Sunday, April 27, 2008

Remembering John - Adoor Gopalakrishnan

It's been a long while since our beloved John Abraham left all of us. Any attempts to confine his exceptional genius, who left us in unusual circumstance in adjectives or clichés are bound to fail. John never had friends or foes in the extremes. If anyone claims otherwise, it would have to be treated with suspicion. If someone describes him as a prophet who belonged to an extraordinarily lofty plane, I would tend to agree.

Though older, he was three years junior to me at Pune Film Institute which he joined after resigning his job in L.I.C at Kumbhakonam, Tamil Nadu. Typically, first year students would be ignored as novices by their seniors in any educational institution. However, probably for his captivating personality, John attracted our attention and affection. There would always be a bunch of mates around the articulate John. Drama, Painting, Music, literature - be it anything, he had an uncommon grasp and enthusiasm. Sporting a playful smile he was a natural hitting punch line in any debate.

This was a period when all the students at the Institute were struck by the magical spell of Ritwik Ghatak, who was the vice-principal and Professor of Direction. I remember John's arrival at the institute with some fascination for the period. Naturally they got along quite well. I've heard people say Ghatak expected John to have the brightest future of all his students.

If anyone asks for the most important aspect of John's cinema, I would have to mention at the outset, their engrossing black humor. The protagonist riding a motorcycle by pedaling on the starter (Students, this way, 1972), milkman attempting to fool the cow to yield milk by propping up a calf with straws (Donkey in the Brahmin ghetto, 1977), towards the end in the movie, Cruelties of Cheriyachan (1979) the scene is titled "Ascent" with a long shot of the actor perched on top of a coconut tree, and in the same movie you might as well remember Cheriachan's mother narrate her story in monologue in the burial ground right after her death - like soul inside a body all these stood for a universal vision embodied in unique narrative techniques. Artists who cherished the dead and the living, the exciting and the lifeless with the same intensity of indulgence and affection are not to be found anywhere except John. The scene in the Brahmin Ghetto where the lid of a coffin is opened repeatedly revealing the dead body in a mortuary and the still born child in "To Mother" (1986) clearly underline the above.

His unbridled and uninhibited lifestyle and the art that sucked its blood and sweat were merged irretrievably and inevitably by destiny for sure. His life was like a puzzle in a surreal scenario where a theatrical enactment of tragedy rumored, forewarned, accepted and inexorably took place in the end. We realize that with a jolt now. How can we ever say that the scenes from his own life when he lay unrecognized in the Calicut medical college mortuary like a vagabond for days were not adapted by John as he did in "To Mother"? The intellect that distilled the puzzles of life into art and then life itself and even death left a lot of unknowns in the dark.

John was a compulsive traveler, without any belongings, mostly without even another pair of clothing. John can be anywhere-in conscious or unconscious state; inebriate or sober; in groups or alone. We were together when the only time John traveled abroad, to Italy for Pessaro film festival.

The new pair of shoes that *Odessa organizers bought for him did not fit his feet. Nevertheless he was wearing it in the Bombay airport. It was only a few minutes for the flight to depart before we realized John had not done emigration clearance and he was disheartened to be retreating and finally higher authorities intervened to walk alongside to help him fly are not quite the scenes to forget. When everyone took refuge in woolen clothes from the bone chilling cold in Pessaro, John wore cotton clothing on top of another refusing the sweater I offered. After the shows and dinner when everyone else withdrew back into the warmth of their bedrooms, this man was wide awake and walked along the city to conjure the rhythm, sound and material from its nightlife. While our stay in Pessaro was for seven days, John had spent almost fourteen days. Within a few days
We were convinced that John was the most popular, famous and liked participant among us in this Italian city. He did not need to speak Italian to achieve this.

Italy is known for the numerous film festivals conducted every year. Every city conducts one more festivals. As far I know John was invited for at least a dozen of them. The youthful and enthusiastic organizers wanted John to attend them even if his films were not available. The picture of the radiant face of a middle aged bartender who tucked his hand upon his chest and held his breath and deep admiration for John who was stepping on to the stage to answer cineastes’ questions after Brahmin's Ghetto was screened in Pessaro was incredible. I can never forget or erase the magical moment.

