Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Naked Prey [dir. Cornel Wilde]

Today I saw The Naked Prey on Eureka's blu-ray.

I got interested in the film when I read the synopsis, which reminded of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, a film I tremendously enjoyed. Sure enough, actor-director Cornel Wilde's survival drama looks to me a precursor to the later film, even if it is not as relentless and kinetically propulsive. Here Man (specifically White Man, played by an incredibly well-built Wilde), originally part of a hunting party whose arrogant and trigger-happy client refuses to pay tribute to a local tribe and avoid trouble, is given chase in the African wilds by a tribe of native warriors out for his blood.

Apart from a few lines in the beginning, the film is entirely lacking in English dialog and none of the lines spoken by the African characters are translated, putting this film squarely in the perspective of the white man. The cat and mouse games played between Wilde and the natives are pretty well depicted, apart from clumsy heavy-handed symbolism in the form of cuts to instances of animal fighting. These hamper the pace, are mostly taken from stock / second-unit footage and even have a different look depending on the source (sometimes 16mm). But the bulk of the movie remains engaging, and the visuals are supported by a throbbing percussion based score and native chanting/singing, which keeps you rooted in the setting.

The blu-ray gives a solid presentation of the film. Color range seems limited by the setting of the film (heavily skewed towards browns) and it doesn't look as robust as films with recent restorations, but quite good on the whole (except obviously when compromised stock footage is used). The LPCM mono track does a fine job of bringing the action, especially the aforementioned percussion score. The on-disc extra of note is a video essay by Sheldon Hall, who briefly discusses Cornel Wilde's career and dives into the specifics of the making of this film. For someone like me, who had not previously heard of the actor, there is a wealth of information and interesting anecdotes here, very worthwhile sitting through.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Jurassic World [dir. Colin Trevorrow]

Sometimes all you want is to see giant monsters bashing at each other or devouring human fodder. So after watching Gamera 2: Attack of Legion couple days ago I was filled with an urge to check out Jurassic World, the latest entry in the genetically created dinosaurs saga originally written by Michael Crichton.

The first Jurassic Park movie, made at the dawn of mainstream Hollywood's use of computer graphics, was a big thrill at the cinema (of course, it was, like the series has always been, a clever mix of animatronics and optical tricks mixed with CG). The only thing that bugged me was Spielberg-Attenborough's schmaltzy rendition of the Hammond character (unlike the salty bastard of Crichton's novel) and those really annoying kids, who I kept praying would get devoured. The sequel Lost World was mostly lost on me. It had large doses of an annoying Jeff Goldblum saddled with a crap family story, and the first thrill of watching giant reptiles move across the screen was diluted by then. Jurassic Park III may be regarded as a lower entry for not being made by Spielberg (but by his protege Joe Johnston, who later made Captain America - The First Avenger), but I enjoyed it more than its predecessor. I like Sam Neill more and it was an unabashed theme park ride, which brought to life several sequences from Crichton's original novel (the aviary scene, the dino in the lake) that could not for technical reasons be achieved at the time. Also loved that they incorporated in the raptor design the then recent discoveries about the connections between dinosaurs and birds.

Jurassic World, as people have previously noted is practically a reboot / rehash of the first JP film. Isla Nublar is once again open, there is more genetic tinkering to make new, fiercer dinosaurs that provide more excitement to the public (perhaps analogous to how wildlife programs often focus on predatory sequences), stupid kids inside fragile vehicles are attacked by predators, systems go down without any backup, a chaotic final showdown between multiple know the drill. Chris Pratt stands in for Sam Neill, although his character seems more rustler than anything else - he apparently has the ability to communicate with raptors and act as the alpha male of the pack, something I find more difficult to swallow than the much-played-up leading lady's tendency to run in heels (the new dino is given some Hannibal Lecter like abilities to out-think his prey, although some are used once, then forgotten). Using the excuse of the dinos being genetically modified to match with public perception, the raptor design has been returned to the original reptilian appearance from JP. So originality is not of the film's strengths but it shines in slick execution. People feared that director Colin Trevorrow's indie film roots may result in a loss of spectacle, but if anything he seems determined to show that he can stage mass scale action as well as the known big movie makers. And technology has come a long way since the days of the original JP. The texturing and movement of the dino-creatures is amazing and they're much better integrated into the environment.

I wish I had seen this in the theater because it's the sort of film I feel should have been seen once in the most immersive format. I doubt I'll ever want to re-watch it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Shahid [dir. Hansal Mehta]

Rather late in the day, but last night I watched Shahid, director Hansal Mehta's film on activist lawyer Shahid Azmi, who defended several people accused of terrorist activities till his murder.

After the '93 riots in Mumbai, the young Shahid went off to join a Pakistani militant training camp, but returned soon after. The film implies that is after he is made to watch the ritual killing of a man - I find it hard to believe that the trainers would waste time teaching their recruits assault rifle combat before showing them cold blooded murder to weed out the timid. Anyhow, shortly after Shahid's return he is arrested by the Mumbai police under the TADA act and forced to confess his involvement in a terrorist plot, after which he spends time in Tihar jail. Here he meets black & white examples of extremist and moderate Muslims and aligns with the moderates, in the process studying for law. After he is released he practices law, and becomes the messiah for underprivileged people picked up for terrorism allegations and kept in prison while investigations stretch on for years. For this he faces threat calls and even public attacks from political / criminal outfits. Somewhere in the midst is an awkwardly played out romance story with a lady client for whom he fights a property case, then marries.

Shahid is a good film, although it suffers some in execution because of a perceived need to soften and simplify. Namby-pamby songs and musical cues unnecessarily try to direct your attention. While it is based on true events, the script appears to simplify people and events to the point of contrivance. On the other hand, it is definitely a work of passion. The performances are solid (Rajkummar Rao, then known simply as Raj Kumar, holds center-stage and makes it worth your while to gloss over the film's shortcomings, but the supporting cast is also strong), production design is intricate without being obtrusive and director Mehta helms the affair quite well. Worth watching at least once.

