Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bioscope [dir. K.M. Madhusudhanan]

My God, this is one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen. When I say this, I don't mean it with some qualifier like low-budget film or Indian origin film or something like that. I would readily put this one in the same ballpark as films by Werner Herzog and Bernardo Bertolucci and Michaelangelo Antonioni and still say, “My God, this is one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.” I doubt there's a single shot in this film that cannot be simply framed and hung up as a work of art.
Of course, it's not a film I can recommend in an unreserved fashion because the elliptical script also has the narrative cohesion of a work of art (although never to the point of being aggravating), but if you are one with the idea of film as the magic of moving image, of poetry in motion, this is as good as it gets. The moving image is an integral part of the film's soul, its lead character Diwakaran (Murugan) succumbing to the magic of the early movie projector. Diwakaran, a sensitive dreamy young man with a consumptive wife, in turn aims to spread the magic bringing the instrument to his village. In the pre-independence era the film is set in, the arrival of the bioscope in the village provokes whispers of ghosts and witchcraft, and even his affectionate family is disturbed at what might bring a curse upon them.
This may sound like a ripe royal melodrama but Madhusudhanan and his collaborators DOP M.J. Radhakrishnan and Music Composer Chandran Veyattummal completely discarded such tropes, transforming the experience through visuals and sound into one of sublime cinematic sensuality. Beyond an initial viewing there is even no need to keep track of the narrative, just submit yourself to the phantasmagoria of iconic imagery that is Bioscope.
The good news is that the NFDC-Shemaroo DVD is in general a very good presentation of the film. The image is on the soft side and can occasionally be quite dark but I think it reflects the intended look. Primary colors are incredibly rich and the all-important shadows are deep. Although there are minor scratches/blemishes now and then, the print is quite clean by most standards for Indian films and major damage is thankfully quite rare.
But there is a single flaw in the transfer which is quite egregious given the visual nature of the film. What we have here is a non-anamorphic transfer in 16:9 ratio, which means that if you have a 16:9 widescreen TV the image, instead of filling the screen completely with its gorgeousness, will stretch out with black bars. Additionally the subtitles fall in the region of the black bars, so zooming in will lead to them getting cut off from view. You can get around this if you have an HTPC setup like I do (VLC Player ftw!) or have some fancy DVD player that allows you to alter the position of the subtitles, but really it should not have to be addressed like that. It's a shame because otherwise this is a tremendously good effort.
But don't let these niggles stop you from experiencing what is surely one of the most absorbing painterly experiences in cinema.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Deool aka The Temple [dir. Umesh Kulkarni]

On the whole I did like Deool a good deal more than Umesh Kulkarni's previous effort Valu – The Wild Bull. The comparison is apt because Deool can be seen as almost a follow-up to Valu. It is set in a similar sleepy hamlet where again, an unusual event cascades into a series of actions and consequences. Here the local simpleton Keshav (Girish Kulkarni, who bagged a well-deserved National Award for his role) while resting under a tree, believes that he has had a sighting of Dutta aka Shiva, and dashes through the village announcing it to all and sundry. But not everyone is happy with the news: Social worker Anna (Dilip Prabhavalkar) is a rationalist and the local politician Bhau (Nana Patekar) has been ordered by his higher-ups to convey “Madam's” message of development (no prizes for guessing which party is being referred to). They try to play down the event but the superstitions of the local populace, including Bhau's wife (Sonali Kulkarni, looking more attractive in her plump homely avatar) and the machinations of Bhau's nephew who sees the building of a temple as his way to breaking out of Bhau's stranglehold, take matters all out of proportion.
Like with Valu, the rural setting has been realized very well, and in its way the film raises some pertinent issues about the line between development and commercialism. The building of the temple brings piped water and electricity and prosperity to the village, but renders it a tourist-happy stop that the locals labor to feed off while their fields lie uncultivated. Keshav's faith in his sighting is genuine and he too is initially pleased at the striking changes that Dutta has brought to his erstwhile ignored hamlet, but grows gradually disillusioned at the commercialization of devotion that his neighbors and friends have gotten into in the aftermath of building the temple – It's a shrill but meaningful point that most of them have cut down their actual visits to the deity's sanctum because they're too busy profiting off the faith of visiting pilgrims. It's not absolutely bleak and biting like Billy Wilder's Ace in The Hole, though, and the people behind the temple are not unduly demonized. In a wonderful scene that comes midway into the film, Bhau and Anna have a debate over the legitimacy of the events that have occurred in the wake of the temple and the effect it will have on the place and the people. There is no absolute right or wrong here, and appreciation must be given to the script and the mature performances of the two seasoned actors for walking this fine line.
What keeps me from unreservedly singing this film's praises is its very meandering style, something that I had a greater problem with in Valu. I grant that there is a certain sense to depicting rural life with a slowed down rhythm, but at 2 ½ hours the film gets tedious, has some uneven tonal changes and is not especially richer for it; in fact the impact is diluted by repetition and pointless excursions into too many territories. A good story is one that carefully selects its themes and threads, and does not try to jam in every single idea the writers thought of. There are some more obvious clunkers like a disconnected item song, an ironic addition for a film that talks about exploitative commercialization. But the film is still to be appreciated for its mostly sincere telling of an interesting original story. Here's hoping for more and better from these guys.

