Thursday, May 31, 2007

Smoking and the superstar

I started smoking when I was 14. I quit today. Or rather, I will quit today. In other words, I am going to quit today. You see, as plainly as light is day, that I have problems believing this. That I am going to quit today.

A few days after I quit, Rajnikanth will be back on the screen. Hopefully, he will be puffing away as usual. I think millions of fans must have been really impressed with the way Rajnikanth smokes. It was then a sort of coincidence that I first got caught smoking at home after watching Annamalai at a theatre in my hometown. And, what was worse for me, was that I hadn't even smoked that day.

Even though I didn't quite learn to smoke the way Rajnikanth does, smoking and the superstar are forever connected in my mind. My grandmom made sure of that the day I got caught. I used to smoke back then, but because of the rush at the theatre I didn't quite get the time to buy cigarettes. But the guys who sat in the row in front of me kept smoking beedis and because I was clean I went home with a clear conscience. When I got caught I could not reveal I had gone to the movie, and that too a night show! So unable to say that I didn't smoke, but had only gone for a movie, I invented something I don't remember now. I lied. It was easy. But no one really believed me though for my sake they all pretended to.

That brings us to the superstar again. Back in 1987, Nayagan, which many consider to be the greatest film ever made in Tamil, was released. During that time a Kamal film was alway released simultaneously with a Rajnikanth starrer. My dad took my mother, brother and me to both the movies one day after the other, the first time I ever went to the movies two days in a row. Nayagan was the first one. I remember being somewhat dazed during the interval, when my brother, then only six, started making fun of the movie. We laughed through the rest of the movie and were shooed out for ice creams. My mother was a huge fan of the movie and the scene in which Naazer meets Kamal in the jail was the definitive moment in the movie for her. My brother and I though never quite understood until years later what that movie was about.

But in sharp contrast we both enjoyed Manithan. Towards the climax of the movie, which I recently saw again during a bus ride to Nagercoil, Rajnikanth starts to catch and throw bombs - made of nothing less than shining aluminium - back at the goons. For weeks afterwards all our games at home included bombing sessions where we threw pebbles at each other and laughed with gusto. Rajnikanth could thrill you that way. It would have been hard to get Kamal to throw bombs. He just was too morose and pretentious for it.

Obviously the connections between smoking and superstar is not just in my mind. It's there in yours too, albeit in a different sort of way. Will I watch Sivaji? You bet I will even though I don't expect I will like it. But I do like Rajnikanth and always will.

Here's a link to a Hindu story.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

New York, New York

They are showing Martin Scorcese movies on Sony Pix this month. I saw New York, New York a few days back. I hate musicals, even the funny ones. But this is one of the few musicals I have liked apart from Moulin Rouge. Robert De Niro plays a jazz music composer running a band in which his wife played by Liza Minelli is the lead singer. He has a nasty temper and is, as one character puts it, "a top pain in the ass." But he has enormous talent. There isn't much of a plot or a story, but the screenplay is gripping. The song sequences are excellent and so is the acting, not just by De Niro who is great in every movie he does, but also by the other actors. Admittedly, De Niro's acting is a bit over the top at times. But I wasn't very irritated by that. I suggest you catch this movie on DVD.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Unnale Unnale

Unnale Unnale has all the trappings of a good movie. An attractive lead pair, good camera work, nice costumes and catchy songs. It also has that polished look that audiences increasingly seek.

Perhaps Tamil cinema is swinging between two polar opposites : the rustic, stark, vulgar at one end and the urbane, sophisticated and sleek at the other end. Paruthiveeran belonged to the former category. Every shot in the movie screamed out the words "We made a a rustic movie". There is such a term as Hollywood reality - this consists of attempts to make things more real than they actually are. To me Paruthiveeran was an attempt to show our own rural culture as exotic to us. It's bloody irritating. Not that the film lacked seriousness or genuine moments. It certainly had some great moments.

But Unnale Unnale belongs to the category of the sleek movie. Directors making such movies do not care about rural centres. 50 days in theatres like Satyam is about enough. Audiences want to come with their families in a secure environment, see the movie, and get the hell out. Any attempt to disturb them through "art" usually meets with failure. So directors like Jeeva when they get a cash cow like Oscar Films, milk it to feed their own reputation as sleek directors with finesse and sensitivity.

At the centre of Unnale Unnale lies a fundamental problem. There is no story per say. This wouldn't be such a fault in the hands of a great director. Except that after choosing to helm a project with no story, Jeeva relies on plot intricacies too much. Jeeva would have you believe that every man and every woman are the similar. They are gender stereotypes. Men flirt, laze and take life easy, while women doubt their men. Has Jeeva heard of bra burners?

Actors if they were Greek gods would not be able to save this movie. Vinay with his peculiar pauses and hand movements is nevertheless charming. So are the women, though neither of them have any scope to perform.

