Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guptodhoner Sandhane aka Hunt for Hidden Treasure [dir. Dhrubo Banerjee]

It was my weakness for the old-school YA-friendly detective adventure, which eschews cynicism, gruesome violence and tortured psyches, that led me to check out Guptodhoner Sandhane (GS) aka Hunt for Hidden Treasure. GS is Satyajit Ray's Feluda by way of National Treasure. Kollywood's favorite sleuth actor Abir Chatterjee, after having played both Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi, now dons the part of Subarna Sen alias Sona-da, a history professor from Oxford (represented by overcoat and muffler scarf) with a penchant for solving puzzles, and when called for, fisticuffs too.
Sona-da accompanies his food-obsessed lawyer nephew / companion Abir (Arjun Chakrabarty) to the 350-year old family mansion in Manikantapur village (Oh, these delicious Bong names!), where they find both clues to a hidden ancient treasure as well as mysterious nocturnal sightings. Teaming up with Abir's childhood-friend-now-chirpy-lass Jhinuk (Isha Saha), they set out to solve the mystery while also facing the unfriendly advances of a local politician-goon Dasanan (Rajatabha Datta) who is out to get the treasure for himself. The movie also has cameo appearances from Gautam Ghose and Arindam Sil.
GS is not some scintillating exercise in detective movie-making, but it's good comfort food (and I'm not just referring to the sight of the tasty Bengali dishes shown). There's a smattering of fictionalized history; the treasure is supposed to have been originally the property of prince Shah Shuja, the son of Mughal emperor Jehangir who fought (and lost) with both Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb, before he fled to Myanmar. The light-hearted tone and the honoring of the family-friendly spirit in which Ray wrote his Feluda spirit keeps the proceedings pleasant and easy to watch. The setting of the family mansion and adjoining ruins is well-realized with some nice night-time photography.
GS could have fared better in the writing. There are too many A-ha! moments that muddy the detective aspects of the story. It also suffers from making Sona-da omnipotent. If our historian puzzle solver can also biff-pow bad guys, what's left for anyone else to do? Abir is mostly reduced to a gluttonous scaredy-cat buffoon, making you wonder why the curious and plucky Jhinuk would have anything but contempt for this friend. A more even spreading of the heroic qualities among the leads would have led to a complimentary dynamic between our desi Three Investigators.

But it does well enough as an easy-to-watch on a lazy afternoon family-friendly mystery adventure, especially for fans of the Feluda stories. Apparently there's a sequel called Durgeshgorer Guptodhon, but from my initial impressions it seems to be almost identical to the first film.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha aka My Bride is My Angel [dir. Nissam Basheer]

A low-key Malayalam drama from 2019, this one I am rather queasy about. The plot centers on Sleeva (Asif Ali) a progressive farmer who has spent his youth attending to the farm and his responsibilities towards mother and sisters. At 35 he suddenly decides to get married for the sake of having someone to look after his aging mother. But Sleeva is an archetype novice that knows nothing about romance and physical intimacy, and the act of marriage generates a tremendous fear inside, to the extent that he scuttles the arranged honeymoon and avoids any secluded interaction with wife Rincy (Veena Nandakumar). The pressure rises, and goaded on by stupid advice from chauvinist friends and large helpings of alcohol, he decides to take the bull by the horns and ends up raping his wife.

The film then follows the consequences his act has on everyone - himself, his wife, his own family - and his eventual attempt to repair the damage caused. This is where the queasiness quotient steps up for me. Sleeva's sexual naivete is held up as a badge of innocence, and people even in their criticism, treat the matter as the indiscretion of a naughty boy who broke a favorite vase or poured water over the TV. It would have been more acceptable within context if the wife herself had shown the same attitude. But she is obviously quite traumatized by the brutality of a man who didn't even string two words of romance with her before. And Sleeva's immediate behavior after the assault (and barely escaping being reported to the police by a furious doctor) is abominable. Instead of straight out apologizing to the woman and begging her forgiveness, as anyone who has committed a grave error should, he actually tells her not to make a big deal of it. The script again attributes it to his awkwardness before a woman not his mother or sisters, but we're talking basic human empathy here, and Sleeva, who is haloed as a helpful and active do-gooder comes across as a shockingly self-centered prick.

