Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ideas alone don’t cut it

Last week a friend told me a really great idea for a film. In his mind it was the perfect idea and when I didn’t share his enthusiasm he was very disappointed. He kept telling me about the great visuals he was seeing in his head. Unfortunately they were all in his head and I was unable to see them the way he was seeing them. This happens very often especially with advertising guys who thrive on the short format which relies on communication of a single thought.

Writing for feature films is very unlike writing for advertisements where a random idea with a bunch of well executed visuals is enough to do the trick. In the longer format a great idea is only the beginning and in itself is not enough. It is the complete execution that makes or breaks the narrative. Taking an idea and shaping it into a 100 page script takes a lot of doing. In any case there are plenty of people who think the same way and have similar ideas, that is probably why ideas alone can not be copyrighted. For the same reason the fear that an idea will be stolen and made into a film is really unfounded. It doesn’t happen as often as is thought. It takes a lot of hard work to write an original script even if you have a cracker of an idea. Bollywood is famous in my opinion for adaptations from foreign DVDs and not for stealing ideas. And those of you who follow the Bollywood film scene will agree that most of the DVD adaptations are not very cleverly done.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Election Results

The election results today confirmed a long held belief for me. I believe that barring exceptions the next 15 years or so will see the party in power losing every major election. And this is going to happen regardless of performance or other populist measures that politicians adopt. The reasons are simple enough, India is changing very fast- for a small number it is progressing faster and they are getting ever richer. For the rest the lack of speed in progress (this is not be confused with no progress) when compared with the richer section is glaring and the government of the day will have to take the blame for it. And as every political combination is promising the same thing it is easy for voters to shift allegiance.

Knowledge that a party is only going to survive in power for one term can be both a blessing and a curse. A curse because there is no incentive for a politician do his job well if he knows that he is not going to survive the next election? But then I would not worry too much about the curse. When was the last time you saw an MLA or MP do a decent job in their domain? I would rather think of it as a blessing for honest politicians (I do hope politicians like Manmohan Singh take note of this) because it frees them from taking on populist measures in the name of vote bank politics. Why pander to vote banks if you know that you will only last one term.

YouTube for the Blind

I got a link forwarded to me by a friend the other day that shows the real power of the internet. The friend and some filmmakers have shot an interesting film for a blind school and have put it on YouTube for the world to watch. YouTube is an interesting alternative to expensive Television ad spots which NGO’s can seldom afford. The trick of course is to have a compelling video that will gather enough clicks through word of mouth. Follow the link to check out the video and see if it is good enough for you to forward to your friends which I think is the true test of the creative.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscars and Filmfare- Yawn!

This weekend saw the most awaited award shows of the year. Television beamed Filmfare and the Oscars. I happened to catch a bit of both. The Oscars were a yawn, possibly because it was very early in the morning and I had not yet really woken up, and never really got me involved. Also, the montages seemed to go on forever and I wondered why an Italian speaking guy was allowed to ramble on forever while Clint Eastwood waited to translate what he said. I just couldn’t focus enough on them to make much sense and finally gave up and went on to have breakfast.

The Filmfare awards on the other hand were more on the money. From whatever little I saw they tried very hard to be like the Oscars which is usual. That they failed to look either classy or convincing with their “I scratch your back, you do mine” awards and speeches was also true to form. As is usually the case there were a few corny dances, with fat ungainly actors/ess’s being shown up by the much fitter and talented background dancers, and comedy routines. Also usual were some very cornyly created awards which are designed to make every powerful person in Bollywood happy. Basically it was the same old same old.
One comment that struck a discordant chord was when Shahrukh Khan towards the later part of the show said “Here come the biggies”. He went on to clarify that he meant the “biggies” were the best actor/ess, best director and best film awards. Once again it showed how little tact is on display at the Filmfare awards or in Bollywood generally. That there is very little regard for the technicians work and contribution to the process of film making is something one has grown to accept. However, the pompousness of the two anchors was very amusing to see.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From 30 seconds to 2 hours

With more advertising guys finding success in the longer format there is a tacit acceptance within the film industry about the ad filmmaker’s ability to communicate effectively over the duration of 2 hours. This was not always so. I remember when as a cub I happened to be shooting with a big name Hindi film cinematographer on a tire commercial. Being the production papplu I was the most responsible person on the set and I caught it from all ends especially from the esteemed cinematographer. I was subjected to a constant barrage of disparaging comment and criticism because I was an advertising guy and advertising guys were considered idiots. It was another matter that the big name DOP didn’t know his ass from his elbow and took three days to shoot a simple commercial that was probably the worst lit I’ve ever seen.

