Monday, August 29, 2011

The Help - Winds of Change

Set in a time when the civil rights movement had gathered momentum in America, 'The Help' is a tale of how life was in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. A time when every white household employed the services of the black help. When white kids were raised by the help, when the food in every white household was put on the table by the help, when the help who raised a white family was forbidden to use the same bathroom as them, when there was a separate entrance at the grocers for them, when they were known to carry diseases just by virtue of their skin color. A time we can all look back in shame with. Based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel and adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, 'The Help' is a picture of the harsh realities of the African American domestic service seen though rose hued glasses. Reality treated with a little Hollywood gloss.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) has helped raise 17 white kids. Her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. Her latest is the little girl of Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly). She tells that the child is smart, kind and important to soothe the little ones tears. It is almost as if she is reminding herself. Aibileen is part of an army of African American women who wake up each morning, to don their uniforms and leave their own homes and children behind to look after the homes and children of their white employers. Aibileen's weary eyes have tales to tell. The newly returned white college graduate and wannabe writer Skeetar Phelan (Emma Stone) wants to write the stories of Aibileen and other such women. In a changing world, she sees through the atrocities of her friends stuck with old prejudices.

There is also the sassy, smart mouthed Minny (Octavia Spencer) who works for the evil society bigot Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mother, played with tremendous spunk by Sissy Spacek. Things go wrong over the use of the in house bathroom and Minny finds herself without a job. She extracts her revenge in one of the funniest sequences of the movie and then goes to work for the town's outcast Celia (Jessica Chastain) and an amazing bond forms between the two amidst some humorous sequences and then some heartwarming ones. Minny and Aibileen become the voices of Skeeter's book and circumstances induce a dozen other women to come open with their stories. Of their times and travails as the help.

Of course we are as aware as them that when the book comes out, though anonymous, there shall be consequences. But they will find their voice in a world where they are not accustomed to being heard. Kathryn Stockett's book, though highly engrossing, did somewhat gloss over the severe nature of life in Mississippi then, being a tad simplistic. The movie which is a wonderful adaptation, something I cannot say for most big screen adaptation of books, suffers from lack of focus of the big picture as well. But as a story about the prejudiced society ladies, their black help and the one white young woman who embodies the change needed, it is a triumph. Very few books have been well adapted to the screen, so full marks to Tate Taylor on a job well done. He brings his own vision to the movie yet keeps the author's words alive. But what truly brightens the skyline of 'The Help' is its wonderful ensemble of actors.

Spearheading the cast and the one who truly steals the show is Viola Davis. In her Aibileen, we see a face that carries a myriad of emotions, the pain of her life, the loss of her son and yet the hope to be the change much needed in a society caught up in a racial time warp. She is so real and effective in her portrayal, it is easy to dismiss her act owing to lack of any theatrics. The great Meryl Streep, her costar in the wonderful 'Doubt', had once pointed out of the gigantically gifted Davis at an award show 'My god, somebody give her a movie'. This act reinforces the talent. Acting as a superb foil is the more gallery friendly turn of Octavia Spencer's Minnie. Every member of the cast is effective. A special mention must be made of Sissy Spacek who is delightful in the limited screen time she inhabits. Equally deserving of praise is Bryce Dallas Howard who takes Hilly's mean girl bigot act to its zenith. As the main antagonist, she is fantastic. Emma Stone is good as the story's moral epicenter.

'The Help' is a high production glossy Hollywood take on a matter that is very serious and has affected generations, the rumblings of which can still be heard. In Skeetar's own story of the disappearance of her maid and often surrogate mother, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), we see a glimpse of the way it might have been even for nice, ordinary white women living in a society and time set in the comfortable old ways of the South. It did not just have to be a maniacal racist like Hilly, most well meaning people stroked its fire quietly. It was a way of life back then. Both the movie and its source material are good, but a slight discontentment stems from the fact that the tale skims the surface when it had the capability of going a lot under.

Released in 2011
Playing in Theatres

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shaitan - The Devil Within

The youth of today's India is trapped in a web of new age modernism. There's money aplenty, too much free time, a trend where the fast life of boozing, drugging is considered cool and to top it all, morals are  passe. The lines between right and wrong blur and a total disregard for life and values set in. In such a land-mine waiting to explode, circumstances can easily trigger the devil inside. Produced by Anurag Kashyap (widely regarded as the most daring film maker at this time in Indian cinema) and helmed by first time director Bejoy Nambiar, 'Shaitan' is a reflection of todays urban young India. It is edgy, shocking and at the end makes you think hard of where the new generation might be headed.

