Go Goa Gone:
In which Raj and DK direct.
In which Saif brings the cool.
In which I write his lines.
(Oh, and did I mention zombies?)
Go Goa Gone:
In which Raj and DK direct.
In which Saif brings the cool.
In which I write his lines.
(Oh, and did I mention zombies?)
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.
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.
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.
First published Rediff, October 25, 2012
After 99 Mirror columns, Raja Sen marks his ton by listing the hundred greatest films in the hundred years of Hindi cinema.
Click on the image to view the list full-size.
Please debate and disagree with inclusions and omissions in the comments section, but for every film you want to add, do suggest which one to toss out.
First published Mumbai Mirror, June 20, 2012
In the Quentin Tarantino universe, everything is connected. I brought in Tuesday by rereading the final draft of the screenplay of his upcoming Django Unchained, only to realise that March 27 happens to be the director’s birthday. That manner of happenstance is just a taste of the sort of pop cultural synchronicity the director, now 49, thrives on, lining up his self-referential ducks all in a row to shoot them down all at once in a glorious meta-textual blitz of bullets and homages, in a style so unique that even a cinematic cliché like the Mexican Standoff – where everyone points a gun at everyone else – is turned on its head and made more Quentinian than Mexican. (And yes, Mr Pink runs away with the money.)
Reading a Tarantino script is a thrilling act, one that nearly always exceeds expectations. He might only be supposed to blow the bloody doors off, but then Tarantino – blessed, dyslexic, grammatically-challenged Tarantino — never quite made his peace with ‘supposed.’ Which is why well before his film starts shooting, he leaks the full script online, typos and all. As if to challenge us to eat it up, chew down every single spoiler, literally spell out exactly what to expect… And then he lights the words on fire and watches our all-knowing heads spin.
The reading comes doused in the basest of temptation. You know reading the screenplay will let you in on every secret, and take away the element of surprise. Wouldn’t you rather just wait and be wowed on screen? You know you shouldn’t read it, right? Sure. I used to think that before I read Inglourious Basterds, and gasped at the audacity of that first scene, that mammoth twenty-three page opening conversation scene that had me breathless just reading it aloud and watching it unfold in my head. When I finally saw the scene several months later, it was like watching a spectacular novel adapted perfectly onto screen. The gasps were all in place, every single one of them. And they remain thus every time I watch the film.
It helps that Tarantino is an electrifying writer, one whose narrative is made of both pulpy shock and highly effective storytelling. The dialogue is, of course, inimitably crackerjack, and the style so vividly visual you can’t help but picture it. It’s all immensely evocative, and while I’d like to believe years of awestruck gazing at Tarantino’s oeuvre would let us in on it, would let us picture the scene just as he’s going to show it to us, it really doesn’t. He’s still going to punch your senses right in the gut, knocking you out either with visuals or pace or improvisation or, often, with a staggeringly visceral choice of music.
And maybe he just picks his songs at the end, filling in those aural blanks when everything else is in place, or maybe there are some cards even he likes to play close to his chest, but the script doesn’t give these away. All the script says is “Cue COOL music,” and lets the reading brain explode with possibility, just as it does when the camera moves away from the ear-slicing and lets us fill in our own horror.
I urge those of you with an interest in cinema, in screenwriting and in Tarantino to read the Django Unchained script, available easily enough online with some smart Googling, for this Southern – a black cowboy film set in the South, which means its not a Western – may well be his most brutal and most important film. Or just a helluva hoot that earns Leonardo DiCaprio another Oscar nomination.
Either way, Mister Tarantino, thank you – for the words that come before the images do. And here’s wishing you a Happy Birthday.
(Cue COOL music.)
First published Mumbai Mirror, March 28, 2012
More Rushdie-lite than rushed delight, Narcopolis tries far too hard.
