Akhil: The Power of Jua

This isn’t a review. I am not going to provide a critical analysis of the buried subtext and reflexive postmodernism inherent in the film. (No, I don’t know what reflexive postmodernism is, and quite honestly, I don’t even know if the term makes sense. Why the eff are you even asking?)

I am simply going to narrate what I saw one night when I was working with the TV on. I switched to the channel playing this only after two thirds of the film was over, so I might have missed much of what makes this a great film. That is why I am not calling this a review — I can’t truly review something I haven’t fully seen. I save that sort of nonsense for work.

So this guy — the Akhil of the title — and his girlfriend and a couple of comic sidekicks are stranded in Africa. There’s a tribe on one side and some kind of warlord on the other. The girl’s dad is there as well, but I’m not sure which side he’s on, and I’m not sure he knows either. Anyway, it turns out that there is some precious artifact — the Jua of the title — that has been dropped into a lake somewhere, and needs to be rescued and returned to some shrine maintained by the tribe before the solar eclipse, otherwise the earth will be destroyed. (It’s always solar — lunar eclipses happen so often that if we risked the planet every time we had one, sooner or later the odds won’t work in our favour and we’ll no longer be around to make movies like Akhil – The Power of Jua.) And our intrepid hero has to be the one to find it.

Oh, and the warlord wants it as well, on behalf of some Russian gangster who I assume is willing to pay handsomely for it. Clearly, imminent destruction of the planet doesn’t faze said mafioso. I’m assuming he has a condo in Mars waiting for him. I’m sure it was covered while I was watching Sooryavansham instead of switching to this channel. But he looks like the kind of guy who would grow potatoes using his own crap and then make vodka out of them.

So our hero goes to the lake and dives in. Now, because this is the sort of artifact that can destroy the planet, a school of piranhas have migrated to Africa to guard it at the bottom of the lake. I briefly wondered how they got there, and the obvious answer that sprung to mind was that they piggybacked on an African swallow, which then led me to wonder about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow… But I digress.

So, piranhas. African warlords don’t get to where they are without some knowledge of diversionary tactics, so they throw a cow into the water to distract the fish. (Where’s a good gau rakshak when you need one, the cow would’ve probably thought, except I think it was dead before it got dropped in.) Our man makes use of the distraction to go find the artifact and then… I don’t remember exactly, but I think he pivots on some branch and jumps out. Then of course he fights off the Russian on a plane and jumps out before it could crash into an active volcano.

The properly thankful tribal chief takes the artifact back to its shrine and places it on top of an inverted tripod-like stand just before sunlight can stream in and the photons can notice that the orb isn’t there. There’s actually a moment when they’re racing a beam of light and placing the orb just before the beam can hit the tripod. And I’m obviously sitting there thinking, if the photons got there just ahead of the tribals and noticed that the orb wasn’t there, could they make up some excuse involving Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?

I didn’t get a lot of work done that night, but I did google piranhas and swallows and Heisenberg. It was all very informative. Now I have to watch the rest of the film in order to see what else I can learn. Trouble is, I keep getting distracted by Sooryavansham and Indra the Tiger and Ek Aur Most Wanted and…

I suppose I should be thankful that the fate of the planet doesn’t rest on my easily distracted shoulders. You could put the orb in a bucket in my bathroom and ask a guppy fish to guard it, and the earth would be swallowed by a black hole while I’m still ooh-ing and aah-ing over Ravi Teja’s dance moves.

Freeze Frame #152: Band Baaja Baaraat

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.

Freeze Frame #126: The Godfather Part II

I seem to have fallen into the curious pattern of doing freeze frame posts on The Godfather trilogy in reverse. I started off with a moving little scene in Part III (pretty much the only scene in that movie that grabbed me, come to think of it). And now, a moment in Part II. 

There’s a beautiful exchange in John Cusack’s Serendipity where he tells his friend:


That was an incredible movie. Might be better than the original. All right? But no matter how much you love The Godfather Partll, you still have to see the original to understand and appreciate the sequel, don’t you?

My friend Rajendran once referred to The Godfather as a sigma field, that is, a movie that defines its morality relative to its own self-contained universe. Therefore, when Michael orchestrates the killing of the heads of the five families at the end of the first movie, you cheer for him because you feel he is doing the right thing.

In the second movie, Coppola destroys this sigma field by making us see the impact of his decisions on his own loved ones, and how it leads to a vicious cycle of hurt and alienation. By the time Part II ends, you aren’t cheering by any measure. (This is one of the reasons why Part III did not work — the cycle was complete by the end of Part II, andwhatever else happened felt tacked on.)

The destruction of this facade of morality around Michael’s actions is the principal item on Coppola’s agenda, and he does it by making a very interesting choice. He tells Michael’s story in parallel with one about his father Vito’s rise from a penniless orphaned immigrant to Don Corleone, The Godfather. He tinges this parallel narrative in shades of pink, so that you feel like Vito was, above all, a moral man, a reasonable who just happened to be in an immoral and unreasonable business.

This is curious. Vito committed his first murder, that of Don Fanucci, in order to avoid paying up to the man’s extortionate demands. Sure, he was poor and the money meant a heck of a lot to him. But contrast this with Michael killing someone who threatened his family. His wife hates him for putting their family in a position where someone would want to kill them.

Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but consider for a moment what Coppola has accomplished here. Michael believes in the code he lives by, and his actions are consistent with it, but it still isolates him. It is when you think about the sort of cause-and-effect relationships he explored in the first movie and in the parallel narrative about Vito’s story that you realize how beautifully he has managed it. Not only are his own sins visited upon him, it seems like he’s paying for his father’s sins as well, with compound interest.

It is right at the end that Coppola has a sequence that really drives it home. In the narrative set in the past, Michael has just come home from college and announces to his brothers that he is planning to enlist in the armed forces for the ongoing war (WW II). Their instant reaction, other than to think he’s crazy, is to tell him that their dad would go postal if he heard of his decision. When Tom Hagen tells him that Vito has plans for him, Michael’s response is: Well, I have my own plans for my future.

You see him sitting alone at the kitchen table while the rest of the family goes out to welcome Vito who has just come home. A quiet, confident, self-possessed man with plans of his own. Then you see Michael in the present day, sitting alone. And it breaks your heart that it has come to this.

And the End #2- Vaastav

Satya and Vaastav would always be two of my favorite gangster movies. Raw, hard hitting, intensely violent.  Vaastav for me contained one of Sanjay Dutt’s best performances.  Sanju was touted as the succesor to Amitabh Bachan, but his wild ways, his rank bad choice of movies, his trysts with the law would prove to be his undoing. He had everything to be the next Amitabh. The tall lanky frame, the voice, the intensity but he choose to mess it up in a host of indifferent movies. But quite too often, he would be given a role like in Vaastav, and then he would make you wonder, why the heck, does he waste such a wonderful talent.

Vaastav is the story of Raghu, a lower middle class guy, who gets sucked into the underworld, and becomes a dreaded cocaine snorting gangster. In many ways, Vaastav, derived inspiration from Scarface. The foul language, Raghu becomming a drug addict and his violent hot headed nature. The scene where Raghu picks up a fight with a goon, who refuses to pay for the vada paav, again had its genesis in a similar scene in Scarface, where Pacino and his friend, get into a fight with a hoodlum, who refuses to pay up for their fast food stall.

But more than anything, it is Vaastav’s powerful climax, that just hits you, on your face. You come away from the movie, not able to forget that scene. To call it hard hitting would be a misnomer. It is gut wrenching and intense.  Raghu( Sanjay Dutt) is on the run, from the cops, his buddies have been killed, and he is wanted for the murder of the Home Minister, Babban Rao Kadam( Mohan Joshi),who has used Raghu for his own selfish ends.  His life in a total shambles, Raghu escapes from the cops, into his home.

He breaks down like a child in front of his mother, goes totally crazy. He bawls, begs his mother “Maa mujhe shaanti chahiye”. Watch Sanju’s expressions in the scene, totally rivetting. In a Bollywood, where the hero is usually projected as a superman, here we see a normal human being breaking down, behaving like a lunatic. Till some time back, he was a dreaded gangster, whose name would strike fear into the hearts of his rivals, now he is a lonely,insecure, confused individual. Not too often, you get to see the downfall of a human being so shockingly real, at least in Bollywood.

His mother( Reema Lagoo), looks on helplessly at her son. She knows that he has gone beyond to a stage, from where he can never come back. This is not Raghu, the dreaded gangster. It’s Raghu, her own confused vulnerable son, who is now seeking her warmth like a child. She picks up the gun, and holding back her tears, she shoots him dead. Her husband( Shivaji Satam)  and Raghu’s wife Sonu( Namrata Shirodkar) come rushing into the room.  As her husband looks at her shocked she replies ” Is ko shanti chahiye tha, mainne isse dilaya”.  That one line sums it up all, Raghu, found that inner peace in his death, the peace which was elusive all his life. Reema Lagoo, a talented actress, but often wasted in mama roles, is just brilliant in this scene too.

Sadly in a way, it would also prove to be a burden too heavy for Mahesh Manjrekar and Sanjay Dutt.  Post Vaastav, Mahesh, is yet to come up with another outstanding flick, barring Astitva. And Sanju was typecast in gangster roles, all similar to each other, that you could switch one for another, and it would make no difference. It was Munnabhai MBBS which again gave Sanju a new lease of life to his career.

And the End #1- Anand

I am starting a series of posts here on movie climaxes. Considering that climax is an important aspect of the movie, many movies keep chugging along well, but falter at the last. This is common to both Indian and English movies. So this is on some climaxes which have had a deep impact on me. As far as the climax goes, one of the best would be Anand (1970).

Anand (Rajesh Khanna), who is suffering from a terminal illness, is on his deathbed. His friend, and the doctor, who is treating him, Babu Moshai (Amitabh Bachan) rushes back to the room. By the time he has come its just too late, Anand has breathed his last.

In one of the best performances, Amitabh Bachan, wonderfully displays his pent up anger, frustration, seeing his best friend lying still. He commands him to talk, pretty ironical considering that when he first met Anand, he was irritated by his non stop chatter. As he shakes up Anand, asking him to talk, as if on a cue, the tape recorder plays.

Babu Moshai”- Even the sound is somewhat eerie, and then the conversation about “Zindagi aur maut ke khel mein hum sab katputhliyan hain”. And the two of them, laughing together. It is as if Anand has been speaking from the grave.

I must have seen this movie umpteen times, but every time the scene just gives me the goosebumps.