Boyhood and the art of gimmick.

There is a scene in ‘Boyhood’ that comes five minutes before the end credits. Olivia (played with amazing restraint by Patricia Arquette), breaks finally and yells at her son who is leaving home for college: “..then I sent Sam to college and now you. You know whats next? my fucking funeral. I thought…I thought there will be more…” and in probably the best cut in the entire film, there is a beautiful aerial shot of a lush highway. Brief Silence. That for me was the essence of the entire film, in one fleeting moment. The answer to the question my friend Nishant famously asks any film – ‘why should this story be told?’. But I had to wait more than two hours for Linklater’s answer.

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‘Boyhood’ is a unique cinematic experience where your affinity and affection for characters grows organically, progressively. They all falter but most rise and win your love over time. It is something to experience. And time itself is the protagonist – in the sense that it prevails over every character and remains unconquered by the end of it all – much like John Wayne or Rajinikant, if you may. And much like either of the afore-mentioned gentlemen, it is ‘time’ that seems to be the poster boy, selling the film at box offices and award circuits – ‘Its that film that got made over 12 years! So awesome, no?’.

But as much as you journey with these characters intimately across Real passage of time, you really don’t get to know anyone personally. The writer doesn’t let you. It is almost like you traveled with them for years on a Mumbai local train. You know their faces. They grow older in front of you. They might even smile at you. But you really don’t know anything about their lives – their Loves, embarrassments, hatreds, ambitions, pains or fetishes. And there in lies the tragedy of Boyhood – a film that had twelve years to get to know itself, but was just too lazy to. The result is a mind numbing menu of set pieces – Olivia is a professor and so she always had to be surrounded by books on a table; Mason is an adolescent and like all cool adolescent stereotypes in film history, he should talk less and be a non-conforming rebel; There is even a beer drinking, ex-army husband of Olivia who walks around home with his work jacket (with the word ‘Corrections’ written behind it) – the kind of role you would cast Ronit Roy in, without battling an eyelid; There is also a scene completely disconnected from the rest of the film – a customary boy’s washroom scene with high school bullies – why? because what kind of coming-of-age-Hollywood-film doesn’t have a boys washroom high school bully scene? Duh!

But there are refreshing breaks. Over the years, the kids’ father – played by the ever earnest Ethan Hawke, comes over to take them on little, fun trips. And they are breaks for the audience as well. The conversations Mason has with his father are the best written parts of this film and then there is the legendary scene in which Father, son and daughter learn to have more interesting, less awkward ‘car conversations’. But for the rest of it, this viewer felt extremely let down and even border line bored. Which made me wonder, is this really an underwhelming independent film, making news ‘only’ for the length of its shoot? Isn’t that a bit gimmicky?

The film ends with this scene, set in the beautiful Big Bend (spoiler alert). Nine out of ten film makers I know, would have re-shot this or used a different take. Why? the last line is flat and Ellar Coltrane is sleep walking through this take (unless of course that was his brief for the entire film). But it might just become known in history as the famous last scene of an Oscar winning film. Coz ‘Its that film that got made over 12 years!!!’.

Trip.

There is a scene in Imtiyaz’s ‘Highway’, in which Alia is sitting on a rock in the middle of a potent river, that is overwhelming both in its flow and in its roar. She starts laughing uncontrollably, one that is soon overcome by tears. The soulful brilliance of being one with nature and the painful absurdity of life as she has lived it until then…she gets it. We get it as well, for it is not just her reflection at that moment but ours too (Even the guy next to me who was on the phone telling his friend “aa raha hoon’ since intermission, paused for a few seconds). There is neither a background score or lines in that scene. Just a cut from her to the river and back. It is for moments like this that we go to the movies. Thank you, Mr. Ali.

‘Highway’ is a simple film that is bound to be many things. More number of friends (than you would like), will talk about how they cant believe ‘Alia was the same girl who was in SOTY’. Some will tell you they saw a lot of ‘Jab we met’ in this film. A few ‘elites’ will even tell you how the film is ’15 mts longer than it should be’. Everyone will discuss the locations and Delhiites might fondly remember their drives to Spiti or Leh. And everyone will talk about Alia and her interpretation of this character, more than anything else. And not a single time would it be undeserved.

