Monday, November 03, 2008

A Bihari revenge tale goes full cirle

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are two Indian states where politics is brewed with more passion than one could find in most major Indian cities. In the last few years, a few Indian film-makers such as Prakash Jha & Tigmanshu Dhulia have tackled these states cinematically. Jha, who was born in Bihar and understands his home state and even neighbouring Uttar Pradesh better than most, gave us two worthy films in the form of Gangaajal, which was about rogue cops, and Apaharan, which depicted the issue of political kidnappings. Tigmanshu Dhulia's well crafted Haasil showed how political scheming can start as early as college in Uttar Pradesh before morphing into full blown corruption and violence.

Kabeer Kaushik can add his name to the list of directors who understand Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as he set his first film Sehar in the political labyrinth of Uttar Pradesh and moves to Bihar with Chamku. The battle ground in the absorbing Sehar was between corrupt politicians along with their criminal arms vs honest cops. The film's key success was setting the story in the early 1990's just as cell phones were starting to make their way across India. Baffled by the inability to tap cell phones, the local police in the film are at a loss on how to handle the new wave of criminal activities conduced by aerial waves. Sehar shows how the local police are trained on cell phone operations via a professor and how they are able to use this new knowledge to catch criminals. Even though the film was released in 2005, the film's story about the importance of cell phones in conducting criminal activities precedes Ram Gopal Varma's underworld films such as Company (released in 2002) which depicts criminals being comfortable enough to sit in far off locations such as Kenya and ordering their henchmen to do the leg work in Mumbai via cell phones. In fact, both Sehar and Company compliment each other regarding cell phones. Company only shows the criminals on one side of the phone while Sehar shows the cops listening in on the other side.

Chamku is an old fashioned revenge story which starts and ends with a barrel of a gun.

What makes the film so interesting is that the Bihari revenge element is kept on the fringes and instead the core of the story involves the murky Mumbai surroundings of modern day political assassinations. Criminal activities in modern Indian cities often have roots in the fringe states. This is something that John Matthew Matthan understood very well and highlighted in his brilliant debut film, Sarfarosh, which showed how the porous desert border between India and Pakistan could be used to smuggle weapons which then were used to inflict damage all across the country. In Chamku the danger comes from the border between Uttar Pradesh and Nepal where bomb making materials enter the country and make their way to Mumbai. These border transactions are made easier because of corrupt local politicians in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that profit from such deals.

Chamku starts out with a battle between Naxalites and the local police forces. After the police are able to eliminate their opponents, a lone survivor Chamku (played by Bobby Deol) remains. Because of his sharp shooting skills and ability to survive, he is given a new lease of life when he is recruited by a special branch of Mumbai police to carry out killings of corrupt politicians. These covert operations take place in broad daylight amid the turf wars taking place around the city. There are plenty of characters who look out for Chamku but are tragically killed. Each time that Chamku survives, he puts it down to pure luck. But it more than just sheer luck. One can even say that it is his destiny that he will get a chance to ensure his life's story goes full circle and he is able to avenge his father's murder. Interestingly, the film's opening voice over narration points towards such a cyclic nature of ‘beginning’ and ‘end’.

The Good...
Bobby Deol is perfectly cast for this role as his stern expressions are more than enough to convey his character's feelings. There are some worthy cameos in the film (Danny Denzongpa, Ritesh Deshmukh & Rajpal Yadav) and all their characters are given relevant and interesting parts. Irfan Khan is good as usual in playing Chamku's boss.

The parallel sequences and even some of the symmetry shown in the film is a delight to watch. Examples: the gun barrel scenes and the two encounter sequences. The hunter from the first gun barrel scene becomes the prey in the finale and the prey from the first shot is firmly in power by the film's end. There are two encounter sequences in the film and in both cases, Chamku survives, the first time due to his ability to outrun the bullets and in the second case, due to some political smooth talking. The two different sequences show that encounter killing is used by police both in Bihar and even in Mumbai with both killing locations being eerily similar in their settings.

The opening sequence is quite beautifully shot. Picture perfect really! The film starts off with Chamku tied up as a prisoner in the train.

He looks towards a woman sitting across from him. Beautiful and innocent looking.

The woman turns away from Chamku and looks outside the train window. The camera then focuses on her and in her eyes one can sense nervousness and even a tinge of anticipation. It was then that I was certain that she was on a mission and was not an innocent passenger. Sure enough, that turned out to be the case. But all this was apparent because of the camera's movements and focus on the character's expressions.

The not so good...

