Sunday, March 22, 2009

Film review: Could this be love (French)

Watched this French film at an ongoing European Film Festival in Pune yesterday and liked it quite a bit.

This Pierre Jolivet directed film is about a charming 43 year old man, Lucas (Vincent Lindon), a rich, divorced industrialist, who tends to go all out when he’s in love.Smarting from a recent affair (where the woman was set up by one of his competitors), Lucas feels it imperative to know all about the woman he’s freshly fallen in love with. He’s incredibly attracted to the 38 year old Elsa (Sandrine Bonnaire), a ceramist whom he’s commissioned to create a fresco for his office foyer. To put to rest all his doubts, he hires his detective friend to know all there is about his ladylove.
Initially, the feisty and quick-witted Elsa plays quite hard to get but finds herself falling for her employer. Their first few attempts at love making prove disastrous for one reason or the other but they get over it soon, and find each other head over heels in love.
But just when life looks perfect, Elsa gets a whiff of the ‘spy devises’ installed in her house and thinks of Lucas as a ‘whacko’ She shuns him, only to have him go into a major depression and snack on frozen Pizza for days on end.
Yet, in the end, the real story gets around to Elsa and to Lucas’ surprise, he hears about his ladylove finishing the fresco in his office foyer. Overjoyed, he rushes to her and it’s all good again for the love birds.
This is quite a light-hearted film, paying a nice little tribute of sorts to the art of ceramics. Vincent Lindon, as the handsome businessman with his heart on his sleeve, is delight to watch. All in all, a nice little love story here.
-Sandhya Iyer

Fiilm review: Firaaq

Cries from a carnage

Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Deepti Naval, Tisca Chopra, Sanjay Suri, Raghuvir Yadav
Director: Nandita Das
Stars: ***

Nandita Das’ directorial debut Firaaq starts with a particularly macabre scene with two men burying a mass of dead Muslims in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage. The next scene cuts to a worried, lower-middle class Muslim couple, retuning back to their area, and shocked to find their house almost burnt down. These two back-to-back scenes, with its inherent bid to grab the audiences’ attention, are a bit shaky and loud – where one fears Das is probably over-directing. But that’s a doubt that gets put to rest in the subsequent reels, where the story starts to introduce you to the various characters of the film.

In Mumbai Meri Jaan fashion, the film alternates between various episodes, trying to give the audience a sense of the dread that permeates after the incident. And Das takes care to include people affected from all demographics. So there is Muneera (a poor mehendiwali) and her husband trying to figure out who burnt their house and in the bargain start suspecting many of their own friends. The blatant anti-Muslim stance that many believe the Gujarat government took, is depicted in the story of a well-to-do inter-caste couple, Anuradha Desai (Tisca Chopra) and her husband, Sameer Sheikh (Sanjay Suri). Their showroom is robbed and the couple starts to feel unsafe in the very state they’ve always considered home.

The story involving Naseeruddin Shah, as a devout musician and his caretaker (Raghuvir Yadav) is probably the most understated ones among all of them. Naseer’s character is in a state of denial about how his surrounding has altered and becomes quite disoriented when some of these changes stare him in his face.

But the most satiric and scathing attack on certain Hindi factions in the state is represented through Paresh Rawal’s character, a callous, self-serving middle-aged Gujju, who loves throwing his weight around, occasionally beating and deriding his compliant wife (Deepti Naval), when he’s not cheating people along with his equally phony brother.
And in all this, two of the stories include an orphaned five-year-old (Mohsin), who is witness to the violence and depravity around him.

Das is clearly making a statement about Hindu fundamentalism and how the minority community was almost on the verge of a wipe out - with both the State’s police and even many of the citizens turning against Muslims (there’s a particularly hard-hitting scene here where Muneera’s husband – after escaping from a police – is hit on the head with a stone thrown on him from a balcony.)
This is probably one of the few films where not too much effort has been made to ‘balance out’ things —- Yes, some Hindu characters are shown to be sympathetic and there is Deepti Naval, who is deeply affected by her inability to help out a Muslim woman chased by a mob. But for most part, the film only highlights the atrocity on Muslims. Since the film is ultimately about human suffering and not expected to be a docu-drama, one wonders if Das should have concentrated so pointedly at the sufferings of the minority alone.

