Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Marathi film review: VALU

Not just a cock and bull story

Director: Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni
Starring: Atul Kulkarni, Mohan Agashe, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Nandu Madhav, Amruta Subhash
Stars: ***

One of the most likeable aspects of Valu is that it has the comic-book feel, like an Amar Chitra Katha. Wonderfully textured and teeming with delightful characters and small-town quirks, this Marathi film sparkles with charm and humour, albeit it’s not without its share of problems.

Kusavde, is a village the interiors of Maharashtra where a wild bull (Valu) is creating a bit of havoc and its people desperately want to restrain it. Nothing has worked so far, so the forest department commissions an officer, Swanand Gaddamwar (Atul Kulkarni) to capture it. His younger brother too shows an inclination to join the expedition, hoping he can shoot an interesting documentary around the whole incident. They are greeted with much excitement and curiosity, more so because most believe it will be their first thrust with fame, thanks to the documentary.
Around time of the capture of the bull, the director paints an authentic canvas of colourful characters and village caricatures. There’s Aba (Nandu Madhav) and Anna (Mohan Agashe) who have a small game of political one-upmanship going on between them, there’s the village pandit (Dilip Prabhavalkar) and his portly better half (Nirmitee Sawant) who dream of having their own separate latrine at home (must say, the sequences between them create an absolute laugh riot).Then there’s Jeevan, till then a loser, who attains the glow of a hero by the end of the story - all thanks to the bull. He finds both his lady-love and respect from his villagers at the end of this four-day adventure.The most interesting portion here is the love story that emerges amidst the chaos. Sangi (Amruta Subhash) and Shivaji carry on their own little filmy romance --- here and there are some other portions as well where Kulkarni shows the heavy influence of Hindi cinema in the interiors.

There are many other noteworthy characters but one that really stands out is the one of Satish (Satya), a guy who lives near the shit-pot and whose favourite hobby is to keep a count of how many times a person visits it in a day. Though no character is portrayed as totally black, these are subtle hints that the director throws to ascertain their psyches.
However, the story is not without its weaknesses. The director’s attempt to create a symbolism between the bull and innate rebel instinct found in each of the characters doesn’t come through very naturally. The central premise is weak, though it may have seemed like a great idea on paper. Also, this being just a one-line script, the story becomes strained after a point. But then the performances are top-notch, the cinematography (Sudhir Phalsane) is stunning and without a shred of doubt, director, Umesh Kulkarni is a director to watch out for.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Towards a new wave

Sandhya Iyer joined a rare conference of upcoming Marathi directors at PIFF, who came together to discuss the state of the industry and what the future holds

In what can be termed as a significant event, PIFF saw the coming together of several young Marathi filmmakers under one forum. A number of key issues like distribution and marketability of Marathi films were discussed, apart from bringing into focus the creative aspirations of the industry.
Though things have greatly improved in the last few years for our regional cinema, finance still remains a stumbling block and correspondingly, marketing too has suffered. Says Umesh Kulkarni, whose film Valu is up for release. The director’s short film, Girni came in for much praise at several international film festivals and Valu too is finding immense appreciation from all those who’ve seen it. “A standard producer for Marathi generally offers a director 40-45 lakhs to make his film. He expects it to be made in 10-12 days with a few prescribed formulas. There itself, the disappointment begins because you can’t make the film you want in that manner,” he says.

Sachin Patil, co-director along with Ankush Chaudhary of the mega successful Sade Made Teen, has this to say, “Let’s say a producer invests a crore of rupees in a Marathi film and then spends another crore on marketing. After which, if we take popular actors and weave together an entertaining script, there is no doubt that we will not only recover that money but make an additional crore. But problem is that a producer finds it extremely difficult to put together even a crore of rupees, so spending more money on marketing doesn't even occur to him.” Of course, in this regard Sade Made Teen was lucky because Zee Talkies promoted the film well. In fact, as a smart first move for a Marathi film, the filmmakers even took digital prints---that cost a fraction of what film prints do--to several theatres in interior Maharashtra. Chairman of PIFF, Jabbar Patel emphasised how Marathi filmmakers must consider digital cinema very seriously, as it would be both cost-effective and enable the producers to release their film simultaneously in almost the whole of Maharashtra.

