Meryl-go-Round.

By- Mrinalini Shinde

“I will never be one of those women, who stay silent and pretty on the arm of her husband.”

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, in ‘The Iron Lady’

A line that seems almost biographical to the actress herself. I am writing this post amidst vast speculation in the media that Meryl Streep’s Academy Award win as Best Actress, was an upset win. That there were worthier contenders. That it was given to her because she has missed out on the statue for way too long. (17 nomination, this being her third win after Sophie’s Choice in 1982.)

So, distancing myself from all the conspiracy, I just felt like taking a few moments to pay a small tribute to one of my favourite actresses. New York even declared 27th May to be ‘Meryl Streep Day’. So, as the Vanity Fair cover below claims, what makes Meryl Streep America’s greatest actress?

I haven’t watched all her work. Just about half, actually. But each of those performances left me awed by her talent, and the effort she takes in order to appear effortless, that the characters become her, and she, them. From her first Oscar winner- Kramer v. Kramer, the portrayal of a confused, layered character of a mother rediscovering herself and her family, to the playing the mother who had to make the ultimate choice between her two children, or the unscrupulous mother in The Manchurian Candidate. An Italian Bride, in The Bridges of Madison County, and the powerful journalist in Lions for Lambs. A warm chef, as Julia Child in Julie and Julia, and a severe nun in Doubt. The sheer range of characters she has portrayed, each convincing, is remarkable. The homework she does is evident from her acute grasp of accents too.

High intensity drama, is easily Meryl Streep’s territory, and her outings in comedies like Prime, as a Jewish therapist, and in It’s Complicated were far below the Meryl we’d grown used to. But her stunning act in Mamma Mia! is more than fair compensation. The sight of this crazy, energetic, middle aged woman, jumping, dancing, singing and just being so much fun, is brilliant, while still managing the poignancy attached to her familial life.

However, my favourite Meryl Streep persona would undoubtedly be Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. The ruthless, sarcastic almost cruel boss, hiding a vulnerable woman filled with insecurities and regrets is great, but the ease with which she adopts mannerisms, is almost unsettling. It wasn’t her greatest role, but I loved her in it.

And now to The Iron Lady. The many layers of pancake makeup, coiffed hair, power dressing suits, accent and modulation; all the elements to imitate Mrs. Thatcher did not take away the fact that this was Meryl’s film. It was not so much of a biopic about Great Britian’s  only woman Prime Minister, as much as it was a showcase of Meryl’s powers of portrayal. So is that skewed direction, or a salute to a performer is a matter of opinion.

But, to a lady, who I think, so forgets all else while living in the skin of her characters, that she makes it impossible for us to forget that she’s the one inside, we’d like to congratulate you, on your yes, third Academy Award.

 As Miranda Priestly would conclude, “That’s all.” 🙂

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Ami Shotti Bolchi!

By- Mrinalini Shinde

After years of having nurtured a romanticised view of the seemingly enigmatic and wildly interesting city of Calcutta, a view undoubtedly developed through the influences of   Satyajit Ray, Dominique Lapierre, Sarat Chandra, and the noblest of them all- Gurudev; my recent visit to Calcutta, had great expectations to fulfil.  So, were they met? Not really.

They were exceeded. It is safe to assume that one has indeed, fallen in love with the City of Joy.  It’s a bit like H.G. Wells’ Magic Shop. Alluring. Varied.

The ancient and relentless power of the Underground trains, the sentinel- like British structures like the Victoria Memorial, High Court, Writer’s Building, St. Paul’s Cathedral that astutely stand guard over the heritage-junkie’s paradise that is Kolkata. The swanky Park Street with its lovely restaurants. The many ‘Saranis’ which are so much fun to just prnounce! eg. “Shakespeare Shoroni” The labyrinth that is College Street, Mecca of all who admire the written word.  The velvet of the Hooghly, sequinned with boats. Amidst the noise and traffic of New Market, there will still be a bunch of friends, with time to spare, to stand and stare.

