Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Following: No wonder he has one!

You wouldn't believe this is a first film and a no-budget film at that. Shot with about $6000, Christopher Nolan foxes us with an intriguing Hitchcockian thriller. Following (1998) so well-written, intelligently structured and smartly directed.

I wish we played this film at the Roof Top Film Festival. It is a must watch for film students and indie filmmakers. I don't want to give away anything, just get yourself a copy and watch this first.

Roof Top Film Festival - First Edition

We had such an awesome time at the Roof Top Film Festival.

We watched four movies in all. And there were a few entertaining short films, including one called 'Hi Dad' made young local talent, Krishna and T.U.Dinesh. I hope the future editions of the festival features more short films by local filmmakers.

The choice of films for the first edition was made keeping in mind the nature of the audience and people who had registered. Most of them wanted to make films. So the focus was to screen films that were made by people with little or no experience, by people with little or no money.

Hard Candy (2005): I had recommended this film after having watched it, thanks my buddy Karthik who gave me the DVD. It's such a brilliant independent film that manages to hold you by the balls with just two characters for about 100 minutes. Absolutely riveting stuff. The best part about the movie marathon was the discussion that followed these movies. It was such an enriching experience to see how different people perceived a film they had all seen together. I learnt a lot from these observations.

Blood Simple (1985): Sagaro managed to download this rare film exclusively for the movie marathon. I'm indeed grateful to him for that. The first thing that strikes you about Blood Simple is how the Coen Brothers first introduced the elements that we have now come to associate with them. Ordinary, real, small-town characters caught in the most absurd situations. You can also see that the Brothers' obsession with kidnapping and adultery started right from the first film. Frances McDormand... Whoa! What an actress. And what a long way she's come from Blood Simple to Fargo (1996) to The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). All these three films incidentally are about a husband hiring/kidnapping/blackmailing his wife and how things go out of control.

Annie Hall (1977): I've been meaning to watch this for years now. Since I recently managed to buy my own copy, I brought it along to the movie marathon, just in case we needed a different genre. And after the first two thrillers, everybody wanted to watch something funny. So we figured we were going to go with the movie that made Woody Allen. I really wish I had seen this before I made That Four Letter Word. There's a lot I could've learnt from this movie, especially the way he reminds people very often that it is a story. This movie demonstrates most efficient use of alienation techniques. The stuff text-books are made of. Also, this was a largely autobiographical movie. And so was mine. At least at the surface level.

As the discussion into how I, in my own way, had tried to differentiate between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and life and film, some of those in the audience wanted to watch That Four Letter Word (2007). Personally, I thought it was a very bad choice for a film at the crack of dawn. Let's see how many survive, I said. I was quite surprised only five were out at the end of it. And most of these boys had already seen it at least once.

So then, since I had an audience, I showed them deleted scenes and exclusive glimpses of the first version of That Four Letter Word -- something I hadn't shown anyone apart from my cast and crew.

Sid has the most amazing rooftop with sea breeze providing the airconditioning. Ganesh, Hats off to you and the rest of the gang. We must do this more often.

P.S: Personally, I think you ought to keep the booze out of it lest it becomes an occasion to drink than watch films. Maybe you guys should keep in mind that you are not going to get too many women from this city attending a fest with strange boys drinking into the night. :)

Feeling miserable? Here's the prescription.

It's right up there among my favourite films of all-time. Feel good at its best. This is strictly only for those who have the time. I guarantee no matter how depressed you are, at the end of this film, you are bound to feel great. About you and about life.

I'm not sure I've said this before. Cameron Crowe is my idol. If you've seen That Four Letter Word and if you are a Cameron Crowe fan, you just might be able to catch the internal references. The direct and the indirect.

It's been a while since I last saw 'Elizabethtown'. It was so good to watch this for the umpteenth time. I hadn't watched it in a long while because I was saving up for the day people would call TFLW a fiasco. Since that didn't quite happen, I couldn't stay away from the film anymore.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Just Married: Sequel to Vivah?

