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Archive for March, 2012

3: Why This Kolaveri Da!

I had absolutely no expectations from 3. Especially after a silly but fun song went viral! People seemed to have bought their own hype on the basis of THAT song?

Let’s be realistic. How perfect could a debut be? That too with all the generation next baggage it was carrying – the legacy of Rajnikant, Kamal Haasan and Selvaraghavan. Ironically, that misleading Kolaveri hype that may just kill the film. People who went in expecting a silly but light-hearted fun film were probably a little too shaken by the fact that it begins with its leading man’s death.

This is a daringly dark debut by Aishwaryaa R Dhanush and I was more than impressed by how the first half unfolded – very refreshingly light, casual and realistic. For once, actors actually looked believable playing school kids – Both Dhanush and Shruti get the body language bang on. Innocence is one of the most difficult things to capture on film and to her credit, the debutant director does it by ducking all the small cliches. No rich girl, poor boy. It’s the other way around. Not a complete idiot, boy is smart and can score 86 per cent in physics if he wants to. No trying to get to first base or second base here, the focus is on holding hands or going for a bike ride. Dhanush has come a long way from the Thulluvathu Illamai days.

When he says something mushy, she tells him not to get filmy. The film tries to keep it real. Or at least as real as it can get in the mainstream format. The first act is very real and close to life and probably the best part of the film. It has an instant connect with the young.

The second is when the makers resort to a little whimsy. And this time, it’s the boy who tries to tell the girl not to get filmy. But having crossed a threshold and a point of no return, the narrative hops along the surreal path taken. There’s a wedding in a nightclub, probably a little too much even in a Mani Ratnam romance film. If a certain lover from ‘Bombay’ told his father he can’t wait for the old man to kick the bucket to get married, here the young lover tells his Dad he’s willing to leave home and demands a share of the Grandfather’s property. As you prepare for another Alai Payuthey, we are reminded we are watching something that’s more out of the Selvaraghavan school.

The third act of the title 3 is what will either make you love it or hate the film as it lets go completely into the unreal space. It’s never easy to pull this off!

There are some moments of bloody brilliance (the one involving a pug will send shivers down your spine) and the film turns into a complete acting showreel for Dhanush as he relishes every burst of violence in the film. He saw him do a similar turn in Selvaraghavan’s largely restrained Mayakkam Enna and it’s always a pleasure to watch an actor go for a career best.  When stars around are trying to capitalise and assert their heroism, Dhanush is going all out to prove he can act and he can do that bloody well and if nobody’s going to write roles for him, he will do it all by himself with help from his brother, wife and family!

It’s difficult to talk more about without getting into the spoiler part of it. So if you haven’t watched the film yet, please watch and then come back to read this.

It’s understandable that we don’t get the slightest clue about the twist in the third act in the first simply because it’s completely through the girl’s point of view. If she saw him as a normal, regular guy, there’s no way she would remember anything abnormal or out of the ordinary. But a more experienced director would have put in something there too that could be interpreted in very different light on second viewing.

The third act, that unravels mostly through the best friend’s point of view (Sunder is superb here again) shows us a very different, disturbing side of the guy we got to know in the first two acts. And it is the manifestation of this side that’s so unreal and the biggest cliche to have ever hit Tamil cinema. The dangerous thought that the mentally ill are a hazard to not just society but also the family.

And after being decidedly non-filmy (in the first, in the second and even in an action scene in the third act, one of the bad guys quips: This is not cinema fight and gives a crash course on how it should play out for real), the film explodes into one melodramatic filmy climax – be it the hero beating up half a dozen guys single handedly or showing us things that nobody would know – not the girl, not the best friend… moments where he’s alone, where he’s all by himself. Which is fine within a filmy narrative but for a film that claims it’s NOT filmy and it’s real, there’s no way anyone around would know what the character’s final moments were and this portion sticks out like a sore thumb. And as good as he is, there’s just no reason for a two minute exposition of great acting, especially in that last scene Dhanush features in.

A better filmmaker would’ve had us imagine that in our heads. What is not shown is always more powerful than what we see.

