Monday, October 29, 2007

A Mighty Heart

Heart in the right place

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irrfan Khan, Archie Punjabi
Director: Michael Winterbottom

The fear with movies, which tackle real life incidents, is that they can very often succumb to the temptation of sensationising their source material for dramatic and commercial purposes.

That's where this reverting docu-drama by British director Michael Winterbottom-- of films such as Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People -wins you over for its restrained, judicious handing of a sensitive subject.

The film depicts the high-voltage drama about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), who was kidnapped and murdered by jihadists in 2002 and his pregnant wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), who prefers to be in the centre of the search operation for her husband.

Right from the moment Daniel and and his wife arrive in Karachi (both work as journalists in South Asia), Pakistan - he wants to investigate the connection between shoe bomber Richard Reid and militant Islamic groups. Though his established network of fixers, Daniel gets an appointment for an interview with the elusive Sheikh Gilani, an Islamic cleric.

Daniel is cautioned by Randall Bennett (Will Patton) of the U.S. consulate to play it safe and stick to public places only. The journalist calls a taxi to take him to an agreed-upon restaurant and is never heard from again.

From here on, the film focuses on Mariane’s five-week ordeal to find her husband, who is alternately accused of working for the CIA and Mossad. The kidnapping is an embarrassment to the Pakistani government and all efforts are made by the CID and other officials to grab the terrorists. Headquartered in the home of Daniel’s colleague Asra (played superbly by Archie Panjabi), the search meets with a frustrating and tragic result.

Shot mostly in Mumbai, Karachi and Pune (yes, a few patches of the city have been passed off as Karachi!), the film has been treated with a certain gripping, realistic rigour, giving a sense into the intricate web of small and big international terrorist networks which exist in Karachi.

Angelina Jolie delivers a knockout performance, with a pitch perfect French accent, seldom letting her poster girl image overwhelm the film. Dan Futterman, as Daniel Pearl, has a short role but he suits the part well. Incidentally, the film has several Indian actors in the film and a considerable part of it is in Hindi, with English subtitles. Leading the pack here, of course is Irrfan Khan, who plays the CDI chief. Though the role is substantial, it seldom plays in the forefront to leave a lasting impact. In fact, even television actor Aly Khan, who plays a dreaded terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh has a more forceful part. But, by and large, this is a Jolie show all the way.

Quite admirably, the filmmaker resists the temptation of portraying the thrid world in a negative light and instead, focuses on how terrorism can raise its ugly head in the most tragic ways and the best way to deal with it is- not to be terrorized by it, as Marriane says.

And quite prudently, the director avoids showing the gory tapes depicting Daniel's brutal killing, and instead focuses on its humane element.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Myth Making of Mangal Pandey

While a lot has already been said about this 2005 period film, which failed miserably at the boxoffice... here are just a few quick points on why this film quite pathetically struggles to find its reason d’etre.

For those who are still in doubt, quite emphatically, Mangal Pandey was no icon of the 1857 revolution and was, in fact, entirely irrelevant to the ‘first war of independence’. Anyone with a little interest in history will know that he was already dead by the time tens of thousands of sepoys headed to Delhi, with the idea of attacking the British.

This fanciful idea about the happenings at Barrackpore being crucial to the Mutiny and Mangal Pandey being the central icon of the event is a lie propagated by Hindu nationalist historians, for whom the idea of Hindu sepoys flocking to a Muslim emperor (Bahadur Shah Zafar) itself was abhorrent.And hence was born this great distorted theory to prove how it was rightfully only a Hindu who led the country’s ‘first war of independence’. And voila, the Mangal myth was born!

Now, the problem for Mangal Pandey, the film was that it could only sell this myth some more, without any real evidence in history. The result is that you come up with a character and screenplay that is entirely a figment of someone’s imagination, with little historical basis.

It was so clear that the director didn’t have enough matter on Mangal Pandey, the man. This of course, is the natural consequence of the fact that barring that single episode where he shoots two Britisher soldiers (under the influence of bhang possibly), he didn’t have any role to play in the revolution.

The only recourse for the makers was then to create an even bigger myth of the character than already existed. This was shown when Mangal Pandey is trying to gather support from the Maratha kingdom and Rani Of Jhansi in the film. Pandey was dead by then, so there was no question of him being part of any high level negotiations. Clearly, this distortion, among many others, was another result of the desperation the makers were feeling about their inability to amplify Mangal Pandey’s persona to make him appear like a national icon. Sometimes even myth lacks matter, this film is an unfortunate example of that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Daag....Achche Hai!