We were given a car to visit Rome on the last day of the festival. I had obtained permission to keep the car for the whole day so that I could show the city to John. I took this responsibility upon myself since I had been there three times already. I kept the following vignette in memory. Inside St.Peter's Basilica in Vatican and inhaling the enchanting, resplendent and holy majesty that condensed over centuries, John confessed with pride and a mischievous tinkle in his eyes:

"Standing here if a Christian bloke felt a bit cocky, you can't really blame him".

The journey's triumph and the serene hallow of fulfillment and satisfaction passed on his smile to me.

I understood later that Pessaro was a major reinforcement for John. He afterwards completed "To Mother". He spoke of each step in production with a lot of excitement. How many of them including Rossellini’s son Jill, John promised to come back with the new film? Everyone who cared for him including myself truly believed he had just entered a new phase of artistic endeavor. Unfortunately for Malayalam films, the thing called fate that some believe and others don’t did not let it happen.

Once after a long interval, John visited my home. He asked my daughter:
"Who asked you to grow up?"

I would like to ask him in return:
"Dear John, who asked you to die?"

* John Abraham: John was one of the major avant-garde directors in Malayalam cinema. With only four films to his credit he had a major impact on the medium. He had an enigmatic persona who defied all the conventional norms of social codes. Even his death had a stamp of his world vision and seemed to invoke a black humor on society's conducts upon celebrity death. He fell off a multi-storey building and was kept in the mortuary for days before being identified.

* Odessa: Odessa was an avant-garde movement who organized resources for meaningful cinema and spread film societies across the country.

This is a original translation work in English by Rajesh from Adoor Gopalakrishnan Book: Cinema, Literature and Life written in Malayalam and the original excerpt can be seen on his Blog

Ps: If anyone wants a copy of John Abraham's films, please send me an email or leave a comment, I will try sending you a copy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dev Anand- a brief sketch

Supriya Suri

Suave, Handsome, charismatic, principled, versatile, every superlatives and adjectives would fall short in the lexicon when it comes down to describing the enigma that is, Dev Anand. He is one of the greatest living actors and performers in the world. Dev Anand embodies everything that was once the glory and hey day of Indian Cinema, where a right dose of entertainment with social ethos embodied the, “ Golden Period in Indian Film History” and Dev Anand was one of the forerunners and torch bearers of the Great Indian Cinema that was once, truly remarkable and universal.

After completing his graduation in English literature from Lahore University, he traveled to Bombay and gate crashed at Prabhat's, Mr Baburao Pai's office in 1946 after which he was auditioned by a director called P.L. Santoshi. He was signed for his first film with Rs 350 per month. The film was called, “Hum Ek Hain” based on national unity disrupted. It was here at Prabhat where he had an encounter with Guru Dutt through a common dhobi who by mistake gave him Guru Dutts shirt, and it was here that they premised each other if Guru Dutt got a chance to be a director before he would cast Dev Anand and if Dev and got a chance to produce, he would direct.

Ziddi was the first success of the actor and turned to a producer. The promise came true after Dev Anand and his elder brother, Chetan Anand, started off with his production company Navketan and gave Guru Dutt a chance in a film called BAAZI, released at Swastik cinema Boambay, 1951. Baazi is known for its experimentation with a ghazal tadbeer bana le- which was set in music style. After Baazi they reworked on Jaal again.

Even though his career was at its pinnacle in 1950's, his best film was still awaited. He personified the boy-next-door image in films like, Munimji (1955), Paying guest (1957). It was in 1958 that got him an award for his performance in Kaala Paani, directed by Raj Khosla. Ironically it was Dev Anand, who had pushed Raj Khosla in direction with Baazi, while he was struggling to become a singer. He was seen in a double role in film like Hum Dono, however, it was to be his next venutre which would bring him critical and commerical success.

