Monday, March 12, 2012

KAHAANI: MOVIE REVIEW




Cast: Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chaterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Runtime: 125 min.
Verdict: Mediocrity. And a cheat.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

                Kahaani is mostly shoddy. And an exercise not in misdirection but flat-out cheating. Consider the opening sequence, and how Hitchcock’s lessons have been thoroughly lost in translation, and how the film’s subsequent set-pieces, the existence of whom is realized only in retrospect (as some sort of appendage), are mostly, well, silly. And while we’re at it, let us be charitable and ignore the film’s obsessive compulsion to cut almost every second, if not sooner, and induce something close to a headache. That it is immensely grating, so much so that our own compulsions (thank you DVDs) almost want to hit the imaginary pause button and rewind the damn thing. Irrespective of the moment, or the sequence, or any other variable, Kahaani never ever pulls its foot off the one-second cutting, and one might even suspect the hand of an auto-edit tool. Dear reader, if you’ve any plans to stay with this film, you just have to bite the bullet and hope your viewing system plays along with that forced rhythm. I would be lying if I claim that mine did, but it almost went the distance. So yeah, let’s be charitable and move on.
                To the opening sequence. We’re introduced to a lab-rat. And a masked man holding between forceps a sinister little sphere. [Fact: 473 cuts have been spent on us till now]. The sphere drops, the rat drops, and all of its friends in the nearby compartments drop too. Dead. We cut to the hustle and bustle and shaky camerawork of daily city-life. Near a metro station. A schoolboy clutches to his schoolbag just as he would hold on to his dear life. Since this moment comes right on the heels of the lab-rat, and we’re in the midst of a crowd containing faces we barely know, the random cuts/jumps from one face to next basically screaming “anonymous people”, the fear on the schoolboy’s face and his bag become some sort of a red herring. And since all these anonymous people indulging in everyday small-talk are oblivious to the existence of this schoolboy, he becomes Hitchcock’s ticking time-bomb. Now, comes the part to engage the audience. I mean, if it were merely the disconnected equation of the crowd versus the schoolboy, since the former has been set up as absolutely incapable of looking beyond itself, the sequence becomes sort of fatalistic. So, enter a group of other school kids who also provide the screenwriter the services of a bully, thus enabling the anonymous crowd to interact with the red herring. And, as an add-on, a man looking at the bags, acting as an agent of our fear, trying to resolve the matter of this time-bomb. I say, beyond the “everyday conversations” and “bullying” and nauseating snatch-and-cut strategy, it’s mostly fine and dandy. Except for the bizarre notion that a schoolbag might contain a chemical weapon. I mean, your mind starts to wander off in a hundred different directions, especially in the wake of Elvia Cortés and Brian Douglas Wells, and wonder how the hell the terrorist convinced a school kid to become a live weapon. A woman and her mother (-in-law?) are wondering about their kid’s milk-bottle, which the former seems to have forgotten. One of them gets up, I don’t know which, and it is less a reflection of my poor memory and more about the inter-replaceable characterization that Mr. Ghosh’s filmmaking serves us with. The bottle shows up. And just about the same time the bullies manage to reveal for us that the schoolbag contained a harmless comic (or something to that effect). The bottle is made of glass, and it drops, and when it breaks just as the sphere did in the lab. Cut. A little pan along the train as everybody in the train is deep in sleep. To never wake up again. The school kid? Gone. The man? Gone. The bullies? Gone. Is this what you would call a clever resolution of tension, or misdirection? Or would you call it cheating? I mean, the bottle doesn’t announce its presence until the final few moments. Mr. Ghosh might as well have cut to the engine driver discovering a bomb under his seat and I would have been just as bummed.
