Friday, December 17, 2010

Gorosthane Sabdhan Review

Warning: This review contains spoilers!!

The film begins with an extreme and unfortunate close up of actor Subhashish Mukherji face. Unfortunate, because an opening to a movie like this needs a level of sophistication, and Mr. Mukherji simply does not have the histrionic ability to pull off a close up that doesn’t look ridiculous. His wide open eyes, nervous panting and lip-licking are straight out of the saddest Bengali B-movies aimed at the lowest common denominator. The good thing is, this lowers expectations to such an extent that a movie cannot help but get better, and Gorosthane Sabdhan does get better.

Feluda is arguably Bangla’s biggest pop-culture icon. He is the classic danpite, a quick-thinking, ass-kicking, six foot figure that towered over our childhood and made us dream of adventure. From a personal standpoint, I have always preferred Sabyasachi to Soumitro when it comes to Feludas because he seemed to fit that image far better. That said, there is no denying that Sabyasachi is not getting any younger, and while he still makes a cracking sleuth, his expanding midriff has to be kept artfully out of view through this entire movie. As for the new Topshe, Saheb Bhattacharya does a perfectly adequate job, but then again, Topshe has rarely been that important in the grand scheme of things anyway (Before you start fuming at that, ask ten people to describe what the main characters in Sonar Kella looked like. You’ll be surprised at how many people have almost completely forgotten him). And Bibhu Bhattachara is, well, Bibhu Bhattacharya. Perfectly incompetent as an actor, but I find him oddly lovable and sweet. Much like Jatayu, it seems like his oddities and even his overacting are more like character traits rather than anything else. In short, he’s Jatayu.

The story begins with a nighttime raid at the Park Street Cemetary. Two bad guys are digging up a grave while the man who is clearly their boss (Subhashish Mukherji) stands and overacts. They are disturbed with the arrival of another man, the goons run off while the boss man does a little jig and then attacks the intruder, things happen and the game is, as they say, afoot. Slowly we are introduced to the other players, and thankfully, many of them are played by competent actors this time around. Dhritiman, who I have found to be somewhat affected in other roles is perfect here as the venomous, arrogant bad guy, Mahadeb Choudhury, while Tinu Anand steals every scene he is in as Marcus Godwin, a bitter but still surprisingly likeable character central to the story. The tertiary actors mostly stink up the place but they do not have to be endured for more than a minute at a stretch.

That said, we come to the biggest flaw in the movie; the script. Budgetary constraints have forced Feluda to be updated for the 21st century (a period piece would have been too expensive), but the transition is patchy. So while we have Feluda using a cellphone (borrowed), and browsing the net for information (at a cybercaf√©), there are egregious missteps like Jatayu asking if Rs.150 would be enough for a meal for three at Trinca’s. It’s more than a little strange that he doesn’t understand what a pitifully inadequate amount that is. Why that couldn’t be increased from the original book, we never know?

Another problem is that the allowances the director makes for a 21st century Feluda are hammered home with all the subtlety of a roundhouse kick, sometimes raising questions when there were none. Every single time Feluda needs some information, some explanation has to be given as to why he doesn’t just Google it. This is fine the first couple of times, but then becomes grating. And when Feluda says “parar cybercaf√© ta ekhono kholeni bole check korte parlam na”, it inevitably gives rise to the question, why does a sleuth not have internet at home? This is a case of the explanation being far more jarring than no explanation at all. We are watching a movie about grave robbers hunting for a long lost, priceless watch, our sense of disbelief is pretty suspended anyway.

The other grating thing about the movie is the sure volume of product placements on display, and the amount of screen time given to them. If there ever was an award for most number of billboards and brand logos in a movie, Gorosthane Sabdhan would sweep it. On top of that, we have Feluda mouthing the catchline of a cellphone service provider, an act of product placement so shameless, I felt like looking away. I couldn’t look at the supersleuth of my youth for a few minutes after that.

Gorosthane Sabdhan is not a bad movie by any means; in fact it’s one of the better movies of the new Feluda franchise. After the disappointing Tintoretor Jishu and the blood curdlingly bad Kaliasher Kelengkari, it’s pleasant to watch a reasonably good, if uneven Feluda Story. The overall cast is better this time around, and the film seems to be more polished and slick; perhaps not spending the entire budget on foreign locales is the reason for that. An ageing Feluda didn’t cause me any problems; however, it may be an issue with some people. If you love Feluda and haven’t been offended by the previous Sandipr Ray helmed movies about the character, you will have a good time. However, the fact remains that Sandip Ray is a much better technician than he is a storyteller, so if you plan on seeing this one without your nostalgia tinted glasses, you have been warned.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: The Social Network

Warning: This review contains SPOILERS

The “Facebook movie” isn’t really a movie about Facebook. That’s hardly a surprise. After all, a website does not make for a very exciting biography. But what’s surprising is that The Social Network isn’t even a Mark Zuckerberg movie. By the end of it, we know very little about the man who created Facebook, except how he created Facebook. We don’t know anything about his family, or even if he has one. We do know that he is a loner, and we get to know his best friend because they are both crucial to the story, but beyond that, Mark Zuckerberg is a blank slate. No, this movie can best be described as a “Like – triangle”. It’s a movie about friends, and ambition, and greed and more ambition, and finally, it’s a movie about three intelligent people bound by an idea. Of course, Facebook is at the epicenter of it all, it is the fulcrum, the crux, the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, but it’s not what the movie is about. And that’s what makes it work.

Even before the film was released in theatres Aaron Sorkin raised quite a few hackles when he said that he was less interested in the truth and more interested in telling a good story. And a good story it is. It’s not a very deep story, it’s more interested in what the characters do than why they do it, but you don’t really get to notice that. The movie is cut tightly, with scenes and dialogues whizzing by at a hundred miles an hour, and too much of exposition would have just slowed it down. Pace is what the movie is all about, and that’s why it is cut like a thriller, with Trent Reznor’s musical queues adding a techno industrial vibe throughout.

The film begins at a Harvard pub with Mark Zuckerberg fast talking his date through a veritable maze of topics, bouncing around like a conversational pinball. His date dumps his, he goes home, sits at his computer and writes a program that allows Harvard students to compare and vote on the relative hotness of all the women on campus. It is mean, sexist and low. It’s also so popular that it crashes the entire Harvard network.

This sequence takes quite a bit of time and is punctuated with Zuckerberg uploading his blog about highly unflattering comments about his erstwhile girlfriend. This somehow makes him a more sympathetic character in my eyes. It gives purpose to the meanness and crassness he displays when he creates his website. The scene also has Zuckerberg explaining how he downloads all the images of the girls on campus from the server as well as the problems he has to overcome in creating the previously mentioned website, but the constant patter is too fast to follow, as I am sure the director means it to. There is no reason to understand exactly how Zuckerberg overcomes these problems, only that he overcomes them fast, often ingeniously, and that he’s damn good at what he does. In a way, his monologue is almost like background music, telling you nothing, but saying everything.

The reason I spend so much time on this sequence is because this sets up the whole movie. It’s a peek into the mind of Zuckerberg, his relationship with his then best(only?)-friend Eduardo Saverin, as well as his surprising level of insight about what makes a website popular or desirable. Surprising because Zuckerberg himself displays no social skills or understanding of human nature whatsoever in his dealings other than when he is creating.

The movie mixes things up by cutting between two lawsuit depositions, both taking place in the present. The rest, we realize soon, is all flashback from various parties involved. It can be confusing at times, with Fincher cutting between courtroom scenes what seems like mid sentence. However, that does not make the movie incomprehensible, but rather gives it a thriller – like air, as your brain rushes to keep up with what’s happening. What helps is that the dialogue absolutely crackles with energy.

Through these courtroom scenes and flashbacks we get to know the main players in the game… the Winklevoss twins, two Harvard rich kids who believe Zuckerberg stole their idea to form Facebook (a belief that certainly has merit), Zuckerberg’s former best friend and former Facebook CFO Eduardo Saverin, who was frozen out of the company for reasons that are largely kept a mystery, and finally, the creator of Napster Sean Parker, the third side in this Like-triangle. Unemployed and hunted, Parker seems to survive by sleeping with women awestruck with his renegade celebrity status, until he meets Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg in turn sees Parker like a rock star, hanging on to every word he says. For the first time in perhaps his life, he admires someone, someone who truly understands his way of thinking. Saverin does not like Parker, naturally, and finally that is what drives the wedge between him and Zuckerberg.

The performances in this movie are uniformly good, but the show stealer is Justin Timberlake as Parker. His is also the only character who is allowed any kind of depth and progression, first suave and smooth, a guy who always seems to know a guy, then vaguely sinister and finally, scared and vulnerable in a climactic scene that flips the relationship between him and Zuckerberg around. Timberlake has been good in other movies, and the first part of this film is largely parallel to his real world persona of a smooth talker, but it’s at the end that he shows his real acting chops. A little different and Parker could have become a “villain”, but that never happens (evil blue light constantly on his face during a club scene notwithstanding) simply because Timberlake makes him so very genuine. Part of him truly believes that Saverin is bad for the company, and it is hinted that he is the driving force behind Saverins ouster (although even that doesn’t explain why Zuckerberg goes along with it)

The Social Network is a great movie because it manages to be a movie about geeks, but not a geek movie. It does it with smart direction, a whippet like script and the feel of a thriller. And although I didn’t buy the final attempt to give Zuckerberg an emotional anchor by trying to friend his ex (Isn’t Mark Zuckerberg automatically the friend of anyone on Facebook? And what self respecting girl would want to be part of a website created by a guy who humiliated her? Doesn’t make sense to me), it’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Celebration Season

It starts with a few murmurs, here and there. Snatches of conversation overheard in the bus or auto.“Pujor ar matro koekta din baki…” ”…ki re, kenakata kichu holo…” “….rastaghater ja obostha kore rekheche, pujor thik age keno je kore……” Little bits and pieces of sentences hanging in the air that reminds you of its imminent arrival. Then you spot a countdown clock ticking away in one corner of the screen of the regional news channel. It’s a bit of a jolt, realizing how few days are left. Streets get busier, and crazier. Big, hulking bamboo skeletons go up even as everyone, from your maid to the paperwallah starts dropping hints that expenses are going up and it’s time for the pay packet to be a little heavier than usual. Autowallahs are suddenly eager to share their thoughts on the economy, specifically on the rising cost of living, with you. You don’t mind, of course…ten bucks here…twenty there….even when nothing less than a sheaf of hundred will suffice. ‘Tis the season to be merry, and to spread the merriment.

Then the naked bamboo structures are clothed in fabric, plastic, cardboard, cellophane, gold and silver foil and so much more. Art is layered over craft and each skeleton becomes a pandal, fresh, new, and unique. Marketplaces choke up with people, but the people never tire of the markets. Complaining every step of the way, they pause long enough only to haggle, argue and shop. Every shop front, every stall, every temporary shed where a man can find space for his assortment of trinkets buzz with activity. Eyes light up as shoppers find EXACTLY what they were looking for. They usually do. The air tastes of electricity.

And then you hear it. Sometimes it wafts in from the distance, a faint rhythm that only just drowns out the beat of your heart. Sometimes it’s close enough to be deafening. The big, barrel like drums, and the tough, weathered hands that wield them make it official. Pujo has finally arrived.

I am not a romantic. Nor am I a believer. I can’t find the aroma of kashful in the air in the middle of the city, nor do I enjoy standing outside packed pandals for a glimpse of the idol’s face before a mix of overzealous volunteers (who clearly signed up only because they’d get to wield bamboo batons with impunity) and impatient crowds poke, prod and propel me towards the exit. I don’t enjoy eating out because it usually involves a potent combination of long wait, bad food and criminally marked up prices. I don’t enjoy returning home two o clock at night, only to be prodded awake with the rising of the sun by overzealous “friends”. Extended exposure to dhak give me a headache, dhunuchi makes my eyes burn and you couldn’t get me on a truck and make me dance even if you encouraged me with a scalpel. And yet, I love that wonderful week of festivities, family and fun. I love the pujo.

I can’t define it. I don’t WAN’T to define it. But I know that pujo means more smiling faces on the streets than on any other week of the year. It means looking out the window at midnight and seeing packed lanes with children eight to 80 having the time of their lives. Pujo is the buzz from the street lulling you to sleep. Pujo is staying in bed until you are good and ready to get up. Pujo is celebrating, not something personal and closed like a birthday or a promotion or a degree, but something larger and grander; something you know every single other person in the city is celebrating with you . Pujo is smiling at people who scream from the rooftops, even if you don’t do it yourself. Pujo is being happy, because so many around you are happy. Pujo is being happy, because Pujo is here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Soul of a Nation

This was triggered by a comment from a friend. We were talking about patriotism (more on that later), and I was trying to explain my point of view that patriotism does not lie too high on my list of virtues. It’s a personal issue, and I am not for once claiming that I am not confused about the subject, like most things in life, the issue of patriotism too is one about which I veer unpredictably. However, my point is that patriotism has a tendency to place walls and fences on universal virtues like love, kindness and respect. As part of my argument, I claimed that patriotism is a fleeting virtue. A man in Karachi would be a patriot if he loved India and was willing to give his life for the country on 14th August 1947. A day later he could hold the same views and be labeled a traitor. I said that India as we know it didn’t even exist up until the British united the large landmass so that it would be convenient to govern. This was when my friend said something that made me stop and think. He said that the soul existed. The soul of the nation.

The soul of the nation. What is, after all the soul of a nation? Can a nation even HAVE a soul? And at the end of the day, what IS a soul? It’s a very ill defined concept, or maybe it’s just been defined too many times, in too many ways, by too many different people for there to be any kind of consensus. As a person who constantly hovers between atheism and agnosticism, I don’t really put much stock in the whole eternal soul concept; I don’t believe there is anything that transcends the lifespan into eternity. To me, if there is a soul, if there is something that can be called by that name it is more akin to the glow of a lamp, something that just flickers out of existence when extinguished, but when it is there, defines the lamp far beyond its physical components. In fact, I have seen the bodies of dead men and women and that’s just what they remind me of –lamps without the light of life. From living creatures to objects, shells - cold, hard and unfamiliar.
So what is soul then? I guess the word closest to defining it in my book would be personality. Those little things, those thoughts, those movements, those quirks, the way you wrinkle your facial muscles and move your hands, the way you talk, walk, sit, concentrate, the way you ooze life and living in every step and every breath, they way you display fear, hunger, pain, joy, glory, envy, and all the hundred shades of human emotions in-between….all of them. They are all parts of your soul. The unique mix of DNA, society, upbringing and a hundred other factors that go into making you YOU, beyond the eyes and nose and lips… that is the soul.
So what then, is the soul of a country? Especially a country like India? If we had to compare this nation to a person we would have the most schizophrenic, multiple-personality-disorder affected, paranoid psychopath outside of a Batman villain in our hands. India is possibly unique in the history of the human race in the sheer and frankly scary amount of diversity bubbling within its borders. However, unlike that mythical personification of the nation, it survives. And here’s my take on it.

It survives because it DOESN’T have a soul. Not A soul. No, it has a more than a billion souls, each throbbing to its unique beat and rhythm, each attuned to the ones around it , forming links and connections, spreading out into a symphony that reaches the nation’s borders and keeps going, keeps growing, changing and diversifying but still somewhere connected to each other until it envelopes the world, the entire globe in a crescendo that we call humanity. There are strong links and weak links, tight connections and loose, and some of the souls want to shatter and sunder the chain because of reasons of their own, and reasons planted by people who want there to be walls. But at the end of the day, the web still holds tight, simply because there are more people who believe in unity and harmony than there are not. The soul of a nation does not work for me, simply because I feel it is a limiting, constricting concept, and also because people are not slaves to geography and politics. A nation is necessary, for safety, for security, for a place to call home, but for me, there are only two souls, the personal which makes me who I am, and the other, of which I am part of as a member of the human race.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Calcutta Comeback

This has been a long time coming. Two and a half years, to be exact. No one questioned me when I went, no on wondered why I wanted to leave the city of my dreams, the city of my language, my friends, my foes and my desires behind to find employment a thousand miles away. It was but natural; Kolkata was a dying city, a withered shell lying on a bed of its former glory, inching towards doom. Choked with smoke, clogged with garbage, plagued by bandhs, skewered by politics, Kolkata was one more agonizing wheeze away from….what? Destruction? Implosion? Total, complete breakdown? Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. Yes, I was well rid of it.
Funny thing there. Kolkata has been dying for centuries now. It’s always dying, just like we all are. It’s dying because it’s alive. Alive with the maddening rush of commuters in the early morning buses, alive with people complaining about politics and traffic jams as they inch their way home in the evenings, alive with bellows of the hawkers as they take up half the footpath offering everything from underwear to over-the-top promises, from pirated DVDs to original one-liners. They compete with each other for your attention and once you stop to look, for you, for you only they are willing to sell the cellphone pouch at fifty rupees….yes sir, it’s that cheap…and it’ll last forever, even better than an original Nokia….hey, hey why are you going away….forty rupees, come on that’s what it cost me…maa kalir dibbi
When I announced to my friends in Delhi I was going back home, reactions were mixed. Friends, REAL friends were happy. They knew what I wanted. Others were shocked. How could I leave a steady job, at a national news channel to go back to the festering hole of Kolkata, a place where careers go to die? A place where shopkeepers take afternoon siestas instead of serving customers? Where babudom is the most popular religion and productivity is sacrificed at the altar of politics every single day? I don’t blame them. There is no point denying Kolkata isn’t all those things, and some more. Nor were these people saying things to hurt me, I like to believe some of them saw me as a promising young man throwing away his career for a waft of nostalgia. People who love Kolkata were hopelessly trapped in the past, as was the city itself. Trouble is, they had nothing I hadn’t heard, and felt before.
For every reason I hear to hate Kolkata, I can supply naysayers with ten more. But much like those who say video games are not and never will be art, Kolkata critics too deserve just one response. You just don’t get it. And I mean it in the nicest way possible. Oh sure, I could sit here and make list after list on what there is to love about Kolkata, and you could listen to them, but you wouldn’t feel any of them. Because if you could feel what I feel, I wouldn’t have to explain them to you.
How could I explain WHY it’s wonderful to walk along a crowded footpath, shops to the left of me, shops to the right of me, and revel in the sights and sounds of a people who habitually love to make a noise? How could I make you feel what I feel when I enter a bookshop and see it stuffed mostly with BOOKS, not just cards and CDs an DVDs and posters and stuffed toys and plastic toys and coffee shops and crayon sets and key chains and doorstops and everything except books. How would you know why it is delightful that even at ten thirty at night, my locality will be bustling with activity? Shops would still be open, people would be arguing about the fish, and I would slip into Priyo Robindro Mishtanno Bhandar to buy sweets for dessert. How could I even explain why it’s a joy to be certain that no matter what area I am in, impoverished or opulent, I KNOW I will find a veritable array of roadside eateries serving up roll, chop, jhalmuri, kathi kebab, fuchka, dahi bara…..the list goes on. And how could I EVER explain the joy when, during an argument with a co passenger about Sourav’s exclusion, or the political futures of Sonia and Rahul, or America’s fiscal policy, a complete stranger makes an emphatic point, looks at you quizzically and says ‘ki bolen?’. In an instant you become part of a group, a gang discussing worldly affairs with more earnestness than the directors of major multinationals during the annual meeting. But only until the next stop, of course.
I don’t want this to be a knock on Delhi, my adopted city for nearly three years. Maybe a colleague was right when he said that not being a student in Delhi had robbed me of experiencing the nuances of the city…exploring it the way it’s meant to be explored. But for all its magnificent architecture, and its grand shops and malls, and its splendid roads and a wonderful Metro (if you lived in the right parts of the city), Delhi never spoke to me. For others it was surprising that I was coming back to Kolkata. For me it was as natural as breathing. Kolkata had corners I could call my own. In Delhi, I couldn’t even find corners. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to an enviable job and far, far more enviable friends and caught a flight for the city of joy.
I wasn’t born in Kolkata. Didn’t grow up here (just grew sideways, but that’s another matter). So when I started living here at the age of sixteen, why did it feel like coming home? Maybe because Kolkata has something for everyone, even awkward outcasts like me. Maybe because somewhere, in its pollution choked skies and garbage strewn alleys you can find secrets that have been left there especially for you. It’s a city where if one person falls down, ten people will pick him up. Oh, of course one of them will also try to pick his pocket, but hey….that’s Kolkata. The ugly, fetid, putrid, glorious, beautiful, exquisite city of my dreams. Sure, Kolkata is dying. Maybe someday it WILL die. But for now…it’s living one hell of a life.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Art of the Game

