Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.


Back from film studies screening, at a godawful hour of the evening, and with nobody but you lovely people to sqoon at!

Say you've just, I don't know, spent an hour arguing about what film to watch, and you've narrowed down to a choice of four:
  • a knockabout buddy comedy about two criminals on the run
  • An all-singing romantic musical
  • A serious drama about a great man restoring his dignity after terrible tragedy
  • An exciting action-adventure thriller, complete with explosions, chases and train heists
Oh to live in India when the inevitable TV argument breaks out! Sholay does all four of these, and crucially, does them well. I did laugh. I did cry. I did feel stirred, and excited.

According to our lecture, it's known as the "masala principle" - yes, like the meal, which refers to the mixture of spices. Apparently, it's a deliberate ideal of Indian cinema - and one I rather like - to put the audience through the whole gamut of emotion, instead of just focusing on one. We (or at any rate, I) tend to be suprised by cross-genre works - the romance in Rear Window; the thriller in Casablanca. Horror films should be scary, dramas serious. There are no such genres in Hindi cinema - because in general, films are nowhere near that limited.

No wonder they're so popular - during the slapstick bits, I was thinking "Ooooh, Friend 5 will like this!"; and then later, during some of the actiony sequences, I wondered if I should get a copy of Friend 3 for Christmas. When we got into Wild West territory, I wondered whether dad had ever stuck this on while doing something else over a long afternoon. And, of course, if you asked me what the film was about, I'd say "buddy movie" straight off. It even has a coin that keeps coming down heads!

To fit all that in, it's no wonder this epic ran to something like 3 hours - which most of the Film Studies seemed to resent, if the applause and hasty exodus at the end were anything to go by. Lucky for them, then, that the Indian Censor's board actually trimmed it by 16 minutes. I enjoyed every darn minute of it - I feel films should be long. Two years back, I tried being obsessed with Reservoir Dogs, and even though I made a pretty good try, there really wasn't enough there. It's only 96 minutes, and they're a pretty thin 96 at that, and it soon comes to a rather poor choice between writing fanfiction or just rewatching the movie again. Compare to, say, Lord of the Rings - three films, and if that's not enough, some 8 books, not to mention all the scholarship and nerdery those 8 can generate. But there is a point where that runs out too - maybe that's why I've got into Doctor Who in such a big way? Because there are hundreds of episodes - the total running time beats most director's whole careers. And even more books. And an ever expanding series of audio plays. And graphic novels. And then there's the spinoffs. At this point, it doesn't look like I'll reach the end of all that for quite a while.

Which might explain why my regard for Sholay is so high - it's long enough that you can't take it in in one sitting, making it presumably rewatchable. And as it's so cross-generic (is that a real term?), it'll match any mood. You can just sit down and get lost in it. I remember at the time of my Godfather patch, complaining something of this sort: that seeing a film is OK, until it's over - at which point you want to know more, see more, experience more of the backstory and little details, know what's in the rooms the characters don't enter and generally immerse yourself in the world. Being a fan of a long running TV show with myriad cashins and spinoffs appears to come closer to this ideal than any film ever has.

There is another reason I liked it. Perhaps it was deliberate, so as not to isolate us daft Westerners entirely, but I thought it was a bizzare pick to demonstrate Hindi cinema because it borrowed so liberally from American genres. At times it plays like a greatest hits of all the westerns you've ever seen, starting act one, scene one "pan down onto a train arriving at a dusty station". Once they get the "Butch Cassidy with subtitles" bit out of the way, they're straight onto Seven Samuri, protecting a small village from evil bandits, with a bit of Dollars More-style vengeance on the side, and thats even before you get to the 8 minute shot for shot tribute to Once Upon a Time in the West. The use of sound is completely Sergio Leone (the chilling sound of the swing), and there are certain bits of music you'd swore were ripped from Morricone too. Particularly, the whistling (Cheyenne's theme, anyone?), the harmonica (duh...) and that harsh, screaming atonal tune they whipped out for the confrontation at the end.

Now there's nothing wrong, in principle at least, with ripping off other movies. I wrote a western script soon after I'd seen Once Upon a Time in the West, though it owed more to L.A. Confidential now I look at it again; I also wrote a script for a very Coens-y "crime out of control" caper in my Reservoir Dogs patch, and of course, remade Fellowship of the Ring. But none of these - no, not even the remake - were as blatant as a particular patch in the middle of a flashback.

