Special Chabbis

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.


Madras Talkers

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.

Freeze Frame #157: Student of the Year

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.


Hooch tragedy? Not quite, thank heavens!

You know that black screen with white lettering that appears before nearly every movie these days? The one that tells you that smoking and drinking is bad for you? Cocktail is the first one I’ve seen where, not only does it say there for a while, there’s actually a voice-over that reads it out. And twice, once at the beginning and again after the interval.

Just as well. Sobriety isn’t high on this film’s list of priorities. It would be unfair to say that the Deepika Padukone character drinks like a fish — that kind of quantity consumption is beyond the reach of most aquatic creatures except maybe blue whales. The Diana Penty character mostly looks like she could use a drink. The Saif Ali Khan character, I suspect, is drunk almost all of the time — there’s no way a sober person could come up with the lines he tries out on women. As for the women who fall for it, I suspect hard drugs, something not mentioned in the warning. The bedside table in the Randeep Hooda character’s apartment is essentially two beer crates stacked one on top of the other.

And here’s the surprising part. For all of that, the film isn’t the train wreck I feared it might be. The romance doesn’t really work (a fact that is highlighted by the easy chemistry between Saif and Deepika), but the plot gives Diana and Saif so little screen time together as a romantic couple that it isn’t as much of a problem. The melodramatic sequences aren’t too dragged out. And yes, there is a fair amount of humour — frankly, this is the only aspect of the film that works more often than it doesn’t.

The performances are quite okay. Saif does his shtick, and shows an admirable lack of restraint in a crucial scene involving Sheela Ki Jawaani. Towards the end, he has a scene where he is so magnificently inarticulate that it belongs in a much better movie. Diana Penty has a role that requires more accuracy than range, and manages not to mess up. Her standout moment, I think, is the one where she utters the word “Focus” in a crucial scene. Boman Irani and Dimple Kapadia play wonderfully off each other and the rest of the cast, although they have nearly nothing to do in general.

The surprise, to me, is Deepika Padukone. Hers is the only character that is written with a modicum of complexity. (Not much, mind you, but the rest of the characters might as well have come from Dr. Seuss in comparison.) There was a point in her career where she would’ve utterly butchered it, and taken the film down with her. This time around, she manages to keep it together.

Cocktail doesn’t aspire to be great art, nor does it aspire to be great trash (like, say Rowdy Rathore). It’s like one of those random concoctions you find in a bar menu and automatically ignore, with good reason. You could have a glass of it without wanting to throw up, but it’s no good if you want to get a nice buzz going.

ps: I hardly ever drink. I have an occasional glass of wine, and fall asleep promptly thereafter. So I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about in the analogy above.

pps: Not that this has ever stopped me in the past. If it did, this blog wouldn’t exist.

Where is my cow?

For a while now, I have been meaning to write a blog post on Rowdy Rathore.  But just when I figured out what I wanted to say, Baradwaj Rangan beat me to it.

To be fair, he does it better than I would have. So let me speak of a couple of peripheral observations that I had while watching the movie.

First, I think the appeal of Rowdy Rathore is rooted partly in the fact that it seems to be very obviously winking at the audience. The poster art is a masterpiece — it is so deliberately lurid that I couldn’t help but smile. (It also occurred to me, in passing, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali probably made a deal with Prabhudeva years ago that they would share a colour palette, and that whatever was left over after the former was done with Saawariya would be the latter’s to play with.)

The second is a slightly more sober observation: I noticed this not just in the three versions of this film but also in a bunch of others — the stakes have constantly risen in the way films portray evil. Maybe it is because we are exposed to filmi villainy so often that we are desensitized to the more garden-variety bad guy (smuggler, gangster etc.). I don’t know. But every once in a while, someone finds it necessary to up the ante. When they remade Agneepath, for instance, it wasn’t sufficient to disgrace the teacher by making him seem like he visited a prostitute — they had to make him rape a crippled schoolgirl. This movie decides that the way to make the villain despicable is to have him rape a cop’s wife over several days while the cop looks on helplessly. Where will this stop?

Linked to both these observations, but in a meta sort of way, is a conversation I had a friend of mine recently. She asked me how Rowdy Rathore was, and I immediately said, “Fantastic! It was exactly what it intended to be.” I meant it in a half-serious, half-sarcastic sort of way, but the comment led to a discussion on whether a film should be judged by its content or by its ability to do what it intended to do.

In general, I believe in the latter concept more than she does. A trivial example would be movies across different genres that I love in equal measure. A trickier example would be something like Nishabd, which I found to be a very well made movie about a subject that not many people were okay with. But the whole conversation made me wonder. Would I have been okay with a film that glorified, say, child abuse, just because it was a very well made film about the subject? The answer is obviously no — we all have our holy cows.

But what does my threshold of tolerance indicate, in and as of itself? No easy answers, I’m afraid.

Freeze Frame #155: Sarfarosh

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.


It’s a dirty trick, really: setting a movie in Kolkata during Durga Puja, knowing that this very fact would make it nearly impossible for me to find fault with it. I lived in Kolkata for around 6 years as a grad student, and I haven’t lived in any city before or since that I have loved quite as much.

The Kolkata of Kahaani is not the city you see in most other movies. When a heavily pregnant Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi arrives at Dum Dum airport, she asks the cab driver to take her to Kalighat police station to file a missing persons report on her husband. You don’t see establishing shots of Howrah bridge and Victoria memorial like you would in a lesser movie, because:

  1. Sujoy Ghosh wants to get on with the story right away, and (more importantly)
  2. If you had to get to Kalighat from the airport, you would most likely not take a route that involves Howrah bridge.

You often hear about a location being another character in a movie. Filmmakers often use this phrase in pre-release publicity, and it was bandied about in this case as well. And you know what, I have never quite understood what it meant. But what I do understand is when the location of a story is so integral to its milieu that the broad outlines disappear and all that remains are the little details that provide the place’s real signature. Kahaani is set in the Kolkata I know and love, not in tourist postcard version.

But I digress. Let us get back to poor Bidda Bagchi (the V-to-B substitution is well known to non-Bengalis by now, but this name provides evidence of another quirk of Bengali pronunciation — when you have a bunch of consonants bunched together, you just say the first one twice and move on, sort of like a Taylor series approximation — and I digress again, sorry)…

She files a missing persons report, goes to the guest house where her husband said he was staying, goes to his workplace… here is a woman who realizes that she needs to find her husband herself, rather than rely upon law enforcement officials whose computers display “System Error” more often than search results. She is helped by a sympathetic cop named Rana, hindered by a foul-mouthed, less-than-sympathetic Intelligence Bureau officer named Khan, stared at by passers-by, threatened, nearly killed, and yanked around by the clues piling up around two men — one (her husband) whose existence the error-prone systems refuse to acknowledge, and another whose existence the IB wishes to cover up.

Through it all, she remains stoic, even good-humoured. She follows the clues to wherever they lead her, picking locks and hacking computers along the way (you do realize I’m a cop, don’t you, asks an exasperated Rana at one point) until she finds what she wants. The story has a big twist at this point, which I will not spoil for you except to say that I am not completely convinced that the story adds up perfectly in hindsight.

But that is, to be fair, a small quibble. The real pleasure of the film is not the story but the manner of its telling. The pace is unrelenting, but still finds space for little pleasures — the odd sarcastic response, a little teasing on a tram ride, a completely understandable crush. The characters are uniformly interesting (the standout being Bob Biswas, whose day job as a life insurance agent is probably the film’s funniest running gag) and the performances match up.

But the best aspects, I think, are the camerawork and the editing. If you have been on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja, the one thing you will remember most vividly is how crowded it gets. It’s as if nobody is staying home watching TV. With so many people around, you will most likely feel like you are constantly being stared at. Somewhat expected when you are waddling around at a brisk pace looking like you might go into labor any second now, but invaluable when you’re the protagonist in the midst of a thriller and the director wishes to ratchet up the paranoia. And while all this happens against the backdrop of a sleepy metropolis waking up to its own beauty, you even get your obligatory shots of Victoria Memorial and Howrah Bridge. Happy?

A couple of bookkeeping entries to end this post:

  1. I have not said anything about Vidya Balan. I don’t need to. Let’s just say that I cannot imagine anyone else doing this part — Tamilian with an affinity for Bengalis, woman with lousy luck/taste in men, character requiring a strong performer to do it justice — and move on.
  2. Much of this review has involved digressing in the middle of a sentence to fill in a detail that captivated me. Life in Kolkata is a bit like that.