Maggie’s Plan (2015): Almost Works

I’m still chuckling, two days after watching the movie, at the situations in the movie. This is Greta Gerwig affair through and through. Yes, even with Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore around as a side-dish. But once again, Gerwig shows she’s made for this genre, like no one else of the generation. She just walks around being herself, and it’s more than enough.

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The plot is ridiculously facetious. Almost Woody Allenish in its “why can’t this happen” way? Hawke and Moore play caricatures of characters or archetypes. Hawke plays John, a professor of “ficto-critical anthropology”, is the archetypical mid-life crisis enduring trying-to-write a novel kind writer, with adequately dysfunctional marriage to the fiercely feminist professor Georgette, played by Moore, with two kids: a younger boy, and a teenage girl, who’s sufficiently quirky. While Gerwig plays Maggie, “a bridge between art and commerce”, as she describes her administrative job at a school where John has taken up a position as visiting lecturer.

Maggie wants a family, actually just a kid, and she is almost sure she wants it without a man, because she has a history of getting bored with anyone in six months max. And so her plan is to find a right sperm donor for a father, which she has found. Unfortunately, that plan is derailed by an affair with John, as John leaves Georgette, and has a daughter with Maggie.

The film cuts three years or so into future, and although it hasn’t happened in six months, as she feared, Maggie finds that the relationship isn’t exactly working, with John now “completely self-absorbed”, and her rescue mission is now turned into a something else altogether. Being Maggie, she comes up with an ingenious plan that almost works.

Maggie’s plan, however Allenish, tries to also be serious, and it’s never an easy thing to pull off. To her credit, Rebecca Miller almost pulls it off. The result is a very watchable, part funny, part introspective, untiring satire, that’s sleekly filmed, with pretty good dialogs, and some very good acting from all the three major characters. All in all, a good enough, but not great film that is still worth your time, and not very taxing, as a lot of good films that have come up lately are. If you’ve enjoyed Gerwig movies like Mistress America, or Frances Ha, you’d probably like this one too.


Quick Rating: 3.5/5.

Notes on Ijaazat (1987)

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to good Hindi films beyond the usual masala mix. I remember watching Shabana’s superlative performance in Arth, on a bad VHS tape on a borrowed VCR/VCP (it was a rage those days, to borrow it from the Video store for 12 hours, mostly night hours, and watch 3-4 films back to back, and return it all early morning). I remember Nasir’s nuanced portrayal of a visually impaired man in Sparsh. I remember Anupam Kher’s stinging rage in Saaransh. All these films I watched for the first time with not a lot of understanding of films, but their almost visceral quality meant I didn’t need a lot of it. It was almost instinctive. Then there were a bunch of light but meaningful, semi-realistic movies directed by one of the three talented directors : Sai Paranjape (Chashme baddor, Katha), Basu Chatterjee (Rajneegandha, Piya ka ghar, Choti si Baat, Baaton baaton mein),  Hrishikesh Mukherjee (too many to name). And so on.

All this was a backlog, mostly, that I cleared up before moving on to more contemporary movies. Meaning, these were the movies already released before I started watching movies (before I was 10 years old, as well). Then there were directors I grew up with, who made meaningful cinema, that I had started to understand more and more, thanks to a lot of decent movies already consumed — people like Govind Nihlani, Tapan Sinha, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Jabbar Patel (Marathi, mainly). And of course, there was Gulzar. A poet/writer turned director, who gave us a bunch of fine films. But for some reason, his one movie that has really stayed with me was Ijaazat.

I don’t recall when I watched it first. Definitely not when it came out in theaters. I was 11 then, and the movie wouldn’t have made sense. But few years down the line, I caught it on another marathon VCR session, when some of my elder cousins were visiting. And the timing was just right for me. Given the times, and the place, the movie seemed progressive to me, with two female characters who were strong in their own ways, and with non-conventional relationships, and open discussions about love, an almost poetic portrayal of love, longing, acceptance, and limits of it all. (If you haven’t watched Ijaazat, stop right now. For one, you should be watching it. Plus, there will be enough spoilers, and enough assumptions)

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I will not even say that Ijaazat was Gulzar’s best film, but for young people in that era trying to get a sense of love, it was a fascinating movie, for it’s time, at least. And yet, when I look back at it now, I’m tempted to re-examine/deconstruct the movie (always a bad idea).

One of the questions that has bothered me all these years is – why is the character played by Anuradha Patel named Maya? I mean, a free-spirited girl has to have a name that signifies unreal/illusory? Is it a subconscious belief of the writer that such a girl has to be illusory? Contrast it with the names of the other two main characters: Mahender and Sudha. More earthly, not philosophical.

