Friday, February 2, 2018

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy Interview on 21 Years

This interview was commissioned by The Hindu. An edited version appeared in the Mumbai edition on 1st Feb, 2017. Here's the full transcribe: 

How much has the industry changed in the 21 years?

Shankar: No yaar, it’s the same industry. Slightly the method of working has changed in certain places. People are more welcoming new kind of scripts, new topics, new genres of filmmaking, some film even without songs. People are open to [new stuffs]. But all in all, I think, it’s the same.

Has your music changed?

Ehsaan: Well actually the thing is you go with the trend. You go with the right paths of the trend… and I am talking more about international trends as opposed to what would be Bollywood trends, because that you shouldn’t follow. That’s not what we stand for. You shouldn’t necessarily be influenced by the kind of industry that you’re working in. In terms of technology, in terms of new styles of music, we’ve been very up to date with that. Whether it works or not, that’s a different [matter].

Loy: Our kind of sound straddles two sides. The core is very Indian, so you can’t get away with that. That’s what roots our music, and then we have all other influences that we bring in.

E: …which also keeps changing, because we listen to more contemporary stuffs. Like, again, in Rock On 2, though the film didn’t do well, the rock which we did in that is too contemporary. Maybe it was too much for audiences to absorb first hand, after Rock On [1] which was kind of sweet and friendly. This was more aggressive. We have done all kind of stuffs. That way change with the trend but keeping in mind that we are still writing songs for [Bollywood] audience and not getting esoteric about it. All for that reason, not even going so [much] with the trend that’s going in the industry, in which case you won’t want to be a part of it then.

S: So that way, the music has changed; people’s taste has changed; kind of films that they make has changed; but industry as such has not changed. Same set of people.


Photo Courtesy: Rajneesh Londhe for The Hindu

As you said, in keeping up with the trend, the music has evolved, but the sound of SEL has remained the same.

E: The good thing about the sound of SEL is that there’s no sound of SEL. SEL only stands for good music, good compositions. Every time we do something is different… no two albums have sounded the same. So you can’t say that this is a recognisable SEL song because there’s a surprise element that should be in each album, each time that we do.

Actually, I meant that you guys have that sound that when one hears a song, one can say, yes this must be an SEL composition.

E: How you’re talking about.

L: Sensibilities and things like that, probably. I don’t know.

E: But yeah, I don’t think that way. As you said, we keep evolving.

Alright, let’s go back when you guys broke out with Dil Chahta Hai (2001). It was a new sound in the Hindi film music soundscape. Do you guys attribute it to the different schools of music that each one of you comes from?

L: I think, yes, part of that, and more so the fact that the script [of the film] was so different, modern, contemporary; and the director who wanted something [like that]. We had a lovely chemistry going on among all of us.

S: Between three of us, we pretty much cover the entire spectrum of music, from classical to rock to jazz. What we think is we design music for a film. It’s very difficult to have a sound of our own. What we do is dictated by the script, by the characters, their geographical placement. Like ZNMD’s Senorita, it had Spanish sound because the characters were in Spain. That can’t be put in Bunty or Babli which is [set] in rural Kanpur. So it has to be a Kajra Re there.

E: But the point is what the recognisable thing with SEL is, I would say, good compositions. We talk about song-writing which has got depth, is wholesome and appealing to listen to. It’s not something that will be just a hit for two days or a weekend and it’s gone.

2016 was quite a year. You gave one of your career best, Mirzya, a middling Rock On 2, and your career worst, Ghayal Once Again.

L: Well, that’s the way it is. You know, sometimes the wheels turn slow, sometimes it turns fast.

E: Unfortunately, the film bombed and all. I’ve said it before, let me say it again, when Rock On 1 music came, the reviewers trashed it. But when the film became a hit, the music became a hit. This time, the music came out, it was the same reaction because the music was one step ahead. It’s heavier and more committed – see it’s a band that is creating music after seven years, you can’t have them playing the same grunge; their lives have changed, their songwriting has become much more mature. Unfortunately the film didn’t click, so everything sank with it.

S: Things work, things don’t work. If it works, it’s great. Afterwards, we sit and analyse why it didn’t work and all that… it doesn’t work that way, you know. But one thing we can say for sure that our quality of music doesn’t go below a standard. We are still proud of music Rock On 2. Who’s there in the industry who’s got only hits… only flops, maybe there are (laughs).

Speaking about Mirzya, it’s one of your career best and it didn’t get the recognition that it should have, even at the recently concluded Filmfare awards (where it was nominated but lost to ADHM).

S: Thanks for saying that. We really feel that it’s one of our best works, easily.

E: It’s kind of unfortunate. Also the way things work out here. A lot of money is paid for the album and then if the film flops, the record company just washes its hands off the music. I don’t see why you can’t keep promoting music even after the film is gone. You know ADHM has become a hit, so they are still promoting the music. Music should be promoted either way. It’s an entity with the film but it’s also a separate entity. So promote it, keep putting videos on. It’s not that you want people to go see the movie, you want them to buy the album now. According to me, [Mirzya] is a catalogue item as good as Dil Chahta Hai or Kal Ho Na Ho or anything which should be on that shelf forever.