The tale begins with the new transport from Los Angeles to Mumbai, in her words while her dad still regards it as Bombay, Amy (Kalki Koechlin). A disturbed young girl, she has visions of her mother's mental illness and consequent death. Adjusting to life in the big city with a rich but self involved father (Rajit kapoor) and a new well meaning stepmother, she is quickly befriended by a group of laid back, pleasure loving youngsters. There's the rich guy whiling away life spending dad's money KC (Gulshan Devaiya), the bulimic model Tanya (Kirti Kulhari), the Parsi geek Zubin (Neil Bhoopalam) and the mysterious cocaine supplier Dash (Shiv Pandit). Life is an endless ride of partying, drinking, doing drugs till one night speeding in their Hummer they end up killing two people on a scooter. Since their conscience never really come to play, to get away they agree to come up with a huge sum of money to shut the mouth of the police officer who is wise to this incident. The problem is, how to lay hands on such a large sum.

As if killing and covering their tracks was not enough, they decide to fake kidnap Amy, secure in the knowledge that her rich dad would pay up. The dad calls the cops instead. The commissioner (Pawan Malhotra), making some wise observations on the reality of the police system calls on suspended cop with his own personal problems, Arvind Mathur (Rajeev Khandelwal) to solve the case. The case gathers a media circus and all hell breaks loose. The friends are tested and the devil in them rears its ugly head.

This is a movie which is an achievement in the technical department. The sound, cinematography, shot taking, editing all join hands to create an edgy, mad frenzy on screen. Some scenes stand out especially the shootout and chase sequence to the backdrop of a well remixed classic 'Khoya Khoya chand'. The accident itself is extremely well shot. The introduction to all the characters is superbly handled. The screenplay successfully captivates for at least half the movie. However, my grouse is that it does loose steam towards the end and the climax seems hurried and too tame for the impact, the beginning had prepared us for.

There is also the problem of connecting with these youngsters. Even though it would be hard to connect with such morally bereft characters, there is never much understanding to their worlds and the inner demons that cause them to be their selves. As such, it is hard to feel sympathy for any of them. Or was that intentional? Does one really need a reason to turn out a certain way? Scary thought that, and if society adds to it, the fibre of values and humanity might just tear away to reveal monsters. The director should be lauded for slapping the youth of today with his debut feature. To think, he could not find any producer backing him for the longest time till he hit pay dirt with the maverick director/producer, Anurag Kashyap. Kashyap has fought long and hard with an industry stuck to conventions and unwilling to take risks, emerging as a name to reckon with in a cinematic climate which is finally welcoming change and the daring, edgy cinema reflecting the new face of urban India.

The performances are top notch. The name that stands out is Rajeev Khandelwal. As a hugely popular television soap actor, he transcended successfully to become a well regarded and dependable performer with his very first movie outing 'Aamir'. In this second venture, as the tough cop, he is brilliant. Successfully carrying the weathered look of a person whose marriage is in shambles, career is in disarray yet rigidly holding on to his beliefs, he is completely believable as the cop who is stirred to action despite his own mess. He adds to even the smallest of moments, like when he kicks the errant rickshaw driver to action. The youngsters led by Kalki are all superb as well and hold their roles, never giving away the fact that for most, it is their first attempt at cinema.

Shaitan literally translates to devil. It is the horror of the deeds of these youngsters and what they are capable of that defines the movie. There is a lot derived from the real world. How often do we open the morning papers to read headlines about hit and runs by drunk rich kids, kidnappings, crimes of passion. There is food for thought here and even though it is not a perfect movie, it is a great start by Bejoy Nambiar. We look forward to more such hard hitting works from this definitive voice.

