Monday, March 25, 2013

Sona Spa [dir. Makarand Deshpande]

Sometimes even a rough build of a fresh concept is better than the nth polished and honed iteration of a done-to-death theme. Writer-Director Makarand Deshpande's Dänav (reviewed on this site here), although rather unwieldy, half-finished and even tacky on occasion, was interesting to me because it told a fresh story with strong dramatic quotient. Hence my attraction to see his new offering Sona Spa, although I suspected that it would suffer from many of the same shortcomings that plagued Dänav. You could say I saw the film under rather personalized conditions: a very decent screening in a desolate cinema hall. It speaks for the amount of interest the lay public has in this star-bereft enterprise (unless you count Naseeruddin Shah, and we'll talk about that soon), but from a selfish point of view it makes for near-ideal conditions for appreciating a film of this sort.
So how does Sona Spa compare to its predecessor? For one it is technically a lot more polished, with even some stylish cinematography and editing touches thrown in. There are still rough edges: the writing and acting can be rather gauche, there is some cheap language and sexual references thrown in possibly to add market value to the film (that obviously didn't work) and the use of computer graphics generated imagery is miles behind what most other commercial film industries of the world use. But compared to Dänav which had absolutely no style, this is progress. Alas, technical progress seems to have come at the cost of conceptual freshness and dramatic intensity.
The basic idea behind the titular Sona Spa is that it is a place where you can pay to have your sleeping hours transplanted into someone else. Confused? In essence what this means is the person sleeping on your behalf will for that period receive your state of mind with all its cares and tensions and in return transfer their state of uninterrupted blissful rest to you. Do not bother to ask for even basal level rationality behind this concept as the film is not interested in doling out any explanations in that regard. Even the spa as such is a hugely incongruous establishment, with a complete lah-di-dah approach to running background checks on its customers, inexplicable financial circumstances and the sort of liberal employee policies for its “sleep-workers” that the rest of us can only (heh) dream of. Rucha (Shruti Vyas) and Ritu (Aahana Kumra) are two girls from filthy-rich and middle-class backgrounds respectively that take up employment as sleep-workers. Each comes with their own emotional baggage. Emotionally fractured spoiled brat Rucha is looking for a cure for her insomniac father, while humble affable Ritu wants to earn money for her (wait, is this another point of contrast?) comatose father's hospital expenses and help a sister struggling with a recurring nightmare. In turn they are set up with “clients” for whom they must sleep. The catch is that in the sleep-state they receive the dreams of their clients and these can take a turn into perverse sexual or violent territory.
This is an excellent concept in outline and I would have loved to see some daring strides taken. But there are problems with the manner in which the concept is dealt with here: Here, dreams have no randomness, no disorientation factor, they are presented in a manner as mundane as memories or flashbacks. It is as though the writer is afraid of confusing the audience, not a good sign. The second aspect is that after teasing with the perverse elements of the dreams, the story makes no effort to explore the acute and chronic effects that it can have on the minds of the sleep-workers. Instead, it rather quickly wraps the dream-cycle with trite moral lessons and happy endings. This is very unfortunate pussy-footing. A film like this was never going to garner a significant audience, it would have made more sense to just cast aside any notions of garnering popularity and make the best of the idea instead of watering it down. And yeah, somewhere in between is that all too abused symbol of unspoiled innocence, the retard.
I am perhaps being unreasoning if I say that you might still give this watch. I liked it more than the much slicker Inception, although that's possibly because that one had too much fan-hype surrounding it. I also feel good about a Hindi movie that's at least a novel idea and not just an ego massage for the Great Bollywood Incestuous Mafia. There are, if you can ignore the disappointments and the gauchery, moments where the film strikes a chord. Aahana Kumra as Ritu gives a very solid, empathetic performance, and like I earlier said, it is visually more polished. As for Naseer, while he features heavily in the posters and marketing, he is not even playing a role in the conventional sense. He portrays the Baba who has established the spa and within the film is only seen in televised ads proclaiming its benefits.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dänav [dir. Makarand Deshpande]

In a prelude to my review of Makarand Deshpande's new film Sona Spa, I'm putting up a review of his 2003 film Dänav, I had earlier posted on a movie discussion group.

