Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lootera - The Many Moods of Love

Vikramaditya Motwane, the creator of that flawless gem ‘Udaan’ is back again with his adaptation of O.Henry’s short story ‘The Last Leaf’. Taking the premise and weaving a saga of love, longing, betrayal and redemption around it, his ‘Lootera’ is a modern day masterpiece, doing perfect justice to a timeless classic much in the same way as Rituparno Ghosh did with his interpretation of O.Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi’ in ‘Raincoat’. ‘Lootera’ brings alive an era long buried in the sands of time. The year is 1953. The zamindari system is taking its last breaths before the government wrests their lands away. In Manikpur, West Bengal, one such zamindar (veteran Bengali actor Barun Chanda) dotes on his ailing daughter Pakhi (a brilliantly nuanced Sonakshi Sinha). At the onset he tells her of that classic tale of the king whose life was imprisoned in a parrot. Pakhi is his parrot. How that tales ties up beautifully to the conclusion and the journey Pakhi’s heart takes across the mountains of rousing love, heightened passions to plunge into the dark caves of loss and betrayal before finding stable land in hope and renewed trust forms this painting on celluloid.

Into Pakhi’s privileged, sheltered world walks in Varun (a wonderfully restrained Ranveer Singh) and brings that first flush of romance and longing into her restless heart. It is as if she were waiting to fall in love. She does, with covert glances and unmistakably playful hints. Varun introduces himself as an archeologist in search of a lost civilization around the zamindar’s land and gains the zamindar’s confidence to be allowed to stay with his friend in the man’s own house. The initial hour of the movie is a lesson in depicting romance on celluloid. The painting lessons that Pakhi initiates to gain proximity to Varun, his desire to be able to paint a masterpiece, the languid days under the sun of picnics and stolen glances are a throwback to old world romance. Pakhi’s confession of her heart’s secret, the surprising rebuff and her utter shock and inability to handle the pain of rejection are so heartfelt and real that it forms an immediate connect with the audience. Varun’s subsequent yielding and their lovemaking has to be the most beautifully portrayed scene of love I have witnessed in recent times.

The movie takes a turn for the dark in the later hour and is set in the winter snowed in landscape of Dalhousie. The contrast between the sunny days of innocence and the later coldness of betrayal, grief and angst is stark and poetic. The beauty lies in that, within the tragedy the tale completes a circle to light up the eyes of its protagonist with hope and faith once more. Love stories are dime a dozen in the Hindi film industry. There is a lot of song and dancing, obstacles galore, and the inevitable happy (sometimes tragic) end we witness time and again. But to witness cinema so sublime, with emotions so raw and palpable, love so relatable, is rare and in that rarity lies the utter beauty of Lootera. Towards the climax is a scene where Pakhi asks Varun if he had ever really loved her. Her need to know that answer even after her life has irrevocably been changed, and his response filled with an honesty and desperate anguish is a moment of great art. It is altogether heart wrenching in its reality. Anybody who has ever desperately loved and lost can relate.

The movie is embellished with great performances. Every character is a job well done from the zamindar, to the friend and Varun’s partner in crime (Vikrant Massey), the zealous inspector interestingly named K.N.Singh (a nod to that great villain of yore) played by the wonderful Adil Hussain. But the soul of the love story is Pakhi and Varun, Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh. Sonakshi is an actress I owe an apology to. I have till now loathed her, a mere showpiece in mind numbing bollywood trash in her short career so far. I was highly doubtful of her being cast in a Vikramaditya Motwane movie because though I had no doubts of the director excelling in his new venture, I had zero hope about the actress. For that I apologize. Sonakshi gives a luminous performance in every frame, breathing life and fire into the varying shades of her Pakhi’s journey. Her eyes twinkle and blaze at correct intervals. Her self loathing at being betrayed by her own heart is fierce. This is a performance to be forever proud of.

