Saturday, October 27, 2007

No Smoking: How many ciggies can a pack hold, K?

Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: John Abraham, Ayesha Takia, Ranvir Shorey, Paresh Rawal
Storyline: A chain-smoker is coerced into quitting by a mysterious, dangerous rehabilitation centre.
Bottomline: You can’t smoke without a match, can you?

There are many ways to light up.
Many years ago, they used to rub stones together.
Then came matches.
And soon enough, lighters.

There are many ways to express.
Many years ago, they used to scribble on the walls with stone.
Then came paint.
And soon enough brushes, canvas, paper and film.

Evolution. All to make life simpler for us. Ready-made solutions. Assembly-line productions. To make sure we save time. Walk in, walk out. Be entertained. Smile.

Until, we ushered in the era of designer-wear, tailor-made solutions customised to suit individual tastes. Multiplexes. Boutiques. Galleries. To give art a platform. To make people think. And appreciate.

Anurag Kashyap has gone one step further and made a film meant for the future.

One that will appeal to a select few. Could be immediate family. Friends. Pet. Or maybe just for his nicotine stick to enjoy it while it lasts. Before it turns impotent and becomes ash.

No doubts about it at all that John Abra-born-to-ham, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Kumar Mangat deserve five stars for effort and the decision to attempt a genre that nobody in the right mind would have dared to produce.

Anurag Kashyap comes up with a truly brilliant idea that borders on genius and ruins it only because he tries too hard. Imagine, you have rolled up the perfect joint… And instead of just smoking it, you get adventurous. You try lighting it by rubbing stones together just to prove a point.

But K, the brilliance of abstraction always lies in simplicity. No matter how complex you want the construction of semiotics to be, no matter how layered you want the thoughts and statements to be, the overall idea behind the entire process of expression needs to be a fairly simple one. To put it simply, we don’t care how you light your joint as long as you don’t ruin the joint itself.

For the benefit of all those who swore at the screen at the end of the film demanding for a book explaining the film, here is my most charitable guess at what was in Anurag’s joint in the first place.

The film is trip into the mind of a smoker who has been forced to quit. He is made to pay by cheque (i.e. a heavy price that seems unreasonable), threatened by a Baba who has three ‘Sri’s before his name (Art of Living anyone?) about the ill-effects of his smoking… That first, his family would be gassed (i.e. he would be endangering his family’s health by forcing them to inhale poison gas, a metaphor for passive smoking), his fingers would be chopped off (that he will cause himself bodily harm by his continued stint at smoking), his beloved would die (they would leave him) and finally, his soul too (his body will incinerate and he gets no chance at redemption). And that his salvation or healing lies in his ability to make more people give up smoking.

The plot from Stephen King’s story Quitters Inc aside (maybe it is pure co-incidence that Cat’s Eye treated the addict’s urge to smoke with a surreal hallucination sequence), if you’ve seen Vanilla Sky, you will guess the signifiers hinting lucid dreams and the nightmares to follow used within the first ten minutes of the film. If you’ve seen Lost, you will get the whole Alice in Wonderland trip down the tunnel (there’s also the Lost Season 2 score reproduced just to re-emphasise the homage). If you’ve seen Hostel, you will get an idea about this dangerous cult that targets people and makes them sign a telephone directory-thick-contract book, which if you’ve seen Bedazzled, you would connect with the deal he made with the Devil. If you’ve seen Mullholland Dr., you will get an idea of the signifiers employed and be able to deconstruct why Ayesha Takia is Annie and Anjali (who he wants her to be and who she really is compared to who she was and who she becomes in Mullholland Dr.) and so on…

Hence your success in deconstruction of the film is directly proportional to how many films you have seen that Anurag has. There is a good chance that, given that K has seen many films than the average J.

The fact that he’s further coded the film to include a personal parallel with his life and the film industry (by equating smoking to radical ideas that the system has asked him to quit to ensure the financial health of his producers and family and inside jokes/references to writer Abbas Tyrewala) only adds to the number of signifiers and metaphors used in creating the abstraction with some of them not quite fitting the context.

