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

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Best Hindi films of 2007

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more - Food Critic Anton Ego in his final review of Gusteau's in Ratatouille.

Excerpting this does not mean that any serious criticism is done in this space, but to bring the idea of "discovery and defense of the new". Of all the Hindi films I saw this year, the best ones were from the young directors (most of them making their first films). Also one more reason why Anton Ego's review is evoked here is the effect art has on its audience. When Anton Ego tastes Remy's Ratatouille preparation, something unexpected happens, in a very delightful (even Proustian) montage, Ego's simple childhood memories come back. Not only that they bridge the present to a past of smell and taste, but for that moment, a critic becomes an audience, he is not there to detach and judge, but to involve and get the pleasure. This is what happens when you see a good film. Also, Ego's comments on criticism bring about what I do not like in any art (criticism is a form of art) - arrogance. It is not exactly the arrogance of opinions, but it’s the arrogance of an artist that kill the art if it is reflected there.

Also this defense of new is also about new ideas, contents and approach to film medium. Also, as I have understood, it is not necessary for a artist to know and see and get inspired by all of the great cinema of the world, but it is indispensable to know the medium for what it is i.e. an awareness of the film as a medium of communication and what’s its toolbox. Although it can be both, but the film medium should not be confused either as a mass medium for entertainment or social medium for mass propaganda because (let me state the obvious but important thing) it is be first and foremost about images (or to be more correct, images in motion [motion pictures]) - the way they are associated with each other, the way they spark up in combination with other art forms like music, acting, lighting etc - i.e. its a visual medium, like literature is about language and theatre is about performance. Whenever a young director shows this understanding, hope for the medium surges. So here is my pick of five best Hindi films of 2007. I know, its coming a little late but I wanted to see few more films (and few films again) to make the final list.

5. Jhoon Barabar Jhoom (Dir. Shaad Ali)

Half of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is about the fantasy of its two lead characters, but as they say that you can only imagine what you have seen, it is actually about real persons these characters know which they put in fantastical situation. Since it is a big Bollywood film, and true to its nature, the fantasies are all about love and marriage. Given all this, JBJ brilliantly manages to put everything that Bollywood offers to its benefit, be it song, dance, overblown fantasies of romance. Also, for the audience it is not only a guilty pleasure, but also tests any of those liars who say they like Bollywood song and dance but whine like morons if they are just given that without any excuse of lame narrative thrills. The song and dance of the film is brave enough to test our patience and throw any pseudo-bollywood fan out of the theatre. One of the songs goes "jo baanware se lagte hain, woh log bhale hote hain", it can be said about the film too. More on JBJ in this post.

4. Ek Chalis Ki Last Local ( Dir. Sanjay M. Khanduri)

It is the best Hindi comedy that I saw in 2007. Nilesh (brilliant Abhay Deol) misses 1:40 am local train. Since its the last local and he has almost no money (Rs 70) in his pocket, he has to wait for the next local (4:10 am). In the meantime, he meets a girl Madhu (Neha Dhupia who is coming back from her friend's engagement party?), few groups of gangsters involved in a kidnap, a trio of policemen (the senior most of them, Malvankar, is most brilliant who incorporates Bhagwat Gita into his day to day work, the other one, Naidu, is a Ranjikant fan, he even saves a girl when the other cop tries to rape her, in a true Rajni-style. The third, Tavade, is the loyal type who informs us "Biwi ke alawa sab baat-ta hai sa'ab ke saath"), an excellent Nana Patekar duplicate auto-wala, romance-on-the-run, a beer bar (where a middle aged women does an item number), few murders, a bag full of money and a lot of interesting dialogues (admittedly there are few old jokes here but there is more wit in this film than any of this year's comedies. Look for Abhay Deol talking to the mirror here ["Bhagwan bhi, saara charm ek hi chehre mein daal diya, vaise beer peene ke baad chamak aur badh jaati hai"] compared to Manorama ["har kissi ki jindagi mein ek aisa waqt bhi aata hai jab saale aaine ko such bolne ki bimaari lag jaati hai"]). What makes it so funny is that it is comedy of genres [especially of the gangster-genre] and B grade thrillers (even some of actors make appearance here, and one scene from classic B grade film Gunda is given specific homage [the one where a gangster weeps in compassion when his younger brother dies]). And there is a marvellous scene where Nilesh wonders "sahi kaha hai kissi ne, duniya aurat hi chalati hai... aurat-jaat tujhe salaam" and then the role-reversal where Nilesh learns a lesson or two. A comedy with several twists and turns of events and plots, makes us wonder not only about the flickering life of the people involved but also to think whether it really happened or its just a swirl of imagination while Nilesh took a dizzy nap on a local train.