I hope they mention Aarti Bajaj, who dances with your mind and pulls out cuts that make this film almost genre-less. I hope many mention the Hariyanvi who plays the male lead so beautifully. In the scene at the bus stand where he smiles in the film for the first time, you can almost feel the actor’s relief that a writer has finally given him a part that he could sink his teeth into. Or the original score. I feel this is one of Rahman’s best as far as background scores go – something that he has always treated like Sachin would, his bowling – indifferently. I hope they mention the casting. And mention it many times, because a film like this relies on the world that the supporting cast creates, more than the protagonists who wander in it. The Durgesh Kumars (Aadoo) and the Pradeep Nagars (Tonk) of this film who dont even have an IMDB page yet, make you wonder how this director / casting director combo went so wrong with a leading lady famously in their last outing.

Above all, I hope many who have watched this film, remember it for the honesty of the writer, director. Nothing epitomizes that more than the last scene. What a way to call for the curtains! You can tell that this is a story told told almost exactly the way it was conceived. Much like the brownish water gushing out of an irrigation hose that Alia dips her face into in one of the scenes, this is pretty much direct from the ground. And that makes this film an ‘experience’ you should make time for. This is (like a famous motorcycle brand’s tag line), a ‘Trip’.

Getting the drift…

Why talk about a film that you saw three full weeks back? Because I can? I should? it was important enough to be documented? No. It is more like ‘I somehow still remember how I felt after watching this film and so I need to get this thing off my chest’.

There is a scene in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Kadal’ (Ocean), conveniently set in a prison, in which the character played by Arvind Swamy is dressed in White and the one played by Arjun, in black. I am led to believe that it was apparently because they represent Good & Evil in the narrative. This nuance has as much depth as the practice of buying blue or pink balloons, depending upon the new born’s gender, when you go to visit the parents in the hospital. And this is the kind of fare you are dished out throughout this film. How and when did Mani Ratnam get so simplistic? What motivates him to make a film like Kadal? A few years back, I swore to never say that a film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – only whether I ‘liked’ it or not. So this is largely from the eyes of a fan, who doesn’t quite understand the job description of a film ‘critic’.

‘Kadal’ has one of the most stunning soundtracks by Rahman in the last year. The genre is so diverse that when you listen to it for the first time, you wonder how the blues, rap and jazz is going to blend in with the rustic Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) fishing hamlet, where the film is set in. Turns out, it is not just the genre. If you listen to the lyrics, it is as though the songs themselves were written for a different film. For example, the title track ‘Magudi’ is about a woman talking to a man who she is obviously smitten by. This is overlaid on a scene where a prostitute’s son is being shunned by his own society. ‘Nenjukulle’ – another song that is in the words of a woman hopelessly in love with her man is filmed as a duet where the man is in love and the woman might or might not even know it, given her mental condition.

Kadal starts off with a blast. One of the most powerful and intriguing first 30 mts of any Tamil film that I have seen in the recent past. A mother (who the society considers immoral) has just died and is given a customary burial by her lover, on the beach. Her child looks on. The makeshift wooden box being used as a coffin is too small to fit her legs and so they break and badger it in. The child cries.The theatre chokes and your subconscious mind whispers – ‘welcome back, Mr. Ratnam’. The film probably has many such moments, later on. May be I missed them or they did not register. Because somewhere in the next one hour, I stopped caring for the child, who is by then a man and the protagonist. And the others.

Talking of others, there is one actor who is obviously relishing every scene that he is in. The amazing Arjun – one of the most underrated Indian actors, who has consistently surprised the Tamil audience over the years (with films like ‘Kurudhipunal’, ‘Rhythm’ & Mudhalvan), is among the few to survive the screenplay and come out of it largely unscathed, even though the lines have been particularly unfair to his character. To watch him in the opening scenes as a priest who indulges in ‘sin’ and generally seen having a good time, is one of the few convincing and enjoyable moments in the film.

‘Kadal’ is actually the least Maniratnam-ish film that Maniratnam has made. The writing doesnt have his strong footprints. Jayamohan’s script and dialogues are so rooted that you hardly find the typical ‘Ratnam’isms like truncated, anglicized sentences or out-of-the-blue references to Subramaniya Bharati’s works. There is so much attention to detail (especially to the local slang and life), that you often sit up and wonder whether you are actually in the middle of a classic. But after a point, you just avoid ‘sitting up’ altogether.

I recently read a book about Maniratnam. While largely forgettable, the book (which is written as an interview with the director) conveyed something very important in the journey of this creator. It seemed like as a story teller, he was becoming more and more conscious of efficiency and is ready to sacrifice indulgence for objectivity. You could see a lot of this in Guru and Raavan, where you almost wish the film would linger more on the characters so you start to love or hate them – at the least, just care about them. I wonder whether somewhere in this ‘correction’, the artist was killed by the ‘management graduate’.