S: Honestly, for me, [it’s] better [than DCH, KHNH].

E: Maybe, better.

S: After being there for 20 years, and after talking about all these aspects of this should be promoted, that should be done… we have gone beyond that. At the end of day, what matters is we should feel proud of our album. And we are really, really proud of Mirzya. Truly, without being immodest, I don’t see any album in the last five years that has come out from this industry which is of the level of Mirzya. I am not saying because I am a part of the album, I am just saying as a spectator. Like, Meghana Gulzar that day told, after a long time I’ve got an album which I feel like taking a CD and putting into the CD player and sitting and listening to it. And we don’t have control over film not doing well and all. It’s unfortunate.
Winning an award feels good for a moment. Next day, we are back here [at the studio], working, that’s how it’s been.

E: Not winning an award doesn’t feel bad, let me put it this way.

S: Absolutely not.

L: Shankar rightly said, if you know what you have done is good and you evaluated it [to be] good enough, you can’t let someone else…. Yes, if it’s appreciated, great. If someone has not heard the album or doesn’t have the opportunity to listen to it and evaluate it, that’s sad because of the situation in which the industry is.

S: When you get complimented by the greatest writer in this country, Gulzar Saab, saying that this is an album I am proud of, and it reminds me of the way I used to work with Pancham, I think we can’t a bigger compliment than this. See who’s validating us.

E: And he’s not one to just say things, you know.

S: Yeah, he’s not a person who’s just going to say thing just for the sake of it.
So these things matter, whom we are working with, are we doing the right thing, is it musically and aesthetically a good piece of work. We look at it from an outsider’s perspective. It’s not that we are just into the project, so we’ll say only good things.

Is it because of working with different kind of people…

L: Obviously, it’s like going out with two friends, not necessary both of them want to go to same restaurant. One might like Chinese, one might like Indian.

S: Between the three of us, we are very well musically equipped. Our musical database is very strong, to make music. Now when director walks in, we have to literally psychoanalyse a director first… what his sensibility is. A hardcore commercial director will never get the sensibility of Mirzya. He will never say yes to an Afghan folk singer coming in, blabbering in a language we can’t understand. It all depends on what he listens to in his car. So we have to create music of his sensibility which will satisfy his film and his vision. If we want to make music for ourselves, we can do that in a non-film album. Right now, we are working for a director who is the captain of the ship. If he is not happy with a song, we’ll throw it and do another song.

You guys have a huge discography of albums sinking down with the film, especially if you look at your earlier work like Armaan, Kuch Naa Kaho.

S: Speaking of Armaan, you see every reality show, the song, Mere Dil Ka Tumse Hai Kehna, has to be there. That’s gratifying for us. Or even Sapno Se Bhare Naina from Luck By Chance. Any Rajasthani kid who comes to television, has to sing Baawre. Even JBJ.

E: This is all legacies which will be left behind.

L: And every composer has that. The more work you’ve done, you’re subject to having both hits and flops. I find it very unfortunate that there’s no way out for the audience to hear the song once the films is done. Hardcore music lovers are gonna probe and find songs.

E: And there were not so many movies being made as much as today and so many soundtracks releasing. Kuch Naa Kaho came on a weekend and there was nothing else for next two weeks. Even though the film didn’t do well, the music was a hit. So did JBJ. Now on a Friday, four films come out and there are 10 songs and all are gone by the next weekend.

L: It’s like buying cheap plastic pens, all are disposable.

S: If there’s a song which has become a superhit, you think people would actually take a CD, put it and listen to it? There are songs on which I dance too on parties and functions, but that’s not a song I would put in my car and say hey, lemme listen to this song. 

E: I have heard so many songs which are big hits but I haven’t seen anyone listening to it.
S: There are hardly three or four avenues to listen music: radio, TV, mobile, internet. The top 10 on each of these platforms are same. You are restricted to 10 songs in a week. What about the other songs?

L: It’s like walking into a mall and finding only one brand of pair of jeans. That’s exactly the situation that we are in right now. If you go back to late 60s or 70s, there was only radio, and radio had the dealing. So when radio came on national hours, entire country heard the popular songs, which is not the case now.

S: Take one radio station, switch to another, it’s the same song playing.

L: How do you have an identity as a radio station then?

S: I am doing a show called The Unheard on gaana.com. I am so happy doing it as I am hearing new stuff. And I am happy talking to the composers who are also happy thanking for doing this show.

I feel there has to be a parallel platform which plays music for the sake of music. People are worried about TRPs and all, but there will be listeners. You will not put off a song because it’s a non-film song.

Look at Dangal, there’s no song which was intended to make only for marketing. All the songs work beautifully with the film.

E: Other films need one hit song to market the film, so where’s the confidence of the film?

It’s a flop formula. Look at OK Jaanu, they recreated Humma Humma for the sake of it. But now the film is nowhere.

E: Oh, I feel bad for Shaad.

L: For me, when I look at a film, it’s really about being able to tell a story correctly. If there’s a problem in your storytelling, nothing can help you.

This has become a trend: to recreate an old song…

E: Give it 3 more months, it will go.