The previously gregarious Ranveer Singh reins in his exuberance, to find a performance of restrain and expresses with his eyes. That silent tear rolling down his cheek caught in the mirror before his betrayal, shows us how far the actor has traveled with this role. In Motwane’s capable hands both Ranveer and Sonakshi and by extension the audience has discovered hidden actors in the two upcoming stars. Motwane had previously made that beautiful coming of age tale, the story of a boy spreading his wings out of the autocratic atmosphere at home in ‘Udaan’. He makes a wonderful departure with this old world love story. His touch is evident in every frame, his sensibilities and aesthetics making for a movie where the atmosphere is soaked into the tale, there is none of the flashiness of period cinema that we observe in other Indian movies set in lost times. But in the sequences, the gestures, the dialogues we find an era long gone, a world that was not so caught up in pace, where people lingered over conversations, over emotions. That elusive old world charm is at play here in every masterful frame. But most importantly it is the raw emotion of that beast called love and subsequent heartbreak that is so effectively displayed, so hauntingly real in its tone. The cinematography by Mahendra Shetty is beautifully mellow and shifting with the moods. The music by Amit Trivedi harks of the golden days of movie melody. The songs are seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

Movies like ‘Lootera’ reinforces that all is not lost in the Hindi film industry. Where only formulaic cinema seem to thrive, once in a while, like the first drizzle of rain on parched earth comes along cinema that can only be described as glorious visual poetry, a wondrous painting with strokes of the various moods of love deftly portrayed on the celluloidal canvas. This is the best movie to have come out of the Hindi film industry this year and it will be a hard one to beat.

Released in 2013
In Hindi

My rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwaani - Shallow lesson on Life and Love

Ayan Mukerji showed tremendous promise in his maiden venture 'Wake Up Sid'. The heartwarming tale about a youth growing up and discovering his place in the world, struck hardly a false note. Hence the expectations from his second outing were tremendous. Again joining hands with that maverick actor, Ranbir Kapoor and adding to the cast with some other raising talents and a beautiful leading lady,  an intermittently good time is definitely had at the movies if one is looking for some entertainment to accompany their popcorns and soda. But carrying those expectations that I did, I saw a huge opportunity missed and yet another talented director bowing down to commerce.

Three best friends go on a trekking trip to Manali in their youth, when life has no rules and is one big adventure. Aditi (a charming Kalki Koechlin), Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) form the wild trio. Thrown into the mix is their unlikely bookish, bespectacled classmate Naina (Deepika Padukone) who joins them on an impulse. In typical Hindi movie style, Bunny gives life lessons to Naina showing her that her serious ways are so not cool, but she holds a lot of promise if only she would let her hair down. So, ofcourse in the midst of some newfound bravado, Naina loses her spectacles and with it her heart to Bunny, a guy who cannot be chained by love or marriage. He seeks only thrill from life. In the initial hour we are subjected to the foursome doing mindless stuff in the name of camaraderie which do not ring true. Aditi's madcap antics bring a zing to the proceedings and if anything, I was more eager to see the development of her character and her obvious heartbreak over a one sided love for her buddy Avi, who is blissfully oblivious to the hidden affection behind all those caring gestures that she showers on him. But because of the nature of commerce in cinema, the friends are only the sidekick supports in providing means to get the central characters to their destinations.

So, Naina's love remains unreciprocated as Bunny literally goes seeking new pastures around the world. And eight years pass when Aditi gets everyone together once more, under one palace for her destination wedding. And voila, this round Bunny falls for Naina and suddenly domesticity seems a suitable companion with Naina in his arms. An extremely childish story and screenplay is what mars this movie from the get go. There is not a bone of originality with the theme and situations are lifted straight off the bollywood blockbusters that we have been subjected to over the years. The desire to live life on the edge, the transformation of the serious girl into a glamorous diva at the hands of the wild boy and the subsequent taming of the wild boy by the girl's steadfast love is no pathbreaking material. And add to that, the backdrop of an adrenaline rushing adventure and then a big fat Indian destination wedding.

Though Ayan Mujerji breaks no new grounds with the material, the screenplay also reeks mostly of done to death situations with the dialogues between the lead pair particularly stilted and quite manipulative. It was the characters of Aditi and Avi which fascinated me more and I wish there was the scope for these more nuanced people to find a bigger space in the screenplay. Aditi is played to perfection by the tremendously gifted Kalki, who has mastered the art of playing a variety of characters with equal ease. The rumbustious girl ready to take on any and everybody, hides the pain of unrequited love in those marvelously expressive eyes and her growth into a sensible bride who finally gives happiness a chance, is a role Kalki shines in. Avi, with his gambling and drinking streak, was enacted well though this character could have benefited from better development.