What is otherwise a barely bearable trip, goes off the road when Meghna Gulzar loses her balance between realism and willing suspension of disbelief. Though she does present a sensitive, realistic take on newly wed couples on their honeymoon, the filmmaker betrays her sensibility by forcing a rather filmy, gravity-defying cliffhanger on her multiplex audience.

It is not just the climax that is symptomatic of the director’s struggle to marry two sensibilities – the urban and the small-town – maybe because her central characters are the epitome of modern day sensitivity and small town conservatism respectively.

But then, how dramatic can a conflict between sensitivity and conservatism get? The foreign-bred Abhay (Fardeen Khan) understands his bride’s predicament. He knows his small town-raised wife Ritika (Esha Deol) needs time before she would let him touch her, let alone share the bed. He’s willing to wait. She’s happy that he understands her. So far, so good.

To her credit, Meghna Gulzar fleshes out the first act with ease, punctuating the interludes of the newly married couple with a breezy song or two (Pritam does full justice to Gulzar’s lyrics) while exploring the distance and dynamics between the strangers bound by matrimony. Also during the first act, she also introduces us to the other couples on a holiday, and though this juxtaposition initially seems like a good idea, the sub-plots slow down the central one. By the time we get through with the second and get into the third, the bride does test our patience. Or maybe it’s the actress.

To be fair to her, though miscast, Esha Deol delivers a well-nuanced career-best and Fardeen Khan banks on natural charm with restrained underplaying.

Of the other four couples, Satish Shah and Kirron Kher are adorable with their everyday quibbles. Perizaad Zorabian is once again typecast as the free-spirited girl opposite the hunky Bikram Saluja, while Sadia Siddique and Mukul Dev as the platonic childhood sweethearts manage to bring a smile to your face. Raj Zutshi buries himself under Lonely Planet for most of his screen time as his companion rattles of lines in fake American accent.

Though you connect to some of these characters instantly, the sub-plots here, compared to ‘Honeymoon Travels,’ hardly spring any surprises.

If ‘Honeymoon Travels’ was a macro-level look at relationships, ‘Just Married’ is a more intimate, microscopic look at the space shared between man and woman under the institution of marriage.

Comparisons are inevitable not only because of the timing of release of these two films but also because the sensitivity lent to the plot by two different woman filmmakers. The difference emerges in the sensibility employed.

If Reema drove ‘Honeymoon Travels’ with a classy, urban, romantic-comedy sensibility and stopped for a brief lecture (Shabhana Azmi challenging the sanctity of marriage), Meghna drives all the way to the edge of the cliff to force some melodrama to please the masses and swear by its sanctity (as discoursed by the senior couple, Kirron Kher and Sathish Shah).

If Reema’s cinema branches out of Farhan Akhtar’s, Meghna’s seems like an ode to Sooraj Barjatya.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Water: Packaging takes away the freshness

There are films that aim to be hard-hitting with their portrayal of graphic violence against women, their no-holds barred accounts of numerous cases of abuse unleashed upon the innocent by evil, perverted villains. Films like 'Matrubhoomi,' for instance.

And there's 'Water,' which in spite of its subtlety and calmness, reflects how disturbingly dirty the pond can get.

No doubt then, that films like Deepa Mehta's 'Water' hit you harder and right at the gut.

The casting may not be perfect. The milieu isn't authentic either. But we can't really blame the filmmaker for that. She was refused permission to shoot in India. Besides, we know how Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had shaved their heads in vain.
So, Mehta transports Varanasi to Sri Lanka, but just calls it India. She uses a largely South-Indian looking cast (most of them Sri Lankans) and indicates that the story is set in a South Indian village, with some of the characters calling the mothers 'Amma,' and yet, they all talk in Hindi. So right there, we can say that this is hardly a film that deserves an Oscar nomination. But it is certainly a film that we in India need to watch.