Socially, this is a terribly irresponsible film no doubt but there’s no denying that in terms of pure cinema, it marks the arrival of a filmmaker with promise. A filmmaker confident of handling the dark side, without a damn about what the market wants.

Would’ve normally gone with 6/10 but Aishwaryaa gets an extra point just considering that this is her debut. 7/10

“If Facebook were to have its say, Anna Hazare would be President”: Siddharth Basu responds to criticism on NVOK/KBC

After the first 12 out of 80 episodes rolled out in its first season, the makers of the Tamil KBC, Neengalum Vellalaam Oru Kodi, have gone in for a life-line. Audience Poll. Just to be sure if the show’s working after initial buzz that the questions were just too silly.

“The ratings haven’t fallen. In fact, we have grown in the third week even with these questions. And the questions were not silly, the options were mocking. The feedback we got was: Don’t mock your own questions. We’ve taken it as constructive feedback and put it to the Big Synergy team,” says K. Sriram, Channel Head, Vijay TV.

“The characteristic of the show is that you play at the level of the contestant. If it’s a chaiwala like in Slumdog Millionaire, the questions are made at his level. It’s partly science, partly art and it involves a little judgement and experience. The first few questions are meant to be icebreakers and people can slip even in the simplest of questions. Out of 19 people who have been on the show in the first 12 episodes, five have taken lifelines within the first five deceptively simple questions. The reason we employ simple or easy questions is also because it increases the ‘Shoutability’ factor. People sitting and watching the show shout out at the answer. The idea is not to put an organic chemistry formula question to trip everybody right at the start,” explains Siddharth Basu, one of the masterminds behind the Indian variants of the show.

Siddharth Basu, who runs Big Synergy, was in town to supervise the new schedule – Episodes 13 & 14 – shot on Friday, for Monday and Tuesday evenings.

“You can look up this video on Youtube when a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire was asked Which of the following is the largest: A. A Peanut B. An Elephant C. The Moon D. A Kettle… and still got it wrong after using a lifeline. That’s part of what the show is supposed to be at the first level. It is supposed to be funny, bizarre and eventually get serious. Sometimes, even stupid questions get wrong answers.”

There has been no dumbing down for the South whatsoever, Basu swears.

“It has never entered our mind. Part of the format is to play at the level of the contestant. To give you an analogy, a show like Mastermind is like watching Sachin bat in full form. You admire a virtuoso. On KBC, anybody can put bat and ball. It could be your grandmother. Or to give you another analogy of high jump, let’s say you can jump 3 feet. Since the show is designed as a ladder, we would start easy to make you clear your level before pushing you to jump higher.”

“You will see more and more facets of Suriya during the season. He’s making quite an effort, really reaching out to connect to the audience,” adds Siddharth Basu.  “He approached it very conscientiously and sincerity that comes off on screen. We did mock sessions for gameplay, techniques with him and different kinds of people. He hadn’t done much real time interaction like theatre before and yet, he’s managed that graph in quick time. The idea is to play to the strengths of the star. The idea is not to make him become Amitabh Bachchan or SRK, it has to be Suriya or Suriya plus.”

Last week, viewers got to see a very new side of the star when we went down and danced with a contestant and he went down on his knee to propose to her. “When he goes on to the floor, he surprises us,” says Sriram.

Most criticism of the show has come from Twitter and Facebook with people putting up screen grabs of questions and comments under it.

“The blogosphere, or social network-sphere, you can take seriously only up to a point. If Facebook were to have it’s say, Anna Hazare would be President and Prime Minister rolled to one, we could have Lokpal that would be housed on the moon… How seriously can you take this? Of course you listen to it. And if it’s sensible it is but if it’s off the point, if it’s just whole lot of venting and opinions, then it’s people’s right to do it… It’s wonderful but you keep your judgement and keep going. Here’s a format that has been hugely successful in 120 territories worldwide. You do what you think is right when it is time-tested,” says Siddharth Basu.

