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Column: Scandal Point-less

It’s bloody hard to create controversy, you know? Yes, I know it’s all done for release-dates and ratings and eyeballs, and you’re right, naturally, but the very act of it — of summoning up scandal or sparking off a storm — is damn near impossible in this day and age. Just think, if you will, of the last time something genuinely shocked you. A piece of news that made you sit up and take notice, made you call up a friend to discuss it, got you gobsmacked enough to keep you from tweeting sarcastically about it for five dumbfounded minutes. It doesn’t happen anymore, it just doesn’t.

We’ve all heard the weirdest rumours — about everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan to men named Modi — and read about the saddest exposés — involving everyone from Cary Grant to Bill Cosby — and I don’t think anything can significantly raise our eyebrows anymore. In a world where everyone is constantly out to “break the Internet,” all we have left are a few cracks.

Can controversy sell a film? No. The public today is too cynical to really care if x slept with y — unless they like how x and y look on screen together, in which case, of course, they’ll queue up for their movies anyway. According to the old-school publicity pundits, what controversy does is keep a film’s name in the headlines, but my point is that when a blockbuster is coming up, we’re bombarded with its name regardless of gossip. It doesn’t matter how little we may care, we know when the next Rohit Shetty film will release. And smaller independent films have budgets too measly — and are too star-less — to manufacture any effective buzz through the grapevine. Who would care if two actors the public doesn’t know about are brawling? (The few hundred people who already revere these actors too good to be super-famous could care less about a blind-item column.)

The truth of the matter is that visibility does not equal success. We go to the movies for all kinds of reasons — we like the actors/filmmakers/posters, we’ve heard good things about what’s playing, or, in some cases involving certain superstars, we go because we are comforted by the fact that we know exactly what we’re going to get — but I don’t think any of us think someone else’s scandal is worth spending our own money on. People tallying up ‘trending topics’ should remember that retweets don’t cost a rupee. The loudest of the noise comes from preaching to the choirs. If success could be determined by the amount of newsprint one can swallow, Bombay Velvet would be a historic hit. And Gajendra Chauhan would be our megastar.

~

First published The Hindustan Times, July 25, 2015

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Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

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Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

~

First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

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Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
~

A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

~
tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

~

There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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Why the 2015 Oscars are worth celebrating

The good guys won.

Actually, it was bigger than that. I’ve annually whinged about and berated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortsightedness and predictability in columns like these for far too many years now, and this is the first time I sat back through the Oscars — occasionally tense with fingers crossed as often as befits the occasion, naturally — but with a smile on my face. It was very clear that despite the eight nominated films, there were only three frontrunners this year, and each was majestic.

I loved ‘em, I loved ‘em to bits, these brave and visionary and beautiful films: Birdman, which I reviewed breathlessly, Boyhood, which I reviewed with moist eyes and lumpen throat, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I reviewed with jaunty fingers and a candied grin.

And this was their year.

inarritu1Just let that sink in for a moment. That the three films tipped to win, the three films that held the most nominations and got the most awards, the three directors singled out for career-revolutionising triumph… were all masterworks. They were all brilliant and incredible, films any cinephile around the world should be proud of. The fact that it was these three films who led the pack and battled for the spotlight — instead of some dastardly Academy-friendly choice that upset a great yacht —  made this year’s Oscars a spotlight worth sailing through.

There was no King’s Speech to mug The Social Network, no English Patient to shoot Fargo in the foot, no Crash to rob Brokeback Mountain, no Forrest Gump to hold up, unforgivably, both Shawshank Redemption and the revolutionary Pulp Fiction. No, this year, instead of the big, the gun-toting, the maudlin, the British — and, most criminally, the obvious — films, the cool kids this year, the ones tipped to win were a Boy, a Bird and Budapest. How can you not love this year?

Sure, signs pointed to a Birdman/Boyhood split, with Alejandro González Iñárritu possibly taking Best Director for Birdman and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood taking Best Picture, or vice versa, a peace treaty that would leave the filmloving world in peace, but that wasn’t, alas, to be. As Iñárritu said while picking up the Best Director trophy, moments before he picked up Best Picture, “We’re talking about that little prick called ego. Ego loves competition, right, because for someone to win, someone has to lose.”

