Dabangg: Zabardast hai!

September 19, 2010

During my college days at BHU, Varanasi, in the 80’s, these little ads for movies in the local Hindi dailies would exhort us to see a particular movie by exclaiming, “Maar-dhaad, naach-gaaney aur romance sey bharpoor, mahaan samaajik chalchitra. Poorey parivar key saath dekhein!” Dabangg harks back to the same era and I could repeat the slogan for this movie as well.

Hurrah, the return of old-time Bollywood! Dabangg has neither the Mumbai underworld nor the nattily-dressed NRI Vicky Malhotra (of Karan Johar fame). It is set in small-town Uttar Pradesh of today and has an endearingly- named chief protagonist, Chulbul Pandey. You know you are in for a rollicking time the moment Salman Khan, playing the role of police officer Chulbul Pandey, makes his entry. Kya entry hai boss! Salman breaks into the den of the baddies and proceeds to smash them to pulp, and in what style! He hoses them clean to star with and then announces, “Abhi to nahlaya hai, ab dhulai karoonga!” And what dhulai he does starting from those amazing tricks with the hose-pipe and then the good old fisticuffs. Then follows the classic scene where all the participants in this scrum are sliding around the floor thanks to the spillage of a copious amount of oil. Even during this rather hectic maar-peet, Salman breaks into a jig, dancing to the caller tune of the mobile of someone he was mauling just a moment ago!

And it is Salman all the way after that. Salman fighting, Salman singing-and- dancing, Salman romancing, Salman delivering one-liners. The crowd in the multiplex where I saw the movie this morning was going berserk.

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Chulbul grows up with his stepbrother Makkhi (Arbaaz Khan) as his mother (Dimple Kapadia) marries Prajapati Pandey (Vinod Khanna) on the death of her husband. Chulbul thinks his stepdad is always unkind to him and hence he hates him, and Makkhi too. (But he does adore his mother.) They have an uneasy coexistence till Chulbul moves out of Prajapati Pandey’s house after his mother passes away (suffocated to death by the chief villain, we are told towards the end of the movie).

The chief villain, Chhedi Singh (Sonu Sood) is an aspiring politician who goes to despicable lengths to further his political ambitions. He manipulates into Makkhi doing his dirty jobs. Like, for example, delivering a bomb in a crateload of mangoes to his mentor in politics so that he (Chhedi) could get the party nomination for the forthcoming elections. But Chhedi is ultimately bested by our Chulbul Pandey in the climax, full of blood and gore. And a bare-chested Salman!

Chulbul is not only brawn and machismo, there is a romantic side to him as well. He falls for Rajjo (debutante Sonakshi Sinha) and convinces her to marry him. While she has a substantial role, the script writers, in a master-stroke, have written virtually no lines for her. What an introduction for Shatrughan Sinha’s daughter! The Shotgun who stood out in his movies by his loud acting and even louder dialogue delivery! Sonakshi manages to convey her emotions with her eyes and her body language. She has done a terrific job and her’s must rank as one of the most impressive Bollywood debuts in recent times.

There are cameos by veterans like Anupam Kher, Om Puri, Mahesh Manjarekar and Tinnu Anand. And an item number by Malaika Arora- but naturally- as it is her home production.

One word for the director, Abhinav Kashyap. Terrific! The way his brother Anurag Kashyap has blazed a new trail with Dev D and Gulaal, Abhinav too will go places in Bollywood. It takes a smart director to take the routine masala and whip up a lovely meal that is Dabangg.

The strength of the movie is that it does not pretend being “meaningful” cinema. It knows it has just one job on hand, and the job is to entertain. And does it entertain!! It holds you enthralled. All two hours plus of it!

Go watch it! Poore parivar key saath dekhein! Remember to smuggle-in a bagful of unshelled groundnuts. And enjoy scattering the shells on the floor as you munch along watching the dhishoom-dhishoom. Just as we used to in the earlier era. The dainty- and prohibitively priced- multiplex popcorns won’t do for Dabangg, you have to hear the crack of the shell collapsing between your jaws as you extricate the nuts from within.

Bollywood! Zindabad!!


Raavan: An Epic Disaster

June 20, 2010

I have been a big fan of Mani Ratnam. I have religiously watched each of his Hindi movies in the first weekend of its release. Right from his first Roja, then Bombay, Dil Se, Yuva, Guru and now Raavan. I have even watched his Tamil classic Nayagan in Chennai. I had some Tamil-speaking friends with me who translated the key dialogues. Not that understanding the dialogues was important, Mani Ratnam’s films have always been lavishly mounted, visually rich and moreover, he is a great story-teller.

So it was with great expectations I acompanied my family to see Raavan. To say I was disappointed will not be accurate, there was a huge feeling of being let-down by someone who has given good cinema. Let me tell you why.

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The story is based on Ramayan, Abhishek being Raavan and Aishwarya being Sita. There is a Ram too, Vikram, but more about him later. The film starts with Sita- haran which is stylistically done on a river, Raavan capsizes the boat Sita is travelling in and captures her. The kidnapped Sita tries to jump off the cliff and is saved as a tree breaks her fall. And then nothing happens. Save for some crazy gesticulations of Raavan, and some inane flashbacks of Sita’s past with Ram. Hanuman (Govinda, who else!!) is also introduced. He is the guide to Ram (the local Superintendent of Police) and his army out to rescue Sita and vanquish Raavan. So that is the first half.

The second half sees more of inane action. One can see the incipient romance between Raavan and Sita. One is also told about the wrong Raavan trying to avenge. The denoument is reached when Ram and Raavan meet in a dramatically-shot clash on a wooden bridge across two cliffs. Raavan has the chance to kill Ram, but he spares him for the sake of Sita. He also lets Ram return and take her away. In the return journey home Ram questions Sita’s fidelity. He wants her to take a polygraph test (Mani Ratnam’s version of agni-pariksha). Sita would have none of this nonsense and she walks out on Ram and, horror of horrors, takes a bus journey back to her captor! Ram returns, back with his army, searching for Raavan. Sita tries to protect Raavan, she even provides a human shield to him. But eventually Ram manages to shoot down Raavan. There is this slow-motion shot where Raavan is falling after being shot and Sita is desparately trying to hold his hand! And then Raavan plunges down into his watery grave.

That’s it!

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The problems with the movie are many. To start with the entire movie is stagnant. It just does not seem to move. The characterization is weak, in fact it is not there at all. To start with, why is Raavan the way he is? What is the type of relationship between Ram and Sita? Sita considers him to be God (Ram is even named Dev in the movie!) they are shown in the flashback having some romantic moments. How come Ram suspects the her fidelity? Just because this is mentioned in some versions of the Ramayana does not give the director the license to do so.

The story of Ram is one which every Indian (especially North Indian) has grown up with. For him (or her) it is plain and simple. Ram is good, Raavan is bad, and Sita is virtuous. And this is inviolate. Unless there is extremely strong evidence to the contrary. Mani Ratnam seems to have forgotten this and paints Ram as a villain, Raavan as a semi-hero and Sita is dangling between her love for her captor and the role she has to play as a traditional Hindu wife to Ram. And that to me seems to me the major problem with the movie, Mani Ratnam has not internalized the Indian ethos.

One could go on and on and skewer the movie even more. But what is the point, the damage has been done, both to Mani Ratnam’s depleting reputation and to my pocket!

Mani Ratnam could have done well to make his film a psycho-drama on Stockholm Syndrome, the kidnapped woman having positive vibes for her captor. It had all the ingredients for this, right from the very start. But unfortunately, he lost his way in the mayhem the movie is.

Abhishek Bachchan is a non-actor, we all know it, but what we did not know is the extent to which he could ham. But why blame AB Jr., poor chap, that is how the director conceived his role. Aishwarya looks pretty. Even her injuries are designed to  make her look like Miss World. Vikram maybe a super star in South, but in this movie he is a one-dimensional cardboard character with the same frown on his moustachioed face through the movie. The actors who shine through are Ravi Kissen (Raavan’s henchman) and Priyamani (Raavan’s sister who got gang-raped in the police lock-up on the day she should have been having her suhag-raat).

The one redeeming feature of the film is the breathtaking photography by Santosh Sivan. Kerala has never been photographed so well. The sweep of his camera takes us to the hills and valleys of this lovely state and also captures the rivulets and backwaters which flow through it. And those lovely Kerala monsoons!

I am reasonable sure that this movie will get pulled out of theaters within the week, and the people who have invested in the movie are bound to lose tons of money in this extravagant- but ill-conceived – venture. I have a suggestion for them, maybe they can sell this to the guys behind the immensely successful marketing campaigns selling India as a tourist destination (“Incredible India”) or, even better, to those marketing Kerala (“God’s own country”)

PS 1: On the way back, we had a bunch of distraught travelers (my family) on the way home. I tried to cheer my wife and even amuse the children by offering to buy her a ticket to a repeat show of Raavan in case her fish curry was not good. She was not amused.

PS 2: The fish curry was infinitely better than the movie, I can assure you that!


“The Three Idiots” and I

January 17, 2010

The Making of an “Idiot”:

I have kept away from the reviews of “3 idiots” as I always do when I plan to see a particular movie; it has been a few weeks since the movie was released. While I could keep myself off the printed reviews, I could not prevent my friends’ and colleagues’ impromptu reviews and the masses of unsolicited emails. Not to mention the recaps of the movie from my sons whose friends had seen the movie in the very first weekend while the family kept away from it as son-the-elder was writing his 10th pre-boards and we decided to abstain from movies in that period. (Now, having seen the movie, I think I was championing the very system the film was trying to denounce). May be I should have allowed my elder son to keep practicing on his fledgling guitar knowledge or his general mastery in computer games instead of focusing on academics.

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I have been a product of a system very similar to that of Imperial College of Engineering, the Institute of technology of Banaras Hindu University (IT-BHU, Varanasi). Not one of the IITs, but it was then one of the only two colleges outside the (then) five IITs which admitted students based on the much awe-inspiring JEE, the great IIT Joint Entrance Exam.

