Monday, May 21, 2007

Bombay when it sizzles

Back from a hectic (and somewhat drunk) weekend in Bombay (have I mentioned how much I love that city?)

Was very excited to discover that there was a Satyajit Ray special running with three of his films being screened, including one - Aranyer Din Ratri - that I'd never seen before. So my friend S and I show up at Fame Adlabs Friday evening all enthusiastic (after a quick visit to the Landmark store next door). We buy corn, recline our seatbacks, kick off our shoes, and when the movie begins, discover that there are NO SUBTITLES. No, they won't start after the title sequence. No, the dialogue won't switch to Hindi / English when the characters get to the forest. There it is, the movie, in pure, unadulterated Bengali - a language that neither of us speak.

Surprisingly, the film turned out to be rather fun anyway. Partly because it's Ray, so the images themselves are both lucid and exquisite. Partly because the plot (or at least the parts of it we managed to figure out) is fairly simple, so there isn't much scope for confusion. Partly because when you really put your mind to it, it's impressive how much of an unfamiliar language you really do understand.

That said, I have to wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of setting up a screening of Ray's films in Bombay, supposedly with the intention of making these classics accessible to a wider audience, and then not bother providing subtitles so people could follow what was being said.

I'm also intrigued by what theatres in Bombay have done with the National Anthem. In the old days you got the standard issue national anthem: just before the start of the movie a sign would come on asking you to stand. Then you'd get the familiar chorus singing Jan Gan Man accompanied by a visual of the Indian flag in extreme close up. You'd wrestle your way out of your seat balancing pop corn and soda. You'd stand awkwardly in your place wishing the uncle-ji next to you would stop singing along in his horribly off-key voice. You'd hear that voice grow more and more desperate, as though the fate of the nation hung on it finishing the song two bars ahead of everyone else. You'd hope uncle-ji wasn't going to cry or something. You'd watch the last minute stragglers push their way into the centre of the row, treading unapologetically on the toes of their impromptu fellow patriots. You'd wonder, now that it was too late, whether you shouldn't have gone to the bathroom after all. Then suddenly the thing would be over and everyone would sit down with obscene haste, as though a little embarassed by what they'd been up to, as though afraid of being the last one left on his / her feet.

But in the two theatres I watched films in this weekend (Fame Adlabs and the Juhu PVR [1]) the staid old Jan gan man is, apparently, no longer good enough. Instead I got first a music video featuring the usual suspects (Lata, Asha, Jasraj, Bhimsen, Rehman, etc) singing an ornamented and somewhat inchoate version of the anthem, and then, next day, a rendition of the song with extra orchestration that sounds vaguely like it comes out of loony tunes. It's as though someone had decided that upmarket urban consumers wanted something more sophisticated, more stylish, in the way of national anthems.

Now personally, I think this whole national anthem before movies thing is bit of silly jingoism, so I find the idea of making it more 'fancy' fairly amusing, though I can't help thinking it's missing the point a little. I wonder where all this will lead. I suppose it's only a matter of time before we get the 'remix' version of the national anthem with dhin-chak beats, faux rap solos and a troupe of nubilely female dancers the indifference of whose dancing is made up for by the shortness of their skirts.

[1] Where I watched an extremely mixed bag of shorts about Paris called Paris je t'aime. Some lovely little pieces by Isabel Coixet, Alexander Payne and the inimitable Coen brothers, but also a lot that is predictable and trite, most excruciatingly Gurinder Chadha's five minute cliche fest.


Extempore said...

I felt quite the same way! I was at Fame on Sunday for Goopy Gyne Bahgha Byne and the people I was with weren't up for a non-subtitled film. Nor were a number of the people who'd showed that evening because they weren't Bengali speakers.

Ah well, but Paris, Je T'aime was really nice. Last night at PVR. :-)

TS said...

I just can't get myself to like Bombay.

But I hope Paris Je t'aime is worth a watch.

Kits said...

I finally got Paris on my comp. Someone frm work downloaded it. I am really hoping if and whn I get down to watching it, it lives upto my expectations! :)

Shirsha said...

"Partly because when you really put your mind to it, it's impressive how much of an unfamiliar language you really do understand."

And on the other hand, if you understand both the language of the movie and that of the subtitles, its very confusing to watch a movie like that. You'd really want to listen to the dialogues, but the subtitles distract. Its frustrating and painful !

Ravi said...

Same experience here - though it happened at the Inox at Nariman Point.
Some points
1)It was good fun trying to figure out the content based on the body language and the intonation of the characters.
2) We clapped heartily when the Bihari watchman conversed in Hindi with Soumitra
3) The memory game sequence is one of the best scenes I have seen in a long time !

drifting leaf said...

damn... missed your visit...
dumb me...

Falstaff said...

extempore: Isn't it frustrating that they don't even bother to warn you that there won't be subtitles? Though I have to say that if there's a film where it probably won't make much difference it's Goopy Gyne.

ts: It is, kind of. I'd say about one fourth of it is lovely, half is amusing and the remaining one fourth is blah.

kits: see above

shirsha: True. Though the subtitles can also be hilarious. I can think of several hindi movies that would have been unwatchable (on long-distance flights, etc.) if not for their unintentionally funny subtitles.

ravi: Yes, plus there was the occasional English word in there to keep things interesting. The memory game sequence is stunning. I also enjoyed the scenes with the four men getting drunk - it felt as though their drunkenness had been stripped to something elemental. The gestures, the expressions, all seemed so familiar, and the fact that I couldn't understand a word they were saying seemed in line with my usual experience of drunken parties.

DoZ said...

Welcome back. Didn't realize there's a national anthem routine in India - I've never come across it in Delhi or Madras... Tricky routine though - now you not only have people turning up late for the movie and disturbing others, but potentially also being unpatriotic ;) Perhaps this could be used as a stick to get folks to be on time - it is patriotic to do so!
And thanks for the heads up on Paris Je t'aime. Almost watched it, and now I won't.

ggop said...

They have a national anthem routine now? Is it all part of the India Shining campaign?

Szerelem said...

Ah yes, a dhin-chak version of the national anthem. I wouldn't even be surprised. And it'd probably have minimally dressed women prancing ala all those item numbers.

dazedandconfused said...

what a blogged about Ray's movies as well in my last post... subtitles, thats nasty!

Anonymous said...

but the Steve Buscemi piece in "Paris" was funny, no? Saw it like 7-8 months ago, so have forgotten what it was called

Falstaff said...

doz / gg: Now that I come to think of it, it's probably just a Bombay thing - Bombay theaters have been playing the national anthem for quite a while though, so it's hardly new.

szerelem: Ummm..yes, that's what the 'nubilely female dancer' bit was meant to suggest.

d&c: Oh, I don't know. It certainly made for a novel experience

anonymous: Yes, hilarious. That would be the Coen brothers piece I talk about.

Chimera said...

i've never heard the national anthem in theatres these days - the original or the AR version...perhaps it is only in the Mumbai theatres.
they might as well stop playing it instead of playing different versions of it.

Szerelem said...

Sorry....I read 'dhin-chak' beats and zoned out in horror and the images in my head :D

karlton said...

Interesting use of the word 'sizzle' given the painfully....wet.. nature of coastal summer?
I moved here 10 years ago and i still cant get used to the humidity.

The One said...

While I do find the act of playing the National Anthem in Bombay theaters unnecessary, I see nothing wrong in "uncle-ji" doing a sing-along with it. Some people do have a certain sentimentalism in matters of the nation - and its just their way of expressing it.Or perhaps it is too difficult for people who choose to live away from India to comprehend?