“It’s about the ratings. Otherwise, we would run the show on Facebook. It’s not. It’s on Vijay TV. We want to go to Madurai and beyond. We have our priority. It’s not for the Facebook crowd. In fact, I can challenge them to take the test and after a point it wouldn’t be simple for them. ‘Millionaire’ world wide, particularly in India, has become the human story as much as it’s knowledge game. It’s a knowledge game that’s life changing and gives you a sense of the people that are there in small towns… A sense of India beyond what’s on Facebook, what you read in newspapers or what’s on TV generally. The contestants are the stars of the show. This is about their stories and their lives.”

“When people say I can’t, I want to do that: Suriya”

When I was first approached, I went and saw this show in Mumbai and met Mr. Bachchan. I was thrilled, excited, very scared at the idea, I even thought I cannot do it. But when people say I can’t, I want to do just that. So I just thought I should jump into it since it would be a good exercise to learn something new. When I went to Mumbai and saw what the show was doing, I knew I couldn’t have missed this opportunity. Because this is not a game show or a quiz show. It’s about people. You see the whole of Tamilnadu on the set and I had a role to play, I had to be instrumental in helping them get the prize money. There’s been a lot of positive feedback. I have been able to reach out to people who have never seen me in theatres because TV has a much wider reach.

The first person who was shocked was Jo (Jyotika, his wife). ‘Dhoni was my hero and he’s gone to No. 2 and you are now No.1, she said after watching the first episode. It wouldn’t have been surprised for any of us if Karthi had done this because he’s naturally talkative. We actors are always restricted to a small circle of people. We meet some at the airport, we have people watching shooting but we don’t connect or talk to them but this show brings me closer to people. I see them share their life experiences and open up. I want to make them feel comfortable.

I don’t have any plans of what all I want to do in the show. I just go with the flow. I jumped into it because it would help me grow. Even while playing the game, I only know the answers after the computer tells me once they have told me their answer. So I am as excited as the audience for them during the gameplay.  I want to be more spontaneous on the show and make them open up. Everything happens in real time. So nothing is planned.

I can’t be another person (on comparisons with Mr. Bachchan). Initially, I thought I had to play all the questions seriously but I realised, there were some fun questions which I shouldn’t have taken seriously. So from now, I would handle them differently. This show has been a learning for me.

An edited version of this story originally appeared here.

Why a filmmaker and a critic can’t be friends

How can you rate Pyaar Ka Punchnama 9/10, a journalist asked me point blank when I was temporarily on the other side of the fence, facing interviews during the release of my film. Now, a rating never is any indication of how good a film is. It is only an indication of how much the person rating it likes it.

And that’s the only truth.

And no matter what you do, you cannot contest or argue with that truth – that I liked a film or didn’t like a film. What you can argue with are the reasons why I liked it or why I didn’t. And those are the discussions I love.

The day before Good Night Good Morning released, SRK fans trolled our IMDB page to teach us critics a lesson. I review for The Hindu and the much-hated Raja Sen from Rediff plays a supporting role in the film. How dare we write negative reviews on Don 2? SRK fans ran a campaign on Twitter calling other fans to rate GNGM 1/10 since there’s no 0/10 option. I would be lying if I said it didn’t matter at all.

Of course it matters. Because unlike a review that’s one person’s opinion, an IMDB rating was some sort of a barometer of how many people liked it and how many didn’t.  And being a niche film without stars, we were catering to a film literate audience that was IMDB-savvy and that rating really seemed to matter. We created about 20 fake accounts to counter the 28 1/10 votes and posted reviews (real ones done by others) under our own accounts crediting the real author at the end of the post of course.

To our disappointment, it didn’t work. The rating remained unchanged. Because IMDB uses some weighted average system that is a well kept secret to stop people from manipulating the ratings. We asked friends to bail us out by voting. That didn’t help much either because the trolls kept doing the same.

And so it happened. We started off with our 3.4/10 rating, the worst thing that we could’ve asked for. But thankfully for us, reviewers seemed to like our film a lot more. And more than the critics, the people who watched it became the film’s ambassadors.

We got over 50 positive reviews with a minimum rating of 3 stars and over 500 tweets and an equal number on FB through comments and status updates within a week for a film that barely 1500 people watched in the theatres before Agneepath kicked us out of the theatres on Day 7.

