All posts by tanejamainhoon

Writer.

THE TRUMP CLUSTERFUCK: OUR BUBBLE HAS BURST. BUT THERE MAY BE HOPE.

How did we fail to see this coming? How did we allow this to happen? More importantly: can we fix this or is it too late? Can we really un-Drumpf the world? YES WE CAN!

I’m not qualified enough to write political posts so this is not going to be that. I am writing this because I believe the reasons for the upside down we have now entered, the Black Mirror that has become our reality, the fucked-up island on which that the collective airplane we seemed to be cruising on has crash landed, is *nothing* to do with politics and everything to do with who we are as the ‘swipe-right’ and ‘move on’ generation. The bubble we’ve been living in has burst, and perhaps this was the much-needed jolt that would hopefully stop us from spending our lives staring at our phones.

Here’s what’s happening right now, even as a misogynist, racist, fascist homophobe is taking over purportedly the “most powerful nation in the world” and the “land of the free and fair”: the shock wave that is rippling through every tweet, every status update and every snap-story is not just about the tragedy that Donald Trump has won, but more to do with the catastrophe that WE have lost.

How did WE let this happen?
“WE” – who had shared all those 9Gag memes, all those hilarious Buzzfeed posts and Facebook gifs, who had liked loved the hell out of every (not so much pro-Hillary but) anti-Trump article, video and status, who had waited for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to see Donald being Drumpf again, we, who had retweeted *every* celebrity and stand-up comedian tweet that represented well-reasoned sanity – how could WE be so wrong? SO WRONG?

‘WE’ may not be American, may never have stepped foot in America and may never even intend to (or get allowed to now!), we may be Indian, European, Australian, or from any other nationality that always, in our heart of hearts believed that America is stupid but didn’t know it is to THIS EXTENT, ‘we’, the progressive, liberal, educated, internet-savvy millennials who have prided ourselves in our balanced opinions and our broad-minded worldview, and have generally been the force of nature that’s showing the world the light: how did WE fail to see this coming? HOW THE HELL DID WE ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN?

Here’s how: ‘We’, our generation at large, are less the citizens of any country with well-defined borders, but more those of the bubble that is the internet, that we log on to every morning on our devices and spend the entire day rallying behind, with all the nationalist pride that soars in the hearts of the right-wingers for all the wrong reasons, according to ‘US’.

We are to blame
We go to sleep at night at peace with ourselves after partaking in every trending topic, every popular hashtag and every viral news story of the day by jumping to the most-reasonable conclusion that the smartest people on our timelines have come to. Our knee-jerk likes, shares and comments do not wait for tonight’s television coverage, tomorrow’s newspaper, or this week’s news magazine. They are swift, immediate and final, and come from a sense of inherent duty that if we don’t do our bit RIGHT NOW to further the cause of the liberal rationale that the world so badly needs, we would have let us all down.

Except that the internet is *not* the world. Facebook doesn’t in any way represent the aspirations of the common man on the street who is suffering from issues we don’t know and can’t even fathom; Instagram is so fantastical that it does not even truly represent our own worlds with the inevitable lows that it sees outside of the highs we choose to showcase, and Twitter is so far gone that it has led itself to believe that it really does have the power to change the world through its white eggs and blue ticks.

Yes, of course, the internet can sway a certain section of public opinion, especially when it comes to entertainment, but that’s about all the influence it exerts. Because the internet comprises but a tiny, only sometimes-significant part of the world’s population that is unfortunately so loud, vocal and self-agreeable that it does not even bother to factor, in any of its conclusive pronouncements, an entire middle-class that has more critical worries in its life than a status message not getting enough likes.

We are the bubble
Our social media accounts are carefully curated by us to represent the voices we want to hear, the opinions we find compliant and the thoughts and ideas that concur with the ones we have deemed appropriate. And whenever there is dispute, disagreement or dissent, it strikes as such a false note in our utopian realms that our immediate response is to term it reactionary, dumb, illiterate or worse, trolling. We unfriend, block and report abuse, but we do not understand, we do not empathise and we do not engage (and if we ever do, it’s only to slur back).

We have been living and thriving in this self-created bubble for so long; we have been so passionately dissing anything that challenges our statuses and status quos; we have been so far removed from the reality that exists beyond our screens on either side of us that multiple tremors were only seen as aberrations. It would’ve taken a tornado to burst this bubble, and it looks like Donald Trump is that tornado.

So yes, in essence, we are fucked and it seems like we have brought this upon us. So now what? Well, the good news is: this is an end of the road, but not the end of the road. It is perhaps the end of a road where everyone (of a certain kind) was driving on the same side and was often deliberately dismissive – and sometimes ignorant – of the other side. But it is only the beginning of a two-way road, where all kinds of people from both sides are driving alongside, well in-sight of one another, co-existing peacefully at first, and maybe, one day, meeting at a crossroad to become one road again.

Can we fix it?
And what did that bullshit traffic metaphor above mean? In essence: let’s not be so self-involved within our own timelines and our own devices that are far removed from the truths around us that it becomes fashionable to ‘not give a shit’. Let’s not look down upon anyone with an offensive opinion or one that we dislike but engage with them, let’s not show snark at anyone less-informed but inform them, let’s not call out anyone with vulgar but desensitize them, let’s not be contemptuous of those unlike us but comprehend them.

It’s not going to take one person and it’s not going to take one day. But if we view this moment in time as that crucial turning point of our history that it needs to become – for all the right reasons – and come together to be less seemingly elitist, less self-absorbed, less intolerant people who can stay put and take action than swipe right and move on to the next armchair battle, there is hope yet.

So let’s be gentle to that old relative or grandparent who believes homosexuality is a disease and explain to them why they are wrong, let’s have a one-on-one with that colleague that passes off sexist comments as banter, let’s have a dialogue with the deeply conditional house help who inadvertently champions patriarchy and let’s tell a racist friend why the world cannot – and should not – be segregated into religions or colours. Let’s have the patience and resolve to talk it out with everyone who is only just a few well-meaning conversations away from broadening their perspectives.

And let’s LISTEN. Let’s listen without judgement to the woes of the people who fear their jobs being taken away by immigrants, let’s understand without discrimination those people who believe in prejudice, let’s empathise with everyone who is unlike us, and let’s engage. Let’s engage with *everyone* who does not hold our outlook because the fact is: there is no such thing as a right or wrong views, but there is context and there is perspective. And if we understand the other’s and explain to them ours, maybe – just maybe – there is a meeting ground in the middle for both.

Yes WE can!
If WE, the generation that has had, unlike its predecessors, the opportunity, luck and benefit of being aware of the world beyond our neighbourhoods, communities, cities and borders thanks to our devices and the very same phenomenon that is the internet, come together to engage, to listen, and to be kind… WE can work together at making the best out of the trumping we’ve received today as collective denizens of an idyllic world that can hopefully someday be reality.

If we come together, this too shall pass. If we come together, we can save the world…

….YES. WE. CAN! 🙂

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Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Darr 2.0 #WRITER #ASSOCIATEPRODUCER #YFILMS #WEBSERIES

As the Head of Development of Y-Films, the youth wing of Yash Raj Films, my core job is developing films, web series and TVCs and then creative producing them and releasing them too. It’s an end-to-end job from idea to development to production to promotion and release.

I have creative produced four webseries for Y-Films so far: Man’s World, Bang Baaja Baaraat, Ladies Room and Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa. I’ve also creative produced the inception and music videos of India’s first transgender band, The 6-Pack Band. I am now writing the next Y-Films series, Darr 2.0, the official reboot of YRF’s iconic Shah Rukh Khan film, Darr.

SERIES: Darr 2.0
Synopsis: Darr 2.0 will feature the characters of Rahul, Kiran and Sunil from the original but in an entirely new milieu, weaved in a modern, original tale of obsession and fear in the age of cyber stalking and digital crimes. The series holds a mirror to the perilous environment of online privacy invasion and social media harassment that can take a dangerous and disturbing turn, if unchecked.
Directed By: Vikas Chandra
Produced By: Ashish Patil
Story: Nikhil Taneja
Screenplay & Dialogues: Nikhil Taneja & Shubham Yogi
Associate Producer: Nikhil Taneja
[Full Credit List on YouTube.com/YFilms]

OFFICIAL TRAILER:

 

NOTE: SUBSCRIBE to Y-Films on YouTube for more awesome series: www.youtube.com/yfilms.

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Note: This trailer first appeared on the Y-Films YouTube channel on August 30, 2016.
Link Of Full Series: https://goo.gl/JHCE6p
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Mira Nair #Profile #OpenMagazine #QueenofKatwe

Mira Nair: Breaking the Colour Code

Mira Nair’s new movie is a daring rejoinder to racial prejudices

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/bhuR62
““Irresistible” is one of those adjectives that critics should handle with utmost care,” reads the very first paragraph of the review of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, by the New York Times’ chief film critic of over a decade, A.O. Scott. “But if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.”
It’s been a month since the tenth feature-length live action film of arguably the most accomplished and feted international director of Indian origin, Mira Nair, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey spoke of how the world has been catching up with Nair’s stories. Bailey went on to proclaim that Nair’s time is “now”, and ever since, the accolades for both her and her new film haven’t stopped.Being a four-quadrant-pleasing inspirational Disney biopic of an underdog chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Queen of Katwe may not be the standout movie of Nair’s remarkable career that counts, among its many highlights, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful exploration of one’s roots, The Namesake. And yet, it is, by all means, just as important as every other story Nair’s chosen to champion through her distinct cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.Because this is the year in which the American film industry is still reeling from the embarrassment and backlash of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, where all 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white, for the second time in a row, since 1998. It is also, lamentably, the year where US Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against anyone who isn’t a straight, white, American male, has managed to sway a significant part of his highly-educated first world country into advocating for him.In such a time, so fuelled by class divide, prejudice and racism, here’s a film by the most successful of the ‘Big Six’ American film studios at the moment, featuring an all-black cast led by a 16-year-old debutant non-professional actress from Uganda, set almost entirely in Africa, and directed by a woman filmmaker of Indian origin. In any other year, a film like this would have been an anomaly, but in 2016, when the world seems to Benjamin Buttoning itself into a de-evolved, Neolithic version of itself, the very fact that Queen of Katwe was made, is akin to a miracle.

