Friday, December 28, 2007

My Favourite Hindi Films in 2007 - Part I

Year 2007 is drawing to a close. Like every year, I’m trying to draw up a list of what I thought were the best Hindi films I watched during the year. While putting together this list last year I had observed, “…I really struggled to put together the list of the top-ten Hindi films released during 2006”. I find myself in exactly the same situation this year… but for diametrically opposite reasons. Last year I struggled to find 10 films that could be considered ‘good’ by my definition – a sad commentary on the overall quality of Hindi films in 2006. This year there were just too many good films, how do I pick 10?

I have my own system of rating films – a ten point scale, which admittedly is quite random and subjective, but is good enough for comparisons i.e. a higher rated film was definitely deemed better by me than a lower rated one. If I use that yardstick, I can easily pick the top 10, but the problem is that the 11th and 12th on my list are not that different as compared to the 10th. So, I’m not going to restrict myself to just 10.

Disclaimer: This list is purely based on my assessment of what worked for me and what didn’t, and if it doesn’t match your list (which is very likely), please, please forgive me! I also apologize to Shahrukh Khan, Farah Khan, David Dhawan, Sajid Khan, Priyadarshan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, etc. etc. I tried really hard to like their films but Om Shanti Om, Partner, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Namaste London, et al (biggest hits of the year) left me pretty cold.

So here is my list:

  1. Taare Zameen Par: If a film makes me cry, I’m sold. This film not only made me cry, it forced me to overlook all the flaws. Amole Gupte, Darsheel Safary and Aamir Khan took me into the wonderous world of a dyslexic child with such sensitivity and visual flourish that it was hard not to like the film.
  2. Black Friday: Till last week I was sure that nothing could dislodge Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday from the top of my list. Then TZP happened and AK relegated AK! Still, it remains a great film. How often do you get to watch a film that's based completely on facts, yet doesn't end up like a documentary? Rock-solid content turns dynamite in the dexterous hands of the director.
  3. Manorama Six Feet Under: I had signed off on this list, till I found this gem of a film at a DVD store. There was no way I could avoid revising my list. This "homage to the noir genre" is brilliantly written and has a great ensemble cast delivering exceptional performances. The real strength of this film lies in its pacing. Most directors think that thrillers can work only when they are stylized and move at a frenetic pace. Wrong! Navdeep Singh proves that a moody pacing can work brilliantly for a thriller as well.
  4. Chak De India: Writer Jaideep Sahni and director Shimit Amin were the real stars of this film. They managed to transform a clichéd sports film formula into something thoroughly engrossing and eminently watchable. Jaideep Sahni’s knack of creating solid peripheral characters is commendable. Despite Shahrukh Khan’s towering presence, what you take back home are the characters of Bindiya Naik and Komal Chautala. After a long time we got to see Shahrukh who wasn’t…well, Shahrukh! What we saw on screen was Kabir Khan not Shahrukh Khan. Of course, how can one forget the song that became the sports anthem of the country?
  5. No Smoking: Okay, this was probably the most self indulgent Hindi film ever (I found the usage of the Paakhi Paakhi song from Dil Se in the background music particularly insulting to my intelligence…with the director proudly saying, “I’m sure you can’t get this one”). But how can one dismiss the originality of the concept? This was a film that refused to leave my mind for days. I salute Anurag Kashyap for his arrogance and obstinate refusal to make an audience-friendly film (which was diluted a little when he chose to ‘explain’ his point of view on his blog). If you get into the intrinsic rhythm of the film and refrain from applying logic or finding a reason for everything that unfolds on the screen, you have the key for enjoying No Smoking.
  6. Johnny Gaddaar: This tribute to James Hadley Chase and Vijay Anand by Sriram Raghavan showed what a true homage is (something Ms. Farah Khan can learn from). With a truly ‘pulpy’ plot ( I mean that as a complement) reminiscent of action thrillers from the 70s, this film had a very tight script that packed the right punches and twists. What stayed with me, however, was the way in which the colour red sneaks into every frame of the film.
  7. Khoya Khoya Chand: Sudhir Mishra's attempt at recreating the golden era of Hindi films, Khoya Khoya Chand is an insider's view, a view that can see the grime behind all the sheen and glamour; a view that is besotted by the beauty of the moon, but does not ignore its spots; a view that still longs for that imperfect moon because, imperfect as it might be, it is still the moon. Even though the tone of the film was clearly reverential, it made no attempt at idealization. The bygone era was beautifully recreated by some great art direction, which was precise and authentic without being extravagant. The music by Shantanu Moitra also played a significant role in evoking a sense of nostalgia.
  8. Life in a... Metro: Metro is a classic example of the role directorial vision plays in imparting a distinctive character to a film. Traditional love stories in Hindi cinema, no matter how entertaining they might be, tend to be superficial and shallow, relying more on froth rather than real emotions. Metro, on the other hand, is what a love story ought to be – gritty and real. And who can forget Pritam’s soul-stirring tunes? Both Anurag Basu and Pritam can be pardoned for plagiarism, looking at the unique treatment they gave to someone else’s work.
  9. The Blue Umbrella: I think it was Anurag Kashyap who said that Vishal Bhardwaj’s children films are more mature than most mature films. How true! Vishal’s take on Ruskin Bond’s novella, is like a visual poetry, with picture perfect frames. A seemingly simple children story gets a multi-layered treatment in Vishal’s masterly hands. Strong performance by Pankaj Kapoor is another plus.
  10. Eklavya: India’s entry for the Oscars might have resulted in some very strong reactions, but this Vidhu Vinod Chopra film worked well for me. The beauty of Eklavya lay not in its theme; nor in the visual opulence that the theme demanded. Rather it was the director's vision and the actors' sincerity that made it stand out. All through its 107 minutes, Eklavya kept reminding me of Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara and Maqbool because of its Shakespearean quality. Vishal's approach is earthy and raw, while Vidhu Vinod Chopra goes for more polish and bigger scale. But they have one thing in common - whatever they serve is delicious and hugely satisfying!

And then there were more.... Guru, Ek Chaalis Ki Last Local, Jab We Met, Bheja Fry, Cheeni Kum, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (yes, shoot me!), Nishabd (that too!).... (to be continued)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Taare Zameen Par - Plutoed Childhood

There was once a 'planet' called Pluto. One fine day, a group of astronomers decided that it did not meet their criteria of a planet. Suddenly, poor Pluto found its status downgraded to that of a poor cousin. It became a dwarf planet - a 'dwarf' that paled in comparison with its eight other cousins who passed the test with flying colours.

In Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par, nine year old Ishaan, through his fantastic imagination and above-average intelligence, finds the answer to a simple math problem in Pluto's story (brilliant conceptualization by writer Amole Gupte). While the 'cracking' of the problem gives him an extreme sense of achievement, little does he understand that he shares the same predicament - he is also being Plutoed by his family and teachers because he cannot live up to the exacting standards of normalcy defined by them. He is 'dwarfed' by his super-achiever brother.

Taare Zameen Par is a heart-warming tale of a young boy who is constantly labeled as an idiot or duffer (no reference to the dwarfish creatures from the land of Narnia, but that fits in quite well too) because he simply isn't like other children. While other children study hard and excel in their exams, he finds refuge in his extremely fertile imagination, which manifests itself in his ability to find beauty in places where most 'normal' people would find none. This is established right at the start of the film where a dirty water drain, when seen through Ishaan's eyes, takes the splendorous form of an aquarium - he sees fish where most people would see garbage.

To his teachers and parents Ishaan is an undisciplined brat who is just too lazy to study. After all, he's audacious enough to mouth gibberish when asked by his teacher to read a sentence from his book, he shows no remorse at being punished time and again, and, horror of horrors, he bunks school to avoid studies and then cajoles his Mr. Perfect brother to forge their mother's signature in the Absence Note. What no one realizes is that the real problem lies somewhere else. He does all those things because he has a genuine problem. He isn't cracking a joke when he says that the 'letters are dancing'. He has a real learning disability. He is dyslexic.

Actually, Taare Zameen Par is as much about dyslexia as No Smoking was about smoking. Dyslexia is no doubt a very important plot element in the film, but the point the film tries to make goes much beyond that. It's a lesson for parents who put the 'burden of their ambition' on the weak shoulders of their children, and for whom the definition of achievement is so narrow that they don't even realize that in asking their children to internalize their definition they're strangulating the creative minds that lie within those overburdened heads.

With Taare Zameen Par, Aamir Khan makes a fantastic debut as a director. He recognizes the demands of Amole Gupte's amazing script (one of the best scripts of 2007) and chooses a leisurely style of narration that gives ample time to the audience to get completely engrossed in Ishaan's world, and feel his trauma and helplessness. His penchant for evocative visuals is amply evident all through the film. Though he does get carried away with some of the visuals and special effects, he strikes the right chord most of the time. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's thematically prefect music and Prasoon Joshi's lyrics (replete with Gulzar-esque abstractions) go a long way in complementing the director’s vision.

The real star of Taare Zameen Par, however, is Darsheel Safary. His portrayal of Ishaan is so realistic that it is hard to imagine he’s just acting. His mobile face is a bounteous repository of expressions - he doesn’t really have to speak to convey Ishaan's emotions.