                This set-piece cross-cutting strategy is what makes for a lot of Kahaani. It is Mr. Ghosh’s go-to device for generating tension, and despite the number of attempts, he just doesn’t get it right. Not once. For various reasons. For instance, a sequence down at an old accounts office, that fails miserably because of the lack of a coherent establishment of the geography of the space and his inexplicable insistence on close-ups and medium-shots. Where a single overhead shot from the top of a fan, or someplace else, could draw the relative positions, Mr. Ghosh keeps cutting from one to the other, and we are left with the unenviable task of drawing the imaginary lines. Tension needs complete knowledge, or at least considerably more knowledge than the players involved. And since much of the film, with its constant expositions, observations worthy of Ajit Banerjee (that tea-glass connection is the sort of stuff I’ll tell my grandkids about) and generally short-term memory span reminded me of ACP Pradyuman and his merry men, we perhaps ought to move on and over and consider the narration.
So yeah, SPOILER ALERTS in the paragraphs ahead! The old accounts office again. And the file of Milan Damji, the terrorist the IB is looking for the past two years. Why would it still be there? Unless, the IB never came across it, in which case they are a bunch of nincompoops. Or worse. Which doesn’t stand consistent with the rest of the film. Assume, for an instance, they intentionally planted the document there for Vidya Bagchi (Ms. Balan) to find it, and note the address on it, and let the enemy react to her move. By sending a contract killer, who also happens to close the chapter on three other people. Honestly, if using Vidya to lead them to their man was the bureau’s masterplan, I fail to imagine how they could possibly have fared any worse had they followed the breadcrumbs themselves. Especially when they knew the mole was within their organization. A different, probably a more telling outcome of this old accounts office plot-device is Mr. Ghosh giving the game away. We’ve seen her husband Arnab Bagchi, it’s a familiar face (Mr. Indraneil Sengupta, although I didn’t know his name I recognized him from those VIP Frenchie advertisements), and we see the same face on the file. Yet, neither Vidya(and the script) make much, or any ado about this huge coincidence, nor do they make us privy do any degree of conflict on her part, because, hey, this is the real world, and such a resemblance (for sure this isn’t Andaz Apna Apna) should naturally entertain thoughts about an unfaithful husband. On the bureau’s part they fail to observe this lapse in “normal” human behavior (as opposed to Vidya shattering us with the first-name familiarity thing), and so they still emerge as authoritarian nincompoops. And since Ishqiya exists (a direct influence on the proceedings here), the twist ending is not really all that twisty.
Screw the plot, I say. Especially something as reverse-engineered as this. What I care about is how different a film is with respect to its Wikipedia plot-entry. Kahaani isn’t. Not one bit. Not even with those Kolkata-showcasing cutaways. Here is a film that is amateurish enough to “establish” its characters by obligatorily giving them something other than the plot (the HR woman dancing to the tunes ought to have been deleted), before knocking them off.  It doesn’t help that Ms. Balan is mostly mediocre here (as she was in her National-award winning performance), or to snatch a description from my friend Srikanth Srinivasan (who has himself snatched some killer frames from Kuroneko), there’s absolutely no history to her performance. It is mostly bland and without layers. But most importantly Kahaani is a cheat. It serves us with visual clues about the identity of the husband, only to replace the face later. The events are true, the memories are not. This narrative decision on Mr. Ghosh’s part thoroughly trivializes the memory of a widow, a widow whose son has been killed in the process. His cheap gimmick undermines the tragedy, an act exacerbated by the ridiculous nature of his cutting, leaves everything replaceable, including the photo of a husband, making it not a memento of the past but an aid to a twist (pretty hardcore I say), a twist that is more or less incompetently set up in the first place. That makes me a little confused – if Kahaani is shoddy because it is immoral, or whether it is the other way round. I don’t know, the SPOILERS END here.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

