Gaiety Galaxy, in Bandra, is one of India’s first multiplexes. Rumour has it that even today’s big producers—like Karan Johar and Rohit Shetty—call up its proprietor Manoj Desai on Fridays to ask, “Film chalegi ya nahin?” Our jury to select the ‘52 Films To Light Up Your Life in 2016’ met at Gossip cinema, at the complex; it was the brainwave of our Mumbai correspondent Prachi Pinglay-Plumber. Our jury comprised writer and critic Anupama Chopra; author and film historian Jai Arjun Singh; filmmaker and critic Srinivas Bhashyam; and film director Sriram Raghavan. The discussion was moderated by deputy editor Satish Padmanabhan. The idea was to come up with an eclectic list, some canonical, some whimsical, all enjoyable. A working rule was to include only one film from a director. Serious cineastes will rage the list doesn’t have Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Ghatak.... Excerpts from the discussion will illumine why some films were chosen, some left out.
Who’s Afraid of Bresson?
Satish Padmanabhan (moderator):
Thank you very much for being part of this jury. As we have said, our list is of films this jury absolutely loves, watches again and again, and would like our readers, too, to be touched by their magic. We have consciously tried to avoid coming up with a list of canonical films—the ‘must-see’ that film scholars and critics would urge us to watch—but to come up with a completely subjective, whimsical and eclectic list. Sriram Raghavan had, for instance, sent me two lists—one was the truly great films, the other was films he loved. We chose the second for this discussion.
Jai Arjun Singh: I broke into a cold sweat when you asked me to put together a list of my 20 favourite films. I might be able to put together a list of my 200 or 300 favourite films without sweating too much. But with 20, the first thing you tell yourself is that, if I make the same list one hour from now, most of the films on it will be different. I think the biggest function an exercise like this can serve is obviously to provide a glimpse of some very personal choices and also throw out some important films in favour of films that are relatively obscure, that can lead a viewer down new paths of discovery.
SP: Yes, and since they are all your favourite films, I can’t question your choice, but we can always discuss why one particular film and not the other —of a genre or of a filmmaker.
Anupama Chopra: To emphasise what Jai said, my list would truly change one hour later. It is all about who you are at that moment and what you are responding to. And when I go back and see some of the films I’ve loved, some choices are really embarrassing. I wept through the climax of Kal Ho Na Ho and now when I go back to it, it’s like, oh my god, you are just hamming, you know, in that 20-minute death scene.
JAS: (Laughs) No, I would say that’s a strong point as a critic if you open yourself that way to anything without worrying about highbrow or lowbrow.
SP: Do you think our lists change as we go through various stages in our lives, the films we really remember in our middle age are a little different from what we liked in our teens?
AC: I think you change so much and you see so much more. And as you see more, maybe something that seemed to be incredible isn’t frankly that amazing.
JAS: The conventional way of thinking is that, when you are younger, you tend to be more easily moved by what in later life you might consider kiddish or overly sentimental. But with me, sometimes it works in the opposite way. I find myself responding more emotionally to certain types of films later in my life than when I was 15 or 16, when I was thinking of Godard and Bresson as real cinema. As a young person you will love Anand, at the age of 40 you are looking at it and saying, “Hmmm, well...”, you know.
Sriram Raghavan: When you are young you are a little snobbish, depending on which college you come from. And when you grow older, maybe you think Don is actually fantastic.
SP: Which you might have dismissed as a student of serious cinema?
SR: No, I take the films I loved as a kid very seriously, though if I watch them now, they may be a little tacky. But it doesn’t matter, because for me, the impression they’ve had on me is very important. As a filmmaker, you are supposed to be a kid all the time in your head. I have put Yaadon Ki Barat in my list simply because it is the movie that gave me terrific pleasure. Even today, if somebody watches it with the perspective that it was made in early 1970s, they would enjoy it as much. When I first joined the institute (FTII Pune), I remember we used to get completely frazzled...that these movies were not working for us. For instance, many of the Tarkovsky films we saw in the first year and all, what I wished was they would show Hitchcock instead. When there is French Connection, why are they showing us this? So we used to all plead, “Can I make the next week’s list? Can I add my couple of films?”
Srinivas Bhashyam: I think it comes with the confidence of having seen films for like 20 years intensely. Initially, you are overawed by peer pressure to like those intellectual and serious films, whether you actually like them or not, even when you are slightly unsure about them and they bore you. But I think that, much later, you can separate the things and you can confidently say that this one is truly intellectual, deep and influential. And the other thing was quite indulgent and sort of turgid.
AC: It’s what Mahesh Bhatt calls the tyranny of taste.
SB: Absolutely. To mix the profound and the profane confidently is still a big problem. When people look at a list like this, for example, where we have mixed some really important and serious cinema along with kitschy or funny or trivial films by those standards, some of them are going to wonder, “What is this film doing along with this?”
SP: Yes, and that’s the whole point, not to come out with a predictable list. So shall we start? Initially, each jury member came up with 20 of their favourite films and now we will narrow them down, hopefully without any fisticuffs, to 52.
SB: (Smiles) I have a little point here. In my list, I have mentioned a couple of films that are south Indian classics. There is a chance that the others may not have seen them. I am sure others will also have their unique films. So in those specific cases, it may be a good idea to talk a little bit about why that film.
SP: Sure. If you talk about the film a little and the others are convinced that it should go into our list...that’s our aim. This discussion should hopefully unearth new gems for our readers. We can begin by each member picking five films from their list in round one. Jai, let’s start with you.
JAS: You are going to make me pick five....
SB: It’s a kill list. Let’s say these are your kids, which five are you going to pick?
JAS: One film that I have no problem at all choosing—it may not be a great film, but it is the film that for me is more responsible than any other for getting me into taking cinema seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho. I was struck by it long before I even knew about such things as camera angles. I found myself observing those things and then getting into film literature. But there is another reason why I would try to make a case for this film as compared to, say another Hitchcock film. As we all know, films like Vertigo are the canonical ones.
The listing rules: Only one film from a director; try to make the list whimsical, enjoyable.
You have this whole debate about Psycho: is it a film that deserves to be taken seriously or is it just a cheap slasher film? That as late as the 1980s, we had Indian film critics like T.G. Vaidyanathan who was saying Psycho is a film that doesn’t take death seriously. Robin Wood, one of my favourite writers, who wrote a great book called Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, which has a long essay about Psycho...he tried submitting that essay to Sight & Sound magazine, which was being edited by Penelope Houston at that time. And Penelope Houston wrote back a very polite letter to him saying, “It’s a very good essay but I am afraid we can’t publish it because you have failed to grasp that Hitchcock meant Psycho to be (taken) as a joke.” It was not meant to be taken seriously, she said, and I think that change is very symptomatic of what often happens with film criticism—where you want to make this clear distinction between serious, entertainment or artistic when it comes to popular cinema.
SP: But among Hitchcock’s films, would you say that our choosing Pyscho is a little bit of going back on what we said we will not do. To go for the safer Psycho and not select a more breezy film like Notorious or Spellbound or Strangers On A Train?
SR: I think I would blindly say Psycho because I love about 50 of Hitchcock’s films too much and I will still defend all the others too. I mean, if someone says I don’t like Marnie, I will say, oh why? But I feel Psycho, I will not talk academically about it, but I remember when I was in the institute that was a film I used to try to watch. But I had never seen it till 1984 or something. I had only heard about it and knew it—it never made it to the institute’s list. I think it is pure cinema, visual storytelling.
SP: Since we have this rule, only one film by a director, it is Psycho then, of Hitchcock.
JAS: Anyone who has an issue with that?
SR: I would have put Notorious as the film which people haven’t heard of and need to see. Recently, I had gone for some workshop. I had given the participants some exercise and I had their answers, which I had to evaluate. So I told them to watch this movie while I go through their answers as it will take me an hour or so. I put Notorious on the projector, none of them had seen it. I was done sooner than I thought and so midway I stopped the film. I thought they will all protest, saying we want to watch, you must give us the DVD etc. But nobody said anything. I was stopping Notorious at a crucial point and nobody said don’t....
SP: That’s shocking.
JAS: You know, Notorious is in a strange way pertinent to a current Indian censorship situation. Those days the Hollywood censors would not allow a kiss to go on for more than a few seconds. And Hitchcock very craftily got Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to do this long kissing scene where they are talking and nibbling at each other. It goes on for three to four minutes; it is a very sensuous scene, but they never really kiss for more than five or six seconds in one stretch.
AC: That’s a neat resolution.
SR: Yes, one of the ads said the longest kiss in the history of Hollywood films.
SP: Hitchcock really liked Notorious. In the book Truffaut on Hitchcock, both of them rate Notorious very high.
At one point, there was a line of thinking that Psycho wasn’t to be taken seriously.
AC: But if we all agree on Psycho, let’s go on.
JAS: So Psycho and I am moving quickly through the rest of it. Then Sholay.
AC: Sholay we don’t have to really discuss.
SR: I didn’t put it on my list simply because I knew somebody will have it. It’s the film I have seen the maximum number of times.
JAS: Good we don’t have Naseeruddin Shah on this panel, if you read what he has written about Sholay in his book....
SR: My thing for not putting Sholay was I thought everybody knows Sholay.
AC: But they don’t, Sriram. You would be amazed. The other day I asked this kid who works as an intern in my office when his film education started, and he said from K3G.
JAS: For many, and here I am talking about people who are scriptwriters and even filmmakers, cinema begins with The Godfather 1972. If you ask them what are the old classics they love, you will never hear of anything before Godfather. Or it will be Tarantino in the last 20-25 years.
SP: Not wanting to sit through Notorious is bad enough but not knowing Sholay seems catastrophic. Is it because we are looking at some screen or the other all the time and don’t sit down quietly to watch a film any more?
JAS: It has to do with the viewing habits of today. I cringe at the thought of somebody experiencing Sholay for the first time on a cellphone.
AC: Okay, Sholay is through, let’s get on with the rest.
SP: Yes, the matinee show starts in this hall 12.30 pm. If we don’t vacate by noon, the manager has said we will have to deal with the angry mob outside.
AC: (Laughs) Then you will have to watch Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.
JAS: I am just assuming we have to have one Satyajit Ray on this list.
SB: I would agree.
SR: I am not sure.
JAS: Well, I am choosing Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and that again is, I think, more enduring....
SR: My problem is I would have put Apu trilogy or so many of the other films. With Ray, there is no saying why this and why not that.
SP: But if we have to have one Ray, are you all agreed that it will be Goopy Gyne? It certainly is fantastical and whimsical but there are so many Rays that are...
SB: I have a conflict here. I would choose Apu Trilogy. Pather Panchali.
JAS: If it’s the trilogy, I’d go with Aparajito.
SR: They are very different kind of films. But I like Goopy very much.
JAS: Okay, since we have reiterated that we will not be canonical, let’s go with Goopy for Ray. The next I have listed is this film called Safety Last, which is a Harold Lloyd silent comedy. My idea was to put in one of the great physical silent comedies, whether it’s Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Safety Last is a wonderful film that is about climbing this mountain, that building....
SB: And the clock.
JAS: Yeah, that too in an age when you didn’t have safety nets or special effects. And I think that sort of silent comedy movie is the fount of so many interesting things that have happened in the cinema subsequently. But we could easily substitute it with one of Buster Keaton....
SP: The General?
JAS: So if any of you are bigger fans of Keaton’s, I am happy to go with The General or something.
SB: No, let’s go with this....
JAS: Next, V. Shantaram’s Navrang, the film I think is such an explosion of...
“Onibaba, in black-and-white, is such a moving film and yet so scary.”
JAS: Kitsch is a slightly patronising word for Navrang. This film is about colour and classical Indian music and it brings together so many of the things that are so good about traditional Hindi cinema, which came from the theatre traditions. And it’s done by a director who was unapologetic about it. He just didn’t bother to tone things down, so I will put that in my list. The last in this round, I am going with a film which is very close to my heart: it’s the 1944 Michael Powell film A Canterbury Tale. I nominate it partly because it takes a more profound look at issues of faith and faithlessness than almost anything that Bergman has ever done. It is a narrative-driven film, a British film about three people heading to Canterbury and the experiences they go through there.
SP: Sure, Jai. But I think the other film that nobody else will have on their list, which is not so profound, and which I think you will have to really push hard for will be Parvarish.
SR: (Laughs) Which Parvarish? Manmohan Desai’s?
JAS: Yes, Manmohan Desai’s. I see that you have Naseeb....
SR: Yes, I have Naseeb.
AC: Really? You like Naseeb?
SR: I love Manmohan Desai. I would have put Amar Akbar Anthony.
SP: But that would be the canonical film from Manmohan Desai’s body of work?
AC: (Laughs) He is just being hat ke.
SP: Okay, we will come to Parvarish later. Anupama, let’s go with yours. I saw in your list you had listed a few Korean and Japanese films, it would be great if you could talk a little bit about them.
AC: Okay, my first film is Tampopo. It is one of my favourites, because it’s a film about food, about sex, about watching movies; it’s about everything that so pleasures your senses. It is so funny and completely mad, but there is a strong sensual narrative. There are random off-shoot stories happening in it, there are item numbers, which have no link to it to the actual narrative. The whole thing is about this truck driver teaching this widow how to make noodles...perfect Ramen noodles. There are dialogues like: “How are my noodles?” “They have sincerity but they lack guts.” It’s a film I have gone back to again and again because it’s so beautifully done. Well, I must warn though, for vegetarians it may not be so appetising, there are some really graphic shots of cut heads and chopped things. But other than that, Tampopo is a fantastic film. The next is an unusual film—In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones. I just love it. Which I don’t know how one can watch, though. Pradip Kishen once said there is going to be a DVD, but I don’t know if it ever came out.
SB: It did, but the quality isn’t so good.
AC: I remember I had to go to the film archive to see it when I was working on a book on Shahrukh, because there was no DVD.
SR: I still remember ‘grotesque’.
SP: Sorry, what’s that?
SR: The way this guy says ‘growths’.
AC: It is an original indie film and it was such a path-breaker in so many ways. The Arundhati Roy character is living with this boyfriend, I mean back in 1984, I think it was. And I just wish more people today would see it and know it and see what they didn’t back then. It was commissioned by Doordarshan.
SB: Arundhati Roy scripted it.
AC: Yes, and it is of course Shahrukh’s debut film. He is there for maybe three seconds, walking in the background.
SP: It’s the film they used to show in the Jamia Milia film and media course test to critique, the course Shahrukh Khan famously left in the middle.
AC: Okay, next. Y Tu Mama Tambien.
JAS: That’s the road movie, right? These two young boys and the woman?
SP: Yeah, amazingly bold film. But don’t you think the lead actor Gael Garcia Bernal sort of anished after such a brilliant role? This and Motorcycle Diaries.
SB: No, he is still around; he continues to do interesting films. Recently, he made a film called Ardor, which is very interesting.
AC: He was there in Desierto, the film by Alfonse Cuaron’s son Jonas. My next is Kung Fu Hustle. It is the most madly inventive Stephen Chow film ever....
SB: It’s just pure energy, it’s completely crazy. But hard-worked upon, superbly choreographed.
AC: And stolen in half a dozen Bollywood films. I know both Farah and Sajid have stolen from it in parts in different films. There is one scene when they are throwing daggers and they keep coming back, that’s been copied. I used to know one of the executives at Sony who was part of setting up the local production there and he said Stephen Chow literally wrote the film on a napkin. So, since there is no script, it was just inventiveness. My next, DDLJ. Is it there on anyone else’s list?
SR: It was there on my mine, but now I will not put it in my first five.... Okay, my first—Groundhog Day. I don’t know if anybody has seen it.
SP: Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, outstanding. It’s about this man who is stuck in a time warp and lives the same day again and again.
AC: Yes, it’s brilliant.
SR: Then, Stalag 17. It is a little known Billy Wilder film which I loved but I have not seen recently. Of course, normally one would have The Apartment of Billy Wilder and so many other great films but I will go with Stalag 17.
JAS: If I had to choose a Billy Wilder I would probably go for another less known film called Ace in the Hole....
SR: Yes, I love Ace in the Hole also but....
JAS: It’s a bit of where Peepli Live comes from, this is the one about the minor trapped in the hole and the media goes all wild....
SR: Yeah, I have seen all the Billy Wilder movies. But my thing with Stalag 17 is...it’s a little obscure film. It’s a black and white film, set in a prisoner of war camp and it is a satire on how war doesn’t really bring us together but actually brings out the worst in us.
JAS: It was actually made before Catch 22 was written....
SR: There is one song in Baaton Baaton Mein—Na bole tum na maine kuch kaha—which they have whacked from Stalag 17.
JAS: When Johnny comes marching....
SR: I have Pulp Fiction, is anybody else going to put?
SB: Go ahead.
SR: Then, Yaadon Ki Barat. Is anyone going with Guide, then I will put Tere Ghar Ke Samne of Vijay Anand.
SP: But we can have only one of one director.
SR: Oh, then we can’t put Tere Ghar Ke Samne over Johnny Mera Naam, my ultimate fav.
SP: Okay, you have one more in this round.
SR: I will say Company.
AC: That’s an interesting one. Not Satya of Ram Gopal Varma?
SR: Again, that is the obvious one, even though Satya was more impactful for me.
AC: I would go with Satya.
SB: So would I.
SR: Okay, if everyone else is saying Satya, I am okay with that.
JAS: You are not taking RGV Ki Aag.
AC: Yes, why not?
JAS: I mean, we should tell our readers to watch that too.
SP: Oh, there are so many then, like Daud....
SB: I told Ramu once that I actually liked Daud and he said you have just got very bad taste.
AC: I wrote a review in India Today saying what a great film Daud was, and the editor told me bas ab aap pe bharosa nahi raha (I have lost faith in you.)
SR: (Laughs) I didn’t like the film at all, though I love Ramu. What happened is, I wanted to see it first day, first show, so I had booked a 12 o’ clock show—those days we had to book in advance for Friday. But another friend had also booked tickets for four or five of us for the 3 o’ clock show. So I saw it first at 12 o’ clock, hated it, then I had to watch it again at 3 o’ clock. I couldn’t tell my friends that I had already seen it so I had to sit through it again.
SB: Ha, ha. Nobody can like Daud so much. But you have got Company in your list, or are you changing it?
SR: I am changing it to Satya.
JAS: I want to say something quickly before Srinivas starts with his. I was looking at Sriram’s list and you have a little film called Citizen Kane. Aren’t you going to name that?
SP: Because the whole thing is inverted now? It has become more difficult to get the truly great films into the list.
SB: I am embarrassed to say that I have actually seen Citizen Kane 15 times and I love it. What I am trying to say is, even a canonical film can actually give you pleasure....
AC: Of course, they do. Most of them are pleasurable films.
JAS: My favourite Orson Welles is Touch of Evil.
SB: So I would go first with all my personal favourites, underdogs which I have seen many, many times. First up is Nayakan. Then, I would go with Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. I think it has achieved things that a lot of Indian cinema has not been able, which is mixing politics and poetry, period and whimsical personal semi-autobiographical storytelling of Sudhir Mishra. It captured a certain era so well but without being self-important. It is one of the most sophisticated films and I feel is underrated. He did so many different things in the film and he used songs very well.
AC: Yes, Bawraa mann dekhne chala ek sapna...is superb.
SB: Then I would go for this Kannada film called Hamsa Geethe. I am sure that nobody here has seen it.
AC: No, I haven’t.
SB: This is a film by G.V. Iyer, who also made the first Sanskrit film. Now, cinematically, Hamse Geethe is quite shoddy but it is a very powerful story and I think it is the most authentic Indian classical music film ever made. The music director is the legendary M. Balamuralikrishna. The story is reminiscent of Amadeus: it has got ego clashes, it’s set a couple of hundred years ago, it’s got really amazing use of rocks and landscapes, which it captures with austerity. It captures an India we don’t know too much about.
AC: Is it easily available?
SB: Yes, it’s there on YouTube. If you ignore the technical and editing part of it, you will see it’s a moving film about music. Then I would go for one of my favourites. I think I must have seen it 30 times. It is called Michael Madana Kama Rajan.
SP: Oh, yes, the Kamalahaasan-Singeetam team at its best.
JAS: Isn’t it made by the director who also did Pushpak? Pushpak is my all-time favourite.
SP: And Appu Raja.
SB: Yes, I was lucky enough to assist the director, Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, much later. So it is about Kamalahaasan playing four characters, Michael, Madan, Kama, Rajan and it has got all the cliches. It has got a fable-like storytelling, it has got a frenetic cartoon-like pace, from the beginning to end nothing is taken seriously but done with a lot of design and care. It has got a literal cliff-hanger ending. It has got visual punch, it has got language punch....
SP: All the four characters are from different backgrounds and social settings. So, one of them is a Tamil Brahmin so he speaks in that language. The other one is a street guy so he speaks a kind of Tamil which the others cannot follow....
SR: Even the waiter character, he speaks a different kind of Tamil. But won’t all this get lost in translation in the subtitles for a non-Tamil audience?
SB: To some extent yes, but still you would appreciate what’s going on visually, it’s a completely crazy film. This combination of Kamalahaasan, who wrote the screenplay, and director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, who has worked with him many times. They know exactly how to do this bizarre thing very well. They did it in Pushpak, they did it in Appu Raja and they did it in this film. But this film again, for the so-called serious filmgoers, it’s an underrated movie. But it has got Chaplin, it has got Buster Keaton, it has got Marx Brothers because of the verbal play. It has got all of that and it has got absolute Indian sensibilities....
JAS: It is recommended to me by so many people but I just haven’t been able to see it yet.
SB: Last one in this round, I would go for The Exorcist. I am a big fan of horror....
AC: Really, you like horror?
JAS: I am a huge horror fan.
SB: Actually, I love horror films more than anything else. I hope I am ambitious to make one horror film in my life as a director but I am scared that I will disappoint myself. I saw The Exorcist as a kid and I could not sleep for one week. I think I lost my virginity with it! It is based on a powerful novel, it’s the most influential horror films of all time and even today when I see it, it evokes the same feeling. It’s made by William Friedkin... we have seen him doing other things equally well, like the French Connection.
AC: Would you allow The Shining?
SB: I would, absolutely. My choice would weigh very closely between The Shining and The Exorcist. But The Exorcist scared the shit out of me much more than The Shining.
JAS: You know, I would have been happy to just do this exercise, 52 horror films you must watch this year, all kinds, lowbrow horror or highbrow horror, everything. In fact, I think The Exorcist is almost too respectable a film to feature in the horror genre.
SP: What would you have?
JAS: I have far too many to list here. This early 1960s Japanese film, Onibaba, for instance. I don’t know if you have seen it?
AC: Don’t want to. Can’t stand horror films.
SB: Yes, it’s an amazing film.
JAS: Like you know this film didn’t have any real jump-out-of-the-seat stuff. It’s such a moving film and yet such a scary film. It is set in medieval times, in the times of the samurais. A widowed old woman and her daughter-in-law are living together in this desolate, bare place with tall grass. It’s a black-and-white film, very atmospheric. The daughter-in-law is waiting for her husband to come back from the wars and they are scavenging for food. So what they end up doing, they have dug this deep hole in the grass where the wounded samurais who pass by are made to fall in. The women kill them, steal their armour and sell it for food. And then a lot of things happen, they meet this one samurai who is strange. This is just one of maybe 20-25 horror films of various kind I can think of now.
AC: Have you seen Hate Story-3?
SB: (Laughs). That is beyond The Exorcist. I don’t know how scared I will be but I am going to try it.
SP: It’s on here in this theatre, in Gaiety, you can catch the matinee after our discussion. Okay, that brings us to the end of our first round, now for the next round. Jai, let’s start again with you.
JAS: Well, this is actually to continue on the discussion we are having about horror films, one film that is very close to my heart is the French film by Georges Franju called Eyes Without a Face.
SB: I love it, that’s a great movie.
JAS: It works on multiple levels for me, at the horror level and at the artistic level. My next is this really beautiful film, Godard’s Weekend. Now again, it is a film that may seem today as somewhat highbrow or difficult. But I think in addition to being cinematically wonderful, it is brilliant because it is so relevant in some ways now. There is this amazing shot of the highway in the French countryside....
SB: Done in one long tracking shot....
JAS: Yes, the spectacular tracking shot of the road and...
SB: ...the traffic and the jam.
JAS: And horns creating a symphony...
SB: ...and many, many things going on. It’s a commentary on everything. On civilisation.
JAS: Ouch...on civilisation...how pretentious it sounds. Also, I just feel like, at the risk of getting canonical, I feel that there has to be a Godard....
SP: Yeah, sure. But if there has to be Godard, shouldn’t it be....
SR: You are going to say Breathless?
SP: Or Contempt.
JAS: Breathless would be quite predictable. My second favourite will actually be Contempt.
SB: If you are avoiding the canonical, this is a very good choice.
JAS: In fact, I will be even more interested in Contempt than Weekend because it is one of the first meta films. Today, we talk about how Hindi film directors like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar etc are more children of cinema than of literature, their houses are full of DVDs. The same charge was levelled at Francis Ford Coppola’s generation in America in early 1970s. But Godard in 1963 had made what was one of the first meta films that is actually commenting on the workings of cinema. What happened was Carlo Ponti, who was this very commercial producer, told Godard we are giving you money, you have to make this film, you have to have Brigitte Bardot in it. And since she is there, you have to have a nude scene in it. And what does Godard do? Right at the beginning of the film he puts this nude scene where the Bardot character is in bed with her husband and she is deconstructing herself. She is there completely naked and she is asking her husband questions like what do you like best, you like my fingers, you like my toes, you like my mouth. She is obsessing with herself in such a way that it becomes very unsexy....
SB: He subverts it completely.
JAS: And the film itself is about her husband, who is a writer and he wants to make these highbrow films of integrity but then he sells out. He binds himself to a commercial producer. So Godard is making a film about the circumstances of the making of this film. The film also is about the fights that he had with his reallife wife, Anna Karina; that how she is a serious actress and how she is compromising with her art for money.
SP: So, is it Weekend or Contempt then?
AC: Satish is like, so get to the point. He is stressing about the time.
SP: No, no, I just have that Prem Ratan Dhan Payo mob waiting outside hanging on my head. Otherwise the whole point of this exercise, more than to come up with a list finally, is to talk films, it is so enriching to know so much about films and filmmakers....
JAS: So, it is Contempt then. Third, Parvarish by Manmohan Desai.
AC: (Turning to Sriram) You want to argue with this?
SR: I also like Parvarish. But I love Dharam Veer as well....
JAS: Dharmendra in a mini skirt....
SP: But why Parvarish, if I may ask?
JAS: It is lunatic, with all the underpinnings of reflections on the nature-nurture debate, which is done in a really corny way with such bizarre plot twists....
AC: But it can’t beat the plot twists of Dharam Veer. The prince of the kingdom is kidnapped, then he returns but no one knows if it is actually the right prince. They think it is, because he is brave, but actually it is not the right prince. C’mon, who can beat that?
JAS: I am fine with Dharam Veer in place of Parvarish.
SR: Let’s go with Dharma Veer then, it has my Dharamji.
JAS: Sure, but what sticks to me really about Parvarish are its sheer brilliant moments. So Amitabh Bachchan is pretending to be blind because he wants to figure out whether illegal activities are being done by his brother (Vinod Khanna) whom he suspects is a smuggler. And at one point Amitabh is at the hospital with his dark glasses over his eyes and somebody comes and talks to him. When the person goes away, Amitabh takes the glasses off, picks up a book and he turns to us, the audience, and winks. That’s a meta moment.
SR: (Laughs) Yes, Amitabh does that a lot. And isn’t it the one where there is an item number with Neetu Singh? Or am I getting confused between Parvarish and Suhaag, which has this song where the girls are saying they want to commit suicide and Amitabh and Shashi Kapoor say please go ahead.
SB: That’s Suhaag. So is it Parvarish or Dharam Veer?
JAS: Dharam Veer. Okay, now after that, to get a little arty. There is a very interesting film which brings out the Indian theatre traditions in a film very beautifully. It’s Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai. My other choice in that category would actually be Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor, which is based on Habib Tanvir’s play. It has Govind Nihalani at his best as a cinematographer, with black-and-white photography. It is perhaps one of Benegal’s least known films but it is so stimulating.
AC: There is no Benegal in our list....
JAS: But between the two, I would go with Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai. Then the next, again I am going by art. It is Goving Nihalani’s Party.
SR: Not Ardh Satya?
JAS: I prefer Party and I also think Party badly needs to be rediscovered....
SP: Nihalani’s Party, based on a play by Mahesh Elkunchwar.
JAS: Yes, it is a very rare example of the Indian chamber drama, the sort of thing that Renoir was doing with The Rules of the Game. We were just now talking about how Godard made Contempt about its own making; Party is a film that is a reflection on the sort of people who are making those art films. It is a film about people who, on the face of it, are activists, they are concerned about social issues, the rights of tribals. Yet all of them are basically sitting in a plush house in South Bombay and talking about all this. Party has got that self-condemnation built into it which I think is terrific.
AC: Okay, my turn now. So is Deewar on the list, or can I pick up Kabhie Kabhi? We can have only one of Yash Chopra?
SR: I would back Deewar.
AC: Okay, Deewar it is then. Next, All About Eve.
SB: Billy Wilder, excellent.
SR: No, not Billy Wilder....
JAS: Joseph Mankiewicz.
SB: Sorry. Mankiewicz.
AC: Next is my guilty pleasure, which I am sure nobody will want. 48 Hours.
SR: It is my guilty pleasure too, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
SB: You are on your own here. I enjoyed it too but I wouldn’t bring it into the list.
JAS: You know what my great guilty pleasure is which I feel embarrassed mentioning to you all...it is No Entry.
AC: No! Aneez Bazmi, I cannot defend...
JAS: Despite all the allegations of it being regressive and chauvinistic.
SP: I think if we dwell deep on No Entry, this discussion may take an altogether different course.
AC: OK quickly, next, Hum Dono.
SR: But we already have one by Vijay Anand, Johny Mera Naam.
AC: Then, Raise the Red Lantern. Then one horror film, though I am not a fan of the genre, one horror film I love is The Shining.
SB: It doesn’t scare you that much.
AC: It scared the jeebies out of me.
JAS: But if you have Stanley Kubrick on the list, then should we go with The Shining or say, The Clockwork Orange?
SP: Or Dr Strangelove. Though The Shining, along with Kubrick, is also Jack Nicholson’s film.
SR: I am fine with The Shining.
SR: OK, here are my next five. First, Fargo.
JAS: Are we looking at any other films by the Coen brothers’?
SB: I would go for Blood Simple but Fargo is absolutely fine....
SR: I love Burn After Reading also.
SP: Miller’s Crossing?
SR: I remember I bought the DVD of Miller’s Crossing for Rs 2,500, it used to be that expensive at that time. But I will go with Fargo. Then, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
AC: I love it.
SR: I wanted to have a Mani Ratnam but I think we already have Nayakan? OK, Jaagte Raho.... I mean I would want a Raj Kapoor in the list, though technically this is not a Raj Kapoor. I love Ram Teri Ganga Maili too. Does anyone else like it?
JAS: No. But my heart was singing when in Tanu Weds Manu Returns they start Sun saiba sun. I just went back to the 1980s.
SP: But there are many Raj Kapoors before Ram Teri Ganga Maili. I mean, there is Aah, Aag, there is Barsaat, there is Shri 420, Chori Chori, Anari, Awaara...
SR: I know, Shri 420 is fantastic.
JAS: I would actually go with something like Mera Naam Joker as a giant folly, a magnificent failure, where the ambition just overshadows everything.
SR: But it would look like we are just trying to put Mera Naam Joker for those reasons. I will go with Jaagte Raho. Next, Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. Or any other choice?
JAS: I would actually go with Sisters.
SR: I love Sisters. It’s a very early film.
AC: There is also Dressed To Kill.
SR: You like Dressed To Kill? I also love it. Let’s go with that then.
SR: The other two I have left are Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar and well, Casino Royale, because I basically love Bond.
SP: That’s a tough choice, between Aar Paar and Casino Royale.
SR: Of Guru Dutt should we have Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam or Aar Paar? Or Pyasa?
JAS: And I have to say I am from that very rare sort of minority of people who is not a huge Pyasa fan actually. Mukul Kesavan once said to me that Pyasa is a film which is much less than the sum of its parts. And I agree with that.
SP: In Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book on Waheeda Rehman, if I am not wrong, also brings up this point about Pyasa.
SR: So Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.
SP: We are treating that as a Guru Dutt film then? The direction is by Abrar Alvi.
SR: There’s a big controversy on that.
AC: But that will be another full discussion. Let’s just stick to the film.
SB: Next, I will go with Blade Runner. It’s so influential, it’s an amazing film on so many levels. And it’s truly a science fiction film in the sense that it asks really philosophical questions, while entertaining you with a really gripping story....
AC: That line about my memories will be washed away like tears in the rain.
SB: Then I want to bring in a documentary since I love documentaries. I am going to go with an old documentary although the recent documentaries are also amazing. I will go with The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorcese. It captures rock music, an era, documentary film-making at its best, camaraderie between a generation of musicians who came together for the last concert of a band. It is an extraordinary film.
Then I am going to bring in an animation film which I love, the Triplets of Belleville. The use of sound, almost no dialogue, it’s a feature-length film, the animation style is incredibly original, hand-drawn. And it’s got use of colours, light, compositions. It is pure cinema and it is very poetic, and yet it tells a fable-like tale. In parts, it’s incredibly sad.
JAS: I got a little depressed watching it—I loved it and appreciated it as a film but found it a little depressing in some ways.
SB: Yeah, it’s French.
JAS: (Laughs) Triplets of Belleville is also part-tribute to the great comedian Tati. I would have loved to have one of his—in fact I had one of his films on my list. But I think this could be a substitute almost for a Tati film.
SB: I wanted to put Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, but instead went with Triplets of Belleville. And I am going to go with a Tarkovsky, unashamedly Solaris. Again it’s like Blade Runner. It is science fiction but it’s asking really fundamental questions. But it’s a very solemn, very serious film. Again the use of Bach on the soundtrack is amazing and meditative. It does all kinds of things. I think Solaris is a great film of a great Stanislaw Lem novel. Next I will pick a Kieslowski. It is very difficult to pick one from the three colours trilogy but since we can only have one film, I will pick Blue. It’s got Juliette Binoche.
SP: Red’s incredible, it’s got Irene Jacob.
SR: I like Red also very much.
SB: I also like White. It’s a completely different story. And there is Julie Delpy in it.
AC: What about the Decalogue?
SR: If it has to be one film from it, then it should be A Short Film About Killing.
JAS: Okay, in this round, again my list is skewed towards older films, my next is Max Ophuls’s Letters from an Unknown Woman. Has anyone seen that? Now, again at the risk of sounding very representative here, I think it is one of the great women’s films I have ever seen, one of the great romantic films. It’s really beautiful. Next, Red River, as it also puts a western in there. And if I didn’t have that, I would have a John Ford instead. Red River is pertinent in the sense you have these two acting giants—you have John Wayne playing the older man and Montgomery Clift who is, in the pre-Brando era, one of the first generation of method actors playing his adopted son. And this fascinating contrast between two very different acting styles. You know, years later, you hear those anecdotes about Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman and their acting styles. But here decades before that you have John Wayne doing a very intuitive, natural sort of thing, Montgomery Clift doing method acting, you know, scratching himself and being effeminate.
AC: My last two. Lage Raho Munna Bhai. I would choose this over the first because of what it said to me and how it stayed with me much, much longer than the first film. It moved me very deeply. I was literally weeping.
JAS: I would agree with that. I would also add that the first film I just couldn’t get out of my head to some degree is Patch Adams. Whereas the second one just seemed more tied in because of the Gandhian thing.
SR: My next is Chupke Chupke. Is there an agreement on Golmaal over Chupke Chupke, if we have to choose a Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
JAS: I’d say Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s....
AC: But we can’t go with Jai on Hrishikesh Mukherjee.... I think Chupke Chupke is fine.
SB: Okay, my last. So we’ve already got a Hitchcock. I want to talk about this really obscure, unknown film which I love: I will bring in 27 Down. It is one of the Indian films which is arty-farty and yet amazingly elegant made by Avtar Krishna Kaul....
JAS: Also it was his only feature film and then he died shortly afterwards. And you keep wondering what he might have done if he had lived longer to make films.
SB: It is one of those art films which is not dated. You watch it today it looks like a French film. It is not contrite, it is not awkward, it is not pretentious.
AC: Is it easily available?
SB: There is a new NFDC DVD of it, but the quality is not so great.
SB: I had a film in my list...Gunda.
AC: (Laughs) Oh, it is so bad that it is really good. Satish’s heart fail has happened!
SP: Well, I don’t know what to say.
AC: Gunda nahin kar saktey.
SB: Nobody has got Citizen Kane?
SP: Now, this is really rich—Citizen Kane or Gunda. Would it come to this anywhere in the world of list-making?
JAS: Sadly in this one instance, we should give the canonical a little leeway.
AC: Absolutely. Let’s please stop it and go with Citizen Kane, I say.