My friend Raja Sen wrote a column on Mumbai Mirror inviting people to bring out their claws. We had prepared ourselves for the worst. Considering how much we give out, we really wanted to see how much we could take ourselves.

Luckily, we didn’t have to take much. Yes there were a few friends who hated it and chose to keep their opinions to themselves (something we always get to hear about through DMs because Twitter makes the world a smaller place!) but that is a part of the game. You can never please everyone.

We got lucky that many people liked our film. Our IMDB rating shot up to 7.6/10 with over 200 votes (Of course, that is perhaps a little too much for our little film, I agree and so no complaints that it is now much less).

Within a month of the release of the DVD, we became the film that sold more DVDs than any Shah Rukh or Salman film last year on Flipkart (climbing up to No.5 on Flipkart’s all time best seller list – only behind Rockstar, The Dirty Picture DVD, The Dirty Picture VCD and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

That there was our big “Fuck You” to all those trolls who did stuff out of pure malice, without even watching the film.

As you can guess by my tone, obviously I hate those pests.

To most filmmakers, every critic who gives a bad review is one such pest. They hate them from the bottom of their bottom. The smart ones just know to conceal it better. And the not-so-smart ones like Samir Karnik shoot their mouth off and provide us the laughs.

Being a critic, I do know that a review is one person’s opinion… But when there are more people who share that same opinion, it is perceived as a larger truth by the average reader/browser and read as an evaluation of the quality of the film, pretty much like the IMDB rating.

You know when a film gets 1 star or 1 and a half stars from every other critic in town must be quite bad. You know a film that gets 3 stars or above from every other critic must be quite decent. That’s also how I believe that I have made a decent film – by looking at the aggregate of the reviews and the arguments made against it and not just individual opinion – because honestly, there’s no way I can judge my own film till the time I have had the benefit of time and distance.

I can’t watch my first film again. I hate it. I removed all evidence of its existence.

Now, I remember getting good and bad reviews for my first film. I remember linking both the good and the bad reviews on my blog back then. I was going to send one of them a ticket to my new film inviting him to rip it apart again when I heard he told a common friend how he ‘Pwned’ my first film (when I had sportingly linked to his negative review from my blog). So I changed my mind and didn’t send him that ticket. Why? Because we don’t like people who don’t like us. Simple.

It’s always that way. There may be 200 people saying good things about your film but that one guy who hates it/disses it always gets your attention. You feel the need to react to that one guy instead of reveling in the glory of all the positivity.

No filmmaker finds it in him to forgive the guy who has dismissed months of his hard work, blood and sweat. It’s only human.

In fact, I respect the ones who have told me to my face that they can’t be friends with me. Like this popular actor down South: “For you, films maybe a part time hobby. For me, films are my life. If you don’t like my films, we can’t be friends.” That is the most honest statement I have ever heard from any person in the film industry. I respect the guy for that.

I had given one of his weakest films a bad review and the producers sent us a legal notice threatening to sue me for 25 crores to compensate the loss! I wish reviews had that kind of power. Bodyguard would have flopped given how it was ripped apart by critics almost unanimously.

But the thing about conflict is that it suddenly puts the critic at a disadvantage. It’s a stalemate. If you say anything positive about his next film, you are a suck-up. If you say anything negative, you are nursing a grudge.

I have lost many friends to this politics of reviewing.

Having seen the ugly side, I can safely say that there are just a handful of filmmakers who I know who can truly take it like a man.

I am not going to take names. But here’s a sample.

One filmmaker stopped following me or responding to me and another critic after a bad review of his film last year.

Another champion of independent cinema feigns friendship during the occasional run-ins but chose to maintain radio silence about my film when it could’ve really done with a little support during the month of release, especially after he claimed to like it.  Of course, no one owes anyone anything. The only point here is that we are certainly NOT friends because we share that awkward critic-filmmaker relationship.

A studio boss stopped following me the day my Yearend list was out in papers minus his films.

