Friday, December 29, 2006

Conversational numbers

I spend a lot of time listening to movie music. The reason for this can be condensed to two words: Marathahalli Bridge. This is a little stretch in Bangalore on my way to work where I've spent a significant fraction of my adult life staring at the butt of the car before me. My only respite from this experience is the music I keep playing in the car - Tamil and Hindi film music, mostly.

I listen to and love so much of it that it's difficult to pick favourites off-hand. But a particular category that I'm quite fond of is conversational numbers - songs that involve some kind of dialogue between two or more characters. The song itself is in the form of a dialogue, and sometimes it also has actual dialogue interspersed in it. Somehow, I find these a lot more involving, and fun to listen to than the generic stuff. So here's my list of favourites in this category:

5. Jaane Kyon Log Pyaar Karte Hain, from Dil Chaahta Hai. Composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Sung by . Picturized on Aamir Khan and Priety Zinta. Playful, romantic and cynical in equal measure. (I'm also tempted to include Pyaar mein sau uljhanein hain from Kyun... Ho Gaya Na! in this list, but it's not a conversational number, strictly speaking.)

4. Ghum Hai Kisi Ke Pyaar Mein, from Rampur Ka Laxman. Composed by R. D. Burman. Sung by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Picturized on Randhir Kapoor and Rekha. This is pretty much the only sequence involving Randhir Kapoor that I can tolerate. The song is basically a vehicle for the two of them to tell each other how they feel. He goes first, but is shy and doesn't quite come out and say who he's talking about. She figures it's about her, and tells him she reciprocates.

3. Poongatru Thirumbumaa, from Mudhal Mariyadhai. Composed by Ilaiyaraja. Sung by Malaysia Vasudevan and S. Janaki. Picturized on Savaji Ganesan and Radha. The man is in a dejected mood and sings, almost to himself, of his loneliness. And hears a female voice singing in response, consoling him. One of the best duets I've ever heard.

2. Abhi Na Jaao Chodkar, from Hum Dono. Composed by Jaidev. Sung by Mohd. Rafi and Geeta Dutt. Picturized on Dev Anand and Sadhana. One of the best looking screen pairs of all time, and a sweet, romantic song where she wants to leave and he asks her to stay. It's a damn good song as it is, but the little touches, such as when Geeta Dutt sings Yeh hi kahoge tum sada / Ke dil abhi nahin bhara, and parodies Dev Anand in that line, or when Rafi brings a touch of gentle sarcasm when he says Bura na maano baat ka / Yeh pyaar hai gila nahin... that's what takes it from being a song to a dialogue between the lovers.

And my favourite song in this category, without doubt is...

1. Sippi Irukkudhu Muthum Irukkudhu from Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu. Composed by M. S. Viswanathan. Sung by SPB and Janaki. Picturized on Kamal Hassan and Sridevi. The song is basically a contest between the hero and the heroine - she composes a tune, and he comes up with lyrics to suit it. The exchange is playful, interesting from both a musical and lyrical standpoint, and absolutely magical.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The best movie review I have ever read

Roger Ebert's essay on Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru - it's so well written, so passionate in its description of the movie, that it ranks among my favourite pieces of writing in general. A lot of what Ebert has written about the movies is brilliant, but his essay on Ikiru is, I think, his best work to date.

Freeze Frame #22: Pithamagan

Pithamagan has one flaw: Laila is too loud to be credible. There, I've got that out of the way. Otherwise, this is pretty much a perfect movie. Heavy, hard-hitting, and comprising some incredible performances. So good that using anything less than superlatives to describe the performances of Vikram and Surya would be an insult.

The biggest insult of all came when Hrithik and SRK appeared on Karan Johar's Koffee with Karan and Hrithik spoke of how SRK told him that he deserved to win the National Award for Best Actor for his performance in Koi... Mil Gaya. This was the year in which Vikram won for Pithamagan. Sure, Hrithik did a great job in KMG, but that comment... If I killed SRK that night, I'd have played both movies in the courtroom in my defense and claimed justifiable homicide.

This is a movie where Vikram's performance does not have a single weak link - you don't see the actor at all. He plays Chiththan, a man who was orphaned when his mom died in a cremation ground during childbirth, and grew up there. This is a man who grew up in the company of death - he has no conception of grief, nor of happiness. His companions have been the dogs that roam the cremation ground, and his behavious comes from them. Watch how he runs, how he reacts to the situations around him, especially how he behaves in the end after he has killed the man who killed his best friend - this is no ordinary performance.

The standout moment, for me, comes when Surya and Vikram are involved in a fight inside the jail where they meet, and the policemen come to break it up. And just before the cops get to the scene of the fracas, Vikram gives his entire body a kind of shake, to get the dust off - the way dogs shake themselves off when they get wet. It's such an amazing action, it takes you totally by surprise. And if you did not see the dog analogy until then, you cannot miss it after that scene.

Freeze Frame #21: Nanda

Nanda was Surya's breakout movie, the one that transformed him from a generic romantic hero to an actor of substance. A number of movies that came afterwards cemented that position - Kaakka Kaakka (the best cop drama in Tamil cinema bar none, in my opinion), Perazhagan (his most astounding performance to date), Pithamagan (stole nearly every scene he was in)... but Nanda was where it began.

The movie is about a boy who kills his abusive father as a kid when the guy is beating up his mom. The mom goes crazy, and believes that her son is a cold-blooded killer. The son goes to juvenile prison, and when he emerges, circumstances lead him to work as a henchman for the local bigwig (a towering performance by Raj Kiran). He's pretty good at what he does, and quickly moves up the ranks to become the Raj Kiran's right hand man. All the while, he attempts to reconcile with his mom, but all she seems to see of his is his violent side. Meanwhile, his ascent triggers the jealousy and insecurity of Raj Kiran's son. The consequences are obvious - son kills father, Nanda kills son. So far so good. But Bala has a slingshot ending up his sleeve - when Nanda comes home to eat before fleeing the town with his sweetheart (played by a surprisingly tolerable Laila), his mom poisons him, believing that her son is too much of a violent force to be let loose. Throughout the movie, we can see that she is a bit mad, but this is essentially where it all comes to a head. True, we've seen mothers kill wayward sons before (Mother India, Vaastav), but not like this. Not like this.

With a trio of offbeat movies of phenomenal power (Sethu, Nanda and Pithamagan), Bala has emerged as the K.Balachander of our time - if KB took Rajni and Kamal and made stars out of them, Bala has done that with Vikram and Surya. The difference, though, is that KB's product was relatively more mainstream. And he never hit this hard.

Freeze Frame #20: 16 Vayathinilae

In an earlier post, I had spoken of my admiration of Bharathiraja, and how he wrote the rule book for village films with 16 Vayathinilae. That movie, more than any others I have seen that came before it, brought that milieu to life. Somehow, earlier movies never really got their hands dirty while making a movie about the heat and dust of rural Tamil Nadu - there seemed to be some distance between the makers and their subject. That went away with this movie. In its own way, I think 16 Vayathinilae did to the village film in Tamil cinema, what Marlon Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire did to acting in Hollywood.

For me, the defining moment in that movie was right at the beginning, during the title sequence. The movie did something that I had never seen before: it showed each of the main characters and did a freeze frame while the name appeared on screen, but the name shown was not that of the actor, but that of the character. This doesn't seem like much now, considering how often this has been done in the movies. But to me, this was essentially what made me sit up and watch the film with a lot more interest than I would otherwise have had.

Filmfare Awards (2006): My predictions

The Filmfare awards have long been the barometer of public opinion on the year's Hindi movies. Public opinion, mind you, not necessarily quality. A knockout performance in a little known movie stands no chance against SRK in the latest tearjerker about some rich guy named Rahul and his love life, as far as the Filmfare awards are concerned. This simplifies things when it comes to making predictions about the big winners, since there is often just one, maybe two blockbusters in any given year. This year, though, is different. There have been so many superhits that a number of people stand a chance. So predicting the winners this time is gonna be more interesting. For what it's worth, here are my picks:

Best Actor: Nominees will almost certainly include Hrithik Roshan (Krrish, Dhoom 2), Aamir Khan (Rang De Basanti, Fanaa) and Sanjay Dutt (Lage Raho Munnabhai). SRK (KANK, Don) and Amitabh Bachchan (Baabul) are likely to make it to the list as well. Shreyas Talpade probably deserves a nom for Dor, but I don't know how many people saw that movie for him to make it. As for the winner, I think it's a toss-up between Hrithik and Sanjay - Hrithik is more deserving of the two, but Sanjay might win.

Best Actress: A very weak category this year. Nominees will definitely include Kajol (Fanaa). Other possibilities are Priyanka Chopra (for something or the other - she's everywhere these days), Ayesha Takia (Dor), Kareena Kapoor (Omkara), Aishwarya Rai (Umrao Jaan, Dhoom 2) and Rani Mukherjee (KANK). The statuette will go to Kajol - Kajol's always been a Filmfare favourite, people love a big comeback, and she was clearly the best reason to watch Fanaa.

Best Supporting Actor: Abhishek will probably get nominated for KANK, Amitabh might get one as well (for the same movie), Siddharth (RDB) will make it to the shortlist for sure. Am not sure who else, actually. My guess is, either Abhishek or Siddharth will win.