It is almost impossible to imagine this story set anywhere else but in Varanasi. It is indeed a shame that Deepa didn't get to tell her story the way she originally wanted to. Especially, because the film examines issues that are still alive – widow-remarriage, gender roles, superstition and blind-faith.

The film unfolds as a series of events that examine the plight of widows, as seen and discovered by the latest entrant to the house – a child widow.

The mischievous Chuhia (Sarala) is at the centre of all action. There's Madhumati (Manorama), the strict fat old widow who runs the house that Chuhia never gets along with, there's Shakunthala, who's like the mother-figure to her (Seema Biswas) and there's the law-breaking angelic Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who becomes her best friend. When Gandhian Narayan (John Abraham) visits his village, he falls in love with Kalyani, woos her reciting poetry from Kalidas' Meghdooth, and seems on the verge of a breakthrough before the complexity of the larger picture emerges.

Seema Biswas breathes so much credibility into her role, completely overshadowing the rest of the pack, but for little Sarala, who with her vulnerability, zest and playful demeanour makes Chuhia immensely likeable. Lisa Ray seems a little miscast but lends the role radiance and charm, acquitting herself as Kalyani creditably. The surprise is John Abraham, who though miscast, manages not to embarrass himself. In fact, he delivers the underplaying that the role requires with great sincerity. If he still looks like a star doing an experimental role, it's probably that long hair. A close-crop would have not only made him unrecognisable, but also helped him shed his image and reinvent his onscreen persona.

Mehta keeps the mood light for most parts, using humour to address serious issues, and employs water as the visual leitmotif all through the story, quite comfortable with the other associate metaphors, given that this is her third in her trilogy. This is certainly not the best despite being the best-looking film of the three. '1947:Earth' continues to be the best of the three, with superlative casting, a haunting score running through the compelling yet credible narrative that captured the angst of the bloodiest separation in the history of world geography.

'Water' seems a little watered down with an eye on the international market but it still manages to drown you in its drama.

Grindhouse: Trailers, real and fake

That was the official trailer for Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez's double-feature releasing in the US in less than a month. I've never wanted to visit America but for this!

What's also interesting is that there are plenty of fake trailers doing the rounds on Youtube. Apparently, there was a contest where people could send in their own fake trailers of Grindhouse movies.

The idea is really cool.

I heard Sagaro and Co are organising the Rooftop Film Festival. How about getting participants to make and bring their own fake grindhouse trailers? Of course, our own desi versions... Remember Ramsay Brothers? You don't need a huge budget to make trailers of films like that. I can give you guys my handycam (provided you guys take full responsibility and return it safe) and I'm sure you can shoot in haunted graveyards, with tomato ketchup for blood and chicken curry for gore.

Anybody game? :D

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mozhi: Make way for Tamil cinema's Hirani!

Radhamohan has to be our own Rajkumar Hirani.

With 'Mozhi,' he once again brings to Tamil cinema, a brand of feel-good that we usually associate with Rajkumar Hirani.

I couldn’t help thinking about Munna Bhai and Rajkumar Hirani all through 'Mozhi.'

The mood is light throughout. There are some truly memorable moments extracted from slices of everyday life. There are well etched out support characters letting their sub-plots play the perfect foil to the overall scheme of things.

But it’s not just the feel and approach. The similarities start right from the content and the kind of stories they want to tell us.

Like Hirani, Radhamohan too believes in clean entertainment, and their films seem to brim of idealism. They both surely seem to hope that their films would bring reform and social change, with their protagonists personifying all the goodness in the world.

Both these chaps seem to adopt a classy sensitivity in portraying political correctness and still manage to deliver their stories and the message to the mass, without compromising their script.

They both love to keep their dialogues simple and casual, slowly building empathy towards all the support characters and setting the stage for the resolution, with the quintessential burst of melodrama.

