Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A bit of self-reflection & Satyajit Ray's Devi.

Previously, when I have written about my ambivalence towards art house or parallel films in India (and elsewhere), I may have come down too hard on both myself as a viewer, who gets too easily bored and the stereotypical concept of these types of films as boring and incomprehensible. I think this kind of narrative is so tired and rather poisonous, and I'm kicking myself for ever furthering it on this blog. The fact is, most of my reactions to movies, such as Satyajit Ray's filmography, come down to two factors: my own bias against watching 'classics' just because they are considered by some as classics, and my lack of orientation towards watching these sorts of films. (And yes, this will be one of those slightly tiresome blog posts where I ponder why I react to things the way I do, as opposed to just telling you about my reactions. Apologies all around.)

I've always had this perhaps slightly ludicrous aversion to watching or reading anything that is a classic simply because it's received such a label. I don't believe in entertainment as education, unless there is a legitimate educational purpose to consuming a piece of entertainment (like the fact you're researching something, or a legitimate student of something, such as literature or art or film). I'll watch films considered classic, if and when I want to watch them - when I'm motivated to see what they're about, as opposed to composing a body of works as educational homework for myself. Some will tell you that you absolutely need to see certain films in order to discuss films at all, but I'm not really one of those people. I'll encourage curiosity in others, and in myself, because curiosity towards new things can only lead to great new discoveries and fun.

Some people obviously have a different take on this, and would probably argue that classics are considered classics because they are generally good and important works of art. I'm not denying any of this, as most of my favourite films could easily be considered classics in some form or another. It's just that this is my philosophy when it comes to art, and canonized art. We should recommend things to people because they might enjoy them, not because some sort of consensus has formed that something is important.

As far as my lack of orientation is concerned, that's where Devi and the previous Ray film I watched, Charulata, come in. They both seem to work in a format where themes and ideas slowly build up over the movie, only to reach a spectacular height of dramatic tension in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. This sort of cadence is not necessarily unique, but it differs from the films I typically watch. It's not that I don't enjoy it - it's just I'm not used to seeing it.

When I woke up on a Sunday morning and had this sudden idea of watching Devi alongside my many morning cups of coffee, I knew this was precisely why I had this philosophy about classics and art. As the mood struck me, the setting for the film was perfection - and the clear-headed, caffeinated emotional devastation that I felt at the end of the movie, was perfect, too. I watched the characters live in their world, commit their honest mistakes and become trapped in the societal conventions they couldn't struggle out of, because sometimes that is simply how things work.

Devi is, of course, a tale of a Bengali household where the father-in-law (Chhabi Biswas) of Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) sees a premonition in a dream that Dayamoyee is a reincarnation of the goddess Kali. Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), her husband, is away completing his studies, and he returns to find his wife, living at the temple, worshipped as a goddess.

It's a concise film with excellent mood, tremendously interesting performances - particularly Sharmila - and beautiful cinematography, but I'm still far too focused on the ending, which is a complete punch to the gut, in a good way. It's satisfying in its tragedy, but if I'm completely honest with myself, the journey towards that ending was not as gripping as I might've hoped. What do I do with a film that I only really enjoyed during the last ten minutes? Rewatch it, I suppose, to take in all of those hints of what was coming, before I knew where it was all headed. Much as I did with Charulata, I certainly liked this film, but it didn't work its way into my heart as a favourite. And much as with Charulata, the review of the film turned out to be rather navel-gazing. Further apologies?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Disappointments, small & large: Nautanki Saala & Shuddh Desi Romance.

The more films I watch, the more I begin to understand that while there are always plenty of discussions to be had about various aspects of films, the one thing you can't really debate is the viewer's connection to characters. At times films click and succeed in establishing that connection - sometimes it's writing, sometimes it's acting, quite often it's everything coming together beautifully to make you care for the characters, and what happens to them.

Nautanki Saala, a romantic comedy based on a French film Apres vous (adapted with permission, I think), is one of those films where I do like all of the characters but I'm not fully engaged with their journey. Ayushmann Khurana plays Ram, a theater director who saves the life of a layabout Mandar Lele (Kunal Roy Kapoor) and is thus responsible for his life. He hires Mandar and attempts to secretly get back Mandar's former love, Nandini (Pooja Salvi). Things get complicated when Ram falls for her instead.

There are numerous things to like about this film. For one, it's very funny - a particular scene at a restaurant had me laughing until I couldn't breathe, and all the actors do a good job of heightening the comedy. Secondly, the parallels between to Ramayana-inspired play and the actual events was pretty fun. I liked the principal cast, and the film was never boring or tedious. Yet, perhaps there was some tiny bit of chemistry missing in the love story, or maybe the complicated premise robbed that part of the film a bit of its romance, or maybe I was just in an odd mood that day. It's hard to tell sometimes. The bottom line is, I liked the movie, but not as much as I was hoping to. It's making me doubt my initial fondness for Ayushmann, to be perfectly honest - if I liked, but didn't love Vicky Donor, and now I'm getting largely the same reaction to his next movie, maybe he's not yet that good a performer. 

Shuddh Desi Romance delivers precisely nothing that the name implies, which I don't fault it for. I don't need my romances to be chaste, or particularly traditional. Sadly, what the film is also missing is good characterisation. It starts out fast, and introduces its main characters Raghuram (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) quickly as well. They're on their way to a wedding - his - and she's one of the hired guests. He's having doubts, as the marriage is arranged, they talk on the bus, she smokes a cigarette, they kiss. Later, after he's escaped his wedding by literally running away, she seeks him out.

Things move so fast that by the time, about 30 minutes into the movie, when the couple is already running into their first signs of trouble, I began to wonder whether I cared all that much. I sort of knew them as characters, I suppose, but there was never enough establishing them, or their feelings for one another, as to help me have that connection that is so crucial in a film like this. Later this troubled twosome is joined by newcomer Vaani Kapoor's character Tara, seen earlier almost marrying Raghuram, and I had to ask myself, "What the hell is this movie trying to go for?".

Admittedly, it's not easy to write believable young people who are confused about what society wants out of them, and what they themselves want. But some of the vulnerabilities and complications in these characters seem so manufactured and nonsensical. They love each other but they don't want to commit, because one of them says that the other one could never commit seriously and the other one takes offence at that. It got to the point where I just felt all these arguments and endless rapidfire dialogues were pointless - if there were layers to be found, I couldn't make any sense of them. Was something just lost in translation? Or was I tuning out because I just didn't care?

I feel bad because this film got so many things right - I enjoy Parineeti Chopra's performances, and she had a relaxed chemistry with Sushant Singh Rajput. Vaani Kapoor was not bad for a debutante actress, and her smile gave a strong impression that her character was always two steps ahead of everybody else. (Interestingly enough, she'll be the lead in the Tamil/Telugu remake of Band Baaja Baarat, alongside Nani.) The music was cheery and quite fun. The cinematography was stunning, and made me want to visit Jaipur. But that connection, that investment to these characters and what happens to them, just wasn't there.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


As much as we may all miss the UTV hand, the new opener of UTV movies, with the three dancers and the banging drums, remains an early promise of a quality picture - especially when it comes to good, interesting stories. This is also the case with Barfi, the tale of a death-mute man (played by Ranbir Kapoor) in Darjeeling and how his extraordinary character and joie de vivre impacts the lives of two women - Shruti (Ileana) who Barfi falls in love with, and Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), the autistic girl Barfi knows from childhood.

