Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Magic of Films

The following article is going to appear in my campus magazine "The Fourth Estate".

I love films. I can watch them all day long, one after another, and still not get tired. I can discuss their stories, talk about the techniques used in them, give you the complete biography of each cast member, write about them and still not get tired.

When it comes to films I have no prior reservations. I don’t care whether the director is a multiple Oscar nominee or is a sixteen year old high school drop out who just made his first movie using a camera he borrowed from the local junk store. As long as there is a film to be seen, I will see it. I reserve all my judgements for after the movie. This I do on purpose. Every time we form a view about a film (could be about the actors, directors or the composer) before watching it, we either raise our expectations or are dejected even before we have had a glimpse of the film. So if we were expecting a movie to be trash and it turned out to be real gold we wouldn’t have been in a position to appreciate it and give the film its due credit. On the other hand if we were expecting a movie to be a masterpiece and it turned out to be trash (or even average) then we are overly disappointed.

Suppose we completely forget that we had ever seen the original Matrix. Then maybe, just maybe, we could have appreciated Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions. It is this baseless need to compare every film (especially if it is a sequel) with its predecessors which spoil the film watching experience. The original Matrix was a master piece, a film whose likes will not be seen for many a decades. It had a great script, capable actors, visionary directors and never seen before special effects.

So when the sequels were announced we assumed that they will have an even better script, greater vision from the directors and SFX which will excite every last atom in our bodies. This is where we made our biggest mistake. Watch the sequels with a fresh mind and maybe, just maybe we will be able to appreciate these two movies. Most of us might still feel that the script sucked big time and the acting was boring to say the least. But all of us will definitely appreciate the effort put into the film, especially the effects. It took them months to come up with the perfect rain drop for the final show down between Neo and Agent Smith. Watch the movie afresh and you will love that raindrop.

Effort is what most of us fail to see. Films are not just about the actors in front of the camera. And while most of us know that there are hundreds of other people behind the scenes, all of us fail to notice their contribution. Of course if the acting is lousy then no one can be blamed for not noticing the wonderful use of light and the great set design. But for people like us who boast to be semi or pseudo intellectuals and who watch tons of movies it should be the whole experience of the movie, starting from its conception, moving towards the script writing, the actual hours and hours of footage and to the final cutting on the editors table, which should excite us and catch our attention.

From whatever little experience I have gathered after watching films, I have classified them into three categories: (a) Popular cinema, (b) Films tending to Cult and (c) Art. Category (b) in most cases is a subset of category (a). Let me explain this classification in detail.

Popular Cinema consists of films which are made for the masses. While some of you may argue that films are always made for the masses, I beg to differ. Most films fall into this category simply because they are made with a motive to earn money for the studios investing in them. The script writers and the directors may have a great vision and might consider themselves artists but the truth of the matter is that they are making these films for profit. And there is nothing wrong in that. Some of the best loved films of all times fall into this category.

These films are based on the traditional models of story telling and most of them have straight forward stories (might be about complex subjects though) with clear narratives. The more popular ones will have good actors doing what they do best - acting. These films are based on the traditional theatre style where the audience was a given, an axiom. The film is based on a simple two way communication between the audience and the characters. If the character is sad and is crying the audience should also get a feeling of sadness. If it is a war film which talks about the horrors of war then the audience should be shocked after seeing the blood and gore and the evil that war brings out in men. We don’t need to strain our minds for understanding and liking these films. As long as the acting is fine you can even watch these films in mute (except a musical of course).

Examples of category (a) - All Indian films (even the parallel cinema), Titanic, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, LOTR, etc, etc. (Basically 97% of all films)

The second category is the one where the director and the screen writer make an effort so that the audience has to exercise its brain cells. These are thought provoking films - films which raise philosophical questions, which serve as a way for intellectual masturbation. A friend of mine likes to compare such films to onions. The director wants you to peel off one layer at a time till you finally reach the core. This can be done by using various techniques like moving backwards and forwards in time, having multiple narratives or by just having a simple story told in a complex manner.

Such films cater to the needs of a small and select crowd who like to think while watching a film. Some of these films go on to become big box office hits because people had to come back a second time to completely understand the film or to appreciate the finer details. Some of these films are disasters when they are first released but slowly become cult classics. You simply cannot watch these movies in mute.

Examples of category (b) - Blade Runner, The Usual Suspects, A Clockwork Orange, Memento etc, etc. (2.99 % of all films)

The third category is the one which has the least number of films but this number is slowly rising. These films are made by directors who are really artists. They don’t make their films for an audience. These films are like works of art. It doesn’t matter if they are hanging in the MET or in some one’s bedroom or in the painter’s studio. They are beautiful and complete in themselves and don’t need an external source to interpret them. They are released in theatres and people do go and watch them. But the director doesn’t really care whether you liked his film or not. It’s a work of art - If you can appreciate it then good for you, otherwise: goodbye and have a nice day. It doesn’t matter if the film is in mute.

