Category Archives: Column

Column: Censorship, Udta Punjab and the $*&@#@ state of Indian cinema

udta1.jpgThe masterful Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi once used a fine analogy to describe the shapeshifting state of censorship in his country. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”

In India, things are considerably worse. We cannot remember the last genuinely sunny day, and all filmmakers are handed umbrellas with holes in them.

This week, for example, appears less overcast. The fascistic Pahlaj Nihalani, much-lampooned head of India’s archaic Central Board of Film Certification — a department straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil — has been rightly humiliated and shamed by the Bombay High Court who have struck down nearly a hundred cuts (in 13 separate categories) the CBFC sought for this Friday’s release, Udta Punjab. The film will hit theatres on time and, thanks to the CBFC’s infantile attempts to strangle its release, will be seen by far more people than anyone could have imagined. Bravo.

However, the High Court itself, while proclaiming that the CBFC is indeed a body for certification and that their job does not include censorship, has upheld one of the CBFC’s cuts. Now, for Indian filmmakers used to the arbitrary whims and inconsistencies of Indian censorship — where entire movies and documentaries are routinely denied certification, and where directors are often dismissively told to reduce scenes of action and intimacy “by 40%” — one cut doesn’t seem like a big deal. The film’s producers have, understandably, taken the diktat about this one excised scene rather gracefully, and surely couldn’t be arsed to fight any more.

(Plus, there is only that much genuine fraternity within the so-called film fraternity, and while it was super to see Karan Johar writing rousing columns and the industry rallying around producers Anurag Kashyap and Ekta Kapoor in unprecedented fashion, nobody expected an actual impasse or other producers to go on strike around the Udta Punjab issue. The show must… and all that jazz, no matter how truncated the show itself gets.)

Yet a big deal that cut is. It shows that — much as we’d like it to — all hasn’t changed. In our country, the revolution must be polite and careful not to offend.

Over the last two years, the current government has placed many a peculiar person in charge of our cinema. The massively unqualified and stubborn Gajendra Chauhan presides over the Film and Television Institute of India, following an appointment that led to a 139-day strike. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister for State for Information and Broadcasting, impressively won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, but his only connection with cinema is the tenuous semantic one that points out that they both involve shooting. And then there is Mr Nihalani, described colourfully by Anurag Kashyap as a North Korean dictator but, in reality, a brown-nosing egomaniac who fails to notice the irony in making tacky videos about erections back in the day and making tacky videos about elections today.

Yet there is hope. The legendary Shyam Benegal, now 81 and passionate and eminently beyond reproach, was recently given the task to spearhead a committee to look into CBFC reform. He came away with the strident recommendation — one most level-headed people in cinema and, indeed, within the CBFC have been demanding for ages — that the board should merely classify cinema and not, in any circumstances, be allowed to hack away at the filmmaker’s work. Since films with a U rating have bigger chances at the box office and command a fairer price on television, this would certainly lead to some self-censorship but that happens all over the world and is the filmmaker’s internal debate. At least there will be no scissors attacking our films.

Or so we can dream, since Minister for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley has promised radical upheaval in the CBFC based on Mr Benegal’s recommendations. Fingers remain tightly crossed.

However, Mr Benegal has since said, rather controversially, that there should be an ‘Adult (With Caution)’ category introduced for films that should not be given a wide-release — based on excessively adult content — and should instead be shown in red-light areas and non-residential areas. Congenial as the image is of the characters in Mr Benegal’s own Mandi queueing up to watch the next Human Centipede, this is another tricky boundary. What is excessively adult? Who defines it? And who should be given the power to choose, more than the ticket-buyer?

Despite the High Court ruling (mostly) in favour of Udta Punjab,  the issues around censorship in India remain incredibly thorny. Will filmmakers like Kamal Swaroop be able to take the CBFC to court for documentaries like The Battle For Benares? Will Indian television be able to say ‘breast cancer’ without, absurdly enough, cutting out the breast? Will the rules indeed change now? And if they do, will filmmakers whose films have been savaged beyond recognition by censors in the past apply for fresh certificates in order to bring their original vision to the viewers? Should we all finally dare to watch Dev Anand’s Censor and see how much he got right?

