Saturday, August 23, 2008

4 This Week 


Way back 1973, a film called The Exorcist was made by William Friedkin based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, which could be said to be the final word on spirit possession fiction—everything done after it can only be pale copy.. though the 1980 film Gehrayee was quite effective.

Ram Gopal Varma has tried horror with Raat and Bhoot, his latest Phook is just another low-budget version of The Exorcist and his own two films, with a kid possessed instead of a grown up.

The formula is faithfully followed. It’s just that you expect something better from a filmmaker of Varma’s skill and seniority, than schlock scares. And certainly not comparing belief in the supernatural with taking aspirin for fever without knowing what it is—medicines have their ingredients listed on the pack!

If they were to actually pay five lakhs to anyone who saw Phoonk alone (as the promotional campaign promised) they’d pretty soon clean out the treasury. The hall was full of college kids laughing throughout – not the nervous titters of fright, but hooting, derisive laughter.

Rajiv (Sudeep), an engineer, does not believe in religion and rituals, wears his rationalism on his sleeve and even mocks his friend (Ganesh Yadav) for being a fence-sitter on the issue. His mother (Jyoti Subhash— not old enough to have a constantly shaky head) and wife Arati (Amruta Khanvilkar) are the believers.

In case a viewer does not guess that a horror story follows, the house in which the family lives is full of weird and ugly artifacts, which serve no purpose but fill in the foreground. Outside there is a gnarled tree, on which a crow is perched at some point—an inert bird, that doesn’t even caw. The family’s maid with too much kohl in her eyes wears one wide-eyed expression and the driver also has a permanently shifty look.

Rajiv makes enemies rather quickly when he fires two employees, and these two –the woman (Ashwini Kalsekar) again with too much kohl and shrill laughter, the man (Kenny Desai) odd-looking and pop-eyed—swear revenge, so there’s nothing surprising about what happens to Rajiv’s kid Raksha (Ehsaas Channa) a few scenes later, beginning with the discovery of bones and lemons in the yard. The whole set up screams ‘Spooky’ when a more subtle build-up would have been more effective… and scary.

Raksha starts speaking in a strange voice, then shows signs of being possessed. The doctors (KK Raina, Lillete Dubey) spout the usual psychobabble. Much to the father’s fury the grandmother summons an exorcist. Finally, he has to go to another one called Manja (Zakir Hussain), who spots the trouble areas with spokes that look like ‘jooda’ pins.

Nothing wrong with making a low-budget horror film, but Phoonk has cheap tricks of the worst sort—like bizarre things happening to characters turning out to be nightmares. The person who dismisses the occult as nonsense has his nose rubbed in the dirt—not done, at least in a country where gullibility is a major problem. The other bothersome thing is the infliction of all this trauma on a child—there is ministry to check cruelty to hens and pigeons, but nothing to protect children?

Maan Gaye Mughall-e-Azam

Nobody’s infallible, so it’s okay to make a bad film, but it is not okay to mangle a much-loved Ernst Lubitsch comedy like To Be Or Not To Be (1942, remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks).

Sanjay Chhel’s Maan Gaye Mughall-e-Azam is a trashy, badly acted, desified version of the old classic, set 15 years earlier, before the Mumbai blasts—all this has to be explained in a lengthy prologue.

The setting is a small coastal town, overrun by gangsters and corrupt cops, all in wait of a consignment of RDX about to land on its shores. In this town called St Louis, is a grand old theatre with a bunch of hams entertaining them. The cinema or TV probably hasn’t reached there-- the crowds at the theatre would be the envy of many a Mumbai theatre group.

The lead actor Majumdar (Paresh Rawal) plays Akbar in a garish production of Mughal-e-Azam, and his sexy, ambitious wife Shabnam (Mallika Sherawat), plays Anarkali. The others in the group are non-descript types.

Shabnam starts an affair with a stranger Arjun (Rahul Bose), who pops in to see her when Akbar’s lengthy monologue starts, which irriates Majumdar no end. Arjun is supposed to be an Intelligence officer on duty, so what is he doing fooling around the theatre?