The climax of the film is shot amazingly well on a fishing boat, which is inexplicably sailing in the middle of a storm. No one really knows why it is there and where it is headed. Ironically, you feel pretty much the same way about the script which by then has drifted beyond the horizon for you. You feel lost. I was told a week after by a friend, that the film is essentially about Good Vs Evil and largely inspired by Dante’s work (the association apparently goes beyond the character ‘Beatrice’). I dint get it. May be this film was meant for a more ‘evolved’ audience. I am just the lowly ‘paying public’, who thought a film titled  ‘Kadal’ will actually have more ‘Ocean’, than just in the climax. I walked out tired and parched.

Parting ways – a weekend with Blessy & Farhadi

Watching a film is a lot like having a drink. You soak in a bit of your soul in it, there is almost always a hangover, the experience can be enthralling or nauseating and most importantly, you should never mix two kinds successively. I did and it was brilliant.

I have never seen any of Asghar Farhadi’s films before and so the first time I heard about it was from the awards circuit. I have loved and worshiped Iranian film makers over the years (like millions of others globally) and like everybody else, have wondered endlessly about the seemingly effortless magic they have been able to weave around human and social drama, time and time again. So, when I sat down to watch ‘A Separation’, I was ready for moving, profound cinema – the kind that your mind sub-consciously prepares itself for the moment it sees olive leaves on a DVD cover.

What I was not prepared for though was a stunning piece of film that gave me one of my most intimate experiences ever with cinema. Two minutes into it, the audience is introduced to the most important character in the film – the green glass door of a house that will host four beautiful, yet tragically and dis-harmonically juxtaposed characters: A husband and wife contemplating a divorce, a pregnant mother who enters their life as a maid and their daughter (played wonderfully by Sarina Farhadi – the auteur’s own daughter).

A simple incident of the maid leaving the husband’s aged father alone for a few hours to go for a doctor’s check-up, spawns a series of turns that include a miscarriage, a divorce, and a murder charge. Though dramatic, these elements are weaved together in a screenplay with emotions that the audience is always able to relate to. To borrow from the inimitable Roger Ebert – “The film involves its audience in an unusually direct way, because although we can see the logic of everyone’s position, our emotions often disagree”. Farhadi uses his craft so well to bring us closer to his characters: A large part of the film has been shot from the POV of a judge hearing the case (metaphorically putting the audience in the jury throughout the film); The husband’s father – suffering from Alzheimer’s goes around as a mute (and probably the only) witness to everything that happens in the house; The most important scene in the film – when the husband encounters the maid for the first time, happens in a fleeting moment that the audience themselves don’t take note of and hence cant judge any of the characters. These and many more.

Barely a day later, I decided to watch another film which cannot be more different from ‘A Separation’ but yet is similar in so many ways.

Blessy – like the Iranian talents I worship, is a master of his craft; Both films are anchored on a divorce; Some of the most talented actors in their respective countries carry the load of both the films; And both narratives revolve around a lie that is simple yet tragic and relationships that are precious, yet fragile.

But unlike ‘A Separation’, ‘Pranayam’ is not a spell. It is a journey. The movie has many distractions like Anupam Kher and Jayapradha, whose brilliant performances are marred by the fact that they are lip syncing in a language that they don’t speak. And like the numerous interludes in the form of songs that are not always montages. The end in both the movies also represent two different sensibilities – ‘A Separation’ ends as a comma, where the audience is not fully aware of what happens next (and they needn’t be as well)  while Pranayam ends with a closure – a logical culmination of all threads (which equally needn’t have to be the case as well).

‘Pranayam’ is probably one of the merrier films to come from the Blessy school, which boasts of powerhouse classics like ‘Tanmathra’ – that Mohan Lal considers his best ever and ‘Brahmaram’. In ‘Pranayam’, the writer in Blessy traverses a path that I can safely say isn’t oft taken in Indian cinema and explores the relationship between three wonderful human beings, played by Lal – a retired professor who is paralyzed partially, Anupam Kher – a retired, single father and Jayapradha – who had divorced Kher’s character Achutan forty years back and is now married to Lal’s Mathew. While the film has a lot of other not-so-well-written characters (like Achuthan’s ever-smiling grand daughter, who we cant figure out whether indifferent or doting) occupying the screen in the first half, it is the bond between these three that carries it to the end and also weaves the magic.

 

The first thought to hit me post the film was the casting decision, especially between Lal and Kher. It was so tempting to imagine the actors swapping their roles, but it also makes a lot of sense this way. Kher’s Mathew would have been too restrained and Lal’s Achutan would have reminded us of numerous roles the actor has done before. What Kher’s rendition and Blessy’s writing have done is to make Achutan, a character you would instantly fall in love with and remain loyal to. And the bond Kher and Lal create on screen proves yet again, the difference between actors and Masters.

