Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why we make such terrible films

The opening show of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, brought plenty of North Bombay celebs to Nariman Point. In the lobby of the Jamshed Bhabha auditorium afterward, I heard a veteran film star loudly complain that the play was as incomprehensible as Ramanujan’s mathematics. The problem, I was tempted to tell her, was not with the production but with her movies, whose intellectual range stretched all the way from infantile to juvenile. A diet of Bollywood pap creates an incapacity to chew and digest more substantial matter.

The rest of my article on the subject of movie quality, published in the current issue of Time Out, can be read here.


The Cydonian said...

Happened to watch "A Disappearing Number" in Hyderabad with the gf. Had idolized Ramanujan for, like forever; there's a lot more to the Ramanujan story than mere math, his family lower-middle pathos, how he shined through the sheer force of his innate brilliance, the family's later disregarding of his widow... it's a compelling human tale in itself.

But I also could see why they didn't, and why they "needed" that po-mo-isque frame-story about that Indian-American business consultant and his mathematician wife; that frame-story did bring the material closer to contemporary crowds by creating _some_ empathy. It was also easier for them to showcase just how _quirky_ Ramanujan's math was; like the mathematician, I was also blown away when I saw equations like 1 - (1/2) + ... = pi.

Also, given the reaction you've reported, perhaps this is one of the few times when I can say with certainty that a highbrow play was received better in provincial Hyderabad than in seemingly more cosmopolitan Mumbai. Most of the audience was composed of travelling mathematicians; some of them were even cheering. :)

Girish Shahane said...

I'm glad to hear the mathematicians liked it. I think the general response in Bombay was favourable; of course the production as spectacle impressed even those who didn't care for the treatment.
I think the framing story did more than just create empathy; it brought in ideas of beauty, loss, migration, and connections across time and space, in a much broader fashion than a straight telling of Ramanujan's biography could have done.

seana graham said...

I'm very slightly acquainted with the biography of Ramanujan, but I do have to admit that a movie about a mathematician is probably not the first thing I would rush out to see.

I'm very happy for the traveling mathematicians, though. I suppose their lives could now be said to be complete.

Girish Shahane said...

Besides, they already made A Beautiful Mind. Ramanujan wasn't schizophrenic like John Nash, but weird enough in his own way.

r.daniel said...

Hmm, have you seen Udaan? The young actor there is pretty good I thought. When I think of the last good Hindi movie I saw can list Rocket Singh Salesman of the year and Omkara, although Omkara reminded me of the sort of stuff I hate watching, being subjected to a slew of gangster and 007 film through my childhood by my brothers, I still had to admit it was a good film.
From a designer's point of view Deepika's styling in Love Aaj Kal sucked.
BTW, do look up Devika Rani, unless you already know about Achut Kanya, pretty decent attempt for 1936.

Anonymous said...

You have pretty much nailed few points, but you also missed some. I personally think we need to have producers who are creative and not business men who try to make the fast buck . The root problem in my view is that in India ( being Indian myself ) , we have a herd mentality where a success of DDLJ forced everyone else to start making " love stories " as they " run " in the theater's.

Being a writer myself who's been in touch with few producer's, I am going through the agony of trying to prove that a film doesn't need to be a love story even commercially, to be a hit, but it's almost like hitting my head against the wall. We don't have guys like Robert Evans who would take those risks. All we have is as you rightly said is " families " who make sugary shit and the media which sucks up to them .

We do have Ram Gopal Verma though...but he hasn't been doing good. I hope RC would give him some money to start experimenting again. Cheers Srikanth

Anonymous said...

The veteran filmstar did give us some interesting work for children, specially her work involving puppets for TV. Terming it juvenile is unfair, it was meant to be juvenile.

Girish Shahane said...

Missed Udaan, Daniel; d'you think it makes the list?
Srikanth, totally agree about the herd mentality.
Anonymous, the film star I wrote about did nothing with puppets for TV. Don't know who you thought it was, but it wasn't her.

Adrian said...


You're being too hard on India. Almost all films are terrible these days. Hollywood now only makes movies for teen boys, the British cinema is basically dead and French cinema is a ghost of what it once was.

There are a few aging iconoclasts out there doing good work (Werner Herzog etc.) but they are finding harder and harder to get the funding for their projects.