But that’s exactly what attracted Nair, never been one to shy away from challenges, to the story in the first place. “If you see Africa on any screen, even within Africa or without Africa, it is always to do with dictatorship or beastiality or child soldiers and violence; it has nothing to do with the kind of everyday life in Africa,” she says, over the telephone, in a conversation that took place minutes before her film’s European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I think it’s so important to break the ignorance, the myopia, and the, sort of, terrible tropes and stereotypes that exists about other places in the world today. Even in India, there is massive racism against African students. There is so much importance given to the colour of our skin, and there’s caste prejudice that we’ve been carrying on for years, that the government stokes every moment, you know. A film like this hopefully makes you realise that the Nigerian student down the street is not a hustler or whatever the world may tell you that he/she is, and that’s important to know right now.”

Lending a voice to those who don’t get much of a say has always been one of the prevalent themes of Nair’s movies. From tackling the pandemic of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding to the rising Islamobhobia in her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair takes pride in giving a platform to the disadvantaged, the marginalised as well as the misfits, while ensuring that their portrayal is not bleak, but instead, spirited. Nair calls it the “life-ist” attitude that she has seen as the fundamental component of the human condition, irrespective of where she’s set her film.

“This attitude, this embracing of life fully… the emphasis on how much you can create with your life, regardless of how little you may have, has always inspired me,” Nair says. “The struggle to just achieve you are by people considered outside of society, is a tale I have tried to tell since Salaam Bombay!, because there’s dignity and joy that you never see or hear of.”

When a Disney executive with Ugandan roots, Tendo Nagenda, brought her a cut out of a sports magazine that had profiled Mutesi, asking her if she’d be interested in making a film on her, Nair knew this was a story she needed to tell. Mutesi’s story took place barely 15 minutes away from her house in Kampala, a city she calls home since the last two decades (she met and married her husband Mahmood Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, New York, in Kampala), but it was opportunity to authentically portray a people she has come to love, that jumped out at her.

So if Queen of Katwe tick marks the genre sports film, it also firmly shines a light at the vivaciousness and compassion of the Ugandan community, beyond just the colours of its streets, the hip hop music or the vibrant camerawork (by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). The story of Phiona, she points out, is not just the story of how “genius can be found everywhere”, but that of the entire community that lived her dream with her, and for her, “because that is how life is lived in Kampala.”

“It’s not an individualistic life or a one person show. It takes a mentor like Robert Katende, a mother like Harriet Mutesi, it takes a street, a family… it takes a village to make a genius. It’s this prismatic view that I find interesting. I also think the world is ready to see on screen what the world is off screen – the multiplicities, the diversity, the inclusivity, and the humanity – which I love to film. Because I am certainly never going to make the reductive formula sports film that is expected of me,” she laughs.

Having grown up between Rourkela and Bhubaneshwar, then studying in Delhi University and Harvard University, and then, having found her calling in Hollywood, shuttling between her three homes in New York, New Delhi and Kampala, Nair is a global citizen, if ever there was one. So presenting an all-encompassing world in every story she illustrates on screen, is not just important to her, but in some ways, obligatory.

“If you are truthful and all-encompassing, whether you are watching Uganda in Queen of Katwe or Monsoon Wedding with the Punjabiyat of it, or the streets of Bombay in Salaam Bombay!, even if that world is far away from your reality, you will eventually see yourself in that truth too. You relate because you either know the feelings I have tried to portray, or you could know them.”

It was hence critical to Nair to have cast actors from the same streets that she tried to paint this honest picture of, if Queen of Katwe was to work. Madina Nalwanga, who played the lead role of Phiona, grew up not far from Katwe, in the streets of Kibuli, where she sold corn for a living, and was found through a dancing troupe she was a part of. All the other kids were non-professional actors too; a strategy that had helped her put together a magical cast during her debut in Salaam Bombay! as well.

“Children are like the maps of life in the way they move their hands or bodies,” she says tenderly. “I had no interest in taking an upper class child and teaching him or her how to bathe with half an inch of water. My interest, on the other hand, is actually being educated by a child, to show us the world that he or she is coming from. So when we found the kids, I distilled the roles according to their strength and their fun, so even the audience would feel a sense of familiarity on seeing them.”