Reliance's DVD is terrific in terms of the presentation - image quality is as good as an SD presentation of a digitally shot film gets. The color grading is excellent, generating mood without going overboard. Sound is good too, with very good separation and incorporation of ambient noises (An early scene of the riots is a great showcase). The sole extra is an extended version of Shahid's trip to the militant camp.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Date with a Serial Killer

...or how I had one of the most memorable evenings in recent time.

Thanks to a post shared by Facebook pal Aseem C (who I should make the effort to meet in real life soon), I got to know of a screening, arranged by Drishyam Films, of director Sriram Raghavan's early effort, a docu-drama on Raman Raghav, the notorious serial killer of 60's Bombay. The film itself for the longest time was almost a myth. It was made by Raghavan sometime in 1991; I recall reading about it around a similar time, while in college. Then I had no clue who Sriram Raghavan was, but I still remember that particular article had a B&W still of actor Raghubir Yadav in the title role (which made me think the film was in B&W, which would be another interesting way of filming it). But Raman Raghav was never ever released anywhere or screened on any television network, so you can imagine my thrill at the prospect of being actually able to watch it.

I registered on the Drishyam Films website last Friday but didn't receive any response communique from them, not even to the message I sent on their "Contact Us" tab about whether or not my registration was confirmed. It was therefore with some trepidation that I made my way towards the venue (the PVR multiplex at Citi Mall, Andheri West - formerly Fame Adlabs), since it meant I had to rush directly from work and jump through multiple modes of transport (including the occasional bits of jogging on and off the pavement, when the Navratri climax evening traffic meant any vehicular transport was useless). Breathlessly I reached the venue just a little after 8pm when the screening was scheduled to begin. The real bit of uh-oh moment occurred when at the counter my name was not present in the participants list and I was asked if I had received any confirmatory message. On giving my whole story (with woebegone face and specific emphasis on the enormous distance I had traveled across the city specifically to be able to watch this film), I and some others were asked to wait with the promise that if some half dozen or more reserved names didn't turn up within the next 10 min when the screening was due to start, the tickets would be handed on a first come basis. While I sympathize with anyone that didn't make it on account of being stuck in Andher Nagri's traffic, I was quite happy to receive a ticket at the end of that interval and bounded happy-puppy-like up the stairs to the screening floor. I was making my way among the crowd to the venue screen when I saw in front of me, Sriram Raghavan himself, chatting with some people I presumed to be part of the organizers. With the mixture of schoolboy glee and tongue-tiedness that invariably hits me upon meeting a celebrity I admire, I announced myself as a fan who had seen all his other films including The Eight Column Affair (a brilliant short made during his FTII stint), Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur (for reasons well-understood I left out a certain overblown where-did-the-fun-go secret agent misfire). Taking advantage of  his soft-spoken thanks I held out my DVD covers of JG and Badlapur for autographs, which he kindly obliged (Woohoo!).

Eat your hearts out, hehehe!

The charmed nature of the evening continued. After being called on stage (the emcee was Atul Sabharwal who had scripted My Wife's Murder), Raghavan briefly explained the history of the film, cautioning repeatedly to temper our expectations with the fact that it was shot nearly 25 years ago on the U-matic videotape format. Even the mandatory pre-movie playing of the national anthem was made more interesting with an all-instrumental interpretation featuring the who's who of Indian classical music. Then, the film rolled.

If Sriram had any fear of the audience being disappointed in this early no-budget effort (3.5 lakhs all inclusive, he later revealed), they proved entirely groundless. Raman Raghav is a testament that a talented director will shine regardless of the budget and format. Even in his maiden feature, he shows the trademarks of his better known films - the long meticulous tracking shots, the careful scene transitions, the jolts of brutal action to punctuate the intensity of the scene than revel in the gratuitous overkill, the ability to introduce sly humor in the midst of suspense, surgically precise editing, astounding attention to detail and almost symphonic arrangement of "movements" in the sound design. The other strong point of the film is of course Raghubir Yadav's portrayal of the killer. The film being based on true events and recorded testimonies, Raman Raghav is not presented as some ultra-genius Hannibal playing cat-and-mouse with the cops, but a morose and simple-minded but highly disturbed individual who killed without any consideration to human life and got away for as long as he did on sheer luck.

Quick snap on a crappy phone-cam, L-R Sriram Raghavan, Raghubir Yadav and Atul Sabharwal.

Anyway, I won't spoil any of the film for you people, and I really hope there is some opportunity for this to come out on home video or on youtube so it can be seen by a wider audience. From Raghavan's own words at the post-film QA, it has only been shown at some festivals (including the first Bombay Film festival). While he does not own the rights, he can connect interested folks to the rights-holders (If that happens, I know there are at least a dozen people on my list of friends alone, who would be thrilled to get this on home video). The other pleasant surprise of the evening was the announcement of Raghubir Yadav to participate in the QA session. In his characteristic impeccable Hindi, a relaxed Mr. Yadav talked about his experience of making the film, shooting in outdoor locations which would not be possible anymore, his preparation, including avoiding baths so that he always had an unclean feeling. Sriram talked about how this was originally conceived as a series of video-films on various high-profile cases the police had solved, but I have not heard of any other films in this line so perhaps it did not materialize as planned. Sriram's own approach to the script changed once he started filming, focusing more on the character of the deranged killer, although he did have to retain a certain amount of police investigation material to meet the producer's requirement.

So a fantastic movie evening for this self-proclaimed film buff. I just had time for a quick bite (a pretty decent chicken burger at a Dunkin' Donuts), then off homewards so I could write you lucky folks this here blog.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kuroneko [dir. Kaneto Shindo]

Director Kaneto Shindo is a marvel of vivacity at the very least. He died after completing a century, and in a film-making career that began in 1951, was releasing films up to 2 years before his demise. With films like The Naked Island, Children of Hiroshima, Onibaba etc and his documentary on fellow director Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo has cemented his reputation as one of Japanese cinema's prime names.