For now, despite the fact that we shouldn’t discard raincoats just yet, let us look to the future. Udta Punjab will be out this Friday. Director Abhishek Chaubey must be relieved, and in case that one cut is bugging him a lot — which it will, and should — he would do well to acknowledge that pretty much everyone now knows that Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy pees on the audience — the knowledge of that shot, even to those who haven’t watched the film yet, might well prove more impactful than the shot itself.

For those up in arms about vulgarity, do remember that there can be no sight as obscene as you not being allowed to see, and never forget what Frank Zappa said: “There is no such thing as a dirty word.”

~

First published Rediff, June 15, 2016

Leave a comment

Filed under Column

Why I thought Prince was The Joker

1partyfingerWhen I was eight years old, I thought Prince was The Joker.

Allow me to explain this childhood delusion: The year was 1989. Tim Burton’s glorious and groundbreaking Batman movie was yet to hit our VHS libraries, and this was a time before teaser trailers and trailers teasing teaser trailers. All we had to go on with, before watching Jack Nicholson own the character, was a name and an audiocassette. And Jesus, what a soundtrack it was. Again, I was eight, sure, but there was something thrilling me beyond the Batman icon emblazoned across the cover as I looped that tape over and over, as I listened to Michael Keaton’s soft, sampled voice declaring himself the caped crusader only to instantly find that character eaten up by the magnificent howls of a singer cutting glass with his falsetto.

It’s one helluva soundtrack, with irresistibly saucy songs like Vicki Waiting, Scandalous, the smash-hit Batdance and my favourite, the absurdly groovy Lemon Crush. But what misled me into believing Prince was a mere abbreviation for The Clown Prince Of Crime was a music video — one of the few things that showed up before the movie — and this was for Partytime, the coolest supervillain song ever. In that phenomenal video, Prince wears purple — like The Joker — and half his face is painted white, half his mouth has loud lipstick and half his hair is sulphuric green. His energy is electric, his manic movements the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons, and — as he lethally spikes a punchbowl, swings off a chandelier and lights exploding cigars for Jessica Rabbit lookalikes — the spirit of Mistah J is entirely, deliciously captured by this performer. It’s magic.

I might never get over one particular moment from the video where Prince’s half-Joker literally makes a monkey out of Batman. He sidles elegantly over to a chimpanzee in a Batman tee-shirt and, shyly, hands him a banana. Prince shields his face with his hand and melts away coyly as the chimp accepts. The chimp peels said banana which turns out to be empty of fruit, with the word “PSYCHE” written in big, marquee capitals inside it. It is a nutty gag, cruel and pointless and juvenile and impossible not to love, wonderfully encapsulating all things Joker.

2princemonkey

Yet despite the pranks, what really comes through in that brief but vivid glimpse is the performer’s grace. And the way he, in those times without Parental Advisory stickers, held our kiddy hands and took us down dark alleyways with his songs. Vicki Waiting, for example, opens with an awfully ribald joke about organs and cathedrals, and gets far too dark and too damned sexy. Sexy.

It is the no-holds-barred sexiness of Prince’s vibe that tore into my imagination, taking me from that Batman album to his Love Symbol album. He was yet to turn himself into that very symbol, an unpronounceable (and pointy) yin-yang sign that would befuddle record labels and journalists and award-show presenters, but that white-hot album already held too many clandestine thrills. Not least of which was the instantly mythical Sexy MF, the song so perfectly, ear-scorchingly profane we had to listen to it a million times over, giggling while Prince entered our bloodstream and made us cooler without us even knowing it.

The Artist Formerly Forever Known As Prince.

He was a wonder, wasn’t he? That lopsided smirk. That thin moustache, equal parts John Waters and Jafar. That eternally flawless hair. That high, piercing falsetto, a voice that brimmed with love and anger and urgency, forever a cross between a tantrum and an orgiastic shriek.

Those words, words that sang of revolution and those songs that delivered it to us, always ahead of time. The way he made pianos cry out in bruised, purple pleasure. The way he struck up insanely melodic arpeggios in a way that still makes me wonder how fretboards didn’t dice up those furious fingers while he played like a guitar god.

The way he owned a goddamned colour.

Heartbreakingly enough, he’s gone now. And we owe it to that legend to go at least a little bit crazy, to go out on a limb, to leap without safety-nets and to hope the audience will catch us and carry us along on their shoulders. To look for our very own purple bananas.

3princepartytongueWe owe it to him to listen, like we always did whenever he commanded us, regardless of whether we were old fans or those who’d never heard him before: the mention of his name made our hearts snap their fingers, our ears perk up, our feet restless and our expectations rocket past the roof.