Guide, directed by his younger brother, Vijay Anand. Both of them again brought him awards for best actors. Guide was also his first color film that was released in Hindi and English in 1965, and is regarded as his best work. It was based on a novel by R.K. Narayan co starring Waheeda Rehman. Guide was also played in Cannes film festival in the classic section, where Dev Anand was also invited. Along with Hyderabad's Goldstone Technologies in Hyderabad, he worked to recolourize and restore the prints of the classic before it was screened.

In the 1970's Dev Anand made JhonnyMera Naam which where he reunited with his brother, which was again a huge success. He directed his first film Prem Pujari, and the then Hare Raam Hare Krishna, which talked about the hippie culture starring Zeenat Aman and Mumtaz, indeed a bold topic for those times. The same year we saw him in another film by Vijay Anand an adaptation of AJ Cronin’s novel, THE citadel, Tere Mere Sapne.

Dev Anand continued to produce, direct and act in various films, his energy is an inspiration for the youngsters to continue striving for success and to be positive. Dev anand says, "I never give my chance to get depressed, I always think ahead". He continues to work on projects that area parts do the social system in our society.’ On January 26, 2001 Dev Anand was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to Indian Cinema and the latest feather in the cap of this evergreen hero is the Dadasaheb Phalke Award which in true Dev Anand style, he dedicated to the future. apart from national honors Dev Anand has also won international recognitions and honors like In July 2000, in New york city, he was honored by an Award at the hands of the then First Lady of the United States of America - Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton - for his 'Outstanding Contribution to Indian Cinema' then in California for star of the millennium

At 85, his energy levels are higher than that of a youngster. To which he replied he is still child like, curious, restless, ambitious, and is still growing as a person that is why he is still making films.

He recently launched his autobiography Romancing His Life.

(Opening Speech given on the eve of Dev Anand visit to Maison de l'Inde Paris)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

CHARLIE, the vagabond- a brief sketch

"A picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear..."
- The tagline of, ‘The Kid’

Jean Luc Godard shot his tragedy in a long shot and comedy in a close-up, breaking away from the template established by one of his master forefather: Sir Chalire Chaplin, who said: “The long- shot (full shot) is best suited for comedy and close-up for tragedy, and utilized every inch of space, frame, to carve and perform set-pieces which even today can make million laugh and feel the essence of pure happiness and joy in every gag.

Charlie Chaplin was one of the masters of cinema, he wrote, directed, produced, composed music, and was the public figure (publicity) for his own films; he was an auteur (artist) of the purest kind. The likes of whom are facing extinction in an era of, mass proliferation of images, sound and text- in the name of satisfying audience, which Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr could do without compromising on any of his artistic integrity, and he was (and still is) one of the most beloved silent movies stars of all times, and one of the greatest comedians to ever be printed and projected on celluloid.

At the age of five, the young Chaplin showed glimpses of his stage presence when he took the stage (alone) and started singing after his mom was booed off the stage, while performing at The Canteen (a theatre). Chaplin learned his singing from his parents who were both entertainers, though his childhood wasn’t a happy one, as his father left his mother when he was three, and his mother was mentally ill, it was Chaplin with his older brother who simply on the basis of his talents and sheer passion for the stage and singing drove around with troupes finally landing in America. It was his these years of struggle with poverty, illusion, and the knack or passion for succeeding which formed his basic ability to combine deep humane level of emotions and laughter. And form a visual poetry out of the gags, pieces, laughs, cries, bumps and made the mundane and banal of our life infused with energy and momentum.