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Ijaazat, if you look at it from this angle, is a story of a typical Indian man (because make no mistake about it: while Maya is atypical Indian women, Mahender is a typical Indian man) who wants exotic girlfriend and settles down for homely wife, due to social factors. I know that’s very reductive. Because, Mahender wanted to marry Maya, but at the moment of decision, she is nowhere to be traced. But consider this, for five years, he has stretched the engagement with Sudha, and it’s clear to everyone she’s not his first choice. And still, when his grandfather picks up a wedding date like rabbit out of a hat, he goes ahead with the marriage because he can’t trace Maya. Now let me get this straight, if he could have traced Maya, she still wouldn’t have married him, being a free-spirited crazy feminist. What then? Was he just waiting for her ijaazat to get married to Sudha?

Its clear to both Mahender and Sudha, and also to viewers, that it’s a marriage of convenience.  And still they go through it, and try to make best of it. But it’s no wonder that it cannot survive the return of Maya. And when she does return, cracks do start appearing, especially as her presence is there even in her absence. And Mahender is not content with the convenience. He wants it all. The homely wife and the exotic girlfriend. And so he is even ready to impress on his wife what Maya is, and what she means to him. Trouble is, the relationship is not at that level of maturity to really survive that. And Mahender has made no real visible efforts to insure that level is reached, or even attempted. For him, it’s something that just has to be.

Another scene I want to deconstruct is the one before the climax, when Mahender is updating Sudha about what happened after she left him, about Maya’s death. I wonder if Maya’s end is symbolic of something? Free-spirited girl, riding a bullet, being killed by a scarf getting into the spokes? Just accident as usual? Or something more? I leave it to you to decide for yourself, but I smell a big rat. Besides, what was the need to kill Maya? To get sympathy for Mahender, who couldn’t choose between contradictory wishes (Grandfather’s wishes, his vow to his wife, his love for Maya), needed a redemption, I guess. But why? Because, and that’s where we come to the climax, Sudha needed to be able to ask him his “blessing” for her new life, and to be able to touch his feet (seriously, in the same film that has Mahender living with his girlfriend, an ultra feminist?) while doing that. For her to ask his Ijaazat, she had to forgive him first, and what better way than portraying poor Mahender who lost it all to accidents and misunderstandings?

Ah, that’s a load off, that I’ve been carrying with me for god knows how long? Because, while I completely loved the movie, the multiple times that I have watched it, some things have always nagged me. And now I realize that I had fallen for a stylized patriarchy. You guessed it, this was targeted for 8th March, but lazy me couldn’t finish it in time. But while I call out its latent patriarchy, I must applaud Gulzar for creating one of the most fascinating female characters of the era, even if named Maya. So, let’s raise a toast to this conflicted film, and to all Mayas, and Sudhas, and to a world where Mahenders would be strong enough to make their decisions without being constricted by their umbilical chords.

 

The Problems with Dangal

It’s probably useless to attempt to review Dangal. Everyone knows what it’s about. It’s doing well. It’s a movie that I enjoyed watching. It’s a good movie. But I’d like to add — and this might be necessary, because the momentum like that sometimes makes people believe that a movie is lot more that it is — it’s not great, or near perfect, as some reviewers may like you to believe. Not that it has to be. Not that it was even intended to be. Which is fine, really. Neither were Lagaan, or Titanic, or Three Idiots, or umpteen other celebrated movies in Bollywood/Hollywood.

Dangal has a few things going for it, yes. Good acting (nope, not great, good). Decent story-line. Excellent pace. A dose of desh-prem. A somewhat progressive take on gender equality (although not, if you look closely, and we will). Decent music. Shot well, especially the wrestling training and matches — it all looks very real.

But once the euphoria is over, a few hours after the credits roll up, one starts to ruminate (can there be a better word to describe it — because it’s exactly what bovine species does with food, eat first, chew later) over the film, and those things that jarred when you were watching it, but you couldn’t put your finger on (or even wanted to, then), start raising their not-so-pretty heads.

So here are some problems with Dangal:

The generic biopic problem of Bollywood

Bollywood is terrible when it comes to biopics. It trades nuances for punches, and uncomfortable facts for pulp. Unfortunately, Dangal doesn’t buck that trend (I have not seen Mary Kom, so not sure if it does). While it makes for an overall interesting viewing, I think a more nuanced portrayal might have made it a more honest, and generally a better movie.

Weak Characterization

Except for Mahavir Singh Phogat’s character, most other characters are placeholders to bend against his will as required. Even the two girls, who end up winning International Golds are basically puppets at the hands of Mahavir, all through the movie. Its only two times that Geeta is seen showing some agency. Out of this, when she chooses to  reject her father’s authority on life and coaching, she is a spectacular failure. Predictably, it’s when she chooses to take advice from her father in the crowd as opposed to her coach, does she do well. The father is always right. The international level (caricature of an) coach is always wrong. There is no scope for nuances or gray shades.

