Blog Posts by Jai Arjun Singh

  • Heard a good story?

    In an interview recently, I was asked the sort of question that makes my toes curl in terror — something about "the nature and purpose of cinema". Cornered, I reluctantly mumbled something like: "A really good film is one where form and content come together in the best possible way — irrespective of whether the subject matter is escapist or grounded in hard realities."

    Since then I've received some feedback by readers who felt I was short-selling the importance of plot. Isn't the story — or the content — the most important thing, with everything else following?

    This is a commonly expressed idea. Viewers emerge from movie halls and sagely tell the TV-channel reporter standing outside with a microphone, "film bakwaas hai, story original nahin hai". The condescending phrase "all style, no substance" is often used to describe just about any film that is visually daring (therefore "flashy") and tries to tell a story in cinematic language rather than by relying on "pictures of people

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  • On the other side of the camera

    As a child, my efforts to understand a movie director's place in the scheme of things were thrown out of gear by Subhash Ghai's cameo in the "Ding Dong" song in Hero. You'll remember — or you should remember — that the shot has a cowboy-hatted Ghai standing next to a stalled car, looking for help. When Jackie Shroff, Meenakshi Seshadri and the rest of the gang race by him on their bikes, he shrugs stoically, deadpans the lyrics "Ding Dong, Oh Baby Sing a Song" and redirects his attention to the car engine.

    "So THAT'S what a director does!" I thought to myself in the pleasing glow of revelation, "he lingers about the set, waves at the actors as they pass, and hums the tune to make sure it's good. Fun job." I spent the next few years diligently refusing to exercise my mind any further on the subject, but then I learnt about the Auteur Theory, and things have never been the same since.

    In retrospect, that Hero scene was also my first sighting of a director in front of the camera. (Note: I

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  • Of Underreported Sensex P/E Ratios

    When it comes to stock indexes, the fact that they are based on a collection of stocks makes it difficult for us to understand their characteristics. I had explained how the Sensex and Nifty EPS (Earnings per share) were calculated, and how we weren't really seeing them grow quite as much.

    It turns out there is a problem with the way the index P/E (Price to Earnings Ratio) is calculated. What the index creators do, for both the BSE and the NSE, is to add up earnings of all the companies in the indexes to get the total earnings. They divide the total market capitalization — each company's total shares multiplied by its share price — by the total earnings to get the P/E.

    The figure that comes along tells us how richly or poorly the index is valued. For instance, even after a reasonably good earnings season and a drop in the indexes by about 10% from the January peak, the current P/E of the Sensex is reported to be 19.32. This is higher than the historical average of 17 to 18, and thus

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  • The banal and the beautiful: Great scenes in average films

    I used to think that being a naturally funny writer was an impediment to being a good reviewer (wouldn't one constantly be tempted to sacrifice the measured assessment at the altar of a reader-pleasing witticism?), but the work of David Thomson is a counterpoint to this idea. Thomson is one of the most perceptive and nuanced critics around, but also the sort of writer who validates the use of the blurb cliché "he's incapable of producing a boring sentence".

    davidthomsonHis excellent book Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films makes a strong case for the well-written "short review". Most of the pieces here are only between 400 and 700 words long, but Thomson packs a lot into a few terse sentences, and despite the space constraints there is always room for the complex thought — the defiance of the human tendency to seek patterns and divide things into neat categories.

    "It is too much to ask a film to be perfect, or even good, most of the time," he writes at one point. "The process is

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  • Bada star, chhota frame: the Amitabh cameos

    Many of us have fond memories of the so-called "Middle Cinema" of the 1970s and 80s — the relatively low-budget films made by such directors as Basu Chatterji, Sai Paranjpye and Gulzar. Their virtues — the understatement, the clean humour, the "realism" — are often used as a pretext to decry the excesses of mainstream movies, to yearn for the "simple old days" (which were probably never as simple as we'd like to think), and occasionally to romanticise middle-class lives.

    But many of those simple, grounded narratives also contain their own inside jokes about the different worlds that coexisted under the umbrella marked "Hindi Cinema". And this was often achieved through cameo appearances by big stars - the biggest of whom, needless to say, was Amitabh Bachchan.

    As a mainstream superstar, Bachchan got plenty of flak for staying within the confines of his established vigilante image and not attempting "different" roles. For reasons that belong in another column, I don't think this is a

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  • “An essential moment, beyond all the formal planning”

    A few days ago I saw an old Alfred Hitchcock interview in a documentary titled "The Men who Made the Movies" (you can watch it here). Among other things, the Master discusses his method of preparing such sequences as the shower killing — made up of 70 "pieces of film" — in Psycho.