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Those days, for a reasonably bright student in a middle-class family, there were just two options for further studies, engineering or medicine. Arts and commerce were not in consideration. Commerce, maybe, if you were from a business family or a family of Cost Accountants and Chartered Accountants. Arts was the last resort for all, though your parents would conceal their general disappointment by telling all those who would care to listen that their child was aiming for the IAS- that Holy Grail for the middle-class families. The large majority could at best hope to become a probationary officer in a scheduled bank. Most landed up learning typing/ stenography and hoping to become a clerk somewhere. Courses like Computer Applications (BCA, MCA), Journalism, Hospitality, Aviation et al just did not exist!

Coming now to selection of engineering versus medicine: it was mostly a negative choice; if you did not like- or did not do well in- Maths, you were destined to pursue medical entrance. Likewise, lack of fondness for Biology made you pursue the engineering stream if you were otherwise a bright chap.

However, like Madhavan who wanted to be a wild-life photographer, I had these romantic notions of being a journalist. My father, a college professor, on realizing that I doth protest too much, plotted with my elder brother and sat me down for some “advice”. They convinced me into pursuing preparations for the engineering stream. They remarked that to be a successful in life- even as a journalist- I needed to have intelligence. That was a motherhood statement, I had to agree. If one exam does prove relative intelligence, they continued, it is the JEE. That kind of sealed my “fate”, as it were. If thought I was intelligent I needed to prove to my family and the world at large, that I indeed was brainy. That made sense to me and I decided to take a shy at the much-feared JEE.

Pitaji was a Hindi professor and he had no idea about matters-science. But he knew a trick-or-two about education. He consulted his colleagues in the sciences departments of his college and was advised that whatever I may want to pursue in life, excellence in mathematics was essential. “Santosh”, they advised, “needs to be a year ahead of his class in math.” So, off I was, attending tuition classes in trigonometry while my friends were struggling with algebra. I was learning Calculus while my classmates were learning the rudiments of sin squared+ cos squared= 1. I hated all this. I even bunked a few of these classes to see the latest film releases.

With some hard work and lots of luck, I did pass the JEE. Never mind the rank. I had the consolation of being in the “exalted” list of something like 2000 qualifiers from among 1.5 lakh applicants. I do not know the stats now, the number of applicants has increased manifolds since, and so has the number of IIT seats as there are many more IITs now. The ratio remains somewhat unchanged even now.

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The Myth of Rancho, the Great:

I have a fundamental problem with the character of Rancho. I do not agree with the premise that a Rancho can be a comfortable topper without investing time and effort in academics. Sure, Rancho has a thing for machines and can tear them apart and fix them back. Sure he can get the aeroplane-like contraption to fly. But topping the class? I have my doubts. The bindaas Ranchos I have seen during my five years of engineering were at their  best middling in academics or often at the bottom of the class. A true engineer is more than someone who can repair machines, there is a lot more to engineering than just fixing nuts and bolts in the right places. You are not training at the local polytechnic to be a mere mechanic.

(I have one more crib with Rancho, he had the IQ of Einstein- or maybe more- and also was a great friend. He should have realized that his two room-mates did not have matching IQs and should have advised them to pack-in some studies instead of indulging in sundry extra-curricular activities all the time.)

The guys in my Institute who really did well academically were a mix of fun and studies. Of the two toppers in my class, one was into movies of all types while the other was a solidly-built football half-back. The rival teams dreaded him! Sure they studied, but not at the expense of fun. The film guy, by the way, is now a global nano-material scientist with tons of papers published in the coveted journal “Nature”. But in no way I can describe him as a uni-dimensional character, a nerd. The topper in the batch senior to ours was an ace drummer and the Institute cricket captain. And he too studied hard.

Of course, there were enough Chatur’s lurking around, but I cannot remember anyone of these ever making it to the top of the class. Rare was a nerd who topped. To that extent I agree with the portrayal of the character.

The fact remains that the Institute was a great place to gain knowledge and meet and make friends with some supremely talented folks. Music, theater, sports, arcane hobbies; the range on display was breath-taking. A few did kind of drift-off and lose all sense of perspective (I have known seniors who spent 7-8 years to get their 5-year engineering degree.) But most students were intelligent folks who managed to mix work and fun. After all, these were some of the brightest students of their times who occasionally indulged their sundry other interests with like-minded folks.

Like I mentioned earlier, I had no great interest in engineering but having qualified for studying at the Institute I made sure my grades were reasonably healthy through those five years. I may not have been in the top quartile, but what-the-hell, I had my share of fun. Directing plays, editing the campus magazine for a couple of years, picking up cryptic crosswords and going on- what some considered crazy- a 800 km cycle trip from Varanasi to Delhi. I never aspired to top the class, not that aspiring would have helped given the general IQ levels floating around. But I had my fun and passed out much richer in terms of skills learnt, friends made, and generally knowing a little bit more about what all a human can do. And by the way, my CGPA was Ok and I had a coveted campus job as well in the bag when I graduated. It is another matter than I was fortunate enough not to take up the job.

But that is another story!


