Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pink is a significant achivement.

Pink is a great movie, and I am not even talking about the message or the ideology of the movie (which,  by the way, is great). The movie is simply good cinema. A compact story told with masterful control over the medium. Cinema being a combinatory art form, brings various branches, which are both craft and art in themselves, to serve the vision of the director or to tell a compelling   story. We will appreciate the hardwork put in the movie if we realize, how difficult it is to weave a scene which is accessible to the audience in a cohesive way. Early cinema audience were puzzled by even close ups and moving images it took some time to instill grammar of camera in the audience. Having a disparate shots and developing a narrative from that is never that easy. Pink is a fully realized cinematic product.

Pink is a fully realized product of cinematic control over a complicated idea. It grabs attention with masterly deployment of tools of the craft. The very first scene after a suitably spare casting credits creates the tempo. Inter-cutting of bleeding Rajvir and tensed girls in two different cars set the spiraling nature of the doom so well. Similarly, shots of traffic lights on lonely roads, South Delhi colonies, Metro, Police Station cell, all were used to help the mood of the related scenes. That is about cinematography and editing which kept the narrative tight and did not allow audience attention wane. 

Then characterization. Every character of the movie has come out succinctly. Rajvir and his friends could easily be situated in a context of unexamined patriarchy and feudal mindset. Rajvir’s father was  irritated but not angry with him as he was comfortable with his infractions. Two scenes of his father established an entire value system. Girls- it was so easy to get that wrong. They were believably nuanced. Adria was the quietest but came out very clearly as a girl facing prejudice at many levels. Falak with her maturity and family burden was trying to navigate the situation with least disruptive way but her core came out so vividly when she broke the compromise proceedings immediately when she could not agree with the vulgarity of Rajvir’s thought process. She was the one who articulated their stance in the court and she exposed the hollowness of payment issue of their meeting with the boys. Meenal was difficult but she clearly laid out the core of a character who wants to live the life on her terms and is willing to take risks for that. Her trauma and believable rootedness in traditional value of family was conveyed very clearly. Bond between the three girls was conveyed so naturally  but never by overt proclamation. Their care, camaraderie and depth of friendship is noted in gestures, their heroic and unflagging support for each other. However, greatest pleasure is given by skillful etching of small characters. Solidity of their home owner is clear in one or two scenes that were given to him. ‘SHO madam’ was realistic in here casual corruption and lack off smarts. Generosity of the soul of Deepak’s ailing wife Sara was conveyed in almost all the scenes that she handled from the sick bed but in one scene where she offers biscuit to the girls is such a genuine depiction of a grand gesture of giving soul. The judge, colony people, inspector and almost everyone was placed so fully in the scheme of things always a sign of great director.
At one level Pink is an extremely competent court drama. Court drama is a genre that has a rich history in all major film industries. B R Chopra used it with great effect in Kanoon. Mera Saya, Insaaf ka Tarazu, many recent comedies including very good Jolly LLB are some examples. Deepak’s initial diffidence and rusty beginning stepped up the tension. Half of the movie is a substantial time to spend in the courtroom and Pink maintains the momentum by arguments and acting. The scenario had no big discoveries involved so it was about establishing new sensibilities and all actors and director were upto the task. Presence of an unusually sensitive judge helped.
Of course Amitabh Bachchan. Another feather in the cap of the thespian who has taken upon himself to take the medium forward. He is pitch perfect as man of fine sensibilities. He is angry and burdened and looks it. He conveys his worries and ailments with subtle  fluctuations in his voice and mannerism. His initial rustiness in the court was so controlled that it is a masterclass in itself. He is every inch  THE Amitabh Bachchan with his strong style intact but this pull, this star power is fully devoted to make Deepak Saigal a success in a great role. Not a single false move. Chief pleasure of his recent performances is the latent heroism of is characters that expresses itself in the least flamboyant manner. He is almost self-effacing in his most heroic moments in Pink and leaves a deep impact. 

