Friday, May 30, 2008

Opening credits.

Regular readers of this blog, if such a specie exists at all, must have gathered by now that I fancy myself as something of a movie buff. For instance: Even today, if a movie catches my eye and interest, I tend to watch it intently paying particular attention to the sub-text. Watching old Hollywood movies on TCM of late (and on TNT in the eighties), I realised that the emergence of opening credits as a work of art is a fairly later phenomenon – a post-Saul Bass phenomenon, you may confidently aver, of course not forgetting John Whitney, the clockwork and mechanical analogue computer animation pioneer. In fact, the Whitney title sequence for Arabesque (1975) is looked upon by some as the (what pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell would call) virtual “tipping point” of computer animation. Bass who, I suspect, may have had massive delusions of grandeur (he claimed he “directed” the shower scene in Psycho – Janet Leigh and others denied it cast before us you-know-who these pearls of wisdom about movie titles designing: "My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it." And: "Design is thinking made visual." Big words. Impressed? But then you must never forget Bass was originally and off and on a commercial graphic designer with an awe-inspiring line-up of award-winning logos who won a niche for himself in The Art Directors Club (New York) Hall of Fame. “…in an environment full of clutter, the first impression of the film in the movie theater, or on the television screen, prepares the viewer for what is to come just like the cover of a book. … film credits fulfill the important role of outlining the filmmaker's intentions and setting up the expectations of those watching.” That’s precisely how Melis Inceer justifies the cinematic credit title sequence in her 2007 thesis submitted to the University of Pennsylvania, An Analysis of the Opening Credit Sequence in Film. If “Never judge a book by its cover” is advice worth following, does it apply to its cinematic cousin? One example that coms readily to mind is The Pink Panther series featuring Peter Sellers. Let me confess that I used to rave about it once upon a time. A recent viewing made me do an about-turn. Now I feel the only worth watching part of the series are the credits. The rest is limp and vapid comedy that doesn’t quite work. The only original and inventive touch of humour (or, is it merely wit?) is the way Inspector Clouseau speaks English with a ludicrous French accent. The verbal or phonological slapstick (“massage” instead of “message” and so forth) stops being amusing after a while, though. And, why a self-respecting Parisian should condescend to use the unequivocally abominable language of Shakespeare is the moot question never answered throughout the series. Willing suspension of disbelief is the order of the day, I reckon. Coming back to the theme of this post, though, when all is said and done, I begin to wonder if too clever opening credits are not affectation, style posing as substance – somewhat akin to a Flash intro to a website. Am I sounding too cynical? I shudder when I recall the pathetic amateurish title credits Films Division of India used to make hapless moviegoers watch in the sixties and seventies. Saul Bass it wasn’t. Not even 007's Maurice Binder. What was worse, when the FD opening credits were merrily rolling along, all seemed lost, sort of. One was left desperately hoping the earth would open up and swallow the miserable watchers in the dark. In the Hollywood movies of 30s and 40s, they started telling the story straight off after quickly giving credit where credit was due. And, the movie ended when there was no story left to tell. Movies were as simple and as unaffected as life itself, remember? Being artless is real art, I guess.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

LOL. In the good ol' days.