This is the kind of stuff that should find its way into textbooks as far as sub-plot development goes. Remember the paralysed bald man in a coma (Anand, if I remember the character’s name right) in Munna Bhai? Now think about the mentally-disturbed bald professor stuck in the eighties. In both these movies, these sub-plots are introduced fairly early on, and kept hanging for a bit as the directors milk your sympathy, before finally letting human kindness (that’s why I say these guys are idealists) produce that moment you have been waiting for: The soppy finale. You want to see the man in the coma sit up and smile just as much as you want to see the professor get back his mental balance.

The filmmakers hold these cards back, diverting your attention towards the larger plot resolution before sneaking in the sub-plot resolution in a way that it totally compliments and completes the larger picture. Your eyes well up, just as that of all the other onlookers in the frame. The directors cut to the close-ups of these onlookers as they wipe their tears, a cue for you to hold yours back. Funny how both these guys use hardcore soppy drama to enhance the feel-good factor in their otherwise light films.

In both these films, there is plenty of comic book alienation and vibrantly larger-than-life song choreography, techniques that Hirani uses best. Be it the ‘mike-testing’ in 'Munna Bhai' or the bulb coming on and bells-ringing in 'Mozhi.'

Both these guys seem to do pretty well in bringing out the drama in everyday life, with smart editing. If it was the carrom-board in 'Munna Bhai,' we have a cricket match in 'Mozhi.'
You just can’t miss the similarities in content, approach and genre.

As excited I am about Hirani's American outing with Munna Bhai, I can't wait to watch what Radhamohan will do next.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness: Mr & Jr. Smith make us happy

The thing about underplaying is that it is under-rated. Will Smith does it so well in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ that he makes you wish they did give him that little piece of sculpture after a well-deserved Academy award nomination.

Yes, it’s one of those ‘role-of-a-lifetime’ portrayals. Uplifting. Equally endearing is Smith Junior’s supporting act. The real-life father and son are the perfect foil to each other in this film that somehow seems inconceivable without their chemistry. The Smiths are the pillars of the film.

Though based on the biography of stockbrokerage entrepreneur Chris Gardner, the film takes a few liberties, exaggerates a few facts (Gardner was paid a $1000 stipend during the internship but in the movie he gets none), simplifies some (Gardner’s son was hardly a year old when he takes custody of his son and was secretly homeless for a year but in the movie his son is five and they have to survive homeless only for a few months), but stays true to the undying spirit of the man in his pursuit of happiness, or ‘Happyness’ as the daycare run by Asians teaches his son.

Director Gabriele Muccino makes the most of Steve Conrad’s screenplay to give us one of the most memorable films of the year, working around the predictability of a rags-to-riches narrative (a broke-to-broker story rather) by floating moments of hope in the middle of all that struggle and despair, punctuating the ups and downs with heartwarming moments of father-son bonding.

Even the heavy Bone Density Scanners that Gardner sells in the film, probably metaphorical of his swinging fortunes and times (a madman actually calls it a time-machine) are characters by themselves. Every time he loses one, you can feel his angst. Losing one meant losing a month’s groceries.

Will Smith breathes life and spirit into the role, underplaying it with the right nuances, toning down the histrionics just a little to make it realistic. Watch him break down softly in the restroom, feeling helpless about letting his son sleep there, with people knocking the doors into the night. Simply fantastic.

The finest moment of the film arrives right at the end, the moment the director had kept us waiting for: Happyness. And that’s the moment Will Smith reserves his best for. His face takes you through the increasing levels of happiness in his ultimate moment of triumph. This is kind of stuff that brings cheer to the heart. The kind of stuff that should have won him an award.

If you want to know what happiness is all about, ‘The Pursuit…’ is a must-watch.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ghostrider: Skeletor on a Motorcycle

There used to be a time when we were starved of entertainment, and waited eagerly to catch ‘Giant Robot’ on Doordarshan.

We didn’t care much for the quality of visual effects, logical reasoning or the corn-ball excuses needed for Johnny Socko to open his little watch and order: Giant Robot, come soon. Or remember ‘He Man and the Masters of the Universe’ fighting Skeletor?