Released in 2011
In Hindi with English subtitles
Available on DVD

Monday, August 22, 2011

'The Bicycle Thief'/'Bicycle Thieves' - Reality of a crippled society

Vittorio DeSica was one of the pioneers of neorealist cinema in a post war ridden Italy. At a time when the country was crippled by the devastation of war, a crumbling economy, lack of jobs, an impoverished society, DeSica held out a mirror to the troubles of the common man. 'The Bicycle Thief' was a masterpiece from its very conceptualization. A movie that went on to win an honorary Oscar at a time when the foreign film category did not exist and was hailed by critics as the greatest film ever made at the time, this work of art needs no introduction to world cinema buffs. The tale of a father and son in search of a stolen bicycle which is essential to the livelihood of their family takes the most simple, direct approach to filmmaking, leaving the strongest impact at its closure.

Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a man like many in search of a job in post war Rome. He bags one as a poster hanger, the only requirement being that he has a bicycle. In fact he does not, as he has pawned his to provide food at his family table. But a No means loss of a livelihood and waiting for another job may take a year. There are crowds of people willing to take his position. His wife Maria, played spiritedly by Lianella Carell, pawns her dowry bed sheets to reclaim their bicycle. Their hopes rekindled, a poor but loving family smile at the prospect of good times. In the morning Ricci heads out with his young son Bruno ( Enzo Staiola in a laudable performance), whom he drops off at his workplace in a gas station and then starts with his new job. Alas, on this very first day, in front of his hapless eyes, his cycle gets stolen, the thief vanishing into the crowd. What follows is Ricci's desperate attempt to find that stolen bicycle over the course of an entire day with Bruno in tow. Realization slowly hits him that he may never recover that bicycle and fall back into the vicious cycle of poverty once more.

Simple and direct in its story and treatment, 'The Bicycle Thief' is one of the most powerful takes on the degeneration of moral values in the face of sheer desperation to survive. At one point during their futile search, Ricci almost gives up, telling Bruno that they might as well eat and forget about their state. In a restaurant scene, one of the many poignant in the movie, a father filled with false bravado makes merry with his son, forgetting for a few moments the reality of their situation, only to have his son eyeing the rich children eating plates full of spaghetti. Realization reinstates the importance of that stolen cycle in their lives. 'If we had that cycle, we could eat', he words to his son. Later, he does find and confront the thief in an electrifying sequence where a crowd gathers, defending the thief and cornering Ricci. Even after getting the police, Ricci is unable to retrieve the cycle from him.

Desperation finally cuts through Ricci who rides the cycle of morality to grab what does not belong to him. In doing so, his action becomes the image of a society driven to desperate measures in order to survive. It's a vicious cycle and if circumstances don't change, the cycle won't break. 'The Bicycle Thief' employs non actors in the major roles. A truthfulness to the trying times the characters endure shine through these common people portraying roles not much different from their natural circumstances. In Ricci, we have the desperate man trying to provide for his family and be the father his son can look up to. Bruno is the face of innocence waking up to the harsh reality of life. When the father crumples of shame and despair, it is the son who holds Ricci's hands in an ironic role reversal.

DeSica who turned to neorealist cinema with 'The children are watching us' and later won the world over with 'Shoeshine' (also a recipient of an honorary Oscar), made this masterpiece, of a book by Luigi Bartolini which he reworked with his writer/collaborator Cesare Zavattini, who had originally brought the book to him. The effectiveness of the tale lies in it being devoid of sentimentality. It narrates a sad tale of working class Italy and keeps it to the point and in consequence highly effective. A highlight of the movie is its music. The melancholic strain that follows the father-son duo's travails is the emotional string that makes the proceedings heartbreaking.

The title of the movie has been a subject of controversy. Literally translated, it is 'Bicycle Thieves' which puts the film's tale into perspective. The deterioration of the moral fabric of a society in its desperate pursuit of survival, is captured impeccably in its title. However, released in the United States, it became the more simplistic 'The Bicycle Thief', telling of a stolen cycle and the efforts for its retrieval. The Criterion collection, thankfully, released the DVD with the literal title reinstated.

Shot in Rome, I could not help compare the city with the images captured in a Hollywood movie of those times, 'Roman Holiday'. We see not a shot of the tourist attractions and the picture perfect locations here. This is the reality of the heart of a city driven to desperate measures for survival. Men walking with the weight of the world on them. And from that sea emerges one man, with his tale, only to be swallowed once more by the sea of weary faces at the end. On watching this movie, it is said Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray found his calling for making neorealist cinema, employing non actors in real world tales of the common man. Indeed, Iranian cinema and many others to this day create great cinema out of realism. Truth, after all, does resonate. As does the enduring power of a movie made over half a century ago.

