Category: Movies

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 Thespian Retires : A Tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis

The Thespian Retires : A Tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis

There are two types of movies : movies that you watch only once and movies that you watch again and again. What’s amazing is that even when you have watched your favourite movie a zillion times, there are still new facts, new perspectives waiting to be discovered. Take the movie Gandhi for instance, which I must have watched more than 50 times. (Not a believer in non-violence philosophy, by the way). There is a scene in this movie where the young Gandhi is met by a British clergy in South Africa. This particular scene is very close to my heart because I grew up and spent my childhood roaming around the location in Pune where it was shot. And yet, there was a fact about this scene that I did not know till last week. The South African hoodlum in the scene was played by none other than Daniel Day-Lewis. Imagine that : Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day-Lewis in the same frame with Richard Attenborough behind the camera!

The reason for this article is the announcement of retirement by perhaps the greatest method actor of our times, Daniel Day-Lewis. As expected, this news has been met by a range of reactions, from ridicule to sadness. Some say it’s a publicity stunt for his upcoming movie with Paul Thomas Anderson. I find this hard to believe. The man has won three Oscars in the leading role category, more than any living being on the east side of the galaxy. I don’t think he can be any more famous even if he tried to.

There are many anecdotes about how Daniel takes method acting to extremes. First there is the research. In In The Name of My Father he plays an innocent man who is falsely accused of a crime. Daniel spent three nights in jail without sleep which was followed by interrogation by three teams of special branch police officers for nine hours. He did this to understand how an innocent man could sign a confession under duress for something which he did not do.

For his role of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel read over 100 books. Perhaps strangest thing about Daniel’s method is that he stays in character in between shots and for most of the duration of the movie. It’s difficult for him to come out of the character after every shot which makes sense. So he used to send texts as Abraham Lincoln to Sally Fields who was playing Mary Todd Lincoln. For many of his characters, as he is doing his research, Daniel begins to hear a voice in his head which he then tries to reproduce. For Lincoln, he made a tape of this voice and sent it to Spielberg who then okayed it.

There is a story that is often told as a sort of counter point to method acting. It involves Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman who worked together in the movie Marathon Man. One day Dustin looked awful and Olivier asked him if he was okay. Dustin said that he had not slept for a while because he wanted to get into the character. And Olivier said, “My dear boy, have you tried acting?”

I have lost count of the number of times I have read this story being given as a proof to criticise method acting. I am glad someone told this story to Daniel Day-Lewis and Daniel’s comment is priceless.

“It says more about Olivier than it says about Hoffman’s process..He is just missing the point,” Daniel says about Olivier.

Steven Spielberg once said, “It’s not science, what we do here.” Precisely. If acting were a science, then all you had to do was to follow Olivier’s recipe – whatever that may be – and you get an Oscar for every performance. That’s not what happens. No one knows what will work and what won’t.

Daniel likes to stay in character most of the time, Anthony Hopkins does not find it necessary. Hopkins learned a poem every week when he was preparing for the character of Hannibal Lecter. For L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe lived in a very small house because he wanted to feel big and authoritative. For All The Presidents Men, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman memorized not only their lines but each others lines as well so that they could interrupt unannounced. Each actor has his own way of getting there and no one, including the actor himself knows if it will work or not.

It’s not difficult to see where Olivier is coming from. He is one of the most famous products of the Shakespearean tradition of actors from the British stage and one of the main principles of this style of acting is to avoid physical expressions. The theory is that Shakespeare’s words themselves are so powerful that if you just recite them as they are meant to be recited, you don’t need to do anything else. This is completely opposite of method acting where you try to experience the character as deeply as you can.

So what happens when a method actor tries a Shakespeare play? As it happens, Daniel Day-Lewis worked in the Royal Shakespeare Company at the beginning of his career. That did not go too well and he left it. Later on he did Hamlet for the National Theatre. During the performance where Hamlet sees the ghost of his dead father, Daniel had a breakdown on the stage. He left the production half-way and never returned to stage. He said that he saw his dead father on the screen, though much later he clarified that there was nothing paranormal about it. It was part of experiencing the character.

It is this capacity to go so deep into the character that makes Daniel the genius actor that he is. For instance, here’s one of the many remarkable things about his acting. Almost every actor has a bit of his own self in every role that he plays. That is why it is possible to do impersonations of almost every great actor. You recognize him by his accent, his diction, his voice. Till date, I have never seen anyone do an impersonation of Daniel Day-Lewis, with the exception of this Saturday Night Live skit. But even here the impersonation is of the character Daniel played in There Will Be Blood, it has nothing to do with the actor himself. In fact, when I saw his interview for the first time, it was a revelation as to how different he sounded. He has a British accent, he speaks in a rather nondescript way, often pausing to think before speaking. It would be impossible to identify him if anyone were to imitate that voice. He never speaks in the high pitch that some of his characters use regularly. Ditto with the eyes or facial expressions. Some of it is of course make-up, but it’s also the personality behind that character.