Now the most powerful appeal of the movie. After getting into the flow of the movie I immediately regretted that I did not bring my 14 year old son for the movie. It is such a powerful movie that conveys so many lessons of proper gender relations for the boys of today’s generation. The rule book that Deepak kept on referring to during the trial is so convincingly conveyed that it is bound to have an impact. Film or the camera was never in doubt where the blame lay. Such a powerful initiation into the world of right sensibilities. My friends have a point when they say that this film should be taken over as tool of spreading healthy practices of gender sensitization. I was keen to watch the movie as Deepanjana Pal of Newslaundary in her excellent review expressed a niggling discomfort over ‘mansplaining’ and ceding  of space by Meenal to Deepak. After watching the movie I felt relieved that my observation about burdening a film with the personal ideologies were not too far off the mark. 

While the central message is the key appeal of the movie, I liked the fluidity with which it has tackled the issues and great performances that kept the movie at a believable plane. Music, editing direction, screenplay, sound other elements like cinematography have created a great movie. A significant  achievement. 

-Dhiraj Singh

Monday, October 10, 2016

Amitabh Bachchan: Enduring Excellence

Amitabh Bachchan is having an unbelievably successful late innings. His post KBC output is no less than the body of work during his angry young man days. It can be argued that later phase surpasses the earlier period if we take critical acclaim and contribution to cinema as yardsticks. His National Award winning performances, mostly, fall during the late phase and he has taken more risks to enhance his vistas and, more importantly, stay relevant in a totally new era with vastly different cinematic sensibilities and attention span. By any means, Nishabd, Black, Chinni Kum, Paa, Piku and Pink are path breaking movies creating new avenues for the medium and harnessing the thespian’s considerable star power in the service of his acting prowess. 

  A successful second innings by a great artist can really be rewarding. Henry Matisse took his creative journey forward virtually from his sick bed with his cutouts and murals in The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Clint Eastwood will be known more for the work in his late seventies and eighties when he developed a telegraphic leanness of cinematic delivery as a director. He has not only given many Oscar worthy films but also created a niche for gritty, spare storytelling which has spawned a successful genre of such films. Currently his Sully is running to rave reviews. As mentioned somewhere else, advanced age can resolve many inhibitions and free an artist to experiment. A senior artist, though a carrier of a historical baggage, is often free from the worries of building a career and has better understanding of opportunities that his or her field provides. The wisdom of experience and accumulated star power can put the actor in a position of more deliberate and conscious choices of films. 

Given these advantages, we should see late flowering more often. However, it is not so common due to various factors. Commercial constraints keep the dominant trends of film making in sync with the lowest common denominator which favours youth and existing cookie cutter approach to film making. Aging stars often find it difficult to get author backed roles and are forced to take less central so called ‘character roles’ . General trend is, and Amitabh Bachchan also suffered this in 1990s, is ‘ muscular memory’ output. It goes like this.  The actor sleepwalks through the film. Due to innate greatness or ‘muscular memory’, broad parameters of the basic movie are usually in place and it has some signature flashes of genius. But this work fades in comparison to earlier works which were less of products of practice but of genuine inspiration supported by indefatigable craftsmanship. Soul simply does not shine through. Admirers of the artist get into nostalgia mode and start celebrating diminished sparks that remind them of the original fire – their own and that of the artist. Robert De Nero and Bruce Willis in Hollywood stopped caring about the quality of films that they were picking. De Nero, arguably the best actor of our times has reduced himself to B grade films and deploys his considerable acting muscles for cheap laughs and stereotypical thrills. Nearer home, Rajnikant (a massively under utilized actor) too is not able to break free from his astronomical image. His every new film is brand exercise in milking strong points of his star persona. He, unlike Amitabh, has not leveraged his influence to break the mold. Not that he is failing, he continues to manage his fan base with great success. But he is not expanding cinema. 