S: I see the state of helplessness in this. We don’t do films with one or two songs here and there, unless it’s a very dear friend, like the Marathi film we did, Mitwa.
I feel they are helpless because they are not able to get good melodies nowadays. Why would someone do it otherwise?

How is it different from the Instant Karma?

E: It was a completely different project. The idea was to do respectable versions of songs which became so big that people started doing bad versions.

S: It was the beginning of remixes, yaar. Abhi bhi tum wahi karte baithe ho.

L: Actually, it wasn’t even remix. It was reinterpretations of the songs.

E:  I am trying to understand what is it today that people do not trust today’s songwriting or what?  

L: For me, the analysis of it, there are two sides of it: Either there are no good songwriters or you are not in position to judge what a good song is. And I don’t buy the fact that there are no good songwriters. It’s impossible.

S: That’s unbelievable.

E: The thing is music has become like a commodity, something that you buy from a market and dispose.

L: Music is an important part of your life, on many levels. Just party, disco, dancing, jumping is all very cool. But there are other deeper levels at which people use music, like going back to old songs from a memory perspective, from a healing perspective. That’s an important side and you can’t negate that.

S: There’s a set of creative people, they have the music, they have the ability to create music, they have the talent but not the power. The power lies with someone else who has got the money but is completely non-musical and they take the decision.

E: Basically the industry has done it to itself.

L: It’s like music is a patient lying on a hospital table and there’s a rich man coming to operate him not because he is the doctor, just because he is rich. (everybody laughs)

E: World’s biggest producers, like Quincy Jones, say that there’s no industry left. They laugh when you say “music industry”, saying “what industry?” Where is the music industry the way it used to be.

S: Today is Javed ji’s birthday and I would quote him. He says, I have a very close friend Naresh Goyal and he is the owner of the biggest airlines in the country, Jet Airways. He owns maybe 100 of planes or whatever. But I have never seen him going to the cockpit and tell the pilot, “Ae zara left lena na.”
(Everybody laughs and sighs).

Let pilot do his job. Let musicians do their job.
S: Exactly. You are the owner, you run your company.

Coming back on your 21 years…
E: Your interview has gone into some other direction. Now please don’t ask us how we got together.

Has there been a low point when you guys felt that SEL is finished?
S: Ehsaan feels that during every project. When his melody doesn’t get approved by the two of us, he walks out, saying “I am leaving SEL.” But never seriously.

E: The lowest point in our career was actually the beginning of our career, when Mukul Anand passed away. It was like fate didn’t want this to happen maybe. It was one of the biggest films ever going to be made. If that film had come out, we probably would have been in some other space right now. Or maybe even done with the industry, god knows. After that we lost faith, because whoever tried to make that film couldn’t make it. Maybe it was not supposed to happen. When I went to meet Mukul, I didn’t want to do the film. He shouted at me, “You know who I am.” I said, “I know Mukul you are all like no 1 director.” “I am not like those guys. Why do you think I want to work with advertising people. I want to be different. I am telling you, you have to do it.” Damn sweet guy.

L: Even after Dil Chahta Hai, we had no work for 9 months. We were trying to figure out what’s going on, it was well received and all. People would meet us with scripts but instead of three guys, there would be four guys.

E: 90s was a very bad time for movies. Look at the kind of movies that were being made. Only Rahman came in with a breath of fresh air; Pancham da’s 1942: A Love Story was first time I put on television to listen to a song.

So when Dus fell through, what made you guys stick together for another film.

E: We were around, doing own thing. Shankar’s Breathless had become a huge hit. We weren’t even doing our shows.

S: We were happy doing ads.

E: In fact, we got more ads DCH.

L: Serious amount of ads.

E: Yeah, saying this is the kind of music we want. Just the right crossover between 
Bollywood and [contemporary]. We came together for small things like corporate work. Then Dillagi came out, then Mission Kashmir.

S: Mission Kashmir was a big turning point.

E: Rockford came just before Mission Kashmir. The album released while we were working on the songs [of Mission Kasmir]. We had to take permission from Vinod Chopra to go for the album release (laughs). We were very scared. So we asked Nagesh [Kukunoor] to come and ask him.

S: We were very glad to work with Gulzar Saab for the first time [on Rockford].

E: It was beautiful.

L: And we composed it in this very studio (Purple Haze, Bandra).

Talking about association with Gulzar Saab, you guys completed a little circle with him in Mirzya. From “Aasman ke paar shayad aur koi aasman hoga” to “Aasman kholke dekhne do, uss taraf shayad ek aur bhi ho.”

S: Correct. 

E: Oh my god.

S: It’s a full circle.

Highest point of the career?

S: Nothing like that. We are always on a high.

E: Everytime a movie does well, songs do well. Like we played at the IIT on 26th, it was a euphoric high, so good playing there.

S: Everytime we see people going crazy when we play live, we feel how blessed we are. Honestly, we don’t take it very seriously. Our references of music are very different. We don’t listen to only film songs. We all have our own little musical journeys and this is just a part of it.

E: We just have a lot of fun here. Shabana Azmi once came in here and sat here and said, “if any serious producer would think you all are working here, he is sadly mistaken.”