From a Parineeta inspired boat-ride, to attending the Kolkata Book Fair, and watching the Vidyasagar Setu against the backdrop of a setting sun, loving riding in Ambassador taxis and hopping on to caterpillar trams and discovering how seriously the word ‘mishti’ is taken; it was a lovely trip.

A recent Kolkata tourism ad was centred around the phrase, ‘Let Calcutta surprise you’. It did. Wonderfully so. Because, I was surprised at how I felt instantly at home. Thank you for the welcome, you lovely, warm people of Calcutta.   As a new song in the movie Kahaani  goes, ‘Kolkataaaaaa… You sexy. Ami shotti bolchi.’

All Images (c) Mrinalini Shinde

The Doc Martens

By- Ajay Patri

Another delay. I was getting tired of these delays. I had already missed my meeting and couldn’t wait to just get back home. I had been working without sleep for thirty two hours now and was desperate to get into my bed. I dragged myself to the cafe in the airport lounge, lugging my lone bag with me. I bought my sixth cup of coffee in the last three hours and walked around trying to find an empty place to sit. The place was crowded with grumpy people whose flights were delayed. Everyone looked tired and harried and sullen. I walked slowly; there was no hurry. I was stranded here for another two hours.

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The Masters in Paris

 By – Srikantt Mantravadi, NLSIU, Bangalore.

Some thoughts on Midnight in Paris, Hugo and the two masters behind them.

MidnightinParis-Scene01HUGO

The French are taking over the awards, if not the movies, this year, in some form or the other. Your and my ears have already numbed from all the buzz around the silent movie The Artist. For a silent movie, the din around The Artist is nothing short of deafening. As if that weren’t enough we also have the old masters Messrs Allen & Scorsese (Sounds like a law firm,no?) weave magic onscreen by putting Paris through a time machine.

Some of the renaissance spirit that Allen exquisitely invokes in his warm movie seems to have infected him too for in Midnight in Paris we see vintage Woody. He surely rolls back the years. While his protagonist Gil Pender might yearn for the Paris of the 20s for the writer in him to blossom, Woody doesn’t need to look anywhere for the spark. He still has it in him to write a script that is tender, quirky and nostalgic.

Another director, who wasn’t quite looking for reinvention but was nevertheless being viewed with scepticism, is Martin Scorsese. There was talk about undeserved recognition for a supposedly watered down remake. There was talk about how he was making middle of the road thrillers now. Both of which I thoroughly liked especially the latter which showed that the master had an delightful feel for psychological themes and atmosphere. All of this he varnishes on Hugo. It is a touching movie with layers of insight. It is a mystery alright but it is also a story about a young boy’s love for his father, his friendships, dreams and movies. Scorsese stages it perfectly and manages to bring the soul of Paris to the Montparnasse railway station. This is like Home Alone for adults that children can also enjoy.

Both movies truly bring out the innocence and joy of movies and truly exploit the cinematic medium for what it is. Pure entertainment with a dash of nostalgia. There is no fuss over the technique employed; Just simple storytelling.

Both the directors invoke the bohemian spirit of Paris, Scorsese less so in Hugo but the place still leaves its indelible mark on the movie. While Woody makes us swoon in the splendour of Paris’ finest streets and buildings,  Scorsese goes a step ahead and builds an entire city within the Montparnasse! The movies are also populated by a rich tapestry of characters. Midnight in Paris is especially delightful when it springs one surprise after the other when the Lost Generation comes alive. Such is the collective brilliance of those souls that Woody just had to embody the character with the right person and give them an air of authenticity (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali especially stand out) – both of which he does marvellously. There is a fine balance that has to be struck while making a movie of this sort. The initial fascination of the viewer as he grapples with the high concept can wane quickly if he realises that the director’s imagination begins and ends there and that the movie is nothing but a guided celebrity tour. But in Woody’s interpretation of the age the characters come alive in flesh and blood. You know he is not just throwing around names to impress you although that cannot be ruled out altogether. The movie has a lovely sepia tint even in the modern day portions which made me wonder if Paris itself is bathed in that kind of an ethereal glow all the time. Owen Wilson is the only disappointment in the whole movie – His part edgy, part excited portrayal making him look slightly juvenile at times. But that you’ll notice only if you can  take your eyes off the absolutely alluring Marion Cotillard!