“Morever,” she points out, “there’s a real alchemy that happens when you put together a kid from reality opposite a legendary actor like David Oweloyo (who plays Phiona’s coach Katende) or Lupita N’yongo (who plays Phiona’s mother Harriet), or Naseeruddin Shah in Salaam Bombay!. Because when you have a pure non-actor and a pure actor, they both have to meet at a point of purity, you know.”

It is this commitment to break out of the trappings of traditional Disney fare that gives Queen of Katwe the characteristic Mira Nair stamp, which the director gives full credit to the studio for not trying to “sanitize”. Because if the film plays out the conventional soaring, uplifting sports film tropes, like the sports metaphors that Katende uses to explain life itself (“Find your safe squares”), there are enough unpredictable and unexpected moments of genuine emotion derived from the “barbarity and brutality of living in the slums,” as Nair puts it.

The filmmaker points out specific examples of scenes where Phiona, when she first goes to the Church where the other kids are playing chess, is called a ‘pig’ and has to fight to eat the complimentary porridge by her own. Another scene, where Phiona, on beating a boy at chess, asks out aloud if she was allowed to win by him, is an example of the “familiar female diffidence” that is still rampant in so many women, according to Nair.

“These are not unique attributes, you know,” she explains, “These things happen to all of us, and that makes us think and believe that we are pretty much the same people, no matter where we are. I don’t like sugar coating this, but yes, I do like to tell it all in a way that you have mazaa (fun) also. Because if you feel the mazaa, you feel the pain too.

“That is how I make movies – I don’t want a harangue; I don’t want to be lectured to. So I have shaped the film like a human heart and the rhythm of it is like an accordion. It expands your heart with laughter, because the kids would do that to me with their finger snapping and their sounds that were so full of sassiness; and in the next moment, you’d see the reality of eating, where you are fighting for a bowl of porridge.”

A turning point in the movie, for Phiona, comes through when a kid she’s playing with explains to her why chess matters to her. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” she says, referring to the chess rule wherein a pawn can become a queen if it makes it across the board to the other side. Phiona makes this her motto, deriving courage from it, and giving it her own moniker that ties back with the movie’s title: “queening.”

Queening can aptly be used as a term to describe the swagger of the women in the movie. Because Queen of Katwe isn’t just an inspirational sports film that would empower the young Phionas of the world to dream big and then chase those dreams down; but for Nair, it is also a feminist movie inspired by, and dedicated to the Harriets of the world, because without their pluck and persistance, there could be no Phionas.

Says Nair, “I don’t ever want to make a female character who gives up on life. Even the real Harriet is a formidable ‘Mother Courage’, someone who became a teenage mother but refused to let her children follow her path, as best as she could. She struggled so deeply in her youth but resolved that she will stand up for her children.”

“That’s the tenacity that Phiona has inherited too. She’s lethal and resolute in chess, and that comes from her mother’s life, struggles and courage. And these are the women I like depicting on screen: who are as complicated as we all are, and inspiring in their own ways.”

With virtually no wrong moves in her film career spanning three decades, be it through her feminism or her movies that feature protagonists embracing life with all the curve balls it throws at them, or through the film school she’s started in Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab, that has been galvanizing African youth through its motto, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else well,” perhaps Nair’s endgame too, has been “queening” all along.

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 21, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/mira-nair-breaking-the-colour-code
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

What Bollywood Can Pick Up from the Digital Revolution #Digital #SuperCinema #ByInvitation

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Super Cinema. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/2AXwVJ 

If we had to look back at 2016 and talk about its highlight in terms of an international pop culture phenomenon, we wouldn’t be talking of a film but instead a Netflix show – Stranger Things. This is not an anomaly. In India too, from Permanent Roommates Season 2 to Ladies Room this year, content on digital platforms has broken out among the youth in a way films haven’t managed to.

The fact is that narrative on digital across the world caters to the same audience that buys movie tickets: the young 18-30 segment, who constitute not just the target demographic but also the protagonists in most films made today. But save a few inventive movies that side step the Bollywood formula (most hits this year, from Neerja to Pink to Airlift, have little to no ‘masala’ in them), movies in India are still predominantly star-first, content-second.

As attention spans of audiences decline, and smartphone usage and internet consumption continue growing at a rapid pace, we are today on the brink of a content revolution led by internet creators and creative talent on the web. Fortunately, it’s never going to come down to an either-or choice between film and any other medium, as audiences have proven that medium is temporary, storytelling is permanent. But there’s still a lot that Bollywood can learn from the internet content revolution to stay relevant to its core audience:

Focus on stories that *must* be told: If there’s one thing that web has proven as a fact today, it is that there are no substitutes to good stories. A myopic way of looking at the internet is only through its freedom from censorship, but creators and digital studios know that while sex and SRK can get you views, the kind of cultural impact that a Pitchers or Man’s World can have stems from just one basic truth: the audience wants good stories.

