Sunday, January 28, 2007

Salaam-e-Ishq - A Tribute to Love Sans Emotion

The problems with Nikhil Advani's Salaam-e-Ishq are many. A one-line concept that looks good on paper (which also worked in an earlier English film - Love Actually) goes terribly wrong thanks to inept and shallow writing. A well-intentioned idea gets crushed to smithereens under the weight of its own gargantuan ambition. A director so completely besotted by his own much applauded first film goes overboard with the devices that worked in his earlier film (Kal Ho Na Ho) - try counting the number of times the device of split screens is used in this flick. The problem is - what worked fabulously in Kal Ho Na Ho were the emotional excesses of the Karan Johar school of film-making, but here, 'emotion' doesn't quite grace us with its appearance on the screen - no, not even cursorily. The writer/ director gives us 'six relationships with one common problem - love', but where is the intensity, where is the depth, where is the 'emotion'? A 'tribute to love' sans emotion? And one that goes on and on and on...... Nah, it just cannot work!

In the last couple of years, the concept of a portmanteau film (a film consisting of several different short films, often tied together by only a single theme or premise) has caught up in a big way. I'm not sure about when it really started, but I think it was Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction that started the trend. Yes, In India Hrishikesh Mukherji experimented with this format way back in the 50s with Musafir and Satyajit Rai with Teen Kanya, but they were precisely that - experiments. It was Pulp Fiction - and the cult status it achieved - that probably set the stage for a wider adoption of this kind of narrative structure at a global level. The most celebrated example being Alejandro González Iñárritu's trilogy - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Then we have Paul Haggis' hugely controversial Academy Award winner, Crash, and of course Love Actually. Closer home, we've seen this format in Mani Ratnam's Yuva and Ram Gopal Varma's assembly line products - Darna Mana Hai and Darna Zaroori Hai.

In my opinion, the basic requirement for a portmanteau film to work is that not only should each individual story be 'complete', it should - in some way or the other - follow the graph of the traditional three-act structure (screen writing guru, Syd Field's Paradigm). That's the real reason why Salaam-e-Ishq didn't work for me. None of the stories had any depth or a rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs one expects in mainstream Hindi cinema. Also, the linkage between some of the stories seemed tenuous and very forced. It's not clear what Salman Khan is doing at Ayesha Takia's wedding. If he was required to be present at the wedding scene for a neat wrap-up, why not conjure a few more coincidences and bring the other two couples also to the wedding? That would be neater.

But yes, some of the stories did have a lot of promise. For one, the Anil Kapoor-Juhee Chawla story tries to address a very real situation - mid-life crisis, but its journey is so linear that you're left wondering if it was really an issue. Similarly, the problem of commitment in the Akshaye Khanna-Ayesha Takia story is also true to life. If only it was developed a little better. I felt that the more promising stories in this mish-mash were told from the male point of view, which is fine, but it brings down the emotional quotient of these stories because the female characters - Juhee Chawla and Ayesh Takia in particular - have all the depth of a half-filled bath tub. Wasn't this film supposed to be about '12 different lives'?

Now the actors. John Abraham still needs to learn acting, while Vidya Balan is dependable and endearing as ever. Anil Kapoor gets a role written just for him but sometimes overplay the boredom of his character. Since she didn't get a meaty character to portray, Juhee Chawla uses her charming smile and natural acting style to cover up for it. Akshaye Khanna is fine despite going a trifle over-the-top in a few scenes. Ayesha Takia has nothing much to do, but she does remind us that she's the same girl who surprised us with her bravura performance in Dor. Govinda tries to make up for that HUGE mistake called Bhagam Bhag, and succeeds to a large extent.

That brings me the most irritating track of the film (which unpardonably ends up hogging the maximum screen time) - Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra. The track is irritating mainly because of them. But I must credit them for their consistency. They're consistently BAD all through the film. Priyanka could well be the next queen of hamming - I don't buy the crap that her role (that of an 'item girl') required her to act over-the-top. Somebody should tell her the difference between being flamboyant because the character demands it and downright hamming. If you've seen Rakhi Sawant (who seems to be the inspiration behind this role) in her interviews and Bigg Boss you'll know what I mean. I strongly feel that if Nikhil Advani had taken Rakhi Sawant in this role rather than a bigger star like Priyanka, the story would have worked better. Salman Khan's phony accent is.....well, Shannon Esra's Hindi is less accented than Salman's.

