Freeze Frame #168: Udta Punjab

I started thinking about this post because of this song:

Aside: The version in the film is sung by Shahid Mallya — this version is a reprise on YouTube, sung by Diljit Dosanjh (who is part of the film’s cast) and tells part of the Alia Bhatt character’s back-story. It’s an interesting idea.

In one scene, Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is seen noodling with his guitar, trying to come up with a new song: that’s where you first hear the opening bars. The smoothness of the guitar work suggest that you’re seeing a talented musician who has lost his way. But that’s all you hear of the tune at that point. He’s stuck — musically and otherwise.

A few scenes later, you hear those chords again again, as a background score in a fight sequence. He’s not the one doing the fighting: he’s witnessing a girl go medieval on some punks, and with a hockey stick at that. (There’s a lovely little moment in there when you see her setting up a stone as if for a penalty shot, a neat little reference to her background as a hockey player before straitened circumstances forced her to a life as a wage laborer in Punjab.) And the song begins to coalesce in his head.

A few more scenes pass before the vocals are heard: this time, he’s locked himself in with a guy in a hospital room and is trying to get the name of the village where the girl can be found. The man demands a song as payment, and this is the one that bursts forth. The serene, somewhat reflective tone of the opening line is such a contrast with the frenzied tone of the conversation preceding it. It’s almost jarring, but that is sort of the point.

When he starts, his voice has to compete with the sound of the cops rattling the door from the outside, trying to get him to open it. Two lines later, it’s just him. The visuals suggest that they’re still banging on the door, but you don’t hear them. And, the film suggests, nor does he or his rapt audience in that hospital room. There’s just the music.

The additional subtext here is about how this singer’s music affects his audience. In an earlier scene, two teenage drug addicts talk about how he and his music inspired them: one of them says that it was his face he saw when he took drugs for the first time. Even in his drug-addled state, the horror of what he has come to represent, what he has inadverdently inspired (the kids are in jail for having killed their mother for drug money) doesn’t escape him. Here, when he’s in full flight, belting out Ikk Kudi like lives depended on it, the man on the hospital bed tells him the name of the village. That moment, that song, is redemptive for both of them. It’s a thing of beauty.

The pieces of the song come together right at the end. Its arc is complete alongside that of the characters it is about — its creator and his muse.

We are pretty used to songs in our films, much to the puzzlement of Western audiences. Sometimes they’re used for crass commercial reasons (Chikni Chameli and its ilk), as filler, sometimes as a punctuation mark, sometimes even as a storytelling device.

Rarely does a song get its own story.

Movie Review: Udta Punjab

Udta Punjab is an absorbing cerebral journey, a hyperlinked story that follows multiple characters through the labyrinth that is the drug business. Some are users in one form or another, some do their best to stop the abuse, and some others are simply collateral damage. And sometimes, the same person falls into all of these categories. It’s wonderfully written, performed and put together. There isn’t a weak scene or a weak performance that I can think of.

Trouble is, for me at least, that’s all it is. A very well-made film.

I wasn’t emotionally engaged. I wasn’t moved by the plight of the drug addicts, or angered by the politician-dealer nexus. I could see how this was an important film, but to misquote Terry Pratchett, important isn’t the same thing as personal. If at all something struck home, it was the fact that, maybe ten to fifteen years from now, drugs would be one of those things that I’d be terrified that my daughter might be exposed to.

And to be quite honest with you, I am unable to identify what it was that left me in this impressed-but-indifferent state. Was it the fact that some character arcs seemed too easy, too driven by the necessity of redemption that it didn’t feel real? Was it the fact that the performances were competent enough to engage us, but not brilliant enough that we would be transported, sometimes in the course of a single look, into the soul of a character? I don’t know, and it bugs the heck out of me.

I might come back to this film later, and update this blog post with something more sensible and articulate than “it didn’t work for me.” Until then…

 

Freeze frame #167: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

To anyone who has not actually watched the film, it would seem like a minor miracle that a film populated by ageing character actors would turn out to be such a crowd pleaser that it would, in true cynical Hollywood fashion, warrant a sequel. It is, however, no surprise to anyone familiar with the careers of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and the like, that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of pav bhaaji outside Heera Panna in Mumbai — perfect comfort food.

As warm and wonderful as all those characters are (even Maggie Smith, who has perfected crustiness into an art form, turns out to have a gooey core), the most wonderful of the lot turns out to be Tom Wilkinson. I first noticed him as the ageing laid-off factory worker turned stripper in The Full Monty and the grieving father in In the Bedroom, both roles that require him to project varying degrees of quiet desperation. The same feeling permeates his character here as well, but then, not all forms of quiet desperation cloak the same unquiet heart.

From the start, his character seems to be the one most comfortable with the heat and dust and chaos of their surroundings. While it is established early that his familiarity with the place has a lot to do with it, the man is not without his baggage. One of the more affecting passages in the film is the scene where he recalls a youthful affair with a young boy his age. The affair was discovered, the boy was sent away, and so was he back to England. And now, at the end of a long career as a jurist, he has returned to find what happened of his lost love. And when he does find the man, he realizes:

He’s been happy. He’s had a peaceful life and he’s never forgotten me. That’s what he said. <laughs> All that time, I thought I had sentenced him to a life of shame. But I was the one in prison. But not anymore.

