Archive for November, 1998

A sense of the moment

Wednesday, November 18th, 1998

Nov 18, 1998

If ageing stars faded away gracefully, people would be kinder to their memories.

Why don’t Indians know when to retire? Posters of Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan on urban walls scream this question. Same for the news report on Russi Mody lobbying to be governor of West Bengal or Bihar. Amitabh Bachchan or Russi Mody are definitely not refusing to retire because of money. Both have made enough to last several generations of high-rollers. So what is it?

What is it that makes Amitabh Bachchan — whose face now looks like something out of an Egyptian crypt — prance around with women half his age? Why doesn’t he get the message that his original fans are all close to middle age today, if not older? Firstly, they no longer see Hindi films in theatres, and secondly, are not interested in him anymore? Why doesn’t he understand that to the people who queue up to see Hindi films today, he is just an interesting historical object, like Rajendra Kumar was to my generation in the last years of his career? And that there is no dishonour in giving way to younger people, in accepting that trends and tastes have changed? No dishonour in retiring and being a grey eminence? What’s the point of being Amitabh Bachchan, when, even for a film that boasts two Amitabhs, the producer has to, at the last moment, rope in Madhuri Dixit to do a special appearance, to add to the saleability of the movie?

After being thrown out of Tisco, Russi Mody was unable to manage Indian Airlines. Subsequently, to spite the Tatas, he has fought the Lok Sabha elections from Jamshedpur, and lost; has tried to set up a labour union at Tisco and failed; and now he wants to be governor. Through all this, he has eroded much of his goodwill, and forced admirers to backtrack. When he was pushed out of the steel giant he had given 50 years of his life to, there was some public sympathy for him: the classic Tata satrap who Ratan Tata got rid of to establish his hegemony over the group. Today, a lot of people possibly see him as just a disgruntled power-hungry man who has outstayed everyone’s welcome.

Actually it’s not only India. I think this inability-to-retire syndrome is a feature of the subcontinental mind. Javed Miandad, one of the greatest batsmen ever, simply refused to go away till he didn’t get a chance to retire: one day the selectors did not pick him any more. The World Cup 1996 quarter-final match that Pakistan lost to India turned out to be Miandad’s last outing. As the asking rate climbed, and wickets fell, the match turned into a classic Miandad situation: the streetfighter battling alone for Pakistan and winning the match against impossible odds. But Miandad was 37, he was tired, he couldn’t get going. His career ended with no fanfare as his team hurtled to defeat. Only Tony Greig, the commentator when Miandad got out, said: “I don’t know how many people are noticing, but we have just seen the last of a truly great batsman.” In fact, not too many people noticed.

Similarly, Imran Khan. Although he ended his career with the 1992 World Cup win, he almost singlehandedly lost both the semi-final and the final through his tired and slow batting. It took an Inzamam gone crazy to win both matches. People noticed: Imran’s career was over at last.

You see it all around. In businessmen who cling on to their chairmanships when the world knows that they are no longer with the time or up to the task at hand. You see it in all those politicians who just don’t fade away. Every time they fall off the cliff of public acceptance, they reappear over the edge a few months later, trying to claw back desperately, holding press conferences and making meaningless statements. In the last decade, several of our political parties, especially the Congress, have been choc-a-block with leaders who haven’t won an election in living memory and have no intention of testing their relevance with the people. They just stay there.

These people can’t give up. They’ll be around till they have to be propped up by their aides against the wall to deliver their speeches. Every time one starts hoping that at last a post-Independence generation will take charge of the country, out pops a Narasimha Rao or an Inder Kumar Gujral or some other septuagenarian, miraculously saved from senility by the prospect of power and Black Cat security.

A psychologist I know tells me that these people may all be suffering from something called the Grand Neurotic Tradition: whatever you achieve, you are left with a vague dissatisfaction — you could have accomplished more. I disagree. I think it has more to do with the most common affliction of gamblers. The gambler is on a winning streak, all reason tells him to quit now and cash in his chips. But he sticks on: another throw of the dice, just one more, and he can double his gains. He loses, and he is drawn deeper into the trap. He now only wants to get his winnings back to its last highest level, and he plays some more. He wins some, loses some, but can never get his pile of chips back to that height again. The magic moment is over, his fortunes have shifted from the edges of the Bell curve, and the immutable laws of probability are slowly taking charge. As time progresses, his winnings diminish. In the end, he may even lose them all.

But a perverse god has given him a glimpse of what it could be like, how much he can win. So he returns again and again to the casino, striving for that long-passed moment, the feel of that fistful of sand before it all disappeared through the gaps between his fingers. He fights the tide of time and probability, and then the excitement of the people clustered behind him watching him play the tables changes inexorably to irritation and then boredom.

I have told a couple of friends that the moment they feel I have nothing more to say in this column, they must come and tell me. I promise you, that very day, I’ll stop writing More than Money.

