Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos

Critical appreciation and its pitfalls

In my last blog post, Bio commented that I should write something about stuff that impacts us and affects us - like the upcoming elections. I wish I could oblige him - but asking me to comment on politics - be it internal or world - is like asking Britney Spears to comment on emerging trends in music. I sometimes wish I wasn't so apathetic about the general condition of humanity - be it in the motherland or otherwise - but I guess that's the way I am.

I wonder why Rediff spends possibly a humongous amount of dough in maintaining its message boards. Other than holding a mirror to the Darwinian philosophy of evolution (in this case - stunted), I don't really see how they serve any real purpose on the world wide web. Most amusing are the comments on anything written by Raja Sen. Pet-flogging-boy for many, his reviews get panned by lovers and haters of the movie alike. I am not sure why; I do concede that the man does get a tad wordy every now and then; but then again - I admire his perceptiveness about cinema even if I may not agree with what he says all the time.

Another thing which comes through in these message boards is the inability of people to understand what criticism is supposed to be. Criticism, be it literary or film, is just as much an art is the art of movie-making and writing - it's not meant to be gospel truth. Fine arts is typically always a highly subjective matter and expecting one's taste to match another's consistently is treading a fine line. One of the most dim-witted retorts seen to movie criticism is - "So you didn't like it: let me see you come up with something better". It's a little disconcerting to realize that for the majority of people who pan a movie or love it - the realization that critical appreciation or the reverse of a work of art necessarily require excellence in that field.

Staying on the subject of rediff message boards, another comment which is seen ad nauseum is "It's only a movie. It should be entertaining, it shouldn't be taken too seriously.". Most frequently, such messages are seen on boards of unadulterated crap like 'Rab ne bana di jodi' or 'Billu'. Something which never makes sense to me is why we have this demarcation between art-house entertainment (which is supposed to translate to 'good cinema'), and commercial ventures (which is supposed to refer to masala fare - the paisa vasool (returns proportionate to investment) kind - the kind that makes you come out either with tears streaming down your cheeks, or your face in a happy grin). A losing debate is quickly rescued with an argument which conveniently places the movie in the second 'masala' category - automatically absolving it all of its pitfalls and failures. What's disturbing is this attitude is not an isolated phenomenon, and rarely does this show any correlation to literacy. Take the example of 'Delhi 6' - I have talked about this film before, and one of my issues with this film was the compartmentalization it performs on the viewer's intelligence. People who liked this film will invariably defend the preachiness of the movie with the argument that a film needs to cater to the least common denominator to be successful at the box-office. For me the film failed at that precise moment - the moment Junior Bachhan opened his mouth to explain to the viewers how there's a kala bandar inside all of us (which probably explains why such films get made in the first place).

Music - for me - is tougher to review. Being a musician, something which irks me to no end is belittling one composer to support the cause of another. I personally am a big fan of both A R Rahman and Salil Chowdhury - both geniuses in their own era, and it was amusing and a little painful to see meaningless arguments on the 'Salil Chowdhury' forum comparing the two doyens. Such comparisons (perhaps inevitable) have become common ever since Rahman's double victory at the Oscars. While I do believe that Slumdog Millionaire is not Rahman's best work, using it as a leveller to dismiss the rest of Rahman's fabulous output over the years is nothing less than stupidity. Sample this argument - "Rahman's songs are based on rhythm rather than melody. He seems confused and a mixture of everything. Hence his are khichadi** songs". Note the general condescending tone which runs through the entire comment of this user. He is plainly ignorant about music, since he clearly believes that rhythm and melody are separate entities, and while making a fetching display of his ignorance, reaches a triumphant conclusion that Rahman's music is khichadi**. This phenomenon can also be found on display on various Illayaraja message boards where die hard Raja fans dismiss Rahman's work as monotonous peppered with frequent mention of the fact that Raja is the only Indian to have written a symphony. Frankly, I appreciate Illayaraja's music as much as I appreciate Rahman's, and for that matter - I love Salil-da's music to bits - as I have mentioned previously in this blog - but for the life of me - I cannot understand why one should belittle one composer to raise another's stature. For every group of people that loves Rahman's music, there will be another (possibly smaller one) which will be actively denigrating it. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that Indians (and this is not meant to be an offensive generalization) haven't been exposed to world music the way the rest of the world has. While you have musicians in the US mixing jazz with African music in a fascinating cocktail, Indian musicians haven't paid much attention to the fine art of fusion. Rock, while it's popular in college circuits - is most frequently appreciated just for the sake of fitting and jazz is discarded as being too pseudo-intellectual to appeal to the common man. Indian music (and here I am referring to the output from the most-widely listened-to film music) is most often an ill-conceived mish mash of ideas borrowed from various corners of the world, frequently with no acknowledgment of the original source (yes, plagiarism has existed in a big way right from the 50s); and the audience has been fed on this diet of pulp. Rahman's greatness lies in the effortless way in which he fuses every possible genre into an Indian form - be it grunge, hip-hop, jazz or good-old Western Classical. And he does it mind-bendingly well! Comparing his output to that of other stalwarts isn't doing the man justice!