To be fair to the director, he does manage to add some good directorial touches to the film. I particularly liked the use of grey as the predominant color in the Anil Kapoor-Juhee Chawla story as a metaphor for their boring existence, and the bright colors that come into the story with the arrival of the other woman. But will anyone choose to paint their house in varying, depressing shades of grey? That's acceptable cinematic license I would say. But when the film runs almost for 4 hours, it almost feels like the director is trying too hard to give the audience a glimpse of his 'touch' in an endlessly meandering montage of uninspiring sequences.

Maybe Nikhil Advani wants us to sit in the theatre for as long as is humanly possible- pata nahin, kal ho na ho

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Guru - Inspiring and Powerful

Is Mani Ratnam's Guru based on Dhirubhai Ambani's life? Of course it is. However, through minor and perfunctory shuffling and fictionalization of facts and events, Mani Ratnam would have us believe that it is only a faint inspiration. One would have to be either a complete fool or completely ignorant to believe that. Almost every single fact of the film can be traced back to Dhirubhai's life, although not in the exact context. Son of a village schoolmaster, doesn't study beyond class 10, goes abroad and starts working as an attendant in a gas station, returns to India to start his own business, starts modestly by trading things like spices and fabrics, creates a huge industrial empire through clever manipulation of bureaucracy and legal loopholes, has a bitter rivalry with a Parsi industrial family, is hounded by a newspaper journalist, suffers a stroke......

If this is Guru, then who is Dhirubhai Ambani?

Having said this, I think it is important to still view Guru as fiction. Because, the moment you start looking at it as a biopic on Dhirubhai Ambani's life, all you would find are factual inaccuracies. Yes, the rudiments of Dhirubhai's life are all there, so are some important people in his life, but they appear in different and sometimes even dramatized context.

So let's accept that it’s 'inspired' by Dhirubhai's life, keep him out of the picture and then look at Guru on its own cinematic merit. How is Guru as a film then? It has some flaws no doubt, but on the whole this film works! After experimenting with a convoluted, though interesting, narrative in Yuva, Mani Ratnam is back with a simple, linear narrative structure. Yes, the film itself is a long flashback, but instead of the much abused technique of multiple intercutting of flashbacks he chooses to unravel the story in straightforward chronology. The audience becomes a co-passenger in Guru's heroic journey from rags to riches.

At the surface, Guru is nothing but a typical rags-to-riches tale that we have seen countless number of times on the silver screen. Its underlying message is obvious - Follow your Dream. What makes it stand out is its focused narrative, unmistakable period feel, Mani's masterly touch that is evident in almost every frame, and, most importantly, strong acting performances.

One sequence that I just can't get off my mind is the one where Guru (Abhishek) and Sujata (Aishwarya) are talking on a swing. It is a classic example of how every single aspect of the scene - its conceptualization, the setting, the way it's performed, the background song, lyrics - adds to its impact. Here we have the couple sitting on a swing (a metaphor for trying to reach the skies), the man tells his wife about his seemingly far-fetched ambition, but the wife - tongue in cheek of course - continues to indulge in mundane talk. And the song in the background - a simple Yaman melody - goes:

ऐ हैरत-ए-आशिक़ी जगा मत; पैरों से ज़मीं ज़मीं लगा मत

Can anyone better that?

There are many such sequences in the film that demonstrate Mani Ratnam's mastery over the cinematic medium. Another poignant scene is the one where Madhavan proposes to Vidya Balan. Again, a simple scene, but very impactful.

At times, one does feel that Mani Ratnam could have added more meat to the script by laying more emphasis on certain things Guru did to achieve his dream. We know that Guru is adept at "managing the environment - a euphemism for keeping bureaucrats and politicians happy" but how exactly he does that, we're never sure. Mani Ratnam chooses to handle this in a subtle manner, just by alluding to it. On second thoughts, this actually works well within the film. The point the Mani Ratnam is trying to make is - think big, and you can achieve your dreams. The how of it is immaterial.

