{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Monday, December 31, 2007

Year End Post # 4 : Some Underrated Performances!

Here is some of my picks of the undervalued performances of the year.

Ranvir Shorey: Last year, the truly moving scene came from a comedy, Khosla ka Ghosla, it comes when Khosla sa'ab is put behind bars and Ranvir Shorey's 'Bunty' Khosla weeps saying "yeh sab meri galti hai", and asks his younger brother to go to US, away from all this trouble. Aaja Nachle has no good scenes but one, which comes from Shourie. Its a dialogue less scene where Ranvir Shorey's Mohan Sharma weeps (with a big red heart in background) when he learns that his bride has ran away from marriage. What Shorey does in that scene is to elevate Mohan from a poor guy to a poor guy in love. Similarly, he plays a just-married Gujju with required sensitivity, in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd whose wife runs off during honeymoon. In No Smoking, Ranvir Shorey's squint eyed Abbas is also a performance to watch for. Here again, his performance brings two aspects to Abbas - the unwilling cunningness required for survival and how people yield to it, and the frustration and helplessness of being in a situation beyond ones control. Also it is to director's credit that Abbas doesn’t just become a background character serving the main plot but a valuable addition to it.

Lara Dutta: I know I have soft corner for Lara Dutta and what ever she does, and I think she is a very good actress in mainstream Bollywood (In the star studded "Dewaanagi Dewaanagi" song from Om Shanti Om, she was only next to Tabu). In Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, she plays a French Hotel Manager and British-Indian Prostitute with the same verve and energy. Her performance surely adds to the guilty pleasure of the film.

Amisha Patel: It looks like Amisha Patel was born to play this. Although the character Pinky in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, is of a dumb girl who has this romanticized view of marriage and love but she plays it so naturally and uniformly that her dumbness does not irritate, but becomes a part of her charm.

Sonya Jehan: Playing Ratanbala in Khoya Khoya Chand, a Bollywood star of 50s, was all about screen presence, few precise gestures and good diction, and Sonya Jehan gets it all correct. In a year when everybody is singing praises of Deepika Padukone (and to a extend she deserves it), Sonya Jehan's classic act went unnoticed.

Ayesha Takia: Like Amisha Patel's, Ayesha Takia's casting as the dumb and big bosomed secretary of John Abraham in No Smoking is a wonder of casting and concept. But her dumbness is not her natural trait, but a made up thing, may be to please her boss, or it is an image that her boss want her to be like. To her credit, she does not miss a single step. Every move is a delicious treat in itself and a wonderful parody of all the fantasy secretaries of the world.

Tisca Chopra: Tisca Chopra's Maya Awasthi (Ishaan's mother in Taare Zameen Par) is one of most heartfelt performances of the year. Her portrayal of Ishaan's mother has care for the child, worrying about the child and attachment to the child - the things inherent in mothers, alongside a feeling that she is not able to understand her son. Tisca Chopra's performance never cries for attention. There was a scene where she watches video tapes of Ishaan from his childhood, I just hope that segment was constructed as a series of memories she had of him. I am sure that would have been more powerful than the taped ones.

Mithun Chakraborty: Mithun Chakraborty’s performance as an idealistic communist in Guru is one of the few times in Hindi films when a Bengali or an oldman or a communist are not stereotyped. It brings back the memories of some of his better performances, especially the marvellous Shibnath from Tahader Katha.

Pankaj Kapur: It can't be said that Pankaj Kapur’s performance is undervalued per se, but it is surely undervalued in comparison to what people say about Abhishek's performance in Guru or Shahrukh Khan in Chak de India (for note, SRK is better than Abhishek, and Abhisek is much better in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom than Guru). At a time when we see simplistic performances in so called adult films, Pankaj Kapur gives a multi-layered and deeply-felt performance in a so called children’s film. The last scene where he tries to dance in a marriage procession is again an example of art, i.e. beauty plus pity.

Year End Post # 3 : Notes on Hindi films

I know I am late for Year End posts now, but to my excuse, I was keeping very busy for the whole last week (of course watching and catching up as much 2007 movies as possible, mostly Hindi films). Here are few notes on the Hindi films seen this year.

Aaja Nachle: Aaja Nachle is based on two major fantasies, and few minors. Major fantasies include - a small town girl marrying a good looking (preferably white) foreigner (but remember, this "myth" should be broken to make Indian male audience's fantasy alive that "their" women like them most, or on a broader level, Indian fantasy that matches in India are made in heaven, all others end up in divorces), second being the NRI fantasy . Minor fantasies are mainly about a small town life. Also, this film somehow suggests that the people who are born with and seen money for ages (rayees-jyade) are more honest than those who have seen it for the first time. But that is not the point; I am disappointed because it was hoping for a mad dance extravaganza, which it is not. For record, Shamli, where the film is set, is one of the town in the district of Muzaffarnagar, which is my hometown.

Jab We Met: A nice bubbling first half and a dull predictable second half (Imtiaz Ali's Socha Na Tha was better). This is one of those films where the proverbial irritating acting of Kareena Kapoor is put to good use. Shahid Kapoor acts best in the first scene, and from there its a downfall. The same self help gyan of the first half, look ugly in the second half when Shahid Kapoor "discovers" it and "implements" it in life and love. Kareena's happy go lucky charm of the first half comes partly from her youthful naivety and partly from her inherent happy nature. Shahid Kapoor's 'found' charm is straight from that monk-ferrari book.

The Namesake (Not a Hindi film, phir bhi): The Namesake has its heart at the right place, but only that does not make a right film. What keeps the film together, and at time moving, is Tabu and Irfan Khan. In whole of the film I was wondering how good an actress Tabu is. Think of this film without her or Irfan Khan, and it all falls flat. Also, the name thing doesn’t hold any water, it looks like a trick. Given that it means a lot to Ashok Ganguly, but as a narrative device its stilted and unconvincing. I know that most of the narrative flaws (like why Gogol's sister is nobody's concern) in the film will go back to novel, but on a visual level too it doesn’t break any new ground. Right from the first shot where camera shows a coolie carrying a suitcase with clearly legible name, A. Ganguly on it, even then the camera zooms on the name to let us read it more clearly. There are other such instances which are more guiding than required (when we have got the "message" that marriage does not necessarily work because of cultural backgrounds, Mausami says "It was not enough that we both were Bengalis"). Also, Mira Nair gets all the easy things right, but fumbles when something difficult, like identity crisis of second generation, is required of her. Kal Penn honestly tries but he has no screen presence (at least when Tabu or Irfan Khan are in frame). What is the point of acting when an itch or a disappointment can only be conveyed by saying it? But the film is worth watching for little emotional farewell speech that Tabu give towards the end, and for all the time she is in the frame.

Saawariya: Let me think what is good in Saawariya. There should be something. Actually there is even nothing bad about it. Its a tasteless, odorless, colorless, harmless, non-sublime liquid.

Taare Zameen Par: The usual theory that one should be extra careful while making a film about war is now extended to children too. War makes us overlook things because of its ugliness and gore, and it is exactly the opposite in case of children. The kid makes us overlook because of their inherent charm. So we need to understand and thus make a separation between the two facts - Is TZP a good film or Is the kid cute. One should be careful if, intentionally or otherwise, kid is used to mask the flaws of the film. This film too has that first half/second half problem. Good first half and reductive-didactic-simplistic-self-serving second half. Let’s talk about the first half only. There are many nice moments here where we are let inside the mind of a child, and they do remind us of their wonderful imagination (one of such sequences is directly lifted from Calvin and Hobbes, just that 'addition' changed to 'multiplication'). In other sequence, in which Ishaan bunks school and roams around is very effective in portraying the freedom and fearlessness of a young mind. It is shame that a film about understanding a kid's mind, turns into understanding about a particular disability (which many genius had in childhood), and worse, a quest to put them into mainstream like the "normal" children. However feel-good it was but it unfortunate that a film with a tagline "every kid is special", ends in a competition. The good thing is that this film boasts of one of the best performances of the year, which is not Aamir Khan’s, and which is except from Darsheel Safary’s Ishaan. Also there are some good lyrics.

