Posts Tagged ‘Salik Shah’

This post is by Salik Shah, whose twitter bio says his location is Milky Way, and he is addicted to speculative fiction. Once in a while, when he remembers us or finds a film worth talking about, he sends us his cinema notes. Over to him.


The story about struggle behind the making of a film shouldn’t be criteria for judging a film. The act of borrowings, bold decisions and compromises made can’t be more important than the film.  When a film reaches the theater, or the screen, it stands on its own feet. There is no director to defend it. No producer to sell it. No critic to lead. The decision is tough—whether we like it or not. Our choices reveal more about us than the film.

Let’s take two very different films for comparison, The Drop (Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2014) and Court (Dir. Chaintanya Tamhane, 2015)—both set around a fixed point—to see the differences between the choices made by a master screenwriter and a promising debutant.

The bar in The Drop and the court in Court have one thing in common: they don’t move. Written by an American, Dennis Lehane, and adapted to the screen by a European director, The Drop is a striking film set in an American neighborhood. Nothing happens in The Drop—nothing extraordinary—until the beginning of the end, or an end. The Drop ends at one point, and then starts again. Same with Court, like MFC said. Tamhane pushes the violence off the screen. Lehane embraces it. Tamhane denies a verdict. Lehane delivers justice.

Storytellers have to make tough choices—and those choices make or break them. Tamhane’s earlier effort, Six Strands (2011), is mesmerizing minus the political comment. Forerunner (Dir. Sahej Rahal, 2013) is clever and intriguing, also equally political and confident. But it is Pati (Dir. Sohrab Hura, 2011) which emerges as the winner among the three with its stark realism. Pati reminds one of Satyajit Ray’s early films—though it isn’t supposed to be a film.

Court is made with paper, but the script is not the film. Pati’s strength comes from the camera, which isn’t afraid to move when the need arises. Kamble embodies anger, movement and restlessness, but the still camera doesn’t quite capture his free spirit. Court doesn’t let Nutan’s kitchen speak for itself. It chooses noise over silence during the train journey, which could have been a memorable and powerful scene. Pati sings, Court stings.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (Dir. Jabbar Patel, 1999) is a Bollywood film—but manages to offer nuanced characters and scenes. Though I struggled to get past my bias against the style of the film in the beginning, I was really interested in the subject. When the style became unimportant, the story took over my senses. Towards the end of Ambedkar, the struggle is lost but the spirit remains.

Court doesn’t offer such comfort. It refuses to be subjective. It is a balanced work, and therein lies its flaw. It is fair to everyone, but unfair to itself. Jai Bhim Comrade (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2011) from where Court borrows its strength isn’t such a sleek and sanitized film. Patwardhan isn’t easy to watch not just because of the controversial subjects of his documentaries, but also for his low-production value, unplanned, haphazard shots and unprofessional cutting by our ‘high’ standard.

Anand Patwardhan tells the truth, and he shows that it can be really ugly, quite literally. He has a signature that doesn’t need introduction in the history of Indian filmmaking. And he isn’t afraid to go the court to fight censorship and secure release of his films. We can label Patwardhan as an activist filmmaker, but Anurag Kashyap (Gulaal), Vishal Bhardwaj (Haider) and Imitiaz Ali (Highway) are also activists in their own fashion and target audience.

Subjectivity comes with the position of power—internal and external—and Court was wise to recognize that it didn’t have such power early on. Court tempered the anger, harshness and spirit of Jai Bhim Comrade to reach out to a wider audience (who might actually commit suicide if made to watch a Patwardhan). Its strategy worked, but our cinema lost. Again.

“In the last few years, [I] have discovered that there is nothing bigger than a filmmaker’s ego. And [I] would surely worship that ego the day I get to know that a film is cure for AIDS or some serious disease like that. Till then, it’s just a film, a fucking film…

Does it deliver anything new? A new cinematic language? A new/hidden India that we weren’t aware of? A new art? A new craft? The answer is no. It’s a new voice that’s assured, makes brave choices but is still following the diktats set by the Top 5-fest-selection-committee.  It felt like what an European art-house director would do if he is asked to direct the film. Even when the lights are switched off one by one in the Court, you knew at that moment that the film won’t be over there. He would go back to the mundane life of one of the characters. And he exactly did that – its predictable in that way, you know whom the film is trying to please.”


