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Review: Ron Howard’s Rush

Formula One has the habit of making other sports look absurdly insignificant.

What, you run real quick? What, you flog a bit of leather? What, you hit another bloke in the face?

Well, I battle gravity and push physics to the limit by hurling myself at the apex of a curve, calculating and strategising about the car behind me, braking crucially late while knowing full well that I could careen into a rival inches ahead of me, and shatter a chassis or two or a neck or two.

rush-movie-1Comparisons will forever appear laughable, but not quite as much as when Formula One was bloodsport, days when — as Niki Lauda says in Rush — two out of 25 drivers died every year. Those insane statistics nutshell the relentlessly, giddily gladiatorial sport F1 had become in its quest to straddle speed and danger, and even by that unacceptable norm, 1976 was a particularly dramatic year.

So dramatic, to be precise, that one would be forgiven for thinking Ron Howard’s film, set around that year’s Formula One World Championship season, is fictional. But sport is where fact often leapfrogs the imagination, when true human conflict supersedes acceptable writing. Where we only suspend our disbelief because we’re told all that’s happening on screen, no matter how preposterous, has its roots in reality.

You couldn’t find more diametrically opposed racing drivers than the technically proficient Austrian great Niki Lauda, and swinging, Union Jacking superstar James Hunt. Lauda was one of the first drivers who understood the importance of aerodynamics, and revered for his excellent understanding of a car’s limits. Hunt was the definitive F1 playboy, a man with the badge “Sex: Breakfast Of Champions” sewn onto his overalls, a lad who’d gargle champagne before winning races. In 1976, these rivals put daggers between teeth, stared death in the face and lived to finish the tale.

Ron Howard’s film is written by the infallible Peter Morgan, the playwright and screenwriter who fashions known historical facts into riveting narratives so laden with plot they’d make George RR Martin jealous. The two had worked before on the astonishing Frost/Nixon, but armed with this much deliriously cinematic meat, they go one better. This is a Scorsese-worthy story, and Howard rises to the moment and does it justice. Rush is not just the best film of Ron Howard’s career — a rip-roaring smash about a great human story, and two damn fascinating men — but among the finest sports films in modern cinema.

The casting is spot-on, with Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth playing the frequently unzipped Hunt and Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds as the nearly-Vulcan Lauda. Both actors are in exceptionally fine form. Hemsworth gets the swagger right, Bruhl masters that accent, and together they bring to life an intensely passionate rivalry. (To be fair, it is a bit exaggerated. The two fought on the track but never loathed each other like the film showed; by all accounts, their’s was a relationship of competitive respect. But then again, Hunt did always say Lauda looked like a rat.)

The racing action is brilliant, with inventive cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle fitting cameras into peculiar crevasses in the vintage chassis. The viewer is forced closer to the action — and much, much closer to that Sherman Tank of an engine — than television can allow, and the results are dizzying. You do not have to be a fan to love this film, though a fan would derive much pleasure by seeing the doppelgangers cast in important smaller roles, like that of Enzo Ferrari or Clay Regazzoni. (The finest supporting actor here is Christian McKay as the memorable Alexander Hesketh, a whimsical team-owner who introduced the F1 pitlane to oysters and caviar, and a man worth a movie all his own.) The acting is top-notch all around, and the women — Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde — up the film’s stakes considerably.

rush-movie-2For there is so much more to this film than racing. There is a whole lot of sex: on the most important day of his career Hunt is shown waking from a Japanese hotel bed with two pairs of feet flanking his own. And then there’s even more insight: Hunt prepares for a Formula One race by lying down with his eyes closed, visualising the Monte Carlo grand prix circuit in pre-simulator times; Lauda learns that no woman can rev up an Italian man’s motor quite like a Ferrari driver can. There are even exquisite details for fans of motorsport history, including quotes that have since become legendary, and women even more so. Also, Hunt’s beloved budgerigars make an appearance.

Don’t look up 1976, don’t look up file footage, just go watch this rousing film. And then get a hold of the BBC documentary, F1’s Greatest Rivals: Hunt vs Lauda so you can watch the real men and marvel at how perfectly Morgan and Howard took the story and ran with it. Many years ago, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 stunner Grand Prix cemented my then-fledgling love for motorsport, and now Howard has, at long last, created another film evocative enough to ignite pitlane-passion in hearts that haven’t yet thumped for Formula One.

Rush is a film about a racing season — and two seasoned racers — so damned thrilling that it would compel the most stubborn Formula One hater, those people who insist mastering technology isn’t a sporting enough achievement and forget every other part of the invariably human equation. For the Formula One fan, this is a film worthy of a magnum of Mumm’s finest champagne — if only for the chance to hear those massive V12 engines explode across the big screen. VrrrRRRRRRooom.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, September 20, 2013

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Review: Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel

man-of-steel-ew1

You’ll believe a man can sigh.

That’s what the godlike alien in Man Of Steel frequently does as he looks around, before he glowers and scowls and, perhaps most importantly, poses. There is very little of the winning, geeky smile we associate with Clark Kent — indeed, the eager yet shy journalist we know and love appears for one scene in the new film — and for a character named Superman who’s just turned 75, this feller doesn’t even have the spit-curl. Nope, this is the story of The Fresh Prince Of Krypton.

Zack Snyder, a man the early trailers for his own film dubbed a ‘visionary,’ starts things off on a Krypton that looks like David Lynch’s Dune and features some Giger gadgets leftover from Ridley Scott’s Alien movies. His vision might just lie in jewellery design: the headgear worn by creepy Kryptonian councilmen is most ornate, just like the exquisitely carved trinkets we’d seen adorning almost-slaughtered heads in his 300.

