The Great Gatsby

Emotions survive beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour

The Great Gatsby; Pic source: Wikipedia

I must confess that I picked up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby after I got to know that the Australian filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann is adapting it for the big screen. I had not seen the earlier cinematic adaptations and knew nothing about the story. Gatsby was as much a mystery to me as he is to the other characters in the book. I made his acquantaince when I was in his adopted city, New York. I started reading the book at an airport with snow falling outside; the beauty and the sadness of the story enveloped me over the course of a seven-hour flight. By the time I reached the destination, I was in love with the book, the characters and the idea of the film.

I wondered if Luhrmann, known for his opulent and indulgent productions, be able to do justice to the story? When the initial reviews came in, I was most intrigued by this headline in The Playlist: “The Great Gatsby is a decadently empty tale of empty decadence and impossible love”. After watching the film, I can say that it’s partly true and partly not. The Great Gatsby is certainly a tale of empty decadence and impossible love… that’s what Fitzgerald tried to say in 1925, and that’s what Luhrmann has successfully managed to capture in the film. His excesses are breathtakingly beautiful and at times vulgar… we are mesmerized as well as disgusted, just like Nick Carraway, the narrator, the wall-flower in this story – he silently observes, gets seduced by the world of the rich and famous and then leaves disillusioned. The director largely stays true to the book and the theme of impossible love. That’s where I disagree with The Playlist, The Great Gatsby is not a decadently empty tale; beneath the veneer of glitz and glamour, the emotions survive. Luhrmann manages to give you both hope and despair and you’re able to empathise with and hope for Gatsby attaining his dream.

When I read the book, Fitzgerald’s characters appeared as real in 2013 as they were in the 1920s where the story is set. I had met Daisys and Toms and Jordans and Nicks in my life… but not some one like Jay Gatsby. The film manages to portray the characters in the same manner and the actors are able to draw the emotions just like the book. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect for the role of Jay Gatsby and he delivers… he is vulnerable in some scenes and in some he shows the enthusiasm and nervousness of a boy on his first day at school. Watch out for the scene where he waits to meet Daisy after many years and the one where he tells Nick that you can relive the past… you know he is in denial and you are Nick at that time. Tobey Maguire is good as a young, aspiring writer and I wish they had done away with the whole writing a book thing with him as a narrative tool. Joel Edgerton is perfect as Tom Buchanan, an arrogant, rich bully while newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki appears cool, calm and confident as Jordan Baker, a golf player and socialite. I actually find Jordan’s character quite interesting as like Nick, she observes the lives of Tom, Daisy and Jay but remains aloof. She says something very simple that defines who she is and says a lot about the story, “I love large parties, they are so intimate; at small parties there isn’t any privacy”. Daisy is perhaps one of the most interesting female lead characters ever written; she is in love, she is emotionally torn but she is also a particular type of person that we discover slowly. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (screenplay) have tried to balance the flippant socialite side of her with how Gatsby sees her. Carey Mulligan gives a fine performance as Daisy and looks the part with her diamond tiaras and chandelier dresses. Among the supporting cast, the most interesting part belongs to Amitabh Bachchan who plays a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim. While the character gets limited screen time, it is an important part and Bachchan manages to carry it off with élan. Myrtle Wilson’s important character in the book gets less prominence in the film but is performed well by Isla Fisher. Jason Clarke plays her husband, George Wilson, the always drunk garage owner; once again it is an under-leveraged character, maybe because of the already long duration of the film (143 minutes).

I’d like to give a special mention for the technicians who worked on this ambitious film project, which in true Luhrmann style is also an over-the-top art project. Oscar winner, Catherine Martin who is also Luhrmann’s wife, takes credit for the opulent sets and costumes for which she collaborated with Brooks Brothers (Gatsby), Tiffany’s and Prada (Daisy). Simon Duggan’s cinematography is good for most parts but the fast (read really fast) camera movements make it a little unsettling for the viewers, especially in 3D. It took me some time to get used to the the film just like it did with the high frame rate cinematography used in The Hobbit. Once my eyes settled and the camera slowed down to rest on the characters, I enjoyed the use of 3D to give depth to the scenes. Another distraction that the makers could have avoided is the highly-stylized appearance of words from Nick’s journal, typewriter and narrative on the screen.

While some of my fellow movie watchers expected a more authentic 1920s style jazz, I quite enjoyed the modern interpretation with hip-hop influence in the film’s score, produced by Jay-Z and music arranger, Elliot Wheeler. The songs I quite enjoyed are Lana Del Ray’sYoung and Beautiful”, “Love is Blindness” performed by Jack White and “Back to Black” by Beyoncé and André 3000. I’d also like to mention the excellent job done by the film’s marketing and public relations team; they haven’t left a stone unturned to make it the most talked about and buzziest film this summer.

Unlike the great American novel, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may not be the great American film but it certainly is an entertaining one with its heart in place. Do watch it if you don’t mind playing along with the director’s over-the-top style and indulgences. 

The Great Gatsby’s famous first edition cover, illustrated by Francis Cugat;
Pic source: Wikipedia

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Bombay Talkies

Celebrating the art of story-telling with 100-years of Indian cinema

Bombay Talkies; Pic source: Wikipedia

Indian cinema is not only about song and dance, colourful costumes and overtly emotional characters. I am glad that the film made to commemorate hundred-years of our cinema looks beyond all these clichés and focuses on story-telling. Bombay Talkies has four interesting short films by four directors who represent the modern Indian cinema (read Bollywood in this case) – Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. While a true tribute would have been filmmakers from other regions also participating (think of an anthology with films in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and English), it would have been a tough project to sell commercially. Maybe, we’ll see something like that soon but for now I applaud the effort called Bombay Talkies, which is not an outstanding film but is a brave attempt that needs to be appreciated.

