Wednesday, May 30, 2007

sugar free

It is a measure of my foolishness that I get lured again and again to spend precious resources - money and time - at the movie theaters. Coming back home at night, in a rickshaw, caught in the everyday traffic which if it was a nightmare, would have awoken me in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, I brood about the utter worthlessness of my life, that causes me to fritter it away so thoughtlessly. This time, the reason for my despair is "Cheeni Kum"

As if a 6-7 year old girl, called Sexy, who badgers her friendly neighbor, Buddha (Amitabh Bachchan) to bring her adult DVDs, and lectures him on women and sex, is not enough to make one cringe every time she appears on screen, she has to be dying of blood cancer (what else do children die of in India?). The combination of precocious, failing-to-be-cute and trying-to-be-heartbreaking, complete with dire, dark shadows under her eyes, is enough to make me puke even in retrospect. Do scriptwriters in commercial Hindi films even know any children in real life? Don't think so, because the only reasonably true-to-life children in commercial Hindi films that I can remember are the kids in "Masoom", "Makdee", "Anjali".

Then, we have Nina's (Tabu) father, Paresh Rawal, a Gandhian who eats only chicken for every meal, and uses Satyagraha as a personal blackmailing weapon. Was this even meant to be funny? When the lovely bhajan "Vaishno jan to tene kahiye" is used as a playback for his melodramatic fast-unto-death scene, where he is tempted by Nizamuddin's chicken kababs, I must confess, I did not feel very non-violent just then. The father is supported by a curiously immobile tableau of relatives, who sit in the same position and with the same expression, day after day, as the satyagraha plays out to the end.

It seems to me that Paresh Rawal has forgotten that he is a good actor, and functions only as a money-making machine, accepting and executing all roles that come his way.

Buddha's mother, a 90-and more year old Zohra Sehgal, for all her commendable energy comes across as slightly demented, particularly in the scene where she drags her son to Nina's house for a final confrontation, and then decides to sit in the car, and listen to the goings-on on the terrace of the house with a cocked ear, as does the rest of the crowd which has without an actual line of vision, or hearing managed to find out what's happening inside the house, and gathered around it inquisitively. Thankfully, there are no news reporters, and no media coverage, though one would have thought that today's news hounds with their task of pounding silk out of a sow's ear, should have found it a very interesting story.

An important and equally irritating character of the film is the umbrella which passes back and forth between Buddha and Nina, in the unpredictable rains of London. The bunch of buffoon chefs and waiters, working in Buddha's restaurant spend their time making jokes about the umbrella, which is also a term for the condom. The only scene worth anything at all in the film, is when Buddha goes to buy a condom, and the shopkeeper inadvertently tells his assistant, "Chacha (Uncle) wants a condom". Buddha's helpless rage, as he walks through the city towards his girlfriend's house, has to then be ruined by some black frame inter-cutting, ("mood-editing") which aims to reflect his state of mind, but only makes me slightly giddy.

The only saving grace of the film is the father of Sexy, who limits his lines and appearances to giving medical reports about her - "She is dying, she is dying, she is dead". Wish everyone else in the film served some such purpose, and did it as briefly as he does.

I am not even going to talk about Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu. He is asked to be a sarcastic old man, she to be an enigmatically whimsical woman, and they go through the motions in their own way. The notion of a love story between a 64-year old man and a 34-year old woman is good, if it had not been so burdened by the director's urge to make a comedy, which means comic lines, comic protagonists, comic second cast, unhindered by any substance in the plot line, making the film too, too tiresome for words, particularly as none of it is very comic.

Sadly, the almost-full house laughed. The cackle of young girls behind me was particularly loud in their hoots of laughter, which sometimes came even before anything had been said or done. I cynically speculated whether they were being college interns, paid to laugh, and then felt a bit ashamed. I don't like the way Hindi films are darkening my soul.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Horí, má panenko (1967)

The Firemen's Ball and Lottery

Milos Forman in his interview tagged along with the film on the DVD, mentions that they went to this small town in Czechoslovakia to work on a script that was being hounded by distractions in Prague. Once settled there, the script would still not take off. One day they saw a poster in the village announcing the firemen's ball. They attended the ball, and from the next day, that's the film they were working on. They made friends with the firemen, used to play cards with them every evening, and when the script was written, Milos cast the firemen in the film.

That's how I believe stories are written, and films are made, when the real world takes over the ideas you are grappling with, and when your ideas start grappling with the real world.

The use of amateur actors does change the pace of a shot, the editing rhythm. Because they do not deliver their lines, or take their pauses, or give their reactions in a way which is dramatically most effective, the pace at times becomes awkward, not quite right, but that adds its own charm to the film.

The sub-context of the film of course like most East European films of the time is a critique of the Communist state, the resulting impoverishment of the people which in turn led to a general degeneration of moral and civic values. And yet, everyone struggles hard to keep up appearances, and what is the worst sin, is not stealing but being caught. It is worse to sully the good name of the fire brigade than to be dishonest. This line in the dialogue apparently offended the Communist top-guns the most.

This was the last film that was made in free Czechoslovakia before the Russians invaded it. So, even though the Politburo disliked it, they could not ban it, nor did they succeed in getting it criticized by the people of the village themselves, which would have allowed a polite suppression of the film. But after three weeks of running in the theatres, the Russian invasion finally brought about a "ban forever", on the film, in Czechoslovakia.

Carlo Ponti, the original financier of the film backed out of the deal because he thought the film showed the working class in a bad light. This in itself, could have meant ten years imprisonment for Milos Forman, under the rules of the Czech government. But Francois Truffaut bought the rights to the film, which proved lucky after the official ban, as the Czechoslovakia Socialist Republic had no option but to give over the negative and the prints to Truffaut and it could not stop the film's release in the West.

The film moves from one bizarrely funny sequence to another. The lottery prizes that slowly and surely disappear from the table, before they can be distributed fairly, the rounding off of unlikely beauty candidates for a beauty contest, the honorary prize that has to be given to the retired 86 year old chairman, which is forgotten until the end, and when given, is not there, but accepted stoically by him, with all the right words, the old man whose house is burnt down and who gets worthless raffle tickets as a gesture of kindness from the partygoers, and who ends up sharing his bed in the snow, with an old fireman who has been wrapped up in a woman's scarf by his wife to protect him from the cold.

Milos Forman ends his interview by saying that pressures exist everywhere, but given the choice between ideological pressure and commercial pressure, he prefers the latter, because that leaves him subject to the tastes of the audience, which is bound to throw up less or more people whose tastes coincide with his, but ideological pressure leaves the film maker at the mercy of one or two idiots who want him to conform to their ideas of right and wrong.

Yet strangely, so much work that we admire has come from countries that are coping with ideological pressures, and where film makers have been forced to subvert their content into a sub-context. Seeing how our country is slowly and surely moving from commercial pressures to ideological pressures in all the art forms, perhaps we will soon be learning the art of a more layered narrative.