His approach to the Superman origin story is hamhanded and operatic, aided well by strong actors all around. Russell Crowe, mercifully not warbling his lines this time, makes for a particularly formidable presence as the Dad Of Steel, and his committed performance makes Snyder’s unsubtle theatricality appear compelling if never evocative: bland Guignol must do when the Grand isn’t at hand.

A young boy tossed Moses-like across the galaxy in a spaceship basket, Kal-El lands in Kansas, but we never see that. Instead we see him fully grown and alarmingly muscular, a gentle hulk going around helping folks and smashing the occasional truck. His earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and both are excellent in the way they guide him toward the truth of his origins, and to focussing his power. “Imagine my voice as an island,” Lane says, in one of the film’s most beautiful moments.

And this is where it must be stressed that Man Of Steel does have beautiful moments. Some are, as mentioned, conjured up by very fine actors, while others are visually pretty — even if somewhat Terrence Malick inspired. And, in terms of storytelling, while a lot of it might not truly make sense at all, it all happens commendably fast: the movie dishes out huge narrative chunks as if in a rush, hurtling past the Superman timeline in order to get to an endlessly long and considerably boring 45-minute fight — but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Well before all the climactic cacophony we meet Lois Lane, self-praising Pulitzer-winner and one of comicdom’s most fearless women. Amy Adams is enjoyably credible as the pesky, relentless journalist, but after a bit of fun, the film — bereft of all the Lois/Clark romance — asks only that she look at Superman dreamily, and this she does. (The other big ask from her is a full-throated Wilhelm Scream, which too she delivers magnificently.) The musclebound wetsuit-wearing object of her affections, Henry Cavill, is but a dimple under a baseball cap — he has the look right and is adequately earnest, but the film affords him not the luxury to charm us. Instead, he gets to throw a million punches.

When Krypton was destroyed, prisoners exiled to a phantom zone escaped destruction along with young Kal-El. These disgruntled folk are led by Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who overacts rather delightfully. His fury is most entertaining, his eyes like apoplectic ping-pong balls, but purists will be heartbroken at the realisation that he never asks the hero to kneel before him. He reaches the Earth to hunt out Kal-El, who is, in turn, being guided rather conveniently by his dead father. Unlike Marlon Brando who was merely an interactive telegram (by way of floating hologram head) in the first, masterful Superman film, Russel Crowe’s Jor-El seems to have turned into a Siri-like helper who guides not just Clark, but Lois. And all for some MacGuffin that sounds like a cough syrup.

As you can probably tell, there is little room for simplicity and stark, shadowy moodiness now as the film juggernauts forward, crammed with much malarkey. General Zod tackles fighter planes like a livid quarterback, and Clark smashes into him, hard. They keep ramming at each other and creating giant sonic booms under them, again, and again, and again. This mindnumbing, increasingly frustrating sequence of city-tearing explosions — which feel just like waiting for friends to stop playing Mortal Kombat or at least hand you a controller — lasts for at least 45 minutes. This? This is why Snyder wolfed down huge bites of narrative? This is what we had to get to? It’s unforgivably bad (unforgivably Bay, even) and things aren’t helped by the fact that unlike in the Marvel movies where New York is New York, the fictionalised DC capital of Metropolis is stripped of all its character. So we have a skyline with lots of mirror-covered buildings, but no soul. Kinda like Gurgaon.

Oh, and while I want to rant on and on about the film’s last scene, I promise not to spoil it for you here. So when you get to the final moment, just remember there’s no possible way it can make sense after the rest of the film you just saw. No way.

man-of-steel-croweThere are, as said, small joys to be found in Snyder’s film: the early bits with Crowe, or with a young Clark who is literally too sensitive to function. There is Lois, drinking scotch and finding a way around her contract, and there’s Toby Zeigler, always a joy. The art direction is impressively detailed, as is the visionary bling, and the 3D never seems too dark. Plus, there’s a pretty good sight gag about toner cartridges.

But Man Of Steel (which invariably sounds, to me, like a rejected title for a gay-themed Remington Steele episode) never quite musters up the charm or the levity any story of Superman requires — and deserves. It looks good and is populated by fine actors (and we get a peek at trucks belonging to a bald man this movie could have used but doesn’t have), but the clunky Superman-as-Jesus imagery running through it all symptomises the problem with this narrative: too much steel, not enough man.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 14, 2013

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Review: Bombay Talkies

Why do we love the movies?

Why do we stiffen with anticipation when that censor certificate flashes on the big screen, its signatures the size of couches, even when I may already be warning us that the film may be interminably long? Why does popcorn taste better when the lights go down? Why do we root for some movies and debate passionately against others? Why do we care about stray opinions expressed by people who don’t matter about our favourite actors who, clearly, do? Why do we let movies sunnily melt our cynicism or grimly erode our optimism with just a couple of scenes? And why, oh God why, does it feel so damned good when a movie makes us cry?

Bombay Talkies, a four-film collection of movies about Hindi cinema, is a portmanteau project that might not aim to provide a definitive answer to those questions, but is a film that certainly likes to wonder aloud, alongside us. There are four films, each roughly 25 minutes in length, made by four very different kinds of filmmakers, each a champion in their own right: Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap have made these films, and each, in a way, has unmistakably left a comfort zone behind in this commendable effort to high-five the movies.

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Johar’s film, which will invariably be the most talked about of the lot, is more statement than film. It is a bold, sensitively handled drama about an inert marriage and, perching on its fringes, a young man bursting with pluck and defiance. It is not about a homosexual, but one of the characters happens to be gay. It is a film about old Hindi film music, with Johar expertly reappropriating classic songs, classic lyrics, and making them heartbreaking in a whole new way. It is about overfamiliarity, friendship and about how a man can drag another to a place of sheer wonderment.

