Thursday, November 29, 2007

Since Otar Left, Killer of Sheep

Otar has left with the Killer of Sheep

We interrupt our regular programming with this breaking news!!!

"Otar has left the country along with the killer of sheep. The killer of sheep was last seen 30 years ago in 1977 but has recently surfaced again. He is a wanted target and a threat. I repeat, he is a THREAT!!! His recent relationship with Otar could prove to be very dangerous for everyone. We are working on...hang on...what?...ok."

Dead air.

"And we are back. We have just received some new information. It appears that Otar has not left with the killer of sheep. I repeat, Otar has not left with the killer of sheep. Otar has left for Paris but the Killer of Sheep is still at large. Please lock your doors and stay in front of the tv for the rest of the night. We will continue to work on this story for our 11 pm news tonight."

Booming Announcer Voice: "We NOW return to the current program".

Tick Tock. Time flies by.

11 pm. Booming Voice: "Welcome to channel 847's nightly news. Here's your host Jim Newswallah"

"Good evening and glad you could be with us. We begin with our top story involving Otar and the Killer of sheep. Police have now confirmed that Otar has illegally landed in Paris and has gone missing. He has nothing to do with the Killer of Sheep who still poses a threat to the people of the free world. For more on Otar, we join ace reporter Valencia Fernandez on location in Tbilisi".

Valencia: "Yes thank you Jim. I am in Tbilisi, Georgia covering this remarkable story about Otar. It appears that Otar left Georgia for France in order to provide a better living for his family. The economy in Georgia has been going through a rough transition after the collapse of communism and people are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, some people still fondly remember the days of Stalin and the Soviet rule. One such person who misses the old regime is Otar's grandmother Eka."

"Eka lives with her daughter Marina and grand-daughter Ada

in an apartment complex in the heart of Tbilisi. The three women had to solely relay on Otar and now they can only hope that Otar can quickly find work in Paris and send some money back."

"This is Valencia Fernandez reporting for Channel 847, Tbilisi, Georgia."

Jim: "Well that was one part of our story. It appears that Otar doesn't pose a threat to anyone at this point. But the same can't be said for the killer of sheep. Who is this killer of sheep? Why is he a danger for all inhabitants of this planet? For more on his identity, we join the hip and manly Chaz Henry in L.A"

Chaz: "Good evening Jim."

Jim: "Yes, good evening Chaz. What can you tell us about this sheep killer?"

Chaz: "Well it appears that this story has been blown out of proportion. We ain't talking about no murderer but an ordinary hard working human being."

Jim: "With a name like killer of sheep, how can be innocent?"

Chaz: "Oh he got that name because he works in a slaughter house. That's all. In fact, he don't even slice the sheep. He merely mops the floor after the sheep get killed and takes them dead sheep towards the ice storage."

Jim: "Well that explains the title. But who is this man?"

Chaz: "His name's Stan."

Chaz: "He got a wife and two little kids. The kids spend all day playing around and getting in trouble. You know, the sort of stuff that kids do.

His wife is real pretty but she don't do much work around the house. Poor Stan got to do it all. He works all day long in the slaughter house, surrounded by blood and dead sheep. He got to wipe up all the blood off the floor. Then he comes home and instead of having dinner has to either fix some appliances or something."

Jim: "So is Stan a threat?"

Chaz: "Oh I get it. The only reason we doing this story is because you all think that Stan is a threat, eh?"

Jim: "No. Not at all. We thought he was a murderer and sent our ace crew to cover the story."

Chaz: "Well you got it all wrong. Stan could never hurt a fly. Well he may one day kill a sheep. But he won't lay a finger on a human being. You see.."

Jim: "Sorry Chaz. We have to go."

Chaz: "But I ain't finished yet."

Jim: "It does not matter. Stan is of no interest to us."

Chaz: "Ain't that the problem. Just because Stan is an ordinary man with every day problems and an honest job, he ain't interesting enough for you?"

Jim: "Chaz, we really don't have time for this. We are about to go to commercials"

Chaz: "No you ain't. You ain't going nowhere until you hear about my story about Stan."

Jim: "Chaz we have no place for real humanistic stories in our news. We only cover sensational news so that we can cause fear and panic in people. Only then will people submit to the greater powers. And once we have scared them enough, we feed them with mindless entertainment to numb them further."

Camera Man #1: "Jim, we are still on air"

Jim: "F*($#*^#$$#. I thought you said we went for commercials."

Camera Man #1: "You never gave the cue."

Jim: "You want a cue. I will give you a #$*&#$ cue."

Dead Air.

Booming Voice: "Due to technical difficulties with the news broadcast, we instead join an episode of the award winning drama 'Crime Beat Team: Suburban patrol."

