Sunday, June 20, 2010

RAAVANAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Prithviraj
Director: Mani Ratnam
Runtime: 135 min.
Language: Tamil
Subtitles: English
Verdict: A masterwork of narrative rebellion. Pure Cinematic Awesomeness.
Genre: Action, Drama, Romance

        Mr. Vikram, I tell you, is something. That rage inside of him is not calculated or textbook, but pure beastly in nature. It addresses his every move, every twitch of his eyebrow, his every performance, and even when he is Arusaamy, a cop cleaning an entire city, you feel it somewhere. I believe he might be the only Indian actor who knows rage, not as a concept, but as an emotion. He might have made for a fantastic Bronson. I see him as Veeraiya, a man with a superhero syndrome, a desire to meet a woman of his dreams and impress the hell out of her, a man given to emotions, intense emotions, raising him to the skies at one moment and dropping him down in the next, and I recognize a guy much like you and me. A man wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his moral righteousness on his shoulder. That voices inside of him, addressing him, pulling him apart all the time, I tell you dear reader, is not an oddity, but an artistic exaggeration of our nature. Aren’t we all, well, torn apart by versions of our self, so unsure all the time. It is just that we pretend, and the shelter we seek is of our righteousness.
        But then, God isn’t righteous, you see. He is right, right? We have our morality, and within the confines of our little worlds, we are all heroes. Or at least desire to be. I don’t know if God proposes, but we sure as hell dispose. And he reacts, maybe. And we complain, most definitely. I am not entirely sure if God might be comprehensible to us beyond the limited and usual, and Mr. Ratnam’s choice of entirely cutting out the outside world, and confining it within the limits of the forest, which might as well have been an island, is a narrative masterstroke. I walk into the film hoping to celebrate Mr. Vikram letting himself loose, and I come out fascinated by Dev, whom Mr. Prithviraj plays not as a man made of flesh and blood and heart, but a man limited by them. He plays it as if Dev was an institution, an embodiment of relentlessness and unflagging morality. Zero self-doubt. And there can only be one way one can have that figure down to zero – if one were always right. He plays it as if he were an absolute. He doesn’t need a backstory, or a flashback to prove his worth or might, or to justify himself. When the Dark Knight returns from his exile, this is what he might be. Or maybe, this is what he should be. I am reminded of Christian Bale’s interpretation Melvin Purvis from Public Enemies, and I wonder about that ideal world where he would have been Dev. I imagine Amitabh Bachchan too. With Dev, it is all internal. I believe Dev was born to be played by them, and yet I am not entirely sure I would have wanted them over him. Such is the brilliance of his performance.
        Such is the nature of the narrative, where Veeraiya, a mortal, complains that God disposed, and acts, causing a chain of events resembling Ramayana as much as a modern tale set in the forests with armies and cops and bandits and forest guards and guns would. Veeraiya kidnaps Ragini (Mrs. Bachchan), wife of supercop Dev, planning to kill her in 14 hours. Veeraiya is a man given to violence, the quintessential romantic outlaw. Dev pursues. Veeraiya starts falling in love with her, true passionate college boy style, Twilight-Edward Cullen style. And Ragini responds in kind by showing obvious symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. That is the base for you, right there, acting merely as a clothesline. It is not a thriller, where the mechanics of a plot are the primary concern. Mr. Ratnam, much like a Sergio Leone, or a Wong-Kar Wai, probably stands at the other end of the spectrum compared to a Christopher Nolan, where the rigors and details of a plot stand secondary to the actual experience.
        Yet, the arc here is completely different. Raavanan, under all that disguise, is little more than a love story, and a dramatization of the nature of the emotions held collateral. Mr. Ratnam has sliced away all the tedious blah about family and traditions and virtues (thank you very much, Mr. Barjatya), and has brought it down to the most basic of warzones – love – and the inherent psyche of it all. Of a man, and a woman. Of a husband, of a wife, of a lover. I ask you, dear reader, what does a woman desire for – a doting lover or a patriarchal husband? Keep in mind, I ask what she desires for. What does her heart want? Does her heart always desire and search for passionate love? And does she settle, convinced and immensely pleased by her wisdom, for the proverbial husband, who does a bang-up job at taking care of stuff, but might need the pilot’s seat always? What of the husband, the guy for whom his wife is his pride? An embodiment of his ego. For whom the love and ego are interchangeable. What are the dynamics of such a relationship, where the self comes first in every decision? My good man, Srikanth, observes that “Killi Re” (Kalvare) is the key to the film’s psychology. I don’t know the angle he comes down from, but I was fascinated by the intricacies of the song. Maybe the fact that I am a newlywed makes me observe more closely how a husband-wife behave, or maybe Mr. Ratnam has always had an different take on it (Mounaraagam). So yes, when I see the Dev and Ragini together in that song, I see not two people wanting to live for each other, but two people living with each other.