And that’s possibly why it hurts us, the film fans. Because we don’t want to see Linklater win over Iñárritu, or Budapest director Wes Anderson leave the other directors in the dust, or even young Damien Chazelle, helmer of the electrifying Whiplash, be left behind or spoil anyone’s party. We aren’t used to seeing these underdogs competing at the top of the heap; we just want ‘em all to enjoy playing together and all go home happy.

To a large extent, they did: Boyhood won for Patricia Arquette, Whiplash for JK Simmons, The Grand Budapest Hotel for everything to do with how beautiful films look. All while grumpy veteran Clint Eastwood sat grouchily, his American Sniper not showing up to ruin our film-lovin’ fun, while Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris wagered he’d do a Kanye West and disrupt the proceedings.

As for Neil Patrick Harris, alas, he didn’t sparkle. He started with a terrific musical number about the love we have for ‘Moving Pictures’ — as I’ve written elsewhere, rhyming “Brando” with Sharon Stone going “commando” is a moment of genius that will linger forever — but the rest of the evening he was flat and unfunny and just not very good.

But — and here’s the thing — are we expecting the wrong thing from an Oscar host? Earlier the Oscars were the only show we’d all watch, and we’d eat it up because it was the only choice. So we’d love Steve Martin and tolerate David Letterman. Now, not only do we have far more wicked and irreverent, alcohol-aided shows to watch, from the Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards (which, seriously, is must-see), but we’re all tweeting and pronouncing judgement immediately, rating a joke on a sliding scale before we even get through with the show.

Last week I assembled a list of the best ever Oscar hosts, an amusing (albeit cumbersome) process that made me realise something. In this age of sharp, biting jabs — started by Globe host Ricky Gervais and surpassed by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey — we’re too quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t immediately match up. That Frank Sinatra opening monologue from 1963, for example, one of my very favourites, would be ripped apart mercilessly on Twitter.

The Oscars are in a quandary: they’re classy, they’re big, they’re universal and they need to be family-friendly — otherwise morons like Seth MacFarlane sing about breasts. It’s clear they can’t be like other wilder award shows. Perhaps they just need to concentrate on the class and the charm and leave out the comedy, except in little unscripted bits and occasional dance numbers. No matter what people say about too many dances, this year’s top moments had to include the touching Glory performance and Lady Gaga’s Sound Of Music tribute. Pomp, done well, shines bright at the Oscars. Leave the jokes to the other shows who can perch out farther on the limb. Let the grandeur do the talking instead of the gags.

wes1Overall, as I said, it was a show to celebrate. Because with every gunfighter on our side, we’re all winners.

~

First published Rediff, February 24, 2015

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AIB knockout: Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bitch!

Bloody hell, they pulled it off.

And, to be quite honest, we didn’t see it coming. I’ve faced my share of growls from a humourless Hindi film industry for over a decade now, which include threats and lawsuits, and thus it was most heartening to see not just two actors sporting enough to proffer their chins for some thumping but to see other stars in the audience egging them on, and one of the country’s most prominent (and influential) filmmakers play Roastmaster.

And then they released the whole gloriously foulmouthed thing on YouTube, with nary a bleep in sight. Wow. Take a bow, All India Bakchod.

As roasts go, it was pretty solid. The gang followed the tack of picking one particular thing about each person on the panel, and went after them with politically incorrect gusto. Karan Johar got gay jokes, Ranveer Singh was ragged on for womanising, Arjun Kapoor was spanked with the nepotism stick, Rajeev Masand was criticised for being a critic, Raghu Ram was sworn at for swearing, Gursimran Khamba was called ugly, Tanmay Bhat was called fat, Ashish Shakya was called dark, Rohan Joshi was teased for dating a Bhatt, while Abish Mathew and Aditi Mittal were singled out for being unknown. In the audience, Alia got dumb-gags, Sonakshi got fat-gags and Deepika Padukone got how-can-a-girl-like-you-date-Ranveer-gags.

I watched the show surrounded by friends and shotglasses last night, and it resulted in many a high-five and neighbour-waking peals of laughter. It is, without doubt, a show you need to watch in its entirety online instead of reading 18-gag compilations. I remember a similar night a few years ago, watching Comedy Central’s Roast of William Shatner and the one of Pamela Anderson back to back, laughing and complaining wistfully that we’d never see anything quite like this in India, well, we have and these AIB lads have really pushed the envelope right from their very first go. Bravo.