As a result of this semiotic diarrhea, No Smoking is reduced to video graffiti drawn by a disturbed individual after repeated visits to his video library, thanks to his movie addiction. The more the signifiers, the more sketchy and amateur the artistry.

The extra ‘drags’ in No Smoking kill you before it all kicks in.

Moral of the story, K: Now that you know that this kind of smoking is injurious to your health and soul, hopefully, you will keep in mind what you need to light it up. An audience. And, a match would really help. Strike to connect. Illuminate.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: The case of the missing marbles!

Director: Priyadarshan
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Shiney Ahuja, Vidya Balan, Ameesha Patel
Storyline: A newly-wed couple try to dispel notions of a ghost in their haunted mansion only to find themselves caught in its spell.
Bottomline: Priyadarshan loses it in translation
Genre: Thriller

If bad remakes amounted to murder, Priyadarshan’s a serial killer going by his track record, box-office figures notwithstanding.

How bad a filmmaker should you be to stay so faithful to the screenplay of the Malayalam original ‘Manichitrathazhu’ and yet churn out such horror?

At least if the filmmaker had to deal with changes/touches/twists to the tale, you could’ve blamed it on the screenwriter. But here’s a film that stays as close as possible to the screenplay of the much-acclaimed classic and yet falters, purely because of its execution. By execution, I also mean CAPITAL punishment for us viewers.

It is an ordeal to sit through the first one hour of ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa’ and its attempt at comedy. Because, in this segment, even the usually dependable Paresh Rawal’s timing is all bollocks and you end up giggling only when you are supposed to be scared.

While the original was rooted in a credible rural milieu with an endearingly believable bunch of village simpletons who are convinced about the presence of a ghost, Priyadarshan’s take is filled with his regular inventory of caricatures – Rajpal Yadav in yet another ‘Chottey’ avatar, Paresh Rawal bumbling around like an idiot, Asrani hamming it up… you get the picture?

Add to this, there’s the phenomenally expressionless Ameesha Patel to hoot at.

Akshay finally makes his entry ten minutes before interval and gives you something to look forward to: The over-priced popcorn.

Jokes apart, Akshay is the only entertaining proposition of the film, using his seasoned comic flair to keep the proceedings light, carrying what’s left of the film on his able shoulders. Vidya Balan has two left feet and Shiney Ahuja’s sincerity shows in the scene where he breaks down. What a long way he has come since Sins.

Where Bhool Bhulaiyaa fails and Manichitrathazhu scores, is in the filmmaker’s ability (or inability, in this case) to set up a face-off between science and superstition. Fazil played a gripping mind-game with us keeping us guessing on what was causing all hell to break loose – was it really the ghost or was it someone with a dissociative identity disorder?

There were many cues thrown around in Manichitrathazhu, some to mislead, some to distract and some to hint and help you participate in the guessing game. For all his claim to have worked on the film, Priyadarshan doesn’t even seem to have got hold of the basic idea behind the film: a science-meets-superstition-based-thriller where parapsychology and exorcism flow seamlessly into the narrative.

While we can understand P.Vasu’s commercial considerations that made him ignore these finer aspects and just dumb it down as a Superstar film for the masses, Priyadarshan’s claim of being faithful to the original is superficial and unreal, just like the film he has made.

‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa’ is yet another example of a classic lost in translation, another victim of Priyadarshan’s obsessive compulsive urge to make a career out of other people’s films with only buffoonery for a USP.

Laaga Chunari Main Daag: Didi's Tragedy Show, Rom-Com style

Genre: Drama
Director: Pradeep Sarkar
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Konkana Sen Sharma, Kunal Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan
Storyline: Small town girl goes to big bad Mumbai and becomes an escort.
Bottomline: Sarkar's sense of feminism goes hanky-panky, with special emphasis on the hanky.

There are moments in the film where Pradeep Sarkar breaks the predictability associated with the stock-story with a few new touches.

