अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

October 4, 2008

What Hindi Film Music Doesn’t Have

I once mentioned the incredible diversity of Hindi film music. This is one stream of music that has absorbed musical waters from all around the world: from country to classical, from rural to urban, from eastern to western, from ancient to modern, and pretty much everything in between.

However, after I mentioned Bob Marley in the last post, I realized that there are some things that Hindi film music simply doesn’t have.

In fact, even if we consider music that can be seen as somewhat independent extension of Hindi film music, there is still no one like the two Bobs. There are a few like Jagjit Singh who have carved out a niche for themselves more or less outside the Hindi films, but they are not really outside the stream of Hindi film music by parameters like their musical and lyrical characteristics, amazing as they are. Even after the coming of the Music Video era, popular (urban) music in India is still mainly film music.

That’s an interesting question. Why has there been no Bob Marley or Bob Dylan in Hindi film music or in Indian popular music?

Yes, I know there are people like Gaddar, but they are in a different category. And they never achieved the kind of popularity that Dylan or Marley achieved even among the apolitical.

One reason that could be given is that it is due to the way Hindi film music works. Someone (the lyricist) writes the song, someone else (the Music Director) composes the music, and someone else sings them. In most cases, there are three different individuals or teams for these three aspects of the creation of what is called Hindi film music (which is actually Hindi film *song* music, as background score is not really given that much importance in Hindi films and is usually taken care of by someone less important). The Bob Marley or Bob Dylan kind of music can’t be produced under such conditions, as the two Bobs are present in all aspects of their music, like the movie directors who are honored (honoured for the non-dominant party) by the term ‘auteur’. Moreover, the songs have to fit in (in the Hindi film kind of way) and be approved by the movie director and the producer and perhaps even the financier.

The explanation given above may be a good one, but I still wonder whether there is something deeper that has prevented an Indian Bob Dylan or Bob Marley to appear on the musical scene and become popular.

I strongly suspect there is.

Conspiracy theory! Conspiracy theory!

Conspiracy of silence?

April 26, 2008

A Tryst with the Soul of Paris (1)

As I promised, I am going to write about the movie ‘La Môme’, also known as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (‘The Life in the Pink’). The movie is about the legendary French popular singer Édith Piaf, real name Édith Giovanna Gassion, but earlier known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow).

For the last many weeks, I have been soaking myself in her songs. Not her alone, because I am never ever an exclusivist, but my playlist during this period has been almost half full of her songs. Or songs related to her, i.e., songs sung by her which were later also sung by others. As far as music is concerned, this has been one of the major obsessions so far. And it doesn’t look like I am going to get over it soon. I don’t mind it, of course.

I even found some notes and tunes familiar from Hindi film songs, which are the true melting pot of music like nothing else.

Did I say I will talk about it later?

Let it be said that I have listened to a very wide variety of music from around the world and claim to have a very good musical sense. So, now that you know about my qualifications for writing about her and the movie based on her (I guess you already know that I also claim to have a very good cinematic sense), I can get on and you better take me seriously.

Heh! Heh! Where is your degree?

First, I will say what has already been said by all. Marion Cotillard has given a great performance in this movie as the legendary singer. It’s hard for me to forget that she is not really Édith Piaf.

By the way, she became the first actor (or actress) to “ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress (“Oscar”) for a performance entirely in French”. Given that winning an Academy Award is considered the height of achievement for people working in the movies, doesn’t it sound a bit strange? I mean French directors (along with directors from other countries from Europe and Asia) have been making movies and setting the standards for others for a long time now and French actors have been acting in them. Well enough to deserve world class awards.

How easy it is to forget that the Oscars, the Academy Awards, are mainly meant for English movies. There is just one magnanimous (or guest, if you like) category for ‘Foreign language movies’. But everyone behaves as if the Academy Awards are equally for all movies of the world.

Can we expect globalization of the Academy Awards? I won’t bet on it.

Except that I have never bet.

The spell checker has identified ‘globalization’ as an invalid word. I am adding it to the dictionary. The spell checker also doesn’t recognize ‘exclusivist’ as a valid word. I am adding this word too.

I have heard the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ somewhere. I also heard a rumor (rumour for the non-dominant party) that computers now have some of it. Why do I feel a bit relieved that it is just a rumor?

