Month: October 2016

Literature Nobel for Bob Dylan

Literature Nobel for Bob Dylan

So the Nobel committee dropped a mega-TNT and many of the pundits grudgingly ate their predictions. Bob Dylan for literature Nobel? Who would have thunk? The internet was clearly divided in two camps. Those who lauded the decision and those who criticized it quite harshly – much more so than when the Nobel goes to an unknown writer you have never heard of. Some of the objections were rather surprising. For instance, the Lit Nobel is going away from books, people will stop reading books now! Apart from the fact that this is an overreaction – I don’t think people who want to read books will stop reading them – this raises a fundamental question. Does the quality of an artist’s expression depend on the medium of expression?

Indian literature – both prose and poetry – has a rich oral tradition, starting from the ancient Vedas to epics like the Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is depicted in the Mahabharata as a spontaneous dialogue. Even much later, after Gutenberg had made his mark, books were still hard to come by, both for authors and readers. Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest Indian poets to have ever lived, used to tie knots in his kamarband as he recited the couplets in his poetry, much like Mozart who just reeled of an original score. Next day, he would untie them one by one and write the couplets down. Most of the Urdu poetry in those days was transmitted orally, through mushairas (social gatherings for Urdu poetry readings). Few had the money to get a poetry collection published. Does Ghalib become less of a poet because his medium of transmission was mainly oral? Paper as a medium of literature is slowly becoming obsolete. (Yay for the trees!) I no longer buy books made of paper. Kindle is infinitely more convenient. (I have read all the nostalgic arguments about the lovely smell of books and so on. In fact, I do love the smell of books but pragmatism wins. Being able to carry hundreds of books in your hand, with search and dictionary functions at your beck and call – that is the paradise that Jorge Luis Borges talked about). It will not be unreasonable to assume that future mediums of writers and poets will involve less paper and more technology. That should not decide the quality of literature.

But.. but.. Dylan is a musician! He is already famous! This argument is a slippery slope. If the Nobel is meant only as a means of discovering less known talented writers, then that will preclude everyone from Haruki Murakami to Joyce Carol Oates from the Nobel race. They are as famous as they can possibly be and they don’t need any more publicity. The objection about Dylan being a musician is related to this setting a bad trend. Actually, after having awarded Dylan, I don’t think the Nobel committee is going to consider another musician-poet in near future. This reduces the chances of Leonard Cohen getting the prize. Because of his brilliant music, Dylan’s poetry became much more accessible than it would have been had he produced a thick anthology.

Does the quality of poetry depend on any of the external parameters – medium of expression or length of the poems? Is a haiku any less expressive because it contains so few words? I like to think that poetry is a spontaneous expression that happens almost without the conscious efforts of a poet. I cannot imagine a poet staring at the proverbial blank screen, trying to ‘engineer’ a couplet. Good poetry is on speed dial with the subconscious. That’s why Samuel Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after waking up from an opium-influenced dream. That is also why Jim Morrison’s songs have such haunting imagery.

This Nobel has proven wrong the assumption that a popular work of art cannot be of highest quality. One often encounters this bias when discussing the so-called high-brow works of art, where something is dismissed just on the grounds that the masses love it. As a result, entire genres like science fiction, fantasy or crime fiction are excluded from the elite literary circles. No matter how prescient Isaac Asimov was in predicting the three laws of Robotics, he will never find a place in the exalted literary journals. Not that he needs to. I like the fact that the Nobel committee is being inclusive instead of being exclusive in choosing Dylan.

Finally, a reminder that awards are not meant to be taken too seriously. Again, I turn to Woody Allen and his views on the Academy Awards. Before you watch this, remember that Woody has won four Academy Awards and has been nominated twenty-four times! He has never attended any of these ceremonies. The only time he attended the Oscars was to honour the city of New York in the aftermath of 9/11. He has walked the talk.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAVxp9GtuvM]

M S Dhoni : The Untold Story

M S Dhoni : The Untold Story

Here’s a tip about the movie M S Dhoni : The Untold Story. If you are one of those people who do not understand why millions of Indians go crazy about a silly game that may go on for a few hours, a day or five days and then – because you fail to understand it – you end up rationalizing the behaviour of crazy cricket fans by invoking theories about poverty or social inequality, do yourself a favour. Don’t watch this movie. M S Dhoni : The Untold Story starts with an amazing sequence of Dhoni in the dressing room at the 2011 World Cup finals. Kohli’s wicket falls, India is three down. M S promotes himself in the batting order and goes on to bat¹. This scene has ADRENALINE written all over it in size 86 font but there are some prerequisites :

  • If you have not spent a sizeable amount of your life glued to the TV screen watching cricket as if your life depended on it (It did! I swearz!!)
  • If you have not missed sizeable length of your school/college because of cricket
  • If you have not experienced – deep down in your gut – the visceral, bodily reactions that are associated with the ups-and-downs of this game

then I am afraid you will not feel anything. Go watch something else. If you watch the movie anyway, you will end up intellectualizing it and miss the whole point.