Since Otar Left (2003, France/Belgium, Director Julie Bertucelli): Rating 8.5/10

A very tender and touching story about the relationship between three women. Beautifully acted, especially by Dinara Drukarova who plays the young Ada. Ada is the peace maker in the house as she balances the icy wars between her mother Marina (Nino Khomasuridze) and her grandmother Eka (a very sweet and measured performance from Esther Gorintin).

Killer of Sheep (1977, Director Charles Burnett): Rating 9/10

I can't believe such a poetic and simple film about a man's everyday struggles was made in 1977. The late 1970's American cinema was known for big Hollywood blockbusters, like Star Wars which got released in 1977 as well. So it is refreshing to know such a humble independent film was made three decades ago.

Killer of Sheep pics -- Copyright © 2007 Milestone Films

Since Otar Left pics -- Zeitgeist Films

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cruel harsh reality or fiction dressed up as life?

Despair. Agony. Anger. Misery. Helplessness. Depression.

The above words could be used to describe the emotions that some soccer fans might have felt last week at their nations failure to qualify for the 2008 European Championship in Austria/Switzerland.


The above words could be used to describe the emotions that the characters experience in Austrian Ulrich Seidl's films.


Bright hot sunny days. Just another day in the suburbs. Nothing ever really happens. Silence & Sun. How to rid of the boredom?

Trim the hedges.

Or just lay around the pool.

Or one can engage in boring mechanical sex orgies (what, no pictures!!).

A microcosm of a nation or an independent culture existing within a nation?:

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days is set in an Austrian suburb. But nothing in the film can be used to describe Austria itself -- the people depicted in the suburbs may be fictional characters or based on real life individuals but their stories can't be used as a lens to observe an entire culture. But can a suburb ever represent a culture? Even though American Beauty was praised for highlighting the suburban life, it was not representative of the American culture. Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball could easily have portrayed a different set of happier and more confident characters who lived on the other side of the street. Similarly, Ulrich Seidl could have focused on characters who didn't live such bleak and depressive lives. But happy characters don't present audiences with many intelligent challenges. Not to mention that misery tends to win more awards!

Reality or fiction pretending to be reality?:

In both Dog Days & Import/Export, Seidl has filmed scenes in real locales (suburbs, apartment complexes with all the mess & garbage or an internet sex chat room) with a mix of non-professional and professional actors. Also, the camera keeps a slight distance from the characters allowing the audience to feel like a silent observer ("fly on the wall"). Such tactics appear to give the two films a verite feel and it is tempting to label the movies as 'realistic'. But that realistic feel disappears every time Dog Days rapidly cuts to a different character -- those multiple cuts do provide a reminder that Dog Days is still a manufactured film.

One can compare Seidl's style with that of Philippine film-maker Brillante Mendoza. Mendoza has shot both his 2007 films Slingshot and Foster Child on location as well (shanty towns) with a mix of professional and non-professional actors. But Mendoza used close-ups and long takes in equal proportions to fully involve the audience. Plus, his movies had more interesting story lines.

Suburbs with a difference:

American Beauty focused on a suburban family with the teenagers given some screen time. Larry Clark's Ken Park also focuses on suburban issues but looks at the movie from a teenager's point of view. Whereas, Seidl's Dog Days looks at older & retired people in the suburbs. But the age does not stop Seidl's characters in engaging in ménage à trois or sex orgies much like characters in a Larry Clark movie.


I am glad that I first saw Seidl's 2007 film Import/Export before visiting his older 2001 work, Dog Days. Import/Export focuses on two central characters and does not hide the ugliness and misery in these characters lives. But the movie is not as harsh and savage as Dog Days is. In fact, the hopelessness and cruelty shown in Dog Days makes Import/Export look like a feel good happy movie!

  • Dog Days (2001): Rating 6.5/10
  • Import/Export (2007): Rating 9/10
  • Friday, November 23, 2007

    Spotlight on Bollywood

    Love -- Dreams, Fantasy & Heartbreak:

    Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya is a combination of three sources:
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story White Nights
  • a mix of Bhansali's two older films -- Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam & Devdas
  • Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.

    If these three elements were not complicated enough, then Bhansali has to deal with the added challenge of debuting two famous Bollywood star kids -- Ranbir Kapoor & Sonam Kapoor. Since Ranbir Kapoor is the youngest actor of the famous Prithivraj & Raj Kapoor family, Bhansali has added a few tributes to the famous RK banner films. When all these elements are blended together and garnished with plenty of songs, the end result is an uneven serving of art, drama, poetry & numbing torture. Sure, at moments the true beauty of Bhansali's vision shines through but overall, this is a pretty disappointing effort.