Earlier known as a character actor in films, Makarand Deshpande has been also quite active on the theatre front and Dänav, his maiden filmmaking stint, is an adaptation of his play Basant ka Teesra Yauvan (Third Youth of Spring...?). The film had gained some hype on account of its planned inclusion the Cannes festival Director's section (whatever it's called), which didn't happen because of some technical glitches.

The story takes on the style of the classical Indian plays, similar to stuff Girish Karnad has done:
Raja Sahab (Sayaji Shinde), a royalty figure who believes himself to be a divine authority, defies the mores of his time to acquire a 7-year old girl whom he intends to have as his mistress once she is grown up. Obsessed with his new possession, Raja Sahab gives her an orchard, a gift that is also her prison. Christened Laxmi (Sonali Kulkarni), the girl grows up in all innocence, protected from the gaze of any other man; even the orchard laborers must go blind-folded, and those who defy have their eyes gouged out. Laxmi is enchanted by Raja Sahab's indulgence towards her and freely gives of herself to his desires. Things move in this vein until, in another bid to win her, Raja Sahab brings in a circus for her pleasure.
As word of the circus spreads, the air filled with curiosity about the star attraction, Dänav (Beast-Man), who has the strength to grapple with elephants. Laxmi too is excited about going to see Dänav but her wish is frustrated by Raja Sahab, who, after a preview, decides against her going to the circus. Raja Sahab nurses an inferiority complex over Dänav's strength and fears that Laxmi will be swayed. But Laxmi is already distraught over her wish not being satisfied and Raja Sahab gives in, buying the animal-like Dänav as a slave for the orchard. Laxmi is initially frightened by Dänav's ferocity but slowly develops a bond and without any notion of infidelity towards Raja Sahab shares her body and mind with Dänav. Raja Sahab on the other hand, locks himself in the temple mulling over his generosity towards Laxmi. In course Dänav reveals that he is actually a proper man, Narayan, whose inadvertent killing of a cow forced him into exile in the jungle. When Laxmi fears his brute force, he says that he will sacrifice his strength for her love. Subsequent events lead to a climax of violence and tragedy.
The strong non-hackneyed plot is the main reason to sit through what is a rather unpolished product. Deshpande proves himself to be an adept writer, furnishing potent moral dilemmas for his mostly well-etched characters, and has an interesting blend of ancient and contemporary tradition. Sonali Kulkarni as Laxmi puts up a very credible performance in a difficult role, the best in the film. Now for the caveats: The execution has a lot of unevenness. The main flaw comes in the selection of Sayaji Shinde as Raja Sahab. Shinde, like Sadashiv Amrapurkar, suffers from a limited range and Raja Sahab, who is actually a very interesting gray-shaded character, comes off uncomfortably close to the psychotic villain stereotype Shinde has portrayed in scores of earlier films. Aryan Vaid as Dänav was IMO okay, although his character was more limited. His attempt to have a beast-like shambling gait for Dänav doesn't come off too well, being more in a stiff robotic vein. Deshpande's lack of cinematic flair is unfortunately quite evident in the slipshod technical values for the film; many parts of it look downright tacky. Vishal Bharadwaj's background score has its moments of interest.

In the end, I find this a very welcome and interesting new effort, although it could have done with a LOT more polish to fully realize its worth. A significant portion of the crowd that watched this film (at the Asian Film Festival in 2004) might likely disagree with this review, since they appeared to derive a lot of unintentional humor from the film. Well, to each his own.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The New World [dir. Terence Malick]