Daniel Day-Lewis is an eccentric genius. He rarely does any interviews. This is not his first retirement. In 1998, he took a leave of absence and moved to Florence where he reportedly worked as a carpenter and learned shoemaking, working as an apprentice with the famous shoemaker Stefano Bemer. He never talks about this period in his life. “My lips are sealed” is his usual reply. Daniel returned to acting in 2002 with Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York which earned him his second Oscar.

Daniel is more known for rejecting roles than accepting them. Till date, he has worked in only 20 movies. He reminds me of the famous chemist Frederick Sanger. In a career of over 40 years, Sanger published about 70 papers. In today’s publish or perish world, that’s nothing. But he won the Nobel prize in Chemistry twice, once for his work on structure of proteins and other for his work on DNA sequencing. Less is more has never been more true than in such exceptional cases.

I am not a film critic. I mostly write about movies that I like and even when I find something lacking, I am more prone to be on the actors side. And in cases such as this one, I find it very difficult to describe the quality of Daniel’s acting performances because I fear it would just be a string of superlatives and adjectives. Suffice it to say that whenever I read the name Abraham Lincoln, the image, the voice, the walk that comes to mind is that character in the movie Lincoln. Same with Gandhi, even though in this case, some old footage of Gandhi actually exists.

For Daniel, getting into the skin of another person is the most interesting thing. Movies or stage are just means of getting there. So who knows, maybe he will continue his passion hidden from public viewing. I want to say that I hope Daniel comes back from his retirement and keeps on working. At the same time, I realize that it is too much to ask of an actor who immerses his mind, body and soul in every character that he plays. Maybe he has reached his capacity.

Marlon Brando once asked Johnny Depp how many films he does in a year. Three, said Depp.

“Too much,” said Brando. “We only have so many faces in our pockets.”

Spy Narratives : From James Bond to Jason Bourne and Beyond

Spy Narratives : From James Bond to Jason Bourne and Beyond

 

My first encounter with spy stories on screen was, like many of us, with – Bond, James Bond. I liked Pierce Brosnan as Bond. He was charming, funny and had all the right ingredients to make a very impressive James Bond. I am aware that this is a very subjective. All Bond fans have their own favourite Bonds. Bond movies reflect the suaveness of the times they were made in and this is enhanced by the state of the art technology at the time. If you watch old Bond movies, they may seem outdated for a number of reasons, one of them being the breathtaking pace of advancing technology.

James Bond was the ultimate spy before the more realistic versions took over. He never had to worry about budget. He was always equipped with ultra-modern toys ranging from pen bombs to wallets that moonlight as X-ray scanners. Bond was perhaps what spies dreamed of before they joined the spy service. He was the demo version that the recruiters showed to the aspiring applicants. I have not read Ian Fleming’s novels but the movies were full of peppy dialogues – “shaken, not stirred” – and two Bond girls per movie, one of whom has to die. It was a very formulaic setting and yet quite entertaining.

Brosnan’s Die Another Day was grittier compared to the earlier Bond movies. Daniel Craig continued this trend in Casino Royale, which is one of the most unconventional Bond movies. James Bond is less a superhero and more human in this movie and effort has been made to break the mould. No Q for instance and hence no magical gadgets, though he returns in later movies. Daniel Craig brought a different energy to James Bond, made him more serious and less playful.

Mission Impossible was an amazing mix of brilliant direction of Brian De Palma, great theme music by Lalo Schifrin and the magnetic personality of Tom Cruise. I am in awe of Tom Cruise ever since I saw Top Gun for the first time. Tom in Top Gun was like the cool older brother that every guy wants to have. Mission Impossible was crafted with minute details. And the special effects – remember CGI was just a few years old at the time – were simply breathtaking. There was a lot of opposition to the climax scene where the helicopter chases the train in a tunnel. The alternative was to end the movie at the box car scene. “You can’t end Mission Impossible with people pulling masks off in a box car”, said De Palma and Tom agreed with him. Mission Impossible was a step closer to a more realistic spy. Ethan Hunt has to meticulously plan hacking into the CIA. James Bond would have just blasted through the roof or basement.

A watershed in spy movies was Jason Bourne, based on the novels of Robert Ludlum and played impeccably by the immensely talented Matt Daemon. I am forever fascinated by The Bourne Trilogy. Jason Bourne was unlike any other spy that came before him. Consider the first movie – The Bourne Identity. Here is a spy who has amnesia, who does not know who he is but all the skills that he has learned as a second nature are still with him. He can answer in languages that he does not know he can speak. When in a fight, his reflexes take over before he can even comprehend what has happened. I find this neurological paradox very intriguing. This is portrayed with such brilliance by Matt Daemon.