My Favourite Music of 2009: Gulaal & Kaminey

December 30, 2009

This last post of the year is about two Hindi film albums released this year which I have enjoyed the most. “Gulaal” and “Kaminey”. The piece which follows is my take on these two albums and the reasons why I like them. If you read my blog you would know that I very rarely review music CDs or movies here. But I thought I must let you know about the music which has really excited me in 2009.

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The contrasts could not have been starker.

One album is raw, unfinished, just like the movie. The other a gleaming, finished product complete with orchestral arrangements and great sound engineering. The former is rooted in the beats, tunes and silences of the Hindi heartland, the other revels (well, almost) in the pulsating beats of the metropolis of Mumbai.

A hitherto unknown music director versus someone who has unveiled the beauty of his craft in his earlier ventures too. A relatively unknown lyricist against an established doyen of Hindi film lyrics, and indeed, Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani poetry with published anthologies of his own.

The differences end here.

Both the albums break the stereotype of Hindi film music. Both have music which has not been heard before. The lyrics are a syncretic fusion of Hindi and Urdu (with some Sanskrit and Urdu/Arabic thrown in as well). Sheer poetry, nevertheless. Both use relatively lesser known singers And both these musicians create magic.

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Gulaal:

I knew of Piyush Mishra as a lyricist. The movie Black Friday is one example. But this effort of his straddles multiple facets; lyrics, music and voice. With verve, panache, a deep understanding of the “hinterland” psyche, and a supreme command over language. (And, as an aside, he has a fairly major on-screen role as well in this film.)

There is this famously famous mujra number “Ranaji” with references to global current affairs, seemingly flippant mentions of post-war Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11?

Or the soulful number “Aisi hawa” which speaks of unspeakable sadness and longing. Sample this:

Aisi sazaa deti hawaa, tanhaai bhi tanha nahi

Neendein bhi ab soney gayeen, raaton ko bhi parwaah nahi.

Just some disjointed strums of a guitar, and some thunder and lightning, that is what accompanies Shilpa Rao as she explores the depths of desolation.

Can you visualize the punishing breeze, the desertion of solitude and slumber and the unrelenting nights?

Or would you rather prefer the other mujra? “Beedo” which talks about iliicit love? “Beedo doojey thali ka, lagey bada majedaar…”. The distinctive voice of Rekha Bharadwaj who seems to be enjoying herself completely.

Or would rather immerse yourself in the sheer poetry of “Duniya”? Piyush Mishra strong vocals accompanied by table playing the basic dadra matra as he sings about the hopelessness of it all.

“O, ri Duniya!

Surmayi aankhon ke pyaalon ki duniya,
Satrangi rangon gulaalon ki duniya,..o duniya!”

Duniya” is unabashedly based on the classic “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai.” In fact it is a tribute to the shayars of yore.

Ghalib ke, Momin ke, khwaabon ki duniya
Majaazon ke un inqualaabon ki duniya
Faiz, Firaaq aur Saahir o Makhdoom
Mir ki, Zauk ki, Daagh ki duniya

The vigorous “Aarambh” is all vim and vigour with a supremely energetic- in fact warlike- feel to it while the doleful and brooding “Musafir” with just a guitar for accompaniment is sad, very sad.

Sheher”, a duet featuring Piyush Mishra and Swanand Kirkire is all about impending sense of danger, doom, and the utter futility. Sample some words:

“Kahin pe wo jooton ki khatkhat hai

Kahin pe alaavon ki chatpat hai
Kahin pe hai jhingoor ki aawaazein
Kahin pe wo nalke ki taptap hai
Kahin pe wo kaali si khidki hai
Kahin wo andheri si chimni hai
Kahin hilte pedon ka jattha hai
Kahin kuch munderon pe rakha hai”

A chill runs down your spine when the words “Kahin pe wo nalke ki taptap hai” come on. It is as if the tap is dripping ice-cold water on you naked back past midnight in the middle of the killer Rajasthan winter.

Thanks you Piyush Mishra for the lyrics, music and your singing. Thank you Rekha Bharadwaj for you two mujra pieces and thank you Anurag Kashyap to continue being the non-conformist you have always been. Ever since Black Friday and the quirky music of Dev D (“Emosanal Atyachar”) I have expected a lot from you movies and the music of your movies.

On a personal note, let me confess that I searched far-and-wide for a CD of Gulaal, but of no avail. And I was forced to, for the first time, to search the net for a download. This is what I listened to for months till the Gulaal CD was formally released which I bought with alacrity.

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Kaminey:

The polished and sophisticated track of Kaminey is a confluence of magicians.

The ever popular lyricist Gulzaar who weaves common Hindi words into a web of magic. Remember his earliest song: Bandini’s “Mora gora ang lai ley, mohe shyam rang dayi dey” to “Aa, ee, aa gayi chitthi” from the film Kitaab which he directed himself, to the soulful Asha Bhosle number “Mera kuchh saaman pada hai” to the recent “Beedi” from Omkaara. He does not let you down, one bit, in Kaminey. He transforms common day-to-day Hindi speak to sheer poetry, as only he can.