Years later, we find ourselves watching Ghost Rider pretty much the same way. It needs large doses of willing suspension of disbelief. A normal hero who transforms into a blazing ghost-fighter riding a cruiser that also transforms into something that’s probably common mode of transport in Hell. You can’t help but remember He-Man here, only that Ghost Rider looks like Skeletor on a motorcycle.

Only that, today, we have a wide range of choice from reality shows to crossover cinema to spectacular epic films with zillion visual effects and there is pretty much no reason to watch Ghost Rider but for the child that in you that digs mindless action and comic-book visual effects.

Ghost Rider, at least visually, seems to be a faithful re-creation of the Marvel Comics superhero. And, Nicolas Cage coasts along comfortably in a black-leather biker suit and a stunt cruiser, in a role that he could have very well sleepwalked through. Or maybe he did. Eva Mendes, as his childhood sweetheart, provides the much-needed relief in a film dominated by ghosts spouting the silliest lines.

Given the cheesy lines, it might actually be a good idea to catch Ghost Rider in Tamil. Hitch a ride with Kaalabhairavan. Time-travel to the days we didn’t have satellite television.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Nishabd: Sucks, this Lolly-Pop

When the 60-year old hero looks towards the open door, out of which his 18-year old object of affection has just run out of after expressing her love, we are left with a pretty photograph of his wife in her prime, framed on the wall right beside that door.

A few scenes later, when the shocked wife shuts the door on him literally, the fallen hero stands in the corridor, halfway between a door that’s shut and another that’s open, with the girl anxiously waiting inside. If only the rest of 'Nishabd' was as subtle.

But for these two scenes of individual brilliance and maybe the final monologue, there is very little in 'Nishabd' that bears the stamp of the master filmmaker.

Not only does he make 18-year old Jiah wear very little, Ram Gopal Varma also tells us very little about what led to the unlikely romance in the first place. Yes, we know they spent a day out in the estates, pretty much like ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and all, with photographer Vijay (Bachchan) finding reason to sing again, thanks to the arrival of his daughter’s friend Jiah (Jiah Khan).

There are things we must be told. Like, what was the first conversation the old man ever had with the girl who is his daughter’s age. It begins on an interesting premise, with what could also be a one-line self-explanatory excuse for having shot the film the way he did, Varma makes the photographer say: “It is not necessary that the rest of the world sees it through my perspective.”

Brilliant. But, moments after that first line of serious conversation they’ve ever had, Varma decides it’s not important to tell us what they spoke about next. He increases the background score and shows them talking. Lazy screenwriting or weak direction?

What we see more of is a skimpy Jiah getting wet endlessly, pouting like a Playboy pin-up with her index finger in her mouth, and sometimes, with a lolly, perhaps the perfect metaphor for the entire romance.

No doubt Jiah is a pretty photogenic bombshell, but there is a difference between making her look innocently sensuous and professionally raunchy. While Vijay’s own photographs bring out that innocence of a teen having fun with a hose-pipe, Varma’s own frames throughout the film seem pretty distracted by her anatomy. It’s also another thing if Varma’s intention was to tell us that it was lust and physical attraction that led the old man into grey territory.

But he insists it is that pure emotion called love.

Full credit to Amitabh Bachchan’s finely sensitive portrayal of that angst of falling for his daughter’s friend. But Varma lets him down drastically, using silly jokes borrowed from SMS forwards as ice-beakers between the couple. If he wants us to understand their predicament, Varma ought to tell us more than what Bachchan can do with the depth of his eyes. The intensity of the romance appears watered down by weak screenwriting. As a result, the entire episode comes out looking like an old-man hopelessly infatuated by a teen with a crush on him.

Equally annoying is Varma’s way of hammering down what is implied and understood as he makes Jiah ask Vijay: “Do you like my spirit?” or her telling her best friend “I don’t recognise boundaries” during a tiff over her metaphorical ‘foul’ play during a game of badminton or Jiah asking Vijay: “What is black and white at the same time?” and actually making her say it: “Nothing.” Yes, yes, we got it in the first place, it is not radio-drama, Mr.Varma.