Of profligacy and poor ideas

Wednesday, November 4th, 1998

Nov 04, 1998

What happens when desperate spending tries to cover up for the lack of creativity.

I haven’t seen the world’s most expensive and successful movie ever. I haven’t seen Lost World and Godzilla, Waterworld and Independence Day either, and I’m not going to see Armageddon. I am against these Hollywood blockbusters with budgets that look like the distance from the earth to the Andromeda galaxy. It’s not because I’m a bleeding-heart idealist who believes that Titanic’s budget would have been better used for AIDS research or primary education in the Third World. I have other reasons.

Titanic was made at a cost of over $200 million. Everyone I know who has seen it, whether they liked the film or not, admits that the scale of the movie was truly awesome. My argument is this: if they spent $400 million, we would have definitely got a more awesomely-scaled — and by this definition, better-film. If they spent a billion dollars, we’d have got an even better one. The quality of a film like Titanic is thus directly proportionate to the money spent on it. Isn’t that a rather crude way to go about seeking quality?

And when directors like Spielberg or Titanic’s James Cameron spend money, they make sure the audience knows it. In fact, the obese budget is often the USP of these films: the budget figures are emphasised and discussed in the carefully orchestrated pre-release publicity. And instead of the logical reaction to this — “If you spent $150 million on this film, that’s your problem, Jack” — we’re supposed to say: “Wow, if they spent that much money, it must be good!” But the truth is that these guys are plain stupid if they made a film which has to make $200 million to break even! And in every case, they didn’t even intend to spend so much, but ended with this bloated and high-risk bill because of bad planning and wastefulness!

I look at these directors and producers, and I wonder what happened to the ingenuity of a Chaplin who packed berries into a box, mildly shook the box and photographed it to show the teeming masses at a rally in The Great Dictator? Give this problem to a man like Cameron, and he’ll hire the state of Nevada and six million people and shoot them from 16 helicopters. This would add hardly anything to the audience’s enjoyment of the scene, except their awe at the amount of money spent on taking this 15-second shot.

Has this money been well-spent? The current fashion is to justify such spending by pointing to hot new technologies that have been used to create dramatic spectacles. For example, one of the most famous shots in Titanic is the one where hero Leonardo DiCaprio and his friend stand at the prow of the supership. The camera then pulls back to show the audience the full ship from above, and then, coming down almost to sea level, watches it steam away into the horizon. This 40-second, 954-frame shot is the costliest in cinema history: Cameron blew $1.1 million on it, or $27,500 per second. Of the $1.1 million, DiCaprio and fellow actor Danny Nucci, the only human elements in the shot, got $4,000 and $500 respectively. The rest went to computer graphic studio Digital Domain. The shot was almost wholly computer-generated.

DiCaprio and Nucci were shot against a flat screen, and the sky behind them digitally rendered. As the camera swooped away, the actors were replaced with digital replicas. Five hundred and fifteen human beings were digitally created and shown moving around on the deck of the ship — shadows and all rendered painstakingly on the computer — and superimposed on the picture of a 44-ft model of Titanic (which itself, with 1,000 portholes and 100,000 rivets, cost a million dollars to build). The ship sailed on a digital sea, created by getting a water simulation programme to “respond to the ship and such environmental elements as light refraction, wave patterns, and wind speed. Collision-detecting algorithms produced a foamy wake along the length of the ship’s hull. (Wired, October 1998).” Also added were digital birds, smoke, flags and so on.

Good lord! Did they need to do all this? I believe the driving force for this herculean — and unnecessary — endeavour for 40 seconds of screen time (just creating the sea took 3,000 hours of computer time) is the self-indulgent technological one-upmanship so common in America now: so Spielberg crunched a zillion bits in Lost World? I’ll crunch a quadrillion! The point is: cinema is about illusions. But where’s the bloody creativity if the illusion costs as much as building the real thing? With his budget, Cameron could have actually built the real Titanic and got it to sail again!

The other thing this technology-money combine does is make the human element insignificant in these films. Half the human characters in Jurassic Park survived at the end. Would it have made any difference to the audience if this half were eaten up and the other half made it back home? In fact, the only character in the film who was interesting as a person — the chaos theorist played by Jeff Goldblum — strategically broke his leg half-way through the film, and was seen again only at the end, being carried to safety. The dinosaurs were where the money had been spent, so the audience had to be kept focused on them.

The bottomline on these films is this: lack of ingenuity and imagination plus lots of money leads to dumb ambition, which results in huge budget overshoots, which creates paralysing fear in the heart of the producer. Offence being the best form of defence, the producer then flips it all around. He rationalises to himself that since he spent so much money, the film must be good, and goes all out to make the potential audience believe it. With all bravado, but in reality, his blood is freezing in sheer terror. He knows he’s screwed up. This man should be pitied, not lionised.

As the great director John Huston said: “I can make bad films too. Costs more money, that’s all.”