Firaaq has some extremely well-shot scenes and superb performances by almost everyone. Paresh Rawal is the pick of the lot, followed by Naseer, Raghuvir Yadav and Tisca Chopra.
However, what prevents the film from really being as engrossing as it should be is the fact, that unlike a Mumbai Meri Jaan, there is very little progression in all the stories. The suffering is internalised, which causes the film to drag a lot. And even though, one is happy the film got made, the fact that Das is pretty judgemental (rightly or wrongly) could prompt the audience to be defensive. So in that sense, one might get a feeling of only being privy to one half the story – though in Das’ view there was only one side to this story!
All in all, Firaaq is a bold film, with some excellently done scenes but for its slow pace, lack of any respite and a bit of repetitiveness, it could demand a fair bit of patience from the audience.
- Sandhya Iyer

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nandita Das on Firaaq

'It's time to reclaim our spaces'

Nandita Das, whose film, Firaaq is up for release, speaks to on why she felt compelled to direct this subject and how she’s upset with the lack of promotion
for it

Nandita Das is on a media overdrive, giving one interview after another. When you call her, she politely asks if an email interview would be okay but then soon relents. “You know I’ve been speaking about the same thing to so many people,” says the actress- turned-director who is just back from an international film festival in France where Firaaq was showcased. But as we start conversing, Nandita gets into the mood and tells us all we need to know about her debut directorial venture.

So how was the film received in France?

It was fantastic. There were 1500 people and they empathised completely with the journey of the characters in the film. The feedback I got reaffirmed my faith that problems of violence affect everyone. It’s a very universal feeling.

One sees a lot of international critics and even audiences now relating to every Indian film through the prism of Slumdog Millionaire. Did you find that happening?

There is a growing interest in India per se. And it goes beyond just yoga or our curries. But yes, Slumdog Millionaire has brought the spotlight to India and Mumbai. In fact, a lot of critics have compared Firaaq to Slumdog…

Are you comfortable with that…?

People always label things very quickly. For example, people ask me if Firaaq is like Parzania (both have the backdrop of the Gujarat riots). I mean, c’mon, why would someone make another film then? There is no riot shown in my film at all. What it shows is the after-effect of such an occurrence… how the violence lingers around, leaving back anger, ambivalence, hope and so on.

You’ve been an actress…were you always interested in the process of filmmaking even then?

Yes, I was interested. I find post-production to be a huge thing. It was completely unfamiliar terrain for me since I was an actor, but I found it all hugely exciting. I especially liked editing. To have all your material together and then to be able to play around with was great.

So was it interest in the medium that resulted in Firaaq?

No, Firaaq was born for a different reason. It’s an outcome of my Human Rights’ work. The kind of things I saw there and experienced compelled me to tell a story. There was a lot of research happening even without me knowing that I would be making it into a film. But once I made up mind on it, I started meeting more people who had gone through violence. I wanted documentaries, held talks…Even our film opens with the lines ‘A fiction with a thousand true stories” It was essentially the desire to tell a story and conviction in the subject that drove me towards making it.

What about cinematic influences?

I’ve grown up in a family of artistes (her father is the famous painter-sculptor Jatin Das), so the influences are bound to be there. I’ve done street theatre for five years. Cinema is ultimately a collaborative art and even your instincts are all governed by your sub-conscious mind – which keeps gathering details and experiences all along. So essentially, I wasn’t playing by the standard rules while making Firaaq. That is, in fact, one of the compliments I got, where I was told I had managed to create a language of my own.

With actors like Naseer, Paresh Rawal and Shahana Goswami, the film’s cast is a clear highlight…

Whether it is the casting or locales, I literally handpicked stuff. I was very sure I wanted Dipti Naval and Raghuvir Yadav in the film, along with Naseer, Paresh Rawal and Shahana Goswami. Some other names didn’t work out but most of the cast is what I wanted.

The film may not be explicitly about the Gujarat riots but one presumes it will be making a statement…

The film is really about what goes on in people’s mind when they are faced with situations of this kind. I haven’t shown violence and that’s how I wanted it. A lot of films are so called critiques of violence but they can’t do it without showing a lot of violence. That, in my opinion, defeats the purpose.

