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Sriram Raghavan speaks about Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic brilliance and his influence on filmmakers – read exclusive column

In an exclusive column for CineBlitz, Sriram Raghavan talks about Alfred Hitchcock, his cinematic brilliance, his way of film-making and its influence on Indian as well as foreign movies!

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My earliest introduction to Alfred Hitchcock was his droll visage on the covers of short story anthologies available on the streets of Kings Circle. Grave Business, Skeletons From My Closet, Death Rides A Hearse and more. Deliciously macabre tales of murder with a twist, written by uncelebrated American pulp authors from the 40s and 50s. The first Hitchcock film I remember seeing was North by Northwest, in 16 mm, on a Wadala terrace. Some kind ‘building uncle’ had organised the projector and print. The film dealt with an innocent man on the run. I couldn’t explain what it was that made it such a fantastic viewing experience.

Much before I drank my first beer, I had tasted Hitchcock’s heady cocktail of thrill, tension, black humour, sex and graphic violence. And become an addict. I saw Psycho for the first time at the Film Institute, luckily on the big screen. I got a partial sense of what it must have been like when it was released in 1960. It broke taboos, and how. The shower sequence is still studied in film schools all over. The FTII in the 80s was going through a European cinema phase. Wajda, Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, were spoken about in awed tones as great filmmakers and poets of the cinema.

But Hitchcock was sort of disparaged. okay, he makes good thrillers. The disdain used to fill me with murderous rage. And then I came across a Steven Spielberg interview where he said, “Any filmmaker who says he is not influenced by Hitchcock is clean out of his mind.” Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is prime proof of the Hitchcock influence. When the young director found the mechanical shark was not up to expectations, he asked himself how Hitchcock would solve the problem. Hitchcock was adept at creating violence entirely in the viewer’s mind. What you don’t see, scares you so much more.

Hitchcock has influenced filmmakers all over the world including my own favourite Vijay Anand. There is a scene in Kala Baazar which has Dev Anand as the black marketeer, selling tickets at then Bombay’s Metro cinema. The movie playing is North by Northwest. Housefull of course! I often wonder whether Goldie Saab got inspired to write Jewel Thief, (the best Hindi mainstream suspense ever) after watching N by NW. Both films are about a man mistaken for another. This is ‘inspiration’ in the best sense of the word.

In India, even esteemed reviewers confuse a whodunit for suspense. In a career spanning 55 films, the master of suspense made only one whodunit, Murder (1930). He dismissed the genre as a guessing game. Suspense is anticipation, you know everything except what happens next. Suspense is the spying wife stealing a key from her husband’s room and suddenly he emerges from the shower. He comes to her lovingly and wants to kiss her hands. And we know that one of them holds the stolen key. Will she be caught? That’s a scene from Notorious, a spy film without a single scene of violence.

There are few artistes whose names have gone into the language. Hitchcockian, according to the Macmillan dictionary means “very exciting and full of suspense (= the feeling that something bad is about to happen but you do not know what or when).” A serial killer escorts his next victim home and the camera discreetly follows them, until the villain shuts the door on the camera. The camera now pulls back as discreetly and gets back on the street. And waits, and waits, till we hear a distant scream. (FRENZY)

An apartment block where we see a whole lot of people doing their own thing and the camera pans inside the house to a broken still camera, framed photographs of famous events, to eventually reveal the protagonist on a chair, his leg in a cast. And I, the viewer, am instantly plunged into the premise of Rear Window. I watch Hitchcock films over and over again. I know the plot, I know the shots. And yet, there is always something to enjoy, anticipate, discover and learn from them. What I love about Hitchcock is his use of the camera to tell the story. He came from silent cinema and believed in visual storytelling.

Hitchcock abhorred what he called talking heads and even in his silent work, he used less title cards than the others. Hitch loved experimenting. Setting up challenges for himself. What if we do a film in a single shot? If a movie is entirely set in a lifeboat? Or we shoot a play like a play but in 3D? Hitch delighted in pleasing the crowd but he never pandered to them.

In Vertigo, he gives away the crucial plot twist to the viewer much before the climax, because he wants the viewer to invest in the tragic love story. Hitchcock directed the audience as much as he directed the film. Most filmmakers of the time told their stories in third person. The camera is a neutral observer as the film unfolds. Hitchcock shot in first person. We see what characters are seeing. We are in their heads, almost. This Point-of-View technique instantly connected the character to the viewer.