    As far as the newcomers are concerned, they have done an outstanding job! In fact, both Ranbir and Sonam have captured the true complexities of their Dostoevsky characters perfectly. The script has only tweaked the personalities of Dostoevsky's characters slightly so it is easy to compare the actor's performances with those penned by Dostoevsky. Essentially, Raj (Ranbir) is a dreamer who tries to find happiness in life despite the lonely sadness that exists inside his heart. Sakina (Sonam) is also a dreamer but she can shift from happiness to misery in an instant. In the film, Sonam Kapoor's expressions are perfect in all scenes -- when she is laughing we can detect a hint of sadness in her smiles and when she is crying, we can detect the laughter that is about to errupt. And Ranbir Kapoor brightens up the screen with his refreshing performance and makes watching the movie bearable.

    The sets and costumes are top-notch, as one would expect in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. There is beauty to be found around every corner of the dreamy constructed city. Ravi K. Chandran's cinematography is excellent as well. There are two shots that stand out for me -- one is a hovering crane shot when Raj is running past the bridge and the second is a shot when Sakina is running in an alley. The camera follows Sakina on her run and in that brief moment, the movie does achieve a moment of beauty and poetry. Unfortunately, the numerous songs and the pointless character of Rani Mukherjee ruins any flow in the movie. If the songs were good, then it might have made things a bit more watchable but except the title song, all the remaining songs are average and the videos are badly choreographed.

    Hockey as a unifying sport:

    Rarely has a predictable movie been so enjoyable! The trailers of Chak De India give away the entire formulaic story -- a disgraced ex-field hockey player takes on a coaching job that no one wants and despite all odds, turns things around to become a hero again! But thanks to a fresh and lively cast of newcomers and some smart decisions by director Shimit Amin, Chak De India is a very pleasant film to watch. Two particular scenes stand out as being good decisions by Amin and they both involve the characters of Kabir Khan (Shahrukh Khan) & Bindia Naik (Shilpa Shukla).

  • Scene One: Bindia Naik is a senior hockey player who does not believe in following rules and makes life difficult for her coach, Kabir Khan. After a confrontation, Kabir orders Bindia off the field. The camera follows Bindia from the field to the bench and remains focused on her face while Kabir's character disappears in the background. Normally, in other Bollywood movies this is how the sequence would have been filmed -- after Kabir would have ordered Bindia off the field, the camera would have shown Bindia's face, then cut back to Kabir Khan and then cut back to show that Bindia is seated on the bench. The rule of thumb in most Bollywood films is to always focus on the 'star' whereas other characters mean nothing. In this case, Shimit gives plenty of screen time to a cast of newcomers which is a great thing to see.
  • Scene Two: Bindia is upset that she is not selected as the team captain. She confronts Kabir and mentions that she is willing to do anything to become captain. The camera is only focused on both their faces. We can hear Bindia unzip her top. The camera shifts to Kabir's face. Then the camera moves back slightly but still stays focused on both character's faces. We hear Kabir unzip Bindia's top back up. What is interesting about this scene is that the camera shows the emotion on both character's faces whereas several other Bollywood directors would instead have focused the camera on Bindia's assets and would have had a close-up shot of Kabir's hand on the zipper.

  • Both the above scenes may seem like minor aspects but the movie is packed with plenty of such tiny details. The end result of all these shots is that Shimit has ensured that the audience only focuses on the relevant details. A truly fun film!

    Drama -- Emotion & Tears:

    Feroze Khan's Gandhi, My Father is an emotional voyage about a story that has rarely been told. Everyone has heard about Mahatma Gandhi but how many people have heard about his son Harilal Gandhi? Feroze Khan has based the movie on two novels about Harilal Gandhi and included a few selected events from his life. At the film's start, we see an almost dead Harilal. While lying in a hospital bed, he remembers certain key moments of his life. Via flashbacks we see some episodes from Harilal's life -- his youth, education and marriage followed by his failed business ventures to his religious conversions & eventual decline.

    While the movie has some flaws (pacing mostly), it can't be ignored. Khan has set up his scenes in such a manner that we can truly focus on Gandhi's son. Even though Harilal made some wrong decisions in his life, the film tries to simply depict his gradual decline and misery without passing judgment. Sometimes, incidents in a person's childhood forever alter the course of their life. In Harilal's case, at a very early age his father's principles alienated him and shocked him deeply.

    Personally, it was difficult to watch this movie because it was clear that there was no happiness around the corner. Even when people help Harilal or offer him shelter, it is clear that nothing can save him from the path of destruction. Gandhi death's shocked the nation whereas Harilal quietly disappeared from the world 5 months after his father. Credit goes to Feroze Khan for making this movie. It is not an easy film to watch but it is one that I can't get out of my mind. Even writing these words makes me shudder at the thought of Harilal's fate.