Anyway, when another agent Haldi Hassan (Kay Kay Menon) is sent to the same place and Arjun discovers he is a spy, the file of secret agents’ contacts has to be recovered from him. Arjun uses his affair with Shabnam and his proximity with the theatre group to overturn the plans of the gangsters (then how did the Mumbai blasts happen? No answer.)

Majumdar has to impersonate Haldi and a local hood Qayum Cable (Pavan Malhotra), but his ego and bad acting gives him away each time. There is, of course, no resolution to the love triangle.

What is most mystifying is how Chhel managed to convince the stars that they were going to be doing a great black comedy? At least Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat are reported to be picky. Paresh Rawal who gives an award-worthy performance in this week’s other release Mumbai Meri Jaan is awful here, and so’s Kay Kay Menon—unforgivable of the writer-director to do this to fine actors. Mallika serves her purpose, that of prancing about in skimpy clothes, but Rahul Bose’s attempts at comedy are painful to watch. So, for that matter, is the rest of the film.

Mumbai Meri Jaan

It’s just the right time for this film: too close to the event and the wounds are raw; too late and the trauma is forgotten.

Nishikant Kamat, already a sympathetic chronicler of the woes of ordinary city folk in his remarkable Dombivli Fast, follows it up with a worthy Mumbai Meri Jaan.

The film –inspired by Crash in form-- weaves five stories around the Mumbai train blasts on July 11, 2006. Some characters are directly affected, some are observers, reacting to the horror in their own way.

Undoubtedly the most moving is the meltdown of a cop Kadam (Vijay Maurya), and his odd friendship with a senior Patil (Paresh Rawal), who is due to retire— a corrupt but worldly wise man, whose passivity arouses the younger man’s frustration.

Then there’s a TV reporter Rupali (Soha Ali Khan), who bereavement becomes a byte on her channel; a man Nikhil (Madhavan) who survived the blast because he got into the wrong compartment, but is mentally shattered; a roadside coffee vendor Thomas (Irrfan Khan), who avenges humiliation in a mall by making hoax calls, and a bitter unemployed man Suresh (Kay Kay Menon), who turns amateur sleuth.

Kamat’s touch is delicate and devoid of cheap melodrama—no rah rah Spirit of Mumbai stuff. Still, some moments linger—like Kadam’s gun episode in the loo, Rupali’s frenzied search for her fiancé, and Suresh’s visit to the home of a Muslim man he suspects.

Nikhil’s and Thomas’ stories may have needed better definition, and Suresh’s has too pat a resolution, but these are minor blimps. Paresh Rawal leads the cast with a performance so extraordinary that it deserves a standing ovation, followed by Vijay Maurya and Irrfan Khan’s sock-jaw acting.

My Friend Ganesha 2

Ganesha rides a sleigh drawn by rats instead of reindeer to a song set to the tune of Jingle Bells.. a team of animated rats play ice hockey in the very distant past, when Gods fought demons.

The sequel to last years soggy My Friend Ganesha attempts to be funky, but is still heavy-handed, loud and mostly boring. The shrill Ganesha-worshipping maid Gangutai (Upasana Singh) is back, but with a different family and a different kid.

Dr Amit (Harsh Chhaya) and is air hostess wife (Bhairavi Goswami) fight all the time, and traumatize their kid Vashu (Master Ali). Gangutai tells him stories of Ganesha, and like the previous film, an animated Elephant God appears to befriend the lonely child.

It is actually a sweet idea—a child with an imaginary pal who happens to be a deity-- but handled in slip-shod manner. Maybe the writer and director should bounce the script off some kids; the awful bits about a kid with a hole in her heart, and clichéd terrorists hijacking school bus would definitely be excised in favour of light, kid-sized problems like winning a dance competition and tackling the school bully. The music could be peppier, the animation snazzier and the performances could do will all-round improvement.

Maybe very small kids would enjoy My Friend Ganesha 2, older kids and grown ups would be more discriminating and quality conscious. Compare this to say, Wall E, and it’s like our athletes competing with the Chinese at the Olympics.


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