The best touch in the movie for me was when Pender tells Bunuel the concept for The Exterminating Angel. It is meta moments like this that make MIP magical.

Midnight-in-Paris-2994D8Martin-Scorsese-on-the-set-of-HUGO

Scorsese’s setting is more festive than bohemian. There is a certain Christmassy feel to the entire movie. This could be because of two reasons – The amiable set of characters that populate the station be it the florist, the lady with the cute poodle(?), the gentleman trying to woo the lady and even Sacha Cohen’s caricaturish grumpy policeman with his dog. (In fact mans best friends get a lot of screen time in this year’s Oscar nominations. Uggie the dog, Blackie and the cute poodle.) These characters set the tone when the movie begins. The sense of mystery is innocuous, ephemeral and only at the level of children. Adults will realise 20 minutes into the movie that maintaining suspense is the last thing on Scorsese’s mind. Instead he fashions a heart warming movie around the indomitable spirit of a ragamuffin. Along the way he packs in a homage to the auteurs of early cinema like George Melies. There is also redemption and vindication to be had. (This is also the theme that resonates in The Artist which is also about changing circumstances forcing an artist out of his craft and livelihood.) If there is anyone who genuinely deserves to pay homage to old and forgotten masterpieces, it is Scorcese, for his homage mirrors his concern for these movies in real life. The cast is great. I have nothing against precocious kids but they irritate me. Here they play it with the right amount of timidity, resolve and a sense of wonder. Ben Kingsley is fantastic. The unadulterated emotions are sure to touch the audiences hearts. It is a great holiday movie and will possibly be watched by a lot of families on lazy Sunday afternoons or Christmas. It is shot beautifully and is languorous at times. (I was only watching a BRrip on an LCD screen). I can only imagine its gorgeousness on an IMAX 3D screen!

We must be grateful that unlike Coppola, the other great of New Hollywood, Scorsese’s ambition hasn’t lessened over time. I thought that with Shutter Island Scorcese was also taking the path of Coppola – making stylish yet slight B movies. But that, it seems, was just a flash in the pan. He has made a movie that will rejuvenate the much reviled 3D format.

Hugo and Midnight in Paris easily traipse into my all time favourite list. They are movies made with a lot of heart and emotion and showcase two masters at the peak of their genius. I do not know whether these movies deserve awards or not but they surely deserve the love of the viewer.

Moneyball (review)

By – Ajay Patri

Sports films always come with some extra baggage, one that I believe the makers are well aware of. Simply put, they are not everyone’s cup of tea. Of course, this can be said of a movie of any genre but for a sports film, it makes even more sense since knowing the intricacies of the game itself might enhance one’s viewing pleasure. I absolutely enjoyed watching The Damned United because I like football. I did not enjoy watching Invictus to the same extent because I do not follow rugby.

 I am not a baseball fan. But I enjoyed watching Moneyball nonetheless. Yes, somewhere down the line, I thought I might have enjoyed the movie even more if I was actually well versed in the rules of the game and had a passion for it. But that should not deter you from watching it. Because the movie is more than baseball and that is the reason why it triumphs.

I won’t go into the details of the plot but just give a glimpse of what you might have already read about. It is about a relatively small baseball team (one that is beset by financial constraints and has become a feeder club for larger teams) that employed a radical methodology of recruiting new players, of using numbers to analyse players (I later learned it is known as sabermatics). You might think this cannot translate into entertaining cinema (I had my doubts, I admit) but you will be wrong.

I think the reason the movie transcends the sport itself is due to the emphasis it places on this transition. It is an analogy of a revolution; of how the old guard is reluctant to let go of the status quo when faced with new ideas. That the story of this revolution keeps you riveted for more than two hours without rousing speeches (a staple of many sports based movies) and frenetic action is a mark of success on the part of the director Bennett Miller.