The film is not without its flaws. Some of the sub-plots are poorly developed and some abandoned midway. For example, we don't know what happens to Guru's brother-in-law, Jignesh (Arya Babbar) after he walks out on him. His unexplained absence from the film after that sticks out like a sore thumb. His character had all the potential of adding some additional drama to the second half. Also, the Vidya Balan angle to the story is so poorly developed that it's almost inconsequential. Then, there's the climax, which appears a bit thanda and almost blasphemous to the extent of negating the importance of ethics and morals in an individual's quest for achieving his dream.

The other flaw, which though minor, irritated me no end was the authenticity of the village in the first half. It was supposed to be somewhere in Gujarat, but in Aishwarya's intro song, and also some other scenes, some elements creep into the shots that clearly show that it's somehwere in South India. This is the problem I've always had with Priyadarshan, but that even Mani Ratnam could overlook something like this is unacceptable.
I don't want to dwell upon the flaws because to me they're minor irritants. The film, on the whole, is inspiring and very powerful.

Technically, Guru stands out. Rajiv Menon's cinematography and Samir Chanda's authentic art direction add to the period feel of the film. A.R Rahman comes up with a superlative score yet again, and Gulzar's lyrics fit in beautifully. Trust Gulzar to come up with something innovative even for the most cliched of situations. A few examples:

तेरे बिन सोना पीतल, तेरे संग कीकर पीपल
आजा कटे न रतियाँ… तेरे बिना बेसुआदी बेसुआदी रतियाँ


मीठा है कोसा है, बारिश का बोसा है

How can a review of Guru be complete without talking about the performances? The film belongs to Abhishek Bachchan. Burdened with a complex role that demands an enormous range of the actor, Abhishek comes up with a finely nuanced performance. This is that role of a lifetime that every actor secretly dreams of. And Abhishek almost lives the role, he becomes the character. What can be a better tribute to the actor's talent than the fact that what we see on screen is Guru, not Abhishek. If he wants, Abhishek can safely hang his boots now: he will always be remembered for this role. Aishwarya, as Sujata, also does a fine job. She doesn't have any scenes to display high voltage histrionics (which is sadly mistaken for 'acting' in Indian cinema). But she registers a strong impact through a restrained and subtle display of emotions. She complements Abhishek perfectly. Take her out of the film, and Guru is stripped of a few layers of his character. This has to be her best performance to date. And yes, how can I forget Mithunda? Forget the assembly-line Z-grade masala flicks he churned out with nauseating regularity a few years back. In Guru, we get a glimpse of the actor who has won a couple National Awards in the past

Saturday, January 13, 2007

BAFTA for Rang De Basanti?

After achieving a cult status in India, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti has now been nominated for the BAFTA awards (better known as the British Academy Awards). This makes it the third Indian film and fourth Hindi film to be nominated in the "Film not in English Language Category". Third Indian and fourth Hindi film? Well, Asif Kapadia's The Warrior is a British film. Recall the controversy about its rejection at the Oscars, because it was not in the language indigenous to the submitting country (UK). This rule was later changed in 2006 - that's how Canada could submit Deepa Mehta's Water as its official entry for the Foreign Film Oscar.

Will Rakeysh Mehra and Ronnie Screwvalla walk away with the honours at the Royal Opera House, London on February 11th? I don't think so. No, I wouldn't give the most obvious reason: that the voters for these awards do not completely comprehend the grammar of Indian commercial cinema. Even if they did, Rang De Basanti is pitted against films like Pan's Labyrinth and Volver - films that have already received phenomenal acclaim the world over, with some critics even calling Pan's Labyrinth the best film of 2006. It's also expected to bag an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (not only Best Foreign Language Film). Volver also has got tremendous worldwide appreciation for Penelope Cruz's performance (another sure shot Oscar nomination). In such august company, Rang De Basanti doesn't stand a chance. But look at the bright side, if the British Academy could even utter RDB in the same breath as these films, it's an acknowledgement of its calibre.

Talking of BAFTA, do you know that an Indian won a supporting actress award more than two decades back? I don't think many people even remember that. Do you?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hindi Films: The Best and Worst of 2006

In my earlier post I talked about 2006 as the year of big bucks and borrowed ideas. Here I list down some of the best and the worst Hindi films I watched during the year.

