Hindi movies


This blog post probably won’t make much sense to someone who hasn’t read Hamlet and watched Haider, for which I apologize in advance. For the record, both are worth doing, and an infinitely better use of your time than reading this.

It helps, I think, to think of Haider as not so much an adaptation but a re-imagining of Hamlet. Sort of like Shakespeare in Love, but with a bit more violence. Or The Immortals of Meluha, but with a lot better writing.

The chronology of events is not the same as in the play. The encounter with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, comes at the midway point. The reference to Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy comes as part of a conversation. Like with Shakespeare in Love, there is a certain panache in the way the source material has been interpreted. A scene with two prisoners on a bridge turns out to be such a sublimely brilliant reference to the phrase “shuffling off one’s mortal coil” that I could barely keep myself from guffawing. There is a sly reference to the way Laertes (Liaqat) dies by his own sword, but done so beautifully that I didn’t even realize it until later.

But really, what stands out is the level of detail in the script. Over the course of his three adaptations, Vishal Bharadwaj has slowly moved from using Shakespeare as a source to using him as a medium to tell his own story. We understand Shakespeare’s plays in terms of their characters, perhaps because the audiences of his time would have related to those settings better than we do today. Bharadwaj reimagines the setting, and What the Bard summarized as “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” turns into a two hour long meditation on the state of Kashmir circa mid-1990s. It helps that the screenplay is co-written by Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night.

There is a moment right at the beginning when Ghazala (Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) asks her husband, “Which side are you on?” The question is very pertinent, given the context in which this adaptation is set: people in Kashmir at the time probably did not feel like they had the luxury of an apolitical viewpoint. And it is this enmeshing of the political and the personal (Haider and Hamlet, or Peer and Bharadwaj if you will) that makes the death of Hilal Meer (Hamlet’s father) and Haider’s thirst for revenge a lot more complex than a straightforward adaptation would have probably allowed for. As a result of the tumultous climate the characters find themselves in, what is a largely internal battle in Hamlet is externalized to a great extent in Haider. And this inversion is complete when you consider what happens to the key characters in the end.

The detailing extends to the characters and their relationships as well: Ophelia (Arshiya, Haider’s girlfriend) gets more to do, seeing as how she also has to play the role of Horatio. Her relationship with Hamlet is a lot less dysfunctional than in the play, and a certain conversation involving English pronunciation is such a wonderful mix of hilarity and warmth that it almost belongs in a different film. Polonius (Pervez, the father of Haider’s girlfriend) has a meatier part, and while his lines have a lot more matter and brevity, he is definitely not lacking in art. Khurram (Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather) is more than just an unctuous usurper of his brother’s throne and marital bed — watch what he does in the end when all about him are doing something else altogether. But the real standout is Haider’s relationship with his mother, and the character of Ghazala herself. Rarely has Hindi cinema ventured to portray something this complex. And frankly, I suspect we won’t see its like too often again either.

As for the performances, I have rarely found myself wondering whether to write “the performances live up to the writing” or “the writing lives up to the performances”, and finding equally good reasons to put it either way. The weakest link is Shraddha Kapoor as Arshiya, and even she isn’t half bad (apart from an unfortunate tendency to blink under stress, as though she is reading her lines in Morse code). Shahid Kapoor does brilliantly in the title role, and lives up to the promise I feel he’s wasted in a series of bad roles in the past. The only problem is that he is in the company of actors whom he cannot overshadow. Kay Kay Menon does what Kay Kay Menon does, as does Irfan Khan, and when you see them, you realize that you cannot imagine anyone else playing that part. The standout, though, is Tabu. I consider her the most underrated actress in Hindi cinema: not because people don’t realize how good an actress she is, but because it is impossible to come up with superlatives to do her justice. Maybe one ought to initiate a Kickstarter project to keep her clothed and fed, just so she wouldn’t have to do something like Jai Ho.


ps: My wife and I watched the film in a largely empty cinema hall on Monday night. Apart from the fact that collections drop significantly after the weekend, the word on the street is probably that this film is not for everyone. I wouldn’t disagree. Two cases in point:
  1. A bunch of folks whom we overheard complaining that they only came to watch this movie because ToI gave it nine stars, or something like that. They vowed henceforth to watch only films rated three stars or less.
  2. A couple who brought their five year old daughter to watch the film. Thankfully, she seemed to have slept through a good portion of it. I hope.

 

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.

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.

The last time Neeraj Pandey made a movie was nearly 5 years ago. It was a taut, two-character drama called A Wednesday and gave its stars — Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher — such good material to work with that their sheer joy at playing these characters shone through. The film was not without its flaws, but during its running time, one could not help but stay riveted.

Ordinarily, a good deed such as a well-made, well-received first movie does not go unpunished. The result is usually a bigger budget, bigger stars (with bigger egos) and — sadly enough, more often than not — a bigger but not necessarily better film.

Neeraj Pandey has indeed gotten himself a bigger budget. It has most probably gone towards paying a bigger star (Akshay Kumar) and mounting a more lavish production (the film is set in mid-eighties India, and the period detailing is wonderful). But here’s the thing: it seems like he has spent a good bit of the time since his first film doing something extraordinarily strange: writing a good script. The result is a film that has only a few (mostly forgivable) flaws, works for nearly its entire running length, and is practically crowded with good performances.

Caper movies, like this one about a bunch of con-men who pretend to be CBI officers conducting a raid and make off with the ill-gotten gains of the rich and powerful, are as much about character as about plot. In fact, the more entertaining the characters and their interactions, the less you worry about whether the plot holds together. And since crime capers usually hinge on so many things going precisely right at precisely the right time, it is very easy to poke holes in the plot afterwards. This one is no different. What makes it work is the sheer joy of the ride. 