3. Blue Umbrella (Dir. Vishal Bharadwaj)

The best thing about this film is a perfect childhood mood. The old and the young all are children here. Desire is childlike, the joy and the frustration too. When our heroine gets a big beautiful blue umbrella from Japanese tourist she becomes the princess of her small town, all persons - old and young - seem to be thrilled by this but Pankaj Kapur's Nandkishore is possessed by the wide-eyed desire to own it. But the beauty of his desire is its type. Its both childlike and of some Shakespearean proportion which leads us to the dark shadows of his craving and its outcome. Vishal Bharadwaj uses some great narrative eclipses, like only the negotiation of Blue Umbrella is shown but the actually transaction (or implied exchange of amulet and umbrella) is not shown. What we see is happy Biniya playing with the umbrella. Also, as I was stupidly thinking, it was not implied anywhere that the sadness fell upon our little heroine because she traded off her protective amulet for an alien umbrella. In summary, Blue Umbrella might be a simple morality tale for young minds, but Vishal Bharadwaj does not dumb it down, because of the fact that we feel pity for Nandkishore even when we are aware what he had done. Interesting both as the childhood fable and morality tale, but beyond that Blue Umbrella can very well be about compulsion of childlike desires. More on Blue Umbrella in this post.

2. No Smoking (Dir. Anurag Kashyap)

The flip-flop narrative of No Smoking can be mapped to few interesting themes, the foremost being everyday pressure to conform to accepted standards or rather group morality/mentality versus individual choice, but with adequate and valid stretch, even to question of validity of bourgeois arrogance and the reciprocating vengeance. Also we can interpret the film in the light of any organized sector like religion or govermnent, and even to realms where human rationality seems to fail like fate and death. Also one can take everything as a metaphor (an approach which I hate if done in totality. It’s like explaining a film, its boring) like Baba is a money sucking doctor employed by his wife, and cutting of fingers is cutting of urge to hold a cigarette and likewise. But it is already a good omen when a film is free enough to let us to think through, but while doing all this one must keep in mind the visual aspects of No Smoking and its first rate humor, which lets its themes sail smoothly without taking themselves too seriously. We all know that if concept were to be the only yardstick to determine the worth of a film, how one can even justify the use of film medium. This film does not get blown away by its theme's preoccupation that the fun in images is all gone. Also, after a long time I have seen a Hindi film where sub plots are not just a way to add yet another realization in the life of main character, i.e. to serve and suit the protagonist’s world. Here the sub plot, especially the one involving Ranvir Shorey's Abbas might actually be the life of K after the end credits roll. As good as Shorey in this role, Kashyap understands him as someone who has already lived K's life, he understands who is he - one of us, or one of them or as always the case when the day is done - no one.

One more interesting way (and sometimes to me, it looks like the only way) is to see the film from K's sole perspective, everything is tinted with his view of the world. His is ultra-sleek-masculine image, his wife is good, homely and dignified, his secretary is dumb and respectful of her boss, his friends are falling out, world is conspiring against him, he might lose, he might be part of the same world he loathes, he is different, but no more can he be so, he needs to survive, he will succumb, but he will try against it. When I saw the film for the first time I had some problem with the arrogance of K (may be I read somewhere that there is some Any Rand channeled into it which irritated me), but on a second look, I am sure that there is no arrogance of director in K's screen arrogance. Coming back to its humor part, the two flashback jokes (which can be loosely names as 'Puffs and Fags' and 'Newton smokes a cigar') in No Smoking are near great. Both are done in different styles, and have great visual flair. Even when the film works on a whole there are sequences which are dearer than the others. The Bob Fosse number, the scene where a man strikes a conversation with K and calls him the 'thinking type', the one rupee coin sequence, the New Year midnight freedom, and the same actress playing the secretary and the wife are definitely masterstrokes.

