Saturday, November 5, 2011

Note Extraordinaire [dir. Amol Palekar]

My knowledge of Hindustani or for that matter any classical form of music wouldn't be a thimble's worth but I appreciate some of the moods it evokes and have tremendous respect for the skills of the people that have dedicated themselves to the study and performance of such music. Kishori Amonkar, the subject of this documentary is someone I first heard of when I saw Govind Nihalani's film Drishti, for which she had done the score. Drishti as a film, the more I think of it, the more I feel it sucked, a lifeless Ingmar Bergman pastiche with some nice moody cinematography (Nihalani himself). But it had fine music, mostly on account of Amonkar's voice; there's an aura and resonance to it even a neophyte like yours truly feels captivated by.

I never got any albums by her because I didn't have a clue what to get, what compositions by her would suit the moods I have a preference for. But I found her interesting, having read of her being a temperamental person who transcended accepted norms and orthodoxies of technique, and who didn't indulge in the public relations exercises that a lot of renowned musicians do to keep their names abuzz.

Amol Palekar's documentary goes some way to giving an insight into the individual behind the name. The film begins with Amonkar talking about her mother. She waxes on about her mother's talent, her struggle to bring up Kishori and her 2 siblings after her husband's death, her philosophy towards music and its study, her manner of teaching the young Kishori and the corrections and criticisms she made, which shaped the singer we today know. There's a palpable emotional element during some of these conversations, revealing the depth of the guru-mother influence.

Palekar then puts the focus on Kishori's own evolution as a singer, her distilling of the training she received into forging her own path, and the development of her musical philosophy. She makes some very interesting remarks about how the rendition of a note is not an isolated element but weighs on its spatial and temporal relationship to the other notes, the overall composition and the mood it is trying to evoke. This is genuinely revealing stuff that takes this documentary from the domain of an ordinary biography to an exploration of an artist's thinking process. Full marks to Palekar for this kind of insightful reporting. Apart from Amonkar herself, there are conversations with her sons, who talk about her as an artist and as a mother, with other known names of Hindustani classical music (Amjad Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain, Shiv Kumar Sharma) who sometimes offer up more than superficial paeans to Amonkar's mastery, and with music critics who dissect the evolution of her style over time. This is a lovely portrait of an interesting artist that people who like Indian classical music will find very welcome.

The overall effort is quite laudable, but there are certain lacunae to Note Extraordinaire. Palekar is no Satyajit Ray, only intermittently realizing that interviews and conversations need not exclusively frame the talking heads. Amonkar's music is also not as prevalent in the background as it could have been. The volume levels for older performance excerpts are out of sync with the sound recorded for the documentary. Interestingly, on the DVD, you have 3 sound options – Marathi (original) or Hindi (voice-overs) with stereo sound, and a Marathi option with 5.1 surround. In my view, it's stupid to have a surround track for a solo performer documentary, but you have the option. Lastly, I believe it's plain cussedness that in this day and age, films presented in a widescreen (digital video) format are given non-anamorphic transfers that don't stretch correctly over flat-screen televisions. It is especially egregious since the makers have taken care to ensure that the provided English subtitles appear inside the film frame. It's better than UTV's Harischandrachi Factory DVD, where, if you don't grasp everyday Marathi, you couldn't watch the film in the original aspect ratio, on account of the subtitles going out of the zoomed in widescreen frame, but such carelessness spoils one's view of the overall worth of these off-the-beaten-track releases.

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