Vishal Bharadwaj began his Hindi cinema career as a composer with his big break in his mentor’s film, “Maachis”. Remember the hypnotic “Chappa, chappa, charkha chaley? He then went on to direct films which cut across several genres: His first film was “Makdi” for kids, then took a “U”-turn to do a couple of utterly Indian- and honest- adaptations of Shakespeare: Maqbool (based on Macbeth), Omkaara (Othello-based). Both were liked immensely by the average movie-goer and the critics. He also scored the music for these films. Soon after Omkaar followed a kid’s movie “The Blue Umbrella” based on a Ruskin Bond story. Kaminey is the latest offering from Vishal B., a complete departure from what he has done before. A film with the gritty and fast-paced feel of a Quentin Tarantino movie (Kill Bill I and II, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). Q.T., by the way, is a favourite director of mine.

The singer-duo of Kailash Kher and Sukhwinder Singh need no introduction. Kher’s dominating songs with a sufi feel to it, (remember “Allah ke Bande”?) while Sukhwinder had a big hand in spreading the popularity of the venerable A R Rahman in the Hindi heartland with his music in hits like “Taal”. Yes, he was the lead singer of the Oscar winner “Jai ho”.

The zingy “Dhan te Tan” was the first off the block on the popularity charts. The pre-release publicity of the movie even mentioned that this was one of the rare Hindi film songs to be played at the famed night club “Ministry of Sound” in London. I am not sure about that but I would not be surprised. The electrifying energy of the song would get any lay person to shake his leg or two. Never mind if he or she does not understand the magical lyrics of Gulzar:

“koyi chaal aisi chalo yaar ab ke,

samundar bhi pul pe chale.

phir tu chale uspey ya main chaloon,

shehar ho apane pairo tale.”

The only injustice to this number is the way it is written in English, “Dhan te tan”. Dhan-te-tan is essentially a sound which you use to preface your narration of a suspenseful piece of the story you are narrating. If you are an Indian you would know how you would actually pronounce it, that dhan-ta-dhan sound (impossible to write in English!). I wonder why this common sound was never employed in a song before!

Yes, and one more thing about this number. It is the way in which Vishal B. quirkily weaves in a completely unrelated string of words, probably in the Western UP dialect of Hindi (VB’s roots are in Meerut). I have been unable to catch the words clearly, but this little linguistic cameo adds to the charm of the song.

Talking about sounds, how about “Phataak”? That’s actually the name of another peppy number! Don’t you wonder again as why this very common sound-word has never been used before? The sharp, biting sound of phataak punctuating the voice of Sukhwinder Singh and Kailash Kher who sing about AIDS prevention, of all the things! And as only a Vishal B.+ Gulzar combo could do it, this song climaxes into a soulful, near saintly,

yeh ishq nahi aasaan, aji yeh isaka khatara hai

o patvaar pehan jaana, yeh aag ka dariya hai

ke naiyya dubey na, re bhawaraa kaate na

How about the utterly naughty “raat ke dhai baje”? The one which has gems like “ishq mein jaltey huye, saans tejaabi lage” and “ek hi latt suljhaaney mein, saari raat gujaari hai”. Coming back to the music director’s penchant for creating magic via mixing quirky, strange lyrics into a number,did you notice the western rap number inserted into this song?

And now for my favourite, the title song, “Kaminey”. Vishal Bhardawaj sings, that I knew. Gulzar writes well, we all know. But the confluence of these two gentlemen could create such magic out of the word “Kaminey”, I could never have guessed. To start with, Vishal B. was handed a set of words elegantly crafted by the maestro lyricist. Sample this:

kya kare, zindagi, isko hum jo mile,

iski jaan, kha gaye, raat din ke gile.

raat din gile.

meri aarzoo kamini, mere khwab bhi kaminey,

ik dil se dosti thi, ki hujur bhi kaminey.

The singer internalizes the angst inherent in the words and as the song progresses he carries it to the height of regret… and longing. A slow build-up leading to a heart-rending climax in the magical combination of words and voice:

“jiska bhi chehra chheela, andar se aur nikla.

Masoom saa kabootar, nacha toh mor nikla.

kabhi hum kaminey nikaley, kabhi doosarey kaminey.

kaminey, kaminey, kaminey, kaminey

meri dosti kamini, mere yaar bhi kaminey.

ik dil se dosti thi, ki hujur bhi kaminey.”

To my mind this one song alone is enough reason to possess this album.

By the way, I have not mentioned Mohit “Masakali” Chauhan’s “Pehli baar mohabbat ki hai”. It is good.

And the three remix versions of the numbers in the album, of which one is a sure winner. The pulsating “Go Charlie, go” which is a funky take on the word Kaminey. Furiously fast-paced, on-the-edge, it slows just for fractions of a second and then takes off again. A metaphor for life in Mumbai (the city in which the film is based)? Probably yes!


“Paa”- A Review

December 13, 2009

For those of you who read this blog this piece will come as a surprise as I do not write film reviews here. But I am compelled to write this after seeing the movie this morning as I would like to urge you to watch this movie, in a theatre of course.