Jeet Thayil begins his first novel with a very long sentence, one of those showboating literary devices that can make or mar the mood, and while the writing in that chapter-long opening salvo is more precious than authentically frantic, far too eager to show off the poet’s linguistic range — from poor puns to patronising punditry — there is an undeniable energy to it, a grace apparent even as the writer aims to impress, to astound, to make you draw your breath in and wonder what comes next, admittedly a pretty smart way to start a book except, and here’s the thing, except it isn’t really a long sentence, it doesn’t really glide, instead using commas as crutches, as fullstops in disguise, striving unnaturally to take a relatively intriguing prologue and turn it into a stream-of-consciousness spectacle, a guitar-solo opening meant to electrify the reader, and while that is peachy keen in theory, perhaps there is a reason events, even literary ones, don’t begin with showstoppers, and this ambitious Narcopolis is left teetering as the writer keeps scrabbling to find room (in a hovel-novel crammed with characters, backstories and dreams) to roll up his unprosaic sleeves and work in another sensationally gaspworthy guitar riff, and the result is painful as each of the book’s undoubtedly colourful multiple narrators — junkies of extraordinary description, separated by gender, geography, greed — look at the world with the very same open-mouthed sense of wonder, absorbing it all like sponges with remarkable powers of observation and regurgitating it right up to the point that they take their next hit, which, invariably, sends them down a spiral that spells out how all dreams are prophetic and all dreamers doubly so, a repetitive trope that renders the book tragically turgid, one that exhausts more than it exhilarates even as Thayil laboriously pulls out all the stops to dazzle us, taking us from the book’s leading lady — a eunuch christened Dimple after the hit film playing in theatres at the time she was Bobby-ted, so to speak — to Chairman Mao’s China, to the McMumbai of today, and while Thayil painstakingly and often beautifully details the varying effects different drugs have on very different people, lingering meticulously on the consumptive process behind each drug, his fond intoxication with the subject renders it tiresome as the book goes on and the method and madness of every single drug — at least to the casual user, nay, reader — blurs into the other and we are tempted to feel that the writer is leading us down parallel rabbit-holes all to the same effect, which isn’t altogether true, but (all together now?) sure as hell feels like it, despite the writer fleshing out the eunuch character quite brilliantly, telling us her story with fascinated sympathy while all other characters seem somewhat condescendingly pinned down by cliché, by the need to act like books and movies inform us characters of that ‘type’ would act in similar circumstances, especially when the action shifts to rice-eating Mao-worshipping China, but despite provoking much rolling of the eyes, the writer occasionally manages marvellous stylistic flourishes (“The sky was the colour of someone’s black eye,” he writes for the rain-ravaged city) that almost make up for constant allusions to the kind of authors he would like to share a shelf with (Baudelaire mentions notwithstanding, this lies closer to Khushwant Singh’s masterful Delhi, a great novel which managed the city-as-eunuch narrative far more authentically) as he keeps nudging, winking and suggesting that this Narcopolis is just the type of confounding volume its character Mr Lee would wonder whether to call imagined autobiography or a historical novel, and which first novel we should just call a trip, no more no less, a surreptitiously sucked-in hit that thrills only in bits, thrills less than it tires, but nevertheless a quick ride with true merit and some steam, and if only he, like his narrator, had split the seductively long line into more coherently sized chunks, we’d all have inhaled it easier — though I must here confess that writing a really long sentence is mad cool.
First published Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, February 19, 2012
Friends, audiences, countrymen: watch me play the fool.
We trade places this Friday, cinema and I.
The arrangement has long been a simple one. Movies unfold themselves before me, while I sit back — one hand eager to applaud with thigh-slapping glee, the other resting by a freshly sharpened scimitar — and watch, then write. This weekend I do neither, as a film where I am but a celluloid passenger hits screens. I am now in your hands, you turner of pages, you complainer of my words, you disagreeing deity. And it is to your chopping block I offer my throat, ready for garrote, guillotine or gaali.
In Sudhish Kamath’s ridiculously independent film Good Night Good Morning — releasing across the country this Friday — I am, as conceded above, a passenger. (Literally. I sit in a car surrounded by real actors, as one of them talks to a pretty actress.) It is an unconventional and peculiar romance, an all-night phone conversation brought to the audience via black and white visuals mostly split halfway down the middle, and while I have absolutely no idea how good the film is, I suspect the conversation may be quite disconcertingly close to reality. Or at least that’s what incessantly-texted conversations I’m currently having in the off-screen world seem to indicate.
