Category: Bollywood

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

We live in a world where most TV programs have to produce something shocking just to survive. And yet, there is a quiet program where one man just talks for 40-45 minutes. Some movie clips are shown in between and that’s it. No manufactured drama or last minute reveals. So what makes Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar so engaging and popular?

Javed Saab is a master storyteller. We get a glimpse what the story sessions of Salim-Javed must have been for all the 70’s blockbusters. First, there is his language. Javed Saab and Gulzar Saab are two people to whom I can listen to anytime, anywhere, even if they speak on crop rotations or GST. Why? First, I am sure they will come up with something interesting on even such dry subjects. And second, very rarely do you hear such pure and beautiful Hindi/Urdu in today’s times. Apart from the routinely used words like hero or heroine, you will not find Javed Saab using much English. And he is not doing this consciously. The language just flows. Such beautiful words he uses! Roshan-Khayal for progressive.

💡 Roshan (रोशन) means illuminated and Khayal (ख़याल) means imagination. Together, Roshan Khayal means one whose imaginations or thoughts are illuminated – by new ideas, new concepts, new paradigms. In other words, a person with an open and progressive mind. How beautiful is that!
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In each episode of Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab discusses one legend who may be an actor, a director, a lyricist or a music director. What are the qualities that made this legend so successful and memorable? What were the times like when this legend was working? How hard did he struggle to get to where he is? Most of the legends that are discussed in the series have gone through some very rough patches.

True success is rarely an accident.

You will find Javed Saab saying some phrases quite often. Phrases like “I have been thinking”, “I have thought a lot about this”, “I have often thought about how life behaves in a mysterious way”. This is what makes this show so interesting. The observations that Javed Saab relates are the result of years of deep thinking and observations, made during all his years in the film industry. Added to this Javed Saab is a very well read and erudite personality. The connections he makes between different areas of film making and indeed life itself, are remarkable.

Javed Saab went through some very rough times before he reached the dizzying heights of success that few could dream about. I remember one of his interviews where he said,

There was nothing to write. But I was reading a lot. Like a chain smoker, I was a chain reader. There was a book with me all the time and I would manage to read it in local trains and the office where I worked as a clapper boy or third assistant. Reading takes your mind away from the fact that you have not eaten.

I think this may be one of the reasons why he does not criticise anyone on the show. He knows the struggles of making it big in showbiz and he has empathizes with them. I have the greatest respect for presenters and interviewers who consciously stay away from the personal lives of their subjects. This is indeed a rarity in today’s television. In Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab never, ever ventures into gossip while talking about the legends. And on the rare occasion that he mentions an incident that may be a little awkward, he prefers not to mention the names. There is a beautiful word in Urdu called Tehzeeb, which roughly translates to good manners and etiquette. This show is an embodiment of this word.

The insights Javed Saab brings to the show are fascinating. For instance, take any duet song of Kishore Kumar. No matter who the other singer is, Kishore always manages to come out on top. Do you know which movies started the trend of the slang routinely used in today’s movies – the Bambaiyya Hindi? Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar and Mr. And Mrs 55. The first anti-hero of Bollywood was in fact Dev Anand who played a smuggler in Jaal in 1952. Javed Saab compares the songs of Shailendra to Kabir’s Dohas – same simplicity yet such depth.

Bollywood movies are often criticised for their excessive number of songs. This is a pity because many of the old songs are amazing works of art created by exceptionally talented musicians and singers. Think about it, why are old songs getting remixed again and again? The popularity of the song Awaara Hoon from Raj Kapoor’s classic movie Aawara continues to rise even today. There are many stories of Indians stranded in some place in Europe or Asia, receiving unexpected help when they sang this song. Even the president of Uzbekistan sang it during a ceremony.

The best signature of good art is that it survives. Mozart’s music is in the list of best selling albums even today. The fact that a song lives on in a foreign country 50 years later speaks for itself. The tragedy here is symptomatic of a larger problem. We do not know how to preserve our history. Who remembers Shailendra or Shankar-Jaikishan today, lyricist and music directors respectively for Aawara Hoon?