Originally released in 1948
In Italian with English Subtitles
Available on DVD
My Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roman Holiday - A Royal Adventure

There is something to be said about a romantic comedy that endures. William Wyler's 'Roman Holiday' is that rare movie that in its lightheartedness and fun sweeps us into an experience truly unforgettable and at the end, quietly melancholy. Launching the big screen career of Hollywood's sweetheart Audrey Hepburn, this movie gave us romance at its most endearing, comedy at its most hilarious and finally a waif like girl who would burn up the entire screen each time she twinkled into the camera.

The story is old as the hills. In a case of cinderella reversed, we have Princess Ann from an unnamed  country, on a goodwill tour across the European states. Her last stop is Rome and we sense a discontentment even as she meets with dignitaries and addresses them with regality and charm. A desire to escape the daily routine takes over her sedated self at night, after a bout of hysterics and she tumbles into the streets of Rome. An encounter with a charming gentleman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) leads to him taking her to his shoebox size apartment, unable to leave her on the streets in her drug induced state.

Turns out that Mr. Bradley is a reporter who now has a scoop on his hands. On discovering that the troublesome, seemingly inebriated girl is the princess, who is stated to have been indisposed of a sudden illness to hide her disappearance from the palace, he along with his partner in crime, photographer Irving (Eddie Albert), seize the moment to keep the runaway princess around them long enough to build a story around her adventures in Rome. And so we have Ann posing as Anya Smith getting a haircut where her locks are sheared into Hepburn's now signature pixie cut, riding a motorcycle to hilarious consequences, gorging on a gelato at the heart of Rome and creating some marvelous moments of fun with the two opportunists in tow. And then the day comes to an end with the princess finding love.

This is a movie with some great moments of physical comedy that have been emulated through the decades in cinema across the globe. The fun between Joe and Irving over revealing the identity of the princess is a highpoint as is the sequence at a dance where a sidesplitting furor occurs culminating in the memorable snapshot of Anya bringing down a guitar over a man's head. But no sequence of the fun on this holiday is probably as famous, indeed imitated over the years, as the 'mouth of truth' sequence where     if one is telling an untruth with their hand in the mouth of a stone image, it gets bitten off. Amidst all the fun, the tender romance that develops between the lead is aired with sadness. After all, can the princess ever fall in love and live happily ever after with the commoner?

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn have crackling chemistry. Gregory Peck was a star at the time. But for Audrey Hepburn, this movie, though not her debut, was her first starring role. To hold her own against a seasoned performer and actually at times be more effective, was no small achievement. That she took home the Oscar that year isn't surprising. Watch her slight smile with that teardrop hanging like a pearl from her eye in her final sequence. Amazing! Gregory Peck, that handsome gentleman, was extremely at ease in his first comic outing. To give him fine company was the third corner of this fun trio, Eddie Albert. His physical comedy with Peck had perfect timing. The performance of all the actors stand out, especially in the final sequence. The director takes his time with the scene, lingering over the expressions, each nuance is highlighted and the actors deliver to the moment.

The movie was shot wholly on location, thereby giving it that authentic air, studio shot movies can never quite duplicate. At its inception, the project was to star Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor and be directed by Frank Capra. However, since the story was by Dalton Trumbo, at the time blacklisted for his political activities, Capra had reservations going ahead with the project and William Wyler was brought into the picture. At his insistence, the movie was shot in Italy and to keep the budget in check, made in black and white. Dalton Trumbo was not credited for his work in the movie and Ian McLellan Hunter, who had helped on the screenplay, got the credit for which he won the Oscar as well. However, Trumbo did receive a posthumous Oscar for his work and his name has now been restored on the credits in the DVD of the film. With Wyler's inclusion came the bright young actress Audrey Hepburn, who had screen tested for him. Cary Grant had reservations about working with an actress as young as Hepburn and in stepped Gregory Peck who was by the time, ready to do a romantic comedy having worked only in serious roles before.

Roman Holiday finds its bearing in being a tale told lightly of unconsummated love. Some of the greatest love stories are of a love which do not find a happy ending. The ones that leave us wistful for what might have been. In Princess Ann's tears shining through her smile and Joe Bradley's teary eyed melancholy look, we sigh for a love that this and a life that won't allow them to be together. But out of this love, they find honor. The honor to do what is right, to fulfill their duties. To become better human beings. Love often does do that to people.