Firaaq – at least on the surface – appears like a film that is recipe for controversy, isn’t it?

I can’t let that affect my life. Is it wrong to feel for something, to take a stand or push the boundary? Controversy has already become such an ugly word. Any five people anywhere will get offended by what you make. The moral policing just has to stop. It’s high time we reclaimed our spaces, otherwise you’ll have people coming into your homes and telling you want to do. But I have no fears, because I wrote precisely what I wanted to and my motivation behind the film was very clear. It is more of a healing process than anything else.

So is Firaaq a one off for her, or there will she be directing more films?

The greatest freedom in life is to be able to do what you like, so yes, I will pick up subjects that interest me -both as an actor or director. One can have fun without something defying one’s sensibilities, being regressive or sexist. For example, I would to be part of a comedy or even direct one.

Finally, the publicity of the film by producers Percept has been almost nil…

Ask them! I don’t understand these things. You know, when you make a film, it’s important that there is visibility. The whole idea is to reach out to as many people as you can. It’s not only about a few reviews and getting my friends to see it. I have faith in word-of-mouth though. But yes, you should seriously direct this question at the producers.
-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, March 13, 2009

Film review: Little Zizou

Just for Kicks

Starring: Boman Irani, Zenobia Shroff, Jahan Bativala, Iyanah Bativala, Imaad Shah, Sohrab Ardeshir
Director: Sooni Taraporevala
Rating: ***

It’s been long since we’ve seen a film showcasing a particular community, bringing out their little quirks and specific traits. There have been Baaton Baton Mein, Pestonji and a few more in the past, which have delved into culture/community specific subjects, leading to an endearing comedy of manners.

In that respect, director Sooni Taraporevala – (screenplay writer for Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Mississipi Masala) is the spot-on choice for her directorial debut, Little Zizou, which essentially is all about the Zoroastrian community, that mildly touches upon some of the larger issues Parsis are faced with.Given that Taraporevala understands the community so well, enables her to etch out a textured screenplay with the right tone, and characters, situations and dialogues that ring true at every point. If you’re one for subtlety (note how a South Indian character in the film speaks just in the right intonation) and a certain assured style of story-telling, Little Zizou could well be your weekend treat.

So what’s the film about? Nothing much really. The script is mostly happy to meander around, capturing lives around a Parsi locality. The film starts with 11-year old Xerxes (Jahan Bativala), who loves football and dreams of meeting his icon Zinedine Zidane someday. He’s nicknamed fondly after his idol, Zizou. Motherless and lonely, he spends most of his time being treated to fish curry and other stuff by his kindly neighbours, The Presswalas (Boman Irani and Zenobia Shroff) — much to the chagrin of their younger daughter who sulks at the attention given to Zizou by her mother. Boman Presswala regularly pokes fun of Khodaiji through his newspaper, which forms the crux of the story in the later reels.

Zizou’s own family is a dysfunctional one. His father, Cyrus II Khodaiji (Sohrab Ardeshir) is an archetype, a pathetic remnant of the Raj– the kind who speaks high-flown English and insists on crisp toast and bacon for breakfast. That is when he’s not driving his uptight Girl Friday (Shenaz Patel) crazy, expecting new levels of perfection from her every day. But all this could be excused as perverse eccentricity, except that Khodaiji is obsessed with a certain ‘cause’ to keep his community pure and not allow “riff raff”, as he puts it, to pollute them. When an articulate foreign journalist points out at Parsis’ dwindling numbers, Khodaiji’s retort is, “Quality matters madam, not quantity”
Meanwhile, Zizou’s elder brother, Artaxerxes (Imaad Shah) is a writer-artiste –who visualises his vicinity through caricatures (this is a nice touch to the theme) — keeps himself busy with a bunch of wacky friends, trying to convert a crashed cockpit into a flight-of-fantasy machine, when he’s not getting disappointed in love.