Best Supporting Actress: Weak category. So weak, I don't really care who gets nominated or wins. But for what it's worth, I think it will be Konkona Sensharma for Omkara. Other nominees will probably be Rekha, Preity Zinta etc.

Best Actor in a Villainous Role: Saif Ali Khan will win this one at a canter for Omkara. Anyone else will probably come a distant second.

Best Actor in a Comic Role: Arshad Warsi for Lage Raho. It's a solid performance, among the better comic turns this year, and he's gathered so much goodwill with his last few screen appearances that they simply can't not give it to him this time.

Best Music: A. R. Rehman for RDB seems the most likely choice. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy will get nominated for Don and KANK.

Best Director: Nominees will include Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (RDB), Rajkumar Hirani (Lage Raho Munnabhai) and Vishal Bharadwaj (Omkara). I'm not sure I care about the rest. Rakeysh will probably win - RDB was good, and more people saw it.

Best Picture: RDB will win, I think. Other nominees will include Lage Raho Munnabhai and Fanaa.

Note: This is still a work in progress. I might change my picks anytime until the awards night comes around.

Dhoom 2

Okay, here's my problem with Sanjay Gadhvi, the man behind the two Dhoom movies. He's got a nice visual style, a reasonably talented cast and a knack for making women look gorgeous, but he's forgotten a very basic ingredient. He's making movies about a cop on the trail of some great thieves. But not once does he invest enough in the scenes showing the actual crime. You've got the setup, you've got the scenes where the cop (Abhishek Bachchan) talks admiringly of the criminal and his methods... But the robberies themselves are handled so perfunctorily that all this seems for naught. And the chase/fight sequences afterwards have no zing. The movie makes it a point to advertise its high speed chases, but spends so much time in slo-mo that one never really gets a sense of the wind blowing through the actors' hair. Both the robbery and the chase afterwards feel as sterile as the demo section of a video game.

At least Dhoom was fresh and had a few things going for it. For starters, Esha Deol looked phenomenal. Her intro, where the camera slowly pans up her legs and you realize that it's taken a couple of seconds longer than you thought it would before it reaches the hemline of her skirt, was an event in itself. Abhishek Bachchan finally found a role that could showcase his particular brand of brooding screen presence. And I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Uday Chopra - he reminds me of what Saif Ali Khan used to be back in the days of Yeh Dillagi, although I'm leery of predicting that he'd go as far as Saif has in the years since.

This one, on the other hand, is a disaster. They got Abhishek and Uday back to doo their shtick, but neither actor really takes off. Uday sounds like he's trying too hard, and Abhishek replaces acting with general glowering. They've added Bipasha to the mix, just to up the glamour quotient (I thought Rimi Sen did just fine in the first one, but I guess it wasn't enough), and given her a few bikinis to wear on Copacabana beach in Rio. Her contribution to the movie is essentially that: wearing a bikini in Rio.

On the other hand, the man got imaginative when it came to the villains. The Dhoom movies have to have a supervillain, so they got Hrithik Roshan this time around. And for good measure, they added Aishwarya Rai as his sidekick. The first part works brilliantly - Hrithik is in top form here, and is far and away the most watchable thing about the movie. Ash starts off well - she looks gorgeous when you see her for te first time. And then she opens her mouth.

Someday, many years from now, Ash will probably occupy the same pedestal as Hema Malini - a gorgeous woman whose fatal flaw was that she wasn't mute. Ash's dialogue delivery and acting in this movie is so atrocious, it could singlehandedly sink the movie, even if the others didn't do such a splendid job of sinking it anyway.

One of the best scenes in Dhoom, I felt, was the conversation between Abhishek and John in the end - both actors were at their best in that scene. I guess Sanjay thought the same thing, and figured that the key was to give us a great villain, and work on the scenes with the cop and the criminal. The strategy works: Abhishek's only good scenes in the entire movie are those with Hrithik. Those are the only moments when he seems to be anything other than a cardboard cut-out. But these are small consolations in a big movie: the rest of what happens on screen is so phenomenally insipid, it makes the whole product hopeless.

Apparently, there's a Dhoom 3 in the works, with SRK as the villain this time. Not surprising, really: even when I heard about the second movie, my prediction was that, if this one's successful, there'll be one more, and my only question was, which of SRK or Big B would be the villain this time.

I can only hope that Sanjay Gadhvi gets it right the third time around. But I'm not holding my breath.

Bhagam Bhag

This seems to be a bad time for me to consider watching a Hindi movie. Consider the last few movies I've watched:

1. Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna: I was on a bus from Hyderabad to Bangalore and they played it during the journey. I've never really considered jumping off a moving bus before, but I came close that night. I mean, heck, isn't there something in the Geneva Convention that bans this sort of punishment?

2. Vivaah: Nothing happens in this movie. I mean nothing. The best thing I can say about it is that the term "comfortably numb" applies well to it. It doesn't make you cringe as often as Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, if that's any consolation.

3. Baabul: Same as above, but with more melodrama, although maybe I should spell it "mellow-drama". What the heck is happening here? Did the National Association of Insomniacs go petition the big Bollywood studios or something?

4. Dhoom 2: I remember reading somewhere that the most popular reason for making a sequel is that the first film made money. Unfortunately, in most cases, that's where reason bails out and the suits take over. Dhoom 2 is one such debacle, a perfect example of form replacing content.

And now Bhagam Bhag, a comic caper I had pinned much of my hopes on. Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar, Priyadarshan at the helm, Govinda making a comeback... it all sounded good on paper. I should've read the signs more carefully: when the makers decide to include a "rap number" featuring the heroes at the last moment, it is usually because they saw the rushes and realized that the rest of the movie was crap.

The movie basically involves a troupe of performers in London to do a show. The heroine bails out at the last moment, so they search for a replacement. The replacement turns out to have suicidal tendencies, and immolates herself one night. But then it turns out that she's not dead. And then... do you really want to hear the rest of this?

Now, I have no problems per se with the idea of a screwball plot that piles one contrivance on top of another. What I do have a problem with is this: the movie is simply not funny. I don't remember laughing even once. I chuckled a couple of times, but that's about it. Govinda appears desperate, trying to replace comic timing with perpetual annoyance. Paresh Rawal has precious little to do, and he does even less: as performances go, this one compares with Satish Shah playing a dead man in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, but with none of the comic potential. Only Akshay Kumar looks moderately alive - he's the pick of a bad lot.

I guess the basic problem is this: the makers probably decided on the star cast first, and were so enamoured by the comic possibilities inherent in such a cast that they forgot to actually make the movie. Somebody's got to remind these idiots that they have to do something in order to be funny, they can't just exist and expect people to laugh.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The best movie posters of 2006

Sam's Myth: TOP FIVE: 2006 Movie Posters

Not my pick, since this isn't a category I follow. But this is a good list, from what I can see.

Freeze Frame #19: Pulp Fiction

The soul of Pulp Fiction lies in its dialogue - profane, literate, whimsical and incredibly well-delivered. In fact, the dialogue is so important to the movie, its characters are a lot more interested in what they're saying than who they're shooting (or being shot at by, for that matter). This is an extremely interesting choice, in my opinion. It has been my experience that most people with a loaded gun in the movies have nothing to say other than plot points. The chief pleasure of Pulp Fiction is in listening to its characters talk. What happens is besides the point.

The scene that encapsulates this particular value for me comes early in the film, when two hitmen named Jules and Vincent (played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta respectively) have a conversation on their way to a job. The topic is their boss Marsellus Wallace's wife Mia, whom Vincent is supposed to take out to dinner that evening. Jules tells him about one of their acquaintances whom Marsellus threw out a window because he caught him giving Mia a foot massage. They're right in the middle of an argument about whether or not a foot massage means anything - whether touching his wife's feet and sticking your tongue in her holiest of holies are in the same ballpark, to use Jules' words - when they reach the door of the apartment they're supposed to enter. Jules looks at his watch, figures they still have some time, and they go down the corridor to finish their discussion.

Think about this:

a) They have a fairly long conversation about something that has nothing to do with the job they're there to do. The purpose of the exchange is to set the scene for Vincent's date with Mia later that evening, but that would've been achieved by simply mentioning what Marsellus did; the argument thereafter served no real purpose.

b) There's nothing that happens in that apartment after they enter, that they couldn't have done earlier. They just took their time about it, so they could finish talking. I especially love what Jules says when their discussion is over: "Come on, let's get into character." Then they go into that apartment, play the hard men, and kill a few people.

Exactly how often does this happen in the movies?

Freeze Frame #18: The General

How many of you have seen a Buster Keaton movie? He's not as well-known as Charlie Chaplin, but his comedic talents are no less prodigious. He was also an amazingly courageous stunt man - not only did he do his own stunts - some of them quite amazing - he even used to be a stunt double for some of the other actors in his films. Knowing this fact makes it all the more impressive when you see his films. A stunt I was particularly impressed by is one in Steamboat Bill Jr. where he's standing before a house and the wall comes down on him, but he goes right through an open window on the wall. Roger Ebert mentions in his essay on Buster's films, that he didn't rehearse that scene because he trusted his crew and his planning and was confident it would go off well.