Kuroneko aka Black Cat (1968) is a spiritual successor to 1964's Onibaba. Both of them deal with peasant women characters (woman and daughter-in-law) and their murderous interactions with Samurai. Unlike in the films of Akira Kurosawa or Masaki Kobayashi, the Samurai of Shindo's film have no glow of honor or nobility. They are rapacious bastards who exploit the peasantry and are in turn murdered by them. While the motive for murder in Onibaba was survival (the women trade the armor and weapons they get from murdering wounded samurai), here it is revenge (they are the vengeful spirits of peasants raped and killed by soldiers, now sworn to kill and drink the blood of passing samurai). The twist comes when a Samurai sent to tackle the murders of his comrades turns out to be the son/husband of the pair that had been forcibly conscripted and then made his name as a warrior. Whether the spirits of the women will still carry out their vow of vengeance against Samurai, or whether the warrior is able to overcome them forms the rest of the film's narrative.

Kuroneko is brilliantly framed. The scenes set in the house of the spirit women have a deliberate theatricality in terms of the set design, use of props and effects, the erotic ballet like movements of the characters - it is a reflection of the illusion created by the spirits to trap their Samurai victims. The lighting and camera movements are top-notch generating a solid atmosphere. But compared to Onibaba, the narrative feels less visceral and affecting, the repetitive depiction of the seduction and/or killing of Samurai although it is designed to establish a pattern, begins to get tiresome after a while. Really this feels like a short movie stretched out in running time. It is most badly affected in the last act which falls into the "Character in horror film does incredibly stupid things" trap. It's definitely worth watching once, but not more than that for me.

In presentation, Criterion's blu-ray (borrowed from a friend) is superb, with HD visuals that nicely complement Eureka/MoC's fabulous blu-ray of Onibaba. The image has terrific contrast and lovely texture. The mono sound effective conveys dialog and the moody score. Extras are few but significant - there's a 30-min video essay on Kuroneko by critic Tadao Sato and there's a really nice hour-long interview with Kaneto Shindo (shot in 1998) in which he goes over his entire film-making career till that point.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dekh Tamasha Dekh [dir. Feroz Abbas Khan]

Dekh Tamasha Dekh by Feroz Abbas Khan (who previously made Gandhi, My Father) was an interesting if schizophrenic experience. The title and poster, which promise a rib-tickling farce, are misleading. Set in a small seaside town with Hindu and Muslim communities that periodically flare up at each other, the film deals with communal unrest, religious appeasement, suppression of intellectual and artistic freedom by the so-called guardians of culture and the profit-minded businessmen, taboo of inter-religious romance etc. While the film does take on a fair bit more than it can chew, it shows some absorbing straight drama, especially when it depicts the frustration of rational and civil minds against the monster of aggressive fundamentalism and cultural appropriation. In these scenes there is a simple direct approach that lends the story significant strength.

On the other hand DTD has a big problem with consistency of tone. It's almost as if at some point they decided that the script should have satire and absurd humor, and be a form of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron 2 (the opening scene features one of the most gratuitous and irritating uses of abusive language and sexual innuendo in the name of earthy humor). Sadly these elements don't work and jar with the straight material. When a hearing impaired historian pulls off his hearing aid to ignore the rhetoric of a fundamentalist ranting against his book, it's amusing and effective, but when that same act leads to his being unaware of his assistant being hacked to death outside his very door, it is reduced to a plot contrivance. Most of the cast is new to me, but they fit their roles nicely. There is some nice layering to the characters, like the passionate newspaper editor that's not above stealing credit for another man's idea, while the normally callous marketing guy is the one that balks at running a story based on inflammatory rumor. Satish Kaushik can be an excellent actor, but his character is reduced to a buffoon in a needless farce, (and his face on the poster is due to his relative name value than the amount of footage he gets in the film). The cinematography (Hemant Chaturvedi)  and editing (Sreekar Prasad) are generally effective - the scene of the procession march towards the end is shot and cut in a manner that brilliantly amps the tension - but will occasionally become flashy in a distracting way. The end seems tame compared to the build-up, as though the film was in a hurry to reach closure. But this is still, with some caveats, an effective diatribe on the danger of losing our freedoms to the cancer of religion and social factionalism.

Eros' DVD gives a good video presentation of the film (digitally shot, I assume from the look), and audio is pretty good as well. No extras, although the DVD case holds an free disc of another movie - Son of Sardar. It's like they were so worried about people straining their brains watching this movie, that they provide you with a massive dose of stupidity to bring you back to the comfort of Bolly-Zombie land.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ebar Shabor [dir. Arindam Sil]

While ostensibly a murder mystery with a trademark eccentric sleuth (the title itself is a play on the previously released Abar Byomkesh), whodunit (and how) is the least of the script's concerns. Physical investigation of the crime scene and accessory locations, forensic studies, circumstantial evidence - the tools of the normal detective story - barely come into play here. What we have is more in the vein of character exploration. By a series of interrogations, with some subjects repeatedly questioned in the light of new information, the film is more concerned with unraveling the facets of the ensemble cast, including the victim herself. To be sure this is no L' Avventura style meditation on the modern human condition, not by a thousand miles. But the film is not ashamed of its simplicity and sincere enough to its premise to make it worth the sitting through, at least for me.

Fans of Bengali sleuth movies will find amusing meta-trivia in the casting. Saswata Chatterjee, who previously played the Watson-esque parts of Topshe in the Feluda series and Ajit in the Byomkesh Bakshi films, is cast as Police Detective Shabor Dasgupta, while Abir Chatterjee, the new face of both Feluda and Byomkesh at the cinema, plays a pivotal supporting role. Shabor's approach to questioning his suspects is to first provoke them by accusing them of the crime, and then draw out the facts he wants. He has a deadpan demeanor, and is egoistic and abrasive (thankfully not so much as some of the newer portrayals of Sherlock Holmes), but can be compassionate on occasion and is not averse to putting aside the rulebook.

