Great scenes


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.

Regular readers of this blog, such as there are, know that one of the genres I have a soft corner for is the one where a bunch of unlikely musicians get together to form a band. Bandslam approaches this from the point of view of a boy who wants to manage a band, not play in one — not a commonly taken PoV. Now, when I watched this movie a long time ago, I wasn’t all that taken by it. But somehow, one of its scenes kept popping up in memory often, and I have no idea why. So I went to Youtube and looked it up, and here it is.

The song being performed is by Steve Wynn, and is called Amphetamine. The original, frankly, is nothing to write home about. This one, on the other hand… the term pattaiya kalapparadhu (loosely translated to “bringing down the house”) barely does it justice.

The real pleasure for me, though, comes from watching Galean Connell (the one who seems to be coordinating the whole thing) — how often do you see someone enjoy his music like that?

I watched the film on a plane ride back from the US, and had to spend a considerable amount of time trying not to shake too much with laughter and wake up the passenger sitting next to me. Most of all, I was amazed by Marilyn Monroe’s sheer presence. Watch this scene — it takes a certain ability to do what she does here, right down to that tone of voice.

A couple of weeks later, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – let’s just say that my reaction was somewhere between active distaste and near-indifference. I remember discussing with a friend once, that there was as much guano to be found in the old movies as in the new ones — we just manage to pick the good ones in hindsight. Except in case of GPB, our hindsight was a little impaired.

While Monroe played versions of roughly the same character in both films (ditzy blond on the lookout for a rich guy), in SLIH, she seemed to project a certain innocence that was incredibly appealing, whereas in GPB, the cynicism and self-awareness was a lot more apparent. She has her moments in the latter, but is never spectacular. And I remember thinking, she was a lot more fun to watch when she didn’t know how good she really was.

And then of course I found out that Some Like It Hot came out in 1959, a full six years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She had been through twenty-five films, thirty-three years and three marriages by then; three years and three films later, she’d be dead of a barbiturate overdose. How on earth did she manage to deliver a performance of such freshness?

How the fuheck does The Merchant of Venice get labeled a comedy? Sure, it gets a bit farcical at times, and mercy (apparently) triumphs over revenge in the end and what not, but seriously? Didn’t Shylock deserve the right to kick Antonio’s butt seven ways to Tuesday?

The key moment, for me, is his wonderful monologue about the anti-semitism he faces. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” he asks. Even earlier in the play, while you see Sherlock mostly through the eyes of the people around him, their criticism is laced with pithy self-awareness. But this is the scene where he leaps off the page and becomes the only character worth remembering from the play.

So when I heard a few years ago that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in a new adaptation of the play, I was obviously quite excited. If you had to pick an actor who could do justice to that impassioned rant, the man would be on top of a very short list. And his performance lives up to expectations.

Out of curiosity, I looked up other versions of that scene and came upon Orson Welles’ take from his unfinished 1969 adaptation. While Pacino is energetic, physical and angry, Welles sounds more sad than anything else. And if one had to bear the cross of anti-semitism (pun absolutely intended) for so long, I suppose both reactions are equally plausible.

For the most part, Welles is surprisingly unimpressive. But there is one moment where he scores. It comes when he puts in a little pause in the phrase “scorned… my nation”. For that one fleeting moment, you can see him being almost overwhelmed. Then he pulls himself together.

There is so much in Student of the Year that falls in the spectrum between blech and meh that it is a pleasant surprise when something manages to grab me by the short hairs. That moment comes towards the end, when Kayoze Irani lets his teacher have it with both barrels.

It’s not so much whether he’s right about all this, or whether, in any plausible universe, it would’ve taken twenty five years of this competition before someone told the dean what was wrong with it, or that the one delivering the monologue is supposedly a minor character in the grand scheme of things. I think it’s quite simply the fact that, for one glorious moment, a character in this movie seemed real. For all the fighting and the posturing between the major characters, I never really felt like I was watching actual human beings on screen. Even Rishi Kapoor, who seemed to be having the time of his life while doing the best he could with his Waldo-Weatherbee-meets-Dumbledore characterization, came across as lovably cartoonish. As a result, even when the film got heavier as it progressed, I couldn’t relate to it. Even all the teenage angst that these kids are supposed to be suffering from (the subplots relating to family matters collectively play like a Madhur Bhandarkar expose on parenthood) and the big confrontations are played out at a muted pitch. But when Irani says to Rishi Kapoor, “You of all people ought to have known better,” you finally hear the scream that the film was building towards.