Gender equality without agency

Yes, the movie has an  explicit message of treating your daughters no less than sons, and Mahavir seems to mouth the same near the end, mansplaining it to the girls. But even that is almost accidental. One is supposed to feel for Mahavir early on when he is cursed with a daughter after daughter. It’s only when he realizes that they can fulfill his dream, that Mahavir actually starts looking at them as, well, to put it mildly surrogates for boys. In fact no women in the film has any agency (and when they seem to have it, they’re wrong — like Geeta’s friend at the institute who spoils her). The girls have to do what Mahavir tells them. The mother has zero say in the business.

Melodrama

Another obsession of Bollywood that Dangal doesn’t manage to free itself from is the ubiquitous melodrama. Some of the scenes are absolutely ridiculous. Like Mahavir showing the album of the girl’s prize money and pleading with the officials at National Institute of Sports when they are about to expel the girls. What the coach does near the end is so atrociously melodramatic. Or the scene where Geeta calls her father on insistence of Babita, after realizing that it’s not working out for her. Nowhere is there a visible effort to make it subtle, more nuanced. Nowhere is the conflict genuine, and answers complicated.

Implications on Parenting

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We live in crazy times where as it is parents are pushing their kids to the limits — for their own good, obviously, if you ask them. What the film seems to be glorifying Mahavir’s bullheaded pursuit of vicarious excellence (a friend of the girls says she’d rather have a father like Mahavir, when the girls are complaining of their plight, because at least he treats them as someone who could be something, but it’s a very specific something that he wants — more for himself — and it’s not negotiable, and in that sense the girls are as much instruments in the hands of a single person, as the friend is in the hands of a patriarchal system). There are no seeds of doubt sown anywhere. Excellence comes at a cost, and the cost has to be paid by the children, because a parent knows the best. I’m so worried that a lot of Indian parents will just take the movie as a validation of their, sometimes excessive, pushing of children towards a statistically unlikely glory in real life.

So yes, Dangal has its moments. It’s fun. It’s even temporarily uplifting. But as the hangover recedes, I could not help but feel sad at an opportunity lost, of a honest, nuanced biopic. Then again, 100s Cr club membership requires you to abandon nuances. Not even Amir Khan will that price (no don’t tell me Taare Zameen Par was nuanced).

La La Land: The Glorious Mess We Make

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins on a freeway, in the middle of a massive traffic jam, and suddenly people are out on the road dancing. A few minutes later, the song over, everyone’s back into their cars, frustrated/honking, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a car behind Mia’s (Emma Stone), honking at her as the jam opens up, but she’s busy reading her audition script, and they give each other middle fingers, as they go there own way.

For the next two hours or so, La La Land takes us back and forth into those two worlds — of dreams and reality, effortlessly moving from one to the other, blurring the borders. It’s been described as a musical, and it is, in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Chazelle who gave us a extremely tightly woven Whiplash has taken all sort of liberties here. Songs linger a bit longer than one is used to. Closeups last longer than is strictly necessary, but richly paid off, thanks to the two lead performers. Side cast is side cast, with no effort made to develop any other character, and it really doesn’t matter (just like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation needed no one around them, really).

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The story is simple love story between two struggling artists — Mia an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop (yes, very cliched but works), and Sebastian, an aspiring Jazz pianist — both trying to find out if they have it in them. As they inevitably fall in love, it all merges, professional dreams and life. They change each other, grow with each other, just to find that all of that comes with a bill (or a check, as the Americans would say).

Dialogues are absorbing, so are the lyrics. The colors are terrific. You savor frame after frame, assuming this can’t be bettered, but just as the two characters keep on saying about view of a lovely valley, “I have seen better”, another frame comes and proves it possible. Cinematography is exquisite, continuing with the recent Hollywood trend of using movies as a way to express love of a city (like Begin Again’s love affair with New York). And the chemistry is intoxicating.

Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I don’t think so.

In a scene early on Mia tells Sebastian, “I hate Jazz”, hoping to get that out of the door, because she knows what it means to Sebastian, a Jazz purist of sorts (she doesn’t know it, but earlier on, when his sister suggests him to meet a girl, he asks if she like Jazz, and when the answer is negative, he goes: “but what will we talk about”?)

“What do you mean you hate Jazz?”, he wants to know, and proceeds to initiate her (and the audience, in case they share the feeling) into it. He doesn’t, as she is expecting, fly off the handle, but just wouldn’t accept the it’s true (how could she?) But as he tells her about it, he also tells her regretfully that his beloved Jazz is dying, “but not on my watch”, he boasts. What Jazz is to Sebastian, the musical seems to be for Chazelle – a dying art form that he wouldn’t let die on his watch (even Sebastian’s words for to Mia when she wonders if it’s just a pipe dream she’s chasing – “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise,  and it’s very exciting”, seem to be said to himself, as much as to Mia) .