Another industry buddy who gave me gyaan on how cool he is with criticism told a fellow critic in a moment of weakness that we critics didn’t know shit and we should first go make a film to know what it’s like (More on this at the end of this post). He also later made sure he told me why he thought my film sucked and how he could write a better film.

More recently, a filmmaker got largely good reviews, stopped entertaining calls from his former colleague and friend after she wrote a mildly negative counter-point.

Another master filmmaker who made a bad film last year recently admitted to a friend how he wasn’t able to deal with the negative review no matter how hard he tried. “You should have told me first before writing it.” “But you didn’t have a problem when I wrote good stuff without telling you beforehand.” “Who complains about good stuff?” Again, this was an honest response from a guy who had stopped taking calls.

Most filmmakers fake it.

Like Harry told Sally that a boy and a girl can never be friends, a filmmaker and a critic can never be friends. Bad sex always gets in the way. “Boohoo! You screwed me.” There are always exceptions to the rule, of course and I am lucky to have such friends too… though one can never be sure these days ;)

And as for that much used argument: “Go make a film and then criticise…”

Here’s the thing, guys. That shows you don’t understand the medium enough. Filmmaking is a process of construction, putting it together block by block while film criticism is a process of deconstruction and taking it apart piece by piece. Blocks and pieces are like chalk and cheese sometimes because what you thought was chalk was probably cheese for the person consuming it.

It’s like assembling an impossibly giant jigsaw puzzle of an image you have only inside your head against a deadline. Sometimes you don’t even have all the pieces, especially when you are an independent filmmaker. And once you have left the room with whatever you have assembled in the time and space you were given, a bunch of people walk in to make sense of what you’ve put together. They are able to spot some parts of it and don’t get some. It does not always reflect their inability to read, it sometimes reflects your inability to put it together. The truth is always somewhere between the two.

As my friend Cilemasnob often says, “You don’t need to know how to cook to comment on the taste of food.”

And during that week when I was briefly on the other side of the fence, almost every other journalist asked me if you need to be a filmmaker to be a critic or vice-versa. No way. They require slightly different skill-sets. That’s like saying “You should have experienced a heart attack at least once to be a good cardiologist”.  Or to extrapolate that thought further, “You should have been a corpse once to be a sensitive undertaker.”

P.S: “Even you can’t take criticism!”

This is such a recursive loop, one that renders the entire exercise of arguing futile. When you make a counter argument to criticism, it is seen as a sign that you cannot take criticism simply because the guy criticising you cannot deal with the fact that he’s being criticised for his criticism. There’s no end to this, every criticism can be counter criticised and so on until…

a. It reaches a “Let’s agree to disagree” stalemate

b. You stop being friends

c. You pretend you are friends but actually think the other is an asshole.

Therefore, a critic and a filmmaker can never be friends. QED.

Kahaani: Hacker, Traitor, Soldier, Spy

Genre: Thriller

Director: Sujoy Ghosh

Cast: Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saswata Chatterjee, Indraneil Sengupta

Storyline: A pregnant woman comes to Kolkata searching for her missing husband as the hunt leads her to a dangerous doppelganger.

Bottomline: A thrilling mind game you don’t mind losing

The most fascinating part of fiction, or as the word ‘story’ classically means, is that it is not real. Just like magic. Or cinema. There’s willing suspension of disbelief involved especially when the storyteller tells you upfront, that he’s going to simply tell you a story.

And reminds you every few scenes that it is just a story – starting from the giveaway of a title and tagline, to the genre itself (on a scale of real to spy thriller, how loophole-free is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the finest and most sophisticated spy thrillers ever made?), comic book type characters (surely you didn’t think a life insurance agent with a silencer gun killing people in public spaces is realistic) to larger than life situations (A gas attack, chases and shootouts through streets, hairpin facilitated break-ins, assorted hack-jobs) reminding you constantly that what you are watching is just pure good old pulp fiction. As any basic course in film studies would teach you that all these “loop-holes” are in fact alienation devices to remind you that you just watching a movie. Or listening to a story with all the visual, animated dramatics of the form. Kahaani is best analysed within the framework/ parameters of the form/ grammar of classic storytelling.