Harris Jayaraj has composed some great songs, but some of his background music is lifted. I thought I heard Jon Bon Jovi at one point.

I think movies like this, which seem benign, that do the worst damage when it comes to reinforcing gender stereotypes. It's the average patriarchal movie, which states its claims clearly at the outset, that is actually harmless.

The climax was different. When everyone thinks that Sada would get the guy, the director does a ulta. But is the gender conflict between the prime characters resolved? I think not.

Does candy floss entertainer mean hare-brained film?

Spider-Man 3: Black, gooey and, well, shitty

Good things never last long. As Spider-Man adds another number and three more supermen, the collective super weight brings the film down. Well, more supermen should be more fun, right? Wrong. And how horribly so.

I remember watching the first part, when none of this hoopla accompanied the film. I had missed reading about the opening weekend collections, an all-time record for Sony and Hollywood, and went in with an open mind. I am not an avid comic book reader, and probably because of that, the film left me untouched. The film's pseudo theme 'With greater power, comes greater responsiblity' was even irritating. A couple of things were good: the technical wizardry and the frank admission at the beginning of the movie that this was a love story. Besides it was at least fulfilling in a commercial sort of a way. This wasn't Bergman making Spider-Man, in any case.

The three men with superpowers are Sandman, Venom and New Goblin. Please don't ask me to explain their evolution. The movie gets a bit crazy around these parts.

Much is being made of how dark films have become in Hollywood. This darkness in most films is shallow. From X-Men's Logan, to Super-Man to action heroes like Ethan Hunt everybody in Hollywood is now officially dark. So I presume director Sam Raimi went into this movie with a preconceived notion that he was going to make Spidey's suit black. So in the end, Peter Parker has to find the goodness in him to fight the darkness that is feeding a symbiote that has chosen him for a host. Well, balls to that.

MJ, Harry Osborn and Peter Parker play the merry go around. You never know who is going to end up with whom in the next scene even when you are sure that in the end, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man will kill the baddies and get the girl. But wait, one of the baddies - Sandman made of amazing CGI and very little character - isn't killed. He is instead - key word here - forgiven. When Spider-Man says "I forgive you" with the onus on "forgive", Sandman dissolves into a whirlwind of sand and disappears. When this happened, the series crashed for me.

Raimi made horror classics such as Evil Dead and one of my favourite cowboy movies The Quick and the Dead. He was one of the few who have in recent years adapted a comic book successfully on film. The other was Bryan Singer. The next time someone reminds me of all this, he gets it.

A speech with a difference

Last Saturday, I noticed in the back page of The Economic Times a full page report. This was not a report per say, but the speech of the Chairman of Hindustan Lever Limited.

Two things about this report attracted me. The content of the speech, which talked about brands being at the forefront of social change. How HLL brands like Lifebouy had created a more hygienic society, how Annapurna salt was being used to combat iodine deficiency and so on. In other words, it was about how brands that operate with social consciousness are both successful for the company and society. Even considering the fact that HLL would need the image of being a socially concious company to be successful, the fact that chairman Harish Manwani chose to highlight this in his speech at the Annual General Meeting was impressive.

The other thing that attracted me was the fact that a mainstream newspaper known for its cut throat and often crass commercialism would publish such a speech in its entirety. This may be customary for ET, but this is the first time I have come across such an article, and therefore, I was surprised.

I do think the speech is worthy reading. The speech is a PDF file. I link to the company's homepage from where you can pick the speech up.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

