Links: Percy Jackson and Krishna

peacock-feather-on-whiteTwo pieces on two heroes who are the stuff of legends. One was entirely ignored, the other got me all sorts of love and hate.

Review of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters:

Although Thor Freudenthal has a name that seems like a match made in heaven for a director of a film that blends myths with pop fiction, his storytelling isn’t anywhere as clever as Riordan’s writing. The dialogues aren’t as zippy, the locations don’t feel as smartly-imagined and the build-up isn’t well-paced. Most of the film meanders, bogged down as it is by bad acting. Then suddenly, it’s time for a climax and neither the audience nor the actors feel prepared for it. It doesn’t help that Camp Half-Blood seems remarkably like a Survivor for models – godspawn look good and are about as memorable as the interchangeable faces on billboards. Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario as Percy and Annabeth lack charisma, though Lerman looks a little less out of place than he did in the first Percy Jackson film. There are a couple of stars in the cast as Greek gods in Sea of Monsters. Stanley Tucci, as Dionysus in rehab, makes more of an impression in two scenes than Daddario’s Annabeth manages despite being in almost every frame. Nathan Fillion is charming as Hermes and you can’t help wishing he had more than a cameo.

The full review is here.

And a piece I wrote on the Hindu god, Krishna:

Today, if a boy grew up with thousands of female companions, we’d probably think he’s weird or gay. Krishna, however, is depicted as neither. He has his male friends, but (smartly) seems to prefer the company of women. Not just that, while traditionally the male companions establish a human as divine — Ram had Hanuman; Jesus had his apostles; Muhammad had the men who would become the first caliphs — in Krishna’s case, it isn’t Sudama who completes him, but Radha.

… Krishna’s veneration of Radha flouts a variety of conventions — she’s another man’s wife, she’s older, she orders him around — but remains enshrined in Vaishnav mantras and practices even today. Yes, she thinks he’s divine, but he quite cheerfully worships her too, to the extent of drinking her charanamrit (the water in which her feet were washed), supposedly to cure a headache.

Even after he grows up and leaves Vrindavan, one of the constants in Krishna is his fondness for strong women. This is amply evident in how he and Rukmini elope. He’s quite happy to be depicted as the man who is effectively kidnapped by the woman, rather than the alpha male who rescues the princess. Despite all the attempts to assert and reassert Krishna’s divine status in the narration, it is the worship-worthy Rukmini who is the mastermind behind the elopement.

And then there’s Krishna’s special relationship with Draupadi, mythical evidence that a man and woman can be friends after all. It’s quite obvious from the Kaurava taunts in different episodes of Mahabharata that the unusual situation of Draupadi being wife to five husbands did nothing for her respectability. This didn’t stop Krishna from favouring her. When Dusshasana attempts to rape Draupadi, her husbands are silent and still. To them, she is a possession who has been lost in a game and since they don’t own her, there is nothing they can do when she is being manhandled. It’s Krishna — a man who has no claim upon Draupadi and technically, no responsibility towards her — who protects her dignity with that unending supply of sari. In this poetic description of a miracle lies a man’s ability to see a woman as a human being rather than an object or possession; as a person who isn’t sullied by what is inflicted upon her. Afterwards, in stark contrast to how we react even today, Krishna doesn’t blame Draupadi. The fault lies with the men — the Kauravas for thinking of and attempting rape; the Pandavas for witnessing it without a protest.

If only some of Krishna’s contrariness had made an impression upon Hindu society, instead of his boyhood love for fatty milk products.

You can read the whole thing here.


Links: Jobs and The Competent Authority

Yes, it's true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.
Yes, it’s true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.

One bad film and an excellent book, because what is life without balance? (she said and struck her best Shifu pose.)

On Jobs:

So imagine the disappointment of watching Jobs and realising a film about Steve Jobs doesn’t really bother with aesthetics, logic or storytelling. The music is forgettable, the cinematography is unimaginative and there are no insights into what made Jobs one of the most influential men of our times. Beginning with the unveiling of the iPod, rewinding to the 1970s when Jobs was a drug-addled college dropout and waffling on till the 1990s, when he reclaimed Apple after being forced out of the company by the board, Jobs takes a fascinating life and turns it bland and uninspiring.

You can read the whole review here.

