Sunday, December 21, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

We have always been suckers for underdogs. Maybe we see something of ourselves in every David who takes on the seemingly invincible Goliath. Maybe a part of us aches to be the common man who rebels against the establishment. 'Slumdog Millionaire' taps into this springwell of emotion while lulling the nearby center of logic into a nap. The David of this story is a young Jamal who finds himself at the center of an implausible run of events that has left him close to winning millions in a gameshow. These events are running on a track that Jamal hopes will take him to his final destination, his love, Latika.

The screenplay is the prime mover of this movie. It whizzes you through like a fast train to Borivali. It does not stop to give you the Lonely Planet spiel about Mumbai. It cannot for the only objective of this movie is to tell the story of Jamal, not to add to your general knowledge. This it does through a series of flashbacks. We are taken along for the ride to watch the kid grow into a man and then to cheer him on when he is at the threshold to riches. The camera captures much of this ride wonderfully exposing a side of Mumbai that is not seen very often. Given that the narrative doesn't bother to provide the explanation, the camera pulls off the double duty expertly, showing us what we need to know. Back to the screenplay, there are no incidents to show how observant Jamal is or how fantastically photographic his memory is. Nothing at all that really explains how he knows obscure trivia. You just understand that he needs to be on his feet just to survive in a world which treats his ilk as something disposable. The out of place luxury in his otherwise slumdog life is his love. This he pursues despite the dire circumstances he finds himself in.

All 3 actors who portray Jamal fit the role like a T. But Dev Patel has the most scope and doesnt waste an inch of screenspace offered to him. From dogged determination when he is looking for his love to silent pain when she turns him out of her house, his earnest face conveys them all with ease. The camerawork again adds to this via some nicely composed close ups and great lighting. Irrfan Khan walks on as the police inspector who in listening and questioning Jamal, substitutes for the audience. From language to body language, he essays the role perfectly. The other characters are aptly cast but the Jamals are brilliant.

Though there are images moving on the screen for the first few minutes, the chant of O..Saya is what really kicks this movie off. Rahman's score sets the tone for several other scenes and showcases the creativity of the man in a format we are not quite used to. Even the bollywood musical style Jai Ho at the closing titles, while seemingly incongruent with the rest of the movie, is a fitting finale that the crowds need after watching Jamal triumph. The soundtrack has already won some awards but he is now up for a Golden Globe and despite being a household name in India, is a relative unknown to the West among the other names in the race. I am rooting for him to bring this one home. Of course he doesnt need this validation, but this is one underdog for whom we have always been suckers. Jai Ho !

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fists full of fun

A little known corollary of one of Newton's laws states that the amount of fun a handheld object generates will quadruple every 2 years. By that count kids today are having about 18 million times the fun that I had growing up. Fun, during those childhood years, depended on the availability of certain things - a messy toy, an active imagination or at minimum, an irritable elder sibling. As a result on boring vacation afternoons, you could either do your holiday homework (the first oxymoron I inadvertently learnt) or worse, watch UGC programming on DD.

That was until the introduction of the handheld,technological revolution that was the ball maze. I never knew what it was called back then and I cant remember what I would call it when telling my mom that I lost it. Maybe that is why I never got in trouble for losing it - how can you lose something that never existed? But I digress. You know what I mean - round, plastic casing, transparent plastic window looking into a maze trapping two or more steel balls. Hours of my childhood were spent trying to defeat gravity and jittery hands in guiding those lonely balls to join the party at the center of the maze. If I got too irritated, I could just shake the thing hard and transfer my irritation to the elders. Alternatively I could just break the plastic on top and add those two balls to my growing collection of small, shiny metal balls. Later - go back to the exhibition, point to that round thing with my hand, rinse and repeat. I never counted how many of those balls I collected. Not enough would be my best guess.

The next stage of pocket playmates was with the somewhat strangely named water video game. At least my friends called it that and, caving to peer pressure, so did I. Since there was no video involved, the etymology remains suspect. If the ball maze taught one that intense concentration without success led to irritation, the water video game imparted the great lesson of patience. The rather simple interface consisted of a rectangular, water filled plastic case and one large, rubber button, only a little unlike the interface of a fruity phone. Depressing the button caused some behind the scenes magic and the water reacted by churning and causing tiny plastic rings to float up. Did I mention transparent plastic window looking into the water? There was one so you could watch in amazement as the rings would go up and then float down in extreme slow motion and in the process, attempt to drop over the swords of two vertically affixed swordfish. The objective was to somehow make sure you get the most number of rings on the sword. My strategy was to start off by applying violent pressure to the button and then praying fervently. Did I say that this was a variety of handheld fun? I apologize. This was clearly in the category of ancient Chinese water torture. The first part of my strategy of course soon led to the tearing of the button and the water would be reclaimed by the parched Chennai atmosphere with the same speed that a tanker full of water is drained into colored plastic pots. Turns out water was also the source of fun for this game and into the trash it went. To make life more pleasant, I had to revert to trapping strange worms and lots of leaves in horlick's bottles in the hope that they'd grow into butterflies or at least moths. Sadly, I wasn't allowed to carry that around in my pocket.

We can now play first person shooters and racing simulators in mind bending color on a device that is smaller than my water video game and the interactivity is at such a level that you can grow dogs virtually, let alone caterpillars. I am not jealous. In fact if there is one thing I've learnt, it is that nostalgia is infinitely marketable. My plan for world domination is to release the two games I described above as games for handheld devices and then watch them fly off the virtual shelves of app stores. However I am hoping there will be some magic happening between now and the release date so that these games automatically program themselves. I shall use the same strategy that I used while playing those games - concentrate intensely, wait and pray, fervently.

p.s The ball maze is already out - but I have high hopes for the water video game. Somewhere some kid is waiting to be taught patience.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Rebecca has been haunting me to get this posted for the last few weeks. The movie is a close to faithful adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's book of the same name and Hitchcock, on the extras DVD, does not hide his displeasure, irked with the novel's lack of logic. A plain,young girl falls in love and marries a young widower. She goes to his mansion where she finds his first wife inhabiting, in spirit, the mansion and its residents. The glamorous Rebecca is the first wife and her death is the mystery that must be solved. It is rather striking that the young girl does not have a name while the iconic R of Rebecca makes its presence felt in every scene despite the fact that not even a photo of her is shown in the movie.The Criterion collection extras DVD had so many extras that I didnt have time to watch all of them before I had to return it. I caught the best of it though - screen tests and Hitchcock's remarks about more than 2 dozen leading ladies who auditioned for the part that Joan Fontaine finally got.

Daphne Du Maurier's other, more famous work is Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind was also produced by David O.Selznick. Apparently he was working on Gone With the Wind when he decided to bring Hitchcock to work on other commitments he had undertaken. Good thing he did. He set Hitchcock free in Hollywood and this "other commitment" won an Oscar for best picture in 1941.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

of really long songs

'Manmohini morey' from Yuvvraj is the longest Rahman song that I know of. The last time I heard it, it ran a continuous 35 minutes or so. Impressive for a song that Rahman originally tuned to run about 3 minutes. The song is a techno marvel sans the meaningless repetitive lyrics that always seem to accompany such beats. What lyrics there are, are sung in a classical style that one expects will pair with those beats like Wall Street and common sense. But the combination is an aural revelation which I would liken to to a beautiful fractal equation, if not for my utter mathematical ineptitude. This song might beat Yakkai Thiri for the longest Rahman song in my library. However there is no way it will get close to the sheer number of plays which stands closer to 10s of thousands.

In case it interests you, I also mused about the really short pieces earlier in this piece