The above criticism is harsh, but necessary. It is true that a film can’t be a cure to physical diseases, but it can be a balm to spiritual calamities.  It can save marriages and prevent suicides. It can give hope to those who need it desperately. It can also make life bearable and worthwhile. It can help people to grow beautiful from within. It can also lead one astray, sow guilt, and kill. It could be a world event promoting science, or a political tool to ensue genocide. It can be extraordinarily mundane, or remain just a film, a fucking film. Should it be pathbreaking or formulaic? The choice is ours and ours alone to make.

Dear Bollywoodwallas, the good news is: the most famous scene from the court of Indian cinema is yet to be convicted. The bad news is: the world has changed. Chaintanya Tamhane is a confident voice of our changing times, and Court is better than most of our paper mache. Vivek Gomber, you’re the quiet hero we need. (Though I must confess that 12 Angry Men (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957) is still my favorite court film.)

In memory of Bollywood, and to good times ahead:

Salik Shah

(Pic Courtesy – Court’s FB page)

This post is by Salik Shah whose twitter bio says his location is Milky Way and he is addicted to speculative fiction. Once in a while, when he remembers us, he sends us a love note like this one. He also added this bit with the note – I use the first 600+ words to talk about ten thousand things related to filmmaking, before making the point that I haven’t ‘made’ a single film.

We love his blabbering. But if you get bored, scroll down a bit, please. Over to him.


ग्नि के काष्ठ
खोजती माँ,
बीनती नित्य सूखे डंठल
सूखी टहनी, रुखी डालें
घूमती सभ्यता के जंगल
वह मेरी माँ
खोजती अग्नि के अधिष्ठान

मुझमें दुविधा,
पर, माँ की आज्ञा से समिधा
एकत्र कर रहा हूँ
मैं हर टहनी में डंठल में
एक-एक स्वप्न देखता हुआ
पहचान रहा प्रत्येक
जतन से जमा रहा
टोकरी उठा, मैं चला जा रहा हूँ

टोकरी उठाना…चलन नहीं
वह फ़ैशन के विपरीत –
इसलिए निगाहें बचा-बचा
आड़े-तिरछे चलता हूँ मैं
संकुचित और भयभीत

–  मुक्तिबोध, एक अंतर्कथा

After a screening of Pather Panchali at National Film Archive of India in early 2009, I told Satish Bahadur sir, “I love this film.”

“You’re a poet,” he replied.

I didn’t know what to say. How did he know my guilty secret? Bahadur sir was kind enough to lend me a book about the making of Apu trilogy and invited me to his house and taught me to break down films into scenes and scenes into shots—although I wouldn’t understand him fully or his gestures until many years later. I didn’t know at the time that he was the one who found the month-long refuge for film enthusiasts at FTII, Pune.

Two months ago, one of my poems was accepted by Strange Horizons—a top US speculative fiction magazine—for publication. Was it a great poem? I don’t know. My little brother with a greater appetite for science fiction fantasy liked it more than my other poems. I have had submitted a poem about Afzal Guru to Granta (UK) in early 2013 (they haven’t responded yet) and to Poetry magazine (US), which sent me an encouraging rejection letter. (I didn’t know Poetry doesn’t publish political work.)

Straw-fitted Elephants was my first sale to a literary magazine in twenty-six years. (Strange Horizons is a great platform for poets. Strange Horizons is probably doing more for speculative poetry than any other literary magazine in US.) I started writing poetry when I was twelve and discovered coding soon—and then fell in love with films, and shot and cut my first video on Youtube in 2007.  There is a strange quality to the video—it’s dark, mysterious, simple and beautiful. Simple is not ‘easy.’ There is a lot more going on here in this weird music video than other hundred plus videos I have produced for the great Indian audience.