Coming back to the movie, it is about a singer who, as someone said, “belts them out, doesn’t she?”. She does indeed. And she does just great. I have become her lifetime admirer. For whatever is left.

She was a born singer. She started on the street. She was the daughter of an acrobat and a street singer. For some time she lived in a brothel managed by her grandmother, where she was treated very well. One of the prostitutes became so fond of her that she was heartbroken and hysterical when the father came back for his daughter. With her father, she (the singer to be) lived in a circus. Later she accompanied her father on his acrobatic (contortionist) street shows and started singing. Then she sang on the streets with her half-sister, who remained close to her till her death, except for some time when she felt ignored and abandoned by the star singer.

She was discovered by a nightclub owner. She was suspected of involvement in his murder, but was cleared. She denied that she had anything to do with that and I would prefer to believe that. I would rather give her the benefit of doubt than to Henry Kissinger. Or so many like him, even if not his equal in douchehood.

She sang under the protection of local mafia men, who took their share, obviously. She met a composer, Marguerite Monnot, who also became her ‘most loyal friend’ for the rest of her life. Then she was mentored by a composer who was also a poet and a businessman. She became popular on the radio as well as on the stage. She became a star. Actually, in France, she became a super star. She mentored many people and helped them launch their career. And ‘dropped’ them when they became successful and no longer needed her mentoring. She helped launch many careers, including that of another legendary singer Yves Montand. Jean Cocteau wrote a successful one-act play ‘Le Bel Indifférent’ specially for her and she acted in it.

She was severely injured in a major car accident. Then she suffered more car accidents. Partly because of injuries from the car crashes, she got into addiction and suffered more. She fell in love with a married French boxer (who was a star in his own right in France) …

Well, according to the ethics of movie reviewing, I shouldn’t divulge too much. Suffice it, as the phrase goes, to say that if there was anyone whose life was the stuff of legend, she was the one.

I would say even more than Howard Hughes.

So much about her, what about the movie? It is one of best biopics I have ever seen. It is better than ‘The Aviator’. It is better than ‘Capote’, even though I have more than a soft spot for movies made about writers or about literature. It is better even than ‘Gandhi’. More about that last movie later.

Now the reasons why it is better. First is simply that I like it more. But more specifically, everything is almost perfect in this biopic. Direction (Olivier Dahan) is really good without being pretentious or stiff. Screenplay (Isabelle Sobelman and Olivier Dahan) is as it should be for a biopic. Realistic but still interesting. Not over the top. Neither starry eyed, nor of the kind which seems to be declaring ‘I will (academically) judge this person’s personal life and cut him or her to size’.

Marion Cotillard actually became The Little Sparrow. I don’t know whether it was with or without Method Acting. The rest of the cast also gave very convincing performances, including the actress who played Marlene Dietrich. I should make special mention of Sylvie Testud who played the role of Mômone (Simone Berteaut), Édith’s half-sister and her lifelong friend. Her lifelong partner in mischief.

For now, I will stop talking about the movie here as I intend to write a second installment of this post.

I would be proud to have lived a life like the one she lived. With warts and all.

Even now, as I write, she is singing in the background. Literally.

In the words of the movie’s Marlene Dietrich, she is taking me on a voyage to Paris. Where (unlike Marlene Dietrich) I have never been, except for half an hour at the airport when I had to keep sitting in the plane as there was a strike at the airport. So I have yet to set my feet on the soil of Paris, but The Little Sparrow, who really belts them out and who embodies the soul of Paris, has flown me around there plenty of times now.

P.S.: The strike in the above paragraph doesn’t mean terrorist strike. It means labour strike. Just in case.

And yes, labor for the dominant party.

March 7, 2008

Transcribing Romance on Your Menu

It makes us feel that we are all extras in somebody else’s movie.

That’s a comment someone made about the movie I am going to write about today. I am not the kind of person who likes to watch the same movie again and again. But there are exceptions. So I do watch some movies more than once. And this one is a movie I have watched the second highest number of times.

From what I have written so far about movies, the regular readers of this blog (assuming there are any), might have got the impression that I am a very dry kind of person. Always talking about serious movies. And always talking about only the serious (political, philosophical, psychological) themes in all movies.