And Bio - I must apologize that I haven't managed to make a definite comment on politics - this week has not been particularly conducive to putting my thoughts together.

Till the next time...

** khichadi: gruel of rice and lentils

Nothing in particular

So DST kicked in and robbed me of an hour's sleep.

And despite predictions of heavy rain, it stayed uniformly gloomy throughout, making this a particularly dull Sunday. Makes me ponder on one of life's quandaries as described in Seinfeld: Sunday has a feel, Monday has a feel, Thursday has a feel - but Tuesday has no feel.

The loves of Dev

When I updated my facebook status to "watched DevD. Impressed.", Nightwatchmen felt that I probably wasn't as excited after the movie as he was when he left the theater. To put the record straight, I decided to write this, not a review - a collection of thoughts; there are too many reviews of this film on the web already - and to be perfectly honest - I don't believe I could add much to that.

The story of Devdas is one of those forlorn epics of Indian cinema, the story of the rich spoilt foreign-returned brat who doubles up as a loser and subsequently drinks himself to death for love. Anurag Kashyap takes this story and turns it on its head, relocating the spoilt brat from the zamindar family in Bengal several eons ago, to a strappy lad returning from London to the ganne-ke-kheth of Punjab. In this case the brat likes Coke (with Vodka), and also practices abuse of several soft and hard drugs. For me, the movie was defined in one of its very first epochal moments - Dev slobbering over Paro's raunchy photos, and exclaiming 'Main aa raha hoon', instead of its innuendo laden English counterpart.

There are certain movies which don't have complex plot-lines but redeem themselves through dialogue, cinematography and screenplay. DevD as a film has all of them. The camerawork is particularly arresting; the director loves his colors and uses them liberally - the usage exemplifying the claustrophobic nature of the second half. The dialogue is minimal but intelligent, not intent in hammering the point home. I believe several people have been put off by the constant forays the camera makes into Dev's mind after his decadent downward spiral commences; I thought it was done brilliantly, mirroring the stoned state of an addict with a great deal of honesty. Influences of Danny Boyle's technique are evident in each of the scenes where Dev stones like there's no tomorrow.

Any mention of this film is incomplete without the blistering soundtrack - which drives the narrative forward - instead of hindering it. Amit Trivedi's compositions brilliantly gel with the film's structure, earthy in parts - intensely psychedelic in others. There is little pretense in his compositions and his vocal rendering and that is extremely refreshing to hear. It was such a relief to hear a decent rock number come out of Bollywood in the form of Bony Chakravarty's rendition of Emotional Atyachar, considering the pussyfooted apporach which Hindi films have taken to exploring this genre in general. Amit Trivedi has played around with several genres in the film, for me the best compositions in this film would be 'Dhol Yaara Dhol', 'Nayan Tarse' and both the Dev Chanda themes which run throughout the film. Dhol Yaara Dhol is a fascinating composition, very layered, never moving out of the frame. 'Nayan Tarse' is yet another intensely melancholic composition, and became a favorite after I observed how beautifully it was woven into the narrative. The Dev Chanda themes - well - they just prove that you don't need a hundred violins screeching in the background in a diminished chord formation to really add color to a scene. A lingering bass riff and a whistle will do just fine.

