Category Archives: Pop goes the culture

Om Shanti Om vs. Saawariya – why it doesn’t matter

Lately it feels like the Indian airwaves are saturated with this cooked-up war between the 2 big movies hitting the marquee this weekend. Every 24 hour news channel appears to be asking the same questions – Which one are you going to? Which one will do well? Who will emerge a winner?

 

With my limited knowledge of the distribution economics and a bunch of crude assumptions( Hey! This is a blog, after all), I am going to attempt to prove that however much you, as the viewer, may be invested in it, to my local movie theater owner, it doesn’t matter at all.

 

First what we know. OSO apparently has 2000 prints out in worldwide release on Friday and distributors supposedly paid about 80 crores for the rights. Let’s say we translate that $20 million for 2000 prints or $10,000 per print. Say the distributor wants to make a 100% markup before he sells the print to the local theater which gets it for $20,000.

 

On opening night, the local theater is running 11 shows. Say the owner needs to buy 4 prints to keep the shows continuously running. (This may be anecdotal, but since the prints are still in the form of reels, there is a theory going around that it is actually just one print and the owner’s assistants are furiously running around moving the finished reel from one theater to another, sometimes to the viewer’s confusion! Which may explain why there is such strenuous resistance to going digital – though I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to pirate that too.) So the cost to him is $80,000.

 

Tickets are sold at an average of $8 per person and the capacity of a single theater in our multiplex is about 500, which works out to $4000 for a full house. Since online ticketing is available( at a premium of $1.50 per ticket, no less) I happen to know that opening weekend is likely to be completely sold out.( Half an hour before the show, a long snaking entry line starts forming outside the theater – only local food sales rules prevent someone from making a roaring business selling chai and samosas to the shivering ticket-holders!).

 

So on the first night itself, the owner has netted $44,000 for the 11 shows. Over the course of the 3-day weekend, he has made close to $140,000, handily recouping his investment. After that, it is all money for jam.

 

One could inject some more information into this hypothesis – possibly there are more middlemen, possibly there is a profit sharing arrangement between the local distributor and the theater owner. But then I haven’t included the roaring profits made from gallons and gallons of 2 dollar cups of chai and plates and plates of 3 dollar stale samosas. And given the filthy state of the seats and the bathrooms, I have to come to the conclusion that spending on maintenance is pretty small.

 

The mechanics of movie making are such that very, very few movies (regardless of whether they are termed hits or flops) actually lose money for the producers and distributors.  In a recent interview, Arjun Rampal ( who also got his moment in the sun thanks to his role in OSO) said that his production ‘I see you’ ( ‘who saw that’ anyway?) had recovered its costs. Even a bomb like Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav (about which I wrote an article in Water, No Ice) is still making money off residuals. I haven’t even factored in the music rights, the ringtones, the airline revenue..

 

It is not difficult to figure out that while us poor gullible viewers are being given the impression that our tickets, like our votes, are going to make or break some movie maker’s hopes and ambitions, everyone concerned behind the scenes is laughing all the way to the bank. If you don’t believe me, just give a thought to why certain flop actors continue to find work in Maya Nagri. It is a money making machine baby – you just have to be smart about it.

 

Affirmative action on reality shows?

Last week, the last female contestant bowed out of Star Voice of India. Predictably, this raised a few morchas( one cannot help but be suspicious) of women insisting that there should be more representation of women in the finales of reality shows. In an ideal world, they said, the finals should have one boy and one girl. Some of them even went so far as to suggest that ‘just like we have reservation in jobs and schools, we should also have reservation in these contests.’

 

This is so wrong in so many ways that I will not even attempt to tackle the issue of why affirmative action is ridiculous. Instead, let’s take a look at why women are(supposedly) not doing well in these singing competitions.

 

First of all, I can think of 2 female singers who did come up through the medium of these shows whose careers in playback singing for Hindi movies has been nothing short of spectacular. I am, of course, referring to Shreya Ghosal and Sunidhi Chauhan. Even if no girls made it to the top 5 in VOI, the ones with real talent will be remembered and called upon to sing in future movies.

 

Which brings us to the second point, which is that this particular crop of girls was not particularly talented. Say what you will, Priyani was a screecher, Abhilasha’s vocals need to mature and the less said about Prantika the better. So in this particular instance, it may have simply been case of lack of talent. As I predicted in a much earlier blog, when it came to sheer ability, the boys were better.

 

However, there is one element to these reality shows that does skew the results in favor of the male singers. Singing talent in all these shows is determined by the singer’s ability to sing Hindi movie songs and even the casual listener will realize that the female singers are required to be coloratura sopranos – that is – singing at a really, really high pitch. Since only a small percentage of female singers can really do that, the majority sound like they are shrieking. If the contest rules were broadened to include different kinds of music alike folk and classical, probably the imbalance would be redressed.

