Saturday, August 28, 2010

Booked and Shot

Bollywood adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma hit the theatres recently. Christened “Aisha”, it met with rave reviews about the styling and clothes and not so hot feedback about the story, the screenplay, the dialogues etc.

I wanted to see the movie but it was an extremely busy, nerve-wrecking month at work and I didn't get the chance. So, now I will watch it on DVD sometime.

But it got me thinking about movie adaptations of books. Being a bookaholic, I generally find that movies do not live up to the book. In some cases, though, the movies make the book better.

So, I list here books that I thought were better as films and some which, I think, were unjustly treated by the filmmaker.

First, the good list:

Harry Potter 4, 5 and 6
I love JK Rowling’s world and the characters. But the fourth book onwards, I was seriously beginning to question where she was going with the story. Goblet of Fire had the endless Quidditch World Cup while Order of Phoenix and Half Blood Prince had some key characters being killed in what seemed like writer’s whimsy. The movie adaptations, on the other hand, got straight to the heart of the story. The amazing visual effects did not hurt either. Remember the underground lake sequence in the movie version of Half Blood Prince, where Dumbledore and Harry are standing on this slab of rock with a wild sea lashing around them? Breathtaking. Really.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
I do not know how many people have read Tolkien’s epic work. It’s a fascinating world he creates but sometimes he gets so involved in the routine chores of Hobbits or the history of Middle Earth that he forgets that he is also telling a story. Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation, however, is flawless. From the stunning visuals shot in the harsh New Zealand winters to the wheezy, nasal tone of Gollum’s voice to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn to the magnificence of Ents in an action sequence, the movies are a visual treat. The story is full of adventure and action, with nary the time to breathe between sequences. The tedium of endless descriptions that mar the book has been ruthlessly cut out of the movie. Three of the best fantasy movies I have ever seen.

Comedy of Errors
I have said this before. I am not very fond of Shakespeare. But Comedy of Errors is brought to hilarious life by Gulzar in Angoor. The movie, like the play, revolves around two sets of twins separated at birth and how when their paths unwittingly cross many years later, funny mayhem ensues. Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma are excellent in their respective double roles. If you have not watched the movie, you are missing out on a great weekend, time-pass movie.

It’s remarkable how some of the best Shakespearean adaptations are conceived and brought to stunning fruition by Indian directors. Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar’s protégé, created a gem in Omkara, an adaptation of Othello. A stellar ensemble cast ensured that the movie had great performances. Particularly memorable was Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi, the Indian Iago. However, the true heroes of the movie were Vishal Bhardwaj’s story, direction and music. Set in the hinterland of North India, the film has the rustic twang and flavor in every dialogue, note and gesture.

Coming to movie adaptations that are most definitely not in my good books:

Pride and Prejudice
This book has perhaps spawned more adaptations, sequels, prequels and ancillary works than any other. It is also one of the greatest romances and my favourite book. That is why Gurinder Chaddha’s blasphemy named Bride and Prejudice made me really mad. Aishwarya Rai, one of the biggest non-actors we have, was cast as the vivacious Elizabeth Bennet. Rai looked haggard, listless and totally unsuited as the “not handsome enough to tempt” but intelligent and charming heroine of Austen’s masterpiece. A chatty Darcy and Indian Lydia’s snake dance must have had Ms. Austen turning in her grave. It was so bad that I had to get up in the middle of the movie. It makes the Keira Knightley version look like a work of art. Seriously, Ms. Chaddha, what were you thinking?

The Devil Wears Prada: 
Yeah, yeah, I know. The movie won great reviews. Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestley was sheer genius etc. etc. The book however, is far better. It captures the travails and tribulations of Andrea’s life in a more captivating manner. The dialogues are witty. The situations are humorous and poignant at the same time. While we all may not work at a big fashion magazine, don’t we all identify with Andrea’s helplessness, frustration and feeling of being permanently sapped? I know I do. Somehow, the movie did not make me feel the same. No doubt, Meryl Streep was amazing. The softly spoken words laced with heavy, authoritarian sarcasm that could cut you to pieces with such flair. The style diva with I-am-the-queen-of-all-I-survey attitude. That is why the slight smile of acknowledgement that Streep gives to Anne Hathaway / Andrea at the end seems so out of character and made me put the movie in this particular list.