In 2010, I co-wrote and helped launch directorial career of a friend (he is now making his third feature). I helped him set up his office, participated in meeting with producers and then moved on to lead Tata Tea’s Jaago Re! campaign. I sold a lot of tea, and helped Tata Tea establish its earliest digital footprint on social media—perhaps a first by Webchutney, now and then ranked as India’s No 1 digital agency.

In 2011, I was on the set of Ra. One with a camera in hand, following its making. I cut many videos for a popular entertainment portal and saw the business side of videos more closely than ever before. We would receive tapes from film and celebrity events, night after night, and I would write short two-to-five minute scripts, direct the motion graphic artist and oversee the editing. Once in a while, I couldn’t resist getting my hands dirty—in order to produce a new special effect or change the pace or tone of the videos, which would then litter the Internet.

In 2012, I wanted to join my friends and colleagues to receive an award for Why This Kolaveri Di!, but the road journey the previous night was nauseating and kept me confined to bed during GoaFest. (As an adman, I was writing copy for five prominent brands every day at one point, and coding for websites and Facebook apps—before Jack in the Box Worldwide got its new recruits: business managers, content writers, web developers, creative directors and project managers.)

In late 2013, I was commissioned to write a festival film for a FTII veteran by a film enthusiast and architect—a talented but troubled friend with training from IFS, Paris and Whistling Woods. In 2014, a filmmaker with two Bollywood features behind him, got in touch with me to understand digital platform and develop a business model for his next film.

I have already spent 600+ words and I could go on and on about how I have done ten thousand things related to filmmaking, but I haven’t ‘made’ a single film.

Poetry is a lifestyle, like filmmaking. I never submitted any poems—speculative or not—until the hanging of Afzal Guru tormented my soul. It isn’t easy for me to write. Poetry is pain—I can’t use words to hide. I like my poems bare—I love Gu Cheng and Li-Young Lee. (Last week, I got in touch with Neel of Tadpole to expand/adapt one of my short science fiction stories to theater. In case you are wondering what is speculative fiction, see Shlok Sharma’s Tubelight Ka Chand. Yes, it could be that simple.)

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”—Orson Welles

Is Anurag Kashyap a poet?

Is Vikramaditya Motwane a poet?

What about Shlok Sharma? 

What about Vasan Bala?

When you look at their movies, you can tell the difference between their films—or poetry.

Randeep Hooda in Highway is a poetry-in-motion by Imtiaz Ali—even though the film fails (according to one friend). There is a thin line between masterwork and mediocrity.

The Indian cinema is changing, and though I don’t get time to watch as many films these days, I can tell you films like Kai Po Che! and Chillar Party are like beacons of light—poetry—for a generation growing up with short films, advertisements and pirated movies. (I saw both films at multiplexes—Kai Po Che! in Dilli and Chillar Party in Calcutta.)

I was attending a two-day seminar or something at NFAI with Atharva Gupta, and somebody asked Motwane about the “Indianness” of our films. I don’t remember what he said exactly right now (it was so many years ago), but he said that our films could remain Indian without being “touristy.”

I agree with him, though his next film upset me. It was an unfinished work—like most poems—a flawed ‘masterpiece.’

Are you into audiobooks? Or BBC podcasts? What could audio teach Indian filmmakers, poets and writers? Listen to the BBC podcast of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, or RTÉ’s Ulysses, or several master short stories here onThe Guardian.

Why should films be epic long? Why not make short poetry?

Have you ever wondered why Indian publications don’t even send a rejection slip?

Are you into science fiction—and feel let down by Hollywood sci-fi movies?

Have you ever wondered why we can’t make independent science fiction films like District 9, Moon, Upstream Color or Monsters?

Are you a writer-director in love with Wes Anderson?

Why can’t we teach cinema to children?

It is difficult to be a science fiction fan and not get disappointed by sci-fi movies that rely on usual tropes, clichéd plots and mindless action. For every I, Robot, there is probably ten After Earths.