“Paa” is about a young kid, thirteen years old, who is suffering from a rare genetic disorder, progeria. This disease which is extremely rare ages its victim six to seven times faster than the physical age. Like, if one is ten years old, one has the looks of someone who is sixty five years old and would have ailments like cardiac and respiratory problems, quite common to those of that age.

Add to that the complication of this kid being born out of wedlock. No father to oversee his growing-up phase. Luckily for the kid, he has his mother and grandmother to nurture him though they both know that the kid will die really premature; not surviving beyond fifteen years. That is what progeria does to its victim. This kid dies in his fourteenth year.

The mother is Vidya Balan, a gynaecologist with a mind of her own. The grandmother is Arundhati Nag who supports her daughter (Vidya Balan) in her decision to have her baby unquestioningly. And the father of the kid is Abhishek Bachchan, a young upcoming politician out to prove to the world that there is something called a “good” politician.

And the kid is the 68 year old, ex angry-young-man, Amitabh Bachchan.

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Watch the movie for those great acting performances. Vidya Balan nurturing a kid who she knows would die. With dignity and composure. Her mother, Arundhati Nag, the bulwark for her daughter to take on life at her own terms. And Abhishek Bachchan, the politician who wants to carve a niche for himself by proving to the world that politicians can be upright and honest too.

And the Big B, for acting as a kid as old as his grandson. Auro. This man keeps reinventing himself, with every passing year.  I have been a fan of Big B. Ever since his Reshma aur Shera days. Ek Nazar, Deewar, Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar right till Black. With this movie, he surpasses himself. Imagine a 68 year old man passing off as a 13 year old kid. Admirably. Complete with his scatological references (“bum”, “potty” etc.). His love for King Kong. Who he claims in a poignant sequence, King Long does not understand English, only Chinese. The graffiti on his bedroom door (“Knock, or I will knock your head off.”). The aversion to girls. Normal for his age. For a girl who he discovers in the end wants to say sorry to him for expressing her shock at seeing an “old man” at school.

Big B is BIG, even in this role as a pre-teen.

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If I have a crib about the movie, it is about the role of the small B, Abhishek Bachchan. He has done a great job but I wish those live TV sequences had more meaning- and meat- to them.

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With a story-line like that, I am amazed that the director steered the movie away from sentimentality, away from tear-jerkers. The focus ultimately is on the loving relationship between the mother and son, the mother and her mother and the grandmother and the grandson.

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For me, the hero of the movie is Vidya B. I have not seen her in too many movies but she straddles it like the proverbial Colossus. And that is some act given the presence of Amitabh B. The immense dignity she gives her role, from right when she discovers she is pregnant to when her lover refuses to marry her till her discovery that her son has an incurable disease is breath-taking.

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OK, now for the other reason why I write this post. This movie reminds me of my close friends, a couple battling with a similar life-threatening disease of their young child, now barely 9 years old. This disease is called Niemann-Pick disease which has so far been known to afflict only 500 kids worldwide. And as of information available now, the kid would die before he turns 17. The couple is grappling with this whole issue in such a dignified manner- and so valiantly.

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May God give them courage to bear this utterly terrible thing with strength.

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Go, watch the movie “Paa” with all you loved ones and celebrate life… and all its ironies.


Music of Jo Chaho Ujiyaar: Magic of Bhakti and Music

November 8, 2009

JCU Cover

Goswami Tulsidas has largely shaped the Hindu sensibilities of North India, if not of all Hindus. He was neither a guru, nor a sant, not even a preacher. He mingled with the masses. He wrote for the masses distilling the essence of Vedas and Upanishads in simple, common man’s language. His most popular work is Ramcharitmanas, the story of Ram. His other works are compiled in several books e.g. Vinay Patrika, Geetavali, Kavitavali. A copy of Ramcharitmanas is almost mandatory in a Hindi-speaking household. Tulsi’s writings are meant to be sung and they have indeed been so through the last four centuries throughout India and wherever the North Indian diaspora is; Mauritius, West Indies, Fiji and so on. They have also been made into commercial recordings, the famous one being Mukesh’ 5 CD set of Ramcharitmanas. D.V Paluskar, Kumar Gandharv, Bhimsen joshi, MS Subbulakshmi, Pt Jasraj, to name just a few of the illustrious line of singers , have sung Tulsidas’ works.

Another illustrious name in this series- though much younger than them- is Sanjeev Abhyankar. An exponent of the Mewati gharana and a disciple of Pt Jasraj.  Abhyankar underscored his talent pretty early in his career when he got the best playback singer award for his very first film song (in the movie “Godmother”) when he was barely 30 years old. His soft, melodious voice sometimes emerging depths of deep meditation and sometimes floating in the air weaving the listener in silken strands of melody has been enthralling listeners for the past few decades.

So, when Tulsidas and Sanjeev come together, the expectations are sky high.

And add to this heady mix, the famous director, poet, lyricist, Gulzar. What would you expect?

The rest of this piece is about the ensuing magic. Tulsidas is meant to be sung, I have mentioned this earlier. But I had not realized before I heard this compilation how musical- and magical- can musical be.

This album is a collection of the poet’s works taken from Ramcharitmanas, Vinay Patrika, Geetwali, Kavitavali etc. These were recorded for the play Jo Chaho Ujiyaar based on Tulsidas’ life, which was premiered recently. The music album has just been released by Times Music.