In the episode on lyricist Anand Bakshi, whom he calls a Lok Kavi (poet of the people), Javed Saab relates an incident. When he visited the British Museum, Javed Saab went to a room where all the handwritten manuscripts of great authors and poets are kept, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Shelley and Keats. In the midst of all this, there is the hand-written version of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. This is important for two reasons, Javed Saab says. First, the British are not afraid to say that we like Shakespeare and we also like McCartney. And second, they recognize and appreciate the exceptional quality of the song.

Old movies do not have the super polished feel of today’s movies but this does not mean that they do not have art. Javed Saab teaches us how to appreciate the old movies, what qualities did the famous singers of yesterday had, what made a lyricist special and what made a director stand out.

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar is, in fact, an excellent Bollywood film appreciation course.

Why Do I Watch Old Movies? And You Should, Too.

Why Do I Watch Old Movies? And You Should, Too.

 

Have you ever gotten bored while watching an old movie? Maybe the plot was predictable or the technical finesse was far below the current standard of I-have-the-latest-CGI-so-I-can-show-you-the-fight-from-720-angles-in-four-dimensions. Whatever the reason, you watched the movie for few minutes and shifted to something else or if you had to watch it, you counted every minute till The End.

I have been in this situation a few times and there was this one time when I went on watching the movie with great interest. It was much later, when I asked myself as to why I was watching that particular sub-standard movie that the light bulb went off. The reason I watched the movie had nothing to do with the plot or the acting. The main characters could have been swallowed by a boa constrictor and I would not have noticed. Since then, I particularly look forward to watching old movies. And if your interests overlap with mine, I can assure you that after reading this article, you will never get bored watching an old movie.

This does not mean that all old movies are boring. In fact, there is as much art in many of the old movies as there is in the contemporary ones but that is a topic for another post.

A slight detour. One of my interests is history. That’s a very broad statement. It’s like saying I like books so let me narrow it down. There are certain periods from the past that I find very interesting. Starting from the Triassic period – 231 to 243 million years ago – when the T Rex ruled, on to few million years ago when the Homo Sapien and its many cousins made an appearance. From say about 5000 years ago, my interests jump randomly all over the place. I am fascinated by the Indus Valley civilization, the Inkas and the Mayans but the Greek and Roman history does not hold my attention. I love the European history starting from the dark ages, about 700 A.D.  going through middle ages and the renaissance. I am bored by the French history (and the movies with those false wigs). I am interested in Napolean only so far as to his effect on Beethoven’s music.

The period starting from the industrial revolution is very interesting. The American Renaissance in the 1850’s followed by the upheaval in scientific community in the beginning of twentieth century caused mainly by Einstein. All of the twentieth century is simply fascinating. Two world wars and the world map redrawn several times including many events like India’s independence. There is the cold war era, dominated by the USA and former USSR, coming down of the Berlin wall and disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.

As much as I am interested in the history of the aforementioned periods, I am also intrigued by the way the people lived in these eras. And this is where the old movies come in. We cannot watch how people lived in earlier periods, but the later part of the twentieth century is well documented in the movies. And it’s not so much as to what the movie is about or what the film-maker is trying to show.

It’s what the film-maker shows inadvertently that makes these movies so interesting. There is so much interesting information packed in these movies. Here are a few categories.

Traffic and vehicles: While watching old Hindi movies, I am more interested in the background. The traffic is so sparse, empty roads everywhere with very few cars and sometimes horse carriages. It’s a totally different world altogether. If ever a time machine is invented, the first place I want to go to is India in 1950. It’s an absolute traffic paradise. The roads are literally EMPTY!!

I am not a car guy in the sense I cannot reel off specs of every car the way Jerry Seinfeld does at the beginning of each episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But even I notice that the cars in old movies are much different. Sometimes they have those funny doors that open like a flap from the middle. If it’s a really old movie, you can see people turning the wheel in front to start the car. Mostly in old India you see the abundance of Ambassadors. In the movie Taxi Driver (Not the De Niro one but the Dev Anand one) which is mostly shot on streets of Mumbai, I counted only ONE two wheeler in all of the movie.

Technology : All thorough movies of 50’s to 80’s you see the old telephones. In the late nineties, pagers make a brief appearance. This is followed by the first age Nokia mobile phones, then the ones that open with a flap. This has plateaued with the arrival of tablets/smartphones. No big change in last ten years, unless you are watching a Sci-fi.

