Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Paro's PMGP

Those of you who are intrested can catch up with Paromita Vohra's piece called 'The one billion rupee home' published in the book 'Mumbai Meri Jaan' (Mumbai, my love); edited by Jerry Pinto & Naresh Fernandes. It is an exhaustive article that deals with her experiences during her stay in the PMGP colony.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

13\3 PMGP – End

Initially, the agent who had helped me purchase the flat had stared suspiciously at my unkempt beard and had warned me, ‘You are welcome to stay here…. But don’t do anything ‘aise-waise(This and that) with our girls.’ I was a bit surprised. Did I look the kind who would do all sorts of ‘aise-waise’ with anyone at all? Not taking any chances, I started to trim my beard and comb my hair regularly.

The original alloties of the flats in PMGP colony treated their film and media neighbours as ‘outsiders’. But the ‘locals’, as we used to call them, were as depended on us, as we were on them. The software boom was yet to arrive. We, therefore, were the neo-rich professionals. And we had the cash.
A journalist from New York once wrote an article on India and the transformation that it was going through due to globalisation. He did some exclusive reporting on PMGP. All of us were branded as 'young Indian yuppies' living in the gettos of Mumbai. I should thank my stars that my uncle, who was trying to find a suitable bride for me at that time, was unaware of this discription.

So, your housemaid stayed opposite you; the cable guy was just a block away, the roadside vegetable vendor resided two floors below, the milk man was on the third floor and the lady next door delivered home made food.

On the ground floor of a building, a ‘Kholi’ got converted into a hair-cutting saloon. In another, a doctor inaugurated his clinic. With in a few days he had a zerox machine and an STD booth installed. Tiny plays schools, tuition classes and beauty saloons mushroomed.

And when a sound recording studio got set up, I got the jitters. Why don’t I set up an editing suit at 13\3? After all, it was a ground floor flat. Business would be great. My friend Rajiv nodded in agreement, but my partner at ‘Dziga Collective’ thought that purchasing an auto rickshaw was a better idea.

Meanwhile activities at 13\3 continued. If a friend fought with his wife, he dropped anchor. While I wrote one of my many soon-to-be-made scripts, he stared blankly at the ceiling. When his wife hunted him down, the fight would start all over again. If a writer had guests at his house, my ‘Kholi’ was the most sought out space for screenplay narrations. Thus, the seeds of many great films were sown at 13\3.

Many times, juniors from my film school hopped in with bag and baggage. And when they searched for an alternative accommodation, guess who provided them with an estate agent? That’s right – yours truly. Where did all the deals take place? – Right again, ‘Kholi’ No. 13\3. For anyone who came to my door steps, my principle was simple - stay on as long as you wish and if I am broke, do pay my electricity bills.

There were times when, during my evening walks, a series of local estate agents used to salute or greet me. They generally enquired about my well-being and kept me amused. After all, I gave them business and charged no commission for it.

Kaate Saab (sir), his son-in-law assistant, the ‘Naani’ (aunty) with a big bindhi on her forehead sitting all by herself in her tiny balcony, the friendly independent Rajasthani grocery shop aunty and her two sons; and my ‘bai’ (house maid) who used to call me ‘beta’ (son) to get more things done by me than she ever did herself…

A cousin once remarked – ‘You are so popular that you should be a candidate for the PMGP elections, if at all there were one’. Thank God, I did not take him seriously. Otherwise, world cinema would have truly lost one of its champions!!!

Jokes apart… most people whom I knew or lived along during those days have shifted out of PMGP. But like me, many still maintain their account in a bank situated there. I have no idea why…

At times, when I visit the bank I do bump into a sound recordist friend of mine, who has been staying there for more than thirteen years now. Not that he can’t shift, he just won’t. And he is at peace with himself.