Typically, the supporting characters in a detective film tend to be flat, hastily scribbled out caricatures that at various points fulfill the role of potential suspects (complete with shifty glances and sweat-lined brows). This film is more interested in giving us a rounded portrayal, doling out information in select dollops till we get a more complete picture of each person. It also helps that the actors are very good in their parts. There are no deliciously complex layers or noir elements, and the writing could definitely have been better, but the overall effect of this approach is pleasant and engaging.

You could argue that as a detective story it stumbles, because apart from the repeated QA sessions there is no real detective work being done - the actual culprit would likely have been nabbed with much less backtracking if some physical evidence was also analyzed. The chase scenes seem like last minute additions, indifferently shot and making little sense in the context. The overall effect is more that of a telefilm than a cinema feature.

But even tele-films can be an interesting diversion, and Ebar Shabor can in my view definitely be described as an interesting diversion.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bahubali - The Archetype [dir. SS Rajamouli]

Let's get the praise for Bahubali out of the way first. So far as the fantasy epic genre is concerned, director SS Rajamouli has ripped this country's film world a whole new one. Technically the bar is now so high I pity the next Indian maker that tries something in this genre. In terms of VFX I would place Bahubali somewhere near Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings series. LoTR admittedly was made more than 10 years ago, but even Bahubali's touted status of the most expensive Indian film (at ~$40 million) would account for a fraction of the former's budget and available resources. Some of my favorite bits in the film come in the early part which feature fabulous mountainous terrain with raging waterfalls. The HERO (a gym-buffed Prabhas) is shown to be an accomplished rock climber in scenes that provide plenty of vertiginous thrill; the visual motif of climbing is even extended to an early romantic dream song sequence making it far more entertaining than these things normally turn out. Don't look for any logic in the terrain - Atop the waterfalls stand snowy mountains complete with avalanches (that can be outrun with improvised toboggan rides), immediately behind which lies a sun-drenched billiard table plateau where men may walk with bared torsos. The art design similarly is a mishmash of Indian, Egyptian and Roman styles. It doesn't matter, because there's no attempt to ground it in any actual history; it's the Manmohan Desai / Babubhai Mistry kind of cinema taken to its technological zenith and done with sufficient verve to make it an enjoyable M-O-V-I-E experience. Apart from the visual wankery on display, the casting is suitably epic (special nods to Southie stalwarts Ramya Krishnan and Sathyaraj, and I am definitely looking forward to what Kicha Sudeep, seen here only in a cameo, will bring to the second part) and Peter Hein's action choreography lives up to the best of his past record. Yep, this is definitely something you don't want to wait for cable television or your local pirated DVD guy to get a hold of.

So what (IMO, I realize many of you will snort at such reservations) holds it back from Popcorn Hall of Fame? One thing that got my goat early was the depiction of the warrior heroine (Tamanna). In immediate contrast to the aforementioned dream song sequence, she is introduced as a trained warrior that can in a brawl hold her own and then some. Considering that Tammy is usually the go-to for simpering bimbo parts, this had me cheering. But almost as soon as her character encounters the HERO, she is instantly relegated to secondary status. He subjects her to a cheery molestation (ripping off her fighting clothes which apparently held a flowing dress inside), which of course means she must fall in LURRRVVV. Her burning desire to carry out a patriotic rescue mission is summarily taken over without so much as a by-your-leave, while she is left to hang about in the sidelines. I don't want to sound pedantic, but if there is anything the classic Hong Kong martial arts movies have shown us, it is that you can have delightful entertaining spectacles where women warriors kick as much or more butt than the blokes. And they don't have to turn butch for it, they're wonderfully feminine and graceful and all the more attractive for their skills. Hopefully the second installment will remedy this, but right now a huge opportunity to have a sexy camaraderie between two warriors has been missed in favor of a stereotype romance. You have fierce Mother archetypes, but apparently having the romantic interest be an equal opportunity partner remains a no-no.

This is a lesser complaint but I am also a little disappointed that after the intriguing beginning the main narrative is set in flat terrain with battle sequences that for all their exciting moments (and there are many) don't feel too different from those seen in Hollywood's fantasy films. The vertical rockscapes promised some unique thrills, and it would have been great to see Rajamouli take a different track than walk in the footsteps of Jackson & co.

Petty whines notwithstanding, Bahubali is still well worth your ticket money (thankfully the makers didn't go for murky 3D conversion, opting instead for a fabulously bright and colorful screen experience). But my argument stands that without any compromise to its entertainment value it could have also advanced the possibilities of the archetype epic in Indian movies.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Kaaka Muttai aka Crow's Egg [dir. Manikandan]

Writer-director-DOP Manikandan's debut feature in Tamil mixes the grittiness of De Sica inspired neo-realism with the feel-good factor necessary for any film aiming for an audience bigger than the art-house crowd. Like most efforts in this category, it's not as fine-edged as it should be, and at nearly 2 hours runs, or rather trots gently a good deal longer than it should, but it has some solid charm as an offbeat entertainer.
One of the interesting elements in this film is how most major characters are not given an official name - they either have a nickname or an appellation that answers to their role in the film. Our 'heroes' are two kids (masters Ramesh and Vignesh) that call themselves Periya (big) Kaaka Muttai and Chinna (small) Kaaka Muttai. Their mother and grandma are only referred to as such. One of their close friends is an adult railway employee nicknamed Pazharasam (banana juice/soup? The subtitles translate it as fruit juice).
As critic Baradwaj Rangan puts it in his effusive and detailed review, the wheels on which the film turns is desire and aspiration. The kids live in an urban slum and dream of the consumer goods they can't afford - their aspiration is given the shape of pizza, which they have only seen in advertisements. But even when they scrimp and save for the money to buy it, no outlet will deliver to their locality, and they are rudely turned back from the restaurant for not coming from the expected strata of clientele. Their mother (Ishwarya Rajesh exuding a wonderful every-woman glow in her deglamorized avatar) aspires to get her imprisoned husband home, trudging from fee-grabbing lawyer to corrupt politician. There's a refreshing non-stereotype mother-in-law who sympathizes with the plight of her son's wife and in her ingenious way tries to assuage her grandsons' desire for pizza by dishing out a home-made version of it. The movie is full of little touches which delineate the character of these and other parts in the film with gentle observation.
The social critique is managed without excess heavy-handedness, and the metaphors don't get too cringing - for instance, the kid's playground (and the crow's nest bearing tree it contains) is torn down for a development complex which is likely to house the sort of building the pizza place is situated in, but the script doesn't box your ears with the irony. The humor arises organically from the situations. The look of the film is authentic, the actors merge into their roles, there is some striking juxtaposition of visuals and sound. Oh, and there are no item breaks. The only problem is that the script is a little too episodic and not reined in tightly enough, which leads to loose elements and contrived moments in the narrative. I certainly do not grudge the film its happy ending, but it could have been better written, instead of seeming like the writer had run out of ideas.
So, yes, flaws and all, but this is a charming film that people should certainly give a look at, and not just Tamil people (At least in Mumbai multiplex screens, English subtitles are provided).