    Comedy -- Ghosts, Treasure Hunts & some romance:

    Did Priyadarshan get lucky with his 2000 film Hera Pheri? That movie is still one of the best comedies to have come out of Bollywood in the last decade. But since then, Priyadarshan has directed a handful of comedies with mixed results -- movies such as Hulchul, Hungama & Garam Masala had plenty of hilarious moments but the movies were also plagued with poor stories. Based on that track record, I didn't have too much hope from Bhool Bhulaiyaa but was pleasantly surprized! The movie is an easy mix of humour, horror and mystery. The first hour flows at such a leisurely pace that it is difficult to believe that this is a Priyadarshan film. But things pick up considerably as soon as Akshay Kumar enters the screen at the hour mark. In fact, within two minutes of screen time, Akshay Kumar injects more life into the film than that of the previous hour. Eventually, things settle down and head towards a very interesting climax. Not bad.

    Well any good work that Priyadarshan achieved with Bhool Bhulaiyaa, he wasted it with Dhol, a terribly boring comedy about 4 friends who want to get rich quickly. Awful screenplay and bad acting.

    Dhamaal is also a comedy about 4 men who want to get rich fast but it is a much better effort than Dhol. The humour in Dhamaal is good and the jokes are evenly distributed throughout the movie so that the comedy does not get too dull. Even though the movie was decent to watch, a better story with some additional editing could have made this a much better film.

    David Dhawan made his name in Bollywood with crude & vulgar comedies in the early 90's with Govinda as his star. Eventually, Govinda dropped out of the pictures and Dhawan moved onto less crude comedies with Salman Khan. Over the last few years, he has tried different pairings for his comedies -- Salman Khan & Sanjay Dutt, Govinda with Sanjay. And now finally he has paired Govinda with Salman. Unfortunately, Dhawan forgot to have a screenplay. As a result, Partner is just a painful movie, even by David Dhawan's standards. In fact, Partner is so bad that it makes me long for his crude comedies from the 90's.

    Cheeni Kum may have sounded like a good idea on paper but ends up being a pretty dull end product. Yawn.

    Action -- Fight, Explosives & Loud Noise:

    Watching Anubhav Sinha's Cash was pure torture! The pointless loud action sequences combined with awful performances and a poor screenplay made Cash a real waste of money. The best aspect of the movie is the closing credits song -- "Aye Chorrey". That last song is pleasant to hear and shot in an easy cool manner, unlike the rest of the film. Yuck!

    Sholay is still considered to be one of the best Bollywood movies ever made! It is perfect in every aspect -- great screenplay, fascinating characters (the villain Gabbar Singh is still the greatest ever villain in Indian, yes Indian not just Bollywood, film history) & memorable music. So when Ram Gopal Varma wanted to remake the movie as a matter of tribute, it sounded like a bad idea. But no one could have ever imagined that the director of such cutting edge films as Rangeela & Satya would go on to make one of the worst films in Bollywood's history. It is shameful to even say Aag is someone's tribute to Sholay. Every scene is packed with mistakes -- bad acting, poor screenplay, terrible characters and forgettable songs. Unfortunately, I still can't give this movie a Rating of 0 because there are some decent camera angles in the movie. In some scenes, the camera hovers effortlessly over the characters and in most scenes, the camera is below the waist level and glares upwards towards the characters. Ofcourse, one easily forgets this good camera work when any character opens their mouth. Painful, utter torture!!!

    Film (Director): Ratings out of 10
    Note: All movies released in 2007

    Chak De India (Shimit Amin): 8.5
    Gandhi, My Father (Feroze Khan): 8
    Bhool Bhulaiyaa(Priyadarshan): 7.5
    Saawariya (Sanjay Leela Bhansali): 7
    Dhamaal (Indra Kumar): 6.5
    Cheeni Kum (R. Balki): 5.5
    Dhol (Priyadarshan): 4.5
    Partner (David Dhawan): 4
    Cash (Anubhav Sinha): 3.5
    Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag: 2

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    Spotlight on Greece

    When one thinks of Greece, the images that come to mind are either those of the beautiful Greek Islands or the fascinating historical structures of Athens. But what about Northern Greece that shares a border with Eastern Europe? Even though Greece is grouped in Western Europe, it is south of Eastern European countries such as Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Decades ago this East-West divide was made on political grounds but unfortunately, this tag of Eastern vs Western Europe still holds in today's age of the European Union.

    Online Map/Still. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Nov. 2007

    Greek soccer as a history lesson:

    My education of European geography has partly been fueled by European soccer but unfortunately Greek soccer has failed to give me an accurate picture of Greece. Just like Turkish soccer is dominated by three teams from Istanbul, Greek soccer is dominated by the big three from Athens -- Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens. Olympiacos is the biggest of the three and have won 35 league titles including 10 of the last 11 championships. Panathinaikos have won 19 titles with AEK Athens bagging 11. The last time a team other than the three won a title was Larissa back in 1988, almost 2 decades ago. In fact, during the entire history of the Greek Championship from 1928 to 2007 (no championships were held from 1940-45), only 6 titles have gone to teams outside the big three. Larissa have one title, with two teams from Thessaloniki claiming the other 5 titles -- Aris with 3, PAOK with 2.