‘Actors’ are the real ‘stars’: The internet has also gone against the grain by diverging form the ‘star’ system and putting its faith and backing behind good actors who may not be names, or even traditionally chiselled and sculpted. The viralability factor of the internet today comes from not how big the star is but how able the actor is and how convincingly he/she can act. From Naveen Kasturia to Angira Dhar, the internet today creates the star.

The force is with the writers: On the internet, the writer is king. Whether or not the show has scale or stars, whether it caters to the urban elite or the rural cool, unless the writing is great on paper, the audience will see through it. The internet never forgives or forgets so it is imperative that the writers take lead to give the audience content that doesn’t take them for granted.

Risktaking is the key: Fortune favours the brave and there is no better case in point for this than the success of the digital narrative. From tackling issues like abortion to sex education, the internet has shown that the riskier the content and the more it pushes boundaries in terms of cast, producer and director, the more likely it will attract good filmmakers who thrive by doing content that is off-mainstream, in that, it tries to represent the under-represented or voiceless.

There is no formula! Ultimately, digital has convincingly proven, in more cases than one – there is no formula to what works. On this medium, a massy show about two crazy families is just as big as a seemingly niche show about conversations between women in loos. Until you follow up something that has worked, with something that you have no idea will, you will never truly achieve a cult following of loyal fans on the internet who will support your brand in any form, manner or genre!

 

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Note: This interview first appeared in Super Cinema Magazine in the October 2016 issue.
Link: http://www.supercinema.co.in/what-bollywood-can-pick-up-from-the-digital-revolution/
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

THE AWESOME TV SHOW EP 8: Luke Cage Roundup + Awesome TV on TV #FILMCOMPANION

Note: This video was written & hosted by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Film Companion. Check it out on YouTube here: https://goo.gl/Bt7Zjd

From June 2016, I have been hosting a YouTube Show called The Awesome TV Show for Anupama Chopra’s YouTube Channel, Film Companion. In the fortnightly show (mostly), I recommend awesome television shows to watch, recap and review new episodes of some of the best ones and gives loads of lists on what to watch and where.

EPISODE 8
In Episode 8,  I roundup the Netflix-Marvel superhero show Luke Cage and introduce a new section – Awesome TV on TV.


NOTE: Watch the playlist of ALL episodes of The Awesome TV Show so far here: https://goo.gl/t59b7b


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Note: This video first appeared on the Film Companion YouTube channel on October 5, 2016.
Link: https://goo.gl/Bt7Zjd
Picture courtesy: Film Companion. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Neeraj Pandey #Profile #OpenMagazine #MSDhoni

Neeraj Pandey: Captain Cool

A big budget feature film on India’s most successful captain is a different kind of thriller for Neeraj Pandey.

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/55CBEJ
In two weeks, National Award-winning filmmaker Neeraj Pandey will face the biggest test in his (roughly) decade-long Hindi film career. On September 30, his fourth feature film as writer-director, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, made over a period of two-and-a-half-years, on a reported budget of Rs 80 crore, will release worldwide in four languages.
A biopic on the life of arguably India’s greatest cricket captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer MS Dhoni will be Pandey’s first film since A Wednesday! to feature a lead actor other than Akshay Kumar (he starred in both Special 26 and Baby), in a genre other than a thriller, on a story not his own, and on a canvas far bigger than anything he’s ever played with.
But over an hour-long afternoon conversation in the meeting room of the office of his production outfit, Friday Filmworks, which he co-owns with producing partner Shital Bhatia, you could very well pass off Pandey as ‘Captain Cool’, the moniker deservingly earned by Dhoni for his ability to stay unfazed, especially at crucial junctures of any match.

If the film is a critical moment in his own journey, Pandey doesn’t betray any sign of nerves. He is visibly unpretentious, laidback and genial during the interview, and for a man fresh off a Rs 100 crore plus box office hit that he produced in August with Rustom, he is self-deprecating to the extent that he answers every other question first with a joke on himself, before grappling to find an earnest response, but only to satisfy the demands of the query itself.

Because, just like Dhoni again, Pandey seems conscientiously focused on the prize, and everything else in between is something he’d rather get through with, so he can do what he loves doing, his ‘9 to 5’, as he calls it. And for this reason, giving interviews, going to Bollywood parties or even being ‘visible’ for anything other than actual work is a task. “I love what I do, there’s no denying that,” he says, “but this is not my entire life.”

“My passion is pre-configured and I have a lot of respect for my ‘9 to 5’ or ‘9 to 12’ sometimes, so I don’t feel the need to display it. I have never felt I am a crusader in the world of movies, ki yahan jhande gaadenge (I’ll bury my flags here).  Between writing something and creating something, I’m dealing with the world in my own way, and that negotiates all these other issues, and purges me in so many ways. That’s my day to day motivation, and I hope it continues; I hope I remain this way.”