There is nothing special about the Indian obsession of cricket, by the way. Americans and Japanese are crazy about baseball and the rest of the world, including a sizeable number of Indians, loves football. Sports invokes in us the hunter-gatherer instincts inbred by millions of years of evolution. Ancient Greeks understood this better than anyone else and that’s why they started the Olympics. In today’s sports, there is a cerebral part involved in strategy and planning but when it comes down to split-second action, it’s pure instinct. There was no time to think when a wild beast attacked a Homo ergaster.

I am always apprehensive about watching a Bollywood cricket movie mainly because they have such a low tolerance for technical details. Leaving aside Azhar because I have not seen it, Lagaan is the only cricket movie that comes to mind which had very high production values. Unfortunately, it did zilch for me. Sorry, mesa no liking the movie. Everything was perfect but I could not connect with any of the characters. Even Rahman’s music left me unmoved. Same thing happened with Visaranai – well made movie but not for me. Next.

I had a different experience watching M S Dhoni : The Untold Story. As usual, your brain goes on recording objections but in the middle of that I found myself imagining what it must have been like to make this movie. I realized that right off the bat (pun intended), writer-director Neeraj Pandey had to make a crucial decision. What will go in the movie and how to show it. Dhoni is one of the stalwarts of Indian cricket. A biopic on him would naturally include other players as well. But then you are in a fix. If you want to include Sachin, Sehwag and the rest of the team, that will probably take many more years in the making and it will also shift the focus from Dhoni to Indian cricket.

Neeraj Pandey found a way that has been used quite successfully in the past, most notable example being my favorite movie on the Watergate scandal – All The Presidents Men. Robert Redford and director Alan J Pakula showed real footage of president Nixon, vice president Agnew and a few others. When the reporters interact with persons in the White House, you only hear them over the telephone. Pandey does the same thing. With the exception of Yuvraj Singh played by Herry Tangri, none of the other players are shown, except in real television footage.

This made me wonder. If he did take the trouble to cast Herry as Yuvraj, why not give him some more room? Second half of the movie lacks scenes from the dressing room or practice sessions. Apart from a brief discussion of the famous ‘helicopter shot’, there are no technical details of game. This could have been overcome by some scenes of Dhoni and Yuvraj. Ideally, I would love a movie or Television series on Indian cricket similar to Bodyline, but that’s just me.

These are minor objections. Sushant Singh Rajput portrays M S Dhoni brilliantly. Perfect casting. I cannot think of any other actor at present who could have pulled it off. Sushant comes from the same area as Dhoni which makes his Bihari accent perfect. More importantly he conveys Dhoni’s inscrutable character very well. I loved the Ranchi set up in the first half. Alas, the soundtrack was a huge disappointment. Forget remembering the songs afterwards, I won’t be able to tell you the song while it was being played.

The most common question asked after you watch a movie is “Did you like it?” What is almost never asked is “Will you watch it again?” There are many movies that are good, we like them but we may not want to watch them again – at least not immediately. Some movies connect with you in a way that you actually want to watch them again and again. This has less to do with what are the pluses and minuses of the movie and more with the way in which you experience the movie. M S Dhoni : The Untold Story is one movie that I can watch any number of times. I don’t think I can say that for any other current Bollywood movie.


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1. Here is an example of the trivial things I get distracted by while watching a movie. In this sequence, Dhoni has his back to the camera and he takes off his T-shirt to change. While doing that, the T-shirt gets stuck for half a second, a very usual occurrence. My question is : was is accidental or planned? If it was accidental, then that means Neeraj decided to keep it to make it more natural. If it was planned, it would be difficult to do and must have taken at least a few retakes. Which scene would be more effective : taking off T-shirt smoothly or with a snag? Or – and this is probably the answer – there is nothing in it either way, so for the love of Zaphod Beeblebrox, will you stop with the trivialities and watch the movie?

Why Do I Watch Movies?

Why Do I Watch Movies?

As of now, this blog has 13 posts on movies out of a total of 24 posts. That’s 54%. It would therefore be superfluous to say that I like watching movies. But I am not a critic. I cannot imagine the punishment of having to sit through a horrible movie and then write in detail why it’s horrible. No wonder some critics become grumpy as they become older. I have the luxury of happily ditching the movie anytime I want and never think about it again.

