Friday, December 25, 2009

Review: 3 IDIOTS

Starring: Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi, R Madhavan, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani and others

Director: Raj Kumar Hirani

When the industry's best talents - Aamir Khan and Raj Kumar Hirani get together, obviously one expects a film of very high quality. And the good news is that their latest 3 Idiots lives up to most of those expectations. Knowing their repertoire - Aamir with films like Taare Zameen Par, Lagaan and Hirani with the two superlative Munnabhai fims - they've come up with the sort of engaging, inspiring and entertaining film only they could have made. Both like to add pop pholosophy to the mix, and Hirani in his own inimitable style tells you what all is wrong with our education system. Yes, the point gets overstated at times, but thankflly, the film gets constantly redeemed by the delighful vein of ironic humour that runs throughout the film and the warmth that pervades it.

The film owes its basic premise to Chetan Bhagat's 5 Point Someone. And even though there's much in the film that is not there in the book and vice versa, 3 Idiots still manages to capture the essence of Bhagat's bestseller. The film is about three friends - Rancho (Aamir Khan), Farhan Qureshi (Madhavan) and Raju Rastogi (Sharman), studying together at a prestigious Engineering college. While Rancho is the out-of-the-box free-thinking student, the other two find themselves constantly crushed by an education system that rewards marks over merit. Then there's parental pressures to be dealt with. Slowly but surely Rancho's own atittitude to life brings about a positive change in both Farhan and Raju. So when Rancho disappears from the scene one day and remains untraceable for a few years, both friends undertake a journey to find him.

The story in the first half primarily revolves around campus life and operates on a rather broad comic level. There is not much depth here and it's essentially the wry humour and funny situations that keep it going. (Yes, there is a lot of scatalogical humour, but that seems part and parcel of Boys hostel life. Quite harmless and nothing to be outraged really, especially since there is so much else working for the film anyway.) The first half is fairly good, but by no means superlative. There's too much lecture baazi from Rancho, so much so that his friends jokingly refer to him as "Baba"

3 Idiots, with all the fun and games, and some truly witty dialogues and situations, would have remained just another frothy flick, if it were not for the literal and metaphorical journey that Farhan and Raju undertake to find Rancho.
This is really the core of the film, and a very clever narrative choice from the story-telling point of view. This journey of contemplation brings depth to the film and lends it an emotional sweep that takes your breath away. The second half is tremendously entertaining and remains pacy and engaging right till the end. The background score is pitch perfect and often enhances the scenes.

The film's mainstay are its superb performances. Quite incredibly, the 44 year old Aamir Khan makes the 22 year old Rancho a real flesh and blood character, never once drawing attention to himself as a star. Kareena Kapoor brings in a lot of freshness, though one can't say she's a natural fit in Hirani world. The makers have obviously tried to bring down her oomph levels, but her presence still remains overwhelming before her simply dressed, shorter co-star.
Madhavan, much like suga to tea, is not an overt presence in the film, but he's enormously vital to the mix. Sharman Joshi is simply brilliant and it is his chracter and performance that makes the lasting impact long after you've seen the movie.
Boman Irani's role (as the principal) doesn't work as well as it did in the other two Munnabhais, but the film doesn't miss it, thanks to the inclusion of another superbly sketched character, Chatur Ramalingam (Omi - a fabulous find). Mona Singh as Kareena's sister, has a very brief role, but she does well.

Shantanu Moitra's music is situational. Aal Izz Well has already scaled the heights of popularity and it serves the film very well.

Finally, Raj Kumar Hirani delivers once again a film that is hugely entertaining. His last film Lage Raho Munnabhai was a gentler, sweeter film. 3 Idiots, more like Munnabhai MBBS is sharper and wicked. It is also grander and fulfilling.

3 Idiots is then a power-packed, high-quality, big scale Bollywood entertainer, certainly the best of the year. And yes, the film should be very high on repeat value.

Stars: ****

Sandhya Iyer

Friday, December 18, 2009

Film review: Avatar

Where's that sinking feeling?

Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana
Rating: ***

While the world sits up in anticipation of James Cameron's ambitious, $ 300 million sci fi spectacle, it's got to be said that Avatar is a film of curious contradictions. Technically, it blasts open the possibilities of cinema and goes where few have reached earlier. The 3 D animation is obviously the highlight (just make sure you see it at the right theatre) and the film has several moments that are jaw-dropping in terms of visual splendour and artistic grandeur. There is enough here that will thrill, excite and exhilarate. But there's also a lot in it that exasperates. For a futuristic, game-changing film, Cameron opts for a premise and love story that is way too common place and at times, even stale. There's an overall lack of feelings in Avatar.