    While Greek soccer may not highlight the different Greek cities & cultures, this uneven balance does explains the nation's one-sided structure -- Athens is not only the capital but also the financial hub. Not to mention the historical significance that Athens occupies in Greek history. So if soccer can't broaden my view of Greece, then surely Cinema can help? Right? Thankfully, this is where Theodoros Angelopoulos comes in.

    The Balkan Connection -- opening the borders:

    Theo Angelopoulos' 1995 film Ulysses' Gaze takes a look at Greek ties with its neighbouring Balkan countries. Harvey Keitel plays a Greek director who returns from America in search of three missing reels of the first ever Balkan movie. But the search for the three missing reels proves to be an elusive quest. His search for the reels takes him to neighbouring Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and eventually Bosnia. It turns out that each country has an equal claim to the film reels and as the director drifts from border to border, his past flashes before him. The memories of his childhood are mixed with the present political situations he finds himself in, such as the ongoing war. One interesting aspect of the movie is that the same actresses is used to play different roles in each country. This simple technique conveys the fact that no matter which country the director goes to, he sees the same image of the woman he desires. If people are the same everywhere then what is the need for fictional borders?

    There are plenty of beautiful shots in the movie like the following poetic and haunting sequence which depicts a statue of Lenin being transported.

    With the fall of communism, there is no longer any need to have Lenin displayed everywhere. In a subtle manner, the movie shows the changing political landscape of the Balkan nations and their re-birth after years of communism. Despite the noble intentions, Ulysses' Gaze is a bit disjoint and tends to oscillate between interesting moments and dullness in equal parts.

    Exile and Love:

    Even though Angelopoulos's 2004 film The Weeping Meadow starts off with scenes of a border crossing, the movie is about Greek political history over a span of three decades. At the film's start, exiled Greeks return from Odessa in 1919 to settle back in their homeland; the returning Greeks have been promised land in Thessaloniki to start their new life. One of the newly returned citizens is a young orphan girl, Eleni. Eleni is the film's central character and the story follows her life from childhood to teenage love, marriage and growth of her two children against the backdrop of communism, World War II, a Greek civil war (where a brother is pitted against brother) and exile of Greeks to America to start a new life.

    In some aspects, this film covers the same grounds as Emir Kusturica's Underground in showing how war can tear a country apart. While Underground was a vibrant film which focused on surreal elements, The Weeping Meadow takes a realistic approach to the tragedies that surround the characters. But just like Undergound, The Weeping Meadow features some haunting gypsy music which provides joy to the characters in moments of their sorrow.

    The film features some amazing visuals which make use of brown and greyish tones to depict the character's bleak situations.

    This is supposed to Theo's first film of a proposed trilogy. It will be interesting to see what direction he will take with the other two films.

    Greek-Turkish Rivalry:

    Historically, there has been has a rivalry between Greece and Turkey. But when did this rivalry start? One clue can be found in the name of AEK Athens. AEK spells out Athlitiki Enosis Konstantinoupoleos or the Athletic Union of Constantinople. The history of the club reveals that the team was founded in 1924 by Greek refugees who returned from Constantinople following the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922. That war forms one aspect of the rivalry with a more recent one being that of Cyprus.

    "Cyprus." Online Map/Still. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Nov. 2007,

    Shamefully, I knew nothing of the two nations historical involvement over Cyprus. I had hoped that Mihalis Kakogiannis' documentary Attila '74 would provide some answers. Kakogiannis does provide some historical context of Cyprus prior to its independence in 1960 but the film does not answer even the basic question of how the 1974 war started or who fired the first shot. Kakogiannis focuses more on the displacement of the innocent Cypriots who were caught in the political cross-fire and gives a voice to the locals plight. But when Kakogiannis tries to dig up reasons for the war, he unfortunately interviews the wrong people. As a result, the political message in the documentary appears to be more propaganda rather than an objective historical portrayal.

    Romance and a Greek Tragedy:

    It would have been unfair to not have included a film in the Greek spotlight which didn't feature those picturesque Greek islands. Kakogiannis' 1956 film A Girl in Black starts off with beautiful images of white washed buildings of Hydra.

    The small population of Hydra means that all the local residents know each other and one person's affair is gossip material for everyone else. This over-intrusive behaviour can force a person to live in a constant state of hell. Such is the case of Marina, who is hounded and chased for an affair she had a few years back.

