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Seven nights, seven movies—from Pyaasa to Inside Out

A week of binge-watching evokes plenty of nostalgia and some fresh perspectives

I was unsure if they make DVD players any more. Mine had died about two years ago, and I had never got around to buying another. One of the reasons, I confess, was my fear that if I went to buy one, the guy in the consumer electronics shop would laugh at me. What a Luddite! Hadn’t I heard of MP3, MP4 and other varieties of Members of Parliament?

So, there I was, looking glumly at the 500 or so CDs and DVDs I had acquired over two decades, many of which I had never watched, and would possibly never watch ever.

Timidly, a couple of weeks ago, I asked a brother-in-law, a full-fledged engineering entrepreneur, if anyone made DVD players any more. He looked at me in a strange way and coughed politely (my brothers-in-law don’t laugh openly at me—the iron hand in the velvet glove and all that; besides, I was paying for his lunch) and said: “You should go to Lajpat Nagar market, and they will make one for you. They can make anything."

However, emboldened by my daughter, who has read John Berger and Derrida and other such scary people, and done her graduation thesis on “Hannah Hoch’s representation of the female body and how it challenges the conceived position of women as embodied by the ‘New Woman’ in Weimar Germany" (it’s true, I’m not joking)—anyway, to come back to the point, emboldened by my daughter, I ventured into a Croma store with her in tow, and found that some companies are still manufacturing DVD players. We bought the most expensive one. What the hell—in for a penny, in for a pound.

And then, we went on a binge.

On the first night, to take my daughter’s mind off Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Frantz Fanon, I insisted (after all, I had paid for the player) that we watch Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. The second night, we watched Silence of the Lambs (about which I have written here). Subsequently, we have watched Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjunga, Roman Holiday, Syriana, the Pixar animated movie Inside Out and the musical Chicago.

Quite a mix—though no conscious thought went into it. My CDs and DVDs are in such a jumble that Lethal Weapon 3 sits next to Bicycle Thieves and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara elbows A Clockwork Orange. So, it was mostly chance and circumstance, and what film happened to be in the line of sight.

Of these movies, I had seen all of them before, other than Inside Out, which my daughter recommended because she said she would find it great fun to watch me cry while watching a movie, and Inside Out was one movie that had made her cry. (I am a complete sissy when it comes to films, and am possibly the only person on earth who teared up while watching Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. All right, nobody’s perfect.)

So, she keenly waited for me to start sobbing halfway through Inside Out, and I can relate, with complete honesty and some pride, that I did not; I kept my lacrimal glands under steely control, and I noticed her blowing her nose surreptitiously towards the end of the film.

Certainly, Pyaasa would have been a much better film if Dutt had lopped off about 20 minutes of irrelevant and time-wasting scenes, even though one can understand his commercial compulsions for having those sequences. In fact, watching it for the first time since my teenage days, I was irritated enough to use the fast-forward button at some points.

But, also for the first time, I was able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics (of course, any Hindi film buff would know about Pyaasa’s classic songs, and would possibly be able to recite the full lyrics of several of them, but this was the first time that I was paying close attention to the words).

The songs range from the playful—Jaane kya tune kahi, jaane kya maine suni—to the poignantly romantic—Aaj sajan mujhe ang laga lo, janam safal ho jaye—to the angry—Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya ho and Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahaan hain. I won’t try to translate them, because such an attempt by someone like me would be an insult to Sahir’s achievement.

Another thing struck me. Was Dutt influenced by Ray’s Aparajito, which was released in 1956, a year before Pyaasa, while shooting a sequence on the bank of the Hooghly? It seems to be have been shot at the exact same spot with a similar sort of framing.

But was Ray also influenced by Dutt? The Hooghly-side sequence in Pyaasa ends with two ex-lovers looking at each other across a rail track when suddenly a train passes between them, breaking the spell. In Kapurush O Mahapurush, released eight years later, Ray had a convoy of army trucks suddenly pass between two ex-lovers separated by the width of a road. The question here is almost Escherian.