        And then she meets that passionate unpretentious lover in Veeraiya, who isn’t afraid one wee bit to be absolutely vulnerable before her. She sees a man with faults, not ideal or pretending to be ideal, and popular for that very reason. He is not, how do I put it, a God, or an institution, or a system and so is that much more accessible. She sees a man before whom she doesn’t have to meet high standards, a flesh and blood lover, absolutely dedicated to her. In pure unabashed love. He wouldn’t touch her, and instead wants to earn her. At any cost. Usure Pogudhey (Behne De) is gloriously romantic. This lover, he is jealous, he is weak, he is emotional and he doesn’t hide them under false masculinity. And it is all her choice.
        This is where Mr. Ratnam plays his master-card of narration. A rebellion on the traditional narrative form of the mythologies. I wouldn’t want to cause any spoilers, and so I would tread most carefully. Ramayana, as the case most mythologies, follows a chronological narrative structure consisting of causes and events piling one upon the other, appearing to be an apparent objective tale. Yet, it had pre-decided characters, and there was little that is grey about it, and that is what betrays the innate subjectivity. So let us call this little phenomenon here pseudo-objectivity. And reader, consider for a moment, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. It is a fascinating study on how our perceptions of a character change all the while, and how a guy who seems the protagonist at first starts feeling like an antagonist at the end. But let us tweak that story, just a little. Pull the accidental death of Julia, Angier’s lover, from the opening minutes and move it into the final few minutes, and then make it an accident no more. Who would the protagonist then be? It is a glorious trick of narrative manipulation, and it is Mr. Ratnam’s way of turning our sentiments, and justifying Ragini’s. The actual meat inside of that flashback could be anything, for it only is a clincher for justification of acts. I ask you, don’t we cause such justifications all the time, to ourselves, and others around us. Subjectivity is what we are capable of, and what we use to justify our acts. Objectively, well, the story would have to be told from outside the forest, and would have to begin a lot before in time.
        Oh, but Mr. Ratnam is no Stanley Kubrick, or Christopher Nolan, and that is the greatest strength of Raavanan. Mr. Ratnam, from his heart, is that subjectivity, and that is what makes him the rebel to question the narrative authoritarianism of the pseudo-objectivity of our mythologies. And what he does is simply reverse the tables and lend that two-dimensionality somewhere else. That is why I say the confinement of this tale is a masterstroke, because it makes this tale that much more subjective, and proudly so.
        Yet I am fascinated by Dev. Maybe that has to do with Mr. Ratnam’s integrity, or his own interpretation of how such a force ought to be rendered into the tale. He doesn’t compromise one wee bit on Dev, and there are no under-the-belt jabs at him. We do not get to know him entirely, but we know there is something inside of him that is more powerful and more intense than anybody around. He might not wear it on his sleeve, and that is an anger of a different kind. I think he might be a believer of Plato, in that for him To be is to do. You wouldn’t want to fault him for his judiciousness in the final actions, and you might only question his compassion. But compassion is relative. Here is a man who might be as guilty of envy as Veeraiya. But for him, I suspect, living is not about how one is, but to not be constrained by them. To grow a degree of self-awareness, and develop a set of principles and try to live by that code. It is about self-discipline. Not to find justification in other’s eyes, but themselves.