Amitabh Bachchan too was trapped in image and habit of staying in safe hands. He relied heavily on a set of directors. Initial phase of Bangali senior directors like Hrishikesh Mukherji was taken over by  Yash Chopra, Prakash, Mehra, Manmohan Desai,  Mehul Kumar, Tinu Anand etc. His choice of films deteriorated and he struggled to give a good film during 90s though he was shining as a star and giving hits like Hum, Shahanshah and attempts at reinvention like Agneepath and Main Azad hoon. His main achievement was to stay afloat as the reigning king of Hindi films. Future researchers will marvel how he survived so many embarrassing film choices (Indrjeet, Jadoogar, Toofan, Insaniyat etc come to mind). Even in his heydays, it was difficult to defend Amitabh Bachchan in any serious discussion. His mass popularity made serious cinephiles of those austere days angry. His unabashed pandering to populist tastes was very easy to attack. While everyone agreed about his talent but there were many who did not consider him to be great actor, Bachchan was for them, nothing more than a self-parody. An amalgamation of   his exaggerated mannerism, never allowing (I find that unfair) his star persona to be subservient to the character he was playing. To top it all he took a sabbatical for half a decade, a very long time in pop culture where memory is short and fads move quickly.

His return was painful, to say the least.  No lover of cinema can read the list without grimacing with  pain and sadness -Mrityudata , Major Saab, Lal Baadshah, Sooryavansham,  (not a bad outing), Hindustan Ki Kasam, Kohram and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan. Even yours truly wrote a requiem for the superstar in 1997, a very painful moment for someone who knew only one superstar. His frustration and financial loses (ABCL was a great concept which simply did not work) led Amitabh to his old director Yash Chopra, asking  for work! Yash Chopra, one of the more intelligent interpreter of emotions, who gave him Deewar, Kabhi Kabhi, Trishul, Silsila and Kala Pathar, reinvented him as senior, aged father figure in Mohabatain. This Aditya Chopra directed vehicle created a space for the second innings and showed the film world possibilities what this maga talent could offer. Meantime success of KBC introduced him to millennials and made him a contemporary for a generation who only knew him as a tall figure from earlier times. Another favourable development was rise of new crop of directors who were taking Hindi Cinema beyond 90s. Someone, recently accused Rajesh Khanna of destroying the golden age of cinema by making every other branch of film a hand maiden of star system. Gradually story writing, lyrics, even production design took back seat in the scheme of producing a film. Film maker’s work was supposed to be substantially over after signing a bankable star. Days of strong teams of Navketan, Raj Kapoor’s talent bank, respectable poets writing for movies were over. Amitabh did little to help the matter, But that was about to change. Ramgopal Varma personally and through his disciples created a new band with fresh perspective. Bhansalis, Gowarikars were rising with Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar firmly in place. Yashraj studio created an eco system for newer talent. Multiplex system, digital production and availability of legitimate finances pushed new film makers to create new sensibilities.   With this backdrop, Amitabh was ready for a new innings and he was being hugely intelligent about it. 

There was, despite strings of duds, a huge reservoir of influence and star power that Amitabh Bachchan enjoyed at that time. Buoyed by a little push by Chopras, TV and other factors, he started cementing his new persona as an aged actor, experimenting with age appropriate roles. After Mohabattain, Amitabh acted in Aks, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Aankhain, Kaante and Boom. All these films with exception of Aks (a personal favourite) gave decent business and created a climate for tailor-made role for the aging superstar. He gave a solid hit in Baghban and attained the status of a benign patriarch of Indian values which came handy for his flourishing advertising career.

 Amitabh was everywhere. An early adapter of social media, he was fully aware that stardom, no longer had the luxury of mystery and seclusion.  He broke the legendry decision of not featuring in advertisements and has since managed an extremely successful career as model for widest possible array of products, a testimony to his credibility and pull.  