Many things may have gone wrong for Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, but astonishingly, the least to blame here is the film itself.I say this because the movie suffers primarily due a God –awful, misleading title, which actually works contradictory to the film’s interests in every sense of the word. Now, this is unfortunate because a perfectly plausible, fast-paced film.
Not only does the title have a regressive ring to it, the promos made it worse by making it seem like an outdated family saga, about a ‘journey of a woe-man’, which no one was interested to see.Additionally, a title like Laaga Chuanri Mein Daag instantly sounds like a woman’s-weepy, with a ‘man bashing’ label all over it. This Kangana, Choodiyan, Dulhan, Ardhangini, Teen Bahuraniya type of titles work like magic for Ekta Kapoor and Balaji but it tends to put off the young urban moviegoer, of both sexes.

Somehow, a title like Vivah doesn’t harm it, because in this instance, the title, theme and treatment aren’t in conflict with each other and importantly, it appeals to the audience it is primarily meant for – the small-town youth in the Hindi heartlands.On the other hand, Laaga..was targeted at a city audience, especially young women. This is where the title plays truant, deceiving its merits and reinforcing ideas of it being regressive.

Laaga’s biggest strength is that it does not try to justify Vibha (Rani Mukerji) turning a high-class escort beyond a point. This seems to be a pet peeve among reviewers (mind you, may not be the audience )who are focused on how she could have tried other means before jumping into prostitution.

Vibha doesn’t opt to be an escort because she has no other option but because, it seems like the most convenient and immediate recourse to her financial troubles back home. Now, even as a woman, I see this as a plausible situation –especially given Vibha’s pragmatic 'what’s got-to-be-done-must-be-done’ streak.

In any case, she’s hardly portrayed as a prude in these matters, given that she’s not the least bit judgmental about her neighbourhood courtesan in Benares (Hema Malini). If anything, there’s a glint of fascination in Vibha’s eyes for this world of glamour, where a woman has a fleet of men at her beck and call. I’m not suggesting that this had anything to do with Vibha’s decision later on but subconsciously, this could play a part in the mind of a small town girl, is it not? However misleading the title maybe, the film thankfully does not emphasize on her ‘suffering’ for choosing a ‘certain means’ of earning her bread, butter and then marmalade. Most critics have thrashed the film for this very reason, saying it never really shows Vibha in a reflective mode. The reason here could be because she does not regret her actions beyond a point, though she certainly considers the prospect of a dim future.

No doubt, there is a certain superficiality to the treatment of an escort’s life here, with Vibha losing her virginity as if it were like Cinderella losing her shoe. But this fairy tale appeal is also one of its charms. Personally, I don’t see how an escort, who treats her job as a lucrative one, is any guiltier (if at all) than a man who sleeps around as sport! This is fast becoming a way of life, with women and men in cities willing to make compromises of all these kinds, for career and other reasons.

So what does this whole ‘daag’ thing really amount to anyway? True, there are no stark scenes or any pretence of depth to the narrative but I’m just eternally grateful to Yash Raj for not turning this into a regressive fare. I actually take this over a ‘realistic’ film, which would have most certainly got Vibha to kill herself and Konkona to pick up the threads.
Heartening, in Laaga..., Rani gets to keep both her moolah and her man. So what’s the big deal about a ‘daag’ ?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Making 'Sen'se

Konkona Sen Sharma talks to Sandhya Iyer about her shift towards commercial cinema and what ails it among other things

At a time, when the industry is severely lacking in natural, authentic performers, Konkona Sen Sharma comes as a refreshing exception. Not only has this actress come to be associated with quality cinema, she has also in some measure successfully broken the ‘heroine’ stereotype in Hindi films.
Whether it’s Mr And Mr Iyer, Mixed Doubles, Page 3, Omkara or the recent Metro Konkana has emerged as a fine, thinking performer, if not an entirely exciting actress, in the way Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil were in the 80s. However, she’s also every bit Aparna Sen’s daughter, when you consider her intellectual bent of mind and her disappointment over how very few filmmakers in Hindi films give a thought to what they are making.

After Omkara, which was her first big mainstream film, she’s upbeat about her next, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, where she plays Rani Mukherjee’s younger sister. Konkona was a last minute replacement for Vidya Balan but the former says she was delighted to bag the part. “I wanted to work so badly with Pradeep Sarkar after Parineeta(a film which I loved, except for the last scene). He gave me a script narration and I thought it was a great role. It’s about a small town girl, who follows her sister to Mumbai, gets acquainted with a whole new life... by the end of it, she evidently comes into her own. Pradeep is actually one director who knows how to make a good film. Everything from plot to script is well thought of …you can tell. He treats his film with a lot of love…so it was an easy choice for me,” says the 29 year-old.After working in a lot of small and medium budget films, a banner like Yash Raj offered a whole new world to the actress. “I am completely spoilt now. Whether it was the production values, make-up, costume, everything was so well-organised,” she says.