Current music scene is by and large Bollywood. No one is willing to invest in an independent album, and on the other hand, our music legends like U Srinivas (who was with Shankar on Remember Shakti), or Madhav Chari passing away…

(Ehsaan and Loy sigh together at the mention of Madhav Chari, and interrupt.)
L: Oh my God. E:Oh! He was the finest.

L: He never got his recognition. He was way, way, way ahead in the game.

E: Madhav was something else. Very intellectual. He was like a guru to two of us (Loy and him).

With these legends passing away, how do you see the alternate music scene shaping up?

L: It’s not easy. It’s like a rough patch. And not only here, all over the world. One tries to be a supporter as much as one can and as much it allows.

S: Also, to counter that. There is a set of musicians in the city who are busier than Bollywood singers. Look at supremely talented Niladri Kumar or Sivamani or Sheldon or Gino. These guys are playing every alternate day. Why? Economically they are viable [funded] by corporate, public shows, festivals. But that market is very limited. Limited set of people who are all the time busy. If you want to cut through that market, you have to be supremely, supremely talented. In Bollywood, you get one hit song, possibly you’ll get shows and you do make it and need not be talented at all. Sur me gaane ki bhi zaroorat nahi hai.

How do you guys find avenue for alternate music?

S: I always have. I really feel there should many more avenues.

E: There should more clubs, especially in Bombay. What a lovely city this is. It’s entertainment capital of India and there’s nothing… one or two clubs that have live music.

S: NH7 in Pune is beautiful. Mumbai should have such music festivals.

E: And less entertainment tax.

Shankar, anything coming up with Remember Shakti?

S: After Srini passed away, we are all so depressed. When we try to play, we just look at each other helplessly. It’s like one door, we feel, has shut forever.

E: Such a monster musician.

S: Who do you play with! Who is a musician of that calibre! There are some people who need to play 100 notes to communicate, there are some who need to play only one. Srinivas was that.

L: He was special. [He had] hand of God.

S: He doesn’t even need to play. It’s the same fret, even if you touch it, the same sound will come out. But when he plays it, the sound will go through your heart. This is a blessing.

E: U Srinivas was like an avatar.

S: And I played with him for 14 years. We have lived together, travelled together, eaten together, composed together in flights. They used to call us MIDI Sync in the group. My whole attraction towards fusion music has dropped by about 20%. We have a Shakti group [on Whatsapp], we keep bloddy cribbing on the group. But now we are planning some stuff, let’s see. But I don’t think anything like Remember Shakti… because John ji [McLaughlin] has scouted for talent throughout the country before he made this group. He has done lot of research and he is a man who knows his stuff.

E: You all should get L Shankar back.

S: They fight over stupid things.

E: What a player he is. You know Peter Gabriel uses him on every project. Something or the other you’ll hear him playing on the album. He is in love with L Shankar.

Any regret in these 21 years?

S: I think three of us as individuals have not reached where our music has reached. Our music has reached far and wide, in every household; every single person has heard our music. But we, as people, as brand, in terms of public perception have not reached out there. Because we are too simple, easily accessible. It’s broccoli v/s onions and potatoes. We are the onions and potatoes. When someone is as easily accessible, his/her depth is not understood or is not reached out.
Do you think the same?  We have been terrible in our PR. But we never attempted to build an image of ourselves or try to be THE Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

E: At some level, that’s also too much. That image takes away the music from you. Then at some level, you’ll start selling your music like that ‘I am so and so person’, but eventually it doesn’t hold.

Maybe some international perception. But we are working on some collaboration now.

The catalogue of directors we have worked with would be anybody’s wildest dream. Gulzar Saab just drops in our house at Karjat for fun, have a cup of tea. Where does this happen?

One album you wish you had done.

E: I would have loved to work on Mani Ratnam’s earlier films, like Thalapathy.

S: 3 Idiots.

E: Oh yeah.

L: No comments.

(everybody laughs)

S: Loy barely knows the movie we are working on.

E: He told somebody in an interview the first Hindi film he saw was 36 Chowringhee Lane. 
It’s not even Hindi, it’s in English.

L: I don’t listen to Bollywood music.

E: For that reason, nor do I. Not anymore. I used to listen all the old stuff, nothing contemporary. I love Amit Trivedi’s work, whatever he does.

L: I like Vishal Bhardwaj’s work. For me, only these two guys.

How do you see the next 21 years?

S: Superb yaar.  Lots more to do. Bollywood takes up a lot of your time. You sign up with three directors, your year is gone.

E: This year we are relaxing.

L: We’ll talk about it in 2037.

S: I would like Loy to do a Jazz album. I would like to Ehsaan to do a Blues album. I would like to do some stuff for myself, something non-film. I think the next 21 years will be that.

E: Hopefully, I will be abducted by UFO by then, which is one my dreams. (laughs)


S: That’s the other side of him. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Jab Harry Met Sejal Review

(Spoilers, obviously.)
We know Imtiaz Ali and his tropes:  Boy meets Girl, journey, finding love, finding yourself, blah blah blah. Simple. Simple?