Chaplin learned the basic art and craft of filmmaking at the Keystone Studio, where he was hired by Mark Sennet, and appeared in his first film in Making- A living, though the film was success, but his most famous avatar: The Tramp was yet to grace the silver screen. Chaplin with every subsequent film subdued his craft in order to highlight every inch of gesture, emotions and was a methodologist in setting or blocking his scenes and a sheer perfectionist even during those days, long before Stanley Kubrick became a the master of takes. Till his very last film with Marlon Brando, A king in New York he never went about shooting with a full working script. Chaplin constantly believed improvising and no film could be given the green signal till he was completely satisfied. Later on Chaplin had become too expensive to be hired by any studio, simply because of his methodology of filming and working. It’s during his stay at the Keystone studios when Chaplin deviated away from the normal staple production of the films made by the studio which had loud gags, featured erratic car chases, exaggerated gestures and physical comedy, and moved towards his subtle storytelling and gags.

Chaplin formed the basic character of the tamp at the Keystone Studio, and made an appearance briefly in a film titled, Kid Auto Races in Venice, where the character wore a tight coat, oversized trousers and shoes, a dery and carried a bamboo cane and had a toothbrush moustache. However, it’s from the release of the, The Tramp that Chaplin subsequently perfected and developed the character; with his characteristic walk, his bamboo waving and his overtly facial gestures. It was at this Studio, Chaplin’s magic as a comedian and a person in control of his subtle acting power were developed, and from here upon he build on this foundation, forming layers and layers of emotions and cinematic interpellation.

Chaplin move to the Essanany Studio helped in two very significant ways, first and foremost it helped him take his ideas and idioms regarding the syntax of film grammar to a new level, making a mark departure in his cinematic skills, especially utilizing the camera as a tool to capture and highlight and emote better with variety then most his pictures at the Keystone Studio. Secondly, it’s at the Essaany Studio that Chaplin formed his stock company, and moved into finding new meaning layers of depth in his slapstick comedy. It was Chaplin’s essence of finding humor and emotions out of the mundane of everyday life that made him different from the likes of other great comedian of the era-Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The former was more successful than Chaplin in terms of his box office receipt(though Chaplin made fewer films), while the latter remained one the most widely critically acclaimed comedians who played in dreamlike and over-top situation, unlike Chaplin whose base of finding his gags was out of everyday objects and situation. Chaplin wrote a special scene especially for Buster Keaton in Limelight, and the presence of this two great artist within one frame is one of the most memorable moment in film history. Its from his days of learning and experimenting in cinematic mise-en-scene (acting, décor, camera, lights) at the Key Stone and Essany Studio that Chaplin went on to make some of the most remarkable and funniest films for the Mutual Film Corporation, where he was given full artistic control of his works, and from here embarked on making some of the greatest feature length films in the history of Cinema.

Hereafter, Chaplin’s success grew leaps and bound, his principal character “ The Tramp” became a household name throughout the world, and Chaplin not only was one of the highest paid person in the world but one of the most famous too. It was his fame, fortune and his extremely astute rigor when it came down to filmmaking that drove Chaplin to form one of the most successful partnerships in faith of good cinema: United Artist along with his best friend Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W.Griffith. Chaplin was a methodologist to the core, and he believed in equal participation from the stars and non-professional actors and his crew. He was known to take a number of takes until and unless every aspects within the scene (act, the frame, the décor, the light) merged or he went on for more takes, and it’s this precise mode of constant improvisation that gave Chaplin performance it’s sheer drive and emotional and comic energy and helped the entire film to weave together and come to life, and his uncompressing attitude remained till his final film The King in New York. Such was his nature of taking his work seriously that he destroyed negative of his film Sea Gull, because he was not satisfied with performance of his lead actress.

How can one forget Andre Bazin’s essay on Limelight or The Death of Moliere, where he recounts the screening of the film where directors, critics, and screenwriters choked with emotions and their eyes were red as tomatoes. He further went on to add:
There is only one word to describe the note struck by this film, and we must first restore it to its full classical meaning – sublime.