On The Competent Authority, which is a superb satire of present-day India even though the novel is set in the near future:

Ultimately, The Competent Authority is a mischievous and insightful meditation upon the nature and effects of power. At its heart is a comparison between two people — a bureaucrat and a little boy — who become immensely powerful without warning or reason. What do you do with that power? How do you do good? How do you ensure that you know good from complete insanity? One could argue that only a Bengali author would point to teachers as the solution to India’s problems and cast a no-nonsense Bengali woman as the one who prevents absolute power from corrupting absolutely. (In real life, most of India’s experiences with stern women, Bengali and otherwise, in positions of power has been far from heartening.) But hey, it’s fiction. Chowdhury mines the depressing events of the past decades for brilliant fun and for all that’s wrong with its world, The Competent Authority leaves the reader with a sense of hope for Pintoo and our futures.

The full review is here.

Article: On Shooting in Mumbai

Forgot to put this up yesterday. I wrote this for last week’s The Mag. This is a slightly-longer version of what was printed in the paper. A big heartfelt thanks to all the people who helped with the story, particularly Dev Benegal, Raj Kumar Gupta and Rohan, Roopa and Sheena Sippy. The photographs are by Sheena and were taken during the shooting of Bluffmaster, directed by Rohan.

More Drama, Less Action

There are lights, there are cameras, but action is more of a challenge if you’re shooting in Mumbai. The city that boasts of being India’s cinema capital may be losing out to less glamorous, but more convenient, locations.

In 2007, Madhushree Dutta, director of the cultural centre Majlis, started work on a project exploring the relationship between cinema and Mumbai. Five years later, Project Cinema City turned out to be a sprawling exhibition that managed seemingly-impossible feats like turning Gulshan Grover into a work of high art (courtesy a painting by Atul Dodiya). One of the exhibits was a set of maps of Mumbai drawn on translucent paper. Each map showed the location of film studios in Mumbai in a particular decade. Place the sheets one upon the other, and you could see how the business of making films had spread all over the city since the 1920s till the present, from south to north and east to west. The exhibition showed Mumbai is indeed India’s Cinema City, or at least, has been in the past. It’s worth wondering if the relationship between the Mumbai and movies isn’t changing.

While other parts of the country have been featured in films, Mumbai has been synonymous with cinema. Over the decades, the city has proved to be charismatic enough to woo viewers, filmmakers, actors and technicians from all over the country and has become synonymous with films. As the headquarters of the film industry, spotting a shooting in progress was almost de rigeur if one went to photogenic stretches, like Marine Drive at “magic hour” (usually early in the morning or at sunset). There would be reflectors, vanity vans, lights and a crescent-shaped crowd behind the camera. But of late, film shoots are harder to spot. This is because Mumbai is steadily gaining a reputation of being problematic rather than convenient for filming.

“There are lots of things in terms of permissions and logistics,” said Raj Kumar Gupta, who worked on acclaimed Mumbai-based films like Black Friday and is the director of Aamir. For Aamir, Gupta literally took to the streets with his camera and the film showed neighbourhoods, like Dongri, that are not usually seen on screen. The one word that Gupta kept repeating while talking about shooting on location was “difficult”. “It’s very uncontrolled situations. I always say if you want to shoot in the city, it’s not about what you want, but what you get.”

“If you want to shoot in Mumbai, shoot in indoor locations,” advised an industry insider who spoke to DNA upon the condition of anonymity. “Managing crowds when you have even a starlet on your shoot is a nightmare. Then there’s the star, who comes with their own set of issues. Take Salman Khan, who will come late and only show up on set when he’s ready. Even Rahul Bose makes the unit sit around because he’s getting into character. You can’t do that in an outdoor location.”

There are a few cities in the world that you can recognise because they’ve been filmed so frequently and lovingly; Mumbai is one of them. It also has the distinction of having charmed both commercial filmmakers and those of more arty persuasions. Mumbai’s famous dhobi ghat has been the backdrop for the unabashed pulp blockbuster Munnabhai MBBS and also the meditative Dhobi Ghat by Kiran Rao. Gateway of India, the steps of the Asiatic Library, the glitter of Marine Drive by night, the basketball court in St. Xavier’s College, the blurry crowds at local train stations, the stretch of Worli Seaface – these are just a few of the places that we’ve seen repeatedly on celluloid, whether it’s a blockbuster or a critical favourite.

Dev Benegal, who set Split Wide Open in Mumbai and whose next film will be shot entirely in the city, describes Mumbai as “cinematic heaven”. “I could not have made Split Wide Open in any other city,” he said. “Mumbai is a modern city. I’d go as far to say it is the only city this country has. It’s got a crazy energy, a visceral feel mixed with the warmth of its people which make it so special.”

From Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster. Photo by Sheena Sippy.

Warmth, however, is perhaps not what came to Rohan Sippy’s mind when the sets of his upcoming film, Nautanki Saala, were vandalised. Sippy has a fondness for shooting in Mumbai and his Bluffmaster is one of the more memorable examples of Mumbai on celluloid. He chose to set Nautanki Saala in the city, even if this meant late-night shoots (to avoid crowds) and other hassles. However, things got unexpectedly violent when men affiliated to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena stormed in and attacked his unit’s cars while they were shooting on location in the western suburbs. The MNS, which has a “cine wing” incidentally, has distanced itself from the incident, saying the party had not authorised the attack. Sippy tweeted soon after, “Was thinking of calling the film Nautanki Saala, seems very appropriate now.”

The threat of disrupting film sets is not a new problem and to prevent it, there exists an established but unspoken system of unofficial payments, in addition to the numerous official permits, that guarantee a film unit’s security. This usually is enough to pacify those who would otherwise disrupt the peace, but as the incident at Sippy’s set showed, the methods may not always be foolproof. Even if the payments have been made, shoots are often disrupted by local political workers demanding payments they are not authorised to accept. Last year, MNS workers barged into the sets of Murder 2 and demanded to see work permits of the crew even though, legally speaking, the party has no authority to do so. In 2010, MNS workers were arrested on two separate occasions for attempting to extort money from producer Riteish Sidhwani during a shoot and vandalising the sets of a Ganesh Acharya film.

Few are willing to speak openly about the difficulties of shooting in Mumbai because they fear the repercussions. An employee at a production house said, on condition of anonymity, that the official permits don’t facilitate the process of shooting much. Film units have to organise their own security and hire people to manage crowds. “The only way to shoot in the city is guerilla style, with nobodies,” they said.

One filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that as far as state machinery goes, states like Rajasthan and Kerala were more cooperative and welcoming than the Mumbai administration. Other options for the film industry include Gujarat, which has apparently been wooing the multi-billion dollar film industry to shift base from Maharashtra. For filmmakers, cities like Hyderabad, New Delhi and Kolkata have proved to be easier to negotiate. Hyderabad and Kolkata have the added advantage of an existing regional film industry.

Gupta agreed that while the logistics of filming in India are convoluted in general, Mumbai’s is more complicated. Gupta shot in Delhi for No One Killed Jessica and he described the experience as “easier”. “The infrastructure in Delhi has improved and is more evolved,” said Gupta. “Those conveniences, they seem small, but they helped us. Maybe because not that many films have been shot there, I think it wasn’t as difficult to get all the permissions.” Although Gupta has chosen to set his next film, Ghanchakkar, in Mumbai, he said candidly, “I’ve always wondered if there was a one-stop shop for permissions whether it wouldn’t make it easier for films to be made and we’d see more and maybe better films.”

The Mag This Week

And we have a Books page this week. Yay!

This week, there are reviews of Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be An Elephant and Mother A Small Basket But... (by Pramod K. Nayar); The Tainted Throne, book four of the Empire of the Moghul series (by R. Krishna); Peter Hobbs’s In The Orchard, The Swallows (by Karishma Attari), and Niven Govinden’s Black Bread, White Beer (by Colleen Braganza).

The theme of The Mag this time was the movies and somehow, I ended up writing a profile of Prosenjit Chatterjee, aka Bumba-da. Here’s the unedited version of the profile (we had to snip to fit it on the page. As usual).

Prosenjit’s Second Coming

Prosenjit Chatterjee is in “the most critical crisis time” in the life of a filmstar. He’s a veteran of 324 films. For years, he has almost single-handedly kept the Bengali film industry alive by delivering pulpy box-office hits. It’s been more than 20 years in show business for him. This is usually when an actor is replaced by younger heroes. Chatterjee, however, not only remains a superstar in Bengal but he’s also reinvented himself and with his portrayal of Dr. Ahmedi in Shanghai, reintroduced himself to Bollywood as an intelligent actor.

Chatterjee carries his age lightly, whether it’s in his portrayal of a Rowdy Rathore-inspired cop in the Bengali film Bikram Singha or as part of the acting ensemble in Shanghai. “They feel like I’m their older brother,” Chatterjee said of his relationship with younger co-actors. “Like, there was an interview with Yami [Gautam], in a Kolkata newspaper and she said, ‘I want to work only with Prosenjit.’ I started tweeting [to the younger actors who are his friends]: ‘You still can’t beat Bumba-da!'”