Naina and Bunny were played competently by Deepika and Ranbir. After having seen some memorable characters brought to life by Ranbir, this is a character he can sleep walk through and not hit a single false note. Deepika, unfortunately, though a fine looking actress with a body to kill that is shown off to the hilt, is not really a performer. And to be fair, except for a couple of the final scenes, where she does successfully show the pain of a love whose future she cannot foresee, her character seems contrived and done to death.  I have to mention the two heart rendering scenes between Farooque Sheikh and Ranbir which crackle and show what tremendous potential this movie had. Even that fabulous Dolly Ahluwalia of 'Vicky Donor' fame is as vivacious as ever in her bit role. A true delight, she needed more scenes! And a word for our dancing goddess Madhuri Dixit, who appears in a song and shows that she has lost none of her charm or her glorious moves. These are a couple of things the movie gets right. The song and dance routines are a pleasure to the eye and quite catchy.

'Yeh Jawaani hai Diwaani' doesnt work for me precisely why 'Wake Up Sid' did work so effectively. At its heart Mukerji wanted to bring forth another tale of a youth's journey into manhood and finding love. Add to it friendship and his relationship with his father. But barring a couple of scenes which show sensitivity towards the later part of the movie, this one bows down to the dictates of the box office one too many times. The sparks were there in certain scenes of friendship between Avi and Bunny, Aditi's reason for marriage to Kunaal Roy Kapur's character (delightfully played) and Bunny's realization of the loss of his father. But a couple of scenes make not a movie.

This could be the quintessential fluff people are looking for to escape a hot day into the theaters with, but all I could think of was the colossal loss of an opportunity by Ayan Mukerji, whose first movie I can revisit time and again. The business of filmmaking has too often killed its art and 'Yeh Jawaani hai Diwaani' and Mukerji are sure victims.

Originally released in 2013
In Hindi with English subtitles
My rating: 2.5/5

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Kai Po Che - Brotherhood Tested

Abhishek Kapoor's 'Kai Po Che' literally is a victory call made during the Gujarat kite flying festival when one has cut the string of an opponent's kite. Its about coming out trumps at the end. But the route to it can be arduous, the victory laced with tears and regrets. In essence this is a movie about friendship, the kind that grows together, becomes inseparable and face the hurdles life shoots out. It is the dawn of the 21st century. Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput), Omi (Amit Sadh) and Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), 'brothers for life' as the movie's tag line claims, inhabit each others space with cohesion. They have been aimless for too long. Now its time to get down to business. Setting up a sports equipment store, financed by Omi's right wing politician uncle (Manav Kaul), they also will double it as a cricket academy to harbor fresh talent off the streets . The cricketer among the friends is Ishaan who lives and breathes the game, owning the title of being the best cricketer in their district. He somehow got lost in the bylanes of this highly competitive and political game. In training Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), a scrawny little kid who can bat a sixer at will, he reignites that light which gives him a sense of purpose in life.

Govind, the money wise accountant friend keeping a tight rein on the purse strings of the business, sees an opportunity to set shop in an upcoming mall. Rightly judging malls to be the future of Indian economy, he is eager they claim a piece of it. Here again Omi's uncle sponsors the huge deposit and in return Omi feels a pressure to join his uncle's political journey. Celebrating their first earnings, the friends enjoy a quick getaway, make merry, booze, even jumping shirtless into the sea in a fit of joie de vivre. But then dreams get foiled with the shaking of the earth. The quake causes destruction to the mall and the builder disappears with their money. It raises faultlines in the friends equations and cracks look to occur. The earthquake is only a prelude to the man made massacre on the Sabarmati Express train at Godhra, which results in senseless religious rioting claiming hundreds of life. The friends journey through these dire times as their dreams, hope and humanity crash and burn.

'Kai Po Che' keeps the proceedings real and understated. We witness life in a middle class neighborhood of Ahmedabad as it really could be, the characters and surroundings have that lived in feel to them. This is no mega budget Bollywood production where the sets look artificial and their inhabitants caricatures. We sense the easy camaraderie of the friends from the onset and understand that they have probably known and loved each other all their lives. No over the top moments are needed here to establish that bond. We meet them and they casually carry us about in their business of life. The sad history of Gujarat in the early 2000s converge with their lives, for if one is living in a time in history at the place of its occurrence, to not be affected by it to some degree is implausible There is also that little neighborhood romance brewing between Govind and Ishaan's sister Vidya (an impish Amrita Puri), the girl seducing her shy, reticent math tutor that feels all too familiar.