These days, a good sci-fi film is tough to make, hard to find, and come in short length online. The teams behind these short sci-fi films might lack budget, stars and time, but they make up for it with their creative talents. If you have a huge appetite for good science fiction films but can’t seem to find enough of them, you are in for a treat!

I am aware that for some of you this might be a totally new experience—like it was for me.

The operating principle behind the following selection was: Gravity is good, but Moon is better.

#10 Alive in Joburg (2006)

Yes, Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg is still one of the best sci-fi shorts of all time. The unique premise and documentary-style presentation of the movie has already become a part of film history.

Based on Alive in Joburg, Neill Blomkamp made District 9–the cult sci-fi commentary on the state of human societies around the world. The poverty of aliens was an unexplored theme for me until District 9. But its follow up, Elysium, was a total let down. The distinction between the poor and rich is never so simple. Nevertheless, Joburg is as relevant to the world right now as it was back in 2006.

Witness the birth of a cult. 6 minutes.

#9 Robots of Brixton (2011)

Kibwe Tabares’ Robots of Brixton paints a grim picture of humanity. The student film blurs the line between people and robots, and then goes on to effectively replace reduce us to the status of the robots. There is no God here and certainly no people.

Violence is a meditation on the nature of humanity, and perhaps the existence of God. That’s why riots and rebellions make a constant fixture in sci-fi films. Can machines feel guilt or have conscience? (Joshua Oppenheime’s The Act of Killing might provide an answer.)

Robots of Brixton is an abstract encounter with the mob. 5 minutes.


# 8 From the Future With Love (2013)

Science fiction is often an exaggerated expression of the reality, or the speculation about the fantastic. K-Michel Parandi’s short is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller set in a world where private cops sell protection plans in New York.

From the Future With Love holds a mirror to our society in 12 minutes.




#7 Lifeline (2010)

Andreas Salaff’s Lifeline is a film from the mind, for the heart, and with a soul! This award-winning student film can teach filmmakers a trick or two about the nature of simplicity and intimacy.

An old man keeps searching through various dimensions of time and space for his lost beloved. Can he turn back the wheel of time? Yes, but there is a price.

This is Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love in 6 minutes.


# 6 Memorize (2012)

Imagine a world where everyone is forced to wear a Google Glass and record everything they do. Sound horrible, right? Two childhood friends, Eric Ramberg and Jimmy Eriksson, took the idea one step ahead to come up with a stylish action film.

In Memorize, every person is implanted with a chip that records everything. But of course, it cannot deter techno-savvy criminals from committing crimes. Rest assured, Agent 007 will never be out of job!

Memorize is fun because it doesn’t pretend to take itself seriously.  7 minutes.


# 5 Grounded (2012)

An astronaut can’t escape the loop of a crash in a strange planet. Grounded is a beautiful piece of filmmaking even if you don’t consider the nerdy intentions of the superb director.

Kevin Margo said he wanted to tackle “themes of aging, inheritance, paternal approval, cyclic trajectories, and behaviors passed on through generations… against an ethereal backdrop.”

Grounded is a short metaphor, which captures the essence of films like Stanley Kubric’s 2001 Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovksy’s Stalker and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

It is a speculative poem on the film. 8 minutes.


# 4 The Final Moments of Carl Brant (2013)

Duncan Jones’ Source Code starts to look like a cliché after you watch Matthew Wilson’s The Final Moments of Carl Brant, loosely based on The Singularity is Near by author Ray Kurzweilwhich.

When Carl Brant is killed, his memory stored on a hard drive is summoned to help solve the murder case. This one is probably the longest short film in this list but I’m sure no one is complaining.

Do machines have souls? You have 16 minutes to find out.


#3 Cargo (2013)

What is science if not the ability to think, rationalize and come up with creative solutions for difficult problems?

Cargo directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have found a novel way to turn the cliché-plagued zombie genre into a visual treat. Finally, a zombie film which breathes fresh life to the genre of the living dead.