The rest of the film is about Sleeva becoming more martyr-like (think Mohan from Maniratnam's Mouna Ragam), and his wife realizing his "good qualities", especially after he helps out an eloping couple, and a hybrid crop variety he has cultivated garners accolades (What self-respecting woman would stand beside and say good words about a man who raped her and was too awkward to apologize, even if it meant being on TV?). So as we reach the finish line, Sleeva is once again hailed as an upstanding community member, the wife decides she wants to remain with him and we have a romantic all-ends-well.

While the film is performed well, it needed to be more critical of its man-child protagonist or at least adjust the chronology of his actions so that he is seen to be immediately penitent about his brutality, so that his subsequent actions are not seen as, "Alright, ab to sorry bhi bol diya, okay? Jeez!" petulance.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Scene at the Sea [dir. Takeshi Kitano]

When I watched other Takeshi Kitano movies like Sonatine and Hana-bi, I would be enchanted by the serene Ozu-like moments and disturbed by the violence that interrupted them. I used to wonder how it would be if Mr. Kitano directed a wholly serene movie. A Scene at the Sea is the answer to that question.

Scene... is the story of Shigeru (Claude Maki), a deaf-mute garbage collector who one day sees a broken surfboard, and it awakens something within him. He does some DIY work to repair the board and goes to the beach to learn surfing. With him is his also-mute fiancee Takako (Hiroko Ôshima), an almost dog-like faithful support whose very existence revolves around Shigeru. She helps to carry his board, folds his clothes when he goes towards the water.

Shigeru is expectedly awkward to start with, more often than not falling off the makeshift board. But he keeps at it, devoting his spare hours (and in consequence, his fiancee's) till he gets better. But this isn't one of those underdog winner movies in which the plot trajectory is for the protagonist to beat some egotistic reigning champion and capture the attention of the world at large. It's about a person finding something he loves to do, which makes him feel alive, instead of a mindless automaton.

This lack of any major antagonist means that there's no external drama element (the people who laugh at his initial clumsiness slowly appreciate his effort and help him out, even his boss in the garbage business supports him when he needs it), and occasionally the film's dogged documenting of Shigeru's continuous following of his dream may seem a tad monotonous. But it has a quiet strength it builds upon with its matter of fact visual sense and composer Joe Hisashi's wonderful musical support. Without any flashy plot twists, Scene... makes us feel for Shigeru, his desire to be a autonomous living being. If you're interested in a relaxing serene film about a person exploring his/her own possibilities, this is a good one to sit with.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Dahshat [dirs. Tulsi Ramsay & Shyam Ramsay]

Let me say this right off the bat...Dahshat is one of the best vintage Indian horror films I have seen; and I don't mean this in the campy sense, this is one genuinely brilliant movie. The plot as such is a reworking of the famous R.L. Stevenson novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The hero Dr. Samir (Navin Nischol) comes to his hometown after a gap of many years, only to find it has become a gloomy sepulchral place with people afraid to move out after dark and rumors of corpses escaping their graves. Determined to investigate, he discovers a towering hooded grave-robber and a scuffle ensues. This quickly leads to a mob chase in which the dastardly fellow is apprehended. Although nothing can be got out of the fellow who is a mute, Samir's suspicions lead him to the door of the local physician Dr. Vishal.