This was India's Foreign Oscar contender of last year, and thus I am rather late to view and review the film. I guess one thing that could be said of it was the mixed reaction - while people applauded the performances, there was some grumbling about "inspired" scenes, which is precisely the kind of thing that puts a damper on a movie such as this one. Barfi tries very hard to be heartfelt, a bit of a tear-jerker and generally moving. For the most part, I felt like it succeeded. The performances are good, and the characters do come alive. The light-hearted comedy, even though quite silly and physical at times, never feels as out of place as it could be - Barfi does a good job in being half this sort of magical realism with its silliness, but also being a grounded film. I liked the film, but I didn't love it - at no point was I moved as much as I think the film wanted me to be. It didn't quite stick with me, despite having such good intentions, and generally doing a good job of fulfilling my expectations.

I guess as ever when stars of Ranbir and Priyanka's calibre pick up really unusual or challenging roles for them, that's the main discussion point of the film. I've got nothing of substance to contribute there - I thought both did well, as expected, and probably served some award nods for their performances, but I just didn't feel that special connection to either character, or the story itself. So despite all its goodwill and good facets, in the end, Barfi was just an okay film for me. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Monsoon Shootout: exploring the what if.

I had no idea what to expect from Monsoon Shootout - I did not recognise the director, didn't look through the cast, and the festival website merely described this as a shooting-filled policewallahs vs goons type of story, essentially nothing new under the sun. I hadn't heard it had been praised in Cannes, I hadn't even heard it had been to Cannes, and I certainly didn't expect what is surely one of the best off-beat films of the year. 

Amit Kumar (son of Kishore, incidentally) directs the story of rookie cop Adi (Vijay Varma in a confident performance), entering the police force, only to encounter deeply corrupt, inhumane police misbehaviour on his first day on the job. Khan (Neeraj Kabi), his superior, is more or less a crook in a uniform - willing to go to any length necessary, where Adi wants to stick to doing things the right way. Quickly he finds himself in pursuit of a suspect, Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui - I gasped in anticipation the moment I recognized him), and has to make a decision, soaked in the monsoon rain - to shoot or not to shoot.

As the narrative starts to go through every possibly scenario, it does a rather remarkable thing of fooling its audience. Even as I knew that the scene I was watching was just a "what if", I was engaged with the story. I was living through it. I was inside this world of slum-dwellers and morally corrupt policemen, of questionable guilt and innocence. 

Nawazuddin Siddiqui has been spectacular in pretty much everything he's been in as of late, so it feels almost tired to sing his praises. He's very effective here - against  the wide-eyed Adi, who's coming face-to-face with tough moral decisions every day, Shiva's varying level of guilt and malevolence is clearly depicted in Siddiqui's performance. Tanishtha Chatterjee as his wife Rani is equally good.

The film is currently doing rounds in the festival circuit, but when it finally gets a proper release in India, I bet it'll make many people's "Best of 2013" lists. As with many stories, the setting and the beginning are nothing new - there have been countless films where cops are as bad as the criminals they're trying to catch, and where politicians conspire with gangsters in an urban setting. But the different take on these themes in this setting, and the excellent acting makes Monsoon Shootout completely worth it. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani - precisely that, and then some.

Two years ago I saw Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, a comedy-drama about love, travel, friendship, youth and a little bit about growing up. I reviewed it with a slightly rambling audio review, and if you're too lazy to give that a listen, I'll recap my thoughts on the film: I liked it, but I didn't love it, and the whole experience made me rather pensive about what it means to grow up as a viewer. Suddenly things you adored about films are things you're no longer impressed by, and might even start to find annoying. I would have loved Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, when I was younger, because it's heartfelt cheesiness and focus on male friendship above all else would have worked its magic on me, and everything that I still found good about the film - the music, the performances, the comedy - would've been heightened further.

I don't bring this up to draw a direct comparison between these two movies, even though they share a cast member (the darling Kalki Koechlin) and some common themes of youth and friendship and travel or because I saw both films in the same theater at Helsinki International Film Festival. I bring this other film up because the experience I had with it, and the experience I had with Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani to me seem like siblings - watching Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani was also a very personal experience, and some of the things I loved about it may be completely universal but at the same time I felt like the movie was talking to me. Just me.

Ayan Mukerji does an absolutely stellar job in wringing something really fresh out of the scene we've seen a million times in Hindi films: the uptight, studious girl Naina (Deepika Padukone) with the flirty, out-going dude Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), at a train station, in the beginning of a journey they're about to go on together. A part of the triumph is just that instead of being these characters we've seen before a million times, as clusters of characteristics that form polar opposites (she's serious, he's funny and so forth), Naina and Bunny are actual characters. They form a chemistry and a friendship that is very much the extrovert making the introvert enjoy life and loosen up a little, but it's also more than that. 

The film is fluffy and funny and enjoyable, but it's also got this layer of realism about its young characters. The two other friends that complete the central cast - Kalki Koechlin as Aditi and Aditya Roy Kapoor as Avi - are not just friends to our lead characters, they have their own motivations and aspirations as well. These young characters accomplish their aspirations, fail to, change their aspirations because they've changed as people, all the things that people do at this point in their lives, when the world feels completely conquerable. 

I don't mean this to sound like an over-enthusiastic celebration of youth - I'm sure the question about aspirations, and what you want your life to be are relevant to many people at various stages in life. It's not an age thing, necessarily. But I guess that's where the personal film experience comes into play; I felt like YJHD was asking all the questions I'm asking myself right now. Bunny's enthusiasm for travel gains a new layer on the second half, when he has a series of conversations about his new job and his chosen nomadic life style with his friends from back home, really struck me. Travel is about living life to the fullest, in many ways, and gaining new experiences, but it can also hide something - a literal escapism from home, or from settling down. After all, if you never stop, you also never stop to think about where you're actually going, and where you should be going, or staying, instead.

If you've not seen this movie, reading this review might make it seem like a particularly serious fare, which I assure you it is not. The reason I fell in love with these characters was because they feel true to life, but also because they're just so funny. The narrative is woven with delightful, bouncy song-and-dance, from the opening number that features a great guest star appearance and there's rarely a moment when the film stops being entertaining. I love the depiction of friendship - joyous but not without problems, and not without being able to overcome those problems, and there is also a healthy friendship depicted between the two women at the centre of the film.

Is there anything wrong with the film? Well, no film is flawless, and there are a few comedic side characters who I did roll my eyes at a little. But for the most part, it's been a while since I've been this smitten, walking out of a Hindi film. I'm sure a part of it is just the giddiness of the theater experience (such a rarity for me) but most of the credit goes to the script: taking tropes I like, and turning them into more fleshed out characters with interesting dynamics and facets that just seem very true to life, all of these little things came together in YJHD rather beautifully. I haven't spoken word one about the two leads in this film, but it's almost like I don't feel the need to point them out specifically - I already know Deepika Padukone is definitely among the better new faces of the past couple of years, and Ranbir Kapoor is good, despite still not being a favourite of mine. Their chemistry is easy and comfortable here, and something I'm sure I'll enjoy in many future viewings.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lootera: robbed of attachment.

Lootera is an atmospheric period drama with many good facets; the music, the cinematography and the acting all stand out as great. In the backdrop of 1950's India, a somewhat sheltered landowner's daughter falls in love with an archaeologist visiting her father's land. Things unfold slowly, and the film does a good job of showing things, rather than telling. The young actors, Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh, do really well in their roles - there's a new maturity in both of them that shows what they're capable in the hands of a good director.

With all these things going for it, I was surprised at myself for not loving this film - or perhaps not as much surprised as disappointed. The thing is, as the undercurrent of tragedy in this tale of love become a prominent feature of the story on the latter half, I heard sniffling around me in the half-empty film festival screening, and then I realised it - I wasn't emotionally engaged with the film, unlike these other viewers. I wasn't emotionally engaged at all. I wasn't living through the story with the characters, like you do in a particularly good film, but instead, I felt as if I was looking at them from the outside.

