Tag Archives: music

A lyric for Lou Reed

(Because paragraphfuls of prose just didn’t feel right.)



He stumbled and he rumbled, 

                          he fumbled and he humbled 

and he did it all drunk as a monk. 


He sailed and he failed, 

                         he smiled and he beguiled, 

but above all he worth-our-while’d.


O, how he made us genuflect

                        As he broke his guitar’s neck

And took over our cassette deck.


How helpless he made us feel

                       As our brains he did steal:

That genius, hid behind a yellow peel.


He assaulted us with a flower

                       And furry-legged fe-male power

And made us awestruck Spiders cower.


He did reflect and he did tease

                       Brought critics to their knees

(Though, sometimes, it was just a wheeze.)


There were whiskey songs and meth songs

                       Songs for rights; more songs for wrongs,

                      (A couple of songs for ding-dongs)

And even as he leaves us the jukebox… prolongs.


He taught and he fought

                      And was often overwrought,

But nothing could make him not

                      Stir the pot.


And when we hear it all

                     The glory and the downfall:

The messy guts spilled out in plain view

And the songs that spoke, to me and to you.


The words look cleverer in the light of sad today

The truth is clearer as we prepare goodbyes to say:


That Lou?

                     He flew.




First published Rediff, October 28, 2013

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Review: Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables

Once in a while there comes a movie that automatically deserves the tag of Epic. Tom Hooper’s monumental, grandstanding adaptation of Les Misérables does that and even more: it earns the second word of the phrase so popular by Twitter: it is definitively (and, in every sense, literally) what is called Epic Fail.

lesmiz2Look, I love musicals. Love ‘em to bits. I have an obvious (if shameful) bias toward clever lyric, and when it skilfully drives narrative and replaces dialogue, the result is joyful. Hollywood might not exactly be serving us opera, but the pizza-pie version it offers up has its own distinct pleasures — even the excessive cheese merely adds to it all.

There is much to commend about Tom Hooper’s effort: the actors strain their sinews and furrow brows furiously as they sing their own bits; the director keeps amplifying up the emotion as he zooms relentlessly into their faces; and there is an undeniable sincerity to the film, an earnest desire to powerfully adapt Victor Hugo’s weighty  novel.

And yet an ambitious film can also be a bad film, and this is more of the latter than the former. Or does that sound mild? It shouldn’t. This is a monstrosity of a film, a pompous and bloated farce that uneasily straddles the line between spoof and drama, serving only to make us aware of the gargantuan acting efforts. It is also sadistically long, a hundred and sixty minutes of mostly unbearable cinema.

One of the primary reasons is that they don’t stop singing. A screen musical (as opposed to one on stage, which casts genuinely incredible singers, not A-list actors who can also sing) can be crammed with songs, sure, but they must be matched with lyrical highs. Characters should sing to express the dramatic, the romantic or the humorous. Here, every line is sung, and thus the music never lets up. Characters doggedly wail and moan every bit of banality, and while it is an approach that may sound good on paper, it translates horridly on screen: when Russell Crowe looks at Hugh Jackman and sings his prisoner number, warbling “24601”, all seriousness invariably vanishes and he might as well be singing 867530 nie-e-ine.

The cast, as said, does a lot. Jackman, playing protagonist Jean Valjean, turns in a mammoth performance and sings with startling intensity: often, as he strains to hit a high note, it looks like his head may explode. He hits said note and we must duly applaud, though our care is for the actor and not the character. The words never stop sounding hokey — except when Anne Hathaway gets to them. Her Fantine is heartbreakingly good, and for short stretches, she lifts the film. Propelling her lips forward like a duck in a Disney cartoon, the actress makes her anguish credible. Plucked yet plucky, she’s the only one who really does.

lesmiz1Crowe, who is overwhelmingly sincere as Vajean-chasing policeman Javert, sings flatly and, it must be said, rather weakly. Even his finale, which is one of the highlights of the musical, emerges half-baked. Stuffy and unsure of himself, Crowe might as well be singing Leggy Blonde.