Chi(ntaman) Vi(nayak) Joshi (1892-1963) must have been quite a brilliant man. Televiewers all over India came to know him as the progenitor of Chimanrao. This middle-class protagonist from pre-Independence Maharashtra made his debut on Doordarshan in the late 70s (1977 - 1979) in the epinomous Marathi serial. A week back, I was fortunate enough to pick up seven of Chi Vi's books from the Peoples Book House, Cawasji Patel Street, close to Flora Fountain, at what I thought was a bargain price. Chi Vi was a Professor of Pali and a student of the world-famous Pali scholar and associate of Gandhi, Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi He had worked for quite a long time in the erstwhile princely state of Baroda. What's impressive about him is that not only did he write excellent humourous prose but also he could cogently explain the theory of humour. In fact, the introduction to his book, Na Maro Pichkari (= Don't splatter me with colour/Don't spew betel juice on me), first published in 1960, is about the types and origin of comedy/humour. What also impressed me about Chi Vi's humour is that it is based on his keen observation of social phenomena and his perceptive commentary on what he has seen and experienced. While reading his Aamchaa Pan Gaon (= We too have a village), which turns the popular simple-honest-villagers-versus-crafty-venal-city-folks paradigm on its head, I was a bit surprised by something he wrote on the topic of cottage or home industries in the village, Harangaon (= Deer Village?). One of them, a hand-operated grinding wheel, was run by Saloobai, a low-caste widow. The time of the narrative was 1941-1943. Mumbai and Pune were then believed to be under the threat of Japanese bombardment. A lot of the residents of these cities had decided to migrate to their villages until the peril passed away. Anyway, Chi Vi wrote that Saloobai's was the only grinding wheel left in the village. I found it a bit odd because I clearly remember that, at home, i.e., at 233 Khetwadi Main Road, we used to have a grinding wheel in daily use till as late as the mid-50s. That was in Mumbai, a metropolitan city. Given his accurate observation and reportage, though, my guess is he probably was stretching the point a bit. The other thing he mentioned that triggered a wave of nostalgia in me was a shopper at the weekly village bazaar planning to buy a tiny bit of opium for her child. I remember my father once nonchalantly offering me and Ujwal a miniscule black ball wrapped in a translucent tracing paper to help either Ashu or Abhi sleep. That we did not put it to medicinal use is another matter. Apparently, it was an acceptable practice to him. For all I know, I may have been an unknowing opium eater as an infant. Interesting thought, that. Two more things I remember about Chi Vi were two Marathi comedies, Lagna Pahave Karun (= Try getting hitched) (1940) and Sarakari Pahune (= State Guests) (1942) both based on material from his Chimanravache Charhat (= The long-winded tale of Chimanrao), first published in 1932. Both were directed by Master Vinayak and had the cross-eyed Marathi comedian, Damuanna Malwankar playing Chimanrao and VS Jog as his body-builder cousin, Gundyabhau. I vaguely remember watching them either at Central Cinema near the Girgaum Portugese Church or Roxy Cinema near Royal Opera House.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rocket science anyone?

In the fifties, I used to be an ardent fan of black and white B-grade sci-fi movies from Hollywood scripted using pulp magazine writers’ logic. You know stuff like It Came From Outer Space, the 1953 flick also made in the 3-D format which I remember seeing in the Eros Theatre at Church Gate. I had also seen and enjoyed The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Blob (1958), the Steve(n) McQueen debut vehicle. Somehow or the other, though, I had missed watching The Invisible Boy (1957). Well, I made up for the lapse yesterday. I happened to switch on Turner Classic Movies early morning and there it was, lo and behold! The hero is Robby, the Robot – who debuted in Forbidden Planet (1956) – with 10-year-old Timmie as his sidekick. A gargantuan Super Computer with hypnotic flashing lights (“Look at the pretty lights, Timmie”) and an ambition of world domination is the villain. The Matrix with its two sequels deals with the same theme of world domination too, you’ll recall. However, I found the idea of the doddering, plodding AI colossus, made and fed by Timmie’s computer scientist dad, in The Invisible Boy getting anywhere close to taking over the world ridiculous. Even his persuasive spiel at the end of the movie did not impress me much. ("Come, scientist! Let us reason together. I can still answer any question your mind can devise. I am an instrument of knowledge. I will lead you to the farthest planets. I will lead you to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I will show you the stars!") The idea of Timmie being endowed with super intelligence by the far-seeing evil genius with flashing lights seems ludicrous too – at least the way it is presented. The boy is then able to reassemble and put into serviceable mode Robby whom his dad and his colleagues have discarded as a derelict piece of scrap beyond redemption. Nobody takes Timmie’s handiwork too seriously until the kite made by Robby carries his young friend aloft. This puts Timmie’s technophobe and techno-illiterate mom ("Did you have a nice day at the computer, dear?") into a ballistic frenzy. To grant his wish of being able to play without parental interference, Robbie – and the Super Comp – make Timmie invisible. He is kidnapped and held hostage to force his dad into surrendering a classified safety code that stands in the way of the Super Comp’s ambition and so on and so forth. What starts off as a fun sci-fi movie suddenly starts taking itself too seriously and ends up a damp squib which incidentally is a firework that fails to go off because it happens to be wet. My discomfort with the theme of the film springs from my inability to accept the Super Comp as a sentient being, I reckon. True, it had AI but was it not fed information by his – and Timmie’s – dad, the computer scientist? Where then did the ability to feel and perceive subjectively, the (self) “awareness” as it were, come from? How could the ambition to take over the world arise? Am I making a mountain from a molehill, rocket science from pulp sci-fi? Horace would've approved, though. Was it not he who wrote: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus” (= “The mountain will labour, a ridiculous mouse will be born”)? Much ado about nothing, the Bard of Avon aka William Shakespeare would've whole-heartedly agreed.

