Links: PK, Ugly and looking back at 2014

My review of PK, which is one of the bravest films to come out of Bollywood in recent times. It’s not surprising that director Rajkumar Hirani’s candy-floss-flavoured attack on godmen struck a nerve in some people. The good news is that more people chose to watch and cheer for PK.

Everyone loved Ugly, but the film just didn’t come together for me. It’s not bad, but neither is it as compelling as a story like these needs to be.

Looking back at 2014, it had some superb onscreen heroines. It also had some mindbogglingly confused women characters, including the nightmare that was Action Jackson and Highway, in which a kidnap victim who not only falls in love with her kidnapper but somehow turns the kidnap into child’s play in her head.

Finally, in the list of what Bollywood murdered in 2014: Storytelling, heroic good looks and more.

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Links: A catch-up of movie reviews

September has been a pretty cruel month. The jury’s out on October.

Mary Kom, directed by Omung Kumar and starring Priyanka Chopra.
In one line: “To really tell Kom’s story, we’re going to need a braver and more talented film industry.”

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez; starring Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Eva Green and others.
In one line: “It takes rare skill to take actors as talented as those in Sin City 2’s cast and present a film that is as forgettable as this one.”

Creature 3D, directed by Vikram Bhatt and starring Bipasha Basu.
In one line: “Most people watch Bhatt’s films expecting a comedy and although Creature has some moments of delight, there’s only so much of Bhatt’s CGI snarl that you can take.”

A review of the old Khoobsurat, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and starring Rekha. As it turned out, this film and Shashank Ghosh’s new Khoobsurat have only two names in common — of the films themselves and Manju.
In one line (the new film): “Ghosh’s decision to effectively make Fawad Khan’s Vikram Singh Rathore a sex object is a masterstroke that makes Khoobsurat one of the more enjoyable chick flicks that Bollywood has produced in a while.”

Daawat-e-Ishq, by Habib Faisal and starring Parineeti Chopra and Aditya Roy Kapur.
I
n one line: “Daawat-e-Ishq is a Bollywood-shaped tick mark supporting the argument that Section 498A is used to harass people side.”

Liar’s Dice, directed by Geetu Mohandas and starring Geetanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
I
n one line:  “Thapa and Siddiqui deliver riveting performances that blind you to the weaknesses in the script and characterisation.”

Mardistan, directed by Harjant Gill.
In one line: “Gill speaks to four men about their understanding of masculinity and how they negotiate conservative patriarchy in their everyday lives.”

Haider, directed by Vishal Bharadwaj and starring Shahid Kapoor, Tabu and Irrfan Khan.
I
n one line: “The real story of Haider is not in the lives of these main characters, but in the nameless others who together create the most poignant and realistic portrait of Kashmir that Hindi cinema has seen so far.”

Bang Bang!, directed by Siddharth Anand and starring Katrina Kaif and Hrithik Roshan.
In one line: “Quite obviously, Viren’s death must be avenged and by the power of Pizza Hut, Mountain Dew, Ray Ban, Hokey Pokey and other brands, Rajveer Nanda (Hrithik Roshan) is here to do so.”

Links: Prisoners, Besharam, Gravity, About Time

Gorgeous alternative poster of Gravity from here.
Gorgeous alternative poster of Gravity from here.

It’s update time again so voila the film reviews, in the order they were watched:

Prisoners:

If anything, the idea of a film about child abduction set in a depressing, non-descript American town probably sounds a little off-putting to most. Add to that a father who, with righteous zeal and desperation, takes someone prisoner and tortures him because he’s convinced the police’s politically-correct, non-violent interrogations aren’t enough to make criminals spill their guts, and it’s not a film that screams ‘general entertainment’. But barring a few shots, Prisoners is precisely that. The ideological debates and philosophical frills are secondary. It is, first and foremost, a brilliant whodunit.

It’s a superb film, particularly if you like the good ole fashioned murder mystery in which detective work is about brain work and intuition, rather than gadgetry.