In recent times, a whole breed of new-age Marathi filmmakers have emerged who have impressed with their tackling of different themes. Directors like Sumitra Bhave -Sunil Sukthankar (Nittal, Vaastupurush, Dahavi F), Sachin Kundalkar (Restaurant, Nirop), Gajendra Ahire ( Sarivar Sari, Shevri), Mangesh Hadawle (Tingya), Nishikanth Kamat (Dombivili Fast), Umesh Kulkarni (Valu, Girni) have given a new face to Marathi cinema and prompted a definite revival.

However, the forum also considered how the industry needs to strike a balance between purely entertaining films and more meaningful ones. “Sade Made Teen, literally brought people from their homes in interior Maharashtra into theatres. At a lot of places, Aaja Nachle was removed to accommodate our film. Similarly, Prabhat theatre saw a record created, when all of the 21 shows of Sade Made Teen went houseful in its first week,” says Sachin Patil, adding, “We must work towards getting the audiences into the theatres first and then, I feel, they will be more accepting of unusual subjects.”

Sachin Kundalkar, who first worked as assistant director to Sumitra Bhave- Sukhtankar and then went on to do a workshop in Paris, is considered one of the more thinking directors we have. He too agrees that the industry needs a good mix of commercial and meaningful films. “I think it’s because of some of the mainstream films today that an independent filmmaker like me can hope to make what he wants,” he said.
At the same time, he also urged the media to avoid comparisons with the Marathi cinema of yore. “I think we are all working under tremendous financial strain and trying to do our best. Also, I feel we must not compare ourselves with Hindi cinema. Instead, let’s focus on our own assets.”
Vishal Bhandari, director of Kaalchakra agreed, “It’s a wrong notion to think that Bollywood rules the destiny of Indian cinema. He added, “The Marathi film industry has made a good beginning but everyone must make sustained efforts to take it forward. The industries down South weren't built in a day. If that doesn’t happen, it won’t take time for this movement to fizzle out.”

According to Ajay Sarpotdar, President of the Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal, the number of Marathi films are growing each day and several corporates are showing interest in investing in regional films. From 70 odd films last year, the number of Marathi films has gone up to 90 plus films this year.
“Most want to know the average age of the directors here and when they see how young most of them are, they feel there’s great potential to be tapped. Similarly, the coming days will see the opening up of several theatres for Marathi films,” he assured.
The Valu director greatly appreciated the forum saying it could herald a new beginning, “What we lack are good critics, not just for Marathi films but films, in general in India. Most of the reviews are extremely flippant. Therefore, there’s a need for us directors to write about each other’s films and discuss various aspects about it. This is what happened in France where a group of directors established a dialogue among themselves and helped each other in their projects. And this group single-handedly revolutionised French cinemea, known as the new wave. We need to be proactive and follow that example,” he said.
Others present at the meet were music directors Atul Ajay, actor Girish Kulkarni, Amit Phalke from Zee Talkies, Chandrashekhar Mahamuni, producer Checkmate, director Aditya Sarpotdar among others.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

‘I was scared of Satyajit Ray’

Sharmila Tagore speaks to Sandhya Iyer about her association with mentor Manik Da (Ray) and how she has finally learnt to relax as an actress

Beyond the fact that Sharmila Tagore happened to be one of Hindi cinema’s most beautiful leading ladies, one tends to overlook her eminence as an actress who got cast in one Satyajit Ray film after another. Thanks to Zee Studio’s initiative, a whole new generation has rediscovered the beauty of Bengali cinema and Sharmila of another time.Yet, being a part of intellectual Bengali cinema never prevented her from donning buns, flashing her dimples and serenading with her heroes in Hindi commercial films.

She says it came quite easily to her. “I was young, very adaptable. I was also a quick learner. I remember not being able to lip-sync for Kashmir Ki Kali as I’d never done it before. Also, I have an accent and was hardly fluent with Hindi. But all that improved with time,” said the actress, looking radiant in a sea-blue floral top and trousers.Elaborating on how she created the right balance for herself, she said, “Manikda’s (Satyajit Ray) cinema involved pauses and silences. There was more naturalness. In commercial cinema, you have to play to the gallery. You learn the techniques of slightly manipulating your audience.