It was the period from 1923 to 1957, between A Woman in Paris to The King in New York, Chaplin craft manifested into virtuous tool of carving universal emotions, as Bazin says, the restoration of all tied strings in the film to its classical connotation. His personal artistic unity of combining all forms of filmmaking and expression; through his acting and mise-en-scene- bore some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema. Not that his earlier films were inferior from the films made in this period, since he had made movies such as The Kid, A Dog’s life, Shoulder Arms and most films for, The Mutual films which themselves held in them various critiques and aspects of the human behavior and socio economic situations. However, it’s this important period where he really took his art to a whole new level, combining his impressionable acting ability and putting them in contemporary setting often revolving around certain socio political issues (The Great Dictator, Modern times) and making a foundation of gags which came out only after doing much improvisation (typical of him) and printing hundred of takes, before deciding to print or form a story out in the editing table.

It was his constant zeal of improvisation which allowed the influx of such master comic spaces and timing, and this also formed one of the base and understanding for the directors of French New Wave to form their cinema out of improvisation. The shot of Chaplin working frantically in the factory to keep up with the assembly line of production in Modern Time, not only gives up a set-up which would makes up laugh, but also forms a basic signature of how Chaplin films of this period were composed precisely in it’s mise-en-scene, where the normal subtext would speak beyond the parameters of the on going action: socially and politically. This very scene not only spoke about the basic nature of consumerism and the death of the normal worker, but today, really speaks volumes about the basic nature of the film industry.

The genius of Chaplin laid in his ability to moves us, make us laugh and fill our emotions (at a very humane level) and at the same time offer a genuine critique (of society). He had an astute nature of blending sublime moments that one was swept of there feet, whether watching his films as a spectator, critic or an academic. His films are ageless, they are classic in their pure roots of etymology in all it’s crystalline nature. Since over the course of years Chaplin films has filled our hearts and made us laugh, and even given glimpse of the socio demographics of the time. The shot of Chaplin about to feast on his boots (Gold Rush) is etched in the memories of thousand movie-goers; such images not only evoked emotions, but showed the dire consequences of the collapse of the society.

Chaplin had moved away from his famous “The Tramp” alter-ego for his latter works such as Monsieur Verdoux (black comedy, based on an idea by Orsen Welles) and his final film The King in New York, but both movies showed Chaplin maturity and his range of subtly as a director and performer in short, as an artist. Since in spite of the commercial failure of the films in relation to his diverse works such as, Lime Light, City Lights, Gold Rush, Modern Times or Great Dictator, it had pure elements of beauty in creation of images and aesthetic, that it made his pilgrim as an artist much more strong; his characteristic knack for churning out performances and weaving tale whether dark or sublime into making a pot-purri of varied emotions made Chaplin one of the greatest artist even when moving away form usual format of filmmaking and performance. The music in Chaplin films were often composed by him, and in his later years he got to re-issuing a number of his silent films with new music.

In the finale of City Lights (one of his greatest works), when the blind woman feels his hand, she realizes that it is familiar. You? She says, and he nervously nods, asking, “You can see now? “ She replies, “Yes, I can see now,”? The film ends with a close –up, and this very scene establishes the genius of Chaplin and summarizes his entire oeuvre into a simple touching image. Since it’s not only the conception of the image, but the gesture (the touch), in this case, which broke a mirage of the woman, and formed an important function of abridging the distance between fate and karma. And it’s here and simply here that such sublime moments can exist, in the films of Chaplin, where his artistic integrity of churning out works of universal emotions and truth; on the foundation of honesty, that allowed Chaplin to make not only powerful films, but also gave us one of the greatest creator and performer of the 21st century.

Monday, April 7, 2008

When Aliens took Away Julie- 2nd Runner.

Osiris 83/ Jj 86

A mirage- not an illusion

Can be captured, can be proven

It's there, but isn't really- Refraction not reflection.

Beneficial in its right…

The euphoria suffused in her blood. Her mind was enraptured. Her body... tireless yet dormant.All she remembered were a few random conversations ... all she could see was an unfamiliar yet quaint corridor ... the paintings, vanilla ice-cream and an ivory tower. All being manifestations of her own mind, conjured by her subconscious.