Okay, time to praise Matt Daemon. How often have you seen him with lots of prosthetic makeup? In most of his roles, his face is still the same. And yet, he manages to portray a totally different character every time. Consider for instance, Invictus where Matt plays the Rugby captain Francois Pienaar. He changed his hair and became stout and stocky like the Wall of China. He changed his accent to Afrikaans English. And he walked like a solid Rugby player. Contrast his walk in Invictus with that in The Bourne Trilogy.

I keep on – and will keep on – asking on this blog, ‘what is acting?’

Those two walks is acting.

In The Bourne Trilogy, Matt is agile and quick on his feet. He slips in and out like a ghost. You can always see his bran ticking – thinking, finding solutions. Bond rarely speaks anything other than English. Bourne speaks fluent Spanish, French, German and Russian. (How does he do it??) Jason Bourne brought spy craft to a more down-to-earth level. He does not work on unlimited budget like Bond. In fact, he does not even have a budget so he has to improvise. He uses everything in his surroundings either as a resource or as a weapon. On a high speed chase on rooftops in Tangerine, he quickly grabs two pieces of clothes that are hung to dry and wraps them on his hands as a protection from the glass pieces on the roof top borders. In The Bourne Identity, when he tries to escape from the US consulate, he snatches a map of the building from the wall – something which every action movie hero in an unknown building should do but rarely does. These are just two examples. Count the number of small things Jason Bourne does in a chase, the number of small details that he notices. You will be astounded. The aim of Jason Bourne is not saving the world but rather finding out who he really is. This is where he differs from all other spies. Left to himself, he would vanish in some remote corner of the world, never to surface again.

George Smiley, the celebrated British spy fathered by John le Carré, first appeared in literature in 1961. He has been portrayed on screen by many talented actors, including Sir Alec Guinness. My favourite performance is from 2011, where Gary Oldman played Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Gary is one of the most underrated actors of the present era. When I saw JFK for the first time, I was so impressed by Kevin Costner that I hardly paid any attention to Lee Harvey Oswald. It took me a long time to realize that Lee Harvey Oswald was played by the same actor who later played Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies. That was when I discovered Gary Oldman. I find it unbelievable that he has been ignored by both The Academy and The Golden Globes. The range of characters that he has portrayed over the years is breathtaking.

During WWII, the choice to remain on the correct side of history was pretty clear cut. The lines became blurred in the cold war era. It was no longer possible for a spy to work with a clear conscience. In his early novels, John le Carré paints a grim picture of declining moral values in post-war Britain.

The world le Carré portrays in his novels is very much different from other fictional spies. Most of the spy work involves tailing people, checking receipts, hotel ledgers, old newspaper clips and waiting. Waiting for a long, long time till the time is right. In a novel like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there are so many threads, so many connections that you have to re-read in order to understand what really happened. le Carré only gives you clues and hints. There is no last minute reveal and there are no clear cut answers. le Carré’s spies worry about their pensions and always work under intense international political pressures. Often, you are left with more questions and dilemmas after reading the last page of a John le Carré novel.

George Smiley is middle aged and quite high up in the British intelligence. His main weapon is his brain which he uses very effectively to outsmart the opposition. He is almost never involved in any high speed chases or breathtaking action scenes. In Smiley’s People for instance, the whole story revolves around efforts to defect a major KGB spymaster, Karla. When this does happen in the final pages, it happens in the most simple and straightforward manner. Karla, dressed as a labourer simply walks across a bridge that connects East and West Berlin. He drops a lighter that originally belonged to Smiley and carries on. To anyone watching this scene from a distance, it’s just a group of people walking – no action, no violence.

In recent times, there has been one person in the news who has often reminded me of George Smiley and that person is ex-FBI director James Comey. There is no similarity here in appearances or personalities but there is something in the way they respond to situations. For instance, after the first meeting with President Trump, Comey came out of the building, went straight to an FBI vehicle and started writing a memo of the meeting. I think this is exactly what George Smiley would have done.

John le Carré describes life of a spy in the most realistic manner imaginable. He himself was a spy for MI5/MI6 – often called as The Circus in Smiley novels – before he left the service and started working full time as a writer. For every novel, his field work is so impeccable that it reads almost like a reportage. But then he goes a step further. There is a lyrical quality to his descriptions that elevates the narrative to something much more. le Carré’s literary heroes include Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad and it shows.

Here’s an excerpt from Smiley’s People :

The fog outside the window made a grey wall…The streets were cobbled; the freezing air smelt of roast chestnuts and cigar..At the Nydegg Bridge he came to a halt, and stared into the river. So many nights, he thought. So many streets till here. He thought of Hesse: strange to wander in the fog . . . no tree knows another. The frozen mist curled low over the racing water; the weir burned creamy yellow.

I love the way le Carré adds just enough details to depict a mesmerizing scene and ends with a melancholy Hesse quote. What is Hermann Hesse doing in a spy novel? It is precisely references like these that put le Carré in a class of his own. He goes beyond the usual spy narrative and hints at much bigger and often unanswerable questions about the human condition.