Besharam:

Besharam isn’t really a film. It’s Ranbir Kapoor lip syncing and dancing to an inordinate number of terrible, forgettable songs. Kapoor is one of the more versatile actors of his generation, but Besharam is proof that he can’t do crass, no matter how little he shaves his jaw and chest. He thrusts his pelvis, pulls socks out of his crotch, overacts and in the process churns out an appallingly dull performance.

Ghastly. Just thinking about it is making my brain — or what’s left of it — whimper.

Gravity:

The film is filled with unforgettable images, like the sight of a tiny astronaut’s figure against an immense earth that is partially lit by the Northern Lights or the reflection of the earth on the shiny transparent globe of an astronaut’s globe. Every aspect of Gravity is so carefully considered and paced that you’ll find your pulse is beating to the rhythm of the astronauts’ breathing – racing when they panic, slowing down when they do, but not really settling until the film comes to an end.

I watched it twice. I haven’t watched a film twice in the theatre in, like, forever.

About Time:

About Time isn’t the best example of Curtis’s writing or direction, but it’s good enough to make you fall in love with Tim and his family. Tim uses his time travelling skills wisely. Which means he makes sure that his dad’s best friend, a playwright, has a good opening for his new play (rewind x 1); that he doesn’t say the wrong things to Mary, the woman of his dreams (rewind x 2); and that when he and the love of his life finally get together, their first night is fantastic (rewind x 3).

Not Richard Curtis at his finest, but this man’s version of ‘ok’ is sweeter and more charming than most rom-com writers’ best efforts.

Links: Fruitvale Station, The Good Road

good-road-posterMy review of The Good Road:

Somewhere in the middle of The Good Road, a truck driver’s assistant grumbles that if you pile 10 tons on a truck that’s meant to carry a six-ton load, then it’s bound to topple. This is effectively what is happening to The Good Road. Seen only as a debut film, rather than one bearing the weight of representing the nation and the stigma of having left people like Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar heartbroken, The Good Road is inoffensive and has its moments.

You can read the whole review here.

 

And last week, I saw Fruitvale Station, which is seriously depressing but also very, very moving. Highly recommended:

Oscar Grant was unarmed and physically restrained, which means he was lying on the platform, on his stomach, with his wrists tied behind his back. It’s a position of helpless surrender, and yet he was shot. On the night Grant was killed, Coogler was working as security for a party. But he saw what happened to Grant with all the immediacy of a witness because people at Fruitvale Station had videoed the entire incident and uploaded it on the internet. For Coogler, like many others, it was a devastating experience, not just because of the irresponsible violence but also because seeing it happen underscored how random the incident was. It could have been Coogler on the platform instead of Grant. It could have been any young black male lying there, being shot for no reason other than dumb misfortune.

You can read the whole piece here.

Links: Reviews of Satyagraha, One Direction: This is Us, Shuddh Desi Romance

These three films ranged from meh to please-god-let-this-end-NOW.

Ten things Satyagraha taught me, best summed up by the last point:

The Anna Hazare camp must be truly desperate for publicity to suggest they’ve inspired an unholy mess like Satyagraha. Especially since it comes up with perhaps the worst slogan ever (presumably to mirror “I am Anna“) — “Janta Talks, Janta Rocks”. Janta also walks, out of the film.

one-direction-this-is-us1

Morgan Spurlock’s documentary One Direction: This is Us is quite insipid, but when you have fans that can shriek like 1D fans can, who needs any more excitement?

The young girls gathered hours before and sang One Direction songs. They squealed at the sight of the standees of One Direction band members once inside. When trailers started playing, they chanted, “We want This is Us!” They booed Amitabh Bachchan when he tried, via an advertisement, to spike interest in the new season of Kaun Banega Crorepati. There were a few whimpers when the national anthem was played and when the film finally began, the screams and whoops and squeals made it impossible to hear anything of the film for the first 10 minutes. It was other fans exhorting the squealers to “please shut up so that we can hear Harry/Zayn/Niall/Liam/Louis” that finally led to sporadic moments of quiet.