 

Till we accept that there are forms of music other than film music, we will be forced to judge clones of the Lata style of singing. Alas, there aren’t many like her.

Johnny Gaddar – excellent

Bollywood and film noir are rarely mentioned in the same breath. For the uninitiated, film noir is a term used to describe low key crime dramas filled with moral ambiguity and sexual motivation( definition courtesy Wikipedia). Johnny Gaddar is a perfect example of this genre, conceived and shot so stylishly that one is tempted to believe that is a frame-by-frame lift from a Hollywood product.

 

That may be doing a real injustice to director Sriram Raghavan, who was also responsible for Ek Hasina Thi, the taut thriller starring Saif Ali Khan and Urmila Matondkar. Ek Hasina Thi was gripping, well directed and acted and showed the director’s predilections for crime dramas.

 

Johnny Gaddar, as the name suggests, is about a member of the 5-man gang who gets greedy when he has the opportunity to abscond with 2.5 crores in cash. How the plan goes horribly wrong is the subject of the movie.

 

Sriram Raghavan’s affection for previous Bollywood movies that have attempted takes on the noir genre is evident in the many references the movie makes to other classics. There’s Parwana, a 1971 movie starring Amitabh in a negative role, which provides the treacherous Vikram with the method to create an alibi. There’s Johhny Mera Naam which is playing in the background during a key moment in the film and gives Vikram his crime pseudonym. The movie is also dedicated to Vijay Anand, who also directed thrillers like Jewel Thief and Teesri Manzil.

 

The film begins on a dark and stormy night with an unknown character being shot to death as a police van is making the rounds of Mumbai. The rest of the movie is a flashback that slowly but surely brings us to the denouement laid out in the first few minutes.

 

Johnny Gaddar does not boast any particularly well known current stars. Dharmendra, whose career appears to be getting resurrected, gives a restrained performance as the wise leader of the gang. Vinay Pathak, who is better known for his comedic roles and his job as a co-anchor on Ranvir,Vinay aur Kaun, gives this serious role an excellent interpretation. All the other actors give terrific and subtle performances, including the women who orbit the gang members’ lives. Neil Nitin Mukesh, who is Mukesh’s grandson, plays the Gaddar. He is mostly wooden-faced but this does not detract from the movie as his character’s motivations require him to be impassive as his world is crumbling around him.

 

Shankar Ehsaan, Loy come up with a cool electronic, techno funk score for the movie but the songs only appear in snatches as background music. At no time does the score intrude on the movie’s pacing.

 

This is a seriously stylish movie where I was not tempted for a single moment to reach for the remote and fast forward any scene. It is also a complex, intelligent movie that you have to pay close attention to if you want to follow the plot. As such, this makes it an almost sure flop and I understand it did not do well in its theatrical release. However, I urge movie lovers to pick it up on DVD. Currently only pirated versions are available in the US and if your conscience prickles, I suggest you put it on a to-watch list or your Netflix queue.

 

Not recommended for kids because of content and violence.

The movies of the 60's

Indulging in a fit of nostalgia, I have lately been devouring Hindi movies from the sixties – a time when heroes had names like Ashok, Vinod and Rajesh and heroines were Sunita, Asha and Sushma. Directors were so enthralled with Eastman color that they instructed the sets to be saturated with neon colours – often leading to shocking pink sofas on crimson carpets. The men were strong and suffered silently and the women were wholesome, curvaceous and generally spoke with a strong South Indian accent.

I’ve realized that many of the clichés that we associate with Bollywood were spawned in the 60s. To name a few –

– The autocratic/repentant father – The roles now routinely carried out by Amitabh in movies like Mohabbatein and K3G were once the province of Nasir Hussain, who showed up in virtually every movie spouting dialogues like “Tumne bhare samaj mein mujhe badnaam kiya hai,” before booting the offending son or daughter out of said samaj. Of course, at the end when all the misunderstandings were sorted out, he would beg for forgiveness. “Mujhe maaf kar de beta,” he would sob, doing a rapid swipe at his child’s feet, sending a delightful chill up the patriarchically oppressed audiences’ spines.

– The suffering mother – Sharmila Tagore may have essayed the role of the tragic mother in Aradhana, but this part was dominated by Nirupa Roy, who was estranged from her son and blinded in the process in so many movies that she probably permanently carried around a pair of dark glasses and vial of glycerine.

– The comic sidekick – Rajendranath and a host of lesser known starlets provided the comic relief to the three hour sagas of suffering and woe. Never too funny to begin with and more slapstick than wit, the role steadily degenerated into the vulgar and unfunny antics of Johnny Lever and co by the 80s.