Saqib Saleem, who was last so impressive in Mere Dad Ki Maruti, is excellent here, playing it far too cocky in a bid to overcompensate for his fragility. It rings true while being anything but cliched. Rani Mukherji plays his increasingly indulgent boss, a woman who wears her blouses slinky and her eyes sad, and the actress is perfect in the part. Randeep Hooda, as her husband, is problematic: he’s suitably subdued but a bit too awkward throughout the proceedings — even a character steeped in self-denial should know something about himself.

Johar’s first scene is searingly explosive, a great cinematic jolt, following which it first hiccups with some on-the-nose overfriendly banter, and then steadies and settles into a more predictable narrative. And it could have been flat if not for the beautifully used music. Johar’s is a film that loves language — one “Come in?”/“Come out?” moment is particularly gorgeous — and the way he melancholically paints his frames to accompany the words “ki sabse door ho gaye,” is exquisite.

It is also a film made by a maker less sure of the format. The camera is tight and intrusive, as it should be, but perhaps too eagerly, too often. There are a few too many shots of a more ‘cinematic’ composition — of people looking on in loneliness from sea-facing balconies, for example — which sometimes jar with a narrative this stark. Because, stripped of its makeup — as savagely as its actress peels off her own, in one alarming scene — this is the most vital film of the lot.

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BT2A truly great director does not need trained actors, a fact which led the master Satyajit Ray to use lots of non-professionals in his films. It is a method frequently used by Dibakar Banerjee to terrific effect, populating his films with the unfamiliar and the awesome. It is this that might have led Ray to write the short story called “Patol Babu, Film Star” that Banerjee’s film is based on; and it is ultimately deliciously ironic that, with this very short, we discover just how good things can get when a brilliant director does indeed collaborate with a highly accomplished actor.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, that wondrous chameleon, seems to get better with each cinematic bound, and he’s at his absolute best in this wily adaptation. Mopping up the floors as he talks to his wife, Siddiqui nimbly takes the mop and cleans under his own feet before he steps onto the freshly wiped floor. This is a film that revels in the most acute, the most magnificent detailing. Even in the chawl they live in, Siddiqui’s daughter sleeps beside a Hannah Montana pencilbox. It is a film of many and varied joys, one of the finest and quirkiest going by the name Anjali.

Siddiqui plays a failed entrepreneur who strays onto a film-set and is snapped up as an extra, and much magic follows, most of which I should allow you to experience first hand, without knowing what you’re in for. Siddiqui is spectacular, Sadashiv Amrapurkar (as his overbearing, omniscient father) is perfectly cast and quite special, and Shubhangi Bhujbal is spot-on as Siddiqui’s wife; a particular moment — when she assures him that nobody can turn him down by asking if she herself could say no to him — is one to cherish.

It’s a remarkable film, unmistakably carrying the auteur’s stamp in every frame. (No mean feat considering just how much it borrows from Ray; from his films and his fiction: Anjali constantly made me think of Big Bill, for example.)

The shots are desolate, beautiful, gorgeous and the writing is crafted excellently. It is about the magic-dust the movies sprinkle on everyone within range, but more than that it is about a director himself overreaching: taking a story from the master and cleverly doodling enough around the margins to make it his own, and also taking a song from Rabindranath Tagore and himself composing music to compliment a devastatingly good final shot. These are salutes that must in turn be saluted.

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I want to be a football, says a kid wearing a Lionel Messi jersey in the adorable opening montage of Zoya Akhtar’s film where children of various ages, shapes and heights tell the camera their dreams. (A  boy, wearing a fullblown superhero costume, is one I identified with the strongest.) This film isn’t about us, though, it’s about a kid who looks at the girls in tights longingly (not like that, no) while being forced into football practice; about a kid who wants to be Katrina Kaif.

It’s a simplistic fairytale of a film with clear-etched character archetypes — Strict Dad, Submissive Mom, Sweet Sister — and that suits both narrative and format. The youngster who dreams of glitzy outfits and high-heels is played by Naman Jain and he is simply fantastic, carrying the whole film off remarkably well.

Kaif has a cameo, wings and all, but her being chosen for this film is itself interesting, considering that till before Sheila Ki Jawaani — the song that makes this boy lean forward, agog — she wasn’t even considered a dancer. Dare to dream, but dream covertly, she tells the boy who drinks it in. It’s a sweet, escapist film — with understated ambition — featuring some great dialogues, that climaxes with simplicity and sunniness.

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Anurag Kashyap’s film does what most of us have done, at least at some point: it mythologises Bachchan to the hilt. The narrative is weak (the plot is very reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal) but the masala spirit more than willing, and Kashyap churns out something both nuanced and nutty. In that sense, there may be no better conceivable tribute to Hindi cinema.

BT1An Allahabadi youngster bolts from the Kumbh Mela to see his bedridden father who (after some top-notch Dilip Kumar mimicry) sends him off to see Amitabh Bachchan carrying a gooseberry, a solitary murabba in a jar. His mission: to get Bachchan to take a bite and bring back the half-eaten, megastar-indentured murabba so that the father can get better, bite by Big-B-endorsed bite.

The dutiful son (appropriately named Vijay, naturally) wears a scarlet, Coolie-coloured shirt and makes his way to Bachchan’s, thinking that the most famed of Juhu dwellers would take in all who hail from his hometown. The film is propelled by Vineet Kumar Singh’s stellar performance in the role, and while Kashyap crafts a nice-looking film with some delicious dialogue, this is a film that emerges half-baked. The struggle works but the end is a sham, and the cameo in the middle almost ruins everything. Or maybe the director was aiming for half-eaten?

