A Minute With: Farhan Akhtar

No wonder, it's all anyone seems to ask him these days, especially after the success of "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara".

Akhtar is back to where he started out in Bollywood -- as a director -- and his latest film, a sequel to his 2006 "Don" is one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

Starring Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra, the film opens in cinemas on December 23.

Akhtar spoke to Reuters about "Don 2", action films in India and why he decided to make a sequel to a remake.

Q: What are the ingredients to make a slick, good-looking Bollywood action thriller?

A: "Well, there are two things -- the look is one thing -- and storywise, what is happening, is another. And I feel with ‘Don 2' I got an opportunity to do a very good action with the kind of pace that I would like an action film to have. Because more often than not, when we write action movies, we have the hero and the villain, but we also have romance and comedy, emotional drama and other things going on. I wanted to do away with the frills and focus just on the action and the action moving the story forward. The ‘love' angle in this movie is also interesting because it's between two characters who hate each other.

"As far as the look is concerned, it's choosing the right locations, deciding what you want the look of your film to be like, your colour palette, how contemporary you want the costumes and the hair, and then shooting it in a way that makes for dynamic, interesting framing. I would not for example treat ‘Lakshya' the way I treated ‘Don'. So when you have the opportunity to show off a bit with the camera, you do it (smiles)."

Q: So there are no frills in this one then?

A: "Yeah, this film, from the word go, is just moving towards one thing and to me that kind of action movie is always interesting. There is no straying, he (Don) is moving towards a target and there are people and things getting in his way, and you want to know whether he'll get there or kill everyone on the way."

Q: What do you think of the action genre in Bollywood and are you influenced by it?

A: "To me, action has to come from the plot. To me ‘Qurbani' was a good action film -- it was fast, had one plot and moved along at a pace and it didn't really divert attention. And apart from that there are many, but none that spring to mind immediately.

"Our action movies are slightly more wholesome, but on the other hand, that may be what audiences are looking for -- I don't want to second guess them. Hopefully they'll like what I make too."

Q: What about Western influences?

A: "Well, the first time I re-discovered the joy of watching an action movie was when I saw ‘Die Hard'. It was a completely simple plot -- a guy goes to meet his wife and the building gets taken over by terrorists -- but I was completely blown away. Great characters and it moved along really fast."

Q: Was a sequel always on the cards after you made the first film?

A: "No, it wasn't. I was very content with the way the first film ended. I felt that I said what I set out to say -- which is that it is impossible to catch this guy. Not only did he fool everyone in the film, but he fooled the audience as well. But the sequel really happened from inadvertently beginning to think about it because everywhere I went; people would ask me ‘why aren't you doing a sequel'.

"It's not that you are thinking about it but it's already in your head. So I started thinking about it and I met two writers who had some interesting ideas, so we all had a brainstorming session. So there were a lot of challenges in writing."

Q: We don't have a successful film franchise in India -- along the lines of a Superman or a Batman. Do you envisage ‘Don' to be that way?

A: "I think ‘Don' already has a fan following. It's amazing how it has a cult following. I know that people love the film. It depends. Thinking about a series isn't as important as thinking about that film. You cannot create a franchise just for the sake of it -- it's an insult to the character."

Q: Why 3D?

A: "Interesting question. The only way to answer that is ‘why not?' It hasn't been shot in 3D but now that I have seen the results, I am convinced that it gives a great effect. You should have the time to allow the conversion to happen and can think of how you want the 3D to happen, it can become an interesting way to watch the film.

"Again, it's a select audience who wants to watch it in 3D, but for those people who enjoy it, it's worth the investment."

Q: One thing we've had a lot of this year is Shah Rukh Khan, thanks to ‘Ra.One'. Are you worried that your main star has been over-exposed?

A: "I think Indians love their stars and they will come out to watch them no matter what. If there was that feeling, then the interest in ‘Don', both among the average cinegoer and the media wouldn't be as much. We wouldn't be getting as many calls for his time and interviews as we are. It's an entirely different film, and he's doing completely different things, so I don't think it matters."

