Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cinema Paradiso

You’d always find me sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us.” This is the first dialogue of “The Dreamers” where Michael Pitt lays bare his cinephilia. The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of essays on films written by 13 well-known Indian writers, is a book-length equivalent of that Pitt dialogue. Edited by Jai Arjun Singh (a columnist for Business Standard), the book pays tribute to a raft of eminence grises of world cinema like the Kaurismaki Brothers, Wim Wenders, Francois Truffaut and Luis Bunuel. This being an essentially Indian book, there are quite a few pieces dedicated to the Hindi cinema of yore too.

For every brooding of Manjula Padmanabhan over Luis Bunuel’s technique of using multiple actresses for the same character in “That Object of Desire” there is an Amitava Kumar gushing over Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya. If Manil Suri gave the ultimate ode to Helen by performing a raunchy number of hers at the Brooklyn Book Festival, on her trip to Finland Anjum Hasan hops on to a cinematic time machine that takes her on a whirlwind trip of all the movies of Kaurismaki Brothers. There’s this one really long passage in which she encapsulates all the tics of every stereotypical Kaurismaki character (for the uninitiated, imagine them as poor man’s Jonathan Franzen characters): “In Kaurismaki land, you lead an honest life, working with your hands. You take short breaks, standing under a harsh light and smoking silently with a colleague. You go to a bar where there’s a band playing and you sit and listen for a while.” And so it goes. This dry-as-dust scholarship married with superb literature is the book’s biggest achievement.

Jai Arjun Singh’s recollection of all the slasher flicks that he has seen from his childhood is just what the flicks are all about: a guilty pleasure. He flits from the grand-daddy of the genre (Psycho) to the chained-up-in-the-cellar movies within the space of a couple of paragraphs. As an Ed Wood, Wes Craven and David Cronenberg fan, I was a bit disappointed at not finding them mentioned but Singh makes up for that by discussing lesser-known but brilliant movies like Onibaba and Hour of the Wolf. Despite the space constraint, he manages to delve into the philosophy of the genre through his childhood.

In 1996, Susan Sontag remarked on the decline of the film culture: “Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia.” To a certain extent Dame Sontag was spot on. Cinema is thriving even more but it’s the fragmented reality of modern human lives that have other media of entertainment like the Xboxes, YouTubes, incessant text messaging and so on. A ridiculous sense of urgency has been creeping into the movies lately. A languid shot and empty space are all taboos now. An interesting counterpoint to this theory is to be found in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s latest book (the title and this review’s headline are the same). He says the golden age of cinema is long past us because “it’s a central aspect of our alienated relation to language that when someone says, ‘I just saw a film,’ we don’t know whether this person saw something on a large screen with hundreds of other people or alone on a laptop — or whether what he or she saw was on film, video, or DVD, regardless of where and how it was seen”.

This was the kind of argument I relished while reading Rajorshi Chakraborti’s penetrating analysis of his favourite movies. A beautiful condensation of the initial manic ten minutes of a Hindi film (Naukar Biwi Ka) is a roller-coaster ride fuelled by amphetamines and regular eighties’ Hindi cinema tropes. Right from the fifties to the late eighties, this flashback episode has always been a Hindi movie staple, which Chakraborti coins as “Pre-Credit Backstory-Compression Special”.

The book has its shares of misfires also. Amitava Kumar’s essay on his love for Satya and adoration for Manoj Bajpai was belaboured and the subject matter is hardly compelling. What could have made for a better narrative in the form of a book was too rushed and out of place here. His pretzel-like twists at trying to win Bajpai’s trust made for some bad reading. “I would press him for details. It didn’t always work. I was unsure whether Bajpai understood the difference between a journalist and a writer. But I was pleased when he granted me little snippets.” I burrowed through this dreck but the essay fails to break any new ground. Madhulika Liddle’s piece on Hindi cinema tropes is more of filler than a definitive tip of the hat to an era gone by. The same is the case with Sidin Vadukut’s homage to Charlie Sheen starrer Terminal Velocity. This hyperbolised essay left me gasping for breath at times: “Terminal Velocity was the greatest movie ever made by man.” To think of it, Vadukut’s tweets make for a better read than this tripe.

At a time when the cinematic discourse space in India is increasingly being colonised by kitsch purveyors like Karan Johar and Rajkumar Hirani, this book is the most fun a movie buff can have with his clothes on.

(Edited by Jai Arjun Singh)
227 pages; Rs 395


At 5:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wonderful review.


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