Sporadic because every time the band performed a song or one of the members appeared shirtless – both happen very often in One Direction: This Is Us – the auditorium erupted. PVR probably spent all night drying up the drool left behind at the end of the screening.

For me, the real story is in the making of this documentary: How Morgan Spurlock Became A 1D Fan. But I doubt either Spurlock or Simon Cowell will ever let us see that film.

Shuddh Desi Romance was strictly ok. And really, if a Mills & Boon addict doesn’t fall for a rom-com, you know it’s not quite hitting the sweet spot.

The big question in a love story, ultimately, is whether or not the stars in it have chemistry. With the much-talked about 27 kisses in the film, you’d expect chemistry to be bubbling forth like a lab experiment gone brilliantly right (or terribly wrong). The sad truth is that the kisses in this film barely sizzle. The ladies and gent go for the liplock with the regularity of a news bulletin and the kisses are about as exciting. They don’t give the impression of people unable to keep their hands off each other. Rather, it seems like the kissers are simply following directorial instructions. That’s not the sort of performance that leaves romantics with a tingly feeling.

Links: Films, booze, books, art and caste

‘Tis the time to update. Here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.

1. A long interview with S. Anand, founder of Navayana publishing. The first part is all about publishing and among other things, he makes the rather pertinent point that books are not FMCG products so expecting to churn out the same kind of profits is absurd. In part two, he really sinks his teeth into the privileged Hindu. If you haven’t heard of Navayana, click here. Conservative Hindus who believe the caste system is a wonderful thing, Navayana’s books are not going to be your cup of tea (to put it mildly).

2. A combined review of Amitabh Kumar and Dhruv Malhotra’s shows. Malhotra’s photographs of Delhi are unexpectedly gorgeous. Unexpected because he doesn’t photograph the obviously pretty parts of the national capital, but his photographs are still beautiful. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re entirely unused to seeing our cities without crowds, but Malhotra makes ugly cityscapes look mysterious and poetic.

3. I reviewed Shootout at Wadala. I’m going to put up the notes I took while watching the film in a separate post, but the review is here.

4. When The Telegraph carried a report that Andhra Pradesh had decided its women will not be served alcohol after 10pm (men, on the other hand, can hang around and drink themselves silly till 11pm), I naturally had to blow some steam. So that’s here. As you can see from the headline, the authorities have said no such notice has been issued.

Here’s the truly joyous takeaway from the posts I wrote on Saturday. Everyone thinks Bollywood is what is guaranteed to click with Indian readers. Turns out, booze gets our attention more than Bollywood.

Whaddyaknow...
Whaddyaknow…

As always, the comments warm the cockles of my heart. Current favourite is by one Karthik, in the thread for the Andhra-booze-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban:

A women only could write this article. They have a problem with everything, always cribbing about gender equality but are the first to demand special right and privileges for women. Hippocrates all of them.

 

 

The Mag This Week

In this week’s Books page, we’ve got reviews of

There’s also an interview with literary agent David Godwin who has just written a book, Breaking 80. Godwin was in Mumbai for Tata Literature Live! and made some time to chat about his book and more. You can read selected excerpts of the interview here. If you’re interested in reading everything he had to say, read on.

Why this book now?
Well, I started playing golf because I found out I had diabetes, and I entered a competition and I played very badly. Someone said to me, a publisher, “Well, do you think think you can get better? Do you think you can really break 80?” Eighty is a sort of legendary score for an amateur golfer. And I thought, well, yes. I’m always up for challenges. And also, I had a genuine interest in the idea that you can get better. That whole principle of getting better applies to golf, it applies to cooking and it applies to writing. So for me, it was a particularly interesting venture. The other thing is that as an agent, you’re spread very, very widely over many different projects at any one time. So I thought it would be quite interesting to apply myself to one project over a long period of time that was kind of mine in some way. So it had many challenges for me.

