Up in the Air

Beware: Here be spoilers!

There is a crucial moment in Up in the Air when Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) finds himself having to talk someone out out of a course of action. It doesn’t help that the other man’s beliefs echo what he has been preaching all these years. Bingham even moonlights as a self-help speaker who extols the virtues of carrying little or no baggage. And here he is, having to sell the exact opposite. Clooney expresses this conflict with admirable economy — his normally relaxed facial muscles tighten up a bit, and his eyes do the rest.

The scene itself is reminiscent of a similar one in Reitman’s earlier Thank you for Smoking, where a tobacco lobbyist is asked whether he would be okay with his son wanting to smoke.The more basic Jason Reitman signature — smart, sassy people trying to keep their equanimity and sense of humour intact while their world seems to fall apart — is in evidence throughout the running time.

Bingham is employed by a company that provides termination services. In other words, he fires people on behalf of managers who are too squeamish to deal with large scale layoffs. In times like these, business is booming. “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” he remarks to a colleague at one point. “To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to point where hope is dimly visible, and to stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”

It is clear from watching him that he loves his job. More importantly, he loves what comes with it — over 300 days of travel in a year, and more frequent flyer miles than it would take for a return trip to the moon. At one point, when a pilot asks him in mid-air where he lives, he replies, “Here.” Jason Reitman establishes this character and his world through a series of shots that could serve as a how-to manual for frequent travellers. And then proceeds to gently tug at the rug under his feet.

The first tug comes in the form of Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent traveller he meets in a hotel bar and shares a certain kinship with. Here is a woman who wants the same things out of a relationship as he does — the absence of strings. But tell me this: have you ever, EVER watched a movie where a man and a woman want a relationship without commitment and feel that way right until the end?

The second comes in the form of Natalie Keener, a bright young college graduate who comes up with the idea of firing people over a webcam. The cost implications are so enormous that Bingham’s boss cannot ignore it, but our man argues successfully that she has no idea what the job involves. So the boss does the obvious thing — ask Nataie to tag along with Bingham and learn the ropes before implementing her new system.

The third tug comes from his family. His sister sends him a cut-out of herself and her fiance and asks him to take pictures of that cutout in front of famous landmarks in the places he visits. Tacky, yes. Bingham agrees. The cutout doesn’t quite fit into his baggage. You know what that means.

Diverse as they seem, they represent, in essence, a single major complication in Bingham’s life: people. What these people have done is simply enter his orbit, and in doing so, changed it. Clooney depicts the effect these factors have on his life by doing… nothing, really. And yet, the scenes are written in such a way that you know what he’s feeling without him having to act it out. As a result, when he does let it show, the effect is startling.

What Up in the Air does is combine the cynicism of Thank You for Smoking with the emotional arc of Juno. The result is a movie that keeps you chuckling for most of the time but leaves you with a sad aftertaste. The closing shot is of Bingham staring at the departures listing at an airport. This is the first time you see him doing it. Until then, he always seemed to know where to go.


Freeze Frame #128: Shaurya

Remaking A Few Good Men was always going to be a tough task, simply because Jack Nicholson had way too much fun chewing up the scenery that you just couldn’t hope to match up to that. So Shaurya decides to attack the problem from a different angle — it makes the movie a lot more serious (or maybe we just understand the issues a lot better) and gives the Nicholson character an entirely different spin. It works, in a way — Kay Kay is hypotically watchable in the key courtroom sequence, and manages to create something that deserves to be taken on its own terms. That it is hamstrung by a terribly ordinary performance at the other end by Rahul Bose (in the Tom Cruise role) is a pity.

The other big difference is the accused (in this case just one man) —  Capt. Javed Khan. The first time you see him, he speaks absolutely nothing. His lawyer (Bose) speaks to him, or rather at him, for a few minutes, but there seems to be absolutely no response from the man. He just sits there. It is unnerving, and undeniably effective.

Maybe it is because we (who have seen the original, or at least enough movies to know better) already know how it is going to end and therefore enter that scene feeling like there is little to know about this man. By the time the movie is over, we haven’t learnt anything we didn’t expect.

But for three minutes, an actor comes on screen and inhabits it with such mesmerizing stillness that you are hooked. You want to know why this guy is in that cell, despite the fact that, at some level, you know already. If that isn’t screen presence, I don’t know what is.

ps: The actor’s name is Deepak Dobriyal. You might’ve noticed him in Maqbool and Omkara.

"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.