Inspiring Incident

100 Things I Love About Movies


It’s good to have rituals. It’s good to reaffirm your faith in certain institutions. And clearly, if you’re reading this site, then you know that cinema is one of those institutions. It’s time for another “100 Things I Love About Movies” list. As you may recall from the other times I’ve performed this exercise, this list isn’t a top 100, nor is it the ONLY 100 things I love about movies. It’s a snapshot of 100 specific things I love about movies. A complete list of things I love about movies would be staggering, as is the case for most of us.

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Reviews, Screenwriting

Lootera: A visual feast


Lootera | 2013 | Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane | Screenplay by Bhavani Iyer and Vikramaditya Motwane


Udaan was released a little less than three years ago (I seem to be obsessed with numbers today). VM already appears to be one of those auteurs who take their time to deliver. And boy does he deliver. Lootera is a treat.

I write this after this blog post at F.I.G.H.T C.L.U.B, which contains Vikramaditya Motwane’s very candid and supremely awesome responses to pertinent questions. RESPECT!

  • Though it is perhaps still too early to gauge VM’s thematic inclinations, I’m going to try anyway:
    • Stories within stories: VM has a story-fetish (I mean this in an entirely good way). Like Rohan in Udaan, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) wants to be a writer. She delights in reading poetry aloud, and her father tells her a sweet bedtime story when she is sick. For Motwane’s characters, stories seem to offer both escape and reprieve. For the audience, it establishes a bond with the characters. We like stories and so do those people whose stories we’re watching.
    • Rejection of patriarchal authority: In both Udaan and Lootera, the protagonists are trapped in lives that have been chosen for them by patriarchs. In Udaan, Rohan is forced to study engineering and work in his father’s factory. In Lootera, Varun (Ranveer Singh) is an orphan and a thief – we get a sense that this is a destiny chosen for him by his uncle. When Varun tries to ‘escape’ from this ‘prison,’ he dies (a classic noir trope).
  • Period films are hard to come by in Indian cinema. Lootera is aware of this. Early on in the film, when Varun enters Pakhi’s world pretending to be an archaeologist, he tells her zamindar father that there is an old civilization buried around the house – he’s come to find it. Though this is a lie, it is an irresistibly resonant lie – ours are times when monuments fall to disrepair. I know I’m reading too much into a minor line, but I want to believe this was a conscious thing. Oh well.
  • I’m more comfortable talking about the screenplay here because it’s co-written by the director. The screenplay’s strength lies in the economy of its dialogue – exposition is minimal, and I liked that. In times where voice-overs and flashbacks are the narrative norm, Lootera is a refreshing change. Humor lies in genuinely comic situations (like Varun’s attempt at painting a leaf) rather than slapstick gags. This strength, however, becomes a weakness when the economy is broken. Varun and Pakhi’s occasional emotional outbursts appear jarringly melodramatic and out of place. An example is the first act scene where Pakhi confronts Varun at the ‘archaeological site.’ It seems like it belongs in another film. For a second I thought they were aiming for a 50s tone, but I’d prefer not to go with that assumption because the tone is still inconsistent with the rest of the film. One wishes VM and Iyer had maintained their restraint.
  • That said, the aspect that carries this film for its 143 minutes is undoubtedly its visual style. Cinematographer Mahendra Shetty finds ways to use minimalist, natural light in a manner that augments the action in any given scene. I expect one would be tempted to go with cozy yellows for a period narrative like this (especially the first half), but there are moments when he douses the frame in a soft, natural blue (I recall a scene in the library that used both soft yellow and a very natural blue/white to incredible effect). I’m sold. The first half is all doused in a cozy, understated elegance, the second half in a kind of raw and harsh white. Costume designer Subarna Ray Chaudhuri (whose credits include Parineeta) makes Shetty’s task much easier. The scenery chews the scenery.
  • The staging of scenes is occasionally reminiscent of Udaan. Like the moment where Pakhi breaks down in her car, and the camera cuts to a wide shot of the car with the mustard field in the foreground – it’s a beautiful shot, but a visual setup very similar to that used in Udaan when Rohan bashes the shit out of daddy’s car.
  • A key weakness for me was story. Though I’m the kind of viewer who is a sucker for visual style, the plot in general seemed laid out a little too simplistically – the Interval as usual forces a typical Indian 2 Act structure upon the narrative. First half – heist and fall in love. Second half – the Lootera is chased and love matures. I cannot express how frustrating this neat ‘splitting into two halves’ has become. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Raanjhanaa and now Lootera – just to name a few. I know it’s an industry norm, an imperative, but why? If a viewer likes the film, no amount of soporific fatty foods will keep him or her away. The problem is that it makes the plot immediately predictable. You can sense an intermission moment coming, and it’s maddening – a major turn or reversal has just occurred, and close-ups get closer up and the music rises to a crescendo. Lootera, unlike the other films I just mentioned, is even more predictable than the others because of a trailer that gave everything away, and its publicized incorporation of elements from The Last Leaf. The narrative lacked an element of surprise, and that is what usually keeps an audience hooked – what happens next? At no point did I feel surprised by something a character did, which is my only major grievance with this film.
  • One surprise was how Lootera‘s plot, in very basic terms, mirrored that of Raanjhana (which had a more complex story, but fell short on other counts). Both films are about young men who destroy the lives of their loved ones, and then spend most of Act 2 fighting for forgiveness. Tea seems to be the peace offering of choice, which the women in both films dramatically reject. Both films have grooms abandon their brides on the day of the wedding.
  • A powerful narrative element emerges from this comparison: one character’s future is almost completely in the hands of another. In Raanjhana, Kundan devotes himself to gaining Zoya’s forgiveness, and she has total control over what his fate should be. He dies. In Lootera, Pakhi can choose to give Varun up to the police, but she doesn’t. In Barfi! too, there is a memorable scene at the end when Shruti leads Barfi away from the special-care home, while Jhilmil calls out Barfi’s name. Barfi, of course, cannot hear her. It’s a moment where Shruti exercises total control over Barfi’s fate – if she so chooses, Barfi will never know that Jhilmil is around and Shruti will have Barfi all to herself.
  • Divya Dutta is probably the most underutilized actress in Bollywood. She needs about 3 seconds on screen to make you cry along with her. There’s just never enough of her. Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh have probably found roles of a lifetime in VM’s hands.
  • Re: the music, I felt they ought to have gone with an entirely 1950s-type score. Though Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya create a formidable team and the music is great in it’s own right – it is at times a bit excessive and tends to overpower the narrative. A scene when I felt assaulted by it was the scene when Pakhi and Varun kissed for the first time. Music tends to tell you how to feel. Don’t do that, Music?

