say of their tough times:

Merchant Ivory went through many years of relative obscurity. Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever think, "We should stop doing this?"

No, not at all. We have gotten some terrible reviews at times but if we depended on the judgment of the studios or critics, we never would have made more than one movie. Let me tell you a small story. I remember when we were trying to make "Heat and Dust." I went to one of the studios and happened to see a report that called it "Eat My Dust." Just imagine! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Merchant's own directorial efforts showed, however, he hadn't lost his fascination with India. The best of those was his first, In Custody, a paean to Urdu as a dying language. The struggles of Nur (played by an alarmingly corpulent Shashi Kapoor), an Urdu poet trying to keep his art alive amidst an increasingly modern and uncaring society might have been a commentary of Merchant's own attempts to find an audience for his efforts.

I had the fortune of hearing him speak at Stanford last year. His account of his early struggles in New York in the late '50s/early '60s and his first meeting with Paul Newman (who finally worked with him a couple of decades later in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) was the stuff of legend and, I daresay, would make a great film in its own right. I met him after his talk and, despite the fact I'd jumped the line, he was gracious enough to answer the only question I could think of at the time. "How is Shashi Kapoor doing?", I blurted. "Oh, he's much thinner now!" he replied with a twinkle. That was Ismail Merchant - a true original, a true gentleman and a true inspiration to desi filmmakers everywhere.

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- June 2, 2005 10:00 PM // Film

The INOX Factor

On our last trip to India, we checked out several of the new state of the art multiplexes (by INOX) in Kolkata. We were blown away, particularly by the City Center INOX in Salt Lake. The seats, the screen, the air conditioning and the sounds were all top notch, easily comparable to the better theaters in the Bay Area (AMC Van Ness comes to mind). As a matter of fact, I wish our local Bollywood multiplex, Naz8, would hurry up and actually go through with their long awaited remodeling. Their current digs are really rather threadbare - AC ducts are visible through holes in the ceiling, the carpets cling to the shoes, and the seats just don't provide the posterior support necessary for staying awake and alert for three hours. INOX, in our mind, had another big plus - in India movie theater seating is not first come first served. Tickets come with seat numbers printed on them and ushers guide you to your spot in the theater. This to me is much more preferable, particularly in INOX where you can see the theater seating plan on screen in the box office and pick out what you like.

musafir.jpgAnyway, the very first film we went to see at an INOX theater after getting into Kolkata was Musafir. Supposedly a loose copy of U-Turn, the film was an excellent advertisement of Bollywood's technical proficiency. It really put the theater through its paces - techno music pulsed in the background while explosions and gunshots rattled the main speakers. On screen, we had fast-forwards, splitscreen shots, rewinds, jumpcuts, hooded bad guys striding in slo-mo through dark, rain drenched streets and forty-something heroes accessorized in the latest Italian leather and the latest young-enough-to-be-their-daughter starlets. The combined assault was as good a cure for jetlag as any and let us know emphatically that the days of getting bitten by mosquitoes while sitting on hard wooden seats was over. Alas, the hi-fidelity nature of our experience also revealed some inherent visual flaws in the source material - as one of the starlets (Sameera Reddy) leaned over suggestively, it was possible to see the stretch marks on her back. Similarly, in a slow motion shot of Anil Kapoor whirling around after getting punched, we could discern the laws of inertia - his fat was moving in one direction while he rolled in another.

When emerging from the theater, I finally understood Bollywood's cunning plan for holding on to its audience. First part of the plan consisted of filling the pictures with as much ear and eye candy as possible. The second part was to actually find some worthwhile content - but only if the first part didn't work. After all, who wants to pay writers? Judging by the pictures we saw, they have the first part down pat. And is it working? Well, purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees! I guess most Bollywood films will remain content-free for a while longer then.

So, the theaters were excellent. How about the patrons? In his Reelthoughts for May 2005, internet movie critic James Berardinelli writes about the pain of going to a multiplex in the USA:

The Living Room Factor

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding movie theaters: poor audio & video quality, out-of-frame pictures, sticky floors, indifferent employees, uncomfortable seats, an endless stream of ads before the start of the feature, and so on... But the biggest complaint concerns other patrons, especially those who aren't yet old enough to drink alcohol. They walk in late, don't turn their cell phones off, munch loudly on popcorn and slurp their sodas, and chatter incessantly. (My apologies to those of you in this age group who are not guilty - and I know you're out there. Tarring you with the same brush is unfair. Unfortunately, you are the exception.)