Like the bit when she does not take the money the first time she gets a 'daag' on her chunari. She slaps the guy instead. Like the part where she chooses to do it on her terms and in style instead of signing up for Madhur Bhandarkar's Chandni Bar-girl's desperation of doing it for pocket change. Like the point that she always has an
exit-route option open, throughout the film.
These touches are the only saving grace of a film that tries hard to be a feminist take on the issue but fails due to one basic flaw: The fact that she goes through all this in an attempt to be the "son" her father wanted and in the end, her exit from this path is guaranteed only by the entry of the son-in-laws, the family's new male

This ruins everything.

Maybe this is Pradeep Sarkar's way of telling us that this candy-floss pseudo-feminism is a picture perfect reflection of our times where morality as defined by the rich and the famous differs from the morality of the middle-class. Once you've made the jump who cares what others say? Love is all that matters. Perfect for the multiplex-goer sensibility.

It does not squeeze the sentiment enough to dampen your hanky. Nor is it bitter-sweet. At best, it's a feel-good tragedy.

It's not an author-backed role for any of the characters, so you are wondering why Jaya Bachchan's name appears first in the credits. Maybe because the director wanted to keep his promise of writing a role tailor-made for her, he literally just keeps her going at the sewing machine day and night. You didn't get the metaphor? Without her putting the stitches on the petticoats, the family's fortune would be reduced to rags.

Wait, there are more. From the predictable Ganga of the Benaras epitomising the purity of the protagonist to the deteriorating condition of the family (through father's health) and their ancestral home, literally, to the stack of falling chips to the professional courtesan's in-your-face assessment of Rani's innocence, every thing is spelt out that it would be no surprise if the next film from the Yash Raj Banner has arrow-pointers and footnotes explaining the motifs and metaphors employed to make the film artistically richer.

This need to spell out everything probably only emerges because every situation, character and location is bathed in the Yash Raj-banner-sensibility of manufacturing cinema – good-looking people in great looking clothes singing and dancing around in gorgeous locations.

Thanks to the picture perfect cinematography we hardly know that their palatial nest was supposed to be on the verge of ruins as the dialogue suggests.

There's nothing visually dirty about the job she takes up – we see her get herself a makeover, strut around in the best of clothes, fly business class to Zurich and almost do a Dilwale Dulhaniya all over again. And, we are supposed to feel sorry for her? The sensibility demanded of the screenplay is the biggest casualty of the Yash Raj Films stylization.

Konkana's chirpiness borders on annoying but blame that on the dumb thing she plays. Rani has a cakewalk of a role that demands no more than her Mona Lisa smile and she 'sleeps' through it, not sure what to do in the bedroom scenes.

The film is so old-school that it is refreshing to see Kunal Kapoor improvise with a burger, spilling mayonnaise on his shirt and provide the film its romantic comedy moments. Abhishek Bachchan with all of 15 minutes of screen-time banks on charm and chemistry with his not-so-Babli pair this time.

The only reason it is worth catching on TV is that it takes every single cliché from the genre of the past and juxtaposes it with updated contemporary, modern-day reactions which have become clichés too.

Sample: How the sister comes to know about her 'job': Cliché. How she reacts to it: New age cliche. How the family comes to know: Cliché. How they react to it: New-age cliche. How the boy comes to know: Cliché. How he reacts to it: New-age Romantic Comedy cliche.

These sort of twists against the tragedy genre work, but only in a Sooraj Barjatya-kind of a way.

One Minute Reviews

Licence to Wed:
Cast: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore, John Krasinski
Director: Ken Kwapis
Storyline: A lovey-dovey couple decides to take a marriage preparatory course and find the Reverend to be a bone in the kebab.
Ups: The chick-flick mood, the romantic comedy with some genuinely funny moments, Robin Williams and his adorable sidekick minister-kid, Mandy Moore’s appeal that helps her skip through yet another role bravely without the skill better known as acting and John, who seems to be a natural.
Downs: Predictable like any film in the genre, uni-dimensional characters, completely unbelievable Reverend… Bugging apartments of couples to crackdown on their sex life? Only Robin Williams could’ve made this work.
Bottomline: Perfect date movie but if you are dreading the M-word, don’t take her for this one.

