Song of the Road

Soft-spoken, unobtrusive, unassuming. That pretty much describes the poet-songwriter whose lyrics for the recently released Autograph seem set to start a movement. With phrases such as ‘chol rastay’ and ‘gia nostal’ rapidly gaining ground among the young brigade, Srijato is a name you’ll be hearing more of in future, a fact the poet himself typically tries to play down.

“The first soundtrack I wrote for was (Birsa Dasgupta’s film) 033,” he says, over a cup of coffee. “I was convinced I would fail, but Birsa wanted to try me. And once I found out I could actually write songs, it became easier to say yes to (director) Srijit (Mukherjee) and Debuda (composer Debojyoti Mishra) when they approached me for Autograph.

Watching his lyrics turn into Chol Rastay Saji Tramline, he says, was like watching straw turn into an idol. During our entire conversation, that’s about as poetic as he gets. His words are measured, his gestures minimal, his voice controlled, his humour wry. The impression is of a firmly grounded man, a man who focuses on the lyricism and romanticism of life’s ordinary, everyday realities, and expresses them in language accessible to everyone.

But that is what Gulzar has been doing for years for Hindi films, hasn’t he? Mention of the legendary poet-lyricist’s name moves Srijato to a state that actually resembles excitement. “How do I put this? Gulzar, for me, is a combination of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan,” he says. “Quietly, entirely on his own, he has redefined film song writing.”

The other icon of Srijato’s life, evidently, is Kabir Suman. “His appearance was the Big Bang of Bengali music,” he says. “All creative efforts in Bengal since then owe him in some way.”

There’s something endearing about the way Srijato constantly negates his own rising fame, or the growing popularity of his edgy, irreverent, yet heartfelt poetry. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been writing poetry since his early teens, and despite close to 10 published volumes of poetry, one senses that he still feels a sense of surprise at the fact that publishers actually approach him for his works, or that his poetry actually finds readers.

“Of course, writing for films, one reaches a far wider audience,” he concedes. “But that’s about it. I never hang on to my works. The moment I handed over Chol Rastay to Debuda, I forgot about it. I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who change with fame. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

As he talks, however, one realises that for all his seeming sensibleness, there’s a streak of eccentricity somewhere. From joking about how the ‘tramlines’ of his song are rapidly becoming history to describing how, on the eve of his BA Part II Geography examination, he ran away from home, there is an inherent quirkiness about him that constantly belies his appearance and demeanour.

“I’ve never believed in self-assessment,” he muses, as our interview draws to a close. “As I have grown older, my poetry has become more complicated, perhaps, and a little harder for me to get hold of, but, as (poet) Shankha Ghosh once said, ‘We have no history’.”

But he certainly has a future, with films like Parambrata Chatterjee’s Jiyo Kaka and a few others coming up. The tramlines may be vanishing, but the rasta (road) is getting wider.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2010

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Images of Life: Shabana Azmi

Gestures that speak

Having sat through endless interviews for print and TV, Shabana Azmi is not, apparently, in the best of tempers. So it is with some trepidation that one asks if her play, Broken Images — to perform which she was in Kolkata recently at the behest of Seagrams Black Dog, Sanskriti Sagar, and Weaver’s Studio Centre for the Arts — has anything to do with the way in which she views her life and career.

She pauses over the question, and her famous temper is, for the moment, kept at bay. Instead of answering directly, however, Azmi speaks of moments that are apparently random, and yet have a lot to do with the way she has evolved as a performing artiste.

One of the most recent is an incident that happened in Rohtak, where she was staging Broken Images. Originally written in Kannada by Girish Karnad as Odakalu Bimba, the play became Bikhre Bimb in Hindi and Broken Images in English, directed by Alyque Padamsee. “There I was in Rohtak, with an audience of about 1,800 people, when the organiser pointed out, minutes before the start, that only about 20 per cent of them spoke English, so could I please do the play in Hindi?” she says. “I was so astounded I didn’t know what to do, though I did feel like whacking him!”