Visually, there are times when Hooper allows cinematographer Danny Cohen to show off the grandiose scale and the painstakingly recreated world of early-19th century France, but that’s only when he isn’t zooming right onto his actor’s faces. On a large screen, faces aren’t meant to be seen this big, and it feels rather like an assault. There are a couple of ingeniously shot sequences — the street of the prostitutes, and a moment when snow appears almost to be floating upward, like in a snowglobe — but mostly there’s just faces, contorted with their commitment to shriek adequately well.

As the dramatic stakes rise, there is enough meat in the plot for it to start to matter, for the film to feel like more than a farce. Revolution is in the air, and a little kid who looks like an infant Jon Bon Jovi sings rousingly of equality as the French flag emphatically gains importance. That, however, is Hugo’s glory and not Hooper’s. You can’t not care about the end of Les Misérables. You care despite the director’s single-minded hacky treatment of the source material.

It’s an incredibly tall order, making a musical from something as tragic. Ironically, one of the few times this film achieves buoyancy is when two castmembers from just such a project — Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen — finesse their parts as they sing George Costanza’s favourite Les Miz song, Master Of The House. They’ve done it before, you see. With the masterful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. But Hooper ain’t Tim Burton.

Off with his head, I say.

Rating: 1.5 stars


First published Rediff, January 18, 2013


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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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Review: A Rockstar worth rooting for

When The Doors had their first ever professional photographs taken, to go with their incendiary 1967 debut, frontman James Douglas Morrison consciously chose to leave the smiling out of it. The others occasionally smirked affably enough but Morrison, yearning to showcase his searing intensity as a poet (“a word man, better than a bird man”) stared solemnly into the lens, and thus at all us onlookers, his piercing gaze shoving us toward attention.

Janardan Jakhar, a Delhi collegian enshrining Jim on his wall, stares back at the posters, his reverence surpassed by bewilderment. How to get it, he wonders, when told he doesn’t have what it takes to rock. He works at it, occasionally misguidedly, finds his own trajectory, and in his quest to emulate Morrison, becomes a massively loved, hysteria-inducing performer who never smiles.

For the cameras, that is. Jim’s best photographs are ones shot later, where the mask is off and the grin is wide, loving, Cheshire. The juvenile brooding of apparent depth is replaced by candour, by a real person sometimes having a good time. The finest thing about Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar is that it gives us both, the misguided scowling and the cheeky boyish smiles, and strikes a balance solid enough to make us believe in his flawed but phenomenal protagonist.

Played by Ranbir Kapoor, Jakhar starts out amusingly wrong. Told that great art is born out of pain, he chides his comfortable upbringing and berates himself for never having been in an accident or for having a set of legitimate, alive parents. He hits on a devastatingly pretty Kashmiri girl from Stephens in an attempt to get his heart shattered, but when shot down, his desolate act dissolves when distracted by a passing samosa in the college canteen. He succumbs to the savoury and looks sheepishly on as his talcumnecked mentor, played wonderfully by Kumud Mishra, tells him to go find real hurt.

He does so obediently enough, but JJ, a warmly irresistible hero who mistakes bugger for burger, also seeks out much heart. He befriends the striking Kashmiran — telling her how he slaps alcohol onto his face like cologne and pretends to act sloshed and then gulping submissively when she orders him to drink for real — completely besotted by the unlikely firebrand. Meanwhile, at home he stays away from the family business, and while that is reason enough to be ostracized in most Bollywood films, here the familial fuse erupts when Jakhar lashes out at an overtly affectionate young Bhabhi for being all touchy-feely.

There is much to admire as the film dispenses with linearity, starting with a concert in Rome and then flashing back and forth to fill in the backstory of Jordan — christened thus by his luscious ladylove. It is a simple, unspectacular tale, sometimes even predictable, but Ali masterfully weaves in details that draw us in while his leading man basks magnificently in the glow of a bespoke script.