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mulholland Drive [dir. David Lynch]

I had seen MH long long ago, and considered it at the time an arbitrary and pretentious movie whose critical acclaim hinged solely on its being made by David Lynch. The blu-ray was therefore an experiment in re-evaluation, to see if I had by chance missed the significance of the film.

Turns out, I had. I am still not ready to list this among my favorite films, but there's definitely a twisted dream logic to the proceedings that unlocks along with the opening of the MacGuffin blue box in the film. I cannot describe the film in great detail here for fear of spoiling it for people that have not yet seen it, but it starts off as a neo-noir mystery thriller centered on the two female leads (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, both smoldering) with what seem like barely connected detours featuring other characters and situations, but in the last 15-20 min of the film, Lynch pulls off a coup of reversal that has you rethinking on all you have previously seen. And I imagine this will induce greater re-watchability to the film even if some individual events (the diner episode and the espresso episode in particular) still seem contrived in their weirdness. It helps to know that some of the feeling of disconnect and paucity of character development possibly stems from the fact that MH was first developed as a TV series, and after the studio developed cold feet over the pilot, re-purposed with additional funding from Studio Canal as a standalone feature film. Lynch is not apologetic over the loose ends because as he proposes, dreams have lots of loose and dead ends, and the film operates on a dream logic.

Studio Canal's blu-ray gives a solid presentation. The video has some significant amount of manipulation in terms of light exposure and softness so it's not reference material, but generally looks very good and assumedly faithful to the director's intentions. The soundtrack is quite brilliant, both in terms of sound effects and Angelo Badalamenti's atmospheric score. I am a little annoyed about the lack of English subs on this release because one problem is that the dynamic range of the audio is VERY HIGH, meaning it can go from barely audible whispers to room rocking crash-bangs, making it necessary to adjust the volume during playback, not convenient. There are a bunch of extras, with behind-the-scenes footage during the shoot, as well as various film-makers waxing on the greatness and importance of MH (* These extras are present on the digibook release of the film, but may have been removed from the armaray case re-issue).

Friday, May 8, 2015

Amodini [dir. Chidananda Dasgupta]

Yesterday, I watched Amodini by Chidananda Dasgupta, contemporary to Satyajit Ray and a renowned film critic and writer, and also father to Aparna Sen (for this generation I should probably say grandfather to Konkona Sen). The film is a fable/satire on the problems created by the caste system, wherein marriage becomes so difficult to arrange within a given caste, that women are forced to marry old men or even infants. The titular character is the haughty daughter of a wealthy zamindar, about to enter into the rare chance of marriage to a (comparably) young man, when it turns out that the man in question has abandoned the ceremony. She is then hastily married off to the 15 year old servant boy Pundu, whom she kicks out of her chamber. Pundu goes away, and Amodini must now face the social challenges of being an abandoned wife. In the meanwhile, the film gives us some additional episodes on the issues created by the shortage of eligible high-caste men, including one where an aging husband actually demands bed money from his young bride to consummate the marriage. After many years, Pundu returns, now a rich man with a new bride. Does Amodini go back to him, and does he accept her forms the rest of the story.

While the story had potential as a humorous satire, a lot of it falls dramatically flat for me, raising neither laughter nor concern for the characters. Couple that with lots of bad acting from the cast (or should I call it inadequate direction from the maker?) and it failed to be more than a one-time watch. In the film's favor it is definitely good looking (cinematography by Madhu Ambat, who did some fine work in South Indian movies) and also has some lovely classical based music score (by a CR Chowdhury).

NFDC-Shemaroo's DVD gives an anamorphically enhanced 16:9 image of the film, soft but colorful. I am sure it trounces the previous release from MAX. The soundtrack is clean and distinct. I seemed to hear some unnecessary stereo panning and echo elements sometimes but since I am having some issue with my amp, I can't assuredly say the disc is at fault here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Margarita with a Straw [dir. Shonali Bose]