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Right after Kashyap’s film ends, scram for the door. Because after all this, after four directors doing their best to celebrate Hindi cinema, the film’s producers massacre things by throwing in a horribly tacky song that starts with ghastly YouTube-style lipsyncing and ends with Bollywood at its most disposably shiny. Even if Anil Kapoor’s having fun dancing his Lakhan steps, nothing justifies this atrocity. Run, I tell you, hold on to your murabba jar of movie memories and flee.

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So then four films. Four statements. Four attempts. In the final reckoning, Bombay Talkies is mostly good, with one spectacular film and three that are, at worst, earnest: a collection that deserves to be watched for what it tries to celebrate more than what it ends up being. But like we say about so much of Bollywood, go for the magical bits.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, 3 May 2013

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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.

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1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.

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We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.

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3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”

~

Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.

5

Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.

~

That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.

 

~

 

First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013

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Review: Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Buddoor

cb3There is a scene in Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Buddoor where Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval are on their first date. Despite coffee and tutti-frutti ice-cream, and her cooing enthusiasm for him studying Economics, there isn’t much to really talk about. And the shy Shaikh sheepishly confesses to having stalked her, to lurking outside her music school based on timings she’d let slip when they last met. Biting her lip, Naval grins that the reason she’d spoken of her schedule in such detail was precisely that he may notice. They laugh in awkward relief, instantly and acutely aware of having both acted on the same impulse.

It is a simple scene and yet — as can be said for a majority of Paranjpe’s cinema — within it lies a masterclass. Shaikh’s Siddharth Parashar is endearingly guileless, baring his first-ever gambit because it comes unnaturally to him, and because he’d rather not lie to the first girl he’s ever struck up conversation with, but also because he is, funnily enough, proud of his effort. It all shows in Shaikh’s grin as he looks away from her. Meanwhile, there is a joyous giddiness to Naval’s Neha, a girl only too glad to express her gladness. She’s flattered, thrilled, and positively glowing as she eases his confession with hers, following which he expansively orders more coffee and ice-cream, markedly more confident as he overrides her protestations. It is an exquisite piece of acting naturalism, one of the finest of them all. And the writing is flawless.

Chashme Buddoor, digitally remastered and brought to screens in a spanking new version, might have needed the cinematic scrubbing but remains a film glorying another time. 1981. A time when 500 rupees went a really long way and cigarette companies merely wanted you to relax. A time when posting pictures on one’s wall was a very literal activity (and a striking Shabana Azmi was a pin-up girl). A time when a character’s parents lived or vacationed in Nairobi. And a time when it seemed appropriate to shoot green and lovely Delhi with an uncynical, tender eye.

As time-capsules go, it’s one of the best and brightest. Chashme Buddoor is a masterpiece, and even 32 years after it first came out, I can safely declare what this is the best Hindi film you’ll see in theatres this year.

The characters are magnificent. Ravi Baswani makes his screen debut as the cavalier Jomo, a dedicated Lothario who believes in equal-opportunity flirting: no woman is spared from an attempt, albeit a harmless one. His side of the room he shares with two other Delhi University bachelors has the Azmi pin-up alongside many others, plus tall black boots he shines meticulously, and even when he’s swallowed a few punches and is bolting out of a farcically dangerous situation, Jomo stops to gather up his cigarettes and his sunglasses.

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Rakesh Bedi’s chubby Omi, on the other hand, believes in muscle-magazines and injudiciously short shorts. He’s failed college a few times, sure, but he loves his ghazals and a spot of shaayari, and — truth be told, while he may not admit it to Jomo — prefers watching a play than chasing pointlessly after a girl.

But he talks a very big game, which leads us to the film’s finest moment: when a dejected Omi returns home, puffing thoughtfully on a cigarette and then — suddenly — throws it down and twirls dramatically on it, jumping up with an instant spring in his step as he gallops home to regale friends with a grand tale of a conquest that never was. In the snap of his fingers lies sheer, unadulterated movie magic.

Siddharth is the straighter one, the studious one mostly willing to foot the bill for his freeloading friends. There’s Gandhi on his wall and his shelves, and even the chair he sits in happens to be marked Aristotle. And, as mentioned, his artlessness is remarkable: he patiently picks out a whole new outfit and then, when his girl is impressed and comments on it, he smugly says he’s just been shopping. And he’s just waiting to be told to quit smoking.

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Naval, on the other hand, imbues her Neha with such effervescent heart that it’s impossible not to fall for her. She memorably hawks detergent door-to-door to pay for music classes she diligently refuses to ever miss (well, almost ever) and the amount of unaffected joy the actress brings to the film livens it up miraculously. And she looks dazzling, by the way — even when imagined as Chhoti Bahu, in black and white.

And that, by no means, is all. There’s neighbourhood paanwala Lallan Mia, played by the amazing Saeed Jaffrey, a genial soul who couldn’t resist peeking at the girl in the pink salwaar-kameez as she strolled by early on, giving the film its plot. He harangues the trio for never paying for their cigarettes but his threats are but barbs; he threatens to confiscate an LP from the lads but scornfully hands it back. And how he exults about the addition of a bright table-lamp in his shop.

Because Chashme Buddoor is, above all, a film about small joys. About letting a pack of cards decide who gets first crack at a girl. About admitting that a bracelet is indeed too expensive. About friends with interchangeable wardrobes, all borrowing from each other. About flying kites in the park. About finding inspiration in Amitabh Bachchan movies. And about a brilliantly placed nail to hang a censorious towel on, whenever needed.

