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.