        Oh, but discover the movie, dear reader. I wouldn’t want to give too much away in my indulgence, for Raavanan, above anything else, is a glorious film. You might not believe me after the panning the film has received from every which corner – from newspaper reviews to Facebook/Twitter statuses. Oh, I might be a little bit circumspect of myself too. But I watched the film with my friend’s elder sister. She loved it. My wife watched the Hindi version, and loved it. I might be wrong, but I suspect they might be more capable of watching a film on the sensory level. And yes, this is the kind of glorious cinema I instantly fall in love with. As Mr. Vikram and co. danced to Kedakkari (Kata Kata) I wanted to grab the frame and hug it. It is grand and it is throbbing with life. Not since The Dark Knight and Bronson and Gomorra have I watched a film with so much energy packed in its frames. This is subjective photography. It feels like a celebration. As Ragini falls from the tree, floating in the air, it is a mesmerizing sight, so much so that I wanted to cry. Mr. Ratnam, as all good filmmakers, has never been one to be constrained by his plot. Raavanan is not just a story with a tale; it actually feels as if it is living it. Scenes and moments stay long, play to their full length, and we are allowed to feel them. They do not exist to serve the plot; they exist to serve the emotions. It is all so breathtakingly romantic and honest-to-God.
        My wife calls it spectacular. I think this is the film which deserves that word more than any film with thousands of explosions and CGI and dragons and horses and war. I say Raavanan is pure cinematic awesomeness. Oh yeah, my wife. I do invoke her often, but let us take the opportunity to introduce her formally to you. She is Saubhagya, and well, she is well, the love of my life. I dote on her. I am crazy for her. With her, a song like Bryan Adam’s Everything I do actually starts to find meaning. With her, Eddie Vedder’s Hard Sun doesn’t seem to be that much a metaphorical one any longer. So yeah, does that make me a Veera? I guess we all would want to settle for him. We all do feel envy. That is human nature. Even Valmiki, when he conceived of the Agni Pariksha, betrayed some. I guess our responsibility is to use that love, and not to be constrained and blinded by it.
        So, who is Dev? He might just be an ideal. And yes, not for a moment I would agree that it was only about Veeraiya. It always was about Ragini, for his love is his pride. You wouldn’t want to mess with his pride, right? That’s like trying to mess with Clint Eastwood himself. And if you, you got to ask yourself the very important question – do you feel lucky? For love darling, I sure as hell do.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

RAAJNEETI: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Arjun Rampal, Katrina Kaif, Nana Patekar, Manoj Vajpayee
Director: Prakash Jha
Runtime: 180 min.
Verdict: It is a one-to-one mapping contest, where the pleasure is derived not from the narrative, but from predicting and pointing out which part’s mapped from where. Oh yeah, it is a mess, but the latter half is a laugh-fest. Who cares if it was unintentional.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        Halfway through Raajneeti, a movie where characters regularly use that wonderfully versatile f-word, and where not one but three characters seem to be educated in the west, I really expected somebody in the movie to stand up and remark – Hey guys, don’t you think our current predicament feels an awful lot like The Mahabharata? And I don’t know if you seen The Godfather or not, but man, some of our lives are straight out of it. Awesome movie that guy Coppola made. Awesome shit, that guy Vedvyas wrote. Must be real geniuses them. You see, dear reader, our hero and mastermind Samar (Mr. Kapoor) seems to be doing some kind of research in Victorian era literature, which by definition means he must really be aware of all the pop-culture stuff. Art-stuff. Mythology stuff. The world around. I mean, you and me are.
        Never mind. You can think all you want during the film, and it wouldn’t matter one wee bit. You see, there are movies that take great pains in order to be authentic, in order to be true, in order to evoke honest emotions out of you. We call them art, or we ought to. Then there are the movies, which scripted wonderfully, and edited shrewdly, take great pains to manipulate the hell out of us and create a grand illusion. And then, there are movies that just don’t care. They don’t bother if you are even feeling what the intended emotion was behind the scene when it was first written on paper. It doesn’t even bother if you thinking about the nitty-gritties of the entire exercise. Such a movie assumes, you are supposed to not challenge, or not so much as to even argue the movie’s moral or narrative choices. You have no business exercising your free will as an audience. You just need to catch up, as the movie is running on auto-pilot. Such a movie, I present to you, in Raajneeti, which by no means is a bore, but is so superfluous and over-scripted you don’t really feel the need to gain any kind of insight out of it. It is just a man’s fancy idea, about how The Godfather would play around with The Mahabharata. So he sets about, mapping character for character, and major events for major events, hammering in incidents as popular as Karna’s birth or Kunti’s realization or Karna’s death with reckless abandon. And once your movie is inspired by movies without the implicit humor of the exercise, you don’t really have much scope of success. The mapping is overtly obvious I was wondering halfway why Mr. Jha even bothered to name the characters any differently.
        It is the usual mediocre stuff with Raajneeti, where you don’t feel characters, where they exhibit behavior not borne out of their nature, but because the script compels them so. Scenes don’t wait, and neither do they encourage your sincere questions about the consistency of the character’s behaviors, and why the film smugly assumes some of them are good and some are bad. I had several, like why would Samar so suddenly turn from angelheart to a conniving dragonheart. Or why would Indu (Ms. Kaif) suddenly feel her husband, Prithviraj (Mr. Rampal), is a good guy just because he sleeps on the couch. Isn’t she aware of what’s happening in the film? Why would she fall in love with him? I mean, I do get it, but a film ought to be more useful than a newsreel right? So yes, there is little in Raajneeti you would miss if someone in your office or an enthusiastic friend would enact the story incident by incident in half-hour flat.
        The film, though, does open on an encouraging note. My dad would often scold me if I were to read The Mahabharata in the morning, or before sleeping, and much of it is because of the inherent immorality with every character inside of it. Rarely is anyone righteous, save Bhishma and Karna, and the kind of lowly opinion we hold for politics, it makes for an apt enough setting for the adaptation. Much like how the supposed immorality and trickery of the corporate world was in Shyam Benegal’s dull yet infinitely better Kalyug.
        As Raajneeti unfolds, one feels, Mr. Jha is not taking sides and is in fact condemning everyone. Yet, halfway through, for no apparent reason, this all-grey world starts assuming shades of black-and-white, and by the end of it, we have legitimate heroes and full-blown villains. Why does Raajneeti try to assuage the guilt and evil of Samar, or Prithviraj, one doesn’t know. Why is Virendra (Mr. Vajpayee) bad, one doesn’t know? He even has a curly moustache. Maybe, Mr. Jha was acknowledging this irony from The Mahabharata by going the same route, but then I didn’t really bother, because these aren’t characters exhibiting their free will, they are merely being pulled along by the script. You have any doubts? Think of the final act and the needless exhibition of gunpowder. And the moral question posed by Samar to Brij Gopal (Mr. Patekar), about the unarmed nature of their enemies, and how ridiculously out-of-character it feels after all that has happened. This is just one example, off the top of my head.
        Nothing else matters. The technical areas are strictly functional. Raajneeti might have served infinitely well if it were a television serial, in the mould of Swabhimaan, because here it just contains too much. The acting? Averaging to strictly okay. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Patekar are good to brilliant, and so is Mr. Devgan who feels, well, at home. The big disappointment though is Mr. Kapoor, who is a lovely actor, but is so obviously miscast. Poor soul, doesn’t know how to be a conniving bastard, and instead resorts to a standard-issue grim disposition. You see, you wouldn’t want to cast Jim Carrey as Michael Corleone just as you wouldn’t want to have Daniel-Day Lewis as Ace Ventura. Mr. Abhishek Bachchan, who has had match practice, in not one but two films, would have been a mighty better bet.
        And then, there are glaring contradictions in the way CBFC handles content – the opening sexual act between Prithviraj and one of the women from his party is so long and so obviously dirty, a U/A rating hardly feels justified. But then again, our kids might be smarter than we think. Sigh.
        Oh, my wanders again. About the setting of a tale, and its contact with the outside world. The real world we live in. When Bhiku Mhatre challenges Satya by saying – Aye Amitabh Bachchan, maar na mereko – it is not humor but conversation borne out of real world. Such a behavior though would feel out of place in Sholay, because with its setting in a locked-from-outside-world Ramgarh, that is what is needed. Still, a Raj Malhotra lost in Europe fools around in Spanish, in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, for strictly humor purposes, by summoning Al Pacino’s name. I use this awareness for movies only as a reference for an awareness much broader in nature. So I ask you, dear reader – in a movie as Raajneeti, which speaks of election booths, which speaks of media, which speaks of economic recession, shouldn’t the characters be simply a wee bit more aware of their current predicament. I believe, an understanding of that awareness might solve most of the problems we seem to have dealing with serious cinema.
        And oh, you know what? Mr. Abhishek Bachchan, in that wonderful trailer of Mani Ratnam’s Raavan does seem to be aware what he is, and seems to enjoy it immensely, wildly observing it in his imaginary ten heads. Now that is fun.