Monday, February 16, 2009

THE STONEMAN MURDERS: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Arbaaz Khan, Vikram Gokhale, Rukhsar, Veerendra Saxena
Director: Manish Gupta
Runtime: 100 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Horror

        The Stoneman Murders is what few films based on serial killers are – it is scary. Debutant filmmaker Mr. Gupta along with director of photography Mr. Srikant Naroj, who is a first-timer himself, creates a densely atmospheric thriller, one which unravels mostly during nighttime. It is mostly set in places that are secluded, in a Mumbai which seems barren and lonely, and the street lights providing a hazy cage within the surrounding pitch black darkness. That he provides some daylight in between, and an item song for that matter, work as some sort of a welcome relief from the tension that is strung around, and I believe any such digression of the latter kind ought not to be mulled over very much.
        Set in the 1980s, almost two decades since Raghav Raman bludgeoned over 40 pavement dwellers to death, The Stoneman Murders finds the Mumbai in the grip of another such prowler. This is far removed from the dense overcrowded Mumbai we have come to see of late in Hindi films, lit bright in high noon sunlight. This is a dark city, prone to creepy forests, and there aren’t too many people around either. In a way Mr. Gupta’s Mumbai is much like Christopher Nolan’s Los Angeles in Memento, rid of any crowd, and rid of any sounds. We feel alone, and in the orange halo of the streetlights (and artificial lighting) we feel kinda locked ourselves. This is quite a smartly shot film with tight frames making quite a commendable usage of close-ups. So tight that on more than one occasion we find ourselves reaching out to see beyond the edges for we fear the unknown lurking around, in the dark, outside the light, outside the frame.
        In such a world we meet inspector Sanjay (Mr. Menon), who seems at first to be the proverbial bad cop. He is much more, in a way, and the film subtly highlights this truth by juxtaposing a custodial death at the hands of Sanjay with the first of the Stoneman murders. Pay attention to how the dead bodies lay, flat on the ground. The film doesn’t merely stop at questioning the difference between the two men, Sanjay and the Stoneman that is, but it goes a long way in blurring the lines between the two. Quite a few such hints are provided along the way, which seem to allude to the nature and success of these crimes. You might apply what Mr. Ebert calls the Law of Economy of Character Development, which teaches us that when an important actor is used in an apparently subordinate role, he's the villain. But even then the film has more than one trick up its sleeve to keep you involved and on your edge.
        We meet Sanjay’s wife Manali (Ms. Rukhsar, Sarkaar) and I heard a collective jaw drop amongst the audience. She is gorgeous, so gorgeous that it could be cited as a flaw. I mean, you don’t have a glowing Madhuri Dixit cooling her heels in a hut unless it is a fantasy sequence from Dharavi. For no particular reason we’re even shown a sequence where she walks out of the bath and changes here dress. I believe there might be a deeper reasoning for this. A smart manner to manipulate its audiences. It is a minor role, and if an actress looking more the part of a common woman, or even if Ms. Rukhsar herself had such make up applied on her, I’m not sure many in the audiences would have noticed. Ms. Gracy Singh’s minor turn in Gangajal does come to mind. Here, by making her visible everybody was more than aware of her, and what she loses in time, she gains in effectiveness. So when the time comes, the film draws leverage from this very fact and we as an audience shudder at the prospect of any sort of harm falling upon this beautiful a creature. We care, and here I speak of every member of the audience I shared the screening with, we really cared. I believe that is a major success for Mr. Gupta and a trick damn well played.
        But of course, some elements of the script could be classified under the term “loopholes”. And there’re quite a few. What is of paramount importance is that the film involves us so much that we feel engaged and each and every move it makes registers against our scanner, and is processed. The narrative is always clear, precise, and it schemes out quite a predicament of circumstantial evidence. I will not divulge matters here but I would like to observe here that the film isn’t one prone to stupid last-minute tricks. Instead it believes in carefully constructing a trick so that we’re always aware, but we’re engrossed because the characters in the film aren’t. I believe such kind of work calls for respect.
        Mr. Menon is flat out superb. That uneasy smile he so often uses to evade is fascinating to watch. It is a film that essentially revolves around him, and that for many I believe is cause for relief. He runs around in narrow shirts, sleeves folded, and a bell bottom – just enough to cut a picture of the time. Often you might think that the film is trying too hard to shove its era, with a thousand posters and often a Digjam board with a young Shekar Kapur, but it ought to be considered that the film is only trying to compensate for what it is trying to build through the color palette, which isn’t remotely alluding to the eighties in any way, and effective for that very reason. Often by archiving the film in its time period, filmmakers tend to lose the gravity of its present. Here, that trap is wisely avoided.
        I want to keep coming to the lights, providing the very feel of those erstwhile bulbs which emanated the yellow light rather than the present street lights lit white. I am reminded of Byomkesh Bakshi, and I believe such kind of lighting provides for a sense of claustrophobia. White lighting feels like a sense of safety, especially when it diffuses so neatly into the night. Not here, and that is why you dread the fact that such a man does exist outside the perimeter of your vision. Speaking of which a sequel, Byomkesh Bakshi style, wouldn’t be a bad idea in anyway.

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