You learn the adaas, etc.”Her move towards commercial Hindi cinema was also in keeping with the fact that she wanted to explore the glamourous side of the profession, not to add the national visibility it entailed. “Manik da changed my life. He was so methodical, well-prepared about every department of filmmaking. There’s a scene in Apur Sansar, where my husband brings me to my home in Mumbai and I cross the threshold and look around nervously. That was exactly the state I was going through in real life as I worked with him. When I worked with him in Nayak, he said I’d have to wear specs. I asked him if I was long-sighted or short-sighted in the film. He found it funny but observed that I was starting to put thought into my roles. As for me moving towards commercial Hindi cinema, I feel that nothing grows under a big tree. Manik da was the be all and end all of his films. I had to venture out and discover things for myself, which I did. But yes, I miss him. There are times when I feel, I could consult him on acting. And today, I could have really interacted with him well. Those days, I was scared of him as he was more like a father-figure to me. What did he think about my Hindi films? He was amused for sure but he was always supportive.”

She says the move to Hindi cinema only required a slight change in gears. “I had good exposure to music, literature, and fine arts since childhood. I mean I could read a Jeffery Deaver with as much pleasure as a Tagore or an Amartya Sen. Similarly, I can listen to any kind of music from jazz to Hindi film music. So my taste has been quite eclectic. I’ve been able to adjust with different things well.”

Even as both her children Saif and Soha continue to do well in the profession, she’s happy to see that she’s herself more relaxed and natural as an actress now. “Earlier, I would build this artificial tension which would work as a barrier between me and my audiences. Today, I’m more bindaas as I have no compulsions to prove anything. I’m enjoying working with new directors. I’m doing Tasveer with Nagesh Kukunoor. I’ve been a perfectionist, so I want everything from my script to dialogues to clothes in place. But these young people are so cool about everything yet they get things done when time arises. Just like they’ve learnt something from me, I too have learnt to be bindaas from them and I’m liking it,” she smiles.

‘I wish I was 25 again’

Shyam Benegal talks about how the multiplex format has opened up a plethora of cinematic possibilities before filmmakers like him. Sandhya Iyer has the report

When a young Benegal embarked on his cinematic journey in the 70s, his obvious inspiration was Satyajit Ray. A prolific ad filmmaker until then, it was Ray’s cinema that worked as the greatest source of inspiration for him. It provided strength to his belief that he could make the kind of film he believed in and in what can be said to be an astounding achievement, he’s never had to stray from that vision…ever.

Which is why Benegal quite proudly says today, “I never made one film that I didn’t want to make. See, it’s all about sensibilities of a filmmaker rather than using convenient phrases like parallel cinema. That gives the impression that these films are not going to be entertaining. That’s an absurd thing to say. Some filmmakers are more attuned to the conventional mode of popular cinema, while some are not. I, for one, was never excited about hardcore commercial films. For the longest possible time, I even refused to look at it but with time, I am changing. Today, I do see a certain value to our conventional form of entertainment, especially when I consider its phenomenal reach. Something that has survived for 80 years can’t be so bad after all. I’m looking at it and am even considering dabbling in it. I’m sure it can be approached aesthetically,” he observes.

Having said that, the filmmaker feels that his path, which so far was strewn with all kinds of obstacles, has smoothened considerably now, with the coming of the multiplex. “Today it’s easier than ever to make a film and this is something I struggled with for 35 years of my career. The whole nature of the business has changed and anyone with fresh ideas will get support within the industry. Also, the influx of multiplex has ensured that you’re no more making films for this one undistinguishable mass of people. Earlier filmmakers like me struggled because the very arithmetic of film business was not conducive to our kind of projects. Today, the opportunities have grown so much that I wish I was 25 again. Of course, I’m perfectly happy with the way things went for me. As I said, I never did what I didn’t want to do.”

His forthcoming film, titled Mahadev ka Sajjanpur, starring Amrita Rao and Shreyas Talpade is a comic satire about villages today. Says the filmmaker, “Cinema today almost solely caters to the urban audiences. The villages have fallen from its map. And this despite the fact that 50-60 per cent of India still lives there. Unless, you’re talking about regional films in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam or Bhojpuri, villages have lost their place in Hindi cinema. That is how I decided I was going to revisit today’s villages. It’s a very interesting place, because today most of these villages have every modern technology you can imagine. However standards of education are still abysmally low. Which is why, an educated person finds a job as a letter writer at a village post office. That’s what the film is about.”