The film doesn’t lose itself in flashbacks and stays true to the present – much like human memory itself. And the sense of practicality of the three characters is so real, it is unnerving. ‘Pranayam’, like ‘A Separation’ will stay with you for months if not years, because like all great cinema – it stays honest to the Human story. The rest are details.

with Love & a DSLR…

I saw two amazing films on Saturday night, made with love and with absolutely no artificial lights. One was a commercial and the other, Amol Gupte’s “Stanley ka Dabba”. More on the former, later.

“Stanley…” is an impossible film. Not just because the synopsis would have struggled to go beyond three and a half lines, but because it was shot on a still camera, on real people, with the only equipment hired being Love and probably a tripod. At a time when films are shelved for ‘lack of overseas investors’ and when pre-production starts a year before shooting, ‘Stanley’ is a slap-in-the-face reminder of why people started making films. And also, of why we go to the movies.

The worst thing one could do to the picture is to call it a ‘Children’s film’. Amole Gupte, who wrote ‘Taare Zameen Par’ (and was at the helm of that film for the most part), does not have a brilliant idea that he had made into a film. There are no soundtracks that will soar in the charts. Hell, the climax is not even a surprise, considering you figure that part out by scene 3. But you lose yourself in the screen, right from the first scene because the world he recreates is one where you have been. And one, whose smells and sights you remember intimately.

Apparently, the film was shot only during the ‘theatre workshop’ periods on saturdays and everybody but the protagonist (Partho Gupte), was just sitting through a class while the film was shot. But how a film ‘is made’ should never decide how ‘it is viewed’. The details on this one – the mafia don-ish air of the kid playing ‘Aman Mehra’, the searching nostrils of Amole Gupte playing the Hindi teacher (I could almost smell the pan he was chewing), the tilted sticker of ‘Mother Mary’ on the glass door and the ‘tadka’ on the dal, couldnt have been captured better on the most expensive Arriflex on earth. For once, I absolutely did not mind the noisy kids inside PVR Saket or their squeaky shoes. In fact, it was a refreshing change to see such a long queue of boys and girls lining up for popcorn!

Watch this film, not because you were a fan of ‘Children of Heaven’, not because you support independent film, not because you want to take your child to a film without item numbers – but because this is the purest transition of an idea from heart to celluloid, that you will see in a while.

PS: Dont miss:
1. The opening animation of ‘Amole Gupte Cinema’
2. Divya Jagdale’s brilliant portrayal, which is an ode to all science teachers in India!

Ode to the comic fan

I first saw ‘Unbreakable‘ when it was released in 2000, in a theatre in Brigade Road, Bangalore. I last saw it on TV yesterday. In between, I must have seen it at least 10 more times. Thats almost once every year, but I am still excited about it. Ironically, this is exactly how I feel about my superhero comics as well. I know exactly when Batman or Phantom or Bahadur is going to deliver the punch that’ll put the villain out. Yet, I crave for it and feign the surprise that lets the goosebumps appear in key, pre-decided scenes of the comic. Surreal.
It was Shyamalan’s absolute best as a writer and definitely up there as a director. It was also the time when the creator was always one step ahead of his audience – be it the climactic shock of ‘The Sixth Sense’ or the fantastic unraveling of ‘Signs’. Far cry from the present, where he is huffing and puffing to catch up with his audience by the end of the first hour. Exhibit A: The simplistic ‘Lady in the water’ and the bizarre ‘The Happening’. ‘Unbreakable’ though, is completely different from the rest of his cinema. Yes, it has the trademark ‘shyamalan moment’ at the end which hits you hard and ‘ties it all together’, but it is not a deceiving script that is written backwards from there. To borrow Elijah’s (Samuel Jackson) words from the film, “This is a piece of art”.
Some of this film’s most powerful aspects are its smallest touches.
Like how all key moments in the film begin with a frame that is upside down – like how David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) son looks at the TV news reporting the accident of his dad’s train, lying upside down on his couch. A brilliant metaphor for our askew perceptions.
Like how just the frames give David’s character that super-hero shadow, though he is written as a regular guy. Five minutes into the film, you see the silhouette of David, standing inside the stadium with his regular raincoat on. Except the hood is exaggerated into a cape-like look; Even the name David Dunn has the same ‘syllabic’ ring to it as a Peter Parker or a Clark Kent.
But the most brilliant part of this film is how the character of Elijah is etched out. The absolute anti-thesis of a ‘villain’, because of his own frailty. Also the reason why every single scene that involves Elijah’s character is associated with ‘glass’ as a metaphor. The opening scene of the film where Elijah’s mother gives birth to him is almost entirely shot as a relflection on a mirror; The conversation between Elijah – the boy and his mother is shot as a reflection on a TV screen and he chooses David’s car windshield to leave his note. And of course the more ‘in your face’ metaphor of his glass walking pole. When he announces to David in the last scene of the film “The kids. They used to call me Mr. Glass”, you not just go through the ‘Shyamalan moment’, but also momentarily get nostalgic with all your favourite villains from Lex Luthor to Evelyn to The Joker.