If you put aside the disability different-ability(?) element, Margarita is, like English/Vinglish and Queen, another in the line of "Indian woman goes abroad and discovers herself" soaps. The woman here is Laila, a talented student-writer (so we're told, we never get any real look into her creative process or muse) that also has cerebral palsy. While she is loved by her family and treated sensitively by her friends in Delhi, she is bereft of  a romantic/sexual relationship (apart from the other handicapped character in the film who at least initially believes they should get together because no one else will have them). Cue in the trip to New York (on a creative writing scholarship, of which we see nothing of substance, it could well be an invitation to just hang about and take in the sights) and we are back again in that magical Western world utopia where everyone is extra-nice and deeply understanding and have no prejudices (and let's not forget the awesome nightclubs). Here, Laila meets gay Pakistani blind girl Khanum (see how many marks we are hitting here?) with whom she jumps into a physical romantic relationship. Without spoiling further I will say that from this point, the movie for a brief while plays like a massively cleaned up tame riff on Blue is the Warmest Color, only to run into the Hallmark movie script of the cancer patient.
In a society where a non-embarrassing depiction of even a conventional sexual relationship is rare, and handicapped differently-abled characters are almost always written as asexual one-note pegs, a film which recognizes that such people can have all the feelings and dilemmas that the norm do must be given some welcome. And Margarita... does some things very right. We never see Laila as an object of pity or of a Readers' Digest level of mawkish admiration. The film doesn't end with her winning the Nobel for creative writing. And Kalki Koechlin immerses herself into the part brilliantly, baring Laila's emotions without embarrassing theatrics.
On the negative side, the film treads shallow where it should dig deep. There are too many holes in the depiction of Laila's personality as an organic whole. We see little of the creative person she is supposed to be, and the potential complications of her romantic / sexual dilemmas are quickly side-stepped in favor of a conventional tear-jerker TV drama.
Overall, if mainstream movies are predominantly what you watch, this is a palatable effort that brings some important issues to mind, even though it's not in itself a great film.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chotushkone aka The Quadrangle [dir. Srijit Mukherji]

I happened to pick up the DVD of Chotushkone after reading its synopsis at an online shop. It was only after I had watched half of it that I got the news it had bagged the National Film Awards for direction and cinematography. From what I had watched till then my impressions of both these aspects as well as the film as a whole were quite positive. It only remained to be seen if the remainder could match those standards.

Like the trademark output of that vintage British film company Amicus Productions, Chotushkone is a "portmanteau" film. For the uninitiated, that means a film composed of individual episodes fitted within an overarching narrative frame. The major characters here are four film-makers co-opted by a mystery producer into coming up with four ideas that can serve to make thematically related short films that will be combined into a feature; the requirement is that the running theme through all the stories should be Death. Fans of classic horror / mystery should be immediately attracted to the idea. In a well-played conceit, the four characters are played by real-life Bengali actor-filmmakers - Aparna Sen, Gautam Ghose, Chiranjit Chakraborty and relative newcomer Parambrata Chatterjee. The stories they come up with remind me in a good way of the clever little ideas classic horror shorts are spun from.

As the film builds to where these four points of the titular quadrangle come up with their respective story ideas, the script also probes their past history, especially the veteran characters, with fleeting depictions of a troubled marriage between Aparna and Chiranjit (with Gautam as their mutual friend, and possibly silent admirer of Aparna) and its repercussions on their professional life.

Without going into too many details that would dilute your viewing experience, Chotushkone has a strong build-up in most part and the enactments of the episodes the directors within the film come up with make for clever and intriguing viewing. It also helps that the film is a strong visual experience, making use of colored lighting and dramatic framing to infuse excitement into the proceedings.

Alas, Chotushkone's several merits make its missteps all the more glaring. At nearly 150min the film runs at least 50% longer than it should have, with several easily identified elements that could have been shorn off at the scripting / editing table. A film with this theme should in my view focus exclusively on its lead characters, excluding anything else from the audience's frame of mind, but here you have a fair amount of footage devoted to peripheral characters that have no bearing on the denouement. Songs, even if few and with no elaborate choreography, are just another distraction. And the climax belies the pithy quality of the episodes before it. What should have been delivered as a swift punch to the gut belabors the twist element far too long and features some muggy acting. Also sometimes, the cinematography is fancy for its own sake, with even simple moments lavished with puzzlingly elaborate visual grammar.

So yes, what could have been a terrific film does fall a few rungs short, but it is still in most part an exciting and worthwhile watch, especially for fans of suspenseful films. I now need to check out Srijit's previous film Baishe Shrabon.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Amitabh Bachchan: The Angry Young Years

This piece was first published online in a magazine called Views Unplugged. That link can no longer be found on account of the site having its own plug yanked out (quite some time ago, I imagine), so I will risk hosting it on this here blog.

The 'Angry Young Man' was one of the dominant figures of 70's popular cinema and defined Amitabh's career for that point in time. I'd like to talk here of what I consider the 3 most important films that dealt with this character: Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer, and Yash Chopra's Deewaar and Kala Patthar. There were other 'angry' films but they essentially derived from these sources, resulting rarely in sublime inspiration (Ramesh Sippy's Shakti), mostly in irksome parody.

First picking up some of the common threads between these 3 facets of the Angry Young Man (AYM) figure: Most obviously they were all created by Salim-Javed, the most popular screen writers of the time. Their contribution to the Angry Young Man genre lay in more than just writing the scripts; they were also instrumental in getting Amitabh to portray these roles, since in 2 of the 3 films he was not the director's first choice for the role (more on that later). The Angry Young Man is essentially a solitary figure. He may ostensibly possess lovers, family, friends but he craves for none of them; they are just incidental to the world he lives in. His outlook is entirely contemporary and he has no ties towards any form of tradition. This of course is related to his decidedly urban environment but also to his individualistic attitude which barely acknowledges the rituals of his society. He has a cynical streak in him although the extent of this has varied in different portrayals and in different sections of a single role. And there is of course the Anger that is the core of our interest in his psychology.

Now I'll try to dissect each individual character from the set of 3 that I mentioned:


Amitabh's debut as the AYM: A cop haunted by a childhood dream that comes to him in the wake of his parents' cold-blooded murder. In a move of sheer genius the film avoids the usual flashback tripe by portraying the object of his nightmares as a masked rider on a horse (the killer wears a bracelet bearing a horse pendant). Besides being in itself an inventive move it also allows us to look at the character in a non-stereotypical light. His anger reflects more than just sorrow, it reflects a fear of facing his nightmares, of wanting to stamp them out by hunting down the criminal hand responsible for it. This is the most salient aspect of this character.