The songs in the film are not needed and do not add anything to the story. The time wasted on songs could have been better served by more relevant scenes of the principle characters.  The film could have done with a better title as Chamku indicates a person's nickname and incorrectly presents a soft image of such a powerful film.  And finally, Priyanka Chopra is surprisingly miscast as Chamku's love interest.

Rating: 8.5/10
Overall, quite impressed with this film.

Chamku forms a cinematic bond with two other 2008 films in Mumbai Meri Jaan & A Wednesday. In Chamku before the Mumbai bomb blasts are shown, the melodious song by Mohammed Rafi & Geeta Dutt comes on.

Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan
Zara hat ke zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan

Mumbai Meri Jaan ends with this song and dealt with how the characters reacted with their loss. A Wednesday shows how one character decides to take his revenge regarding the bombings. Neither of these two films gives a true face to the criminals involved in the bombings but Chamku gives us some clues to their identities.


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nitesh said...

Hailing from Bihar and having felt the deep scars, the social decline and political turmoil the state has witnessed under the Laloo regime where everything ‘evil’ became norm and normal life almost ceased to exist, as a matter of fact, from the 80s till the time Nitish Kumar came into power the youth of Bihar seems to have been lost in a vacuum. Many interesting stories are yet to be told from the land and the cinema of ‘quality’ from Indian filmmakers such as Prakash Jha (I even worked on one his films as an asst art deco) does bring in a coat of realism but that is still far-fetched from the truth. Perhaps, it’s because of the market that the need is there to sugar-coat the truth. It's hard to see middle-class people or poor people represented today in our films.

In recent years Parakash Jha Gangjajaal was a much better film than his later offering.

I haven’t seen Chamku but with your positive review will catch the movie soon on DVD.

Sachin said...

Wow, which Prakash Jha film did you work on? I am sure the reality is far far worse than the truth. Did you ever seen the 4 hour documentary by Rakesh Sharma called The Final Solution about the Gujarat riots? The raw horror was conveyed unlike any film can manage to do.

I liked the idea of Apaharan but felt it was weaker than Gangajaal. I see Jha's next film is appropriately called Rajneeti. Wonder if it will be in Bihar again?

I do wonder if Indian film-makers can truly every portray the raw reality without any self-editing or even any compromises. Goes down to how they find funding and even where and how they manage to show their films. If a film-maker shows something which offends people, then it seems it does not take much for theaters to be pressured to remove the film?

Chamku does have its flaws but overall, I found it refreshing to watch. Have you seen Mukhbiir? I have not finished watching it yet but so far it has surprized me as well, considering I heard nothing about it. If I like it when I am done, I might post about it.

nitesh said...

Well it was a movie produced by him called Dil, Dosti, etc I was an Art Assistant and got to see the realities of the industry face to face. I haven’t seen Final Solution but will be doing some in the next few days, but I did watch Rakesh Sharma’s In the Name of God that was another important documentary on the issue and politics of Babri Masjid. I think Rakesh Sharma is one of the gifted documentary filmmakers in India.

It’s interesting that though Prakash Jha’s movies are on Bihar but it is never shot in Bihar this is one important reason why that pace, rhythm, that space of Bihar never actually comes on screen which at least to me is so important but never actually becomes an integral part of the story.

It’s simply about the narrative That is the most important reason what separates lets say a filmmaker like Prakash Jha who is dealing witt the social political change of a place and its affect on its habitant and Jia Zhangke who deals with similar themes but there is a resonance in the way realities unfold. For example, I have been researching for a while on my script on Patna, interviewing as many people from that era especially the youth to know about their lives: And the one common similarity in all of them was the ‘dead time’ where actually nothing was happening: People got up, changed clothes, meet friends drank a cup of tea, came home, slept, changed clothes, drank a cup of tea, meet at a mohallah point (colony point) before they departed and the routine continued. The only added layers were: college, cricket and slowly but steady exodus to other part of India and the rise in criminal activity.

It’s funny but when I had seen Jia Zhangke Platform it made me nostalgic and moist because it reminded me more of Bihar than of China. Those moments where nothing happens and life moves in the film reflected to me the smile, the smoke, and the journey of my hometown. Just the other day I was telling to a friend that these days we never see a middle class home or talks in our own movies or even poverty because our cinema has moved ahead. In a similar way the Prakash Jha of Damul had to, due to money and time constraint, but there is no doubt that he is a knowledgeable and a gifted visionary perhaps over the last decade his working style and methodology did change or evolve but he is one rare Indian mainstream filmmaker in whose film’s irrespective of having the same team there is an evolution of form: let say from the documentary beginning to his refinement of the stead cam in his current films.