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La La Land is about Jazz, about magic of films, about arts, drama, and such dreams of the ones stepped in in performance arts, but what it is really about is underlined by Mia, in one of her auditions, when given a free hand, as she breaks into a song, that goes:

Here’s to the ones who dream,
foolish as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that ache.
Here’s to the mess we make.

That in nutshell, is La La Land — a story of dreams, and costs we pay to achieve them.

“Where are we”, Mia asks Sebastian,  later on.

The emphasis is on we, not where. There are  no easy answers here. Even as La La Land keeps on giving us glimpses of dreams, it stays rooted to reality. And in that sense, it isn’t a musical of 40s or 50s. Just like Whiplash, where excellence is never detached from the price of achieving it, there are no easy resolutions here either. But by the time the end credits roll, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glorious mess we make, those of us who dream.


PS: A note on the lead actors. Emma Stone, who impressed in Birdman is  fabulous here. Mia is meant for her. Ryan Gosling is more than competent — given the meatier role. And the music is fabulous, Jazz and all – what lovely theme that by Justin Hurwitz, something right up there with the best. What more can one ask of a movie? I watched it in a theater with 15 odd people, mostly bored, and disappointed. Maybe for those of us who have grown up on the Bollywood flavor of magic, this is underwhelming. But if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone, do watch this love affair with dreams. Maybe, it’ll rekindle some lost one of yours too.

Pulp Poetry: In the Fifth …

[Only for Pulp Fiction fans, the rest may OD on it]

In the fifth your ass goes down

In the fifth, your ass goes down
the fifth is just ’round the corner
sometimes, you open the door
and life stands there
with a barrel of a gun
pointed at you
and if you surprise her
she shoots you

In the fifth, your ass goes down
yes, I know you want to choose
mainly because
you want to believe
you can

that’s pride, fucking with you
fuck pride
for, pride — He will tell you —
only hurts
it never helps;
especially not
in the fifth
when your ass
goes down

but then He lies…
what He means
is this:
pride is only for those
who decide
who’s ass
goes down
in the fifth

and if it’s your ass
that’s supposed to go down,
you swallow your pride
or be prepared
to run
to survive,
you’ve to run with your pride

yes, Zed is dead, babe
Zed did not realize
that you don’t
mess with those
who decide
who’s ass
goes down
in the fifth

Zed was a character
but that doesn’t mean
he had character
in fact
he was
a filthy animal

What you don’t like this?
English, motherfucker
do you speak it?
say what again?
I dare ya
I double dare ya

Anyways,
I don’t even have
an opinion;
I’m sorry
did I break your concentration?
But you see
we have a Bonnie situation
and the fifth,
it’s just round the corner

In the fifth,
your ass goes down.

Review: Dear Zindagi

When I watched Gauri Shinde’s debut movie, English Vinglish, I had zero expectations from it. To be fair, I was in fact afraid I’d be bored. But I was rather charmed in the end. It had its moments. And I could keep my cynicism aside for those two and something hours. With Dear Zindagi, I was already sold, because I do like Alia. Especially after Highway (and that forgettable Two States, in which she managed to shine through the unadulterated crap somehow).  And Gauri Shinde had done enough in her earlier movie to merit a watch.

Did I like it? Yes. Was it a great film, no. I don’t think I was expecting great. But what works here, are a couple of very good performances. Alia just seems effortless as Kaira, totally owning the character, to use a contemporary phrase. SRK as Dr. Khan is closer to Kabir Khan of Chak De than his usual over-the-top character portrayals. Yes, he cannot entirely let go some of the exaggerated head nods and the likes, but I’d rather see SRK like this than when he is running that stupid rat race with Sallu and co.

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The story is quite straightforward. Kaira, a cinematographer, is living the coveted modern life, unmarried, with career aspirations, affairs, and partying. Her relationship status, in Facebook style, would be “it’s complicated”, as she’s involved with her co-worker Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), even as she is dating someone else — the relationship does not survive, and as she doesn’t want to take the other affair to a more serious track, Rahuvendra decides to move on (in a rather strange, unconvincing manner, for the convenience of the plot), just after she has to move back to her parent’s house in Goa for a month thanks to her landlord evicting her on short notice. It’s there, post the breakup (that really wasn’t, because there was no real relationship, just a possibility), that she has to confront the demons in her past/mind, as she , something the hatke psychologist Jug — Jahangir Khan — helps  her identifying, and coming to terms with.