If you start questioning why didn’t Kansa just kill Vasudev or Devaki (or at least one of them) fearing the prophecy that their eighth son will kill him or wondering how they conceived Krishna through mental (and not sexual – because that would lead to fresh loopholes – why did he allow them to have sex for all those years and wait till they produced eight babies!!) transmission, then the mother of all epics – the Mahabharatha itself seems fundamentally flawed. Did you question why an exiled prince built a bridge with an army of monkeys when he could just take a Pushpak Vimana on the way back? Or were aeroplanes a technology only the Lankans had access to? If yes, why not get the spy monkey hijack a plane during the visit there – the one where he burnt all of Lanka? This dude lifted a mountain to save someone, why not just throw the mountain on the enemies and kill them all? We’ve heard this many times before – never let truth come in the way of a good story.  The unreal incidents are constant reminders that we are being told a tale.

Sujoy Ghosh makes for a charming storyteller with this finely crafted, rivetingly paced thriller that makes up for realism with plenty of quirks and twists.

Kahaani is just that sort of a mind-game you don’t mind losing because the game is much more entertaining than the end result. Not to take away anything from Ghosh’s end-game, this story just doesn’t unfold, it explodes into the colourful streets of festive Kolkata and expects us to keep picking up the pieces of the jigsaw let loose on screen from scene one.

There’s a lot of misdirection, most of it is smartly done and well-concealed. Most of the twists hit us out like a bolt out of the blue and produce genuine moments of surprise. And we surrender to the storyteller instead of trying to second-guess the film, given the fun he seems to be having in telling us this story of a woman in search of her missing husband in a city she is a complete stranger to.

Ghosh gives us a thriller charged with the electric atmospherics of an exotic city. What is it about Kolkata that inspires filmmakers to set it as a background for suspense films? We explore its mystery through the eyes of Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi (or Biddha Bagchi as the Bengalis call her) and discover the city’s culture and chaos, zipping past it on taxis, trams and trains of Kolkata’s Metro.

It’s that kind of a frenetic ride where you think you know where you are headed only to find yourself at the edge of the platform, pushed right in front of a speeding train! One moment, it’s a dizzying merry-go-round that’s gone out of control, and before you know it, it’s a rollercoaster of a blind chase as the dazzling narrative pieced together by Setu’s energetic cinematography and Namrata Rao’s cuts keeps us hooked all through its moments of inspired, zany madness.

Be it Bob Bishwas (Saswata Chatterjee), the insurance agent who doubles up as a contract killer or the obnoxious rude intelligence officer Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), these are characters destined to be celebrated as ‘cult’ years down the line. Just watching the diminutive Nawazuddin Siddiqui chew up the scenery around him with his powerhouse presence is a delight.

But carrying this baby in her maternity clothes, Vidya Balan has truly arrived. This is no Dirty Picture banking on low-cut blouses. This is the Vidya we have grown to love for her choice of roles and her gumption to do what it takes to get into character. Decades after Rekha, do we have a diva as gifted, an actress so good that she can carry films on the basis of sheer performance, with or without make-up. Yes, I am leaving out Madhuri since I can’t think of films she carried all by herself and Sridevi because I always found her acting way OTT.  We totally relate to sub-inspector Rana (the soft-spoken Parambrata Chatterjee) who is happy playing second fiddle, completely in awe of this heroine. We become him, rooting for her throughout the film and discovering the truth through his eyes.

The film does stay on for a few extra minutes than required to spell out the mystery, a decision likely to attract criticism. But having heard from people who still have doubts and questions, maybe it was warranted. It’s not every day do we get a suspense thriller that demands us to keep thinking and re-evaluate everything we have been told to check for loose ends. Surely he must have dropped a ball juggling all those things or didn’t he?

Updated: A second watch confirms he hasn’t. In fact, it is the second watch that shows you how brilliant the film really is for the way it made your memory play tricks with you. You thought you saw her husband’s face in every flashback after a first watch? Watch again.

Catch it before someone gives the ending away. Chances are you will want to watch it again. What a finely spun yarn this is! Mast-must watch.


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