As beautiful as Siddharth Malhotra, Varun Bhawan and Alia Bhatt looked — and some reviewers got it right when they said that these three are unlikely to ever look better than this on screen — I think the one who walked away with the author-backed role was Kayoze Irani. And if a film is a portrait of its maker, I’d say this was Karan Johar’s boldest brushstroke yet.

 

I just read the news that Nora Ephron passed away. So this one is by way of memoriam.

When Harry Met Sally is, for me, the yardstick that other romantic comedies will always be measured by. Precious few so far have managed to hold up well against that standard. It has two personable leads with amazing chemistry, wonderful dialogue and nary a weak moment throughout its running time.

The finest moment is, of course, the one at the restaurant. I think it is all the more effective because, until then, you never get any hint that she could even be capable of something like that. All Harry can do is watch and smile.

Rather than rave about it any further, let me simply put the link up here:

That closing line is so iconic, it is likely to feature in at least half the tributes to Nora Ephron in some form or shape.  

RIP, Ms. Ephron.

 

Sarfarosh holds fond memories for me: it was the first film I saw with my wife. We had barely become acquainted and had gone out to watch it with a mutual friend. Not exactly a first date, but hey. But even if you ignore my personal bias , I think there is much to admire.

I was reminded of it last weekend when I was channel surfing and chanced upon a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Clips from his films, with a voice-over providing critical analysis, were interspersed with clips of the man himself, talking about his work. Despite his slow, pedantic way of speaking — like lecturers who used to put me to sleep back in college — I was riveted.

My favourite part was when he was explaining the bomb principle. I’d read the two line version earlier in an Ebert review, but this was the first time I actually heard him explain it. It goes something like this:

Imagine two people sitting at a table and talking about, say baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb that had been placed under the table suddenly goes off. You, the audience, feel surprised and shocked for maybe 30 seconds before the movie has you in the grip of some other emotion. On the other hand, what if you knew right off the bat that there was a bomb under the table and that it was primed to go off in five minutes? Those two guys would be talking about baseball and you would be spending five minutes wondering if they would realize that there’s a bomb under their table and that they need to get away or disarm the bombright away.

Sarfarosh is like a movie-length illustration of this principle, in the guise of a police procedural about uncovering an arms supply chain that leads from a green-themed neighboring nation to a tribal leader with a penchant for mayhem. Not so much a whodunit as a whoalldunit. The film tells you this right at the beginning, so the rest of its running time involves a group of policemen trying to figure out how a tribal leader got his hands on an AK47 rifle and following the clues all the way to the source. Barring a few surprises along the way, you’re mostly just watching them find out what you already know. And yet you find yourself drawn into the process.

Which is why my favourite scene in Sarfarosh is the title song sequence that plays over the opening credits, where they show you the supply chain. There is such admirable economy in the depiction of a streamlined arms smuggling process with several links in the chain. It all seems simple, until you realize how painstaking it is to start with a spent cartridge at a crime scene and work your way backwards.

I tried to like this movie, I really did. But when a talented writer-director like Cameron Crowe sets his sights on mediocrity, he is good enough to be able to achieve it. Despite having a quirky plot (widower Benjamin Mee uproots his kids, moves to the countryside, buys a derelict zoo, gets it up and running and heals himself in the process), a great cast (Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church) and visuals that involve close-ups of grizzlies, African lions and Royal Bengal Tigers, the film feels like a moderately amped-up Disney feature. Tragic, really.

