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 :-)