Thursday, June 30, 2016

26. Deadpool

Deadpool was slaughtered by India's overzealous CBFC, even after giving them an A certificate. So all gaalis invoking mothers and usually covered body parts were snipped out as well as some of the gory action and sex scenes. I managed to catch the film on an international flight and had the pleasure of watching spurting blood, burping abuses, crazy-ass action and badass sex.

Oh well, I exaggerate. Let me just say it was the kind of movie I would have loved to see when I was in my teens. A mercenary abandoning his sexy girlfriend to join an experiment to become a superhero... when parts (most parts, actually) of the experiment go wrong and he becomes a freak - Deadpool.

If you like in-jokes, superhero references, the Marvel universe, go and watch Deadpool. 

25. Te3n

If you are a thriller lover, you can give Te3n a miss. There have been better thrillers and indeed, this one itself is an official remake of 2013 Korean film, Montage. Many aficionados have confirmed the original has a tightness that is probably missing in the remake. 

If you are a Calcutta lover and love seeing this beautiful city in films, its lanes and landmarks lovingly captured on celluloid, you could do better than this. Te3n's producer, Sujoy Ghosh, himself has directed - what I think is - the most bewitching depiction of the city: Kahaani. 

If - on the other hand - you love acting, love seeing actors get under the skin of a character and lift the film from where the script leaves it, then you should probably not miss Te3n.
That Amitabh Bachchan is a phenomenal actor is no longer a fact that needs to be repeated. We have also lost count of the number of times he has transformed a mediocre script into a gripping film through his acting. But what still happens rarely is when Bachchan gets the opportunity to metamorphose into a completely different animal from what we have grown accustomed to. 
For example, I loved his performance in Sarkar but I also knew that it was not something novel. The swagger, the style of his earlier roles were given a silvery polish and presented with a flourish. However, with a film like Paa, he manages to do something that is outside the grammar and vocabulary of his regular acting. There, he shifted his speech, facial gestures and gait to match that of a thirteen-year old. And that, I think, was an unbelievably brilliant performance. 
In Te3n, the way Bachchan gets into the body of a tired, defeated, septuagenarian is again magical. You could argue that he is really playing himself - an seventy-something grandfather. But you have to see his confident body language as India's biggest star and realise how far apart John Biswas of Te3n really is. The loose skin of his neck, the stoop, the gasping to start the scooter, the tired chases, the dropping eyes... it is a defeated man who fills up the scenes in Te3n and that transformation is masterful.

If you are a fan of Amitabh Bachchan, you have probably watched Te3n already. Good choice. As always.

Calcutta: The place where they know which Gods to worship

Thursday, June 09, 2016

24. Praktan

In a way, Praktan can be broken down into a simple formula:
1. Main story track of estranged lovers
2. Add a comic track (another couple, newly married)
3. Add a music track (four well known Bengali musicians, playing themselves)
4. Add a commentary track (an elderly couple, played by two yesteryear superstars)

This seemingly simple mathematical formula can fall flat due to a variety of reasons - boring setting, indifferent actors, lacklustre music, emphasis on the tracks, so on and so forth. But writer-director duo, Nandita Roy and Shibaprasad Mukherjee, do a masterful sidestepping of all these pitfalls and delivers a script that is thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measures.
In fact, after their previous success - Belaseshe - where they looked at a separated couple at the twilight of their lives, Praktan looks at a young couple's life after their divorce.

As a train goes from Kurla to Howrah, a first class bogey has twelve characters (as above) and film traces their journey. The focus is on Prasenjit and Rituparna, as a divorced couple and a series of flashbacks reveal their falling in and out of love beautifully. Quite interestingly, they are always in the beautiful parts of Kolkata when falling in love and always in their claustrophobic bedroom when falling out of it. There are some cliches in this relationship but the music lifts some of the regular scene really well.

Rituparna and Prasenjit are both good, looking alarmingly young in their pre-marriage avatars but the scene-stealer is Aparajita Adhya as Prasenjit's second wife. Soumitra's presence becomes critical because he closes the interval and the ending with two wonderful readings from Rabindranath - something that only he can do. His role doesn't require an actor of his stature otherwise. Sabitri - as his wife - brings the house down with a monologue in Bengali-accented Hindi. The newly married couple provides a killer comic track, with all sorts of gags. And the quartet of musicians - them of Chandrabindoo, Bhoomi and Anupam Roy - liven up the proceedings with great background music, superb songs and a brilliant antakshari!