For his name is Prince, and he was Funky.

~

First published Rediff, April 27, 2016

Leave a comment

Filed under Column

Oscar column: Why we should be glad Mad Max didn’t win Best Picture

What is better than winning Best Picture?

It sounds bonkers, I grant you, yet hear me out: At the Oscars, being on the inside of the Best Picture envelope isn’t as golden as it gets. The ultimate prize, the real ultimate prize, is being the film everyone roots for to be inside said envelope — and then not showing up. Not breasting the tape. Not being Best Picture, but instead losing in a way that inspires public outcry and cinephile heartbreak around the world.

Think about it. The King’s Speech will forever be remembered for being a middling film that got in The Social Network’s way. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Forrest Gump — a schmaltzy but ingeniously-crafted and well-acted film, with a genuine touch of cheek — yet how many of us can forgive it for toppling the one and only Pulp Fiction? The English Patient robbed Fargo. And, in the most quoted Oscar flub in recent history, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. Sure, Crash picked up the gold — after presenter Nicholson chose not to disguise his surprise — but who won? Who goes down in history?

The better loser, that’s who.

It’s a lesson we learnt most memorably with a young Italian boxer. That big lug Rocky Balboa lost the fight at the end of Rocky, but he won over hearts, both of the audience and The Academy, bizarrely beating all-time masterworks like Network, All The President’s Men and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Oscars. At the 88th Annual Academy Awards this week, no loss rang out as devastatingly as that of 69-year-old Sylvester Stallone. Sitting with crossed fingers in the front row, he was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor trophy in order to complete a remarkable full circle —  a true ‘American dream’ story from poverty-struck porn-performer to Oscar-winner — but alas, despite the Academy’s much-feted love for a redemptive narrative arc, such picket-fenced perfection was not to be.

stallone1

This is a terrific picture from Stallone’s first Oscars, the one where Rocky triumphed, where the actor, losing out on Best Actor, holds dead air while the film’s producers clutch their Oscars. This year was supposed to see him finally nabbing one he earned at the end of a long career. At long, long last.

And yet Sly lost, despite having performed admirably well in Creed, and while my first reaction (as a fan with Gotta Fly Now coming out of my ears, now, even as I type these words) was that he run up the stairs (of course) to the Oscar stage and check the envelope in case bumbling presenter Patricia Arquette had done a Steve Harvey, the truth is that it adds up. Mark Rylance was great in Bridge Of Spies. Not as good as, say, Christian Bale was in The Big Short, but Rylance delivered a finely-tuned and nuanced performance, and was the best thing in that film. The loss makes sense. Stallone — and Balboa in the first film, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in the latest — lost the fight when the votes were counted, but boy, did they go the distance. How they made us cheer.

There is, every year, at least one field where we individually pray against all realistic odds. This year, I personally rooted — unrealistically and in vain — for an upset in the Best Cinematography field, for the invincible Emmanual Lubezki to be upstaged despite his spectacular, masterful vistas in the boastfully shot The Revenant. Instead, I longed for a reward for the thoughtful, sumptuous visual mastery shown by Ed Lachman in Carol. Shooting on 16mm film, Lachman is consistently poetic and evocative, telling a story while simultaneously mirroring the style of iconic 50s photographers like Saul Leiter.

lachman(It is a magnificently shot film, and I have a feeling Lubezki agrees. On the three-time winner’s sensational Instagram feed yesterday, three days after his win, standing next to the three consecutive Oscars, is featured Lachman, his face obscured by a camera that is shooting Lubezki. Bravo.)

The world cheered loudly for Leonardo DiCaprio who — 22 years after the first of his 6 nominations — picked up an acting Oscar for The Revenant, though this wait had been mythologised well out of proportion. Sure, he should have won for The Wolf Of Wall Street, but the Oscars rarely reward performances that effervescent, that electrifying. Also, the man is merely 41, and has several movies — several Scorsese movies, even — yet to tackle. This wasn’t the film he should have won for, and certainly not the film he deserved a standing ovation for. He strolled into the Oscars an odds-on favourite, yet the moment was made to feel like a struggle.

Meanwhile, after 500 films, Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers in the history of the medium, came forth and won his first competitive Oscar for The Hateful Eight. This, in the oddest and loveliest of ironies, came nine years after he’d won an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to the arts. Who says masters lose their touch?