Some actors may shy of making their age or nickname public, but not Chatterjee. He’s as proud of being known as Bumba (with a “da” because he deserves the respect given to an elder brother) as he is of being 49 years old in 2012. “It’s time for a Bengali comeback,” he said, referring to the recent successes of Sujoy Ghosh (Kahaani), Shoojit Sircar (Vicky Donor) and, of course, Dibakar Banerjee (Shanghai).

“The characters I’m getting, I’m enjoying tremendously,” said Chatterjee. “I’m touching 50 and I’m sure this is going to be the best period of my career. When the books and documentaries are made on me, I want to tell my next generation, don’t get stuck in that typical thing of a hero dancing and singing. Enjoy that success and then you’ll get more.”

It may sound presumptuous for an actor who had an important but bit part in Shanghai to present himself as one whose life should be chronicled, but Chatterjee is a superstar. Having begun as a child actor, his career really took off in 1986 with Amor Sangi. Since then, Chatterjee has been Bengali cinema’s most reliable hero, making producers, young men and women of all ages go weak at the knees.

Despite being the son of the actor Biswajeet, who had a limited run in Bollywood and was never able to pip Uttam Kumar from the top spot in Bengal, Chatterjee’s entry into cinema didn’t follow the usual trajectory of a star’s son. When Chatterjee was 16, his parents divorced and Chatterjee kept little contact with his biological father. “I started by doing theatre when I was only 16 or 17 years old,” said Chatterjee. “My entire career graph went like that of a newcomer who would take one, one, one step,” said Chatterjee, gesticulating to show the rungs of the imaginary ladder he’s climbed to reach where he is now.

Listen to Chatterjee and it seems as though he made every advancement in Bengali cinema possible. While his claim that he brought Cinemascope to Bengal may not be entirely accurate, the actor has played an important part in Tollywood’s revival. “When I joined, it was in very bad shape,” he says. “I always say, we who worked then, we were the warriors.” Some of Chatterjee’s films certainly are an assault, but more upon good taste. Shoshurbari ZindabadBaadshaahMon Maane Na and most recently Bikram Singha are just a few films from his extensive filmography that have cemented Chatterjee’s status as the one Bengali hero whose market has not faltered over two decades.

In the 1990s, few would have imagined the same actor would also be responsible for more experimental cinema finding a market in Bengal. After appearing in a number of Rituparno Ghosh’s films from 2000 onwards, including Chokher Bali and Dosar, Chatterjee became the star that young directors could count on if they had a good script. If he liked the story, he’d do the film, even if it meant reducing his own fees in order to get the film off the ground.

It’s been a calculated move on Chatterjee’s part to ensure he has a respectable career. “The critical time is from 45 to 55,” he said. “Everybody will come to that point. You can’t fight against your time. It has to go.  So one day I thought, this 45 to 55, I have to make the best career of my life.” The way to do it was to prove his credentials as an actor. For example, in 2010 he played the part of a baul singer in Moner Maanush, directed by the acclaimed director Gautam Ghosh. “For Moner Manush, I gave nine months,” Chatterjee recounted. “I left my office, my family, I started staying in jungles. I ate vegetarian food, I used to sleep on the ground. Everyone told me, your eyes were not looking like you’re a normal person.”

In comparison, Shanghai was far less intensive. Working with sync-sound, a first for Chatterjee, made it imperative that Chatterjee work on his Hindi. “I did my homework,” he said. “Twice I came to Mumbai for workshops and I had my teachers. I really wanted it to be perfect. Whatever little I do, I want it to be perfect.” The praise his performance has received has helped soothe the sting ofAandhiyan, the 1990 David Dhawan-directed flop that marked Chatterjee’s Bollywood debut.

He’s now in the process of finalising a film with Shoojit Sircar and is optimistic about doing “one or two films a year” in Bollywood. Chatterjee also has more ambitious plans. “Direction is my final call,” he said. “Not only Bengali, but I will direct Hindi films also. I’m planning to produce as well.” He is hoping to start a production company in collaboration with the Sahara group, which will fund films in both Bengali and Hindi. “I’m saying, let’s find new directors,” he said. “One Kahaani will not make things change. You have to make ten Kahaanis. Then Bengalis will have that power.”