My views on the four short films in Bombay Talkies, in order of my preference (minor spoilers ahead):

Star by Dibakar Banerjee

Based on Satyajit Ray’s short story, Patol Babu Filmstar, Dibakar Banerjee’s Star is as much about failed ambitions as it is about hope and happiness. It is a poignant tale about a father who does not have a new bedtime story for his ailing daughter… it is about a failed actor who gets a shot at stardom in his own small way. Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Purandar is simply outstanding and the last two minutes of this short are bound to leave you teary-eyed and in awe of this actor’s talent. It is also great to see Sadashiv Amrapurkar return to screen in a well written cameo. Banerjee’s style is lucid and the story touches you emotionally more than the others in the film. He puts an emu in the chawl to describe the lead character’s failure in business and you see the bird again in another important scene. Banerjee grows with each film and is not afraid to experiment; from Khosla Ka Ghosla to Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye; Love, Sex Aur Dhoka to Shanghai and now Star, he is what the Doctor prescribed for Bollywood’s problem of recycling everything.

Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh by Karan Johar

He who makes multi-million dollar blockbusters that are known for their flamboyance than cinematic artistry, has turned the tables with this small-budget, realistic short film. With this film, we discover a new Karan Johar where he doesn’t have to stress about the three hundred Caucasian dancers in designer Indian costumes or the waist size of his gorgeous leading lady. He is focused on telling a story here, he is focused on dismantling all that is Karan-Joharesque about his cinema… However, he hasn’t given up on the quality and the people he works with; ace cinematographer, Anil Mehta has shot the film, Manish Malhotra has styled Rani Mukherjee, who herself is a Dharma Productions regular. It is also a film where Johar steps out of a cliché ridden world where homosexuality is about effeminate caricatures (Rishi Kapoor in Student of the Year), scandalizing domestic help (Kanta Ben in Kal Ho Na Ho) or Punjabi mothers (Maa Da Laadla Bigad Gaya in Dostana). He takes a bold approach and establishes the main protaganist’s sexuality in the first scene itself. Saqib Saleem is a great new find; I say new as this is the film that will get him noticed and not his earlier outings like Mujhse Fraandship Karoge and Mere Dad Ki Maruti. He is confident and comfortable with the character he plays – an intern at a Bollywood tabloid who strikes an unlikely friendship with his associate editor. The other male actor in this story, Randeep Hooda is also well cast as a serious news presenter who loves old Hindi music and leads a predictable, loveless life. Rani Mukherjee returns to what she does the best… she is natural and relatable. She plays a wife who knows that her marriage is dead but keeps up the appearances. This is Karan Johar that we have never seen before and hope to see more in future.

Sheila Ki Jawani by Zoya Akhtar

It’s a story about a little boy who dreams of becoming a dancer while his strict father (Ranvir Shorey) wants him to do something ‘appropriate’ for a boy. It is also a story about the relationship between a brother and a sister, biases and unfair societal norms – “a boy should be interested in sports while a girl should be happy with a doll”; “it’s better to invest in a boy’s future than a girl who will eventually go away”. The boy finds himself burdened with his father’s expectations but is not willing to give up on his dreams. He gets this strength from his supportive sister, a year or two elder to him and an unlikely guardian angel, Katrina Kaif. Akhtar’s last film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was a big hit and it wasn’t only because of the star power and the breathtaking locales; this director knows how to tell stories, which was clear from her critically acclaimed, yet commercially average first film, Luck By Chance. Here, she simply works with an idea and not a fleshed out story, but with her superior narrative style and the lovely performances by the two child actors (Naman Jain and Khushi Dubey), the film works.

Murabba by Anurag Kashyap

Here’s a filmmaker who is truly changing the face of Hindi cinema. His films are bold, have daring or unexpected themes and usually feature new talent. He is what Ram Gopal Verma was to the Hindi film industry in his prime – a promise of changing the way films are made and watched in India; a promise to break the mold and cross the boundaries to create truly international cinema. Where RGV failed, Kashyap seems to be succeeding… films produced and directed by him are a regular feature at prestigious international film festivals including Cannes; Indian audience is open to buying a ticket for a film made by him despite no big film stars. That is why I was most curious about his short film, Murabba in Bombay Talkies. I liked the film but not as much as I liked the other three. Murabba looks at the Indian film-goers and their connection with cinema. We say cricket is a religion in India and so is cinema; nothing binds our people more than these two passions that most Indians are born with. A young man from Illahabad, Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh), comes to meet Amitabh Bachchan in Mumbai to offer him a piece of murabba (sweet fruit pickle) as per his ailing father’s wish. He stands outside the mega star’s house and waits for a chance to meet him for two-minutes. He is confident of a warm reception on his arrival as he hails from the same city and colony where Bachchan came from originally. He is let down when the star’s guards shoo him away but he doesn’t give up. The other interesting angle in the film is how we Indians like to brag and tell stories. It is an absurd story that holds your interest till a certain point but then it leaves you unsatisfied unlike the other three stories.

Bombay Talkies is good experiment that largely works and in the hope of seeing more such collaborations and innovation by our filmmakers, I urge you all to buy a ticket and see this film.

PS: Please walk out of the theatre before the terrible title song video featuring about twenty stars comes on-screen with the end credits.