    "It has to be written out on paper," he says, "You can't just walk on to the set ... well, you can if you want to..." (disdainful shrug) "... but I prefer to do it this way. However tiny and however short the pieces of film are, they should be written down just in the same way as a composer writes down those little black dots from which we get beautiful sound."

    As you can tell, Hitchcock was fussy about getting a film ready long before the actual shoot took place — which makes sense of his famous remark that he never felt the need to look into the camera on the sets, and that he often felt bored and distracted during the actual filming. "I almost wish I didn't have to go to the set and shoot the film, because

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  • Mat jaane bhi do yaar: idealism and self-deception in Satyakam

    When I was doing the research for my book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro two years ago, writer-director Ranjit Kapoor (the film's dialogue writer) told me about an incident that changed his life. It was 1969 and Kapoor was a young man in dire straits, nudging towards a life of crime — "main galat raaste pe jaane wala tha" — when he chanced to see Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Satyakam. The film, about a stubbornly honest man struggling with hard realities, wasn't exactly fast-paced entertainment, but Kapoor was riveted.

    "My friend sitting next to me fell asleep out of boredom, but I was weeping silently in the hall," he recalled. "After that film, the world began to seem like a very different place — I had hit rock-bottom, but I picked myself up." Forty years later, the experience was still so fresh in his mind that he dedicated his own movie Chintuji to Mukherjee, Dharmendra and Narayan Sanyal (who wrote the novel on which Satyakam was based).

    Watching Satyakam recently, I realised that its central

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  • Sympathy for the Devil

    A depressive, hung-over actor named Toby Dammit is being asked a string of banal questions at a press conference. He answers them crabbily; he looks like he hasn't slept in weeks.

    "Do you believe in God?" asks a reporter with shiny white teeth. "No," sighs the actor, terribly bored and distracted.

    "And in the Devil?"

    Now, for the first time, Dammit looks animated. He leans forward, says "Yes. In the Devil, yes."

    "How exciting!" exclaims the questioner, delighted to have hit home, "Have you seen Him? What does He look like? A black cat, a goat, a bat?"

    "Oh no," says Dammit, a faraway look coming into his eyes, "To me the Devil is cheerful, agile..."

    Cut to a shot of a girl, her pale face occupying the left half of the screen, leering at the camera.

    "He looks like a little girl."

    I'll leave you to discover the rest of Federico Fellini's atmospheric short film "Toby Dammit" (or "Never Bet the Devil Your Head") for yourself. But the scene is a reminder that Satan, or Beelzebub, or the

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  • The musical conquests of Goopy and Bagha

    I'm watching Satyajit Ray's fantasy-adventure classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, about two simpletons - the singer Goopy and the drummer Bagha - who use their music and their generally upbeat outlook towards life to help save the land of Shundi from an attack by a rival kingdom. I've seen the film twice before, and each time the subtitling has been inadequate (to say the least). Besides, on the first occasion years ago, I wasn't familiar with the original story written by Ray's grandfather Upendrakishore, and so I had to draw my own conclusions about some of the plot details.

    Thus, when Goopy and Bagha used a boon given to them by the king of ghosts and accidentally reached a land called Jhundi, I figured this couldn't be a real place in Bengal because the landscape was snowy. A while later, the subtitles vanished altogether for a 10-minute stretch, leaving me clueless about what the Raja of Shundi was saying to our two heroes. Since I had guessed by this point that Shundi too was an

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  • Discreet charms of Luis Bunuel

    I figured my friend Amit Varma was being tongue-in-cheek when he wrote, in his Viewfinder column, about the artistic value of the reality show Bigg Boss. But then this sentence struck a chord: "Pundits say that the purpose of art is to reveal the human condition, and in my view few things reveal it quite as well as a bunch of disparate people shut up in a house for a few weeks, away from the rest of the world."

    It's a long journey from Bigg Boss to Luis Bunuel, but the Spanish director's 1962 film The Exterminating Angel is about a group of upper-middle class people in a large mansion, finishing dinner and then finding that they are mysteriously unable to leave. The question that naturally arises is: what happens to people in situations where they have nothing but each other's company, and not much else to usefully keep their minds occupied?

    "Hell is other people," Sartre congenially noted once. In a documentary titled The Last Script, Bunuel's son Juan Luis remarks that his father

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