Like his earlier movie Capote, Moneyball does seem to lack pace at times. But it never reaches the point where it becomes frustrating to watch. For this, praise must go to the actors. Brad Pitt is a very good actor and here he puts in a performance that is very restrained. His character, Billy Beane, is the General Manager of the aforesaid team. You realise the risks that he is undertaking by challenging the old methods and you intuitively support him like you would support an underdog who is out to defy the system. Pitt deserves credit for earning that sympathy and support from the audience. Yes, he does have a subdued private life with the clichéd broken marriage and a kid that he only rarely gets to see but the filmmakers steer clear of making this situation mushy, though your sympathy for him only increases. Scenes from his past are interspersed in the movie which goes a long way in making you understand his actions. A wise move, since otherwise you would end up thinking he is just a stubborn and reckless person.

Sadly the same cannot be said of Jonah Hill, who plays a Yale economics graduate who helps Pitt with the player recruitments. Jonah Hill is excellent in his scenes but his character suffers as a result of the focus on Pitt. It is not his fault really and I was wishing we could have got a larger glimpse at his character.

Pitt and Hill are ably supported by the equally impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Art Howe, the coach of the team who is at loggerheads with Pitt’s character. The players themselves are not looked at in depth.

I think the last bit is important. This is not a sports movie in the traditional sense. The focus is not on the players and you only have one eye on what happens on the pitch. The focus is on the long smart exchanges that occur between Pitt and Hill, and the confrontations between Pitt and the established order of old school scouts, the management and the coach. This is one of the things I liked the most about this movie; the fact that it invites you to pay close attention to these conversations, which ultimately propel the movie forward. And when you do, you end up with a very rewarding experience. This is also the reason why in spite of not being a fan of baseball, I was able to appreciate the movie.

It is ultimately a movie about human nature and resilience, and about change. The last scene, a long shot of Pitt driving as the camera closes in on his face, is brilliant; as he contemplates a change of a different kind, though a change nonetheless (I will let you find that out). That scene brings the movie to a satisfying end and Pitt, in my opinion, deserves that Oscar nod for that scene alone, where he manages to convey so much in such a short span of time.

After Rajini Who?

AFTER RAJINI WHO?

Rajinikanth is a legend. A demi-god. His popularity, his fan following and the crazy rituals that precede the release of any Rajnikanth movie are unparalleled. He is in essence a myth in the making, if he hasn’t already become one. Stories about him, such as getting the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu stuck in a traffic jam simply by standing in the middle of the road and the nation wide riots across Malaysia when the premiere of his Sivaji:The Boss (2007) was delayed by a day, have become legends in their own right, creating a vast and very enriching modern day folklore, that are as entertaining as the man and give us an idea about the kind of following he commands. But what must be accepted here and cannot be denied is that the the man will not live for ever. Sivaji Rao Gaekwad is 61 years old, and even though he still brings the same exuberance and energy that he had when he burst onto the silver screen in the 1970s with his cigarette flipping and raw evil laughs, he is getting old. He may have just two or three movies under his belt, before he retires. And when he does retire, what will be felt most profoundly is the vast void he has left behind in Indian and especially Tamil cinema. This is what warrants the question, who will be the next Rajinikanth?

The implications of this question are many. The first is economic. Rajinikanth is a one-man industry. The most bankable star in the country. He commands an exorbitant price (he was reportedly paid Rs.40 Crores for Endhiran) but delivers record shattering blockbusters. He is the only actor in the country for whom producers are willing to shell out 150-200 Crores to produce a movie. And he has been constantly been delivering hits for over three decades now. When he departs the scene, will there be, or is there another, who can stand up and take on these burdens as effortlessly?