Ranbir shines through the film, be it on stage tossing his tonsils into the microphone looking like a slightly oriental Frank Zappa in a Sgt Pepper’s jacket, discussing the terms of a kiss in a Czech field, or at a formal dinner dressed in upholstery. It is a performance that breathes life into the character, making us care about his JJ more than the story deserves. He wraps his mouth around Mohit Chauhan’s voice with desperate fervour, flinging out the words as if they were his own. And here again we see a love of nuance. His fingers close concentratedly into mudras as he sits in a recording booth trying to strike the right pitch, and while his guitarwork is unimpressive and often anachronistic to the music, his electric wriggling on stage makes up for it. Once, while in a meeting with a massaged music mogul, he breaks into a guffaw that, in itself, is worth the film.

It’s remarkable how much narrative detail Ali leaves to the asides, to margin notes not underscored and overwhelmed by AR Rahman’s grand, lovely soundtrack. That a character’s marriage is less than ideal is made clear through little revelations, that she has a therapist, and sleeps in a separate bedroom. Neither exposition is lingered on, and the impact is dramatic.

Equally dramatic are the visuals. Not just the gorgeousness of Prague or the motorbike jaunts through snow-capped hills, but the texture visible in the throwaways: Jordan playing guitar at a Mata-ki-chowki isn’t new; Shiv looming overhead looking like a giant blue Rakhee Gulzar, however, is. With this film Imtiaz often makes the ordinary interesting. It’s an assured film that believes in restraint. Drug use, for example, is apparent – Jordan offers his girl a hit of a joint in a longshot, and is clearly sky-high during an indulgent on-stage rant about uprooted birds – but not highlighted.

The rock could have used more attention, however. We don’t once get into what defines Jordan’s music, his creative genesis, his lyrical musing. The film chooses instead to focus on overflowing stadia and albums flying off shelves. For a film called Rockstar, the closest we get is a hero who occasionally slaps photographers. Then again, it is a film about wanting fame, about a easily misled wannabe who misattributes a middle-finger gesture to his idol, about needless defiance and the hollow but burning desire to drive fans crazy. The music is terrific but incidental, but for a kid who doesn’t finger a guitar fluently enough, this is a hero with pluck.

In Nargis Fakhri Imtiaz has an exotically ravishing heroine, one so pretty we forgive her occasionally stilted diction. She is a girl to stare at, and we, knowing her Heer merely as the object of Jordan’s love, gladly believe in his intoxication. The ensemble is fine, especially the actor playing Kapoor’s slap-happy elder brother, with minor niggles (Shernaz Patel laying it on regrettably thick) and a lovely cameo from a legend to make us all smile. We often refer to the late Shammi Kapoor as a rockstar, and his appearance here serves to remind us that the word isn’t about guitars as much as it is about grace.

This is the story of a boy goaded onto glory. He’s naïve, frequently clueless, and hardly ever has the answers. Bad boy image be damned, this is a man-child living in a bubble of denial, who gradually starts seeing his own life in extreme close-up and ultraslowmotion: in music-video images. For a dreamer, life outside the forcefield — even one created fleetingly by love and a bedsheet — can never be perfect.

Rating: Four Stars


First published on Rediff, November 11, 2011


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How to ‘fix’ The Tree Of Life

Art-rock for art’s sake

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


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Leave AR Rahman alone!

It isn’t really a major surprise that we, as a nation of armchair critics, would lash out against AR Rahman after his Oscar win. Failing to take that award in perspective — foolishly and redundantly yelling that he has made other, greater music in the past — we have been writing off his recent work, confident that he has peaked, is overrated, and we can gleefully tear down another hero we have ourselves deified. This doesn’t come as a shocker at all considering, for example, the fact that The Times Of India jubilantly ran the headline ‘Endulkar’ a few years — and roughly twenty centuries — ago, pointing prematurely to the end of a road for even that superhuman so far beyond reproach.