I thought Anurag captured the lanes of Paharganj very nicely. The neon lights, the shady hotels, the 'eager-beaver' who has been tested for HIV and who can't wait, the underground bars with the dancers. I loved the first dance where Dev first gets stoned with Chunni to the tune of 'Pardesi'; I thought Dev's time in the underground bars and the whorehouse were the best parts of the film where his decadence (or was it the proverbial mirror to the decadence of society in general) truly came to the forefront.

There are many more vignettes which have stand out well after the end credits roll. The absolutely hilarious moment when Abhay teaches his conservative co-passenger a lesson after having been subject to a needlessly long discourse on the evil young men with depleted morals cause by riding public transport in an inebriated state, is a one-in-a-million scene. Lenny stating matter-of-factly: 'The entire country got off on it, and they call me a slut'. The 'dilli mein billi' dialogue. Dev's interaction with Paro when she comes over to clean his pigsty of a room - Dev is shamelessly apologetic - Paro coolly distant, listening to his apologies, but never responding with the kind of response Dev is looking for. Dev telling Chanda - 'But you know I love you too, Chanda'. Dev asking his cab-driver - 'Do you drink?', and he replying - 'Like a fish'. Priceless!

These are just a few of the scenes which made watching this movie so worth the wait. A word must go out to each of the performances. Each performance had its merits and although Chanda's accent did grate a few times at the outset, it gradually did endear itself to me. Abhay Deol is turning out to be quite the actor, and Mahi Gill was fabulous as Paro; when they fought - it was easy to see that it was their egos fighting a battle that both would eventually lose. Chunni's role could have been built upon and it wasn't clear what purpose he served in the film; but well, those are but minor quibbles in a pretty polished film - with carefully etched characters.

So is DevD a good film? Yes. A great film? Possibly. A definitive film? Too many questions :-)

Some movies - and reflections...

Returning to the blog-world after a somewhat longer hiatus than is normal - multitude of thoughts – and no specific order to put them in. So here are some of them…

Slumdog Millionaire sweeps the Oscars, or as Raja Sen of Rediff puts it – ‘India conquers the Oscars’. In some sense, it’s perhaps right – as we went from a cumulative count of two to five in the space of a night. That’s no mean feat. The movie has its merits: a gripping pace, impressive screenplay and no shortage of ideas. Sadly, it was poverty porn – and that’s where the film went from being a good movie to merely a mediocre attempt at purportedly realistic cinema. Danny Boyle got all the ingredients together for an Oscar favorite: the underdog, the insurmountable obstacles, the developing country with its idiosyncrasies, quaint and exotic – luxuriously conforming to the average American movie-goer's mental image of India. With each passing moment, with each story in Jamal’s life, we are treated to an overdose of grotesqueness, so unrealistic as to be perfectly laughable. Add his accented English to the list and you have a party! To quote one of my friends – it was an underwhelming experience. For me the high point of the movie was Rahman’s music (though I firmly believe he has delivered and composed way better in the past and I am sure will in the future): a sumptuous score to rival the best in the world – deceptively simple, original and instantly endearing.

DevD is being touted as the Indian psychedelic equivalent of The Wall. I can’t wait to see it – I wish Anurag Kashyap would release the DVD soon – with only 4 prints in circulation in the United States – it’s darn hard to find a theater screening it – at least in the somewhat respectable localities from where I can return home unscathed. For the people who have seen it and have enjoyed it and are just dying to reveal its plot to me – here’s your chance, and if you want to gloat – feel free!

I really enjoyed Luck By Chance. Zoya Akhtar feels like a very sensitive director. It was a pleasure to sit through a movie which portrays people in refreshing shades of gray (in contrast to the black and white which we are so used to Bollywood dishing out with amazing consistency). It was fun to observe characters depicted as unashamedly selfish, as genuinely hopeful. Rishi Kapoor as the producer confused that a script could be treated as property was extremely endearing, and I loved the scene in which Nikki seduces her co-star. Konkona was brilliant as usual and her expression as she realizes the reality of the casting couch and silently accepts the fact is out of the world. I still can’t decide whether I liked or hated the impossibly stupid song in the film within the film – but there is absolutely no doubt that this movie had the most amazing opening credits I have seen in any Hindi film in a long time.