Not George Miller, certainly. The world was firmly in Miller’s corner on Oscar night, hoping that the visionary 70-year-old would be heralded for one of the finest action movies of all time. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of enormous vision, rule-defying bravado and striking originality which flattens audiences with ingenuity, clarity and adrenaline. It is a progressive, modern, thematically strong, diverse, feminist statement wrapped up, quite miraculously, into a thrilling package. However, it isn’t as if a bad film won. A victory for The Revenant, jawdropping but hollow, would have felt catastrophic. Spotlight winning, on the other hand, seems right. It is a restrained, relevant, highly impactful film made with a crackerjack ensemble cast, based on a story that needs telling. (The Big Short, my personal pick of the Oscar bunch, was clearly too edgy and audacious and irreverent and, quite frankly, too clever to win a big Oscar — rather like the work of Charlie Kaufman. Way too cool for school.)

Speaking of which… Think, if you will, of The Doof Warrior.

Riding atop a truckful of gigantic speakers and standing on a massive amplifier, The Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road is a rocker in a scarlet onesie: a blind man wearing his mother’s face for a mask, playing a double-necked guitar made out of a bedpan that also doubles up as a flamethrower. Playing ragged riffs to appease the gods of war and increase fighter morale, he is, without any doubt, as insanely metal as a character can conceivably be. It’s gloriously nuts. Now, realistically speaking, does such a creature have any business belonging in a Best Picture winner?

Or ought he belong, instead, to a movie that — like a Lamborghini Countach pinup stumbled upon giddily in pre-adolescence — deserves to have its poster stuck up inside our brains forever? It’s our film to celebrate, and, hey: as worshippers of V8 engines would agree, chrome is way, way cooler than gold.

~

First published Rediff, March 4, 2016

~

My 2016 Oscar-themed pieces on the race for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. Plus, my top ten moments from this year’s ceremony.

Leave a comment

Filed under Column, Year In Review

Oscars 2016: The most unforgettable moments

oscars1chrisI once had the remarkable good fortune to be sitting unexpectedly in the Comedy Cellar in New York when a surprise guest was thrust upon us. The audience couldn’t believe it, and out strolled Chris Rock — an incendiary performer and giant comic superstar — who slayed. He was great and we were enraptured, and, this morning, Rock knocked the wind outta me from many timezones away, by the way he opened the 88th Annual Academy Awards. Featuring that monologue and nine other moments I won’t soon forget, here are my highlights from the 2016 Oscars:

1. That opening monologue:

Rock has always been a fearless, envelope-pushing comic, and everyone expected him to be provocative at the Oscars — infamous this year for their all-white acting candidates, hashtagged #OscarsSoWhite across the media. What we might not have counted on, however, was the way he would make the most preposterously ballsy jokes as he completely embraced the topic. Making the white audience uncomfortable with the kinda comic swagger that would make 80s red-leather-suit-wearin’ Eddie Murphy proud as hell, Chris Rock spoke about how the Oscars always had a white-only problem, like “in the sixties, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn’t put out a movie” and how it was just harder to care about these problems back when black people faced “real” problems. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree,” he grinned to a mostly mortified audience, “it’s hard to care about Best Documentary Short.”

Wow. W-o-w.

2. David O Russell justifying his seat in the front:

oscarsdavidOscars are as much about reactions as they are about winners, and many a moment has been immortalised in the past by Jack Nicholson’s cheshire chuckles and Meryl Streep’s gracefully overt enthusiasm. This year’s audience award ought to go to director David O Russell, one of the few people to openly bust a gut laughing at Rock’s politically skewed monologue. Russell had a fine ol’ time with Rock and then, with much grace and solidarity, stood up to applaud director Adam McKay as he (with co-writer Charles Randolph) strode past to pick up his award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short. If that all filmmakers were this warm, or this genuine.

3. Whoopi Goldberg and SNL comics skewer the Oscar-nominated films:

oscartraceyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences played the self-deprecatory game quite hard this year by constantly going with the #OscarsSoWhite theme, in effect laughing at themselves as loud as possible. This approach was often heavy-handed, like when presenters were often transparently paired up as white-celeb-alongside-celeb-of-colour, but when it worked, like in Rock’s monologue and this section inserting talented black comedians into this year’s nominated films, it worked fantastically well. Leslie Jones was the angry bear mauling Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Tracy Morgan wore a dress and ate danishes in The Danish Girl, and the great Whoopi Goldberg reigned supreme as she scolded Jennifer Lawrence in Joy: “I’m not mad ‘cause I know how to play the game, Joy.”