The other implication is quite simply sentimental and emotional. Rajinikanth is a god. A phenomenon. Entire generations of film goers have been enthralled by his antics, have whistled at every punch dialogue and clapped at every punch. In a country filled with mass entertainers, he was quite simply, the best. Once Rajinikanth bows out, who out there will make us laugh, cry, dance and sing with as much style, swagger and histrionics?

This is not the first time such questions have been raised. When the legendary MGR departed from the film scene to become the Chief Minister, such questions came up repeatedly. It was Rajinikanth who stood up and filled that void. But the void left behind by Rajini will be bigger and more difficult to fill.

Kamal Hassan belongs to the same generation as Rajinikanth and in the Dualist outlook of Tamil cinema, provides the ‘class’ to balance Rajinikanth’s ‘mass’. Suriya and Vikram, both among the finest actors in the country at the moment, do not have the necessary fan base required to reach Rajini levels and have never really aspired to do so. They have stuck to what they know best, acting, and have done stupendously for themselves. Vijay, may have the necessary fan base, but lacks the charisma and vitality of Rajinikanth, and has not been able to win over new fans outside the Tamil audience, a key ingredient to Rajini’s success. That leaves one candidate, Ajith, who has a dedicated fan base and after Mankatha last year, is on a roll. But his fan base is arguably smaller than Vijay’s and he too has not managed to win audiences outside Tamil Nadu. For now, it seems as though the field is wide open but there is no one to take up Rajini’s mantle.

The dilemma faced by Tamil cinema at this point of time is neither new nor unique to it. Hollywood faced a similar dilemma in the 1970s, with the decline of possibly its last true Superstar, John Wayne. Actors there have managed to carve niches for themselves but no one has managed in last 30 odd years to reach the awe-inspiring position of John Wayne. Hindi cinema faced a similar issue when Amitabh Bachchan slowly receded from the top hero position in the 1990s, though that void was eventually filled by Shahrukh Khan. But with SRK’s current position being very shaky and the sudden rise of Salman Khan as a blockbuster machine, the field is again wide open. But, this dilemma is most acute in the other three big regional industries, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In the Telugu industry, when NTR left the silver screen to try his hand at politics in the 1980s, Chiranjeevi was crowned ‘Megastar’, though his popularity and image could never match NTR’s. Now, with Chiranjeevi too effectively out of movies, there appears to be no one who can consistently deliver hits and have mass appeal at the same time. Mahesh Babu could possibly be a contender to be the undisputed Superstar of Telugu cinema, with two back to back blockbusters, a massive following outside Andhra and the ability to deliver hits that make even the LA Times take note. (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2011/09/dookudu-daring-dashing-showtimes-reviews-prince-mahesh-samantha.html) But, as always, consistency is the key. Kannada cinema too faces a dearth of hit machines, with the demise of Dr.Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan, with even Puneet Rajkumar and Sudeep failing to continuously deliver and Upendra being too eccentric to count. But of all these industries, it is the Malayalam industry that will feel the absence of its big two (Mamootty and Mohanlal) most acutely. For the last two decades, these two superstars have been the be all and end all of Mollywood. And they have not allowed any newer or younger actors to prosper under their shadow. It seems unlikely that once they depart, anyone can so completely capture Kerala as these two have.

What is noticeable above is a trend. As movies start becoming more and more story and script-oriented, they tend to rely less and less on the ability of one single person to carry the whole movie and deliver profits. Maybe there is no answer to the titular question. Maybe there shouldn’t be one. But what we can say for certain is that, once Rajinikanth gives his final scene, the Age of the Superstars will well and truly be over.

The New Golden Age of Tamil Cinema

Tamil cinema, long seen as the poorer southern cousin of Hindi cinema and known more or less by the histronics of its superstar(s), has been undergoing a revolutionary transformation in the last decade or so. Led by a barrage of new directors, actors and producers, Tamil cinema has managed to reinvent itself as, possibly the foremost film industry in the country. But are these changes enough to warrant the tag of a ‘Golden Age’?