There are a few reasons for this, but I feel like biggest reason was probably the way that the story references changes in landowner (zamindari) law and the way the newly independent India was changing its societal structure, chipping away at the privileged class whose fortunes had been handed down to them, generation through generation. Sonakshi's character Pakhi comes from this very privileged upbringing - she's always had everything, and early on in the film there's a scene where she uses her social standing to benefit her in a rather manipulative way, against one of her servants. This is not a horrible scene, but it rubbed me the wrong way - if I was supposed to sympathise with this character, that scene established her as spoiled and unlikable. When Ranveer's character Varun enters the picture and falls for her, I found myself wondering why he likes her so much. I couldn't emerge myself in their love story, so when it unfolds into heart-wrenching drama, I was just left sitting there, watching, thinking, "Yeah, okay, so now this is happening I guess." Detached. The one thing you don't want to be in a film of this kind.

It's unfortunate, and it's possibly one of those things that's changed in me over the years. I'm going to sound like a Marxist when I type this but I can honestly say that having a perspective on things like societal or economic class is something I've gained in the past couple of years when it comes to Indian films. It's not something I've really thought about before. Of course, it's not something I think about all the time, with every movie - I'm perfectly fine with following the lives of the hyper-privileged in my fluffy Indian entertainment. On the other hand, when a film references changing times and then doesn't explore the topic in an intelligent way, or adequately to my liking, I guess I lose some of my enjoyment of the film. Lootera is wonderful in many ways, but I wasn't attached to it, and in the greater scheme of things, that's probably both on me and the film itself.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Aurangzeb - throwback that doesn't throw us very far.

When the premise of Aurangzeb begins quickly unfolding at the beginning of the film, I was instantly reminded of those 70's masala films where the backstory is told in 20 minutes, before we even get to the title screen. The tale of twins switching places, the importance of family (and nature versus nurture), inheritance of business and of values, these are all themes that crop up in Hindi films time and time again, but something about this particular set up reminded me more of 70's than of 2010's. And since I love 70's Hindi films, this was a very positive association.

Unfortunately, though, this is very much a film of the 2010's. There is no Pran as the dad or as the villain, there is no diamond smuggling, or divine intervention thanks to pious son praying regularly. There are no snazzy villain lairs or cigar-smoking baddies called Robert, or Helen wearing animal print while dancing. Instead, we get plots centering around more grounded, real issues – corrupt policemen making deals with corrupt politicians, making money alongside corrupt businessmen, off the backs of the common man, farmers and villagers (who are barely seen, of course, because in the end the human drama is all about those with power). Our modern night club scenes have whiskey but they also have cocaine. Our bad guys are sometimes our good guys, and vice versa – the moral ambiguity allows characters to switch sides in the middle of the film.

It's not that one is inherently better than the other, of course. There's a reason why 70's films are as they are, in the style that they are, and there are reasons why modern films have a different take on things. Aurangzeb is an okay movie, but it's not an excellent movie, and perhaps one reason for that is the way that its premise could've worked better at a different time, in a different setting. That's not to say that family drama in modern films feels dated – it's just that here, the modern dating doesn't really enhance the melodrama.

Arjun Kapoor plays twins Vishal and Ajay. Ajay is the spoiled, despicable heir apparent to their father Yashwardhan's (Jackie Shroff) empire, whereas Vishal has lived a good, clean life with his mother, thinking that the policeman (Anupam Kher), who saved him and his mother's lives, is his father. Arya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), the real son of the policeman, discovers Vishal and his mother upon his father's death, and the head of the family, Arya's uncle (Rishi Kapoor) decides to make Vishal infiltrate Yashwardhan's connections by posing as Ajay. Ajay is kidnapped, and Vishal begins living life as him, but things become complicated when Vishal begins to sympathise with his real father...

Perhaps the best thing about the film are the performances, particularly that of Arjun Kapoor. I didn't have very high hopes for him – he was wooden in Ishaqzaade, where I hated his character, and his performance did little to save the character from bad writing. Yet he does manage to carve two separate characters out of the twins he plays. Of course, the contrast helps – Vishal is soft where Ajay is hard, Vishal has humanity where Ajay seems to have none. I find it appalling how the story tries to carve a “lovable rogue” out of Ajay, when he is simply just an appalling human being for the way he treats people, particularly his girlfriend Ritu. I didn't see anything here that blew me away, but it's still early days, so hopefully his future roles are good.

Prithviraj and some of the older cast all do a fine job. The music that underscores the melodrama mostly seems to take away from it – it's always too loud or too dramatic for the situations it's trying to heighten. Perhaps the biggest failure of the movie is the lack of connection I felt to each character. The moral ambiguity messes with that in a way that kind of turned me off. We follow Vishal and Arya quite closely but I didn't really root for either in a big way at any point of the film, and as far as story-telling goes, that's a pretty big failure. Arya is set up as being corrupt from the first moments of the film, and Vishal just kind of comes off as pathetic at first, neither really endears me to them until the plot takes a few twists and turns.

Even in all its accomplishments in setting up an ambiguous world full of corruption, back-stabbing and intrigue, Aurangzeb is pretty unremarkable. I wouldn't recommend it, unless you were a huge, huge fan of one of the principals.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Go Goa Gone: just don't go.

It's really difficult to discuss Go Goa Gone without talking about my expectations for it. This was on my radar for a number of reasons: the directors had hit home-runs with both of their previous ventures, 99 and Shor in the City, Saif Ali Khan was involved (and I was hopeful that these two directors would bring out the best in him, as he was obviously passionate about the project, having a producer credit and all), the mix of stoner comedy meets zombie film seemed interesting, and finally, Kunal Khemu was among the cast. All signs pointed to this being an awesome film, especially when the first trailer made me chuckle a lot.

Three friends (the stoner loser, the nerd and the average guy trying to improve himself) go to Goa, one of them finds a girl, one of them gets laid, and all of them find themselves in a zombie apocalypse with a Delhiwalla gangster who pretends to be Russian. Surely this situation is fertile ground for some jump scares and some comedy, but what is truly disappointing about Go Goa Gone is exactly how it fails to live up to its premise at all.

The characters are the film's first failure. They're dumb but not lovable, and most importantly, they're flimsy. We're supposed to care about them, so it matters to us that they're in this desperate peril, and we're meant to chuckle at their idiocy, but the story fails to establish the characters as protagonists you could actually root for. Simply put, they're all pretty unlikable. Saif Ali Khan's odd badass Boris should be the kind of quirky side character who makes the film, but instead he too comes off as slightly tired. Are there funny one liners? Yes, but they're all the ones you saw in the trailer.  

I admit one reason for my disappointment might just be zombie fatigue. By the time this trend hit Indian cinema, English entertainment is absolutely inundated with zombie fiction, be it riffs on Pride and Prejudice (now with zombies!) or Brad Pitt saving the world from zombies, or Walking Dead exploring human drama (amidst zombies). But I also think that this could've felt fresh in the Indian context, and it's sad that it doesn't.

One reading of the zombies in GGG is that the provide a metaphor for excessive drug use, but this is a very accommodating way of looking at it – the film is not exactly rich with social commentary, as some of the best zombie films are. The extras don't make for very good zombies, even though the make up work was commendable, but perhaps the worst failing of the zombie genre is that it never feels like the protagonists are truly in danger. It's not scary, nor is it comically over the top enough to be funny. There are bits and pieces where the premise of zombies and stoner comedy come together, but those little sparks of life just aren't enough to liven up this film.  