However, my iconic Buster Keaton moment, the one that immediately springs to mind every time his name is mentioned, is from The General. Buster has just been refused an opportunity to enlist as part of the Confederate army in the Civil War, since his skills as an engineer are considered far more valuable. His girlfriend, however, refuses to listen to his explanations, and declines to talk to him unless he is in uniform. Dejected, Buster goes back to the railway yard and sits on the crossbar of his engine, wishing he could solve this problem. Unbeknownst to him, his assistant has gotten into the cab of the engine and started it. The scene ends with the visual of Buster being carried along on the cross-bar, his thin frame carried up and down with its movements.

Freeze Frame #16 & #17: Iruvar

My favourite Mani Rathnam movie of all time. Yes, even more than Mouna Raagam, Nayakan or the movie I just raved about in an earlier post - Kannathil Muthamittal. I can't quite explain why.

Iruvar is the story of two men, both destined to shape the future of Tamil Nadu politics. One is an actor, the other a writer. They start out as friends, then become comrades in the political arena, then rivals, then just a couple of old men with a lot of baggage but not enough energy to carry it anymore.

Two larger than life protagonists, both played by great actors. A story whose broad outlines most Tamilians with a grasp of recent history can recognize. Little wonder that the women don't have too much to do. Yet, my two favourite scenes in the movie both involve the women.

1. Tabu plays Senthamarai, a school teacher in a village in Tamil Nadu who catches the eye of Thamizhselvam (Prakash Raj in the Karunanidhi role) when he is at a protest rally. He writes to her and asks her to come to him. And she does. He is a married man, and the concept of a divorce is not only alien to the culture of that time, but would also mean political suicide. She asks him, "Who am I here? What is my position?" And he replies, "My darling. My lover. My friend." He explains with his eyes what that list does not contain, and why it can never contain it. She processes this, ponders for a moment and smiles, eyes shining with unshed tears.

The next scene shows the couple on the floor on the bedroom after their coupling, while the lines Unnodu naan vaazhntha ovvoru maniththuliyum, maranappadukkaiyilum marakkathu kanmaniye (Every moment I have lived with you, I will never forget to my dying breath) are uttered in the background. It's a beautiful poem, very well rendered, quite poignant. But I think it would've been far less powerful, had it not been preceded by that sublime moment between Prakash Raj and Tabu.

2. After he becomes the chief minister, on the way home, Selvam changes his mind midway and asks his driver to direct the car to Senthamarai's place. One of his aides calls up his house to inform his wife Maragatham (played by Revathy) of the change in plans. She is in the middle of some housework when the call comes. You don't hear what is said - you just see her face. She listens, her face falls for a moment, then with a resigned look, she goes back to her housework. Revathy has about 10 minutes of screen time in a three hour movie. Most of it is nondescript. But in that one moment, without a single line of dialogue, she captures the essence of her character.

Freeze Frame #13, #14, #15: Kannathil Muthamittal

One of the recurring themes in Mani Rathnam's movies is that of an individual or a family caught in a social maelstrom. Kannathil Muthamittal is one such, depicting a little girl's search for her biological mother in civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka. For the most part, the movie is, I think, pitch perfect. It overdoes it right at the very end, and it's kind of a glaring flaw, but I'm inclined to forgive that - to paraphrase what Einstein once said t Wheeler, he has earned the right to be wrong occasionally.

Three scenes stand out in my opinion. The first is well-known and quite often mentioned by reviewers. The second is not often mentioned, I think. And the third is the big payoff.

1. There's a scene where a village is being evacuated before the Sri Lankan air force bombs the place. An amazing song - Vidai Kodu Engal Naade - plays in the background. (Amazing how A. R. Rehman picks an unconventional but absolutely perfect voice to render some of his songs - this one is by M. S. Viswanathan, and simply blows me away every time I hear it.) The standout moment involves the old temple priest in the village who refuses to leave the place he has lived in all his life. You see him standing there, defiantly ringing the temple bell as the bombs explode all around him. Poetic.

2. Right at the end, the girl Amudha finally gets her wish - she meets her biological mother Shyama. And she asks her, "Why did you leave me? Why did you never come to see me?"

Shyama had gone back to Sri Lanka soon after giving birth to her in Rameswaram over ten years ago, and joined the ranks of the LTTE. Her husband is dead, she has probably seen many of her comrades, friends and family members die during these years, and has trained herself to concentrate single-mindedly on her chosen purpose. This unexpected meeting with her child, and that question, leaves her sandbagged.

She pauses for a moment, and simply says "Tarunam appadi." (Loosely translated, "The circumstances were such.") It is a testament to Nandita Das' acting, and to Mani Rathnam's skill, that those two words are all we need.

3. This one involves Simran. For years, her function in the movies was to look pretty, and she did that admirably. The sole blip on the radar was Vaali, and I felt even that performance was overrated. When I watched Kannathil Muthamittal for the first time, I noticed the performances of Keerthana, who plays Amudha, and Nandita Das, who has about 10 minutes of screen time and uses it exceptionally well.

The second time around, I concentrated on Simran. Hers is an interesting role: she plays Indira, Amudha's adoptive mother who, along with her husband, searches for her daughter's biological parent. She never really verbalizes it, but there's a feeling of insecurity that comes with that search. It comes out in little ways, like when she has little fights with her daughter. And watch how she winces almost imperceptibly every time her daughter mentions that they're in Sri Lanka to look for her "real mother". (That's why I've been using the word "biological" ad nauseam, by the way.)

Right at the end of the movie, when Shyama is walking away after the big meeting, Amudha turns and gives Indira a big kiss on the cheek. To the girl, it's probably just a way od saying thank you, for helping her find her mother. But to Indira, it means so much more, and you see her face light up.

When I watched the movie for the first time, this moment didn't do anything for me. But on the second viewing, I was concentrating on Indira, and Simran did such a great job of conveying the character's inner turmoil while staying mostly in the background, that the last kiss totally made my day.

I realized then that the movie was not about the girl, or about her search, or about the Sri Lankan conflict. All that is just the backdrop for Indira's story. And the title of the movie (translated to "she kissed me on the cheek") wasn't trivial - Mani was trying to tell you what he was trying to do, and what to look for.

Freeze Frame #12: Fiza

There's a reason why my choice for the best screen mom of all time is Jaya Bachchan in Fiza, and the reason is this scene. (Before you ask, no, I haven't seen Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, so I can't comment on that one.)

Her son was lost years ago during some communal riots in the neighbourhood - he grows up to become a terrorist. His sister finds him and brings him back home, and it seems for a while that he has left that life behind him. His mom, who is learning to smile again after so many years, is reverting to her old playful self.

And then, he gets into a fight with some local goon who harasses his sister and goes to town on the guy. The incident also precipitates his revelation to his mother and sister about having joined a terrorist group again.

Watch Jaya Bachchan's eyes as she takes all this in. She dies soon after (by her own hand, if I remember correctly), but the actual time of death is in that scene. Watching the light go out of her eyes when she sees what her son has become is among the most haunting moments in this interesting yet flawed work.

ps: Soon after Jaya dies, there's a song picturized on Asha Sachdev who plays Jaya's flirty neighbour Ulfat. It goes Na leke jaao mere dost ka janaaza hai and is sung by Jaspinder Narula. A lot of the other songs in the movie became popular, but this is the real gem in that album.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Love Mugam

I was discussing Tamil and Telugu movies with my bro-in-law Goutham, and he told me that Siddharth is now one of the hottest properties in the Telugu film industry, thanks to two superhit movies where he plays the romantic lead (Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana and Bommarillu).

Goutham's way of describing it was: the guynow occupies the position Madhavan did in Tamil movies when Alai Paayudhe came out. He has the "love mugam" (literally "love face"). I'm not sure if I've heard a more succint, crazy-sounding, brilliant description of the chocolate hero stereotype, and I doubt I ever will.

Here's to you, Goutham: that little phrase of yours just made my day.


Watched Baabul yesterday night. Ravi Chopra seems to have made his choice of genre clear - the family melodramas of the eighties, the type that Visu used to be well-known for. (For a brilliant rant on the subject, check out this piece by dingchak).

Now, while this may not be obvious from my earlier posts, or my general preferences for movies, I don't have anything against the genre per se. If it's done well, I'll watch it, and even enjoy it. While I wasn't completely sold on his previous venture Baghban, I thought it had a few good moments. The final speech by Amitabh was, I thought, quite well-delivered.

This one, on the other hand, is dead in the water. And I use the word dead in every imaginable sense. Nobody, and I mean nobody, displays even the tiniest hint of a spark throughout its running time. This is a story about how a widow's father-in-law is willing to forgo every relationship he has to get her remarried. Not a bad plot for this kind of movie. And many scenes are set up in a way that gives the actors ample room to go ballistic. And yet, nobody seems to take that chance. I like understated acting (see my earlier post on the subject), but there's a world of difference between understating and being a lawn ornament.

Rani Mukherjee basically has to look pretty, look happy, and then weep for the rest of the movie's running time. She's the one getting remarried, but she never seems totally sold on the idea. She comes across simply as a device to demonstrate the protagonist's nobility of character. While it is true that the plot revolves around the father-in-law, his entire struggle makes no sense if the person he seeks to help doesn't seem to want it.

