Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walking in Yellow Boots into Strange Rooms

It’s strange that in the span of a week, I see a film and read a book, which are so similar. That Girl in Yellow Boots and In a Strange Room are both of genres which ostensibly have nothing to do anything with the other: one is a film of a search and the other a travelogue spanning 3 continents. But the journeys in both are through bleak landscapes of despairing lives.
That Girl in Yellow Boots is Anurag Kashyap’s least complex but the saddest of his films. Spare in its structure, linear in its telling, its characters, its atmospherics are all claustrophobic. It’s almost pre-ordained that none of its characters can ever find happiness, in spite of it’s protagonist, Kalki’s desperate search for it. For there seem to be some cycles which never seem to break, some lives which are forever condemned to penumbra.
Kalki’s search for her father in Bombay on the basis of a letter which she’d received from him – a tender soft missive which spoke of remembrance and ache - brings her into a hunt for the only glimmer of love she can see in her life. Progressively, the journey becomes one into her own self and her past and into those grey zones of our own lives which we hate to delve into. Her choice of a boy-friend – an abusive deranged drug-taker – is not just unfortunate, but one with her life’s story. Her choice of profession – a masseur who also gives ‘hand-shakes (a euphemism for hand-jobs) – is just another indication of the self-defeating choices she makes. Hence her search for a father who had left the family to fend for itself, is also one which is doomed right from the beginning. For isnt it true that deep inside each one of us reside the premonitions of the outcomes of the choices we make.
No one can ever leave the hall without carrying the pain and haunting despair of Kalki’s eyes in the final scenes.
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010) is a journey through desert, greenery and the sea, allegorical as it refers to our life’s progress -sometimes as followers, sometimes as a lover, and a guardian at times.
What we do with each one of these roles in our journey is a matter of choice, a matter of who we are, or a matter of life running away with the choices before we make them.
Damon, the protagonist, is damned to be the hand-maiden of other people’s wishes. His destiny is defined not by the choices he makes but by the nature of the people he is with. It’s a tragic life, where every change he makes brings him to the prison of his weaknesses. We are ultimately slaves of our natures, and every step of our journey, however far from our moorings we go, brings us back again and again to the black holes of our souls.
Damon readily agrees to be a follower, but comes against the selfishness of his companion, who is obsessed with his own needs, and uses his partner to serve himself. Isn’t it true that we subsume ourselves ever so often in our lives merely to maintain equilibrium, which finally is just a chimera?
And then he falls in love, goes miles to be with the man he falls for. And then he just doesn’t have the guts to say the precious words and take the next step. In an internal world of fear of consequences, however far the journey, the man does not move an inch.
And then when he becomes a companion, a true faithful one at that, to a girl beset with psychological problems, his trust is stretched and belied. He saves her life again and again, only to lose her finally to a selfish whim.
Our lives are an accumulation of our internal demons and the consents we give ourselves to do things which we know are wrong, but which we are unable to resist saying ’yes’ to. There are sadnesses and happinesses, but the greenery or the famine which we find in every step is invariably out of the seeds we sowed – or we didn’t. And the ideas of travelling, of going away, of coming back, all become attempts to merely escape time...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Delhi Belly - How to Burp, Fart, Curse and Run into a Hit!

This has to be the first utterly trashy, irreverent swear-laden Indian film to hit
the screens.

Unburdened with any pretence of keeping appearances, absolving itself of criticism
by publicly confessing to its abuse-drenched content, and pushing the edge of what
is acceptable on the screen, this is one path-breaking film. And all this is culture, 
more than counter-culture.

And when you watch it, its so life-like in its textures, its like seeing any bunch
of youngsters talking, freaking out, and getting punches out of life. That's how
normal this abnormal film feels like.

The tale is old, but never fails to hold interest. Gangsters after diamonds, and
innocents coming into the cross-fire. 

But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the outrageous portraitures and
situations. The ways you can use orange juice, stool and neck-ties; what
woman-on-top simulation does to a man, how-not-shaving hurts a woman, lesson on
when-not-to-take-calls, what goes into street food, what happens when ceiling fans
fall from roofs - this film delineates so many situations and delivers with such
deadly accuracy that it leaves you breathless!

Perfectly paced, with a great soundtrack and superb performances, this film is one
helluva f------g ride! Uff! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

X-Men: First Class

And this is one nice movie.

It recognizes the weaknesses of the strong, the power of the fragile. It understands that pain often gets layered with age, but doesn't disappear. And goodness is often just a mental state at any given point of time.

And all this it does in a tale which nicely interweaves the Bay of Pigs episode of the Kennedy era with ambitions of immortality by some megalomaniac mutants.

What takes the film beyond its high-octane texture, underpinning it with conscience, is its realization that that being different can be a cross to carry, but it doesn’t have to be a reason to dismember or disintegrate.

