January 14, 2011

My new friends and a puzzle called RGV

A belated Happy New Year to my readers. (As for why: blame most of it on the sudden changes to my supermarket job schedule for the last two weeks and the wave of winter storms that have been sucker-punching the New York metropolitan area. And we're only in the second full week of January 2011. Really.)

While Just One Story… is getting a much–needed break (in part to raise funds for the production of a new wave of episodes this year — hit our PayPal "donate" button if you want to see me make more), your Projectionist wants to pay public respect to two new friends he has made via Facebook — both of whom have made Indian movies their beat in different ways.

Pooja Kohli

Pooja Kohli, of FilmKaravan.

First to be acknowledged is Pooja Kohli, who handles acquisitions for the New Jersey-based distributor FilmKaravan. You may have heard of them in connection with Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, as they have published a "Creator Endorsed" DVD of that wonderful animation. But FK's small catalogue also includes Beware Dogs (Spandan Banerjee's visit with the group Indian Ocean), the Mira Nair–curated omnibus AIDS JaaGO, and Faiza Ahmad Khan's "making of" documentary Supermen of Malegaon. (And, yes, I still want to see the finished product, Malegaon ka Superman, along with any and all commercially–available movies made in that modest town some 296 km from Mumbai.)

Sameer Panje

Sameer Panje, editor of CinemaaOnline.

While Pooja works behind the scenes at FilmKaravan to add to the tiny distributor's catalogue, Sameer Panje writes about Indian cinema from his home base in Pune, as both the editor of CinemaaOnline (the extra "a" is intentional) and via his own blog, The Narcissist's Rant (where you can also read his poetry in English and Hindi).

So… Mr. Narcissist, meet Mr. Projectionist.

I first heard of Sameer through his recent CinemaaOnline piece (signed as "Bollyfan"), "The A 2 Z of 2010 in films," which reminded me of an old South Bank Show special in which British moviemaker Ken Russell went through his own personal ABCs of British music.

While I recommend you check out the entire piece for yourself, here are some choice letters of Sameer's worth sharing.

For starters, A is for Amitabh Bachchan (a/k/a "the Big B"):

The man introduced us to levels of shamelessness never seen before in people of the arts, and I’m not talking about anything personal here. His behavior in public space before and after the releases of [Rańń: The News Battle], Raavan and [Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey] was completely unbecoming of someone who is idolized by millions across the country. And what’s with the sycophantic moderation of his blog comments?

Skipping a little, D is for Debutants:

If there was one bright spark in the Bollywood skies this year, it was the debutants Filmmakers like Abhishek Choubey, Abhishek Sharma, Anusha Rizvi [Peepli [Live]], Bela Negi, Habib Faisal, Sanjay Pooran Singh Chauhan and Vikramaditya Motwane stormed on the scene with highly promising efforts that makes me beg for more. Add to that the debutant actors like Omkardas Manikpuri, Shalini Vatsa, [and] Rajat Barmecha and it's clear that 2010 would have been frightening minus them.

Further down, F is for the indepedently–made and released For Real, which I want to see:

If Independent films have to make an impression, they need to create parallel promotion and exhibition structures for themselves. Sona Jain (another debutant) served up For Real, a film that could serve as a fantastic prototype for these parallel structures. The film was promoted extensively through social media and Sona worked her way around conventional exhibition structures to ensure a decent theatrical release for the film, something even big distribution houses failed to achieve for their smaller releases. Are indie filmmakers listening?

Let's hope they are, and not just in India. It's a lesson more people in North America can use.

Meanwhile, L is for Jaideep Varma's Leaving Home: The Life and Music of Indian Ocean, which we both like:

The first documentary to get a theatrical release in India. And the epicness just started there. The subject was epic — the story of India’s most successful band, Indian Ocean. The execution was epic — a beautifully woven narrative that takes you back in time and on a journey with the band. The experience was epic — inspiring (here’s my rant after watching it) and insightful. The only thing not epic was the audience reception — and we expect good cinema to do well.

I first heard of this film when I did a search for the band on Amazon.com (following the release of Peepli [Live], which uses some of their music), and was surprised when a DVD of this one surfaced. It turned out to be one of the best documentaries on any musical group anywhere. I will be looking forward to the "Longer Trip" cut (spread out on two platters) when Amazon finally gets some copies in.

For some of us, home video provides the only feasible exposure to smaller films. A sad reality, but a reality all the same.

Back to the alphabet. Staying on the subject of supporting indie cinema, N stands for what irks both of us: "No country for the small film":

The criminal neglect of the small film by our exhibition structures was one of the worst aspects of 2010. The near demise of the single screen in bigger cities has also spelt doom for the low–budget films as they don't feature anywhere in the multiplex' list of priorities. And it's sad to see that a majority of our audience was deprived of some of the better films of the year. Hoping against hope to see a change in this trend in the coming years.

It would also help if the smaller cinemas on Long Island — yes, Cinema Arts Centre, I'm looking at you — would add India's (indie) cinema to its calendar. They could have given Peepli [Live] a much needed push — and do it better than the National Amusements chain. The CAC could have also given smaller films such as For Real and (yes) Love Sex aur Dhoka serious exposure if they could only pay attention. (Of course, not giving preferential treatment to big studio fare like Black Swan would help.)

Back to the alphabet for one more, which I find amusing. R is for Ram Gopal Varma, one of the most interesting "name" directors India can claim:

Even if his films have long stopped being the pop–culture icons they once used to be, the man himself remains as unapologetically bombastic as ever. And in the process, we get some unforgettable gems from him like “In front of [Farah Khan's] Tees Maar Khan, even [Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag] looks like Sholay”. And though the two Rakht Charitra films themselves were pretty much below average, they did showcase gore as never seen before in Hindi films.

Let me stop there, and let you read the rest of the piece (which also offers some of his takes on what came out of Hollywood last year, both the sublime and the ridiculous).

And now back to Ram Gopal Varma.

Recently, I told my friends on Facebook that I'd be willing to start a series of DVD reviews of Indian movies. Pooja suggested that I focus on a single director, perhaps starting with Mr. RGV (or "Ramu," as he is also known) and his body of work.

So I have bookmarked the expected Wikipedia page as well as his "blog and lifestream" (it could use an update right about now — that makes two of us), for leads. The Wikipedia page, as you might expect, also gives his filmography as director, which is what I will be working from.

I should say, however, that it won't be a chronological survey of his filmography, for one big reason: Try finding legit (read: "original") DVDs of his Telugu flicks on store shelves in the States or on eBay. (His first film, for example, was a Telugu feature called Siva, released in 1989. Because it was so successful, the film was remade in Hindi the following year.)

So essentially, I will be trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of RGV, knowing full well that there will be some missing pieces.

Perhaps my new friends can help me track down the Telugu titles. If you, dear readers, have better knowledge of Telugu video labels and know how to get RGV's work in that language legally, please don't hesitate to reply in the (moderated) comments. All responses will be shared with Pooja in the States and Sameer in Pune, so consider yourselves advised.

Of course, Just One Story… will continue to be priority one for Promenade Central. This "puzzle" will be worked on and resumed when there is time to spare.

Hopefully the man will consider himself fortunate that Hollywood isn't my beat, and with good reason.

And with that done, Mr. Varma, you may, as we would say, bring it.

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