The concern, however, is how even a subversive off-centre activity like a roast has to be mainstreamed and Bollywooded in order to really take off. Out there in Comedy Central land, the roasted are (usually) old and fading, celebrities who haven’t been relevant in a while, people on the fringe… The roasters are usually all stand-up comics plus a mix of handpicked funny friends of the roasted. Plus insult comics known only for being on roasts, like the late Greg Giraldo. There are the usual jabs, sure, but there is also some genuinely vicious invective — the one thing I found missing in the AIB show, but hey, I’m sure they’ll get there.

Khamba, Rohan, Aditi and Tanmay were particularly good, but everyone did well — even though the tone was so consistent that it made it too-visible that the whole thing had been scripted together, by committee. No matter. The thing to remember is that Bollywood, which has way too many sacred cows — like nepotism, relationships and sex — that aren’t spoken of outside of gossip columns and the most interesting corners of parties, got itself turned into hamburger meat by these kids. Go ahead, lick your lips at the thought of what comes next; I’m sure they have something edgier around the corner.

Some of the reactions to the roast, however, have been rather befuddling. Not just the articles taking gags seriously and being outraged that Ranveer Singh took Deepika Padukone’s now-infamous Times Of India “a cleavage” photograph (he didn’t) but the slew of thinkpieces commending Karan Johar for sitting through an evening of gay-themed leg-pulling, and treating it almost like an unofficial coming-out party. Many salutations to Johar for taking it all on the nose and being a sport, but the truth is that laughing at gags about being gay does not, in any way, indicate that you are gay. All it says is that you have a sense of humour about the way you’re perceived in public. James Franco, for example, grinningly takes gay-jokes in his stride so frequently that it’s turned into cliche; similarly with Johar, many of we believe this is one big coming-out party because we already think we know his sexual orientation and have been waiting for confirmation forever. It’s not. Just because Rajeev Masand laughed when it was said that he charges money for his star-ratings, doesn’t make it true at all. Like Karan, he’s just a man who can laugh at himself.

But when did Bollywood suddenly develop a sense of humour? How is this industry, normally apoplectic with self-importance, laughing out loud? I’m not sure it is laughing, honestly, but it’s seeing the importance of laughing. And, more importantly, the importance of being seen laughing. In this era of oversharing, retweeting and everything-instagramming, the star is not any kind of enigmatic figure of mystery; s/he is one of us (except their selfies have better lighting). And Alia Bhatt knocked it out of the park with her AIB video making fun of her own meme-fied ignorance, and now everyone wants a piece of the chilled-out pie. By now, it’s considered uncool to not laugh about oneself. Just ask Parineeti Chopra, who chickened out of the roast.

Anyway, much applause and many cheers, All India Bakchod. (Especially for making Bakchod a word we all use in print now.)

First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

Everyone in Bombay thinks they can direct a movie. Amateurs, screenwriters, film school graduates (both those who want to change the way we make movies, and those who want to make a living), television directors, actors who aren’t getting meaty work, theatre artistes… everyone either believes that direction is the ultimate aspirational goal and that they’re good enough, or that it’s a mug’s game. Even producers who want to cut out the middleman. By the time you read this sentence, Kick, which released yesterday — marking the directorial debut of Sajid Nadiadwala, a longtime producer — will have earned some massively obscene amount.

As a result, we see far too many poorly directed films. We see tackily assembled films, films with weak pacing, films where the director clearly can’t imbue actors with the necessary spirit, where the narrative goes haywire every time a song appears, where it’s depressingly evident the director doesn’t know where to place the camera, where everything appears slapped on together like some messy cinematic stir-fry, films lacking in nuance, consistency and grace. These directors may be handicapped by external factors, they may learn on the job, they may eventually find and capitalise on their own strengths, but — mercy be damned — for now it’s apparent there are too many directors in Hindi cinema who don’t know what they’re doing.

sajid1Sajid Khan should not, by any measure, be counted as one of these directors. As someone intimately bound to cinema, someone who has filmmakers all around him — sister Farah is an ace entertainer, cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar have each piped freshness into our films — and as someone who used to wickedly skewer filmmakers for being bad at their job, he simply has no business being this kind of journeyman. He is equipped with that ideal cinephile combination, a massive library of films and a great memory. His knowledge of English-language cinema is staggeringly encyclopaedic. I have had friends call him up out of the blue to settle bets about Ghostbusters 2 and he has replied instantly, off the cuff, clearly the man you want to call if on the hot-seat and phoning a friend, or if the 3Gs too weak and IMDb isn’t loading.

