Friday, June 15, 2012

Sanjay Leela Bhansali vs Wes Andersen: Or A Comparative Analysis of Little Consequence.

It was after watching Wes Andersen’s The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou that I first found myself questioning whether I was being too hard on Sanjay Leela Bhansali for his movies set in never-never India. 

After all, both Andersen and Bhansali set their characters in unlikely settings that disoriented our sense of time and place. Both prefer exploring the the lives and times of the priviledged upper classes. Both are acute aesthetes with a particular love for all things vintage. And finally, both litter their creations with myriad references drawn from unlikely sources. 
So why is it that while the sibling protagonists of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited and the father-son explorer duo of the Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou absolutely charmed me, the heros and heroines of Black, Guzaarish and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (particularly the first two) left me a little irritated and confused? 
Was I - horror of horror - one of those people who immediately accepted the pretensions of foreigners but played-down the works of her compatriots? 
It was after attending a talk by Sabyasachi Mukherjee - the costume designer of Black and Guzaarish - about his work in the two films that the deceptively simple answer dawned on me.
Andersen succeeds while Bhansali fails because he makes comedies whereas Bhansali tragedies. 
ANDERSEN'S characters and settings are eccentric, if not outright outlandish. The Tenenbaum family is characterised by its dysfunctionality. Steve Zizou is the last of the seafaring explorers out to discover the mysterious murderous fish that ate-up his friend (I kid you not). And the three foppish American-Jewish brothers of The Darjeeling Limited go on a spiritual journey across India in a Palace-On-Wheels-like train hoping for a life-changing experience. And he gives them all kinds of aesthetic quirks: the clothes, the accesories, the sets, the music hark back to many different eras and cultures at the same time. 
But here’s the thing. Andersen doesn’t ask us to or identify with these weirdos or find them believable. He merely wants us to be amused by them. If there is an emotional quotient to his films, it only ever hovers on the surface ready to recede instantly in favour of the next eccentric twist. The highly stylised sets, clothes and ambience only add to the characters’ alienness. And we, as audience, remain amused observers of these curiously aesthetic, dysfuntional beings throughout the length of the film.  

Andersen doesn't take his characters or his audience too seriously. 
ON THE OTHER HAND, Bhansali demands that we as audience immerse ourselves into the raw emotional experiences of his characters: the deaf, dumb, blind Michelle McNelly’s struggles to express herself, Nandini’s determination to realise a pre-marital love affair, and the quadraplegic Ethan Mascarenhas’ desire for mercy-killing. All this darkness is overarched by a theme of everlasting love. There is nothing remotely amusing about these characters or their situations. 
Yet, Bhansali refuses to give them a recognisable backdrop. All throughout Black, I kept struggling to place McNelly in a specific time period. There was a lovely vintage quality to the clothes, sets and backdrop that pointed towards a rich, Anglo-Indian family living in pre-Indepedence Shimla. Yet, the references limited themselves to cold, inanimate things. There were no British people intermingling with Indians in saris or nehru topis, no references to the political turmoil: anything that clashed with the immaculate European aesthetics of the setting was cleansed-off the frame. The McNellys were basically European, accidentally being played by Indian actors. Ditto, the Rajasthan-Italy combo of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the Goa of Guzaarish (which somehow seemed closer to the crumbling Colombia of One Hundred Years of Solitude to me). 
Unfortunately for us, the audience, we are then asked to become one with these outlandish creatures: to cry in fury, misery or sadness with them and for them. But how? All through Black, I kept getting distracted by the unlikely but overpowering sets. And I kept feeling manipulated. Bhansali wanted me to feel urgently for McNelly, but at the same time maintain an aesthetic distance from her life. One minute I was invited in, the other minute decidedly booted out. At least, McNelly shared her ordinary looks with us. The Sofia of Guzaarish in her garters, gypsy skirts, aprons and faux-European demeanour didn’t even offer us that. In fact, my mind absolutely refused to interact with this alien creature. Let Bhansali and Mukherjee cry for her, it said, since they thinks she is so fantastic.  
If you want to evoke human feelings, you have interact with the ugliness of our human lives, right? In fact, some of the world’s most raw, emotional artworks - think The Scream, Guernica or Francis Bacon’s works - are ugly. It is a precarious aesthetic ugliness however, and for that reason, they are deemed masterpieces. 
So tell you what, Mr Bhansali. You give me a character decidedly rooted in a reality (ugliness and all), and I will give you one whole bucketful of tears in return. 
And let’s leave the bohemian aesthetics to Andersen. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guzaarish & Black: Or a tale about Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Bohemia and Films