There is nobody to beat Terence Malick from a visuals standpoint, his films have the most outstanding natural (meaning not generated or manipulated using computers) visuals of all time. The Thin Red Line is a film I return to time and again for its brilliant depiction of the meaninglessness of war, and while I have never re-watched it, The Tree of Life just blew me away when I saw it at the cinema. The extended cut of The New World is sadly not in that category.
The film is a largely fictional account of significant historical events in the early colonization of America by the English, mainly the role of the native American tribal princess Pocahontas, who is famous for having saved the life of an Englishman from her own father and after being held as hostage by English forces, went to England and converted to Christianity, forsaking her native heritage. The film adopts the line that Pocahontas saved the Englishman, Captain John Smith, because she was in love with him. This love causes her to support the stranded colonists, even if it meant betraying her own father and causing a battle that led to heavy casualties on both sides. What happens after that and how Pocahontas ends up in Britain and becomes Rebecca forms the rest of the narrative. In this case narrative is a very loose term, because Malick's films rarely have very cohesive plots or tight drama. We get the usual assortment of gorgeous images and new-age existential monologues. The trouble is, I never found it particularly engaging on an emotional level. Given the nearly 3 hour running time of this extended cut (which is not the director's cut. There doesn't seem to be a definitive DC for this film at least as of now. There was the 150 min early release cut to make it in time for Oscars submission, the 135 min nationwide release cut, and then this 175 min extended cut which may or may not have had Malick's involvement) that translated to a whole lot of looking at the watch and wondering when things would move forward. There are elements to be appreciated. Q'orianka Kilcher is tailor-made for the child-woman archetype Malick has envisioned for Pocahontas. She is a natural beauty and effectively handles whatever heavy-duty drama she gets. The film makes some ironic observations about the savagery amongst the early English colonists contrasted with the "In harmony with nature" Indians, although one feels this could also be made-up to fit in with Malick's woolly-headed worldview.
On the whole The New World is really more pretty postcard than emotional journey for me.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Royal Bengal Rahasya [dir. Sandip Ray]

Bengalis and in general fans of Indian mystery / adventure stories will be aware of the famous detective character Feluda (1965-92), created by Satyajit Ray. Written primarily for children / teens, the Feluda tales are inspired by the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Tintin. Many of these adventures take place in different parts of the country, thereby also providing a bit of a travelogue and general knowledge within the narrative. My first brush with Feluda was when as part of the Satyajit Ray Presents series on DD, they had a multi-episode Feluda adventure called Kissa Kathmandu Ka, of which I mainly recall Shashi Kapoor in the lead role and Utpal Dutt as Feluda's arch-nemesis, Maganlal Meghraj.
Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to come across an English translation of the complete Feluda stories in 2 volumes published by Penguin. I was soon sucked into the world of Feluda, his constant companions Topshe and Jotayu, his love for Charminar cigarettes and twisted conundrums. While the stories are not very brilliant in terms of their construction of mystery (the second volume of the Penguin series in particular had some rather sloppy ones), they are brisk-paced and fun boys' adventures, with interesting nuggets of information about various Indian places and customs. Also, since they are written with younger audiences in mind, they eschew the more sordid elements of other detective franchises, making for a nice palate cleanser between other genres. Hooked by these I also got hold of two Feluda film adaptations directed by Satyajit Ray himself - Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Jai Baba Felunath (Victory to The Elephant God, also a play on Feluda's name). It was interesting to see that Ray's shooting scripts, especially for Sonar Kella, deviated significantly from the way the plot is unfolded in the source story, presenting it in a more cinematic way and keeping the proceedings fresh even for fans familiar with it. I'm a sucker for sleuth films and TV series and both these films were entertaining.
RBR is part of a newer series of Feluda films, directed by Satyajit's son Sandip Ray (who also directed episodes of the Satyajit Ray Presents series). Sandip has had a very checkered career and the burden of living up to his ancestors' legacies must be weighing heavily upon him. While I have fond childhood memories of his TV series, it appears that he has not made a distinct name for himself as a film director. Sometime in the 2000's, he began his updated Feluda series with Sabyasachi Chakraborty as the detective. While the general perception of these films has been that they are not in the same league as Satyajit's own films, they were still popular and of these, RBR appears to have a higher degree of approval from those that can compare the different Feluda versions. Hence it is my first entry in to the updated series.
In the story, Feluda and his companions are invited by the famed hunter Mahitosh Singha-Roy to his house in the forest bordering Bhutan to solve a mystery in the form of an old family riddle possibly leading to a treasure (Musgrave Ritual, anyone?). But hardly has Feluda settled in than Mahitosh's private secretary is found to have been killed in the forest at night. Feluda must now unravel the riddle as well as find which of several possible suspects may be responsible for the secretary's death. The jungle setting of the film allows it to eschew modern amenities like mobile phones and the internet, bringing the style more in line with the period of the original stories (Amusingly enough, even letters are written and not typed, the excuse given that the computer does not support Bengali script). The screenplay and dialog stick scrupulously close to the events and chronology of the tale, almost to the point of not having any originality in themselves. Perhaps, Sandip is too wary of fans that will decry any liberties taken with the source. To his credit, the proceedings remain brisk and interesting so long as you know what to expect in a Feluda narrative. Sabyasachi does a fine job in the lead, although my favorite is still the previous Feluda, Soumitra Chatterjee. In my mind Soumitra better embodies the amateur detective aspect while Sabyasachi looks more hardened and professional. One definite letdown is Bibhu Bhattacharya as Jotayu. Of course, anyone that has seen comic actor Santosh Dutta portraying Jotayu in the Satyajit Ray films can never picture another actor in the role, but Bhattacharya's performance is wholly forgettable, which is a big minus for the character. The other supporting actors fulfill their parts well and the technical aspects of the film are decent, with some nice jungle photography. The use of certain computer graphics is hit-and-miss but acceptable enough in the context of the film. On the whole this is a very decent Feluda adaptation, perhaps a little too faithful to the source, but well executed and easy to sit through...maybe even more than once.

