Category: Music

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.

How to Train Your Ear for Western Classical Music

How to Train Your Ear for Western Classical Music

The conventional notion of what constitutes art is often quite narrow – going to museums to stare at paintings or dressing up and going to the opera. In India, the latter is replaced by concerts of Indian classical music. It’s supposed to be something so exotic that only few chosen ones can experience the magic of it. Sadly, this misguided notion is often perpetrated by the same people who engage in such rituals. Hence the artificial divide between the so called high-brow and low-brow art. Interestingly, what is considered high-brow often changes with time. When the opera started in the Baroque era (1600 – 1750) in Italy, it used to be a very popular affair, much like the blockbuster movies of today. In Venice alone, one season would produce as many as fifty new operas. The concerts of Mozart or Beethoven were also an informal affair. People talked during performances and often clapped in the middle of a movement as well. The etiquettes that are observed today in classical music performances came about in the nineteenth century when music composition came to be regarded as a work to be revered with silence.

The concept of abstract art is often strongly associated with abstract paintings, so much so that people are often unaware that other forms of abstract art also exist. I have seen people studying so hard to understand abstract paintings as if they are preparing for a test and then often getting disappointed if they don’t ‘get it’ as the connoisseurs say they should. I think if you have to try so hard to understand an art form, then that means that it is not for you. Certainly, paintings are not my cup of tea. I discovered this rather accidentally when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time from a distance of few feet and my first reaction was, “Is that it?” Paintings don’t do anything for me – with exceptions like the Sistine Chapel but then that’s a special case. There is the grandeur of the Vatican, genius of Michelangelo and so much of history associated with it that you cannot help but be enthralled. Exceptions like these aside, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan makes me more introspective about war than Picasso’s Guernica.

Paintings do not hold a monopoly over abstract art. Some music scholars consider instrumental music as the most abstract of art forms. A painting is static, fixed in space. A piece of music is dynamic, dependent on time and changes every time you hear it, depending on the musicians, conductor etc. That’s why there are so many interpretations of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – maybe he is raging against destiny because he was going deaf or maybe he is extolling the virtues of freedom and equality.

It takes time and effort to get acquainted with any form of abstract art. The thing to look for is if it speaks to you. Fortunately, there is an easy way to find this out in case of western classical music. The first thing to do is get your ear used to the sounds. We are bombarded by all kinds of exotic sounds today and if you want to appreciate music that was played two or four hundred years ago, then you need to hear it as people did in those times.

So here’s what you do. Prepare a playlist of tracks. For instance

  • Mozart, Symphony No 40, first movement.
  • Vivaldi, Four Seasons (Pick your favourite season, mine are Spring and Summer.)
  • Mahler, Symphony No 1, third movement.
  • Tchaikovsky, Violin concerto, first movement.
  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, first movement.
  • Beethoven, Symphony No 7, second movement.

This list is not written in stone, feel free to add or subtract. You cannot go wrong with Mozart, Bach or Beethoven. Once you have prepared a list, listen to it in background while you are cleaning the house or cooking. Keep the volume loud enough so that you can hear every note clearly but not so loud that it interferes with your thought process. And then stop thinking about it. Let your ears and your subconscious brain do the work for you.

If this is the right art form for you, then in a few days a wonderful thing will happen. In a totally unexpected moment – when you are going somewhere or talking to someone – your brain will play a wonderful melody in your head. Here’s the most interesting thing about it. We all get annoyed when a song gets stuck in our heads. But have you ever been irritated because a melody got stuck in your head? I would think not. A song has words so the brain latches onto them and repeats them in an out-of-control loop. With a melody, the brain has nothing to hold on to and it just flows freely through your head. My guess is that with a song the logical part of the brain is active while with a melody it is the creative part. When I first went on a diet of western classical music, I had beautiful violin and piano melodies flowing through my head. It felt as if my musical palate had been cleansed. It also had a remarkable soothing effect.

Finally, if any of this does not happen then that’s fine too. It means that this is not the right art form for you or maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe your natural inclination is for Classic Rock or Manga Musical.

There are enough art forms for all of us.

Absolutely on Music : Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music : Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

 

What happens when two artists who are giants in their respective fields decide to come together and talk? And don’t you wish you could be a fly on the wall when that happens? Fortunately, both questions were answered when Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami decided to record their conversations and publish them.