A tale from never-never Goa
Dear Sabyasachi, 
I don’t normally write to fashion designers. But I lost my way around Melbourne Central pondering over your unsatisfying answer to my question at the masterclass yesterday. It was most annoying and I missed feeding my 5-month-old baby girl. After that I felt I owed it to myself to demand a debate. 
My question related to your and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s inspirations and references to the two films you discussed: Black & Guzaarish. Why were the inspirations and references so decidedly European? And if the characters were based in never-never land where to do you begin building a costume language for them? 
You began by saying that this was a tiny sample of your huge body of work, and was not representative of your myriad inspirations and references.  
Then you added that you consider yourself a global Indian, who draws inspiration from anywhere and everywhere and your life and work reflects that. And that if I visited a friend’s house and found his life, travels and inspirations decorating his walls, wouldn’t the resulting bohemia enchant me?
I guess, you were saying that the characters of Guzaarish and Black were a result of your inspirations. And you reserve the right to draw your inspiration from anywhere. And the resulting bohemia is enchanting.
At first, I loved your answer. Mainly because after five years of living in five different countries, I am finally moving into my own home. My thoughts are consumed by how do I use this empty space to create a story about my life, thoughts, inspirations and passions. And your comment encapsulated my feelings.
But then, as soon as you moved on to the next question, I realised that your answer called for a counterquestion. 
Isn’t bohemia for the sake of bohemia meaningless? Bohemia, more than anything else, is interesting if it is organic but not if it is overly-constructed.
I would love my friend’s house if I found that the memorabilia decorating the walls truly reflected his or her experiences, travels and passions. But if they were there merely for aesthetics and effect, I would find it pretentious. Like when a friend, who generally disliked Bollywood and didn’t get irony, suddenly placed a 1980s Bollywood poster on her living room wall. It looked fashionable and arresting, but was it interesting? I thought not because it said so little about her. 
Sure creating a gypsy skirt for a nurse in never-never Goa - as you and Bhansali did in Guzaarish - is fashionable and arresting, but is it interesting? 
Sure putting a Parsi lacing on a Michelle McNelly in never-never Shimla - as you did in Black - is fashionable and arresting, but is it interesting?  
Sabyasachi Mukherjee at Hoyt's Melbourne, June 13
And while films belongs to its creators - and I count you among the creators of Black and Guzaarish - doesn’t it equally belong to the characters of the film? 
I felt that while you and Bhansali were true to your own bohemia, the bohemia of the characters of Guzaarish and Black was constructed, stylised and somewhat meaningless. So while you were true to yourself, you failed your characters in the film.
Why would putting-on a garter on Aishwarya Rai in Guzaarish help her get into her character of a Goan nurse more - as you asserted? No Goan nurses wear garters - regardless of whether they are victims of domestic abuse or not. Most wouldn’t even have access to garters.
Now you’ll say that I am over-intellectualising the costume design. I am not. I am telling you exactly why I couldn’t enjoy the two films with such compelling storylines because try as I might, I just couldn’t lose my way into the character’s lives: they were so alien. 
I’ll end this letter now because my baby girl is crying again, and I am sure you wouldn’t want to be responsible for more of her misery. 
But a debate I demand. You name the place and time. 
Curiously yours
Chatnoir: A Mumbaikar in Melbourne
PS: Feel free to pass-on my questions to Mr Bhansali.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

From Supriya to her Grandparents

Dear Dada & Dadi, 

How are you? Mummy says you have just been to Scotland and are planning to visit Vienna. How can you do this to me? I demand that you come back right now and play with me. How can travel be more fun than sitting next to me and going "agooo, abeee, agooo". 

I don't want to admit it but I think I miss the two of you. Mummy is alright, but she keeps busy most of the day (I don't know what she keeps typing on that silly computer of hers). It was so much more fun when the two of you were around - all I had to do was cry "baiiiinnn" and one of you would come running and play with me and my lovely talking dog Violet. 

Did I tell you that I have graduated to the stroller from my bassinet? Yes, I did. I took Mummy and Papa out for a walk this Sunday on my stroller. We went to a cafe, and it was so much more fun to sit face-to-face with them on the table. I was really getting sick of lying in that bassinet of mine. 

Last week, I took Mummy out for a walk with my friend Thomas and her Mummy. We walked all around North Balwyn until that Thomas started crying. Then, I had to send them back home. But I think we are going to make it a weekly affair - that is, if it ever stops raining.

How is Akshay? Mummy, Papa say that he is turing into a nice, big baby just like me. I hope to meet him soon and play with him. I might even share Violet with him... or maybe I won't. I need to think about that a bit more. 

Anyway, I better run. Mummy has just made a cup of tea for herself and looking forward to enjoying it. That is not a good sign. I think I will poo, then cry, just to ruin her tea. 

