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Exploring Cinema

Swiss slopes in the mountain kingdom

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SETH AND SETHI On the opening day of the three-day festival, Vikram Seth, one of India's best-loved authors, talked about his latest book The Rivered Earth, a collection of four libretti. A libretto is a text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera or operetta, and Seth's work has been set to music by British composer Alec Roth. Seth was in conversation with the young writer Ali Sethi (The Wish Maker), who happens to be the son of veteran Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi. Deeply spiritual in nature, with influences ranging from Western mystical thought to Chinese writing and the Rig Veda, The Rivered Earth was influenced by Seth's admiration of the early seventeenth-century British rector-poet George Herbert. Incidentally, Seth currently lives in the house once occupied by Herbert in Wiltshire, England, and in some ways, Herbert's spirit guided his writing of this book, Seth revealed. To the disappointment of many, he refused to discuss his book-in-progress, A Suitable Girl, the jump-sequel to the celebrated 1993 novel A Suitable Boy, which Seth jokingly referred to as "the Big Book".

At a literary festival in faraway Bhutan, sessions on cinema proved to be among the most riveting.

A taxi cruises out of Thimpu, Bhutan's capital, heading towards the mountains. The road lies parallel to the gurgling Wangchuk, the river that cuts through the serene capital city, and as it winds its way past police check-posts, posh porticoed houses of the Bhutanese rich and the tired, fragile-looking yet lovely homes (the Bhutanese have yet to learn how to make an ugly building) of the less privileged, it resounds with the strains of a Bollywood song playing on the taxi stereo. Tu shayar hai, main teri shayari croons a tinny Alka Yagnik, confirming the somewhat undemocratic view that Hindi film music from the '80s and '90s has been kept in business by the peculiar charm it seems to hold for taxi, auto and bus drivers from across the globe.
Later the same day, at one of the last sessions on the concluding day of the Mountain Echoes literary festival, Vishal and Rekha Bharadwaj discussed the role classical music has played in Bollywood. "During the '80s and '90s, classical training became a curse, " said filmmaker and composer Bharadwaj (Omkara, Maqbool). "It was only after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan came on the scene that classical-derived music gained acceptance. "

At a literary festival that boasted the presence of Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Patrick French - who tweeted constantly about the fest and then set out for the Himalayas where his next book is set - Namita Gokhale, the Kalpish-Ratna duo, exciting young authors from the subcontinent and top Bhutanese writers, the Hindi film industry made its presence felt with energetic debates that signaled the growing maturity of Bollywood writing.

During one of the most watched-out for sessions, Sharmila Tagore, dressed in a pale yellow chiffon sari, looked intently at the screen where the famous memory game scene from Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri was playing. She was in conversation with film-writer Shantanu Ray Chowdhury of Harper Collins in a session titled 'Exploring Cinema: Fifty Years in Films'.

Tagore reminisced about being a favoured Ray heroine, her transition from Bengali films to the industry in Bombay, and the ways in which Indian films and filmmaking have changed in the 50-plus years that she has spent in front of the camera: "When I went to Bombay, it was a bit of a culture shock for me coming from an industry that had very little artifice, " she says. "In Bombay, the heroines had to play by many rules. They wore white. They sipped on Coca-Cola. They never smiled. They were always chaperoned by their mothers. And there I was, living in a hotel. I was a suspect, a misfit from the beginning. I horrified people by dancing at parties. After one of those, Shakti Samanta came and yelled at me. But I just wanted to have a good time!"

During a lively discussion moderated by Tisca Chopra - an unconventional actor who knows her Tarantino from her Inarritu - Vishal Bharadwaj, Shakun Batra (who wrote and directed Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu), Arshad Warsi and writer Mushtaq Sheikh from the House of Balaji debated the merits of pure entertainment versus intellectually motivated cinema. That provided the laughs, but the meat of the session came from the discussion on film writing. "Ideas (on which to make films) keep coming, but you have to be careful in your selection because you will give two years of your life to that idea. I have spent six-seven months on a script and then realised it wasn't working out, and have had to move on, " said Bharadwaj, revealing that he was most comfortable directing films that he had written himself. "I can't do it any other way. I have to feel a complete sense of ownership over the material. "

The quintet - with Bharadwaj and Chopra chipping in from the audience - found its way to the dais once again the next day for an animated conversation on locale and the importance of destination in cinema. It was inevitable that this would start with a faintly sneering recap of the days when a Yash Copra film was incomplete without a heroine in a pastel-coloured sari cavorting on snowy Swiss slopes, but what followed was an interesting revelation of the dynamics of location-shooting and the reasons filmmakers were often forced to choose a foreign location, where the red-carpet would be rolled out for them and all kinds of concessions and conveniences created, over a place like Mumbai, where bribing local officers ate away into the budget of the film.

"The weather, crowds, corruption - all make it very tough to shoot in Mumbai, which used to be the main outdoor shooting destination at one time, " said Warsi. "Most people who accuse filmmakers of choosing to shoot abroad for aesthetic reasons don't know the challenges of shooting in India, including technical challenges. The high concentration of pollutants in the air, for instance, creates a barrier between the object and the camera, and that is not desirable at all. " Warsi, better known for his role as Circuit, sidekick to the loveable thug Munnabhai, came across as someone who engages with the craft of filmmaking deeply. Warsi is also directing his first film.

The final proof that the lines between cinema, art and books is blurring came during fashion designer Wendell Rodricks' session on his recent book, Moda Goa, a rigorously researched, beautifully styled book on the sartorial history of Goa. Pointing to a slide of actor Lisa Ray on the screen in one of his creations, Rodricks said: "I want to give all of you here a scoop. Lisa is getting married in October this year and I am designing her dress. "

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