Jab Harry Met Sejal, if seen simply, is a story of a girl searching for her lost engagement ring with her Euro trip guide whom she ends up falling in love with. (Of course, the ring is the metaphor for elusive true love on this journey which, in Imtiaz Ali films, is always a metaphor for life.) But more than plot, Imtiaz always delves into characters, put them in doubts, makes them question themselves, shows them the mirror. And this is where his stories are.


The Girl does find her ring -- it was always with her, deep in her bag -- while searching for an antiseptic, to nurse the wounds of the Boy. (Oh, so meta, again, and I am reminded of Irshad's line from Tamasha song, 'Safarnama', which kind of captures the essence of all his films: 'Jise dhoondha zamaane mein, mujh hi mein tha'.) This moment hits her like an epiphany. She is at a gangster's den (a comical setup though -- even gangsters in an Imtiaz Ali film go through a break-up), in a foreign country, away from home, and here she is caring for a tour guide's wounds. Worldly threats bring out your most vulnerable self. Imtiaz taught us this in Highway.

There are more Highway moments in here. The tour guide, Harry, like Mahabir, has a lost home. They both break into tears and hide it, when they find something like home in someone. Harry belongs to wheat fields in Punjab, he sings on tractors. He is a man of soil. And for him, Sejal is a woman of china clay, meant to be kept in glass shelf, handled with care. "Neat and clean", as JJ of Rockstar would say. (There is a Rockstar moment too when Harry asks for a hug.)

But Sejal is no Heer. She comes across as Geet with her worldly wisdom, but has been living a life of Veera (Highway)/Aditi (Socha Na Tha). Part of the itinerary of her first Euro trip had a "romantic" engagement, with her family. She circles the same trip again, with the same tour guide, minus the engagement, but the definition of "romantic" comes around only this time. Wasn't Highway the same, about meeting the same place differently (Veera says that she has been to Delhi before but only checks in in hotels)? Wasn't Socha Na Tha the same, about meeting the same person differently?

Problem is we see very little of the places here: Instead of establishing shots of various places, we see a map. They go to Frankfurt but to attend a ceremony, indoors. Despite of so much travelling, I don't feel I have seen those places. All they visit is nightclubs (There are four club scenes!). Tamasha was a worthier ticket, to Corsica; Rockstar to Prague, than this film. Europe should not give any tourism subsidy to Red Chillies for this film.

When Sejal meets Harry in the first minutes of the film, they are actually meeting for the second time. This time she meets the (broken) human in him and not a mechanical person on a job. Imtiaz's characters are either people we know or people we don't care to know -- both, in some or the other way, are us.

With Sejal, Imtiaz does something he hasn't done before. He imbues her with her self-aware insecurities. This modern, selfie-clicking woman is also in doubts of her self-worth. She looks for validation. Yet she has the control over her body -- she is pretty much clear in her head that her "girlfriend" arrangement with Harry is a selfish reasoning; at least she didn't intend to end up in bed with him to begin with. But these internal conflicts are like her lost ring: always there, but we didn't know of. I wanted to know more about her. Imtiaz doesn't care to explain.

He instead cares to explain the part that we already know. He, here, over explains his thoughts through the characters, primary and secondary both, making it a very verbose affair. He explained his film, milord, a crime. He explained his film which he has already made six times before! After a point, towards the end, when Harry and Sejal are talking things out, I stopped listening. Because I know Imtiaz Ali, I know his tropes.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

MOM Review

A R Rahman, in the 25th year of his career, when he could simply play in his comfort zone and yet excel every time, chooses to compose and produce a largely esoteric, experimental and minimalistic soundtrack for debutant Ravi Udyawar's film - Mom. The songs suggest a definite soundscape that belongs to the film.

And then I saw the film.

The first thing that struck me about the film, more than its soundscape, was its photography. It struck me in my eyes. It is that obtrusive. And that is a cardinal sin. If your frame is noticeable before what's in the frame, you are doing exacty opposite of what is expected from a good photographer. And these visuals don't justify what it wants to tell. It's just there to show-off one's skill. See that shot with just a dim red light in frame that is constantly seeking your attention?

Among many other cliché scenes in the film, one is how one character finds modern-art pedestrian. The film is exactly that: looks arty, but, with its populist politics and message(s), is terribly pedestrian. You have a mom on a mission (to revenge the rape of her step-daughter), and two stock-characters: a seedy, Bengali private detective from Paharganj (Nawazuddin in truly "special appearance" because his make-up and look has no other business than 'look, how real our portrayal of characters are'); and an honest-policeman-who-can't-do-much-because-stuck-in-bureaucracy Akshaye Khanna.

There are scenes written only for the characters to spew one or two taali-seeti seeking lines, and otherwise have very little narrative purpose. Be it "Iss desh me rapists ko thappad bhi nahi maar sakte" or an age-old SMS: "Bhagwan har jagah nahi ho sakte isiliye toh maa banayi hai". The dialogues elsewhere is, again, very pedestrian. (The confrontation scene between a rapist and the detective is solid cringy.)

