Sunday, August 24, 2008

PHOONK: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Sudeep, Amruta Khanvilkar, Ahsaas Channa, Ashwini Kalsekar, Rasika Joshi
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Runtime: 130 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***
Genre: Horror, Thriller

        Is it possible to consider a film free of its intentions? After all, once made and done it is for us right, and how we come about to receive it and not necessarily with an eye to what the filmmaker hoped to achieve. The audience I saw it with was in splits, some of them laughing incessantly, and there was some of the most fun I have had the movies this year. Being a weekend and all the local multiplex shot up the prices but I could, you know, go ahead and bet that most aren’t complaining. I don’t care one wee bit what made me walk upto the counter and buy the admission ticket as long as I came out satisfied. And satisfied I was, immensely, so much so that I look forward to the day Phoonk debuts on television and I get the chance to watch that hyper-extended hand. They say it is impossible to catch up with Kanti Shah; he has set the benchmark, and he himself might be so far beyond it the line would be invisible to him. But let me say, Phoonk is a great attempt by Varma and Shah should no longer afford complacence.
        Speaking of attempts, the 5 lakhs prize might be alright but I guess Ram Gopal Varma might have got it wrong on the clause. Keeping tabs on closed eyes is wishful thinking and three times is stretching matters too far. Five lakhs is a big amount and considering all the gaming shows around, you know, he could have had a better and competitive one – how many times does that Rajiv guy put on and remove his glasses? Or how many could actually manage to scrape through it all without laughing more than five times. I’m giving ourselves a whiff of a chance here folks.
        This here, usually, would have been the part where I give you an idea about the story so that you are aware of the premise you’re getting into. That won’t happen, for the film already stretches a 20 minute short film into a full length feature and any attempt on my end to summarize it would essentially break the thread. Of course, as the trailers suggest, there is black magic i.e. good old fashioned voodoo, and there’s that apparently sound foundation of modern horror fare served by the Hindi film industry – possession.
        By means of plot, there’s precious little beyond them to hold on to. Of course, the film appears to be desperate to suggest a debate between science and the supernatural, between faith and skepticism. Never mind that good old science is never given a chance, and the farthest the film goes with the skeptic is asking him to declare he does believe in God. He sure does declare it even when an opportunity refuses to present itself, but beyond that the film hits an iron wall. The skeptic is Rajiv, the father, and whose services are later shared by a doctor. Both of them essentially perform the same function, although it should be given the latter has more of a technical expertise at her disposal, but then again the film goes nowhere with her either. The characters suffer a kind of collective amnesia as well, wherein the little girl experiences actual levitation, yet they somehow profess it can all be scientifically explained. Impassioned declaration on behalf of science is all they do. There isn’t much or anything happening in the film, so we never have actions that speak. That is the reason why the characters resort to actual debating, rather than the story doing it for them, and if the discussion was indeed the film’s ambition, I believe they might have been served much better, artistically and otherwise, if they had two people indulge in a conversation on the same for the entire length of the film.
        Of course, the impassioned part could be attributed to the performances, which for some odd reason I found mathematically correct. There’s a balancing act at work in the film. The parents do not act – the mother’s understanding of the character is limited to crying and some expression I unfortunately couldn’t decode, and the father suggests that there’s nothing to his character other than to periodically remove and put on his glasses and look sideways. The little child Raksha (Ahsaas Channa), who played a boy in Vaastu Shastra and who here plays a girl and frankly I’m confused, acts a lot, even when she isn’t supposed to. She hurls at us her entire arsenal of expressions in every sequence she is in. There’s Rasika Joshi in there too, who I find to be a firm believer of acting in quantitative terms. You know, the more the better, and she almost tilted the scales were it not for Sudeep’s balancing non-performance. She’s a nightmare and one might say she’s supposed to be one, but I believe the audience was sent all the wrong signals. Hamming would be an understatement of what she bludgeons us with, and I’m happy she wasn’t in the film for too long. Come to think of it even torture sounds quite mild. Let me fall back here on one of my pet criticisms of simple unwatchability – Alex DeLarge probably could have been shown Rasika Joshi, and he would have been benevolent pulp in the first go. Still mild. Maybe five lakhs is for the guy who could successfully measure the toxicity of Joshi’s performance. No chance I say, no chance.
        The fact is, the film is still a horror film, and no matter how much I enjoyed it otherwise I have to lay out the cards for you vis-à-vis its intention. And it isn’t scary, not one bit, and let us leave it at that. Looking at present horror fare churned every which were, I’m reminded of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and how Alfred Borden admits to what he terms the Pact of Acquiescent Sorcery. It is the illusionist’s attempt to pull an illusion over the audience that he’s privy to supernatural powers, and the audience in their part know what that it is an illusion but they suppress the knowledge and acquiesce to this illusion. Modern audiences subscribing to horror enter with the readiness to be scared no matter how cheap they come. And even then, some of the films fail, even at this basic level. There, it seems, is a failure to appreciate an elementary rule to manipulate the audience. And this is courtesy the greatest manipulator of them all, Alfred Hitchcock. And here it goes –
        In his book-length conversation with Truffaut, he used a famous example to explain the difference between surprise and suspense. If people are seated at a table and a bomb explodes, that is surprise. If they are seated at a table, and you know there's a bomb under the table attached to a ticking clock, but they continue to play cards -- that's suspense.
(Source: Roger Ebert’s review of The Orphanage, one of the best horror films I have had the privilege to watch. A great example of the effectiveness of the genre when done with a personal touch.)