Yesterday, I got a first-hand look at another example of movie-theater rudeness. It happened while I was watching an afternoon showing of Unleashed. Shortly before the commercials were about to start, a couple walked in and seated themselves across the aisle from me. They were both around 18 or 19. The guy settled into his seat and dug into his popcorn. The girl removed her shoes and propped up her bare feet on the back of the seat in front of her. I momentarily gawked, scarcely believing what I was seeing. Appropriate behavior for a living room? Yes. Appropriate behavior for a movie theater? Not in my opinion.

One thing became glaringly apparent when we were in the INOX theaters: the prevalence of cell phones in modern Indian life and their potential for irritation. During the course of a film, it wasn't uncommon for folks, particularly the teens and twenty-somethings, to hold up their camera phones to record what's occuring onscreen. Additionally, many simply never turned their cellphones off. I could hear people holding conversations during the movie. If the film in question was of the masala variety, there's enough continual background noise to drown out the neighbors' yakking on the phone, but if it's a more thought provoking effort, then it was a tougher ask. Still, a small price to pay for such gorgeous visual and aural splendor. At least that's what I'll tell myself the next time someone tucks into their bag of chips in the next aisle. Or starts a conversation with their long lost aunty.

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- June 1, 2005 12:10 AM // Bollywood , Film , India , Select , Travel

Retrospective: Khakee

khakee.jpgA surprisingly entertaining production from industry veteran Raj Kumar Santoshi, Khakee (translated as Khaki, a reference to the color of the uniform worn by Indian police) stars Amitabh Bachchan as an aging police instructor Anant Kumar Shrivastav who is suddenly entrusted with leading a convoy to transport some criminals from Chandangarh to Mumbai for a court case. He's helped in this by a casanova young inspector (Akshay Kumar). The convoy soon runs into trouble on the return journey when a gang led by Ajay Devgan tries, by any means necessary, to stop them from reaching their destination. Aishwarya Rai also makes an appearance as a stranded motorist.

Several factors separate Khakee from a dance-by-numbers Bollywood production. First is the plot and character development: they exist! In particular, the film takes time to add detail to the lives of even the supporting characters and this helps greatly in building the tension that follows. Because there is a coherent narrative, we are better able to appreciate some of the subsequent twists and they do occur. Secondly, Amitabh Bachchan deftly combines both gravitas and levitas in his role, using his age to lend vulnerability to his character, but not afraid to poke fun at it. This is not the first time he's acknowledging his age (Baghban) but rarely has he done it with such elan (think Sean Connery in The Untouchables). Akshay Khanna too fits into his role with an easy charm. Ajay Devgan, venturing to the other side of the fence, does just fine as a scenery chewing villain as does Ms. Rai, as love interest/vamp. Finally, as this is old school Bollywood, we have to have songs and dances, but, as a measure of how times have changed, they are kept to a minimum and when they do occur, they play in abbreviated form. I particularly liked the shifting of the color palettes for "Dil Dooba." In addition, the songs are actually very catchy indeed - the heavily techno-ized "Aisa Jadoo" was a huge hit in India. So, overall, great entertainment, though things slow a little in the second half.

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- May 18, 2005 11:42 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Riffing Further on Phoren Heroines

While writing a previous entry on phoren heroines in Bollywood and their long term prospects, I kept wondering about the cinema industries in Far East Asia. Did they face a similar situation - an influx of white artistes interested in getting into the business? Consider Hong Kong. This is about as cosmopolitan a place as you can get but I don't remember seeing any Western actors in any of the Wong Kar Wai or John Woo films that I've seen. Now, there's a very famous Aussie cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who works in that part of the world, although not exclusively, but then foreign cinematographers have also worked in Bollywood. I had to go back as far as Bruce Lee films to remember foreign actors. So, I did a bit of digging and found this, an interview with the actor Ricardo Mamood, who apparently is based over there:

2. What do you think of the use of foreign actor in the Hong Kong cinema ?

Foreign actors are not used enough, or misused. For several reasons. The first one is the fact that stories, scripts do not contemplated a significant presence of foreign looking characters. There is still a very closed-up approach when it comes down to storytelling in Hong Kong. Their presence ranges from extras to small supporting roles. I wish the local industry would contemplate this a bit more and the fact that this town is very cosmopolitan, just take a look at it. So, you have a few talented and trained foreign actors in town but not many.