    When Pavlos, a visiting tourist, arrives in Hydra, Marina temporarily finds happiness. This is one of the few shots where we actually see a smile on her face.

    Some of the island's macho men can't stand the fact that a stranger can fall for one of the locals, especially Marina. Christos is the leader of the macho group and he has more reason to be jealous because he once had an affair with Marina. He plots a revenge to teach Pavlos a lesson. But as it turns out, that lesson leads to a wider scale tragedy that has an impact on most of the island's residents.

    Plenty of interesting aspects stand out from the revenge that Christos and his group plan. Even though certain locals know that Christos is responsible for the tragedy, they are willing to be quiet and are instead content with heaping blame on Pavlos's arrival to the island. This nature of a group of men sticking together despite the obvious evil deeds of a group member is such a commonly found problem in modern society -- 'us' against 'them', locals vs outsiders. Even though it was clear that the local macho men were always looking for trouble, the island residents were more than willing to turn a blind eye to everything Christos & his group did and instead lay blame on the foreigner.

    Overall ratings out of 10:
    A Girl in Black (1956, Director Mihalis Kakogiannis): 9
    The Weeping Meadow (2004, Director Theodoros Angelopoulos): 8.5
    Ulysses' Gaze (1995, Director Theodoros Angelopoulos): 7.5
    Attila '74 (1975, Director Mihalis Kakogiannis): 6

    Friday, November 16, 2007

    No Smoking revisited

    I had a different experience watching Anurag Kashyap's film No Smoking a second time. There was no rush of excitement, just calm admiration. I picked up on little details that I missed the first time around and came close to confirming my theory about the film's meaning. As the final credits rolled, I mused about the clues. But then something happened which I didn't expect. There was an additional scene after the credits. Damn! This scene didn't exactly shatter my theory but simply made it very clear what the movie was about. But why was this scene there? Why? And then after that scene, there was one final song with Bipasha Basu. And at the song's conclusion, an un-necessary finale (can be a surprize depending on one's viewpoint).

    I was also able to correct an earlier observation where I believed one scene reveled the film's true reality. There is no one such scene but a series of scenes which reveal what is going on. However a lot of elements in the film appear to be simply thrown in for a wow factor (memory flash back with canned laughter, side story about Cuba and the display of the character's inner thoughts) and add no value to the movie. Unless that one scene after the credits is removed, then these other cool scenes have some purpose.

    Still an interesting and worthy effort!

    Notes: Some elements in the movie that I loved. These won't make sense unless one has seen the movie.
    -- The call centre for troubled souls
    -- The Rs.1 coin needed for a soul to call its body for help: inner voice
    -- The pyramid chain scheme where friends sold out their friends only to save themselves: every man for himself, society today.
    -- Calcutta Carpets set-up: hell in an earthly form, complete with receipts.
    -- The bath-tub: each troubled soul in the film has a safe spot to hide in; a vessel from which they go to their happy place. K heads to the bathtub whenever life is getting too much for him whereas other characters either hide under the bed or in a closet.
    -- The police interrogation room: voice of reason/logic?
    -- The film's visuals & sound -- dark when they have to be.

    Additional comment:
    A lot of the reviews about this movie mention how the story idea is similar to Stephen King's short story Quitters, Inc. Not having read the short story, I can only go on the rough story outline that I have found. From those outlines, it does appear that the idea of using torture to make someone quit smoking has been inspired from King's story. But the additional layers of Kafka and the soul vs body struggle appears to be Kashyap's.

    Still, the lack of a tag which acknowledges that the film was "inspired" by King's story does dampen my feelings about the movie a bit. Why? Because such an act follows the trend of other Bollywood film-makers who choose not to credit their sources.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007

    Bollywood's Fab 4 in Three Takes

    Take 1: Johnny & Manorama -- Partners in Crime

    "Bol kya naam hai tera" (Tell me your name)
    "Johnny Johnny.....telling your mouth."

    When I first saw the trailer of Johnny Gaddaar, I was intrigued. Then I heard the music and I was hooked. I couldn't wait for the film but considering that this was not a big budget Bollywood movie, I knew it would be a long wait before I would get my hands on this film. In the meantime, I marveled at the film's simple yet perfect title. "Gaddaar" can be roughly translated as Traitor. But traitor can't fully express the emotion involved -- Gaddaar is not just a traitor but a sinister person who has gone over and beyond the limits of decency; the emotion contained in the word 'Gaddaar' reflects both the anger and disgust over such a person's action. Johnny Gaddaar's trailer shows 5 men sitting at a card table, cut to images of piles of cash, cut to fast paced action, a speeding train & a beautiful woman. Who is the Gaddaar? Johnny, ofcourse! But which of the 5 men is Johnny?