Nonetheless, the actress prevailed over the nervous-as-hell woman, and she did do the play in Hindi, translating her lines on the spot as she went along. “See, I’m getting goose bumps even now when I think about how I did it,” she says, holding out her arm. “Actually, I must tell Girish this, and I don’t know if I can repeat it, ever. When I told Javed (husband Javed Akhtar) about it, he was thrilled!”

Indeed, such courage — or desperation — she says, is what defines an actor. “You put everything you feel through a sieve: your heart, mind, body, and then come up with a particular moment.”

Not all those moments can be captured, though. Take the classic scene in Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), which required Azmi and co-star Naseeruddin Shah to swim across the Ganga with a herd of pigs. “Naseer was not a good swimmer, so he was nervous to begin with. And the swineherd was about 90 and looked like he would collapse any minute. To top it all, one of the pigs died right at the very beginning of the shot, in front of our eyes,” she says.

Amidst the madness, Azmi was required to place her chin on the rump of one of the pigs, which she actually managed, but none of the three cameras aimed at the shot managed to catch it. “An actor’s life is full of such images, which is why it holds a certain random quality,” she muses.

Having mentioned Shirley Maclaine once during the conversation in the context of acting, she may well quote the great actress to sum up: “I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.”

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on September 12, 2010

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Kaushik Ganguly does well with Brake Fail

Frm left: Parambrata Chatterjee, Rituparno Ghosh, Swastika Mukherjee and Indraneel Sengupta at the Brake Fail premiere

From left: Parambrata Chatterjee, Rituparno Ghosh, Swastika Mukherjee and Indraneel Sengupta at the Brake Fail premiere

Brake Fail
Cast: Anu Kapoor, Saswata Chatterjee, Santu Mukherjee, Parambrata, Swastika
Direction: Kaushik Ganguly
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The famed Bengali sense of humour and wit used to be an intrinsic part of films made during the so called golden age of Bengali cinema, the 1960s and ’70s. As film directors mysteriously lost their knack for finding comedy in everyday situations in the subsequent decades, the fun all but disappeared from our cinema.

Kaushik Ganguly, thank you for bringing it back with a film in which PG Wodehouse effortlessly meets Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay meets Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

If we ignore some of the weaker performances — but more on those later — Brake Fail is a nonsensical and fun-filled joyride that ought to draw family audiences in hordes. The direction is neat and light (note Ganguly’s deft handling of issues like communalism), the dialogues crisp and genuinely funny (Ganguly again), the editing and camera work competent (Mainak Bhaumik and Rakesh Kumar Singh). Granted, the look is not as glossy as that of some recent Tollywood productions, but if content is king, a few more films like Brake Fail will set Tollywood’s much hyped revival firmly on its way.

Essentially based on (deliberately) mistaken identities, the plot of Brake Fail relies mostly on situational comedy, with hilarious one-liners helping things along. Village boy Sidhu (Param) and village girl Hena (Swastika) meet and fall in love, but must endure several trials and tribulations — aided and hindered in equal measure by a golden-hearted garage boss (Kapoor) and his crazy assistants (Saswata et al) — before they can be united.

Thrown into the mad mix are well etched peripheral characters reminiscent of the kind we find in Shirshendu’s stories for children — principal among them Lorryda and Lorry boudi — played to perfection by Paran Bandopadhyay and Tanima Sen.

In terms of performance, the film belongs to Kapoor, Saswata, and, in the second half, Santu Mukherjee, brilliantly supported by Lama and Taranga. Param and Swastika are not challenged much, so it would not be fair to judge their relatively lukewarm performances.

Finally, a word about the music. Neel Dutt is in great form as usual, but the songs do slow the film down. Perhaps we could listen to them on the album only?

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What is it with Freida Pinto?

Starting point

Starting point

Ah, Slumdog Millionaire. How many of you had heard of Freida Pinto before that? I certainly hadn’t, and now I can’t go two steps without bumping into she of the toothy smile. One day, she’s on the cover of Vogue. Another day, I catch her snuggling up to Slumdog co-star Dev Patel in Israel, and on a third, I have to read about how she may be the next Bond girl after already having bagged a Woody Allen project.

