Monday, May 15, 2017

Sarkar 3 

Bulldog In The Room

There is a statue of a bulldog in the sitting room of Subhash ‘Sarkar’ Nagre, that is witness to all the action in the room— the growling, scheming and an occasional murder when Sarkar lures a prey into his den.

One has to admire the bulldog tenacity of Ram Gopal Varma who wanders all over and comes back to his gangster sagas—Sarkar 3 is so grim and contrived, that one notices the weird camera angles and compositions; it is all mostly dark and people are caught in strange poses, through the handle of a cup of the legs of a person, of between the raised hands of a Laughing Buddha statue.

At the start of the film you are told that power is about respect, not fear, and then several times is the line, “Sarkar ek soch hai,” as if Varma is trying to seek the key of the three films in that. But after watching all the films, one has to guess at the “soch.” From this film alone, It isn’t quite clear what Sarkar (Amitabh Bachchan) actually does, except make thunderous speeches, ‘help’ the poor, manipulate the politicians and cops of the state, and plot a few killings to get rid of the bad guys. But you are told to believe he is the good guy and only murders those who, according to him, deserve to die.

The twisty-turny and entirely predictable wheeling-dealing takes place over a project in Dharavi, for which a bunch of wicked businessman (one of them called Gandhi), want to oust the families that live there. Manoj Bajpayee is an aspiring leader, and Jackie Shroff a hilarious villain (Ajit being the obvious inspiration), who is given some loony lines, and a scantily-clad moll. The main difference between him and Sarkar is that he treats the woman with disdain, while the older man looks at his bed-ridden wife (Supriya Pathak) with touching tenderness.

As Sarkar performs an elaborate ritual before a smiling portrait of his dead son (Abhishek Bachchan, killed in the last film), his grandson Shivaji (Amit Sadh) lands up, to offer his services as heir. There is immediate tension between him and Sarkar’s loyal Gokul (Ronit Roy). Shivaji’s choice of girlfriend (Yami Gautam) is unfortunate in that she has a reason to hate Sarkar. So while Dharavi becomes a pawn, the body count of shooters rises.

Varma may be hampered by a lazy script, but he can still pull off a thumping Ganpati sequence, several shootouts and make Amitabh Bachchan give a mesmerizing turn again as Sarkar, in which he can make tea preparing and slurping an act of menace. The other actors have a of catching up to do.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion 

Hollow Spectacle

When the first part of Baahubali was released, the question in the review was, “Rajamouli has made India’s most expensive film so far, and undoubtedly matched the CGI  magic of any Hollywood film. But, one couldn’t help thinking that if so much money could have been spent on the visuals, couldn’t a fraction of it have been spent on content? It has the age-old rivalry between princely brothers story that has been done to death in old films. Rajamouli has just taken the SS Vasan kind of costume drama (Chandralekha—1948, being a prime example) and updated the technology.  It is set in a fictional universe, with no geographical authenticity of any kind—and that doesn’t really matter; because the audience does see it as a comic book on screen.”

Part 2 outdoes the first in excess--everything is so huge and opulent, that it is sometimes ugly. The look is inspired by Amar Chitra Katha comics, but just like our animation films never move beyond mythology, Rajamouli has also stayed within the confines of an old fairy tale.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, is like a prequel and sequel in one; the audience discovers why the infant Mahendra Baahubali was taken away from the kingdom of Maheshmati by his grandmother, and brought up by adoptive parents. Going back into the simple tale, Mahendra’s father, Amarendra (both played by Prabhas) was ousted from the throne by his evil uncle (Nasser) and cousin Bhallaldeva (Rana Daggubatti). The queen, Shivagami (Ramya Krishna--unblinking) is manipulated into agreeing to their plans.  Mahendra fell in love with and married the outspoken princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who in the first part, was shown incarcerated in Bhallaldeva’s prison.

The romance between Mahendra and Devasena, with him pretending to be a simpleton, is tedious. The comic track involving the loyal slave Katappa (Sathyaraj) and Devasena’s puffed up cousin Kumar Varma (Subba Raju) is not in the least amusing. It is as if Rajamouli was just padding the film with some dramatic scenes in between the extravagant action set pieces, one of which involved a stampede of cattle with their horns on fire.

There is a lot of jumping from heights, leaping over hurdles, shooting of arrows, slashing with swords, and slaughtering thousands of men; the sets are lavish and the CGI painstakingly done, but nothing that is truly enjoyable. The songs (music by MM Keeravani) drones on accompanying bombastic lyrics. Not much acting is required, so everybody performs in an exaggerated style, like they were on stage in an old melodrama.

The audiences that made Baahubali a hit, might just shower crores on the second part too. What the film does is prove that such over-the-top spectacles can be made in India too. Hopefully, some day, Rajamouli or some other filmmaker with this kind of budget, will make a film that will marry visual splendour with an absorbing plot. Till then, gawking at flying ships, trees turned into catapults, rampaging elephants and bursting dams will have to pass off as entertainment.


Hackneyed Revenge Drama

In the commercial films of 1980-90s, rape was a standard plot device to enable the hero—and sometimes the heroine—to take gory revenge. For some years this formula was buried, but the post Nirbhaya focus on the fight for justice in crimes against women, seems to have brought it right back. However, like Pink, or even NH10, a film should have something to say beyond the obvious.