Lots of love - and hope to see you soon.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bollywood Star on SBS Australia: Or why the project is doomed from get go.

The much-hyped Bollywood Star show on SBS channel Australia - which hopes to find, groom and lauch the Bollywood career of six Aussies - is doomed to fail. 

Here’s why.
Because this should be a geneology hunt, not a talent hunt: Whoever came up with the dumb idea that you need talent to make it in Bollywood? 
The most reliable and sureshot way to make it into Bollywood is to possess the right genes. Nearly 90 per cent of the current crop of top Bollywood actors have taken this tried-and-tested path to Bollywood stardom. Think Abishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol, Imran Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha: all made it, thanks to the right sirname and familal connections. 
Even a B-grade actor such as Emraan Hashmi had to find a geneological relation to Mahesh Bhatt before he got casted to his first film. 
So if SBS genuinely wants to help these poor sods become a Bollywood Star, it should be sponsoring a find-your-ancestors show not a talent hunt. The six winning finalists can be the ones who find the closest geneological connection to any of the film families: the Khans of all varieties, Chopras, Deols, Kapoors, Bhatts, Roshans et al.
Because this is not a beauty contest: If genes are not very obliging, the next best way to Bollywood is winning an international beauty contest. Think Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza. All of them beat some seriously white skin to get a crown on their head. 
So another option SBS has is organising a seriously ambitious sounding beauty contest. As you must have noticed, any title with “India” in it doesn’t make the cut. (Sorry Ms India-Australia). It has to be more than that. (Now the titles of Universe, World and Earth are already taken, but Galaxy, Milky Way and Solar System are still available for SBS to cadge). 
Because foreigners have no place in Bollywood: Name one foreigner who has had a successful Bollywood career. 
If you have a white skin, you can only graduate to villains or vamps, no matter how much you profess to love dancing, colours and curries. Why? Elemetary, Mr Watson. Bollywood films are about how great Indians are, and having a white-skinned hero or heroine would defeat the very purpose. 
But... but... what about Katrina Kaif, you’ll say? What about her? She didn’t make it into Bollywood on the basis of being a beautiful Brit of Indian ancestry. She made it purely on the strength of being Salman Khan’s girlfriend - she piggybacked on him in all her initial films. 
Because Mahesh Bhatt is the chosen producer/director to launch the six finalists and Mahesh Bhatt has not made a decent film in more than a decade. In the last five years, he has made three films - all flops. He is also disgustingly sensational. These days he is busy launching the career of Sunny Leon, an international porn star trying to gain respectability as a Bollywood star (Yes, indeed, our six finalists will be joining such elevated company). 
Because one episode down, we are already scraping the bottom of the barrel: Any talent hunt which is reduced to selecting three contestants out of the last six - after going through some 300 contestants - is seriously in trouble. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Supriya Pari Prakash: Or why we decided to give a middle name to our daughter.

It is only your spare name, darling!
I always thought that middle names were silly. They added unnecessary length to the name. They served no real purpose in modern life where our efforts and not our pedigree took us forward. And they sounded pompous. 

In fact, I earned my middle name quite by accident. My 10th grade teacher took it upon herself to tack my Dad’s middle name to mine before sending off the list to the High School Board. My high school degree arrived in the name of Chetna Rao Mahadik instead of a simple Chetna Mahadik. Having insidiously imprinted itself on this critical document of my life, the “Rao” then made its way to all my subsequent degrees, bank accounts and passports. 
Seventeen years on, I am still trying to get rid of it. 
Which is why, when Sid and I started thinking of names for our daughter, a middle name had no place in my plans. 
It was a chance discussion with friends that first got me thinking that middle names made little sense for my generation, but could be critical for my daughters’. 
You see, my daughter belongs to a generation whose life and actions will be imprinted all over the internet. From this blog, to her blogs and whatever other social media that takes over Facebook and twitter: her life, photos, opinions and actions will be played out in public. And with that public life will come the very possible risk of public embarassment. 
I think a lot of my child’s peers will look back at their teenage years and wish that they could somehow distance themselves from those internet words, images and personality attached to their names. And since they'll be unable to change the internet, many of them will change their names instead. 
And frightening as it seems, my daughter could be one of those wanting a new name. 
Taking this possibility into consideration, suddenly a middle name sounded not pompous but practical. It acts as spare name, waiting in reserve if someone found their first name too internet-tainted. If Supriya had an official middle name, a name change would not involve crazy and painful paperwork. It would simply mean dropping her first name, and adopting her middle name for most public purposes. 
So it is that a tiny, innocuous “Pari” made it between the Supriya and Prakash of my daughter’s name. 
And I sincerely hope that she never finds any use for it.