Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Eklavya: An exercise in self-actualisation

A chap called Abraham Maslow once said that as humans meet their basic needs, they seek to satisfy higher needs that occupy a set hierarchy – physiological, safety, social, esteem and finally self-actualisation.

If Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Eklavya’ is any indication, the man who gave us ‘Parinda,’ ‘1942 – A Love Story’ and ‘Mission Kashmir,’ seems to tell us that he’s done fulfilling all the first four needs including esteem.

Only a filmmaker who does not care a hoot to what anybody thinks about his films would set out to do something like ‘Eklavya’ – an exercise in self-actualisation. Quite understandably so, given that his own protégés like Rajkumar Hirani and Pradeep Sarkar are today among the most esteemed filmmakers in the country.

When dying queen Rani Suhasini Devi (Sharmila Tagore) utters the name of the royal guard Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) on her death-bed, the king Rana Jaivardhan (Boman Irani) is enraged. The guard is the keeper of a secret about the birth of the queen’s children Harshvardhan (Saif Ali Khan) and Nandini (Raima Sen). As the queen dies, the stage is set for a drama that would’ve made Shakespeare smile.

Chopra’s ‘Eklavya’ is that thumb a student of cinema would offer his masters, for everything that cinema has taught him. A fearless tribute to the spirit of filmmaking that gets most things right. A Shakespearean script laden with heavy-duty drama (duty also because it’s about the royal guard and his dharma), a top-notch ensemble ranging from stars to actors, indulgent story-telling, an old-world setting very painstakingly etched out with elaborate cinematography on a lavish canvas, stylishly edited, and composed visually and aurally with great passion.

It’s an expensive film to make. But a filmmaker has to do his duty. His dharma is to tell a story without giving in to anybody’s diktats – not the stars’, not the market’s, not the critics’. The actors deliver. Every single one of them, in their limited roles.

Bachchan, of course, anchors the movie with great restraint and simmering intensity, using his eyes to depict his inner turmoil and steely resolve. Saif is splendidly effective in yet another serious role, holding his own against the veteran, with natural flair and underplayed majesty.

Cinematographer “Nutty” Subramanian’s camera makes the most of the huge cranes, giving us some of the most spectacularly framed visuals seen in recent times, with due credit to the locations and art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai. Chopra camp regular Shantanu Moitra turns in just one song and props up the rest of the film with a magnificent score to punctuate the visual poetry.

But then, this is also not the kind of parallel cinema associated with Ray, Benegal, Adoor or Nihalani. This is more of Tarantino-ish celebration of pop cinema churned out with complete conviction, indulgence and John Woo-ish flamboyance.

Despite what he’s been inspired by, he makes sure the film wears his own signature – nods to elements from his own movies, cross-referencing, repeating old favourites and even a direct insert of a clip from ‘Parinda’.

However, when you see how he ends the film, you can’t help but get the feeling that commerce might have just got a little better of Chopra. The pre-release marketing sent out all the wrong signals. The slickly cut trailer promised a racy thriller. Big stars meant bigger theatres. The result has turned out to be disastrous. As the few first days in the halls have demonstrated, the restless crowds aren’t patient enough to appreciate the indulgence.

Eklavya is clearly an up-market multiplex film for a niche audience.

If you plan to go for a movie, take a rain check. If you’re in the mood for serious cinema, make sure you just don’t miss it.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Babel: Watch closely

If you watched Babel and came out feeling indifferent to the film, chances are that you probably just lost the plot.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu comes up with a cleverly crafted complex ensemble, layering his paradoxical portrait of mankind with the kind of diversity and the sameness that divides and brings together people across continents.

Yes, just like the complex construction of that sentence takes away from what it tries to say, Babel too, could do with a second reading.

Especially, when the tag-line goes: If you want to understand, listen.

The filmmaker who made ‘Amores Perros’ and ‘21 Grams,’ uses his trademark non-linear episodic narrative connected by one incident, this time around, to explore the politics of communication and the factors that keep the human race divided in an increasingly volatile world.

Yes, it helps to understand the Biblical context before you head to the hall. In fact, it is that context that ties everything up in a film that’s subject to varied interpretation.

At the surface, Babel merely seems to be the story of an American couple holidaying in Morocco, whose world is shattered, moments after a goatherd kid pulls the trigger to prove to his brother that the rifle (originally belonging to a hunter in Japan) given to them, could hit distant targets. In a remote village called Tazarine where surgeries and anesthesia are unheard of, the couple awaits medical aid.

With the parents stuck in Morocco, the Mexican nanny taking care of the American kids, is left with no choice but to take them along to her son’s wedding across the border with an eccentric, reckless nephew.

And far away in Tokyo, the Japanese hunter has a deaf-mute daughter who has a difficult time making the boys understand her quest for love.

But, as you catch and connect instances of weapons, lust/love (it once used to be the same thing as the director implies) sometimes manifested through incest (the censoring of a critical portion towards the end does take away a significant layer from the film) and the most primal needs of man (to hunt, to love, to endure and survive) scattered across the four stories, and, traces of all the needs in each of the stories (watch closely), you see the larger picture emerging.

The characters in the film suffer because they cannot understand each other. They have to deal with barriers of language, borders, moral codes, attitudinal differences and technological disparities to understand that in spite of the differences of how they live, they still are the same.

Characters in each of the four stories are primal at some level, they all get violent at some point, they are all animals looking to mate or looking out for their mates and children, they all are fiercely territorial and guarded about people of other races and yet, at some level, they are all still capable of survival, bonding and in understanding each other, if they tried.

The fact that Brad Pitt stars in the film is rendered irrelevant by uniformly first-rate performances by the entire ensemble, especially the raw talent from Morocco. Technically, the film, though not as stylised as his earlier works, is heart-wrenchingly credible in its portrayal of people with the docu-style cinematography and minimalist background score.

Pure cinema, it is.