As in the past, mediocrity ruled the roost in 2006 as well. But there were a few films that stood above the rest thanks to clarity of vision on the part of the directors. Many of them might not be path-breaking cinema by any stretch of imagination, but they all share among them a certain clarity of purpose - be it originality, simplicity, effective adaptations, or even sheer chutzpah.

It's a sad commentary on the quality of the films in 2006 that I really struggled to put together the list of the top-ten Hindi films released during 2006. I had no problem identifying the top 5, but after that it wasn't easy... and, yes, you won't find 15 Park Avenue or Being Cyrus in this list, even though I loved them, simply because they weren't in Hindi. They would surely find a place - at least 15 Park Avenue would - in the top-ten list of all films I saw during the year.

Best Hindi Films of 2006

  1. Lage Raho Munnabhai: This was clearly my favourite film of the year. Rajkumar Hirani gave Bapu a new avatar and demonstrated that you don't necessarily need to recycle the gags that worked so well in the original to come up with an enjoyable sequel. The second episode of Munnabhai (I prefer to call it an 'episode' rather than a 'sequel'), is strikingly original, extremely funny; and at the same time, carries an important message without being preachy at all.
  2. Omkara: Vishal's brilliant adaptation of Othello, Omkara excelled in almost every department. Vishal's commendable eye for detail, his direction, screenplay and dialogue, Gulzar's lyrics, Tassaduq Hussain's cinematography, Saif Ali Khan and Konkana Sen Sharma's performances - everything was top notch. Add to that the item number of the year - Beedi, Vishal's rambunctious interpretation of Gulzar's deliciously saucy lyrics.
  3. Rang De Basanti: After failing miserably at the box-office with Aks (which I liked, by the way), Rakeysh Mehra came up with a very original concept. Embellished with some fine performances, Rang De Basanti worked because of its unusual narrative and its ability to capture the imagination of the Indian youth, giving rise to a new brand of public activism. Few would agree with the film's exaggerated denouement, but the point was made! And of course, who can forget A R Rahman's outstanding music score, further accentuated by Prasoon Joshi's A-class non-filmi poetry?
  4. Dor: Nagesh Kukunoor proved that simplicity and subtlety still has a place in Hindi cinema. What makes the film truly remarkable is the honesty in Nagesh Kukunoor's direction and the performances of the lead actors.
  5. Khosla Ka Ghosla: Realism meets farcical comedy in a style reminiscent of Hrishikesh Mukherji. It tackles a very real problem in a light-hearted way – somewhat akin to Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Interestingly, the premise of Khosla Ka Ghosla, with its emphasis on tit for tat, is the very anti-thesis of Lage Raho Munnabhai that propagated Gandhian values.
  6. Woh Lamhe: A sensitive and, at times, disturbing insight into the schizophrenic world of a film star - loosely based on the relationship between Mahesh Bhatt and Parveen babi. The maturity demonstrated by Mohit Suri in depicting the complex world of a schizophrenic person is worthy of applause.he exercises restraint in his direction and lends a very strong emotional quotient to the film. Kangana Ranaut performance was the highlight of the film.
  7. Gangster: A surprisingly well-made flick, with some great music by Pritam and finely etched performances by Shiney Ahuja and Kangana Ranaut. The film works despite Emran Hashmi.
  8. Don: Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, namumkin bhi hai. Remember this iconic dialogue from the original Don? Now think again, wasn't the original Don caught and killed by the police? Farhan Akhtar adds a delicious twist to the original story to make this dialogue suddenly reveberate with renewed meaning. The media went on a shocking and totally uncalled for offensive against this film, but I enjoyed this one.
  9. Dhoom-2: This one worked for me for the sheer chutzpah demonstrated by the Chopras and director Sanjay Gadhvi in packaging a plot riddled with loopholes with a clever and consistent sprinking of awe-inspiring stunts, energetically choreographed dance routines, picture-perfect scene compositions and oodles of eye candy.
  10. Jaan-e-Mann: How innovative can you get with a love triangle? Shirish Kunder shows you how! An unusual narrative structure lends the film a dash of magical, fairytale-like quality, thereby lifting it from potential mediocrity. If only Shirish the editor had not got overshadowed by Shirish the writer/director! The film is in desperate need of merciless trimming - it just seems to go on and on and on and on...

Worst Hindi Films of 2006

When I'm at it, let me also mention some of the worst movies of the year. Why is it that most of these films were meant to be comedies? Am I losing my sense of humour?

  1. Phir Hera Pheri: So what if it was a big hit? It didn't have the brilliance, spontaneity or even the fun element of Hera Pheri. All the gags seemed forced and hardly comic.
  2. Apna Sapna Money Money: Another pathetic comedy...forget laughing, I actually dozed off during this film!
  3. Bhagam Bhag: Yet another so called comedy that was hardly funny!! What went wrong Mr. Priyadarshan?
  4. 36 China Town: Now what was this film all about? A thriller that wasn't even remotely thrilling or a comedy it wasn't meant to be?
  5. Pyare Mohan: Argh!
  6. Tom, Dick & Harry: ughhhh!
  7. Chingari: Kalpana Lajmi's unbearably over-the-top film that saw the ever dependable Sushmita Sen hamming like nobody's business

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hindi Films: 2006 - A Year of Big Bucks and Borrowed Ideas

For the Hindi film industry (I refuse to call it Bollywood), year 2006 was all about big bucks and borrowed ideas. It's being called the most successful year for the industry, and rightly so. In the past all that the filmmakers hoped for was to earn a few crores to reap a neat profit and a 'hit' tag for their films. Just one or two films would earn more than 20 crores and qualify as 'Blockbusters' and 'Super Hits'. From whatever I've gathered from the media, in 2006 there were at least half-a-dozen movies that earned more than 50 crores, with a few even crossing the magic figure of 100 crores!!! I can't vouch for the veracity of these figures, but it's sure that many filmmakers have laughed their way to the bank despite producing mediocre cinema.

Style is in, art can go for a spin - and Marketing is clearly the new mantra. Take some of the biggest hits of the year - Krrish, Fanaa, Dhoom-2 or even KANK - and it's evident that it was all about Marketing. The formula seems simple - take some of the biggest stars in the business, create a slick product, hype it to the skies, and flood the market with unimaginable number of prints so that the producers can get their money back just over the opening weekend. Whatever happens after Day 2 is clearly an overflow, and if you can go past 2 weeks, you have a super hit in your hands. It's no coincidence that Yash Raj Films has had some association with each of the films I mentioned above. They've clearly understood the importance of marketing and are bloody good at that!! The only exceptions to this formula have been Lage Raho Munnabhai and Vivah. While Lage Raho was unquestionably a very superior quality product that didn't need the crutches of hype to find its audience, with Vivah Sooraj Barjatya took the calculated risk of minimal hype and a limited release with the hope of gaining acceptance through word of mouth - and he succeeded.

The other significant thing about 2006 was that this was a year where filmmakers ran amok with sequels, remakes and literary adaptations. You might call this a dearth of creative talent which makes people recycle easily accessible content. Or you could say that filmmakers want to be on safe grounds by sticking to tried and tested ideas. Neither of these two opinions is entirely true. There's nothing wrong with borrowing ideas per se - it all depends on the execution of the borrowed idea. Let's take sequels first. There is dearth of creative writing talent in the Hindi Film industry for sure, but for every Phir Hera Pheri there's been a Lage Raho Munnabhai, which proves that even in a sequel you can be strikingly original. When it comes to remakes, there was only one remake of note - Don (I still won't call Umrao Jaan a remake, and Jai Santoshi Maa went completely unnoticed). Despite getting a good drubbing by the so-called critics, I still maintain that Don was a darn good remake! Talking of literary adaptations, would you call Omkara, Vishal's superlative adaptation of Othello, as a film that showed a dearth of creative talent? If anything, it exemplified that a great deal of creativity is required to adapt Shakespeare to the Indian milieu, that too rural India. Agreed Umrao Jaan was disappointing, but that wasn't because it was adapted (or remade as everyone seems to believe). It failed to strike a chord with the audience primarily because of its subject, lack of authenticity and inordinate length.