I am not going to do that in this post. Not because I want to prove something (there goes an apology). Just that this particular movie doesn’t have anything serious to say about life. And, therefore, I don’t have anything serious to say about the movie either. (Well, yes, this is more of an exaggeration than a literal truth).

But I still have watched this movie the second highest number of times (for me of course). And will definitely watch it again. More than once.

Like the other movie that I have watched the highest number of times (for me of course), this movie too was a big surprise.

In how many non-Indian movies will you find a Punjabi folk song on the soundtrack? A song like the one transcribed below.

This is one other very unusual unme-like thing I am going to do in this post. Transcribing the lyrical and poetic parts of the soundtrack of a non-serious movie. There might be some mistakes in the transcription (there goes a disclaimer), but then I won’t be the only one to do that (there goes an excuse). Just a few days ago I bought a sackful of second hand books (all in English: good Hindi books don’t have a market, even a second hand market) from a roadside Sunday book bazaar. One of the things I bought was a booklet titled ‘Joyful Hearts (For Private use only)’. It had lyrics of popular songs in several languages, all transcribed in the Latin script. One of them (California Dreamin’) is on the soundtrack of the movie I am writing about. I too have transcribed it below, but I have done so from the movie. The version in the booklet wrongly contains the word ‘in a lay’ instead of ‘in L.A.’. Actually, the task for me was easier (for English songs) because the subtitles also had the lyrics. But the Hindi and Punjabi words I had to transcribe on my own. And if I remember correctly, even the subtitles had some mistake in the transcription of an English song.

Anyway, here is the Punjabi folk song:

पिपलां दी ठंडी-ठंडी
छाँ वरगी
सत्थ मैनूं लग्गे
मैनूं वरगी

मैं वी उन पुच्छ के
बैर कर दी

So, how many foreign (non-Indian) movies will have this kind of real and really beautiful folk song that is hard to find even in India? (I am talking about music more than the words. Unfortunately, I can’t transcribe the music).

Even in an India where, while Punjabi as a distinct language is going down the extinction path as much as any other language except the lucky handful, certain aspects of Punjabi culture are making inroads even in the South. And music is one of those aspects. But, tragically (I mean it: I don’t use words lightly), the Punjabi music that is proliferating is of the worst kind.

And how many foreign movies will have light classical Hindustani music with words like this:

बदरवा बरसन लाई
लाई फूहारों की लड़ाई
पवन चलत पुरवाई
बदरवा …

As this is Hindustani classical music, even if light one, the words give very little indication of the beauty of the music. Unless you have a gift for discovering the music hidden within the words. A well known Hindi film music director used to say that all songs (i.e., lyrics) have music hidden within them. You just have to find that music and you can get the right composition for the song. I think he was at least partially right (there go weasel words).

But the one that follows takes the cake. In how many movies will you find hardcore poetry in hardcore standard Hindi. The shuddh Hindi. The pure Hindi. Even I don’t understand everything in this poem. And, I am ashamed to say, I don’t even know whose poem it is.

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है बहता कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय
बहने को महाविकल बेकल
इस मरूर से
इसी शूर से
सघन भूर गुरू गहन रूर से
मुझे गगन का दिखा
सघन वह छोर
राग अमर अंबर में भरने जरूर

ए वर्ष के हर्ष
बरस तू बरस पर तरस खा कर
मार दे चल तू मुझ को
बहार दिखा मुझ को

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है नर खल खल
बहता कहता
बुद बुद कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय

This poem, like other songs in the movie, is played in more than one bits and is employed as the musical theme of a certain bit of the ‘story’.

There is not much of a story though. What you see in this movie, what made me watch it the second highest number of times, and what made this one of Tarantino’s favorite movies, is simply cinematic magic.

Magic created out of photography, choreography, composition, colors, music, musical words and romance. Simple almost unreal and surreal romance made magical.

By the way, the movie is called ‘Chung King Express’ and is directed by Wong Kar Wai. And it stars a very good looking star cast consisting of Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu Wai (the smaller, who is a bigger super star than the bigger Tony Leung of ‘The Lovers’), Faye Wong (who was already a pop star), Takeshi Kaneshiro (who actually knows four languages and uses them all in this movie) and Valerie Chow.