Pandey’s way, of course, is a stark contrast to most filmmakers in an industry that’s certainly a large part film, but also equal parts glamour. And that could perhaps be because of the non-filmy journey the director’s had to reach where he is today. Growing up in late ‘70s Calcutta, as it was called then, to working class parents, Pandey wasn’t the kind of child who had his life chalked out in any way.

“You know, it’s a myth that everyone in Calcutta is intelligent,” he says with a laugh, pointing out that he shouldn’t be perceived as intelligent ‘just because he was born there’. “No doubt, some of the people who shaped the film industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s were Bengalis, but you are talking about Howrah, jahan Bombay pata hi nahin tha kahan hai, hamein (where we didn’t even know where Bombay was). Most of my friends wanted to do BCom and the more dynamic ones had only one dream, bas yahan se nikal jaayein’ (to just get out of here). At that time, I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.”

If there was one thing that he did know, it was that he liked telling stories through his childhood. “I was very good at lying as a kid and it all started from there,” he says with a straight face. “I was a very mischievous kid, so I had to keep on making excuses, by using my imagination and digging up stories.  I think that, sort of, perfected my skill at storytelling and sowed the seed.”

Pandey was always a literature buff and was just as interested in all forms of sports, growing up. Looking back, he is certain that the nudge towards movies was more subconscious than either of these active hobbies. “I can make it sound profound and intelligent at this point, but to be honest, at that time, I just liked watching films a lot, without knowing anything about the film industry or that I’ll be pursuing a career in it.”

Two films in particular left an indelible mark on him, though. One was Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, the “experience” of which stayed with him through the years. The other was Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool that he watched a number of times to “find out why I am seeing it over and over again”. “Maybe it was the theme of rise-and-fall that affected me, or maybe it was the music, which I was very, very fond of at that time, contrary to what I’m known for today,” he says sheepishly.

“One song in the film, Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ stayed with me and that disturbed my parents a lot ki kuch to problem hai idhar (there’s some problem here). Because at that age, you are not listening to this kind of music.”

Talking about his parents, Pandey says he feels “blessed” that they were always encouraging towards any hobby or passion that cultivated, as opposed to other parents of that generation, who’d rather their children pursue either of engineering or medical sciences. He remembers how they never stopped him from doing anything, until it was absolutely necessary. So when he took up reading and films as hobbies, there was no “resistance”. “In fact, I guess it was more a sense of relief than anything else for them that I found something to do with my life,” he reminisces with a laugh.

Films turned into a passion for Pandey during his college years in Delhi in the early ‘90s, as a literature student in Delhi University’s Sri Aurobindo College. He briefly flirted with theatre, strictly as a writer-director, he points out (“there was no confusion about this bit!”), and eventually decided to take up film because he “had no other skillset”, or so he insists.

“If you are a Lit graduate, you anyway don’t have too many choices left in life,” he grins. “Stories excited me, and so I decided to learn direction to be able to tell them visually. My source of inspiration, and my institution at that time was TNT. The channel, which was Cartoon Network by day, used to show black-and-white movies from 9 pm to 6 am. That became a huge source of learning for me. The best stories were made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even in Hollywood, so watching them sorted me out in life.”

The aspiring director at the time tried getting admission in the renowned Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, but was rejected. So he started doing television in Delhi, as a stepping stone to film. He first started as an assistant director and then worked on a couple of telefilms and fiction television as an independent director for Doordarshan and others, because he says he knew that he won’t get to be a film director “so fast”.  “Main kisi ko jaanta thodi na tha (It’s not that Iknew anyone) that I’ll come here suddenly get a film.”

Indeed, after shifting to Mumbai in 2000, it took time for Pandey to get the chance to work on his first feature film, 2008’s critically-acclaimed A Wednesday! that won him a National Award for Best First Film by a Director. Till then, he worked on commissioned documentaries, TVCs and more television, a lot of it through the first production set up he formed with Bhatia, Quarter Inch Productions.

Meanwhile, he wrote three films, a romantic comedy, a comedy and a satire, none of which saw the light of the day. The 2006 Mumbai serial train blasts inspired him to script A Wednesday! that went on to become a sleeper hit, subsequently being remade in Tamil as Unnaipol Oruvan and Telegu as Eeenadu, both starring Kamal Hassan in the role of Naseeruddin Shah as the ‘common man’ whose life is derailed because of a terror attack.

It was this movie that labelled him as a “thriller guy who makes films about the common man”, a tag that he has now stopped fighting or reacting to. “I have realized you can’t control what the audience or critics take away from a film,” he states.

“I had gone to the theater to see the audience reaction during A Wednesday!, and found myself sitting ahead of two people, who were basically discussing if Naseeruddin Shah’s character was a Hindu or a Muslim and that’s when I realized it’s all gone to the dogs (laughs). The whole point of the movie was to not talk about that, and here I was. Of course, the good thing was that at least people were talking… and perhaps there is a third guy who would counter these two and tell them what the point really was. That’s who I made the film for.”

Ever since, he has stopped falling into this “trap” of trying to leave his audience with any sort of a moral takeaway through his writing. “It’s very important to me that I am not indulgent in thinking ki audience iske baare mein kya sochegi (what will the audience think about this),” he explains.

“But you do want them to be left with some residual value in broad strokes, so what you are trying to say is translated to them, else what’s the point?  Like, in Baby, you were looking to give people a sense of respect for the guy on the border. But usually, the audience gratification I want is only in terms of their attention. As a storyteller, my entire focus is to tell any story as entertainingly as possible and then I hand it over to the director in me, who is a crowd pleaser, and knows when to amp up the background score!”

If there’s one conscious rule that Pandey follows is in his writing is to never hurt or offend anyone, because he asserts that he holds all religions and people in equal regards. Beyond that, he only wishes to deliver quality storytelling, which he hopes people have come to expect from his films, but not so that he becomes “a brand name or something of that sort.”

“It is imperative for me that audience likes the film so people who put their money in the film recover their money so I can make one more film and explore one more genre and tell one more story, and the faith sustains… it’s as simple as that. We are not making films only for ourselves, else we may as well make home videos. We are catering to an audience, so you have to respect that.”

His successful collaboration with Akshay Kumar, twice as a director and once as a producer (Rustom), which has arguably resurrected the actor’s career and given him a new identity as this generation’s Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar, is also more a nod to the audience than to do with his comfort level with the star, or a conscious choice as a filmmaker. “If your gamble pays off, you are hooked on to it right? It’s no rocket science,” he smiles.

But of course, he continues, in Kumar, he has found a star who comes to set as an “actor”, which, he explains, makes his work as a director easy. “There are no airs about him. He and no last minute brilliant epiphanies on set ki koi bulb jal gaya (that some bulb has lit), and he is extremely disciplined. That gives me the ability to focus only on the job at hand.”

On MS Dhoni: the Untold Story, the job at hand may have looked daunting to some, in trying to do justice to the legend of one of contemporary cricket’s biggest idols, but for Pandey, the movie was never about the cricket itself, but about the man and his journey, and that’s what made him take up the challenge of presenting it on the big screen.

After he was offered the film, he found himself in a room talking to Dhoni, and reckons that experience to be a “déjà vu”, because “it didn’t feel like you are meeting him for the first time. He is extremely grounded and earthy and holds all his players and teammates in such high regard that I knew, in that very meeting, that this was a story I had to tell.”

“It’s a very inspiring story about the making of the man that is MS,” he continues. “It’s a story of tenacity, something that, in my belief, pays off big time. If you can be very clear about the fact that this is my goal and go after it, and look the odds in the eye, chances are that you will have a good journey, and you will reach a good place.”

MS Dhoni’s story, of a man who started from nowhere and went on to carve a kind of arc for himself that one can only dream of, is, in a way, the story of India’s ultimate common man. And as such, it only makes sense that Pandey was handpicked to direct it.

As the maker of films that glorifies the extraordinary deeds of the ordinary man, and for a man resolutely trying to stay common in an industry that thrives on the uncommon, it is possibly that the tenacity of Neeraj Pandey’s journey brought him here, and just like Dhoni, it is perhaps the thrill of the chase that will take him towards a good place too.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on September 16, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/playing-with-dhoni
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Why Guardians of the Galaxy is the greatest superhero film of all time #Ode #VoxPop

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor the VoxPop Blog.

So I’m going to go on a limb out here and say that Guardians of the Galaxy is the greatest superhero movie of all time. BOOM!  Yes, I did just make a sweeping declaration and no, it’s not because it’s Marvel Month at VoxPop (even though it is) or because I have a man crush on Chris Pratt (even though I totally do), or because my Baby Groot action figure means more to me than actual babies mean to some people (even though I am Groot). It’s because it’s true.

I do understand how some of you may feel about this as the legend of Christophar Nolan’s The Dark Knight has elevated it to the defecto status of the greatest, while there are some who swear by Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, Unbreakable, Blade, Superman: The Movie, X2 and Batman Returns in the older ones, and X-Men: First Class, Deadpool, Chronicle, Kickass, plus Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 2… well, basically everything else from Marvel, in the newer ones.  There are also some who believe Krrish 3 ROXXX, but unfortunately 7 year olds don’t know any better, so we will let them be for now.