Seiji Ozawa is a well known conductor. A disciple of the great maestro Herbert von Karajan, he has worked with every well known orchestra, including Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony. He is also the co-founder of the Saito Kinen Orchestra. And Haruki Murakami is the most celebrated Japanese author in recent times.

The conversations are mostly about Ozawa’s career, his experiences with various artists and orchestras and of course – music. Murakami and Ozawa listen to a particular music piece, say Brahms First Symphony or Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and then discuss its various aspects. They also touch upon jazz and the Chicago Blues since these are their favourites.

Murakami comments on how a maestro like Ozawa connects to music as opposed to how normal listeners do. Ozawa does it by reading the scores. In Murakami’s opinion, this must cause the music to become purer. In contrast, Murakami relates to music by memories, like most of us. When he listens to a score, he sees in his mind the album cover or some other memory associated with the music. He says about Ozawa’s way of connecting to music, “It may be a bit like the enjoyment and freedom of being able to read foreign literature in the original, rather than in translation”.

In between these conversations is Murakami’s hypnotic commentary. For instance, while discussing Mahler’s third movement of First Symphony, Murakami comments, “The clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest”. If you have read Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, you will be instantly transformed into a mysterious world when you read those lines.

I have already written about why I love Murakami’s fiction. My only complaint is that he has not written enough non-fiction. His memoir – What I Talk About When I Talk about Running – is an amazing little book in which he tries to go deeper into two facets of his personality : a writer and a marathon runner. Even though they may look very different on surface, both these facets require very similar qualities – endurance, perseverance and focus. According to Murakami, the physical stamina that he earns with the marathon training helps him in writing long novels where he secludes himself from society for months altogether.

Haruki Murakami is a reclusive writer, He does not do interviews. Very little information exists about him. This book is a rare opportunity to take a peek into Murakami’s writing process. At one point, he says, “No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm”.

“What exactly does a conductor do?”Jerry Seinfeld raised this question in jest but it has also been asked by people who take music seriously. This book answers the question in such great detail that at the end of it, you cannot but marvel at the talent and hard work the conductors put in along with the musicians to make a concert success.

The question is very logical. The music scores have already been written by Mozart or Beethoven. All the players have to do is to follow instructions. However, things are much more complicated than that. First, not all composers write their scores the same way. For instance, Berlioz writes minimum instructions on his scores while someone like Mahler writes in greatest detail how every note is to be played. Ozawa says about Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, “Difficult? His music is crazy! Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on, either!”

When the instructions are vague, it is the conductor who has to decide how notes should be played. For instance, some conductors tell the players to play the notes that come before weak notes a touch stronger so that the weak notes can be heard properly. A conductor also decides when an instrument should enter and how/where it should pause. This could include such minor details as how a cellist/violinist should draw and reverse the bow while playing a note or maybe play a note close to the bridge. All these minute changes shape the music piece in such a distinct way that it is often regarded as a unique interpretation of that particular conductor. When a conductor reads a score, he hears the music in his head. He then has to try and make the orchestra produce music as close to his perceived music as possible. Interestingly, as a conductor matures, his interpretation also changes. Many of Ozawa’s older concerts are quite different from the recent ones.

In the introduction, Murakami confesses to having received no formal music education and worries that some of his comments may have been amateurish. Clearly, he is being modest. Formal education or not, Murakami’s deep understanding of music is evident through his novels when his characters expand on minute intricacies of concert music. For instance, in his novel Kafka on the Shore, one of the characters, Oshima, goes into a detailed explanation on why Schubert’s Sonata in D Major is imperfect and hence one of the hardest things to play. In the same novel, a bartender is playing Beethoven’s Archduke Trio in his bar. The title of Murakami’s most famous novel, Norwegian Wood is based the Beatles song by the same name. After it’s publication, sales of the Beatles CD went up and many commentators on the Youtube video of the song confess being there because they read the novel. This shows that Murakami’s relationship with music goes beyond simple liking.