4. Patricia Arquette doing a Travolta: 

Patricia Arquette, winner of Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood last year, made for an embarrassingly bad presenter this year as she fumbled through her time giving away the Best Supporting Actor trophy. First of all, like the infamous John Travolta gaffe, she appeared to have mixed “Rocky Balboa” with something that started off sounding suspiciously like “Draco Malfoy”, and then — after reading out Mark Rylance’s name to a chorus of anguish heard around the world as Stallone hadn’t won — ended things sloppily as well.

For a while there, many (read: me) wished that these fumbles signalled her having SteveHarvey’d it and called out the wrong name, but spirits were lifted by Rylance’s lovely acceptance speech. “I’ve always just adored stories: hearing them, seeing them, being in them,” Rylance said, saluting director Steven Spielberg before going deftly political. “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.”

5. Louis CK, on the importance of documentary:

oscarslouisMaster comedian Louis CK came out to present the award for Best Documentary, Short Subject and handled the occasion with scene-stealing aplomb as he spoke of his pride to present what he called his favourite award, “because this is the one Academy Award that has the opportunity to change a life.” Eloquently going on to describe the hardships faced by documentary filmmakers in what is often a thankless pursuit for the truth, he said — with a characteristically brilliant turn of phrase —  that while “the rest of the Oscars are going home to mansions and to the homes of people with good unions and who will always work. This is Documentary Short Subject…. You cannot make a dime on this.” The kicker: “This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic.” Bravo.

6. Joe Biden and Lady Gaga speak out for sexual assault survivors:

oscarsgagaIn the most touching moment of the night, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden and Lady Gaga formed a unique but ideal team as they sought an end to rape culture.  “We must, and we can, change the culture so that no abused woman or man has to ask ‘what did I do?’”, emphasised Biden. “They did nothing wrong.” This was followed by a profoundly emotive performance from Lady Gaga as abuse survivors took the stage, hand in hand. It was an affecting and genuinely stirring moment in a night that frequently felt insubstantial.

7. Ennio Morricone thanking his rival and then his director:

87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone — nine years after having been given an Honorary Oscar in 2007 “for his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” — finally won his first Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight, and the moment was a highly emotional one. Morricone came to the stage and spoke simply in Italian, first doffing his hat to the also-nominated five-time winner John Williams before thanking his director. And just hearing his heavily accented pronunciation of the name Quentin Tarantino was enough to spark off a Spaghetti Western dream.

8. The Best Director was the most unpopular man of the night:

How things can change in a year. Last year Alejandro González Iñárritu swept the Oscars with grand fanfare with the superlative Birdman but this year his film The Revenant, while impressive, had more detractors than lovers and most of the viewing audience seemed to be rooting against the film. Things weren’t helped by a gif of Iñárritu not even trying to appear like a good sport when Jenny Beavan won Best Costume Design for Mad Max Fury Road; as Beavan walked right by him, Iñárritu crossed his arms and chose not to applaud. Perhaps he just doesn’t approve of leather jackets, but the two-time Best Director winner could have played this better.

9. Leo not taking anything, even the Oscar, for granted:

oscarsleoMeanwhile, despite the many, many editorials claiming that “A win for DiCaprio would be a disservice to actors” and saying that Most Acting doesn’t equate to Best Acting, the star himself (finally) picked up the big prize in style. I wasn’t pro-Leo this year — rooting for Michael Fassbender’s astonishing work in and as Steve Jobs instead — but DiCaprio’s sixth nomination proved lucky and his speech was perfection. He started by thanking the crew of The Revenant but quickly moved on to speak passionately about the threat of climate change. “Climate change is real,” Leonardo emphasised. “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

10. A beautiful ‘In Memoriam’ section:

And finally, those who aren’t with us anymore were remembered in lovely fashion this year. Dave Grohl plucked a guitar to a tender version of The Beatles’ Blackbird as faces of those who have left us — from Alan Rickman to Douglas Slocombe to Omar Sharif to our own Saeed Jaffrey  — flitted before us.

service.gifThe montage nearly climaxed with a clip, amazingly enough, from Zoolander featuring the late great David Bowie offering himself up, saying “I believe I might be of service.” (Always, David.)