Fashion : This is more interesting for women and yes that is a sexist statement. Look, I am all for equality but that does not mean we ignore the obvious differences between men and women. It’s a fact that an average woman is way more observant than an average man. Do you know why The Shawshank Redemption will never work in a women’s prison? Because each and every woman will notice that the protagonist’s shoes have been freshly polished. Old movies are the best indicators of fashion because it is the movie stars who are the main proponents of what’s hip at the time. You notice the different hair styles or accessories from oversized sunglasses to bell bottom pants. Sometimes, you marvel as to how your parents or grandparents could imagine that silly fashion was hip!

Socio-political climate : It’s not just the background that provides information. You can also tell a lot about the times by looking at which issues the film maker has chosen to highlight. For instance, Vijay Anand’s movie Tere Ghar Ke Samne was made in 1962 when the Indo-China war started. The movie is a subtext on the Indo-China problem which was the biggest issue at the time. It is very clear how much the Indians were taken in by the rhetoric of brotherhood with China (and possibly the influence of Gandhi was still strong). The movie ends on the premise supporting Nehru’s now infamous slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”. No history book will give you a clearer picture into what ordinary people were thinking at that time than a movie like this one.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines zeitgeist as

“the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”

Watch the old movies to experience the zeitgeist of olden times.

The Apples and Oranges in Film Awards

The Apples and Oranges in Film Awards

Movies
Images credit : Pixabay

The kerfuffle on social media after Akshay Kumar received the National Award for best actor has died its natural death by now. More interesting were the vicious reactions criticizing Akshay Kumar, even by seasoned critics, which beg the question :

Dear critics, how do you define good acting and what, according to you, makes a good movie? Please give a clear and direct answer. Don’t hide behind buzzwords like “Acting should transcend the technique so as to bring out the ethereal beauty of meaninglessness of existence”. I could write a book full of such phrases and it would still mean zilch. Tell me in practical terms how you identify good actors.

I like Akshay Kumar. He is a very good actor. And I will tell you exactly why I think so. It’s subjective, but then so is every opinion on art in general and movies in particular. In fact, when you read a movie review, you should always imagine the author saying “in my opinion” before every sentence. No one has the final word on art.

One of my most important criteria for good acting is language, diction and accent. I cannot believe in a character that has a false or wrong accent. I loved Akshay Kumar’s Punjabi diction in Singh is Kinng, along with the amazing Om Puri. Agreed, it’s easier for Akshay because he is a Punjabi but the language added so much charm to the character. In contrast, in Airlift, he speaks Arabic in the beginning and his Hindi is broken and not fluent. This single aspect brings out the crisis of being away from your homeland for years, trying to merge with the locals but still feeling rootless.

You might think that I am making too much of a small thing. After all, diction is just one part of the acting repertoire. You will be surprised as to how many Bollywood actors have ignored this and consequently ruined the movie for me. In Bazaar, Smita Patil plays Najma who is from Hyderabad. No trace of the famous Hyderabadi accent is to be found anywhere in her dialogues. It’s strange to see her speaking Hindi during intense scenes with Farooq Sheikh who speaks amazing Hyderabadi. Here is a character who is born and brought up in Hyderabad. Even if we assume that she speaks Hindi when in Mumbai, who speaks in a foreign tongue with friends and family? This is like those old Hollywood WWII movies where the German officers speak English even when talking to each other. That’s why I liked The Longest Day, where every European character spoke his or her own language.

The failure of Baazar is on the script and directorial level. And these are supposed to be ultra realistic movies raising important social issues. This shows that art movies can also be sloppy. An off-beat topic with non-commercial treatment does not, ipso facto, make a good movie. On the other hand, good accent makes the character come alive on the screen. Some great examples of diction are : Naseeruddin Shah in all movies where the character speaks a different dialect, Amitabh Bachchan in Don, Shabana Azami in Pestanji, Aamir Khan in Dangal and Mehmood in Gumnaam.

Akshay Kumar has had a very interesting career. Excluding the Khans, the only actor from his era still going strong is Ajay Devgan. These two actors have constantly reinvented themselves. Starting from a regular Bollywood hero doing song, dance and fighting, Akshay has always ventured into new areas. His flair for comedy roles is impeccable but again this does not register high on the critics radar because comedy itself is not taken very seriously. With movies like Jolly LLB II or Airlift, Akshay has further consolidated his flexibility in doing different roles.