It is quite clear that Tamil cinema at the moment possesses possibly the best crop of actors in the country. These actors have actively and continuously sought out new, varied and often very risky roles, whether it be Vikram in Pithamagan, Suriya in Vaaranam Ayiram or Karthi in Paruthiveeran, which have not only won them accolades but also resulted in box office successes. There has also been a wave of new film makers such as Gautham Menon, Selvaraghavan and Ameer Sultan who have pushed the boundaries of conventional film making, often taking subjects that are raw, edgy and not exactly what one would call ‘mainstream’. This is best exemplified by the critcally acclaimed Aaranya Kandaam (Jungle Chapter) released last year. The movie follows six different characters who are brought together by a packet of cocaine in the space of a day. Though such cinema always had a niche in the Tamil industry, with the likes of Mani Ratnam and K.Balachander, it is only in the last decade that it has become mainstream.

Tamil cinema has also long been blessed with the best possible technicians, from cinematographers to sound mixers, and still boasts of the best possible technical crews in the country, with the likes of Santosh Sivan, P.C.Sriram, Thotta Tharani, and Resul Pookutty.

But, one of the greatest advances of the last decade was the growth of corporate production studios and the ability to get finances through banks and other institutions. The entry of corporates changed the face of the Tamil industry, with budgets skyrocketing. The average budget of a Tamil movie with an A-list star now routinely matches the average budget of a Hindi movie with an A-list star. Any big movie now is made with an average budget of around 40-45 crores. Sometimes the budgets go higher. Way higher. The 2010 release Rajnikanth starrer Endhiran remains India’s most expensive movie with a budget of 162 crores (with marketing 200 crores). Last year, the Suriya starrer 7aum Arivu was made at a budget of 85 Crores.

Further, these big budgets have been made commercially viable with the growth of multiplexes and the ability to directly release movies outside India to meet the demands of the huge Tamil diaspora. Endhiran is touted as the highest grossing movie in India’s history, breaching the 300 Crore barrier, and according to some sources getting as much as 375 crores. Whether these statements are true or not

what can’t be denied is that Endhiran definitely features among the top three highest grossing Indian movies of all times.The top three grossers in Tamil cinema last year are Mankatha (150 Crores), 7aum Arivu (110 Crores) and Velayudham (90 crores). Of the top five grossers of all times in Indian cinema, two are Tamil movies, Endhiran (275-300 crores) and Dasavatharam (250 Crores).

Tamil cinema now also has the biggest world wide audience after Hindi cinema, with movies being routinely released in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan. In fact Rajnikanth is a cultural icon in Japan, with his movies grossing more than Japanese releases.

And finally, it is possible to say that the Tamil audience has really matured in its outlook. This can be only explanation for why last year, the highest grossing movie Mankatha (The Game) did not have a ‘hero’ per se. The protagonist in the movie played by the Superstar, Ajith, is a scheming devious womanizing alcoholic corrupt cop who is planning on stealing 500 Crores and bumping off his accomplices in the process. Hardly what one would expect from a mainstream blockbuster with a mainstream actor. This could also be the reason why the audiences lapped up Shankar’s sci-fi extravaganza, “Endhiran”, with Rajnikanth in as non-Rajnikanth a role as possible.

So is Tamil cinema in a new Golden Age? I would argue that it undoubtedly is. But what finally clinches this argument for me is the sheer range of movie being released or planned. Take the list of movies to be released in 2012 for instance. You have Yohan: Adhayayam Ondru (Yohan: Chapter One) a spy thriller; Karikalan, a historical epic; Kochadaiyaan, India’s first motion capture movie, starring Rajnikanth; Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam, another spy thriller with a budget of 150 Crores; the Suriya starrer action thriller Maatran; the cop drama Thaandavam with Vikram; the gangster flick Vettai Manan; the tragic love story 3 (the Kolaveri movie) and Vada Chennai (North Chennai) by the director of the six-national award winning flick Aadukalam. And these are just a few of the movies being released. So my advice? The next time a Tamil movie is playing near you, grab a ticket, watch (Tamil movies outside Tamil Nadu are generally released with subtitles) and enjoy film making at its finest.