Q: Initially, ‘Don' was a remake of a film and now it's a sequel to that remake. There was a copyright issue there, right?

"Yes, but the matter is in court."

'Bigg Boss' winner Juhi Parmar says honesty key to win

Parmar, 31, was declared the winner of the popular show over the weekend, trumping actors Amar Upadhyay, Akashdeep Saigal, Siddharth Bhardwaj and dancer Mahek Chahal to bag 10 million rupees in prize money.

"I won because I was very honest," Parmar told Reuters in an interview. "People think you have to play politics to win Bigg Boss but I did exactly the opposite."

"If I had a problem with someone, I would go up to them and tell them."

"Bigg Boss", India's take on the reality TV show "Big Brother", follows the international format and features celebrity contestants closeted in a house near Mumbai for three months with no access to the outside world.

The inmates of the house are subjected to a life of constant scrutiny, with dozens of cameras and microphones focusing on them. Each week, one of them is voted out.

"Bigg Boss", which saw ratings slump this season, started off with 12 women and one man -- Bollywood villain Shakti Kapoor -- in the house, but several male housemates were introduced in later episodes.

"They (the producers) thought that perhaps more women would mean more fights but in fact the opposite happened," says Parmar.

"When there were only women, there were no fights, only disagreements."

Contestants in this year's edition included adult film actress Sunny Leone, transgender activist Laxmi Narayan and Afghan model Vida Samadzai.

Cricketer Andrew Symonds, activist Swami Agnivesh and sumo wrestler Yamamotoyama made a guest appearance on the show.

Parmar, who made a name for herself acting in daily soaps, says she plans to use her winnings to secure the future of her children.

Big Brother (and Sister) is watching you

Last week a video clip of a morning show hosted by one Maya Khan on a local TV channel began doing the rounds. The clip shows Ms. Khan with a posse of assorted thirty-something women and a cameraman raiding a famous public park of Karachi and prowling the lush vicinity looking for young unmarried couples.

The idea was to confront ‘wayward’ young women and embarrass them for ‘betraying their parents’ trust’.

The very next day another video clip showing the same Maya Khan bouncing off the walls on TV via a dance routine that can at best be explained as a hefty personification of a rhythmic earthquake, appeared.

This thus perfectly capped the volatile moral state of Pakistan’s urban bourgeoisie that, especially in the last 15 years or so, have managed to grow two heads on a single body – one spouting loud moralistic clich├ęs while the other animatedly bopping up and down and sideways to the tune of assorted Bollywood masala numbers, as if totally oblivious about what the other head was harping about.

This also affirms the fact that contrary to popular perception, the ‘Islamization’ wave that began cutting through and across Pakistan from the 1980s onwards had little to do with the uneducated and the have-nots.

It was always and still is a phenomenon that is largely associated with the country’s urban middle and trader classes.

In the 1980s, a number of Islamist outfits had already made in-roads in the politics and sociology of Pakistan by riding on the Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation process.

But as most of them were highly militant and eventually got themselves ‘strategically’ linked with certain sections of the radicalised military institutions, it were the evangelical movements that managed to reap the most success within the country’s social and cultural milieu.

The largest of them was also the oldest. The ranks of the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ), a highly ritualistic Deobandi Islamic evangelical movement, swelled. But since the TJ was more a collection of working-class and petty-bourgeoisie cohorts and fellow travellers, newer evangelical outfits emerged with the idea of almost exclusively catering to the growing ‘born again’ trend being witnessed in the county’s middle and upper-middle classes in the 1990s.
Three of the most prominent organisations in this context were Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda, Zakir Naik’s ‘Islamic Research Foundation’ and Babar R. Chaudhry’s Arrahman Araheem (AA).

Naik, Hashmi and Chaudhry were all constructing feel-good narratives and apologias for the educated urbanites so that these urbanites could feel at home with religious ritualism, myth, attire and rhetoric while at the same time continue to enjoy the fruits of amoral modern materialism and frequent interaction with (Western and Indian) cultures that were otherwise described as being ‘anti-Islam.’