Then there is problematic representation of transgender characters: we meet two of them as students of Devaki, the Mom (Sridevi), who later uses them in her revenge plan. She makes them disguise as sex-workers. Nothing wrong in being  sex-workers, but using trans characters for it because 'oh, to make it look real' again? And that is the only raison d'être of these characters in the film. It not only then comes across as robbing them of the power given in their introduction scene (that they have started up a business) but also makes the empowerment look as tokenism.

And the most problematic is its climax (which even elicited applause from the audience): the victim step-daughter, who had been treating her stepmom unfairly even when the former was almost in comatose condition in an ICU, finally accepts her after she has killed the rapist right in front of her. The film wants to peddle this desperate, quick-fix ideology, and sadly but not-so-surprisingly it seems to be working for a few audience.

Mom is a populist film. That is not a problem. Problem is: it masquerades as a high art. Could this be a subversion, or a subtext of a high-society, well-guarded woman going off-boundaries, on roads? But there is very little that supports this case, because the filmmaking is so inert that it is oblivious to any class hierarchy and its issues, which in a rape revenge film, surely cannot be overlooked.

ARR in an interview told how he asked the director to tweak a scene so that he could fit in a semi-classical track in the soundtrack - Be Nazara. What is the longest song in the album, appears for fleeting seconds in the film, adding nothing but Style. Now you get some idea what the makers wanted to achieve in this film. The esoteric sight and sound of this film constantly tells where the film wants to belong -- which is definitely not with the masses. So, you have a film which is not true to its content, and its form misleads its content.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rangoon

(This is not a review. I was so overwhelmed by the film and its layers, themes and characters that I had to put down what -- and how -- I saw few of them. This might read like I am trying to make myself understand the film. So, spoilers ahead, of course.)


A film set. Shooting crew – all male. It’s a musical opening scene, fantastic one at that. All are singing in the praise of one woman – Julia. Miss Julia.

Director cuts the scene. He approves it. Producer appears from the top, with unmistakable tyranny, and orders one more take to be shot, with altogether new and more daring actions.

Mujhe Mrs. Billimoria huey bina nahi marna hai,” tells Julia to him.

“You are Julia. Miss Julia… My Julia,” replies Rusi Billimoria, the producer.

Julia is the identity he has given to her. Her real name was Jwala Devi, we learn later. She was a gypsy, a street performer. Rusi spotted her and bought her from her mother for a thousand rupees, we learn this in a different scene even later.

These verbal details are spurted casually in a funny conversation. You gather these fragments and connect to know the character, their story. Even for a minor character of a Japanese soldier, we first see him singing, while held captive in a deserted church; later, he tells he is a music school graduate; even later we also see him playing a mouth organ.

Rusi bought Julia when she was 14. She is now star action actress of his studio. And he is in love with her. He calls her “kiddo”. Their relationship is very dominant-submissive. Patting his thighs, he asks her to sit on his lap. She submits.

And then there is Jamadaar Nawab Mallik. He comes in the picture as a personal bodyguard of Miss Julia. And with him, she falls in love… that spiritual kind. They realise that when they are away in a jungle and in deep mud. It’s perhaps a foreshadowing that their love story is meant to be doomed.

But as it turns out, in the second half, Mallik is in single-minded love with the nation (He is an INA rebel). Like how Rusi is with Julia. Rusi even divorces his wife. He tells his father, “Mohabbat jaan bujh kar toh nahi ki. Bas ho gayee.” We then realise that this tyrant might have a heart after all. He would let the dead body of an INA rebel rot in jungle, but cannot gather himself to hold a gun against a kid of another rebel, despite his loyalty towards British makes him call them traitors.

This torn and conflicted love triangle finds, right in the middle of the story, the oldest symbolism in the books – a bridge. VB makes it work – adding that melancholic ‘Alvida’ track. The second time these lovers assemble near the bridge, which is at the end, a lot of water has flown under it, and they are not the same as they were.

Julia now refuses to sit on Rusi’s lap. She is realising her own identity; where her heart lies. She tells him, “Tum uda lo toh main aasmaan mein, tum bula lo toh jaangh pe. Tum kaho toh main Miss Julia, tum bolo toh mai Mrs. Bilimoria.

Nawab’s devotion for nation has broken upon her. He tells her, “Tum apne jism me bandh ho.” She was only a fairness-cream applying actress, until then, who used to roam in her tinted car in Bombay, indifferent to the freedom protests happening around. We also see one early scene in a different light now, when Rusi offers her a ring and asks to wear once the wound on her finger is healed. She tells, “(Zakham) jaldi nahi bharega,” and wears the ring over it, as if covering every bit of her childhood injury with all the luxury that is coming her way through him. It’s when the surrounding and surmounting politics hits her personally, taking away her beloved as well as her dear Man Friday, she has her realisation. It’s like her coming-of-age.

Action star Julia comes out of the screen now. She hijacks a train (This is the Rail Ki Rani film that Rusi had denied her to star in). And we head towards the climax which could be a companion piece to Haider’s climax.