It took me a long time to get out of it. And, I believe, it had got nothing to do with the place itself or its physicality…

It was just the way I looked at it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

13\3 PMGP – Middle

The original inhabitants of PMGP were a part of a rehabilitation scheme – The Prime Minister’s Grant Project or PMGP. They had been displaced from their earlier habitat, thanks to a road project that linked two suburban centres in Mumbai. Most were migrants from other parts of the state of Maharashtra.

I had made my purchase from one such lady. It was only much later that I came to know about her profession. She brewed and sold country liquor. Her husband had apparently hanged himself to death and the rumour going around was that his wife was too ‘hot’ to handle.

My building society secretary, with grave concern, had once whispered that the lady was seeing a young but corrupt police constable, even before her husband’s death. I dared not mention any of this to anyone. ‘Budding filmmaker buys flat from a possible adulterous liquor lady’ – this also did not sound good.

But all said and done, my ground floor ‘Kholi’ was quite an ‘adda’ by itself. It had a TV set and so, people gathered whenever there was a cricket match. Otherwise too, people often dropped in with their own groceries, barged into the kitchen, made tea, cooked food, and happily ate it, as if it were their own house. Of course, they did feed me too. But that was really a by-product.

And some generous ones even brought their own ‘daaru’ – in the afternoons, before and after sunset and even at mid nights. Most times I ended up being at the receiving end of their emotional outbursts; mainly relating to personal and professional matters. I also found myself cooking for them, as best I could, so that they eat and then sleep over their ‘angst’. I would thus be relieved of the burden of listening to their woes.

And on few occasions I got emboldened enough to gulp off their ‘daaru’ and give them a taste of my own emotional outbursts – both personal and professional. That was my way of getting back at them. And invariably, my angst increased the following day when I had to clean up the mess left behind – unwashed utensils or puke stains.

One day my roommate, who worked for a then reputed but now defunct media house, had invited around twenty of his female colleagues for a ‘pharata’ party. It was the first time in my life that I had seen so many of them cramped into a 180 square feet area, chatting away to glory as they took turns making 'pharatas'. Needless to say, the next morning, I did get some strange looks from my conservative neighbours and a friendly warning by my building society secretary.

Once when the doorbell rang frantically, I found myself facing my cable guy who led a delegation of eight to ten people – all of them, his friends and family. Also along them was an agitated actress friend of mine, to whom I had introduced the cable guy. Between them, they had a financial dispute.

The amount in question - one hundred and fifty rupees. It was demanded that I mediate. After one hour of hair splitting negotiations and high-decibel arguments, the actress finally agreed to part with one hundred rupees. I had managed to strike a compromise and the cable guy still smiles whenever he sees me.
Acceptance among the non-filmy crowd was slow. But things got easier when I lent some money to a few people, asked my parents to stay with me for a few days, gave access to my telephone to one and all, helped an uneducated youth to get a job and let my ‘Kholi’ be used for social activities like society meetings and photo secessions for voter’s identification cards.

Thus, this ‘lungi’ wearing ‘Madrasi’ soon became fit enough to be considered as one among them.

13\3 PMGP – Beginning

It was a 180 sq foot ground floor flat that I had purchased during my early days in Mumbai. It was just a stopgap arrangement, before I moved on to a bigger flat. I had planned to stay there for exactly two years. It took me more than thirteen years and a whole lot of persuasion to get out of 13\3, PMGP Colony at Mahakali, Andheri (East), Mumbai.

Initially, when I brought the place, well-wishers had warned me that the number of the house was unlucky. But for me, the purchase was a huge accomplishment – acquiring a roof akin to making a film. In fact, my friend and classmate from the film school, Rajiv Katiyal did comment in jest, ‘Ram could not make a film, so he purchased a flat’.

Yes, technically it was a ‘flat’. It had a living area, a tiny kitchen space and an attached bathroom cum toilet. Back home, my relatives were surprised and even impressed! This black sheep of the family had the presence of mind to buy a flat and that too, within a few years of moving into the city.