Most of Benegal’s films, in small way atleast, have shown how cinema can hope to be a vehicle of social change. If Ankur spoke of class exploitation, Manthan was about the co-oporative movement, Mammo yet again was about the plight of people displaced by partition. Does he believe cinema can have a larger role to play in society? He ponders and says, “ For a long time, I did think films can be a catalyst in social change. Then later I thought probably it is not. But I still fell films can raise awareness and public debates about issues. They are also social indicators of where society is moving and what it’s aspiring,” he says, showing satisfaction over the new breed of filmmakers who are looking at fresh themes.

The filmmaker also recogonises that no matter how good a product, it needs to be marketed well. “ There is so much media that you need to find your little elbow room or else it’s very easy to get lost. One needs to have a strategy in place by which you make sure that maximum number of people come to see your film. Today even painters have to market themselves to sell,” he observes.

Finally on the significance of film festivals, he says, “It’s wonderful that today almost every city has its own film festival. Kokatta had a very successful one this year, Hyderabad has one, so do Kerela, Chenna, Bangalore and Hyderabad. In our times, we had these film societies which would promote the cause of cinema as an art. That went into a decline but I’m happy it is being revived.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

'TZP is one for posterity'

Ram Madhvani, who directed the song Bheja Kum in Taare Zameen Par, tells Sandhya Iyer how he’s not surprised by the huge success of the film

Ram Madhvani’s association with Aamir Khan dates back to the time when the former made the highly quirky and critically acclaimed Let’s Talk. Aamir was hugely impressed by the film and became an acquaintance of the director. Meanwhile, Madhvani kept busy with his career as a high-flying ad filmmaker. However, when Aamir fell short of time during the shooting of Taare Zameen Par, he approached him to direct the song, Bheja Kum in the film.The Let’s Talk director says he agreed immediately, no questions asked. “When Aamir Khan asks something, there’s no way one is going to refuse,” he says.

The song comes at a key point in the film, where the child protagonist breaks down emotionally. The director says he had several meetings with Aamir and the creative team before putting together the song. “I didn’t want anyone to see the song out of the context of the film. I wanted it to be within the ‘sur’ and ‘tone’ of the film. Aamir gave me a lot of his ideas, so it would be wrong for me to say that the inputs were all mine. I should say I was the guest director of the film.”As for the creative aspect of the song, he says, “The idea of the song was to depict what was going on in the kid’s head. How do you visualise that? There were three levels in the song that we approached. The first one was one where Darsheel (Ishaan) sees letters as mirror images and basically as gibberish. The second level has him seeing letters as creepy spiders that scare him. His graph progresses from confusion to frustration and then anger. He finally ‘loses it’ and those red crosses signify how he is getting ‘cancelled out’ by everyone. Finally, in his own mind, he has cancelled himself out. The song is important because Darsheel goes steadily downhill in this song and stops talking altogether. It’s a full stop for him. So we basically were trying to externalise what he was experiencing internally.”

Did he imagine the film to turn out to be as significant as it has this year? “Well, when I saw the rough cut of the film last November, I knew it would be a very important film. There are very few films that are attitude-changing ones, this is one of them. I was overcome by the sincerity and honesty in the film. Now the reactions to the film have been quite incredible. I’ve had SMSes saying ‘I’m happy to be alive and see a film like this.’”It must be heartening to see unconventional subjects being lapped up so affectionately even by the box-office? His own film,
Let’s Talk, was one of its kind when it released. Madhvani disagrees with this theory, “Everyone’s been saying that it’s good that such films do well. I, for one, believe that the market has been underestimating the audiences for too long. Any good, sincere film will do well, so I’m not in the least surprised by TZP’s huge success. It’s one for posterity. Aamir himself doesn’t look at films as being commercial or non-commercial. Once he associates himself with a subject, he will do everything to ‘protect’ the tone of its voice,” he says.

In spite of making a successful debut with Let’s Talk, the director preferred to go back to commercials. One wonders what kept him away for so long? Here, he offers no definite answers and says he was just busy with other things (a documentary film on Amitabh Bachchan being one of the things he did). But the filmmaker has now agreed to director a fantasy film for Vidhu Vinod Chopra, with whom he worked earlier in Mission Kashmir as associate director. “I’ve always wanted to make movies from the age of 16. I’m in the process of scripting the film (for Vidhu Vinod Chopra), which we hope to call Talisman. The film is based on a story written in 1892 called Chandrakanta,” he tells us.As for being the director who gave Boman Irani his career-defining role with

Let’s Talk, he says, “Oh, Boman’s a friend and I think he’s too talented for anyone to keep him hidden anyway.”