Haider's finale was covered in ice; this one takes place between fire and water. If Tabu’s character was symbolic of Kashmir there, Julia is India here. How both are lost in the battle. Shahid plays rebel in both the films, but with different fates (No, not talking about Kaminey here). It is in this last moment, we see Rusi having a change of heart. He does what he had perhaps seen Julia doing on street when she was 14 – maut ka rassa (Rusi had also starred in a film called Maut Ka Rassa -- we see the poster in an earlier scene). Julia walked tight rope all her life. (It is also for this reason that I wish it was Julia who gets to do that again with the sword. It would have been a proper coming-of-age, and of course, more than that). Rusi manages to do it in the finale. We don’t see him crossing it – film fades out and ends.

The bridge to Rangoon is burnt. The rebel for freedom continues.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cities Of Sleep (Documentary) Review

Director: Shaunak Sen

In the first chapter of Anurag Kashyap’s recently released Raman Raghav 2.0, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Sindhi Dalvai (or Ramanna) surrenders to police saying he is here because he’ll get a proper place to sleep in jail; they charge thirty rupees outside. Policemen find his reason to surrender baffling, and one of them calls him a joker. What is strikingly similar between Ramanna and the protagonist of Shaunak Sen’s documentary on the business of sleep in Delhi, other than both lacking a proper sleeping place, is that both, inhabiting in the sleepless underbellies of two metro cities, are quintessential unreliable narrators. Difference: former is a serial killer, latter, a beggar.

He’s Shakeel, a migrant from Assam. Shakeel is not his real name though. It’s Manoj. He adopted this Muslim name because it gives him a sense of belonging with the people and places he walks into, which is dominated by Muslims. Naturally, a homeless, he has no place to sleep. He finds solace in sleeping shelters at night. Jamal Bhai, otherwise a tea vendor, gives cots to rent for anything between 20 and 50 rupees. It's mind-boggling to see how an entrepreneurial venture has been made out from a part of human routine.

Jamal Bhai does not trust Shakeel’s rugged and scarred face. No one does. Neither the filmmaker, nor the film. Shakeel has an impaired vision. His stories are hardly reliable. Homeless in Delhi, he has a pucca home back in his hometown in Assam. His not-so-good relationship with his father is the reason why he's in Delhi. His father wants him to have a steady job; is also willing to fix him up with one, but his arrogance comes midway. He’s also a wife-beater, he confesses. He can’t speak English, but can sing to the rap tunes of Bollywood songs. We see these flashes of his, and like a misleading compass in hand, we follow the story that has now become more about the biography of a person than a place.



Midway while filming, the crew lost Shakeel. He disappeared and was unreachable for around six months. Sen told after the screening that Shakeel bagged roles in two local TV shows in that period and one Bollywood film – Rajkumar Hirani’s Aamir Khan starrer p.k.; he’s the blind beggar on the bridge from whom Aamir takes money calling him an ATM. When he returned, he was indeed almost blind.

And in this period when they lost Shakeel, they found Ranjith – film’s another character who adds abstract and philosophical dimension to the story. Ranjith runs a sleeping shelter at Loha Pul, an old iron bridge over Yamuna River in Delhi, which is also a makeshift cinema tent. Ten rupees for three films on a T.V. that gives over six hours of peace. He acknowledges TV as a dream dispensing machine. “The best part of sleeping while watching a film is that you can’t make out what you’re watching is a film or a dream,” he philosophizes. For him, a sleep-inducing movie is not boring, it’s magical.

It’s really magical to see what ways people find to find a peaceful sleep. Meagre labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers do look peaceful when they are asleep or watching films here. “You can be anyone here, you can choose not to be a rickshawala that you are for the outside world,” says Ranjith while talking about his sleeping shelter as an escapist outlet. But within each of them is their daily tussle of survival.

Beneath them is the turbid water of Yamuna that fishes out around ten dead bodies a month. And above them passes the busy, lively city road. They, literally, exist between life and death. Extending on this metaphysical nature of sleep, Ranjith goes on to say, “Sleeping is like existing between life and death, between light and dark, between day and night. There’s a pattern, a rhythm, like how our body rises and submerges as we breathe while sleeping.”

Cities of Sleep tells in its opening scene that sleeping, in the city of Delhi, is not just a necessity or a habit, it's a privilege. It's a luxury that many can't afford. “The city can be seen divided merely on who sleeps where.” In between this socio-economic commentary on sleeping, the same voice slips in a philosophical one, “If you want to seize control over anyone, don’t let him/her sleep.” So the tone is set right at the beginning. It doesn’t feel odd when Ranjith philosophises, a little too much, about... sleeping. His ramblings do come across as heavily constructed though. But then which art form isn’t?

However, it does feel that the director has a pre-conceived, pre-researched idea and the visuals, no matter how fluid, want to direct us towards that inherent idea. Well, that’s, in fact, the nature of cinéma vérité but the idea is not to make it feel like that. Here it does. (So, is it being too true to be, err, truthful cinema?) Like that scene where a father is applying mosquito repellent to his kids to make them sleep peacefully and Amitabh Bachchan’s voice, talking about a poor man’s struggle to raise kids, from the nearby cinema tent runs as a voiceover. And the father goes on to tell his kids bedtime story – a regular hare-and-tortoise one, which is another story whose central conceit involves... sleeping.

