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!