Interestingly, in Breaking 80, you don’t present golf as a metaphor for life or anything like that.
I’m a golfer and there are other things alongside it in the book, but I don’t think golf’s a metaphor. I’ve had people say to me, for example, that golf reveals character. It doesn’t. It’s quite untrue. I’ll give you two examples. I play with a very good friend of mine who is the most conservative man imaginable. On a golf course? Reckless. Me in life: reckless. In golf, very conservative, very cautious, I plan it all. Head towards the green, and I’m very very organised.

Golf is almost an adventure sport considering the conditions in which you play which isn’t how we imagine it, given how golf courses are in India.
I played up in Scotland, quite recently, and basically the old tradition is that you’ve got nine holes out and then you turn around and come back. It was pouring with rain. We got to the end and I was completely soaked and we couldn’t play any more so we had to turn around and walk back. It was a bit like you’re walking and someone takes a bucket of water and pours it all over you, again and again. You stand there and you wonder, “What on earth am I doing?” And you’re wearing waterproofs and it makes not a blind bit of difference. So it is an adventure sport.

Did you know golf was going to be this challenging?
No, I didn’t think so. But like this one time, I’d driven for 10 hours, stayed with a friend to play golf and then the next day there was a storm. And I thought, I can’t not play now. So we went out and we were on the golf course for an hour and came back. It was absurd. I have to say, playing in the rain — not a lot of fun. I’m not going to make a case for it. It’s not character-building or anything like that but it was the only opportunity, since I don’t live in Scotland, so you take it.

Those rain and chaos bits are also some of the more funny parts, because you’ve got it all planned and —
Then it all goes haywire.

These are very English stories, aren’t they?
It’s kind of like PG Wodehouse for the next generation. Things go wrong, but that’s what happens in England. More so than anywhere else. It is a very English tale. Like for example, I went for dinner with my old schoolfriends and they know about India but only from about a hundred years ago. I tried to impress them with the writers I represent and they didn’t know any of them, so that fell on stony ground.

Instead you were asked about Twinkly Bottom.
Precisely. And no, I don’t know about Twinkly Bottom. Why on earth would I?

Were you nervous about the actual writing of it?
Yes, I was. I was nervous about whether I could do it, but I knew from watching people write and giving advice to people, that if you can write clearly and plainly and make sure there aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs — that’s generally the best way. Keep the sentences short and sharp.

So I thought that, well I’ll just apply two rules. One is to keep it as simple and plain and truthful as I can. So don’t embellish things, don’t use any metaphors if you can help it. Secondly, keep doing it. Watch people, listen to people’s comments. People felt some bits didn’t work, listen to them, respond to it and make it better. Actually I was a bit worried when I sent it out to people who wanted to know, people I represent. But actually, people have been incredibly nice about it. Maybe they’re just being kind to me, that’s possible. But they have been, in a way that I’ve been really amazed by. Whether it’s Arundhati or Vikram, they’ve been so generous.

I think you know how hard it is to do it (to write descriptive prose). Arundhati’s book is such a dazzling book and it is all in the telling. I think the worst thing is if you, you’ve either got to do it absolutely as perfectly as she does it. If you can’t do it as well, it is catastrophic. It’s like baking a cake and you get it all wrong. In that case, better not to take a risk. My story is in the tale and not  in the telling. So I wanted to be as clean and plain as a piece of glass.

Do you think writing reveals something of the writer?
That’s true. People complain that I send very, very short emails to people. It really is alarmingly short because I write a lot. I think people find it quite disconcerting. “No I wouldn’t do that.” “Good idea.” or “Yes.” In a funny way, I think that is my natural voice. Also I’m very sentimental but I’m not emotional. I think I’d be a better person if I was more emotional and less sentimental. But there you go. So in a funny way, trying to find some way, I wouldn’t think of it myself as revealing my character, but I suppose there must be some connection.