We’re like that only.

Sue in Glasgow in the recently roughed over England has this comment to make: “I'm married to a non-Brit and after 10 years here he still looks on in amusement when he spots a voluntarily orderly queue.” [Italics mine.] I have a strong feeling she is married to an immigrant from the Indian sub-continent. In our interaction with the British rulers for nearly a century (1858 -1947), we made their language, their political philosophy, their administrative style, their second most popular sport and their near pathological compulsion to gamble our own but certainly not their voluntarily orderly queue habit, their sense of humour, their love for animals. Of late, Indians have been relieving the British of a lot of “White Man’s Burden” – Jaguar, British Steel and Celebrity Big Brother to cite just three examples. Rudyard Kipling’s poem was addressed to American Imperialism, you’ll recall. Indians have by now made their presence felt there too. In spite of all this success, India is not shining. India is no Super Star. Certainly not with all those farmer suicides, the neo-Naxals gaining a foothold and spreading their influence, the gap between the haves and have-nots widening. Not even in the wildest narcissistic “Mein Hoon 60+ Mother India, yaney ki asli Bharatmata in a frilly pink taffeta dress” dream, no matter who dreams it and packages it for the cocktail circuit, domestic as well as NRI. Enough already?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to earn writing a bad name. Almost single-handedly.

"Every book is a failure." (George Orwell)

"Even bad books are books, and therefore sacred." (Gunther Grass, The Tin Drum)

"A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down." (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

"There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts." (Charles Dickens)