The ESPN magazine – The Cricket Monthly – had an article recently that asked a rather thought provoking question – What is the purpose of sport: to entertain or to pursue excellence? Can we ask similar questions about movies? Few years back, I used to watch movies with no other motive than entertainment or if the movie was serious, a thought provoking experience. Gradually this began to change. Now I watch movie for a whole lot of reasons other than those mentioned. For instance, I love contemporary history, especially post-independence in case of India and cold-war period in case of the world history. When I am watching an old Hindi movie, there are so many things that distract me that at times I neglect the movie itself. The empty streets with so little traffic, hardly a car passing by or the clothing, the hairstyles, even the way people walked and talked. These movies provide excellent records on the trends that were prevalent at the time. In the fifties and sixties, having just won our independence, Hindi movies were full of ideals and principles. Slowly, the grim reality dawned. The seventies were probably the worst decade for Indian democracy and this reflected in the rise of the Angry Young Man. When you watch movies from this period, you can find veiled references to the draconian laws like MISA that were used at the time.

Most Bollywood movies are full of songs. For all those who like these movies, the songs in them have an existence outside the movie. This happens not just in India but abroad as well. Commercial Bollywood movies are hugely popular in Middle East, Europe and Russia. Raj Kapoor was as big a star in Russia as in India and his “Awara” song lives on. I find this very surprising. Here is a land of Eisenstein – one of the pioneers of cinema – and its people love the so-called ‘song ‘n dance’ movies of Raj Kapoor. Interestingly, in India, Raj Kapoor is never considered elite enough to warrant thoughtful criticism. If you like songs in a movie, you will not find them out of place. And a good filmmaker like Raj Kapoor always made sure that his songs were top class. I am not very much familiar with the contemporary Hindi movie songs. Whenever I hear Arjit Singh for instance, it feels like he is singing the same song all these years. As a result, I find songs in most of today’s movies boring.

One of my complaints about Bollywood movies is their narrow choice of subjects, especially regarding political movies. Bollywood does not subscribe to making movies on contemporary history or politics. This is a pity because there are so many subjects and characters that have been left untouched. A movie on the Bangladesh war of 1971 for instance, or dare I say it – the 1975 emergency or how the constitution of India was written. We have so many politicians, writers, even filmmakers whose lives would make wonderful movies but Bollywood adamantly refuses to look at any of these. In comparison, it’s a pleasure to watch Hollywood movies on every possible topic ranging from the Kennedy assassination to civil rights struggle. I especially like the political and social movies based in the cold-war era.

On to art movies or non-commercial movies or whatever else they are called these days. I like some of these filmmakers, particularly Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray. My background is science which is full of astounding achievements of genius minds but there is also a sense of beauty and grandeur beneath it all. In arts, if I find that the artist is merely trying to be clever then my interest is short lived. I believe that there is more to art that that¹. Woody Allen put it beautifully in his Paris Review Interview :

I’ve seen Beckett, along with many lesser avant-gardists, and many contemporary plays, and I can say yes, that’s clever and deep but I don’t really care. But when I watch Chekhov or O’Neill – where it’s men and women in human, classic crises – that I like. I know that it’s very unfashionable to say at this time, but things based, for example, on “language” – the clever rhythms of speech – I really don’t care for.

One problem with such clever works is that there is no clear way to judge them. It’s relatively easy to say if a commercial movie is good or bad. The criteria are quite clear cut. This makes me wonder – where are the B or C grade art movies? Surely, all of them cannot be top class. This is never discussed however, because if a critic criticizes an art movie, the ready answer is that she did not “get” the movie. The critic is at fault here for not recognizing the hidden genius. Only time has a way to even out these things. Kurosawa will live on for many more years to come. So will Mozart or Chopin. Isn’t it amazing that music of Mozart still serves as background score for the ultra-modern CGI movies? In comparison, who remembers Disco music from the eighties?

One of the main reasons why I watch movies is I am fascinated by the art of acting and what it really means. When Daniel Day-Lewis or Gary Oldman undergo a complete transformation, it is an amazing experience to watch. How do they do it? And more importantly, what is the definition of acting? Is it non-actors performing for the first time in front of the camera? They work in certain cases but you cannot use a non-actor to play Lyndon Johnson or Gandhi.

One way to find these answers is to read reviews or books on cinema. I avoid both. I don’t read good or bad reviews. Reading bad reviews is a waste of time. Reading a good review will immediately put opinions in you mind about the movie before you have even seen it. I prefer to watch a movie with a clean slate. Watching a movie is a visceral experience. The sights and sounds that you will be experience and the interpretation that you will form will be unique. I want to preserve the uniqueness of that experience as much as possible.

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  1. Art is largely dependent on prevailing social, political and economic situations of the time. Unlike science, the directions that it takes are not unique. If everything on Earth is obliterated by WW III and a few indigenous tribes remain, you can be sure that the same scientific laws will be rediscovered. Can we be sure that the same art theories will prevail once again? I find it surprising that artists in countries like India are forever trying to “catch up” with the latest isms that originate in New York or Paris, as if that’s the absolute truth.