Chashme Buddoor is a marvel. Watching it two nights ago made my jaws hurt with laughter, predictably, but also my cheeks ache from constantly smiling. It is a wildly ebullient wonder of a film, very special and soaked in far more warmth than we are currently used to. It’s a treat, and like tutti-frutti ice-cream that is far harder to find than it should, we should lap it up while we can, gratefully and ravenously. Go to theatres now.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, April 5, 2013

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Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Some slant their glasses as they pour out their beer. Some pour it straight but fastidiously slow. Some others like their brew topped with foam. And then there are those — like a German dentist working as a highly efficient bounty hunter in the American South — fill their mugs to the top and then slice off the foam by the neck: in one swift motion, Dr King Schultz beheads his beer.

django1Routinely fascinating, every little thing Schultz does is magic: theatrically flamboyant and effectively surprising. Played marvellously by Christoph Waltz, Schultz uses loquacious language to flummox and to wheedle, to sneak and to stun. His gestures are deliberate and confounding in equal measure: he takes a fair while to wear his glasses and peer at the written word; he takes significantly less time to cave to temptation and shoot a man down. With a gun hidden, as it were, up his sleeve.

And as Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary new movie begins in the year 1858, the good doctor buys a slave called Django. As fortune (and filmmakers that believe all too gladly in legend) would have it, Django has a wife with a German name, her horrible story echoing the German folk tale of Brunhilde and Siegfried. Schultz says it isn’t every day that a German gets to help a real-life Siegfried, and feeling as he does some awkward guilt and misplaced responsibility towards Django, partners up with him to help him bring back his wife, his “Broomhilda” from her living hell, the worst slave plantation there is. The fireworks are obvious.

Yet Tarantino’s concoction is so much more than spaghetti, with an awful lot of red sauce and a far more enduring aftertaste. His explosive, inflammatory anti-bigotry crusade takes no prisoners as it shockingly and plainly tears away genteel notions of the antebellum south and presents it to us in all its grotesquerie. (Gone With The Wind, for one, can never feel the same again.) We are made to laugh at the ridiculousness of hooded racists on horses and savagely shown how slaves are treated while white men sit in their parlours musing on superiority. And looming above all is the grand villain of the piece, the monstrously silken Calvin Candie. With bowls of jellybeans for him in each room, the amusement-park name for his plantation — Candyland — not softening the sting of the whip on the backs of his slaves.

This is a brutally violent movie, yes. Men are ripped apart by rabid dogs, women are baked naked in sundrenched coffins, and the wealthy make spectacle — like in the 1975 movie Mandingo — by pitting slaves against each other in bouts of bloodsport. That said, the words are sharper, crueller, stormier still. A black maid is told to treat Django like a free man, but not, indeed not, like she would treat a white man. Broomhilda is “wheeled out” for Dr Schultz because she can speak German, and when she speaks a line of the language, the hostess’ eyes widen with disbelief. (“Astonishing”, Schultz remarks, his sarcasm uncharacteristically unhidden.) “Talented as they are in the kitchen,” Candie says icily, “from time to time, adult supervision is required.”

It is a wildly entertaining but bitterly sobering film, a film reflecting on past shame while stabbing at the remnants of racism that remain within. Tarantino’s last film, the revisionist-history masterpiece Inglorious Basterds (where Hitler is burned down by Jews in a movie theatre) was a far sexier and more stylised film; Django Unchained is cruder and less finessed, feeling more like a chokeslam than an elegant uppercut. There is style, certainly — and cinematographer Robert Richardson is quite the master, especially when photographing blood splattering onto unplucked cotton — but this is, above all else, an angry film. (An older character from the Tarantino Universe given to Bible quoting might have called the new film, quite simply, “righteous.”)

The performances are all larger than life, and universally thrilling. Jamie Foxx smoulders as Django, saving his swagger for when he finally deems himself deserving, all the while playing a more subdued character while everyone around him is wallowing in flash. Schultz hands him a beer and Django sips at it incredulously, trying to keep it together but unable to help curling his lips up into a half-smile: it is quite likely his first drink, and he nods with approval. His character — named after the hero from 1966’s Django, with that hero Franco Nero in a flawless cameo here — has to act as a black slaver, the sort of man he loathes more than anything, and this he does with a natural alacrity that borders on the frightening. At one point, establishing his authority, he calls a white cowboy ‘Moonlight’ and barks the words “that means you” to put him in his place, moments after big boss Calvin Candie has used the same words to one of his strongmen.

django2Leonardo DiCaprio, in turn, is magnificently mercurial as Candie, a blustery slave-owner, an articulate and slimily, devastatingly decorous Francophile who holds court with a chilling discourse on the misled ‘science’ of phrenology while sawing into a skull. As with Django but for purposes much shallower and self-gratifying, much of Candie’s behaviour — from his exaggerated bellows professing love for his sister to his meticulously chosen words — is an act, an attempt to create character and stay in it. He even snarls the word “splendid.” And when he holds a hammer in a bloodied hand, he makes the shivers come.

The only man who has the measure of Candie is his head slave, Stephen. Laying it on nightmarishly thick, Samuel L Jackson conjures up a truly fearsome character, the film’s most hideous takeaway. It is a sickeningly good performance, one that blurs the lines as effectively as Tarantino likes. Stephen controls the slaves with an iron grip while enjoying an unparalleled friendship with Candie, sipping brandy with him in his library, at least in private. In public, he stands by the master with dogged loyalty but never gives an inch more than he must: he might not know what the word ’panache’ means but grasps it swiftly and uses it perfectly soon enough.

As with all of Tarantino’s films, so much of Django Unchained is about words, words perfectly used and perfectly picked, words that actors like Waltz and Jackson take to a different level and words that, once used, can’t be replaced. Words that result in a couple of immaculate lines about d’Artagnan and Dumas, the single best bit of dialogue on screen in years.