But only I knew that this ‘flat’ or ‘house’ that I owned was actually called as a ‘Kholi’ or a small tenement, in local language. Seven such ‘Kholi’ies existed on each floor; each building had four flours and there were seventeen buildings all together. Each of these ‘Kholi’ies must have housed at least four to five members of a family.

Rajiv himself had bought one such ‘Kholi’, in the building next to mine. So had cinematographer V Naravayan and writer Ashok Mishra. And then, there was documentary filmmaker Paromita. Within a year or two, I could see a lot of familiar faces around. Most were starting out in the field of media and film – directors, cameramen, editors, actors, dance directors…

We had our own hangouts, the main one being a tea stall managed by one ‘Shetty’. ‘Shetty’, originally belonged to my state of Karnataka and thus was branded as my friend. If I am not mistaken, ‘Shetty’ was an ex-convict and for some strange reason, I thought it fit to keep this bit of information to myself. ‘Budding filmmaker befriends an ex-convict’ – didn’t sound nice at that point of time.

But the ever-talkative ‘Shetty’ was our man Friday. Keys were left with him so that roommates could collect it. The creative types would sit at his place for hours together and ‘think’ over cups of tea. Credit was provided, so was acidity. The only hitch – the man we all called ‘Shetty’ was not a ‘Shetty’, but an ‘Alva’. But for us, the equation was clear. Any hotel owner in Mumbai is a ‘Shetty’.

The TV industry was on the upswing and a few senior filmmakers that we knew of, had got together to form a body called ‘Channel Dosti’ (Channel Friendship). Or so, we at PMGP had heard. The idea, I believe, was to form a media collective. Soon, there was a meeting at my house. It was suggested by my PMGP colleagues that we too should form a body called ‘Channel Dushmani(Channel Enmity). Fortunately, like ‘Channel Dosti’, ‘Channel Dushmani’ too never took off.

But what we did manage to form was a media unit called ‘Dziga Collective’ consisting of fellow FTII graduates. The first and only job of this collective was to weekly sub-produce around eight to ten current affairs programs of three minutes each for Daryl D’Monte.

That meant that we needed at least eight to ten shooting units per week. It all seemed daunting at that time. But believe me, all we had to do was to walk into this ‘Shetty’ joint of ours, and lo, you found the unit that you wanted.

It was as easy as that.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Akbar, Krish and Om Agarwal...

In the numerous Saas-Bahu (mother-in-law / daughter-in-law) serials that are currently on air on Indian prime time Television, it normally is the woman who does all the sinister scheming. In one particular serial ‘Pallavi’ is the scheming sister-in-law and ‘Parvathi’ is the wife who effectively counters her sinister designs. The point of contention is normally a man, Om Agrawal in this case; who is portrayed as a dumb and ignorant gentleman, oblivious to the overt plotting that happens around him.

The other day I happened to watch ‘Jodha Akbar’. In the film, Mogul emperor Akbar’s Hindu wife Jodha steps out of her palace in the middle of the night to meet her brother. Akbar’s scheming foster mother makes this encounter look like an adulterous liaison. Akbar believes and within a fraction of a second pronounces Jodha as guilty. She is sent back to her father’s place.

It looked odd to me that the emperor of India, who usually is so alert to all the political schemers around him, does not even think for a second that the theory that portrays Jodha as an adulterous wife could actually be doubted! How can the sharp witted emperor be portrayed as so dumb, especially when it is know that his decision to marry a Hindu has opened a can of worms in his own ranks?

Despite the filmmaker’s great eye for the detail, for a second I thought I was watching Om Agarwal in a period costume.

In another sequence in the film, Akbar is shown taming a wild elephant. There is a shot where Akbar, without any support, first jumps on to a wall and then rebounds on to the elephant, to sit on top of it. The elephant is now tamed. It was as if he had flying powers. In another film ‘Krish’, Hrithik Roshan the actor who plays Akbar in ‘Jadha Akbar’ had played the title role of a super hero who could fly.