Then you have a lot of people that is scouted on the streets but with no training whatsoever and unfortunately then you see the final product on the screen and it sucks. It's a waste. This doesn't encourage talented or trained foreign actors to stay or come to work here but hopefully it will change in the future.

Sound familiar? I investigated further and it turns out there is a page further detailing the foreign presence (or the lack thereof) in Hong Kong:

Westerners have appeared in Hong Kong films for decades- as extras, supporting actors, co-stars and very rarely, as the star.

The first foreigner to headline HK films was Ron Van Clief. Jim Kelly, Brandon Lee and Shannon Lee have all starred in one HK movie respectively, yet the best known round-eyed star to make it in Hong Kong was blonde American martial artist Cynthia Rothrock.

Who would've thought that? Sounds like the combination of blonde and martial arts expert did the trick! Just ask Quentin Tarantino.

As for China, if anything, it's a lot more insular than Hong Kong, although that's changing fast of late. Hence you'd be expecting zero penetration in the film industry there. But I was still surprised to see this article in Salon which talks about Rachel DeWoskin who moved to Beijing in 1994 to work at a PR firm but ended up in a very popular Chinese soap:

Shortly after arriving and settling into the grind at an American P.R. firm, she met a man who decided her white skin was all the qualification she needed to act in a soap opera about American girls in Beijing...

The show's title, "Foreign Babes in Beijing," says it all. Two American exchange students (one played by a German) come to China and pursue romances with Chinese men. There's the predictable good girl-bad girl split: the blond Louisa, who loves Chinese culture almost as much as she loves her Chinese boyfriend, and the lusty, slutty, brunet Jiexi, the "dishanze" (mistress, or "third") who steals the honorable Tianming away from his hardworking wife and homeland.

Apparently, her exotic value (and the cliches she represented) were enough for Rachel to play the Jiexi role. I suspect if Bollywood were to delve into the phoren heroine thang further, it'd follow the same template i.e. noble Amit (Ajay Devgan), a man who doesn't start his day without prostrating at his mother's feet, is seduced at work (his own highly successful company of course) by his lusty, slutty, blonde secretary Nicole (insert fantasy here) and strays from his wife Priya (played by Rani Mukherjee of course). All Priya can do is pine away, wearing designer salwar suits and doing many, many karwa chauths. It all ends happily, but not before the seats at the local multiplex have been thoroughly doused by tears. A Yash Raj production, naturally. You heard it here first!

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- May 18, 2005 7:57 PM // Film , Select

Retrospective: Ab Tak Chappan

atc.jpgThis is the debut film of Shimit Amin, the LA based editor who went back to India after Ram Gopal Verma offered him an opportunity at his production arm, The Factory. The title of the film can be roughly translated as "56 And Counting" and it refers to the number of kills that lead Police Inspector Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) has notched up in his pursuit of terrorists and criminals in Mumbai. The film is a bleak look at the phenomenon of "encounter killings" - a convenient way of disposing off criminals for the police unwilling to entrust them to the vagaries of the Indian judicial system. The fireworks really start when Sashu Agashe, hitherto accustomed to meting out rough justice, starts finding himself at the receiving end. The ensuing cat and mouse game is riveting and the subsequent denouement is both shocking and cathartic. It's made all the more remarkable by Nana Patekar's searing performance. Present in nearly every frame of the film, he's as magnetic as he was in his breakthrough roles in Parinda and Prahaar, yet he never resorts to cheap histrionics. Special mention must also be made for the background score consisting mainly of stark, analog soundscapes, very unlike Bollywood, yet very fitting. A tough police thriller in the tradition of Heatand Internal Affairs, Ab Tak Chappan is one of the best films of 2004.

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- May 15, 2005 11:54 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

SFIFF 2005: Black Friday

Black Friday (2004, dir. Anurag Kashyap) is a ten ton haymaker punch into Bollywood's bloated midriff. When the film starts, you'll see the usual censor board certificate and then the legend "Jhamu Sugandh Presents." All resemblances with your usual run of the mill masala flick end thereafter. Comparisons with docudramas such as JFK and The Battle of Algiers are much more apt. Yet the film also has Indian roots, blending the worlds of the underworld dramas Satya and Company.

Based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday is a reenactment of the investigation into the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Inspector Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) is assigned the unenviable task of tracking down the perpetrators. And to make matters worse, this is the holy month of Ramadan - a false move by the police can exacerbate the tense situation in Mumbai, already reeling from riots in 1992.