About the absolutely stunning visuals of Kolkata in the film, these are some of the most memorable that I have seen in recent times. While Kahaani's Kolkata was grimy, sweaty, mysterious and set to retro music, Praktan's Kolkata is bright, happy, inviting and set to the music of its present day residents. If someone had to make a tourism video for Kolkata, I would recommend nothing but this song.

Overall, Praktan is one of those films that are not entirely novel in their theme but bring in a freshness in its treatment. The direction and acting are competent, the music is great and there is never a dull moment. As commercial Bangla cinema becomes a clone of the worst successes of Hindi cinema, I would love to see more such middle-of-the-road films gaining greater commercial success. On a weekday evening in Bangalore, we had a near-capacity crowd to see a subtitled print. That commercial success may already have been gained.

[Frivolous Footnote: The last time I remember Rituparna Sengupta in a train journey was when she got killed. In Partho Ghosh's Teesra Kaun, she was the victim of a murder during a train journey that also starred Mithun Chakraborty.]

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

23. Waiting

What would you do if your significant other was on life support and there was no chance of recovery?
What would you if there was some chance of recovery but you had run out of money?
What if the chance of recovery was higher but there was commensurate of him/her turning into a vegetable?
Waiting asks some of these difficult questions and, instead of answering them, makes comments on modern day relationships, love, friendship and reactions. And also asks that most difficult question: "What is Twitter?"

The devout and the atheist
Naseeruddin Shah is brilliant (yawn... what's new?) as the husband who's waiting for his wife (played by Suhasini Mani Ratnam) of forty years to come out of a coma. Kalki Koechlin also puts in a good performance as the newly married wife, steeling herself for a long wait for her husband to recover from a disastrous road accident. Together, they form an endearingly odd couple whose philosophies towards life are radically different and yet, they are bound by a common fear, in a tight space. (One minor quibble: Wasn't Kalki Koechlin over made-up all through?)
The supporting cast consists of some very fine performances. Rajat Kapoor, by now, has made a name for himself as the handsome antagonist. What started as the perverted uncle (Monsoon Wedding) has become even better - subdued yet effective - in this film, where he plays the doctor who is trying to make his patients see reason while they are on an emotional roller-coaster.
Rajeev Ravindranathan (Rama of English Vinglish) plays a comic bit-part and looks to be well on his way to becoming a regular as the bumbling colleague in Hindi cinema.
After a patchy debut (London Paris New York), Anu Menon makes a strong impression with her assured direction in a story where very little happens but the interest levels never drop.

Waiting reminded me of Rituparno Ghosh's Dosar, where a husband was in a near-fatal accident which killed his lover and his wife had to nurse him back to health, while being disgusted by his infidelity. For a brief sequence, Waiting hinted at a similar plot before swerving off in another direction. Both films - excellent ones - were masterful explorations of the modern Indian psyche by asking very uncomfortable questions.

Do you want your ailing husband to die?
Because he is in pain? Or because you hate that he cheated on you? Or because you don't want to spend the rest of your life taking care of him?
Why do you want your wife to live?
Because you love her? Or because you need her to take care of you?

[Frivolous Footnote: As Naseeruddin Shah read PG Wodehouse to his comatose wife, Kalki read James Dashner. The former doesn't need any introduction while the latter writes speculative fiction for young adults. An interesting contrast between the two sets of characters.]

[Frivolous Footnote 2: SPOILER ALERT
In one scene, Naseer confesses to his wife about an one night stand he had thirty years ago. Knowing Naseer's penchant of playing fathers to illegitimate offspring, I wondered if Kalki or her husband could be his progeny. Manmohan Desai has scarred me for life!

Friday, May 27, 2016

22. U Turn

A newspaper intern tries to write a story about traffic rule breakers, specifically the ones who remove divider blocks to take an illegal u-turn on the Double Road flyover (in Bangalore). After she goes to interview the latest rule-breaker, his dead body is discovered and she becomes a murder suspect herself. Further investigations reveal that ten people who had taken that risky U-turn in the last few months had all committed suicide on the day they broke the rule. 
Pawan Kumar’s U Turn has this very interesting premise and the first half builds up brilliantly towards an expectation of ominous revelations. However, the second half degenerates partially into a rather unsatisfying resolution of the mystery and partially into a public service message from Bangalore Traffic Police. To me, this was a rather disappointing end to a film I was enjoying tremendously for most part. The scary parts were really scary and the investigation as well as the police procedures were all done well.

The lack of bite in the final resolution is a big letdown considering the obvious professional finesse with which the film is made. All the actors are fit perfectly into their roles and act very well. Lead actress, Shraddha Srinath, is particularly good and does all kinds of scenes – light and dramatic – with confidence. The dialogues are very real and have the typical mix of Kannada and English Bangalore is famous for. I particularly liked the opening scene where the heroine’s mother is trying to get her to see prospective grooms, which is genuinely funny even though the situation is a cliché.

Pawan Kumar’s first film, Lucia, was a big critical success (and incidentally, made by crowdfunding). U Turn shows he clearly has the talent to pull off interesting genres and I will certainly look forward to his other films. If only he tones down the public service messaging.

21. Captain America: Civil War

A group of twelve – each member with a different kind of superpower – divide themselves into two teams of six and have a go at each other till my son’s brain exploded into a million small pieces. Totally the kind of film I look forward to watching. NOT.
The opening sequence – a Bond-like chase – and the runaway sequence in which the 6vs6 fight happens, are the only two places that held my attention though my son was hooked to the whole thing.
Must watch for fans of American superheroes. Must avoid for fans of Indian superheroes.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

20. The Jungle Book

What review can I give for the highest grossing film of the year?

First, watch the film in Hindi.
Priyanka Chopra as Kaa. Nana Patekar as Sher Khan. Irrfan as Baloo. Om Puri as Bagheera. How much cooler can it get?

Second, watch the promotional song. Yes, again. And again. And again. And again.

And then watch the English version of the Hindi version.
"Jungle jungle, word is spreading here and there
A flower has bloomed wearing underwear..."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

19. Fan

In short, Fan did not live up to the pre-release hype (at least for me). Shah Rukh Khan (who had cleverly lowered expectations with Dilwale and Happy New Year) and Maneesh Sharma (who has some nice films to his credit in the recent past) were supposed to work magic among masses and classes. In the end, it turned out to be Darr meets Don meets West Delhi.
Sigh. What a waste.
It is very unfair to judge a film on what you want to see rather than what has been made but I couldn't help wondering a superstar's relationship with an obsessed fan could have been so much better than a jazzy chase film.

Over the last few days, I have been discussing - with friends - various scenes of another superstar film, the original superstar film - Nayak. There are many similarities between Nayak and Fan. Both films have the star involved in a nightclub brawl, being insecure after a lacklustre film at the box office, grappling nosy journalists and eventually, retreating into his cocoon after a brush with reality.
The star's ascendance is nicely brought out in both films. In Nayak, the star himself recounts it through a series of flashbacks (during the course of an interview he unwittingly does). In Fan, the fan follows the exact route his hero took while going from Delhi to Bombay (WT on Rajdhani, Room 205 in Hotel Delite).
Uttam Kumar's casual disdain while handling cynical journalists and charming suaveness while handling fans formed a very interesting balance. On the other hand, SRK is strangely uni-dimensional in handling his fans. For someone who thinks nothing of punching an upstart of a colleague, he seems rather unrealistically law-abiding when it comes to an obsessive fan's unlawful activities.
Both films show how the demi-gods of tinseltown are strangely beholden to different kinds of moneybags. SRK is deferential, almost servile to an Indian billionaire who has hired him to dance at his daughter's wedding. While Uttam Kumar is respectful towards a Marwari producer though he doesn't kowtow to him (despite going through a shaky period in his career).

Despite the many similarities, Nayak and Fan remain light years apart. One is a classic exploration of a star's mind while the other is just a jazzy chase film.

[Frivolous Footnote: Autograph (2010) was another delicious exploration of a star and the people around him, made as a tribute to Nayak. The composer of Autograph - Anupam Roy - has written the lyrics and performed the Bengali version of the Jabra Fan song.]

After writing this, I read two brilliant reviews.
One by Greatbong, on how he was a SRK fan once and may consider becoming one once again.
The other by Beth, on how Fan is actually - well - Nayak exploded.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Apur Sansar

I finished the final film of the most brilliant film trilogy to be made or ever will be. Apur Sansar has always been a favourite of mine – especially after I have a Kajal to become friends with, instead of being a father to. This watching just cemented some of those emotions.

Some thoughts that came this time:
Apu, being the younger son of the family (and being doted on), is bit of a spoilt brat! He is the spoilt brat when dealing with his landlord (whose lights he switches on during the day to spite him). But he is the conscientious man when it comes to paying the rent (by selling his books).

The performances of the bit players are amazing.
Apu’s landlord. His surnamesake neighbour. The school principal who advertised for a teacher. The pharma company manager whom Apu asks for a job. Apu’s much-married colleague. Aparna’s parents. All of them just shine like diamonds in the few minutes they are on screen.

Of the lead players, what more can be said?
Soumitra Chatterjee would have done to womenfolk of those times what Fawad Khan is doing now. And when you see, Ray exploits his amazing looks and exemplary elocution skills to the hilt with carefully planned scenes. And he seems to have no qualms in subjecting Soumitra to the female gaze, giving his vests gaping holes and making him exercise in pouring rain!

Sharmila Tagore, who was not even fifteen when she shot for the film, is remarkably assured in her mannerisms and dialogue delivery. In her short screen time, she manages to effortlessly establish why Apu is so much in love with her.
And in a telling scene, the husband also fans the wife after he has finished eating (when the wife was fanning him)… and he does so grudgingly, yawning while fanning and not in the sacrificial style commercial cinema is always showing. In the late 1950s, Ray knew what we are still trying to come to terms with… women’s equality would happen grudgingly, even from the good men!

The transition of emotions seemed even smoother on this viewing.
The way Apu is shown to agree to the marriage – him accepting the archaic concept of a girl becoming unsuitable for marriage if the auspicious hour passes – is very believable and almost natural. He is a modern youth with a scientific bent of mind and yet his natural goodness makes him agree to marry a girl he hasn’t even met. And he does so embarrassedly, without even being able to spell it out. He asks his friend Pulu, “Chakrita pawa jabey toh? Daritao kamano hoeni…” (Will you get me the job you promised? I haven’t even shaved…)
This unplanned marriage leads to the emotion of the helpless father who had to marry off his daughter much below his social standing due to societal pressures. Aparna’s father depicts this frustration heartbreakingly, which translates into a lifetime of resentment against the son-in-law. As a father of a daughter, I thought he ‘got’ it so well.

Much has been said about Apu’s manic grief and whether it suited the normally unemotional character that we saw growing up.
We need to see Apu as a character, who became progressively alone in his life, having lost his beloved family one by one. Finally, he had found a companion – who seemed to be a soulmate – and again lost her. This tragedy is, understandably, devastating for him. In this context, the grief seems almost normal.
The grief of Aparna’s death is built like a tragic movement where the announcement is just the beginning and the subsequent events keep adding to the point of suffocation when Apu sacrifices his novel in a moment of extreme listlessness. This extreme act of abandonment, coupled with the physical transformation of Apu from a handsome young man to an unkempt, haggard tramp, was just too draining a sequence.
The symphonic final closure – with Apu and Kajal reuniting – finally lifts this pall of gloom.

Finally, about the DVD.
The subtitles are very good. They are not literal and manage to capture the essence really well. People who don’t understand Bengali can fearlessly pick up a copy.
Among the supplements, Satyajit Ray’s Oscar acceptance is a much-watched sequence that gets included.
Another segment shows The Restoration process, which is like magic and documents the work done at New York, Bologna, LA where every scratch, every speck dirt and dust on the available negatives were painstakingly removed and the passion of the technicians shines through.
Film critic Mamoun Hassan’s detailed and gushing look at the Trilogy is almost a scene by scene deconstruction of all three films, offering a commentary on the important scenes along with his reactions. This could be a little boring for some viewers but valuable nevertheless.
The stunning piece de resistance are interviews of Soumitra Chatterjee (speaking in Bengali) and Sharmila Tagore (in English). They are still so luminous and animated when talking about their first film roles that it is an absolute delight.

If I haven’t said this already, buy the Criterion DVD set. It is probably the best cinematic investment you’ll ever make. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

18. Har Har Byomkesh

Some time back, I read a piece about a gentleman who is the executor of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s (creator of Byomkesh Bakshi) estate and is the single-point of contact for anyone wanting to buy rights – cinema, TV, translation – for the author’s works. He explained in great detail how Byomkesh is probably the most popular series in Bengali, with scores of filmmakers wanting to procure rights. He, in turn, had to balance monetary considerations with long term prospects in order to decide whom to give rights to. This was around the time Detective Byomkesh Bakshy had released and just prior to that, Yash Raj Films had bought the Hindi rights for all the Byomkesh stories.
After Satyajit Ray first brought Byomkesh to screen, there was a fair bit of diffidence in attempting another one – probably because the director and the star who played the Satyanweshi (Uttam Kumar) were both legendary. This jinx was broken when Rajit Kapoor played Byomkesh in the now-legendary TV series directed by Basu Chatterjee.
In the last ten years or so, there has been a slew of Byomkesh films in Bengali. Many directors – including Rituparno Ghosh – have tried their hands with varying degrees of (commercial) success. The present generation of Bengalis don’t have that sense of awe about Uttam Kumar as the previous generations did, leading to a fair bit of acceptance of the screen Byomkeshes. Abir Chatterjee – with his intelligent eyes and sharp features – looks a lot like the sleuth of our imagination and seems to be here to stay. (Incidentally, he also plays Feluda thus proving that his kind of looks is eminently suitable for iconic detectives.)

Anyway, the point of this whole random Byomkeshing is – in my humble opinion – the rather pointlessness of these Byomkesh remakes. Having come out of books that have been read hundreds of times by fans, they don’t stand a chance in matching up to our imagination. 
I just watched Har Har Byomkesh (based on the story Bahni Patanga) and it was a film without complaints and without any memorability whatsoever. One of the key characters is a woman for whom ‘dazzling beauty’ is an understatement. The actress cast is just another beauty, who doesn’t seem like the type who would drive people around her crazy with her looks. Even Satyabati and Ajit are competent actors, meet their brief and yet, they are nothing what I (and millions others) had imagined. While the film recreates the period of the story well, it nevertheless gives a feeling of déjà vu that then gives way to boredom. We have seen this character so many times and similar settings… where is the punch? Where is the suspense (since we know the ending anyway)? If the idea is too hook youngsters who haven’t read Byomkesh, they are unlikely to get attracted by a slow-moving period drama with somewhat amateurish action and barely-passes-master art direction.

This is why I am more impressed by a film like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy… a film that throws the languid pace and leisurely mood-building of the original stories to the winds and presents the intellectual ‘seeker of truth’ as an action hero. It also eschews the regular stories, takes the major characters and creates a pastiche that keeps everyone guessing. Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh had the purists fuming but at least, I thought it presented Byomkesh in a never-before avatar and a lavish scale that would bring many new fans to the fold.
Sure, Saradindu never wanted his Byomkesh to be a ‘detective’ (and that offending word is enshrined in the film’s title) but then again, Saradindu never imagined his Byomkesh to be wearing glasses either. (Ever since Uttam Kumar wore a pair in Ray’s film, most actors seems to donning one to play Byomkesh.)

Anyway, to bring this to a closure – Har Har Byomkesh is a mild-mannered film, not unlike one of those side characters in Byomkesh stories who look inconsequential right at the beginning and continue to remain inconsequential throughout.

[Frivolous Footnote: The director is obviously a big fan of Ray. Not satisfied with moving the setting of the film to Varanasi, he has inserted an entire (redundant) sequence that is a replica of a similar scene in Joi Baba Felunath. There are cleverer ways of paying tribute, I’d imagine.]