Shot beautifully, with teasing glimpses of South Bombay and quite an eyeful of Goa, the story unfolds at a nice languid pace. Alia is as perfect casting choice for Kaira as could be. Significant part of the movie is in the counseling sessions (indoor and outdoor) with Jug, and those are its better moments (yes it’s a significant violation of “show don’t tell”, but still). The biggest success of Dear Zindagi for me is that it even attempted to chew into this territory, and did a decent enough job with it. Besides, the drama genre in Bollywood is typically filled with melodrama, and there is no space for a more nuanced dialog, which is abundant here. Kaira’s character seems very real and very contemporary. And there is no KJo style gloss to smooth out every hint of texture. Okay, not a lot, just some.

Of course Gauri Shinde is no Anurag Kashyap/Tigmanshu Dhulia. The script is rather weak. Last 20 mins or so really adds nothing, even undoes an otherwise mostly-relate-able/believable narrative. The side characters are quite of the cardboard variety, serving a purpose, or just about it. For those used to better “serious” (not necessarily in content, but intent) cinema, even from Indian directors (Kashyap/Bharadwaj/…) it does seem a little hollow or scratching the surface, while those used to Sallu style instant gratification (I’m assuming, because I frankly don’t understand that shit at all) will find it a little of a drab drag. But between the two ends lies a not-so-narrow niche where some directors seem to be making a play (Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, to name a few), with varied results. And Gauri Shinde surely has the eye on that niche, with two of her films, and deservedly, I’d say.

The thing is, this could have been something really really good with some tight editing, some more depth, a little less pulp. But as it stands, it’s still quite good — worth a watch with all its shortcomings.

What works: lead performances (specifically Alia), cinematography, feel-good, flow, little touches here and there, subject.

What doesn’t: over-closure (I’d say just stop 25 minutes to the stop line and you’ve got a much better movie), weak supporting characters (and hence performances),  a bit shallow (the side effect of feel-good at all costs), the script could have been tighter, a bit preachy. Music is utilitarian, nothing I’d listen to again.

Overall: 3.5/5.


PS: The featured image is a still from the film, and not my own photograph as usually is (with the exception when I borrow one from Atul Sabnis).

His Own Fan: Review of SRK’s Fan

SRK has done it all — especially where double roles are concerned. He’s done the normal bread-and-butter ones. He’s done double role with reincarnation. He’s done a “not a double role” double role, where his character fakes a double role that his (character’s) wife falls for. But in Fan, he’s gone and surpassed it all. His character plays his (SRKs) own double role, and another character plays that character’s double role. And what’s more, one character loves the other character!

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m not panning the movie. Not yet. In fact, given his recent woeful run of “I’m a star so I’ll prove I can get away with anything” movies (two with Rohit Shetty, one with Farah Khan), I’m glad he picked up a script that’s not juvenile to begin with. It’s another matter that … Like I said, I’m not panning the movie. Yet.

 

 

What I’m going to do here is to review two halves. This is a double-role of a review.

Role 1:

First half. Gaurav Chanda, a Delhi boy — just like his God, the actor Aryan Khanna (the double role of real life SRK, who’s also a Delhi boy) — is known in his  mohalla for playing “Junior” AK (Aryan Khanna, not Arvind Kejriwal, although I’m not sure the choice of initials was accidental)  in yearly mohalla competition, which interestingly, seems to have the budget of whole ward completely assigned to it (AK?) for their annual talent competition. In the part time that he gets between watching AK movies, collecting his memorabilia,  he runs a cyber-cafe. Okay, runs is too generous. But still.

The year in question, he again wins the competition, and gets twenty thousand cash prize for it, with with he decides to visit his object of affection, to present his trophy as B’day present to Aryan Khanna. Predictably he doesn’t get to meet him. Just in time, for him, comes a AK’s spat with a rising star. And he decides to switch to next level of fanaticism, to meet AK. It turns all bad for him, with Aryan breaking his heart.

Again, I’m not panning the movie. This part is actually quite good. SRK as Gaurav is quite a performance. A bit over the top, but intended, and carried out well. The story is almost all believable till this point. Execution is tight. Excellent buildup, to interval. Maybe 7/10 all combined. And for SRK movie, coming from me, that’s seriously lot. And I had begun to feel hopeful.