Not that there is nothing to like. There are a few quiet scenes, especially between Mee and his zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett), that work quite well. Mee’s struggles in dealing with an ailing tiger are reasonably well done, but one moment where he looks at it and asks, “Is it time?” is heartbreaking.

There is however one scene where Crowe absolutely brings his A game. It comes right at the end, when Mee takes his children to the restaurant where he first met their mother. In an early scene, he refuses to go to that restaurant because of that very reason, so you know right then that he would eventually return here. The little exchange that concludes the scene (and the film) is cute if not exceptional, but has the added bonus of explaining an earlier conversation between him and Kelly and ensures that we walk out with a little smile and a chuckle.

But really, it is the manner in which this scene is played that makes it worthwhile.  As Mee relives that scene before them, you see an energy that the rest of the film lacks. While this is somewhat credible given that the plot involves him getting over her loss, it is in this scene that you feel like you’re watching something made by the man responsible for You had me at hello.

Enter the Dragon was one of the first martial arts movies I ever watched and it remains, to this day, my favourite in the genre. Its premise has been reused countless times since then; I am not aware of any, but it is entirely possible that there were movies before it that used the framework of a martial arts contest to tell a story.

What makes this film stand out in my opinion is how taut Bruce Lee seems throughout the movie. Every moment that he is on screen, he looks poised to explode. My favourite moment, however, comes after one such explosion has just occurred.

In his first match in the tournament, he faces off against the man responsible for his sister’s death. To call it an one-sided contest is to do it a disservice. The closest equivalent in the movies is the scene where a black mamba strikes Budd in Kill Bill Vol 2. At one point, in desperation, the man tries to attack Lee with a broken bottle. It turns out to be the tipping point — Lee not only disarms him, he goes a step further and kills him. The camera focuses, however, on Lee’s face, and how his muscles slowly relax into something resembling normalcy.

The sequence is somewhat foreshadowed by earlier exchange between him and his master:

Shaolin Abbott: What is the highest technique you hope to achieve ?
Lee: To have no technique.
Shaolin Abbott: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent ?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Shaolin Abbott: And why is that ?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
Shaolin Abbott: So, continue…
Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

As wonderfully phrased as that is, one does wonder if the “I” did not exist during that fight. I am not entirely convinced that it did not — his last words to the villain are, after all: “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple. “

But when his face slowly relaxes after that fight, you get a palpable sense of seeing him enter his own body after it has hit all by itself.

How did I not get to this film earlier?

As rom-coms go, this is among the best in recent memory. A near-flawless script that concentrates on dialogue rather than copping out with a montage, a lead couple who click together perfectly, an utter paucity of over-the-top scenes… But what really makes this film work, I think, is its language. The actors never step out of character when they speak — business is always pronounced binness, Shruti is always Shruttee. Their Janakpuri and Haryanvi origins are never pushed to the background to make way for cookie-cutter dialogue. Baradwaj Rangan, in his glowing review of the film, calls it the rom-com Dibakar Bannerjee might have made (a reference to the Delhi he brings to life, most notably in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye)

That may be why one of my favourite scenes in the film is the one right at the end where Bittoo declares his love for Shruti. As far as rom-com dialogue goes, this is often where all the heavy artillery comes out. This is true here as well, but the language remains what it was until that point. Look at the use of the word mauj and think of how different it is from words like khushi – it is pretty much the exact word one would expect Bittoo to use in this context. Ranveer Singh absolutely nails the delivery and makes it among the most heartfelt scenes I have seen in this genre. Rarely do debutants get it so gloriously right.

ps: A few other observations about the film:

  • Has there ever been a more well-shot and acted kissing scene in Hindi cinema? I doubt it.
  • The offhand references to other films — is that deliberate, I wonder. Some of the same actors from Rocket Singh, another film about a small-time business that grows because of the sincerity of the people involved. One of them even plays a very similar character here. The ganne ka khet reference — is that a nod to Jab We Met?
  • The big production number towards the end — was that really necessary? It struck an unrealistic note in what had been a wonderful movie so far in many ways. A more down-to-earth approach that justified the Janakpuri chaap description would’ve worked better, I think.

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