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My first review ever: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

The thing about spiders is: We don’t like them. Either creepily hairy or disconcertingly spindly, they refuse us even the common decency of being stealthy, commonly wallowing in out discomfort as they slothfully crawl in and out of sight. Their web spinning abilities, while nothing short of awesomely miraculous, strike us, at best, as icky. A testament to their unpopularity can be seen even the popularist Disney universe — where unsavory creatures are given the chance to blossom into heroes, arachnids are singled out as mustachioed villains. The magnificent, unparalleled symmetry of the web is unfairly, undeniably, shadowed by the perception of the spider as icky.

Herein lies Peter Parker’s essential dilemma. Straddling dual lives, each of which is a full, hectic battle in itself: the conflicting, constant, workaday life of the average superhero; and the more demanding, exhausting life of a young student working to put himself through college while trying to deal with love. The latter is a life we’ve all been familiar with, and the former is essentially what we go through in terms of mental battles, nightmares and trauma poured into lycra and sporting ridiculous monikers. As he swings from the Empire State Building and scoops up almost-alight kiddies to safety, the public still isn’t sure whether to actually like him: he’s a spider, darn it.

spidey2Spiderman Two opens with possibly the most brilliant recap of events in recent popcorn history: Danni Elfman’s striking score, cobwebs set against blood red, framing stunning Alex Ross illustrations of events gone by in the first film. By the time the credits end, we are reacquainted with a story we have not forgotten, and thirsty to see more. And Sam Raimi delivers. From the first shot, the film lays on Peter’s life being an actual embodiment of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

After a breathtaking opening with Spiderman flying across madly to deliver Pizza in time, swinging in surreal CGI arcs with fabulous élan, there is a shot of Peter Parker struggling to exit the broom closet — brooms falling sequentially like persistent dominoes as he merely, clutzily attempts to just push them together long enough to squeeze himself out of there. This shot, of a superhero fast enough to dodge bullets and fists with unreal panache, being just a geeky little nervous kid, is worthy of standing applause and sets the tone for the film. Despite genetically arachnid superpowers and a rocking costume, Spiderman is well and truly human.

Cinematically, this is truly a commendable effort. New York is highly stylized, very affectionately — a visual ode to a beautiful city, loyal enough to evoke memories of the great Allen himself. Often, celluloid hats are tipped to masters of cinema obviously inspirational to Raimi, an eclectic selection of influences from the aforementioned Woody (I swear I could see a couple of Manhattan-style framings in there) to Martin Scorsese (as Spidey swings over the Goodfellas boroughs). The screenplay, contributed to by novelist and comic-book lover Michael Chabon, with dialogues crafted superbly by the award-winning Alvin Sargent, is outstanding, and forms a terrific core for Raimi to work around, but that shouldn’t take anything at all away from the director — this is totally Sam’s film.

When Peter Parker manages to get to the theatre on time, despite all odds, he is foiled by a snooty usher, played to utter, frustrating perfection by Bruce Campbell, reprising his cameo status in the franchise [he played the cocky wrestling announcer in the first part, plucking ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ name out of thin air and throwing it around Pete’s neck] — a time when Raimi fans will nudge each other excitedly and yelp, ‘The Chin! The Chin!,’ referring to the nickname for the actor from the cult Evil Dead series. Sam Raimi, one of those Tarantinoesque movie geeks with a love for self-indulgent referencing, gives movie buffs enough to obsess about for months: a particularly obvious place to start would be to be the operating room scene with the dismembered arm and the chainsaw, a direct doff to Evil Dead II.

Tobey Maguire has done for superheroes what Tom Cruise did for fighter airplanes a couple of decades ago: given them life. A wonderfully talented young actor, Tobey breathes – awkwardness, humour, charisma – lovingly into Peter Parker, making him as real a protagonist as any. A couple of years ago, there were doubts as to whether his shoulders were strong enough to carry the Spiderman legacy — now he has made the role his own. There was injury-led speculation that he might not have done the sequel, but he did, and we are blessed. Kudos, Mr. Maguire, thanks for coming back.

The cast is deliciously accurate: JK Simmons brings J Jonah Jameson right out of the pages of the comic, and steals the show whenever he appears with consummate ease and great one-liners; the fantastic Alfred Molina makes a splendid Doc Ock, balancing unerringly the diverse requirements of focused professor, warm mentor, and mad scientist; James Franco, while not in a stellar role as Harry Osborne, does what is needed for his character to come away more positively this time around; and Rosemary Harris tackles the role of Aunt May so well that the only trite bits of speech in the script, destined to otherwise appear jaded, take on the mantle of sincerity, and she wields a feisty umbrella.

Spiderman Two is a really good movie. Not just a good superhero movie, for it is the best by far in the genre, but simply a wonderful bit of Hollywood summer cinema, a classically entertaining film setting Raimi on par with the Messiahs of Mainstream, Spielberg and Lucas — storytellers pouring forth action/emotion on the screen, using CGI demons as metaphor and giving us glorious moments of celluloid joy. The synthesis between the animated Spiderman and Tobey is indeed excellent, but the highlights are Doc Ock’s arms, which slither into a menacing life of their own.