Wrong Turn:
Cast: Desmond Harrington, Eliza Dushku
Director: Rob Schmidt
Storyline: A bunch of friends trespass into Cannibal-zombie-land and end up playing hide and seek with death.
Ups: Hot babes who you know will last longest in the film, plenty of thrills, jump-scenes, scary moments and a credible landscape.
Downs: For a film that came out in 2003, even the sequel is out on DVD. Not an iota of class or subtlety, highly predictable plotline and why don’t the zombies just eat the hot ones like they did with the boys instead of taking them captive? Oh, wait, that’s a no-brainer.
Bottomline: Awesome B-movie stuff.

Resident Evil 3:
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Ashanti
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Storyline: The survivors of Part 2 need to head to Alaska before they are eaten up by ugly zombie creatures and crows.
Ups: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, many more Milla Jovovichs in her favourite choice of wardrobe in the series: None. Come on, why else would anyone watch this series that looks like a videogame?
Downs: What on the planet is happening? Something that went wrong because of Umbrella Corporation’s classified confidential project.
Bottomline: Only for Milla fans or addicts of the game.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Johnny Gaddaar: Are you game?

Genre: Thriller
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Cast: Neil Nitin Mukesh, Dharmendra, Vinay Pathak, Rimii Sen
Storyline: A con betrays his gang during a two-and-a-half crore deal.
Bottomline: A slick, riveting, intelligent game of cards.

Finally, someone’s demonstrated the difference between tribute and plagiarism.
Johnny Gaddaar though derivative of many schools of filmmaking across genres and sensibilities (right from James Hadley Chase to the Coen Brothers to Vijay Anand to Steven Soderberg), still comes out trumps in a delightfully original rollercoaster of a mind game that keeps you guessing till the last minute.

If you just read it, it would seem like a Hadley Chase novel. Once you meet the realistically fleshed out characters double-crossed by the absurdities of fate, they would seem straight out of a Coen Brothers film. If you just listened to the music, it would sound like a free-flowing fusion between R.D.Burman and the jazzy sophisticated score from Danny Oceans franchise. If you paid attention to the way it is shot and edited, you will spot half a dozen influences ranging from Guy Ritchie to Tarantino to Vijay Anand.

And yet, all these inspired parts fall perfectly in place for an gripping game of cards, with Raghavan winning every round except maybe one (almost everyone in the audience can spot a dream-sequence when they see it), the master stroke being the not-so-Blood Simple finale.
Not that this film completely belongs to the crafty technician.

It’s been a really long time since we’ve seen a film where actors have completely surrendered to the characters they are playing. Dharmendra breathes some heavy-duty drama into the proceedings with his restrained body language and the angst-filled voice modulation (the usual ‘Kuttey Kamine’ updated to ‘son of a beach’). Your heart goes out to this fine actor. And there’s the ever-reliable Vinay Pathak playing an endearing gambler with his cheeky punch-lines and flawless timing. Watch out for the scene where he convinces his wife to mortgage her beauty parlour as she watches Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Parwana’ (one of the biggest sources of inspiration for the film’s plot and protagonist). From the story-telling point of view, this scene is an ace.

Zakir Hussain is a revelation. Be it displaying frustration or anger or just lecherously leering at women, the man’s a natural employing his flair for comedy to lighten up proceedings.

The Gaddaar, Neil Nitin Mukesh is the find of the year as he walks through his graph from the innocent, helpless, remorseful con to pure cold-blooded evil.

No, this is not a suspense film in the classical sense. Right from the first act, you know he’s the traitor but it’s not about the ‘what’ or ‘who’. Johnny Gaddaar is all about the how things unfold and that’s the mind-game the director plays with the audience.

Putting you into the shoes of the traitor, Sriram takes you through a reckless, dangerous dark path full of surprises at every corner. There are a few speed-breakers, like the mandatory build-up song before the finale (a staple of the Hindi cinema of the seventies) but as long as it all stays true to the spirit of the homage intended, it’s all good.

This fanboy celebration of films is pure delight for movie buffs.

Take a bow, Raghavan. Double Thumbs Up. Five on five stars.

A must-watch for the likes of Sanjay Gupta and Priyadarshan. A crash course on the huge difference between tribute and plagiarism.