Yet, in a surprisingly powerful touch, the segment closed with a shot of Leonard Nimoy — and ah, how poetic it felt to say goodbye by ending with a man who repeatedly told us to live long.

~

First published Rediff, February 29, 2016

Leave a comment

Filed under Column, Year In Review

Tribute: Raising a bowler hat to Saeed Jaffrey

saeed3The first time I saw Saeed Jaffrey I refused to believe he was an actor.

Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom released when I was two years old, and soon became one of the few Hindi film VHS tapes in our house, one often played to placate children because of the Lakdi Ki Kaathi song. In the film Jaffrey played Suri Saab — a gregarious gent, a proud Punjabi papa — with such complete credibility that I always felt someone had sucked one of my father’s easily-sloshed friends into the TV set. Growing up in Delhi, I was sure this man was obviously someone just like one of those many men who patted me on the head and found my retelling of the same joke hilarious every single time.

It was a classic film and his performance endured, but many years later I saw him again in — of all places — Subhash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan, tweaking Anil Kapoor’s ear and patting Jackie Shroff on the back. Here he was again, a distinguished foreign-type with well-sandpapered Rs and twinkling eyes, in a place of paternal authority. But then, as more movies were allowed into my life, the Britishness of Jaffrey began to wear off: first with his turn as Sardar Patel in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and then all preconceptions about his image — from accent to upper-crust — were spat out after watching his magnificent local paanwallah Lallan Mia in Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor.

saeed1

All that remained across those superbly varied performances were those eyes, ever sharp and ever twinkling. Cunning. As cunning as a fox who has just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University, in the words of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder.

Which reminds me… One of Atkinson’s early bits of comic gold was a routine called Indian Waiter, where he played the long-suffering waiter in an Indian restaurant, forced to patiently stand by while lager-laden hooligans made jokes about pappadum and “Paperback Raita.” While the great comedian and satirist made the point about increasingly dignified Indians in the UK, Jaffrey was the one who indeed ran with it and broke ground, creating an on-screen Indian of refinement and extreme sophistication. His characters rattled off the Queen’s English with Wodehousean aplomb while he dashed about looking, well, dashing. This was the achieving Indian, the prosperous Indian, the entrepreneur and the upstart who ran restaurants and laundrettes and was as easily at home in England as the aforementioned Queen.

The range was superlative. He did films with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant before making his Hindi film debut with Satyajit Ray’s masterful Shatranj Ke Khiladi. He appeared in movies as diverse as Hero Hiralal, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and My Beautiful Laundrette. Hindi cinema, attracted to his obvious strengths, often cast him as an officer of some sort —some uniformed man with a clipped accent — or a posh father-figure. And, more often than not, Jaffrey played all his roles with a characteristic elan and amiability: he looked like a clever, all-knowing, winking Super Mario, gloriously grey around the edges. Irresistible, really.

Rarely did he get the opportunity to completely disappear into his characters, though when he did — like in the Ray film or Chashme Buddoor or in Masoom, as the unforgettable Suri Sa’ab who bought his crockery from Harrods’ — he was sensational. His character in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, in fact, provides a good parallel for Jaffrey’s onscreen persona: Mir Roshan Ali was a man so obsessed with a game of chess that he cared little for the ongoing British invasion of his country. Jaffrey, as we knew him on screen, always seemed to know better, always seemed to know what mattered more than the obvious. And those twinkling eyes invited us along for the ride.

So long, Suri Saab. We raise our bowler hats to you.

~

First published Rediff, November 17, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under Column

Ten most excellent movies about time travel

back-to-future-ii-marty-mcfly-hat-2Which is the greatest movie about time travel? That may be one of the most rhetorical questions in cinema, as it causes the brain to flood instantly with images — of lightning bolts and Chuck Berry guitar riffs, hover-boards and clock towers, fishy-themed school dances and bullies covered in manure. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the Back To The Future trilogy stands tall across the cinematic
space-time continuum, a brilliantly conceived and loopy trilogy that gets dark when you least expect it and features the best, most cheerleader-worthy heroes of all. Great Scott!

Now, on October 21, 2015, the day “in the future” Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to in Back To The Future II — a day naturally christened Back To The Future Day — I tip my psychedelic baseball cap to that all-time classic and type at 88 miles an hour to list my ten other favorite movies about time travel.