This is a quieter, more dialed-down Amitabh than we're used to seeing. This itself is not a problem, had he managed to convey a certain degree of intensity. This is a man who has lost his only son, and now is possessed by a fierce desire to see his daughter-in-law happy again. The plot tells us that. But his eyes tell us nothing.

Salman basically just has to appear as a random romantic hero in the first half and die at the end of it. The only good thing I can say about his performance is that the cringeworthiness per unit screen time has gone down marginally from Baghban. Which isn't saying much, considering that he has more screen time in this movie.

Hema Malini, John Abraham and Om Puri basically just occupy space and do little or nothing of note. I can forgive John for not being capable of much more than that; I'll even forgive Hema for the same reason, sacriligeous as it might sound to some (she never impressed me as an actress). But what Om Puri is doing (or not doing) in this dreck is beyond my comprehension.

On the whole, this is one of the most sorry-ass excuses for a movie to come out in recent times. That it boasts such a star cast only makes it even more of a tragedy.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Freeze Frame #11: Almost Famous

Kate Hudson won a richly deserved Oscar nomination for her part as Penny Lane in this movie. Penny is a free spirit - a groupie to the rest of the world, a "band-aid" in her own mind. She in love with Russell Hammond, the lead guitarist of Stillwater. William Miller, the boy reporter who follows the band during its tour and the protagonist through whose eyes the story unfolds, has a crush on her. He sees that Russell does not love her, does not regard her as much else other than a convenient fuck-buddy while he's on the road.

Watch this crucial exchange between Penny and Will where it all comes to a head:
Penny: Maybe it is love, as much as it can be, for somebody...
William: Somebody who sold you to Humble Pie for fifty bucks and a case of beer! I was there! I was there!... Look- I'm sorry.
Watch her face as she reacts to this piece of information. The tears that come unbidden, held back for a moment, the brave smile, and the response: What kind of beer?

If that doesn't deserve an Oscar nomination, I don't know what does.

Freeze Frame #9 & #10: Good Will Hunting

A movie with some very smart dialogue, delivered by actors who clearly relish the material. Standout examples include Will's monologue about why he shouldn't join the NSA, Sean's speech about regret, the scene in the bar when Will blows away a cocky Harvard student... the list goes on. However, my two favourite moments from the movie both involve no dialogue.

The first is a scene with Matt Damon who plays Will Hunting, and Stellan Skarsgard who plays Gerald Lambeau, a mathematics professor who takes Will under his wing. One of the movie's plotlines is about how Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), his shrink, and Gerald Lambeau, both try to play a father figure in his life, in their own ways. Gerald believes that Will has great potential which he must actualize, and pushes him in that direction. Sean believes that Will first needs to learn how to trust, open himself up to the possibility of both love and hurt, and learn to be happy. The more obvious side to take is that of the shrink, so the more obvious ploy would've been to make the professor some kind of impersonal, pushy jerk. But the movie smartly sidesteps that ploy, and the way it does that is to add a simple five second postscript to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Will and Gerald are working on a proof on the board. It's mostly silent - the communication is through equations on the board. After a particularly nifty piece of math, they both sit back, satisfied, and look at what they've accomplished on the blackboard. And while they do that, Gerald reaches out and ruffles Will's hair. To me, that simple gesture is what humanizes Gerald beyond all measure.

Aside: You have to understand: ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, ruffling someone's hair has been, for me, the de facto expression of one's affection. So, while I find it a very significant moment, it might not be so for others.

The other great moment comes right at the end. In a scene that comes shortly before it, Will tells Chuckie how he doesn't see why he shouldn't be a bricklayer all his life. Chuckie's response to that is beautifully put:
Look, you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way. In twenty years, if you're still livin' here, comin' over to my house to watch the Patriots games, still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you. That's not a threat. Now, that's a fact. I'll fuckin' kill you.
A little later in the same scene, he says:
Every day I come by your house and I pick you up. And we go out. We have a few drinks, and a few laughs, and it's great. But you know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds, from when I pull up to the curb and when I get to your door, cause I think, maybe I'll get up there and I'll knock on the door and you won't be there. No goodbye. No see you later. No nothing. You just left. I don't know much, but I know that.
It sets things up for the last scene, when Will finally gets his act together and goes off to California, and see if he could maybe win Skylar back. And Chuckie finds out about it the way he wanted to: he goes to Will's house one morning and knocks on the door, and he isn't there. No goodbye. No see you later. No nothing. The camera just stays on Ben Affleck's face for a few seconds, as he processes this, realizes that his friend is gone, and celebrates and mourns it in equal measure. The movie gives these two people enough time together to build up to this moment; this is a fitting payoff, and well-earned.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I just finished watching Vivah, Sooraj Barjatya's latest venture into feel-good territory. It's an interesting experience, sort of like watching The Princess Diaries - you figure there's an audience for this kind of movie, but you have no idea what that is, or why such an audience would even exist.

Vivah is, as the tagline says, a story of the journey from engagement to marriage. It involves Poonam, a girl whose parents are both dead, and has been brought up by her uncle. She gets engaged to Prem, a Delhi boy from an extremely rich family. They get engaged, get to know each other, and eventually get married after two hours of sweetness and light and half an hour of lightweight complications. Standard Sooraj Barjatya formula, three movies old now.

It's interesting to see the progression of this guy's films. Maine Pyar Kiya had something of a plot, a healthy disregard for reality and a palpable enthusiasm evident in the actors. Hum Aapke Hain Koun did away with the plot and kept everything else. Hum Saath Saath Hain did away with most of the enthusiasm as well (save for Saif, who actually seemed to be having a good time). And now Vivah, which does away with whatever was left.

Now I'm trying to figure out what the guy can do next. Probably something called Mahurat, which is the journey from the beginning of a wedding ceremony to the end. Or better still, an Indianized, happy-families version of Groundhog Day, where a happy, filthy rich family relives the same happy day over and over again. Only, in Sooraj Barjatya's version, they're likely to want to relive it the exact same way each time around.

In mathematics, there's the concept of an existence proof. Frankly, the only existence proof for Vivah is that, otherwise, it's bloody difficult to explain what happened to two and a half hours of your life.

Romantic Comedies

I was watching The American President on HBO tonight - a wonderful movie, by the way - and got to thinking about formulae.

There are many well-known recipes in the film industry, none more often used, I think, than the romantic comedy. You get a man and a woman to meet cute, then spend the better part of ninety minutes making it difficult for them to go ahead right away and spend the rest of their lives with each other. You do this by one of the following methods:

  1. Make them annoy each other, for whatever reason. Then melt the ice slowly.
  2. At least one of them is in a position/profession that makes it difficult for them to act on their impulses.
  3. A series of misunderstandings making one of them believe that the other is a cad/adulterer/whatever.
  4. Give at least one of them another love interest, and confuse the heck out of them.

There are a few others, but you get the general idea. It can't take you more than a few minutes to come up with examples of each of these plots. It's all standard stuff, tried and tested a gazillion times over.

And yet, there aren't too many truly great rom-coms out there. There are some decent ones (You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping etc) and some dreary ones (Serendipity, Look Who's Talking, Kate and Leopold)... it's a standard formula, yet it's not so easy to get it just right. And I got to wondering about why.

I think with rom-coms, it's primarily humor. Make 'em laugh, as Donald O'Connor sang, and you'll get your audience where you want them. Most of chemistry is about having two actors with excellent timing. There is, beyond that, something else that elevates certain pairings - I won't deny that. But for the most part, if the leads get good dialogue and get their timing right, most of the battle is won.

Look at When Harry Met Sally - surely one of the best rom-coms of all time. Both leads get moments where one is breaking loose and the other is playing it straight. And they both get it right, all the time.

America's Sweethearts - this is a movie with big stars, a good script and the potential to be great. And yet, it falls short of that mark, and one big reason is that Julia Roberts isn't on John Cusack's speed.

Vanilla Sky - not a rom-com, but one of the movie's singular pleasures is the chemistry between Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, and most of it has to do with great dialogue and wonderful timing. (This is one of Cruz' few good English language performances, by the way.) Then again, any movie that has a line as quirky as "I'll tell you in another life when we're both cats" has a permanent claim to my good side.

The thing is, if you just get two good looking people to smile at each other on screen, you're assuming that the audience will be satisfied with that and believe that these two characters are made for each other. You're not doing any of the heavy lifting, and neither are your actors. You expect the audience to simply accept a romance because you say it is so. It doesn't work that way.

Spend some time on creating an actual - preferably playful - relationship among the leads, have them talk about things other than the plot, invest some time in writing actual dialogue instead of just showing montages of the two talking... then you have a romance between characters that the audience will care about. It's not so difficult. Certainly easier than most movies make it out to be.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

John Cusack

"I'm paranoid schizophrenic. I am my own entourage."
-- Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), America's Sweethearts

In most John Cusack movies I have seen, the man plays the same kind of guy. Smart, articulate, funny, and an ability to seem serious and sincere while spouting nonsense. And guess what? I don't mind. If this man never does anything different in his entire movie career, I for one will not complain.

I think I first saw him in the wonderful High Fidelity. He spends most of the movie talking to the audience directly. And trust me, it's a lot of talking. He's not a particularly nice guy in that movie, and you wish he'd grow up a bit, but you end up rooting for him anyway. Then I watched Grosse Point Blank, a movie funnier in the imagining than in the seeing. What I liked about him in that movie was how he played it really straight, and that's what made it funny. It's like watching Buster Keaton - the funniest thing about Buster's movies is how extraordinary things happen around him and he's totally stone-faced.

There have been quite a few others - Runaway Jury, America's Sweethearts, Serendipity, Max, Being John Malkovich, Con Air, Must Love Dogs... No, I haven't seen Identity. I will, eventually.

But I guess if I had to quote one important role that I think defines his screen persona, itwould be Say Anything. Cameron Crowe's directorial debut starring Cuack, Ione Skye and John Mahoney is the best teen romance I have ever seen. It has an actual plot that isn't about the boy and the girl kissing in the end. In some ways, the Cusack character is only incidental to the movie's main subject, which is about the honesty that exists (or doesn't) between a father and his daughter. But he is the one that gives the movie its soul. Definitely a must-watch in my book.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Freeze Frame #8: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge

Towards the end of the first half, when the trip to Europe is over and SRK and Kajol are saying their goodbyes in the railway station, Kajol asks SRK if he would come to her wedding. And SRK simply smiles, shakes his head as if to say no, and walks away.

Aditya Chopra sets that scene up well: he's spent half the movie getting them to fall in love. A few scenes earlier, SRK proposes to Kajol and, seeing her shocked expression, laughs and says he was joking. He builds it all up to that moment in the railway station - in that one look, without a single line of dialogue being spoken, he tells her that the earlier proposal was no joke, he really does love her. Beautifully done. The rest of the movie is standard, albeit well-made fare for its genre, but for one moment there, the movie has more intelligence than the average glossy romance.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Freeze Frame #7: Ice Princess

Plot: A talented youngster overcomes parental opposition to shine in his/her chosen field (ice skating) but despairs that the parent hasn't seen what she could do, and whaddya know, the parent lands up in time for her all-important final performance.

I'll give you thirty seconds to name at least seven movies with the same premise. Your time starts now. Go!

The thing about formulae is that they provide the filmmaker with a safe zone. To use an ice skating analogy, it's like the compulsories: you nail all the jumps and the lifts and whatever else, and you're through. When you sit down and watch a movie like, say Kate and Leopold, you can see that principle in action. That movie does absolutely nothing out of the ordinary for a romantic comedy, but doesn't misstep too often, and has a couple of personable stars that you could watch for ninety minutes without cringing.

The problem is, if the maker plays it safe, a guy like me begins to get a little antsy. I wouldn't bemoan the loss of ninety minutes of my life, but I'd sit there wondering whether the guy could've done something more with it. If you're gonna ride the shoulders of giants, the least you could do is jump. Otherwise, what good are you?

The good news is, Ice Princess jumps. And lands on its feet. (Which is more than I can say about my sole experience on a skating rink in Gdansk two years ago, but that's another story.) The way it does this is pretty smart too. Conventional (this is a Disney movie aimed at a specific demographic, after all), but smart nonetheless.

See, one of the problems I have with this particular formula - the crusty coach who supports the talented youngster versus the parent who is horrified that his/her child is deviating from The Plan - is that these characters simply exist at the convenience of the script. You don't see them as people, just as The Mom or The Coach. The way you escape this trap is by doing what you can to humanize them in the audience's eyes.

This movie takes an interesting approach to doing that: it creates a mirror image. So you have Joan Cusack playing the driven mother of Michelle Trachtenberg (the girl is a genius and is all set to go to Harvard, but wants to skate), and on the other side, you have Kim Cattrall playing the mother of Hayden Panettiere (mom's the skating coach, has big plans for her daughter, but the kid just wants a normal life).

The other interesting thing it does is with the Hayden Panettiere character. Usually, this one is written as the snobbish bitch who gets her comeuppance in the rink in the final competition. And when you see her in the beginning, the shoe seems to fit. And then, in a scene of uncommon depth for a movie in this genre, the Trachtenberg character gives her some tips on how to skate better based on a computer program she's written, and they become friends.

I like the way that scene is shot: Hayden finishes skating, and finds that she's doing her jumps better than she used to thanks to Michelle's advice. When she finishes skating, you can see the wonder in her eyes: she has just had a glimpse of perfection in her own work. And Michelle tells her: "The computer doesn't make the jumps. You do." That is, I think, the moment where the movie skips ahead of its formula and charts its own path.

Now why am I here...

I haven't spoken on this to Ramsu, but I got an invite, and now I'm here. Some people, like me, feel compelled to say something.

I don't know what I'll say here. Maybe I'll say something about the (perceived) fact that Abhishek Bacchan would lose his power if he shaves or takes a bath (please plot unshaven movies like Sarkar or even Refugee against shaven movies like ...what? you don't even remember? Om Jai Jagadeesh...eesh!). Maybe I'll go on to say less is more in his case, and the more understated he gets in his acting and dancing and romancing, the more the beard obscures his face, the more he covers up - like maybe wear a burqua in the next movie, the better he'll become.

Or maybe I'll wander on to topics like does Rakhi Sawant need an asset management company, does Shakti Kapoor need 'professional' help, was toneless singing the origin of Rap and so on. Maybe I'll also put down a few words on how for everyone, leaving on the right note is a desire but that does not really happen everytime (remember Aaj Ka Arjun / Jadugar / Toofan / Lal Badshah / (Ramsu will kill me for not mentioning this) Ajooba)? Maybe maybe...

For now, I just meant I'll write about anything when I feel like saying it, treat it like a disclaimer if you will.

Abhishek Bachchan

There's this long-forgotten sub-genre of movies that can be classified as Indian fantasy. I realize that this sounds like a website featuring dimly lit videos, but I'm referring actually to movies that used to involve princes and swordfights and evil magicians. The villain (or his most powerful henchman) usually has his life hidden inside a parrot or precious jewel or something like that: destroy the jewel and you destroy the villain.

So here's the question: if Abhishek Bachchan shaves, will he lose his power?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"A little less," said Wilder

Directors often ask actors to underplay closer shots, because too much facial movement translates into mugging or overacting. Billy Wilder once asked Jack Lemmon for "a little less'' so many takes in a row that Lemmon finally exploded: "Whaddya want! Nothing?'' Lemmon recalls that Wilder raised his eyes to heaven: "Please God!''
-- Roger Ebert, in an essay on Dr. Strangelove

Sometimes I wonder about the term "over-acting". There are so many examples all over the place. The scenes that I find really effective most often are the ones where little is said or done, but much is accomplished. The scene in Deepa Mehta's Earth that I spoke of in an earlier post is a prime example. You don't see Aamir Khan doing much. And yet, he leaves you shaken.

And then I think about someone like Arjun Rampal. Most of the time, that guy does nothing as well. What's the difference? Why is Aamir Khan's nothing better than Arjun Rampal's nothing?

I guess the difference lies in two things. One, when Aamir does nothing, it's a contrast to the scenes where he has done something and done it well, so we interpret it differently. The other big difference is in the way a scene is set up. When Lenny betrays Shanta unwittingly to Dil Navaz, everything else we have already scene or heard lets us know the magnitude of the situation. If the audience already knows what to feel, getting out of the way and letting them feel it themselves is far more effective than actually trying to "do" something. That is why, for instance, I was less than impressed with Kamal Hassan's antics in the railway station in the closing moments of Moondram Pirai - I felt he had destroyed all that had come before it by trying too much.

Freeze Frame #6: Earth

Deepa Mehta's adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man is one of those rare instances where the movie makes wiser choices than the book. The most important of which is to end the movie when the story reaches its emotional climax. The book goes on for a while after that, but by then it has lost its tension.

The story is set in Lahore in 1947, in the days just before India and Pakistan became independence. It is told through the eyes of Lenny Sethna, a little girl from an affluent Parsi family in Lahore. A good bit of the movie is about Shanta (Nandita Das), her ayah, and her suitors - Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan), the ice candy man, and Hassan (Rahul Khanna), the masseur. Dil Navaz is the colorful one, more obvious about his affections, while Hassan is quieter but has her heart.

And as this little drama unfolds, a bigger drama is unfolding in the background. Trains full of butchered bodies come across the border - Dil Navaz' family was in one of them. Rumblings of a fundamentalist nature are heard all over the city. Non-muslims are either fleeing the city or converting to Islam to escape the ire of the rioters.

It comes to a head on the fateful morning when Hassan is found murdered, and a mob of militant muslims attacks the Sethna household. Dil Navaz is with them. Shanta, a Hindu, is hiding inside the house, and the family tries to protect her by lying about her whereabouts. But Dil Navaz knows better - he goes to Lenny, the little girl who has always been charmed by him, and asks the fateful question. In her innocence, she tells him the truth.

He straightens up, walks to the mob, tells them that she is inside the house, and sits in a corner smoking a beedi while they drag her out. She kicks and screams and cries, the mob jeers, the little girl, having realized the magnitude of her betrayal, cries that she lied and tries to make it all untrue. And he sits there, smoking.

Not so long ago, when his family was found dead on the train, he had talked about the raging beast that lives within each man, and how we do our best not to let it out. You sit there in shock, wondering if you were seeing the beast in him. But this, this air of nonchalance, this stillness, is more frightening than the rage you had expected to see. This is not anger - this is hate.

Freeze Frame #5: Million Dollar Baby

One of the most emotionally wrenching movies I've seen. I felt drained when it got over. It doesn't put a step wrong anywhere during its running time. The story is about a woman who wants to become a boxer, and the crusty old man who becomes her trainer, her mentor, her friend, everything. There's a moment when Maggie says, "I've got nothing but you, Frankie." And he replies, "Well, you've got me."

As it turns out, it's a prophetic statement. Maggie gets injured in a freak accident that leaves her paralyzed. She doesn't want to live this way, and wants to die. And she wants Frankie to help her do that. He isn't for it, obviously, but he can also see her point of view.

There's a phrase in Gaelic that Frankie uses to call her - Mo Cuishle. Her Irish fans pick up on it, and they chant it before every match she is in. He won't tell her what it is, though. She tells him she could look it up. He agrees that she could, but they both know that she won't - she'd rather he told her what it means.

Right at the end, Frankie decides to help her die, and goes to her hospital room in the middle of the night to pull her plug. And just before he does it, he looks at her and says, "Mo Cuishle means: My darling, my blood." And the camera stays on her face for a moment while he sets about disconnecting her life support. She's got tubes all around her, most of her face is covered by a breathing mask, so all you can see is her eyes. It is enough.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Freeze Frame #4: Before Sunrise

My favourite movie of all time. A man and a woman meet on a train. He is an American, on his way to Vienna to catch a plane back home the next day. She is a student, on her way to school in Paris. They start talking, and find each other quite easy to converse with. He convinces her to get off the train with him at Vienna - they could spend the day together, he'd board the plane the next morning, and she could get on the next train to Paris. She agrees, they get off the train, and spend the day together, until sunrise the next day.

That's it. No plot. No scenes to two lovers being separated by various misunderstandings until it all clears up and they kiss while the soundtrack plays Somewhere over the rainbow. No scenes involving the man running after a moving train trying to win the woman back and giving up, only to find her sitting on the platform. Nope, nothing of the sort.

The movie is simply about these two people walking the streets of Vienna, talking, sharing a day of their lives with each other, and falling in love. Falling in love with a movie like this is pretty much like falling in love. I still have (hopefully) many more years to go, many more movies to watch and love, but I know that none of them can replace this one in my heart. They could come awfully close, yes - they could topple a few others off my top ten. But this one will always be Numero Uno.

While there is no scene in this movie that I consider below par, my favourite is a moment when the two of them are on a tram. She's talking, he's looking at her with a little smile, and you can see how he's slowly falling for her. An errant lock of her hair falls across her eyes, and he instinctively reaches out to brush it away, but stops just before she might notice. It was a quick, throwaway moment, but to me, when I think of that movie, this is the first scene that springs to mind.

Interestingly, there's a mirror image of this scene in the equally brilliant sequel, Before Sunset, where she reaches out and pulls back before he notices. Which, I suppose, means that the scene mattered to the maker as well.

Freeze Frame #3: Mudhal Mariyadhai

I consider Bharathiraja to be one of the finest directors Tamil cinema has seen. Sure, he can be quite melodramatic, and there are times when he doesn't know where to stop, but consider what he has managed to do. After 16 Vayathinilae, the village film would never be the same again. Movies that came after it simply followed the rule book that he wrote.

My favourite scene from his movies is from Mudhal Mariyadhai. The plot involves a middle aged man (Sivaji Ganesan in one of his great performances) and his relationship with a young woman (Radha). The man is married to an absolute harridan (Vadivukkarasi), and his friendship
with the younger woman is what sustains his soul. On one occasion, when his wife is on yet another of her rants, he loses it and talks about what a slut she was when she was young, and how he married her when she got pregnant by someone else, simply because her father begged him to help save face. At the face of it, it is simply a scene that allows him to lash out at a woman who has been making his life miserable for so long, but it sets up a later scene of poetic simplicity and power.

One morning, the village is abuzz with the news that the young woman has killed a man. The man, his wife, and many others get to the edge of the river where the body lies, covered by a cloth. The young woman stands there, mute; she has refused to offer any explanation for her actions. It begins to drizzle, and just at that moment, a gust of wind blows away the cloth covering the dead man. And Bharathiraja doesn't stay on the man's face but cut's to the wife's expression. As you see the shock and comprehension in her eyes, and the sudden unbidden tears, the rain slowly wipes off the sindoor from her forehead. And you realize, without anything having to be told, who the dead man was, and why the woman must have killed him.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Casino Royale

*ing Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench

Like most other Bond fans, I've watched every Bond movie made so far, with the sole exception of the earlier Casino Royale. And like every Bond fan, I've worshipped at the altar of Sean Connery. I rate Goldfinger among the best movies I've seen. It was a perfect example of the Bond formula - gadgets, gorgeous women, a megalomaniacal villain, a great climax, memorable one-liners and oodles of style. To me, everything that followed it simply tried to repeat it, with minor changes and mixed results.

So you will understand how much it has taken me to say this: Of all the Bond movies I have seen, Casino Royale is the best. And of all the actors who have played Bond over the years, I rank Daniel Craig's interpretation to be the best. Yeah, even better than Connery. If you have a problem with that, go read someone else's review.

There, I've said it. Now I can actually review the movie.

After twenty movies, the makers decided to reboot the Bond franchise. And to do that, they went back to the superspy's origins, in Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale. It is an interesting move, not only because it gives them the freedom to break a few rules, but also look at Bond as an actual human being, not a lawn ornament in a tuxedo with things going bang around him.

One of the best indications of this comes right at the beginning, in a low-key opening sequence filmed in black and white. The editing rhythm, the dialogue and the gritty look make you wonder if you walked into a different movie altogether. You expect Guy Ritchie or Steven Soderbergh to make something like this, not in a Bond movie. And yet, it is effective in introducing both a new Bond and a new actor in the role.

The story involves a terrorist financier named Le Chiffre, who has set up a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. M sends Bond, apparently the best poker player in the service, to compete against him. Not without misgivings, mind you: Bond isn't exactly the flavor of the month in the MI6 right then - his effectiveness seems to be matched by his lack of subtlety. At one point, M says, enraged by his latest faux-pas, "Earlier, when one of our agents did something this embarassing, they at least had the decency to defect. God, I miss the Cold War!" (Thank heavens they retained Judi Dench - where would a line like that be, without her to deliver it?)

The first act, which sets up the plot, involves two well-executed chase sequences. Both longer than necessary, both saved by the fact that they're well done. The first one involving what is, I believe, called a "free-running sequence" is especially splendid. The last few Bond movies had crossed the line from live action to cartoons. It was good to see something relatively plausible. The rest of it is standard stuff - cars, women, beaches... no surprises.

The second act involves a lengthy poker game, interspersed with violence. Low-key stuff, mostly. Interesting, but not thrilling. The more interesting parts here are the interactions with Vesper Lynd, the woman sent by thhe Treasury Department to keep an eye on Bond. And for the first time in the series, you have Bond engaging in an actual conversation with a woman - not about plot points, not about trading innuendoes, but about each other. The dialogue, while not great, is a few notches above the pedestrian. Heck, one conversation on a train goes on for so long, I kept wondering when the makers would lose patience and blow something up.

The third act is where the meat is. For one, it involves a lengthy torture sequence that might serve to explain why Bond's definition of safe sex involves not a condom but a Walther PPK automatic (see Goldeneye for an explanation of that comment). For another, it spends a considerable length of time on Bond and Vesper. And most importantly, this is where you see Bond as a human being rather than as an action hero or a ruthless spy. You see him fall in love. You see him change. (I must add, in all fairness, that this is also the segment where you hear some really bad dialogue. There were moments where it compared with the tripe that Anakin and Amidala exchanged in Revenge of the Sith. Yeah, that bad. But if you can get beyond that, you will find that this is a pretty good concluding act.

Since this is a movie with more focus on plot and character than on action, much depends on the performances. Thankfully, there isn't any seriously weak link. Eva Green plays a perfect foil to his character as Vesper Lynd, the woman Bond falls in love with. The actress, once described by
Bertolucci as "so beautiful it's obscene", brings charm, sass and vulnerability to a role that has traditionally been ornamental in the Bond movies. She's given some phenomenally ripe dialogue to utter at times, but manages not to make you cringe too much. And of course, it does help that she really is so beautiful it's obscene. Judi Dench plays the tough-as-nails M as well as one would expect. Mads Mikkelsen is just about adequate as the bad guy, but since he's not after world domination, he manages to get away with an understated performance.

Which brings us, finally, to Daniel Craig. And to the question of why I consider him the best Bond ever. So here's why.

For anyone who is familiar with the franchise, the idea of a Bond origin story automatically brings back memories of the first Bond film, Dr. No. While Goldfinger has long been my favourite, I am quite fond of this one for one simple reason: it showed Bond as a resourceful, yet fallible spy. To me, Dr. No represents Connery's finest work as James Bond - he actually had to act, and create a character that audiences would love. After that outing, the last part was a given, and he simply had to embody the part. Sure, you can see him evolving through the first three movies, but these were mostly incremental changes.

Daniel Craig faces a similar, yet different challenge here: He has to create the James Bond who could've plausibly evolved into the Connery of Dr. No, and yet, he has to do enough to make the role his own in the future. It is to his credit that he absolutely nails it. He brings dimensions to the role that none of the others even suggested. By the time you hear him uttering the immortal line of introduction ("The name's Bond. James Bond."), with the John Barry theme playing in the background, you feel exhilarated.

There has been much hoo-hah on the Internet about the unsuitability of Daniel Craig for the role. Some even started a website called Folks, I dunno what you're having for dinner, but I think humble pie for desert is in order.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Freeze Frame #2: Pride and Prejudice

I quite loved the latest Jane Austen adaptation starring Keira Knightley. I thought it had a lot of life in it, and featured a great performance by Knightley as Elizabeth.

P&P has never quite appealed to me as a book - I found it to be nice, in the way that Hum Aapke Hain Koun would be nice if you went into the movie hall expecting nothing. It was obvious that there was a lot of social commentary there; I just didn't find myself captivated by it. Watching the movie, however, changed some things. And it was this little, barely noticeable pause, that did it for me.

There's this twit called Collins that wants to marry Lizzie, and she says no. Obviously, Mrs. Bennet finds her refusal unacceptable, so Lizzie turns to her dad for help. And the dad says, with trademark wry humor, "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day on, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

Back when I read the book, this scene seemed to play for laughs. It's a good line, and conveys the father's support of his daughter at a crucial juncture. And Donald Sutherland is the kind of actor that can deliver a good line like that as well as anybody else in the business.

But no, what made all the difference for me in the movie was, after Lizzie has thanked her father and run off, and Mrs. Bennet has stomped off, the camera holds for a moment on Sutherland's pensive face. He has just given his daughter the support that she deserves, but in doing so, he has also quashed hopes of a financially advantageous marriage for one of his five daughters. It was the right thing to do, maybe, but not easy.

Freeze Frame #1: Insomnia

There's a scene in Insomnia where Al Pacino tries to get some sleep in his hotel room, but since it's daylight 24x7 in Nightmute, he can't get any sleep. So he papers all the windows so the light can't come in, but it still keeps streaming in through the gaps.

Background: Pacino plays a cop who has been called to Nightmute, Alaska on a special assignment, to investigate a homicide. Back home, there's an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation that might well lead to his doorstep. And to complicate everything, he sets a trap for the killer, and while chasing him through the mist in a forest, he shoots his partner accidentally. He covers it up by blaming the killer, but the killer knows the truth and blackmails him.

The movie is all allegory: Pacino is in a place where it's always day, and he can't get any sleep. But the condition referred to in the title is not of his body, but of his conscience. And I thought the scene in the hotel room brilliantly encapsulated it.

You don't see there, a man who can't sleep because the sunlight is streaming through his hotel room window. You see there, a man who can't sleep, and wishes it were because the sunlight is streaming through his hotel room window.

Freeze Frame!

This is going to be a series of short posts about specific moments in movies that I loved. Sometimes it's the way it was set up in previous scenes, sometimes it's the acting, sometimes it's the unsaid stuff that speaks volumes... mostly, though, it's me feeling kicked about what I saw in that scene, or what words I found to describe it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Holy Cow of Bond movies

I watched Casino Royale a few days ago. awesome movie, with a mesmerizing performance by Daniel Craig in his first Bond outing. There were a lot of dissenting voices when he was first chosen, but after this movie, I can't imagine anybody still objecting.

I have this long-overdue rant about Sean Connery as James Bond. Everyone talks about the actors who played Bond other than Connery, and the verdict, even at its most flattering, is that the guy was the best since Connery. Why is that?

Take Daniel Craig, for instance. The guy's delivered a brilliant performance as Bond in his first outing. he's given the role additional depth, and really made it his own. and yet, NOBODY ever
says, "He's the best Bond ever." Taste is subjective, and the guy definitely delivered a brilliant performance - there should've been at least a few who thought he was better than Sean Connery. But no, everybody tiptoes around that possibility, for fear of desecrating some superspy holy cow. I'll admit that Connery was damn good. I'll also admit that, despite my line about the subjectivity of taste, Roger Moore was godawful in A View to a Kill, no matter which yardstick you use to measure performance. But is Connery unbeatable by default?

Personally, even after a single outing, I prefer daniel craig over all the other Bonds *including* the venerable Connery. For me, the difference is this: Connery basically had to embody a particular personality, and you could see it evolving over time, movie after movie. Whereas with Daniel Craig, he's had to do a lot more heavy lifting in this outing - he has an actual character arc, an almost unheard of phenomenon with Bond movies. The guy has the looks, he has the talent, and he has the ability to convey the aspect of a predator.

Part of this is a matter of chance. Casino Royale was the first Bond novel - like a superhero origin story, it described how Bond came to be the Bond the world knew from then on - so it has a lot more focus on the character. But then, Connery had the advantage of being the first in the role (barring an ill-fated tv adaptation earlier to that), so it kinda evens out. Both Craig and Connery had their advantages, and they used it well. And at the end of the day, I think Craig did better. I don't expect that everyone will/should agree with me on this. But it's statistically
impossible that nobody does. that's what gets my goat.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the new Don

Note: This isn't really a review. In fact, if you haven't seen the movie, I suggest you don't read this post, coz there be spoilers!

You have been warned. Now, on with the post.

Generally, when I review or rate a movie, I do it on the basis of the following question: Did it achieve what it set out to achieve? Not that asking this question makes my review any less subjective. It just allows me to love both Citizen Kane and Main Hoon Na without feeling all conflicted about it.

With remakes, there's an additional layer to that: How does the movie rate, if you did not know that it is a remake? And, how did the maker of this movie view it, in the context of the original? I'm distinguishing here between remakes and rip-offs - this post is about movies where the maker acknowledges what inspired him/her.

But with Don, despite the fact that it shares some major plot points and dialogue with the Amitabh starrer, I'm not entirely sure I could call it a remake. It's more like, Farhan Akhtar has taken some of the original movie's ingredients and added things of his own to the mix. And since what he has added is significant, you can no longer look at it as the same dish.


For one thing, the Iftikhar role is redefined. Boman Irani seems to be rehashing the same role up to a point, and then it is revealed that he has his own agenda. That he is not really a conscientious cop but a drug lord in hiding, using Vijay to eliminate his arch enemy in the business.

It adds an interesting layer to Vijay's struggle to prove his innocence, until we realize, right at the end, that it's not Vijay at all - there's been a double switcheroo, and we've been watching Don playing Vijay playing Don all this time. Nice little trick, that.

The surprise ending now makes you wonder: since the movie more or less followed the same broad outline as far as SRK's charcter was concerned, is it still consistent given the final twist? As in, is every one of SRK's actions justifiable, given that he is actually Don playing Vijay playing Don? I can think of only one weak spot: after SRK's escape from the plane, he goes back to meet Priyanka and tries to prove his innocence. Why woould he want to do that? As far as he is concerned, Boman Irani is dead. And as he mentions right at the end, there was nothing in the disc he gave Boman in the first place. So he might as well just escape.

The plausible explanation for this would be, I guess, that he wanted to get away clean - prove his innocence as Vijay, then stage his own death so that no loose ends are left. The problem with that explanation is simply this: If he wanted to do that, why did he reveal his identity to Priyanka through an oblique clue right at the very end? He was clearly smart enough to know that it would give the game away. Was it just him showing off? Or was it the writer showing off?

Apart from that, I think it's a good twist. And when you look back on it, you see a lot of scenes where he's given you little clues to the truth - like when he goes to visit Arjun Rampal's kid at the school and initially doesn't seem to recognize him, and so on.

But to me, the more impressive thing is the way Farhan Akhtar recognized a crucial choice in the script and chose wisely. Boman Irani reveals his true identity at the end of the first half. And until the major players (Arjun Rampal and SRK) get to know this, there seems to be no reason for this to be revealed to the audience. It seemed at first as if he had spoiled what could've been a major surprise by telling us early.

But here's why I think he did it: By telling us about Boman, and getting us to focus on that twist, he kept us engaged on that front while quietly preparing us for the surprise ending. The fact that
the man who we thought was Vijay is really Don, is a bigger surprise than the fact that Boman was actually a drug lord. By sacrificing the latter, he made the former more powerful. Smart piece of decision making there, I thought.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Review: Monster's Ball

*ing: Billy bob Thornton, Halle Berry

Stated simply, Monster's Ball is among the best romances I've ever seen. However, it is not a love story. It is about two wounded people reaching out, and discovering, in the process, that they are still capable of love.

Hank is an executioner at the local penitentiary. His father was a cop, his son is one too. The old man is an irascible bigoted sonovabitch who probably treated his son like scum when he was growing up. The son has grown up with the same behaviour traits, but you can see that he knows the words but not the music. There is a scene where Hank's son asks him, "You hate me, don't you?" And Hank replies, "Yes. I've hated you all my life." But he doesn't say this with spite, he says this with almost a sense of wonder. It's as if he just realized it himself, and is wondering how the hell it turned out that way.

Leticia is a waitress. Her ex-husband, whom she hates for the pain he brought her, is a convict on death row. They have a son, reasonably talented but grossly overweight, and that is a source of annoyance to his mom. The last time they meet before he is executed, his father tells him, "You're the best of me." Just before he is led away, he says to Leticia, "For all the times that I've hurt you, I'm sorry." You can see that this shakes her composure a bit - she was more prepared to go through life hating an unapologetic man who hurt her. Hers is a life on the edge of sanity and solvency - she's about to be evicted from her home, and she's just been fired from one of her jobs.

These are two people as clearly defined as you can ever hope to see in the movies. They are brought together by tragic circumstance, and drawn to each other by the grief that's eating both of them alive. After they make love for the first time, they tell each other, "I needed that." To them, it's like grasping at a last chance at life.

I suppose I should mention here that Leticia is black. It is an issue and a non-issue at the same time. Hank is a man who has been brought up to be bigoted, but an early exchange with his black neighbour establishes his level of discomfort with that particular role. His relationship with Leticia unfolds in such an unforced manner that he is given to wonder what the whole black-hating argument was all about anyway. You never hear him talking about it, but you can see him begin to build bridges in simple ways. This is not a man who goes through bigotry and emerges on the other side as a tolerant person. This is a man who was just waiting for a chance to sidestep his bigotry altogether, and Leticia simply provided that chance.

It's a quiet, deliberately paced movie, whose silences are as eloquent as its dialogues. Since this is a movie driven not by plot but by character, especially by characters who carry a lot of baggage, it requires the dialogue to convey a lot. That it manages to do so effectively with hardly any long, introspective passages is a thing to be seen to be believed.

The script is an amazing piece of work - it has the kind of depth that you won't see in more than a handful of movies in any year. It would take a good writer reams of paper to describe what some of those simple, precisely written scenes convey. This is the sort of movie any reviewer would hate, because he would have a million things to say about each of the important scenes in the movie and yet have to rein himself in because the viewer's payoff is in figuring it out for himself.

Billy Bob Thornton turns in a marvellously understated performance as Hank. You see in him, a man who has learnt to suppress emotion to the point where he doesn't even know how to express one anymore. And then, as his relationship with Leticia develops, he learns to feel once more. Watching his character evolve through the movie is like watching a baby learn how to walk.

And Halle Berry's performance in this movie - the one that won her a Best Actress Oscar? Let me put it this way: Have you read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? When Gail Wynand realizes that the statue of Dominique Francon he has in his museum was the one built for the Stoddard Temple, he asks her, "Was the building worthy of the statue?"

And Dominique replies, "The statue was almost worthy of the building."

Review: Wonder Boys

*ing: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Grady Tripp, the narrator and central character in Wonder Boys smokes a lot. Not normal cigarettes - he smokes joints laced with weed. This is an important observation, I think, because watching this movie gives you the feeling that the scriptwriter was high when he wrote it. It moves slowly, everything seems out of joint, things get wierd before they get normal, and then they get wierd again... The wierdest thing is, despite all this, it makes a helluva lot of sense.

You see, while the specific events seem wacky (and I do not use that adjective lightly here), the characters aren't. They are consistent (even when they are inconsistent), often articulate, and we get a clear sense of where they're headed even if they don't. In fact, the slightly off-kilter tone only adds to the effect, rather than confusing things.

The movie chronicles the happenings in the life of Grady Tripp, a rather dowdy-looking professor of English at a snow-covered campus, over the span of a three day literary event. When the movie begins, Tripp is having a rather bad day. His wife Emily has just left him. His editor Terry Crabtree is due to arrive that evening, and is bound to ask about the book he's been woking on for the past seven years. (His earlier book, a critical success titled The Arsonist's Daughter, made both their reputations. The way this one is turning out, it might break them.)

It gets worse: Sara Gaskell, the chancellor of his university and the wife of his department's head, also the woman with whom he has been having an affair for a while now, tells him that she is pregnant. And one of his students, a delectable young thing named Hannah Green who also rents a room in his house, has a major crush on him and would very likely jump his bones the first chance she gets.

And then there's James Leer, his most brilliant and most difficult student, in whom Grady probably sees himself as well as a chance to guide someone to greatness. Leer isn't easy to deal with - he seems aloof, doesn't communicate half as well as his stories probably do, and is a compulsive liar to boot. When Tripp spies Leer standing outside in the snow near the Gaskells' home where a party is in progress, he takes him in to show him a prized piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that Walter Gaskell keeps in a safe in his bedroom.

Why does he do that? I think it is because he is sure Leer would react emotionally to it, and he wants to see that. Then the big event happens. The Gaskells' blind dog Poe, which doesn't like Tripp much, decides to take a chunk off his leg for dinner. And Leer, seeing his professor struggling with the dog, shoots it with an antique gun he carries around.

This is clearly the point where a lesser movie would have turned into a fast-paced screwball outing, with professor and student desperately trying to hide the dead dog, and complicating matters further in the process. One of the pleasures of Wonder Boys is that it neatly sidesteps that route. What happens next isn't important, not from a plot point of view anyway. The movie is more interested in its characters, and so was I.

Every performance in this movie is a gem. Michael Douglas, who has made a career out of being suave and sexy, manages to look so unkempt that it seems like an achievement in itself. Watching him potter around in a pink housegown that probably belongs to his wife is nearly as funny as watching Charlton Heston play a Mexican in (the otherwise brilliant) Touch of Evil.

One of the important characteristics of Grady Tripp is that his cynicism, while evident to those around him, has not gotten the better of his amusement or his desire to be a good teacher. Bringing that out takes effort, and Douglas shows a willingness to go the distance. His is the central performance in the movie, and he succeeds in evoking our sympathy and our amusement at the same time.

Robert Downey Jr. and Frances McDormand have particular roles that require them to display an understanding of Tripp that goes well beneath the surface. McDormand's Sara Gaskell clearly loves Tripp, but has also pegged him exactly right, as a man who has lost the will to take initiative - that makes for an interesting dynamic. And Crabtree - well, Crabtree is something else. Intelligent, articulate, with an eye for a good book, and gay to boot. Robert Downey Jr. conveys his preferences in the plumbing department in such a manner that, it seems analogous to someone preferring Steinbeck over Hemingway - a matter of personal taste, not a lifestyle choice.

There is an especially nice moment in a restaurant when Tripp and Crabtree are sitting together and creating a character out of thin air, on the basis of a stranger they see sitting across them. There is both creativity and a parody of popular literature mixed into the description they come up with, but the best part of the scene for me was the easy timing. Hearing them speak in overlapping sentences, anticipating each other's thoughts, was a wonderful experience.

Of the younger cast, Katie Holmes as Hannah Green has the easier job. Given the fact that she has a crush on Tripp, she could've easily become a plot device, but she manages to make herself a little more than that. This is a good performance - not a great or a noteworthy one, but the sort of supporting performance that unobtrusively fills in the gaps.

And Tobey Maguire... ah, the pleasure of watching him play James Leer! His is one of the toughest characters in the movie. He's enormously talented, but he's also enormously moody. He's a congenital liar, but he also manages to tug at Tripp's heartstrings with moments of touching candor. And to top it all, he has a sense of humor that elevates the movie. Tobey Maguire is perfect for the part, with his boyish looks and a lopsided grin that makes you feel like there's a lot more to the joke than what he's just told you. While Douglas' performance is the one that anchors the movie, his is the one that enlivens it.

Director Curtis Hanson, whose previous venture, L. A. Confidential had people salivating for his next venture, has chosen to make a totally different movie, and succeeded admirably. He keeps the proceedings going at exactly the right pace (which, for the kind of screwball activity that goes on, is a little slower than usual), but doesn't allow any slack. He populates the cast with a bunch of wonderful actors who are obviously in love with the project, and comes up with a sweet ensemble comedy that manages to make us smile more often than most of the scatologically-obsessed, juvenile teen comedy trash products put together manage to do.

In its own offbeat, distracted, drug-addled manner, this movie manages to say more about writing and writers than most other movies that tread the same path. Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester, for instance, was also about an older writer grooming a younger one, but had far less to say, and was far more interested in sticking to genre conventions. That one was a product, not a movie. This one is populated with real people who have something to say, and say it beautifully.


I have this habit of writing reviews of movies I've watched, and I'm gonna post a bunch of them, written over the years. But before you go on, I should put a little disclaimer here first. A long time ago, I wrote a review of a movie called Jaanam Samjha Karo and posted it on a mailing list of my friends from my undergrad college. One of them pulled my leg about it, so I replied in a similar vein. That paragraph is probably the best disclaimer I can provide, so here it is:

Leg-puller: General writing does not a review make, either. Hows that? :)

Me: General writing *does* a review make, dude. That's the whole point of a review - write anything, make a few literary allusions to prove your erudition to an audience that doesn't care either way, add a generous dose of sarcasm wherever warranted and maybe even where it isn't, and you have a review. Oh yeah, try to make it look a bit technical - add a few references to the screenplay here and there. Junta doesn't know what a screenplay actually contains, so they'll think you know what it's about. A few stock phrases like "tight screenplay", "innovative lighting" (with reference to some particular scene, even one that is simply shot in broad daylight) and so on add to the effect. But underneath all that crap (as underneath all *this* crap), it's just general writing.

Nothing like a good dose of sarcasm to brighten up one's day, is there? Now, on with the reviews. You have been warned...