The Curse of Christopher Nolan
But I can reason it out, *logically*. Let’s go back in time to the year 2008, when The Dark Knight released, and the superhero world, heck, the entire blockbuster movie world, turned dark. We got a Spiderman reboot sans humour (The Amazing Spiderman), a Superman reboot that had a dark tinge throughout the film (Man of Steel), an Iron Man so dark that it was shot mostly at night (Iron Man 3), a Captain America so dark that even the Hulk had better jokes (The Avengers) and a Thor so dark that they even put the word ‘dark’ in its title, you know, in case anyone thought it *looked* too bright (Thor: The Dark World).

Even if you discount the Zack Snyder affliction that’s plaguing the DC world at the moment, even movie titles *literally* went ‘dark’ post-2008. Here’s a list of just some of the movies that came out after The Dark Knight:  Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013)… and I’m only listing summer movies here. There’s also Edge of Darkness (2010), The Darkest Hour (2011) Dark Shadows (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (2010)…. Umm, okay I made my point.

On the heels of this illness, came the unlikely Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie so aggressively anti darkness that its trailer featured Swedish pop rock band Blue Swede’s ‘70s anthem, ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ as opposed to, you know, Mike Zarin’s BRAAAM!s from the Inception trailer. Considering the fact that the joke was actually on the last few superhero films that tried being funny (Green Lantern and The Green Hornet failed spectacularly), it cannot be stressed enough how mental the very idea of Guardians of the Galaxy was.

Marvel’s Lab Experiment
Here’s a film that was so disruptive that it was practically a lab experiment by Marvel. It was directed by an indie filmmaker whose most notable work was having scripted the Scooby-Doo movies (James Gunn), it was set in outer space with a budget of $170 million dollars (enough to feed Bangladesh), and featured five anti-heroes: a lead who was earlier best known as the chunky dude in a niche TV show (Pratt as Starlord), a former WWE wrestler (Dave Bautista as Drax), and three recognisable faces who were either in unrecognizable makeup (Zoe Saldana as Gamora) or were animated (Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon and Vin Diesel as Groot)! Recipe for disaster, right?

But NO! Guardians of the Galaxy became the biggest August-release of all time in the US, making $773.14 million globally in 2014 (for comparison, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is at $872.7 million in 2016) and there’s one big reason why: it brought back the essence of what comic book movies were always supposed to be but something that most superhero movies had completely forgotten to be in the years preceding: FUN!

Take the pre-climax scene where the five anti-heroes agree to go on a suicidal mission to save the world after Starlord’s ‘I have a plan’ speech. The movie does the cliché Blake Snyder’s beat sheet tick mark, but then, once all five are standing, Rocket remarks snarkily, “There, I’m also standing. Look at us, a bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle!” It’s this – how the film took all such superhero tropes and played it to perfection, only to turn it on its head before the end, so that the audience got to watch both an irreverent indie film that’s new and exciting and the familiar summer film that’s become such a lost art.

Indie Soul in a Blockbuster
Because that’s what the legacy of Guardians of the Galaxy and that’s what makes it so great – and in my books, the greatest: a summer blockbuster with the soul of an indie film. It has the big ticket action scenes, but it also has the quiet moments – like the scene where Groot grows a flower to gift a little girl; or the scene where Groot releases fireflies to bring about light in a dark scene; or well, just the fact that it’s got Groot! Instead of going the ‘one for them, one for us’ way with their slate of blockbuster films that go right up to 2020, Marvel figured out the inspired middle-path in this one: ‘something for both’. How else do you explain an ingenious ‘70s soundtrack (‘The Awesome Mix Vol. 1) to a film set in space?

Even besides this, what Guardians of the Galaxy did with its success was empowering indie filmmakers to give their own unique voice to big budget films. Now you have a Spiderman movie made by the guy who last made a violent road thriller (Jon Watts), a Thor movie made by a dude who made a horror comedy mockumentary on vampires (Taika Waititi) and a Doctor Strange movie by the guy who made indie horror scary again (Scott Derickson)!

In Groot We Trust
GOTG also empowered hapless audience that wanted to be entertained but could not suffer through one more never-ending Michael Bay explosionfest (especially without any Megan Fox) or a Snyder VFXfest (especially without Nolan exec producing) to demand movies that actually DO have a story, a heart and a soul. Most importantly, it empowered studios to experiment with new subjects (even if its superheroes), the wackier, the better. Hence, we already have a Deadpool and Suicide Squad, and are in the line for a Lego Batman Movie, a *young* Spiderman and Flash, and so many more!

Just like the heroes at its helm, Guardians of the Galaxy is the unlikely misfit superhero film that the world needed, and not just the film they wanted, hence making it the greatest ever. With a franchise like GOTG, the future of the galaxy is in safe hands indeed, because essentially, in Groot, we trust.

 

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
@tanejamainhoonon Instagram:@tanejamainhoon,

on Youtube: /tanejamainhoon

Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared on the Vox Pop Blog in September 2016.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.