To come to Ray, we chose to watch Kanchenjunga because we had, some weeks ago, been on holiday at the hill station Kalimpong, near Darjeeling, where, on a clear day, you can see that majestic peak drenched in golden sunlight. The film’s structure is interesting—like High Noon, it tells a story in real time. That is, in its 102 minutes, it depicts events that happen over 102 minutes. It may also have been the first Bengali film to be shot in colour (Kanchenjunga released in 1962).

An autocratic and regressive Anglophile patriarch and his family have spent three weeks on vacation in Darjeeling and are to leave for Calcutta the next day. The patriarch’s regret is that they haven’t managed to get a single glimpse of Kanchenjunga, since the peak has been hidden behind the clouds throughout their stay. There is also a high-income young man who he has decided will make the perfect husband for his younger daughter, Moni. The patriarch is hoping that he will be able to seal the deal today.

But it’s not only the patriarch who is looking for something. His wife is looking to find her own voice after decades of being treated like a doormat by her husband, and she wants her daughter to be free too, and happy. Her brother is looking for a rare bird. The patriarch’s elder daughter, Anima, is trying to figure out how to reconcile her 10-year-long marriage with the affair she has been having from before her wedding. Anima’s husband is looking to confront her and end the loveless marriage.

The patriarch’s son is looking to bed any good-looking woman he meets. The young high-income suitor is looking to seal the deal with Moni, while she is looking for freedom from her father and to pursue her dream of true love.

The only person who does not seem to be looking for anything is an unemployed young man who meets Moni, her suitor and her father quite by chance.

It’s a wonderful film, with an absorbing story (written by Ray himself), and the empathetic and subtle treatment of all the characters that was a hallmark of the first 25 years of Ray’s film career. Even the suitor, an irritating and pompous idiot (my daughter couldn’t stand him), when rejected by Moni, reacts with unexpected self-awareness and dignity. He tells her (and I paraphrase here): “If you ever think that love is less important than security, and that love could even be born out of security, let me know. I am willing to wait."

And, in the last half-minute of the film, when the clouds vanish abruptly, and the mighty Kanchenjunga appears, and the patriarch cannot help but bow his head before its splendour, one feels a twitch of compassion for this deluded fool.

Kanchenjunga was Ray’s biggest flop, and being in colour, must have lost loads of money for its producers. (Unlike many other great directors, Ray was extremely conscious of the fact that cinema is an expensive medium, and his first priority always, as he himself wrote, was that his financiers made a profit from his films. Almost every film of his made money, and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, in fact, held the record for the highest-grossing Bengali film ever made for quite some years.)

From Kanchenjunga, we moved to Syriana, and the only similarity between the two films is that they have parallelly running but connected story strands. But while all of Kanchenjunga’s strands are about the lives of the members of one family, Syriana connects a young Pakistani contract labourer working in an oilfield in the Persian Gulf to a CIA operative to an investment banker to a reformist sheikh—in an imaginary country that is obviously a surrogate Saudi Arabia—to an amoral US law firm to the US justice department and one of the world’s largest energy conglomerates.

It is almost impossible, on first viewing, to figure out all the links and the exact plotline, though one gets the broad picture.

(The advertising tagline of the film is “Everything is connected".)

But it’s equally impossible not to admire the courage and ideological commitment of the people who made Syriana, post 9/11, at the height of the Iraq war, and the domination of the George W. Bush government by the US energy industry. Of course, the backing from George Clooney, as co-producer (Section Eight Films) and star, would have helped, but it still must have been a hard sell.

One is free, depending on one’s political convictions, to agree or not agree with what Syriana is saying, that US policies dictated by the interests of the country’s oil and gas behemoths have turned some marginalized Muslim youths into jihadists, with disastrous effects. (Mind you, it certainly does not say that all jihadists have been created by flawed American policies. It shows how radical Islamists exploit and brainwash helpless young men. But it also shows how a militant outfit like the Hezbollah could be viewed in greys, rather than black and white. And it also shows how there could be good CIA people and bad CIA people. Except for greedy energy company CEOs, no one is painted with simple moral brushstrokes, and the energy company CEOs really don’t deserve the greys.)