The viewer was a vital part of Hitchcock’s creative process. It is this total involvement and identification with the protagonist that makes every viewer of Psycho shift from being Marion Crane to Norman Bates in the span of a single scene. Psycho is the mother of all slasher films, pardon the pun. As a viewer, I used to delight in spotting Hitchcock’s playful cameos in his films. He died in 1980, and there have been many great films and filmmakers since then. But I see the rotund visage pop up every now and then in the best of films made the world over, scenes that make me want to scream aloud, that’s Hitchcock!

– Sriram Raghavan

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The TURBAN gets uber-chic: Sheetal Mafatlal decodes the timeless headgear

Style maven Sheetal Mafatlal dwells on the transformative appeal of the timeless headgear, which has emerged as the ‘it’ accessory du jour.

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Sheetal Mafatlal decodes turban fashion

Trust Gucci’s creative force, designer Alessandro Michele, to shake the fashion set out of its complacent slumber by showcasing an exquisite array of absolutely drool-worthy headgear. The game-changing creative head of the hallowed Italian luxury house turned the spotlight on the turban this season, by reinterpreting it in a no-holds-barred-glamazon format. The label’s Fall 2018 showcase in Milan saw a panoply of babushka hoods, pagoda hats and headscarves, that brought to mind exotic visions of the elegant hijabs and naqabs.

The fashion maverick Michele has dramatically changed the way we perceive accessories. A nifty headpiece can make or break an ensemble, and I’m totally digging the label’s multi-hued, bejewelled headpiece which is a reinvention of the ‘bandanna’ headband.

Over the years, I have thoroughly enjoyed wearing Michele’s accessories and ensembles, and his glittery and bold headdresses are my absolute favourite. Depending on my mood and the occasion, I have teamed my Gucci turbans with both, minimal and maximalist ensembles. Being a fan of the statement-making headpieces, I have often worn his bejewelled headbands as an alternative to a turban.

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Sheetal Mafatlal clicked by Vickram Singh Bawa

Donatella Versace at the Gianni Versace ‘Tribute Collection’ in Milano, sent out his signature butterfly print turbans and Baroque print head scarves, worn with wrap dresses, bodysuits and matching accessories – all epitomising the house’s intrinsic Va Va Vroom.

The headdress has evolved over the years, with the early 20th century witnessing a major revival of the fashion turban, this time, worn mostly by elite women as a symbol of their cultivated sophistication. These headdresses always evoked a sense of exotica with their draped styles, and were often dubbed as ‘Easterninfluenced headpieces.’ In Europe, the iconic designer Paul Poiret was majorly impacted by Orientalism, whose take on the accessory conjured images of a fabled harem.

The turban pioneer is said to be credited for having revived the headpiece in the early 1900s. While in the ’20s, it had an exuberant flapper connotation, in the ’30s and ’40s, the headdress became a synonym for unabashed Hollywood glamour. Who could forget Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil (1934) and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)?

After many years, model Marisa Berenson approached the turban with a relaxed and louche glam touch of the swinging ’70s. When Yves Saint Laurent worked in post-war France, he added headdresses to complement most of his looks suiting all occasions – be it haute couture or ready-to-wear. A pleated lamé turban ornamented with a sequined palm leaf created by Nina Wood, worn with an Indian inspired evening outfit from YSL’s Spring/Summer 1982 haute couture collection, remains one of the memorable looks.

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Sheetal Mafatlal clicked by Vickram Singh Bawa

In recent times, a slew of fashion films and chick-flick TV series have reignited the season-less appeal of the turban. In 2010, Carrie Bradshaw, essayed by Sarah Jessica Parker, elevated the headdress to another level of exotica as she played out her life with her girl pals against the stunning backdrop of Abu Dhabi in the film Sex and the City 2. Fashion industry heavyweights like Miuccia Prada, Jason Wu, Vena Cava and Giorgio Armani have re-purposed the turban, making it relevant for the young women of today, season after season.

Also worth mentioning is Jean Paul Gaultier’s sari collection for Hermes in 2011, which he accessorised with jewel-toned headpieces. In Bollywood, veteran actress Rekha has been the biggest proponent of this chic essential for years now. Teaming it with her ‘more is more’ ensemble, she has time and again, worn the turban with effortless elan and her characteristic nonchalance, bringing to mind her larger-than-life on-screen persona of her ‘80s Bollywood films.