Watch them if you haven’t already, rewatch the ones you have. I promise you they’re all pretty neat. (Just don’t buy any sports almanacs along the way.) In no particular order, here they are.

12 Monkeys

Few visionaries play as fast and loose as Terry Gilliam, and the former Python shows off some of his most lucid, mind-bending genius in this film set in a frightening 2035 version of Philadelphia. Earth is contaminated with a virus and Bruce Willis must travel to the 90s to try and stop it. A chaotic and twisty affair, Gilliam’s film is a terrific trip made essential by committedly loony performances from Willis and a young Brad Pitt.

Timecrimes

Nacho Vigalondo’s festival-conquering Spanish indie may be the lowest budgeted film on this non-linear list, but it doesn’t skimp on the smarts. There are a fair bit of paradoxes and contradictions flaunted in the actual mechanics of the narrative, but this film – about many versions of a man who has/hasn’t killed his wife – is tremendously compelling and hits dramatic notes very cleverly and effectively.

Time After Time

None of the movies based directly on HG Wells’ stunning, dystopic classic The Time Machine are actually worthy enough, but Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 take on Wells himself is hugely entertaining. Malcolm McDowell plays Wells, who invents the time machine before writing about it, but it is hijacked by his friend, a certain Jack The Ripper. The result is a romp set in 1979 – the time of the film’s release and one that confounded both Wells and The Ripper but not the audiences – and while it may fall a fair few notches short of brilliant, it certainly is the kind of time travel movie I’d wanna make.

Primer

Shane Carruth’s devastatingly dense and elegantly constructed film takes on a simple time travel idea – two engineers who find a way and decide to make some money – and then Shallow Grave-s that idea all the way to scarytown. The film intentionally piles on the confusion like a grand act of misdirection, Carruth showing us a film that looks too soundly logical to be, actually, not. It isn’t as smart as it sounds but it pulls the wool over our eyes so beautifully that it emerges, in fact, smarter still.

Looper

The idea is pure genius. Rian Johnson’s film has a time-travelling hitman take on his own younger self, and even as the thrills pile on, Johnson astonishingly enough manages to make every choice appear rational and relatable. Looper isn’t as much about the ‘how’ of time travel as it is about the ‘what then?’, making for a truly slick and riveting film, bolstered by top-performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis playing, well, the same guy.

TimeBandits1_468x307Time Bandits

Ah, joy. Another Terry Gilliam film but far from dystopic, Time Bandits is an adventure doused liberally in wish-fulfillment and hope. (What else can you say for a film where John Cleese shows up playing Robin Hood?) The all-star cast — in their all-star historic roles – is great but even greater is Gilliam’s boundless imagination as he looks at time-travel through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy and giddily infuses the genre with magic.

Safety Not Guaranteed

To be fair, there isn’t much time travel to see here. Colin Trevorrow’s nearly-mumblecore film focuses instead on the complete and committed belief in the idea of time travel. There is skepticism, there is doubt, there is a hint of romance and more than a hint of lunacy, but then the idea of buying into lunacy is so much more appealing than real-life. It’s almost as if we, along with Trevorrow, make the impossible happen by sheer force of will.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The first of the tubular Bill & Ted films, this Stephen Herek cult classic stars Keanu Reeves as Ted, Alex Winter as Bill and all of space and time as the supporting cast. In a phone booth that takes them through history’s greatest hits, our two intrepid and slackjawed heroes try to save all of mankind while also ensuring that they do not themselves flunk a history paper. Punctuated by many a stunning air-guitar riff, this ride is as rad as they come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

An underrated but beautiful film about a girl with a time machine inside of her, this hilarious British comedy is set at a pub and, quite appropriately, best watched with buddies and beer. Gareth Carrivick’s film has a significant Edgar Wright hangover and he doesn’t have the panache, but his cast – headlined by Chris O’Dowd and Anna Faris – is lovely and the film bubbles along very nicely indeed.

Midnight In Paris

Paris is the time machine in this Woody Allen film about Golden Age thinking – the idea that a romanticized past is better than an apparently greyer present – which, basically, is a way for Allen to rebuff those stuck in the past, and who demand more la-dee-da classics instead of something different. Yet, ironically enough, with its crackling screenplay and rich literary texture, this strikingly cool film is, in every way, deserving of being ranked among Allen’s “older, funnier” films.

~

First published Rediff, October 21, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under Column

Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.

~

First published Rediff, August 18, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Column