Abhishek Kapoor, who earlier directed 'Rock On', a compromised take on friendship that never quite hit off in my view, gets it pitch perfect this time. He wisely chose new comers to the big screen in his actors, who breath fire into their characters. Amit Sadh and Sushant Singh were both former TV actors while  Raj Kumar Yadav has played small but important characters in earlier films, his last being the police inspector aiding Aamir Khan's character in Talaash. Where we have previously seen sparks in him, here he gets the means to bring something remarkably endearing to his Govind, the boy next door,  geeky with a head for numbers but somewhat socially awkward. Amit Sadh's Omi has a challenged character graph as he shifts from being the hang on to Ishaan's every word, to becoming a political figure at odds with his best friend, on opposite sides of the communal divide that threaten everything at stake. Sushant Singh Rajput is a star in the making with his endearing screen presence and that he has acting chops to match is a blessing. His Ishaan lights up the screen with his antics, his impulsive nature and his golden heart shining bright. Together these actors have created magic and aided by a strong directorial hand, a good script adapted from the Chetan Bhagat book 'The three mistakes of my life', music by a talented Amit Trivedi that sets the mood for the events unfolding, this movie has everything going strongly for it.

The only place where a little change would have helped is in giving the movie an extra couple of minutes to detail the aftereffects of the earthquake and its toll on their friendship and business. These episodes feel a little hurried and probably suffered from overzealous editing. That apart, this is a Bollywood bromance which stays grounded and is at the same time sublimely poetic. A truly good movie to come out of the Hindi film industry, traveling into the heartland of India and delivering a triumphant tale of friendship, loss and redemption.

Released in 2013
In Hindi with English subtitles
My Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tokyo Story - The quiet Passage of Life

'Tokyo Story' is one of the simplest works of cinema I have witnessed and it is also one of the most profound. In its structure and narrative, this 1953 classic made by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, is simple and dignified like its main characters, but underneath that veneer lies a thought provoking story about the circle of life and its many vagaries. An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, travel far from their small village to visit their children in Tokyo. Their son, Koichi, who is a neighborhood doctor with a wife and two children, is suitably happy to have them. However, a busy life leaves him no time to be spent with them. When they move to their daughter Shige's house, who runs a hair salon from home, a similar story greets them. They also have a daughter in law, Noriko (the beautifully serene Setsuko Hara), with a husband who went missing since war, in the city who despite her work is the only one willing to take time out to show them the sights of Tokyo.

The children pool in money to send the parents to Atami Hot springs, a spa, probably to absolve themselves of having to look after them. The vibrance and late night parties of that place is not for the elderly and it is effectively conveyed in a beautiful single shot of their slippers lying side by side outside their hotel room, whilst the rest of the occupants party to music and mahjong. Sleepless and weary, they leave the spa before their time, leading to inconvenience for the offsprings and the parents quietly understand not to burden them even for a night and ponder on whose doors to knock for sleep time. They separate with the mother choosing Noriko's small but welcoming place, leading to a soulful conversation between a mother and daughter in law where behind the everlasting smiles, tears threaten to spill off the two women . The father meets his old friends from the village leading to an all night of sake, where cautious reserves see the wind and the disappointing truths of old age and parenthood find way to their lips. The parents now know it is time for them to go back, some dreams may be broken, few hopes are possibly lost to the sad cycle of life. Children grow up, move away to build their own lives and families. It is an inevitable cycle from which none is spared. The children we build our lives around develop wings and fly out at a stage when the roles start getting reversed and we might be needing them. The bustle of life gives way to the echo of silence.

Ozu, whose works I have not had the fortune of being familiar with till now, calmly makes his audience a fly on the wall to his tale, his camera mostly placed stationary at the eye level of people hunching on tatami mats . There is no drama whatsoever. Little is said, so much doesnt need words to be understood. We observe how lives are lived, what families become. The parents realize the shift in attitude that the busy lives of their children have brought. They still have each other, the only companions. We see how important that companionship is in that last wait in life. And once one is taken away, loneliness and possible regrets assume companionship for the other. Ozu shows this quietly with the death of the mother at the end and the father left alone sitting on his tatami mat fanning himself, waiting.

Ozu was one of Japans most influential directors, who I learn made a career of contemplative tales of ordinary familial bonds. 'Tokyo Story' which features in every list of all time great cinema of the world, with very good reason, is a lesson on life devoid of any melodrama. The characters are ordinary, their circumstances ordinary and in that they impart an extraordinary lesson about life. Note the scene in which a grandmother quietly watches her grandson play and reflects if he shall take after his father's profession of a doctor and whether she would live to see it, all the more profound in her melancholy look and the fact that we witness what she knows, that she wont. The instance when two parents sit side by side on tatami mats and acknowledge with reluctance that their children were probably disappointments but at least they have it better than most. And at the end of it all, are moments depicted with extreme grace and wisdom, that have the power to rock our core. Two sisters in law understanding that life can be disappointing, a father in law giving his wife's precious keepsake to the one not related by blood, a widow acknowledging her loneliness in watching life pass her by and then that final heartbreaking moment of an old man sitting alone, his solitude palpable in weary eyes accepting the law of life.