Emotionally, the film is such an overwhelming experience that anyone who claims to have stayed dry-eyed all through the film is lying! One gets so emotionally involved in the film that it doesn’t matter that some parts of the film acquire a sanctimonious character with some heavy duty preaching and sermonizing by Aamir's character; it doesn't jar that all peripheral characters (with the notable exception of the mother) are nothing more than caricatures; it doesn't seem discordant that the school would teach heavy duty Hindi like 'nadi ka pratibimb' to third standard students; it isn't bothersome to see Aamir the star overshadow Aamir the phenomenal actor in parts of the film; and you certainly don't mind the manipulative nature of some of the sequences - especially the 'Maa' song - that are 'designed' to tug at the heartstrings. You’re on a high, too busy celebrating the possibility of Pluto being a planet again!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Khoya Khoya Chand - Past Perfect

याद थीं हम को भी रन्गारन्ग बज़्म-आराइयाँ
लेकिन अब नक़्श-ओ-निगार-ए-ताक़-ए-निस्याँ हो गईं

Yaad thiN hum ko bhi rangarang bazm-aaraiyaaN
Lekin ab maqsh-o-nigaar-e-taaq-e-nisyaaN ho gayiN

This is one way - the Ghalibian way - of looking at memories, where, with time, pleasant memories end up in the 'niche of forgetfulness' (ताक़-ए-निस्याँ). That was Ghalib, but for most of us the situation is different.

For us, recalling memories of a bygone era is an extremely selective process. No matter where one is in the continuum of time, no matter what period one is trying to remember, there's always this those-were-the-days syndrome that clouds the memories. It is convenient to reflect on the past with a strong sense of sweet nostalgia, ignoring anything that is not perfect and, hence, uncomfortable. This rose-tinted view of the past leads to deification of mere mortals and utopianization of an entire era. What if you were told that that era was no different, the moralities were just the same, and the figures that peopled your picture-postcard view of that era were humans too, complete with frailties, insecurities, and moral ambiguities?

Khoya Khoya Chand is Sudhir Mishra's attempt at recreating the golden era of Hindi films - the 50s and the 60s that many consider was the peak of creativity in Indian films. It is an insider's view, a view that can see the grime behind all the sheen and glamour; a view that is besotted by the beauty of the moon, but does not ignore its spots; a view that still longs for that imperfect moon because, imperfect as it might be, it is still the moon. It simply cannot be allowed to go into oblivion (or, in other words, end up in the 'niche of forgetfulness').

क्यूँ खोए खोए चाँद की फ़िराक में तलाश में उदास है दिल

kyuN khoye khoye chand hi firaak, mein talaash mein udaas hai dil

This film should be watched as an attempt to recreate an era rather than a story of a few main characters. The moment you start expecting that, all the flaws of the film will stumble out of the closet. First of all, the narrative will start appearing jerky with no consistent thread tying individually brilliant scenes. The lack of flow, especially in the first 40 minutes, can be annoying for people expecting a smooth flowing tale. Actually, the narrative style of this film is beyond the comfort zone of most Hindi filmgoers, me included.

After the first 10 minutes, I was able to get over that difficulty once I realized that when you try to recall the past, all you remember are a few individual memories interlaced with wide gaps. In that respect, the film demanded a montage like narrative structure. It was also necessary because an entire era was being depicted through a handful of characters. The director had a choice between creating a coherent story revolving around the main characters and showing an entire era. He chose the latter. So, instead of modeling each of his lead characters around one real-life person, he picked up anecdotes about many different film personalities and gave them to his protagonists. For instance, Nikhat (Soha Ali Khan) starts off like Waheeda Rahman and Nargis, and reaches the end of her journey like Madhubala and Meena Kumari, and Zafar is Sahir Ludhianvi and Guru Dutt rolled into one (with a back-story reminiscent of Javed Akhtar's relationship with his father, though Javed Akhtar did not really belong to that era).

The other flaw of the movie is its inconsistency. One is never clear about who, if at all, is narrating the story. The film starts off normally, and then a sutradhaar (narrator) takes over, and then disappears, never to appear again. And finally the film ends with a title card. One does not expect such carelessness from a director of Sudhir Mishra's caliber.

Quoting my favorite film critic Baradwaj Rangan, "But when you find yourself liking a film, you look for reasons to explain away the things that you don’t like as much". I realize I'm doing precisely that. It is very likely that some of the flaws mentioned above might be too much for someone else to ignore. For my part, however, I'm willing to ignore them because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It is an honest attempt at recreating the golden era, and even though the tone of the film is clearly reverential, it makes no attempt at idealization. While it is obvious that the director of the film is completely besotted by that era, there is no lament about kahaan gaye wo log.

The bygone era is beautifully recreated by some great art direction, which is precise and authentic without being extravagant. The music also plays a significant role in evoking a sense of nostalgia. What's great is that most of the songs in the film are created by Shantanu Moitra in the style of the music directors of those days - there are echoes of O P Nayyar, hints of Madan Mohan, generous tribute to the Bengali brigade (Sachin Dev Burman, Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury, and their obvious Rabindra Sangeet influences), and as we move into the 60s there's a bow to the reigning kings of those days - Shankar Jaikishan (there is a New Year song that is completely created and shot on the lines of a song from Anari). The lyrics by Swanand Kirkire also transport you back to the days when lyricists like Sahir, Majrooh and Shailendra could write immensely profound thoughts in deceptively simple words.

Khoya Khoya Chand has a solid ensemble cast. While I would have loved if the peripheral characters were fleshed out just a wee bit more, but Sonya Jehan, Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla and Sushmita Mukherjee show what pure talent can do even with sketchily written role. Sonya Jehans' role is the best written side-role and she comes up with the best performance in the film. Soha Ali Khan gets the most complex, layered and nuanced role to play, which she tries to do with honesty. She still has a long way to go as an actress, but given the right roles she can emerge as one of the better actresses in the industry today. Despite the promise, she is not able to get all the nuances of this extremely complex character, so much so that it ends up being almost unidimensional. My assessment might sound a bit unfair because my reference point for this role was Smita Patil's performance in Bhumika and Waheeda Rahman in Kaagaz Ke Phool. I am a little disappointed with Shiney Ahuja, though. The man can convey a thousand emotions through his eyes, but his facial expressions and dialogue delivery is showy and exaggerated, making his effort at acting amply evident. Here again, when he is just brooding and not talking he is all, a very inconsistent performance.

There is a theory that you tend to like films where you can find a personal moment. What peronal moment could I possibly find in a film that is set at a time when I wasn't even born? Well, my personal moment came in the last quarter of the film when Vinay Pathak gets irritated when he's given parval for dinner. I hate parval!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Clever Verse

One of my favorite songs these days is from Sudhir Mishra’s forthcoming Khoya Khoya Chand. What drew me to this song was that it had elements of qawwali (I have always been fascinated by this genre of music), and, more importantly, absolutely outstanding lyrics by Swanand Kirkire….

आज शब जो चाँद ने है रूठने की ठान ली
गर्दिशों में हैं सितारे बात हम ने मान ली
अन्धेरी स्याह ज़िन्दगी को सूझती नहीं गली
कि आज हाथ थाम लो एक हाथ की कमी खली

Aaj shab jo chand ne hai roothne ki thaan li
Gardishon mein hain sitare baat humne maan li
Andheri syaah zindagi ko soojhti nahin gali
Ki aaj haath thaam lo ki haath ki kami khali

The meter used in these lines, alternate long and short syllables, makes the rhythm easy to grasp and instantly appealing.

While listening to the song, I was quite stumped by one line:

क्यूँ तू आज इतना वहशी है मिज़ाज में मजाज़ है ऐ ग़म-ए-दिल

Kyun tu aaj itna vahshi hai mizaaj mein majaaz hai aye gham-e-dil

I just couldn't understand the usage of the word 'majaaz'. Of course, this word sits very well phonetically with the earlier 'mizaaj', but what did the line mean? Mizaaj means temperament/ disposition; Majaaz on the other has multiple meanings like metaphor, allowable, artifice. So this would translate as:

Why are you so mad today, there’s ‘metaphor’ in your temperament, O sorrow of the heart!

This does not make much sense, does it? I kept struggling to decipher this one, and even thought that the poet was trying to use a Ghalibian metaphor… Till I read a post on PFC, that made me understand this line and go “aha, that's a clever verse”.

The Majaaz in the line refers to the poet himself!

It seems that the lyrics of this song are inspired by a very famous nazm called Awaargi by the late poet Majaaz Lakhnawi (Javed Akhtar’s maternal uncle). One of the lines in this nazm goes:

ऐ ग़म-ए-दिल क्या करूँ, ऐ वहशत-ए-दिल क्या करूँ

Ae gham-e-dil kya karoon, Ae vahshat-e-dil kya karoon

But why would Majaaz the poet suddenly make an appearance in this song without a context? Actually there is a context. Just preceding this line is a chorus that describes the level of madness of the heart (vahshat-e-dil). It goes:

जी में आता है मुर्दा सितारे नोच लूँ
इधर भी नोच लूँ उधर भी नोच लूँ
एक दो का ज़िक्र क्या मैं सारे नोच लूँ

Jee mein aata hai murda sitare noch loon
Idhar bhi nooch loon udhar bhi nooch loon
Ek do ka zikar kya mein sare noooch loon

These lines are adapted from Majaaz’s original nazm.

Now everything falls into place:

First you have a description of the 'madness of the heart' in Majaaz’s words, and then you get this line that almost taunts the 'heart' for taking on a Majaaz-like temperament.

I would have loved it if for the chorus the lines from the original were used as is, instead of modifying them to fit the song’s metre; but maybe then it would have been simply 'Majaaz' and not 'Majaaz-like temperament'.

What an original way to pay tribute to a poet! I wouldn’t say that this line is great by poetic standards, but the cleverness of composition cannot be disputed. What else can you say about this…subtle hints of the original verse by use of the words vahshi and gham-e-dil, reference to the poet by his takhallus (nom-de-plume) that also literally has an affinity with poetry (i.e. metaphor), and the deliberate soundplay created by putting two similar sounding words (mizaaj and majaaz)…

What a clever verse, indeed!