Under reliable directors like Govind Nihlani and Rajkumar Santoshi he kept in touch with his action persona as police officer in Dev and Khakee. Veer Zaara, Lakshay, Deewar etc kept him busy with reasonable success. Then, in 2005 came Black

Black gave him Filmfare, National and every possible award for the year and resoundingly announced that Amitabh was ready to take risks to test his limits.  His stubborn irascibility in the backdrop of a hazy foreignness gave him a canvas to paint. He performed a complicated role that even needed a kissing scene with his student. The scene in any lesser hands would have been a disaster but both Amitabh and Rani Mukherjee lent full pathos, dignity and compassion to the moment that it deserved. It was a lyrical portrayal of many inaccessible emotions. The film very successfully reached to the depth of its difficult subject and created one of the path breaking moment in Hindi cinema.  This mold breaking was turning into habit for Amitabh. In Kabhi Alvida na Kehna, he took on the role of a philanderer with deep sense of respect for women and morality, never an easy balance to strike.

Nishabd tested even Amitabh. He had to convey yearning, vulnerability and conflict in almost taboo circumstances. This Movie needed Amitabh as only he could have taken on the nuances of the forbidden love in its full sinful splendour. His grand personality made it believable that a vivacious 18 year old could desire a 60 year old father of her friend. Amitabh relished the opportunity to portray the beauty of losing everything in love. Complexities of this doomed situation created new emotions and delicious pains in his character. In the hindsight, saving this gem of movie from falling into the realm of sleaze was a great achievement. Though the movie could not go the whole hog on the path of such difficult relationship, but Amitabh realized the character fully to bring out the depth and plausibility of his situation. One of the definitive performances on Indian screen. 

This was followed by Cheeni Kum where he so successfully tackled romance with Tabu whose father in the movie was younger than him. Bereft of taboo dimensions of Nishabd and powered by guilt-free atmosphere and powerful performance by both the leads, it was a mature love story with a lighter aspect. Amitabh was not only stylish but was in full sync with a late life lover. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and Last Lear took the experimentation further. Bhootnath, God and  Aladin were forays into comedy that always came easy to the megastar. His following among children is enviable. Paa was another landmark role with another National Award. Piku brought alive very believable demanding father and another National Award for the thespian. Teen and Pink are recent successes which saw him succeed in different roles. 

What lies behind this longevity? Sociological explanation of India of 70s and 80s, series of directors, transition of mushy, romantic days of a declining Rajesh Khanna are worthy explanations. However, a bigger part lies in the talent reservoir of this awkward looking actor with some undefinable arresting quality. Amitabh Bachchan is a complete package. He is superb in action, comedy, romance and clean cut family emotions. He even has a famous unique dance style and has given Filmfare worthy songs. It wasn’t so common when he appeared on the scene and not many of his contemporaries were so versatile.  Amitabh has economy of movements of an assured star. Despite a bombastic nature of many of his roles, he carried the day with his smouldering inner fire. A coiled presence which surprises with fluid, stylized expressions. This inner smouldering quality has allowed him to play with silences. His famous baritone is his forte but to me, his felicity with the silences and ability to emote with eyes are more potent histrionic weapons in his arsenal. He has many very posh distinctive style ingredients in his acting but all those famous mannerisms serve the needs of his characters. His being Amitabh Bachchan makes his Piku’s father and Sarkar’s don more potent. Persona of Amitabh is amplifying these characters not dominating them. Such an actor can never become a caricature of his own image, despite having an extremely strong style set. Arguably, Nana Patekar and to a certain extent, Rajnikant and even Shahrukh Khan could not be fully successful in avoiding a self-parody trap. 