And Django suffers only from the filmmaker not letting in enough of his own words.

Tarantino has spoken of his film scripts as novels in their own right, as scripts he works on till they are so good they should be able to stand alone and tempt him into not making them into movies. And they truly are: reading Tarantino is a very special pleasure, and I urge fans to look up the lushly-detailed screenplays he leaks regularly onto the Internet. And by that measure — because Tarantino is a genre onto himself — I find Django Unchained a far better script than it is a film.

django3And this isn’t merely a question of slavish loyalty (though the Basterds adaptation barely left out two scripted scenes while Django omits massive and vital chunks) but one of storytelling. Kerry Washington’s character Broomhilda suffers massively from losing her entire, wonderful backstory, for example. There are some positively frightening but stunning Candie moments in there that I hate to see unfilmed and while the argument can obviously be made about length, this is the man who made two Kill Bill movies. The format bows to the master and it must not be the other way around.

Most vitally though, Django stumbles in its final act because — unlike in the script — Django’s heroics are already showcased in the film well before the finale, and also because there is a gratuitous pre-climactic action flurry that — in terms of gallons of blood used — outsplatters the eventual climax and renders it less effective. Lighting the same powder-keg twice never works quite as well. (Oh, and then there’s a far-too-casual cameo from the director himself, using a peculiarly comical Australian accent. Tsk.)

But that, in terms of the big bloody picture, is nitpicking. Despite that final fanboy caveat, Django Unchained provides more entertainment than most genre films can dream of, and more of a wallop than the most ambitious of dramas. It is a vulgar, gorgeous, wild piece of untameable poetry (which mostly doesn’t rhyme, except when Schultz gleefully says “Candieee” like “whee!”) and there is, quite simply, no other film in the world like it. Drink up.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, March 22, 2013

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The Best English Films of 2012

10. The Avengers

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9. Safety Not Guaranteed

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8. Looper

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7. Beasts Of The Southern Wild

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6. Argo

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5. “The Late Show” Parts 1-3

Louie : Season 3, Episodes 10, 11, 12

(It doesn’t have to be an actual film to be better than most films.)

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4. Ruby Sparks

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3. Django Unchained

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2. Moonrise Kingdom

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1. The Master

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March 19, 2013 · 1:06 pm

How Steven Spielberg brought Bollywood closer

It all began with a glass of water.

glassWe all have our own gateways into the wondrous world of Steven Spielberg. From the glowing doorway in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the first sighting of the shark in Jaws to the rolling boulder in Raiders Of The Lost Ark… we have, each of us, experienced that moment of sheer cinematic exhilaration, a moment where we realise just how headily joyous bigscreen cinema can be.

For me, it was the water. A glass that stood on a dashboard of an SUV with two children (and a lawyer) locked inside, the exploring palaeontologists far out in the rain. Few visuals in cinema are as ominous as the way the water in the glass ripples outward and, at 12, I remember gaping at that moment in 1993’s Jurassic Park — scared and thrilled and with my heart going boom — and being overwhelmed.

For that is what Spielberg does: he makes us fall head over heels in love with the movies. And no matter what image he bowled us over with, we remain grateful fans. Each of us, no matter what we think of War Horse or the last Indy movie, has been jolted, galvanised, touched by his work. Several times over.

~

And so it was a particularly unbelievable Monday evening in Mumbai when we gathered to meet the man who made ET. Self-importance and egos were thrown aside as a dazzling assemblage of Hindi movie directors arrived at the venue, more than a half hour ahead of the scheduled time. And with a crowd like that, it was special well before Spielberg walked in.

It was fascinating to see all of Hindi cinema represented in one hotel ballroom, a stupendous set of directors waiting for the man who had wowed us all, a room teeming with talent. The assemblage was magnificent — from Shyam Benegal to Anurag Kashyap to Abbas-Mastan to Gauri Shinde to Rajkumar Hirani — and each was as thrilled. Personally, as one of only two critics in attendance — the wonderful Anupama Chopra being the other — it was a huge privilege to rub shoulders with this set of helmers, to exchange Indiana Jones notes with Nagesh Kukunoor and discuss the Munich telephone sequence with Sriram Raghavan. Unlike any other industry event rife with politics and far too much press, here we all were, talking about a man who mattered. And we all sounded as old as I was when I’d seen that water ripple.

The tables were eclectic tag-teams bursting with talent. I sat, for example, on one between Rohan and Ramesh Sippy, Sriram Raghavan, Onir, Nagesh Kukunoor and Kunal Kohli. Wow. For a minute I wondered how thrilling it would be to give each table a video camera and instructions to film a short in a half- hour, and then I realised it’d lead to more bloodshed than anything else. Ah well.

~

The event, organised by Reliance Entertainment, promised us Amitabh Bachchan in conversation with Mr Spielberg, and this it provided most wonderfully. The directors couldn’t be gladder that the only actor present was the one on stage, and Mr Bachchan, a handful of years older than Mr Spielberg, conducted a thoughtful conversation peppered with witty asides and insight. He asked fine questions — about how the director has come to rely on his actors more, and whether he’d like to take on a Bond film — but, above all, let the director speak up. Giving us all a glimpse of just how inspiring and how humble one of our idols truly is.