And Syriana is firm evidence of America’s belief in free speech—surely much less than 100%, but just as surely one of the founding principles of that nation. The film was nominated for several Oscars, though it won only one—Clooney as Best Supporting Actor.

There’s also one piece of trivia that Clooney has never spoken about, but which should make us respect him for his ethics about intellectual property rights. He had bought the film rights to See No Evil, the memoirs of retired CIA field operative Robert Baer. Syriana says it is based on this book. There is hardly a minute in the film that has any connection with See No Evil (even though “everything is connected"), except that the CIA man whom Clooney plays is called Bob (short for “Robert").

Baer himself would perhaps never have asked for credit if he watched Syriana. But Clooney seems to have done what he felt was the right thing to do. Maybe he got the germ of the idea of the story after reading Baer’s book.

The night after Syriana, we changed track completely (my wife is bored to slumber by Syriana-like films) and watched Roman Holiday, perhaps the most beautifully romantic film that my wife and I have watched. Both of us saw it as teenagers and long before we met each other. We wanted to expose our daughter to Roman Holiday, and we knew there would an added pleasure factor for her, because she has lived and studied in Italy for three months, and had visited Rome several times.

Some films never lose their appeal—they never age. And some actors never lose their charm. More than six decades after it was released, Roman Holiday remains as fresh and captivating as ever; its comic sequences as funny; its delicately played love scenes as touching. Audrey Hepburn remains as lovely and graceful as ever, her innocence as heartwarming. Gregory Peck remains as attractive.

“What a sweet film!" said my daughter when it ended and I asked what she thought of it.

There’s little more that I can say about Roman Holiday except that this is a film I can watch every day for a fortnight and not get tired.

But I can say that for Silence Of The Lambs too, which comes from a galaxy far, far away from Roman Holiday! What sort of person does that make me? If I knew such a person, I would quite possibly approach him with great suspicion. So, we decided the next night to try out some psychological analysis.

Pixar is, of course, an incredible company. And the amazing partnership between John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton at the animation company’s helm must be quite unique in film history. Has Pixar ever made a film that has failed to astonish, enthrall and move audiences across the planet? Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Wall-E... I can’t think of any.

The company’s films are totally outstanding in every respect, from story to visuals to technological leaps. Pixar resides in that square of the cinema chessboard where miles-high imagination mixes perfectly with jaw-dropping execution.

Of course, all the films are emotionally manipulative, but why shouldn’t cinema be so? All works in all art forms are emotionally manipulative in some way or another, except the clinically intellectualized—though fully valid—“art for art’s sake" words, paintings, music, cinema, dance, whatever. Art does not have the duty to move you, but it certainly has the right.

Inside Out is one of Pixar’s finest. Much of the action takes place inside a young girl’s head, where Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust—five personified emotions—work hard to see her through a difficult phase in her life after her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. All five want to do the best for the girl, Riley, but all have their limitations, because of how they themselves are defined.

According to Wikipedia, that great fount of often-unreliable information, the writers consulted many psychologists before developing the story. In this case, I believe Wikipedia.

The film is riveting, and bursts at the seams with the sort of twists and innovative ideas that one associates with Pixar productions. The “train of thought" is literally a train, chugging around, and stopping whenever Riley falls asleep. There are “personal islands" like the Family Island and the Friendship Island, and a massive archive where Riley’s “core memories" are stored. When she forgets something, that memory loses its colour—red for Anger, blue for Sadness and so on—and falls into a bottomless abyss.

Like most Pixar films, Inside Out should appeal to children of all ages, and its never-flagging pace and all the jokes form a veneer over its powerful subtext. Kids can enjoy it at one level, yet get the basic message—and perhaps look at their own feelings and behaviour in a new and more informed way. And parents can watch it as a film made for them—a film with deep psychological insights—and gain a better understanding of how their children’s minds work.