PAAN SINGH TOMAR: MOVIE REVIEW



Cast: Irrfan, Mahie Gill, Zakir Hussain, Vipin Sharma
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: It’s like McChicken Burger Combo (fries and Coke). Super tasty and mostly without nutrition.
Genre: Drama, Crime, Action

                Mr. Dhulia’s film is a little too eager, the frames a little too resolved. There’s precious little by way of moral tension here, and the events arrive with the inner equations already settled. One might not be entirely mistaken in thinking of it more as a package and less the life of an unsung hero. The army is almost untouchable, considering they defend us and stuff, and one cannot even begin to imagine a film where the army is the one against whom the fingers have been pointed. Hey, in Mr. Dhulia’s defense he does wink a little in its general direction, but that is the extent of it. Still, I respect the effort. The cops, and hence the rest of the establishment have to bear the brunt of Mr. Dhulia’s allegations, and in the light of the recent events down-under, even the BCCI might not have been left out. The cops here come in two varieties – (a) overweight and corrupt, and (b) overweight and gratuitous dacoit-hunter. Exhibit (a) is irredeemable and worthless, and I’ve come across such depictions so many times I am numb. So yeah, I don’t necessarily mind them. But exhibit (b)? Now, that gets to me. And it fits Ms. Arundhati Roy’s description of our government. Often they are one and the same thing.
Rathore (Mr. Hussain) is their representative, introduced to us via a point-blank range bham-bham. You know, like bad-ass. The thing with him, and with this bunch for that matter, is that they hunt in battalions. I do not want to second guess Mr. Dhulia’s intentions here, the arm of the law comes across as some sort of bully, effective only when working in significant numbers, and even then hardly a match to the pure awesomeness of the rebel’s resourcefulness. And individuality, of course. I mean, a classic David and Goliath situation. It’s natural I am reminded of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a film that doesn’t pursue the self-righteousness that Mr. Dhulia’s film so aggressively does, and a film where the law respects the domesticity of the common man. Sure, Paan Singh (Mr. Irrfan) does approach a couple of folks, a collector and an inspector, and the lack of eagerness on their part betrays the film’s lack of interest in trying to give the authority a chance, and for the most part these sequences come across as pre-packaged. These scenes, couple of them, or maybe even three, with a cop, with an army-man, and with a collector involve little by way of development and more by way of obligation. I might be painfully naïve out here but not a single lawman here expresses any sort of respect, and one feels, or at least I felt, Mr. Dhulia was a little too eager to get to the spicy rebel part. Now, that might not necessarily be a turn-off for you, dear reader, but then if one of your film’s opening line takes the corruption of the parliament for a fact and then proceeds to show how the authority has failed a citizen, I don’t know how much I ought to gain by way of insight or observation or a political statement. So yeah, Paan Singh Tomar comes with all its equations preprocessed, and all we’re supposed to do is applaud as the system gets pwned.
Which is fine. There’re some terrific dialogs here, some of the best I can recollect, and the dialect runs so deep we had English subtitles for assistance. The races are fun enough, and Mr. Dhulia’s insistence to pick up a ruler and a compass and draw parallels in real life are not. In fact, the film’s central structure of a flashback (past) derived out of Paan Singh’s dictation of his life-story, where he’s completely in command of the themes that govern his life, bring another level of dilution, so that all we’re left with is preprocessed and even pre-chewed food. It’s just completely passive, and I wouldn’t necessarily complain considering that Mr. Irrfan at work is one of the great pleasures of movie-watching. But then, yeah, it’s a whole lot of one-way traffic. Too much of us versus them. Paan Singh and his men kill 9 villagers and the events are stacked to highlight the betrayal. The villagers aren’t supporting the law, and are only choosing a side for personal gains – a job for a tip. Which is sort of depressing, in a way. Utter selfishness and crookedness (generally a reflection of physical fitness) and absolute lack of principal surrounding our man. He’s left alone at the end, as he was always in his life – in the field, in the army, in his village – and this moral preciousness is a little hard to swallow. Art (and sport) has a way of being obsessed with the past, and commerce has a way of always being in the present. One could argue the late Paan Singh didn’t do what is necessary to be heralded the country’s hero, no? You win a gold medal, and you win spelling bee, and you win a science contest. And then you win the Cricket World Cup. If all of these achievements were one and the same, well, I don’t know, I would’ve lost count of heroes to follow. I mean, can one really be a hero, or define a heroic act (art), without selling it as one (commerce)? Isn’t that balance, and isn’t it the case that Paan Singh probably wasn’t a hero until Mr. Dhulia’s film made him one. Which is how it ought to be, if you were to ask me. The hero is on the screen. And to gripe about either – art or commerce, past or present – and especially the latter is probably guilty of seeking self-satisfaction. You know, feeling good about it. Which Paan Singh Tomar is. It’s heartfelt, but with design. An old lady gets to feel the weight of rifle-butt. Completely hardcore world out there. A world where the one human touch is provided by an Army officer to Paan Singh in the form of an ice-cream. And I would be lying to you if I were to say that ice-cream doesn’t taste a little bitter. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

ROCKSTAR: MOVIE REVIEW




Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Nargis Fakhri, Aditi Rao Hyadri, Piyush Mishra, Kumud Mishra
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Runtime: 158 min.
Verdict: Thoroughly frustrating. Mostly silly. But with some awesome moments. 
Genre: Romance, Drama

(Note: When it comes to verses, my comprehension skills attain sub-zero levels. I don’t get them at all, and often during a film when I do happen to merely understand what the line is that has been sung, it is a personal eureka moment. So huge parts of this film captured in the songs might have completely escaped m   e, and if so, any help/correction would be much appreciated.)