Dus Kahaniyaan: After reading Saadat Hassan Manto who is master of twist towards end in his short stories, I felt that a real twist is not a narrative twist which makes us join threads of the story with an 'aha' feeling, but a twist that brings about something which is very delicate, which should be stored for an ending to make its impact, a touch of the realization that the character had at the moment. Its not a shocker, but a moment of contemplation and understanding (for readers and for characters). Most of the stories of Dus Kahaniyaan miss that point. The best is of the lot is Meghna Gulzar's Pooranmashi. Most of the others are passable but the real irritating one is Rice Plate, not because of story, but because of Shabana Azmi, who does such an absurd caricature of a South Indian woman (listen how she says 'pickle' a thousand times), that if there is any artistic conscience left in her, she should make a public apology.

It looks like the futile verbal diarrhea of year end posts might spill to the next year too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Year End Post # 2 : Italian Cinema

Italian Cinema

It’s baffling to see the difference in the richness of Italian cinema of 60s and 70s, and the current dry days. This year I discovered some of giants and genres of Italian cinema.

Sicilian Comedies of Pietro Germi

I saw two films (Divorce, Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned) by Pietro Germi at Gene Siskel Film Center, both are excellent. Lots has been said about they being comic-satiric masterpieces, which they surely are, but one cant help but appreciate the sensual aura of heat, passion and lust that Germi creates. It looks as if the Sicilian weather (the way characters constantly perspire) resembles Indian June, and I wonder how similar Indian society is to theirs, just that our films treat the stories of 'Family and Honor' way too seriously, and are therefore turn themselves into monotonous and boring stuff. The death scene of Don Vincenzo in Seduced and Abandoned is a masterpiece in itself, as if in the whole film of farce, satire and comedy, Germi, who definitely loves his characters, pulls ups something very basic about a patriarch. Germi brutally satires his Sicilian society but his crime can be pardoned on two grounds - firstly its a crime of passion, and secondly he is intimately married to the society he deflowers.

Master Killings by Dario Argento

Lighting in a film is all about bathing the visuals and the characters into some mysterious light. Sound is to surprise or evoke the hidden. Color is a motif in whatever form it comes - Red Rose, Red Wine or Blood. There is no fun in reality. Background in a frame is more important than the foreground. Background can be used effectively to create fantasy and defy the reality. Only a coward artist resists silliness. A scene is noticeable only when Sound and Image are little off. Discontinuity in sound and image puzzles the mind, mystifies the narrative. Don’t shy away from explaining the unexplainable; it makes anything into fairy tale. Horror is anticipation. If killings are done so elaborately that they look unreal, that becomes art. Adherence to realistic conventions of killings in films makes them look ugly and monotonous. Women look more beautiful than men on screen, especially when being brutally killed. Blood in art is redder, screams are shriller, delirious exteriors mimic the state of women in danger and murderous hands are of an artist. These are few assumptions on which films of Dario Argento are based. As you can see, they do require some amount of leap of faith.

Movies like Suspiria at least try to mask off shams like Innocence. Made from the same source material, one might see the difference of approach between a filmmaker and wanna-be intellectual (of Formulative French Flavor). Suspiria does not bloat itself with pretensions of big meanings, while Innocence, in its marvelous aura building exercise, promises a ocean but ends up in a tiny fountain. The end sequence of Suspiria is the most beautiful sequence I saw this year, it looks like something that Lynch thought but Almodovar directed. And the music by Goblin is awesome.