At that time I couldn’t understand why advertising people were so looked down upon. From what I’d seen they worked much harder (in fact shooting around the clock followed by editing was not unusual), were more tech savvy, were very organized (storyboarding was unheard off in the Hindi film industry then) armed with shot breakdowns and managed to tell a complete story in 30 seconds. I’d noticed that the Hindi film biggies of the time didn’t have a script on set in most cases and generally did not manage to tell a story even after 3 hours. Still the caste system in the industry was such that ad filmmakers just didn’t stand a chance. Yet it was always a dream for ad filmmakers to make a feature film. It always has been I guess.

15 years later much has changed. Today if you announce that you are an ad filmmaker with a script for a feature film the doors are not automatically slammed in your face. They are not opened either lest you think being an adfilmmaker is a shortcut into Bollywood, but lets just say that it is less impossible now. There are some who still believe that the film industry “belongs” to the film wallas but they are a dying breed. The film industry is relatively more open for outsiders now.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Did you watch Koffee with the Queen?

I saw the new season opener and it left me feeling that all four on screen had a lot of personal baggage.
Rani was closest to being a beauty contestant. All her answers were measured and had the same fakeness that we have gotten used to seeing at the Miss India contests. Kajol and her constant giggling really got on my nerves. Her crack about Rakhi Sawant was in extremely poor taste. I wonder what will happen if their paths cross. Comparatively Shah Rukh Khan looked almost intelligent.
Karan Johar seemed to have the most on his mind. His constant reference to his lame film “KANK” and the crack about him not being one of the queens on the show seemed to reflect his state of mind. Bugger it, nobody cares about your sexual orientation if you can let it go. Then again maybe I am asking him to give up an important PR tool.
I wonder if the 2nd season will be as successful with the same set of guests as last year. To make a go of this season Karan Johan must expand his guest list to include people beyond his kitty party list.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Writing for feature films

It is easily the most frustrating thing I do. It takes forever and at the end of it all nobody wants to read it. Not even friends or relatives. I have to sometimes rely on blackmail to get a read out of people.

Once I am ready with the first draft the really hard part of being a writer begins; trying to sell your script to a prospective producer/actor/director. The film business is a very strange business. Everyone complains that there are no good scripts or writers. Yet, nobody wants to read a script or meet a writer. I guess the business works on a “friendly” basis. They’d rather hear a friend tell them, in 5 minutes or less, a great concept over a few drinks (and maybe a couple of hits) in a really noisy bar. I suspect that a lot of the producers and actors in our industry are illiterate so reading is not really an option. The Joey character from the series Friends is not that way off the mark. There is one good part to it though; there is very little chance that anyone will steal a script that they haven’t read.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Acting like a monkey

Why is it that whenever Indian commercials show an Italian setting the male cast always has to act like a stupid monkey?
I saw the new Milano commercial. If I didn’t know Hrithik from all his pictures I would have thought the big idea of the commercial was a chimp makes the cookies.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Time it

Ever tried to get 41 words into a 10 seconder? You need more than a bullet train to get it done. How often do writers time the words they write? One would think it is a simple enough thing to do, but it obviously isn’t. The next time you are writing a commercial take a watch and time yourself doing the action. If it fits in real life it will fit in the film. Filmmakers don’t use any magic with time.

Formats currently in use for films in order of my preference:

35mm film
Digital Betacam
Mini DV

Less is more!

Think of film the way you think of a press ad. Nobody likes a crowded press ad and there is no reason why a film should be different.

Very often I get TVC scripts where the writer, probably after the client has clobbered him/her on the head, has written about 5 or 7 great attributes of a product. It is possible that they may all be true; however, to effectively communicate it all through a 30 second TVC might need a superman of a film. And we all know how few films fit into that category. The upshot is that all 5 messages will be communicated in a kichdi form. Of course your client will be happy but the film will get lost amongst a million similar films. If you are writing a film it is very important to have a clear goal and a singular message. Most commercials lose sight of this basic fact. Clients will try to maximize the opportunity by adding as much information as they can, but a smart writer knows just how much is enough. Wear a helmet to work but stick to your guns, reject all briefs that ask you to do more than one thing in a single piece of creative.

The logic that the film is going to run a million times and all 5 messages will come through because of repeated hammering is flawed. The consumer is simply going to switch off.