Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Asian Spotlight: India, Part II

Aks / reflection / double / doppelganger / kagemusha:

A look-alike is discovered and asked to shadow the original. Strange consequences take the original out of the equation. Then the look-alike steps out of the shadow and becomes the very person that he was trying to shadow. But something even stranger then happens. The look-alike starts losing his self and he starts to identify with the original. This was the story of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha.

But recently two Indian film-makers have take this double idea and adapted it to two completely different stories, even though the leads in both movies play characters who are film extras dreaming of making it big in Bollywood. Rajat Kapoor uses the double idea and adds a nod to John Woo's Face Off in his dark and engaging film Mithya. Whereas, Rohit Jugraj takes a different approach and creates Super Star where a film extra has the same appearance with a new Bollywood actor and gets mistaken for the upcoming superstar. Mithya starts off with a touch of humour gets darker and darker until it ends in complete darkness, although that is the only possible ending. Super Star could have ended on an ironic twist at the 90 minute mark but continues for another hour to end on a customary Bollywood ending where happiness is ushered in.

I loved Mithya not only for the dark story but for the brilliant performances put in by Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak & Naseeruddin Shah. Naseeruddin plays a gangster similar to the one he played to great effect in Kaizad Gustad's Bombay Boys. Shorey & Pathak have been putting in great performances recently and they have continued that trend here.

Sensuality, beauty, magic, myth, death and reincarnation:

I absolutely adored Pan Nalin's first film Samsara which was an intoxicating mix of Buddhism and sensuality. So I was looking forward to his second feature A Valley of Flowers. Like his first film, the mountainous locales are stunning, the female lead gorgeous (Mylène Jampanoï) and the sexual chemistry electric. Even though the story is much more imaginative than Samsara, the screenplay and editing let this film down slightly. Still, the movie is worth watching.

A thief (Jalan played by Milind Soman)

comes across a woman (Ushna played by Mylène Jampanoï) during his looting quests.

Ushna wants to travel with Jalan and is not afraid of his rugged looks and band of thieves. She quickly asserts her presence in the group and promises to lead the men to untold riches. On their heels is a mysterious man (Naseeruddin Shah) who is after Ushna.

Jalan is slowly intoxicated by Ushna and turns against his friends.

The two go around stealing powers from priests and tantrics in their quest for immortality. In one of my favourite sequences in the film, Ushna steals the shadows of people with good luck so as to change her misfortune. Things take a very interesting turn when the two lovers are confronted by the mysterious man in the valley of silence (another interesting sequence in the film). From then on, the movie moves ahead a few centuries in Japan before the karmic cycle catches up with the two lovers.

Displaced by Politics:

When Mani Ratnam tackles films about political situations, he carefully manages to weave stories about relationships and family within a political context. In his political films, the focus is always on the individuals and how their lives are effected by the chaos around them. In Roja the backdrop was Kashmir and terrorism, in Bombay he set a love story against the Bombay riots while Dil Se was a passionate love story with a core thread about suicide bombers and Eastern Indian issues; Yuva was about how the younger generation in Calcutta handled politics. Now in A Peck on the Cheek, Ratnam has shifted focus to Sri Lanka where struggles between the army and militants has resulted in mass migration of people to Southern India where they were known to have languished in refugee camps.

In terms of story, screenplay and acting A Peck on the Cheek is clearly superior to Roja, Bombay, Dil Se & even Yuva. A Peck on the Cheek tackles the difficult questions of adoption and displacement in a very mature and intelligent manner. Although, Ratnam carefully avoids taking any political sides and shows the militants cause as a matter of fact without attempting to judge or put down one side. I could have done without some of the songs but the visuals in the videos are breathtaking. In terms of technical support, the stellar crew of A.R Rehman (music), Ravi K. Chandran (cinematography), Sreekar Prasad (editing) and Sabu Cyril (art direction) are in fine form and help to beautify this solid story.