P.S. The opening credits sequence featuring "sand paintings" is one of the most charming and creative sequences I have seen. Budding artists will love this.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ghost [dir. Puja Jatinder Bedi]

Saw Ghost tonight and it was dire. Even the gore, a couple of scenes aside (including a total WTF crucifixion scene), is not enough to overcome the utterly amateurish and absurd proceedings. Sayali Bhagat (as a doctor who wears off-shoulder above-the-knee skirts on her night rounds) is another no-talent washout from the beauty contest scene and Shiney Ahuja looks like he might have been more comfortable in jail than acting in this film. Continuity doesn't seem at all to have been on anybody's minds while shooting the film and there's just too much cliche and dead space (hur hur). It might have fared a bit better as a troll-film at the cinemas, but on the other hand I had here the option of skipping the horrible songs so that evens out.

The DVD from Venus matches the general wretchedness of the film. It's 2012 and what we have here is...wait for it...a NON-ANAMORPHIC widescreen presentation with milky contrast and an obnoxious opaque logo on the top left (which occasionally drops a copy of itself down the screen like a turd). The sound design is unbalanced with low-key conversations barely audible while sound effects and BGM are too loud in the mix. Should I be glad this wasn't for a good film?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mirch Masala [dir. Ketan Mehta]

...or why it is a piece of classic Bollywood cinema.

Seeing Mirch Masala again after so many years only reinforces what an amazing achievement this film was, both for Ketan Mehta, and for Indian cinema as a whole. It's downright shameful that a bunch of ignorant people will avoid this film by lumping it in the category of parallel / art film, which by their definition stands for a preachy non-entertaining academic class of movies. Far from it, MM takes from the best traditions of dramatic Hindi movies and theater and stands proudly with any of the beloved classics of Bollywood.

MM goes back to the basics of what all great populist movies should aim for – tell a simple but strong story with well-etched characters and carefully chosen elements of drama, humor and thrills that must not stand as individual “items” but always be in service of the story. As Stephen King once wrote “It's the tale, not he who tells it” (or in the case of films, who directs/acts in it). Mehta pulled this off splendidly in MM, considering how early the film came in his career. His later efforts like Maya Memsaab, and to a far lesser extent Oh Darling Yeh Hai India (my guilty pleasure), had ideas and moments that caught one's interest, but were defeated by the sheer volume of extraneous and awkward elements. Much like with Ramesh Sippy's Sholay, this clarity of vision, this passion, this magic never quite came together for him again.

Set in a pre-independence era village in Gujarat, MM's story is simplicity itself – The evil villain wants to ravish the beautiful heroine (no macho action-happy hero here), and is willing to destroy all that stands in his way. How she heroically evades his clutches, escaping into a chilly pounding factory that generates the titular Mirch Masala, and how he meets his comeuppance makes for the conclusion. This plot could be the backbone of numerous Hindi movies of yore – and if you take the heroine as a metaphor for land or freedom, a far greater number than you may initially imagine. The cunning touch is that MM employs all these tropes – the heroine Sonbai is not only a sensuous but virtuous woman, she is defined by her attitude as a symbol of freedom and self-possession, and the villain's demand for her as a form of 'lagaan' (tax) reinforces the land metaphor.*

It is to MM's strength that the script is rigorous and focused – There are no wedged in “item” songs or disconnected comedy tracks, and all characters and scenes are integral to the plot, playing their role in the sequence of events that lead to the end. The final film runs a little over two hours, not a moment of it wasted. More importantly, its characters believably blend in with the backdrop, and the central archetypes are written strongly enough to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. A wealth of brilliantly honed acting talent from Indian cinema and theater bring MM to credible life. Sonbai remains a defining turn in Smita Patil's career and is a landmark amongst strong heroine characters that had subsided significantly in the wake of the "Angry Young Man" era. Naseeruddin Shah as the lecherous exploitative villain plays to the hilt, bringing the same type of archetypal menace to his role as Bollywood's most memorable bad men. Scenes like Sonbai giving water to the villain after insisting that he get down on his knees, the villain's murderous rage at his gramophone record getting broken and of course the indelible climax where the village women express their fury against the exploiter quite literally by showering him with chilly powder can never be forgotten by anyone that has seen the film.

Technically again, it is astonishing how assured Mehta is in his vision: Frame dissolves (the farewell love-making between Sonbai and her husband, which segues into the morning after where the villain glimpses at the river a now-unguarded Sonbai), slow-motion (introduction to the chilly pounding factory, the climax) and juxtaposing of shots (the villain primping himself for the final assault, while the aged factory guard, who is the film's lone male protector figure, cleans and loads his gun) are used to generate resonant powerful scenes. The sound design for the scene where the villain calls out a one to ten count for Sonbai to hand herself over to him before his men attack takes its cue from an analogous sequence in Sholay. None of this is gimmickry, style rammed in for the sake of style. Mehta has made judicious use of these and other techniques always to carry the story ahead.
In the end what we have in Mirch Masala is not some erudite chamber piece or dry social comment for a small pack of powder-puff intellectuals to politely discuss and feel snobbish about. With its strong archetypes and high voltage emotional moments, it is, in the best traditions of Bollywood, gripping full-blooded drama-music-action entertainment that everyone needs to watch.

* From a certain point the film can also be seen as a portrait of India's exploitation by outside rule and the subsequent revolutionary movement that led to its independence: the chauvinistic class-conscious supporting characters on account of their narrow-minded attitude fall submissive prey to the exploiter, and only those that are able to look beyond themselves and gather en masse in common cause (with one notable exception, all women) are able to confront the evil. Okay, enough with the academic pooh-bah, go back.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar [dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia]

It may be said that the bigger and more epic the scope of a story, greater is the chance of it devolving into conventional tropes. Such is the case with Tigmanshu Dhulia's Paan Singh Tomar (PST). His previous venture Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster took 3 characters and spun a tight drama around them with wit and invention, but this biopic of an international class athlete forced by circumstance to become a dacoit (or from his point of view, a “rebel”) sadly feels all too familiar.

The primary mistake Dhulia makes in his approach to presenting the story is to take the linear “let's begin at the beginning and take one thing at a time” route. So one chunk of the film is devoted to Tomar's stint in the army and his discovery as a star athlete, another to the circumstances of the destruction of his family and subsequent revenge, and a third to his exploits as a dacoit in the Chambal ravines. Apart from a few instances, there is little resonance between these segments that refreshes the uniqueness of the character in the audience's mind. So while part one unfolds like a Reader's Digest inspirational story, the bulk of the film is yet another dacoit drama. Irrfan Khan's lead role performance is a mixed bag. Sure, he's the right man for the job and has “run the full mile” for the athlete segment, but in the rest of the film he only occasionally transcends the “Nana Patekar for the mumblecore generation” stereotype that has defined most of his acting resume. An undeservedly generous 2 ½ hour running time only adds to the tedium of the proceedings.

There are things to admire about the film: A lot of hard work has gone into establishing the credibility of the characters, and costumes locations and dialects have been meticulously researched (Dhulia was casting director on Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen). But that's part of the problem; lacking the perspective and raw intensity of its predecessor, PST never really gets away from being a less accomplished clone. Technically again, it's a toss-up. The visuals are decent but rarely striking (a nocturnal siege towards the end is captured nicely). Rakesh Ranjan provides a nicely textured soundscape but his efforts are often stymied by the obnoxiously loud and generic background score (Sandeep Chowta). In fact I suspect that the background score was inserted for this re-release (PST apparently had a short window release in 2010, primarily at film festivals) because it seems so at odds with the rest of the sound.

So while it's not bad by any means, PST feels all too been-there-done-that, which is a shame considering the potential of the story. It's still a change from most of the stuff currently playing on Indian screens.

P.S. When the film closes, it gives a list of some other Indian athletes that later became victims of circumstance. This is immediately followed by the stupid health ministry mandated warning that "Cigarette Smoking is Injurious To Health", appearing to suggest that those athletes landed in dire straits owing to their smoking habits.