Zanjeer's AYM is the least cynical, although the source of his passionate idealism, if one goes by what is discussed above, comes from a negative source, a black hole. Unlike the other 2 avatars, he has his fairly cheerful moments and is also more receptive towards fellow society. Interestingly family relationship is depicted in a very low-key manner here with none of the effusive hugging sequences that plague traditional films. Even the scene where he proposes to the woman in his life is handled with an unusual restraint that offsets its perfunctoriness. In the climax he guns down the villain, the source of his nightmares. The film ends on an upbeat note with the AYM hopeful of a more tranquil existence.
Destiny had a great role to play in the casting of this film and thereby the realization of the AYM. The role which Amitabh embodied had originally been offered to Raaj Kumar who turned it down saying that he couldn't work with Mehra because of the smell of the latter's hair-oil. Another suggested candidate was Dev Anand. But Salim-Javed used their clout to bring in the then gangly newcomer Amitabh because they felt sure of his ability to play the part and the rest is history. Sadly Zanjeer seems to have been a fluke classic because Prakash Mehra's subsequent films only ended up prostituting the AYM before he morphed into an all-round buffoon.


This is the predominant and most rehashed facet of the AYM. It also represents the most externalized form of the anger. Here is an open conflict, a conflict against society, against law, against civilization. The battle is waged not for the purpose of any ideology but for survival, for the primal instinct towards self-preservation. He is angry because he wants to live but the world is against it and all his actions are geared towards snatching his next bit of existence from this hostile, predatory world.
The tone is much more cynical here. The AYM of Deewaar is an atheist (although not averse to keeping talismans, why is this?) who keeps no hopes of either divine favor or goodwill from his fellowman. He seeks power, not for its own sake, but as requisite to survive - The dockyard fight is because of his fear of death for not being able to settle his dues in a foreseeable future. His joining hands with the rival don comes from his fear of retribution, also the prospect of wealth that will ensure his escape from the jaws of soul-chewing poverty. The survival instinct also fuels his rapid rise up the crime ladder where he is more likely to delegate tasks than execute them. His lone-man against a crowd shootouts may belie this aspect but I believe they are more the result of commercial considerations which require a protagonist to display a stupid level of courage. But he can also be said to welcome the fear that runs through him - his refusal to remove the tattoo that reminds him, not of his father or considerations of his guilt, but of the hostility that grew forth to his existence in its wake.

He has family attachments here, most notably the Mother. The mother could represent a life-giving source thereby linking to his survival instinct (she herself has it, if one recalls her outburst against the dockyard scrap). The mother could also represent a kind of innocence, a kind of idealism that acts as a relief to his paranoia. His ties with the prostitute are essentially physical, two scarred souls seeking escape in body heat or perhaps communing in this vital act their common thirst of self-preservation. His desire to reform comes in the wake of the illness of the Mother, his life-giving force because her death would mean the loss of the balm to his fears, and its subsequent reversal comes after the killing of the pregnant prostitute which reinforces his view of the hostile world, though now his rage supplants his survival instinct. He dies, after being gunned down by his law-abiding brother, in the lap of his mother as though finally reverting back to his lost innocence.

Rajesh Khanna claimed in an interview that the part of Deewaar had originally been offered to him by Chopra but diverted to Bachchan on the insistence of Salim-Javed again. One is curious as to the impact of the character had Khanna played it instead of Amitabh.


This film displays the most unusual, deeply personal version of the AYM and is my favorite in that aspect. In Yash Chopra's adaptation of Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad) he is an ex-naval officer who after a shameful expulsion for having deserted passengers in a stormy sea escapes to a small coal-mining town where he spends his days laboring into total exhaustion to avoid the ghosts of his past life.

The unique aspect of this persona is that here his Anger is directed not at any individual or society, but towards himself, towards his cowardice. He constantly jumps into dangerous situations, always offers to put his life at risk as an expression not merely of simple regret towards the earlier incident but of the self-consuming hatred that develops in its wake.

He is both an atheist and a cynic. He has no regard of the world at large and no prescribed purpose of existence, except perhaps a lack of sufficient will to kill himself (Could he be also hoping to die in one of his rescues/ reckless scraps?). His interaction with his neighbors, even whose lives he has saved, has an air of indifference to it although he is certainly not antipathetic. He craves pain, I believe for its capacity to cloud memory. But he also nurses the solitude that brings back his past. He is the ultimate masochist. This is in direct contrast with the survival instinct of Deewaar's AYM. 

Ironically his romantic interest lies with a Doctor (life-saving entity). His trauma is the result of his own actions (inaction in this case) and has more repercussions on his psyche than that of the AYM in Zanjeer whose nightmares arise from circumstances outside of his control. This man's redemption comes when he saves his fellow miners from drowning in a massive underground flooding and rises to find his past (personified by his parents) telling him to discard the shame of his initial cowardice.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dum Laga Ke Haisha [dir. Sharat Katariya]

Oh for the 90's, those wonderful years of cassette tapes and Kumar Sanu right, some things have definitely changed for the better. But that doesn't deny this nostalgia tinged rom-com its charm. And Dum Laga ke Haisha (DLKH) has attractions other than its period setting. In the bad old days, the only alternative you had to the hero-oriented chauvinistic sagas were the equally screechy heroine sagas (cue Rekha in bizarre costumes), or worse, the hyper-maudlin “family drama”. But in the recent years, Hindi cinema has seen movies scripted around women protagonists that attempt to skirt these stereotypes. Whatever their individual flaws, films like Kahaani, English Vinglish, Bobby Jasoos, Queen at least showed a heartening trend of interesting roles for women. DLKH is the next step in this evolution of the Bollywood product, because unlike the previously mentioned films that relied on the presence of established stars, it dares to totally stake its bets on the script – the lead actress Bhumi Pednekar is a complete newcomer and, with her plump homely appearance, as far from the archetypal film-star mold as possible.