The film also had some fantastic lines. There is a scene when Elijah asks David if he wakes up every morning with a ‘feeling of sadness’ and when David says ‘yes’, Elijah explains how that is because ‘you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing’. That was a powerful line, one that everybody watching the film – comic fan or not, would remember and replay in their minds. I did, for a long time and I still do. In a scary, sentimental way, I even get what he means.
The film did not win any major awards, except from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror. It is not even top-of-mind among Shyamalan fans. But for me, it will always remain his best and probably the only film that ever married real life to the comic fantasy of our childhood.

The Jessica Lull and the Trivedi Storm

The word french word ‘Montage‘ is a beautiful term. In modern day film making, it refers to a combination of sound and visuals, edited together in a way that takes the narrative forward. It is the first thing that came to my mind while walking out of the theatre after watching ‘No One Killed Jessica’, because this film is as much Amit Trivedi’s narrative, as it is Raj Kumar Gupta’s – and that is high praise for any music director of a film, unless he/she is Andrew Lloyd Weber.

NOKJ is a foot tapping, adrenalin kicking, (supposedly) badass drama where the opening or climax is of little consequence to the viewer, as everybody knows what happened. Having said that, the film opens with an uber sexy credit sequence that is very original and fun. Right there, you know that this one has been ‘crafted’ and not just made. That feeling remains with you throughout the first half and that is thanks to some great casting, ‘easy on the stomach’ lines and ‘easy on drama’ scenes. Raj Kumar Gupta who gave us the Fabulous ‘Aamir‘, obviously has learnt a trick or two from his ‘Black Friday‘ days and wastes no time in getting over with the murder within the first 5 minutes. This is important because the Jessica Lal story (probably unfairly, but truly) is more about a nation’s outrage, than the murder itself.

And I guess that outrage was what the second half was all meant to be. And for that, the writer’s challenge was always going to be ‘making the obvious, interesting’. And interesting it ends up being, but only because Amit Trivedi jams up a soundtrack that props the film up in many places in the second half in an almost ‘Jacques Kallis’esque manner, even while everything else is crumbling around it. Case in point is when Rani’s character confronts Vidya’s in her house. Just when you are expecting the lines to crackle in arguably the most important confrontation in the script, the writer lets you down with some really ordinary stuff, completing a total KLPD. Cut to the candle light scene, but the audience is still bemused and fuming over the previous one. A few seconds later though, Amit Trivedi comes to the rescue, thundering over the candle march scene and voila – all is forgiven and the adrenalin is back.

What really works in the film is also its lighter moments – not just as relief from an otherwise emotionally draining subject, but also in bringing out the absurdity and irony of it all. There is a priceless scene in which the politician comes to Jesscia’s house and after an uncomfortable silence, the dad asks ‘chai?’.

Eventually in a film like this, I guess it all boils down to casting and that in my opinion is the best and worst things going for NOKJ. The guy who plays Jessica’s dad and Rajesh Sharma as the cop are absolute gems. Rani looks like a million bucks in probably her best possible comeback film and I actually think she fits the bill perfectly as a renegade journalist. However, you can tell that the woman doesnt enjoy smoking or swearing and every time she is made to do it, you can almost see the gun next to her head. Vidya plays Sabrina like only she can and is great throughout. But I am not sure if her take on Sabrina works for the film entirely. Could it be because the audience is unable to contrast the never-ending restraint with any outburst of meaningful proportion?

There is a placard at the beginning of the film that says something like ‘we have rolled all media into one entity’. That notwithstanding, it was still quite weird to see a Tehelka expose being called an NDTV sting. And the lack of any other journalists covering the case in the film gives it a slightly ‘ghost town’ish feel. But then again, I guess it is that kind of a ‘creative license’ that also makes it possible to dramatize my all time favourite Sagarika-bashing episode on screen.

Disclaimer: My opinions about this film could have been completely influenced by the ‘True Delhi experience’ I was treated to at the theatre (PVR Saket) – complete with an unclaimed child running in the aisle with squeaky footwear, laughter at inappropriately emotional scenes and a loud couple in the row behind.