And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem, and the point of this column: I just don’t know how good it is. I can’t. I’ve watched the film four times over various festival screenings and finally now — with prints scrubbed up digitally and the sound mixed to multiplex standards — it does indeed feel like a ‘real’ film, and yet I, too busy cringing every time I see myself on screen to drum up any objective viewpoint, have no idea how the film actually is. I’m ‘told’ it’s quite good. Occasionally “intense,” even. But you know how critics are.
Which is why I’m asking you to go see it, and then let me have the full earful. (And yes, like I said last week, if you don’t like it halfway through, walk right out. And do tell me you did.) But giving it a shot would be both nice and a personal favour, since I, flummoxed and exasperated by not being able to have an opinion, would really like you to do what I usually do and tell me how terrific or trashy it all is.
Several online haters, infuriated by my less-than-devout attitude toward their favourite superstars, have been hammering this poor little film all over online forums, calling me names and even calling it a knockoff of George Clooney’s fantastic Good Night And Good Luck, merely because both films are black-and-white-and-titled-politely. Sigh. Murder the film by all means, but get it in your sights before you squeeze that trigger, yes?
So impale it or embrace it, high-five me or hang me, all I say is watch the film and smack me between the eyes with your opinion. Because it’s killing me to not have my own.
First published Mumbai Mirror, January 18, 2012.
If you don’t like a film, turn it off. Or change channels. Or walk out.
It’s something I can’t do, shackled to a seat despite absolutely no possibility of things getting better. It’s like The Ludovico Technique, except with Vishal-Shekhar playing instead of good ol’ Ludvig Von. I am, however, paid to bite that bullet, and because I have made a career out of giving movies of questionable quality a fighting chance, I steadfastly refuse to offer similar generosity to books or music. No unheard of indie band playing in Juhu for me, thankyouverymuch, and no debutant novelist’s scribbles about a sprawling clan. But movies? I’m around right till the end credits. And you don’t need to be.
It begins in school, this conditioning that we must not abandon a book midway. That we must see it through despite the first few chapters being dense, or boring or just not specifically interesting to each of us. We’re told it’ll only really reward us in it’s entirety, a strategic truism partly to expand our horizons beyond what we already like, and partly to serve as training grounds to help us master the rote, the ratta that gets us through other subjects, even lowlier ones that do not involve the reading of novels.
As a result, we finish bad novels (‘what’s another 180 pages?’) and bad movies (‘only 40 more minutes to go, surely Philip Seymour Hoffman will do something?’) but these questions are more submissively masochistic than they are rhetorical. 180 pages is a helluva lot of your time, and if he hasn’t dazzled in the first two hours, Hoffman’s waiting for the end even more impatiently than you are. And he, like me, is paid to stick around.
There are hundreds of thousands of better films –masterpieces and sideshow attractions, little gems and wild cinematic carnival rides, classics and underrated indies – and the more time you devote to a film that isn’t satisfying you, the more you’re missing out on something that could. Screenwriters are told to engage the reader in the first few pages of a script, else it’s curtains as the producer snoozes. And yet we, the audience, are much kinder to films that fail to grab us after twenty listless opening minutes.
But if a film, the most sensory offering in all of popular art, fails to arrest you 40 minutes into the proceedings — through neither narrative nor character nor backdrop nor music nor performance nor light and shadow — then you are decidedly better off walking out. Do it guiltlessly and with head held high, because the truly great films will always have, at the very least, some little thing that’ll reel you in and make you want to keep watching. And what if the climax is spectacular and, as some say, ‘worth the price of admission?’ Well then, watch that bit on YouTube. So scram, and celebrate your moment of justified truancy, as if you got to skip a midday meeting or a drab lecture.
Go ahead, make me jealous.
First published Mumbai Mirror, January 11, 2012
The meritocracy. The mania. The home-delivered alcohol. The hours. The fact that we call it Bombay, come what may. The delusion. The complete lack of perspective. The palpable fanaticism about film. The seaface. The honest auto-rickshaws. The dives. The impossibility. The DVD bootleggers. The fanboys. The fact that nobody really cares unless you beseech them to. The self-love. The brick-red powder that accompanies vada pao. The fact that the city moves as if cut to a soundtrack. WTF, Versova. The freaks. The frankies. The dreamers. The old and gorgeous South Bombay buildings. The new friends. The fact that the city sinks fangs into you and tries to make you its own. The sleeplessness.