This piece – a case study of sorts I guess – is about an intrepid person. She started her working life as an advertising model and soon graduated to writing copy in her mentor’s ad agency. Not much later, he launched the bitchiest Hindi cinema-related magazine with our heroine at the helm as the editor. There she acquired the skills and insight and sharpened her claws. All this would help her become the No.1 Page 3 journalist later on. In the meantime, she survived a bad marriage and saved herself in time from getting hitched to a not-so-well-placed firang. Then came the biggest coup of her life. She married a highly successful and affluent businessman who would always keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed. Her career as a journalist too thrived. The only thing lacking was that, along the way, she never learned to write well. But she made up for it by her formula of “stealth and secrecy” and “dirty” writing. Then David Davidar, a Penguin India publisher, happened to her. This story about him, likely apocryphal, sums up what he thinks of her. Once, it seems, he heard the staff there guffawing her manuscript. Cease and desist, he admonished, her books pay your salaries. Short of opening a Division called Pornguin India just for her, Penguin India rightly treats her as the only star they have in their stables judging solely by the sales of her sloppily written but racy novels and assorted non-fiction. After writing several novels laced with a surfeit of sex most of the titles of which start with the letter S, she decided to turn respectable and got down to writing a book of letters to her children, a marriage manual, an autobiography and so on until finally David “inspired” her to write about resurgent India, the way she tells it. That’s when I suspect the trouble started. Noticing suddenly that she was about the same age as India, she may have got a bad case of what is commonly known as delusions of grandeur. Else, can you imagine a shrewd operator like her going into the wildly narcissistic “Mein Hoon 60+ Mother India, yaney ki asli Bharatmata in a frilly pink taffeta dress” mode? And, insouciantly spouting stuff like “I am India”? And, then, after a bad review from a top-of-the-line national Indian magazine, going into a ballistic frenzy with: “The particular review … is a personal attack on me. The person who wrote it is a wife-beater; a freeloader; a frustrated has-been and a menace to society. There are other ratings that have already put the book on the best-seller list. So do I really care about that interview (sic!)”? By the way, at, her India book is categorised as “Fiction”. It’s not a figment of my imagination. Check it out. But say what you may, our intrepid heroine’s books including this one seem to sell well against all odds – bad reviews, for one – like Bollywood movies. The reason for it, according to Prof Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is that “if you can't write well at all”, make people want to “own” you. “The book is the next best thing; in any case, it is a symbol of her. She markets herself, not her writing." That probably explains why she is on the cover of Superstar India: From Incredible To Unstoppable (please read the Charles Dickens quote at the beginning). And, if the critics are to be believed, that is the best part of the new book. But please don’t forget that, notwithstanding her detractors, her Socialite Evenings, Starry Nights, Sultry Days and Second Thoughts are “course material in the University of London. Her work features extensively in Comparative Literature courses at Universities abroad and within India.” Does all this remind you a bit of The Perils of Pauline?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Willing suspension.

Coleridge, Wordsworth, Horace and Shakespeare had hit the nail on the head there. It hit me hard when I was watching High School High (1996) yesterday. It’s a parody of the dedicated-teacher-raises-grades-of-"lost"-school-kids genre with Jon Lovitz (Richard Clark, the dedicated teacher) and Tia Carrere (Victoria Chappell, the eye candy) in Marion Barry High run by hoodlums. In one scene, Clark saves Chapell from near rape. Question: How did she looking the way she does survive rape thus far in the hell hole? In another, Clark shows his reluctance to make love. She pipes up: “Don’t worry. You can be on top.” Question: How did she know that’s what was worrying him? I know, I know. It’s the comedic touch. But still… Lovitz hardly looks the sort of chap Carrere would want on top of her. I know, I know. It’s only a movie and a send-up to boot. One more question coming up. In the climax scene, how does Mr A, the drug lord, who is turns out to be Principal Evelyn Doyle (Louise Fletcher) and her henchmen readily believe that Clark and Chappell are the drug runners? I know, I know. Apart from it’s only a movie, the answer may well be that a crook would willingly believe everyone else is a crook too. That’s extending the Coleridge-Wordsworth-Horace-Shakespeare poetic premise to the participants within the drama itself, of course. Maybe we are in Wittgenstein’s fly bottle all the time.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Not just ha, ha, ho, ho but hmmm, is that really, really so?

