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.