The story takes place in the 22nd century in a faraway, forested planet called Pandora, a land which humans have lately discovered and want to capture for its natural resources. The land is populated by native human forms called Na'vis. These are slender, graceful beings, 10 feet in height, with long necks and tails. They are nude, save for some leather and feather accessories on their bodies. The indigenous creatures are horse-like, dog-like, elephant-like, rhino-like animals, a bit shinier than the ones found on earth, with sharper, longer teeth.

An unknown company has been working towards capturing the resources in the planet. But since the Pandora atmosphere is intolerable to humans, they devise an avatar program, where a few humans will have their consciousness linked to a remotely-controlled biological body equipped to survive the toxic environment. The avatars are part-human, and part-Na'vi, with DNA extracted from Pandora's native people.
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an ex marine who has lost both his legs is up for the task of being one of these avatars. He's assigned to infiltrate into the Na'vi land and convince them to give access to the priced minerals. But once he's on the planet, Jake falls in love with the spirited and beautiful Na'vi princess, Nyetri (Zoe Saldana). She teaches him the Na'vi ways - talking to trees, riding on birds - and soon enough, Jake starts to have second thoughts about the whole evil mission. Since his bosses at the corporation won't step back, it leads in a rebellion with an epic scale fight in full blast.

If there's one reason to see Avatar, it is for some of the magnificent visuals, and Cameron's ingenious creation of the planet and its inhabitants. The Na'vis are finely textured creatures with individual expressions - these are the best computer generated characters we've got so far. There are also scenes of immense visual beauty. The scene where Jake puts up a fight with rhino-like animals, or the one where he explores the flora and fauna of the place (with the touch-me-nots), or then the one where he learns to gloriously fly on a bird, is all a veritable feast for the eyes.

Cameron probably knew that technical wizardry alone would not make the cut and hence, he invests a fair amount of time in the Jack-Nyetri romance. But sadly, it seems more like mandatory love without any real depth. The emotional core of the film is weak, wherein you are unable to connect with any character or empathise with their motivations. This is where Cameron's effort greatly differs from his last gigantic hit, Titanic - which had the special effects and associated thrills, but was deeply anchored in a touching love story. Here, the project is truly only interested in flaunting and pushing the boundaries of what is achievable technologically. The romance is a serviceable one, too basic with some cringe-worthy dialogues. As for the larger theme, there's historical deja vu about the outsider capturing what doesn't belong to him.

Avatar is a triumph of creation, not of content. Of style more than substance. Of spectacles more than soul. Which is what makes the film formidable and yet forgettabe at the same time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Raj Kumar Hirani interview

Director Raj Kumar Hirani talks about everything you wanted to know about 3 Idiots

Raj Kumar Hirani is everything you would imagine him to be - warm, friendly and humble. He laughs quite often in the course of the interview. There's a clear weariness in his voice, but his spirit is boyant and his mood is upbeat. You can also sense a nervous excitability, that of a director who has delivered as best as he could and is now waiting to see how the public will react. In the course of the conversation, one thing emerges clearly. He is one director who actually connects with you instantly. He listens carefully, enjoys and heartily laughs at any anecdote you might share with him. All those down to earth qualities are amply evident in his films as we see

You've probably never done so many interviews before!

(laughs): Thanks to Aamir! He's away, so someone's got to do the job.

You had two very successful films behind you – Munnbhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai. How easy was it to temporarily abandon the Munnabhai series and do something else?

It was very easy. I never wanted to make Lage Raho... When I started working on that idea, it was supposed to be about Gandhi and a small boy. But I got stuck with that script and that's when the concept of Munnabhai meets Mahatma was born. We also could have worked on Mumnnabhai Chale Amerika but somehow the concept of 3 Idiots, which I had in mind was drawing me more, so I made it.

A lot of people believe Munnabhai MBBS was a more spontaneous effort than Lage Raho.., though the latter was probably the more ambitious film. Do you believe the same?