With the schoolboy passion his movies evoke, Spielberg spoke about it all, with exemplary generosity and candor: about cross-cutting shots of his train set to make his first film as a kid; about how all great comedic performers have incredible dramatic performers within, as he’d found with Tom Hanks; about how he repeatedly tried to get a job directing a Bond film and about the fundamental difference between his movies about aliens and those made by his friend George Lucas: “George wants to go out into outer space and find them, I want the aliens to land in my backyard,” he said talking of how nobody but Lucas could have made Star Wars. “I don’t want to lift a finger,” he laughed, and I couldn’t have been the only one thinking of that famous Extra Terrestrial finger.

Mr Bachchan kept taking questions from the rapt audience, questions Mr Spielberg handled deftly and articulately. Asked by Javed Akhtar if his shift towards “cinema with more gravitas, like Lincoln” would mean he won’t make any of the more joyous films we celebrate him for, Mr Spielberg smiled and said, “Well, I did just make a movie called Tintin.” He then proceeded to compare himself to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, quoting the scene of the filmmaker who meets an alien in a field who says they loved his films in outer space; well, at least his “earlier, funnier films.”

~

It was an immaculately organised event, intimate and wonderful. Steven Spielberg walked into a room and made the Hindi film industry feel far more united and tight-knit than it usually seems. He inspired us, smiled at us, shook our hands. Yes indeed.

And after all the directors were done asking questions, often prefaced by how he changed their lives, I couldn’t help asking him about that famous video clip of him in 1977, having just made the super-successful Jaws, watching the Oscar nominations announcement on TV. In the terrific clip, a 26-year-old Spielberg predicts that Jaws will get a sweeping 11 nominations, and then reacts with disappointment as it gets ‘only’ four. And he doesn’t get a nomination for Best Director, but in the video says “I got beaten out by Fellini.” I asked if this was said with regret, fury or admiration, in the sense that at least he was beaten by the master.

“I don’t remember that day very well except to ask myself why on earth I let those cameras into my office,” laughed Mr Spielberg, bringing the house down. “The amount of ego and hubris that I could have, as a 26-year-old director, to assume that I would get nominated and the film would get these multiple nomination, I think my karma intervened. I was probably on the wrong side of the Academy that year because I never should have said it. I believe if I had perhaps watched [the nominations] privately, it might have been a little brighter.”

“You know, I had met Fellini when I was very young, because he had seen Duel and liked it, loved it, and I had spent my day with Federico Fellini, The Maestro! And we kept communicating with each other, and I believe the last letter he read before he passed away was one I wrote to him, and so when Fellini got the nomination that year [for Amarcord], I remember actually feeling happy for him.”

~

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I went and shook his hand and thanked him for Jurassic Park and that glass of water, and he smiled and reminded me that the film is re-releasing in 3D next month, for its twentieth anniversary. And as I walked out and pinballed among a crowd of excited filmmakers with a “my year is made” vibe coursing through the room, I realised that very few things can make us feel as young as the films of Steven Spielberg.

We talked about his movies, about ours, about movies in general, and specific instances of his movies, all while being giddily aware of just how remarkable the evening had been. And then I walked out and, um, phoned home.

~

First published Rediff, March 12, 2013

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Review: Ben Affleck’s Argo

argo1God bless grown men who make swooshy laser sounds with their mouths. Wonderment is the cornerstone of the Hollywood we know and love (and are frequently exasperated by). The magical escape cinema allows, the willingness with which we surrender to surreality and to nonsense, the way we — gladly, gratefully even — believe in what we choose to, regardless of plausibility or reason. Sometimes what we are made to buy into is pure lunacy. And sometimes it’s even madder: the real thing.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, set during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, is a loosely, dramatically retold true story, one blurring the line between fact and farce which such mastery that the actual recorded facts seem nearly inconsequential. Near the finish of this film, one character quotes Karl Marx, another asks if he meant Groucho, and, after the laugh, I left the theatre wondering that — when all is indeed done and dusted — which of those two namesakes mattered more, struck at genuinely weightier truths. But I digress; Argo is a masterpiece.

The Iranian revolutionaries, the Komiteh, storm the US Embassy in Teheran. The Americans are genuinely outnumbered, their marines helpless, as the revolutionist take over the building, taking nearly 50 Americans hostage. Six, however, escape. And it is up to the CIA and its exfiltration experts to figure a way to smuggle them out before they are caught and beheaded. The doomed ideas tossed around the table sound awful, amateurish, worthy of slapstick: one of them involves smuggling in bicycles. It is here that exfil specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), the shaggy-haired hero of this feature, suggests what is referred to as “the best bad idea” American Intelligence has: faking a movie.

‘Argo,’ short presumably for argonaut, is a hackneyed blockbuster script that involves, among disrobed princess and attacked citadels, chases through an exotically Eastern bazaar. It fits the bill concocted by Mendez and Oscar-winning prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman), and is cunningly co-opted by producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a poster is made, advertisements placed in Variety. Despite the broken down sign, Hollywood is still the best manufacturer of falsehood in the world, and Mendez and his fake film crew go about lying to the press to help them spread the fib farther. The idea is that Mendez enter Iran, help the diplomats in hiding to pretend they are indeed a crew scouting for locations, and leave Iran before the Komiteh can piece things together — and piecing things they are, very sinisterly indeed.

It is an urgently told film, one that recreates in macabre detail the situation as seen in file-footage and news photos: one where bodies are hung in the town square and where gentle folk leave their wine and scurry into crawlspaces. Rodrigo Pieto’s cinematography is mostly claustrophobic and occasionally expansive, and goes brilliantly with Affleck’s frantic but unhurried style which takes its own time to built up to a climax of relentless breathlessness. And the timebomb ticks on with excruciating, exquisite inevitability.

argo01It is an incredible account, and Affleck runs magnificently with it, allowing Chris Terrio’s mostly restrained screenplay the breathing space it deserves for some killer dialogue — Arkin has the film’s most quotable lines, about how the Iranian revolutionaries would like CIA blood with their breakfast cereal, about the Ayatollah and the Writers Guild of America, about how he must be an unplanned part of a film — and crafting, in the process, a film that goes from a Sorkinesque walk-and-talk to a ruthlessly rat-a-tat trot and, finally, a full blooded gallop. The dramatic escalation at the film’s finale is unbelievably, spectacularly rousing, but made so only by the smaller details that precede it.