One of the remarkable things about Murakami’s writing is his ability to create mesmerizing scenes out of everyday mundane activities like making spaghetti. This fact becomes even more surprising when you realize that you are reading a translation. This means that Murakami is not relying on words. There are no oratorical marvels here like Shakespeare’s beautiful verses. The sentences we read are very simple but together they create a powerful effect. But then how does he do it? This book provides a hint.

The effect that our favourite music has on us is often mysterious and enthralling. Murakami admits that his writing is inseparable from his favourite music. This means that he has imbibed this music in his body and soul to such an extent that it expresses itself through his writing.

Murakami’s marathons give him the physical stamina needed for writing. His music gives him the energy.

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Seiji Ozawa on Charlie Rose.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSTLak2jMCg]

Acting, Cinema and Art in General

Acting, Cinema and Art in General

 

I am intrigued by the art of acting. Or more specifically, acting in cinema. I have no fascination for stage, I find it too artificial. My imagination is not good enough to ignore all the extraneous factors that accompany a stage play – the stage itself, mock actions that we are supposed to assume as real such as fighting and so on. This is not my cup of Chai. I should mention that this is not a criticism of stage vis-à-vis cinema. I am simply saying that this art form is not for me. In contrast, cinema is a polished product. Everything has been honed to perfection and presented to you so that it can take you away from the present moment.

A very pertinent question is ‘what is acting?’ Or is it? What’s more interesting to me is ‘how do I perceive a certain actor?’ And this is where things get interesting. As I mentioned in a previous post, I find certain actors utterly captivating while other have no influence on me. All of these are great actors so the problem does not lie at their end. I have a theory about this. As a good actor becomes more and more popular, his larger-than-life image occupies our mind so much that when we see him on the screen we do not see the character. These stars are in limelight so much of the time that we identify with them. Then there are other actors who make me forget about them. Daniel Day-Lewis, Ben Kingsley or Russell Crowe. The way Gary Oldman transforms from Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK to George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Amongst Bollywood actors I am awed by Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Paresh Rawal. Many of Paresh’s role have been underrated because they are not the lead characters or because it’s a comic role. One of the best examples, along with Om Puri is Herapheri. I never understood why comedy is always treated like a step-child. Just because it makes you laugh does not mean it’s not high quality. Some of the movie experiments of Woody Allen have not received the recognition they deserve simply because they are not gloomy enough or that you actually enjoy them.

Why do some actors make me forget about them while others don’t? The theory of being in limelight is only partially correct, if at all. Russell Crowe is one of the most famous Hollywood stars and yet, his transformation from Bud White in L. A. Confidential to Jeffery Wigand in The Insider is something to watch for. The Insider is a good example. Russell Crowe pours blood, sweat and tears in this role, as he usually does. And he is pitted against Al Pacino who is just being Al Pacino. Apart from the mandatory shouting scenes, his character is thoroughly unimpressive. Why this difference? Another example is the movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. There is nothing in this movie except situations where these actors will supposedly have great scenes. At every instant, the director seems to be saying, “Look, I’ve got two stalwarts of acting here. Is this cool or what?”

Needless to say, all this is very subjective. That is one of the reasons why I am not fond of events like Film Appreciation courses. There are simple art forms and there are complicated ones. It certainly helps if you know some background about the art form. However, I believe that any art should be able to give you a minimum experience without having any a priori knowledge, provided you connect with it. Beyond that, the more you know about it, the more you will appreciate it. You do not have to know the intricacies of symphony to enjoy Mozart. The danger in a Film Appreciation course is you are getting ready-made opinions of experts. You have not arrived at those conclusions yourself. If I had read Roger Ebert’s review of The Usual Suspects before watching the movie, there is a fair chance that I would not have liked it because he didn’t. I am glad I watched it without reading anything about it.

No one can say which art will move you. There is no greater punishment that to stick with a book just because it is a so-called classic, even if it bores you to death. I gleefully skipped over parts of War and Peace where Tolstoy philosophizes for pages on end. I did enjoy the narrative but would I still have read it if it was not The Book on every list? Probably not.

Statements like this art form is passé or that one is the latest do little in terms helping you appreciate them. One of the most important function of any art is to give you an experience – preferably a memorable one. If a movie or a symphony speaks to you, that’s your personal conversation with it. Enjoy it. If it does not, leave it.

There are no ‘shoulds’ in art.