Long time blog readers know I'm passionate about films - I love watching them, talking about them, discussing them, and it doesn't matter if it is the latest commercial potboiler or a small, independent movie, or European arthouse, or well, anything else for that matter. I know what I like and what I don't, even if I cannot always tell you the whys of the matter.
I have often thought it would be wonderful if someone paid me to watch films and write about them. But I'm not a 'reviewer' or a critic. I only write what I like, about the films that I like, and mostly, my posts are an exercise in introducing (or re-introducing) those films, actors, directors, to my readers who may or may not have watched them.
I usually refrain from writing up new movies, even though some of my readers have told me that I'm 'wasting my time' writing about old movies - 'Who wants to watch them?' Well, I do, for instance. More importantly, however, there are dozens of reviews of the latest films. And mostly, I brush past them because they have nothing new to say.
Most reviews end up being a check-off list - plot point or a condescending (especially when they review 'commercial' Hindi films) rant about just how bad the film is (thus negating the hard work of hundreds of people who have slaved over that creation for months); or they turn into a gushing fanfest. For me, a good review is one which allows me to make up my own mind whether to watch a film or not; not one that tells me what I should like or dislike about a film.
There is one reviewer I read regularly. One critic whose critiques I wait for, a person whose writing I enjoy just for the art that he brings to his craft. So when I read on his blog about this book coming out soon, I had to pre-order it. For one, he is an articulate writer. It is not just his command over the language, but his turn of phrase, the humour and wit that he brings to his writing, and his unabashed love for his subject - the movies - that make you return to his writing again and again.
Rangan is also kinder to the small film, the first-time director who seems to have something to say even if he falters on the way between idea and execution. It is very rarely that he finds a film that he cannot bear, and then, the fun (for us readers) is to see how elegantly he dismisses it. (The film has to be very bad and with no redeeming qualities whatsoever for him to do thus.) However, I do not ever remember him saying 'Leave your brains at the door.'
He also doesn't tell his readers whether they should watch a film or not. Instead, he talks about how he felt watching the film. About what he liked and did not like. Most importantly, however, he is sympathetic to the demands of the box-office, while at the same time critical of films that lay claim to high 'art' and fail to deliver.
Dispatches From The Wall Corner is a collection of the National Award-winning film critic's articles, reviews, and his opinion pieces (sometimes archived under his 'Bitty Ruminations' on his blog). Right from the Foreword - by Karan Johar, no less! I was grinning. Because Johar confesses to being completely taken aback at being asked to write the foreword. 'Does this man even like anything I've made? he asks, after listing the headlines of Rangan's reviews of his films.
The anthology is compiled across six categories - Actors, Hindi Cinema, Directors, Music, Tamil Cinema and Reviews. The sections on personalities alternate between interviews, opinion pieces and even obituaries.
I laughed out loud while reading this gem in his obituary of Gemini Ganesan: By way of songs though, Gemini got short shrift - the film's best number went to Sivaji and a slim-trim Saroja Devi, while Gemini got 'Andru oomai pennalo' where he was reduced to prancing around (in a truly embarrassing tribal get-up) with Savitri, who, by that time, had clearly begun to relish her breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
I find myself nodding vigorously when I read his estimation of Abhishek Bachchan: "...he's lipsmackingly good with the light stuff, but his successes in other kinds of roles possibly depends on the skills of his directors."
He writes tidy obituaries to Joy Mukherjee, Dev Anand, Feroz Khan, Nirupa Roy, and Suchitra Sen, while elsewhere, he tries to analyse the reason behind Rajinikanth's success and popularity. His thoughts on the death of VK Murthy leads to an interesting article on how technicians who are associated with certain filmmakers become more popular by association to 'good' cinema than those who work on films that are not considered 'art'.
He talks about Sholay being larger than life, and why we cannot make a Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak anymore. He references Dil Chahta hai - '...the most affecting, most bracing, most honest coming-of-age film from modern day Bollywood' - when he writes about Rock On, Wake up Sid and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara - all of which he thinks are 'well-crafted films, glutted with good writing and acting and startling moments of self-discovery, and that is why it's baffling when they excuse themselves from genuine emotion.' He has a reason why they do so, he thinks - '...in other words, it was a little too much reality for a Friday night.'
The section on directors is fabulous - interviews with Govind Nihalani, K Balachander, Ram Gopal Verma (who hijacked the interview according to Rangan), Shankar, Selvaraghavan, et al; an article on the questions he would have liked to ask Tamil film director Bala (who cancelled the interview because he hated Rangan's review of his latest film), and his thoughts (while sitting through Welcome to Sajjanpur) on Shyam Benegal and how the Master had fallen. This section ends with an obituary (of sorts) to Yash Chopra.
He writes about people you never thought he would write about - the section on music contains articles (expected) on AR Rehman and Ilaiyaraja (an interview with director Gautam Menon on working with the maestro), but it also has notes on Bappi Lahiri and the advent of disco music, along with his thoughts on the score of Guzaarish; it ends with 'notes' on film music. We can sympathise with him when he talks about Binaca Geet Mala, admitting that while it listed 'popular songs', he winced at some of the songs that occupied the top slot. I empathised when I read this - 'Why do our film songs sound so much better during long rides in foreign countries?'
We also empathise when he writes about his fascination with actors - 'The Kamal who was cool way before cool came to Tamil cinema.' And the disillusionment with an idol - Kamal's films, those days, felt like summer vacations - while today, they've come to feel like annual examinations. And when he writes 'He's done enough for Tamil cinema. I'd like to see him back where he began - as, quite simply, one of the coolest people, if not on the planet, at least on the Tamil screen', I think that would resonate with our thoughts of some of our idols.
All this is just a peek into this delightful book, the second half of which is a collection of reviews of films from over the last ten years. They include some surprises as well - films you didn't think would make the cut. Some of these reviews come with their own laugh-out-loud moments, such as when one performance by a leading lady results in his wishing he could invent a new category in the next year's award ceremonies - Most Annoying Lead (Female). Or this throwaway sentence that sums up my nebulous thoughts after watching the remake of Don - "And you can't help thinking that all that the older Don needed to achieve the same contrast was Amitabh Bachchan." Or this lovely gem about Madhur Bhandarkar - "...a filmmaker who wants to do this (examine the cancers that are eating away at our society) should be something of a pathologist... (however) the only thing he is interested in being is a taxidermist."
Dispatches is not a book that need be read at a stretch, but can be picked up and read - whenever, wherever, however. People who do not know Tamil cinema can just skip the whole section because there is enough cross-referencing there to make even a seasoned Tamil film-goer slightly befuddled. If there is one peeve, it is that some of the articles are just too short. Just when you have got caught up in reading his analysis of a film critic who is also a fan and his feelings when he meets his idol in the flesh, wham! it is over and we are on to other articles, other thoughts.
As a book on cinema, it is not so much a collection of writings on 'Cinema' (whispered with awe and reverence) or an insightful analysis of the same, as it is a collection of thoughts and reflections that travel hither and tither, willy-nilly, through the by-roads of our films, both Hindi and Tamil, and give us a closer look and a deeper understanding of films and the many people and things associated with it.
I may or may not agree with everything that Baradwaj Rangan writes, but one thing that he does not do is bore me. Of all the books on cinema that I picked up on this trip, this has been the best written and the most entertaining. From a man who loves his films the way Rangan does, I expected no less.
In his own words (about films), 'But who cares how a thing is labelled if it provides, if only for a diverting instant, a sense of diving into a great ocean of communal joy?
And that is just what this book offers.