The Commonwealth Games Song was one that didn’t appeal to several. Fair enough, but who is to dictate what is a perfect track? I don’t know many who like Rahman’s theme from the disastrous Blue soundtrack, but current Bollywood toast Amit Trivedi spent twenty minutes explaining to me just why it was sheer genius, and among his favourite tracks of last year. Conversely, there are those who hate even the sublime Rangeela theme. You can never please everyone, and no artist should attempt to pander thus. Going from the outraged reactions from people who went on and on about how much Rahman has charged for the song, it seems they expected Waka Waka and Jai Ho rolled into one. Clearly the expectations are becoming defiantly impossible; it seems we do not want to like Rahman anymore.

The question of cost is a ridiculous one. Sure, Rahman charges more for a film than several leading men, but this is extremely well-deserved, since he is often the only performer holding his end up while a cinematic innings goes through collapse. His last unanimously acclaimed soundtrack came with Delhi 6, a film with fantastic songs but absolutely nothing else. Looking back at his best work, you’ll see this is the norm — even with cinema being the most collaborative of creative arts, you see Rahman working despite mediocre scripts, actors, directors, doing his own thing with elan despite all odds, odds that shouldn’t rightfully exist.

Cinematically, the man has been tragically boxed in. The new, radical Indian cinema is looking elsewhere for its tunes: Anurag Kashyap brings in spectacular talents like Trivedi and Piyush Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj does everything on his own, and Dibakar Banerjee discovers brilliant people like Sneha Khanwalkar. This leaves Rahman, that virtuoso artist, to deal mostly with the fatcats, the filmmakers loaded with dough — and little else. The lack of creative inspiration must be stultifying for a man of his calibre. Just try and imagine an artiste forced to seek the muse in films as vacuous as Ghajini, Sivaji, Yuvvraaj and Raavan.

Which is why he must look abroad. Toward Danny Boyle and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Western shores where background score is treasured and composers work with different parameters. I do not say that they make better music, but the artist in Rahman has to hope that they present him with fresh challenges. It is why a Naseeruddin Shah goes and does bit-roles with Sir Sean Connery, in the desperate hope that he can expand instead of shuttling between a Mohra and a Krrish, which is all our industry doles out. It is only now that Shah, like his contemporary Pankaj Kapoor, is thankfully being given something with enough meat to justify a bite.

We must start giving Rahman something delicious to work with. Or else we’ll just have to get used to applauding 127 Hours from afar.


First published Mumbai Mirror, October 20, 2010


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Nine songs

In which I dig up 09’s finest 9, and apologise profusely for the sloppy English translations.


9. Dil Gira Dafatan

Samundar lehron ki, lehron ki chadar odh ke so raha hai,

Par main jaagu, ek khumaari, ek nasha sa, ek nasha sa ho raha hai,

Tu magar, hai bekhabar, hai bekhabar… Dil, gira kahin par, dafatan.

[The sea sleeps under a blanket of waves, but I lie awake, lost and intoxicated.

You, however, know nothing of this. It is my heart that fell somewhere, suddenly.]

Rakeysh Mehra’s slice-of-Delhi storytelling in Delhi 6 gave way for surrealism as his protagonist stumbled into love. Abhishek Bachchan’s Roshan realised, rather abruptly, that he was madly in love with Sonam Kapoor’s Bittu, and AR Rahman’s dreamily romantic song — rendered wistfully by Ash King and Chinmayee — was visually complemented by a stunning, mad juxtaposition of New York and Old Delhi, of Times Square and Chandni Chowk.

The word Dafatan is Urdu for ‘suddenly,’ and it is this that lyricist Prasoon Joshi seized on, because of its sound and precise meaning. The three duh-fuh-tun syllables force a kind of stop-go when spoken aloud, the word seeming to trip over its own feet.

‘My entire approach was a little hazy, unfocussed,’ explains Joshi. ‘I wanted to write the song with a lack of clarity. Sometimes you can’t pinpoint when something touches you, and my idea of romance for this song comes from the feeling of being intoxicated in love.’

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