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Milos Forman: A tribute to filmmaker extraordinaire

As I write this tribute, Milos Forman's (pronounced as Milosh) memorial might be over.

Legendary filmmaker Forman was a man of few words and I might add that he was also a man of a few films to his credit. He will possibly the greatest export from Czechoslovakia to Hollywood. Forman built and advanced careers of luminaries such as Jack Nicholson,Louise Fletcher, F.Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce,Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, Woody Harrelson, Jim Carrey, Courtney Love, Brad Dourif, producer Saul Zaentz and many more. 

To me personally, during my stay in the US in 2000-01, I used to work at the local Blockbuster store in Scottsdale,AZ on weekends.It was at this time, I developed my love for watching films more than ever. One of the things which I still miss is the "special features" section on the DVD's, it is here I saw an interview of Forman on the "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" title at the store. Ever since I have been deeply affected by his work. 

It may seem very tough to categorise a man with just a dozen films in his life amongst the greats. Forman might have chosen fewer projects, but he created a profound impact on each genre he ever touched. 

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1932, Forman encountered a communist regime throughout the time he lived there till 1968 when the Soviet Invasion happened. His formative years were spent in a society which was constantly evolving. It is in this atmosphere, Forman directed a lot of Czech films high in satire and good in its message. One of his earlier works" Fireman's Ball"became a film which caught the attention of film lovers across the world. 

"Firemen's Ball" was a fascinating film which focuses on a party hosted by the local firemen in a small town of Czechoslovakia. The story follows a few firemen and their travails and disappointments while organising this event. Stupid decision making, nearly deaf superiors, confusion and pandemonium ensuing is all over the film's narrative. Many people have called it Forman's critique of the Eastern European Communism in the 1960's. Forman had once remarked " Its a satire to be frank but it is also the fact that all governments create an environment where everything is perfect and then one little error spoils the whole plan". The film was nominated for an Oscar for "Best Foreign Film".

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" 

It is around the global release of "The Firemen's Ball" that actor Kirk Douglas who had taken rights to the book "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest"invited Milos Forman to US and asked him to direct the movie version of "One Flew". However after meeting Forman, Kirk didn't actually formalise the idea to make the film with him. It happened after almost 8 years when Michael Douglas (Kirk's son) who was still holding on to the rights of the book called up Forman and made a full scale plan schedule to produce "One flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" with partner Saul Zaentz.

Meanwhile Forman was in exile from Czechoslovakia and was now settled in US. He too was evolving his style of filmmaking and started his unique bond with original published content. This strategy later became the hallmark of Milos Forman's work. He chose films with a strong literary presence. 

Ultimately when the film released in 1975, it took Hollywood and global cinema by storm. Seen largely as Milos Forman's treatment of the novel by Ken Kesey, it garnered top 5 Oscars in one shot. "One Flew" is still seen a case study film in colleges, universities across the globe on behavioural psychology and other subject areas. But it was also Forman's own view of the totalitarian regimes under which he lived for a long time. The film centres around Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who is a convicted felon looking for mental reform in a state psychiatric hospital. McMurphy is seen as a reformer, rebel in the film as tries to change the conformist authority of its administrators. He ultimately caves in and himself goes mad after a surgical process is forced on him. This bitter sweet film became the nurturing ground for legends like Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, William Redfield. They all went to become world renowned stars. It was primarily because Forman's casting was very pointed. 


After this, Milos found yet another project to execute. He directed and created the film version of "Hair"based on the 1968 Broadway musical of the same name. The story of two Vietnam bound vets who encounter a group of "hippies" while heading to the army induction centre. The two soldiers get introduced to the "hippie" culture of unorthodox living and different perspectives on life. They make friends and they go on to the war. The film doesn't end happily. The film had some references to "Easy Rider". Yet Again, Forman exhibited his love for political and societal evolution. The film did not do well at the box office.  

Sometimes, I hope we as a democracy in India can create a film which can touch political and societal evolution like these films did


As Forman grew in stature he was looking to create a film with a large canvas and big vision. He saw Peter Schafer's play "Amadeus" and fell in love with it. The story of the fierce and yet subtle rivalry between Antonio Salieri and genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1600's caught his imagination. The film also introduced Forman's unique strategy of choosing unknown actors to portray legendary figures as to not overpower the significance of the characters. F. Murray Abraham, a relatively unknown actor was chosen to play Salieri and Tom Hulce was chosen to play Mozart. The film was scored by Sir Neville Mariner who bought a unique vision to the film's narrative. Amadeus was a tribute to the mystique of Mozart but it also bought to light the genius of Salieri, someone whose work was not that popular. The film weaved magic at the box office and won 5 Oscars and a second one for Milos Forman as Best Director and a Best Actor for F.Murray Abraham. The essence of competition and fierce jealousy bought the humanity in these geniuses. Also Mozart being shown as a clown of sorts who weaves the best musical notes because he is a genius was a fresh perspective needed in Hollywood at that time. How can a genius crack derogatory jokes, show ignorance to peers, make fun of rivals, balk at Kings and Archbishops, make fun of the entire musical establishment in Vienna?  Forman bought these traits quite beautifully. 

The People Vs Larry Flynt" 

Milos was always fascinated by real life people who left a mark on the world with their unique endeavours. In 1996, he released "The People Vs Larry Flynt" starring Woody Harrelson as the notorious publisher of "Hustler" magazine. The film which was a biopic on the life of Flynt who rose from extreme poverty to become one of the richest Americans ever through the wealth he amassed through publishing adult magazines, running exotic dance clubs and adult entertainment films. The focus of the movie is the court case between Flynt and The People of American in which he challenges his complainants that he is protected under law from the First Amendment in the US constitution which promises "free speech" to all citizens. There are some memorable scenes in the film when Larry Flynt appears himself in the role of a judge. The film got Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Actor for Milos Forman and Harrelson. It won Golden Globes for both of them. 

What set Milos Forman apart from others?

1. Choice of subjects:- Forman's choice of subjects for his films were unique. He would usually settle for something as profound as a highly controversial person like Larry Flynt but he would also look at a low class criminal in Jack Nicholson for "One Flew". He also looked at subjects which are deeply political in nature like the social fabric in the early 1900's "Ragtime", his take on the communist regime in "The Firemen's Ball". 

2. Love for original ideas:- Forman would always go for previously published content like in "One Flew" ( A book by Ken Kesey), "Hair" ( A Broadway Musical), "Amadeus" ( Peter Schaffer"s play), "People Vs Larry Flynt"(Real Life Personality), "Goya's Ghosts"( Real Life Painter Francis Goya's biopic), "Man On The Moon"( Comedian Andy Kauffman's life). 

3. An Eye For Talent:- Forman had possibly the best eye for talent. He recruited legendary actors into major roles when they were unknown. He paved the way for dozens of actors like Jack Nicholson, Samuel L Jackson (Ragtime), Woody Harrelson, Danny DeVito, F Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and many more.

4. A deep connection with Realpolitik :- Forman touched upon communism, fascism, anti establishment leaders, under appreciated geniuses in all his films. As his own parents were killed in the concentration camps, he was deeply affected by politics of reality. Even in "Larry Flynt", he uses a particular period of American history when "free speech" and the First Amendment was being questioned. 

Relevance for Indian filmmakers from Milos Forman's life

India is rapidly evolving into a content based film industry. Having said that the search for right content is the key. If we have book authors who create sub standard content, we will have a bad film based on it. Producers need to look beyond overnight part time authors to real voices. A film like "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" will give you a peek into Forman's style of story telling although its an average film in totality. There are talks of a biopic on Captain Rakesh Sharma's life, there is already a film on the 1983 Cricket World Cup win. If these subjects get a sincere and nuanced treatment, we might have a Milos Forman in India soon.

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