I seem to have rambled on. Point is: it’s been more than 8 hours since I watched this film and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s past 3 AM and I’m inspired enough to keep going on and on. It isn’t a great film, it isn’t a ‘masterpiece,’ but it is an important film in 2013 because it is different. And it’s VM’s second. And it’s stunning to behold.

Don’t miss it?

Screenwriting, What They Said

In focus: Bhavani Iyer

I was in the middle of working through my thoughts on Lootera, when I went off on a tangent trying to find out more about Bhavani Iyer, who co-wrote the screenplay. Her past credits include Guzaarish and Black. In my hunt, I found this heartfelt defense of Indian cinema she wrote for Outlook back in 2006. A paragraph I found particularly resonant:

“We love it all, the Salvador Dali sets, the Rubenesque heroines, the too-good-to-be-true heroes, the hysterical one-dimensional vixens, the lack of white space. Largesse is our dream and a fierce unworldliness our characteristic. And almost always, all that glitters is great cinema. So what? We laugh with tears in our eyes, cry with a smile on our faces—we want to be part of that world on the silver screen and don’t like to feel excluded from the goings-on.”

Do check out the links below if you’re interested in knowing more about Bhavani Iyer and her craft.

Related articles:


Screenwriting, What They Said

Vikramaditya Motwane responds to our criticism of Lootera

Vikramaditya Motwane responds to criticism of Lootera.

F.i.g.h.t C.l.u.b

I got to watch the film on Tuesday. This was amidst too much hype, too much expectation, pressure to like/dislike instantly, and too eager to react. By that time reactions from the film fraternity had already started pouring in. And as a member of the crew told me during the screening, honestly, it’s impossible to make out anything from the pre-release screenings. Also, if one has read the script, one might be reacting differently from others.

In terms of reactions, Lootera has turned out to be strangely divisive films. The reaction of critics and audience going in extreme directions is quite obvious for most films these days. But here the critics rating varied from 2.5 to 5 stars. I can only think of Dev D which went further extreme and got ratings from 1 to 5 stars, and everything in between. But strangely, the audience reaction have also been…

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Screenwriting, What They Said

David Lynch on ‘endings’

“What I learned is that a feature film has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a beautiful thing and you can do so much within that form, but at the same time we’ve seen so many films that are like verses and choruses. You know what’s coming up and you can feel it go from the beginning to the middle and you can feel the ending coming. Television is so appealing because you can have a continuing story that will lead you here and lead you there. Something could come up and could relate to something from way back long ago. I love detective novels, but at the end you know the answer and it’s really pretty depressing to me, because it always seems a little too simple. I think the film Chinatown has one of the most beautiful endings. It gives you so much room to dream.”

– Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers, George Stevens, Jr., 2012

Screenwriting, What They Said

Satyajit Ray

“When writing an original story, my predilection is for working densely within a restricted field in terms of time and space. Planning the story of Nayak, I dismissed quite early the notion of an orderly, step-by-step account of the making of a matinee idol. That seemed to belong to the cinema of the thirties and forties. In the film, the hero’s part is revealed in flashbacks and dreams which make inroads into a very tight time-space pattern (twenty-four hours in a train).”

– Some Aspects of My Craft; Our Films, Their Films, 1976

Screenwriting, What They Said

Akira Kurosawa

“In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.”

– Some Random Notes on Filmmaking, 1975 (as adapted by Audie E. Bock)


Susan Sontag on ‘The Imagination of Disaster’

I’m going to let Susan Sontag do the talking.

In 1965, she wrote The Imagination of Disaster, a landmark essay in American film criticism. She noted that a ‘typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which, to a practiced eye, are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.’ 

She then goes on to describe a number of model scenarios followed by science fiction films.

Per her analysis, the film that should be ‘in color and on a wide screen’ proceeds through five phases:

‘(1) The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien spaceship, etc.) This is usually witnessed or suspected by just one person, a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girl friend.

(2) Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

(3) In the capital of the country, conferences between scientists and the military take place, with the hero lecturing before a chart, map, or blackboard. A national emergency is declared. Reports of further destruction. Authorities from other countries arrive in black limousines. All international tensions are suspended in view of the planetary emergency. This stage often includes a rapid montage of news broadcasts in various languages, a meeting at the UN, and more conferences between the military and the scientists. Plans are made for destroying the enemy. 

(4) Further atrocities. At some point the hero’s girl friend is in grave danger. Massive counter-attacks by international forces, with brilliant displays of rocketry, rays, and other advanced weapons, are all unsuccessful. Enormous military casualties, usually by incineration. Cities are destroyed and/or evacuated. There is an obligatory scene here of panicked crowds stampeding along a highway or a big bridge, being waved on by numerous policemen who, if the film is Japanese, are immaculately white-gloved, preternaturally calm, and call out in dubbed English, “Keep moving. There is no need to be alarmed.”

(5) More conferences, whose motif is: “They must be vulnerable to something.” Throughout the hero has been working in his lab to this end. The final strategy, upon which all hopes depend, is drawn up; the ultimate weapon – often a super-powerful, as yet untested, nuclear device – is mounted. Countdown. Final repulse of the monster or invaders. Mutual congratulations, while the hero and girl friend embrace cheek to cheek and scan the skies sturdily. “But have we seen the last of them?”‘


It is now 2013, and it’s incredibly unnerving how Man of Steel hits more than just a few of these notes.

(Roland Emmerich’s 2012, of course, seems to have been crafted directly out of this essay.)

Screenwriting, WGA 101

#97 The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers | 1956 | Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent | Based on the novel of the same name by Alan Le May | Directed by John Ford

‘He is ETHAN EDWARDS, a man as hard as the country he is crossing.’

This is how Ethan is introduced to us in Frank S. Nugent’s stellar screenplay. Character introductions are notoriously hard to write, and  this is one of the best I’ve ever read. Brief, and tells you everything you need to know about Ethan and the world we’re about to experience. Though Nugent goes on to describe Ethan’s attire in detail, that is perhaps because of the close collaboration with John Ford.

And since we’re on this topic, can’t help posting Noah Cross’ introduction in Chinatown (an all-time favorite intro). This introduction comes in at page 74 of the October 1973 draft:

”The wagon comes to a halt where a group of hands are clustered around a corral.  The circle of men drift apart, leaving JULIAN CROSS standing, using a cane for support, reedy but handsome in a rough linen shirt and jeans. When he talks his strong face is lively, in repose it looks ravaged.’

Do you sense the subtext here? ‘Lively’ versus ‘ravaged’?

Back to The Searchers.

This is a movie where John Ford has as much to do with the screenplay as Frank S. Nugent. It contains Ford’s scathing attack on racism and prejudice (a fact grossly misunderstood at the time of its release).

For those who haven’t watched this yet: read the screenplay and then watch the movie. If you’re up to reading the novel, that would be the best starting point.

And here are at least 3 reasons why:

  • Character. Ethan is dark. Very dark. As Arthur M. Eckstein notes in his wonderful analysis (see link below), Ethan’s character was deliberately darkened as the material progressed through its various mediums – novel to script to screen. This is easily one of the best character studies in cinema that I’ve ever seen.
  • Visual storytelling. The Searchers is an intensely visual experience, and one of my favorite moments in the film is one where it is made obvious to us that Martha and Ethan love each other. This occurs early on, just before Ethan is about to embark with the Rangers. Captain/Rev. Clayton looks on disapprovingly as Ethan and Martha show us their love for each other not by talking or snogging; it is made obvious by glances and tender gestures. In Nugent’s screenplay, the fact that they love each is actually mentioned expressly in the scene descriptions. Ford, instead of opting for vocal protestations of love, decides to show us. You won’t find this scene in the screenplay.
  • Fear and dread.  There is a scene early on where the Edwards’ homestead is soon to be attacked. We know they fear the Comanches, but the scene where they know the Comanches are drawing close is harrowing; a masterpiece. Throughout this sequence, we are given only one glimpse of Scar (a Comanche), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanches. The feelings of fear and dread are built up merely by the knowledge of an impending attack, and the reaction this evokes from the Edwards. A more recent example of how to build fear or dread is Benedek Fliegauf’s Just the Wind. Not in the same league, but a wonderful film in its own right.

One of these days, I hope I get the time to analyse this in far more detail.

For now, read Eckstein’s article. Also linked a few other resources that are relevant.

I have simply no idea why this is ranked #97.

It should be much, much higher.


Dangerous Curves Ahead

Hammered out 6 more pages of my fourth screenplay, taking the total page count up to 11. Got to get this ready in time for Sundance. Possible? Impossible? I’ll find out. From this point on, I’m gonna call this my Sundance Screenplay. Current difficulty: marrying parallel plotlines, intercutting. Why do I always complicate things? A couple more pages and then everyone will be in one place. Yay.

A point I forgot to mention about On the Waterfront is this: to write good dialogue, you’ve got to listen. D’you remember some of the dialogue from the movie? When Terry says he’d take it outta their skulls? Or when Father Barry gives his big speech right after Kayo’s death? These bits are taken almost verbatim from real life. Schulberg went around meeting real people on the waterfront, documenting their dialogue. I’m not a huge fan of the movie, but there’s no doubting the merits of its screenplay.

Also watched All About Eve. Crackling dialogue, such great manipulation of plot and character. This is what drives great drama, isn’t it? One character manipulating another. It’s aged beautifully. I’ve only read parts of Mankiewicz’s screenplay, though. Hope to read the whole thing soon.

Watched a couple of episodes of The Prisoner (the original British TV series from 1967-68). Patrick McGoohan is such a star. Can’t get enough of his eyebrow dynamics. But what a fantastic thriller! What an odd medley of surrealism, science fiction and mystery! Makes me wonder if David Lynch borrowed some of his color design from here. The grey walls reminded me immediately of Inland Empire.

Also, the House of Cards pilot. For the third time. I just can’t get tired of it. So much to learn.

First, Kevin Spacey’s Francis is just so deliciously bad. The opening sequence is important, because it sets the tone for the entire first season. Here’s a guy who’s willing to do what’s ‘necessary’. The thing that no one else would do (like putting down a dog who’s in pain). The scene is difficult to stomach for some, but it strikes the right tone for his character. Here’s a man who’s willing to kill a dog with his bare hands. How far can he go? We’re drawn in with this question, and then as he’s passed over re the Secretary of State nomination, we start to root for him, and watch with bated breath as he deals himself a few cards, readying for battle. He creates his pawns. It’s like the slow starting of the battle engine. He’s a master of manipulation, and that is what keeps us hooked.

Second, the dialogue. Remember the wonderful exchanges between Francis and Claire? I find myself waiting for those scenes, and it isn’t just because the acting is so good. The dialogue is as crisp as it can get. I know this because I’ve seen a couple of versions of the pilot draft, so I can see how much work went into writing those scenes, stripping the dialogue down to achieve maximum effect. Case in point: My husband does not apologize.  So much of their respective characters is revealed in those cold, sparse scenes, those icy sentences.

Also, I want Robin Wright’s clothes. Even though I can’t wear them. I just want them.