But, if I were to pick one: the Bombay girl. Epic.
Originally published in MumbaiBoss, January 2, 2012
The latest issue of Catwoman takes a while to show us her face. First we meet her breasts, nearly tumbling out of a lacy scarlet bra as she yanks on her tight leather suit. As she dons said costume, she’s in no rush to zip up the front. A trio of thugs breaks into her home and as she fights back, we see her butt, in painted-on leather. It’s not until page three of DC Comics’ new Catwoman #1 that we actually see her face, smirking upside down as she flings herself through a high window. The catsuit is inexplicably still unzipped, half her bosom braving cold Gotham air and bullets.
That issue — which ends in a startlingly explicit spread featuring comic-book sex at its most gratuitous and tasteless — is one of several new DC Comics releases sparking off impassioned debate about the hypersexualisation of mainstream comic-books, superhero comics ostensibly written for all-ages. The Internet is abuzz — as those of you going to Mumbai’s upcoming comic-convention are surely well aware — with comics writers explaining how characters need to be written gender-neutrally, how it’s embarrassing when a character is made to ‘pose’ for the seduction of the reader rather then for her fellow page-inmates, how some female characters are meant to be overt in their sexuality and some aren’t — except everyone looks Power-Girl pneumatic nowadays — and how far too many female characters are being turned into mere totty.
(Sigh. My kingdom for the strikingly cool girl: like Neil Gaiman’s Death. Or Ramona Flowers.)
And while I agree with most of the points being made, here’s what I think: women in comics are being turned cartoonishly sexy simply because a lot of mainstream comic characters are now being written with big-screen feasibility in mind.
And if the character is caricaturedly sexy to begin with, as part of the source material, then Hollywood is not whipped by the fanboys when they cast some massively bosomed bimbette in a fishnet costume looking like her primary superpower is Mega Cleavage, because all they’re doing is staying l-o-y-a-l: to comics that start out wanting to be movies.
I’m a hardcore fanboy, and I love superhero movies, but comics being written a certain way merely so they’ll make for more commercially bankable movies? Man, that sounds positively LexLuthorian in both cunning and shamelessness.
And it isn’t just the girls. Nick Fury, leader of superhero-employing world-saving organisation SHIELD (so Caucasian he was once played laughably by David Hasselhoff) started looking exactly like Samuel L Jackson when Marvel rebooted him in its Ultimates line, and who plays him in the movies these days? Voila, that man with the expletives on his wallet.
The other way you can tell comics are being written keeping the screen in mind is in the overt need for diverse ethnicities. The overcompensation is the kind we see in revolving-ensemble TV shows like Law & Order and CSI. Everyone’s in the audience, and they all need to be represented. So we have Bruce Wayne hit on by some girl whose mother was a Bollywood actress, a half-Black half-Hispanic teenager getting spider-powers, and, in the panel above, the new Barbara Gordon looking quite uncannily like Priyanka Chopra, which could bode quite well for the actress’s future if the look catches on.
Piggy Chops as Batgirl? Way to make Ra One jealous, babe.
First published Mumbai Mirror, October 19, 2011
The best way to watch 1939 gem The Wizard Of Oz, as many of you are doubtless aware, has nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s director, Victor Fleming. The original is a perfectly great film, a superlative piece of vintage movie magic that hits all the right chords in one delicious yellowbrick strum. And yet, classic and immaculate as the film is, it surreally transcends the cinematic experience when watched on mute, with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon providing the audio.
When sync’d just right, the art rock masterpiece occasionally resonates so jawdroppingly with the film’s visuals — that iconic Money cash register cha-chings as soon as Dorothy opens the door, for example, stepping from sepiatoned Kansas into technicolor Oz — that it feels like those architects of psychedelia consciously constructed the album around the film. That, of course, is merely shroom-fueled romanticism, with absolutely no basis in fact. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. How far could our legends possibly soar without their apocryphal capes?