Many, many factors contribute to Black Friday being a landmark Indian film. These include:

  • It's based on a non-fiction book. Not a frequent occurrence in the Mumbai film world.
  • The narrative flow: Kashyap opts for an episodic approach, jumping back and forth in time to focus on specific threads that converge at the explosion and then unravel again, as the perpetrators scatter across India (and outside). This technique has been tried in Bollywood before (see Yuva) but here it feels less a gimmick and more a legitimate storytelling device.
  • Mixture of TV footage and live action. The montage of stills that end the film.
  • The authenticity: this movie feels real. From the gritty interrogation scenes to the locations all over the country, this is the India the ITDC will not be displaying on their posters. The BBC film crews, on the other hand, will be busy making notes on what slums to visit the next time they get down from their planes in Mumbai. One minor quibble: the Dubai scenes don't feel like they could've been from the early '90s, largely because of the car models featured are from a later date.
  • The investigation: the crime thriller, as a genre, is moribund in Bollywood. There are many reasons for this, notably the stylistic straitjacket that most Bollywood products have to be trussed up in. There have been exceptions (like Tarquieb) but for the most part, it is an uphill battle to introduce logic in a business ruled by emotion. Here, the film poses a tantalizing question in the beginning: how do you find the culprits in a country of billions? Where do you even start? The film provides many insights as to how it is done and a lot of it is not pretty.
  • The performances, largely by a cast of unknowns, are outstanding - the remarkable part of this is the understated nature of the acting. For example, we see one of the perpetrators, tired of being continually on the run from the police, on the verge of giving himself up voluntarily. To illustrate his desire for normalcy, for marriage, the camera simply focuses on him staring at a couple of attractive girls in a Calcutta tram. Too often, the temptation in a project like this would be to resort to soul stirring speeches, scenery chewing grandstanding, and much melodrama. There are a couple of confrontational scenes but their effectiveness is underlined by the fact that there are so few of them.
  • The even handedness: Black Friday does not take sides. It goes out of its way to make the point that this cycle of violence has been continuing for centuries. And for the good of the country, it is best to find ways to break the cycle, not find blame. To drive home the point, the film opens and closes with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
  • The chase scene: there is a chase on foot that must rank as one of the best I've seen. William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die In LA) would be proud.

The one nit with Black Friday is that it drags on a little too long in the end, thus diluting its impact. But that's not to take away from its overall effect and message: violence of this type, by creating more poor and dispossessed, simply begets more of the same. Spellbinding yet resolutely uncommercial, this is the best release from India we've seen this year.

In a recent development, the film has been embroiled in legal court wrangles:

In January this year, Mushtaq Moosa Tarani and 36 other accused in the Bombay bombings case had moved court on the grounds that the film would create a bias against them at a time when the court verdict is awaited.

Last week, the Bombay High Court imposed a stay on the film's release till the designated Terrorist and Disruptive Act (TADA) court in the blast case delivered its judgement. The producers now intend to move the Supreme Court against the decision.

Let's hope these issues are resolved soon - the filmgoing public deserve no less.

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- May 3, 2005 10:12 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review , Select

SFIFF 2005: Brothers

BrothersOne of the top Danish releases of 2004, Brothers (dir. Susanne Bier) is a gripping, unflinching look at the effects of war on the human psyche and the ensuing turmoil to both the vets that return home and their immediate families. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) and Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are blood brothers but their paths through life could not be more dissimilar: Michael is a ranking officer in the army, an upstanding citizen, happily married to Sarah (Connie Nielsen) with two adorable daughters. Jannik has just been released from prison (the starting point of the film) where he served time for robbery and assault. He also suffers from bouts of rage - when Michael suggests he apologize to the woman he hurt, Jannik starts an argument which culminates in him pulling the parking brakes in a moving car and striding off in a huff. He later returns that night to a family dinner in celebration of his release and of Michael's imminent deployment to the NATO forces in Afganisthan. Their father's cold treatment of Jannik suggests he is very much the black sheep of the family. Subsequent events in Afganisthan, when Michael is captured by the mujahideen and ultimately rescued, completely upend this established order.

Superbly scripted and acted, this is the first film I recall that deals with the soldiers returning from the war on terror. Setting aside discussions on the morality of the war, this drama is reminiscent of the great coming-home Vietnam films of the '70s (Deer Hunter, Coming Home) yet its tone is more intimate. Greatly contributing to this is the grainy picture (the film was shot in high definition and transferred to 35mm) and the gritty, hand-held camerawork with extreme close-ups of the faces and eyes of the characters. Another difference is the emotional pace of the film - it builds and builds until the final events come as cathartic release, both for the characters and the audience.