What Sooni Taraporevala gets right is the setting and mood. She never goes over-the-top and ensures there’s a certain comic vein that runs through the film. But the most howlerious and interesting part of the film is hands down Boman Irani and his wife, played by the pretty Zenobia Shroff. The latter is a delight to watch, as she tries to bring a semblance of calm and grace to her otherwise tumultuous surrounding. Boman is predictably brilliant. See him interacting with his younger daughter in Parsi, it’s great fun. This is really the highlight of the film and most of the charm of the movie resides in this household alone. Imaad Shah (the only non-Parsi in the cast probably) is impressive while John Abraham has a neat little guest appearance. The director has tried to include as many Parsi personalities in the film as possible (there’s Shiamak Davar and Cyrus Brocha too), making this a tribute film to the community almost.

Even though the film stays fairly engaging, it needs to be said that this is ultimately a very unambitious film that is happy to skim the surface and not really address any of the issues in detail. Also, many threads are left incomplete. What happens to Zenobia’s senile, chatterbox mother in the film – (a very good, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal) is not clear. More importantly, the central premise (the fight for ‘pure breed’) hardly comes through and the ending is all too convenient and half-baked.

So while there are these nice vignettes you can carry home with you, none of them add to the whole, making it ultimately a film you can enjoy watching, but hardly one that makes you sit up and take note of it.
-Sandhya Iyer

Monday, March 2, 2009

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Not quite on the button
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P Henson
Rating: **1/2

F. Scott Fitzergerald’s wonderful short story on degeneration and regeneration through the utterly curious life of his protagonist Benjamin Button was always going to be rich fodder for a cinematic translation. And it is indeed the concept and the special effects used to achieve a fantastical and profound story that makes the film worth your time. But sadly, unlike his earlier films, David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club) fails to inject the story with enough vigour or zip, leading to the end product to appear a bit too plodding and meandering.

The film starts with a bang though. To everyone’s shock, our protagonist, Benjamin, is born looking like an 80-year-old. His father, Mr Button is so horrified that he leaves the ghostly-looking baby at the doorstep of a home for the aged. A kindly nurse, Queenie (a brilliant and very effective Taraji P Henson) is struck by the baby’s ugliness but takes him under her care.

Even though Benjamin looks every bit like a tottering grandpa, everyone around treats him like a kid. The doctor who examines him doesn’t think he will live long. But live he does, and curiously starts to grow younger as the years progress. He starts to walk erect, his head looks fuller with grey hair and the wrinkles start to lessen.

Meanwhile, he gets friendly with one of the inmate’s granddaughter, the eight-year-old Daisy, and finds it perfectly normal to find her attractive (his real age being same as hers), until he’s told otherwise. The rest of the film takes us through Benjamin’s life, including his adventures at the sea and his meeting with a minister’s wife, who he drinks coffee with night after night. This is probably the film’s most tiresome part. Also, for a guy who spends all his time in the sea, why in the world was Brad Pitt given such a professorial look with long silver locks and robes!
The film, which almost comes to a standstill pre and post interval scenes, gathers some steam when Benjamin visits the home for the aged again and rekindles his affection with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now a graceful ballerina. Their relationship has its ups and downs but the couple decides to stick together. There’s only one problem —Benjamin — with reversal of age — is growing younger.

Fitzergerald’s original story really emphasised on the vanity of youth and how nothing remains forever. Also, it’s a telling take on the age dynamics between man and woman, and our vulnerability against the ravages of time. Obviously, the writers of the film have made modifications to the author’s original story and fleshed it out more, but one isn’t sure if it necessarily adds to the film’s basic idea. While Fitzergarald’s short story passes like a breeze, thereby not letting you argue on logic, Fincher’s version is very long, so questions invariably pop in your head. Why would Daisy find the old Benjamin attractive in the first place? Also, the makers have kept Benjamin’s character a bit too hazy and placid, so as to bypass some logical questions, such as ‘Does he keep forgetting events and people of the previous year, considering he’s growing younger?’ and ‘What is it about him that women find attractive, since you’re given no idea of what his mental age is?’

Fincher’s story and characters are a mixed bag. Brad Pitt has been saddled with a role that is more a showcase for the special effects team than anything else. The characters are far too sketchy and their motivations unclear. Watch it for its interesting concept, but this isn’t a perfect film by any means.