Revathy stands dignified in an otherwise sketchily etched out film, Bachchan emotes with all his heart and Nasser lends a little maturity to a support role. The camerawork (Amit Roy), probably intentionally quirky and at times lucidly metaphorical, only distracts an already wandering narrative. Amar Mohile’s score haunts, thanks to Vishal’s melody of ‘Rozana’ – the only song finds no place in the film.

Somehow everything seems too rushed up and hurried with unrealised, pregnant potential.

Or maybe, we are reading too much from a shallow script that might have worked just right for a 10-minute short.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Honeymoon Travels: A delightful trip

Somewhere towards the end of ‘Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd.,’ an intoxicated Kay Kay Menon breaks into an improvised jig as the chartbuster of the song ‘Sajnaji Vari Vari’ sneaks into the proceedings and before you know it, one by one, all the characters in this ensemble join in to dance what will be known as Hindi cinema’s most spontaneous dance choreography. They characters are all on a high. And you just can’t wait to join the party.

That is the trip that ‘Honeymoon Travels’ is all about.

Bonding, love, caring, sharing and letting your hair down.

Everything else seems to be an excuse to get to that point in the story where six couples with different dynamics to their relationship discover each other and themselves in this sequel in spirit to ‘Saalam-E-Ishq.’

‘Saalam-E-Ishq,’ though episodic, was long-winded and conformist, sticking to the mandatory angst-ridden song before the final act (but then even Reema Kagti’s mentor and producer of ‘Honeymoon Travels,’ Farhan Akhtar, couldn’t do away with that in his own ‘Dil Chahta Hai’) whereas ‘Honeymoon Travels’ is far more simple, crisp and snappy, using quick flashbacks to give us the back-stories of the love stories in an unconventional narrative structure.

Reema only tells you what you need to know, leaving the rest to your imagination, playing her cards smartly all through her narrative laden with clever twists and cheeky turns. Though you can see some of these coming, the director still manages to keep you engaged in the stories by random, yet, fluid inter-cutting between the couples and their respective stories.

Amisha Patel finally makes her acting debut (Yes, we know she’s appeared in films before, pretending to do the job but failing miserably) as one of the film’s most vivid characters, Pinky. But it is Kay Kay Menon who once again surprises you with his range and energy, paired opposite an immensely likeable Raima Sen. Shabana Azmi and Boman Irani are reliably solid in their roles, playing it with the right sort of sensitivity and refreshing zest. Abhay and Minnisha are adorable as the perfect couple with a secret each. Sandhya Mridul’s track makes up for the overdose of feel-good in the film and the fine actress acquits herself without overdoing the histrionics. And trust Ranvir Shorey to breathe life into even the most single-dimensional of characters. He’s brilliant in a role cut short by the screenplay, paired opposite his reluctant bride Diya Mirza, looking pretty in a rather ‘filmy’ role that ironically challenges the very institution of marriage and the validity of a wedding.

Given how refreshing her story-telling is, Reema could’ve done away with the lecturing on love in the end, making Shabana Azmi deliver the message of the film in the middle of the road, to the driver, who probably represents the old-fashioned people who run the system. The new generation is on her side literally and the driver has little choice but to abide by democracy. “We have paid for these tickets. If you can’t drive, step aside. One of us will,” she says, emphasizing on the right of every individual to decide how to live his/her lives.

But for these minor quirks, ‘Honeymoon Travels’ is a refreshingly delightful trip exploring the complexity of human relationships with the disarming simplicity of everyday life. The mood is light all through and life is beautiful.

Just one word of caution. Don’t take any of the storytelling too seriously. And don’t take it at the surface-level either. If you find it difficult to accept the cinematic liberties taken, ask yourself this: Is there anything called a perfect couple or a couple that has never had one single fight? That should make you see the brilliance of the larger-than-life elements in the film.