Originally released in 1953

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara - You only Live once

Ten years ago Hindi cinema came alive with a film on friendship, its delicate yet enduring bond and growing in life and love. The movie spoke to the youth, gathered a cult following and is now enshrined in the gallery of trendsetting movies from India. That movie was 'Dil Chahta Hai'.  Its director a young debutant Farhan Akhtar. Fast forward to the present day and we have another young filmmaker Zoya Akhtar who presents to us 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara'. A film I can call a worthy successor to 'Dil Chahta Hai'. She happens to be the former mentioned filmmaker's sister. It all runs in the family.

We have a tale of male bonding where one friend is engaged and decides to arrange a road trip through Spain with his two best childhood buddies as an extended bachelor party. Kabir (Abhay Deol) wants to get his friends Imran (Frahan Akhtar) and Arjun (Hrithik Roshan) to give in to their adventurous sides and partake of sports which will test their fears and therefore set them free. So, we have three friends in picturesque Spain giving in to their wild side, playing pranks on random people, reminiscing about their college days and slowly letting us into their inner worlds. We witness the tension between Imran and Arjun and understand the reason for it, we see Arjun's love for money and understand the motivation behind it, we are privy to Imran's world where under the front of being the prankster of the group he is hiding secrets and fighting demons and finally we see the truth behind a facade Kabir has put on.

Deep sea diving, Sky diving and a run with the bulls are the activities of choice and with each, the characters are liberated of their fears, their turmoils and the philosophy of 'learning to live each moment like your last' stands tall. This is our time to live and what good is it if we spend it inside a box. Laila, Katrina Kaif in one of her more natural roles, is the voice of this philosophy. A deep sea diver, she sets Arjun free of his bondage and brings love into his life. The scene where she seizes the moment to let him know of her feelings, stands out for its sheer genuinity. In the middle of their adventures with life, Kabir's fiance Natasha (Kalki Koechlin) lands up to keep an eye on her husband to be, in case things heat up on this extended road trip.

Certain sequences leave an impact but none more so than the sequence between Imran and his father. In its subtlety, this scene lends credibility to the lessons the movie sets out to impart. Pain is essential to living life fully. With each experience we open ourselves to it. And it is both the teacher as well as the healer. The sky diving sequence is a metaphor for the need to let go, to truly feel life. It is beautifully shot and stands out in capturing the essence of friendship so uniquely.

The actors all rise to the occasion and deliver. There are no false notes here. The characters are easily relatable. Hrithik Roshan, a star in India, shows the sensitivity to handle the growth of his character graph. Abhay Deol as always, is dependable as is Kalki in her slightly neurotic, shrewish character. The revelation is Farhan Akhtar. Even in his tomfoolery we sense a sadness, a weight in his laughter. The sequence where he confronts his father and the tears that rise is applause worthy. Naseerudin Shah in his lone sequence stands out. A worthy note to the poetry penned by Javed Akhtar that takes the journey forward.

Though it takes the movie a while to rise to the occasion, with an initial half hour or so where the tomfoolery might just start to get on nerves, when it gets its groove, it sweeps us along with it. There are sequences celebrating friendship and fun which overstay their welcome, an example being the tomatina festival in Bunol as also the childish pranks of scaring people. But in its depiction of each adventure sport and the life lessons associated as well as the growth in the character graphs of its leads, this movie gets it right. Zoya Akhtar shows tremendous talent in understanding the finer nuances of telling a story. There is a lot implied here, drums are not beaten. Thankfully, unlike a lot of makers of commercial Indian cinema, she does not dumb down her audience. A special mention to how she ends the movie. Most movies get that moment wrong. She nails the final sequence, draws the curtains at the accurate instant.

We usually live by the book. It is the norm and before we know, the rules have bent us and our lives have flashed by. We do not get the opportunity to turn back time, to set our lives free and soar. In that case, it makes sense to truly feel each day, each moment and breathe in life and the richness it has to offer. Few find courage to flow against the tide, but that is the only way to freedom. When you are running from the bulls, you feel death in every pore and in the face of that final eventuality, you may truly be free to dream, to feel, to live.

Released in 2011
In Hindi