Of course, the whole question of such narratives smacking of contradiction went out the window as young middle-class Pakistanis admiringly saw pop and cricketing stars ‘rediscovering God’ with the help of the mentioned organizations – but not without the things that kept them materially satisfied (corporate contracts, modern fashion businesses, music products, etc).

Such contractions and their patrons were largely passive in orientation, but with the emergence of 24/7 electronic media in the last decade, they became more visible and evangelical and a lot more ‘popular’ – a happening that went down well with the cynical ratings-hungry TV channels.

What’s more, the trend in this respect is now no more the sole domain of the trendy ‘born-agains’.

One can even see decked-up film and TV actors and actresses, pop stars, morning show hosts and even chefs on cooking shows completely bypassing the irony and absurdity of them spouting the almost obligatory sentence or two about the need for piety and good morals in society.

Not that their respective passions and professions are immoral, but they are certainly not in step with the kind of pious spiritual alignments habitually advocated by these men and women and that too, smack-dab in the middle of topics and scenarios that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with religion.

Anupam Kher to launch his famous play as life-coaching programme

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher will soon launch his widely-acclaimed one-man play Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai as a life-coaching programme.

The play is the story of 57-year-old Kher's journey so far. He has a repertoire of over 450 films in a career spanning more than 25 years.

"My play Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai is my autobiography, the most creative product of my life that came along only because I needed to survive," he writes in his inspirational book The Best Thing About You is You, released recently by Hay House.

"Today I have completed over 225 shows of my play and it has become an extension of my philosophy. And I want to take that philosophy far and wide to reach as many people as possible, so that they too may share my life changing truths and benefit from my experiences," he writes.

"That is why I will soon be launching Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai as a life-coaching programme. It will contain the essence of life and living. And it could be the best thing that might happen to you yet because, as I always say, the best book about life is life itself!"

In his book, Kher, who has acted in films like Saraansh, Karma, Saudagar, Khosla Ka Ghosla and A Wednesday, reveals how a humble background need not be an obstacle in achieving success.

The 50 chapters of the book contain the author's views on a variety of topics like anger syndrome, the phenomenon of change, thought control, dealing with relationships, conquering stress, getting rid of fears, coming to terms with failure, realizing the power within oneself and coping with loss and death.

"This book is a first-hand account of what I have learned throughout my life and I won't be exaggerating when I say that my failures have helped me create the two most beautiful extensions of myself my acting school Actor Prepares and my play," he says.

Does Size Matter in Pakistan?

So cynically begins the trailer of Waar, the most exp - ensive (with a controverted budget of $2 million), the most slick and the most eagerly anticipated film in the history of Pakista ni cinema. On the first day of the release of the trailer on YouTube, Waar had over 1.5 lakh hits (it has raked in some 3.5 lakh more in the fortnight since) and made it to the website’s top five videos. Today, the film is widely slated as the one that will singlehandedly revive the terminally ill Pakistani film industry. No mean feat for an incomplete film with a top-secret storyline; by a team comprising a rookie director, producer and scriptwriter; in a country that can’t even remember its glorious cinematic past. And, to top it all, more than half of the film is in English, a language not spoken by vast swathes of Pakistan.

So why the fuss? “Waar is an important film because it is a big-budget, mainstream feature film with mainstream stars dealing with an import - ant topic: counter-terrorism,” says veteran ad film maker Saquib Malik, who specialises in equally glossy, big-budget productions. “If it succeeds, it will pave the way for other people from non-filmi backgrounds who are interested in making films.”

There weren’t too many of those in Pakistan till recently. The film industry sank into a tailspin in the 1980s and filmmaking remained the preserve of the ‘filmy lot’. But the mushroom growth of TV channels in the past decade — the country now boasts of 80- plus channels — succeeded in pulling a lot of educated young people from middleand upper middle-income families towards the media industry. The training institutes and university-designed courses came later; the first batches at the TV networks learned to write, shoot and edit on the job. For the first few years, these wannabe ‘filmmakers’ aspired to documentaries alone, pre fer ably those that’d find resonance with a global audience. (Taliban, anyone? Honour kill - ings? Sex workers? Hijras?)