Cargo is a hi-res definition of fatherhood in 7 minutes.


#2 The Flying Man  (2013)

Forget Zack Synder’s realistic Man of Steel. Watch the super-realistic Marcus Alqueres’ The Flying Man. While Man of Steel was tedious at times, there is never a dull moment in The Flying Man. It keeps you hooked right from the beginning.

Shot in eyewitness video style, The Flying Man makes us want to believe in the possibility of the premise and the existence of a superhero. I think Alan Moore was the last person who pulled it off so convincingly in the first few pages of Watchmen.

Marcus Alqueres has worked in Hollywood blockbusters like 300 and Source Code, while his partner João Sita has movies like Avatar and Twilight on his belt.

The Flying Man is 9 minutes of cosmic orgasm!

#1 R’ha (2013)

R’ha could be for Kaleb Lechowski what Alive in Joburg was for Neill Blomkamp: the short film that launched his Hollywood career, a wild ticket to his dream run.

In R’ha, we see something totally unexpected: aliens vs machines. Kaleb takes the usual tropes of science fictionfantasy and turns them into a groundbreaking film.

It’s hard to believe that he’s just a 22-year-old German bloke studying digital film design when you watch this epic short film.

R’ha is 6 minutes of youthful, confident and unrestrained tour de force.

Salik Shah on filmmaker Frank Capra’s relationship with screenwriter Robert Riskin.

The last day of December demands introspection, and I sense a now all-too-familiar pressure to choose the right words for this end note. The year on the calendar upsets my plans. These plans have now become ‘old plans’; plans that stopped my time a long ago. And to watch Frank Capra now means to freeze this time even further.

Capra’s world is the one of hope—often, the oldest hopes of man. There’s a childlike simplicity that characterizes these men. His women are strong-willed and independent. In this world the greatest villain is self-centeredness. Honesty and kindness come across as something worth striving for, and because you want to believe so. ‘Be nice.’ ‘Be good.’ That seems to be at the heart of his best-known films: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), among others.

It’s a shocking discovery then: the voice in these films doesn’t belong to its director Frank Capra. This voice that we admire so much belongs to the writer of his films who could sympathize with the underdogs, who sailed the boats for Columbus but never got their due share of credit or recognition. Sadly, his partnership with the writer of his best films, Robert Riskin, can be described as the relationship that D.B. Norton had with John Doe in Meet John Doe.

Even the choice of the title of Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above The Title, clearly propels his reckless attitude. The star director refused to visit the lowly writer who was slowly dying in a hospital. Throughout his life, Capra attempted to shroud the genius of the great scenarist. The truth is that Capra eschewed the funeral of a man whose creative vision and distinct voice was widely mistaken to be Capra’s own. Nothing could be more ironical for the man who reaffirms the Christian doctrine of forgiveness in his works.

Robert Riskin seems to have no problem with accepting the true nature of the director-writer relationship in the studio era. Riskin helped to set up the Screen Writers’ Guild and fought as a screenwriter for the screenwriters, and the fight still continues. Riskin needed Capra as much as Capra needed him, or any writer needs a director unless they are both one. The collaboration, between the man with an idea and the man with the means to sustain it, couldn’t be less lopsided:

                         JOHN DOE

Do you mean to tell me you’d try to kill the John Doe movement if you can’t use it to get what you want?

                        D.B. NORTON

You bet your bottom dollar we would!

Such a reading of Meet John Doe’s text then adds an autobiographical quality, on Riskin’s part, to this last collaboration. And it seems Meet John Doe is nothing short of a triumph of Riskin the individual over Capra the institution. Yet it cannot be denied that the brief marriage between Riskin’s idealism and Capra’s pragmatism was responsible for the birth of some of the finest classics in Hollywood.