Comic-book lovers will freak over this movie, for it is the parting of the red sea and the dawn of hope —  A delectable smorgasbord of references, allusions, and the finest written dialogue ever in the genre, hosting hundreds of tiny in-jokes fans will spend ages dissecting gleefully. But even for one who has never read a comic book, this is a truly enjoyable experience, a tremendous popcorn flick with heaps of humour, action, romance, SFX and eye-candy, and the one thing that sets a good film apart, leotards or not: a story that is really good. I simply feel sorry for those who do not like this film, for they have become too cynical to appreciate a story with heart.

There are parts in this film where Sam Raimi outdoes himself so completely we are awed into disbelief. There is a sublime, delightfully mature shot where Peter is offered romance, cloaked in chocolate cake and milk, and a moment where he almost says yes to the pretty, nervous landlord’s daughter, Ursula Ditkovich [a not-so subtle salute to Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko]. There is a touching, excellent montage where ‘Raindrops are falling on my head’ is re-contextualised with unbelievable panache, appropriately on the freshest-faced young talent since Butch Cassidy himself. There is more, but one could go on forever. Watch it.

But the true applause — one would say standing ovation but Mr. Raimi has ensured knees buckling — must be saved for the surprises. Weaned on massive hype, teasers, trailers, and reports of varying accuracy, I was confident this film had nothing that would shock me. I have never been so wrong, and fell conveniently for Raimi’s ingenious red herrings. After momentarily reeling with massive plot twist after other, I began to glimpse into the larger picture. Like the Wilde play Mary Jane acts in, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Raimi too is scripting a story in three acts — the groundbreaking revelations and the shattering veneer at the end of Act Two [while bringing up questions galore for Three], therefore, integral to the scheme of things. Can’t believe we have to wait three years.

spidey2bThe best part about having a director with a sense of humour is letting his audience get sucked into traps. During a fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, Aunt May is tossed up the side of a building, and she sticks her brolly out and hooks a ledge. This is such a painful cliché that we groan and are almost annoyed at how obvious this is, and just when we begin to get jaded with the predictability of the movie, Aunt May slips off.

And lands on a ledge, one foot below her, safe as ever. The umbrella tenterhook turns out to be suspense that never was, the theatre of the anticlimactic. Brilliant.

The build-up of the film, like the thundering claw-beats of Doctor Octopus, thuds into the heart harder and incessantly faster throughout the two hours. I have never been entirely supportive of Kirsten Dunst as Ms Watson, always advocating a vivacious, drop-dead gorgeous, Heather Graham-type instead, but she carries off her glorified damsel-in-distress role well in this film, and screams magnificently, justifying Raimi’s love for her. And, when at the end of the movie, she says the words — and these are words my Spidey-worshipping heart is mouthing incredulously, lines before she actually says them — “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”, my brain has an orgasm, the theatre explodes with ecstasy, and Spiderman Two climaxes into greatness.

~

 

First published Rediff, July 27, 2004

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher’s side

I owe Michael Schumacher my career.

Writers write, quite simply, because they must. What they write, however, makes for a far more fiendish decision. I’d dabbled with journalism, copywriting, poetry and bad drafts of first novels nobody will ever get to read, but it took a certain hero to spur me on and find a voice.

Michael Schumacher mattered right from the time I’d heard his name. It was irrational, this admiration of a man in blue-green overalls dominating a sport I — or anyone else I knew — didn’t really watch, but there was just something about the young German popping up so frequently in the sports pages. A youngster who looked assuredly at home on top of the world; a champion racing for a team that made most of my winter-wear.

At the time, my Formula One viewing was occasional and erratic, and I refused even to become a casual fan daunted by the technical intricacies of the sport, harsh-sounding multisyllabic names, and decidedly too much cricket-fanaticism for any other sport to make a difference. Then, fifteen years ago, I shuddered as I read about Michael breaking his leg in an accident at the British Grand Prix. I thought of the thirty-year-old, wished him well, and wondered how barbaric the sport was.

A few months later, he returned. And almost won. Actually, to be fair, he more than won: he made his teammate win. From that day to this one, I’ve missed watching maybe eight grands prix over twice as many years. Cricket became insignificant in comparison. And this passion was born out of that one extraordinary man.

I was, admittedly, Michael obsessed. I wore vampire-red sunglasses to watch races through (Ferrari-tinted, I called them) and made friends, dates, colleagues “wear red for Michael” on those all-important Sundays. I vividly remember rounding third-base and closing in on home for the first time ever, on a park bench in Delhi, but choosing instead to bolt in time to catch the five red lights going off at the race-start. (I can still recollect that exact podium.)

I still only ever play F1 video games as Michael’s partner — never daring a try as Michael himself — and, if when rounding the final corner he happens to be a few hairs behind me, I can’t help move over and applaud instead of being applauded. Seeing anyone else on the top-step of even a virtual podium feels wrong, you see.