For a second I thought I was watching ‘Krish’ who had been transported into medieval India...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Yaadein

When an adulterous husband finds out that his wife and kids have left him for good, he undergoes pangs of guilt, gets depressed and in a mentally unstable condition attempts to kill himself, only to be saved just in time by the return of the dutiful wife. Needless to say, there is a family reunion.

There is nothing in this plot line to suggest that a film based on it would be different from the rest of the films that the formula based mainstream Indian film industry churns out day in and out. An erroneous husband is tamed; the institution of marriage is eventually upheld. The lady in question is a typical understanding ‘Bharathiya Naari’, who despite being ill-treated, loves her husband, takes care of her family and performs her household duties to perfection. This could well have been one of those ‘sentiment’ oriented ‘weepy kerchief films’ that the South Indian Film Industry is so adept with!

For some reason or the other, I missed watching ‘Yaadein’ – the Hindi film made on this plot line, for over twenty years – i.e. ever since I came to know that such a movie existed. It was only last week that I could watch it, thanks to a DVD copy of the film that I chanced upon. My keenness to watch Yaadein stemmed from only one fact - it boasts itself of being the ‘world’s first one actor movie’, as it is put in the titles.

How could the director have managed this? It is relatively easy in theater for a solo actor to communicate to an audience; the means adopted is soliloquies – instances where a person talks loudly to himself, not addressing anyone in particular. Sunil Dutt, the producer, director and the solo actor of ‘Yaadein’, does takes recourse to this device, quite often in the film. At times he is even seen talking to innate objects like a wall painting or a bronze statue.

Phone conversations where you hear the other person’s voice is another way of letting the audience know what is in the character’s mind. We do come to know that Anil Mehra, the main character of the film, has an affair with another woman, that he is anxious of his wife’s absence in the house and that his friends think that his wife is a model for all the other married women in the world – all through sequences that have phone conversations.

Anil Mehra misses his wife. A sure shot method of communicating this to an audience is to ask the character to get hold of a friend and confess to him through a dialogue as to how lonely he is. But as a filmmaker if you have closed down that option and you have already over used the soliloquies, the next obvious thing to do is to give the character some actions that may suggest that he is missing his wife.

Thus we have Anil Mehra looking at a hair pin that his wife used, stare at it with longing eyes in different angles, feel it with his chin and emotionally hold it close to his lips. Apart from hairpin, he repeats the same routine with her dress, her bed, her musical instrument, his children’s toys etc… We also see him dramatically hold his head, face and chin in various places of the house – on the table, near the stairs, in the balcony, near the bed etc…to various emotional background music pieces.

To be honest your first reaction when you see any of these is ‘Oh god, not again!’ But just when we start thinking that the director is making life easy for himself by using such easy and obvious devices for his solo character to communicate with his audience, within the contrast filled black and white roving images of Ramchandra, the language begins to get bolder, stranger and out of the box!

‘Yaadein’ happens within a span of one rainy dark night where Anil Mehra remembers the events of his life that has led to the situation that he is presently in. Obviously there are flashbacks where we hear conversations that he has had with his wife, in happier times. In the initial part of the film we hear only the dialogues - voices of himself, his wife and children.

But gradually, the film starts going visually into the past. We actually see what Anil Mehra is thinking – the only difference being that we don’t see the rest of the characters. The camera itself takes the point of view of the wife or the kids. So, half the film we have the character played by Sunil Dutt speaking to and having dialogues with the camera, which now has become a character. The gaze of the camera is normally the gaze of the audience. So in effect, the audience becomes the characters, thus its involvement in the story / film is ensured.

When the hero and the heroine of the film first meet over a cup of coffee, Mario Miranda’s cartoons are used to establish the atmosphere in the coffee shop and the characters in it. Over cartoon drawings of various couples sitting in various tables, we hear their respective interactions through dialogues on the sound track.

The only live character in the entire sequence is the one played by Sunil Dutt. Anil Mehra enters the coffee shop, sits in front of the heroine, gets bullied by her brother, and finally even woes her – all this without the face of the heroine or her brother be seen. And did I hear somebody say that mixing still cartoons with live characters was the prerogative of a few music channels?