You’ve packed a lot into Breaking 80 — from memories of childhood, to your career, to golf.
Well, I wanted to have some variety in there. That’s the way it turned out to be. I knew it was a quest. I knew it had to have a beginning and an end. But in between, I knew I could do some things. Also, to explain things a bit more so it’s not just for golf people because the same things that drive my passion in agenting was also there in the golf. It’s the same energies. I do get very committed to things. I hope I’m committed I’m as committed to Jeet [Thayil] as I am to golf.

My life is about commitment and seeing things through. Agenting is a very long term business. People think it’s about selling a book. It kind of is but it isn’t really. You’re there at the very, very beginning of a career. And I’m there at the very end. I’m the guy who’s sweeping up the room at the end, when everyone’s gone home after a party. Agents are there right through. Sometimes you come into the frame, sometimes you’re less important, but you’re there.

You once described yourself as a Robin Hood of Indian literature.
Not as much as I was because I’m older and I can get what I want for people without screaming as much as I did. There was a lot of twisting and shouting. Also, when you change from being a publisher to an agent, publishers think you’re going to be on their side because you know how publishing works. So when you turn out to be more passionate on the writers’ side, that can cause some distress. I think I was always ready for a fight in the old days. I find ways things around things now rather than just bashing my head. Jeet’s a very good example. Jeet’s book was turned down by everybody except one. Now in the old days, I’d just be enraged. I’d shout about it. But now I thought, ok well I can’t change their mind so I have to go around it. So we sold the book to Faber, Penguin distributed it very well here and it all worked out fine. So you think, don’t fight battles you can’t win. Just turn back. I’m more inclined to do that now.

Do you find what attracts you to a book has changed?
It’s like a certain kind of voice, of a book. There are different books but they have the same kind of irresistibility about them. When you are very passionate about one book, the price is that you’re less passionate about others and that’s the difficulty. I really find that hard to deal with because I’m also quite truthful. So when people ask, “What do you think of it?”, it’s very hard to fake it. But writers always want their last book to be their best book. And you can never say this is not as good as the other one. That’s a difficult area, to find the balance between truthfulness and passion. Sometimes people are erratic.

In India, you’ve got an almost iconic status. Before your representation, Indian writing didn’t have that kind of exposure. Is there pressure?
No. I just do my job. I certainly wouldn’t want to claim any kind of hierarchy. I think I’ve been very lucky and I do greatly believe in luck. I think luck is very important and that one thing leads to another. All I can do is provide a platform to help; bring my experience, credibility. It means when I’ve got something I like, people are more likely to read it. But it doesn’t mean to say they’re going to like it. For all the history, it comes down to one book, one publisher, one moment. That’s just repeated endlessly. It’s nice to take risks. If I do new things, then the whole project goes on. I just think I’ve been very fortunate.

There’s often an anxiety about the lack of variety in Indian fiction and Indian writing in English.
You think that about English writing here? Come to England. The Booker, how depressing that was. There was Will Self, who’s done something original. And they give the book to Hilary Mantel. I’m sure she’s a good writer, no criticism about that, but it was just the same English Tudor history. And it’s history. As she says herself, it’s not invented. She sticks to the facts. It’s a great skill. But at the end of the Booker dinner, when they said and we’re giving the Booker to Hilary Mantel, it was like “Oh no! Really?” After all the hype about new writers, new publishers, they were very pleased about themselves. Everyone in the room thought the winner was going to be Will Self, including Will Self. I thought it was a terrible anti-climax. I think the books that win, they’ve got to end well and they’ve got to sustain re-reading.
We [David Godwin Associates, Godwin’s literary agency] do very few British novels, actually. Partly because I don’t think that many people have come through in the past 15 years, which is terrible. In comparison look what’s happened here in that time. Whether it’s Arundhati or Aravind or Jeet or Nilanjana, there’s extraordinary work. Britain, what have you got? Hilary Mantel? Another novel from Ian McEwan? It’s exceptionally good, but very few people have broken through. Who’s emerged in the past ten years as a major writer from Britain? It’s a small list. Where are the London novels? I’ve been trying to find a cosmopolitan novel set in London for years. Have I found it? No.