As for Hindi cinema, he knows our worst and weakest films very intimately indeed, and has made a career out of mocking them. The shows he hosted on TV, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka, took the mickey out of Bollywood with tremendous élan. He berated films for buffoonery, thoughtlessness, crass overacting. A section of his show, “Ham Scene Of The Week”, remains a very watchable YouTube favourite, wherein Khan would zero in on some horribly overcooked moment and, basically, point and laugh. And we laughed right along.

I haven’t met him in person, but he’s apparently a man with a clever (albeit foulmouthed) sense of humour, a man who is — like most of us film fanatics — easily goaded into fanboy mode, a man who gushes about the films he most adores. My film-snob friend M met him, bonded over film-geekiness and told me he was actually pretty fun. By all accounts, this is a man who loves the movies.

Why, then, is he so obsessed with ruining them?

~

Khan’s first film, Heyy Babyy, had too many Ys. Why, for example, was it made in the first place? Why was there not a single smart gag? Why didn’t he write a script before he started shooting? Why instead did he ripoff Three Men And A Baby and, while doing so, why did he strip it of all its tender charms? Why did he throw in bad innuendo instead? And why did Sajid Khan, the man who taught most of India what “hamming” meant, feel the need to have one of his protagonists, a Muslim, fall to his knees and perform namaaz in front of a Christmas tree inside a hospital while the background score rose to a melodramatic crescendo?

housefullThe film was a catastrophic failure except for one minor detail: it was a monstrous hit, a record-breaking behemoth that did better than everyone expected. Since then, his films have gotten successively stupider. Housefull, Housefull 2, Himmatwala, Humshakals. These are not merely bad movies, they are grotesqueries, designed to torture people who can read, people who want more from movies than apes and slaps. Housefull (which ends with footage of its producer’s birthday party) and its sequel clicked — presumably with a crowd that demanded nothing but Akshay Kumar and bronzed girls in swimsuits — but by the time Himmatwala and Humshakals came around, the audience was as revolted as the critics.

(My friend M, who I mentioned earlier, sent me a picture of her armpit hair as revenge for taking her along to Housefull. Fair enough.) Even stars seem to have had enough, with Humshakals hero Saif Ali Khan openly declaring the film a huge mistake and scrapping previously announced plans to work with Sajid again. Akshay, going ahead with Housefull 3, has dropped Sajid from the project and replaced him with director duo the Samji brothers, one of whom, cruelly enough,  happens to be named Sajid. The tide is, naturally, turning.

In my review for the abysmal Humshakals, I wondered what Khan’s motives could be for churning out such awful, awful films. “Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic ‘ham scene of the week’?”

I wanted, very sincerely, to post these questions to Sajid himself. The reason I’m writing this column instead is because this magazine contacted me to set up a one-on-one interview with Sajid, a slug-fest where I expected the gloves to be off, and him to shut me up with concepts of populism and how, as BJP-bhakts say, all that matters in the end is the public, um, mandate. His publicists confirmed and unconfirmed and eventually said they would be fine with an interview if nothing negative was said about his films. Mission impossible if ever there was one.

It was a debate I was looking forward to, because my questions are more sincere than glib. This is sadism, not incompetence, and I desperately want to know why somebody who — we must all assume, for sanity’s sake — knows better, carries on to keep making movies this sickeningly bad. How pathetic does he consider even the lowest common denominator he shamelessly chases? Does it not hurt the fanboy inside him to abuse the medium so criminally? To make movies that are execrable for the sake of making millions? His argument, I suspect, may just boil down to the millions, and the fact that he has many and I have none.

But directing a film is more than a job. It is an honour, a privilege, an opportunity. After creating toxic films that are invariably hurting every one of us in some way — each of us who works in movies and each of us who loves movies — dare he bring himself to watch his own work? Dare he care?

