Thursday, October 27, 2016

Budhia Singh - Born to Run [dir. Soumendra Padhy]

Budhia Singh - Born to Run is the biographical film of the wunderkid from Odisha who ran about 50 marathons before he was 5 years old. It's equally, and perhaps more so, a portrait of Biranchi Das, the coach who discovered young Budhia's ability and tried to hone it through punishing extremes.

Early on we see Budhia as an ordinary slum kid sold by his impoverished mother for 850 rupees as a domestic help. Biranchi, a Judo instructor, social worker nurturing a bus-load of kids and hired dogsbody for political parties, rescues Budhia from this situation and takes him under his wing. A chance discovery of the child's stamina (when Biranchi orders Budhia to run rounds without stopping unless told, and forgets about him for hours after) ignites the coach's desire to mould his protege into a marathoner. His formula is a mix of reward (Budhia gets new shoes and better food, compared to his foster home siblings, and more attention) and punishment (Biranchi puts him through a tortuous routine of long hours of running everyday, refusing even water during the endeavour).

While the use of a rah-rah "let's do it" soundtrack seems to put the film in the same bracket as other recent Bollywood sports films like those on Milkha Singh and Mary Kom, there is always an element of ambiguity in the depiction of Biranchi Das' attitude towards Budhia. While he may have rescued and nurtured Budhia (and the film makes a point of Biranchi's affection, even to the point of ignoring his own child), providing a more stable father figure than Budhia had previously known, he is also shown to be ruthless in his ambition to make the boy excel. Shots of Budhia running alone are intercut with scenes of his siblings and classmates enjoying a normal childhood while his teachers and principal gloat over the fame that his achievements will bring them. One of the most powerful scenes comes in the staging of Budhia's 65km run from Puri to Bhubaneshwar. Biranchi tagging alongside on a bicycle taunts Budhia with a water bottle but never gives it to him. The soundtrack dies down and we hear Budhia's faltering gasps, which are spliced with visions of cold drinks and ice lollies, the fantasies of a boy racked with unimaginable thirst. Towards the end of the race Budhia faints and is carried to an emergency station where he throws up the fluids he is made to drink. After this Biranchi takes him out to display to the crowd almost like a trophy, not exactly a hurrah moment.

The film also takes into account the allegations that Biranchi exploited the boy to fulfil his own desires for fame and fortune. Manoj Bajpai gives a trademark measured performance, fully embracing the character's ambiguity, making him alternately sympathetic and provocative. Young Mayur Patole who plays Budhia gives a non-cutesy blank-faced performance appropriate for a boy whose actions were entirely dictated by the people around him.

The Odisha Child Welfare Commission filed proceedings against Biranchi Das for exploitation, which led to Budhia's separation from his coach and a ban from long-distance running that only caused the wastage of a potential talent. In the film the committee is portrayed as a coterie of unimaginative babu-dom more interested in preening its feathers than any real concern for the boy. Shortly after, Biranchi Das was gunned down by unknown assailants, while Budhia languishes in the state sports hostel where since he has regressed to a life of mediocrity, resting only on the hope that we will once again meet a coach with the passion of his former mentor.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

MSG The Messenger - Lion Heart

A few years back a friend asked me if I had any excitement for Conan The Conquerer, the proposed continuation of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan movies. To this I said, The movie will probably start with an old Arnold sitting on the throne. In his thick accent he'll say, "Let me tell you about one of my adventures", and the rest of the movie will go into flashback mode with a bland (Jason) Samosa playing Conan. At the end, we'll be returned to seated Arnold, who bids us part with, "In the sequel, I will tell you about another of my adventures."

MSG3 isn't that remote because all the lead roles are played by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan (who now also calls himself Dr. MSG, having in the interim has picked up a doctorate, probably one of those honorary thingummies no-name Indian universities fling about like so much confetti). But Pitaji has succumbed to the lure of needlessly splitting a movie into multiple instalments.

The opening was hearteningly explosive. Dr. MSG as the star agent of (I kid you not) Lion Heart Investigation Agency, takes out a batallion of inept terrorist-kidnappers (wielding bright yellow or mauve hued oversized plastic guns) with a sword that morphs into a grenade launcher cum laser pistol, and later shrinks into a pen. With characteristic subtlety they don't mention the device that allows him to change his shoes in the midst of combat (surely not a continuity error!). Agent Pitaji also has a plastic kit-bag that transforms into a souped-up bike he proceeds to do wheelies on for no particular reason. The LHIA seems to house a conference room dedicated specifically for his sycoph...erm, colleagues to pay tribute to his awesomeness (to which he in the most reluctant and mild manner says, "Chamchagiri band karo, yaar [Stop the spooning, pals]"), since for actual business they move to yet another place.

In the 'actual business' conference room we are introduced to the bad guys of the movie, alien races from 4 different planets, all of whom favor art decor picked from the Ramsay studio scrap sale and lightbulb-studded couture a la Amitabh Bachchan from Yaarana, differing only in the color-code. Agent Lion Heart proceeds to give a projector presentation flashback of how in ancient times he as Commander Sher Dil (See the subtle connection?) dealt with the aliens.

The flashback would have been more than acceptable as a snappy half hour max interlude, breezing through the CG-aided exploits of medieval-era MSG. Alas, this is the rest of MSG3, now matching the pace and tone of a Ramanand Sagar tele-serial. Yes, ineptitude as a benchmark is consistently adhered to, and there are bits of campy fun, like when he grapples with astonishingly shoddy CG elephants, snake-men and Gorilla Grodd wannabes, but it gets repetitive and has a decidely 'meh' flavor. You keep hoping for the flashback to be concluded and for the further adventures of Gurmeet Bond, but all you get at the end of 2 hours is an announcement for the next part. Disappointing.

Just before the film, me and my mum (who probably hates me for conning her into this) were the only people in the cinema. But shortly after the credits rolled, a whole mob of rustic punjus sauntered in filling most of the hall. I think they were holding free tickets since one of the leaders was directing someone on the phone to herd people to some Kohinoor theater, since this one was already spoken for.