I'm glad I saw it, in the sense that I didn't really believe others who said it wasn't that good, before witnessing this limp piece of film myself. It could've been so awesome, and yet it's just maybe okay at best, boring at worst.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A decade in a life, and in film.

There is something poetic about the fact that while Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, this year I can celebrate the tenth year anniversary of watching my first Bollywood film. If you don't know the story of the how that happened, you can read all about here. I didn't follow Indian films actively right away, obviously - I stumbled around, finding films I thought I might like, and ones I thought I ought to watch. It was only two years later, in 2005, that I actually began watching films on a less sporadic, accidental basis. I began to really get to know the stars, and look beyond the clichés. I began hanging out on Bollywood forums and websites (well, mainly the BollyWHAT? ones) and I made a friend in my city, who let me borrow a bunch of films and introduced me to so many new things, be it older Hindi cinema or the wonderful worlds of Southie cinema.

In 2007 I was already somewhat of a veteran, in that I knew what I liked, what I didn't like and what I wanted to see more of, and started this blog to showcase my fascination to the world. Ever since then, it's been my own personal opinion repository, one I sometimes maintain with extreme regularity and passion and that I sometimes let fall to the wayside in a rather regrettable manner. My love for Indian cinema remains ever-present but fluctuates - one month I'm watching three films in an evening, the next I haven't watched a single film, or even rewatched an old favourite.

The love has never gone away, though, and Indian films is the one fandom I think I'll always come back to. Therefore it's probably odd to most people that in my time watching these films, in all my time taking in their sounds and sights and cultural ideas, I've never actually been to India.

And unlike for most people, I can't even claim that it's been an issue of time or money. I've had enough time and money to travel to other far away corners of the world - I've been to the US, twice, South Korea, twice and I've even swung by the United Kingdom enough times to make up the money for a plane ticket to India. But travel is an odd beast, and my problem with India has been that I haven't wanted to go alone, nor has traveling alone to India been recommended to me.

Weirdly enough, even as I've expanded my horizons and gained more in-depth knowledge about Indian society, politics, history and culture as a whole, what eventually made me finally go to India was film-related. I was exchanging emails with a long-time friend who I'd initially met online but eventually got to know face-to-face as well, when visiting her country. She was also a fan of Indian films, so I wrote to her about how much I was looking forward to what is surely the most curious casting in the most bombastic film saga of recent memory, Aamir Khan in Dhoom 3. Jokingly I asked her, "You wouldn't want to swing by India at the end of this year?" and to my great surprise, she replied she'd love to visit India (a second visit for her). So we began talking, and then we began planning, and now we're booking.

Are your eye-brows raised? "Did she just write she's going to India to see Dhoom 3, out of all the movies in all the years, Dhoom goddamn 3?" No, that's not it. It's more one of those wonderful things where circumstances just come together and collide to create a new thing. My former music teacher probably shows Bollywood to her students on a yearly basis. It just happened so that I was the only one in that class receptive to Hindi cinema's charms, and wanted to see more. Similarly, I've wanted to go to India for over 10 years now, but have never had a friend to go with, and then suddenly I realise there is a friend who is not only willing to go, but is happy to go see Dhoom 3 and embraces the idea (and whose tastes in film tend to line up with mine), and the release of Dhoom 3 happens to coincide with a decent time to go travel in India (not too hot, not too damp) and when it's convenient for us two Westerners to go, as it's Christmas holidays.

So you see, Dhoom 3 just happens to be at the intersection of all these good things. I don't expect worlds out of it, as a movie - it's just a movie, starring some people I like, and it's a movie I'd probably see regardless of the circumstances. The fact that circumstances just happened to fall together, after my joking question, was kind of perfect. I'll be the first one to tell you that Indian culture, or cultures, are rich beyond belief and to only watch the films would be missing out on the various aspects, both positive and negative, of an interesting nation and its people. At the same, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the films form the backbone of my personal attachment and interest in India. Thus it feels fitting that I'll be heading to India with somebody that I don't have to drag into cinemas against their will, and instead can go see films with, and visit all the historical, cultural and just plain interesting sights as well.

I'm so happy to be going to India, because it feels like a long overdue visit, and I'm even happier that it feels like I'm going to appreciate it a lot more, now that I've done my share of reading and studying India, and the fact that I'm going with somebody I like, and who I know is interested in similar things as I am. It also feels very fitting, that I'm going near the anniversary of when I first got into Indian films - almost as if it was always meant to be.

Kai Po Che.

I liked Kai Po Che. I watched it months ago, alongside the two other films I recently reviewed, and while it wasn't my favourite of the batch, it was probably the most well made of the bunch. It was in that considerate UTV style I think we've all gotten used to; interesting characters, quality production, attention paid to the story and much faith given to the director. The picture above namedrops Rock On and Rang De Basanti, two hallmarks of the quality we've come to expect from UTV, and two films I personally love.

So it was inevitable that I would begin to wonder why I didn't love Kai Po Che. It wasn't like there was anything considerable missing in the film - it was just a really good effort, packed with young talent, and a good story told at a decent pace, reflecting all the various events that shaped the lives of these young men in Gujarat. Carla's review mentions she's tired of stories about young men, and in all honesty, maybe I am, too, and maybe that's okay, given how many of my favourite films are about young men and their friendships.

On the other hand, this film makes me so pensive, because it makes me think about how I've changed as a viewer. I still get giddy about the same things - I love films with great music, fantastic colours, goofy action and red-hot chemistry between the leads. These things are what drew me into watching Indian films ten years ago. I still adore the masala and the quirk, but nowadays I also love older cinema, more sombre films, films that weave in politics and history and all the not-so-happy parts of Indian society as well as the bright colours of the festivals and lavish sarees. Films like Kai Po Che certainly provide a balance between the two, which is why it's a good film - it's just not a film that I happened to love.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Whether Inkaar fails or succeeds seems solely dependent on what you want out of it as a film, and what your expectations are. If you're looking for a fairly grounded, realistic and serious treatise on sexual harassment in the urban Indian work place, you're going to be disappointed. This film does not make a progressive statement about sexual harassment, either; it portrays a lot of sexist characters saying or doing sexist things, and the main female character battling, but not necessarily always triumphing over, these prejudices.

If, on the other hand, what you're looking for is a case study of two very driven individuals, getting into a complicated relationship and complicating it further with their own inadvisable actions, playing rather vicious mind games with one another, and sabotaging each other at every turn, well, this is your film. Chitrangda Singh and Arjun Rampal grace it with their powerful, interesting chemistry and solid performances. The more the film progresses, the less it becomes about sexual harassment in general - what can happen when emotions and lust enter the work place - and more specifically about Rahul and Maya, these two characters and their strange relationship.

Knowing that I would hate the film, if it did try to say something about sexual harassment, and then reverted back to the same old tropes and clichés, spoken by the more sexist of the film's cast of characters (including Rahul), I made a conscious decision to mainly see it as a story between these two characters. This benefited the film enormously - it's a slightly uncomfortable watch, where the writing isn't always as top-notch as you wish it were, and the acting elevates it only just so that it becomes watchable. In the end, I liked it - not for the things it was stating, but for the way these actors decided to play these characters. By the climax, I was gripped by the story. Whether you buy into the end resolution, seems to depend on whether you believe that Rahul and Maya were somehow changed by the events of the film. I think they were, because I bought into these characters in such a powerful way.

I would give it a very hesitant recommendation, however. It's a film I decided to be forgiving to, and enjoyed mainly because of my own forgiveness. I can see how it could be seen as very damaging, regressive, and most of all annoying.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

If you have a taste for the occult: Ek Thi Daayan.

Bobo (Emraan Hashmi), a magician by profession, is haunted by memories of his sister's death. His current girlfriend Tamara (Huma Qureshi), with whom he's adopted a child, is getting worried. Little by little, Bobo's paranoia grows as he begins to see a repeat of his childhood horrors unfold in front of him...

Ek Thi Dayaan (Once there was a witch) is an odd film for me to write about. Vishal Bhardwaj's name gets numerous credits; he's in charge for just about everything except the direction, which is the job of debutante Kannan Iyer. As such, I was ready to love this film, despite the fact its story does a strange balancing act between the real and the supernatural. The characters and their interactions are very real and genuine. The performances are terrifically naturalistic; the three actresses especially shine in their respective roles. But the supernatural element is strong, and played up as such - it isn't problematized and no great energy is exhausted to tie it with human psychology as we know it.

Simply put, it's an odd fit. In a film that looks great, manages to create a very suspenseful mood when needed and that explains its mythology well, it feels silly that my main gripe is the mythology itself. Perhaps I'm just not the audience for it - I'm not much for horror, and when I am, I prefer it psychological as opposed to superstition-based. As such, I think the only things I really loved about this film were the performances and the music (also by Bhardwaj). Check it out, if the cast appeals to you, but go in with lowered expectations.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ABCD Any Body Can Dance: delight of the year.

You know when a film just hits that sweet spot of exploiting a formula without being formulaic? That's ABCD. It's an underdog tale well-told, that ends up being really heartfelt and moving, despite not being the best-written script. It's an ode to dance, first and foremost, and what an ode it is!

The film, directed and written by choreographer Remo D'Souza, starring the man whose name is a synonymous with dance, Prabhudeva, begins in a rather dull manner: Vishnu (Prabhudeva) gets fired by scheming dance company owner Jehangir (Kay Kay Menon with a soul patch, which is the most evil of facial hair styles) and is down in the dumps, when he discovers some local youths clashing with one another the form of dance! Inspired by this, he decides to teach them all they need to know about dance. And boy, does he ever.

Let's be honest: you watch this film for the dancing. You should watch this film for the dancing. At the same time, I was surprised at how engaged with the story I found myself. Little by little, the characters emerge from this talented group of dancers, and you end up really feeling for them. It's precisely as Prabhudeva's character says in the movie - to dance is to express emotion, and by the end of the film, I found myself tearing up at these expressions.

I don't know what more to say about this film, really; definitely see it, if you're sick of seeing simplistic dance routines in films, or if you like Prabhudeva as a dancer, or if you just want to see a great ensemble film that's beyond entertaining (especially once they get done with the tedious set-up of circumstances).

Maybe I'll view it with a more critical eye during rewatches but so far, this is my film of 2013 and thus I'll just shower it with lavish praise. Go see it. Go see it now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mere Dad ki Maruti: sigh, really?

Yash Raj Films' youthful, lower-budget off-shoot Y-Films has thus far released three films: the excruciating Luv Ka The End, the fantastically charming Mujhse Fraaaandship Karoge, and now Mere Dad Ki Maruti, starring Saqib Saleem from MFK and Ram Kapoor as his angry father.

The storyline to this one is simple: Sameer's (Saqib Saleem) sister Tanvi (played by Benazir Shaikh) and her husband-to-be are getting a car from papa dearest as a wedding gift. The car? A red Maruti. Sameer, eager to impress a girl by the name of Jasleen (Rhea Chakraborty), takes the car for a spin and loses it. Cue a movie-long hunt for a replacement car by Saleem, Jasleen and Saleem's friend Gattu (Prabal Panjabi, who viewers will recognize from MFK, where he was also in the best friend role).

I talked about the unrelenting commercialism and shallowness of Luv Ka The End in the review I wrote for it, and am sad to note that instead of cashing in on MFK's youthful charm, this Y-Film decides to go out of its way to glorify material possession. I honestly wouldn't mind the whole film being a blatant commercial for a car (I didn't mention the model of the Maruti as to not participate in this marketing campaign, though I suppose just typing Maruti this many times will have progressed their evil scheme). but could they have made it a bit funnier?

The problem this time lies chiefly with the absolutely appalling portrayal of women in this film. Jasleen, who insists on her name being pronounced Jazzlin, is constantly the butt of jokes for being, well, dumb. There is almost nothing more to her character than the fact she is dumb, yet hot, making her dumbness forgivable and more like a lovable quirk by the end of the film. There is a point in the film where she accuses Sameer of thinking of her as being shallow, but at no point does the film really give us a more fleshed out picture of her. She comes off as your standard hottest girl in the school, who is as dumb as a box of rocks, and only cares for cute clothes and flash cars. It's so mind-bogglingly unfunny.

Then there's Tanvi, Sameer's sister, who doesn't get much of a characterization other than yelling at him, but strangely enough, does get a song number. She performs a song at her sangeet, for her fiancee. She miscalculates and performs a very raunchy song about their upcoming wedding night, in front of their families, leading to much embarrassment in the audience. The entire scene is beyond weird: it's half-way between a serious, raunchy song-and-dance number, and embarrassment comedy, and it's not strictly speaking funny or sexy. It's just cringe-inducing, and again, the only person besides Tanvi dumb enough not to realize how embarrassing this is, is actually the family's mother. Ha. Ha. Ha.

I won't even get into the running joke where people mistakenly believe Gattu is poor, or from a poor family. That is the entire joke - that people think he's poor. Ha?

I won't deny that there are a couple of genuinely good laughs tucked into this messy flick: the finale absolutely made me laugh a ton, and there are a couple of side characters who made me chortle a few times as well. I absolutely love Saqib Saleem, and even if his character was an asshole here, I did enjoy his performance, and it didn't diminish my love for him any. Ram Kapoor was also very good. I won't judge the actresses harshly - like I said earlier, they had very little to work with. 

The songs are grating - the English, the rap, the verses mostly just praising the heroine's hotness don't exactly make for an edifying mix. Saleem is a very good dancer, though, and I think if anything this film proves that the man should move onto bigger and better things. Y-Films products can be excellent, and have personality beyond the glossy Hinglish exterior - we saw that with MFK. So what happened here? I'd put my money on it just being laziness. These are lazy jokes with poorly written characters. It ranks slightly above LKTE in my books, but not high enough to actually be a recommendation. Just go rewatch MFK, in all honesty - I've rewatched it recently and it's enjoyable for a second viewing.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Red Salute Blogfest: Thalappavu.

I meant to post about this film on May 1st, to kick off Red Salute Blogfest, but got lazy - in fact, I've been so lazy I've still got plenty of films that I meant to review to actually see. Therefore I'm dedicating the first half of May to this thing, possibly even longer.

Thalappavu is a 2008 Malayalam drama about a real incident between a Kerala Naxalite (played by Prithviraj) and a police officer (Lal). In the 1970's, the police held a Naxalite in captivity and then arranged a 'fake encounter', essentially an extra-judicial killing, or simply put, murder. The officer who held the gun apparently knew the Naxalite (I think the officer later disclosed this at an interview). The film works in flashback, beginning from the shooting and telling, little by little, the story of these two men.

In the very few Malayalam films I've seen so far, I see a theme of flashback narratives emerging. A central device in how the story is told is constantly with-holding some information from the viewer - we find out answers to our questions, but we have to wait for them to emerge. The story here is at heart quite simple, but the narrative device keeps the audience hooked, and this really serves the film. At times, I may have struggled to follow a little - essentially, there are at least three time-lines we work in, and it can take a while to understand which one the film is at and at which point it switches. Still, it makes the film very interesting. I can't say I was ever bored, which might've happened, had the director taken a more conventional approach to telling his story.

As far as the portrayal of Naxalites go, it's very positive. Joseph (Prithviraj) is a sympathetic, smart individual, who's prone to violence but for a good cause. Contrast this with the police, who are cruel and exceptionally corrupt. The sole good cop is Raveendran Pillai, the cop who befriends Joseph, but even he can be talked into dirty deeds by the other police man. It strikes me as somewhat simplistic to portray the Naxalite in such a positive manner, but on the other hand, this man died because of a horrible, sad and undemocratic practise by the cops. Perhaps it's fitting that regardless of his crimes (which he wasn't found guilty of, because of this fake encounter) he gets a salute by the filmed version of his life.

I confess I don't know all that much about Kerala's vast Marxist history - I just know there is one, and that Marxist thinking seems fairly mainstream in the state's politics. What impact it has left on the state as a whole, I couldn't analyse. What it did made me think was the fact that the term "Naxalite" lumps in a rather vast amount of people. The 1970's Kerala Naxalites were probably different from West Bengal 1970's Naxalites, and the current crop of Naxalites is a vastly different group, as well, in terms of both composition, ideology and goals. I haven't seen enough films to know whether all of these groups are labelled more-or-less as heroes or as villains, or neither, but so far I have a sense that it's easier to portray them as anti-establishment/pro-people heroes, than as villains.

Still, I enjoyed Thalappavu, for it's clever narrative device and its lush cinematography. It didn't become an instant favourite, but I'll probably be rewatching it. Atul Kulkarni does a brilliant turn as the film's villain, Lal was very effective in his role and I didn't mind Prithviraj, either. I've watched two other Prithviraj films that I have to post about eventually, so I'll discuss him more as an actor in that post. Suffice to say at this point, he's not really a favourite of mine, which is a shame. I really wanted to like him, a lot, after the brilliance of Aiyyaa. Sadly, I've been left rather lukewarm, even based on what I think are labelled his better films. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Trashy Sequels 2013: Race 2 and Murder 3.

I really could not tell you why I decided to watch Race 2. I'm not a film critic, I'm not getting paid to watch and write about it. I'm also not a fan of the 2008 original Race movie - in fact, I devoted my entire review of it to praising the fact that stupendously bad Hindi films are still being made, and that film being an indicator of just how bad it can get. Race 2 continues this proud tradition, but with all the updated sleekness that I assume a budget twice the size of the first Race film can afford.

Not that plot or characterization is of particular importance in this film, but let's recap a bit anyway. Saif Ali Khan is back as Ranveer, sans his Bipasha Basu as Soniya, though she makes a brief appearance in a flashback. His new rival/friend is John Abraham, an Indian mobster who loves nothing more than money. Deepika Padukone is his half-sister, developing feelings for Ranveer's smooth-talking ways (picture me rolling my eyes as I type this mess). Then there is John's girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Fernandez, who seems to know Ranveer from somewhere. Unfortunately RD, Anil Kapoor's unfunny cop character from the first film, is also back, this time with assistant Cherry, Ameesha Patel. 

The biggest problem with Race 2 is that it's actively annoying and insulting to one's intelligence and other senses. I don't think a couple of songs can be even called music - even if you're a fan of electronically altered singing voices, this amount of autotune renders every human effort into hopeless robotic noise that is not pleasurable to listen to, even in a club setting. There's some sleek action that is entirely too reliant on wire work, so much so that it stops being interesting in its defying of reality, and more just unbelievable and dragging on needlessly. In some ways, Saif is more of an uber-capable agent man in this than in last year's Agent Vinod, jumping from windows and from tops of buildings like he's Spiderman. 

Then there are the twists and the incredibly dumb dialogues we all know and dislike from the first movie. The twists once again make sure you don't really trust or care about any character. There is none of that feeling of betrayal when one character appears to be bad when you previously believed them to be a good guy. In the world of Race movies, it doesn't matter. They'll re-align themselves three times by the time the film is over, so you're better off just about following along and not caring too deeply.

It almost feels a bit silly to talk about performances in films like this, where the dialogues are an insult to whatever modicum of talent each actor on the cast has. I'm sure you've seen the best ones quoted on Twitter or in other reviews, but here's a sampling of the groanfest we've come to expect: "So hot .. I'm burning with envy." "Cherry, I don't have time to pop your cherry." "You're gonna be so dead and I'm gonna be so rich."

Ameesha Patel and Anil Kapoor's plotline is particularly painful since they have set out to ruin fruit as a healthy snack for everybody who enjoys an apple or a banana every now and then. Who thought this was a good idea? 

But perhaps the most horrible thing about Race 2 is that it's simply so goddamn boring. It aims to cater to the most base needs of the audience - some violence, some twists, some bare skin (of both sexes) - and fails entirely to actually entertain. It's not so bad it's good, or fun to watch to cackle at the horridness. It's just dull and irritating. 

Murder 3, in true Bhatt sequel fashion, seems to have nothing to do with the first two movies, other than the confused title. It is also a very trashy sequel, but manages to at the very least be interesting in its utter stupidity. There is just one twist here, and it's silly as all hell, but it's the type of twist that makes sure you want to see the conclusion to it, no matter how inane.

Vikram (Randeep Hooda on a bad hair day) is mourning over the disappearance of his girlfriend Roshni (Aditi Rao Hydari) by getting heavily drunk. The girl who works at the watering hole he visits, Nisha (newcomer Sara Loren), takes him home one night because he's not in shape to drive himself home, and the two eventually begin a relationship. There is something strange about Vikram's house, however, Nisha soon discovers, and what ever did happen to Roshni, anyway?

Randeep Hooda (who is on a seriously, seriously bad hair day, and I cannot emphasise enough how much this diminishes my enjoyment of the movie) has the odd talent of portraying guys who just seem off in a way, which lends the first half of the movie a strange atmosphere. It feels like every warning bell in Nisha's head should go off, but apparently this guy who lives alone in a house far away from the city, with a girlfriend who's mysteriously vanished into thin air, is just dreamy enough to have sex with (yes, there are sex scenes, in a film from the Bhatt house - I'm as shocked as you are!). Or maybe Nisha's character is written as pointlessly stupid, only possessing a brain when the script wants her to have one.  

The only shining moments for Randeep (on a continuous, very, very bad hair day) are the scenes where he gets to play drunk, as he does quite a good job of it. Sara Loren is merely okay - she opts for under-acting instead of over-acting, which fools you into thinking she's quite capable, but in reality all she has to do is this blank frown of horror at various noises. It's not great acting.

As such, the film belongs to Aditi Rao Hydari, who I really enjoyed in London Paris New York (even if I didn't love the film itself). Her acting can be over-the-top at times, and her character is written as not precisely the sharpest pen in the pencil case, but at least she tries to spin this ridiculousness into a believable direction, and somewhat manages it.

The post-interval twist creates quite an intriguing dramatic circumstance, that made me actually interested in how the film was going to end. It's completely unbelievable and silly, of course, but in a way that kept me hooked until the end, and a part of that was Aditi's better-than-the-film performance. There's another twist the film could've taken, but opts out of, which proves that ultimately films like these are just absolutely horrible to women, and to the female characters they portray. I almost want to discuss spoilers with regards to this film - where it could've gone, and where it opted to go. 

Still, the amazing thing about watching this film after sitting through Race 2, is that it seems like a masterpiece of thrilling cinematic story-telling in comparison. I realise it is not - it's a stupid thriller that spins a plot to allow for some "bold" and "daring" sex scenes to be in there, while remaking (officially - to give them credit) a Colombian thriller called The Hidden Face. It does not deconstruct love, the claim made by producer Mukesh Bhatt, as there isn't a tale of love told here - at least not believably enough to count. I'm not sure who I'd recommend this film to. Probably no one - it's a film, it exists, you can watch it, but I'm not entirely sure why you would. Aditi Rao Hydari is good but not that good, and there isn't enough Randeep Hooda goodness here to sate a fangirl of his. Maybe give the Colombian original a spin instead?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Red Salute Blogfest: Watch a film about Naxalites and blog about it in May!

Naxalites are hardline leftist, Maoist activists, terrorists or freedom fighters (depending on your point of view) fighting an insurgency against the Indian state. The movement began in West Bengal in the late 1960's but is currently mostly fought in the jungled areas of states of Jharkand and Chhattisgarh.

I've been fascinated by the cinematic representations of these Maoists ever since I first learned about them, and therefore sought out tons of movies that portray Naxalites. In some ways the Naxalites are a contentious topic; some see them as fighting for the rights of the underprivileged, such as the tribal (adivasi) people living in the areas where they're engaged in conflict, while others see them as taking advantage of these people in order to advance their own political agenda. To some they are just criminals and terrorists, to others they're concerned citizens, being angered enough to take up arms against the state. The truth may be a mixture of both of these points of view.

I figured I might as well not watch them on my own but make a blogfest out of it, so here's how it'll work:

1. Watch a film that portrays the Naxalites. 

I'll include a list of films in this post, with notes on the films I own and will be blogging about myself. There are quite a bit of these films, in various Indian languages so if Hindi films aren't your thing, you can watch a film in Bengali or Malayalam, for example. There might be films that I'm not aware of and therefore can't list here, so if you find a film that touches on the subject but isn't listed, feel free to watch it!

2. Blog about it during the first two weeks of May!

 You don't have to discuss the representation of the Naxalites in the film, it can just be a standard review like you would normally do. You may also review multiple films, films you've already seen, or about the topic more generally, or do whatever you normally do on your blog.

3. Link me to it, either by commenting here or tweeting @veraciously about it! 

I'll read it, and collect all the blog post links into a single post by the end of the whole shebang. I expect I'll probably make around 7-10 posts with my own film reviews.

The List (in completely random order, possibly incomplete)

Pratidwandi (Bengali) This film is probably the oldest film about Naxalite, coming out when the initial movement was still happening in West Bengal. It's directed by Satyajit Ray.  

Chakravyuh (Hindi)

Thalappavu (Malayalam)

Red Alert: The War Within (Hindi)

Chamku (Hindi)

Hazaroon Khwaishin Aisi (Hindi)

Ko (Tamil) Barely features Naxalites but it's a good film so it's worth a recommendation!

Hazaroon Chaurasi Ki Maa (Hindi)

Veerappa Nayaka (Kannada)

Laal Salaam (Hindi)

The Naxalites (Hindi)

Aranyakam (Malayalam)

Some of these may be difficult or even impossible to find! I've searched far and wide for the "The Naxalites", for example, and a DVD of Laal Salaam seems equally hard to get my hands on. Regardless, there are some very recent examples, such as Chakravyuh, Thalappavu (which is based on historical events) and Red Alert, which should be more widely available. A lot of these are also critical favourites (Hazaroon Chaurasi Ki Maa, for example), so should make for good viewing based on just that. I own the first 8 films from the list, and plan on reviewing them during the first weeks of May!

So join me, why don't you? 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola: pink buffalo politics.

There's no way around this fact: Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a strange film. However, its oddities are in the end rather scarce, so what you have is a fairly fun, thoroughly musical political satire, taking place in the fictional village of Mandola in Haryana, interspersed with moments that just trip up the viewer a little. It's a good film, but it's also the kind that I can imagine leaving some a bit puzzled, some a bit frustrated, and others overjoyed with what they just witnessed. 

The story is relevant to the modern political realities in India today; the farmers of Mandola are getting communist propaganda briefings from a person calling themselves only 'Mao', encouraging the peasants to rise against the drunkard landowner Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), who is being charmed by the cunning politician (Shabana Azmi) to set up a Special Economic Zone near the village. The servant Matru (Imran Khan) is supposed to keep Mandola away from booze, a task he fails at more than he succeeds, and meanwhile Mandola's daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) lives a care-free existence, under nobody's rule. 

There's a lot to bite into here, and perhaps one central failing of the satire is that it allows itself some silly flourishes without delving too deep into some of the themes it could explore more. Mind you, this is India, and the Censor Board affects the way every story we get is told - it's hard to say what might've changed from the director's original vision. There is also the fact that Bhardwaj is typically at his best when adapting other people's material - from the Shakespeare adaptations to 7 Khoon Maaf, originally a novel. Kaminey was all his, but also played within a genre (underworld thriller) that Bhardwaj knows like he knows how to compose beautiful tunes for his wife Rekha Bhardwaj to sing. 

I find myself not being too sure what MKBKM is going for at times. There are portions of it that are clear-cut political satire and criticisms of modern Indian society, where the criminal politicians (who are a-plenty) take land away from poor farmers to start up big development projects that benefit mainly the already well-off classes. Then there is the depiction of Mandola's alcoholism - both comical and tragicomical at once, and about as gruesome a portrait as the anti-smoking campaign ads Indian films now seem to have tacked onto their beginnings. The pink buffalo is just one of the little oddities that the film throws into the mix, but its greater meaning is never quite clear.

Perhaps one problem is just the fact that Bhardwaj is not exactly at home in the comedy genre. There are funny moments in this film, just as a lot of his other films, but it's not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. Nor do I think it should be, but the fact it really seems to go for it, attempting to get those chuckles, kind of makes me wonder. I also don't know what to make of the African Zulu musician-dancers. Their first appearance has a definite reason from the script, and they pretty quickly align themselves with the plight of the villagers (perhaps signalling some sort of solidarity between their own conditions at home). They're never given a speaking part, or much of a character, so they stand as this strange reminder of one strand of plot - an excess of comedy, perhaps - that I personally didn't really know what to do with. I couldn't condemn it, but nor could I justify it entirely in my head.

This is perhaps sounding a bit too negative, considering how much I actually liked the film. It's filled with things small and big that I generally enjoy. Vishal Bhardwaj plays the tune of my heart, and so his music always underscores the mood of his films beautifully. The soundtrack is as strange as the film, but it's also wonderful, catchy and infectiously enjoyable. The acting is also all-around great. Pankaj Kapur's character Mandola is written to be a show-stealer, so it's no surprise he does just that, and crafts a strange relationship between him and Shabana Azmi's politician character Chaudhari Devi, who's amusing in her megalomaniac manipulative nature. I really fell in love with Anushka's rebel-finding-a-cause Bijlee, even though it doesn't seem like she gets that much scope in the story - it could just be that I like Anushka Sharma, period.

Imran Khan is one of those guys I've been perpetually lukewarm towards. I like him, I've just never had a reason to like him for than that faintly positive tolerance I have of him. Matru probably had the makings of a career-defining performance, but since Mandola ends up being the undeniable main character, Matru ends up playing second fiddle and so does Imran. He acts well, though, so much so that I finally began to warm up to him. Him and Anushka share fairly easy chemistry and their love story forms one of the best parts of the film.

How does Matru rate among Bhardwaj's excellent filmography? The lower half, for sure, but only because his other work is just so stellar. I'm loathe to use the word quirky, but that's what the film is - its quirkiness forms about half of its charm, but also contributes to a rather uneven narrative. I also have a feeling I may be pre-judging the film, as any political satire that plays with as many themes as the film should probably be viewed a few times before passing final judgment.

It could be that despite feeling a bit uneven, Matru is precisely the film it wants to be - with all those little oddities in there, all those comedy flourishes, and the portrayal of alcoholism just as goofy-serious as it's meant to be. If so, I feel like I need to digest this one a bit more. If not, and this is just Bhardwaj-sahib trying something new, and not really knowing what to do in the new genre, then perhaps we would do well to send him a good novel we'd like to see adapted. As ever, even Bhardwaj on a bad day is better than most other directors on a bad day. Ultimately, Matru is very much worth seeing.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Talaash: when is a slow reveal too slow?

Had it been released any other year, Talaash would've probably been the best film of the year. Lucky for us the audience, the year was 2012, which gave us another excellent Hindi mystery thriller, Kahaani. It's difficult not to talk about the two films in conjunction with one another, as they both involve an urban setting, a main character trying to piece together what seems like an unsolvable mystery, a plot twist and attempt to hood-wink the audience into not seeing that twist coming. They're also both films you're best knowing the most minimal amount of premise, going in.

So here's what I'll say about the plot - things you can piece together from the first trailers, which hit the internet about a year ago: a man drives off into the sea on an entire empty road, for no apparent reason. A police man (Aamir Khan) tries to piece together what happened, while growing distant from his wife (Rani Mukherjee) and running into the lady of the night, Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), who helps him try to solve the mystery.

I will try to discuss the film without revealing spoilers, but you're very sensitive to this sort of thing (I know I am!), you may want to stop reading now.

Talaash is a finely made movie with competent direction, littered with strong performances (from the heart-wrenching one from Rani Mukherjee to the crooked yet sympathetic character portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). It's definitely a step up from Reema Kagti's debut, Honeymoon Tavels Pvt Ltd, which was adorable but not too ambitious. As such, it's hard to phrase why the film doesn't really make it into my favourites. It's got so many things going for it, from the performances to the themes it portrays (which I cannot really discuss without going into spoilers), to the excellent cinematography. Going into it, I didn't know much, but I was expecting a lot - that's what tends to happen when three of one's favourites are shoved into the same film, with a promising premise. I'm not quite sure if the film delivered on all the things I really wanted it to.

I suppose one factor was the relatively slow pace of the middle third of the film. As a viewer, you're trying to put together the same mystery Aamir's Surjan is attempting to solve, but coming up with very little. I wasn't really at my sharpest when watching, so perhaps I could've seen the twist coming, had I concentrated a little more, but by the time the film got to its half-way mark, I found myself as frustrated as Surjan seemed to be. Things just weren't adding up in a satisfying manner, and the film began to feel a bit boring. I was fine with the twist, when it arrived - it seemed strangely fitting, and I didn't mind the aspect it added to the film. I figured it out, I suspect, exactly at the moment the director wanted me to figure it out, considerably before Surjan does, but not so early as to ruin the discovery.

So what I was left with was "just" a good film. When put up next to the crop of other good films, Talaash definitely stands out as a good film, but not so overwhelmingly strong that I'd say I loved it. I also wasn't so personally moved by as to call it a favourite. But worth seeing, especially if you like any of the three big stars in the main cast? Absolutely. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Standards, reactions and film criticism.

I'll be honest: this is going to be one of those absolutely painfully self-indulgent posts about the nature of film criticism from somebody who doesn't even do this for a living. Does the world need another pensive post from a blogger about what they occasionally do to fill the hours of the day? Probably not. And yet, I am writing it.

Look at Rani Mukherji smiling. At least this post has that going for it.

The reason I'm writing about the subject is not even because an Indian film inspired it in me. Post-Oscars, I got the sudden inspiration to actually watch some nominated and awarded films (which I rarely do, as so few Oscar contenders interest me). One of the films I went to see was Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which I found, simply put, brilliant. The film has some excellent performances, a simple narrative that seems to hide a lot from the viewer, beautiful cinematography and interesting subtextual themes. It made me pause a bit, reflect on what I'd just seen, recall certain scenes and then try to piece together their significance as a whole. It's that kind of film, and some people will find it difficult to understand, frustrating even, and some fans of the film will dismiss these criticisms as people just not "getting it" or not taking the time to rewatch the film and allow it to sink in properly.

These discussions caused one film writer to ask: Should some films be taken more seriously than others?

My first reaction is to say no, but then to immediately say yes. Arguably, all films should be judged by their own standards - a comedy has to make you laugh, or it's not a very successful comedy, and a romantic film ideally has you rooting for the leads to get together. A documentary provides you with new information, or portrays old information in an interesting manner, and hopefully makes you think, to boot. On the other hand, all films will be judged by your own  standards as a viewer. The best thing a film critic can do is write about a film in such descriptive terms that you can take away two things from their writing: what their standards for this film were, and how that film met those standards. More simply put - whether they liked it, in relation to what kinds of films they typically like.

So if a film makes you to pause and reflect at length on what you just saw, perhaps even rewatch, it's only fair to that reaction that you do so. If a film goes down without much pondering, regardless of how you feel about it, I don't think it's strictly necessary to over-ponder a film that doesn't inspire such a thing naturally.

This is not necessarily a split between films from interesting, respected film makers who make thoughtful cinema, and potboiler mass-entertainment films. The problems come in when people's prejudices make it so - when a critic thinks an arthouse film is worth pondering over, but an action film could never be, even if it touches on interesting themes. But film criticism is a fairly simple sport, as all it really has to contain is a certain honesty about your own reactions when it comes to a particular film.

I like to think that I can analyse films as I see fit, regardless of whether they are "meant" to be taken seriously or not. I've discussed each Upendra-directed film I've seen like it was an academic thesis, with points and arguments and explanations - while realising that these are still films made for the masses in mind. I thought a lot about Laal Patthar, even though the film was not particularly deep or even nuanced. Once I vented about my frustrations regarding a Malayalam art film - I could see it was good, but it wasn't for me in terms of the story or the characters, and I didn't catch the significance of the director's choices, nor did I think I would upon a second viewing.

To me, it doesn't really matter if you "get" a film or not, what matters if whether you like it or not. I don't know if I understood The Master, but I knew I liked it a lot. I liked it as I as watching it, I liked the performances and found the characters fascinating, I liked the soundscape and the visuals, and I loved pondering my own interpretations of the film. That's my honest reaction - whether my take on the film is wrong or right, doesn't really factor into my enjoyment of the film as a film.

Road, Movie (2010, directed by Dev Benegal and starring Abhay Deol) comes to mind. This was a small film that I remember a lot of people reacting to in a pretty negative way, finding it beautifully shot, but ultimately rather pointless. I liked it fine, but it wasn't a passionate, enthusiastic sort of like, but the lukewarm type - I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time with with it, but neither did I walk away from it feeling like I'd witnessed something magnificent. At times I do feel like I need to rewatch it, but other times I don't really think there was that much there to miss out on, so perhaps my reaction to it would be the same as last time. I don't think anybody absolutely has to give a film another chance, if it fails to impress the first time. If a reaction is not intrigue or a desire to look into it deeper, then why force it?

It's the strange nature of film-watching. Films can have enormous personal significance, or inspire a person to do something they normally wouldn't have. Films can say things about nations and cultures and points in time, or they can say not much at all. I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to react to cinema - perhaps Jism 2 really does provide some commentary on the sexual politics of modern India, or perhaps it's just a flick with tons of skin shown. What you see in it, is what's there for you.

I remember being called out on liking a certain, "trashy", entertainment-geared fare in Indian cinema but not the same thing, coming from Hollywood. I admit to this criticism, but I would also counter - isn't this what everybody does? You can't have the same standard to every film, unless that standard is your own enjoyment of a film. So Avatar didn't inspire much thrills in me, but Dabangg did. That's my truth - feel free to share yours.