Sense and Sensibility
Yet another Jane Austen novel that lost its essence on the silver screen. Emma Thompson as young Elinor Dashwood was something of a stretch. I have never understood the tendency of filmmakers to overlook the suitability of an actor to a role. Good acting skills are necessary but the actor also has to look the part. So, explain to me how Emma Thompson could play nineteen year old Elinor. Plus, her romance with Hugh Grant lacked chemistry. So, despite perfectly casting beautiful Kate Winslet as Marianne and Alan Rickman as the much older Colonel Brandon, the movie does not match up to the book.

The Bourne Identity: 
I am quite fond of Matt Damon but I do not quite see him as a deadly assassin who is the protagonist of Ludlum’s famous trilogy. Plus, the movie did not follow the book, taking one cinematic liberty too many and to someone who has read the book, it is quite disconcerting. So much so, I fruitlessly kept on trying to link the events in the book with the movie until I got fed up of the movie. Definitely a better book than movie.

I have read the entire series. It starts with an interesting premise and degenerates into a near nonsensical, irritating and weird love triangle with a weirder climax. So, how difficult could it have been to better the book? Not too much, we can assume. But the movie fails. Let me count the reasons. One, Robert Pattinson’s make-up. He wore more of it than the entire female cast, including Kristen Stewart. Second, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart’s as the lead actors. He only stared out of a pasty white face and she cowered, cringed and stared back. There’s more to acting than that. Third, the real-life couple is completely devoid of any smouldering passion or spark on-screen. Stephanie Meyers’ best seller needed a sizzling onscreen couple. Well as sizzling a cold vampire can be. I actually preferred RPatz in the small role of Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire.

The Da Vinci Code
This is probably the only book for which Dan Brown would be remembered. It is riveting, informative, action packed and peopled with great characters. Robert Langdon is an unlikely and unconventional hero but he is likeable and believable (as an aside, I would not recommend the other two books that star him, especially The Lost Symbol). The movie adaptation has a rather unfit looking, middle aged Tom Hanks playing Langdon, who despite being in his mid-forties is quite athletic. Plus, the movie assumes that all its viewers would have had read the book. The screenplay was difficult to follow, with cryptic flashbacks and narrations. The discoveries and revelations which make the book fascinating looked cumbersome and labored on the silver screen. I was so disappointed with the movie that I skipped the big screen adaptation of the prequel,  Angels and Demons.

Little Women
The movie clubbed Alcott’s first novel about the March family with the second one, Good Wives, ending up with a mish mash of events that do no justice to this charming little saga. Winona Ryder as Jo march was a little too charming and pretty while Professor Bhaer looked too old (I maybe a little biased, since I  wanted her to marry Laurie). Somehow, the movie did not portray the quiet dignity, the simple joys and the delightful quirks of the Marches that we all know and love. 

You are puzzled, right? And you think I must have lost my marbles to put on this list Chetan Anand’s critically acclaimed masterpiece. The movie had timeless music, great story and the unlikely pair of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman playing Raju, the titular guide and Rosie. So, why is this movie here? Simply because it fails to match the pathos and humour of RK Narayan’s lucid prose and storytelling. Raju of the book has my sympathy despite his betrayal of Rosie. Raju of the movie comes across as a scoundrel despite Rosie attempts to forgive him. Dev Anand with all his sauciness and charming ways somehow was not convincing enough as Raju.

There are books that I strongly disliked and therefore steered clear of their movie versions. Leading the pack is Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ Call Centre. Its movie version is an atrocity called Hello. Since I found the book pretentious and amateurish, I did not care what the movie turned out to be like.

Then there are books which I found interesting despite not particularly liking the author’s pedantic ways. Midnight’s Children is one such book. I hear Deepa Mehta is working on a movie version of the same. I think the outcome would be quite intriguing to see. I am also looking forward to Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Part I & II.  Actually I can hardly wait for them.

On that note, I bid adieu. Until next time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Veiled Matters

In July, earlier this year, the French Parliament passed a ban on burqa. There are other countries which are debating the same. Then there are some which do not have a law against face veils but where women sometimes are persecuted because of the same.