Ask almost anyone about Pu(rshottam) La(xman) Deshpande’s Batatyachi Chaal (not Chawl – unless his Sokaji Nanaji Dadaji Trilokekar, apparently a Pathare Prabhu like me as one can see from all the subtext, would pronounce it) and the reaction is: ha, ha, hee, hee, how very funny. Talk to them a bit more and you realize that their reference point is his one-man show of the same title, later turned into a play format when Dilip Prabhawalkar started doing it after Deshpande’s demise. I don’t blame them. I had read this book long back and seen his one-man show also back then. And, my final take-away then was a very funny book, a very funny show as well. Yesterday, I found my ancient copy of Batatyachi Chaal, published by Mauj Prakashan and started reading it. “Wait a minute, mate,” I said to myself as I carried on. “This is not how I remember it.” What I found myself reading this time was not a book that took just a light-hearted look at the middle class Mumbaikar of the fifties eking a precarious existence in South Mumbai’s Khetwadi but something straight out of George Orwell but wittier and more palatable. I find this sort of thing happening to me more and more as I re-read stuff I had read long, long ago and consigned to memory as a pleasant experience. For instance, when I re-read Aldous Huxley’s Time Must Have A Stop fairly recently, it was like nothing I vaguely remembered. Maybe, it’s the blessing of experience altering your perspective and/or your capacity for interpreting what you’re reading or (pardon the dreaded word) “experiencing”. Coming back to Batatyachi Chaal, Pu La is in a socio-political parody/satire mode. Re-read the book if you don’t believe me. The piece called Gacchisaha – Zalich Pahijey, for instance, seems to me to be a take-off on the Samyukta Maharashtra movement as I recall it. Raghunananchi Kanyes Patrey parodies Jawaharlal Nehru’s Letters from a Father to His Daughter. And, so forth. There are quite a few digs at the then widely prevalent fad of sarvodaya via the caricature of Acharya Vinoba Bhave (Acharya Baba Barve). Pu La had reiterated his admiration for PG Wodehouse in an interview in the late nineties. His own brand of parody/irony/satire was often much punchier than Wodehouse’s, though. And, much less gentle. Vijay Tendulkar unerringly pointed to Pu La’s need to make people laugh. According to his wife it was his nature (“dharma” = sacred duty as Sunita called it) to do so. The man of parody and wit was made of sterner stuff. He opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency vehemently. Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief and erstwhile pupil of Pu La in Orient High School, as well as Vinoba Bhave meekly accepted it as a fact of life. The latter even euphemistically called it 'Anushasan Parva' (= Government Epoch). When the BJP-Shiv Sena Government conferred on Pu La the Maharashtra Bhushan Award in 1998, he did not hesitate to upbraid Shiv Sena for its Fascist politics thereby causing quite a controversy. His hero, on the other hand, got himself into hot waters for making broadcasts from Berlin aimed at the US of A in World War II.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Talent and dramaturgy explode on the sea face.

14 April 1944 was the fateful day when SS Fort Stikine carrying a mixed cargo of cotton bales, gold, ammunition including around 1,400 tons of explosive caught fire and was destroyed in two giant blasts in the Victoria Dock of Bombay. The explosion scattered debris, sank surrounding ships and killed around 800 people. Later, in the summer of 1944, there was another equally gigantic explosion in the city. It was in the huge open air theatre specially built to host the ten-night festival of Marathi theatre on the gymkhana grounds between the Charni Road and Marine Lines railway stations on the sea face very close to where I live now. At that time, I was residing at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. In the company of my mother, I attended most of this feast of native dramaturgy specially mounted with a view to revive the Marathi theatre that had been in decline and decay for the past couple of decades. It was a huge and resoundning success and achieved its objective dramatically. Scuttlebutt has it that Prithviraj Kapoor happened to be in the packed house one night and was so moved by the absorption and adulation displayed by the audience that he was inspired to launch Prithvi Theatres to stage such hit Hindi plays as Gaddar, Deewar and Pathan in the early fifties at the Royal Opera House. I particularly recall seeing Othello aka Zunzarrao in Marathi starring Baburao Pendharkar, a leading Marathi film star then, as Othello and Jeevankala as Desdemona in the 1890 adoption by Govind Ballal Deval. Some of the other stage luminaries who participated, if memory serves, were Durga Khote, Balgandhrva, Nanasaheb Phatak, Jayamala Shiledar, Keshavrao Datey and the septuagenarian actor, Chintoba Gurav, who had been a part of the legendary Kirloskar Naatak Mandali when Annasaheb Kiroskar was alive. Those were the days of encore! galore and the play which would start at 9 p.m. would continue till 5 or 6 a.m. the next morning.