And this joy is to be found in abundance in Special Chabbis. Let me start with the lesser players and work my way upwards. There is the henpecked husband (Kishor Kadam) whose day job seems to be washing his wife’s clothes and generally trying not to incur her wrath. And a lady constable (Divya Dutta) who essentially has one line of dialogue, repeated at various junctures, and yet manages to make you want to see more of her.

The bigger players have even more fun, maybe because they rarely get to have this much of it. Jimmy Shergill, who exuded toughness in A Wednesday, plays an earnest cop whose palpable chagrin at having been duped provides the punchline to nearly everything he says or does. Manoj Bajpayee, who is enjoying a welcome return to form these days, brings a fearsome intensity to his role as the cop on the trail of these con-men, but leavens it with a dash of wry humour (his specifically worded request for water at the end brings the house down). Akshay Kumar, who seems to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts playing second fiddle to seasoned character actors, brings every ounce of his star power to the Danny Ocean role, but doesn’t upstage the movie by it.

It is Anupam Kher, though, who is the star here. There are moments when his character’s nervousness reminds you of the one he played in Khosla Ka Ghosla, while at other times he displays the ferocity of his character in A Wednesday. The funny thing is, although the various shades of his character here find echoes in other characters he has played before, rarely has he had an opportunity to do so much in one film. Or, for that matter, in one single take. Watch how his body language changes in the course of a walk through a corridor. This is an actor at the peak of his powers, having an absolute ball in front of the camera.

Watching these people act is a pleasure in and as of itself, but watching them interact is the key here. Notice Akshay Kumar’s actions and facial expressions during his phone conversation with Anupam Kher on the eve of the latter’s daughter’s wedding. Listen to Manoj Bajpayee’s conversation with his boss about his promotion. There is no greater pleasure in cinema than spending a couple of hours in the presence of interesting characters who enjoy each other’s company enough to talk like that.

 

At this point, I suppose, I should define “we”. I refer to peole like me, born in Madras in the nineteen-seventies and ripening into cinematic awareness in the decade that followed, in Mani Ratnam’s decade. We are possibly the most qualified to write about Mani Ratnam. We might also be the least qualified.

– Conversations with Mani Ratnam: Introduction.

The above passage might serve to explain why I anticipated the arrival of this book like no other non-fiction book before it. I too count myself among the “we” that Baradwaj Rangan talks about. Born in the seventies, struck by the twin Sicilian Thunderbolts of Mouna Raagam and Nayakan. Felt, in a strange little way, disowned when Mani Ratnam went on to be owned by a larger audience after Roja.

Add to this the other “we” that a growing band of us now consider ourselves part of. The people who, come Friday morning, find ourselves keeping one tab in our browser constantly open to Blogical Conclusion and refresh it every few minutes to see if there’s a new post awaiting us.

Does it make my ilk uniquely qualified to talk about a series of conversations between Mani Ratnam and Baradwaj Rangan? Perhaps not so much, but it certainly makes the topic personal enough to want to write about.

With a book on film that involves a filmmaker and a film critic, one is tempted to get all meta and assign movie-like attributes to the book itself. This is not as much of a force-fit as it sounds. Conversations can be tricky. You have to strike a balance between covering the stuff you want to talk about and allowing it to flow in whichever direction the topic takes you. At its best, the conversation is smooth, yet wide-ranging. Sort of like a film that draws you in so completely that the maker’s skill occurs to you only in hindsight.

Cover art

The other aspect of these conversations is the comfort level that the two people seem to have with each other. The first chapter, which talks about, among other things, how Mani Ratnam came to be a director, is more in the nature of get-to-know-you chitchat. The tone is more biographical than conversational, but that is not to say that it is a dry, factual account. But as the book hits its stride, the dialogue gets more bilateral. There are questions where the man is predictably cagey, such as when he is asked about moving from Ilayaraja to Rahman. Then again, this isn’t meant to be a tell-all tome. For the most part, he is both articulate and detailed in his answers.

There are a few jarring transitions —  for instance, a conversation about Manisha Koirala in Bombay suddenly jump-cuts to a question on actors knowing how to enter and exit a scene, before getting back to her again. A conversation on tangled relationships in Dil Se suddenly gives way to one on the spiritual undertone to his songs. But these instances are few and far between. By and large, the shift from one topic to another seems organic and not forced. Towards the latter chapters (Kannathil Muthamittal onwards, especially), you just wish they’d keep talking.

The conversations are further enlivened by gentle tug-of-war between a critic’s intellectual viewpoint and a filmmaker’s refusal to let his work be mined for subtext. But this is not to say that Mani Ratnam is a purely instinctive filmmaker who doesn’t think in layers — his closing remarks in the chapter on Iruvar, and his comments on micro- and macro-conflicts in Kannathil Muthamittal are cases in point. His viewpoint, I suppose, comes from the fact that the final product we see is a function of what he originally conceived as well as what transpired on set.

Somewhere in the first chapter, Mani talks about the challenge of translating an abstraction (a scene as it is written) into reality (the scene as it is filmed) and being flexible about the things that change while not letting go of its essence. A macro version of the same idea comes up in the chapter on Mouna Raagam, where he reveals that the whole Manohar (Karthik) subplot was put in as a way of making Divya’s viewpoint more credible/palatable to audiences. Entertaining as it was, it might not have been there at all, had Mani made this film later in his career. Other instances, such as the case of a window in Kannathil Muthamittal, pop up here and there.

But at the end of the day, the fact is, we don’t notice the scaffolding. Or want to, for that matter.

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.

 

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