In today’s world, due to a volatile mix of xenophobia, half truths and media hype, the image of a veiled woman is almost always that of burqa clad Muslim woman or in the most liberal instances of a woman wearing headscarves. It is, however, worth remembering that the custom of face veils was common across religions as diverse as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam at the turn of the twentieth century. Even today, at a traditional wedding, women opt to wear veils, either in the form of the Indian Ghoonghat or the gauzy piece of cloth or net hanging from the headdress of a Christian bride.

The point is that whether a woman wears a veil or not should be her personal choice and not the diktat of either democratic government or dictatorial, tyrant regimes, a la Taliban. Some women claim that they feel safer behind the burqa while there are others who feel suffocated in its close confines, both physically and emotionally. I say, let all of them be.

The paranoid world in which we live today sees the burqa as a threat, as a veil (pun intended) behind which terrorists can hide. To some extent, perhaps the world is justified. After all, even in our potboiler movies we have seen heroes and villains alike wear a burqa to hide their identities in an attempt to either save the day or commit some folly. So, maybe when security checks are required, burqa clad women can be asked to show their faces but to ban it altogether is a mite overreaching.

In Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, there is a very moving account of Mughal women being strip searched for hidden valuables by British soldiers post the 1857 uprising. These were women whose faces were seen by only a handful of people so far, mostly comprising maids and female relatives.

In modern and progressive societies, such incidents evoke outrage at the insult along with a sense of wonder at women who spent their entire lives behind purdah. Then there are old timers who would remember the tehzeeb and adab (courtly manners and chivalry) that marked the heydays of Mughal India. Such people, however, are few and far in between. Mostly people now remember the angst and pain born out of sheer stupidity and violent malice of a handful of gun-toting madmen.

I think it’s time to get past such prejudices. Banning headscarves and veils are not signs of modernity. Neither is passing fatwas in favour of them. Accepting them as a woman’s choice is.

It’s time to remember that each culture and each religion has something unique, something special. We may or may not agree with them. But intolerance should not be tolerated either.

Such proclamations sound preachy to most people (including yours truly) yet they are true. I remember reading a small Sanskrit phrase in school: vasudhev kutumbkam, that is, “the entire world is my home and all its residents my family”. While we selectively quote scriptures to justify all sorts of excesses, maybe we should sometimes quote them to invoke a common goodwill. Surely it’s not that difficult.

And let’s dispel the notion that only illiterates and conservative societies are prejudiced. We, the educated and modern populace, are as misguided by half truths and propaganda as our not so educated counterparts. In some instances, we are as rigid and intolerant as those we deride for their outdated ideas. Just last week or so, I read in the newspaper, how a schoolteacher was slapped by her colleague because she wore salwar kameez to school and not the sari. Another was boycotted by her own students because they did not approve of her choice of attire. And in case you think that these things happen in some remote town, think again. These are real incidents that took place in the outskirts of Kolkata, the thinking man's city.  

Therefore, the least we all can do is, try. We are not revolutionaries who can change the world by ourselves. But we can surely start the revolution to accept what we do not fully understand, not to indiscriminately condemn everything that we cannot comprehend.

Here's raising a toast to such attempts. Slainte. 
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Superheroes Galore

Superheroes fascinate me. I guess, all of us have, at one time or other, idolised them. Their superpowers set them apart from ordinary folk like us. Yet we feel a kinship with them because the child in us always believes that they would save us, protect us, whenever we need them. They are our anchor, the safe port in times of storms.

Spiderman and He-Man (and the Masters of the Universe) were the first superheroes to enter my life. I used to live from Sunday to Sunday, waiting for Doordarshan to beam these supermen into my home.

He-man with his cat / lion and menagerie of loyal and devoted sidekicks would beat the hell out of the really sinister looking Skeletor every week.

Spiderman, on the other hand, worked alone. Swinging from one skyscraper to another in his should-have-been ridiculous blue and red costume, managing to fish Mary-Jane out of trouble every episode, he was one of the highlights of my Sunday evenings.

The celluloid version of Spiderman, however, lacks the same charisma. They are likeable enough (with one of the most memorable dialogues in recent times – “With great power, comes great responsibility”) and Tobey Maguire does a decent job of playing hapless Peter Parker who one day wakes up to his superpowers. Maybe, it is the rather insipid Kirsten Dunst who plays Mary-Jane or the slightly sepia world in which the movies are shot. Or perhaps, the older me simply wants to understand the man as much as the superhero.
Batman, however, is as much a man as a superhero.