And then in 2007 came Pakistan’s first “unconventional masala film” (as Malik calls it) Khuda Kay Liye, directed by TV veteran Shoaib Mansoor. But while Mansoor’s name pulled back to the theatres many people who’d abandoned cinema in protest against the buxom belles and vehshi gujjars populating every film, his cinematic take on religious extremism won as many laurels as brickbats. The issue was pertinent and relevant; the film ended up being preachy and boring. Next came Ramchand Pakistani, a gut-wrenching story about an eight-year-old boy who inadvertently crosses the Indo- Pak border. But even in the hands of the talented TV director Mehreen Jabbar, the ‘film’ collapsed into a longwinded docu-drama. Even though Mansoor’s 2011 offering Bol did remarkably well at the box office, the mix of issues highlighted by the film — patricide, religious intolerance, societal hypocrisy and lack of family planning — proved too heady for many.

The heady issues in Bol had the cultural critics in Pakistan conclude that their directors were more autistic than auteurs

The cultural critics wrung their hands in despair and concluded that Pakistani directors were more autistic than auteurs. But aspiring filmmakers saw something else: these films had an audience willing to see something other than the rain-drenched sequences. And thanks to digital technology, filmmaking was now cheaper than ever before. So came a blaze of new films and new directors: Hammad Khan’s Slackistan, Bilal Lashari’s Waar, Sham - oon Abbasi’s Gidh, Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Mudhouse and the Golden Doll, Kaptaan and Tamanna. And the key difference between then and now is that of ambition.

The 2011 release Slackistan was about the elite youth of Islamabad — a typical slacker film — has no deep and profound thought to communicate. Gidh is ostensibly about how the media manipulates news but Abbasi is very clear on why he made the film. “Nobody wants to see fat women dancing in the fields anymore,” he says in a snide reference to the typical Lollywood potboiler, adding, “Our films are about contemporary life, in a language and an idiom we speak in. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment.”

Movies can change the world, says German filmmaker

As we take on the ambitious task of strengthening ties with India across politics, business, science and research, we believe culture, art and especially filmmaking and cinema is a more fitting platform for exchange of ideas. We wish to bring this to India for connoisseurs, especially those in the Oxford of the East," Heldman said.

Offering a bouquet of 47 films from Germany, the highlights include those by filmmakers Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Naber's maiden feature film, The Albanian, which is competing in Piff's world cinema category, is inspired from true events pertaining to immigrants from Albania to Germany.

"Today, Germany is assimilating different communities of migrants because I think the Germans have begun to feel the need for a migrant workforce. But migration is an issue, as immigrants do not enjoy legal status. The policy on migrants is not effective enough, as they are not granted basic rights," said Berlin-based Naber. It took him ten years to make The Albanian.

"During this period, I spent a lot of time researching on the issue, in Albania. Immigration is a big issue in Germany and I wanted to show to the German audience the perspective of an illegal immigrant and the challenges such an individual has to face," said Naber. The Albanian was made with state funding. He obtained funding from the German government after constant efforts spanning five years.

"Applying for state funding is a very complicated process back home, and the system for this is different in different regions across Germany. We make around 150 films every year. But unlike Hollywood or Bollywood, the German film industry still relies heavily on foreign funding for film production," Naber said.

Fortunately, there is no censorship of films in Germany. "But even though state funding is allowed, it is focused on supporting movies that have a commercial angle. Films that touch upon difficult topics do not readily get state funding," he said.

The consequences of globalisation on the social, economic, cultural and other levels, is evident in contemporary German cinema, says film expert, Samar Nakhate.

You can see ‘Crying Woman’ because you don’t live in China

This sounds like a pretty good idea for a movie, right?: A woman who’s down on her luck and desperate for money discovers that there’s a market for an unusual quality she has—enthusiastic crying. Yes, in China, there’s a need for serious mourners at funerals, and soon our heroine is earning her keep and paying her debts by attending funeral after funeral, weeping over people she never knew.

This is the story in Crying Woman (2002), which will be presented by ArtPower! in UCSD’s Price Theater at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, with director Liu Bingjian in attendance. It’s worth noting that although you can see Crying Woman on Thursday, one place it’s never been seen is in the country where it was made; Crying Woman has been banned in China.

“Since China has a very complicated film-rating system, every film must be suitable for all,” Rebecca Webb, the curator of ArtPower! Film, tells CityBeat via email. “When the material under review addresses topics and images in ways that the governmental committee finds to be out of sync with the cultural ideals that they want their citizens to believe and support, this committee has the power to completely shut down public consumption of said film.”

Crying Woman is the second of three banned films presented this season by Webb and UCSD professor Paul Pickowicz, who’ll lead a post-screening discussion with Bingjian.

“Films are the mirror of a society,” Webb says. “This series of films from China helps us understand a culture very different from ours which has restricted any freedom of expression to masquerade as public order.”

No Bollywood stars, could work with Dhanush, says Shekhar

Shekhar Kapur, among a few Indian directors with an international career, doesn't mince his words. Ask him about Bollywood films and why he doesn't direct them anymore and there's a pronounced wince. This, despite directing a clutch of successful Hindi films such as Masoom, Mr India and the critically-lauded Bandit Queen.

The wince comes from the term "Bollywood". "Bollywood films are stifling. They limit creativity. To me, making films is like entering a temple. When you go with an agenda, the sanctity is lost," he says.

Quickly turning it around, he says, "Ask me if I would make another Indian film and I'll say I probably will." But don't expect mighty heroes in the film. Shekhar Kapur will have none of that, still. Pretty much like his coming-of-age film, Masoom, in 1983. Or like Bandit Queen, the 1994 film which won him international fame and at-home controversy. He reels them off, reminding me that his biggest films didn't have big names. Because big names come with egos and egos, destroy creativity.

"But who would you cast," I ask, in an Indian film. Dhanush? "I admire Dhanush," he says, "I have watched his movie (Aadukalam) where he plays a cock-fighter."

From Dhanush, the conversation shifts to the other "hero" who has taken Bollywood by storm - Vidya Balan. I asked him if he had watched The Dirty Picture...perhaps Bollywood is trying to shake itself out of the box...

"I haven't watched The Dirty Picture," he says. "Which is why I didn't raise my hand during the vote," referring to the jury duty he was on for a recent awards show. The best picture award at Bollywood's first big award show of 2012 has fuelled a war of words between two prominent filmmakers with one accusing the other of arm-twisting the jury. "I am appalled" says Shekhar Kapur. I have been on the jury of so many international festivals...I have never seen this. The jury is bound not to publicly discuss their decisions. I have turned down requests to be on the jury from even an actress I consider among the most talented...Shabana Azmi...but I accepted this. Never again," he says firmly.

Moving on to happier topics like future projects, I am intensely curious about his reports of a film on the legendary mountaineer George Mallory which is reportedly in pre-production. "If everything falls into place, I will work on it," he says with a twinkle.

Completely satisfied, I am ready to wrap this up as the charming Shekhar Kapur gets ready for more questions. Mine have been answered.

Bollywood takes to NYU

Dillagi, NYU's Bollywood-Hindi Film Dance team, was founded in the fall of 2010 by Mohit Chhatpar. Dillagi is a coed dance team that regularly performs in the city and has even traveled for competitions. The team performed at Hofstra University earlier this year.

Next weekend, Dillagi will be traveling to Atlanta for a show called A-Town Showdown. This will be the first time the group travels outside the New York region for its biggest competition since the club was created.

"People will be competing with dance teams from all over the country," LSP freshman and Dillagi member Shaaranya Pillai said. "These types of national competitions are how you make your reputation and a name for yourself as a college Bollywood team."

In preparation for the event, the group has choreographed routines that incorporate Ghangra, another dance genre. Because the music is in another language, Dillagi has amplified Ghangra with more classical Hindi music and contemporary dance moves.

"Most of the time we take our music straight from Bollywood movies," Pillai said of the Dillagi performances. "Even though I was taught classically, I love doing other genres. In our upcoming competition, we're going to have a Bollywood round and a fusion round."

This past Sunday, Dillagi presented an impressive showcase of Bollywood and Bhangra dance talent at Eisner and Lubin Hall in the Kimmel Center for Student Life. There were three performances from Bollywood dance teams: St. John Fisher's RAAZ, Rutgers' Ehsaas and NYU's Dillagi. There was also one Bhangra performance from Mount Holyoke's Raunak Bhangra. All four groups performed enthusiastic routines set to compilations of colorful music.

Although most of Sunday's action circled around these performances, the highlight of the afternoon was a highly anticipated appearance made by Imran Khan, one of Bollywood's preeminent actors and celebrities. Fresh off a plane from Dubai, Khan was in town for less than 24 hours promoting his new film, "Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu," but suspended his hectic schedule of New York appearances to attend the festival.

In an interview with the event's master of ceremonies Anil Daibee, Khan talked about a variety of topics, from his favorite New York City pizza place and his workout regimen to his upcoming film, which comes out in February. The congenial Khan, who was surrounded by a small flock of paparazzi and welcomed by several hundred adoring fans, gave the event a spirited and star-studded appeal.

SRK: I feel like I'm the source of a Shakespearean farce

A day after Shah Rukh Khan is said to have roughed up the husband of his former best friend at a party thrown by actor Sanjay Dutt to celebrate the success of his film Agneepath, conflicting accounts are emerging from various eyewitnesses of what really happened at the posh Juhu lounge where many of Bollywood's A-listers were present.

Both Shirish Kunder and Khan were nonchalant following the altercation. Khan made an indirect reference to it in a tweet and Kunder kept his sense of humour on Twitter despite nursing a swollen face. In a cryptic message on his Twitter page, Khan described the whole incident as a Shakespearean farce.

"Reading stuff and watching tv...Feel like I am the source & author of a Shakespearean farce...without the poetry or the prose of course!!!," Khan tweeted on Tuesday without giving any details of his version on what happened.

The Kunder-Farah Khan camp alluded to Khan's pent up anger and frustration in their version of events and hinted that the actor, whose mega-budget film RA.One was drubbed at the Filmfare Award that he co-hosted with Ranbir Kapoor, was facing a career crisis. Khan's company Red Chillies Entertainment did win the Best VFX award for RA.One.

Kunder, who assisted director Farah Khan in editing her film Main Hoon Na in 2004 and married her the same year, was reportedly thrashed by Khan in the early hours of Monday, January 30. Khan has denied hitting Kunder.

Several versions of what actually happened at the party were reported. Khan is said to have arrived at the party around 3:30 AM straight after hosting the 57th Idea Filmfare Awards with Ranbir Kapoor who won the Best Actor trophy for his anguished portrayal of a musician in Rockstar.

According to eyewitnesses, an inebriated Kunder followed Khan around the posh Juhu lounge and bar and even entered the bathroom with him. Kunder, who was once a good friend of Khan following the actor's close friendship with Farah, had recently fallen out with the superstar. Their enmity stems partly from the fact that Khan refused to appear in Kunder's film Joker and partly from Kunder's sarcastic asides at Khan on Twitter over his mega-budget film RA.One.

An annoyed Khan allegedly pulled Kunder down on to a sofa and after a verbal duel, slapped him. According to reports, Dutt rushed to separate the two and when Kunder pushed him, he also slapped Kunder.

But Kunder and Farah have given an entirely different account of what happened. He said Khan attacked him from behind with a posse of bodyguards to protect him.

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