P.S. Old Hindi Film Music buffs will recall that parts of this nazm have been immortalized in Talat Mahmood’s silken voice in a film called Thokar (composed by Sardar Malik) from the early 50s

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Om Shanti Om - No Method in Madness

As I walked out of the theatre after watching Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om, there was just one question in my mind – what will she come up with next? Rather, what can she come up with next? If all that inspire her are the masala movies of the 70s and the only thing she can do is spoof, then one thing is guaranteed – we will not see many movies that will have Directed by Farah Khan in the credits. After all, there's only so much you can do with spoofing. And going by what she has done in Om Shanti Om, there isn't much left to be played around with– or spoofed - in her subsequent ventures. It's time she re-invented herself.

After sitting through Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om I emerged thoroughly confused. Why was it that I didn't care much for the entire film, even though I was laughing uncontrollably at almost every single gag (the faux Filmfare Awards sequence, for one, was a hoot!!)? Why did I think it was a bad film, when there wasn't anything that I particularly disliked? I still don't have the answer but it was like watching multiple episodes of brother Sajid Khan's shows on TV – they are usually hilarious but never fully engage you. That is my main problem with Om Shanti Om.

I read somewhere that Farah wrote the script for Om Shanti Om in 2 weeks flat. It shows!! The film is nothing but just a collection of Bollywood in-jokes spread over a dangerously thin plotline. Rather, the plot seems like an afterthought. Of course, one knew it all along that it was a spoof on the masala film genre and the film industry of the 70s, so expecting a 'plot' was foolish. But is it too much to expect a coherent flow, even in a masala movie? Even the worst masala movies of the 70s had a coherent and smooth structure. Om Shanti Om, on the other hand, just goes on the overdrive jumping from one spoof to another with complete disdain for coherency. How could someone who made the hugely entertaining Main Hoon Na, which was also a spoof on the masala genre, get it all wrong the second time round? That brings me back to my original thought – there's only so much you can do with spoofing.

Not only that, the difference between Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om lies in the screenplay – the much ignored aspect of film making in the Hindi film industry. Main Hoon Na was a very intelligently woven script executed skillfully by a director who juggled through seemingly ridiculous situations with the amazing legerdemain of a cardsharper. It spoofed the masala movies without being so in-your-face, and it had such a remarkable flow that some people actually didn’t get the spoof part of it. Then why did Om Shanti Om stumble so badly in the screenplay department? Was it because Abbas Tyrewala didn't collaborate on the screenplay this time? Or was that by design? Maybe it was Farah's way of making fun of a film industry where the writing department is criminally neglected... Now I’m being a bit too charitable.

The first half of Om Shanti Om, with its disjointed montage of truly hilarious spoofs, was something that I could sit through, but once the real 'plot' (or whatever it was) took over in the second half it was a bumpy ride downhill . After a while, I just didn’t care if the reincarnated Om took his revenge or not. The writer/director also seemed confused about how she wanted to wrap up the story. After wanting to do a Karz like resolution, she suddenly changes tracks to impose a Madhumati on us. Nothing wrong with that, but why did it have to be so hasty?

I must say that the irreverence that Farah shows in Om Shanti Om is commendable. She doesn't believe in being politically correct and can be very blatant in spoofing prominent personalities. Not only that, her ability to laugh at herself and her producer (Shahrukh Khan) is noteworthy. To laugh at oneself requires a very mature sense of humour. The best part is that she managed to convince other people to be party to ridiculing themselves (Subhash Ghai and Shabana Azmi for example).

The other thing I really admire Farah for is the importance she gives to her crew. Both in Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, she lets the audience see the faces behind the camera, the people who have a big role to play in making a film but never get their due. My truly 'emotional' moment from Om Shanti Om was when Pyarelal (the surviving half of the LP duo) walks the red carpet during the end credits. It was great to see him emerge from oblivion through this film. Truly a superstar in his heydays (along with partner Laxmikant), it is sad that the only role he gets to play now is that of an arranger. I appreciate Farah's intentions of asking him to be the arranger for a song that captures the spirit of the 70s, but I would've loved it if Pyarelal had composed all the songs from the first half of the film at least. After all, the posters of 'Dreamy Girl', the film within this film, prominently display 'Music by Laxmikant Pyarelal'.

Despite the fact that Om Shanti Om has been such an underwhelming experience for me, I will still look forward to Farah Khan's next. Who knows, she might stick to what she knows best and surprise us with an innovative take on the masala movies of the 70s. Or she might completely reinvent herself and come up with something drastically different. Whatever it is, she needs to redeem herself.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Saawariya–A Bhansali Composition in Monotone

It must have happened something like this. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is watching Raj Kapoor's Awaara from his private DVD collection…the 'ghar aaya mera pardesi' song comes up and a flash appears in his mind…"Why can’t I make a film on this?... I've just read a short story where the heroine is waiting for her pardesi to come home… I can ask my art director to come up with a bizarre, dream-like set, complete with the enormous Nataraj head that occupied centre stage in the Awaara song… I have Raj Kapoor's grandson as my assistant, so he can be the hero with the name same as his illustrious grandfather… I know Raj Kapoor’s oeuvre like the back of my hand, so sprinkling the scenario with references should not be a problem… Come on let's make a tribute to Raj Kapoor".

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya is probably the first true blue (pun intended) tribute to the man called Raj Kapoor. Only, it makes it so obvious it starts to grate on one's senses after a while…subtlety has never been SLB's forte anyway. The film opens in a bar called the RK bar, with the title written in the manner of the unmistakable RK banner. Nice, you think. Then we see the vagabond-ish hero – that's Awaara for you. He rents a room from a matronly Christian lady who starts loving him like her son – Anari…. Got it Mr. Bhansali, but can we move ahead? Not yet my dear, don't you wanna see the 'junglee' scene from Awaara, or the classic Barsaat pose that went on to become the trademark of RK films, or the references to the pyar hua iqraar hua song from Shree 420, complete with rain and an umbrella….why stop at the great showman, you also get his father in a scene from Mughal-e-Azam, Ranbir referencing dear daddy in Karz, trying the dancing style of his granduncles – Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor – and giving an accidental peek of his butt much like his father in Bobby….Phew!! Why did SLB have to make this simple love story into the most expensive promotion vehicle for the Kapoor khandaan? And does he realize that he missed out Ranbir's uncles and cousins....or was Rani Mukherji's character meant to evoke memories of Kareena's Chameli?

Now that I have my biggest grouse with the film out of the way, I can move on…

If there is anything that strikes you about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, it's the opening credit sequence. One can't help but appreciate the director's honesty in crediting his source of inspiration – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights. When was the last time you saw a film that did that? The plot of Dostoevsky's story doesn't naturally lend itself to adaptation on celluloid. A 'dreamer's' narration of his meeting with an enigmatic girl over four nights doesn't have the necessary twists and the drama we have come to expect in a Hindi mainstream film. It is just for this reason that the film seems so monotonous. Not as in boring, but as in musically i.e. having a sameness of tone.

I always see Bhansali's films as a bandish (musical composition), which starts with a slightly unstructured alaap and quickly moves through the jod to its crescendo with an intricately structured jhaala and gat. Through his characteristic use of melodrama he creates complex rhythmic patterns that go out of sync with the taal at times, only to emerge harmoniously in the final moments. For Saawariya, the story that SLB chooses does not have the breadth where he could demonstrate his virtuosity as a 'composer'. He could have easily gone his usual way and provided multiple dramatic twists to the plot, but he resists the temptation and creates a composition that uses the most basic notes of the mandra saptak (lowest octave) and pretty much remains at the alaap all through. That is something that worked well for me. The story demanded a slow and static feel, which SLB provides it with. He has managed to remain fairly faithful to the original story (except for a completely unnecessary addition) and created a vision that is uniquely his own.

But hang on, simplicity and Bhansali don’t go hand in hand. If the tale and the narration is simple, SLB lets his Art Director (Omung Kumar) go completely over the top to create a setting that looks straight out of a fairy tale. You get an architecture that's a curious mix of all possible schools of architecture you can think of, and the use of a palette with an overabundance of colours blue and green gives the setting of the film a surreal painting-like character . This is where the problem with the film lies - a simple story gets completely lost amid SLB's trademark larger-than-life scale and visual opulence that has no place in a tale like this.

This setting would have worked well had the director not introduced the completely unnecessary angle I talked about earlier. Dostoevsky’s narrator was the protagonist himself - a 'dreamer'. Obviously, his narration would have a dream-like quality. In Saawariya, SLB gives the part of the narrator to a completely superfluous character called Gulaabji, a streetwalker (who is always walking the streets but we never get to see even a single customer) with what else but a 'heart of gold'. Although Rani Mukherji does complete justice to the character, it is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, if one were to compare Saawariya with the director's earlier work, it is obvious that this is probably the director's most subtle work yet. Melodrama is kept at a minimum and the emotions of the lead character - Ranbir - never go ballistic as in SLB's earlier films. But as I mentioned earlier, subtlety doesn't come naturally to the director and it shows in a few scenes. Like the one where the Raj accompanies Sakina to her home....we see a lane full of potholes...anyone with even the most average IQ would guess what it means, especially when you see that these potholes are designed and crafted so painstakingly that is is obvious they're meant to convey a message. But, no, SLB wants to spell it out by giving Ranbir some heavy-duty dialogue to mouth about zindagi ke raaste...

Music has always been the high point of SLB's films. In Saawariya, you again get some nice compositions but they fall a trifle short of being great. You sorely miss the intricate compoitions of Ismail Darbar here. I have never understood why someone like SLB who always projects a picture of being an aesthete would settle for a lyricist like Sameer, who pens words that are adequate but don't do complete justice to SLB's vision. In my opinion, only Gulzar's abstract words would have gelled well with the abstruse backdrop of the film. Only Gulzar could have added more layers of depth to this film.