In contrast, Delhi 6 was excruciating torture – unadulterated pain. The film starts off well with its quirky characters and impressive vignettes of life in Delhi 110006 but quickly degenerates into preachy farce. Sonam Kapoor pulls off a composed performance and methinks her smile is quite the seductress. Abhishek Bachhan alternates between two expressions in the film, has a fake American accent and decides that India ‘works’ with no logical explanation or premise. Divya Dutta is fantastic, and the one place where I smiled was where she gives the hypothetical Kala-bandar’s lock of hair to the local simpleton Gober. I also enjoyed Om Puri’s expressions as he discussed dowry with the Lala. Sadly, such moments were fleeting and very few – with the result that the movie remained a confusing albeit colorful mixture of well-caricatured clichés and pretentious imagery. In one of the most ludicrous climaxes I have seen in a long time - the movie degenerates terribly as it closes, comfortably equating its audience to bunch of zealous sixth graders with an average IQ of eighty attending a class on national integration.

The fail blog

This has to be one of the funniest things on the internet:


After a long time, I decided it’s time to start contributing to my blog which has been left untouched for some time now. Partly, this is because staying alone in the US can be infinitely boring; and although New York City is much better than most other cities in this country, I realized it could be a trifle too expensive if I tried living life the way I used to in Bombay during the early days in the industry…

I have done something amazing – something I could never have imagined I would do: quit smoking. It was a horrible time, the three weeks after I had my last smoke; but I managed. Yay! I now can talk to fellow-smokers in a condescending tone and tell them how much better it feels not to hold that stick in my hand.

I have started doing a lot of in-house recordings. Maybe it’s because I miss the late-night sessions with Bodhi at my place in Bangalore. The trained reader would have guessed by now that I have left Bangalore and am presently located near the Big Apple. Those were good times – exploring strange, sometimes even quirky, genres of music and cinema; times when we started experimenting in a small way with jazz and learnt to amaze at its immensity. All my recordings are in my folder on esnips.

I have a strange passion now – experimenting with new varieties of beer. Samuel Adams Boston Lager is a good drink. I somehow haven’t been able to take any liking to Jack n Coke.

I also have a new keyboard, a Yamaha YPG 235, one of the portable grand series of Yamaha. The keys have a good feel, partly because they are partially weighted, and partly because the thing’s brand new. The sound’s pretty good – maybe not concert standard – but I especially like the sharp zing the higher notes have when I hit the keys really hard. It also sounds awfully good when I plug it in to my speakers.

I have mixed feelings about leaving Bangalore. Certain things happened in the last month which I guess more communication would have avoided. It certainly did not make my last days in the city any easier – I wanted to be able to say the city had given me a lot – but unlike Mumbai which always feels closer to my heart (there are multiple reasons for this), Bangalore never made the cut.

Aru is happily married and stays in the next building – so quite a few evenings pass in recollections of the Mumbai days – rollicking times spent with the old gang of Sunil, Prantik, Saunak, and of course Aru. This dude just sent me a scandalous reminder of the way we whiled away time in Mumbai at the den – I have been toying with the idea of uploading them to the blog: I am just not sure and comfortable about the reactions I may get when multiple views of the video happen.

* den = A 1101, Sun Srishti, Saki-Vihar Road, Powai

Yuck again...

Heard on the Bollywood grapevine: SLB (Sanjay Leela Bhansali for the uninitiated), is planning to make his own version of the Ray classic, Charulata. Coming on the heels of a strikingly pseudo-intellectual and supposedly profound comment which goes on the lines of "Even in Pather Panchali, the realism is only an illusion...", it makes me wonder at the pretentiousness of the Bollywood crop.

At one point of time, I used to wish that this guy would go and make a movie which would make me change my mind about him. Khamoshi was a "watchable" movie, period. Ever since that, he has never failed to impress me with the way he manages to make a mess of every single movie he touches. With Saawariya, he has laid an egg, and although there will be starry-eyed lovers who will fall for the blue (again???) sets, and histrionics more suited to a middle-school adaptation of White Nights, there's nothing much going for this guy now.

Sincere advice: Leave the classics alone. That includes both Pather Panchali and Charulata. And even if you are dying to make a comment on them, at least make an educated one...