This ‘of-the-moment’ interpretation of the classic turbans ushers in a new wave of exotic glamour in a scenario of austere runway presentations and a pall of gloom lurking on luxury retail. When the going gets tough, the fashionable get bold, and a turban addition to any ensemble adds that touch of chic femininity and a ‘look-at-me’ sass, unrivalled by any other accessory or jewellery.

Sheetal Mafatlal writes an exclusive monthly column on fashion for CineBlitz.

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Mahesh Bhatt: You should learn what trusting a director means from Sridevi

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt recalls working with the late actor Sridevi, her commitment to work and her native charm that made her stand apart from the other leading ladies of those times

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Mahesh Bhatt recalls working with the late actor Sridevi on their film Gumraah

“She was the diva of the 80s who did the Tohfaas and the Himmatwaalas and you came into your own with path-breaking films like Arth and Saaransh. How did your paths cross?” asked a young writer who is chronicling the life of Sridevi, an actor par excellence, whose rise to the top was slow and steady, but the end, sudden and tragic.

I first met Sridevi in the dark auditorium of a cinema hall. She was up there on the silver screen. The film was Balu Mahendra’s Sadma in which she was paired opposite Kamal Haasan. What hit me about her persona was her earthiness. That undefinable native charm which was the unique attribute of this enigma, made her stand apart from the other leading ladies of those times.

The leading ladies who rose to the top in Mumbai had, because of westernisation, lost their feminine mystique. Most of them were modelling themselves on the western icons who appeared on international magazines or in Hollywood films. Since our leading ladies were monkeying the West, the core Indian audience was feeling deeply unfulfilled. Sridevi brought India back into Indian movies. This ‘India’ness became her springboard to super-stardom. For me, her best performance was in her husband Boney Kapoor’s Mr India, which was directed by Shekhar Kapur.

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Sridevi in a still from the film Mr. India (1987)

“Let’s take Sridevi for this role, she is not only a star, but an actor of your kind,” said the late Yash Johar, the founder of Dharma Productions. After Naam, Aashiqui, Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi and Sadak, I too had become a bit of a star director. The reputation that I am an actor’s director became a bridge for Sridevi and me to meet and work in the early 90s in Gumrah. Working with Sridevi was a memorable experience.

The character of Roshni from Gumrah was a lot like Sridevi herself. All great performances are drawn out from the body of an actor. A good director is like a good gardener. He brings out the beauty of a plant from the DNA of the seed, by merely watering it and protecting it. I did not force-feed my ideas into this acting machine. I merely created an environment for her to bloom, which she did. Gumrah was a mediocre success, but if at all people remember that film, it’s because of her heartfelt performance.

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Movie poster of Gumrah directed by Mahesh Bhatt and starring Sridevi and Sanjay Dutt. Courtesy: IMDb.com

“You should learn what trusting a director means from Sridevi, never did she question me for presenting her in the most deglamourised way in the jail portions of Gumrah,” I said to an actress in the 90s, when she was giving a hard time to my assistants by refusing to wear a “non glamorous” costume which the film demanded.

When I look back on her glorious innings in the movie world, I cannot help but conclude that long, successful career arcs do not happen by chance. They are fuelled by courage and discipline, and the ability to take risks. “Not taking risks is a bigger risk Madam,” I remember telling her when she was voicing her concern about some producers, for shedding her glamorous persona in Gumrah. My conviction was the lodestar which saw her all through the making of Gumrah.

How can I forget what she did during the shooting of the climax of Gumrah? “She has got very high fever Mahesh. I think we will have to cancel the shooting and break down the set,” said Yash Johar, as soon as I entered the massive prison set where a fight sequence was to be shot inside a water-tank. Yashji’s apprehensions were right.

There was no way I could ask this star to step into a water tank and participate in a fight sequence with Sanjay Dutt and Bob Christo. But the idea of re-erecting that massive set which cost a fortune was also weighing us down. But there was no way out.

“There is a way out. I am calling for my doctor, I will take an injection, get my fever down and shoot. Period. Just make sure that we keep the fans far away from me,” said Sridevi with a dead-pan face.

Tales of such magnanimity of film stars seldom reach the world. Demonising superstars is a profitable business. For me, the memory of Sridevi presenting Alia with her first award would have been an ideal image of a happy ending to our association. The body posture of Alia, awe-struck to see this diva bestow her with this prestigious award, is so life-affirming. But life makes you live on its own terms.

I had first met her in Centaur Hotel in a room full of roses, when Yashji and I had gone to sign her for Gumrah. It was her birthday. Little did I know then, I would one day see an image of Sridevi on a cold TV screen, lying dead, in a sea of flowers. Movies have a happy ending, this is real life.

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Mahesh Bhatt: Blind obedience to authority has become the norm; we have become a population of sheep!

In an exclusive column for CineBlitz, veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt writes, “It’s only when you question authority, and refuse to blindly follow those in the seat of power, that you create enduring works of art which resonate in the hearts of people years after they have been created.”

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“Do you know more than the sages and the seers of this great country? Who are you to debunk the centuries old belief in Punar Janam (reincarnation)? Not only does it run counter to the beliefs of the millions of people of all faiths across the world, but it is also a guaranteed recipe for a Box-Office disaster,” said the patriarch of Rajshri Productions, Seth Tarachand Barjatya, waving his finger angrily at me. I had been summoned to the home of the Barjatyas on a Sunday morning by the late Raj Kumar Barjatya, to have a heart-to-heart conversation with his father, who was undoubtedly one of the tallest icons of the entertainment industry, and on whose shoulders Rajshri Productions had touched dizzying heights.

“Sethji is unhappy with the climax of Saaransh. He feels that he must meet you and prevail upon you to relent and change the climax of the film. I singularly lack the conviction to neutralise his demands. Moreover, please understand that each one of us is a prisoner of his or her own beliefs,” he had said to me meekly, moments before my conversation with the patriarch of the Rajshri empire began.

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Movie posters of Arth (1982) and Saaransh (1984)

Maybe the late Raj Babu had put these thoughts in my mind because of my reputation which preceded me. The stories of me not yielding to the pressures of the film industry and changing the climax of Arth had become a part of Bollywood folklore. Raj Babu did not want us (Sethji and me), two fiercely opinionated individuals, to cross swords and disrupt the filming of Saaransh, which was racing towards completion.

“Why can’t the child that is born to this paying-guest be the reincarnation of the old couple’s dead son?” he asked. “Are you a sadist?” His question came from concern because his knowledge about the INDIAN audience was indeed far, far more and deeper than a filmmaker like me who had just one hit so far.

“Because my character of B B Pradhan (played by Anupam Kher) is an agnostic. Sir, if you stop believing in the life hereafter and put everything into what you possess into this living moment, you will truly awaken to the grandeur of life. This is the Saaransh of my film, Sir.” I remember, calmly, but firmly replying to him.

It was this unshakable conviction of mine which had infuriated the patriarch. Sensing the emotional temperature plummeting Raj Babu stepped in and acted with a sagacity which was indeed rare to find. I still remember his words, “Sethji, we have always believed in backing the director’s vision.

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Tarachand Barjatya (L) and Rajkumar Barjatya (R)

Look at the conviction of this young man, let us be bold enough to go ahead with his conviction, or else we will land up with a film which is neither here nor there.” Had it not been for Raj Babu, Saaransh wouldn’t have seen the light of day and become what it went out to become.

It was his faith in me that created this enduring classic. It was because of this unorthodox end which I had insisted upon, that Saaransh won the special Jury Award in 1984 at the Moscow Film Festival. My movies like Arth, Saaransh, Janam, Zakhm were born because of my fierce belief in the truth which was embedded in their DNA.

I often tell this to my junior writers and film directors to resist much and obey little. It’s only when you question authority, and refuse to blindly follow those in the seat of power, that you create enduring works of art which resonate in the hearts of people years after they have been created.

But sadly today, blind obedience to authority has become the norm. We have become a population of sheep. It’s heartbreaking to see young people conform so easily. Irreverence is the lifeblood of a flourishing society. People who obey blindly push society into the graveyard. The film industry must welcome and embrace those who are anti-authority because it is on their shoulders that the multi-billion-dollar film industry stands where it is. Where would we be without the irreverent spirit of the film makers of the bygone days?

Recently, when I launched the trailer of Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir in Sunny Sound Service, I realised as long as there are filmmakers who have the guts to choose truth over illusions, our industry is safe.

There are two kinds of filmmakers. Ones that comfort the jolted and ones that jolt the comforted. Alas, the wheels of the Box-Office are run by these who pander to maintain status quo, and do everything to keep the illusions and the old prejudices of our society going. And then there is this microscopic minority of the latter.

These are the filmmakers who choose to tell the truth and resist the demands of the marketplace to manufacture illusions and lull the people to sleep. In this post-truth age, the need of the hour is to create a space for this brave lot.

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