There’s an upper-class gaze attached in the way Sen films Shakeel, one can accuse. In a scene, Shakeel looks at the camera, and asks, “You never do anything for me; only keeps on recording me.” In another documentary (or any film, for that matter), one would deduce such a scene to a fourth-wall breaking scene where the character is directly addressing to the audience. Here, the character is talking to the maker – the observer filmmaker – rather than the audience. The scene works at an altogether another level because, in a way, by intruding himself in between the audience and the protagonist, Sen made the process even more unobtrusive.

Sen doesn’t reply to Shakeel in that scene... instantly. Sen confessed after the screening that he was taken aback for a moment and after a long pause, he did reply to him. But we don’t see that in the film, because the story that Sen wants to tell lies in that long pause. And when you have a good story in hand, as they say, don’t let facts come in the way of it.


This review was initially published at TheW14.com.

Death of a Gentleman Review

Directors: Sam Collins, Jarrod Kimber, Johnny Blank

First things first: I know cricket as much as I know Greek. Last cricket match I saw was in 2001. An exhilarating India v/s England. India not only won that match but was also exempted from paying the taxes. It was Lagaan. We could have won an Oscar too, but that’s another sad story.

That fictional match aside, it is true that cricket is a colonial gift to Indian sports culture. This Englishman’s, or as they call it, Gentleman’s game was played to promote and expand the reach of colonialism in deeper pockets of India. But what the end of imperialism meant – that the world will now embrace democracy – didn’t really reflect in the game of cricket. Imperialism never left cricket. In fact, it grew.

Death of a Gentleman is about this growing imperialism in the game and the imperialists, viz. England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Cricket Australia (CA) and, mainly, the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI).

Two Australian cricket journalists – Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber – embark upon to document stories about the dying form of cricket: the test cricket. But in the process, they find out that the reason of the death of the game is the game itself – in its other form, called T20, and its various tournaments, particularly the Indian Premiere League (IPL).


“The test cricket is a test of skills, test of courage, and test of intelligence,” says one gentleman in the film. But seems like the five-day format of the game is also turning out as a ‘test of patience’ for some of its audiences. They seek instant entertainment. Are sports the place where they should look for it? Not sure. But T20, as a condensed version of the game packed with sixes and fours, does provide some entertainment; IPL, even more… in its raw, visceral yet glamorous form. “IPL does not compete with test cricket. It competes with Bollywood,” says ex-cricketer and commentator Arun Lal.

IPL is giving this 2-min-instant-noodles generation what they want. How does this explain the death of the older form of the sport? Take this case: In April 2012, Australia was on its tour in West Indies to play a test series of three matches other than five ODIs and two T20s. ODIs and T20s resulted into ties, but for the tests, the selectors simply couldn’t pick some of the top players of West Indies XI, including Chris Gayle who recently lead his team win the T20 World Cup Championship, as they were thousand miles away playing for the IPL. As a result, the West Indies faced a severe blow, losing 2-0 (one match being withdrawn due to rains).

Corporates and capitalists are putting monies where audiences’ affinity lies. Players are where the money is. This makes cricket historian Gideon Haigh raise a pertinent question, quite early in the film, which also sums up the film: Does cricket make money to exist or does it exist to make money?
Though the answer is apparent, the film tries to find it in profound ways. As it turns out, the simple looking money investing and money chasing business is a nexus with the then BCCI and ICC head N Srinivasan sitting at its top.

What makes him the imperialist of the game? He signed off a rule that made cricket boards of top three cricket playing countries – India, England and Australia – hold equal shares of revenue upto fifty percent of the ICC grants, thus sidelining poorer countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and jeopardizing their cricketing culture. This economic imbalance also means that there would be countries which could never play this beautiful game. They reduced and regressed the gentleman in this Gentleman’s Game to a crony, oppressive one as imagined in the colonial era.

China, for a population of over a billion, receives only $30, 000 as grants from the federation. It would invest more by themselves if cricket is accepted into Olympics. So why hasn’t ICC pushed for cricket into Olympics? To which, Srinivasan replies, with the entitlement that he assumes, that he has all the rights to put the board’s interest first.

The duo journalists take time to come up on screen and chart out the nexus equations on a blackboard, posing pressing questions. But this technique hardly works in their favor, because 1) they are bad actors; 2) pointing out questions in a staged sequence robs the film of its inherent drama. They finished documenting the story in 2015 before the main villain portrayed in the film, N Srinivsan, was dethroned from both the bodies – ICC as well as the BCCI. So the relevance of this documentary now is again slightly doubtful but it must be seen as a record of the time when the game seemed to be in peril, and probably still is.

Sneaking from the darker alleys of crony capitalism, the film, in parallel, runs into a human tale of Australian opener of Ed Cowan that shows some light. But even that is hindered as we see him going on duck in the first innings of his career’s last test. He is personified metaphor of the game we are talking about.

Death of a Gentleman is a passionate and heartfelt love letter to the purest form of cricket by two of its most ardent devotees who miss not only the gentlemen who played the game but also those who stood with them in the stadium.

This review was originally published on TheW14.com