It's interesting to note that superhero movies are now giving human messages more strongly than any other genre...

A film to appreciate, indeed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The tragedy of 'I Am'

Great ideas don’t always translate into great cinema. Provocative subjects cannot, alas, always translate into provocative story-telling.
Given the dramatic story of the making of I Am, and its unique ability to capture the popular imagination of the social media for its funding, it’s surprising - and deeply disappointing – how expectations are belied.

What has happened here, in this film, is very simple. The film is poorly written. Full stop.

 I Am deals with problems which generally don’t get discussed – paedophily and homosexuality, artifical insemination and displacement of a full community of people from their homes, here, the Kashmiri Pandits.
Afia has an infidel husband who leaves her and she decides to have a child from a semen-donor. Her best friend is shocked when Megha asks the friend to check with her brother, if he would like to be a donor. She asks another friend for his semen. All she receives is a snide comment “Sure, but can we do it the traditional way.”  Then she goes to a clinic for a donation. But before agreeing to his donation, she wants to meet the donor. She does. And the meeting is bland and meaningless. All that happens is that the donor seems to take a slight fancy for her. But she’s not interested. So? Where is the battle, the internal struggle with prejudice? Where, in the name of heavens, is the drum-beaten sensitivity? The fact that the donor seems to have built a minicrush on her, and she tears his number off is an apology of a climax, which shows nothing.

The meaningless story-telling continues in the second story. Take Megha, a Kashmiri Pandit, in the second story. She goes to Srinagar to give her house to the residents who are staying there, because her family had fled during times of extreme unrest. Self-obsessed with her sorrow of loss, she rants on and on, until her Kashmiri friend tells her about the loss which the situation had wrought in the lives of the locals, and what it had done to their ambitions too. This piece is shown as a realisation which is ridiculous. Particularly after Megha sees the army-ridden cantonment the whole city ahd become. She seriously didn’t realize that the locals were living half-lives forever in the shadow of fear and violence?

And then Abhimanyu. He is a perfectly normal man with a girlfriend, and he carries on with another woman with whom he seems to be having a fairly ambiguous relationship. And the pain he carries inside himself like a precious heirloom on a mantel is that he was a victim of paedophily by a step-father. And then after the stepfather dies, he tells his grieving mother the truth and asks her – you didn’t know? The fact that he was sexually molested was by itself frightening. But what was the effect on him? How was his life, beyond his father, compromised? There’s absolutley no indication of that. A song with Abhimanyu standing alone in public spaces is hardly enough to show his internal turmoil.

And then Omar, the homosexual. He picks up a guy, wants to make out in a car, and is accosted by a tough policeman, and has his money and belongings taken away. Until he discovers he was set up.  Now the simple fact - it wasn’t his gay intimacy which made him get accosted by the police. His fate would have been the same if he had been caught flagrante delecto in a car with a woman . And he would have had to face the same cruel consequences. Plain and simple. What else did he expect? The simplistic logic baffles.

Onir has been on a downward slide after My Brother Nikhil. His Bas Ek Pal was a shameless lift of an Aldomovar film. His Sorry Bhai was good-looking and empty-feeling. And in this film, his shallowness comes out in the lame writing and incoherent search for a core center, which is never really found.

The tragedy of the film lies in its lack of powerful stories which move and make us question our prejudices. Just picking up a topic doesn’t indicate an automatic investigation of all the issues which make the topic incendiary. For example, whilst in the Omar-sequence, the policeman scene is lacerating in its impact, it is a consequence more of Omar’s horniness and indiscriminate choice of picking someone off the street to make love to. Where is the trauma of being a gay?

The lack of ideas reflects in the faux-artiness in the Abhimanya-sequence where he keeps having dreams of himself as a girl. One sees no indication of him facing any real problems in his day-to-day life.

The tragedy of the film does not lie in its characters but its artless and clueless writer and director.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The paap and pyaar of Dum Maro Dum

Two love stories fighting, collapsing, dying to save a third one....that could pretty much be a way of looking at Dum Maro Dum.

As a thriller, it satisfies with its nice twists and turns, stylish action and a refreshingly new editing idiom. But like anything which needs to work, the emotional/love angle has to pull the heart-strings. And DMD is likeable because it does that with a very upfront naked demeanor.

Films reflect society, and the moral ambivalence of everyone today pretty much translates into the story here. There is very little moral scrutiny done before embarking into crime or sin. But what doesn't change are the needs to love and be loved, to be accepted, and the heartbreak which comes from separation or death.

DMD transverses this territory realistically. And when finger-linked with the drug-infused environ of criminal Goa, it becomes a fine gritty film.

Smartly-written, well-enacted and shot and cut with panache, its a film which moves effortlessly and involves all the moving and unmoving parts of the viewer  - mind, heart and the one enconsed in the nether regions.

Catch it!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Black Swan: why we need to meet our darkest selves

Early in the film, Nina (Natalie Portman) encounters her own self coming towards her on a road, dressed in black, looking askance at her, with a little smile playing on her lips.

The way, sometimes, we encounter a part of ourselves, just like that, or sometimes when we realize there is more to us than just what even we see in ourselves.

The question is - what is the conversation which ensues? Do we have an internal fight? Or a talk to recognize, acknowledge and accept that we have a different, often darker side? Or do we just shy away from having a dialogue?

Black Swan asks these questions, surreally, inside the head and heart of an emotionally overwrought and totally-on-the-edge girl.  As Nina, a ballerina,  prepares for the role-of-a-lifetime of the Swan in Swan Lake, she is able to essay the role of the pure White Swan with ease. But she is just not able to break loose to play the evil Black Swan. She's just too nice to be able to essay the insidious.

And then life's umpteen pressures start telling on her - her mother's imprisoning nurturing, the snideness of some of her co-dancers, the seduction of a freedom which a new danseuse provides, the extreme tension of delivering what is expected of her, and, above all, her very own lonely fragility.

She is perfect in her dance technique, but is unable to garner the abandon which would help her transcend technique into genius. She is not able to let go - and she is half the performer - and person - that she can be.

I remember there was an incredible episode in the original Star Trek series where Captain Kirk is split into two persons - one which embodies all that is good in him, and the other which has all the evil of his being. And the all-good person is a failure as a Captain - good-hearted but indecisive, compassionate but without the ability to take those hard decisions which leaders have to take. And his evil side kept on exhorting the good one to be ruthless and above feeling, so that he could finish the mission. Ultimately they are able to join both the Captains again, and the true leader which Captain Kirk was, emerges.

Everyone of us has to accept what boils within us. We cannot sit in denial of what drives us and our being, and then expect to live a life of acceptance and truth. Otherwise, we will break symbolic and literal rashes (the way Nina does) and keep encountering our hidden selves in dark alleys, which would have us live diminished lives in the worlds we inhabit.

Black Swan is often terrifying in its intensity, and one has to look away from the haunting vulnerability of Nina, as she deals with the demons fighting inside her. We may never tip over the precipice, as she does, but one understands why, at some point in our lives, we need to meet our darkest selves, however frightening it might be, to be complete as persons.

7th March 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

7 life lessons from 7 Khoon Maaf

Vishal Bhardwaj cannot keep things simple. And thank god for it. Even the most linear of narratives, in his films, carry meanings beneath the patina. Sub-texts abound, and simple tales have layers.

Saat Khoon Maaf is no exception.

One can enjoy the film as a quirky story of an unusual woman, Susanna, who loves, marries and kills (well, many times over). Great music, dark tones, stellar performances, flawed characters sketched quickly and enacted effortlessly - these are all there to revel in. But scratch the surface and the richness overflows; what emerges are life-lessons in barrel-loads, inherent in the life-choices Susanna makes.

Here are just seven reasons why this film of killings could be a fine reference film for living:

One: Embrace life:

There is nothing more compelling than seeing a person refusing to lose hope, to continuously seek correction or redemption in the next move, next turn or - next husband. Sussana refuses to give up, in her search for love and life. And her final choice, as night begins to fall in her life, is the finest possible: at long last she finds a person to dance with till the end.

Reason Two: Be decisive:

Susanna does not leave anything undone. She resolves things totally, and then only does she move on. Her little admirer and mentee, Arun, the narrator of the story, asks as much after her Kashmir sojourn with Irrfan: why didn't she just leave the sadist and come back. And he is told by her faithful retainer, the butler, that Sussana first closes a chapter completely, before opening another one.

Reason Three: Be open, learn to give and receive:

Each turn of life brings its own charms. One needs to learn to take risks. Poet, hunter, doctor, spy, singer - Sussana's life is rich in the kind of people she attracts. She refuses nothing, as long as it has potential to add to the tapestry of her life. She is failed in her search for love, but not in her attempt to seek life in all its hues.

She is finely tuned into the fancies of each of her husbands. She revels in their strengths and the beauty of their talent. Song, poetry, gastronomy, dance, physical charishma - she knows life is short and its richness can't be denied.

And then when the time for denouements comes, she cleverly uses methods which are the downsides of these very same habits, fancies and talents. The circle completes itself.

Reason Four: Always have someone in your life who loves you unquestionably:

We are nothing if we do not have people in our lives who would die for us and are beside us in our bleakest times. People who might not like our choices, but who know that being human and making mistakes is part and parcel of loving someone.

Sussana's maid, butler and one-eyed horse-keeper are her closest associates, who are, as she once states, more faithful than even the owners of the house. They can do anything for her - and they do.

Reason Five: Trust completely:

Sussana immerses herself into each of her married lives. She is whole and trusting, everytime, even though she faces heartbreak not once, but again and again.

Reason Six: The past needs to be burnt to enjoy the present:

There is enough symbolism of this when she decides to wreck her house to hide a body. But her ability to carry her past lightly enables her to find more reasons to live. She is unburdened with what is best erased.

Reason Seven: Always know the time for finalities:

Sussana realizes when the end-play begins - and when life has to be given its final twist. And she was the one who had to give it. Her choice of her final husband was her iconoclastic way of saying: this is my way of living - and living on.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

No Strings Attached

Natalie Portman looks frazzled, she's confused. But who's to complain, as she agrees to a 'sex-only' relationship with Ashton Kutcher - and jumps into it with vim and gusto!

Nothing is simple; and the lovelorn spaniel that Ashton is, the results are long foregone.

The proceedings are nicely helped along with a fairly-decently etched-out legion of family and friends, as also the dialogue, which is tartily frank.

Nothing memorable, but the film has a nice lived-in feel about it. And it's always nice to have Natalie around for a while in your life...

February 14th, 2011
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Yeh Saali Zindagi

A frenetic, funny and bawdy ride through the underworld of society and souls.

Acted, edited and directed with pizazz, this is the first Guy Ritchie of Hindi cinema.

With total irreverence, it shows how love and crime are so similar - faithlessness can break hearts or bones but faith can mend lives.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Waltz With Bashir

A haunting movie, on the effects of war on men.

Awash in ochre shades and sepulchral music, it reminds us that wars can only minimize us as human beings ~

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The Green Hornet

Good for a few laughs, with your kid (or for the kid inside ), but woefully short on all counts.

Written shallowly, with actors with zero charisma, its combo of action-n-humour is just not punchy or corny enough ~
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Dhobi Ghat

What do we see films for ?

To enter lives of people, to feel their feelings, to experience the dramas of their changing seasons. And to wonder at the amazing diversity of choices which people have - and end up living their lives with.

Dhobi Ghat is about the lives four people choose to live in one metropolis, where the crowds ensure you can pass each other at a whisker's distance, and not know about the other's presence.

Arun (Aamir Khan) is a reclusive artist. Shia (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker from the States on sabbatical. Munna (Prateik Babbar) is a dhobi and a wannabe actor. And Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a Muslim newly-wed.
And they are all part of a city which gives them either recognition or anonymity, sometimes by choice, sometimes by happenstance.

Connect. Change. Be changed. Part.

But its easy to connect to human-ness, whatever the background of the characters in a film. It's both a strength and a weakness of thi film, that none of the protagonists have darkness in their souls. It makes them likeable, but also renders the drama a trifle effete. Thus things happen to people in spite of them being good. And they react the way good people do - tremoulously, tentatively, by flight, by withdrawal , or simply by permanently exiting.

But is there change in any of the characters as the film reaches the end? Have the incidents they have gone through changed them in ways good or bad? Alas, no.

The slice of their lives shown in the film remains a surface examination of the incidents and feelings of the characters: some tears, yes, but no red blood corpuscles on show.

But what the film loses in drama, is made up in empathy. There is a huge affection which the director has for her characters, and it shows in every shy smile and gesture of theirs.

Munna is an absolute sweetheart. He carries his status of a dhobi lightly, and doesn't let it overwhelm his relationship with the upper-class Shia. Similarly, Shia is sensitive to Prateik's feelings, in spite of her love for Arun. Both are characters well-delineated and enacted. But surely, the most poignant is Yasmin, the newly-wed who is seen entirely in video, and who enters our lives with stars in her eyes and leaves (and leaves us behind) with tears.

The most unsatisfactory - and the most surprising - part is that of Aamir. Underwritten, and lacking depth, one doesn't know what he feels or stands for. No amount of star-power - or brooding aloneness by the sea-side - can overcome a character which is poorly defined.

To make up for this one weakness is the incredible charecterisation of Bombay. It is a hideaway, a place for voyeurs, for a man to hide behind multiple pursuits or an upperclass woman to be friends with a washerman; but it is also a place so small that there is no one to reach out to, when one needs it most.

Finally, a film is as good as what it makes you feel. And this one brings a lump in the throat. There is delicacy and understatement - and the story is so obviously from the heart.

But it also makes you leave the dining table with the feeling there was a course served less. The rounding off is too little, the drama slight. It has its moments, but is not memorable.

~ Sunil Bhandari
Copyright © 2010 – All rights reserved.
January 23rd, 2011

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