For Argo is a film of superb, fastidious nuance. The nods to diplomats out on assignment compelled to make wives into fellow staffers. The sneer with which an immigration official crosses out the word Kingdom from Iran while granting a visa. The way even a revolutionary pauses at images of Rocky Balboa and Ted Kramer in a magazine. The importance of being allowed a mid-air drink.

Affleck alternates between soft and harsh beats, starting with a historically grounded assault and then expertly flipping back and forth: deadly news reportage is spliced alongside a line-reading of the B-movie, bad dialogues of crushing gravitational fields contrasted with hostages forced into the ground. And then there’s the hilarious, rallying war cry for the renegade team: one involving the film’s title and one that, reassuringly enough, makes its way from reality to the script and not the other way around.

Peopled by a striking ensemble — Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Philip Baker Hall, Clea DuVall, Chris Messina are all there and in fine form, especially Cranston — Argo tells a staggeringly peculiar story, and tells it with violent tension and extreme cleverness. Affleck’s direction is emphatic, self-assured, manipulative in the most effective of ways, and crucially tinted with irony. It is as the film’s music winks, midway through: it isn’t enough merely to Swing for the fences, unless you back yourself to be the Sultans.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, October 19, 2012

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Jaspal Bhatti, the one and only

The first time I heard of Jaspal Bhatti I’d already stolen from him.

I was nine and trying to make a movie with my best friend, Varun Bahl. We tried hard to write a funny enough script, but nothing quite struck filmable gold — enough to justify commandeering the bulky camcorder — till Varun apparently hit paydirt. Builderon Ki Duniya (The World Of Builders) was a wicked script hilarious enough to impress our parents, and would have been a significant step for two pre-pubescent comics — except, as Bahl soon confessed, his brainwave lay mostly in stealing a plot idea from an episode of Bhatti’s excellent Flop Show, and, for good plagiaristic measure, borrowing a great line (“he doesn’t just add sand to cement, he adds cement to sand”) from the venerable Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. And yet, despite Varun pulling an AnuragBasu, and the two of us coming up with seriously substandard dialogue, BKD still worked as a script simply because the idea it was built on was so damned terrific.

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Jaspal Bhatti was a genius.

His accessible yet damning satire, his rollicking song parodies, his exceptional insights: they all came together brilliantly as he took on the establishment — and even, at times, each of us — with casual ease. Flop Show and its predecessor Ulta Pulta delivered bonafide laughs laced with vitriol, irony and true wit. Smarter than any comedy for miles around, Bhatti’s shows made us guffaw in unison: quite a feat considering how unwilling we normally are, as a nation, to laugh at ourselves.

But the bearded one cut across prejudice and objection with breezy nonchalance, the start of his Flop Show mocking the very idea of opening credits: opening with a grave cautionary note, and — set to a synthesizer-driven band, with an eyepatched man barking like a dog, and a skinny, highly enthused dancer miming out various occupations — it proudly said it was ‘misdirected’ by Jaspal Bhatti.

The episodes themselves — invariably featuring Bhatti himself, his wife Savita and the spectacularly talented Vivek Shauq, who passed away last year — focussed on one issue and then doodled around the margins. So he’d take, for example, medical reimbursement claims, and then weave not just a story about faking death, but also create unforgettable characters and arm each of them with fantastic moments. There were just ten episodes of Flop Show, but over two decades after it first aired, it remains fantastically quotable and funny as ever.  It’s aged, as Bhatti may well say, like a Sardar: as good as ever, only — looking at the tragically bad television we see around us — it seems heavier now.

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It’s hard to find an Indian parallel to Bhatti simply because there hasn’t ever been one.

His style of humour is drier than we’re used to, and yet completely accessible, unafraid to veer into farce or to steer into serious criticism. The jokes in his shows are like perfect stand-up routines fine-tuned into sketches, then strung together into a show that somehow works through and through. Each of those ten episodes is a side-splitting masterclass.

It’s deeply distressing, to us as viewers, that Bhatti never capitalised on his widespread success and never made anything of serious impact after Flop Show. There was no revival, no new show, no feature films of note. Was this Bhatti’s failing? Or was it the fault of current television, that has dumbed down beyond the point of accepting anything with any smarts? All we know is that we lost out.

Imagine Bhatti with a show like Louie, one that gave him elbow room to indulge his whimsy, one where he could show us life through his own unique perspective. Imagine the delightfully amiable Bhatti hosting his own late night talk show, zanily riffing with guests he’d picked and constantly taking potshots at them and the worlds they come from. Imagine Bhatti doing one stand-up special a year and being paid the way he deserved to be. Imagine Bhatti forming a Pythonian troupe of inspirationally insane smarts.

Jaspal Bhatti was too good for Indian television. And if it takes his death and all the eulogies to wake us up to that fact — to jolt our box out of its utter idiocy — he may well have considered it a worthy sacrifice. At the time he died, he was promoting a film about electricity failure called Power Cut, and the least we can do is watch it and wonder what might, or, actually, what should have been.

For now, all you, me and Varun Bahl must do when we hear someone say Bhattisaab is dead is to imagine him instead hiding out in the bathroom, eating bananas. It’s what he’d have wanted.

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First published Rediff, October 25, 2012

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