Examples of category (c) - All David Lynch films etc, etc.

Films have always been about escapism. Where else can you fight like a Jedi, roam the middle earth and go where no man has gone before? Where else can you feel the pain of a man on a death row, escape from a prison and become lost in translation? Where else can you be the devil’s advocate, tango with Gabrielle Anwar and become the head of a mafia family? Only in films, baby. Only in films.

[The writer is the co-ordinator of IIT Madras Film Society. He is a self confessed movie fanatic and claims that he has seen more films than any other set of three people on this planet.]

Saturday, March 06, 2004

The Predictable Life of a Film Buff

Yesterday I paid my weekly visit to the British Council Library. After spending a few hours in the library (which is being renovated and there is no place to sit) I went to the canteen outside. Even before I could place my order the elderly women on the counter took out a 5 Star chocolate and a Maaza from the fridge and placed it on the counter. I was stunned. OK so I go there very often and I think I always eat the same things, but come on you got to be kidding me. I have become so predictable that this woman could figure out my order before I placed it. My life must be really boring if it so predictable. I think I have fallen into some kind of a vague pattern and must break my way out of it. But for the time being the 5 Star and the Maaza are just fine.

Sean Penn won a well deserved best actor Oscar for Mystic River. Though Bill Murray pulled off an amazing performance in Lost in Translation, the fourth time nominee Penn won the day (If you are wondering then “Yes I have seen both these movies”). I have been reading a lot of criticism of the fact that Lord of the Rings (Return of the King) won 11 Oscars. The Academy awards have always been about popularity and have always been given to audience/media favourites. LOTR was overlooked the last two times because they wanted to make the final instalment a legend. Everyone in the academy wanted to honour the genius of Tolkien and the vision of Peter Jackson and make LOTR-ROTK a legend placing it in the not so august company of Ben-Hur and Titanic (with 11 Oscars each - both technically and cinematically very superior but not really all that great). That the Oscar has always been about popularity can be judged from the fact that Penn did not get an Oscar for his brilliant performances in Dead Man Walking (a performance which will eclipse the rest of his career, he set a very high bench-mark for himself) and I am Sam. That Russell Crowe got an Oscar for Gladiator (a role that any other actor could have pulled off) and not for his superb portrayal of mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind is another proof of the award being easily influenced by media and publicity (the publicity team which had worked really hard to get Julia Roberts an Oscar for Erin Brockovich was also behind Denzel Washington's successful award campaign for Training Day).

The studios which produce these movies are allowed to throw parties for the voting members of the Academy and also send out gifts to them. Academy Awards can be bought like every other thing. But this doesn't mean that the award winners don't deserve their awards. Most winners (not all) would have won their awards even in a perfect world where votes couldn't be bought. No Man's Land would have still won hands down and our Lagaan would still have lost (See No Man's Land and you would realize that a main stream Bollywood movie like Lagaan doesn't even deserve a nomination). Studios do what they can do best (get a good publicity campaign manager) and the actors do what they do best (act). Woody Allen said after winning the best director Oscar for Annie Hall that he did not like awards because then you let yourself get judged by others. You give them the right to say that you were good in a particular film but weren't all that great in the other one. LOTR is an awesome movie and Peter Jackson does not need any Oscars to prove that.

So why am I suddenly writing about movies? Actually why haven't I written about movies for so long? Pick any three people from anywhere in the world and I can bet that I have seen more films than all of them put together. I watch films for a living. It is my bread and butter. Period.

The reason Sean Penn came to my mind was because of his beautiful and talented wife Robin Wright Penn. Very few people remember Robin as the original Kelly from Santa Barbara (the soap which used to come along with Bold and the Beautiful on Star many years back). She is best remembered for her portrayal of Jenny in Forrest Gump. I recently saw a movie of hers called Message in a Bottle (starring Kevin Costner and Paul Newman) and all my childhood memories came screaming back. She was the first serious crush of a twelve year old boy. I had a very large poster of her in my bedroom and never missed an episode of Santa Barbara. Sean Penn doesn’t need an Oscar. He has his own personal angel.