I'm waiting for the Australian release of Winter's Bone but if it's a disappointment, that's it, I'm just giving up.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, here's a list of active directors of the top of my head: the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Chritopher Nolan, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, Alfonso Cuaron, Ang Lee, Brad Bird, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michel Gondry. We don't have anybody in India who could stand up to any of these. Things are seriously grim here, buddy.
And I'm not getting into old timers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese, or cinema outside Hollywood. It's true German cinema is past its great age, but we still get films like The Lives of Others and even Downfall or Goodbye Lenin to make things interesting. The same holds true for many other nations with a rich film-making history.

adrian mckinty said...


I'll give you PT Anderson and Brad Bird but have you seen the latest work of the Coen Brothers or Soderberg or Jarmusch or the others? And Scorsese? Dear God I wish someone would pull the plug on him lest he humiliate himself further. Hollywood product is tired and dumb but American art house cinema has run of out of things to say. It's exhausted.

I wasnt as big a fan as Lives of Others as you (I found the melodrama a bit much) but I'll give you that one, still that was made five years ago.

India has all the technical prowess to make films and with an expanding middle class and lots of interesting things to say I'm a lot more optimistic about diversity in Indian cinema than, say, the British one.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, I appreciate your consistently sympathetic look at India. I hope you're right and we're on the cusp of a new wave of good cinema. For the reasons I've outlined in the article, I doubt that, though three film-makers give me hope.

seana graham said...

I have to say that I really hope the great talent of the next generation isn't going into virtual reality games, though I fear it's very likely.

I wouldn't mind if I didn't think so many of them were simply about mayhem and destruction.

Although I suppose that's always been the case with drama.

Anonymous said...

Well, the only Bollywood actress I spotted that day was someone involved with one of India's earliest successes at Cannes- an adaptation of a Gorky play. Another perosn-a drama critic, sometime stage actress and author would not qualify as Bollywood enough despite some behind the camera associations and that Ardha stya cameo notwithstanding.

Girish Shahane said...

No no, this actress has had no connection to Cannes or the Lower Depths. And she's much better known than anybody who starred in Neecha Nagar. But no more of this; I'm not going to provide gossip magazine style leads. I usually avoid unattributed quotes like the plague, but couldn't resist this one.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, about Scorsese: I think his noughties films: Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The departed, are better than the nineties trio of The Age of Innocence, Kundun and Bringing out the Dead. If you think his recent films are humiliatingly bad, you and I have a very, very different idea of what constitutes good cinema.
That said, Shutter Island was certainly disappointing.

Girish Shahane said...

Daniel, regarding Rocket Singh: it exemplifies what I called Bollywood's conflict avoidance: the screenplay writer and director spend two hours building up a conflict, and how is it resolved? The bad guy just ups and gives up, and tells the good guy, actually you're a much better boss than I am. In the process the entire theme of trying to conduct an ethical business becomes a joke. Anybody could conduct an ethical business if the opposition just walked away, right?

rahul m said...

gr8 list of current working hollywood directors ,i think soderbergh is top of the list really,who else canmake "full frontal",solaris"and then ocean series side by side

nd a gr8 piece on godfellas 20th anniversary ,i c that u r a fellow scorcese fan::

nd wit bout "company"by rgv ,i think its one the best films of "gangster"genre coming from any part of the world

Girish Shahane said...

Srikanth also spoke of Ram Gopal Varma; Satya was excellent, Company pretty good, after that it's been a steep downhill slide, no?

adrian mckinty said...


I think his Di Caprio films have been just awful. He's kind of the anti De Niro.

Gangs of New York was saved for me from being a complete mess by Daniel Day Lewis, but the Aviator I thought was really pretty tedious and pointless. My real hatred I'll save for The Departed. I felt that that was a true artistic disaster. Almost everyone acted off the wrong note, the story was absurd, the racial elements (i.e. the stuff about bussing) were tacked on, Nicholson gave his worst performance in a decade, no one could do a Boston accent (even Matt Damon!!). I hated that movie, except...except for Mark Wahlberg who almost saved it. Have you seen Infernal Affairs? No comparison. None.

And we both agree that Shutter Island was an embarassment.

I like Scorsese, I really do, but he needs a new muse.

Pronoti said...

You thought Dev.D was excellent?!!???!!!

Girish Shahane said...

My post on the movie: