A famous actress — the Ms Meena of the title — returns to the little village she grew up in, presumably to shoot her last film. The villagers, most of whom live in reduced circumstances, hope that her visit will change things for the better. Much of their hope rests on the person of Ravi, the actress’ ex-boyfriend from before she became a star. The setup and the light-hearted banter in these initial scenes suggests a Kuselan-style fable. But playwright Rashmi Ruth Devadasan wades into deeper waters pretty quickly.

The story is acted out in a very loud, filmi, overdone style, with moments of laugh-out-loud humour including a song titled — wait for it — Oh Darling Baby, and countless references to films of a certain era. Some of the melodrama can be attributed to the fact that you are, at least in part, watching a film being shot. But it is not as if the other scenes are underplayed either.

The story, however, is a far quieter drama with a touch of the macabre — the kind of thing you expect to come across in a Stephen King book. By far the most interesting thing about Ms Meena is the way it manages to tell this story in this manner. The dichotomy between the story and the manner of its telling is best exemplified by the performances of the actors who play Ravi and Meena. The former plays it straight throughout, while the latter always acts as though she is on camera. It’s as if the person she had to become on screen was her refuge, and she simply chose not to leave.

But as the play approaches its closing scenes, you realize that, despite the lightness in the storytelling, the drama is not shortchanged. The last scene feels like a punch to the gut. We lead our little lives, and after our passing, the traces of our existence — the good and the bad — are blown away like so much dust in the wind. What remains, sometimes, is some memorial stripped  of context and meaning, like a name on a board somewhere, or a statue at some intersection. And sometimes, a few lines of a folk song.

There’s a phrase often used in the context of cinema: suspension of disbelief. It is applied as much to the films of David Dhawan as to the slick, expensively-mounted, action-packed star vehicles that inundate the multiplexes every summer. With the former, it is used as an excuse — leave your brains behind and enjoy the film, yaar. With the latter, it is used as advertisement — when Bruce Willis shoots a helicopter with a car (yes, you read that right, a car), we find ourselves enjoying the ride, and the point of all that finely-timed action choreography is to make us not care, for those ninety-odd minutes, how absurd it all is. At a very meta level, it applies to all of cinema, but let’s not go there now.

The concept applies to quiet thrillers too, in that crucial developments often hinge on things happening exactly so. Except here, the pace gives your mind a bit of time to wander, and that can break the spell. So how do you get your audience to stay with you? By making them care, not about what happens, but about who it happens to, that’s how.

A police officer calls his colleague to inform him that he has solved a murder, and meets with an accident while he is talking. He wakes up with complete amnesia. His colleague asks him to re-solve the case, while not letting anyone else know of his condition. In an abstract sense, it is an interesting premise, but it doesn’t take much to count the myriad ways in which this could go wrong.

Why, then, does Mumbai Police work so well?

The answer, I think, lies in two things. The first is the quality of the performances. Jayasurya’s character (he plays the murdered cop) is the least complicated of the lot, and he does it justice. Rahman’s top cop is not an easy character to play — opaque and transparent at the same time, in ways we don’t completely understand at first. He knocks it out of the park.

Prithviraj gets the toughie — his Inspector Moses is more layered than the average onion, and his ability to draw us into his journey and make us care is what makes the film work, even in those patches where the plot is barely plausible.

The second is the quality of the writing, especially narrative style which seamlessly interweaves the happenings prior to the accident and those after. Apart from getting the protagonist up to date with what he has forgotten, it also subtly ensures that we are a little less disoriented than he is. And yet, it’s a complex whodunit.

At one level, this is a procedural. But look closely, and you realize that it is actually three procedurals wrapped into one: how the case was solved the first time around, how it was solved the second time around, and an examination of why the first investigation proceeded the way it did. Add to this the personal torment of a man searching for himself with only scant clues as to who he used to be, and a few others with their own baggage to carry. All of these threads hinge on one crucial revelation.

Stephen King speaks of stories that hinge on the plot (where the characters behave as the plot needs them to, and hopefully remain consistent in the process), and ones that hinge on the characters (where the plot is simply the result of a set of characters thrown into a certain situation).

Here’s the utterly amazing thing about Mumbai Police: despite having so much plot to handle, it manages to fall into the second category. Exactly how often does that happen in the movies?

 

Thalaivaa begins, as all films in multiplexes do these days, with a fairly long and graphic advisory on the hazards of tobacco consumption. While I appreciate the thought, I cannot help but chuckle at the irony of placing it at the beginning of a film about an underworld don and the son who takes his place. The characters in this film could inject heroin into their eyeballs every morning and still stand a better chance of being shot or hacked to death than ODing.

But this is a minor quibble. By far the biggest criminal act committed in the film is the screenplay, which makes a mockery of the opening dedication to the director’s gurus, Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma, two filmmakers whose best-known films have been set in the same milieu.

While Satya is, in my opinion, the more accomplished script and is extraordinarily well-directed, Nayakan works better at an emotional level by creating a sigma field around the hero for much of its running length and making us care about what happens to him. These two films, between them, encapsulate the reasons why we love good movies:  Create a plausible universe whose workings are a source of fascination, populate it with characters who can draw us in, and find an emotional truth in the storytelling. Thalaivaa, in contrast, knows the words but not the music.

The film begins with the death of Varadaraja Mudaliar, the man who inspired Nayakan. In the power stuggle that follows, one man emerges victorious. But in order to insulate his son from the life he has to lead, he sends him away with a friend to Australia. The boy grows up into an adult who talks to his dad regularly but operates under the assumption that he is some sort of businessman. When he comes home and finds out the truth, circumstances force him to take up his father’s mantle.

Apart from the obvious implausibility of the idea that a man could remain so clueless about his dad in the highly networked world of today, this is not a bad storyline. But the script is an utter letdown. Neither does it draw a convincing portrait of the Mumbai underworld and the characters who inhabit it, nor does it make us implicit participants in the hero’s transformation from carefree youth to dreaded don (or uber-vigilante, if you will). A crucial moment, where he has to consciously choose a violent path rather than just react to the violence directed at him, is well-conceived but not as well-executed as it needs to be. By the next morning, the man has accepted his role and what it entails. Instead of a character arc, you see the end points.

The tragedy here is that this could’ve been a half-decent film. Sathyaraj brings an understated dignity to his part, and Vijay chooses to play his character on a quieter key than he normally would have a few years ago. Over the last few films, he seems to have consciously dialed it down, and this is not a bad thing. He gets one scene to unleash his inner ranter and raver in a hospital ward when he rips a rioter a new one. And even then, he raises his intensity but not his voice. After the high-decibel death metal thrashing of Surya in Singam 2, this is a blessing. The romance between Vijay and Amala Paul has an unforced charm. The story goes nowhere for the first hour, but the film is far lighter on its feet (in more ways than one) during this stretch than elsewhere. A crucial  sequence in the final third where hero and villain play a cat-and-mouse game while searching for an incriminating videotape is beautifully done. There are no jarring shifts in tone, even when the action moves from the quiet roads of Sydney to the mean streets of Mahim.

There’s around half an hour of pretty good stuff in there, which is more than most films can claim. But wading through three hours of dreck to find it is a bridge too far.

I have to confess that I only watched the last 15 minutes of Kai Po Che. My wife was watching it, and she gave me a 3 minute synopsis so that I could understand what was going on. And yet, I found myself moved by the closing shot of Ishaan’s face, just before the end credits started rolling.

I couldn’t figure it out — why would something like that work for me, when I had watched so little of the film? What follows is an attempt to explain it to myself.

The circumstances of Ishaan’s death are still fresh in the memory,  but what really stands out during the rioting sequence is how Omi’s stony passivity forms a counterpoint to the frenzied emotions of everyone else around him. When he picks up a gun and starts looking around for a target, what makes it fearsome is that he is utterly expressionless while doing it. You can counteract emotion with emotion, but what to do about this?

The moment of Ishaan’s death itself is not dwelt upon — we very briefly see the shock and the reaction of everyone around, and Omi’s slow, stunned realization of what his actions have wrought, before the film cuts to the present.

The scene is a cricket stadium where Ali, Ishaan’s prodigy whom he died saving during the riots, is about to play his debut ODI. And it is in the stands, in the arms of Ishaan’s sister, that we finally see Omi breaking down. When the dam breaks within him, that is when the enormity of what happened begins to register emotionally.

Abhishek Kapoor adds to that by cutting to the first delivery of the innings, which Ali dispatches to the boundary. And the reaction shot you see is not that of the bowler, but of Ishaan.

Well played, Mr. Kapoor.

ps: That closing shot is also reminiscent of the one in Iqbal that I wrote about, except that the happenings off the cricket field (concerning the other religion, as Baradwaj Rangan would say) impart an additional emotional charge here.

Spoilers ahead! Does that bother you? For a Rohit Shetty film, no less? Really? WhoWhat are you?

It helps, I think, to think of Chennai Express as a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu for the benefit of non-Tamilians. The film often feels like a distilled cinematic expression of the benign bewilderment with which the North often views the South, set inside a madcap plot about a North Indian stuck in rural Tamil Nadu among a damsel in distress and a bunch of aruvaal-wielding goons. Which is surprising because Shetty probably isn’t all that clueless. Look at the song picturizations, for instance — Shankar would’ve been proud.

As a native Tamil speaker, I found myself getting quite distracted by the bewildering array of accents on display — Satyaraj speaks like he normally does, his goons speak like they are from Chennai rather than from a little village in Tamil Nadu, the villain and heroine speak like they were raised elsewhere, maybe Mumbai… I don’t think it would be noticeable to people who don’t know the language, so their experience of the film might be quite different.

Having said that, it’s surprising and somewhat gratifying that Rohit Shetty had the courage to make a film where more than a third of the dialogue was in a different language, and unsubtitled to boot. Or that it found so much favour with the masses (100 crores already, I hear) despite that. I suppose it accentuates the whole fish-out-of-water scenario and makes one identify with the hero’s predicament.

The trouble with the strategy, unfortunately, is that we aren’t seeing a character out of his element. We are seeing an actor looking uncomfortable — apart from the scenes where he gleefully spoofs his own career (and I have to admit he does that pretty well), SRK doesn’t look like he’s having much fun. He either comes across as desperate (when he’s doing broad comedy) or unconvincingly flat (when he’s doing romance or action).

The writing doesn’t help. His character, a 40-year old virgin who has been brought up by his grandparents, is supposed to go to Rameshwaram to immerse his late grandfather’s ashes. His plan is to go to Goa with his pals (apparently in search of hot NRI ladkiyaan) and immerse them there. Now, had he planned to go to Rameshwaram after his vacation in Goa rather than the other way round, I could’ve believed it. While Shahrukh Khan has traditionally been very good at playing douchebags of a certain kind, this one just doesn’t seem plausible.

On the other hand, Rahul’s relationship with Meena, the Tamil girl he runs into (their meet-cute is a delightful riff on his biggest hit), is a strange beast. While the story itself moves in fits and starts, their relationship progresses more or less logically from fear (mostly his) to irritation to tentative acceptance to love. Except, that is, when Shetty feels the need to throw in “romantic complications”. Falling in love while running for your life is easy — people have been doing it in the movies for decades now. But doing it while your characters are being yanked around by a writer like that can’t be much fun.

The sole reason why it works even partway is the presence of a leading lady who, bit by bit, has become an actress capable of being better than the material. Not that the material offers much competition here, but still. Deepika Padukone gets top billing in the fim’s opening credits and fully deserves it — she is far and away the best thing abut this film. I didn’t expect her to handle Shetty’s brand of broad comedy so well — her thickly accented Hindi, which I would normally be a bit miffed by, works well in the context of the film. (Her Tamil is another matter altogether, I’m afraid.) There is the odd dramatic scene where the accent disappears, leaving the ungrammatical Hindi dialogue just hanging there, looking around desperately for voice support. But I’m inclined to forgive and forget in light of how well she does otherwise.

Her best moment is a wordless scene where SRK has to carry her up a long flight to steps to a temple. While he is focused on doing the literal heavy lifting, she is the one who has to do it in the acting department, and manages to create a thing of beauty in the middle of all the sporadically manufactured mayhem that is this film.

What bugs me about her characterisation, though, is the ending, where Rahul gets to deliver an impassioned rant at the oppression of women, declare his love for Meena and fight off a bunch of goons to win her hand. This whole development feels completely inorganic to the proceedings (surely there was a lighter, sweeter, funnier way of handling things?), and SRK seems oddly unsuited for material that has, for him, been a cakewalk for so long (this is essentially a reworking of the DDLJ/Pardes ending) . But what really gets my goat is how Deepika’s character is reduced to a simpering bystander while men fight men and her dad plays referee. Here’s a girl who has proved herself to be resourceful, funny and free-spirited through the course of the film. Not to mention the girl who impressively kicks butt in one the film’s more memorable comic scenes. Why make her a lawn ornament when it comes to the crunch? I know better than to expect a feminist masterpiece here, but letting the damsels in distress stand up and rescue themselves would’ve been a more powerful statement than putting the heroine’s name first in the opening credits.

If you’re gonna be stuck in a tin can for 15 hours (Dubai to San Francisco), you better hope that you can sleep through most of it, or that your airline has a decent in-flight movie selection. I ended up with option B, and here’s the result:

Olympus has Fallen

High-octane hostage drama set in the White House. Here’s a little cheat-sheet:

  • John McClane: Gerald Butler (disgraced ex-secret service agent)
  • Holly McClane: Aaron Eckhart (POTUS)
  • Sgt. Powell: Angela Bassett (Head of the secret service)
  • Chief of Police: Morgan Freeman (Speaker of the Senate).
  • Hans Gruber: Rick Yune, whom you might remember as Zao, the guy with diamonds stuck on his face from Die Another Day. More pertinently, after Nazis, Russians, aliens and Middle-Eastern terrorists have had their say in Hollywood, it’s now the turn of the North Koreans.
  • Money: World domination, or something along those lines.

You can fill in the rest. Yippie kai-yay etc.

It’s good fun, though, and the presence of someone like Freeman gives the whole enterprise a lot more gravitas than it deserves. There’s a scene where he realizes that he is more or less in charge, and the buck stops with him as far as the hostage negotiation or the fallout of the crisis is concerned. The tension in the room is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. Freeman pauses for a moment, almost visibly pulls back and relaxes for a moment, and orders a minion to bring him some coffee, with precise instructions on how he likes it. Then he gets to work. Those twenty seconds are pretty much why he earns his paycheck.

The rest of it is standard bang-bang — as a genre exercise, it’s above average, but it’s no Die Hard.

Gangster Squad

Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Ryan Gosling. Nick Nolte. Emma Stone.

The story: A bunch of cops taking down Mickey Cohen in late-1940s Los Angeles. Think The Untouchables crossed with LA Confidential.

And the movie still ends up being a dud. The sheer, mind-numbing waste of talent and resources makes me want to throw up. How the hell do so many good people come together without even one of them realizing that they’re making an absolute turkey? In the beginning, an honest cop saves a woman from getting raped in a seedy hotel owned by a dreaded gangster. At the end, the same cop has a loaded gun pointed at the same gangster, but throws it aside so that he could beat him up with his bare hands. This is the sort of thing you expect to see in a bad Vijay movie (except, he’s more likely to have sidekicks than collaborators).

Adam’s Rib

Husband and wife end up as opposing counsel in a case where a woman is on trial for shooting her husband when she finds him with his mistress. I watched a stage play adapted from this material a few months ago — Between the Lines, directed by Nandita Das. One of the things that struck me about the stage adaptation was the easy chemistry between the real-life husband-wife pair of Nandita Das and Subodh Maskara. Their interaction helped the play tide through some of the not-so-well-written patches.

Funnily enough, the exact same thing can be said of the film as well. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play the couple, which ought to tell you nearly everything you need to know about the onscreen chemistry. The writing is weak in parts, particularly the ending. But Tracy and Hepburn seem to be having so much fun out there that it almost feels rude to point it out. Hepburn is great as always, but Tracy is the standout here — so much of his performance depends not on the dialogue but his facial expressions and body language, and he absolutely nails it.

Oh, and Jean Hagen, who played Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, has a lovely little cameo here. The woman’s one of the most underrated comediennes of Hollywood, I tell ya.

A Day the the Races

Groucho. Chico. Margaret Dumont. Harpo. In that order.

Forget everything else: plot, heroes, heroines, songs, dances. None of it matters when these guys are on screen. In case it does matter to you, here’s what it’s about: The owner of a failing sanatorium brings in a new head of medical staff (Groucho) who turns out to be a veterinarian. Hijinks ensue. He comes clean in the end:

Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.

Let me conclude by mentioning a throwaway exchange between Groucho and Chico:

Chico: One dollar, and you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.

Groucho: That’s the most nauseating proposition I’ve ever heard.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about this, to be honest. Only that, a few years ago this wouldn’t have even pinged my radar. You folks tell me: Is that happening to you too? Or maybe you’re a bit ahead on that curve than I am?

Beware: Here be potential spoilers!

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s not a brilliant one either. But if Race 2 is a hit, this one deserves to be the blockbuster it has turned out to be, so there you go. I don’t have the patience to write a full-length review of this film, and it’s highly unlikely that I will offer a point of view that others haven’t, so I’m just going to focus on a few things I noticed.

  • When we were discussing the film afterwards, my wife Lakshmi made an interesting point: Apart from the fact that one of them has a failed bar and another is some kind of doctor, do you know anything else about these people that doesn’t pertain to the plot? I wonder if even their private conversations revolve around Bunny’s life and not their own. I’m sure there was a way of writing a few more character details into the script if one wanted to. This is just lazy writing.
  • Having said that, I’m glad the characters aren’t all “fixed up” by the end of the film. (And I’m especially glad that Bunny didn’t do the fixing.) They end up where they are comfortable ending up at this point in their lives.
  • Although the story focuses on Ranbir and Deepika (the latter of whom is particularly luminous in the film), it’s Kalki Koechlin and Aditya who make that four-way dynamic work. Lovely work! Kalki especially is delightfully uninhibited in her role.
  • As good as Ranbir Kapoor is as an actor (and let’s face it, he’s head and shoulders above his competition right now), it takes just a three minute scene with people like Farooque Sheikh and Tanvi Azmi to show how far he still has to go. True, they’re playing mature adults and he’s playing a nomadic man-child who still has some growing up to do. But the difference in their comfort levels cannot entirely be attributed to this. Watch that quiet moment between Sheikh and Azmi when Ranbir leaves the room after a particularly nasty comment directed at his stepmother. Years of married life and an understanding of each other and their son, condensed into a two-second wordless exchange, and not even shot in close-up. Sometimes, that’s all a couple of seasoned actors need to make their characters come to life. Unfortunately, sometimes, that’s all they get.
  • For me, the most disappointing part of the film is the scene where Ranbir speaks of his father’s death during a car ride with Deepika. His face is lit intermittently, as though from the headlights of oncoming traffic. I suspect Ayan Mukherjee borrowed the composition from a similar scene in Million Dollar Baby, except he doesn’t quite get it right. The light pattern is too rhythmic to have come from traffic, and Ranbir doesn’t yet have the vocal skills that the scene demands. Had they gotten it right, the scene could’ve been the emotional centerpiece for the character — it could have even made the ending somewhat plausible. Pity.
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