He is the creature of night, the vigilante who keeps the dark and troubled Gotham City safe from a bunch of most devious and imaginative supervillains ( I often feel that the villains in the Batman series are more a manifestation of all possible human fears than one-dimensional evil-doers). The city cannot decide whether it loves him or hates him. He tries not to care, as his dark silhouette watches them from a rooftop. Aloof. Alone. A lone wolf (or should I say, Bat) in the true sense. His superpowers are not really superpowers but a devilishly clever use of technology married to an uncanny sense of justice.

But he is also a man hounded by his own demons. He is almost the Heathcliff of the superhero landscape. Dark, mysterious, brooding. He has a wry and often self-deprecating sense of humour. He does not want credit. He is nonchalant about being perceived as merely a spoilt brat of a billionaire. A womaniser. A good-for-nothing. A la Sidney Carter. Yet, you can sense that he seeks and needs an approval, an affection and above all an understanding that few can give him. Because nobody, not even the faithful Arthur, know him.

Batman perhaps also has had more movies based on his life than any other superhero. The cast of movies based on him has been eclectic and talented. From Michael Keaton to the seriously dishy George Clooney have played the hero. The ensemble cast has included actors as different as Michelle Pfeiffer, Alicia Silverstone, Arnold Schwarznegger and Jim Carey. Yet, only the last two movies directed by Christoper Nolan, with Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman explore the complexities that make the man, his various nemesis and his own small circle of friends who are allowed a small glimpse into his true persona.
Batman Begins and Dark Knight show that Batman is not just a figment of cartoonist’s imagination or childish fantasy. In fact, Batman, the series, is not meant for children.

That brings me to another superhero and though the naïve think that his chronicles are meant for children, it is the more mature who can actually grasp the subtle play of human psychology in the books. He is Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s bespectacled hero has made millionaires out of lot people, including the author herself. He has fascinated millions of people worldwide, both men and women, children and adults. The launch of the books and the movies see a mass frenzy which few franchises, if any, can boast of.

So, what makes Harry Potter so special? Here is a young wizard who must take on the greatest evil, He-who-must-not-be-named. He is clearly talented, brave and has the blessings of Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of our times. But is this teenager mature, wise and strong enough to do it by himself? No. And that is where, I think, lies Rowling’s masterstroke. There are no sidekicks in the series. Ron and Hermione are as much the heroes of the series as Harry. True, that it is Harry who has been prophesied as the only wizard who can defeat the Dark Lord. But he cannot do it by himself. He needs not just the help but constant and active participation of his best friends. So, it is fitting that JK Rowling allows each lieutenant of Dumbledore’s Army to destroy a Horcrux, a part of Voldemort’s own soul.

Then, there are the whole bunch of superheroes, who go by the name of X-Men. And this is, perhaps, the only series, where a woman superhero leaves as great an impact as the men. Jean Grey. I have always thought that the powers of mind - to read others’ thoughts, move things with them et al – are the greatest and most dangerous powers of them all. So, they need to be handled with a lot of care and caution. Jean Grey does that. She is beautiful, powerful and smart. Add to that her smouldering, just-under-the-surface chemistry with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman in the movie is simply awesome) and her affectionate, steady relationship with Cyclops and you have one of the most unusual love triangles.

In no other series, the distinction between good and evil is so clearly delineated. Magneto’s men and women are as powerful as the X-Men. But Professor Xavier’s team of Storm, Wolverine, Beast, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Rogue etc. have a very powerful conscience which Toad, Mystique, Sabretooth and indeed, Magneto, himself lacks. But you can never dismiss them any of them as one-dimensional.

Coming back to slightly more straight-jacketed superheroes, one must think of Superman. Clark Kent and Lois. Superman and Lois. Lex Luthor and his ingenious ways of sourcing Krypton, the Achilles’ heel of our caped superhero. Clark Kent as the shy reporter who has a huge crush on his colleague Lois Lane, is actually Superman, a superhero, who was not born on earth, but will do anything to save its denizens from the evil-doers. Delightful series that can still make me believe in black and white.

There are plenty of other superheroes who I could write about. But then, it would be Monday morning by the time I finish. And much as I hate the thought of going to work, I am afraid, there is no way out. Maybe there would be born a superhero who would find the way to beat the Monday blues.

Till then, ciao.
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