At the start, Ayushmann Khurana, who plays the school dropout son of small-town tape shop owner Sanjay Mishra, is bullied into marriage with the portly Pednekar, who is a graduate with a B.Ed. Between his disgust with his wife's physical form and inferiority complex at her education, Khurana feels rather cut up about the railroading and after a round of awkward adjusting, has a showdown in which he openly insults the woman. The rest of the film deals with how he learns to respect and love her. Traditionally, this would have involved showing the woman dropping her pounds and glamming up, thereby becoming “deserving” of her spouse's attraction. Thankfully that's not the case here. Right from the start, Pednekar is shown to be a woman that is comfortable with herself (catch her unselfconsciously executing the wedding jhatkas) and while she does her best to please her husband (including arranging for a satin nightie and a private TV-VCR to watch “English” films to inspire her spouse in bed), she refuses to take any bullshit from him. After the aforementioned showdown, she packs off and files a case for divorce, and it is the eventual change of heart in the husband that saves the relationship.

It is to the script's credit that it manages most of this without getting preachy and dogmatic about female equality and liberty. This is not to say DLKH is an unqualified classic. While the initial awkwardness and the rift between the couple is well-depicted, the scene which signals the first stirrings of change in the husband hits the right notes in terms of being low-key, but is rather pat considering what has passed till that moment. There is also a Macguffin competition that makes little sense other than having a contrived “win” moment in the end. That's the weaknesses, now about the strengths. The chemistry between Pednekar and Khurana on account of their investment in their respective characters is excellent, and the main reason why you would sit through the film. The supporting characters are also well-etched and acted. The production design does a great job of recreating the 90's in a small-town scenario without going overboard with the references. Surprise, surprise, even Anu Malik's score has some very interesting stuff (and not just in terms of recreating his 90's sound).

All things considered DLKH is a very decent film to take a partner or a mum to.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I, Meh [dir. Shankar]

The big problem I have with Shankar's latest film (a collaboration with Anniyan star Vikram) is that it feels less like Shankar and more like Muruga-dross. Shankar in the past struck a chord with his blend of overdrive masala hi-jinks and topical issues. Apart from his uniquely delirious visual and narrative sensibilities, he was one of the few mainstream movie-makers that represented the aspirations of the middle-class, giving them, at least in the movies, moments of catharsis in his elaborately mounted depictions of the evils in their lives being vanquished. We cheered as adulterers, corrupt cops, parasitic slum-dwellers and noxious politicians got their comeuppance, taking us momentarily out of our feelings of helplessness and self-pity. His audacious take on technology gone haywire in Endhiran/Robot had sufficient chutzpah to leap over its shortcomings in the way of logic and coherence. To see him go from there to a drawn out personal revenge drama seems not so much like shifting perspective as narrowing it.

Without going into spoiler territory, although you would have to be really simple-minded to not see every single plot twist well before the reveals are made, this film is about a hero getting fucked over by a bunch of evil folk, and then taking his revenge on them. While Murugadoss would have subjected us to an excruciating unbroken bloc of puerile vomit inducing romance that runs up to nearly half the movie's length before going into the revenge angle, Shankar tries to vary things by moving back and forth in the narrative timeline, so we see acts of revenge being conducted on people before we see the evil they do. In practice this only reduced my ability to sympathize with the protagonist's vengeance. Entertaining campy revenge dramas have been made before - mainstream Indian cinema of the 70's and 80's is chockablock with such films. But they work within a certain scope, a straightness of path. (Over-)Powered by Shankar and Vikram's desire to awe, the resultant convolution and hot air make a royal mess. The action and song sequences seem like rehashes from previous Shankar films - A fight across rooftops in China provides some thrills. The product placement songs are kinda fun. While the picturization of the I'd Do Anything For Love ripoff song is interesting, the song itself is the aural equivalent of applying nail pliers to one's testicles.

As for Vikram, he's frankly a bore in this film. It's tragic that someone who seems so interested in the craft of acting is content to regurgitate rote melodrama as emotion. I respect his efforts for the physical and prosthetic transformations, but they only make his character more fake and, pardon my grammar, not-give-a-fuck-able. I had far greater sympathy for Jackie Shroff taking revenge in that camp classic Mera Jawab. You can check that one for free here:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Kiss of The Vampire [dir. Don Sharp]

Kiss of The Vampire was a decent second-tier Hammer film with some very effective scenes, although hobbled by an all-too-contrived plot and a climax that should have been scrapped considering the abysmal quality of the FX. The story is something like Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes meets Hammer's own The Devil Rides Out - After an intriguing opening that features a staking of a vampire through a coffin, we zoom into the lead couple stranded when their automobile runs out of petrol while passing by the very same tiny European village that features in almost every Hammer production. Almost immediately after they book into the local inn, they are invited to supper by the local nobleman Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) whose castle houses several of the props from Dracula's lair in the 1958 Hammer film, and not just because he purchased them in a Transylvanian yard sale. The up-to-no-good doctor's children Carl and Sabena insist on the couple attending a masked ball at the castle. During the course of this ball, the wife disappears and the husband's attempts to find her are stonewalled by Ravna's family. It is then time for Prof Van Helsing...oops, Prof Zimmer to step in and announce his plan to put an end to this ee-vil. The plot hinges on some major contrivances like a whole bunch of vampires being conveniently assembled at the castle at the very moment the professor finds it suitable to invoke supernatural forces to destroy them; admittedly, calling on Beelzebub to help with vampire-killing is intriguing, but why does the Lord of The Flies send in an army of (rubber) bats?

The sequence of the masked ball is certainly atmospheric (though handily eclipsed the following year by Roger Corman's Masque of Red Death), and I will also applaud the solidity of the supporting cast, especially Barry Warren as Carl, and Peter Madden as the simple-minded local innkeeper Bruno. While Clifford Evans has a harsh commanding presence as Prof Zimmer, Willman's Dr. Ravna comes off as purely formal, lacking the inner menace that would make him a formidable adversary. The vampires are such a walking list of vulnerabilities - a dab of garlic essence on a door traps them within, an impromptu cross outlined in blood has them in shivers - it's a surprise they have any hold in the village instead of being laughed out of it. The climax with the aforementioned rubber bats is more hilarious than thrilling. But at 88 min, there's little time to ruminate and a fair bit of amusement to be had.