There have been movies about families, the inevitable disappointments in their dynamics. They lead to moments of heightened drama and while all good, none could match in my book, what Yasujiro Ozu mastered with his austere narration about the paradoxical nature of life and the unit a man sets out to make for himself, create a family and then be left on his own again. Can anyone really escape that?

Originally Released in 1953
In Japanese with English Subtitles
My Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Flight - Touchdown

Flight, a marvelous character study of a man coming to terms with addiction, soars from the very first frame and keeps its grip tight on the audience never once taking a false turn and lands safely to its ultimately satisfying destination of a powerful and necessary acknowledgement. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is back to making a movie entirely revolving around its central character after a long time, 'Flight' tells the story of an alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge that truth. As with any addict, to understand the existence of a problem is the necessary first step to finding its solution. Whip Whitaker (an amazingly nuanced Denzel Washington), a much experienced commercial airline pilot has had a wild night of drinking with his flight attendant colleague (Nadine Velazquez). He has a flight out to Atlanta in the morning, is obviously drunk but its nothing that a couple of lines of cocaine wouldn't take care of.

His flight carrying 102 souls onboard, departs in extreme choppy weather conditions. His copilot can sense the alcohol reeking off of him, he feels Whitaker is flying too fast in the face of a storm, but the veteran that he is, Whitaker successfully flies his plane out of the weather and hits a smooth and quick one hour ride to Atlanta. Mixing three single serve bottles of vodka into his orange juice will keep him steady on the flight. But then a mechanical failure dooms the plane into one of the most frightening dives I have witnessed onscreen, where all vertical control is lost. It is amazing at such a moment how this heavily drunk and drugged man gathers every bit of his senses and calmly yet urgently guides his terrified fellow crew into action steering them out of the way of certain death. When his plane crash lands into an empty field next to a church ground, six lives are lost.

What follows this action packed initial half hour, defines the movie with its real purpose. Of course we are expecting an investigation, we know that Whitaker though a hero, can technically be in real trouble because of the alcohol and drugs levels which will surely be found in his blood samples. We expect the thrills and the enticing drama that the course of this flight will take. What we are treated to however is unusual and real and makes this movie stand very apart from so many of its genre. Denzel Washington is the face we follow through the entire 140 such minutes of this movie and never do we feel that we have lost this man. As Whitaker, Washington brings a strange pathos into his defiant, worn out alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge this all important fact. He is a heavy drinker, but he is okay. Faced with the possibility of a future in prison, he stubbornly emphasizes on the truth that under the circumstances nobody could have landed that plane the way he did and correctly so. The simulated recreation of that incident tested with multitude of pilots, have resulted in a crash every time. His efficient lawyer Hugh (the ever dependable Don Cheadle) and his old flying partner now union representative Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), do not doubt his heroism but are wary of his defiance to play by the book at a time when the world's focus is on him with a magnifying glass.

Robert Zemeckis, one of the leading names of special effect movies, indeed his last few have been more effects and less soul, does a turn around after quite a while and delves into a riveting character study of a man drowning in his seldom sober world where he is unable to grasp the negatives of the vice that he clings to for support, alienating his now ex wife and teenage son who never knows the man his father is. He finds a mate in the recovering heroin addict Nicole (an effective Kelly Reilly), whose savior he initially acts as but later there is the danger of dragging her back to the very addiction she seeks escape from. Zemeckis is in fine form directing an extremely gifted natural actor. Washington is one of the leading men that has always done Hollywood proud. And when given a chance to spread his wings, he soars. The drunk fallen hero can hardly be called a sympathetic character and there is the easy risk of dramatics here, but Washington smartly side steps the traps and digs within to act primarily with his eyes evoking a nod from his audience . They speak of his battles and when he finally acknowledges his fall, his eyes and the slight shift of facial expression speak more eloquently than any word possibly can.

Flight is a glorious work of introspective filmmaking. There might be many who may expect a lot of action, courtroom drama and the works. There are many of those movies out there. Watch this instead for a work of art which steers away from the obvious and in the process finds itself touching high ground.

Originally Released in 2012
Available on Blu Ray and DVD
Oscar Nominated in the categories of Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and
Original Screenplay (John Gatins) - 2013
My Rating: 4/5