She’s not particularly effusive about her co-star Rani (rumour has it, that the actress was quite reclusive all through the shooting of the film) though she maintains, “I told her on the first day we met that I love her as an actress. As for chemistry, well, I think it’s part of our job as actors to look convincing. Doesn’t mean we have behave like sisters and love each other off screen.”

Konkona, who could have continued ruling the roost with alternative films, with meaty parts to boot, seems to have taken a fancy to mainstream Hindi cinema. In the process, does she feel she has been relegated to character roles? “I know what you mean. I accept any role, which excites me as an actress. I know commercial, mainstream cinema is driven by the star system, but for me as an actress, it doesn’t make a difference as long as I get to do what I like. I have not accepted any peripheral roles, all the ones I have done have been substantial. I consider Omkara very memorable, so it was worth it. Again, in Laaga…, I have a lot to do.,” she says.So the inclination towards commercial cinema isn’t with any intention of gaining more visibility as an actress? “Not at all. Right from the beginning of my career, I have had no such aspirations. I have only chosen films which I want to do,” she says firmly.

While Lagaa…is an understandable choice, Aaja Nachle, from its first appearance, looks far too conventional. You wonder aloud only to have her dismisses off the suggestion, “ Not at all, you will be very surprised. Yes, it has fabulous dance sequences and yes, it Madhuri’s (Dixit) comeback film but its sensibility is not at all like a typical mainstream film.”

While her roles in Metro and Page 3 portrayed the life of city-bred women quite realistically---a rarity in our cinema where the heroine’s role is defined only within a specific parameter, does she feel there’s anything changing here really? “I’m not so concerned about projecting the modern woman of today in a film but it concerns me that filmmakers don't think too deeply about anything. Whether it is the script, dialogue, direction or costume, there is absolutely no thought given. When I see some films becoming huge hits and I won’t take names and offend them, I ask myself, ‘how is this even a film!?’ Even if they have to show a house, it is just one large one, without any thought behind it. This kind of generic portrayal puts me off. No one bothers enough about fleshing out their characters, scripts and plot.”

While Laaga...will hopefully find an audience, surely she would have it mind that heroine-centric themes don’t appeal much to the boxoffice. Even a Chak De India, with its woman-oriented subject, needed the strong presence of a male superstar. “ Yes, that is a problem. But I feel Laaga..will appeal. It’s a very emotional film with a fantastic pace. I’m sure the women will love it. I think mainstream cinema is evolving, as the audiences evolve. Both are parallel to each other’s growth and depend on each other,” she says.

Konkona is certainly a break from the regular breed of actresses for whom doing a 'different' character implies slipping out of their jeans into designer saris. More strength to the likes of Miss Sen!

Film Review: Loins Of Punjab Presents

Seriously funny

Director: Manish Acharya
Starring: Shabana Azmi, Ayesha Dharker, Jameel Khan, Darshan Jariwala, Manish Acharya, Seema Rahmani
Stars: ***1/2

When you see an NRI audience at New Jersey hooting an American contestant (Josh)at a desi music competition for being an 'outsider', you know it's great subversive humour at play. Again, in one of the film’s earlier sequences, Josh asks his Indian girlfriend (Ayesha Dharker), if she’s feeling ‘ashamed’ of having a foreigner boyfriend?
This is, of course, hinting at the huge premium laid on everything ‘desi’ by the NRI population these days, where Bollywood is of course, a sacrosanct term.The result is a piquant desi curry, a feisty farce that manages to be an amusing, rip-roarious comedy on the surface, with a simmering grim subtext.

Not surprisingly, all kinds of desis want to try their luck when a singing contest called Desi Idol is peddled. And it’s quite a mix here... you have the chic, weight-throwing socialite (Shabana Azmi, crooning Churaliya Hai Tumne), wanting to use the cash prize for some publicity-earning charity. There’s the pretty crooner (Preeti), accompanied by her khakra eating, porn watching extended Gujarati family (this is an uproariously funny group) Then you have two gay Bhagara singers, walking hand in hand, displaying great penchant for sexual innuendoes. There’s the talent-less but trying Bollywood aspirant (Seema Rehmani) and then there’s director Manish Acharya himself, who turns in a fine performance, as a statistics spouting Bachchan fanatic. While every performance is delightful here, the show stealer is Jameel Khan, as the vulgar, loutish event manager.

Ironically, it is the film’s most visible star, Shabana Azmi who somewhat disappoints in her role. One imagined this to be a delicious prospect, watching Azmi playing a crafty socialite but somehow the character slips into predictable zones ever so often. But then, Shabana, even at her average best, is far more interesting to watch than all of today's leading ladies put together.
Director Manish Acharya makes a smashing debut with this quirky fare that is both uproariously funny and deliciously subversive in its humour. With its laugh-a-minute brilliant dialogues, this is a complete multiplex entertainer and 90 minutes of tear-inducing laughter fest.

- Sandhya Iyer