Gulzar’s introduction to Tulsidas kicks-off the CD. What follows is sheer bliss for the entire 72 minutes recording. It is a deeply researched work with selections popular and not-so-popular. Sure there is the ever-popular “Hanuman Chalisa”, but its vigorous rendition has perhaps been attempted for the first time. “Sri Ramchandra Kripalu Bhajuman” is there as well, and I have never heard a version suffused with so much bhakti, such utter surrender to Lord Ram. That stuti to Shiv, “Namami Shameeshan” is there too, but none has ever heard it similar to the two versions in this album. The serene one by Abhyankar and the vigorous- near violent- by an upcoming Lucknow based singer, Shobhit. Then there are those perennial favourite bhajans: “Tu dayalu deen hon”, and “Aiso ko udaar jag mahin”. Or this poignant piece when Ram’s mother laments his departure for vanwaas, “Ram, hon koun jatan”. And this mother’s lament sung in a male voice! See the play for the context.

There are other lesser known ones, mostly pieces from Ramcharitmanas which have been integrated into this selection. The title song, if I may call it thus, “Jo Chaho Ujiyaar”, embedded in the middle of the CD, plucked from the depths of Ramcharitmanas. In one of the initial songs, Mangal Karni, kalimal harni” Tulsidas talks about the importance of  Ram Katha in the welfare of people. And the one which comes towards the end of the CD (also the last doha from Ramcharitmanas), “Mo sam deen”. And of course my favourite- if one can have a favourite in this rich collection- “Ram Vivaah”. That magic of Abhyankar coupled with the shehnai pieces of the Lucknow-based Sahibe Aalam. I press the replay button over and over again to listen to this. And Sahibe Aalam’s  mesmeric shehnai comes back later too in “Sriram Chandra Kripalu Bhajuman”.

Hem Singh, a music director from Lucknow, probably makes his national debut with this album. Take a bow, Hem Singh ji. I am sure we will see a lot more from you in the coming years.

I am a lay reader and a lay music person. So do not expect any pithy comments on the nuances of music. I love listening to multiple genres of music. And Jo Chaho Ujiyaar is one of the best I have heard in recent years.

Go ahead, enjoy this classic album. You will love it.

And finally, a few personal disclosures.

  1. I have been privy to the making of this album, I have heard all the versions of the CD of this album- all the scratches.
  2. I have been privileged to have a copy of this album for the past 4-5 months, and have been listening it to it at least twice a day. Once while driving to work, and other while returning.
  3. The producer and the man behind this CD, Anshu Tandon, is a close friend of mine. And I have written about this play in multiple posts of mine. Here are the lnks: On the making of the music, my take on the play.

Jo Chaho Ujiyaar: A Triumph of Bhakti… and Reason

July 11, 2009
Tulsidas reasoning with the mahants

Tulsidas reasoning with the mahants

The lights dim, a hush falls over the audience and the distinctive voice of Gulzar comes on the auditorium loudspeakers. Starting with a quotation from anachronistically- in a play about the 16th century Tulsidas- the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. “There are very few good things on earth. What is good is to think about doing good things.” Or something to the effect.

When the curtain opens to “Jo Chaho Ujiyaar” I am struck by the elegance of the stage design. A large and deep stage split into three parts, the area on the left a hut, mostly Tulsidas’ residence, the section on the right a raised platform under the shade of a tree which alternately serves as a public meeting place in  a village; a chaupal, a dalaan, a worship place even as we discover through the course of the play. And the central portion, steps leading on to a large platform representing alternately Varanasi town or the famed ghats of Varanasi. Clean and dramatic, that set design.

One would have expected Tulsidas to enter early in the play, but all we see in the beginning are villagers and their struggles and vicissitudes in life. This quickly establishes the status of the exploited common villager. Very critical to the development of the idea that was Tulsidas. More about that later. The entry of Tulsidas happens a little later, so well conceived. The stage dark, a glow of golden-yellow spot on Tulsidas standing on the central platform. With the song “Bar dant ki pangati” playing in the background. The young Tulsidas ready to unleash his magic on the world.

What follows are the conflicts he has to face. The mahants of Kashi thunder as to how he could do the blasphemous act of narrating the story of Shri Ram in the commoners’ language! The hidden sub-text is that Tulsidas is taking away their command over the populace by narrating the scriptures not in Sanskrit but in Avadhi, the common village householders’ language. And there is also a sub-sub text to the clash between the Kashi mahants, who are traditionally Shaivites (Shiv Bhakts) with the Vaishnavites, the Ram bhakt followers of Tulsidas.

Multiple intrigues and sub-plots later, the denoument is reached with the arrival of then Delhi emperor’s- Akbar’s- emissary who congratulates Tulsidas for spreading religiosity among the people. He also presents him a boxful of “Ram-Siya” coins which Akbar has specially minted to express his solidarity with Tulsidas’ mission.