Saawariya being the launch vehicle for Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, everyone is curious to know if they have it in them to make it big in this industry. I can't say much about Sonam, for she is very pretty but just an average actress. Moreover she gets a terribly underwritten and ambiguous part. Ranbir, on the other hand, shows tremendous promise. He has the meatiest part in the film, and despite a few raw edges his performance is of a fairly high standard - he shows the out for him!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

No Smoking - Arrogance isn't such a bad thing

Why this floccinaucinihilipilification of Anurag Kashyap's phantasmagorical expression in the form of incongruous juxtaposition of surreal images that beat comprehension?


Anything that beats comprehension at first glance is invariably dismissed by others as worthless. No surprise then that Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking has met with universal rejection.

Let me come back to the very first sentence above.

What do you make of that sentence? It is without doubt self-indulgent, meant to flaunt one's vocabulary (which probably doesn't come naturally), and definitely contrived to sound complicated. If you have a good vocabulary, you will find that it is actually a very simple statement. Alternatively, you could flip the pages of the dictionary only to realize that the effort wasn't really worth it (you might not find one of the words in some dictionaries). But for a moment, just forget the meaning, go over each word slowly and try to grasp the inherent rhythm and rhyme contained within the sentence.

Why this floccinau…
Of Anurag Kashyap's
Phantasmagorical expression
In the form of
Incongruous juxtaposition
Of surreal images
That beat comprehension
Get it?

If you do, you have the key for enjoying and appreciating Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking.

The film opens with a brilliantly conceived sequence, which is so bizarre that you know it has to be a dream (nightmare would be a better word). Desolate landscape of Siberia, a trapped man watching himself on TV, Russian soldiers, Vodka, a bath tub in the middle of nowhere, a cigarette packet out in the snow, chase, shoot....Smoking Kills! What else would a smoker dream of if he is constantly been asked to quit smoking by all and sundry? But why Siberia, Russian, bath tub? Does it really matter? Do dreams ever make complete sense? If they did, Freud would be out of business. All of us who have dreams can relate to the fact that dreams have this intrinsic quality where seemingly disparate elements from the subconscious get uncannily juxtaposed. There's just no point in trying to find a cohesive thread through a dream.

The protagonist (Mr. K, an obvious reference to Kafka's protagonist) wakes up from his nightmare, and we, the audience, expect the regular sequential narrative to take over from there. But no, the director is in no mood to oblige. He structures pretty much the entire movie in exactly the same fashion - surreal, jumpy, lacking a cohesive thread. That can be very taxing for a viewer to bear for a duration of 2 hours plus. Well, not if you choose to get into the intrinsic rhythm of the film and refrain from applying logic or finding a reason for everything that unfolds on the screen. See it as a dream, try to get into the protagonists head. Even seemingly illogical things might start making sense then. I cannot claim that I have still 'understood' the entire film. It's been 4 days since I watched it, and I'm still trying to decipher the finer elements and unravel the narrative, but it has been an intellectually stimulating experience. For me, the film was thoroughly engrossing, and even though I had a momentary feeling of being cheated by the open-ended closing, I came out of the theatre supremely satisfied.

During those 140 minutes, Anurag Kashyap took me on an intense round of mental calisthenics, after which I emerged exhausted - not tedium but a euphoric state of intense hang-over. Did I just come out after watching a Hindi Film? If this is not the quintessential 'hat ke' film, then what is?

The feeling I had was just like the one I had when I watched Pink Floyd's The Wall (directed by Alan Parker) for the first time. While The Wall was all about the protagonist's insecurities and shadows from the past, No Smoking goes a step further than just being a surrealistic dream. It is metaphorical – with smoking being a metaphor for freedom and independence. That makes this a very personal film for Anurag Kashyap (as he mentions in his blog), and in way pardons the self-indulgent texture of the film, which most people have found annoying.

Of course, the film is unashamedly self-indulgent. In complete disregard of the audience, Anurag Kashyap films what he wants to, how he wants to. He eschews any possibility of providing any pointers that might help the audience share his vision. He simply leaves it for the audience to use their own interpretative skills to make sense out of the film. That, in my opinion, opens up a plethora of possibilities. In a way, that's the freedom the director metaphorically depicts in the film. You're free to interpret what unfolds on film just the way you can, or want to. There's no handholding, no spoon-feeding, no explanations – almost like a swimming instructor who pushes you in deep waters so that you learn on your own. Learn without being taught. Obviously, such arrogance (if one can call it that) on the part of the director will not be taken positively by an audience that has been dumbed down for ages by most of our filmmakers, who believe that everything needs to be hammered down the heads of the audiences in order to make them understand.

I talked about flaunting one's vocabulary a while ago….I got that feeling while watching No Smoking. There are so many references to other films that it almost seems like the director is boasting about his knowledge of world cinema. Not a problem for me, as I derived great pleasure in catching those references. However, some of the in-jokes seem very forced and contrived. What does one make of a dialogue like "Beedi Jalaile ke Vishal desh mein cigar Gulzar"? Of course I get this in-joke, but it is definitely contrived. But again, as I said, the key lies in ignoring the 'vocabulary' and getting into the flow and rhythm of the film.

On the whole, I found myself completely immersed in the flow of No Smoking, so much so that I brought a lot of it along even after leaving the theatre. That is my yardstick of a good film. And that's the kind of film that would find a prominent place in my DVD collection.

Talking of arrogance, I'm reminded of an arrogant verse….

न सताइश की तमन्ना न सिले की परवा
गर नहीं हैं मेरे अश`आर में म`नी न सही

Neither a longing for praise, nor a care for reward
if there's no meaning in my verses, then so be it

(Translation by Frances W. Pritchett)

Immortal words of an arrogant man, a man who didn't care two hoots for appreciation from others, a man who believed his thoughts were way beyond anyone's comprehension, a man who toed the line sometimes but largely remained fiercely independent , a man we now consider a genius – Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib'.

With No Smoking, Anurag Kashyap tries to follow the same path. Whether he will be considered a genius at some point later is debatable, but he surely shares the same attitude. Don't get me wrong here….I'm not putting Anurag Kashyap on the same pedestal as Ghalib, for that would be blasphemous…just trying to say that arrogance isn't such a bad thing afterall.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom - Guilty Pleasure?

There was a time, not very long back, when screen lovers in mainstream Hindi films would suddenly find themselves in Switzerland singing their mandatory love ballad amid verdant valleys and Alpine surroundings. As time progressed, and Switzerland became oh-so-familiar, the locations became more global – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, et al. What did not change was the fact that our protagonists, though quintessential desis, would fantasize about singing and dancing in distant foreign locales. A dream, after all, reflects one’s aspiration, not reality. You dream of something that is…well, distant.

Now, have you ever thought about where NRIs would dream of singing their love duet? Well, India of course. They would dream of traveling on Indian Railways, meeting at the Old Delhi Railway station, navigating their way through the busy by lanes of Chandni Chowk on cycle rickshaws, wandering up and down the steps of an exotic step-well somewhere in Rajasthan, and of course serenading at the Taj. In other words – all that India stands for in the eyes of a foreigner: exotica. The lovebirds in Shaad Ali's Jhoom Barabar Jhoom do precisely that. Doesn't matter if one of them is not really an Indian, and perhaps Lahore would be a better choice for her as a 'dream destination'.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom has many such moments, which fall well within the conventions of Hindi films, but have a delightfully 'different' treatment. First and foremost – the melodrama is completely gotten rid of, save for some brief moments towards the climax. Secondly, the film has virtually no plot, which is very true of most mainstream Hindi films. But unlike other films, Shaad Ali seems to know this very well and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom doesn't pretend to be anything else. This plotless, have-fun-while-it-lasts flick actually elevates thematic vacuousness to the level of a virtue. It is the non-existent storyline and an absence of 'dramatic conflict' that makes Jhoom Barabar Jhoom such fun to watch. What a sharp contrast from Ta Ra Rum Pum , the last film from the same production house that tried so hard to be 'meaningful' but ended up getting nowhere.

The entire first half of the film is about two strangers meeting at London's Waterloo railway station and narrating the stories of their respective love lives to kill time. The stories they narrate are bizarre and outrageous, but presented in a delightfully different manner. OK, not so different but not commonplace either. The narration of these stories has the same chutzpah and tongue-in-cheek quality that Sai Paranjpe presented so hilariously in Chashme Baddoor . Remember the scenes in Chashme Baddoor where Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi try to cover up their failure in wooing Deepti Naval and take inspiration from the Hindi films they have seen to spin interesting yarns about their escapades?

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom pays homage to a number of Hindi films (many of them classics). So when the lovers are at the Taj, Jo Waada Kiya from Taj Mahal plays in the background. A prostitute names Laila gets her introduction with the Laila song from Qurbani. Ye Dosti accentuates the scene where Abhishek and Boobby are riding on a scooter with a sidecar, just like the way their fathers did in Sholay. A bit corny, yes. But what the heck, it’s meant to be fun.

The reason I liked Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was that it never takes itself too seriously. The humour, though corny at times, comes across quite effortlessly. Just try to think about the lines you might have used to inject humour in your regular conversations with friends. At that moment they would have seemed very funny, but take them to a different setting and they would appear completely inane. That’s a quality the team of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom - the writers, director, actors- manages to infuse in the film quite successfully. My true LOL moment in the film was when Piyush Mishra is quite annoyed having to wait for his kababs to be served and shouts "…kya bakra kaatne gaya hai?" and the shop owner shouts at his cook using the exact same words. I realize that this doesn't sound funny when I write it down, but in the film this scene had me in splits.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom relies a lot on Shankar Ehsaan Loy's high-octane music and brilliant choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant to get its unique fun feel . The conceptualization of the Kiss of Love song is imaginative and very Broadway-ish. Gulzar's rustic lyrics add to the charm of the song and dance routines, though at time you wonder if the characters in the film would have in their vocabulary the words he gives them to mouth. But a die-hard Gulzar fan like me would not complain, because his distinctive touch stays intact in his songs, not to mention his fascination for the moon and the new imagery he associates with the moon and moonlight. A few examples:

  • आजा चाँदनी कूटेँगे आसमान को लूटेँगे, चल धुआँ उड़ा के झूम
  • यहीं कहीं शब काटेंगे, चिलम चटाई बाँटेंगे, चल धुआँ उड़ा के झूम
  • मक्की की रोटी गुड़ रख के, मिसरी से मीठे लब चख के, तन्दूर जला के झूम
  • खीसे खुलने लगे हैं, हीरे तुलने लगे हैं…
  • चाँद की उतार ली हैं दोनों बालियाँ…
  • ये चाँद का चिकना साबुन कुछ देर में घुल जायेगा…
  • धागे तोड़ लाओ चाँदनी से नूर के…

I know that I belong to the rare breed of people who actually enjoyed Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. It's been panned universally by critics and I'm yet to hear a positive comment from anyone who has seen the film. I don't understand why, but there have been many times when my views have not matched with others. For one, I saw many good points even in the now forgotten Umrao Jaan when others found none. At first I used to be very defensive about my views, but not anymore. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is my guilty pleasure. Actually not - I don't feel embarrassed to admit that I loved it. If other's didn't, it's not my problem!

P.S: I have finally found one review that gives a thumbs up to JBJ, and the best part is that it is by my favorite reviewer Baradwaj Rangan.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End

If you haven't watched the first two installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and you decide to watch this one (if not for anything else, just to find out what the fuss is all about), it is very likely that you will not follow what's going on. You might even start cursing yourself for not taking a quick refresher course of the first two films before venturing for the third. But don't worry. Even Pirates veterans – a category I would like to put me in - find themselves in exactly the same situation. Whether you're experienced or a first-timer, your thoughts will exactly be the same – what the hell's going on?

A coherent plot is not a virtue even the hugely entertaining first film – The Curse of the Black Pearl - can boast of. What worked there was Johnny Depp's outstanding portrayal of the quirky Captain Jack Sparrow. Through an Academy Award nominated performance, he created an iconic character that was instantly loved by one and all.

The second film – Dead Man's Chest – went a step ahead. It included a lot more convoluted plot elements that were difficult to follow. Again, Captain Jack Sparrow's persona rescued the film from mediocrity. Not to mention the plot device that added a delicious pun in the film's title – a live, beating heart kept in a 'dead man's chest'….. body part, chest, box – get it?

Now comes At World's End – a perfect exemplification of the law of diminishing returns. Emboldened by the enormous box-office success of the second film, the filmmakers try to make this one bigger – in terms of scale, plot, characters, SFX, what have you. But it doesn't come even close to the funny brilliance of the first, or even the second. By virtue of an over-crowded plot, what you finally get is an incoherent, convoluted, over-plotted mishmash. You might start with the good intentions of wanting to follow the plot, but it's just too much to warrant any comprehension. I, for one, gave up after the very disappointing first 30 minutes. It just wasn't worth it.

After a while, what was happening on the screen didn't really matter. I just longed for Jack Sparrow to make an appearance and redeem the show. The wait was quite agonizing because it seemed that Jack - at the behest of the screenwriters, of course - was in no mood to grace us with his appearance just yet. And when he did, we saw not one, not two, but tens of Jack Sparrow on screen. Fantastic, I thought. It's party time now!

Not really. My excitement was terribly short-lived. Despite the fact that the film is agonizingly long, the screen time given to Jack Sparrow is unpardonably short. Let me put it another way, the length is agonizing because Jack Sparrow is criminally neglected. What were the filmmakers thinking? It's outright blasphemy! I mean, how could they even think of sidelining a character who is the only reason for the franchise to have worked thus far?

On the whole, At World's End is boring! I think someone should make a version where everything else but Jack Sparrow is edited out of the film. It might be a disjointed and plot-less 'short film', but infinitely more watchable and engrossing than this over-plotted exercise in tedium.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Ek Chalis Ki Last Local - Wonderfully Weird

Year 2002 - Sanjay Gupta makes a film called Kaante, an unapologetic rip-off of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Now we know that Quentin Tarantino approves of that version, but it was a rip-off nevertheless. There was very little creative input that went into the film, save the back-stories to the various characters (which QT digs, we're told).

Year 2007 - An obscure film called Ek Chalis Ki Last Local hits the screens. And, guess what? Hindi film audiences get to see the first true blue tribute to Quentin Tarantino's brand of filmmaking. Unlike his namesake Gupta, Sanjay Khanduri seems to know the difference between inspiration and plagiarism. His film has all the elements of a QT film - stylized violence, wonderfully weird situations, loads of black humor, lot of emphasis on 'normal' conversations, etc. - but the entire premise of the story and the way the director chooses to unfold the story is entirely his own.

Oh yes, his inspirations from a number of films is fairly obvious - the real-time through-the-night format is similar to Sudhir Misra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, the ear-cutting scene is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, Abhay Deol's situation towards the climax makes you think Pulp Fiction, some of the characters seem straight out of the underworld created by RGV is his films. Yet, all these elements are tributes to the original - they're not copied blindly.

In some ways, all through this gem of a film I was reminded of Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece Pulp Fiction. If one were to put Pulp Fiction in a chronological order (that would kill that film, but never mind), it would be so much like Ek Chalis.... Again, don't get me wrong here. There is very little common between the plot or situations or characters of the two films, but the overall feel is very similar.

So you have this ear-cutting scene in the car, which, although a tribute to Reservoir Dogs, 'feels' like a delicious bhelpuri mixture of the 'Ezekiel' and the 'Bonnie Situation' episodes of Pulp Fiction. Abhay Deol's situation towards the latter half echoes the predicament of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. The beer bar sequence in the beginning brings back strong memories of The Jack Rabbit Slim's sequence of Pulp Fiction, complete with film star look-alikes and ending with our protagionist finding himself in deep s***. The bass-stringed background music has the same surreal quality as 'Miserlou' in Pulp Fiction. Actually, the wonderful weirdness of most twists and turns in Ek Chalis... are like Pulp Fiction. They're sudden and shocking, yet so bizarre that you don't take them seriously, but end up saluting the writer's ingenuity. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I would again say that it's the 'feel' not the 'content' that's similar. And that, in my humble opinion, is the hallmark of homage.

I realize that what I've written above will make no sense to someone who hasn't watched Pulp Fiction. Well, what can I say? If you haven't watched Pulp Fiction, what have you been doing??? Forget it.

Coming back to Ek Chalis... what I really hated about the film was one small scene, where the existence of a 'beemar boorhi maa' is given as a justification for prostitution. I mean, how clichéd can one get. At least not in a film that otherwise brims with such ingenuous writing! This and a few other rough edges apart (especially in the editing department), Ek Chalis Ki Last Local is a real gem that shines through.

If only it was promoted properly! This film deserves to be seen.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Life in a...Metro

During an intense conversation midway through the film, Shikha asks Aakash, "you left her, or did she leave you?" Aakash ponders briefly and say, "Love left us".

A dialogue like this in a Yash Raj or Karan Johar film would play at an entirely different level, taking on a slightly cheesy hue, accompanied by emotionally charged acting, glycerine-aided waterworks and multi-stringed background score. The scene would be purposely 'designed' to tug at the heart strings, and might even work with the audience and draw a few tears.

In Anurag Basu's Life in a …Metro, this scene is subtle and underplayed, and much more effective – drawing sighs of empathy from audience rather than the sympathy YRF or KJ's vision would have drawn. It is raw, visceral, real, natural and extremely true to life.

Metro is a classic example of the role directorial vision plays in imparting a distinctive character to a film. Traditional love stories in Hindi cinema, no matter how entertaining they might be, tend to be superficial and shallow, relying more on froth rather than real emotions. Metro, on the other hand, is what a love story ought to be – gritty and real. Compare it with the recent turkey - Salaam-e-Ishq - that followed a similar multi-track narrative structure, and the difference would be obvious – flimsy froth vs. grainy grit.

Before I start singing paeans about Metro, let me get my biggest grouse with the film out of the way. It's perfectly legitimate to draw inspiration from other people's work, but why can't our filmmakers learn to credit the source of inspiration? This stubborn refusal to credit the source amounts to pilfering, filching, plagiarism, what have you… By borrowing liberally from Billy Wilder's delightful comedy, The Apartment and not crediting Billy Wilder or I. A. L Diamond (the writer) - not to mention his earlier Unfaithful rip-off, Murder – Anurag Basu commits what in my opinion is the worst creative crime.

But hey, hang on…Anurag Basu is a clever guy. By a stroke of creative genius his 'crime' becomes but a mere peccadillo. The entire Sharman – Kangana - Kay Kay track is lifted completely from The Apartment – characters, sequences, and all – but the treatment is dramatically different. What came across in a purely comic context in the original becomes thematically well-integrated with the all-pervasive grimness of Metro.

In my opinion the most striking aspect of Metro is that it does not shy away from the physical aspects of love. You can even argue that his emphasis on the physical aspects is a tad too much. Every single relationship depicted in the film dwells as much on the physical as it does on the emotional aspects of love. That is what makes it seem so real and closer to life. Even the Sharman - Kangana thread, which talks of unrequited love doesn't shy away from it. When Sharman's character learns that the woman he loves is sleeping with his boss, he is heartbroken and how does he try to cope up with that? He brings a prostitute home (his fumbling interaction with the prostitute is quite funny). Then there is the Dharmendra - Nafia Ali track – a love story of sixty-somethings. Can you think of even a single Hindi film – or any Indian film for that matter – that shows two oldies kiss and share some cozy moments in bed?

Life in a... Metro is similar in structure to many films that have hit the screens recently – multiple tracks crisscrossing to create a meshed whole. Yet, there is a whole world of difference. Unlike the tangled mess that most such films ended up being (Salaam-e-Ishq for one), Metro is like an intricately woven tapestry. Each story follows its complete dramatic arc, and crosses the other stories in a well-orchestrated manner…except probably the Dharmendra - Nafisa Ali story whose link with the other stories is quite tenuous. But this track has a certain amount of cuteness that one would typically associate with a teeny bopper romance, and that's what makes it a pleasure to watch.

Mise en scène: I never thought I would use this word in a film review for I've always thought of it as a word film critics use to show off their knowledge. After watching Metro I can't think of another word to convey what I want. Anurag Basu has evidently worked hard to come up with the perfect mise en scène. Each scene is painstakingly constructed with almost perfect blending of visual and audio elements. The lighting, the setting, the props, the dialogue, the actors, the music, lyrics – everything fits in so well together.

What made my day is the scene where Konkona's boss is exercising and a poster of Brokeback Mountain lurks ominously in the background, subtly indicating how the events would unfold later. In the hands of any lesser director, the poster would occupy a more prominent position in the frame, but not here. As conceived by Anurag Basu, the poster in the scene is not even fully visible and whatever is visible is a bit out of focus because the camera is more interested in the actors in the scene, yet an observant eye cannot miss it. This was the real aha moment for me in the film.

Anurag Basu's gamble of using a rock band as a sort of sutradhaar also pays off. While many people have found the appearance of the band as repetitive and irritating, it worked well for me. The songs here appear as punctuation marks after every 'episode' to underscore the overall feel of that episode. It's after a long time that one has come across a film where the lyrics of the songs match perfectly with the scenes.

Pritam's music plays its part in enhancing the mood of the scenes. Better known as the Plagiarist No. 1 of the Hindi film industry, Pritam's score appears to be quite original except for two songs In Dinon Dil Mera and Oh Meri Jaan, which respectively borrow a line of melody from a Pakistani song and a recurring motif of rhythm from a song called Silent Lucidity by Queensrÿche (source: However, like Anurag Basu borrows from The Apartment and gives it a distinctive treatment, Pritam takes just a thread from the originals and creates such beautiful melodies around them that I can't but applaud his effort. The strong melody and lyrics of In Dinon make this song my favorite song this year so far (Mithoon's Maula Mere Maula from Anwar comes close).

While the overall feel of Metro is sombre and subtle, it is replete with generous helping of humor – cerebral, not slapstick. The Irrfan Khan – Konkona track is designed to be populist and humorous, like a silver lining in an otherwise dark film. The beauty lies in the fact that despite its seemingly light mood, it doesn't look out of place in this film. Add to that the perfect acting by the pair, and you have a track that stands out despite a denouement that borders on being ridiculous. Irrfan and Konkona seem like the most unlikely pair for a rom-com (isn't that the genre of their track?), but they handle their characters so well that one can't help but salute their versatility.

would not have worked this well, had it not been for an extraordinary ensemble cast. Every single actor is in top form. One always expects Kay Kay, Irrfan and Konkona to excel in whatever they do, Kangana has shown her mettle in her first two films and Anurag Basu doesn’t take any risks and gives her a part which is in some ways an extension of her earlier roles. The real revelation are Shilpa, whose performance is well-nuanced, and Sharman who adds shades of complexity to a seemingly simple role.

I must add a point about Shiney Ahuja though. He does complete justice to the part he plays here, but in film after film I'm beginning to see his shortcomings - there is a certain amount of awkwardness in his dialogue delivery and body language. When I first saw him in Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi, I was completely blown away by the energy he displayed on screen, but each subsequent film has had me left a little unsatisfied, if only in comparison with his debut performance.

Even though I have gushed so much about it, I wouldn't say that Life in a… Metro is a perfect film. It definitely has flaws: there are a few plot-holes, there are problems of continuity, there are underdeveloped characters, etc. etc. But then, when is life in a metro perfect anyway?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Spiderman-3: Where's Our Beloved Hero?

After his tiring and not so successful first encounter with Sandman, Peter Parker/Spiderman sits on a parapet of a building and makes a purportedly funny observation – "Where do all these guys come from?" Exactly.

Rather, the more relevant question is "Why" instead of "Where". Sam Raimi's third installment of the Spiderman franchise is peopled with so many characters – specifically bad guys – that you wonder what the filmmakers were trying to do here. Did they really believe that more is better? How much can you cramp in a 140 minute movie anyway? Especially when you want to emphasize – rather overemphasize – the humanization and the emotions that worked so wonderfully in Spiderman-2.

The problem actually is not there are too many characters, it's just that in order to do some sort of justice to the multitude of characters, the film gets overburdened with too many plot elements, some penned so perfunctorily that it almost seems like the work of an out-of-work Hindi film screenwriter from the 80s.

Consider this: a love triangle, a son's vow of revenge; friends turned foes; temporary loss of memory; a last minute revelation that makes foe turn friend again only to sacrifice his life for his 'friend'. That's just one side of the story. Then you have this funny track of a Maître d’ that underscores a poignant moment, or the back stories of the bad guys – Sandman and Venom… All this is classic Hindi film formula. Pack everything you can in one film…

Before you get me wrong, let me clarify that I'm not trying to be dismissive of Hindi films (how can I, when I'm so addicted to them?). My point is that you need almost a juggler's skill to pull off such diverse elements in a single film. Hindi film makers have mastered this skill and elevated it to the level of art. Hollywood, however, is not very adept at it. And this is fairly obvious in Spiderman-3.

In some ways Spiderman-3 reminded me of Krrish. Both were meant to be – at least promoted as - superhero films, but the emphasis on other side-plots in both the films is a wee bit too much. I'm all for humanizing superheroes (the reason why I like Spiderman-2 and Superman Returns more than any other superhero flick), but after a point it's good old superhero stuff that one expects and looks forward to in these films. That's what Krrish lacked, and that's where Spiderman-3 lags behind.

There's nothing heroic about Spiderman in this film. Except for saving Gwen Stacy (a dramatic departure from the original Marvel character) from a disaster early on in the film, there's not even a single heroic moment that Peter Parker can be proud of (as he keeps claiming proudly – "people like me'). This is particularly unpardonable given the fact that there is not one but three adversaries (or is it 4, if one were to count the symbiote?) our friendly neighborhood Spiderman confronts in this film. Couldn't they think of even one heroic moment for our hero? Just one?

It's not that this film is a complete downer. There are moments of individual brilliance – like the initial chase between Spidey and the New Goblin, or the sequence where Flint Marko transforms into Sandman, or the delightful and bang-on portrayal of the editor by J.K Simmons.

Sadly, all these get lost in the convoluted web that the screenwriters spin so incompetently.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ta Ra Rum Pum - A Confused Film

Siddharth Anand's Ta Ra Rum Pum could've been a traditional old-school love story with a contemporary twist, where a rich girl falls in love with a not-so-rich guy but faces severe opposition from her dad who is not concerned so much about the guy's financial status, but his lack of decent education and 'intellect'. Now that would be an interesting reason for 'opposition'...I don't recall 'intellect' being the cause of conflict in many Hindi films.

It could've been a film addressing a genuine contemporary problem – that materialism and lack of prudent financial planning finds many young couples caught in a vicious debt trap. We all know how banks and credit card companies make their money!

It could've been a simple feel-good underdog film, where the protagonist reaches his pinnacle only to go downhill thanks to the 'cruel games of destiny'; and then fights against all odds to come back right at the top. We always have a thing for underdogs, don't we?

It could've been one of those 60s tearjerkers where a family struggles with poverty and the children take it upon themselves to ease the sufferings of their parents. Or a sensitive tale of poor parents shielding their children from harsh reality by putting on a charade.

It could even have been a revenge saga, where the protagonist loses a car race thanks to the evil machinations of another competitor, and vows to avenge his defeat by giving him the same treatment in the climax. OK...Saif doesn't quite vow revenge, but the climax does smack of tit-for-tat!

The truth is: Ta Ra Rum Pum is none of these, yet has elements of all. It's almost as if pieces from several different films have been loosely put together to create a one-size-fits-all film. Unfortunately, what we end up with is a thoroughly confused film that doesn't seem to know where it's going.

This is formulaic filmmaking working overtime. I have nothing against formulas; on the contrary I do enjoy formula films. But in Ta Ra Rum Pum the formula itself is wrongly put together.

First of all, what's with the title? It has no relation to the film except for a song that tries hard – very hard indeed – to relate four animated characters (Ta, Ra, Ma & Pa) to the main characters in the film (Saif, Rani and the children). The film that I think has the most nonsensical film title of all time - Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo, had lead characters with those names, so it wasn't so nonsensical after all. Couldn't Aditya Chopra or Siddharth Anand, or whoever wrote the script do something as simple as naming the two children with Ta and Ra (with Rani and Saif obviously being Ma and Pa)? That would've made some sense at least.

Then, what was the need to have that whole back story about Saif and Rani falling in love? Agreed, we like love stories and the songs that come along with that. But here the love story is extremely dull and uninteresting, and the songs insipid.

I really don't want to trash this film, because it does have some interesting bits. Sadly, these interesting elements just hang in there incoherently. They provide just momentary glimpses into what this film could have been, but is not!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Bheja Fry–An Idiot Comes to Dinner

Sagar Ballary's Bheja Fry reminded me of the title of the Academy Award winning 1967 film - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Mind you, it only reminded me of the title and not the film itself. The Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn-Sidney Portier starrer was an attempt at debunking racial stereotypes, through a tale of interracial marriage. The story of Bheja Fry doesn't have anything even remotely racial about it (except one small bit which I found highly objectionable...I'll come to that). It's just the 'dinner' bit that's common.

If you really look at it closely, there's another small bit of similarity between the two films. The dinner invitees in both the films are clearly not what the other dinner hosts might have expected of them. Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an African American who goes against the image one had of a typical black person in the US in the 60s - he is highly educated and 'civilized'. In Bheja Fry, Bharat Bhushan is supposedly an 'idiot' called over for a dinner so that others could have fun at his expense. But by the time the film gets over, his host realizes that he is certainly not the harmless 'idiot' he expected him to be. Rather, his idiocy leads to completely unanticipated turn of events.

But the inspiration behind Bheja Fry lies elsewhere - it is based on a French movie, Le Dîner de cons (English Title: The Dinner Game), which in turn was based on a stage play. The director (Sagar Ballary) has openly admitted this inspiration, but why did the filmmakers have to conveniently ignore this in the credits. They could've easily avoided the accusation of plagiarism simply by putting a line in the credits - "inspired by..." (I watched the credits carefully, but if I missed it, I take back these words)

Plagiarism or inspiration - Bheja Fry is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. It's not the kind of movie where you get impressed by technical virtuosity on display or 'cool' directorial touches. It's not meant to be. Most of the movie takes place in the living room, giving it a stage-play kind of feel, and there's no room for flashy cinematography or glitzy editing. It's by sheer power of the written word that this film succeeds; and how!

It's been a while since I had such a hearty laugh at the theatre. All the so-called comedies one has watched in the last few years tried to extract a few laughs from the audience through crude slapstick or downright vulgarity. Bheja Fry is so brilliantly written, that not even once does one see an 'effort' to make the audiences laugh. It is naturally funny. And so true to life! I'm sure everyone has met a character like Bharat Bhushan at some point or the other.

A lot of why the film works is due to Vinay Pathak. Who would've thought that by his sheer comic talent, he could carry a film entirely on his shoulders? I can't think of any other actor who could've carried off this role of an 'idiot' with so much conviction and believability. Through his idiosyncratic mannerisms, expressions and dialogue delivery, he gets completely under the skin of the character he portrays. His Bharat Bhushan is a 'singer' who is completely obsessed with Hindi film music. There are some subtle touches in his character that everyone would not be able to see. When Bharat Bhushan sings Aadmi Musafir Hai from Apnapan (1977) while traveling on a bus, I could see more than just the thematic applicability of that song to the situation. The original song is also picturized on a bus. Then there is this truly funny moment when Bharat Bhushan boasts of his knowledge of the number of time the word 'Aayega' appears in the song 'Aayega Aanewala' or the word 'Chalte' in Pakeezah's 'Chalte Chalte'. This was a very personal moment for me, because my obsession with Hindi Films has manifested itself in things equally 'outrageous' (believe it or not, I have actually counted this).

If one were to look carefully, one would find many flaws in the film but who cares for them when the film keeps you thoroughly entertained all through its 90 minutes duration. But there is still one thing that the film could've done without. It's the character played by Ranvir Shorey - an Indian Muslim who supports Pakistan in India-Pakistan cricket matches. It seeks to carry forward a stereotype of Indian Muslims that the Hindu fundamentalists have been perpetuating for some time. I found it objectionable, offensive and completely unnecessary. What's more, Ranvir Shorey's portrayal of this character is surprisingly over the top and utterly un-funny.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Water of Life

Mohammad Hussain Azad's Aab-e-hayaat (Water of Life) is regarded as the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature. It is a book that has shaped and influenced the thoughts of the Urdu literary community all through the 20th century. I'm not much of an on-line reader, so while a link to the online version of the English translation by F.W Pritchett and S.R Faruqui figures prominently in my IE favorites folder, I desperately wanted to own a copy of the book. So you can imagine my delight when I found an old copy of this translation at a bookshop last week.

As I opened the book, I was quite amused by the very first line. The translators try to warn the reader –

"Āb-e ḥayāt is not a trustworthy history of Urdu literature. It cannot and should not be read as such."
Now, this is interesting… the first documented 'history' of Urdu literature is not 'trustworthy' after all. As I dived deeper into the initial chapters – the translators' introductory notes – it became obvious to me that the translators felt very strongly about what Azad had written in this seminal book.
"The unique power exerted by Āb-e ḥayāt is what made us decide to translate this exasperating, moving, wrongheaded, fascinating, all-too-persuasive text."
As I moved further along, I understood why FWP and SRF used these words to describe the book. While theorizing on the history of Urdu literature, Azad starts off with a critique, going completely ballistic in condemning the stagnation that had crept into classical Urdu poetry. Given the influential status of Azad's book, generations of critics that came after him perpetuated the same thought process, so much so that classical Urdu poetry (ghazal in particular) lost its stature in the eyes of the people. It's quite common to read points of view that condemn the ghazal as 'decadent' or 'immoral'.

Azad's main concern, however ill-founded it was, was that by drawing Persian imagery and metaphors into Urdu poetry, and then by holding on to it, the Urdu language was stagnating. His point is that many of the conventions used in classical Urdu poetry are alien to the Hindustani milieu and no efforts were made to lend vibrancy to the language by indigenizing or even widening the scope of these metaphors, or for that matter exploring new themes. He had a problem with ghazal restricting itself primarily to themes of love and sensuousness, which is thought of as 'immoral'.

This is how Azad puts it:
"Those same fixed things! Here and there we move the words around, here and there we do some substitutions--and we keep on composing with them. As if they're morsels that have already been eaten--or at least chewed--by other people. We chew on them, and we're happy. Think about it--what relish do they still have left? Beauty and love--marvelous!--very fine! But for how long? Whether she's a Houri or a Pari, once you're stuck with her, she becomes sickening. How long can it be till you get fed up with beauty and love? And by now she's become a hundred-year-old crone!"
Azad was not alone in this thinking. Altaf Hussain 'Hali', who was even more vitriolic in his diatribe against classical Urdu poetic traditions, went on to say the exact same thing in his critique. I have read Azad and Hali only cursorily, so I can't really comment on the validity of their attacks, but it sure makes for some very interesting reading.

Interestingly, both Azad and Hali, and many others after them, start their histories with scathing attacks on the quality of Urdu literature. The work of their successors compelled Ralph Russell to write a brilliant piece called How Not to Write the History of Urdu literature. His point – "if you don’t think much of Urdu Literature, please don't go to the trouble of writing a history of it"

The bigger problem with Azad's and Hali's views is that they take their Anglophilia to ridiculous heights by proclaiming Western poetry to be much superior to classical Urdu poetry because it was based on 'nature' and things 'real', whereas Urdu poetry was prone to extreme exaggeration and 'unreal' themes. They prescribe the adoption of 'natural' poetry, like - say - Wordsworth. They even urge – at least Hali does in no uncertain terms – that poets should look at the West for inspiration.
'हाली' अब आओ पैरवी-ए-मग़रिबी करें
बस इक़्तिदा-ए-मुसहफ़ी-ओ-मीर हो चुकी

'Hali', come now, let us follow the West;
Enough of the leadership of 'Mus-hafi' and 'Mir'

What? An urge to imitate the West? As FWP would ask: What next? Wordsworthify Ghalib?

I need to read more of Azad and Hali before I can comment on this aspect of their critique, but from the face of it they seem to ask poets to strip the ghazal of its inherent charm, which comes through exaggeration and abundant use of metaphors.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sorry State of Film Criticism

Criticism: "the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc."
"There's a common fallacy that anyone can review a film. But how can you do it if you don't have the proper tools to 'read' a film?" - What Every Film Critic Must Know by Ronald Bergan

Today's episode of Koffee with Karan had an interesting debate about the role of film critics. Kunal Kohli and Rakesh Roshan were expectedly very emphatic in their view that they have no respect for most film critics. What else do you expect from directors whose films have been thrashed by most film critics. On the other hand, the other directors on the show - Rakeysh Mehra and Raju Hirani, whose last films have met with almost universal critical acclaim, were less derisive. One point where there was some unanimity was the fact that the quality of film criticism in India is not up to the mark. Anyone who has even the most basic writing talent can pass-off as a film critic these days. Come to think of it, you don't even need any writing talent to become a film critic. Anyone who's read film reviews by the likes of Taran Adarsh would know what I mean.

I write a lot of movie reviews on this blog, and people have often suggested that I should start publishing my movie reviews in newspapers and magazines. I don't give any thought to that suggestion, because I know that I have no qualifications to become an official film critic. While it is true that I have watched a lot of different kind of cinema, I still do not have a solid understanding of the craft of filmmaking to pass judgments on the quality of films.

Film critics have a huge responsibility because sometimes what they write can make or break a film. Big films have enough marketing muscle to push their films to the realms of success and are hence less dependent on what film critics have to say, but relatively smaller films sometimes need favorable reviews for their films to be seen. And if critics trash those films, they better have a solid reason for doing so!

Personally I have no respect for Kunal Kohli because he was also a film critic once and did exactly what he accuses other film critic of doing now (he's at the receiving end now that he has taken up film direction). However, I can't agree with him more when he says that:

"I have very little respect for most of the critics today because I don't think their knowledge of cinema is deep enough. Their passion for cinema is not deep enough and I think critics need to have a great knowledge about cinema. He or she needs to have no agenda, needs to be absolutely unbiased and I don't see that in most of our critics."
The reality today is that most critics approach film criticism with a clear bias and personal agenda, they have no respect for research and their knowledge about cinema is shockingly shallow. I have read many reviews where the critics have lambasted a particular movie based on a fact that is not even true.

At the same time, I do not agree with film directors who equate commercial success with quality. One very common argument put forward is that if the audiences have liked their film, they have definitely a 'good' film. Now this argument is extremely fallacious. On the one hand they rightly say that the reviews of film critics who do not have a good understanding and knowledge about cinema cannot be expected to have a fair assessment of their films quality. In the same breath they say that they respect the judgment of the audience, and the acceptance of their film by the audience implies that they've made a 'good film'. Do they think that the audiences in general have that understanding and knowledge of cinema that they demand from film critics? So, why use an argument against the critics when they go against you, when you conveniently ignore the same reasoning when the audiences are in your favor. If this is not hypocrisy, then what is?

It must be obvious by now that I don't think too highly of most film critics in India. Still, I read the reviews of most film critics - all for different reasons. I read Khalid Mohammad and Raja Sen for their humorous writing style, Nikhat Kazmi because my opinion matches with hers most of time, and Taran Adarsh just so that I am constantly reminded what 'bad' writing is all about. Taran Adrash, like many other critics, doesn't even take the pains to put the story of the film in his own words - he just reproduces the film's marketing material verbatim. That is particularly irritating when you suddenly see a few well-written paragraphs, sandwiched between utterly amateurish writing. He also seems to know nothing about what 'spoilers' are. His reviews shamelessly reveal all the key plot elements, showing no respect for the readers' right to discover those on their own. I can go on and on about Taran Adarsh, but that's not the point here (and I shouldn't impose my personal bias, should I?)

However, there are two film critics I have immense respect for. One is Roger Ebert, who needs no introduction and it widely acknowledged as one of the best film critics in the world. Unfortunately, his health condition has kept him away from film criticism for almost a year now. The other critic I absolutely adore is Baradwaj Rangan, whom I have discovered only recently. He usually writes for Indian Express in Chennai. Ever since I discovered him a few months ago, I have been following his online reviews very religiously. What I like about him is the fact that he is absolutely unbiased and takes great effort in analyzing a movie in extreme detail (he never seems to be in a hurry to end a review). You might disagree with his assessment of a film, but you can never find fault with his arguments. He always provides solid reasons behind what worked for him in a film and what not. And he never approaches his reviews with the intention of either extolling or trashing a film. Read his review of the recently released Sunny deol Starrer Big Brother to understand what I mean. This is a film that's universally trashed by everyone - even Rangan doesn't like it - but see how unbiased his review is!

Till the time I can boast of knowledge like Roger Ebert and unprejudiced writing style of Rangan, this blog will be the only home for my film reviews.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ghalib's Meaning Generator

The other day I had an intellectually stimulating discussion on literature and poetry with an office colleague. That made me realize that I've been neglecting poetry for a while now. Take this blog for example. When I started this blog, my intention was to write about my two major passions - poetry and films. While I have written about films consistently and diligently, I have not written much about poetry.

So for a change, I want to write about poetry. And what better way to do that than returning to the unfathomable depths of Ghalib's poetry?

In the context of ghazals, one characteristic that provides an enjoyable multivalence to a couplet (she'r) is called Ma'ani-Aafrini (म`नी-आफ़िरीनी) or, in other words, 'meaning-creation'. Simply put, this refers to a situation where a single couplet or she'r can have more than one meaning. If one were to go by S.R Faruqui's definition: 'meaning-creation' refers to a style of expression in which in a single utterance a number of kinds of meanings are manifest or hidden.

Mind you, this multivalence of meaning does not come merely by some clever punning of words; in many cases it can come from varied emphasis on different words or sometimes even by calculated omission of the 'subject' in a sentence - leaving the field open for varied interpretations.

Ghalib's poetry has many instances of 'meaning-creation'. In one of his letters to his friend Tafta, Ghalib says:

भाई शा`इरी म`नी-आफ़िरीनी है क़ाफ़ियह-पेमाई नहीं है
(My friend, poetry is meaning-creation, it's not the measuring-out of rhymes)

Some of Ghalib's verses are deceptively simple, yet contain such "bizarre multiplicity of meaning (that can make) your head spin" (quote: Frances W. Pritchett). One such verse - one of his most famous ones - is:

न था कुछ तो ख़ुदा था कुछ न होता तो ख़ुदा होता
डुबोया मुझ को होने ने न होता मैं तो क्‌या होता
(na tha kuchh to khuda tha, kuchh na hota to khuda hota
duboya mujh ko hone ne na hota maiN to kya hota)

I can't even dare to put all the different meanings that this verse can generate. In fact, Frances W. Pritchett, in her commentary on this verse, calls it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning-generator'. You can read the detailed commentary on this verse here, but let me just put the various meanings that emerge from the first line due to the omission of subject.
  1. when there was nothing, then God was; if nothing existed, then God would exist
  2. when I was nothing, then God existed; if I were nothing, then God would exist
  3. when I was nothing, then I was God; if I were nothing, then I would be God
As you would notice, depending on where and what you want to put as the subject, the tone of the verse changes from being reverential to almost blasphemous. And I'm not even getting into the varied meanings the second line presents. This is how Frances Pritchett ends her commentary:
"Is this not a two-line complete portable library of possible existential speculations? That's why I consider it a 'meaning machine' or 'meaning generator'-- because of its radical undecideability."
Amazing stuff.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Namesake: Mira's Triumph

There's a scene in Mira Nair's The Namesake, where Ashoke Ganguli tells his teenage son- Gogol, "we all came out of Gogol's Overcoat". This seemingly simple utterance resonates with profound meaning in light of the theme of the film. This is a very famous quotation that has been attributed to a number a Russian authors including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and highlights the fact that Nikolai Gogol's short story 'The Overcoat' has played a defining role in influencing the course of Russian literature. When uttered by Ashok in the film, it takes on a completely different meaning. It underscores the reason of conflict in young Gogol's mind, it justifies the title. At the point when this scene appears in the film, we do not know (unless we've already read Jhumpa Lahiri's eponymous book) what Ashoke means till a crucial scene between the father and son in the car much later. Suddenly, we know the reason behind Gogol's name – it's just not what you (as well as the protagonist – Gogol - in the film) thought all along – his daaknaam (pet name) is Gogol not simply because Nikolai Gogol is his father's favorite author…

Jhumpa Lahiri's Gogol Ganguli suffers from a strange identity crisis because "not only does (he) have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name". Mira Nair's Gogol has the same crisis, but we don't witness that as explicitly. In Mira Nair's world we don't see Gogol's parents having a tough time trying to explain to his teacher why he should be called by his bhalonaam (good name) in school; we get only a brief glimpse into his frustration when he finds out that his namesake almost fits the definition of a 'loser'; and we don't see the delightful moment when the adolescent Gogol first introduces himself to a girl by his 'good name', which infuses in him a curious sense of courage to experience his first kiss. The beauty, however, is that though Mira Nair had to omit a lot of events from the book and change a few, she has brilliantly captured the spirit of the book, thereby making her version as heart warming as the book.

Scriptwriters Sooni Taraporewala and Mira Nair deserve the credit for writing a screenplay that falls into that so-very-rare category of adaptations that do complete justice to the original book. I would go a step further and declare that the film is slightly better than the book. If the book was primarily about Gogol, the film is about the Ganguli family. One gets so involved in the trials and tribulations of the Ganguli family that one doesn't mind the length of the film. In fact, one almost wishes that the film could go on a bit more so that we could see what happens next in Gogols' life, or Ashima's or Sonia's...

Yes, it wasn't possible for Mira or Sooni to capture the entire book on film. So you do have some things that are omitted, or presented cursorily in the film. In one of the scenes early on in the film, Ashima is shown preparing a snack by mixing some peanuts, salt and chilly powder with rice crispies. It's an interesting scene, but we miss an important aspect that what she is preparing is "a humble approximation of the snack sold by pennies on Calcutta sidewalks..." i.e. Jhaalmuri. The line in quotes is from the book. How does one translate that on screen?

And yes, there are also some minor changes. One that works wonderfully is the scene where Gogol gets his head shaved off after his father's death. The barber dances to rap music while shaving Gogol's hair. This accentuates the theme of culture clash that runs all though the film. For the barber it's a sort of fashion statement, whereas for Gogol it's a life changing moment - "his atonement". In the book, Gogol doesn't shave his head. The other significant change is the setting of the film itself - changed from Boston to New York for purely cinematic reason. New York's Queensboro bridge, when contrasted with Kolkata's Howrah bridge, symbolizes Ashima's quest for settlement in a foreign land.

As Mira has herself admitted, this is her most personal film. And that, in my opinion, makes this her most accomplished film yet. Since she could herself relate to the story and the characters of the book, she has successfully captured the essence of the book on film. Also, she has been able to lend some extremely fine directorial touches by adding the scenes with small elements that do not necessarily appear in the book but add more weight to the depiction of cultural differences. For example, the uncomfortable twitch that glides through Ashima's face when Gogol's girlfriend, Maxine, addresses her by her first name. Or when during Ashoke's eleventh day mourning ceremony, Maxine dressed in black stands in stark contrast amidst all other mourners who are dressed in white.

What makes The Namesake work is not only the script or Mira Nair's warm direction, but also the strong performances by the main actors. Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguly gets under the skin of his character and it's difficult to imagine that he's not a Bengali, so perfect is his accent and body language. Tabu struggles a bit with the Bengali accent, but her knock-out performance more than makes up for it. In my opinion, it's a truly Oscar-worthy performance. Watch her in the scene where she finds out about her husband's death - absolutely heartbreaking!! Kal Penn as Gogol is a revelation. So far one has only seen him in some goofy, eminently forgettable role in utterly forgettable comic films. This is the film that gives him an opportunity to show his dramatic side, and that side, mind you, looks quite promising.

What I found most interesting was the point the book (and also the film) alludes to quite subtly: that cultural affinity is not enough for a relationship to work. Gogol marriage to Moushumi - a Bengali - collapses, while his sister Sonia finds an almost perfect partner in Ben - a half-Jewish, half-Chinese. This by itself can be the theme for a whole new book and a film. Will Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair oblige?

P.S: How can I resist from my usual nit-picking? In the scene at the Kolkata railway station in 1974, a hoarding of IndusInd Bank sneaks into the frame from behind the luggage on the coolie's head. Isn't it true that IndusInd Bank started exactly two decades later in 1994?