Those are his last words. I was not surprised: his character arc was done. What was surprising was how happy I felt.

Movie Review: Kapoor & Sons

Short review:

Dear filmgoers,

I am terribly sorry about K3G. Please accept this by way of reparations.

Sincerely etc.

Karan Johar


Longer review:

What a marvel of a script this is!

The premise is not new. Dil Dhadakne Do, for instance, was also based on the same pressure cooker premise: throw a dysfunctional family and a few supporting characters in, close the lid, turn up the heat and film the result. I’m sure you can name a handful of Hollywood films with the same premise as well. What is rare, at least in Hindi cinema, is the felicity with which it is written, performed and directed.

Director-writer Shakun Batra and his co-writer Ayesha Dhillon get so many of the little things right. When Arjun walks into his old bedroom upon coming home, the first thing he sees is an indoor bicycle in the corner. At the same time, Rahul — the favoured son, the Golden Boy who could do no wrong — enters an immaculately maintained room. It’s a small detail whose purpose is to indicate the contrast between how the two sons aren’t treated the same way, but here’s the thing: a lesser film would have made that room an utter dump. This one just shows a room that has been repurposed a bit. What you see here is the result of a natural sequence of events (the cycle was probably purchased after a visit to the doctor by either or both parents, and a vast majority of people who buy that thing put it in a spare bedroom where there’s some space) combined with semi-conscious choice (his bedroom, rather than his brother’s).

Rahul and Arjun have a somewhat fractious relationship as siblings who have enjoyed varying degrees of success; the same is true of their father and his brother at some level. Every major character (the parents, the siblings, the girl) carries around a load of guilt, most of it having to do with the secrets they’re hiding; no wonder the happiest man around is the ailing potty-mouthed grandfather who doesn’t seem to have much use for the term “impulse control”. Tia’s statement around her fear of flying isn’t simply meant to set up a gag around Rahul’s fear of rats — it serves to set up a later, more dramatic conversation. Even the ending, where people seem to have achieved some degree of happiness/peace, isn’t entirely forced: it recalls an earlier conversation between the brothers on stories having happy endings. Like I said, so much, so right.

Then there’s the dialogue: This film envelops you in a wall of sound when more than two characters are in the frame. The work of Richard Altman comes to mind. It takes a certain skill to make that sort of thing work.

The most impressive example of this comes in a scene where the siblings and their parents are all arguing while a plumber tries to fix a leaking pipe in the background. It’s amazing how they carom off each other — the conflict keeps shifting, and not one of the characters is uninvolved. Not even the hapless plumber, who, when asked how much he is owed, gets probably the funniest line in the script.

The other great example comes late in the film, when the characters are supposed to assemble to take a family photo. The writing sets up the whole sequence wonderfully: the previous night is spent partying and the characters go to sleep more or less happy. The calm before the storm, if you will. The next morning, things begin to unravel slowly. In separate scenes intercut with each other, each character finds out something about the other and is set on a collision course. Batra even uses the weather (gathering clouds threatening to make a mess of the photography plans) to punctuate the action — I know it’s a cliche, but he doesn’t use it like one, and has the sense to close the loop with another photography session on a warm, sunny day.

The way these narrative strands cohere as the family ties themselves are unraveling — the whole thing is so fluid, it’s an absolute delight to watch.

If at all there is a misstep here, it is in how Batra doesn’t quit while he’s ahead. From a film-making standpoint, everything in that sequence is more or less a logical consequence of things that have already happened. The contrivance is only in having it all happen at once. But the sequence is supposed to end when an external force disrupts the rhythm, i.e., when a character dies unexpectedly. But where the narrative rhythm is broken, the fluid editing rhythm isn’t — we cut smoothly to the funeral, when we should be pausing to register what has just happened. It robs that disruptive moment of its impact.

But look at what I am complaining about: Too many secrets come out at the same time, whereas in real life such coincidences are improbable. A great sequence has a less-than-great ending because the editing is too smooth. How wonderful is it that these are the film’s major faults?

Freeze Frame #166: Begin Again

There’s a lovely scene in Begin Again when a drunk Mark Ruffalo first hears Keira Knightley singing at a bar. You get the usual reaction shots at first — from a bleary-eyed “What am I listening to?” to a more awake “Oh, this is good”. But then…

See, Keira is just sitting on a stool with a guitar and singing solo– there’s a bunch of musical instruments lying behind her. But as the second stanza begins, you see Mark looking at the cymbals, then the piano, the drums and the other instruments, and they start playing by themselves in the background. Suddenly, what was a just nice tune now begins to sound like a polished product. And I have to say, the song does sound much better.

Consider this: you have a character who is supposed to be a down-on-his-luck record producer listening to a new singer and seeing… promise, a chance at redemption and glory, whatever. This setup is old as the hills. But usually, when you show a wizened veteran discovering a rookie, how do you get the audience to understand how good he is? Most filmmakers go with one of the following options:

  1. Play it low-key, and reveal the veteran’s talent slowly. When you’re dealing with coaches and the like, this is a tough thing to do in a manner that is relatable.
  2. Use expository dialogue: get other people to talk about how great a guy he used to be.
  3. Cast a big star in the veteran’s role, so that the audience automatically substitutes star power for the veteran’s supposed expertise. Good acting usually helps.