1. Manorama - Six Feet Under (Dir. Navdeep Singh)

Manorama's structural and thematic resemblance to Chinatown does not let it crumble in weight of the later, which can be primarily attributed to the marvelous job that debutant director Navdeep Singh does in building the small town atmosphere such that the plot borrowing is seamlessly assimilated in the coordinates director is working in. Its heartening to see that in the year Hollywood's so-called auteurs were busy giving shape to evil and ambition as Chigurh and Plainview, Manorama hit the nail right - on the rot and the moral decadence under bright clean surface, and the effort albeit hopelessness of one man to deal with it. Our failed-novelist, defeated, married, even corrupted hero's discovery of this malaise provides us with important social, political and even psychological commentary. Abhay Deol gives a marvelous performance as our first noir hero in recent times. The way he was able to convey how this endless investigation has become a passion of his otherwise bored life and how it consumed him affirms yet again how brilliant his is. Coming to important details in film, first of all I must bow to who so ever is the costume designer for the film. In the morning (especially when she comes upstairs to dry clothes), Gul Panag wears gowns that are midway between knee and feet, and the petticoat underneath shows. Abhay Deol wears hand woven sweaters and pants that suit a 30 year old. None of the folk in the background ever look odd one out. The dialect is almost perfect (Although both, Gul Panag and Raima Sen, are quite good, but still they need to work more on their voice. also Raima Sen was not able to bring the mix of brutality and vulnerability in last scenes - she played it straight like a poor man's femme fatale. Probably a slightly older actress would have carried the role better). The two menacing goons that are both funny and also serve as the minor visible tentacles of the huge fungus inside.

The fish motif (Note that Sheetal's fish is bigger and more beautiful that Satyaveer's many fishes), few of the after-murder scenes are mix of something you remember from Manohar Kahaniyaan and still from De Palma films are marvellous. The fate and 'everybody has his god' climax might not please the fans of Chinatown, but it puts the film in the Indian context which connects deed and fate and also Satyaveer's family reunion looked a very honest way of celebrating the life of small town India (things happen, life goes on) in general, and Indian family (Things happen, life goes on) in particular. In the beginning Abhay Deol's Satyaveer says "agar tarakki honi hai to pehle tabahi hogi", on the surface it is direct reference to the canal and the associated false promises, but on a psychological level any progress of mind steps on the ignorance/innocence of the person. Although, we know that Satyaveer is not innocent, (he is also part of the system, he thinks he knows what goes on inside, given all this, its not a story exact about his loss of innocence, but gaining of deeper understanding of degeneration and what goes behind the closed doors. As minister P P Rathore says when reminded of the corrupt system, "aap is system ka hissa tabhi tak rahe jab tak aapko suit kiya", it must be a realization for Satyaveer that his petty bribe too fuels (or rather masks) the bigger rot inside) but the revelations of moral rot he goes through not only makes him more cynical of the people and world he lives in, and also of himself and human nature. Whether it is a compromise, or a comfort, he run back to his family. On that day of return, in true Bollywood tradition, it rains in the desert.

Honorable Mention: Black Friday (Dir. Anurag Kashyap), Johnny Gaddaar (Dir. Sriram Raghavan), Dil Dosti etc (Dir. Manish Tiwary), Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (Dir. Reema Kagti), Chak De India (Dir. Shimit Amin)

Overrated: Taare Zameen Par (Dir. Aamir Khan) [Read here], Guru (Dir. Mani Ratnam) [Read here]

Worst: Eklavya: The Royal Guard : All along, I was blabbering about obvious things like cinema is images and sound, but films like Eklavya serve only one purpose - to tell us right images with wrong intentions are most dangerous. Eklavya, in a visual level, is much better than an average Hindi film but its silly climax opens up director's pristine intentions, and his medieval plea to return back to slavery and the age of loyalty, and to muster our frail voices and to sing in Shakespearean chorus "Hail the King". Eklavya is one of those clear instances where a filmmaker has lost his soul.