Sunday, February 25, 2007

Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.

Reema Kagti's Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. is just the kind of film that can be a professional movie reviewer's nightmare. How does one write a review of a film that has neither any exceptional high-points nor any downright bad elements? One that doesn't rock, but doesn't suck either? No praise, no curse. Thank God, I'm not a professional reviewer.

We all know what Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. is all about - six newly married couples going on their honeymoon together. Though it has elements of mutual discovery one would expect in a theme like this, the director's intention is not to explore that aspect of the couples' honeymoon. The end result is a film where you get some nice, funny moments sprinkled in an uneven fashion across the 108 minute duration of the film, but that's just about it. Sometime you do long for some further insight into a few aspects, but you don't let that bother you, because a few minutes into the film, the director has made clear what she wants you to expect.

It is a cute film - reasonably short in duration, populated with a plethora of characters who in their own sweet way show you (even though intermittently) something that makes you go, "yeah, that happened to someone I know", but largely stop short of making you care for them. You know that each track would not get more than a few minutes, so why bother?

It seems that while writing the script, Reema Kagti had to struggle hard to introduce some 'conflict' in each of the tracks. There was no need actually. We would have been satisfied even if the film was only about the fun-filled interaction between the couples. But the writer/director was probably not satisfied. While these conflicts work in some of the tracks, in others they appear very contrived. The cutest couple (Abhay Deol-Minissha Lamba) gets saddled with a 'conflict' that borders on the ridiculous, but which is nevertheless funny in a mindless way.

I thought that the Amisha Patel-Karran Khanna track and its connection with the Sandhya Mridul-Vikram Chatwal track was the most interesting, if only it was fleshed out a bit more and given a more complete resolution. And the resolution to the Sadhya Mridul-Vikram Chatwal track is quite unconvincing. It also makes me wonder if Indian cinema would ever reach the level of maturity and boldness required to produce a full-fledged film based on these tracks - a kind of Brokeback Mountain meets Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

Even though it is the typical enjoy-while-it-lasts kind of flick, there are a few images that still linger on in my mind. The brilliantly choreographed and performed tango by Abhay Deol and Minissha Lamba, the unstructured choreography of Sajna Ji Vari Vari, the impromptu fantastical tale narrated by Bomman Irani and Shabana Azmi while describing the way they met, Raima Sen's thrilling adventure in the sky - these sequences provide a brief glimpse into what a great film this could've been, if only the writer/director had a bit more clarity on what she wanted to achieve. And pray, what was the need to resort to such horrendous clich├ęs like a wayward daughter returning to her dad and stepmom after being jilted or the fight sequence with the goondas! And why that speech by Shabana Azmi at that end? Why?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Eklavya - Dharma Redefined

At the surface, the idea behind Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Eklavya may seem terribly anachronistic. After all who talks about the outmoded concept of Dharma in this time and age? But that's precisely the point. The philosophy of Dharma is as relevant today as it was during the time of the mythical Eklavya. Only, its definition has changed. Through Eklavya, Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to debunk the belief that Dharma is all about following the path of righteousness as defined by tradition; rather, he endorses the view that righteousness is not an absolute concept but has to be rooted in reason - Dharmah Matibhyah Utgritah.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra takes the idea from a well known tale from the Mahabharata, gives it a distinctly Shakespearean flavour, and comes up with a fascinating multi-layered saga of duty, honour, loyalty, intrigue and deceit - and above all, the true meaning of Dharma. He takes a potentially melodramatic content and presents it in a largely undramatic style. Well....that's not entirely true. Let me put it this way, he deliberately makes his actors be less theatrical so that the he can create drama through other means - music, camera, visuals, etc. At times he completely goes against popular conventions. Scenes that one would expect to be dramatic are laid out subtly, whereas melodrama finds centre stage in scenes that would otherwise be routine. That's the most interesting part about Eklavya.

The protagonist, Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) is a man of unmistakable honour. He is a 'royal guard' who would do anything to protect his royal masters because that's his Dharma. He would sacrifice his emotions to guard a royal secret because that's his Dharma. In that respect, he is in some sort of a time warp - the world around him has moved on but he still lives by what tradition dictates. This contrast is brilliantly depicted in the film by the character of Pannalal Chauhar (Sanjay Dutt) - an untouchable who questions the traditions because in today's time he probably has more 'power' than the royal family and thus demands respect that his ancestors never got.

The beauty of Eklavya does not lie in its theme; nor in the visual opulence that the theme demands. Rather it's the director's vision and the actors' sincerity that make it stand out. The director pushes the envelope here and conjures some brilliant, sometimes even surrealistic and abstruse, imagery. Forget the travesty called Kareeb, with Eklavya Vidhu Vinod Chopra gets his groove back. Remember his first film, a documentary called An Encounter with Faces, was nominated for an Oscar (I don't think many people even know this fact).

It's clearly not the director's intention to make a crowd-pleasing film. His desire to do something out of the ordinary is evident all through the film, but he is particularly audacious when he chooses to blank out the screen completely for a full 90 second. Imagine watching an extremely 'visual' film in a dark theatre and the screen going completely blank for such a long time! The director pulls it off so well that this scene becomes the film's highpoint.

I have one problem with the film though. The ending seems to belong to an entirely different film. There's no place for a neat, crowd-pleasing wrap-up in this dark and grim tale. Why the maverick director should succumb to pleasing the audiences in the last 5 minutes of the film, when he has defiantly stood against it in first 100 - I just don't understand. My other problem is that they're promoting the film as an "edge-of-the-seat dramatic action thriller" which is like doing gross injustice to this gem of a film - 'dramatic' is probably the only word in this phrase that applies to Eklavya. If people walk into the theatres expecting an action thriller, they'll be disappointed big time.

Eklavya is marked by some great performances. Amitabh Bachchan in the title roles comes up with a really Rolls Royce deserving performance. His character demands reticence, but he uses his expressive eyes so effectively that he's able to convey what even pages and pages of dialogue would fail to do. Saif Ali Khan seems to get better with each film, and has learnt the art of subtlety and underplaying for dramatic effect. In this film he is effectively restrained, even in the scene when the real twist in the tale comes in. If your attention flags even for a moment, you would miss the revelation because the drama is contained and there are no high-voltage theatrics here. That, in my opinion, is as much a credit to Saif Ali Khan's performance as it is to the director's conceptualization of the scene.

All through its 107 minutes, Eklavya kept reminding me of Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara and Maqbool because of its Shakespearean quality. Any comparisons would be fallacious, for Chopra and Bhardwaj are two very different directors, with very different sensibilities. 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!

Friday, February 09, 2007

52nd Filmfare Award Nominations: Something's Odd

The nominations for the 52nd Filmfare Awards are out. I just saw that list, and something doesn't seem quite right with it. Filmfare awards have never been a measure of artistic excellence. They depend largely on public opinion, and the list is almost always dominated by more popular films. So if Omkara, one of my favourite films of 2006, doesn't get a nod for Best Film, I have no issues. But I find this year's list quite odd because of another reason.

I want to ask the Filmfare guys one question - what's with six nominations in many categories? Aren't Filmfare awards supposed to have five nominations per category? Since nominations are based on public votes, it is very much possible that for some category the nominees at the fifth and sixth place get exactly the same number of votes. But six nominations in four categories? That's one helluva coincidence. I just couldn't buy that, so I decided to delve deeper into the nomination list. Voila, a pattern emerged! Consider this:

  • Film A, directed by one of the most successful directors and featuring A-list stars, can theoretically qualify for awards in all popular categories except two: actor in a comic role and actor in a Villainous role. That's simply because it had no comic or villainous roles.
  • It gets nominated for all the categories it qualifies for
  • If it ranks among the top 5, the list has only five nominees
  • If it doesn't, the category has 6 nominations, and the film gets an nomination

Now which film am I talking about? One of the most talked about films of the year - Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, of course.

So is this case of Filmfare trying to remain in the good books of Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan. Maybe this theory of mine is just a figment of my unreasonably fertile imagination, maybe it's just a coincidence. After all Hindi films are all about coincidences, aren't they? But isn't the possibility I just mentioned above also very plausible?

Of course, I don't have any additional information - except the list itself - to support my theory, but it's an interesting possibility. And, it can surely provide fodder to delicious industry gossip!!