What I really loved about the film was that it treats all the five emotions with respect, even though Joy gets the maximum screen time, and tells us that all five have their place inside us. And in the film, all five often behave stupidly, endangering Riley’s mental stability, but at the denouement, we are unequivocally told that Sadness is also vital for our growth as human beings; we would be lost if we only felt joyful and never sad.

One of the most successful and award-winning animated films ever made, Inside Out, in the one year since its release, has notched up a billion dollars in revenues. Some film-focused websites, I discovered, even rate it as the best animation film ever made.

(I don’t agree with that, though. I still find the older, 1967 version of The Jungle Book, and The Lion King to be quite unparalleled. I haven’t encountered a single song that is comparable on the sheer fun factor to The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You from Jungle Book and Hakuna Matata from Lion King, nor have I met characters as interesting as the doped-out vultures in Jungle Book and the evil, cowardly hyenas in Lion King.)

The night after we watched Inside Out, we searched for the CD of Singin’ In The Rain, one of the happiest movies and best musicals I know of. We couldn’t find it, but we did find another fine musical, Chicago; so that’s what we watched.

Chicago may not be as famous as Singin’ In The Rain, nor hold the exalted position that Singin’ does in film history, but it was a huge Broadway hit, and the movie has a terrifically infectious energy and some electric song and dance numbers. I have watched it in a cinema hall and that was quite an experience. The movie sweeps you inside itself, yet, paradoxically, keeps reminding you that you are watching something that is elaborately staged and carefully crafted.

It is exhilarating cinema, yet you are aware all the time, because of the cinematograhic and lighting styles and the choreography, that it is clearly a big Broadway show.

The story is cynical, yet great fun, about two murderesses who not only get themselves acquitted with the help of an amoral attorney, but also become rich tabloid celebrities with flourishing music hall careers. Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are the killers, and Richard Gere the lawyer. Now, I know nothing about dancing, but all three seem to move as well as any trained dancer. And it’s always a pleasure to watch Gere, especially when he plays a crooked guy—like in the 1990 film Internal Affairs.

In fact, Chicago’s story can only be fun if treated as a musical. Without the songs, it would be a very serious film indeed—a darkly gloomy commentary on our society and media.

As a musical too, it is cynical—all the three principal characters are nothing if not cynical, and a press conference that Gere holds has all the mediapersons dancing as puppets with Gere holding the puppet strings. But the film is sinfully enjoyable, and has the audiences rooting for the murderesses and their lawyer before they can say “Catherine Zeta-Jones".

However, the casting masterstroke is Queen Latifah, the singer, as the jailor. Latifah sets the screen ablaze with “If you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you." She is sensuous as only a truly uninhibited woman with supreme confidence in her body image can be. Her sparkling mischievous eyes and sly smile are enchanting. She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but Zeta-Jones beat her to it. I think Latifah deserved it more than Zeta-Jones.

In fact, Chicago won five more Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Art Direction and Best Editing.

As I was wondering where my Singin’ In The Rain CD had gone, I found on imdb.com, that frighteningly thorough encyclopedia of all things filmic, that there was a thread “Chicago vs Singin’ In the Rain". Opinion seemed to be more or less evenly divided on which film was better. I also realized that in cases like this, a lot depends on when you watched which film.

I last watched Singin’ In The Rain (where is that damn CD?) years before I watched Chicago. I am much older now and perhaps even a different person. Maybe, I will revise my opinion and decide that Chicago is better. Or I may possibly vote for All That Jazz, the 1979 film directed by Bob Fosse, the creator of Chicago. It’s a dark and morbid film, very unusual for musicals, and it’s autobiographical.

Fosse tells the story of his own life as a reckless drug-addled womanizing choreographer, hurtling towards an early death, and in love with Death, symbolized by a mysterious figure in a white bridal dress.

Who knows how one’s views will change as we grow older, and as Pink Floyd sang,

You run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Maybe the next film I watch should be a Laurel and Hardy one. But will I still find that thin and fat man funny?

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com

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