Granted, she isn’t really hot property in India yet. I mean, producers and directors aren’t exactly queuing up at her doorstep with film offers, and the endorsements circuit has been curiously indifferent to her global renown. I can’t remember a single Indian ad that she has featured in, can you?

Why is this? Are we so jealous of her fame and fortune that we can’t look beyond them? “What has she done to deserve this?” is a cry I often hear among friends. “She had only a 10-minute role in the film. And look at how opportunistic she is, dumping her fianceé for that Dev Patel.”

The fianceé in question, Rohan Antao, lost no time in tomtomming his misery to the world, the loser. And though there were reports of friends ganging up on Freida for the way in which she treated Antao, it appears not to have affected her global triumphal march at all.

How? That is also a question I often hear. How is this ordinary looking girl and decidedly ordinary actress the toast of international moviegoers? How does Vogue name her as the world’s best dressed woman? Why do Indian designers moan when she avoids wearing their creations to the numerous red carpets she is seen on?

Well, given the entourage of international stylists and designers working on her round the clock, Freida is no longer ordinary looking, though there is a decided element of ‘accidental sexiness’ about her. Now if only I could pinpoint the reason why my friends still find her unworthy of all the attention she’s getting… and why I can’t shake off the sneaking suspicion that she’s one very, very, lucky lady.

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Jodhaa Akbar: No History, Plenty of Gowariker

Before I say anything else, you will have to commend me for heroically resisting the urge to cram this post with visuals from Ashutosh Gowariker’s labour of love. If nothing else, Jodhaa Akbar is certainly one of the best-looking films to have released in recent times, and I speak as one who has paid shameless repeat visits to the multiplex to sneak yet another peek — if not at the costumes, then at the jewellery, or at the sets, or at Hrithik Roshan.

I have found it interesting that the Rajputs (or some of them) are up in arms about whether Akbar’s first Rajput wife (there were others, but she was the first, and she was the daughter of Raja Bharmal, so no historical inaccuracies there) was indeed called Jodha Bai, but no one has said a word about the disclaimer at the start of the film — which also lists all the alternative names that the queen was called — that this is just one view of history.

Similarly, no one has objected to one of the film’s pivotal segments — Jodha’s courageous stand that she would not convert to Islam and would continue to worship her deity within her mahal. History says that Jodha Bai (we’ll just keep calling her that, shall we?) converted to Islam but continued to worship Lord Krishna in her mahal, which seems just a far more radical and film-worthy gesture.

I just think Gowariker would have been better off writing a ten-paragraph disclaimer at the start, explaining that this was his view of what might have happened between Jodha and Akbar, because no one knows what their married life was like. It appears as though Jodha remained one of Akbar’s chief queens, but that’s about it.

For more on this, I would suggest an inconsequential but interesting little book called Private Life of the Mughals of India by R. Nath. Incidentally, I have come across various writings that talk about Akbar’s ‘insatiable sexual appetite’, and trying to visualise that, given the Hrithik-Aishwarya chemistry, is a temptation that I will not resist.

Finally, I have come across several online posts that criticise the script for making things seem too easy for the young emperor. Example, how could he win over his Hindu subjects simply by the one act of lifting the ‘tirath yatra mahsool‘? Or, how did he acquaint himself with the grassroots simply by paying a single visit to Agra Bazaar? Or, did he actually have time to get involved in the Jodha-Maham Anga saas-bahu saga?

To answer the first two questions, you mean Gowariker should have put all his acts of benevolence and all his visits to Agra Bazaar on film?

And for the third, I think Gowariker missed a trick by not making someone in the film point out that nothing that happened in Akbar’s life could be taken at face value. If Maham Anga — his confidante and vazir — could lie to him about Jodha, she could very well lie about far more important matters. Similarly, if Jodha concealed the truth from him, the entire political alliance with the Rajputs was potentially under threat.