                Mr. Ali’s Rockstar continues with the trend of our “serious/meaningful” cinema rationalizing a film song. It was 18 years ago when Hum Aapke Hai Kaun strung together 14 songs in a narrative and earned the tag of a marriage video. I mean, a lot has happened with the film song since then, but mostly it has been a reluctance to dilute the tone of a film and “break” into a song-and-dance number, and wanting to find more and more ways of including songs without having to stage them, or ways in which they are an organic output of the narrative and not a detour. Mr. Ali’s conceit here is including just as many songs as Mr. Barjatya’s film without any of the resulting artifice or breakdown of tone, and although only one of them is consciously dealing with Music the insights gained are probably just about the same.
                Let us consider here any random Hindi film, and the manner in which the songs echo the narrative. Say, Mr. Inder Kumar’s Dil, and how the songs – from the foot-tappers Khambe Jaisi Khadi Hai and Dum Dama Dum to the mellowed down considerably slower and romantic Mujhe Neend Na Aaye to the almost wailing O Priya Priya. I mean, one could pick up any film reliant on songs, like say Phool Aur Kaante, and see this very obvious and basic method of film narration. In those films, we never wondered, and we still don’t wonder how those guys could sing and dance, and also we do not mind if the same actor is voiced by different singers. I mean, Mr. Shahrukh Khan had both Mr. Kumar Sanu and Mr. Vinod Rathod for him in Baazigar, while the latter lent his voice Mr. Siddharth Ray. It’s horses for courses, and we don’t even bother about these trivialities, and I don’t think we’re supposed to either. I mean, it is one of the very basic tenets of movie-illusion. In Rockstar, the end credits (and this is a first time for me) state quite explicitly that Jordan’s vocals have been supplied by Mr. Mohit Chauhan. So yeah, there you go, that is some tonal austerity for you, and not that I don’t appreciate it. Who knows, maybe a decade or so down the lane we might have actors voicing themselves.
The question here, though, is to understand what Mr. Ali’s Rockstar does with this austerity? I mean, the late K.V. Mahadevan had Mr. S.P. Balasubramaniam to sing all the compositions in Mr. K. Viswanath’s Sankarabharanam, and that was a film that actively dealt with its art-form (music). One understands the need. Does Mr. Ali’s film deal with musical expression in any significant way that movies haven’t for the past 50 or so years, either implicitly (Dil) or explicitly (say, Karz)? Is Jordan a rockstar because of the film, or is his talent a mere rationalization of all the songs, and even, in some case, some sort of narrative device? Right after Jordan (Mr. Kapoor) reaches Prague and meets Heer (Ms. Fakhri) and finds peace making a return in his life, he walks up to a bunch of street musicians. It seems to be building into then the only moment, in a film about a popular artist, which is only about the artist and his art. And nothing else. Oh yeah, art doesn’t spring out of vacuum, sure, but this is not about the output. It is about the lure, the magic, of what is it about an art-form that inspires an artist to choose it as his mode of expression. Jordan is entranced by the sheer joy of whatever it is they’re playing so much so that his hands start playing the imaginary guitar to the tune of it. It ought to be pure, and for a moment or two it is. Until he starts singing, and the song turns out to be about a caged-princess. Like you know, Rose from Titanic, or Heer here. Coming on the heels of their joint escapades, the music distracts us too much towards the content and leaves us with precious little by way of form. The rockstar is not indulging in music; he is merely conveying what he thinks about the girl’s predicament. Which sort of undermines all that blah about the film and its music and the embarrassing reduction of the nature of art, assuming it is experience and pain that give birth to it, when all the film seems to be interested is in some sort of star-crossed love story and where the music is merely incidental. You know, like Romeo-and-Juliet, or Heer-Ranjha, or you know, Kites. Oh yeah, death then becomes a necessity.
                Songs here, then, assume their usual reactionary service of conveying the emotional state of affairs, and Mr. Ali’s conceit is to cause a protagonist who can facilitate their existence, and thus build a character/narrative arc. Both of them address each other, which is quite economic, and even resourceful. Questionable are the results, I say. Confession: Mr. Ali’s overarching themes about love and stuff come across as painfully silly in their adolescence, and that is something I cannot overcome. And don’t get me even started on all that nonsense around Tibet, or the blink-and-miss nods to the Khalsa and Kashmir, so brief it is disrespectful, and even disgraceful. Chances are my blood might start boiling. Let us leave it there.  
And concern ourselves with the manner in which the film goes about presenting them. Consider for instance, the opening and its surefootedness, the blunt forceful cuts and the pace that is achieved, Jordan almost walking out of one of them, a glimpse of his relationship with the media and its camera, and the serenity of the past it matches on to. I got to admit I still don’t get why Mr. Ali does that thing with his opening credits (even in Love Aaj Kal), where he sort of lays out temporal instances of his protagonist in a distinctly haphazard fashion, sort of freeing them of the captivity of narrative, and then proceeding to just do the opposite. I do not understand the meaning/implications of such a narrative choice other than some sort of confusion. This is not the problematic part though. What truly baffles me is the lighting and colors he uses to introduce Heer into the scheme of things, by means of a stage-performance, and – here’s the curious part, especially for a love story – not via your standard-issue bright lighting but the seedy red-and-black you (at least I do) normally associate with dance bars. At least, it is unflattering and the least bit charitable.

 
In my defense of straight-jacketing this sort of lighting with one sort of place, here’s another frame from the film when the bucket-list is well on its way.




This formal choice is further underlined by the near excessive lusting on the part of Jordan’s friends, and whose reaction shots sort of frame Heer. Is that literally a red-herring? Probably not when you come across this shot.



But then, yeah, when you find her excited to visit one of those seedy movie theatres, or booze, or do whatever it is a guy supposedly does. Courtesy those initial reaction shots, Heer is mostly an object who attains some sort of personality (and respect?) once she jumps the gender. Or some such nonsense. The gender mishmash here’s a mess, but again, let’s stay away from all that. What’s crucial here is the casting of Ms. Fakhri, and the complete lack of any degree of orthodoxy in her, both as a result of her appearance and the way Mr. Ali builds her. I am not even sure if her marital infidelity is supposed to morally stun us, because (a) when she invokes right and wrong and resists adultery it doesn’t make much sense considering their preceding whatever, and (b) when she does commit adultery, we’re mostly numb. In support of (b) consider that South African model they used in Ms. Pooja Bhatt’s Rog. You can wrap saris all around her but she’s still a foreign element. The orthodoxy just isn’t there in the first place to cut through later. Which leaves me a whole lot confused about her trajectory.  
Mr. Ali’s Rockstar becomes a thoroughly frustrating and reductive affair – long passages of completely ineffective filmmaking interspersed with moments that soar way beyond the realm of the inspired and attain true transcendence. Just when performances break down, scenes break down, angles break down, and a line of conversation doesn’t make any sense other than gift-wrapping for us the moment, a little movement around Jordan (Mr. Kapoor in a more-or-less brilliant performance) completely shatters the built-up defense and blows you away.
Consider a pivotal moment in the film that causes our protagonist much of his anger. Their relationship is in top gear, the passion unbearable, and it’s time for Jordan to leave Prague. They meet, and the impatience Mr. Ali exhibits here is quite inexplicable. I wouldn’t want to divulge anything here (just in case you haven’t yet watched it), but Jordan’s reaction to it, especially considering his knowledge of Heer’s intentions, put his IQ somewhere in the range of 52-68, because hey, even Forrest Gump understood what love is. More criminal is Mr. Ali’s conception and staging of these affairs, when he could easily have kept Jordan (and us) momentarily clueless about the Heer lash-out, considering he gives a shot of her walking behind a wall and breaking down. A filmmaker who just needs a single fluid shot, the camera zooming and craning out, to convey the whole paradox that is spiritual awakening (which involves both pride and humility in the way one feels special) ought to know better than that.

 
And he also ought to know better than having a journalist (Ms. Hyadri) who provides the same service to the narrative as Ms. Jiah Khan did to Ghajini, i.e. a built-in exposition device, especially when he has one readily available (Khatana, Mr. Kumud Mishra). He ought to know better than to ask Heer’s sister to bludgeon us with a sledgehammer on how to feel about Jordan's role in her, let us say, hopeless medical condition. I mean, the little shouts at the top of her lungs, for crying out loud. Exposition is a slippery device, and one of the rules in the instruction manual is to never use it in drama or romance, especially in its running-commentary form. More so when you have the chops to pull it off visually. Consider the way Mr. Ali frames the expanse of Prague in the film more romantic moments, providing the nomad Jordan, who is walking throughout the film with nowhere to go and nowhere to belong to, at least the warmth of his own space. And when things go down, especially after Prague, he makes a mockery of his private space finding newer ways to lock him up within his public persona. I mean, yeah, the vertical bars of the prison are a touch literal, but then the system is the least of his problems. There are hands swaying all around him, and there are figures stacked all about him.






  
Except for that little room with Led zeppelin and Jim Morrison, this Rockstar has precious little in the film by way of a home, and only the hope of a land where he can live like he wishes to. Oh yeah, like that other wall filled with fantasies this year (Miss Bala), Jordan gains a whole lot of weight when considered an allegorical device. The film’s opening passage with its crowd worship feels totally different when Mr. Ali cuts to it at the end, less about the fame and adulation and more the implicit obligation. In a way his talent is his curse. When the film finally gives him his own little space, under a little tent, from where he doesn’t have to walk anywhere to, absolutely cut off from everything, you know he deserves it. I mean, despite the fact that he’s stupid. Oh yeah, a punch to the system. And the finger to us. Sometimes, you know, you got to feel sorry for them.