    While I was waiting to learn about Johnny, I came across Manorama from the film Manorama Six Feet Under. The trailer indicated a murder mystery/darkish film cut in the mould of 2006's Being Cyrus. Now, I also wanted to track down Manorama.... But just like Johnny.., it would be a long wait. And thankfully, in both cases, the wait was worth it.

    Johnny Gaddaar (2007, Director Sriram Raghavan): Rating 9/10

    Usually when one has high expectations from a movie, they tend to be disappointed. But any such fears were dispelled within a few minutes of the film. Johnny Gaddaar's opening credits are probably the best I have seen in a long while and are modeled on 70's Bollywood movies where melodramatic music accompanied large bold text and images of the film's key moments.

    In that regard, it is clear that Johnny Gaddaar gives a nod to those Bollywood movies from an era long gone.

    The film is a delightful look at the 5 con men's lives and the women who live with these men (either physically with them or in their mind).

    The movie's opening minutes give us a short but relevant look at the 5 men going about their regular life. From those few shots we can gather enough about their personalities and the weakness that exist in these men's lives. None of the characters are good men but are people who walk the gray line between good and bad. Shardul (played by Zakir Hussain) is the only person who appears to swim regularly in the pool of evil

    while the leader of the pack, Sheshadri "It's not the age, it's the mile-age" (Dharmendra)
    is someone who has gotten out of that same pool long ago and now simply arranges under the table deals.

    Very early on the film we know who Johnny is.

    But the true fun is watching how the other characters react -- no one knows who this Gaddaar is, so they all try to guess the culprit by analyzing the people around them. This is where we truly get a glimpse of the evil that lurks in these men's hearts. Sriram Raghavan has done an amazing job in allowing the film to continue long after when other movies would have ended. With a body count of 2, many other directors might have let the film end. But Johnny Gaddaar continues and throws in one final wicked twist with a subtle deceit.

    It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a Bollywood film as much as this. Plus, the film contains many great one-liners, something that was present in all those 70's Bollywood movies. On top of that, there are plenty of references to old Bollywood movies and the sinister plot in the movie is inspired from Amitabh Bachchan's Parwana.

    Manorama Six Feet Under (2007, Director Navdeep Singh): Rating 8.5/10

    Ah Rajasthan! sultry, colorful and exotic Rajasthan.

    Errr, this is not that Rajasthan!

    This is a hot, dry and dull Rajasthan. A small village where nothing happens. Nope. Nothing. It is a place where a writer Satyaveer (Abhay Deol) lives with his wife and his child.

    His first novel (a pulp mystery) was a flop and sold only 200 copies. Satyaveer is ashamed of his novel so much that he doesn't even keep a copy at home. But everything changes in his life when one night a mysterious woman visits him. As it turns out, this woman's name is Manorama (played by a very graceful Sarika), same as the character in Satyaveer's novel. Coincidence? Manorama wants Satyaveer to investigate the local politician P.P Rathore and take pictures of Rathore's possible affair. Even though Satyaveer has no experience in spying on people, Manorama encourages him because she is a big fan of his book and thinks that if he can write such an interesting detective story, he can surely catch P.P Rathore in the act.

    But Satyaveer finds nothing out of the ordinary in Rathore's life. And just like that, Manorama disappears. He tries to find her but only runs into a dead end. Did she even exist? Just when he has given hope of finding her, he runs into a scared Manorama one more time where she blurts out that her life is in danger and if something happens to her, he should remember two facts -- her name is Manorama and her age is 32.

    This is where the story could have ended had Satyaveer chosen to do nothing. But his curiosity gets the better of him and he tries to dig up more about her life.

    Each door that he opens leads him into more trouble -- he is beaten up by thugs, has his motorcycle stolen, his wife leaves him, he falls for another woman

    and is constantly threatened & under watch. Alone and helpless, he has nothing to turn to except two facts -- the name Manorama and age of 32. Only then, does the bright sun-light finally make his mind tick.

    Although the film's pace is leisurely and tends to dip in parts, this is still a finely crafted film. The most impressive aspect is how much attention Navdeep Singh has paid to tiny details like getting the locales and feel of a small Rajasthani town right. There is one scene in the movie which is genius if Singh intended it to be. P. P Rathore (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is giving a speech at a school function. Then Rathore does something which appears to be harmless but certainly catches the eye. I must admit this scene forced me to think of the mystery in a different light. When we finally learn the truth in the end, this scene takes on more importance because it fits in with Rathore's personality. But can any director intend such tiny detail? Or was Kharbanda diving too much into character? Or was that simple scene just a coincidence? Whatever the case maybe, Manorama Six Feet Under is certainly a film that deserves to seen and not buried under the massive pile of Bollywood movies.

    Take 2: Lights, Camera, Action...arrey Cue music.