“What do I owe the pleasure?”
“You are in trouble”
“Who is it this time?”
“Religious fanatics .... Feminist groups .....”
“Drink? I've got Bourbon ... and.... bourbon”
“Bourbon ----- rocks”

...If acknowledged by a sound mind

In a sense affecting the vision

Though incentivizing the mission

Inspired, motivated at the sight of the horizon

Humans faulter, breed hope, trudge fiercely, denying all reason.

In the darkness, close your eyes, mirages fade at night

Sleeping was something she couldn't afford. The dream made her feel like an infant seeing the world for the very first time ... a tabula rasa. As she explored the mélange the sheets began unfolding themselves, trying to shout it out loud .... the answers were within her grasp but there existed this fear of these answers not being nearly as ambrosial as the questions.

When caffeine did not work she tried a dose of uppers knowing about the tryst she had with these stimulants, followed by an overdose and a not so pleasing aftermath. Her eyelids succumbed to the tiredness. It was that familiar darkness ....those perfect constellations .... but a different dream. The sunlight penetrated through the tear in the still chiffon curtain, the dust particles danced with a sense of gaiety – drifting around with a promiscuous peculiarity.
She sat at the edge of a cot with half packet of Kamel Red and a bottle of Absinthe. She stepped out of the room and stepped inside the mirror.

An empty room, a door .. another room, dangling curtains --- like puppets, a window with cracked glass, a broken lock, an open door .... an empty corridor, a flight of stairs, a familiar voice echoing inside the head, more stairs ending with a door .... a red sky, a marble floor, the edge, tiny trees, a melancholic smile, a leap.

Start again the next morning- new day, new fight

Endless, never pointless are those journeys by and large

Life teaches you a lot on your way to your mirage.

Relationships,ambitions, refraction.

The seven dwarfs surrounded around the glass case: No one spoke a word, Julie moved in an out of the world of fantasies and drifts:

Bon Voyage.

Bon Voyage

Bon Voyage

Is all that she heard.

The first part of the short story can be read here

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Belgrade Manifesto

The Belgrade Manifesto was initiated by two American Filmmakers, Nora Hoppe and Jon Sanders, at the Belgrade Festival of Auteur film. Nora Hoppe has lived and worked in Europe, and is currently based in Berlin, and Jon Sanders made a Western in Canada(Painted Angels 1999) and lives in London. The manifesto highlights important issues that has been plaguing the film industry world over; due to the globalization of Hollywood marketed images and visuals. So spread the word, and sign up, in support of the Manifesto.

An excerpt from the manifesto:-

“I am convinced that if you start by saying ‘I'm going to destroy everything, I'm going to be modern’, then you won't be modern. You can be modern, and must want to be so, because you must contribute something, but you can be modern only by humbly following your predecessors.”

— Jean Renoir

There is a crisis in cinema today, a deep malaise, a feeling of artistic exhaustion, of pointlessness. The evolution of cinematic language that is so vital to the continued well-being and relevance of the medium has pretty much come to a standstill. Good films are getting fewer, the informed and knowledgeable audience that is so important for their success has shrunk. The older generation don't go to the cinema any more because so many films are for young people, and the young people today have little idea of cinema's capacity for depth, excitement and complexity. The critics, who should be guiding and educating that audience, are mostly inadequate, and the distribution structures no longer work.

The growth of the globalised market and of Hollywood's extraordinary success in exploiting it, despite the fact that the films are getting worse, has not only depleted the alternative markets but, more disturbingly, has undermined alternative approaches to production by acting as a virus - its methods and philosophy are either taken on directly or internalised. Nobody pays attention to form, without which, as our predecessors understood, nothing worthwhile can possibly develop. The “story” is given exaggerated importance; the study of its crude mechanics has become an industry in itself with consultants and experts in every financing agency and production house, part of an ever growing and unproductive bureaucracy whose purpose is to sniff out the trends and fads of the day and to select and develop (and distort) productions in accordance with those predictions.

Read the Full Manifesto on the official website:

PS: It's very important that, ”We Indians" wake up and, support good Cinema- and not just talk about it.

Thanks to Harry, as I came to know about the Manifesto at his indispensable blog.