Great in its own right but Deep Red is lesser masterpiece than Suspiria because it somehow rests on plot twists and turns rather than director's art. I mean to say that if the same script were directed by someone else (except the killing scenes which only Argento could do the way they should be), it might have been the same film. What I liked a lot about Deep Red is its gender awareness and how it plays with audience banal psychological knowledge that relates sexuality and violence when it comes to track down the murderer. Music, as usual, is great.

Each of these Italian films comes highly recommended from me.
Pic: Screenshot from the end sequence of Suspiria.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Year End Post # 1

In Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital, patients are shown puppet shows during their operations to distract them from their immediate pain. Both tragic and funny, as Maddin's most sequences are, this one says much about our affair with entertainment. They distract us from something immediate, painful or boring. A good film uses that distraction for something worthy and a bad film wastes these moments. As one of the character in Yi yi says, "we see films because we can live three times as much in films as we do in normal life", we must also acknowledge that this extension is as imaginary as life, or as other character in Yi yi, who takes pictures of people from behind, says, "I am just trying to help you to see what you can't by yourself", films exists as a perspective of life which we might miss but for them. There can be several such arguments to support why I see films but nothing will be more honest a reason than smug escapism. I say this because I enjoy in a film what I abhor in real life. It caters to my need to observe from outside, on some higher platform but never get myself dirty. It is as passive as it comes. Yes, it’s a year end post and I should move in that direction.

I keep on fixating on the number of movies seen in a year (ostentatiously putting the year-wise list on side bar of the blog) but, as we all know, it really does not matter. What matters is the increase in the level of understanding and appreciation of the film art. On that criterion, this year was a failure for me. Not only did I not enhance my understanding, but most of the times, I felt confused after seeing the films. There were less and less Fat Girl or 3 Women or Weekend or Body Double moments where you knew that the film is a masterpiece as you saw. I know on one level it is a struggle between what you want to admire (based on accepted highbrow opinion) and what you really love, and on the other - between, what you understand/sense and what you don’t. Griffith's Intolerance only worked for me in pieces, not as a whole. In its worst moments, I felt it was preachy and propagandistic and it definitely lacked the charm of Silent Era. And I found some films like The Mist and Music and Lyrics good, may be because I had set too low standards for them (The Mist is directed by the same guy who directed super-shit Shawshank Redemption, which is the second worst movie of all time, the first being Benigni's unbeatable master-piss Life is Beautiful). A rather lesser known silent film, Tod Browning's The Unknown worked greatly for me, which I thought was well ahead of its time. When I saw No Country for Old Men, I was baffled a bit but gathered myself (and the film) after the end sequence of Sheriff's meeting with his Uncle. Later I felt both ways - The last sequence as a bravura film making which beautifully pulls all the loose ends without any awkwardness, and also - a sense of easy closing by an insightful scene. I felt same about Redacted too (but I have a higher opinion of film than most of people). May be, unable to drawn any clear cut conclusion about a film say not only about oneself distrusting his own tastes (which I believe one should, at least one should be critically aware of ones tastes) but also trying to align them to someone else' and may be, a late revelation that end result doesn’t matter to the extent we assign importance. Whatever it may be, it’s lesser and lesser that I eat with eye, i.e. enjoy films the way I feel one should.

Following posts will be small, random and insubstantial notes on films seen this year and some related topics which are written along the year, mostly on train. I wanted to make them a single consolidated post but opted for this serialized version.

Pic: Maya Deren looking out of window in Meshes of the Afternoon. Nice description of the image here (in first para)

Clip: Full Bollywood in one song. Palti kamar hai from Raj Kapoor's Barsaat.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Year End Post(s) will come before the year ends. As of now, making list of films seen, directors discovered, some cinematic highs and lows, things read and things past. It seems that I have seen about 150-160 movies this year, three more weeks to go and with some holidays in hand, I am planning to touch 200. Lets see !