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.