– Separation and reunion – Once again, Nirupa Roy cornered the market for this plot device, where convoluted situations involved fairs, temples or fallen women. Often a birthmark or birth swaddling provided the key to identification leading to the much spoofed “Bhaiyyaa…!”

– Loss of virtue – It was rare that the heroine fell victim to the debauched villain. It was usually the sad lot of the heroine’s friend or sister to be snared by the oily but charming cad, leaving the hero to come to the rescue and impress the girlfriend. “Mathe ka kalank” was an oft used phrase, succeeded by summary ejection from the surroundings.

– The shotgun wedding – Once the virtue taker was brought to justice, he was summarily married off to the hapless victim in what has to be an enormous leap of faith in the institution.

– The dancer – A long line of lovely ladies did what the heroine could not– wear shimmering, sexy clothes, live an independent life, smoke, drink, cuss and eventually come to sticky end for daring to have a mind of their own.

– The misunderstanding – A theme that ran through a majority of movies in the 60s was a misunderstanding between the hero and the heroine usually caused by catching the hero in a compromising situation with the dancer. This had the virtue of being able to drag along a wafer thin plot line for the requisite 16 reels. Somehow, it never occurred to the parties involved to just talk it out, and thanks to the absence of DNA testing, the story of the hero’s illegitimate child was swallowed hook line and sinker by ‘autocratic father’ and the virtuous heroine.

– The volte-face – The villains of the sixties were the mostly the non-violent sort, restricting their villainy to drinking, boozing, carousing and ill-treating their wives. At the end of the movies, they would have an instant change of heart – a fantasy denouement that surely met with the approval of many oppressed spouses in the audience.
– The unsatisfactory ending – Eventually, everybody walks off into the sunset, somehow managing to shrug off the death of a parent, a jail term, ugly familial confrontations, blinding and abuse with a stoicism worthy of followers of the Gita.

All you need to do to sample a typical example of this genre is to rent ‘Aya Sawan Jhoom Ke,’ which manages to incorporate every single one of these stereotypes and some.

Enjoy your trip down memory lane.

Star VOI September 14th – the best episode ever

Whether it was the presence of the mummyjis and papajis and nanijis or the sheer sentimentality of the songs, this particular episode was a keeper.

When Irfan sang Lukka Chuppi( originally sung by Lata Mangeshkar and A.R. Rahman) he really elevated what till then I had considered a rather pedestrian number. It is a pity they don’t have the concept of singles in India because if ever a song deserves some serious air time, it is this one, in this voice.

Every participant poured their heart out in song and made the sentimental audience, including the judges, dissolve into tears. Thankfully, I was able to fast-forward all the senti bits involving the mummyjis and pappajis feeding their kids on stage, and probably ended up enjoying the show much more than viewers forced to put up with all the corny speeches and the stage-managed pandering which actually diminishes the real emotional impact of the performances.

Predictably, Mirande was voted out. My belief that it will be one of the guys who wins VOI now is on a firmer footing since the gender ratio is now 2:1, though Sumitra has consistently stayed out of trouble in the last few weeks.

I think VOI should bring out today’s performances out on CD( or I-tunes, since the CD seems to be a vanishing specimen here in the US). Worth every penny.

It’s a spoof, for heaven’s sake!

The appeal of Bollywood can be perplexing to lovers of serious cinema, but there’s no denying the profound influence big studio movies have had on people of my generation. Our formative years were shaped by tales of reuniting brothers, heroic tales of good and evil, and love in the face of parental opposition and social stratification. Our cultural moorings are so steeped in movie lore that when two South Asian strangers meet, all it takes is a filmy reference to break the ice and find a common dialogue.

 

Given the clichéd, inane and often insane nature of Bollywood movies, one would have though they were ripe for a good satirical look at what makes them tick. The closest Bollywood has come to self-examination is Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na, which, far from being a satire, is a loving tribute to the magic and inexplicable appeal of these corny melodramas. The movie employs every Bollywood/Hollywood cliché that makes the viewer gasp in disbelief while cramming the popcorn – from Ram and Lakshman the separated brothers, Mission Impossible style action, spit that makes its Matrix-like way to the heroes face, and of course, the climactic explosion. The genius of the movie is in its cheeky self-awareness – ‘Look,’ it says to the viewers, ‘this is what you love, whether it makes sense or not.’

 

Well, Farah Khan laughed all the way to the bank that time. Her new offering, Om Shanti Om promises to be more of the same, using another time-tested plot device – reincarnation- to explore the evolution of Bollywood from the 1970’s to the present day. The movie has apparently already been sold to Adlabs for a staggering 88 crores, but the real buzz in the movie is coming from Shahrukh’s 6-pack which has already generated the kind of crazy media attention that makes you want to put your head in your hands in despair.

