Category Archives: Film

Dangal by Aamir Khan

To do things differently requires guts. There’s the risk of becoming an outcast, among friends, family, neighbors, strangers. But the greatest enrichments are open only to those who muster the courage to do things differently. Those, despite risk of failure and ostracism, who willingly tread the road less traveled open themselves up also to the possibility of unprecedented rewards. In Dangal, Aamir Khan portrays such a risk taker.


                Sports biopics, of late, have stuck a chord in Bollywood, with the singular successes of gifted athletes who overcome tremendous obstacles – both systemic and infrastructural – to achieve international fame and success, in a country indifferent to its sporting heroes (barring cricket). After athletics and boxing, wresting’s emergence into limelight is natural. The choice of theme as such is not extraordinary.  Aamir Khan’s ability to package it as a blockbuster without severely limiting the story’s honesty is. Director Nitesh Tiwari achieves that by taking some of the edge off, through humor, catchy music, high emotional content, never losing sight however of its actual intent – to narrate the tale of a father’s sincerity and passion to pursue a dream, and his daughter’s toil in response, and their eventual success to unprecedented rewards, which shine through in the nearly three hours of storytelling. This, despite some preachy moments and one enforced nationalistic gesture thrown in.

Subduing his star appeal, Khan turns in a performance apt to play the aged protagonist. His co-actors deliver in cohesion to ultimately create an inspiring cinematic experience. It should please those who want a bit more out of big budget Bollywood fare, but has enough spice in the pot for the masala crowd as well. It certainly is a happy mix for the producers, if initial box office response is any indicator.



Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

Among Japanese film makers, no one is perhaps as universally known as Akira Kurosawa.

“Something like an Autobiography” is an account of the legendary director’s early life. It is only a partial account, encompassing his childhood, adolescenct years, the early years of his film career, up to the point of Rashomon. Nonetheless, the book benefits anyone keen for understanding the man behind such remarkable films as Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon, and Dersu Uzala among others. Kurosawa’s films were – Stuart Galbraith IV writes in the introduction to his book “The Emperor and the Wolf” – first and foremost, deeply humanist pictures, films which effortlessly transcend cultures and centuries. Something like an Autobiography helps one understand the evolution of the artist Kurosawa, the influences that shaped his vision.

It comes as no surprise that Kurosawa’s family (on the father’s side) was of Samurai descent. It was his father who took the boy Akira (and the rest of the family) to the movies, and was thus instrumental in the director’s early exposure to the medium. Though, he says, that his contact with movies at an early age had nothing to do with his becoming a film director, his father’s progressive outlook helped nurture his interests.

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think my father’s attitude toward films reinforced my own inclinations and encouraged me to become what I am today. He was a strict man of military background, but a t a time when the idea of watching movies was hardly well received in educator’s circles, he took his whole family to the movies regularly. Later in more reactionary times he steadfastly maintained his conviction that going to the movies has an educational value; he never changed”.

In primary school, after a somewhat reluctant kindergarten and a slow start, AK grew under the influence of Mr. Tachikawa, the teacher in charge. Under him, AK enjoyed his art classes and became really good at drawing. He cherished Mr. Tachikawa’s progressive and innovative approach to education during the conservative Taisho era (1912-1926) as “the rarest of blessings”. During this time, he also befriended Uekusa Keinosuke, perceived, much like himself, as a “crybaby” — who eventually became a famous writer. Their friendship lasted a lifetime and they collaborated in the screen writing of more than one of AK’s films. AK’s brother, Heigo, elder to him by four years, also helped nurture his intelligence in school, with his abrasive diatribe gradually evolving into silent appreciation and brotherly protection. But the talented Heigo, once grown up, developed a rather nihilistic outlook towards life, and eventually committed suicide. He was a narrator in the silent film era, whose job became redundant, along with the rest in his profession, with the onset of sound.

In his school years, Akira Kurosawa excelled in the arts – including Japanese calligraphy, which his father encouraged him to learn – laying a strong foundation for the artistic sensibilities that he would eventually portray on celluloid.

“I had applied myself only in the subjects I liked, such as grammar, history, composition, art and penmanship. In these areas no one could surpass me. But I couldn’t make myself like science and arithmetic, and only very reluctantly put enough energy into these subjects to stay a shade above disgrace.”

Before entering the world of film at twenty six, Akira Kurosawa dabbled in painting, joined the Proletariat Artists’ League and even contributed in the publication of underground communist newspapers. In 1935, he was hired by P.C.L (Photo Chemical Laboratory) film studios after a grueling series of tests. The act of joining the film industry was almost serendipitous, but Kurosawa realized that the course of his life until that juncture had aptly prepared him for it.

“It was chance that led me to walk along the road to P.C.L. and, in so doing, the road to becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film.”

It was in P.C.L that he met Yamamoto Kajiro, his mentor. AK was deeply grateful for being able to work with Yama-san, whom he called the “best teacher of my entire life”. Yamamoto Kajiro paid a lot of attention to his assistant directors, giving them crucial responsibilities to shoulder, seeking their opinions in serious projects, something that instilled confidence among his assistant directors, made them try their sincere best in order to live up to the directors’ expectations. He encouraged AK to script writing, and from him AK learned the value of being able to objectively edit one’s footage.

“The film that Yama-san had labored painfully to shoot he would cut o pieces as if he were a total masochist.

The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. Among all the teachings of Yama-san on film editing, this was the greatest lesson.”

From Yamamoto Kajiro, AK also picked up vital lessons in handling actors and in sound dubbing.

AK’s short temper was well known. But his frank admission of that trait is also a sign of sincerity. It was something that landed AK in trouble on some occasions, and had Yama-san worried of his protege to the extent that he extracted a promise from AK of not losing his temper while working for other directors.

AK got his first break as a film director in 1942, with Sugata Sanshiro – the story of a “rowdy young judo expert.” It was based on a novel that he himself identified, instinctively, as a great movie potential. He wrote the screenplay himself, seeking Yamamoto Kajiro’s advice with the finished script.

The rest of the book, from thereon, follows his filmography – The Most Beautiful, Sugata Sanshiro Part II, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, No Regrets for our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, and Rashomon.

AK married actress Yaguchi Yoko (real name Kato Kiyo) in 1945, in the month of the release of Sugata Sanshiro Part II..

Kurosawa and Mifune

Drunken Angel (1948) was his first project with Toshiro Mifune, an alliance that eventually produced a tremendously successful repertoire – including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, High and Low, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, and Red Beard among others (a total of sixteen films). Of Mifune, AK says-

“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express….And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”

Rashomon (1950) was a groundbreaking film, which propelled Kurosawa (and Japanese films) unto the international stage. The experimental narrative added a new dimension to the world of cinema. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Miyagawa Kazuo’s cinematography was flawless, including the much acclaimed scene in the forest with the camera moving between light and shadow of the trees, occasionally pointing directly at the sun (something rarely ever attempted before).

Artistry, in any field,is the search for and expression of truth as revealed to the creator. In the case of Kurosawa, the scrupulous honesty of his films, one becomes aware, is really a trait of the man himself. In fact, the reason for his reluctance to continue his biography beyond Rashomon was to avoid any contradiction between his quest for truth and the human “trait of instinctive self-aggrandizement”. In his own words –

“I think to learn what became of me after Rashomon the most reasonable procedure would be to look for me in the characters in the films I made after Rashomon. Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way. I am certain that I did. There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.”

This candid closing paragraph from the epilogue I think essentially summarizes the significance of art forms like literary fiction, painting and film making, not only to the artist during the process of creation, but also to the aficionado or connoisseur in the enjoyment of the end product.

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks –