Drawing Conclusions…Gandhi’s Ghost

The early 1970’s – power cuts and strikes, presaging the grey days of the late 70’s and 80’s and race riots, in a West London suburb with a high immigrant population.

A steady diet of American TV shows & comics help to shape the imagination & aspirations of an Asian boy with an artistic bent, asthma and little else to relieve the bleak urban landscape of the 60’s & 70’s, which his parents had chosen to make their home, with the help of next door neighbours’ step-son, a teenager named Gandhi.

A bitter-sweet tale of loss and failure, undercut by perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and the distant, hazy, Technicolour dream which beckons him on.

A faint whiff of tragi-comedy surrounded Gandhi because of his given name, a source of amusement for his step-mother & her two young sons – it was yet another stick to poke him with, along with the carefully handwritten notices on pieces of cardboard in the toilet requesting people to leave the rim up afterwards, to wash their hands, to shut doors behind them, dotted about the house like timid territorial markers – signs which also pointed to a creative mind and hand at work.

Gandhi could draw, he could handwrite in beautiful script, but most of all, he could draw – he could draw anything and well – he could draw anything I asked him to draw and more.

A gangling youth dressed in a Mao-style suit, his black locks trailing over his shoulders, Adam’s apple bobbing on his thin neck, feet in “chappals”, the traces of a beard developing on his chin, Gandhi would stand arranging his art, on pages torn from an A3 cartridge paper pad from Woolworths – on the mantelpiece over the flame-effect gas-fire, adjacent to the light-up painting of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

There were drawings of futuristic cars, Thunderbirds vehicles like “Fire Flash” & “The Mole” in unexpected angles, all expertly rendered in HB pencil – an explosion of chrome fenders and grilles, whitewall tires and plexiglass bubble cockpits – the cars seemed to leap out of the drawings because of the use of perspective and dramatic foreshortening. For that moment the dreary and dark living room with it’s garish flowery carpet and khaki imitation leather sofa melted away and the room became an art gallery where one wall was a portal into the future – a future that was meticulously well-defined but still in monochrome, because our TV’s were in monochrome, but that didn’t matter.

On other visits we would sit together on his bed as he drew to order, as I scanned his bedroom walls, eyes wide in wonderment – if there were pin-ups, I never noticed them – my eyes were drawn to the cars & futuristic vehicles, the pencil copies of classical paintings, the drawing exercises, eventually to settle, as I tired, on the “Bullworker” propped up in the corner near the door to his bedroom.

I interrupted his drawing to ask him what it was and he dutifully demonstrated, his thin frame and wiry arms straining as he tried to force the grips together, teeth clenched – he did this a few times and then stopped, as if satisfied that this was enough of an explanation, to resume drawing, his legs folded under him on the bed.

For a short time, Gandhi was the big brother I never had, since I was the only boy amongst three sisters, and like him I spent hours alone filling sketch books with drawings inspired by the TV shows I watched – having him as a next door neighbor seemed like an extraordinary stroke of luck – in fact, it seemed almost too good to be true.

Whilst Gandhi’s technical proficiency in drawing inspired me, resulting in obvious imitations, his home life seemed to cast a shadow over him – a shadow that was to eventually engulf him – I sensed sadness in him, the sadness of an outsider.

The problems he faced – that of rejection & downright bullying – and his talent eventually forced him out of the “family” home – I saw less and less of him as he approached adulthood & moved out, either to study or to gain some independence.

His great-coated, flared trousered, khaki t-shirted form would occasionally roll up at the house, an artists portfolio under his arm and then he would just as quickly disappear, and that is the last I saw of him.

There were no hello / good-bye’s but equally no anger or resentment or fallings-out between us – he had simply grown up and left.

On one occasion he turned up briefly with a young English girl, which added to the sense that he must have been following the Bohemian lifestyle of an artist, before I even understood the term “Bohemian” – it seemed dangerous, on the edge and against the grain of the conservative Punjabi household he came from, a deliberate act of rebellion against his adopted family.

Sometime later my parents enquired after him – news about the local community spread fast amongst the Asian population, it was not uncommon for distant relatives to live in other streets nearby, and if not relatives then certainly people from the same villages in the Punjab.