        We no longer seem to have suspense anymore, all we have is obligatory boos, a trick that is fast gaining predictability and filmmaker’s with limited imagination are having trouble realizing it. The trick hasn’t evolved at all, and it has become an element akin to what a car chase is to an actioner. So much so that the horror film seems to rally around this one stretch of sequence, and the number of such scenes decide the potency of the overall score on the boo-index. The character gets up in the middle of the night, the background score that is till now playing mutes all of a sudden, and that is a useful indicator that a loud bong is just around the corner.
        A word has to be mentioned for Savita Singh, who happens to be the cinematographer of the film. Some of the sequences are done quite well, but sometimes the camera does just too much. There’s an overdo of focus and out-of-focus, and I believe, too much of a trick distracts the attention from the film towards the technique. There’s a sequence at the party where we watch an agitated Rajiv pouring over a set of papers and fuming in the background and in the foreground we have Madhu (Rasika Joshi) having a rather animated conversation. The camera alters between focus and I wouldn’t believe if one said that the same couldn’t be achieved if both of them couldn’t have been set in the same focus, i.e. deep focus. There’s another, when little Raksha is entering her school and we have the camera move and swirl around her. It is a nice shot done quite well, but as it continues we feel fuzzy and we turn our eyes from the screen. There was a collective “what’s going on” at this particular moment and I believe that is the last thing a filmmaker wants, that is to put off his viewer.
        So, horror it isn’t, not even if you are desperate to play sucker and try to grab on to every opportunity to get your money’s worth. It simply isn’t possible that way. I would suggest thinking a little out of the box, and simply relish the laughs that keep coming in thick and fast. Like weird old nanny and her vibrations. It might be unintentional, but it is the single best fallback joke I have come around in a long time. Just watch her in every frame, and how the vibrations shape what the other person has said. It is, simply put, hysterical. The film keeps cutting back to her, and I’m not sure I could thank it anymore for that. There’s shots of every which thing in the house, and for a moment it seems there was nothing left on the cutting floor. Maybe, the movie is a memory competition and the five lakhs is for the guy who neatly jots down all the house stuff, and including the vegetables. Nope, no more hints from me.
        Look, I feel I need to explain here a little bit here. I pay absolutely no attention to the stars I attribute to a film, apart from the simple idea that it is a scale for recommendation. No more, no less. So, seriously, does it make a difference if it was supposed to be a horror film? I recommend it, and I hope you enjoy it just as much as I and everybody around me did. There were smiling faces I encountered at the exit, so there it is for you. And if you choose to watch it, here’s another tip. Maybe, just maybe, the five lakhs is for the guy who calculates, with a precision to decimal places, the frequency of nanny’s vibrations. Not instantaneous, but the average. Laugh at your own peril!

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