Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lives of Common People

Not always something extra-ordinary happens in common people's lives. Does that mean that there is no story to tell from their lives? Why most of the movies in popular culture have to be based on some extra-ordinary people or some extra-ordinary events in ordinary people's lives? Partly because the audience wants a way out of their ordinary life through this medium, I guess; and partly because it is hard to tell ordinary stories in a compelling way. That is why even great filmmakers choose a compelling story or resort to an innovative and compelling narrative or style of film-making. But there are few who chose to tell story of ordinary people in ordinary and simple language, and Yasujiro Ozu was one of them.
Till recently my exposure to Japanese movies were limited to animes and Kurosawa. Kurosawa is great, no doubt about it - wonderful story telling and wonderful insight. But those are not stories of ordinary men. So when I came across the first of Ozu in last December, I didn't know what to expect as that was my first exposure to a movie that covers contemporary Japan. And what I found was the kind of movie I was looking for ... story of ordinary days of ordinary men in ordinary language but in an extra-ordinary movie. The movie was 'End of Summer' that marked my beginning of Ozu. Then recently I got hold the entire series of six films 'Late Ozu'. Six films centered on middle class Japanese families - their journey through love, grief, sorrow, betrayal, insecurities, and struggle. Simple stories, simple people, simple narration, yet compelling.
The six films are 'Early Spring', 'Tokyo Twilight', 'Equinox Flower', 'Late Autamn' and 'End of Summer'. In 'Early Spring', a young couple suffers through their distrust and betrayal before each other before reconciling again. Its the restlessness of early youth. 'Tokyo Twilight' chronicles the turbuelent story of an old man and his two daughters whose mother has fled with another man when they were child. The eleder sister has a fragile marriage and the yoinger is suffering from identity crisis as she is betrayed by her lover. The old father in 'Equinox Flower' is often busy in advising trouble friends and their children about romantic relationships, but can't really cope up with his own daughter's relationships. It a classic story of differences of perception of love and marriage between the father and the daughter. In 'Late Autamn' friends of a late Mr. Miwa try to arrange a suitable match for his daughter as well as Mrs. Miwa only to make things complicated in the mother and daughter's life. At the 'End of the Summer' the children of an old businessman tries to cope up with their father's illlicit affair as the father's life comes to an end.
The people in Ozu's films are simple people, most of them are salaried persons. Their relationships are all entangled. They are full of wrongs and rights. They are predictable and that is why they are "ordinary".
The way Ozu tells the stories of these people is also very simple. Mostly static shots. Camera sits in between twe person framing each of them in the center as they converse with each other. It gives an impression of just sitting in between them for the audience. All his indoor shots are taken from a low angle, as if its being seen throgh the eye of someone who is sitting on the mat. It feels as if the viewer is stting right in the room with the characters. Then the transition shots are just some static shots of some objects reflecting the mood of the film. There is nothing catchy, nothing complicated. The characters act calmly as they sort through their lives. The movies are portrayal of life as it is.
Ozu's films make you relaize, as told by one of his characters in 'Late Autamn', "Life is simple, only people make it complicated".

Friday, June 27, 2008

I should tell you ...