Other than that, I didn't particularly mind. Sergio Leone pinched as much as he was pinched from, and it was a very good "uber-western" if you can stop yourself labelling the influences. It's just...even though Sholay's take on that scene was easily as effective, as scary, as upsetting, it still struck me as something too brilliant and iconic to nab. Especially because the moment the family at the happy homestead showed up on screen, I thought "now I know what's on the way..." QT had the right idea. Pinch the plot of City on Fire - a movie no one's ever heard of - remake it better, and maybe you can get away with it. Although Sholay's influences are very clear indeed, it's crucial to add they match the films they emulate. It's no better, or worse, or even different to any of the movies namechecked above. As such, it's a definite recommend for fans of the genre.

It's such a sixties film too - granted, it was made in the 70s. The Butch Cassidy nod wasn't just for a buddy movie with bicycles: the whole style and use of the camera at times reminded me too.

It's got all the normal stuff too, like great performances (particularly liked Singh) and very exciting direction. Rajha was impossibly serene, but at least she was nice to look at. Which was pretty much her role in the plot, as far as I could tell. The train heist was great, as was the Basanti's dance at a pivotal moment. Now, that felt like proper Hindi cinema - a gorgeous blend of the Western setting and uniquely Eastern song'n'dance, wrapped up in a sort of concept which wouldn't be out of place in myth - the woman who dances to save her lover (Beren and Luthien before Morgoth, much?). According to our lecturer, most Bollywood movies can be derived from a mythic source - which was a strange thing to say, because I believe that is true of all fiction (i.e. whether you're a Christian or not, the idea of a hero who seems to die, then returns, or the concept of self sacrifice for the good of many are very strong in our culture, literature and movies. And I don't just mean Narnia. Doctor Who, for one, and that's one of the most athiest shows going. Well, maybe humanist - you certainly can't accuse it of a religious agenda)

The other thing I disagreed with our lecturer on was his dismissal of the term "Bollywood". He took it as a suggestion that Hindi cinema is a mere imitation of Hollywood, whereas I have always understood it to suggest an equal status. British, French, Russian, Chinese cinemas don't get their own -ollywood after all, and the Brits in particular are guilty of imitating American films. And especially before showing us a movie which, far from exemplefying the uniqueness of Indian culture, actually clings to an established American genre for its lifeblood. He also suggested there was some colonial sneering in the fact we still call "Bombay movies" B-ollywood, instead of using Mumbai, but personally that's just because I reckon Mollywood would sound daft.

Anyway, I'm still in that "new favourite film" sort of glow, which usually washes off in a few hours. Hope it does, for your sakes, otherwise I'll be making you watch it at Christmas...

There are a few other things worth saying about our Film Studies lectures in general. The first is the demonstration of the maxim "all power corrupts" - our lecturer must have been silently annoyed, like the dripping of a tap, by all those little cinema gripes. Now he's in charge of his own screening, he's elected himself king of his own little kingdom. Not that I mind - mobiles off, food away, all things I agree with. I am also endeared to him by the fact he insists on us sitting through the credits. I hate nothing more than people switching off the DVD halfway through the playout theme. Not counting, y'know, genocide and poverty. The mood just vanishes from the room instantly, but keeping the music keeps the atmosphere and gives you a chance to process your response. Two notable examples are Blade Runner, where I need that dark pulsing Vangelis to deal with the unicorn, and Reservoir Dogs, where the chuckling smirk of instantly "Lime and the Coconut" gives the audience a release for the tension, and provides a great contrast. As if to say to those of us, with tears standing in our eyes and stomachs crunched from sympathetic wincing, "Hey, folks? It's only a movie..."

The other thing is his insistance on using genuine 35mm film instead of, say, projecting a DVD. I think it's just something that only a film buff could understand. DVDs are clean and clear quality - watching real film is akin to the Grindhouse experience. Scratches all over the place, the sound dipping in and out, or vanishing entirely; bits of the image getting lost, or going interesting colours; hearing the reel scratch and seeing the bright flash of colour when it's changed. In Sholay's case, truly inadequate and hard to read subtitles. In terms of immersive hi-def experience, it's easy to count the disadvantages. But I think it's something we all instinctively understand, that watching it on "proper film" is part of the magic, which a DVD can never touch; like a proper music buff refuses abandon LPs.


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