 

See for yourself. 🙂

 

 

Predictably, this has brought out the worst in bloggers, with people commenting on how creepy it looks to have a 44 year old face pasted on a 24 year old bod( ok there’s a little truth to that!) and how SRK is trying to ape Hrithik in the worst possible way. It seems his acting cred, which had risen considerably with Chak de, is taking a real pounding, even with OSO being a couple of months away from its release.

But if you take a closer look at the song( and I have taken many !) you can see it is a complete spoof of the current trend of ripped abs and buffed pecs. And no one can carry off the wink-wink, nod-nod self caricature better than SRK can. When asked if this is the beginning of a ‘shirtless’ trend for him, he replied, ‘No, but I’m willing to go pantless.’ On an interview on Koffee with Karan, he took a good natured swipe at the age-difference between him and his co-star, Deepika Padukone by commenting, “I fully expected her to say, ‘I love you uncle !’” Oh he knows what he’s doing, and so does director Farah Khan.

Expect an energetic, enthusiastic, fun-filled, send-up of the movies when you go to see OSO but for heaven’s sake, leave your brains at the door. It is not supposed to make sense.

 

The Indianisation of America

About a dozen or so years ago, when I first arrived in the US, we bounced around the north-east for a while, changing 4 homes in 2 years. It was with a big gasp of relief that I landed in the Bay Area, where Indian stores and Indian mores were both part of the landscape and I found families who shared my cultural ambivalence.

Lately, though, it seems that the India of my childhood has been making an insidious creep into mainstream American society. Many values that I considered uniquely Indian are popping up as micro and macro trends in the big, bad West. Check these out –

Education – Possibly as a result of the powerful waves emanating from Tam-bram engineering brains, there has been a resurgence in the importance of science and math in early education. Some schools, especially those serving predominantly minority populations, have pared their curriculum down to these two basic functions. With President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, testing and teaching to the test have never been as significant. Without commenting on whether this is a positive trend or not, it does appear that elementary education in public schools is slowly beginning to resemble the rote-driven, drill emphasizing education I received growing up.

Girls gone mild – A new book by Wendy Shalit, a 1997 graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, profiles young women who stand up to social pressures to embrace promiscuity. Her previous book was 'Returning to modesty: discovering the lost virtue'. Apparently there is a growing trend in the country of girls wanting to (gasp!) stay in school, work hard and generally lead wholesome lives.

Abstinence -Thanks to the President's born-again evangelism, abstinence-only sex education has been given federal funding of over a billion dollars. A corollary to 'girls gone mild', this seems to forebode a return to the time when girls were chaste and boys had to wait. 

The Bollywood influence – Suddenly, song-and-dance routines, which used to be a staple of Hollywood studio productions 50 years ago, are making a big comeback – witness the success of High School Musical. Thanks to the cross-over influences of Mira Nair and Gurinder Chaddha, we get to see Nicole Kidman dancing to 'Chamma Chamma'  and our heroines gracing the red carpet at all the prestigious film festivals. Hrithik Roshan was profiled as an 'It' boy in GQ magazine as early as 2002.

The Yoga boom – There is Ashtanga Yoga, Viniyoga, Integral Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Power Yoga, Corporate Yoga, Office Yoga, Zen Yoga, Belly-dancing Yoga( I kid you not) and Pilates Yoga. Need I say more?

Medicine – Thanks to the advances in genetic testing, scientists are coming around to the fact that each individual may require a different set of therapies and medications for the same set of symptoms, a fact that has been a principal precept in Ayurveda for centuries. Kudos to Deepak Chopra for making millions off ancient Indian medical science. Hey, at least he understood the worth of our heritage!

Fashion – Chikan, Zardosi, Kantha, Tie-Dye- these have already penetrated mainstream clothing retail establishments. The long, crushed fabric skirts, that used to be a staple of Colaba Causeway in Mumbai are now so ubiquitous here that I have sometimes found them on sale at the local American grocery store. 

Food – Once dependent on price-gouging Indian stores for my spices and dals, I now find clean, uncontaminated, organic versions in most large grocery chains. Most restaurants in the neighborhood have also bowed to the overwhelming vegetarian requests and now offer a fairly varied meatless menu. The best example is a Thai restaurant a stone's throw away, where the vegetarian menu is so extensive that Friday evenings resemble an Indian Babel. 

Comics – A series of comics based on Indian mythology have hit the stands recently. Check out a review of Ramayana 3392 here

And last but not least, the Pressure Cooker! Imagine my visiting mother's amusement when a Caucasian friend tripped in one evening to announce she had discovered a most wonderful kitchen appliance which allowed her to 'cook stuff in minutes.'

Of course, the India that I am talking about is one I view through the nostalgia-filled, rose-tinted glasses of memory. I suspect that urban India has changed so much since I've been away that culturally, a fuddy-duddy like me is going to be more comfortable here today than back home.