Over a period of time many actors gather star power and influence to alter their medium. However, not many are inclined or lucky enough to use that star power to lay down new rules of the game. Dilip Kumar pulled Hindi cinema (along with Motilal, Ashok Kumar and Balraj Sahni) from the hyper stylized, Parsi theatre type of acting. Rajesh Khanna brought rockstar hysteria to films and showed how romance can be a vehicle for myriad emotions. Amitabh came and embodied the angst of youth of his time. He made being angry and dissatisfied fashionable. He turned being a mommy’s boy into ultimate machismo. He married romance, action , comedy and social message in a never before alchemy of popular appeal, art and commercial success.  But he took the medium to a different level in his second innings. He took risks and broke taboos. He wrote the new script of Hindi film lead who was old, often not in control and ready to be heroic in the least flamboyant ways. This led him to playing Alzhimer patient, constipated curmudgeon, wheel chair bound chess player, old man falling in love with much younger ladies, son to his son and an old sleuth in Feluda mode. All these are walking on new terrain created by an extremely talented and influential superstar who  rose above his comfort zone and chose to rewrite the script . What was once a survival tactics has now become a defining point of onward march of cinematic narrative in India. Herein lies the genius of Amitabh Bachchan. Happy Birthday sir.

- Dhiraj Singh

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Adele: An unmediated Joy

Somehow, it does not feel wrong, a man on the wrong side of forties, listening to heartbreak song from a girl of 19, 21 or 25 (though she is 27 now). She is pure voice and when Adele sings, such songs are not teen, girly stuff. She infuses those cries, angst and pain with so much classical dignity that it pierces the heart with simple happiness. Not for nothing, her song writing has been compared with Shubert and Beatles. So the sartorial dignity of yours truly remains uncompromised.

        Elsewhere, while talking about painting, I wrote of Cezanne’s ‘imperative of solidity’. An artistic output that strives for a solid presence without losing any of its lyricism and suppleness, Adele’s   songs are solid. She delivers a fully formed concrete reality. Many find her ‘incapable of a false note’. Such perfection can turn mechanical, blemishes are life, perfection is stone. There is nothing plastic when she sings. 

        There may not be any false note but she has that “perfect imperfect voice”. A voice that is capable of hitting you with total brutality. Coarse reality living on those notes but fine sensibilities get transmitted through supreme control and superlative vocal skills. The throw and thrum just gets conjured up and stands up in person. Just watch the video of ‘Hello’ and first ‘hello’ comes with burning of stove-yes, let there be light and there was light. 

        Her songs convey doubt, uncertainty and yearning but this she does by hitting every note fully – totally bereft of tentativeness. Note comes out fully formed, loud, clear and confident of its purpose. No wobble, no dithering. This direct appeal, this ‘unmediated expression, further reinforced by next door, simple English girl persona is huge part of her appeal. Her voice is not silken but throaty, ‘toothsome’ throw. It has timber that can carry her frailties and pain with a confidence of a supremely talented youngster.       

What has been termed as ‘throwback classicism’  of her song writing led to Newyorker slotting her as a “soul singer in the most expansive and truest sense.” Songs that are “points of reckoning, reflections, admissions of culpability sung purely and without guile, because what’s it matter now?” Adele from her retrospective analysis and regret is able to convey joy of a relationship with all the attending joy of poetry and music. She can be angry as a youngster or regret some of her behaviour or choices or just stay amazed at the intensity of pain (“They say that time’s supposed to heal you, but I ain’t done much healing.”). Beyond all this artistry is the artist who manages to create musical tsunami at will without surrendering to the demands of the cutthroat world of music industry. 

She can afford to bring out albums after gap of years, say no to tours that sell music, have a combative stance with the streaming services, indulging in a voice destroying eating and drinking habits (though now subdued)and having absolutely non flashy song delivery style (“. I just want to sing it. I don’t want to perform with my body.”). With this she comes back and as matter of routine nonchalantly collect Grammy, Oscars and sales of millions.  This next door girl image add to her relatability. Audience feel protective about her and when such a person delivers music with such sublime facility, response is huge. As was said earlier, it is pure voice that hits with its completeness, and comprehensive throw that has made Adele what she is today. Absence of antics is part of this great ‘unmediated expression’.  

-Dhiraj Singh