Further, during certain other times, especially in romantic situations, the director extends this logic when we see Anil Mehra hugging a portrait of a lady drawn on a glass pane. The portrait is supposed to represent his wife! We hear the wife’s dialogues as we see the portrait. Taken out of its context, if I had to tell someone that ‘Yaadein’ had many such sequences, it is possible that it would sound bizarre and even probably funny.

But seen within the context of the rest of the techniques used in the film, it seems perfectly logical that the hero hugs a glass pane that has a lady’s drawing on it! And the glass pane even moves a couple of inches back when Priya, the wife’s character is not in a mood for any physical intimacy and moves forward when she is! And we do believe that Anil Mehra and Priya are having an intimate moment between themselves!

If you are not awed or amused or shaken by the above sequences, then what follows in the film surely make you so! As the film progresses, we see numerous examples of the stubborn refusal by the director to show any other character in the film apart from its hero, in flesh and blood - the immediate one being a sequence where Anil Mehra decides to throw a party in his house to celebrate the birth of his son.

Believe it or not, in this sequence balloons are used in lieu of real people. These balloons have human faces painted on them and they talk with each other through dialogues that we hear in the sound track! Anil Mehra interacts with them as if he is interacting with live people. A lady balloon serves drinks, yet another is pissed drunk on the sofa, and a few more flirt with each other. But the effect - we really feel that a messy party is on. The conviction in which the filmmaker has carried this off, the suspension of disbelief is complete.

In a sense it is surreal – like the scene just before the climax where Anil Mehra is confronted by the suddenly menacing looking noisy toy sets. In earlier times he used to play with the same toys with his children, but now in the true expressionist sense, they have returned to haunt him – some of them even hang in front of him, threaten him, follow him and block his way, wherever he goes.

After having heard and felt the character Priya, I was longing to see her in flesh and blood, at least in the end when it became obvious that she is going to return to her house to forgive her husband. Maybe my mind made unfair connections with another film of the yesteryears - ‘Jagthe Raho’, where the only time we see a heroine (Nargis), is in the song sequence in the climax.

The dubbing of Priya in ‘Yaadein’ was indeed done by Nargis, but the closest that one came to see her live was when her shadow is shown rescuing the hero from the jaws of death. The sequence is shot in silhouette, the action of which happens on the other side of a backlit white cloth.

A thought did cross my mind at this point of time. What difference would it have made if instead of a live shadow, we had seen the real Nargis rescuing Sunil Dutt? Or for that matter, what difference would it have made to the film if instead of using all those techniques to hide the other actors, the director actually showed them?

Sunil Dutt could as well have done so, but choose not to because it was a creative option that he and his team had exercised. In filmmaking, most of us are forced to find creative solutions to issues that arise from circumstances upon which we do not have a control. But I would guess that Sunil Dutt had the means to make this film into a scale that is much larger than what it is now, but choose not to.

I may think twice before using a balloon or a drawing on a glass pane and parade them as real characters in any of my films, even as a spoof. I am also not in tangent with the high intensity emotional pitch of the film, the melodramatic externalized acting of its only actor, the stereotype characters portrayed in it – especially that of Priya who has no identity of her own apart from being a dutiful wife and a loving mother.

It seems odd to me that the very first thing she does when she comes back is to plead her husband to forgive her, for she thinks that she has made a big mistake by walking out of her house / marriage - never mind that it is the husband who has broken his promises and not her! This regressive world view puts one off.

But ‘Yaadein’ is worth the view - what excites me is its director’s consistent creative experimentation with the cinematic tools that he has under him and his willingness to tread the path of the unknown.

It is often said that the Film Industry, unlike other industries, lacks a Research & Development (R&D) section to it – a section that can look ahead, develop new techniques and products. But I would like to believe that if there was any such attempt in the Indian Film industry in the past or present, this is it.

This article is published on the site Upperstall