Yes, I personally think Munnabhai MBBS had a better screenplay but
Lage Raho... was a better concept. It was a brighter film and a unique idea. I don't think any other film, anywhere in the world has had a historical figure stepping into today's setting.
And no, it was never about fatigue. I would never make a film if I had nothing new to say. We always knew the laughs would be lesser in Lage Raho. In a film about Gandhi, Munna would not be able to make too many jokes, so we gave many of the lines to Circuit instead.

I believe you stuck to an established star like Aamir Khan for
3 Idiots because you were not happy with some younger actors you auditioned. Were you sure Aamir could pass off as a college student? No apprehensions?

Oh there were apprehension! But you know what the trouble was. I auditioned a lot of newcomers for the four main characters – from Bangalore, Pune, Delhi, even theatre groups. I couldn't find youngsters who were complimenting each other as friends. It was important for them to be in tandem with each other, and yet be different. That is when I thought I should go for established actors. Ultimately, an actor's job is to 'become' a character. Kamal Haasan became a woman in Chachi 420, Ben Kingsley became Gandhi, so it's part of an actor's profile I think. Aamir took it up as a challenge, and once I saw him in his get up on the sets, his look became least of my worries.

It's one thing to 'look' young, but there are other aspects too in playing a youngster. The vulnerability, the body language all has to look convincing, doesn't it?

Correct! That can come only from feeling young from within. Aamir made a lot of efforts. He stayed at the hostel, played with the students. These are small things, but I think it made a huge difference. There are many complex scenes in the film, and I needed seasoned actors for it. I should mention that there is a forth actor in the film, Omi who has done a fabulous job in the film.

I believe the film has two time frames...

Yes, most of it (75 per cent) is their college life, the rest is five years later.

You have Madhavan and Sharman in the film. They were together with Aamir in Rang De Basanti too. Did the casting come about because their camaraderie was already established in that film?

It didn't even cross my mind when they were cast together. It was Rakeysh Mehra who drew my attention to it, when he said, 'you've taken away all my actors!' It was never planned.

You are in some ways recollecting your own college days, and the grueling competition you saw around you. But hasn't the education system changed since then. The government is talking about scraping tenth standard even!...

If it happens, it will be great. I don't think there will be a sense of datedness about 3 Idiots. Yes, the options have increased, that I agree. But the competition is still intense. My neighbour's daughter goes for her tenth standard tuitions at five in the morning!

You tell simple stories using characterisation and dialogues. Some believe your films are not very cinematic, in the sense that you are not into visual story-telling...

It's true my stories are dialogue driven. In 3 Idiots, I've used silences more effectively. As for telling stories visually, there are a lot of people who think a lot about camera placements.... I don't want to take names. But sometimes one gets so engrossed with camera angles, ke emotion hi khatam ho jaata hai. I don't want that.

The other important character is that of Boman Irani. In the 2 Munnabhais even though he was the evil character, he had quirks that made him quite likable. Is that true of his role in 3 Idiots also?

He has many quirks in this film. In Munnabhai MBBS, he laughs when he gets nervous or angry. In Lage Raho... we kept thinking what quirk we should give him. That's when we realised we had fallen in the trap of a formula. We felt that him being a Sardar was quirk enough (laughs). Even with 3 Idiots, we didn't want to specifically do anything, it just came naturally. Boman modelled himself on one of his school teachers. He's sharp, intelligent, absent-minded with a slight lisp. You know, Boman insisted on doing his own shopping for the character. He went to some shops in Dadar from where most Parsees buy their clothes. He bought the cheapest shirts, got a tailor to stitch his trousers which go right uptill his chest. So he has this huge zipper up.

But for a guy who talks about competitiveness and virtues of mainstream education, isn't his look that of an odd-ball?

But that is true of a lot of teachers. I don't mean to be derogatory, but many professors are very idealistic, they preach a lot of things, but they themselves don't step out in the real world. In fact, Boman knew a professor who would always talk about success and how to be ahead of others, but he himself would walk very slowly and was very dull physically. We thought it was a good idea, but dropped it eventually because we gathered it would not look cinematic. We needed him to have energy.

So lot of brainstorming has gone into the role....

Absolutely, I always enjoy talking to Boman. He is such an intelligent actor. When I was making Munnabhai MBBS, there is a dialogue in his introduction scene where he talks about how feelings should not come in the way for a doctor. He says, “If I was performing a surgery on my daughter, my hands will shake” I was not sure whether to keep that dialogue, because it would mean making him sound justified and too believable. He would not be in the wrong and my hero would be less stronger. But Boman said, 'Nothing doing, I should have a point of view. It's your business now how you make your hero stronger' It is from him that I learnt that your antagonist must always have a point of view.