And while I’d love to go on about how uncannily the “Black…” exclamation from Us & Them lines up alongside the visual of the Wicked Witch Of The West turning to face our naive heroine, (and do throw a “Whoa, dude” into my imagined voice in your head) the fact remains that this wonderful marriage of movie and music owes lesser to the creators of either work than it does to some ambitious dorm-room twist of fate, where some young feller decided to try and combine two different kinds of genius together and see what happens. In an alchemical explosion — the sort seen when a precursor of this lad slathered jam onto bread after exhausting the last of his peanut butter on slice one — the universe nodded its approval and something stellar came, coincidentally, to be.
Coincidences like that, it may cogently be argued, are in themselves proof that the atheists are wrong.
Speaking of Whom, no recent film believes in the almighty with quite the card-carrying, near-Missionary urgency of Terrence Malick’s latest, The Tree Of Life. It is a spectacular, humbling, overwhelming, emotionally naked film, more to be experienced than watched. It is a staggering work of art, one that works as prayer and parable, and yet, because it happens to be as catatonic as it is cathartic, works significantly lesser as a film. It must be admitted that it is, indeed, a bit of a drag. To speak with the National Geographic symbolism the film pours on indiscriminately and overzealously, The Tree Of Life is a cinematic black hole: so self-seriously heavy that it eventually collapses in unto itself. But what a lovely boom, huzzah.
However, true believers, I believe I might have hit upon the solution of solutions, one that makes up in impact what it lacks in out-and-out originality. An answer so fiendishly simple, in fact, that it pretty much presents itself: Like the man who came up with The Dark Side Of The Rainbow, just add Waters. First name, Roger. Majestic pretension cancels out majestic pretension, or at least so we hope.
The film opens with a quotation from the Book Of Job. Immediately after this is when you mute the film’s audio, while clicking play to kickstart one of Floyd’s maddest, most ambitious albums, Atom Heart Mother. As we see fluid scenes of 50s Americana via a family sired by granite-chinned Brad Pitt, the 23-minute opening track jars violently, dashing us rockily against the gorgeous images. And what unbelievably apt names the 6 sections of the titular composition have: Father’s Shout, Breast Milky, Mother Fore, Funky Dung, Mind Your Throats Please and Remergence. After this comes that simplistically haunting song, If, which ought to work as a punch right between the eyes, pretty much at the moment when Malick starts to show the trippy beginnings of life itself, mesmeric cosmic burps, jellyfish and dinosaurs. Skip the next track, Summer 68, play David Gilmour’s 14-minute concert version of Fat Old Sun instead of the one on the studio album, and top it off with Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.
There we go. Already your Tree Of Life experience has been a decidedly more visceral one than Malick provided. Know why? No ponderous voiceovers to go with those gobstopping visuals. No “Mother, make me good, brave”, no “How did she bear it?”, no “I will give him to you; I give you my son.” My lord, I cannot stress how much more Pink Floyd have already improved on the film by killing those preposterous voiceovers, and, since your munchies ought be kicking in this long into the film, let me tell you it just gets better.
The second Floyd album for the film is Meddle, a cornucopia of aural imagery spread across bleak and beautiful soundscapes. Start with Echoes, the 23-minute masterpiece Kubrick rumouredly rejected for his 2001: A Space Odyssey, and play it twice, back to back. (Whoa.) Now the rest of the album, straight-up: One Of These Days, A Pillow Of Winds, Fearless, San Tropez, and Seamus. If there is a God and he wants us to get high on Malick, we’ll see the cluelessly contrite Sean Penn stumbling around exactly while Fearless plays, and blow our collective minds.
Those of you who have watched The Tree Of Life and have liked it might find this obsessive piece of Floyd-geekery excessive, and it certainly is. I hadn’t heard the band in ages, but the film — its unerringly note-perfect craftsmanship; its undeniable artistry; its magnificent, dazzling, overbaked visuals; its layers and layers of liberally applied symbolism; its bluster; its occasional genius; its frequent sexlessness and its hubris — instantly made me crave and hunt them out. Those who haven’t might be curious about the film’s ‘story,’ about which all I can merely say is that it is more of a meditation.
Like Wesley Morris wrote in the film’s finest review (one you should go look up if keen to know more about the film than the bits I’ve told you) “the movie is church via the planetarium.” And who better than Floyd to underscore such a killer sound and light show?
First published Kindle magazine, September 2011