The shocking news came that Gandhi had died – it was not clear if it was by his own hand, though that seemed to be the implication – whatever it was, it was painted in the most tragic terms. Was he jilted? …Was his cross-cultural relationship the reason? …Did the rejection by his family finally get to him?….Worse than that, had he failed to make inroads into a professional career as an artist ? – These were the questions that ran through my mind, but most of all was the awful sense of waste of a great and promising talent – my mentor, Gandhi.

To some extent I built my future career in art as a kind of legacy to him, though in its own way it has been a rough path – sometimes a stroke of luck can be a double-edged sword.

 

Ravi Swami

2017

Advertisements

On why pitching is like an audition…

baseball.1.jpg

Before I go on, I will say that I personally have had only a very few opportunities to properly pitch for a job in my long career, this is mostly down to feeling more comfortable (key word…) working in positions where I didn’t have to necessarily put myself forward & “go for gold” as it were.

That said, I have helped on pitches for big and small projects in various capacities and enjoy the process for the sense of competition, mostly against myself, but in my case, that’s where it ends and the directors or whoever, take over and actually present the work to prospective clients, and then hopefully go on to win the job.

You would be forgiven for wondering why, at this point, I would want to take a step back from this crucial part of the process.

After watching some old auditions for the role of Han Solo in the original “Star Wars”, I was struck by several things – firstly it’s very apparent that the actor eventually chosen for the role absolutely nailed it in the audition (as did his eventual co-stars), not to say that the other candidates didn’t, (e.g. Kurt Russell) and were off by a very wide mark – the overriding impression is that of “conviction” – an absolute belief in the intended role, but also very obvious God-given gifts.

What they all have in common, obviously, is that they are performers, that’s their job and why they are even actors in the first place – putting yourself out there is what it’s all about and is very much dependent upon a persons character – e.g. they have to be show-offs and like attention – they have to have what I now think is a “Performance Gene”.

When I started out in animation I discovered fairly early on the relation between animation & performance – animators act out their characters and inhabit them in the same way that actors – or at least good ones – inhabit a role – the crucial difference being that an animator can hide behind a character.

It’s remarkable how many animators, and often the best, have some other aspect to themselves which involves performance in other contexts, they’ve been musicians, in a band, on stage, dancers and so on at some stage or other in their lives, aspects which they acknowledge consciously or unconsciously feeds into their work in a positive way.

Not all of them have been directors in a place to pitch for a job but I definitely think those interests are huge assets when pitching, just as a lack of conviction or enthusiasm can be immediately apparent in the work if you are not present there in person during the pitch – after all, George Lucas would have hated it if his actors disliked his writing or even the whole idea of Star Wars (as many did, and not just the actors), and the same applies to an ad agency creative, even if what is put before you isn’t exactly the work of Charles Dickens.

We’ve all seen shows like “The X Factor” enough times to know the candidate who thinks they will nail the audition but then comes unstuck simply because they are not good enough – there is that aspect too – over-estimating your ability or being too desperate – something I’ve seen in directors I’ve worked for, where the enthusiasm has long-since waned and it’s simply a case of winning the job by hook or by crook, like a desperate actor after a role.

Pitching, like an audition is a ‘for free” affair – you are invited to turn up and do your thing for no money on the basis that if you win the role, it’s the gravy train, so a lot depends upon your enthusiasm and belief in the material, even if it’s a put-on performance, or a sense that you can “do something” with it – you see this in Kurt Russell’s Han Solo audition – one, where by his own admission, he could have telephoned it in and didn’t quite “get” the story or scope enough to bring anything more to the table other than a very basic, laid back performance – and it shows.

Harrison Ford famously declared that he thought the whole Star Wars thing was poppycock from the very beginning too, but then he was a hungry actor and must have seen something in it in order to deliver such a great audition.

The same things apply in pitching – you have to go into it 100%, believe in the material (even if it doesn’t actually leap off the page or is mediocre in the extreme) to the extent that you want to perform some alchemy on it and turn lead into gold – which is how I viewed it when I started out in a small animation studio where we got to pitch on some fun jobs, working to often lousy scripts.

After so many years in animation, I’m convinced that I don’t have enough of the “Performance Gene” to take the plunge, or at any rate there are many people keen enough to get out in front of the microphone and take a chance, enough for any shrinking violet to want to take a step back into the shadows, as I have done on so many occasions – the choice is yours really, have you got the balls to do it, and if you don’t get it, will you be like an actor who just shrugs it off and moves on to the next audition ? – This really is a test of your mettle at the end of the day.

So get out there and PITCH !

 

 

Forbidden Planet & its Orientalist roots…

Forbidden Planet-Yuricich.jpg

We’re not quite at the stage of the “no instrumentality” hinted at in the landmark and personal favourite all-time scifi move, “Forbidden Planet”, when referring to the scientific and technological advances of the long-dead “Krell” civilization in the film – the best we can do on a day-to-day basis is WiFi connecting a smart phone to your in-car stereo – which is what I was doing today, and listening to a track from the film’s soundtrack album which came up as a random selection for my listening pleasure – in this case “Shangri-La in The Desert” – a slice of ahead-of-its-time electronica by the composers, the husband and wife team of Louis & Bebe Barron.

I keep going back to the film in a manner verging on obsession, ever since I first saw it on a late night broadcast in B/W, sometime in the equally monochrome-seeming British 70’s.

Everything about it smacks of class, even if it was (& still is) dismissed as a hokey throwback to pulp era fiction aimed at kids – a heady concoction of spacemen, ray-guns, flying saucers, menacing robots & a damsel in distress – the stock-in-trade of so many “B” grade SciFi potboilers of the 50’s – oddly & inexplicably totally omitted from the recent expansive exhibition of SciFi tropes at the Barbican entitled “Into The Unknown”.

The title of the track caught my attention because it clearly referred, almost as a turn of phrase and therefore carrying no weight especially, to something which is also a recurring motif in fantasy in the decades leading up to the 50’s, and to some extent to the present – that of “Shangri-La” – you can see it referred to in the recent excellent “Dr Strange”, where Strange is offered a card in Tibet with the word “Shambala” printed on it, before being told it is the WiFi password 🙂

To explain, where “Shangri-La” is a fictional invention, it did in fact refer to the mystical Buddhist “Shambala”, which has a semi-fictional / factual basis.

I say “semi-fictional / factual basis” because it’s hard to know without further extensive research if the concept has any place in orthodox Buddhist teachings or is just another product of the wild ideas of Orientalists, chiefly Helena Blavatsky, who helped propagate and disseminate these ideas in the West and effectively populated the Western imagination with them, right up to the present day.

When you look at it, there are so many things in “Forbidden Planet” which seem to be inspired by those ideas, and though I concede that its main inspiration is Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as is widely acknowledged, even this source has as its inspiration ideas & locations which are not remotely “Western” – just “exotic”.

I wondered if the Shangri-La reference came from the composers or the writers of the film – a question that may remain unanswered.

Blavatsky’s thesis, based supposedly on many years spent at the feet of Buddhist masters in Tibet, is that Tibetan Buddhists are the protectors of a very ancient and lost knowledge, some of which sounds fantastical in its details – lost civilisations, hidden subterranean kingdoms, technological advances beyond comprehension and “Shambala”, a geographical location in the Himalayas hidden from the eyes of the rest of humanity and existing in a kind of parallel dimension, and in addition interweaving elements from Hinduism, a religion which must have seemed impenetrable & alien to Westerners – and all this led to the foundation of a kind of religion or set of philosophies called “Theosophy” – an antidote, possibly, to conventional Christianity & other “organized” religions.

These ideas gained a significant following in the early years of the 20th century and gradually entered into popular culture via written fiction – the apparently psychically channeled “Book of Dyzan” is even quoted in the roller title intro of one of the old Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” film serials – a visual device later borrowed consciously by George Lucas in his “Star Wars” series – and you could say are a foundation, amongst many other influences, for “Dr Strange”.

Returning to the subject of this piece, and looking at it without any foreknowledge of its connection to Shakespeare’s work, the ideas which underpin the story seem to have a direct correlation to the ideas of M.Blavatsky & the “Theosophists” – the group which resulted from her “teachings”.

Now I’m not setting out to discredit Blavatsky and her often crazy-sounding ideas – if nothing else they provide a springboard to other ideas even if you do take them with a heavy pinch of salt & prefer to look for physical substantiation instead of taking them at face value.

The great thing about the film is that it uses elements that are superficially those of science-fiction to tell a story which has a broader significance in terms of highlighting what it is to be human and the perils of over-reaching ambition & the search for knowledge – things which threaten to overturn basic humanity – these are aspects that run through Blavatsky’s writings, but on a cosmic scale – whole civilizations are born, reach a peak and then descend into darkness, humanity is at the center of immense conflicts between powerful beings, & so on, aspects also reflected in the work of writers like H.P Lovecraft.

Looked at in terms of the plot details, all the elements are in place – Prof Morbius’ home is a kind of literal “Shangri-La”, hidden from view briefly from the approaching “C57D” United Planets Cruiser, by jamming signals.

His technological marvels, whilst essentially trinket-like in nature, are almost like magic to the visiting crew of the C57D, and eventually, when the vast underground complexes of the Krell are revealed, we see the evidence of what they left behind before they achieved a kind of non-corporeal immortality, finally freed from the physical limitations of their machines – a spiritual state, in fact.

Altair-7 is physically like the Himalayas, if not consciously – a desolate, hostile place where humans might struggle to survive, and critically, placed at the farthest end of the explored universe, and like Blavatsky’s version of Tibet, a “Forbidden Kingdom”.

The more I study the film, the more I see these parallels emerging, though of course, that is only my personal, subjective, take on it – it just happens that these ideas permeate SciFi and fantasy across the board and refuse to go away.

There have been several attempts at re-making “Forbidden Planet” – without seeing scripts it’s impossible to know quite how they could reinterpret the original compelling storyline without at least acknowledging where it comes from in the first place, though I’m sure many would vehemently disagree with my analysis in the same way that a fan who builds scale replicas of “Robbie The Robot” was horrified when I suggested that Robbie was just an ironic and knowing visual and conceptual reference to Hattie McDaniel’s role in “Gone With The Wind” – a technological replacement for the Southern States “mammie”…lol

I’ve often thought that if I was tasked with reinventing the story, how would I go about it ? – for starters, I’d cast Sean Connery as a grizzled, ageing Morbius stuck on a god-forsaken planet which looks surprisingly like say, Ladakh, in the foothills of the Himalayas­ – to all intents, a dead world – but he’s too old.

Altaira would be his planetary archeologist daughter, forever exploring the networks of dangerous underground tunnels they have both discovered – feisty, independent & perhaps a little crazy, and a total contrast to Anne Francis’ version, though a key thing about the original is the level of conviction in all the performances.

The crew of the C57D would be more militaristic in nature.

Having revealed the dark secret behind the invisible “monster” which is killing Col’ Adams crew, the big pay off is that “Altair 7” is in fact Earth, and the ancient civilization of the “Krell” is one which predates humanity by several millions of years.

…As for Robbie – well, he’d be this very odd looking, assymetric notion of a robot & not the walking,talking microwave / washing machine / fridge he is in the original – “he” would seem almost like an alien life-form to the crew of the C57D, and in fact, initially, they mistake “him” for Altaira’s pet, but in reality he is a very technologically advanced robot and would have been built by the Krell as part of a slave workforce – reconstructed by Morbius & Altaira from knowledge found in the subterranean tunnels.

Much as I like the whole Freudian thing of the “Ego” & the “Id, I’d ditch these since they are the originals chief USP and place it very much in the 50’s, when Freud & Jung were popular – it’s such a neat idea though, I’m not sure what I’d replace it with…

Sound good ?…let me know & I might knock up a script….:)

(C) The Naked Swami – July 2017

 

 

 

Why Monkey Magic ?…

599565-monkey.jpg

Why not !?…”Monkey” was one of the coolest shows on TV during the late 70’s and early 80’s, when channels in the U.K were prepared to go out on a limb and expose audiences to different cultures and a type of fantasy which swooped & soared  like Monkey’s pink cloud.

“Monkey Magic” seemed quite appropriate – my parents came to the U.K in the 50’s and I was born here, and although it’s true I’m actually IN the West, I think, like many people of Asian (or other) origin, I’m still making a Journey to The West – and like the characters from the Chinese myth, perhaps its a case of never actually getting there, and more about the journey itself.

I’m hoping to make this blog more of a journey, an exploration & perhaps a bit of an adventure too, posting odd bits & pieces of work , that may not go anywhere particularly, and articles I’ve written, which are linked in some way or another to this metaphorical journey – and also a bit about that 80’s TV show, “Monkey!”.

I think at this stage in my life, what seemed like random, unconnected efforts in various directions, seems to be pointing towards this idea of groping for something – that “thing” being a crystallisation of ideas , grappling with this notion of “identity”, perhaps an “East / West” thing, perhaps not – whatever it is, hopefully it will be interesting – failing that, I will just stick up examples of my work that I like, experiments that failed or succeeded & let, you, the viewer, decide for yourself.

Krishna Shah : 1938 – 2013

Screen Shot 2016-10-03 at 09.57.07.png

 

Arguably one of the few true Indian / Western crossover films, “Shalimar”, which starred Rex Harrison , John Saxon & a host of 60’s Hindi film headliners, in the 70’s, was only a small part of Krishna Shah’s prolific output as in independent producer director working in Hollywood, and who died in 2013.

Almost a decade previously, Dev Anand, another Hindi film “A-Lister” had starred in a poorly received intended international launch vehicle “The Evil Within” – an oddball U.S / Indian / Phillipino co-production in the English language, distributed by 20th Century Fox, before their assets were frozen in India, which possibly cleared the way for Shah to have another stab at capturing international audiences with Indian themes in the presumably tuned-in and turned-on Hippie Dippy Era of the late 60’s and 70’s.

I knew & met Krishna from the early 90’s onwards & spent days here and there in his company. He was your picture of a typical L.A movie producer on the fringes – always passionate & full of the “positive energy” I would imagine until the very end – he had his magnum opus project – in fact he had 2, epic in scope and ambition and it’s sad to know that he won’t be able to see them through.

A Hollywood “old hand”, but of the Lucas / Coppola USC film school generation – a breed of film producer that thrived in the 70’s as the old studio system was collapsing & which led to the rise of Corman & other indies – that was really Krishnas’ era & it’s unfortunate that we don’t know more about him & his films – a Yale graduate, he directed (& wrote) episodes of “The Man from Uncle” & “Six Million Dollar Man” in the 60’s & 70’s, & later ran a successful company in L.A making & distributing the type of low-budget “Drive-In” & video tape fodder so typical of the period of the mid 70’s to the late 90’s.

I won’t dwell on any differences we might have had, in particular on the issue of retaining artistic vision against commercial concerns & the demands of the U.S market, since he was an experienced distributor with a long track record, even if I didn’t agree with his approach – “Shalimar” mutated into “Raiders of the Sacred Stone” several decades later, re-packaged and re-titled 🙂 – Krishna maintained a positive attitude and whenever we were in touch it was always to discuss his latest projects, and I was flattered to have been taken into his confidence since he seemed to value my opinion – during a Skype call in 2011, he asked me if I could put him in touch with Danny Boyle 🙂 – in return he was always gracious and interested in any ideas I had, the last being an unrealised “making of” graphic novel project where he granted me permission to produce a dummy based on a feature length animated film he had co-produced.

Krishna Shah wrote, produced and directed a large number of films, which in itself isn’t remarkable except for the fact that 99% of these films were for the U.S and international markets, with very much Western sensibilities & mostly what might be termed “exploitation” films – if you rented one of these films on VHS in the 80’s then 9 / 10 it was probably one of Krishnas’ – but for me his lasting legacy is in co-producing what could have been the film which kick-started the current boom in Indian animation and which ended up being mired in issues to do with versioning and authorship – and a film of which I am sure he was proud to have been a part of in spite of those issues, as I was, and still am.

Epic scope and ambition are the qualities you find in independent producers of a certain era, even if they lacked the fire-power of the major studios to pull off their visions, and Krishna typified that mindset – in his company you kind of felt that if he could charm Rex Harrison to act in a film – which he did – he could do anything – a quality he retained right to the very end with a slew of ambitious projects.

Krishna Shah – film producer, writer & director –  1938 – 2013

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0787452/bio