Holi Wars in Pacino-mode

Twenty people broke into my room. They did this by breaking my door (read broke the wooden panels). My favourite T-Shirt was torn, my favourite pyjama now looks like the revealing dress which Arabian belly dancers wear and my lucky underwear (sob sob) – don’t even ask about it. And then an entire rainbow was painted all over my body. If you are alarmed for my safety, relax. This is exactly the way Holi is played in IIT. This is the way uninterested denizens of the hostel zone are seduced into playing Holi with a vengeance that would have put John McClane (Bruce Willis in Die Hard) to shame. Violence/Anger is a very potent adrenalin booster. Enrage someone and you can make them do the impossible (side effects not withstanding). Thus I became wrath and I played Holi after many years today. After the initial rush I calmed down and actually enjoyed myself. The door got fixed easily. After seeing the torn T-shirt and pyjama I realized that it was time to move on to other things. But my lucky underwear, that damage is irreparable. Oh well! I was never fully convinced that whatever little luck I had was because of that underwear. But now I need to find another candidate from the ranks of my wardrobe (if it can be called that) to replace the Genuine Jockey boxer brief as a good luck charm.

As an afterthought I remembered the reason why I hadn’t played Holi for all those years. Holi has always been a violent festival. People loose their minds playing Holi. Violence brings out anger and anger brings out the best and worst in me (mostly at the same time). No wonder I am always able to pull off angry, contemptuous and conniving roles with ease. Every mono act I write plays on my ability to use all the pent-up anger (I suppose I should call it energy). Though most of us are capable of emoting a whole plethora of emotions, we all have a basic emotion which takes us to a deeper level of consciousness, connecting us with ourselves in a better way. For me this emotion is contempt, contempt of everything around me and a holier-than-thou attitude. This contempt is not real, neither is the holier than thou attitude natural to me. It’s just that when I behave in a contemptuous manner I really have fun. No wonder I am such a big Pacino fan (see The Devil's Advocate and Scent of a Woman and you'll understand). For some people the basic emotion is jealousy and for some it is vanity (more of a sin than an emotion).

But contempt can lead to dire consequences, especially when your friends are involved. That is the sole reason why I never act crazy (the way I was born) when I am sober (was that an oxymoron - crazy when sober). I wish I could but I can't. Alcohol has no effect on me. I can stay completely sober under excessive amounts of booze. But being drunk gives me the opportunity to act contemptuous and still not emotionally hurt anyone. I can always apologize later by saying that I was drunk. I get to be in Pacino-mode and no one minds. Everyone is happy. Period.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Child is the Father of the Man

Kids are born every day. They grow up get married and have kids of their own. The cycle continues. So what is the big deal about marriage and parenthood? Everyone does it. People have been getting married and having kids for ever. Why then do we associate so much importance with marriage and children? Answer - Just because people have been getting married and having kids since time immemorial doesn’t make marriage and parenthood simple. In fact both of them are very complex and no two are alike. Never take advice from anyone about your married life or about raising your kids. Everyone’s experience is their own and distinct from the experience of others. What works for some might not work for others (actually it will definitely not work for others). These are deep un-chartered waters but all of us still get ourselves wet in them. We learn as we go along but the lessons we learn are only meant for us. All those books about marriage and parenthood are useless. They do make for some really interesting readings though.

So why am I talking about marriage and parenthood? My dad also asked me the same question a few days back when he was in town and I was picking his brain about his experience as a married man and as a father. He just put the question in a much better way - “You are inviting your mom and me for your marriage. Aren’t you? And when is that kid of yours dew?” “Seven years and three months”, I promptly answered. The discussion which followed gave me a new insight to my dad - his maturing from a boy to a man. He told me how marriage had a calming effect on him and helped him stabilize; how fatherhood turned a Yezdi (an old bike very similar to Enfield, much bigger and noisier) driving guy, who preferred living in the fast lane and on the edge, to become a warm, caring and excessively careful man. How the earlier years of his marriage and parenthood were some of the best times he ever had. How he and mom relived their childhood when I was growing up - learning new tricks (like walking, talking, writing and eventually typing) every day. His eyes were almost misty for a few seconds as he was remembering the old days when he was a young man with a lot of dreams for himself and his family. It dawned upon me at that moment that in those misty eyes could be countless hidden unfulfilled dreams that he and mom had seen when they were young and probably they now see those same dreams for me. Those eyes made a subtle demand on the blood that moves in my veins. A demand which in my heart I decided there and then will have to be fulfilled. I will make my proud parents even prouder and happier. Just how I don’t know? “Just follow your heart instead of your mind”, said my dad smiling at me.

‘The child is father to the man.’
How can he be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can:
‘The child is father to the man.’
No; what the poet did write ran,
‘The man is father to the child.’
‘The child is father to the man!’
How can he be? The words are wild.

By Gerard Manley Hopkins