The movie also has a song from one of Faye Wong’s albums which I couldn’t transcribe as I neither know the language nor the script.

I have a feeling that this movie has influenced a lot of people working in the realm of popular culture.

It is also influenced by a lot of other creations by other people working in the realm of popular culture.

It’s not every day
We are gonna be
The same way
There must be a change
Somehow

There are bad times
And good times too
So have a little faith in
What you do, oh yeah
Getting happy, yeah
I want you to understand, yeah

The movie actually has two interwoven stories (CLICHE!). Roger Ebert may be right in saying that watching this movie is a cerebral exercise as you like this movie because of what you know about it, not what it knows about life.

But Roger Ebert can be horribly wrong sometimes. Like when he wrote a review of Malena. I will just quote Michael DeZubiria to point out how unbelievably wrong the best known movie reviewer in the world can be (there goes a marathon digression):

Roger Ebert wrote probably the most idiotic review I’ve ever seen him come out with about this movie. He missed the point of this movie even more than he missed the point of Memento, and his review of that movie was like a blind man describing a shooting star. He describes Malena as a schoolteacher “of at least average intelligence, who must be aware of her effect on the collective local male libido, but seems blissfully oblivious.”

Roger, seriously, are you joking? BLISSFULLY?? Did you sleep through this movie?

She almost never speaks at all and never displays even the slightest hint of a smile. Given the extent of her depression and stifling sadness, it is astounding to me that anyone in their right mind could attach the word “blissfully” to any element of her character.

I know what that’s like though, because sometimes I completely miss something about a movie and I think that something else is the stupidest thing in the world because of it, at least until someone explains what I missed and then it all makes sense. Watch Malena, for example, walking through the central square in town at any point in the movie. If you think she keeps her eyes on the ground directly in front of her because she is in a state of pure, ignorant bliss, then trust me. You are missing something.

I don’t know if Malena was actually unaware of the effect that she had on the townspeople, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that she did. That thought actually never even occurred to me until I read Roger Ebert’s gem of a review. Her behavior struck me much more like someone who had been dealing with such behavior from the men around for her whole life. I doubt very much that she doesn’t understand the concepts of human physical attraction.

Coming back to the current movie, I can say with a crystal clear conscience (I don’t like to lie too much) that this is one of the best movies about plain and simple ‘love’ type romance.

What a difference
A day makes
Twenty four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Mmm, where there used
To be rain

My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I am a part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine

Lord, what a difference
A day makes
There’s a rainbow before me
Skies above can’t be stormy
Since that moment of bliss
That thrilling kiss

It’s heavens when you
Find romance
On your menu

What a difference
A day made
And the difference
Is you

But then it is a movie by the master of nostalgia. Wong Kar Wai can make you feel extremely (I don’t use adjectives or adverbs lightly) nostalgic even about places where you have never been. He can even make you feel nostalgic twice removed. In this movie he first makes you nostalgic about Hong Kong (even if you have never been there) and then he makes you feel nostalgic about California (even if you have never been there) from Hong Kong. And all this time you (there goes projection) are sitting in a man made cave in India.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I would be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes cold
He knows I am gonna stay

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

If I didn’t tell her
I could leave today

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

I was (along with the person who gave that movie to me) fascinated by the soundtrack of another one of Wong Kar Wai’s movies, ‘In the Mood for Love’. But ‘Chung King Express’ beats even that movie. It has one of best soundtracks in the history of movies. In fact, I have watched it sometimes just for the soundtrack. And I am not really crazy about movie soundtracks.

Tarantino has claimed that everyone that he knows who watched this movie (he only knows men, or, more likely, he only counts men) had a crush on Faye (who is named Faye in the movie too).

A tribute from the king of cinematic non-serious violence to the king of cinematic non-serious romance.

So, whenever you want romance on your menu, go to Wong’s. They serve the best there. You will find yourself visiting frequently.

Even if there was nothing else, I will still watch this movie to listen to the Hindi poem being played on the TV, accompanied on the soundtrack by many other sounds.

Hindi poem on cinema. Foreign cinema. Now there’s a rare thing for you if there ever was one. Even if it forms the backdrop of an almost comic botched small time drug smuggling operation involving many very bad looking lower class ‘Indians’ who are actually Pakistanis.

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