The DVD by Sangeet India network actually features pretty good video, better than I have seen for several recent Hindi movies. Colors are natural and stable and the image has decent texture. The main flaw is a prominent orange logo near the top left of the screen, which unfortunately is present throughout the film. Sound is alright too. There's a bonus disc with extras, which I have yet to go through.


He had the curiosity
Of a dog
About scents
And when there weren't any
He imagined them.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Saheb, Biwi & Gangster Returns [dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia]

I approached Saheb, Biwi & Gangster Returns (SBGR) with trepidation. Its predecessor, 2011's SBG (no returns) was one of the best Hindi films of that year, and the story, one that to mine eye stands tall with the classics of film noir, ended on the perfect note. How would the sequel take it ahead from there? Would it be an only slightly freshened up rehash...or worse, an abomination that tarnishes one's memories of the original?

I am happy to note that SBGR comes through rather nicely on the whole. Which is not to say that everything is perfect; in fact, in the early stages the things that go wrong come to the fore. SBG had a moody...sometimes almost doom-y background score that fitted beautifully into the film. Returns blasts your eardrums with shrill wails and plonks that could have come out of any of Ram Gopal Varma's recent films. A haggard looking Irrfan Khan is utterly miscast, giving us his standard mumble-core act in a role that calls for a significantly more virile and emotional presence. I imagine someone like Arunoday Singh (Yeh Saali Zindagi) or Abhimanyu Singh (Gulaal, Raktacharitra - I) would have worked wonders with this part. The only likely reason for him to be there is name value. Also, in the first act, there are some rather out-of-place cheap laugh sequences (including one where the minister is caught watching a porn film while talking to a journalist, d-uh) and the plot seems unwieldy with many new characters and sub-plots that go all over the place. But give it a bit of your patience (only a bit, because even when the plot is chaotic, it is interesting enough to sit through) and the film steadily gains legs. It is in the second act that the script and Dhulia's direction consistently hit the high notes. If the first film was textbook noir, this one is from the William Shakespeare meets Mario Puzo school of preposterous and entertaining story-telling, and unlike the pretentious fappery that was Gangs of Wasseypur - I, gives you a complete epic narrative in a reasonable running time.

Once again Jimmy Shergill, in one of the criminally few roles that give him acting scope, brilliantly captures the character of the decadent Saheb. It is also fantastic the way Dhulia's script manipulates the audience's view of Saheb, portraying him now as a manipulative villain, now as an embattled fighter. Mahie Gill as Biwi is a little shaky at first (and I'm not referring to just her tipsiness), but pulls out some pleasingly strong moments later on, and Soha Khan does well in her part. Irrfan's Gangster is the sore thumb in an otherwise solid ensemble cast, his interaction with Biwi completely missing the chemistry of the corresponding relation from the previous film. It is really hard to understand why the Biwi feels any attraction to this cold fish, even given her sexual frustrations.

All things considered, this is a surprisingly strong sequel that has to be seen if you liked the original and even in general if you care for a sprawling high-voltage drama of passions and betrayals. Thumbs up.

P.S. I saw the film at Eros, which is one of the old-school single-screen cinemas, but the projection seemed digital. The contrast looked milky and night scenes suffered a lot. I'm hoping this is a problem with the projection and not with the color timing of the film itself.