~

First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Art For Heart’s Sake

Sunday morning, I changed the caller tune on my phone. Moved from an English oldie to Har seedhe raste ki ek, the fabulous title song from Golmaal. About eight hours later, a colleague messaged me the news, minutes before it took over the television channels. A lump hit my throat and I instantly flashbacked to last year, when I had called up Hrishida.

chupkechupke1Working on a feature on India’s best films, I couldn’t look past Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the name tempting me from the film directory. Could I get an opinion from the man who made Anand? I called, and he picked up, huskily assuring me that it was he. I stammered out a nervous introduction and, making sure not to cut me off mid-sentence, the filmmaker finally stopped me. “I cannot help you, I’m sorry,” he wheezed into the phone. “I am very ill.” I hastily muttered an apologetic, awkward goodbye as the line went dead.

I was shattered and, I soon realised, heartbroken. Yes, filmmakers get old and their films live on. Yes, life goes on. But that this would happen to Hrishikesh Mukherjee somehow just hit harder. I felt helpless and greatly dismayed, and was resultantly puzzled. Not just had I never met the man, I also hadn’t ever really read up or researched his background and technique. Yet, I felt inexplicably attached to him. All I had done, of course, was fall in love with the films he made. And that’s all it takes.

There are filmmakers with a great cinematographic eye, those with powerful use of light and shadow, those who throw their actors over the edge to achieve mammoth performances and those who overwhelm you with sound and fury. In terms of emotion, Hindi cinema is packed with directors conversant with maudlin melancholy and rolling-in-the-aisles humour.

Mukherjee’s cinema stands beyond directorial technique, or mere storytelling. His are films with depth and one-liners, films with pathos and slapstick, films with farce and grand tragedy – above all, however, they are films bred in familiarity. Absolute familiarity. Wonderfully etched characters are drawn with such tender nuance that not only do we relate to them, they echo people plucked uncannily from our lives. From jobhunters in short kurtas to lanky alcoholics with telescopes, Hrishida‘s folk have been disarmingly real, even despite great caricature. You can’t help loving them.

And it was not as if he drew his actors from the haughty sidelights of parallel cinema. These were superstars, not art-house critical favourites looking scornfully at the mainstream. He gave Amitabh Bachchan visibility in Anand, and subsequently balanced out his angry-young-man credentials with roles of acting significance. In 1973, Hrishida‘s Abhimaan rose alongside Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer; 1975 was the mammoth year of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay and Yash Chopra’s Deewar, but Hrishida did his luminous bit with Mili and Chupke Chupke. His films might not have been Amitabh’s blockbusters, but they do give us the megastar’s most substantial performances.

The stories are literature by themselves. From immense marital discord to the inevitability of death, from delicate Wodehousean farce to war of the classes, he tackled it all but laced his movies magically with an earnest realism that touched us to the core. Special cinema of course, but crucially special sans fanfare. A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film didn’t come with any massive pretentions of grandeur, any conceit of inaccessibility. This was dal-bhaat filmmaking, supremely fresh everyday slices of life, served up unfailingly warm and tender. The films he made discriminated not between frontbenchers and critics, cineastes and collegekids, critics and our mothers.

golmaal1And how they endure. From Rajesh Khanna’s babumoshaai to Utpal Dutt’s eeesh, not to mention lyrical dialogues impossible to forget, the words penetrated the nation’s collective lexicon. Even today, cable operators are well aware that their best chance of getting people to watch a poor-quality channel on a Saturday afternoon is to show one of Hrishida‘s Amol Palekar comedies. And the dramas are infinitely compelling, peopled by characters he turned into our extended family. The stories are ever poignant and never overdone, and we’re repeatedly forced back into choking back a sob. Or stifling louder-than-acceptable guffaws with our hands. The magic lies, of course, in the fact that we are often torn by both emotions simultaneously.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was truly the heart of Hindi cinema. His films have transcended libraries and genre, and simply become a part of who we are. I grew a moustache recently and, despite the Mangal Pandey jibes, my predominant encouragement is drawn from Utpal Dutt’s inimitable Golmaal lines on the importance of a man’s mouch. I am not a man for funerals, but there are some cases where one just has to pay last respects.

The caller tune on my phone, needless to say, now stays, a tribute to the great humanist filmmaker. It is the kind of song that inevitably makes you break into a grin, but like Hrishida‘s cinema, the lump in the throat stays alongside the smile.

~

First published Rediff August 30, 2006, after HrishiDa’s passing. Here is the piece from his funeral.

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