Quizmasters hosting at sports bars soon stopped letting me answer questions, and I won a gigantic Ferrari flag by betting on a Michael streak despite impossible odds. But there was no scheming here, no form-book to look up: I bet on Michael because anything else would be inappropriate. In 2003, as a student in the UK, I whimsically placed a Ladbrokes bet with hard-scraped savings despite the season looking madly bleak at the time, and, at 8/1, made back enough to buy my first Macbook. The odds were never unreal enough to be of consequence.

~

I was a copywriter in 2004 when Rediff asked me — based on an impassioned Dravid-bashing blogpost — to write for their sports section, and I suggested I start writing about Formula One. Because of Michael; because of the compulsion to write about true genius.

My first column was about a Michael win, and in that and the ones that followed, the words rushed out all at once, struggling to keep up with the tremendous sporting feat, the historic run we were all fortunate enough to watch in realtime. The rush of capturing the immense drama of a race in words soon put my day job to shame. Rediff, however, needed someone to write about films. So then, um, that happened. But the Formula One columns — especially those about Michael magic — have always been remarkably close to my heart.

~

How good is Michael Schumacher?

It is dashed difficult to explain Michael Schumacher to someone who doesn’t know Formula One. The world of sport, usually a fine provider of parallels, fails to throw up a satisfactory legend, leaving us to clumsily nail together an invariably inadequate amalgam from elsewhere, and here’s mine: Imagine if The Beatles lasted as long as The Rolling Stones.

If the Fab Four wrought their revolution not over ten glorious years but sixty, outlasting and triumphing over not just their contemporaries but rubbing shoulders with modern bands, getting used to the new realms of punk and metal and rap and beating Bowie and Radiohead and Madonna at their games. And even when they finally abdicated, and were visibly not the best or loudest in the world, they still played on with gusto and — despite some calling them a bit long in the tooth — still occasionally conjured up something special enough to turn hearts to yo-yos.

Imagine, if you will, what that discography would be like.

~

The last few days have been spent manning the news-wires, in prayer, in wish-making, in questing for hope. On Sunday a friend who works at a news channel texted me saying Michael was hurt in a skiing accident. An hour later the news was that it wasn’t serious. Two hours after that it began to look like a nightmare.

It is one thing getting a piece of news and coming to terms with it, but social media gets hold of a developing story and runs with it terrifyingly fast, often too blinded by its own pace to look at the facts. I spent the next days and nights on Twitter, hoping for updates, hoping for news, hoping for a picture of him lying in a hospital bed, winking that world-conquering wink at the camera.

What I continue to get is a steady stream of information and rumour, with old facts being republished by websites fishing for traffic, sensationalists who want to be the first to break bad news, and — alongside the rare but reliable daily updates — a few informed people who care enough to discuss the situation and explain its severity. A former Formula One doctor, Gary Hartstein, has been invaluable as a sane voice on Twitter (@former_f1doc), giving us perspective.

The rest is prayer. Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don’t want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don’t care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn’t even wearing warpaint. The rest of us, prone to tearing up, are cheering him and chanting for him and awaiting good news. The world, it is abundantly clear, has its fingers crossed.

David Coulthard, a former McLaren driver who once gave Schumacher the finger on the racetrack, and a man who was once almost beaten up by a furious Schumacher, has written the finest column about the legend and the situation. It is a column that, in its honesty and its timing, is worth more than Coulthard’s career, and I urge you all to go and read it.

~

“You only like him because he’s born on your birthday,” a girl accused, back in college. My jaw dropped open. Not out of indignation (for it was patently untrue) but out of the sheer thrill of discovery. We all share our birthdays with people worth admiring, but somehow sharing January 3 with Michael Schumacher matters.

He turned 45 and I turned 33 today. And all I want for my birthday is what  millions around the world — millions touched by his brilliance, his spirit, his myth, his philanthropy and his grace — want, as they pray to varied gods and continue to hope: for him to smile that smile again. And yes, that wink he winks after winning a race. This 92nd win would be extraordinarily well deserved.

I choked when Michael teared up as he went past Ayrton Senna, and again when he announced his retirement in 2006. I scampered to the next race in Shanghai and saw his last race win, in grand style. Then he returned to the sport, buckled down and learnt to lose, and even came to India where I got to see him, talk to him, say a couple of things that made him grin back at me.

And now that super smile feels distant. Distant, yes, but far from insurmountable as the odds he beat every alternate Sunday, so, so many times over.

Conquer this too, Michael. Happy birthday to you, and may you get well soon. Wearing red today, naturally.

~

First published Rediff, January 3, 2014

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Trailer: Go Goa Gone

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?)

~

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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.

~

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

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Sentury: The Top Hundred Hindi Films

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

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“Cue COOL music.”

Merely reading a Tarantino script beats watching most movies.

 

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

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Book Review: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Sentenced to death

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

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“Lend me your claws.”

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.

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Life’s too short to watch bad movies

If a film isn’t working for you, go ahead and do what I can’t.

 

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.

Nope, you aren't Alex.

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

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What I love about Mumbai…

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

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