Role 2:

Post interval, we start an year later, for some reason. That gap has changed Gaurav. No one has bothered to give us a peek into this transformation (except for the dramatic exchange pre-interval), from a broken, dejected, angry fan to a revenge machine. Not that it’s hard to extrapolate the emotional leap, but more importantly, a not-so-bright, starry-eyed, mumma’s boy turning into a very competent (in the dark sense, but still), at home in the foreign land (yes, we move out of India for some reason), smooth operator. No questions should be asked. This is Bollywood after all. You see, you got the warning as Gaurav mouths Aryan/SRK line: the real drama will start now. And so it does. As a catch-me-if-you-can saga starts, you even get a literal taste of it, for what seems like an eternity of a running chase, as the script decides to trade action for everything else. There is just not enough content to give justice to the build-up of the first half. And Fan falters, and runs around like a chicken with its head cut. Finally ending on a predictable note — the way most of the negative protagonist stories do.

As tight the first half is, the second is a contrast. It’s well paced, I give you that. But it’s vacuous. Show-offish. And ultimately underwhelming. Nothing much believable happens. We move from one foreign location to another. The story never catches up.

I’d give this half 4/10. And I’m really being generous here. Because there were no songs.

*

It’s a brave effort, though, all said and done.

Going without a song/dance/humor. Trying to stick to a semblance of a story-line, which is missing in the big star movies lately. Something that no StarKhan looked likely to bite at, given present 300 Cr race. For that I really want to applaud SRK.

But, if you really look closely, it is an SRK showcase, literally (consider this: the film has really no other actor with any meaningful role). Not just of his talent, but of his achievements from past, his legend, his “I’m the king” persona off screen. In a scene, in the second half, his manager/assistant/whatever tells Aryan, “woh (Gaurav) sanki hai”. He looks almost hurt. “Phir mein kya hoon?” he asks. Reminding us of SRK who has boasted in past of his pathani temper. You gotta take him as he is. Just as you gotta take Aryan as he is. Just you have to take lot of idiotic stuff in the second half.

Fan is SRK’s love affair with himself. Or SRK’s love affair with his own stardom. But for a king of romance, it’s hardly a tribute to his best. It’s just canonization of SRK the super-star/super-hero/super-ego. Through Aryan Khanna. It’s a triple role, if you see it from a certain vantage point.

Verdict: Worth a watch, for the first half. But nothing you’d regret for having missed.

 

 

 

 

 

Court (2014) – A Study in Realism

I couldn’t catch Court in the theaters, for the two weeks or so that it managed to be around, despite all the acclaim abroad, and all the good reviews. When I finally did manage to watch it, it wasn’t a surprise that it didn’t last longer than it did. That’s obviously not a comment on the film, but rather on the viewers. I don’t think I even need to explain it, especially for those who know my views on movies.

It’s not an easy movie to review. Because Court is not many things one is used to expect from the medium of film, especially an Indian film. The film has a very simple storyline. It’s about an old lok shahir (people’s poet/singer, literally), who is picked up on frivolous excuses, and is effectively being silenced by misuse of the powerful machinery of the state — and its lethargy. The particular case at the center of the film is a case involving an alleged abetting of suicide of a sewage cleaner.

Narayan Kamble, the accused, played with gusto by Vira Satidhar, is alleged to have performed a song next to where the diseased sewage cleaner lived, with lyrics that provoked all sewage cleaners to kill themselves, in an act of protest. The case drags on, at a snail’s pace, with witnesses not turning up, trails pushed to future dates.

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It’s then that Court really starts to take a grip, when it starts peaking at the lives of those involved in the case — the lawyers, the judge — and in the process it exposes the central irony:

Vinay Vora, the defense lawyer, (played perfectly by Vivek Gomber, who is also the producer of the movie) comes from a rich Gujarati family (his father tells his friend, in an offhand, yet boastful manner, this whole building is owned by us), plays bepop in his car, socializes with other rich and privileged in exclusive places where world music is played live. He is representing a rebel poet, a man of the masses, and presumably against all the decadence of the system that makes it possible for Vinay to have his privileged lifestyle. While, the prosecutor, Nutan — not even sure this name is used in the movie —  played quite competently, by Geetanjali Kulkarni, comes from a typical middle class background, is representing the system — the same system which is keeping her in shackles. Her life is typical urban middle class working woman’s life: working, traveling in local trains, going back home to cook for her husband and kids whom she also has to serve the dinner (while they watch TV, and won’t move an inch to help her in any way whatsoever).  She is the victim of the system she is defending, in the hope of an unlikely promotion. And she is so entranced in the system, that she doesn’t realize the contradictions in her positions on issues (assuming she has a consciously held positions).

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A scene in particular got me almost angry, where Vinay Vora is shown picking up wines and expensive cheeses in a gourmet shop (while Chopin’s Waltz in E flat major plays in the background), the scene is close to two minutes long (I counted), with just him shopping alone in the store. Where is the editor, I wanted to shout. And yet, as the time passed, I realized that this wasn’t an oversight. This was intentional, just as the agonizingly slowly vanishing shot of the emptying courtroom as it’s supposed to close for the summer vacation (70 seconds long, with last 20 odd seconds of blank screen after the lights are off in the courtroom). The slow pace is intentional, nay, essential to the narrative. For the story enfolds outside of the courtroom, outside of the main narrative. And it is no story at all, it is what the story does to you, what it makes you see, even what it makes you see makes you think.

But there is a story that unfolds in the courtroom too. This, mind you, is not a glamorized courtroom drama one is used to watching on screen — be it Bollywood or Hollywood, films/TV. What is there, instead, is everyday reality of courts. An almost unconcern with what is being debated, decided. It’s a matter of fact portrayal of the banality of the faceless power that could make or destroy lives. It tires you down. It frustrates you. It makes you despondent. It enrages you. And you’re not even the one whose life is in the balance.

Court is a kind of movie that every Indian should see, because it is an antidote to all the glossy, dreamy kitsch that is Bollywood’s staple, because it is a microcosm of India that we don’t want to be reminded of, especially we the privileged. And yet Court is a movie that barely lasted two weeks in theaters. Even that was a miracle. That says a lot about us, not the movie. Our privileged, protected lives, apparently are so full of stress that all we want from movies is a release, a cheap climax. Anything that makes us think, at the end of our labored days, deserves to die an unglamorous death.

That Court has to die to make space for Bajrang Bhaijans, is the tragedy. Ironically though, it’s what Court prepares you for, in the 115 odd minutes it takes from you. Especially, because the judge in the movie is us, as the last few minutes of the movie reveal. Those who have seen the movie will know what I mean by that.

Direction: 5/5 (Kudos to Chaitanya Tamhane !!!)
Editing:4/5
Acting: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5
Script: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

I am Happy, Mr. Superman (a not-quite-review of Bombay Velvet)

In Ayn Rand’s teen favorite book, The Fountainhead, the uncompromising hero Howard Roark is looking at the Enright House, a building he has designed, when a young photographer notices him, or more precisely the look on his face.

[H]e had always wondered why the sensations one felt in dreams were so much more intense than anything one could experience in waking reality–why the horror was so total and the ecstasy so complete–and what was that extra quality which could never be recaptured afterward; the quality of what he felt when he walked down a path through tangled green leaves in a dream, in an air full of expectation, of causeless, utter rapture–and when he awakened he could not explain it, it had been just a path through some woods. He thought of that because he saw that extra quality for the first time in waking existence, he saw it in Roark’s face lifted to the building.

It’s not surprising that I should be reminded of Ayn Rand while talking about Anurag Kashyap’s movie. Yes, Kashyap is no Roark (no one is Roark, is what teens, who idolize Rand realize when they get their taste of the real world — no I don’t say this in a judgmental way, only through the hindsight of experience). But he is as Roarkish as anyone can be, outside the reel life, that is.

To continue the story, for those who haven’t read the book, that photograph of Roark (mentioned in the above quote) makes it to the tabloid years later, when Roark builds an unconventional temple and gets sued by the client for building a non-temple/sacrilege. The photo runs with a caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Yes I repeat, Anurag Kashyap is no Howard Roark. And Bombay Velvet is no Stoddard Temple. It’s not even Aquitania even — a hotel in the novel built by Roark that gets stalled, and known derisively as “unfinished symphony”, till it finally gets built.

But what strikes me about the movie is how the critics received it, going after it lock, stock, and smoking barrel, as if they wouldn’t get another chance. When all they needed to do was to publish a photograph of Anurag Kashyap, with his oblivious-of-the-existence-of-the-world smile with the caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Are you happy, Mr. Superman?

I watched Bombay Velvet on the doomed first weekend. On a Sunday, the theater was nowhere close to filled. I got a ticket despite reaching five minutes before the start. I went in having deliberately not read any review, although I knew it was already panned by the popular critics (yeah, we have such a thing in India).

On the outset, Bombay Velvet is the story of Johnny Balraj, and Rosie. Both grown up used by people, and abused by life in general, but wanting entirely different things. Balraj, who later on takes the name Johnny to suite a new persona lent to him by Kaizad Khambatta (a parsi businessman — with all the connotations of the word in Bombay of then, and even now — played decently by Karan Johar, against my expectations, although his dialog delivery does make you squirm at times), as the owner of a club — a symbol of the Bombay’s aspirations; Jazzy, and coveted (everyone who is worth anything comes here, says a side character of the club) — is basically a hustler, trying to set his own price, has no compunction  about being used. He’s looking to be a big-shot. He’s ready to pay the price for that. Any price. Rosie, a Jazz singer with amazing voice, and a painful past, and present, is a looking for survival, and love. Yes, it’s love at first sight for Balraj, while a cautious and curious one for Rosie, who’s very much used to being used by men. She’s ready to pay that price for being alive. (Spoiler: when Balraj is in danger, Rosie is even ready to leave it all. Love is good enough for her. But Balraj is already mired into his “big-shot” hunt, and his personal scores, to take a heed. Do you know what is outside Bombay, he asks. And answers: India. Starving, naked India. He will take no less than Bombay).

But as their love story moves ahead, at languid place, the real story emerges in the background — the story of the growth/decay of Bombay. The story of reclamation, of greed, or politics, of class. The Bombay of those who owned it, and the Bombay of those who wanted to be among them, the Bombay of Bollywood movies, of CID inspectors, and union leaders, and editors of tabloids, and smugglers, and prostitutes, and politicians, and businessmen cozying up to them, of refugees, and street fighters …

The problem with Bombay Velvet is that it tries to be everything. The dream is too big to be harnessed, too risky to be pulled off. Kashyap should have just named it Bombay Dream, because that’s what it is. It’s not an authentic history, or a period drama, it is not a love story, it is not a gangster movie, it is not a thriller, it is not an art film, and alas, it is not a commercial film, while trying to be all of it. Embellished by amazing cinematography, endearing recreation (albeit too glamorous, one suspects) of the city we all secretly love, and all the technical proficiency you come to expect from a Kashyap movie, that dream is a worthwhile retreat for the 149 odd minutes that it lasts.  For me anyways.

One thing Anurag Kashyap has delivered in every movie (with the exception of The Girl in Yellow Boots, because there was just no scope) is a fantastic, even haunting music, irrespective of the music directors. But the best music score to survive outside the context of his movies is probably Dev D. It’s been a long time since they paired up, and Amit Trivedi doesn’t disappoint. Only the soundtrack is very contextual, and hard to survive by itself. But once you have watched the movie, tracks like Dhadaam Dhadaam really light up, and refuse to go away. The peppy Jata Kahaan Hai Deewane (cover of O.P’s song from CID) picturized flawlessly, keeps making you go back to it. The unconventional Sylvia reminds of the inimitable Usha Uthup. The only non-retro song, Behroopiya is a kind of masterpiece that you expect from Trivedi, but the way it’s shot brings the best of Bollywood love songs tradition to the screen. And then there is Mahobbat Buri Bimari. Three distinctly lovely versions in the official soundtrack. Even the relatively benign Naak Pe Gussa is still very very good. The soundtrack is a labor of love, and I pity Amit Trivedi that its launchpad went up smoke.

The performances are pretty much what one expects from Kashyap movie. Anushka, not known for her acting abilities, is fabulous as the public Rosie — while the private Rosie, restrained and fragile is also played very competitively by her. Ranbir’s Johnny seems effortlessly done, although, it’s obvious a lot of effort has gone in. Kay Kay is somewhat wasted, playing a Bollywood CID caricature of sorts, something he can play sleepwalking. Manish Chowdhary, Siddharth Basu, and Satyadeep Misra are more than competent.

It’s the scale which hurt the movie in the end, because unlike Kashyap’s other ventures that never seem to overwhelm the story with other elements (although present for sure), Bombay Velvet seems to have done the mortal sin of letting the story be flooded by the effects. And yet, what has remained with me the day after and later, is still the story, with all its flaws. And I’m very much ready to forgive Kashyap that sin, for the end product, for me, was still worth savoring. The now infamous Tommy gun sequence included. Give me more  of this any day, over the senseless multi-hundred-crore grossers from the khan-club, or the insipid light-hearted comedies made from Bhagat’s books, or it’s equivalents like Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Kashyap’s still my man.

 

Che-Naahi! Express

The Power of Halwai — review of Chennai Express

So yes, I watched my first film in theaters after four years. Or five, maybe. The last one was Quantum Of Solace, which I watched thanks to my wife’s cousins who wanted to watch a movie. Any movie. It fit the requirement quite well — and that’s about it. Today, it was thanks to my wife — one of the biggest SRK fans. I went in with a lot of trepidation. How does one tolerate three hours of one Mr. Shetty — who makes David Dhawan look like a quality film maker, and one Mr. Khan — who given such directors, is like a maniac on steroids.

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Power of ‘common man’. The common man is in front with the hot girl. In the background are all the uncommon species.

But, my fears were proved entirely unwarranted. Not that the movie wasn’t everything I feared it to be (it was more!). But after first few minutes, the fear kind of became irrelevant. And what got me really excited was the mouth-watering prospect that this was a critics movie.

Yes, you heard it right. This is no movie for the masses, mind you. This is a movie made for the critics. In first few minutes you’d have those fun hating snobs salivating at their mouths at the prospect of a perfect 10 — for reviewing the film, that is.

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