Ashtar Sayed’s Maatr, is as hackneyed as it possible for a film about rape to be, but it still pushes the right buttons of horror and outrage, because that kind of nightmare is constantly being reported in the media. Vidya (Raveena Tandon) and her daughter Tia (Alisha Khan) are returning late from a school function, and she takes a deserted lane to avoid traffic. Both are violently raped and left for dead by the side of the street.  The daughter dies, and Vidya barely survives, but she is blamed by her callous husband (Rushad Rana) for happened to her; and even the cops are indifferent. The perpetrator is Apoorva (Madhur Mittal), the nasty son of the chief minister, who has a bunch of cronies with him.

Vidya has only her loyal friend Ritu (Divya Jagdale) for support, and she realises that she cannot get justice the legal way. Even the corrupt cop, Jayant Shroff (Anurag Arora) is of the opinion that there is no point in fighting a losing battle. It would be easy for them to prove consent, he says.

Vidya then decides to punish the men her own way. She kills them one by one, but there is too much coincidence and contrivance to how she goes about it. The one thing in the film’s favour is that unlike the Zakhmi Aurat kind of films, there is no shouting or ranting.  Raveena Tandon and Divya Jagdale ably carry the film and make it slightly watchable.  But the takeaway still is, that vigilante justice is right, because the powerful can away with heinous crimes; what makes it worse is that the men are so inhuman in their brutality, it makes you wonder what kind of society breeds such monsters.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Begum Jaan  

Deafening Melodrama

Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan is the Hindi version of his Bengali film, Rajkahini, which does not move beyond its interesting premise.

After the British have partitioned India, and the Radcliffe Line is drawn, on the Indo-Pak border, it is meant to cross through a palatial brothel, so the madam, Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan) is served an eviction notice, by the Hindu Shrivastav and the Muslim Ilyas (Rajit Kapur), government officials from each side. They used to be childhood friends, but the Partition has divided them, so that Mukherji often has just half their face in the frame.

Begum Jaan’s brothel has a mix of woman of all castes and regions, who have been disowned by their families. The latest addition is a catatonic rape victim dumped at the door by her father.  Begum slaps her out of her stupor and tells the other women to deal with her. The mixed moral messages and hypocrisy of Begum Jaan could fill many pages. A woman who is ostracized by society has no option but to sell her body—Begum was a widow herself—but she has to prove her distaste or unwillingness, by staring at the ceiling when a man is in her bed, and very often break into loud, hysterical shrieks.

Begum, for all her bluster-- and occasional trite pronouncements about a woman’s sorry fate, or a brothel being beyond caste and religious differences-- depends on a man to guard them, and a debauched raja (Naseeruddin Shah—why?) to protect them from the powers that be. Begum Jaan talks of being like a mother to her girls, but does not give them the option of refusing—she throws a reluctant young woman at the raja when he demands novelty.

Compared to the very strong Rukmini Bai of Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (played by the redoubtable Shabana Azmi), from which this film is obviously inspired, Begum Jaan is a wimp.  First of all, when so many citizens of both countries were thrown out of their homes, why is the audience expect to sympathise with a woman who does not want to leave her mansion?  If the film was satirical, or truly tragic, it would still make sense, but Begum Jaan is just shrill melodrama. Why, for instance would a man who has seen his own wife disrobed and murdered, be more affected by the deaths of women who mean nothing to him? Why would a cruel cop be thrown off his track by a girl taking off her clothes?

Pardon the spoilers, but according to Mukherji, when faced with murderous mobs of men, a woman should either strip, or like Padmavati (an old woman – Ila Arun—in the brothel tells stories of legendary women from history), throw themselves into a fire?

Deafeningly loud and cliché-ridden, Begum Jaan falls heavily on the shoulders of Vidya Balan, who speaks in a bass voice and squints through hookah smoke to emphasize her badass credentials, but the character that could have been complex, remains awkwardly superficial.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mukti Bhawan 

Old Man And The River

An old man has a premonition of death and decides he must go to Benaras to die and attain salvation. With this skein of gossamer thread, young director Shubhashish Bhutiani has woven a delicate film, Mukti Bhawan,  about life, death and human emotions, often leaving the viewer to understand what is not stated.

Dayanand (Lalit Behl—well-cast) bulldozes his mild-mannered son Rajeev (Adil Hussain--outstanding) into accompanying him. A scene in which Rajeev’s wife (Geetanjali Kulkarni) questions him about how long the trip will take, while casually applying moisturizer, indicates that he is under her thumb too, and bullied by his boss and clients as well (he works in a dull, generic looking office). He is a dutiful son, but his relationship with his father is a bit formal, unlike his daughter (Palomi Ghosh) who treats Dayanand like a buddy.

Once in crowded Benaras, they sign up to stay in a shabby lodge, where people come to spend their last days. Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi—excellent) who runs the place is practical and brusque, but also compassionate enough to bend the rules to help the elderly who come there to wait for death.  Juggling his office work over the phone, and meeting his father’s endless and sometimes unreasonable demands, Rajeev is always harried, but Dayanand makes friends in the lodge, including a stoic lady (a lovely Navnindra Behl), who has been there for eighteen years.

The subject is heavy, but the film is not at all morbid and, in fact, infuses humour whenever possible—a throwaway line, or a look or an unexpected scene—like the wife and daughter visiting because they think the time has come, shopping for saris for the young woman’s impending wedding.  It is through their eyes the exotic side of Varanasi is seen, otherwise, it is mundane life by the river, where people wash their sins as well as their clothes, seen in luminous frames.

Mukti Bhawan is a wonderful gem of a film, that is like a palate-cleanser amidst the noisy chaos of regular mainstream cinema.

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