How was it working with Kareena Kareena?

Arre, she was a joy! And so professional. If I'd call her and set an appointment, she herself would call a day before and ask, “So can I come and read those scenes'
When I offered her the film, she was elated. She didn't even want to hear the script. I asked her about it and she said, “One, I want to work with Aamir and second, my mom has asked me to work with you. She said, 'Yeh Sindhi director hai, acchi filmein banata hai' (laughs)

Any jitters about competition from the much-awaited Avatar that releases this week?

No. Time and again it has been proved that two good films can do well. We've had Gadar and Lagaan before, so no worries.

-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rocket Singh review

This Rocket scales some heights

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Gauhar Khan, Shazahn Padamsee, Navin Kaushik, D Santosh and Prem Chopra
Director: Shimit Amin
Rating: ***

In the age of multiplex films, where all kinds of subjects are being attempted, it's a surprise that not too many have really explored an office scenerio in any great detail. On that count, Yash Raj's latest, Rocket Singh feels instantly fresh. Also, much like he did with Chak De! India and his debut Ab Tak Chappan, Shimit Amin introduces several new actors. In fact, except Ranbir Kapoor and Prem Chopra who plays his grandfather, almost everyone in the film is a fresh face. This lends believability to the setting, and also takes away the staleness that could have easily crept in with a familiar looking star cast.

Harpreet Singh Bedi (Ranbir Kapoor), after scraping through his graduation, applies for a sales job. He joins a company that sells computers. Harpreet is struck by the chaotic, ultra competitive nature of the organisation. His immediate boss, Nitin (Navin Kaushik), is high handed, arrogant and unscrupulous. Equally condescending is the company's owner, Puri. Harpreet is considered naïve to the point of being an absolute duffer when he reports about one of their clients taking bribe. He is insulted by his bosses, but allowed to finish his training period. The rest of the film is about how Harpreet secretly runs an alternative company staying within his office, along with five other colleagues.

The film's basic premise is very similar to Jaideep Sahni's earlier Dibankar Banerjee directed film Khosla Ka Ghosla - a delightful satire on Delhi inhabitants. The good people con the bad ones, beating them at their own game. Khosla..., with its ironic wit and distinct flavour, was more colourful and sharper. It was also funnier and shorter. Rocket Singh has darker undertones and is more serious. Even gets a little preachy at points.

Also it is unusually long-winding for a film of this kind. It attempts a Munnabhai of sorts, in presenting the cut-throat world of customer sales and related fraudulent practices. And how human empathy is lost. Someone in the film nicely puts it, “Customer ko toh marna hi hai. Customer word mein hi 'mar' hai”. Harpreet rejects all that is disingenuous, dishonest and mechanical about the profession of selling, and attracts customers with his genuine desire to give them the best possible service. His vision is simplistic, but Shimit Amin goes along with it for a long time, believing for most part that goodness stands above all. This gets tedious after a point. Also , Amin is especially conscious of not making any character appear wholly negative, so some justification goes into every action.

There are some other problem areas as well. Since the company that Ranbir works for is into computer sales, there's a lot of technical stuff that gets spoken about in the film. This could be a slight drawback for someone who doesn't know a great deal about it. Also in the course of Ranbir building his secret team, there's a point where he accepts his boss, Nitin into the fold. This seems somewhat forced from the plot's point of view, because the audience always imagines him to be the central cause of Ranbir's distress. Also, a happy ending is eked out from the climax - not altogether convincing.

But there are plenty of plusses too. Much like Jaideep's other works, Chak De! India and Aaja Nachle , Rocket Singh's biggest strength lies in the way the characters have been written. From the supercilious bosses, to the saucy and highly competent receptionist (a superb Gauhar Khan), to their unkempt colleague, fixated on porn, the supporting cast really enlivens proceedings . In contrast, Ranbir's character - being the goody-goody one - comes across as a little too bland. It could be Shimit Amin's way of establishing his pure intentions and as a foil to the other characters, but it could just give you the feeling of seeing a one note performance. Nothing to fault Ranbir though, his act is effortless as always.