Dr. Vishal (Om Shivpuri) is a straight port of a Victorian era medical man / scientist complete with frock coat and bow-tie. This Jekyll is dabbling in research to make man "complete" by imbuing him with the heightened sense attributes of various animals. While not inherently vicious, Vishal is an overzealous investigator, not averse to trying out his new researches on patients without their knowledge and consent. He is also an unsatisfied and unfaithful husband to a drunk crone (harangue queen Nadira) with whom he has frequent showdowns. It is during one of these showdowns that the vengeful wife injects him with his prepared serum, which has the effect of converting him into an animal. Thus ensues a saga of horror in which Vishal is forced at various instances to convert to a grotesque hybrid animal form with murderous consequences.

The main strength of Dahshat is the absolutely cracking lifetime performance by Om Shivpuri. This is a brilliant portrayal of the mad doctor archetype, which skillfully avoids the ham trap such roles fall into, and even it's most grotesque moments holds your sympathies for the character. Nadira as the alcoholic wife of the deranged scientist lends great support. The other and equally notable aspect is that apart from a couple of songs and some footage devoted to the idiotic antics of comedian Rajendranath, almost every scene in this movie is propelling the narrative onward at a frantic pace. It also helps that the story provides plausible motive for all the murders the monster commits and not just aimless boob-groping of assorted extras; this is first-rate stuff. The film also has a lot of atmosphere, although some of its location shifts can be confusing. The visual FX are a mixed bag but one admires that the make-up concepts are grounded in the story.

On the whole, Dahshat is a terrific achievement of Hammer-style horror by the Ramsays and one of the few films that lends substance to their reputation as this country's answer to Hammer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

C.I.A. - Comrade in America [dir. Amal Neerad]

CIA is one of those movies that at the outset wears its politics on its sleeve...but then you realize it's only on the sleeve; within its heart is a romantic adventure drama. While our leading man Aji Matthew (Dulquer Salman) may be an avowed communist his primary purpose is that of being the archetype HERO - the guy who stands up for the oppressed, looks bravely in the eye of the arrogant establishment and beats up a half dozen henchmen, barely breaking a sweat. Of course he is better provided than Rajini's "Auto kaaran", since the Congress party worker father (Siddique), with whom he has sarcastic dining table exchanges, loves his son enough to bail him out of trouble each time.

In fact, the  non-cloying emotional bond between this father and son, and the kinship between Aji and his commie party buddies (Shoubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan) provide the most endearing elements of CIA. Which is a good thing, because its political messaging is misleadingly simple-minded (Aji defines communism as sharing your lunch box with the kid who didn't get any), existing solely to showcase its hero's attributes, and yes, the admittedly funny fantasies where he discusses his personal life with Marx, Lenin and Che.

Aji's "content to stay where I am and impact a few people around me" life mantra is rocked when Sara (Karthika Muralidharan), the girl he loves, is taken back by her parents to the US and scheduled to be married in two weeks. Since it is unlikely that an unemployed leftist, even the son of a local politico, will get a US Visa in that time-frame, Aji opts to take the roundabout route of landing in Nicaragua (the nearest country to the US which provides a visa on arrival), then make his way by road to Mexico and enter the US illegally by jumping the border.

This is where the film gets slightly queasy, in its conversion of a harrowing reality to a romantic adventure. Baradwaj Rangan's insightful review details it much better than I could, so I definitely advise you to check it out. In Nicaragua, Aji befriends a Tamil speaking Lankan driver who agrees to help him get across, then a motley group of other archetypes - cute Mexican family, Chinese guy with a mobile phone and surprise, surprise, attractive Malayali girl (Chandini Sreedharan) who has landed there with the equally bone-headed intention of visiting the places her father was at, after HE landed as an illegal migrant.

A remark about women having to buying condoms to offer attackers who rape them is made into a wisecrack. When they are accosted by gun-wielding bandits, it's another Hero moment for Dulquer (no one even thinks to consider how he could have aggravated the situation, if he had failed to subdue them). While it's wrong to expect this movie to be a hard-hitting expose of burning issues (and thankfully it doesn't try to give a happy ending to all its characters), the extent to which they have been "fluffed" to provide a backdrop for what is essentially a well-made masala movie is certainly a matter of debate.