So that’s it. That’s the only area I think Gowariker did not cover — he should have established the fact that for Akbar, political and personal often merged to create a third dimension. That, and and the absence of a clear disclaimer stating that this was the director’s view of what might have been ‘once upon a time in Agra’.

PS: I forgot to talk about Rahman’s lovely, no-fuss music, but I suspect I’ve said enough already. However, I still have to say that I expected to see some acknowledgement of the fact that the background score that played during the sequence when Amer is taken away from Sujamal (and during the puja that precedes it) is the prelude to the song Baala Main Bairagan Hoongi (Vani Jairam, with music by Pt Ravi Shankar), from Gulzar’s underrated 1979 classic Meera. I know, because we had the LP at home and I was hooked on the song for the longest time. Did I miss the acknowledgement somewhere?

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Mithya: The Truth?

As I emerged from the theatre after watching Mithya, I made two promises: a) I would henceforth watch everything that Rajat Kapoor directs; b) I would henceforth watch everything that Ranvir Shorey features in.

It is admittedly too early to tell, but Mithya is likely to find pride of place in many top 10 lists, if only for the performances. It has been aeons since I have come upon acting of this calibre — from the entire cast — in a Hindi film. In fact, the only two offhand examples I can think of are Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Masoom. I am talking about the entire cast here, you understand, and not just a couple of actors. From start to finish, it is impossible to spot a weak link in the performances. They blend seamlessly and flawlessly into each other.

I would have said the same about the script (Kapoor-Saurabh Shukla) had it not been for the Neha Dhupia bit at the end and the bit about where the two are allowed to run after Neha has killed an important gangster.

But I’m quibbling. And splitting hairs. What I should be doing is thanking Messrs Kapoor and Shukla for coming up with such a taut, racy, unpredictable, disturbing script. I hope to God it’s original, too. It would be devastating to discover later that what the two men have given us is actually a copy of some French film somewhere.

What Mithya has done is become the first genuine Hindi black comedy since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. And during its 100-minute run, the film raises enough questions about morality, fate, love, friendship, crime, and hate to last about seven full-length films. Unravelling all of that is likely to take you a lifetime, too.

I haven’t given you a Mithya plot summary here. So anyone reading has to watch the film. Or you could go to the official site of the film’s producer Planman Motion Pictures, but not advisable. All I want to tell you is that do not believe the fools who tag it a ‘comedy’ just because the team contains many of the Bheja Fry gang.

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Talking About Taare Zameen Par

As the mother of a six-year-old, I had looked forward to TZP (I think this abbreviation only works if you pronounce Z as zee) with interest. Thanks to the previews, I had expected it to be an illuminating, instructive, slightly documentary-style manual on parenting in general and handling a dyslexic child in particular.

Given Aamir Khan’s involvement, I should have known better.

TZP blew me away because it was illuminating, instructive, and SO BLOODY UNEXPECTEDLY MOVING. No film has the right to make you cry as much as that.

DarsheelYes, the ending is feel good, and some parts in the middle a little longer than necessary, and the flip book theme is overdone, but what the heck. When was the last time you were glued to the seat by the story of a child with a learning disability, and when was the last time you almost failed to notice that one of the protagonists did not make an appearance until the second half?

TZP works for me because it works with some of life’s everyday, mundane problems. Because dyslexia or not, many of us can identify with almost-forgotten classroom situations in which we were slower to grasp a lesson than our classmates, and faced the prospect of public ridicule and humiliation.

It shows that a mainstream Bollywood film need not escape into a fairytale world in order to succeed at the box office, and you do not require a battery of stars to buy audience appreciation, provided you have an Aamir Khan on your side.

That said, it is also an extremely clever piece of film-making, because it deliberately uses the art of pathos to calculated and maximum effect, but that takes nothing away from the painstaking research that has obviously gone into its making, or the care with which the narrative has been crafted.

And I have not even begun to talk about the song Maa. I need another post.
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