TN's first family slips

Tamil Nadu has seen an eventful two weeks. On May 9, alleged supporters of M.K. Azhagiri, the chief minister's son, attacked the office of the Dinakaran, which set in motion a clash of two empires - between the clout of a party and a media conglomerate. I imagine people standing in tea shops all across the state breathlessly debating the fate of the state's first family in politics.
The timing of the attack was bad for the DMK. It came on the eve of the celebrations of chief minister M. Karunanidhi's 50 years in the Assembly. Just two days after the attack, UPA's leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, and Laloo Prasad Yadav had to sit a few yards away from the alleged orchestrator of the Madurai violence, M.K. Azhagiri, the chief minister's son.
My friend, who was watching the coverage on Raj TV, which the DMK has said would telecast party programmes in future, remarked: "No wonder Dayanidhi Maran is not on stage today. Azhagiri is sitting with a knife under his belt." He was joking, of course. But that's what most people think of Azhagiri - that he is the black sheep in the MK's family. The actually reason for Maran's absence was that the chief minister had declined to meet him.
It is easy to blow this issue out of proportion, but at the end of the day a few significant things did happen. The DMK has ensured that Maran is thrown out of the prestigious IT and Communication ministry, something that was unimaginable prior to the attack in which two computer engineers and a security guard were killed. It has asked Maran why action should not be taken against him, an allegation that Maran has said hurt him badly.
After holidaying in Ooty for a couple of days, Maran summoned a press conference in Chennai and hit back. He said someone had take advantage of the attack on Dinakaran
to remove him from his post. He clarified that he would never go against the chief minister.
The attack was prompted by a survey jointly done by Dinakaran and AC-Neilson and published in the paper. The survey showed that 70% people favoured M.K.Stalin, the CM's other son and local administration minister, as against only 2% for Azhagiri. There would have been nothing wrong in publishing a survey like that except that Kalanidhi Maran, Dayanidhi's brother, owns both Sun TV and Dinakaran, media organisations that have propped up the DMK in the state.
Even journalists who have condemned the attack would be hard put to see the attack on Dinakaran as an attack on the media. Most have preferred to lay the blame at the door of the Maran brothers, who are also grand nephews of the chief minister.
Was publishing the survey wrong? It's hard to prove that the Marans had political reasons or malicious intent in publishing the survey. It's also hard to ignore the fact that they would not have foreseen that Azhagiri would not be happy in such a survey being published. It is not totally insane to think that the attack was a fallout of party politics and not an attack on the media. I rather prefer to see it that way.
Links between Karunanidhi's family and the Marans have been close and historic. The father Maran, at one point seen as the intellectual face of the organisation, was also its most powerful voice in Delhi's corridors of power. Those comparing the father and the sons often tend to favour the dad, nostalgia weighing in a bit no doubt.
Very few have criticised Azhagiri for the incident. Most people don't want to state the obvious: that this is what is expected of him. That when pushed into a corner he would do what he does best: attack with violent intent.
That there is a successorship issue within the DMK is beyond doubt. There isn't one clear leader emerging from all this glorious mess.
DMK's move to push Kanimozhi's name for the Union commerce ministry would only further mess up the scene. She might enter Parliament through the Rajya Sabha. Radhika Selvi, the wife of Venkatesa Pannayar, has become the minister of state for home. Her elevation in the party is to check actor Sarath Kumar, who hails from the same Nadar caste as the new minister. The action hero, once a rising star in the DMK, in no longer in it. He is likely to launch his own party in August.
The attack has no doubt caused a churning in the DMK. It has drawn into the controversy the names of quite a few primary actors in the party. In the long run, the party might survive all of this as long M. Karunanidhi is at the helm playing his Machiavellian politics. With a twist of this tongue, the chief minister can do away with most nagging problems. Two questions will, however, remain unanswered. Does Dayanidhi Maran have a future in politics? And the question the survey asked - Who after Karunanidhi?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers

Every war movie is essentially anti-war, and Clint Eastwood, who once piled up bodies in Where Eagles Dare, is now perhaps seeking redemption, this time as director, with his Flags of Our Fathers.

This is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, a shot that became more than that - a symbol of victory and later victim to a propaganda. James Bradley, whose father is one of the six men in the picture, attempts to chronicle his father’s wartime exploits. Shot during World War II at the top of the obscure, lava spec of a Japanese island that is Iwo Jima, it is also, at least according to one of the film’s protagonists a “farce”. It shows six US soldiers raising a flag after they have “captured” the island on February 19, 1945.

Eastwood, once the quintessential director of small movies who quickly compiled one-take shots, finally abandons his minimalist style. Working with producer Steven Spielberg, Eastwood seems all the more conscious of the Normandy invasion sequence from Saving Private Ryan, comparisons to which are inevitable. Spielberg thrilled us with the brutal violence of war and Eastwood only ups the ante.

The movie flicks back and forth between Iwo Jima, where the 20,000-strong Japanese have engaged the US marines in a guerrilla war, and the subsequent war bond drive launched by the American government using the heroes of the photograph. The “farce” is that none including those in the picture is really sure who is in it. To complicate matters, soldiers erect two different flags after instructions from above that the original flag is to be preserved.

Half of the six in the picture are dead within weeks and the rest are quickly flown to the US, where they are propped up us heroes. They move from town to town, hotel to hotel asking people at public gatherings to fund the bankrupt US government. After raising millions, they are discarded to live out their empty lives.

Editor Joel Cox successfully meshes the parallel narratives, the live reality of the war and parched images of it that haunts the three men on the bond drive played by Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (Ira Hayes). The actors are not chosen not for their power to draw audiences, but for their resemblance to their real life counterparts.

The conflict between everyman and hero is present most in Ira Hayes, the Indian “chief”, whose character lends to the movie its theme – the exploration of heroism. Ryan Phillippe, John ‘Doc’ Bradley, plays the only Navy man in the group otherwise consisting of Marines. It’s perhaps that the book on which the movie is based on is written by his son that the doctor father is shown as a stoic, silent observer. Rene Gagnon represents both the hero and the “farce” perpetuated on the American people.

The script is by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis. The movie is a tribute to the late Henry Bumstead, who could not have had a better way of going out, casting director Phyllis Huffman and the photographer Rosenthal.