First of all, a confession - I love musicals and I love theater. And I like Soft-rock.
So when I had a chance of watching something on Broadway this weekend, I had no problem of choice especially when I knew that Rent is closing its first run on September this year. I had it on my wishlist for long time.
They call it to be phenomenon, a cult musical and what not! Well I liked the music, loved few songs, especially 'Seasons of Love'. I read about the story line, interesting and complicated. I read about the background of the show and some history of the show, interesting! I read people compare it with 'Hair' - an epoch making rock opera. And then the second longest running production in Broadway. All these were enough to build my interest on Rent.
Then I got to see the movie. The had made it into a movie with mostly the original Broadway cast. Its a good movie. I liked some more songs. For a musical, the context of a song is important. Most of the songs of a musical doesn't really make a lot sense from its lyric without the context. Same is true for Rent. With the context and the background of the characters the songs go up to a different level. I realized that while watching the movie. I liked it a lot. And I realized the stageplay is going to be intense.
So I was there at Nederlander Theater on a Sunday afternoon. The Nederlander Theater is an old building on a narrow lane. As I went in, I discovered a small but crowded audience in front of a shabby dull looking stage, perfect to depict the Alphabet City, the premise of the show. A junk yard, a part of a derelict building, two balconies ... thats all the stage is. There is no seperate place for the orchestra. They sit inside the derelict building and play on. Its a quite small stage in three levels.
Then the show starts and it engulfs me. The main part of a live performance is energy of the performers. And from the point Roger enters the stage the energy flows to the audience and radiants vibrantly. Its a two hour long thrilling experience where the actors take you along their journey.
So the plot is something like this. In the Alphabet City in East New York, the Avant Garde of NYC lives a group of bohemian. Mark and Roger are roommates and out of money. On the Christmas eve they are threatened for the rent of their apartment by Benny, one of their ex roommate who now has moved away from them due to his wealthy father-in-law. Mark is a journalist, photographer, screenwriter. Roger is an HIV positive strugglung songwirter whos girlfriend commited suicide recently. Mark has recently been dumped by Maureen, a bi-sexual for Joanne, a lesbian. Mark and Roger is visited by Collins another exroommate of theirs. Collins is a philosophy professor and homosexual. Collins is befriended by cross-dresser Angel. There is one more character, Mimi, a young girl who has crush on Roger. The story revolves around them and their love, hate, sexulaity, security, creativity, ... and time flies. The next Christmas when they try take a stock they realize what life is,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?How about love? Measure in love
Its based on Puccini's famous opera 'La Boheme'. Its composer and write Johnathn Larson died prematuraly just couple of days before its first public show. Its a rock opera that deals with issues like drugs, homosexulaity, love and AIDS, like 'Hair' did in seventies.
Now the production. A small stage but very very well utilized. Its in three levels and shifting focus from one level to another gives another dimension of space to the entire show. In fact a well synchronized show in every respect. And its a lot lot better than the movie. Its a different experience. Getting engulfed into the atmosphere and enjoy. A high energy level of actors pulls through every single scenes. I didn't like few songs in the movie ('One Song Glory', for example) but believe me, I couldn't find any such song in the stageplay! The songs are actually integral part of the play itself. They don't have an identity of themselves outside the stageplay. But when on stage it rocks!
Everyone was perfect at their act. Wonderful singing and dancing. Be it Angels awe-inspiring dances on Today for You, or Mimi's acrobatics in 'Out Tonight', it was an unforgettable experience. Songs like 'Light My Candle', 'Santa Fe', or, 'I'll Cover You' are so full of life that you sure are going to come out of the theater with a new vigor. It was an ewxperience beyond my expectations.
I know I could not write very coherent and unbiased thoughts for this show thats because I'm still in a trance of Rent. And I should tell you, watch it before it gets out of the stage.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Kyila was born blind just like her two twin brothers! Her mother died early worrying about her children. Now Kyila and her brothers along with their blind father runs the house.
Tashi isn't his real name and he is not Tibetan either. He was sold to a chinese couple who brought him to Lhasa. Unable to withstand their torture, he ran away and lived a life of blind street kid before meeting Sabriye. Its been almost nine years he hasn't met his loving sister back in Schezuan province of China.
Sabriye went blind at the age of twelve. She wanted to join German Peace Corps but wasn't allowed to because of her blindness. So she traveled on her own from Germany to Tibet and with her partner Paul she established the first school for the blind in Tibet and their organization Braille Without Borders.
The list is long. But apart from blindness, do you know what is common among them?

They believe blindness is not a disability - its a personality trait.

So they, along with four other blind kids Sonam, Tenzin, Gyenshen and Dachung set out on a mission to prove that they are not less competent than any sighted person. Guided by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to defeat Mt. Everest and his team this small group of Tibetan kids and their teachers have taken a mission to make it to the summit of Lakpa Ri (23,000 ft) - a peak just at the shadow of Everest. And Sybil Robson Orr and her husband being a close friend of Erik didn't want to loose the opportunity to document it. So 'Blindsight' was born. Its a wonderfully directed and photographed documentary that captures the climbers' journey objectively without any extra sympathy or emotion. Breath-taking landscapes clearly pictures the conflict of ideas of typical notion of beauty and blindness.

Some say when you climb the top, you can see everything beneath you and that gives a whole new perspective. But what if you are blind? View from the top of the Everest or at the depth of Grand Canyon doesn't mean anything to you. Then why these blind kids try to climb up? Why does Erik attempt to scale Mt. Everest? It is not only to prove to the world that I can too. It is just like any other person - enjoy the beauty! Yes, even the blinds have a sense of beauty. The rocky paths, rope bridges, bells of yaks, chilly gusty wind, breathing in thin air, touch of ice ... all these open a new window of imagination in our mind. We the sighted persons don't really care as our imagination is totally suppressed by the visual information. But for these fellows that is vast open field of exploration. I can guess how Erik was mesmerized by the beauty of Everest when he stood on the top.

The expedition, Climbing Blind, took place in September, 2004. The kids are self-supported now. Tashi along with Tenzin runs the largest massage clinic in Lhasa. Gyenshen is the only Braille publisher in Tibet. Kyila went to UK and Dachung went to Beijing on scholarship for higher study. Both have returned and joined the blind school in Lhasa as faculty. Sonam graduated from high school with flying colors and preparing for university. She will be the first blind ever from Tibet to join any university. And Sabriye and her Braille Without Border is starting another school in Kerala, India to train both the blind and the sighted to establish similar satellite project around the world.

The documentary is inspiring and humbling. But thats not all. Surely watching six blind kids make their way to mountains is really awe-inspiring and teaches how with determination one can push the limits. But there is something more - a new perspective beyond that. It doesn't matter whether they finally made it to the summit, what matters is that they discovered themselves and made us the sighted viewers realize how narrow and blind we really are in our mentality and determination.