Friday, March 05, 2010

4 This Week 

Thanks Maa

It does not happen too often—you go to see film with zero expectations, despite having read about it and the National Award for its lead child actor—and are blown away. The director Irfan Kamal, son of a popular choreographer in the past, tried to be an actor and made no headway. He made film about a street kid, and after Slumdog Millionaire, what else could he have added to a picture of the underside of Mumbai?

To be fair to Kamal, he made Thanks Maa before Slumdog Millionaire, and it is his own work, not based on a best-selling novel. He has gone with his DOP Ajayan Vincent into the shanties, gullies and dumps of Mumbai, and there is not a spot of beauty or glamour in the film— everything seems to be covered in a grey layer of grime.

A saucer-eyed, curly-mopped kid (Shams Patel) called Municipality for want of a real name, hangs out with a gang of ‘chillars’ – urchins and petty thieves—played to perfection by Salman, Fayaaz, Almas and Jaffer. They all have weird street nicknames- Soda, Cutting, Dedh Shaana, and the sole girl Sursuri.

Unlike the other kids who ran away from home, Municipality had been abandoned, and lives in the hope that one day his mother will come to look for him at the hospital where he had been discarded. To get information, he goes every week to bribe a wardboy (Raghubir Yadav).

While escaping from the remand home and a drooling paedophile of a warden (Alok Nath), he finds a baby, and picks him up with the idea of returning him to his mother. Then starts his adventure, where he encounters all manner of people—some good, many evil.

What Kamal celebrates is the honesty (even though he is a thief) of the boy, who claims never to break a promise and the resourcefulness of the street kids, who systematically and logically go about tracing the child’s mother, using coercion or cuteness depending on the situation.

After a point, it does get too much, the ‘filmi’ contrivances pile up and there is the excessive enthusiasm of the first-time director at work, where he wants to chuck at the audience everything that he has seen and discovered—prostitutes, drug addicts, pimps, eunuchs, rapists and every perversion known in society. But he doesn’t let go of the rawness of the streets, and the tanginess of the lingo, so authentic that it seems to have been picked up fresh and steaming from a wok. Because he is not using it to titillate, you don’t mind the crudity that creeps in once too often. Kamal does not sanitize the lives of the urchins, neither does he go so overboard with his exposure of the city’s ugly side that the viewer flinches in horror or embarrassment.

The children are all such naturals, that the adults all look like they are overacting. The film may not be a masterpiece like Pixote, but it is a very, very good debut.

Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?

Three stars’ dates were managed, a quick one-location film could be produced, keeping a couple of Hollywood films in mind—maybe the audience, always on the lookout for a few laughs, would go for Atithi Tum Kan Jaoge? The film’s title gives the plot away, there is no compelling reason to see it.

The opening scene in which Punit (Ajay Devgn), a scriptwriter, is narrating a story to his producer (Satish Kaushik) and comes up with a scene in which a blind woman sees, mute boy speaks, lame man runs, and so on, you know that this will be one, long, laboured, unfunny attempt at raising sitcom kind of laughs.

There was a real urban comedy in there somewhere, it’s just that Ashwini Dhir couldn’t find it. All he could come up with is a villager passing wind and gargling loudly.

Punit and Munmun’s (Konkana Sensharma) kid wants to know what an ‘atithi’ is, and soon enough a distant Chacha (Paresh Rawal) lands up. Any Mumbai resident could have told Dhir, that nobody in this predominantly nuclear-family, one-bedroom city would willingly let a real relative into the door, leave aside entertaining the bizarre demands of an uncle they don’t even know or know of. One call to the native village would have cleared the Chacha business.

But then don’t expect logic out of such a made-to-order-in-a-hurry comedy. Chacha parks himself in their airconditioned bedroom, while they sleep on the soda bed outside. He orders huge meals and changes their routine to suit his. That is supposed to be funny?

The guest is not such a monster as to make the lives of his hosts totally miserable, so there is no sympathy for the couple; their eagerness to please him and helplessness in the face of his never-ending stay seems strange and unbelievable. But the bhajan-singing Chacha charms the whole neigbourbood, his hosts’ kid and even a bhai, never mind that he comes close to wrecking Punit’s career and Munmun’s peace of mind.

If the film at least tried to understand the city’s problems and attitudes—like the popular comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills or even the far inferior You Me and Dupree, it could have toted up some plus points. Except for Paresh Rawal’s efficient performance, everything about this guest is most unwelcome.

Road, Movie

The idea of a mela happening wherever there is cinema is magical; the fascination with the touring talkies, the freedom of the road, and getting away from the mundane as represented by “tel bechna” – a Hindi speaking person would understand the idiomatic and ironic use of the phrase—Dev Benegal’s water mafia idea carried forward from his last film (Split Wide Open)… the ideas should have come together in a whimsical tribute to cinema and Indian diversity. But Benegal’s Road, Movie, just doesn’t measure up to the expectations built up by its film festival buzz.

Inspired by Cinema Paradiso and probably Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, plus Fellini’s images and Latin American magic realism, the film starts very well, with young Vishnu (Abhay Deol) escaping from the dreariness of his father’s hair oil business to drive a battered old truck with a projector and a collection of movie classics (glimpses of which you see), across the desert to a mythical destination by the sea.

On the way, he picks up a smart alecky tea-stall boy (Mohammed Faisal), an old fix-anything mechanic (Satish Kaushik) and a gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee). They drive the truck across barren landscapes occasionally interrupted by colourfully dressed women in search of water. The old man wants to go to a fair—where, he says, they will get whatever they desire. This leads to the film’s truly enchanting scene of a mela like an oasis in the desert. The hallucinatory quality of the scene is in contrast to the reality of being stopped by a cop, who will torture them if their films turn out to be boring.

The water mafia goons turn up at some point and are assuaged in a comically outlandish way… but such moments are few; the film is not whimsical enough to be charming, too slow to be involving, and, for a tribute to the power of cinema, lacking in romance or pleasant surprises. There is homage paid to the old number ‘Sar jo tera chakraye’ though, in a remix version.

It’s not hard to see why the film would appeal to a foreign film festival audience, there is exotica, stunning visuals and a peek into a world not often seen unless wrapped in touristy (Incredible India) messages. Plus good performances… though the alienated characters Abhay Deol is now excelling at portraying are starting to merge into one another. Still, you’d rather watch him than anyone else in this kind of film. At least his presence staves off boredom.

Hello Zindagi

Kavita (Mrunmayee Lagoo) is a teenager full of unexplained angst and anger; her father (Kanwaljit Singh) is sympathetic, her mother (Neena Gupta) is a nag. Of this flimsy soap opera material Raja Unnithan crafts a tedious film about today’s directionless teens. But Kavita is not confused, she is simply odious.

She shoplifts, teases men, smokes on the sly, drinks to much, snorts cocaine with a stranger and wakes up in his bed. After an accident, she is adopted by a doctor (Kitu Gidwani), who takes her to Goa, where she has a peaceful holiday, without a thought for her own recently widowed mother.

Finally she finds a purpose in life—saving Olive Ridley turtles, guided by conservationist Arpan (Milind Gunaji). But throughout Kavita’s so-called ordeal, you ask yourself why you are sitting through the movie, and why you are supposed to care for the film’s unpleasant protagonist.


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