Roger Ebert, who is still very much my hero, has posted an article about how video games can never be art here. What follows is a response I posted in the comments section, so the opening paragraph might be a bit mistifying. Suffice to say Lujo is a character who has posted a comment that is so ignorant, so vitriolic and so tasteless, I had to address it right at the beginning:-

I am torn here. Part of me, an minuscule part, but a part nonetheless wants to applaud Lujo. I don't think I have seen scatological insults of such rich and entertaining diversity ever before. On the other hand, I assume he is human, at least in shape, so it depresses me to no end that we share a common species.

Anyway, moving on, you keep mentioning that any art needs an original vision, which is why movies and architecture can be art. Maybe you are not aware of this, but many games do begin with one man, generally referred to as game designer. People like Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier etc. all 'direct' games, for lack of a better word.

I must also agree with many here who complain you are commenting on an art form you know nothing about. While one understands that it is your blog and your personal opinion, I believe your logic is flawed and opinion uninformed. Maybe you have given some thought to this matter and it is not a knee-jerk, I-hate-anything-new reaction some are accusing you of. However, the point is that you are not equipped to speak on video games for the simple reason that you have never FELT video games. You, of all people should know how important feelings are in relation to art. When described and deconstructed, the Mona Lisa is just a picture of a smiling woman, David is a statue of a well - built man, Pickwick Papers is a humorous, imaginary travelogue and the Maltese Falcon is just a detective movie. It's only when you see, read, watch them that you can experience them. And until you do, you can never know what they really are.

Elsewhere, you have compared video games to sport. Again, a flawed piece of reasoning. Playing video games is certainly a sport, but then neither is watching cinema an art form. It's the creation aspect of video games that we defend. Playing a game does not make us artists, but those who make the beautiful worlds for us to play in and engaging characters for us to get to know surely are.

Later in the article, you argue that games cannot be art because it has rules. Because there is an element of winning and losing. Partially true. Partially, because many games do NOT have an element of winning or losing. But again, you are confused between the audience and the creator. It's the gamer who has to follow the rules decided by the creator. If (s)he decrees I can fly, I can fly. If (s)he decrees I have to stand there and listen to what another player has to say, I have to do that. Here, you might argue that even the creator is bound by certain rules. But so does every artist. Does a musician not have to follow rules? Or a mime ? Or a director? Every art form has its own set of rules, both for the creator and the audience. Can you claim to enjoy The Gold Rush with your eyes closed?

Ultimately, I believe the mistake you and most others make is in trying to equate games with other art forms. Video games represent a unique art form, something that borrows a lot from others but cannot be exactly compared to any one. Games that forget this and try to be something else (like Heavy Rain) inevitably fail. Just like movies, music, poetry, sculpture etc. cannot be compared to each other, nor can video games be compared to them. Except, possibly in how they can make someone feel a range of emotions even though none of them have any direct, tangible impact on the audience's lives. You keep saying video games cannot be art because they are sport. Have you considered that video games can be both art AND sport?

Oh, and one last thing. You wonder why we are so emotional about the subject? Why we want our hobby to be defined as art? Well simply because it is, Mr. Ebert. Simply because great video games have made us feel the same way great movies, great music, great paintings and great poetry all have. Simply because there is logically no other category to define them by. Simply because great games can make us laugh, weep, shudder and grimace, even when we are not winning, or scoring points. Unlike sport, how we feel when playing a game isn't always directly related to how we are playing it. Winning doesn't always give us pleasure, losing doesn't always give us pain. Many of us play games not to compete, but to experience them. And I really feel that is the truest definition of art. It is what you experience for the sheer joy of experiencing it. Thank you.