Like Ranbir's character, the film's heart is in the right place. The tone, like Amin's earlier films, is realisitic with subtle snatches of humour. Not a wholly original or path-breaking story, but a charming, greatly watchable film nevertheless.

-Sandhya Iyer

Friday, December 4, 2009

Paa film review

Pappu Paa(s) Ho Gaya!

Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Arundhathi Nag and Paresh Rawal

Director: R Balki

Rating: ***

Paa is a film that both thrills you as well as disappoints you on a certain level. You got to cheer all that it achieves, and rue what it does not. Right away, it must be said that R Balki is a fresh, original voice, very un-Bollywoodish in his sensibilities. His templates are refreshing and his insouciant humour manages to diffuse many a scene that could have so easily slipped into melodrama. The film is biwitchingly beautiful in parts, almost poetry on celluloid. Vidya and Abhishek's courtship number at the start, Mudi Mudi (Illayraja's music transports you into the world of his countless Tamil classics) is magically captured through montages.
Clearly, the director who made the charming yet over-the-top Cheeni Kum has learned from his debut effort, and his writing is decidedly more assured this time around.

The film straight away takes you into the life of 13 year-old Auro whose life revolves around his mother, Vidya (Vidya Balan), fun-loving grand-mom (Arundhati Nag) and half a dozen school friends. He suffers from the rarest of rare genetic disorder, progeria - one that accelerates ageing. Auro knows about his condition. His mischievous eyes hide a sagely mind, and it's touching how he tries to make life easier for his mom. Little wonder then that he is greatly adored by people around him. A quick flashback acquaints you with the circumstances under which Auro was born. Vidya was in love with her college-classmate (Amol Arte). But both go their separate ways, when Vidya gets pregnant and Amol – an aspiring politician - urges her to abort the baby. Vidya gives birth to Auro, while Amol turns into a suave, do gooder politician. The story is essentially about the father-son, mother-son relationship, the joys of parenthood and the heartbreak of loving and losing a loved one.

And yet, Paa is not a path-breaking film or even a great film. Yes, it's a good film, but what makes Paa special is the treatment more than the story. The story is regular. In fact, too regular. The question to ask is whether the film would have turned out any different in essence had it not had the progeria angle. The answer is no. Sure, Balki does some service by bringing a lesser known disease to the fore. It also creates an interesting situation of role reversal between the real life father-son. The images are evocative of the time when Big B took ill last year and Abhishek tended to him. But progeria is largely an excuse in the film to cash in on the Bachchan chemistry. The condition of progeria is not organically born out of the story. If only Balki could have achieved this and brought in even a faintly recogonisable metaphor, Paa would have been a richer film. A disease that afflicts a maximum of 50 people in the world cannot be introduced in a film as a coincidence.
But Balki sticks to a basic script, recogonising like the ace marketing man that he is, that the 'role reversal' and having Bachchan as a 13-year old is the film's USP. There is otherwise a severe want of ambition in the film. The other area that suffers is Abhishek Bachchan's politician avatar, where he seems to be replicating MP Sachin Pilot's look. The situations created for him are quite cliched and overdramatic, and bring a certain jarring disconnect from the Auro-Vidya portions.

Though nowhere in the film is one's sense of plausibility particularly outraged, yet it's a bit mystifying how Vidya so daringly goes ahead with her pregnancy and doesn't talk to Abhishek even when he calls her back.
There are also times when the irreverance appears a bit forced. For example, when the media hounds Abhishek asking him about Vidya and her son, he says, "My only mistake was I didn't use a condom!"

The pertinent area where Balki scores heavily is in creating authentic, lived-in sets and wonderfully female characters– Auro's family with the comely Vidya and grandmom (brilliantly played)-- are delightfully familiar but also wholly original creations. Not to forget refreshingly liberated in attitude.

The performances are all round excellent. Amitabh Bachchan convinces you from shot one that he is Auro - that's the sign of an incredible talent. Vidya's performance is another high point in the film. She's simply brilliant. Abhishek's character is probably the least nuanced of the three leads, which is why a lot of what he does in the film isn't entirely convincing. His earnestness saves the day for his character though.
Arundhati Nag is awesome. But Paresh Rawal is loud as ever - he probably forgot he wasn't on De Dana Dan sets.

Finally, Paa is a film that can be liked and enjoyed for what it is. Balki's colours are new and fresh, one wished they were deeper.

-Sandhya Iyer