The criticism drives home an important point. No matter how good you are in commercial movies, that is rarely considered as good acting because song and dance movies are considered inherently inferior to the so-called serious experimental cinema. The perception that great art has to be confusing and incomprehensible still persists.

Good acting should not be dependent on the genre of the cinema.

Another mistaken belief is commercial movies are easy to make. I read recently about Ranbir Kapoor doing biopic on Sanjay Dutt. He has to start makeup at 3.00 am in the morning for four to five hours followed by 10 to 12 hours of shooting. The critics will pass a snap judgement when the movie is released. I wonder how many of them will work at least half as hard while writing their reviews.

Deciding if one movie is better than another is highly subjective. It’s a classic case of apples and oranges. The main point of awards is to appreciate good work. Good to see Akshay Kumar getting the recognition he deserves.

In Praise of Dangal and Aamir Khan

In Praise of Dangal and Aamir Khan

Here’s the most remarkable thing about Aamir Khan. What was the last time that his movie didn’t do well at the box office? Do you remember? I think it was Mangal Pandey : The Rising in 2005. For more than a decade, he has consistently chosen off-beat topics and not just made them a success but has broken every possible record. He was the first to reach the 100 crore club with Ghazini and Dangal is the most successful Bollywood movies ever. One of the most difficult things in the world is to make people interested in your creation. No one knows what will work and what won’t. Even Aamir does not. But it’s his gut feeling about the right script that works so beautifully every time.

If I remember correctly, Aamir was the first of his generation of actors to do one film at a time, when his colleagues were working in double or triple shifts. There was a lot of criticism in the media on this decision especially because Aamir was not the superstar that he is now and this could have been a dangerous move for his career. He stuck to his intuition and the results are for everyone to see. Today it has become a norm with actors like Ranbir Kapoor doing one movie at a time.

One oft-occurring criticism of Aamir’s movies is that the usually positive message is too direct. This can be a turn-off for those who have had a wide variety of cinematic experiences and would prefer a more subtle approach. But there is another side to this.

Whenever I write about Indian cinema, I am acutely aware that for most part I am writing for the minority. If you are living in India, ask your grocer or household help about their favourite movie. Chances are the answer will be a commercial movie. As a bonus question, you can also ask them what they think of Bergman or Shyam Benegal. I am reminded of a dialogue from Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, “My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand villages, not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay.”

Dangal is based on a true story from Haryana, a state which probably has the worst record for women’s rights in India. Honour killings are common, male/female sex ratio is dismal and patriarchy exists to a degree which is unimaginable from the comfort of cities. Mahavir Singh Phogat is a national level wrestling champion and Dangal depicts his struggles while training his daughters for wresting. In doing so, Phogat demolishes taboos that have been ingrained into the Indian psyche for centuries. Imagine a father allowing his daughters to wrestle against boys because there are no female wrestlers available. How many well educated, liberal minded fathers would dare to do this? I try to imagine what must be going through the minds of members of Khap Panchayat as they watch Dangal, members who routinely order honour killings. So yes, if the message is a bit too direct, it’s certainly needed for this type of audience.

Dangal means wrestling in Haryanavi. Dangal has the technical perfection that is rare in Bollywood movies. The girls underwent training for a year before they were ready. No body doubles or CGI has been used in the action sequences. I especially liked the fact that the movie is in Haryanvi throughout. Many Bollywood movies show actors speaking the few initial lines in whatever culture the movie is supposed to be based in but few scenes later, it’s too much work and they are back in the normal Bollywood Hindi.

It is not easy to take a neglected subject like women’s wrestling and make it a success. Previously, Chak De! India managed it with women’s Hockey. One of Shah Rukh Khan’s best roles in my opinion, where he successfully broke free of his romantic image. In Dangal, Aamir gives the best performance of the year. His transformation from a young boy with six-pack body to an old man with a belly is truly commendable. Equally delightful were the performances of Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar as young Geeta and Babita. Their spontaneity makes it difficult to believe that this is their first performance.

News is that one of Aamir’s next projects is a biopic of Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to go in space. I am looking forward to this one. Finally, a Bollywood movie about science – a subject that for all practical purposes does not exist for Bollywood.