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- May 1, 2005 1:49 PM // Film , Review

Three Extremes: Some More Thoughts

Upon further reflection, I realized that a big subtext of Three Extremes, whether directly implied or otherwise, involved the inequalities between the sexes that still exist.

SPOILERS follow:

In Dumpling, we see the ex soap opera actress going to extreme lengths to preserve her looks. Her reasoning is simple. She wants to hold on to her husband, a wealthy man who a) is older than her and b) already has a mistress. Thus she has no qualms about downing the dumplings with their very dubious content. The most desirable secret ingredient is actually one of the bitter ironies of this short and is what makes it so effective. In Cut, the madman who holds the horror movie director and his wife hostage is finally dispatched by the wife. But, in a stunning reversal, the director is so shamed at having being humiliated in front of his wife, he strangles her. And finally, in Box, two young girls compete, perhaps fatally, for the attentions of an older man.

Inasmuch as films are windows into different worlds, these shorts raise disturbing questions about the societies they portray and the roles of women therein.

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- April 27, 2005 12:10 AM // Film

SFIFF 2005: Three Extremes

three_extremes.jpgThree Extremes, playing at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival, offers a smorgasbord of three horror shorts from some of East Asia's best known directors:

Dumplings (dir Fruit Chan, Hong Kong 2004): An ex Hong Kong soap star comes across a purveyor of dumplings that promise youthful rejuvenation. But can she stomach the secret ingredient?

Cut (dir Park Chan-Wook, Korea 2004): A horror movie director comes home one night to find an unexpected visitor who proceeds to stage his own night of terror featuring the director and his wife.

Box (dir Takashi Miike, Japan 2004): An author dreams of being buried alive in a box while she suffocates inside covered in a plastic sheet. Her dream is rooted in her childhood as a contortionist when she competed with her sister for the attentions of a magician.

Of the three shorts, we liked Dumplings best. There were times we saw the women in the audience gasp, so nasty were the horrors implied. There was a lot of blood, particularly later on, but the real effectiveness of this piece lay in the sound design and Christopher Doyle's exemplary cinematography. Otherworldy machinery squeaked menacingly in the background while we heard every crunchy bite taken of the dumplings up close and personal. Similarly, the images on the screen packed a mean punch: an extreme close up of a cleaver knife chopping something unidentifiable but grisly; a woman's neck; clouds of blood swirling in water.

The main value of Cut, the second entry, lies in the game the director, Park Chan-Wook, plays with the audience - will he dare do it or won't he? In the process, Park shows he takes no prisoners - gouts of blood are shed, digits cleaved, a young kid is nearly strangled (unthinkable in Hollywood) and our jaw drops further and further until the last, horrific, denouement. Will the lead character, the horror movie director, or his wife escape alive? We're just not sure and we remain riveted to the screen. As in Old Boy, revenge is on the menu and a bit of consideration shows up many plot holes in both. But the film developed many other themes that allowed it to leap over any logical flaws. In a more limited time, Park doesn't have that same space.

Box is the most restrained of the trio - it didn't have the same sledgehammer effect of the other two. While it played effectively with the line separating dreams and reality, the payoff wasn't as satisfying as the other two. But only by comparison!

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- April 24, 2005 11:50 PM // Film , Review

The Bad and The Beautiful

What a hidden gem! Long before we had The Player and The Big Picture (not to mention Bollywood's severe fascination with navel gazing) there was The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), a film that unflinchingly showed the inner workings of Hollywood. I expected to see loads of expedient affairs, backstabbings, arguments and on-set fights and they're all here, courtesy of a crackerjack script by Charles Schnee working off a short story by George Bradshaw. What I didn't expect was the film's original approach. Instead of taking the viewpoint of genius producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), the film elects to tell his tale through three of his former associates (Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell). Jonathan's successive betrayal of each of them only adds further layers of complexity to the portrait of a man who just lives for film, so much so he cannot face anything else after a production has wrapped. As an aspiring actress grappling with the shadow cast by her illustrious father, Lana Turner is mesmerizing but Kirk Douglas still manages to steal every scene with her by sheer force of his personality. The film won several Academy Awards, the most deserving of which was for the screenplay and the most inexplicable for supporting actress (Gloria Grahame playing a southern belle, perhaps benefiting from the holdover effect of Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire two years earlier).

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- April 13, 2005 9:31 PM // Film , Review