    Om Shanti Om (2007, Director Farah Khan): Rating 8.5/10

    Song, Dance, Melodrama, Action, Tears, Emotion! That is Bollywood in a nut-shell. I grew up watching these fascinating talkies. When I was a child, I too was in awe of the stars -- I spoke the famous Amitabh one-liners from his films and listened to all the songs. Only when I grew up and looked back on these movies did I realize that these movies were quite bad. Most of those 70's and 80's Bollywood films had choppy editing, songs which popped out of nowhere and featured over the top acting. Even though Bollywood has improved since then, some of those old problems of recycled stories still exist. Farah Khan's enjoyable Om Shanti Om is a celebration of not only those horribly cheesy Bollywood films from 3 decades ago but even the bad Bollywood trends that exist today.

    The first 30 minutes are a hilarious poke at elements which plagued Bollywood movies from the 70's -- melodramatic acting (if a son arrived home late at night, the mother almost had a heart-attack), bad costumes, cartoonish dance stops (only Bollywood can turn a badminton court into a song prop) and egoistic actors. Then just before the interval, the humour is put on hold when a darkish element creeps into the story. But even this dark tragedy is in keeping with the movie's overall theme of poking fun at Bollywood as the story is an updated version of Subhash Ghai's Karz. And keeping with the theme of modern Bollywood, Om Shanti Om takes the essence of 1980's Karz and spices it up with a twist element now found in many Bollywood films.

    The acting and story are top-notch. As are the special effects of the film, especially the ones which inject a modern day Bollywood heroine into songs from 3 decades ago. If there is a let down with the film, it is with the music and some of the videos. Considering that Farah Khan has been one of Bollywood's leading choreographers and her first film Main Hoon Na featured lively videos, the average subdued videos in Om Shanti Om are disappointing. Also, the music is too low key. Now that could have been an intended choice but if a movie is poking fun at films, it should atleast have better music than the movies it is making fun of. Although, the finale song is a perfect update of the climatic song from Karz. I grew up loving Karz -- the reincarnation story really was something that has stayed with me over the years. And watching Om Shanti Om made me realize why one loves Bollywood in the first place -- that oh so Happy Ending!

    Kudos also goes to Farah Khan for rolling out the red carpet for the film's cast and crew in the final credits. Just like in her first film, Farah turns the camera on all the people who worked on the film right from the producers to the spot boys.

    Take 3: No Lights but just smoke

    No Smoking (2007, Director Anurag Kashyap): Rating 10/10

    The best Bollywood film of the year has finally arrived. Everyone step back and mind the smoke.

    A nightmare that gives way to a grey reality which leads towards a dark path into hell, which switches back to reality before finally diving down the hole into a hellish climax. And then after the flames die out, a soul-less body exists!

    Huh? What does it all mean? Does it really matter what it means? Even if one tries to analyze cinema objectively, a person still reacts with a dose of subjectivity to what one sees in a movie -- one can't help reacting by instinct. Watching this movie, I remembered such films as The Game (1997), Fight Club, Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and the The Devil's Advocate. Call me crazy but one scene reminded of David Lynch's Inland Empire. There is a scene in No Smoking where the main character's memory is portrayed as a soap-opera with canned laughter. I thought of those soap-opera rabbits from Inland Empire.

    And then there is the reference to Kafka. The main character is simply named K, a person (John Abraham) who can't stop smoking. He is beyond addiction. His wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia) wants to leave him because she can't stand his smoking. Finally, K decides he will try to quit. He is referred to a guru who can help him but his search leads him into the lower depths, literally. What follows is only a horrific nightmare.

    There are plenty of clues in this non-linear film which give an idea as to the film's meaning but I still need to see the movie a second time to exactly draw lines at the moments of dream-reality sequences. Although, there is one scene, only one, which might give us a glimpse into the true reality of this movie. But at the end of the day, despite the questions, I can't help respond to this film instinctively. A fascinating mind bending roller coaster nighmarish ride of a person's soul through the darkest paths of hell. Wow!

    Note: Updated comments added here

    The versatility of Vinay Pathak:

    One of the best characters of 2006's Khosla Ka Ghosla was Vinay Pathak's Asif who teaches the film's characters on how to get revenge with a land shark. Vinay Pathak also played the idiot in Bheja Fry, an Indian remake of the delightful French comedy The Dinner Game. Now he has turned in two more colorful performances in Johnny Gaddaar and Manorama Six Feet Under. In Johnny he plays a gambler who can't avoid the cards

    whereas in Manorama he plays a well meaning cop who is Satyaveer's only real friend in the movie.

    Vinay has a few more interesting films coming up and one of them is Sudhir Mishra's slick looking Khoya Khoya Chand. I can't wait to see more of him on screen!