I haven’t seen Mukhbir, but will watch Chamku. but neither of these movies got any favorable reviews

Sachin said...

Ah, Dil Dosti, etc. I liked the concept of the film -- trying to mix the confusion of youth with politics and sex. I felt it was more frank with relationships than say a film like Haasil which had a tinge of innocent romance about it. Although I felt the lead in Dil Dosti.. was not that convincing. Liked his laid back look though. There is a scene where he goes to bookstore and picks up the girl. Made me realize how rare we see bookstores in Indian films. Considering Delhi is packed with tons of great book shops, yet you hardly see those on screen.

When I saw Platform, I thought of India. Not sure which scenes in particular but I have found that I have thought of India in quite a few Asian films. Two Filipino films from last year also made me think of India, both were Brillante Mendoza's films Slingshot and Foster Child. Both were shot in slums in less than 2 weeks and Mendoza amazingly integrated big movie stars with locals. You can't imagine any Indian film-maker doing such a thing. I truly felt alive when watching those films. We see the characters in their natural habitats and can get a feel for their lives. I remember how quite a few Bollywood films even manage to make chawls look clean and pretty.

I truly got an appreciation for the pacing in Asian films, especially Tsai Ming-liang's films, when one day I caught myself shaving. I went about the process slowly, not hurrying at all. And that is when it hit me that such things are hurried in most commerical films but in reality, we don't rush when it comes to doing the daily activities. Yes, sometimes we rush but then that is an indicator of something else, lack of time, etc.
Although one should be careful not to focus too much on these "dead time" activities. I remember seeing a Chinese film, Betelnut where it looked like the director merely put the camera on a tripod and watched the two teenagers do nothing. You could tell that the shot was from a stationary camera and there was no variety from the camera movement. I counted one such sequence which lasted almost 10 min. I didn't think it should have lasted that long, but there were many such shots in the film.

You are right that in Indian films we don't see the everyday things. Sometimes I too have felt a rush of life when I saw such ordinary things on screen. It is credit to a director who can make you simply watch the character that you lose track of time. Which is why I love Tsai Ming-liang's films.

Getting back to Prakash Jha. From, I did notice that his films were not shot in Bihar. As a result, when you get the scenes with the politicians, the setting, the house, etc makes you think of Ram Gopal Varma's films, or other gangster films as they look to contain the exact same setup.

I get irked when film-makers waste the environment. I have seen Bollywood film-makers in my city shooting films in snow. The crew is freezing behind the camera but the actress is in a sari or walking gingerly. Sorry when it is snowing and freezing cold, no one walks slowly. I had written an article for NFDC where I claimed that this was further proof of Bollywood's fantasy bubble. Portraying snow as romantic drives me crazy as it is quite painful when one lives with it all the time. Yes, there are times when snow looks beautiful but having an actress in a sari?

I do long to see Indian films shot in realistic settings with no air brushing.

nitesh said...

I think an excess of anything is bad. So a director must bring forth a balance of vision. This is what most pan- Asian filmmakers with the minimalism style manage to ‘hold’ whether Tsai, Hou or even in the films of Hong Sang Soo. So a director who simply switches on his camera and talks about capturing reality unfold is hard to digest unless we watching Bela Tarr. Sad, to hear he is retiring form Cinema. It’s interesting how you mention about the pacing of our lives and how the images we see in our daily lives (films, television, and news) hardly corresponds to how we actually live.

I think commercial cinema today is only about telling stories. Rather rehash the same formula again and again. But I still get confused a lot of time; as a matter of fact each day when I see people from all walks of life enjoying such mainstream film. Although, I presonally have nothing against entertainment in cinema, but as a growing cinephile it simply provokes you to think, “Does anyone really want a change of films?” or want to read something on cinema more than the filmfare magazine and glossy juicy gossip. It’s similar to shooting in the snow example you mentioned, beside most people would never be bothered about it and Producers would boost of new localization in movies. I mean, if I want to watch new cities and their culture I would switch on discovery or Nat Geo why Bollywood. But it does not matter to the large population and adds as a selling point for the Producers.

Perhaps, it’s like we need to be given a choice or someone has to wake up to show the way. Seriously that book-shop is just another example how far our movies are from us not only in content but also in form. I’m yet to see a fillipiono film. I have heard plenty about them but its hardly available in India or on torrent.