What Carney does here is go with a fourth option, which is to find an inventive way to showcase the veteran’s talent. In this case, the talent is his ability to hear what the others cannot. The ability to register not how a song sounds, but how it could sound. And by showing us all of this through the addition of the phantom orchestra, he establishes the rookie’s promise and the veteran’s ability to see it, all during the course of a single song. It’s a thing of beauty.

ps: The only other example of this approach that immediately comes to mind is the scene in Finding Forrester where Jamal Wallace retrieves the backpack that contains his notebooks from Forrester’s house, and finds that his writings have been critiqued by what appears to be an expert. But since it’s writing, unlike music, you can’t actually see what’s so good about it.

Thani Oruvan

After an intriguing opening sequence, Thani Oruvan settles down to the serious business of making us want to throw up. There is only so much hero glorification nonsense that I can take, and this film reaches that quota in fifteen minutes. It’s not that the guy isn’t smart, or that the tricks he uses to catch criminals aren’t interesting. It’s the way his adoring friends keep talking about his greatness that gets to me. What part of “show, not tell” does this filmmaker not understand?

Then a funny thing happens. The villain comes into view. While the hero is smart and boring, this guy is smart and interesting. It helps immensely, I think, that the villain is played by Aravind Swamy. Our cinema is no stranger to suave villains, but the suavity is so often of the overblown, put-on variety that it is a relief to see the real article.

Once the film shifts its focus to the cat and mouse game between the hero and the villain, we’re off to the races. There is some bang-bang to be sure (this is a cop drama, after all), but most of the action is cerebral. The feral edge of something like Yennai Arindhaal is missing here, but this is not necessarily a drawback.

There is a line that appears in the beginning: Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are. The film seems to take this idea very seriously, in ways that are sometimes obvious (the hero and the villain ‘choose’ each other to do battle with) and sometimes not so much.

Much of what makes the film’s latter portions work is the fact that each of these two characters begin to see themselves a lot more clearly as a result of the other’s existence and actions. It’s surprising how much introspection there is for a film in this genre. There is a tendency to get a bit too cute (like right at the end), but this is still much better writing than average.

Sometimes, films that focus on the need that heroes and villains have for each other end up losing a bit of perspective. Both characters have bigger fish to fry than obsess about each other (although to be fair, it takes a while for one of them to realize this, and that too only after someone else points it out to him). That sort of clear-headedness is as rare as it is gratifying.

Love is probably the one thing most explored in cinema, and it is a potent enough feeling to deserve that. There is, however, another very potent emotion that is often underrated but especially comes into focus in a cop drama: respect. It is the reason why the centerpiece of Michael Mann’s Heat is a quiet conversation between a cop (Al Pacino) and a thief (Robert De Niro) over coffee in a diner. We get enough films where the hero and the villain shout variations of “Aaaeei!” at each other. A lot more than enough, actually. So, when a couple of smart people face off against each other, we are instantly riveted.

Whatever the film’s title might lead you to believe, this is a duet, not a solo. And that might be the best reason to watch it.

Freeze Frame #165: Anjali

Now, it’s no secret that this is one of my least favourite Mani Ratnam films. He got some things gloriously right, but I found it a touch too melodramatic, the kids a touch too annoying (and I wasn’t much older when it came out), the Revathy character a touch too whiny… I didn’t walk away from the film with the warm and fuzzies, and that has nothing to do with the fact that the eponymous character dies at the end.

Okay, it does a little bit. Here’s what I wrote some years ago:

And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Ratnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

But it did have a few knock-out moments, my favourite being the scene where Arjun, the elder child, bonds with Anjali. This occurs in the aftermath of a fight where Arjun gets into a scrap with some kids in the neighbourhood who have been harassing Anjali. It would be easy to interpret his actions as “Ah, so he does love his newfound little sister”, but I think it’s probably a bit more and less than that. There’s a bit of an impulse to do the right thing, a bit of whatever-my-issues-she’s-still-my-sister… However he feels about her, he hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged it.

That comes when he sees how Anjali reacts to his injuries. The way I state it, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how perfectly that little scene works.

Watch how he sees her as though for the first time, beyond whatever preconceived notions he had up until then about this “different” little kid who seems to have turned his life upside down. (It’s not as dramatic as that in reality, but wouldn’t it have seemed like that to him?) His reaction is the first time a character in the film deals with his or her prejudice and defeats it. The rest of the film is mostly just about the others following suit. It is, in my opinion, the scene most emblematic of the film’s central theme.

However, the reason why this scene has been on my mind recently has nothing to do with pride or prejudice. You see, my daughter recently bit my leg hard while throwing a tantrum. And even now, several days later, she keeps pointing to the place where the remainder of a scab is still barely visible, looks a bit remorseful and gives it a quick kiss.

What’s that line by Dr. Seuss about the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes at Christmas?