The story of L
THERE'S this guy, call him 'L' -- or 'K', or 'M', whatever, it makes no never mind -- who is perhaps the most critical catalyst of Bollywood creativity you will never know.
L had a flourishing career in a computer hardware firm before deciding -- and economics, not mid-life crises, fuelled the decision -- to give it all up, and go into business from the back of a car.
Here is how he works: Once every 10 days or so, he gets a consignment of movies -- Hollywood, European, South Asian, the works. He piles them into bags and suitcases in the back seat of his car, calls up his client list of about 275 people, and begins making the rounds, selling his videos at Rs 150 per.
The first time I met him, I went through his list, and discovered some treasures. When I was done picking, I found I had set aside 51 movies -- and even at the reasonable price he sells them at, it works out to a decent chunk of money, and that caused some concern.
'I don't want grainy videos, camera prints, low quality stuff,' I told him. He looked at me and he sniffed. Then he fished out his PDA, opened up his contact list, and passed it to me.
It was like reading a Bollywood directory -- every producer, director, cinematographer and star in the Hindi film industry was in there, so too some of the biggest names in television.
'These are my clients; each fortnight, each of these guys buys 50-100 movies from me, and they don't like third quality DVDs either,' he told me, very uppity-like.
It is, he says, a cool life. He doesn't risk anything -- getting the movies into the country is someone else's responsibility. Once the films land here, he collects them and fronts up the money, then hits his client list and, in three days of driving around all over Bombay, unloads his stock.
"It's great money, all cash, no overheads, and my work only takes three days -- the rest of the time, I chill, watch dozens of movies," he told me that first day.
Very knowledgeable, this guy: he knows all the good directors and good movies; and of equal interest to a journalist, he knows which director or producer is watching what films, looking for "inspiration".
The story of V
WHILE on the subject of inspiration, one of the movies I picked up from L a while back was Le Notti Bianche (White Nights) by Luchino Visconti.
You know of him, of course: an aristocrat by birth (Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Duke of Modron, to give him his full name), his film career began when he went from his native Milan to Paris, and signed on as an assistant to French auteur Jean Renoir, son of Impressionist master Auguste Renoir.
He went back to Italy, joining the film movement of Vittorio Mussolini and rubbing creative shoulders with the likes of Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini. In 1942, he helmed his first movie, Ossessione (Obsession) -- based on the James Caan thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice (four years before the Lana Turner-John Garfield version hit Hollywood; there's also a Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange version, in case you are counting).
Enough biography -- what concerns us is his 1957 film Le Notti Bianche (White Nights), adapted loosely from a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story.
The narrative arc (script by Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Visconti) spans a few nights in an Italian winter. Impoverished clerk Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) meets the blond, beautiful Natalia (Maria Schell), on a small stone bridge, at a time when the latter is in despair.
Mario falls in love with Natalia, but discovers she is in love with a former tenant (Jean Marais) of her grandmother. She tells Mario they had fallen in love, but he had to leave; he promised to return to her in a year, and she clings on to that promise with blind faith.
Mario figures Natalia is wasting her time; the vanished lover has had her fun with her and has no intention of returning. As a means of remaining close to her, and hopefully winning her over, he offers to help Natalia track down the man, who she believes is back in town and staying in a hotel.
A fourth angle to the triangle comes in the shape of a local prostitute (Clara Calamai), who is obsessed with Mario.
Natalia gives Mario a letter to hand over to her one time lover; Mario tears it up, then takes her out for an evening of wine and dancing.
The next day Natalia reaches the bridge, much later than she had promised in her letter -- and finds that her lover is not there, waiting, as she had asked him to be. She is heartbroken; Mario seizes his chance and woos her through that long, cold night. Day breaks -- and just when you think the movie is over, there is one final twist.
Watch it with today's sensibilities, and this example of neo-realist cinema, a form pretty much invented by Visconti himself alongside Vittorio di Sica, might seem a tad -- okay, more than a tad -- slow. It is however a true classic (if not perhaps the best example of the director's work; that would be The Leopard, and Obssessione is not far behind), enhanced by Visconti's minimalist narration, atmospheric cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (some of the dissolves, where the cinematographer cuts from present to past, or vice versa, in a single take the craft to a different level), Nino Rota's score, and superb performances by Mastroianni, Schell and Calamai.
The story of S
AND that brings us, quite naturally, to the subject of "inspiration".
Fans of Tamil movies will remember Iyarkai, which won the national award for best regional feature film in 2003. The film features Shyam as a mechanic on a ship and 'Kutty' Radhika as the woman-in-waiting for the vanished lover.
It was helmed by debutant writer-director SP Jananthan, with Vidyasagar's music, Sabu Cyril's set design, and some quality lensing by K Ekambaram.
Predictably, when the movie was released, the resemblance to the Visconti film came up. A miffed director had this to say:
"Iyarkai had an unusual story. It did not follow the traditional method of story-telling. It was different because I did not use all the nava rasas in the story, I only used what was necessary.
"I have not seen world classics, neither am I a filmmaker who has studied the intricacies of filmmaking. I am a simple man born and brought up in Chennai, and studied only up to the 10th standard, that too in Tamil medium."
So now you know that great minds do think alike: Visconti, Jananthan, and even this hot-shot director whose name begins with S, as does the title of his upcoming big-budget film that is coming, soon, to your friendly neighborhood multiplex.
If a student cogs from published sources for his term paper and is found out, he gets the boot. If a journalist is 'inspired' by published sources, savvy readers slam him or her for plagiarism. But when our directors lift plots wholesale from masterworks of world cinema (or even Hollywood pulp: remember David Dhawan being sued for lifting Partner wholesale from Hitch?), they are hailed as hit-makers or, in the case of 'S', as visionary directors who wear black to awards functions and glory in their cutting edge 'creativity'.
Permit me a most unladylike hmph!
Link of the week: They don't make it to Time's list of the 100 greatest films of all time (a list that among others contains Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy and Mani Rathnam's Nayakan), but these ten movies are classics, all of them are worth your while, and all of them are available, in full and for free, on the Internet. In passing, do you agree with the Time list, or do you know of a better one? Tell.
PostScript: I almost forgot -- I am Bolly Woods, and I'll see you in here every week to talk movies, and to hear you talk back: about the movies you watch, about what you like and don't, about your thoughts on movies in general. All of which -- interesting links too; also recommendations of movies worth watching -- you can mail me at email@example.com
See you next Wednesday; meanwhile, keep them coming.