What some may miss out on in this intricately woven story is the relationship which Tulsidas shares with the two most influential persons in his life- both women- one his mother and the other his wife. The mother appears on stage only in flashbacks. The relationship between the mother and the son is tender and loving. The background score of “Ram, haun kaun jatan ghar rahihon” when Tulsidas is conversing with his -now deceased- mother is so poignant that can not help but cry. And the beauty is that the roles of the son and the mother are reversed when the scene is being enacted. The son become the mother and vice versa.

Ratna counselling Tulsidas

Ratna counselling Tulsidas

That Ratna, Tulsidas’ wife, was a strong influence in the poet’s life is very strongly established. In a quirk of fate, the young Ratna is her husband’s soulmate only for a few years. Her demise is fleetingly indicated in a touching scene when Tulsidas is told that she may have drowned while trying to cross the river in a stormy monsoon flood. Ratna was on her way to her maika, to celebrate the saawan month. But even in this relatively short period she has had a telling influence on the course of Tulsidas’ life. Ratna’s ghost appears some thirty years or so later, to reassure the reformer Tulsidas’ that his chosen path in life is correct. The parting of Tulsidas and the ghost of Ratna is very touching. Very inspirational for Tulsidas as she exhorts him to carry on his mission of taking the scriptures, and indeed the Hindu way of life, to the masses. To the grihasth, the common householder.

And all this grand action is highlighted by the most wonderful Tulsi sangeet you would ever hear. Some of the best pieces of Tulsidas have been selected, right from the “title song”, “Ram naam mani deep dharoon…… jo chaahas ujiyaar” from Ramcharitmanas, to stanzas from his other celebrated works like Vinay Patrika, Geetavali, Kavitavali. Tulsi “pads” like “Tu dayalu deen haun”, “Kou udaar jag mahin”. Hanuman chalisa is there of course. And his famous stuti to Shiv, “Namami Shamishaan”. Namami has been composed to a pulsating, nearly war-like beat which I had never heard before. In fact I have even heard a version in a recent film called “Dharm” which is sung as a lullaby! But in the context in which this is used (the confrontation between the mahants and Tulsidas) in the play, it seems to be most apt. . Ditto with Hanuman Chalisa. Very different compared with the various versions I have heard. And many, many more songs. Folk songs, mantras, even an old recorded piece of Kumar Gandharv. And yet another recorded dhrupad of Gundecha brothers.

The songs are sung by none other than the celebrated Pune-based Hindustani classical vocalist Sanjeev Abhyankar, the one who received the national award for the best playback singer for his very first Hindi film song way back in 1998. A voice of someone who is in complete control of the octaves, a voice suffused with supreme devotion. And guess what this great singer told in the press conference! He said that all the credit for the success of this music should go to Anshu (the man behind this project), as it is his passion which shows up in the final music. What humility on part of this great singer!

This music is superbly composed by the music director, Hem Singh, who is little known outside the Lucknow circles. But this gentleman has done a wonderful job. I met him before the play and complemented him on his work. I told him what I felt, “kaljayi kriti”, a work which transcends time.

And the celebrated sound designer, K.J. Singh? I have no competence to judge, or even figure out, what he has done. But I do know that he has put together one of the best musical compositions ever. And this jolly sardar from Mumbai, the guy who too is a national award winner for his sound engineering for Omkaraa a few years ago, was confabulating with the auditorium sound guy till the last minute before the play started. Giving them appropriate suggestions, I suppose. And KJ also took Anshu’s family, and me as a hanger-on, for a late, late dinner that evening. Chatting with Anshu all the while as to what all he needs to do before the next staging.

Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha

Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha

And in this thing about great music it would be naive to forget about the performances given by the actors. That the actor who plays Tuslidas, Varun Tamta, has entered the soul of his character is undoubted. The effortless ease with which he straddles the stage playing a 30-year old Tulsidas in act one and then in act two, Tulsidas at 60 years and beyond is enthralling. Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha to the common men in one scene, reasoning with his detractors in the other, a husband in the third and a son in another. The pains and struggles of Tulsidas, and his innate humanness, all reflects so clearly on the actor’s face and movements. The strong counterfoil to Tulsidas is his young wife, Ratna, played by Manisha. A simple village girl with a mind of her own. And an ability to engage someone of the stature of Tulsidas as an equal. Strong, yet loving. The tenderness of the relationship is well brought out by the director.

The director duo of Parijat Nagar and Suresh Lahri have put this large cast together to weave an altogether enthralling story. A story which seems very relevant even today. The story of reason versus religious bigotry. A story of the voice of sanity among the cacophony of maniacal cries.

What about the man behind the show, Anshu Tandon himself? Well, he was seated between his wife and I, and “enjoying” the show. He was hoping I would not notice his tears, as I hoped he would not notice mine. We both kept our hankies ready, but at strategic distances from our respective eyes.

And Mr M Gorky? Well, his words were prophetic. True, there are indeed very few things good on earth. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I must say Jo Chaho Ujiyaar is one such. And Anshu is one guy, who keeps thinking about good things, and sometimes doing some great things.

Take a bow Anshu!

PS: 21st Jan 2010.

Anshu has posted a “trailer” on You Tube. Here is the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcEpmkLZXLw