Friday, 21 September 2007

Anubhav (1971)

The beginning sequence in Anubhav surprised me pleasantly. It is a party celebrating a couple’s sixth wedding anniversary. The camerawork is more evocative of European cinema helping conjure up a candid and intimate look into the machinations of this society event. The overlapping of voices and a quick glance at each forgettable face of a guest makes you feel a part of this party. I instantly recalled all the formal parties I had been to in my life (well, most of them) and feeling a similar emotion of remoteness and false involvement that this sequence evokes.

The party is not staged for the camera’s benefit. When you consider most Hindi films, everything in a crowded scene is directed or choreographed in a way to hint at drama or passion. This might be done in the form of a song or a dramatic confrontation. These kind of scenes are entertaining in their own right but the party scene in Anubhav also works because it shows the lack of dominance that these people have. There is no spotlight on a single person and it is a little child who draws all the oohs and aahs.

Once you realise that the director is Basu Bhattacharya (Teesri Kasam), you can understand why the opening is so unusual. The married couple are Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar). Meeta likens her home to a hotel as it is swarming with unnecessary servants. Normally a person who goes through the motions of her role as an obedient wife, Meeta decides to take matters into her own hands. She sacks nearly all the servants without even consulting Amar.

When Amar complains, her response is: “Jab woh sab hote hai aur main nahin, kya tum meri kami mehsoos karte ho?” Here, a desire to be needed and loved has been awakened. Anubhav is a rather feminist film in some ways. Meeta asserts herself, not by shouting or by force, she takes the initiative to get rid of whatever is making her unhappy. She has a more difficult time later with the re-entry of old flame, Shashi (Dinesh Thakur) into her life. When Amar finds out who he truly is and feels betrayed, Meeta asserts herself once more and explains to him her side of things.

But where Anubhav really scores for me is in its celebration of life. The constant ringing of the phone, the ding-dong of the clock, the whirring fan… These are all emblems of the passage of time and a warning of how life can just pass you by. There is a lovely moment when a carefree Meeta hums in the shower (to Geeta Dutt’s sublime voice): “Mera dil jo mera hota, Palkon pe pakar leti, Hoton se utaa leti, Haathon main khuda hota.” We all have moments when we fall asleep to the routines of life but this song is about waking up and grabbing your present with both hands. Meeta takes ownership of what her heart is telling her.

And Tanuja is such a natural screen presence here. Every time she speaks and I hear her quiet honeyed voice, I find it soothing. Her warm demeanour counteracts against the desolation of the apartment that threatens to stifle her. Of course, Sanjeev Kumar is also at his natural and charming best. Both show a high comfort level with each other and make for a sweet onscreen pairing. Anubhav has its flaws and odd moments but the feeling of joy that it generates is precious to me. Go out and wake up to life. Reach out for what is yours. Go grab the sun. As Geeta Dutt herself says: Suraj ko pakar leti, sandal ki tarah malti…

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Review of "Atonement" (2007)

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy have worked in conventionally pleasing costume dramas such as Pride And Prejudice and Becoming Jane. It was only a matter of time until both would end up cast opposite each other in a period piece. Atonement is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. Austen and McEwan are two of the most celebrated authors, yet they are dramatically different from each other in terms of their work. Joe Wright’s cinematic interpretation of McEwan’s story serves for a refreshingly candid period film, a film that captures the raw blistering emotions of desperation and betrayal.

It is the summer of 1935 and Cecilia (Knightley) has just come down from Cambridge. Robbie (McAvoy) has strong feelings for her but the only thing standing in their way is Cecilia’s upper class snobbery. They can’t deny their attraction to each other but their romance begins awkwardly and tumultuously. It is in this tumultuous quagmire that Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is caught up in. Her twisted interpretation of events forces Cecilia and Robbie to part in tragic circumstances.

There is no doubt that this film has once again reignited the debate surrounding adaptation. Some fans of the book will be pleased with this filmic attempt and some won’t. Atonement is a story that is aware of the power of perception. Some scenes are viewed through Briony’s eyes and those same scenes are revisited through the eyes of Cecilia. Each time these little simple events are interpreted differently. It makes you question the function of viewing. Not just viewing, but reading, participating and taking part in life. Every person witnesses something and interprets it in his or her own way. Wright’s technique of repeating scenes acknowledges the depth of the multilayered narrative in the novel.

The effective enhancement of sound takes us into the world of each character. The clack clack of the typewriter and the roar of the buzzing bee is unquestionably the soundtrack to the young Briony’s perception of the world around her. On the other hand, the lovemaking scene between Cecilia and Robbie is accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. No romantic soundtrack here. The silence acknowledges the unspoken name of their relationship.

Such flourishes make it a strong first half. The second half almost abandons the perceptive technique established earlier on. I half-wished that there would be no war and that we could go back to that hot summer in the mansion. But it is this almost unwanted change of direction that succeeds in creating a sense of longing for those hot summer days of comparably uncomplicated youth. The main sequence of the war segment is a hugely impressive lengthy one-take shot showing all the soldiers and other people vulnerably trying to be strong and just, well, dealing with it. In his letter to Cecilia, Robbie speaks of clarity of passion. Well, this whole one-take sequence shows the clarity of passion, as well as the clarity of vision, and the clarity of filmmaking. You see everything at once. And you understand everything at once.

It is splendid to watch a film tackle the theme of ambiguity with such clarity. For that you can thank McEwan, Wright, Christopher Hampton (screenplay) and Seamus McGarvey (photography). James McAvoy gives a powerfully quiet and commanding performance. Keira Knightley suits her role immensely and seems more comfortable here than in her previous films. The two young actresses who portray the role of Briony, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai, stand out with their subtly expressive faces. Ronan, in particular, has the kind of face that you can write any kind of emotion on.

The epilogue makes for a weak and rather wishy-washy ending. It can be forgiven though as the ending is more for Briony’s sake rather than ours. Through her childish error, she finally faces some sort of redemption. As she carries on clacking away on her typewriter, she admits that she changed the ending in her latest novel to make herself feel more at peace.

Which brings me to end this piece with a question: Is what we see, always true?

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Review of Heyy Babyy

The premise of three men and a baby will be familiar to anyone who has seen a movie called, um, Three Men And A Baby (or its French original). To throw Akshay Kumar into such a story is an inspired piece of casting. He has a screen history of playing lecherous but adorable romeos, playboys who deep down still have ‘values’ that save the day.

You would assume that after casting him, everything else would take care of itself. With a fairly strong story at its base, the screenplay should flow naturally and result in a sweet little film. Sajid Khan in his feature film debut (he previously directed a segment in Darna Zaroori Hai) has the unfortunate tendency to overegg the pudding.

Set in Sydney, Aroosh (Akshay Kumar), Tanmay (Ritesh Deshmukh) and Ali (Fardeen Khan) are three crazy brainless bachelors who try to bed every beautiful girl they meet. This fast lifestyle is rudely interrupted by an abandoned baby girl left at their doorstep. Whilst between them they try to figure out who the father is, they bond with the tiny girl and soon learn all the responsibilities of parenthood. In comes Esha (Vidya Balan) who demands to have her daughter back.

A more natural acting effort from Akshay would have made for a more engaging film. His facial gestures and gurning is something that I couldn’t stomach after a while. There is something about his performances in Jaaneman and Namaste London that fit the bill. His sincere charisma adds an exciting watchable element to these films. You can’t imagine these films without him. And then there are Bhagam Bhag and Phir Hera Pheri where the poor actor is made to just pull faces. You can guess which category Heyy Babyy belongs to.

The bachelors appear as caveman-like morons with complete disregard for anyone’s feelings. The story itself is manipulative enough already but it seems that Sajid Khan wasn’t satisfied with the manipulation quota. It is understandable for someone to get tired of a crying baby but the three men’s reaction strikes me as callous and rather vicious. Fardeen Khan is made to mouth lines like “Is saali ko phenkh dete hai” and then it is followed by a rather unnecessary sequence of a baby almost drowning in a rainstorm.

I would say that this is the problem that I had with the film. I am fine with emotions and sentimentality but you get the sense that Sajid Khan is clutching at straws to make it deeper than what it actually is. The baby survives but with the added miracle of religious intervention. Ali takes to reading namaz to pray for her life in the midst of the Christmas season. It is an interesting throwback to Manmohan Desai’s films where such a prayer (by a Hindu, Christian or Muslim) would end in someone’s life being miraculously saved. Yet, here, it doesn’t feel right. You can hardly believe that someone stupid enough to abandon a baby in rather dangerous circumstances would suddenly find the spiritual depth to move the cosmos into performing a miracle.

Crying and laughing reaction shots of the baby’s face in the middle of every dramatic scene do further to create the feeling of being manipulated as a viewer. She has a sweet little face and she is bound to make your heart melt. And boy, does the director know it! I didn’t quite catch the little actress’s name but she makes a lovely debut.

Despite my reservations, Heyy Babyy does have its moments. There is a lovely tribute to the old classic Chupke Chupke. Fardeen’s reincarnation of a character from the film is hilarious. There is also a nod to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge but not a very friendly one (apparently Raj and Simran never did end up together!). A truly funny scene is the sight of Ritesh as Eddy the Teddy being beaten by plucky little kids. It is always a pleasure to see Ritesh be slapped by anyone.

As a director and writer, Sajid Khan has the wherewithal to create these bright spots out of, what is at best, another functional comedy. So, the film is not entirely a complete loss. Still, there are more minuses than pluses. I do hope to god there won’t be a sequel.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

For Your Consideration (Guest, 2006)

Sometimes, it’s good to have a few laughs. And these ‘laughs’ are the most satisfying when they turn out to be unexpected. Not the kind of ticklebelly you get when you watch The Simpsons Movie (because there you are expecting it) but the kind of ticklebelly you get when you watch For Your Consideration.

Sure, it’s written and directed by the team of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy (Spinal Tap, Best In Show) but since satire is such a hit and miss genre, you can never be sure whether they’ll hit the target or not.

The film goes for the obvious figures of fun in the world of acting and show-business (two elements that equal Hollywood). These are vain has-beens, over-eager method actors, anal film critics, shallow producers and cruel celebrity reporters. And in a way the predictability does stop For Your Consideration from reaching that level of brilliance that you would normally expect from Guest and Levy.

But the redeeming factors far outweigh the slightly stale target of satire. There are some wonderfully po-faced one-liners especially from Jennifer Coolidge as the eccentric producer. She has a natural comic talent that ought to be put to use more often. Considering the kind of deadpan humour, it is not a surprise to see Ricky Gervais make an appearance.

There have been complaints that this movie effort lacks the realism of previous mockumentaries such as Spinal Tap. Aside from the fact that For Your Consideration is not a mockumentary, the lack of realism in this comedy is precisely the element that ends up creating much of the humour. There is a queer delight in seeing an overblown kitsch melodrama be publicised as a potential Oscar winner. And this melodrama is none other than “Home For Purim”, which seems to be an underwhelming tribute to the homoerotic subtext of Douglas Sirk films. There is a perverse delight in seeing average TV movie actors get above their station. And there is also a twisted delight in seeing Hollywood actors talk about the Internet as if it’s some recently invented foreign planet.

It is Catherine O’Hara who lends the story a warm human touch. Even as she deforms into an unrecognisably botoxed media star, she reminds us how misplaced optimism can turn into pathetic despair. Yet, she still manages to be funny. Figure that.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Danny Boyle's Sunshine

Watching Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, I realised that I hadn’t watched a new sci-fi film in a long time. Maybe the genre just does not appeal to me. But that can’t be true as I am an avid fan of films such as Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Popcorn movies such as Armageddon don’t pose any deep or philosophical questions (and neither should they have to) and in that sense, they do not appeal to me.

It’s such a vast universe, a universe that has the might to quieten, to frighten and to awe the human spirit. A sci-fi film set in space could at least acknowledge the beauty and the horror of being away from earth.

Sunshine, therefore, is a ray of sunshine. And no it is not about love, money or even the moon… It is about the sun (I think you’ll agree that this is not a character featured in many films). Set somewhere 50 years into the future, a team of astronauts are sent to restart the dying sun by throwing a bomb into it. An extremely high-risk task considering that the last batch of astronauts did not survive on the very same mission. The team of eight members (with Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans and Rose Byrne in the strongest roles) struggle to cope with the psychological aspect of isolation as well as the dangerously decreasing levels of oxygen.

I’ve already mentioned Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and Boyle gives a gentle nod to all these films. He did say in an interview that it was hard trying to match up to the standard of these filmic landmarks set in space. He may not entirely succeed but he does give an impressively good try.

Sunshine creeps up on you without saying anything. The moments of silence reveal so much about the feeling of isolation and panic that such a mission would trigger in a human being. And accompanied by the silence, each sound effect becomes a shattering drop in the ocean. The orange-tinted lenses, the blurred shadows and the shaky point-of-view shots add up to provide a claustrophobic atmosphere. The many reflections of the characters in windows and screens are a constantly unwanted reminder to them of what they are and where they are.

The sun is a daunting character and it envelops you in its unforgiving heat. The story begins immediately in space and the sun follows the characters (and you) all the way from the start to the end. I felt as if the spaceship was already trapped into the arms of the sun and that there was no point of return. This feeling is conveyed through the people who slowly begin to lose their humanity. At the end of one scene, there is a shot of Curazon (Michelle Yeoh) sitting on her own after a shattering near-death experience. None of her colleagues make an effort to comfort her. Death is a difficult reality that everyone has to face up to at some point.

It is the third act that really does let you down. As a sort of homage to Alien, an enemy sets out to sabotage the spaceship. Who survives and who dies becomes the main point of focus. The change of pace, from the tense atmosphere of forever waiting to running around the spaceship like maniacs, makes for an uncomfortable leap. The introduction to the twist itself is hazy and could leave some viewers completely confused (as I could see by the reaction of some people in the cinema audience). Thankfully, with a least starry cast, you cannot predict which character will save the day.

And the ludicrous twist doesn’t detract from the film’s powerful ending. There has been a lot of criticism for naming the spaceship Icarus II. Jonathan Ross sarcastically commented on his chat show that it’s not a sensitive name to use in a hypothetical situation like that. And Peter Bradshaw (from the Guardian) also commented that the name is “tactlessly chosen”. My take on it is that it perfectly compliments the mythological undertones in the story. Deep down, every character wants to fly as close as possible to the sun unaware that this fiery planet doesn’t take everyone into its confidence that easily. And the name also symbolises the greedy and needy optimism of the people back on earth who are acting in full belief that they can control the sun.

The cast are wonderfully believable as the people sacrificing years of their lives for what seems like a hopeless mission. Cillian Murphy (who was also in Boyle’s 28 Days Later) stands out with his piercing eyes that are just as striking as the sun. Chris Evans is a pleasant surprise as the calm leader close to breaking point. The rest of the cast provide strong supporting turns. And, considering the low budget, the special effects and the make-up are fantastic.

Whatever its faults, Sunshine is a rich treat worth devouring.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

Yes, I admit it. I went in and watched Mr. Bean's Holiday. I felt a certain sense of loyalty to this character as watching the TV series is one of my many happiest childhood memories.

There is an unspoken rule that movie versions of popular television series are just not meant to be the same (the Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson version of Starsky and Hutch is playing on my TV set right now, ahem). Watching Bean on cinematic celluloid you do become aware of how hard the makers are working at trying to not be an extended TV episode. I just about remember the last Bean movie that I saw ten years ago but in all fairness, I think this movie version is more rooted to its character than the 1997 film.

Add to that, there are certain changes. Not huge earth-shattering changes but little ones where the humour seems more oriented towards children (perhaps from being influenced by the belated but popular cartoon spin-offs of the sitcom). Having said that, I do notice that Mr. Bean's teddy, which is a popular fixture in the animated series, seems to have vanished completely.

Plot- Bean picks a winning raffle ticket and jet-sets his way to France. In England, he has always been a fish out of water and in France he gets to be the fish out of water landing onto a hot dry desert. There are some entertaining comical moments. My personal favourite is the scene where Bean pretends to be grief-stricken nun and mimes along to a melodramatic opera. This is a curious moment where Bean stops being Bean and is now someone else. The funny nun, if you like. It is a wonderful reminder of the versatility of Rowan Atkinson's comic flair and it proves his range as an actor. The watchable climax, set in Cannes, may go over the heads of some young kids but it is funny to see the way that arty and thoughtful films are ridiculed. It is obviously a two-finger salute to the critics that have panned Mr. Bean's Holiday.

I was a fan of Bean as a child, but watching him here from a new adult perspective, he appears to be quite an unlikeable character. That he is a loser is no doubt true. But is he a likeable loser? M Hulot, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy had more charm (and they are Rowan Atkinson's comedy heroes). Bean is a beany meany. He asks a stranger to hold his video camera and to record a shot of him walking down the platform. The train starts to go off and Bean jumps on just in time but cares little for the stranger who can't make it.

This is where Bean loses its shine for me. He is selfish with a capital S. "Oh, big wow", I hear you say. Laurel and Hardy cared for each other and I can't picture either of them willing to leave the other one behind on the train platform.

Bean gets his 'redemption'. He follows the man's kid (left behind on the train) around like a shifty pervert. When he meets Sabine (played by a natural Emma de Caunes), the unlikeable qualities in Bean become clear and stark. The woman is a breath of fresh air. Giving and kind, she is the complete opposite to Bean. And she brings something else to the picture too - English subtitles for the French dialogue. It's nice to see that the producers didn't think that their target audience was too dumb for subtitles.

Rowan Atkinson is a wonderful comic actor but the gurning and mumbling does get a little too much. Please give this actor something else to do. Doing Bean is not easy and he must be praised for bringing it to life so believably but deep down, I feel that Mr. Bean is not the kind of comic caricature that is worthy of Atkinson's stature. All good things must come to an end and I feel that there really are no mileages to be brought out of the Bean creation.

Let's see the rebirth of another iconic character in comedy. Blackadder is more like it.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Claude Chabrol's Juste Avant La Nuit

Image from Fremantle Home Entertainment

The last Claude Chabrol work that I viewed was Nada, an uninteresting and confusing film about terrorism. In order to get over that, I found relief in visiting a far superior Chabrol work, Juste Avant La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall). With themes of lust, deceit, murder and redemption, Juste Avant… is more a psychological drama rather than a thriller.

Charles’ (Michel Bouquet) kinky affair with his best friend and neighbour’s wife, Laura, ends violently with him strangling her. The early post-murder sequence of Charles attempting to act normal in front of Laura’s husband, François (François Périer), is very misleading. You are lulled into a false sense of security that the rest of the film will revolve around Charles trying desperately not to be caught. But the plot, based on the short story The Thin Line, follows a different line of thought.

The characters are zipped up and buttoned up. Emotion is a potential threat and there is a secret battle to stop it rippling to the surface. Charles drags his hand along the hedge as he walks up the street. This is a rare spontaneous action crying out for help. Another striking scene is where he mimes his confession on the way to Laura’s funeral. He speaks but no sound comes out. There are emotions and feelings that dare not be expressed.

Hélène (Stéphane Audran as Charles’ wife) is more successful in controlling her feelings. Her reaction to her husband’s confession – sex, murder, warts and all – is as cool as a cucumber. She calmly chooses to forgive him and carries on with the façade of that thing called life. The constantly cold weather represents their state of being – beating hearts packed in frozen ice.

The detached performances by Michel Bouquet, Stéphane Audran and François Périer convey this rather chillingly. Bouquet is especially outstanding as the man in danger of listening to his conscience amid the awkward rehearsals of everyday life. A young woman who recognises him from afar as Laura’s lover stares at him and refuses to let her glance drop. Let’s admit it, we would do the same thing. You have to study this man in the hope of seeing a glimmer of truth behind that stony act.

The structure of the sets (particularly in Charles’ house) evokes an acute sense of being trapped and hidden. Curtains are drawn to conceal the cracks in relationships. They are opened when Hélène wishes to cast an eye on what is happening in the next room and beyond. In a macabre and mischievous way, the gate to François’ house looks exactly like prison bars.

There are some arresting shots of the married couple walking along the beach. It’s meant to be a getaway, a ‘break’, but it can hardly be what you call a holiday. The cold hard wind is still trailing them. The only difference is that they have escaped from the white walls of their houses just to glare at the black silhouettes of their estranged figures. The photography sums up the state of their souls by capturing them in complete black (in one shot with minimal light) as they stroll up the rocky beach.

Another interesting sequence that plays with the idea of black and white is when Charles confesses to François. This crucial night scene is directed with very little light and we can barely see the actors’ faces. But it soon dawns upon us that seeing their expressions is really not that important. François’ reaction is similar to Hélène’s, he decides to opt for forgiveness and pretend that the whole thing had never happened.

The twist comes from Charles feeling uneasy with all this peace-loving forgiveness and wanting to be punished for his sins. He is exposed to the apathy of a society numb to the feeling of moral outrage or shock. As Charles contemplates his predicament, the opening becomes that much clearer. Laura whispering, “If you knew what I’ve done, if you only knew…”, as she begs to be strangled. This is one consequence of the bourgeois society that wants to pretend that nothing really hurts.

What Juste Avant La Nuit is trying to say is that we do need judgment, we do need redemption. Or else, our sense of self-worth is in danger of crippling away.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Revisiting Silsila...

‘Love triangles’ have always been a popular choice as it has the potential of bringing a big starcast together as well as being dramatic fodder for weepy romantic films. The genre is recognised by themes of duty, friendship and sacrifice. A character ends up with a past and a present purely due to circumstances out of their control. The genre has rarely ever dealt with intended adultery, as one might expect in some love triangles, but focuses on fate, tradition and destiny.

Yash Chopra takes the basic ingredients of a love triangle and adds an extra-marital relationship to give it that extra punch. In Silsila, fate still plays its cruel tricks. Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) is due to marry the pilot Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) but he dies in a plane crash. Out of pity for Shobha’s unwedded pregnancy, Shekhar’s brother, Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) marries her and abandons his true love, Chandni (Rekha).

Silsila has very fine performances by the entire cast though Rekha is often distant and aloof. Her confrontation scene with Jaya is disappointing because her performance is flat. Her most effective scene is when she receives the letter with bad news from Amit. Jaya is more into her character (which has shades of her real life) and Sanjeev Kumar’s character is refreshing because he is not quick to be judgmental about his wife’s infidelity. There are memorable scenes such as the dinner party where all the four main characters meet and Amit and Chandni’s infidelity becomes glaringly obvious; not to mention the Holi celebration where the hard-to-remove red colours on Chandni’s clothes come to define the danger that she represents.

These scenes are effective because they represent a threat to the world of duty and respect that the narrative is trying to uphold. When Amit first meets his sister-in-law-to-be (but then turns out not-to-be) Shobha, he puts in the effort to make her laugh and smile. She makes note of their jovial conversation to which he replies, “Main apna duty nibhaa raha tha” (I was just fulfilling my duty). Duty, as well as the concepts of farz and karz, are established early on and run throughout the film as motifs.

Amit’s sense of duty is challenged when Shobha loses Shekhar’s baby soon after their marriage. With the death of the unborn baby, the reason for Amit’s dutiful act has now gone. “Hum azaad hain” (We are free), he asserts in a play’s monologue as his character denounces the false life of hypocrisy and entrapment (a performance to which he invites his mistress, Chandni). It is ironic that Amit does not follow the advice of his alter ego.

In the last act, Chopra chooses to criticise Amit’s very decision to take it upon himself to look after Shobha. One of his friends tells him that no-one had asked him to marry her, he chose to make the sacrifice. He chose to take the route of being god-like and should be consistent with his choice instead of pandering to earthly desires at the last minute. It is a scathing attack on him (and possibly all male martyrs in such melodramas) except that Chopra chooses not to develop it and more readily prefers the option of reaffirming Amit’s godlike status in the bizarre sequence of saving Dr Anand (Sanjeev Kumar) from an airplane crash.

The film wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to criticise the notion of sacrifice and duty that are dime a dozen in Om J Prakash’s films but chooses to follow that path itself. The ending becomes problematic then as it is not a happy ending at all. After Amit elopes with Chandni, Shobha says that she wants her husband to come back of his own will. He does come back but only when he hears that she is expecting his child. Is his return really out of his own will? (Note that Chandni never falls pregnant once throughout the entire time span while Shobha conceives twice. The ‘family planning’ dig at her by a female acquaintance is a hint that while Chandni may make a fine romantic partner, she doesn’t have the maternal quality that would support Amit through the ages.) His renewal of this marital bond could be termed a tragedy because it is inconsistent with the ideas that the film supports early on in the narrative (the notion of being free, not being entrapped). By returning to be the dutiful father of the child and resume his god-like status, Amit has only trapped himself further.

It is ridiculous that we are expected to accept that this is a happy ending. The only character who could truly and honestly be happy is Shobha. For everyone else, this conclusion is likely to create more frustrations. We are never shown how Chandni resolves her problems with her husband. For all we know, they may have divorced and Chandni has died a penniless and homeless wreck.

Another reason why the ending is a tragedy due to the portrayal of the romance between Amit and Chandni. It is not about lust, it is a lyrical relationship with touching poetry (Main aur meri tanhaai aksar yeh baatein karte hain…). The ending fobs off her as being the past and not the present but she IS his present. She is his present because she occupies his heart and thoughts. And this is not unrequited love either, she responds back to him with full vigour and commitment. One scene says it all. It is when Chandni first meets him in hospital after their marriage to their spouses. She enters the room with a bouquet of red roses. The wordless confrontation between Chandni and Amit is charged with tension and excitement. The subdued refrain of Dekha Ek Khwab… is perfectly placed and as Chandni reflects shyly on her bold move, the echoing line of “Kya kahoon ke sharm se hai lab seele hue” suddenly gathers another meaning. The body language is important too, both the characters are angled towards each other, focusing on the other, as if daring one of them to make the first move. This scene is the epitome of love – two people communicating without finding the need to speak.

This particular sequence says more about love than the Swiss fields in countless Yashraj films ever will. It is this scene that begins to explain just why Yash Chopra is considered the king of romance. Otherwise, his batch of love films are quite flawed in many ways, relying upon the old ingredients of Switzerland, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and poetry. Don’t get me wrong, the ingredients make up a charming dessert but I am never convinced by the cherry on the top. By the end of his films, I often ask myself if this newly united couple really deserve to be together (whether be it Silsila, Chandni, Lamhe or Dil To Pagal Hai). Only Veer Zaara had me convinced and that’s because I didn’t get the impression that either of them was just settling for second best.

Chopra likes to question order and old ways of thinking and this is not always easily suited to the romantic genre. You could argue that his Deewar and Trishul are more satisfying in this sense. But then I’ll save that argument for another time.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Review of Eklavya - The Royal Guard

After watching Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya – The Royal Guard, my lips are humming Chanda Re Chanda Re. As the only song in the entire film, it leaves a forbidding echo. The staging of the song is so simple – a lullaby that Rajjo (Vidya Balan) sings to her beloved Prince Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan) as she tangles with a kite - while in the distance, another man’s (Amitabh Bachchan) highly attuned sense of hearing picks up the sound and allows it to reverberate in his heart. His involvement changes the dynamics of the meaning behind the song. The song is not just about one romantic relationship, it becomes a reminder of other relationships that could not blossom – the relationship between a queen and her royal guard, the relationship between a father and his son.

Fractured relationships is a theme that recurs in Chopra’s gothic thriller (which marks the end of a seven year hiatus in Chopra’s directing career, a long time by Bollywood standards) and the connection between Eklavya and Harsh acts as the central epitome of it. The plot itself is quite Shakespearean with little hints of Macbeth thrown in. Actually, Macbeth is an appropriate play to refer to – even though Eklavya may not have much in common with the play at first glance – because it tells us that power corrupts and turns men into split personalities. Harsh refers to this when he tells his new bride that he is not the same person that she earlier knew. His twin sister Princess Nandini (Raima Sen) is mentally passive and her behaviour is more child-like. These twins reveal two different faces of the same coin. She resembles the innocence that has been taken away by the fort and twisted and thwarted into something else. Harsh is constantly caressing her during her sleep as if he wants his darker subconscious to disappear and turn into the innocence that his sister represents. The fact that Harsh could not have a twin who is on the same adult level as he is shows that nothing is ever really developed in the haveli – relationships and personalities do not flourish, they remain stunted for years.

Perhaps, I am reading too much into this but I believe that this is the main element that Chopra borrows from Shakespeare. The story is actually quite disappointing in an odd way. The queen’s (Sharmila Tagore) death sparks off a series of feuds and members of the clan (which also include Boman Irani, Jimmy Sheirgill and Jackie Shroff) contrive to outwit each other. Murder and deception is planned and, add to this, a major revelation about Harsh’s and Nandini’s true ancestry. There is an engaging history and back-story to some of the characters. Sanjay Dutt appears as the policeman whose ancestors were considered to be low-caste and subsequently tortured by the royal family. He resembles the democratic India that is at odds with the ancient customs that the royal family still abide by. Yet, not much is made of this, Dutt is there to make a point and little else. Same could also be said for the talented Sheirgill who could surely have been given a meatier role to get his teeth into.

With these supporting characters, you expect to see a little more depth in the political intrigue that envelops this gloomy mansion. But the characters make their exit rather early and seem to fall victim to the tight editing by Raviranjan Maitra. At least, they get dying scenes to remember. The confrontation between Bachchan and Sheirgill is worth a mention as are the impressive sequences staged near the train that passes by at high speed (while also seemingly tagging camels along with the carriages). These scenes are brilliantly shot and directed but in other scenes, the camera never seems to stay still. It lingers and wavers and such camerawork becomes rather tiring early on. The chilling score is another ingredient that adds to this recipe of a gothic melodrama. One other thing is that there seems to be an awful lot of whispering going on except for Boman Irani who seems to be relishing his role of a vengeful madman. Princess Nandini’s drawing of him highlights and mocks the pantomim-ish quality of his get-up.

This fragile concoction could easily descend into a pantomime but Amitabh Bachchan’s towering performance lends the gravity that the film needs. I may complain about the lack of depth in the supporting characters but the truth is that Bachchan as Eklavya is all we really need. Not only do we get to see the interesting history behind this character but we also delve into his current insecurities and fears. Before the Chanda Re number, Eklavya explains that he would love to hold Harsh in order to expel his loneliness and grief but he cannot. This is the anchor, the soul, that weighs him down throughout the entire film. In his feverish loyalty to the royal family, Eklavya has denied himself the chance of love and family bonding. Bachchan’s sad bloodshot eyes convey all this and much more.

It all comes to a happy ending though and Eklavya finds a reason to smile. The protagonists come together to create a new family, and continue the legacy of the royal order. I can’t help wondering though that perhaps remaining within the blood-drenched walls of that haveli is the worst thing that could happen to those characters. As they say, absolute power corrupts….

Country: India
Running time: 150 mins
Directed by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Boman Irani, Vidya Balan, Raima Sen, Jackie Shroff, Jimmy Sheirgill and Sharmila Tagore

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Rewatching Yuva

Yuva, a multi-stranded tale, looks at life through the eyes of three male characters, Lallan (Abhishek Bachchan), Michael (Ajay Devgan) and Arjun (Vivek Oberoi).

Ratnam's tale begins at the point that all the three men meet. The narrative then rewinds back to the moments that led each character to this particular destination. Taran Adarsh considers this style as a flaw: “The film has loopholes aplenty. To start with, the film has been treated in an episodic fashion; the first 30-35 minutes focus on Abhishek and Rani's story. Then Ajay and Esha's track takes over, followed by Vivek and Kareena's portions And then politics and politicians take precedence.”

Whether you consider this narrative format as a ‘loophole’ or not, you can’t deny the influence that Yuva has had on other films. It marks a chain of movies that began to slice the narrative into various character perspectives (Silsilay, Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye, Bas Ek Pal and other films where characters are linked but never meet). Clearly, Yuva had an impact on other filmmakers in that it opened their eyes to the possibilities of what they could do with narrative. Not that Yuva is the place where such a style originated, in terms of world cinema, but in Bollywood it certainly set the ball rolling.

Within the context of the film, the narrative should not be considered a flaw as it is one of its biggest strengths. It allows us the space to be slowly taken in by each character’s mindset. A linear narrative could have resulted in more shallow character definition. Lallan has never been just another villain to me. Nor is Arjun just another lover boy. The post-interval bridge sequence (where the strands begin to tie up) is important because the characters are forced to come out of their comfort zones. Each and every character changes at this particular moment. The murder attempt tests Michael’s resilience in pursuing his political agenda; Lallan goes too far in trying to realise his ambitions and Arjun reluctantly has to put another man’s life before his own safety.

The political angle does not always convince. The details are a bit vague and Om Puri seems to be the sole representation of the entire political scenario. Khakee and Dev (released in the same year) were more interesting on this front. Still, Yuva portrays a noble message of working to serve your own country, a message along the same lines as Swades (also released in the same year).

There is a noticeable disdain for education, which is epitomised in the scene where Michael asks a teacher what she has ever done to change the world. Is education really the big bad wolf that it is made out to be here? I can’t entirely agree, I believe in the old saying ‘knowledge is power’. And education could serve as a useful companion guide to trying to change the world. Ratnam seems to be condemning the passive nature of a student in formal education. While teaching French, Radhika (Esha Deol) requests a student to stop asking questions about grammar as she is the person in charge of the class. The dislike for teachers becomes rather obvious here, according to Ratnam, they represent one of the causes of apathy and blinkered thinking among the young in India.

Years later, Abhishek Bachchan's performance still surprises. It is not a character or type of performance that the actor has repeated (as is the tendency with other actors when it comes to their landmark roles). The cockiness that he has portrayed from Dus to Bluffmaster is of a different, confident kind. Lallan’s arrogance stems from his self-hate and resentful anger. This is why Bachchan’s violent reaction to his wife’s infidelity in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna doesn’t have the same power as the moment in Yuva when he discovers that his unborn baby has been aborted. The child was meant to be his redemption.

The female performances shouldn’t be underestimated, they represent the thread of feminism that runs through it all. Radhika is a reminder of Kate at the ending of the Taming of the Shrew, she presents a picture of tradition and conventionality but has the ability to control events through her very appearance (she is always allowed to get away with white lies). Meera is a free spirit (a natural and likeable performance by Kareena Kapoor) but she decides that she controls her destiny as she takes it upon herself to cancel her impending marriage to the wrong man. And finally, there is Sashi (a strong and commanding Rani Mukherjee) who as she condemns men as all being the same, is unable to see that she is on a train journey to freedom, away from the shackles of married life.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard

“Alright, Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up”
Image courtesy: lagruyere

A Billy Wilder classic, "Sunset Boulevard", is famous for many things. It is rare for a film to have an astonishing opening scene and to end it with an equally astounding one. But between the two moments, there are many memorable scenes and delicious dialogues that steam up the screen.

The famous opening scene of a dead man floating in the swimming pool sets the dark and blackly comical tone of this film noir. It is his voice-over that starts the flashback of the story that explains how he ended up in there. "Sunset Boulevard" is a biting satire on Hollywood and while it takes the elements from the genre of film noir, the voice-over - a blend of tough talk and wisecracks - is a crafty way of lampooning the narration of more conventional Humphrey Bogart gun dramas.

The flashback shows Joe Gillis (William Holden) as a scriptwriter who has fallen on hard times. He meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a reclusive and forgotten actress of classic silent films. She spies an opportunity to use him to help orchestrate a career comeback (Norma Desmond would disapprove of this word, in one scene, she says that it's not a comeback but a RETURN). The two form an oddly intimate relationship, which is destroyed by Norma's delusions, possessiveness and insecurities.

The noirish elements are blended with humour and horror. The first time that Joe meets Norma, she is fretting over her dead pet monkey. This leads to a bizarre and surreal scenario where Joe watches Norma and her butler, Erich von Strocheim (Max von Mayerling) give the monkey a serious and sombre burial in the middle of the night. The horror is further amplified by the appearance of the mansion, a bleak and cheerless place. When Max shows Joe his room, he remarks, "This room hasn't been used for a long time". It's perhaps an insignificant remark but it epitomises the mansion and Norma herself - she is an actress and a person who has not felt alive for a long time. The combination of horror, comedy and bleak tragedy is the result of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett screenplay partnership. Wilder wanted it to be serious while Brackett wanted more humour. This is the last time the two worked together.

My favourite moment in the entire film is the sequence where Norma goes back to the Paramount studio to meet her director-mentor - Cecil B. De Mille. If you watch the part in the studio carefully, De Mille is introduced after a build-up. The camera pans along many faces and eventually leads up to the enigmatic director. Such a build-up is provocative and suggests that he is the cause of Norma’s vulnerable insanity. He lies to her that he likes her script but doesn’t have the integrity or honesty to admit otherwise. De Mille says of Norma “a thousand press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit” but what about him? If he is ready to tell a barefaced lie then who knows how many lies he spouted during the prime of Norma’s career. Maybe it is his lies that finally twisted Norma’s mind. The actor/director plays himself but was he aware that his character would appear in such a subtly unflattering light?

Gloria Swanson really was a famed actress of silent films and here displayed a theatrical mode of acting that contrasts sharply against William Holden’s natural performance. Her clothing and get-up has a comical touch and seems to be a tribute to Greta Garbo. While viewing one of her many films, she gives a hint of an admiration for Garbo – “We didn’t need dialogues, we had faces. There just aren’t faces like that anymore. Just one maybe – Garbo”. While Swanson’s hand gestures and incisive expressions are in place, there is also a natural and vulnerable facet to her performance. You get the sense of an inner pain that Norma is struggling to suppress. Gloria Swanson successfully merged the two different styles of acting to come up with a knockout performance. She truly was a great actress whose career could have gone on for longer had it not been for the big bad Hollywood system. .

The term ‘classic’ is an overused one but it is a term that this rich film definitely deserves. A masterpiece.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Only me!

Um, hello everyone. How are you? Er, hello, anybody theereee?

Okay, I'm feeling slightly nervous because I've just started a blog. Arrrgh! Just think of all the responsibility that entails. What a heavy burden on my shoulders. But I hope I'm strong enough to see it through.

Mainly this blog will focus on the movies I watch. Analysing them, respecting them, mocking them etc., you get the picture.

See you all later! (If anybody is reading, that is)