Sunday, July 22, 2012

Should violence be part of our movies?

A trigger-happy imbecile opened fire indiscriminately inside an American movie hall during the screening of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, killing at least a dozen viewers and injuring many more. This directs the spotlight on an age-old conundrum related to cinema: should violence ever be part of it?

For the motion

What we see is what we get
Nothing makes a case for the exclusion of violence from cinema better than the acronym in computer terminology WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get). This statement is not without its empirical evidence. That visual stimulus, in concordance with its other forms, can make a lasting impact on the sub-conscious, the portion of our mind that functions even when we are physically inactive (Think the Pavlov’s dog experiment), has been well documented. Depending on the information that we feed our brains, our thinking processes can undergo irreversible deformations. Feed violence and you would, in all likelihood, receive the same.

Let us take the cue from the ‘Popeye phenomenon’ of the 1930s in the US, when spinach consumption shot up inspired by the namesake cartoon character. Why, any advertiser will stress on the visual impact needed to entice viewers into potential consumers. After all, the outrage against silver screen idols such as Rajnikanth and Shah Rukh Khan – who command mind-boggling fan followings – for their smoking, both on and off screen, isn’t misplaced. Thus, humanity rarely stands to gain from the so-called creative celebration of visceral sequences.

A future in which citizens’ reaching for AK-47s/ butcher knives on first impulse isn’t too far to comprehend. Let the Chengiz Khans and the Mohammed Shah Abdalis remain confined to our history textbooks.

Against the motion
Don’t shoot the messenger

Going by the statement, we must not have had outfits such as the al-Qaeda, which had its roots in a region where there is little cinema – forget the gore in it – to speak of, and the erstwhile Third Reich, when cinema was in its infancy.

Indian cinema has been a mirror to its prevailing national sentiments. Consider Bollywood – movies based on devotion or nationalism (eg: Sathya Harishchandra, Mother India) dominated the pre and post-Independence eras; followed by the age of romance, with flicks involving actors such as Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna. This was followed by the angry young man of Amitabh Bacchan dominating the industry (Zanjeer et al). All through the years, people needed someone to identify themselves and empathise with, and cinema was their pulse. When Bacchan in Don coolly shoots down a gangster, the audience lapped it up as it gave them a soporific effect from their mundane, day-to-day lives.

And let us not forget that reel and real lives are two sides of the same coin. Cases in point include Gangs of Wasseypur, which is based on the Dhanbad coal mafia; and Once upon a time in Mumbaai, whose muse was Mumbai’s crime chieftains. Some of director Mani Ratnam’s notable flicks stand testimony to the phenomenon; Kannathil Muthamittal, which won numerous national awards, was based on a cover story in Time magazine (as admitted by himself); Iruvar was a biopic on the lives of the Tamil Nadu politicians M G Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi; the life of the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani was the substrate for Guru, despite the de-rigueur “work of fiction” disclaimers that preceded them.

Therefore, if violence is endemic to our movies, it offers us pointers to our national malaises. We’d be better served if we focus on tackling off-screen violence, and little from shooting the messenger.

Surely, the noted historians and researchers, who only recently concluded after extensive studies that we live in the peaceful of times, must not have been living under delusion.

Citizens could instead debate on whether they need a looking glass on our milieu or sanitised PR pap.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Scarface Meets The Godfather and Other Hollywood Scripts

Movie Name: Billa-2 (A)   
Language: Tamil
Cast: Ajith Kumar, Vidyut Jamval, Parvathy Omanakuttan, Brunah Abdullah
Director: Chakri Toleti
Pros: Ajith's stellar performance; fast-paced narration; mind-blowing stunts and a gripping climax
Cons: Originality takes a hit — stay away if you are awash with the gangster flicks of Hollywood, notably Martin Scorsese flicks or Coppola’s The Godfather; mind-numbing violence

Imagine, if you can, a home-grown don who answers to David Billa (known in Bollywood as Don), who, during a police encounter gets gunned down; the police get hold of his doppelganger, make him infiltrate his gang, and after a cat-and mouse game spanning locales in Malaysia, bring them to justice.

Imagine, if you still can, the focus shifting to Billa’s chronology; his rise to the top of the food chain, a la Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather-II. A refugee from a Sri Lankan camp, he begins as a small-time smuggler to working under a reigning don, and when the latter begins doubting his credibility despite his razor-edge exploits, he decides to show who the boss is.

From diamonds to narcotics to arms and explosives, he’s the one-point contact for contraband. Just as SRK had a punch dialogue to mouth in Don, "Don ko pakadna..." so does his Tamil counterpart. “I am the architect of every second of my life," he says while staring down a gun barrel. His filial ties, however, are not too pleasant.

Tony Montana (Al Pacino's character in Scarface), anyone? For most of the first half, and the second half too, Billa-2 runs on Scarface mode (not to mention the ‘inspiration’ from The Godfather and Body of Lies).

However, originality (or the lack of it) is Billa-2's only shortfall. Ajith’s simply a treat to watch as the gangster with an insatiable appetite for success, and has improved on his performance in Billa by several notches. In treating the injunction that protagonists ought to be the good guy with utmost irreverence, Billa-2 takes to the actor’s earlier venture, the roulette thrill-a-minute flick Mangaatha. The video for the song Unakkulla Mirugam..., shot in retro, pulp magazine cover style, accentuates his character. And what’s a gangster without his trademark dialogues? “You don’t need a qualification to be my friend, but you need some if you are my enemy,” are among his punch lines.

scores high on the style and glamour quotients, and could serve as a manual on product placement for eyewear. Brunah Abdullah sizzles on screen; if Parvathy was looking for that perfect launch vehicle, was a role devoid of glamour what she meant? Yuvan Shankar Raja’s electric music score and R D Rajasekar’s breathtaking cinematography, not to mention the action-tinged climax, are among the movie’s pluses.