In the beginning of the last year or was it the year before that, I left the oblivion of a film that I had co-written to return to the oblivion of advertising. The oblivion grows on you, no matter whether you’re a director-in-the-making or a director who’s made many films.  Capra did his best films with Riskin, and Riskin did his with Capra. On the first viewing, a Capra film is a dialog film—hence a Riskin film. It’s all drama, and then when you keep playing back your favorite scenes over and again, you begin to notice the mise-en-scène. Capra clearly knew how to translate the text on to the silver screen, and all so well. Only if he were less ‘mean.’


Postscript from In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ion Scott:

Jo Swerling, a mutual friend and colleague of Riskin and Capra, and himself a wonderful Hollywood screenwriter, once paced around Riskin’s wheelchair while he was ill, complaining that Capra’s reluctance to visit his old friend was just not right. In the end, however, Riskin lost his temper with Swerling and revealed a deep-seated loyalty to his former partner by dismissing what seemed to be a reasonable claim with the comment, “You’re talking about my best friend.”

With any Anurag Kashyap film, one thing is for sure – a debate. A divided house. We are also swinging from one side to another with every new post on the film. This is Salik Shah‘s first post here. Read on..

That Girl In Yellow Boots is Kalki Koechlin’s debut as a filmmaker. It’s written all over the film. Anurag Kashyap just happened to be there while Rajeev Ravi was busy setting up his camera on the ‘stage.’ Except for one scene where Ruth smokes against the dazzling red screen, the audience never notices his camera tricks. There is one scene though — where they abruptly cut from a close up to a mid shot of the two protagonists who seem to have finally accepted the tragedy of their solitary existence— which seemed to be an attempt to tease the audience by not allowing them to have their ‘emotional cumshot’ exactly where they needed it.

Pulp Fiction is an old trick—but can provide little ‘happy endings’ in otherwise an unhappy film. The happy diversions in That Girl In Yellow Boots are just that. The sad thing is the mistiming. In an otherwise comic scene, where Ruth spins a story about her father’s death, a little mischief was desirable. A camera angle or two, hinting at her playfulness, where she appears brutally honest to the innocent criminal but palpably mischievous to us, might have been forgiven by the neo-realists. Excess is bad, but so is overt restraint.

Sound is a tricky affair; the jarring background score wasn’t called for at key scenes—or was it placed there to deny the audience any sympathy for Ruth? How I wish I could mute to listen deeply to Ruth’s silences… A minimalist approach might have further polarized the audience—but the result might have been a rewarding experience. Years ago, I couldn’t understand Nobody Needs to Know (Azazel Jacobs, 2003), but the expressionless, unfathomable face of its female lead has stayed with me. That Girl In Yellow Boots works in silence, often brilliantly.

There are people as they are—and many of AK’s assistants have verily filled in as Ruth’s steady customers. Prashant, however, is the film’s most visible link to the theater. The words he chooses, the way he moves—all seem to be a reminiscence of an era behind us. Be it in the Skeleton Woman, Ek, Do (FTII) or That Girl In Yellow Boots, he is there—loud, unchecked, mimicking himself. You can see that he is acting—a constant reminder of the film’s limitation.

Cinema is not an actively participatory experience like the theater. When the human contact is lost, you’ve to employ literary, theatrical or cinematic techniques to fuel the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps in the visual narrative. That is why you get the unborn child manifested in Three Monkeys. That is why whole sequences in After the Rehearsal are devised to ‘mesmerize’ the audience. Here we get face to face with Ruth and Ben as they are—helpless, victims of their own doing, hopeless—all in a very straight-forward, good in a theatrical way.

If anything, it’s an exercise—for Anurag Kashyap, for you and for me. Why should it be anything else? Making a film is all that matters to him; while we go to great lengths to obtain and frame a fake poster of a pirated film! Strip the cinema of its greatness, please. Today every man with a camera is a filmmaker. While I don’t expect them to be Wong Kar-Wai or Tarkovsky—which they might very well be; they don’t need to be—I do believe if given a chance, they could be more authentic. It’s a good thing for cinema. It’s the new pen of our times; let them write; let us write with it. That’s indie. And no one seems to understand this better than this father of ‘Hindie.’

Keep shooting.

 — Salik