Serving up an old style as a new one:

True to form, a film titled 'Style' offers no substance whatsoever. Tashan means style in Hindi slang and the film is too concerned with being cool and having smooth characters. The waver thin story is just an excuse to hop around India, having the actors dance in a few songs and dressing in funky clothing. The biggest talking point about the movie has to be Kareena Kapoor's well toned body. In this respect, she continues the recent trend of Bollywood actresses to hit the gym.

In 1989 when Maine Pyar Kiya was released, Salman Khan become the first Bollywood lead to have a six pack and a well toned body. A few years after that, hitting the gym become the in-thing in Bollywood and the film industry was packed with macho studs. With the exception of Shilpa Shetty, no other Bollywood actresses were concerned with going to the gym and this trend was limited to the male actors. But that changed in 2006 when Aishwarya Rai & Bipasha Basu showed off their well toned female form in Dhoom 2. A few other actresses followed suit after that like Esha Deol. And now Kareena Kapoor has joined the list. She is so happy with her results that she shows it off to all those interested in the video for Tashan -- Chaliya (note: the following is only a clip of the song).

At the video's start, she emerges from the ocean in a yellow bikini and the camera ensures we get a good look. And in case someone missed the view, director Vijay Krishna Acharya ensures the camera goes back for a second and third look.

Ofcourse, the six pack rush in the male actors was given another lease of life last year when Shah Rukh Khan decided to beef up and showed off his results as well in Om Shanti Om:

Religion & Inspiration:
Bhavna Talwar's Dharm received a good deal of buzz last year. Even though the film is beautifully shot, the story of a Hindu priest's values being tested was a bit weak for me. In fact, one could see where the conflict points would take place in the story long time before they happened. And also, the sermon in the end was good natured enough but once again common place in Indian movies.

I was looking forward to seeing my first film from Gautam Ghosh -- Yatra. Unfortunately, my severe disappointment with the film leaves me with little words to say. I like the overall framework of a writer's life and the writer attempting to visit his muse again, but when the inspiration was to be found in the kothas (brothel), I lost interest as this was a topic covered enough times in Hindi films since the 60's.

From Bombay to Bangkok, India to Thailand:

Nagesh Kukunoor's 1998 film Hyderabad Blues was a breath of fresh air. It was a good film put together on a shoe string budget. I missed his second film Rockford but Kukunoor took a major mis-step with 2001's Bollywood Calling, his parody about the Bollywood film industry. He brushed that failure aside and delivered a very poetic film in 2003 with 3 Deewarein. However after that he delivered a dud in Hyderabad Blues 2, a needless sequel to his debut film. A sweet coming of age cricket film in 2005 (Iqbal) was followed by his most mature film to date in 2006 with the emotionally touching Dor. So I was curious to see how his new flick Bombay to Bangkok would fare.

In essence the film is sort of half-way between his best and worst works. There are some promising moments, a very honest performance from Shreyas Talpade (who stars in his 3rd straight Kukunoor film) and some hilarious characters like the wanna be rapper son of a gangster (Naseeruddin Shah plays another don). Kukunoor tips a nod towards Iqbal and includes a replica scene from that movie in a moment when Talpade runs onto some hay to the background of music from Iqbal.

What I liked most about the movie is the title, as it indicates the next country in my Asian film spotlight: Thailand.

Film (Year, Director): Rating:

  • Mithya (2008, Rajat Kapoor): 9

  • Super Star (2008, Rohit Jugraj): 7.5

  • A Peck on the Cheek (2002, Mani Ratnam): 8.5

  • Valley of Flowers (2006, Pan Nalin): 8.5

  • Tashan (2008, Vijay Krishna Acharya): 4.5

  • Yatra (2006, Gautam Ghosh): 5

  • Dharm (2007, Bhavna Talwar): 6.5

  • Bombay to Bangkok (2008, Nagesh Kukunoor): 6.5

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