The movie, though, does have its loose ends. The sequence where Billa raids an arms cache, in full glare of armed personnel firing lacks conviction as does Vidyut Jamval’s casting as a Russian arms warlord.
Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bangalore's Carnatic Tale -- from Radio to the Web

Worldspace Radio's abrupt termination of services left behind a void in music aficionados. However, Carnatic classical music listeners may have reason for cheer as the RJs of its Carnatic music channel team up again - this time for an online avatar

El Classico: The RJs of RadioWeb Carnatic
by Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Bangalore: Commonality of interests was what R Mahadevan, radio jockey and former director of Shruti, the Carnatic music channel on Worldspace Satellite Radio, and A S Krishnan, former employee at Wipro Technologies, discovered when they met on a social networking website one-and-half years ago - a passion for Carnatic music.

Now directors and co-founders of RadioWeb Carnatic, an online Carnatic music radio channel that has been running for a few weeks now, the duo was driven by the desire to create a user-friendly website. Work on the site started about nine months back; they were then clear that this should not be just another website to stream music. With the "retiree" audience - in the age group of 60s and 70s - in their minds, they had decided that the website must be such that it can translate itself to any user. While Mahadevan and his team of RJs are the "voice" of RadioWeb, Krishnan's task involves understanding the technical and business perspectives of music.

Mahadevan has this to say about satellite radio: "Satellite as a medium was unviable. Nitty-gritty's such as receivers and chips need customisation, which was expensive,” referring to Worldspace Satellite Radio, which closed down its services in India in 2009. “Also at that time the internet hadn't boomed in India.” Their rendezvous preceded the rise of smartphones and low-cost broadband and mobile internet. Barring surmounting minor challenges such as acquiring rights of music labels, a radio channel launch then was all on the cards; the channel has since then signed up with two audio companies.

The RJ avers that Worldspace's shutdown in 2009 was no deterrent to him. Quiz him on whether it was a coincidence that his colleagues from Worldspace are part of his new venture and he says: "It was no conscious decision, but they were very passionate about it. My colleagues strove hard for producing programmes and staying up late at work. They had then made it clear that should something materialise, they would be a part of it." Acknowledging the economic advantages of using the internet as a medium, more so when compared to other forms of infrastructure-inherent radio, Krishnan says that their channel is a self-funded venture.

On selecting content for the channel, Mahadevan elucidates that film and classical music albums are available either commercially or not with one difference - there exists a huge base of classical music artistes who aren't represented commercially. He cites a staggering statistic to buttress his point: "For any given 10 artistes who get commercial representation in the form of releasing albums, there are 25- 30 artistes who don't." The RJ adds that Chennai remains the Mecca for Carnatic music artistes wanting to gain commercial recognition, where at least 75 per cent of such activity takes place, followed by Bangalore at about 20 per cent, and the remainder across the world.

With digitisation and easy availability of music, Mahadevan articulates that the responsibility to select the right music arises, which he describes as "back-breaking work". Krishnan offers a different perspective: "There are also those listeners who don't have a clue on what to listen to. This coupled with the reduced availability of music albums in showrooms due to high retail costs and dwindling attention spans mean people rely on others for recommendations." And that is where listening to music becomes a community activity, the two infer. Mahadevan adds that the urge to let others know what one is listening to is a natural instinct. He reminisces that during his Worldspace stint, random people used to call him up on songs that were played, which they had listened to on the recommendation of their acquaintances.

'Curated Music Adds Value to the Listener'
It is only natural that the discussion veers towards curated music. Mahadevan expounds that curated music provides two advantages - one, the RJ, in addition to playing the music, makes for communication, albeit passive; and two, the RJ by being able to build trust in listeners, also gives them a larger picture of the genre of music. Krishnan explains in a corollary: "We are providing a starting point for the listener to go and discover their music, their tastes; after all, the desire to understand what they are listening to always exists."
Does the threat of transgressing the distinction from being informative to getting didactic exist? Says Mahadevan: "There are different shows that we run, just as there are different kinds of listeners. Certain technicality needs to be presented if the show pertains to concepts such as ragas. If the show features artistes, then one can be more universal with the content. Not many may be interested in the intricate details involved; however, we cannot assume that all our listeners will be are aware of them."

He succinctly sums up the criterion for artistes featured in their radio channel: "While the renditions of yesteryear artistes need to be played, music, being a continuum, equal representation needs to be accorded to the present-day artistes as well, as they become eventual leading musicians."

With market fragmentation being the norm, isn't it necessary to determine what market the channel will address? Krishnan clears the air: "Carnatic music is a niche market; we intend addressing those who are interested in it." The duo adds that this factor did not influence their setting up base in Bangalore. Hindi film music, the former Wipro employee adds, can be rightly said to be the true mass media product in India. Practically every other music form is niche in its own sense, he says.

Bangalore may have a multitude of FM channels, but it still has a sole FM channel for Classical music - All India Radio's Sangeetha Vahini. Laying speculation to rest about AIR being their competitors, Krishnan, says: "Our markets may overlap, but our products are entirely different. We are not competing with AIR."

It is but natural for any organisation to board the social media bandwagon for promotion. Krishnan, however, states: "For anything to become viral on social media, it must have duration of less than five minutes, following which the user must be ready to comment on it. We are still working on it." Mahadevan, quips, as if in a sign of the times, "We are still waiting for our Kolaveri moment."

An edited version of this article may be read at: