Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Review: Well Done Abba

Not quite the Done deal

Starring: Boman Irani, Minissha Lamba, Ravi Kissen, Ila Arun, Sonali Kulkarni
Director: Shyam Benegal
Rating: **1/2

Not quite the Done deal

Shyam Benegal has always believed in films that have an overarching social message. So much so that Benegal often comes across as a keener student of history and sociology rather than cinema itself. His last few films, be it Hari-Bhari, Bose: The Forgotten Hero and Welcome To Sajjanpur have to an extent been social documentaries in the NFDC mode of public service films.

Obviously, the above isn't a commercially viable model; which is why Benegal, even when he wrote a serious film like Sajjanpur that dealt with age-old rural India issue, tried to make it palatable by turning it into a comic satire. He does the same with Well Done Abba, but clearly, the comic diversions continue to look somewhat forced in films. The lack of vigour and movement in his screenplays has been a problem, resulting in an acute sense of tedium. In that sense, his scripts have been like social essays projected on the big screen, rather than being cinematic with strong drama, plot and so forth.

The above problems are evident in Well Done Abba too. And yet, Benegal's message is a timely and important one, because it tackles the issue of government schemes for the poor that do not reach them at all due to rampant corruption among officers and middlemen.
Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), a driver in Mumbai, takes a month's leave from work so that he can find a groom for his daughter (Minishha Lamba). He hails from a small town near Hyderabad. Since there is an acute water shortage there, Armaan Ali applies for a loan to get a well dug up in his yard. He is prodded by some to apply in the below poverty line segment, so that all these benefits will come free to him. Armaan is confused by all the happenings around him, but he toes the line - adhering to what is expected in this maze of corrupt officers. The money is released in quick time, but none of it reaches Armaan. The well is built on paper, not on land. Taking matters in her hands, Minissha registers a complaint with the police officer (a listless Rajat Kapoor) that her well has been stolen. Others in the town also come forward to register complaints about their missing wells, thereby putting the government machinery into a spot.

Adapted from two short stories, Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi and Phulwa Ka Pul, the best thing about Well Done Abba is its setting. As can be expected from Benegal, he etches quotidian life in an authentic, textured manner. The Hyderabadi dialect lends the film a distinct freshness, though the dialogues and script do not tap into the potential for humour enough. Benegal tries to lighten up his story with a few funny scenes (Boman has a twin brother and sister-in-law (Ila Arun) who are notorious for stealing) but there is always such a heavy air of sobriety that pervades his world that it weighs the film down. There are severe pacing issues and many scenes seem repetitive. Mind you, many of the characters and even individual scenes start off in an interesting manner, but Benegal lingers on too much, not willing to move on - so a lot of it appears stretched. For example, the meeting with an officer who glibly demands Boman's watch as a bribe or even Ravi Kissen as the newly wed, sexed up husband make you grin, but this just goes on and on.

Yet, in spite of these problems with the narrative, the subject itself is an admirable one and hammers home the message well. The freshness of the setting offsets some of the other weaknesses, so that Well Done Abba turns out to be a well-intentioned and fairly enjoyable film.

The performances are all good, though Minissha Lamba's botched up nose job is a major distraction. Boman Irani - the wonderful actor that he is - gives the role his best, but you get a sense he's more suited for flamboyant roles. Here, he plays an ordinary guy and doesn't quite nail it.
All in all, a watchable film… but not quite sharp enough.

-Sandhya Iyer

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Film review: The Young Victoria

Crowning Glory

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent
Rating: ***1/2

Whenever films have been attempted on the Queens who ruled England - Mrs Brown, Elizabeth or The Queen - they have almost always made for a sumptuous and often riveting viewing experience. Besides the insatiable desire most of us have for these rose-tinted, elaborate period dramas that offer a peek into English royalty, there is also the added interest of seeing a woman at the absolute helm of affairs.

The Young Victoria concerns itself with the Queen's early life - it portrays her overly sheltered childhood till she is coronated. Her early years of rule are not the easiest, given her youth and inexperience. However, good instincts and a great choice by way of a husband, helps Victoria tide over most of her troubles as she settles into her role.

When the film begins, you see the young Victoria regarded as rather precious because she is tipped to be Queen after King William IV. As none of her uncles have children, she becomes the natural heir to the throne. Her mother, the Dutchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and the latter's private secretary, rumoured to be her lover, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) want to exercise regency and allow them to rule instead of Victoria, till she turns 25. But Victoria's willful determination to assume her rightful position sees her through. She's also delighted to be free at last and not be dictated by her mother. For all these years, Victoria is not allowed to walk the stairs without holding someone's hand. She resents this all along, and the moment she is declared Queen, she coldly refuses to comply.

But there are other troubles that besiege Victoria. Her closeness to the Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne ( Paul Bettany) is resented by the opposition parties. The Queen does not budge from her postion on Melbourne, which prompts her aunt to comment that she may be 'confusing stubborness with strength'. But a timely marriage to her German cousin, Albert ( Rupert Friend) proves invaluable.
Both ruled England for 20 years and had nine children, until Albert died of typhoid at age of 42.

The film is a faithful bio-pic and almost all the episodes have a mention in history. Of course, Victoria was known to be exceedingly short and tubby - both of which Emily Blunt isn't. But much of the other drama - King William IV's strong hatred towards Victoria's mother - the public outcry over her attachment with Melbourne - the assassination attempt on her - all are fairly accurate happenings in her early life.

The Young Victoria is an enchanting visual feast, with its impeccable art design, great costumes and gorgeous sets. Director Jean-Marc Vallée says his story in a straight-forward way, with the right amount of class and flair. It's a nicely laid out film, which knows what it's doing. The only underwhelming segment is the one involving Lord Melbourne and Victoria. From the script point of view, Melbourne is meant to seem like a rival to Prince Albert, in that the Queen leans on him heavily for political advice. This is asserted by the story, but not really felt. Paul Bettany comes across as too intimidating and in fact, is too much a hunk to suit the role of a political mentor. On the other hand, the Albert-Victoria romance touches a chord. Albert, as the soft-spoken, earnest man is the right foil for the Queen, who in her earlier days seems very possessive of her power, and unwilling to share it in the slightest even with her husband.

Emily Blunt makes a wonderful Queen, getting all the nuances of her character right. She's especially successful in bringing out certain key facets of Victoria. She was a woman who always wanted to rule and never shied away from it. Her decision to marry appears a pragmatic one, though some passion and immense respect was visbily involved. All these emotions Blunt portrays admirably. Rupert Friend too is excellent.
All in all, at 105 minutes, The Young Victoria is a pleasant film, with the right mix of document and drama.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Film review: Right Ya Wrong

Starring: Sunny Deol, Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Isha Koppikar, Deepal Shaw
Director: Neeraj Phatak
Stars: **1/2

There is nothing particularly odd when underserving films get hyped to no end and ultimately turn out to be unmitigated disasters. But more unfortunate is when decent fares go unnoticed because they are either poorly publicised or no effort goes into making their promos exciting. It happened with Rocket Singh last year, where an endearing film suffered on account of poor promotions. Right Ya Wrong is no great film, but it's quite watchable - thanks to a taut script and the presence of Irrfan Khan, who turns in a wonderful performance again. However, bad promos and a curious combination of actors ( Irrfan and Konkona starring alongside Sunny Deol and Isha Koppikar!), may not give it the kick-start it could have otherwise got.
Neeraj Pathak directed the forgettable Gumnaam in 2005, but he has also been the screenplay writer of successful films such as Apne and Pardes. That probably explains how he got Subhash Ghai to distribute the film and Sunny Deol to star in it.

Right Ya Wrong is a crime thriller, that borrows its basic plot from both the 1973 Vinod Khanna starrer Achanak and the Sanjeev Kumar-Sarika murder mystery, Qatl (1986).

Ajay Shridhar (Sunny Deol) and Vinay Patnaik (Irrfan Khan) are brave cops who share a warm equation. In a particular shoot-out that is otherwise successful, Sunny Deol gets injured and his legs are paralysed. This is when he learns about his wife's (Isha Koppikar) long-time affair with his step-brother (Aarav Chawdhury). Angry and hurt, Ajay incites them to murder him saying he has lost the will to live. He promises them a fool-proof plan that would not only keep them safe, but also enable them to avail of the insurance money. Secretly thrilled, both of them agree. But there's a twist to the crime. Things are not what they seem to be, and the only person able to detect this is Vinay. The whole world, including his lawyer sister, Vidya (Konkona) think he's acting in bad faith, leaving him alone to fight for what he believes is right.

The film starts quite badly, with a lame item number picturised on Isha. The music by Monty is terrible. Also, it's painful to see some of the minor characters hamming it up. But once Irrfan comes on screen, all seems well with the world again. The actor is terrific and lends the film its much-needed edge. There's a scene where Konkona slams him in court saying his actions reveal his jealousy. It pains Irrfan, but once back home, the sister-brother duo exchange an awkward affection that explains how their actions are driven by their believes, not malice. The Irrfan-Sunny pairing is a bit odd. And even though Sunny manages an effective, understated performance, somehow these two don't seem to belong to the same world. Isha does her job well and Konkona shines in all the court scenes.

More than the suspense element, it is the impressive study of character in the film that is interesting. It recogonises that often it is our preference for people or lack of it that colours our judgment of what is right or wrong, fair or unfair. For some of these reasons, Right Ya Wrong certainly won't be the wrong choice.

Sandhya Iyer

Friday, March 5, 2010

Review - Road, Movie

This Road has its pitfalls

Starring: Abhay Doel, Satish Kaushik, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Yashpal Sharma, Mohammed Faizal
Director: Dev Benegal
Stars: **1/2

The multiplex film era has ushered in, among other things, the movement of concept films. These are directors who are part of Bollywood's new wave and perennially in search of fresh ideas. In recent times. we've had filmmakers like Dipakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali, among others, who have come up with interesting concepts and have managed to carry it through. This is of course not always the case. As an idea, many films sound excellent on paper, but on screen, they often leave the job half done. One gets a similar sense with Road, Movie.

Uninterested in his father's hair oil business, Vishnu (Abhay Doel) grabs the opportunity to drive an antique Chevy truck through the deserts --- to be stationed at a museum. The truck - now in shambles- used to be a touring cinema once. Vishnu is mostly indifferent to the truck's luminous past and looks at the journey as an escape from his current travails. He meets two other peole en route - a runaway 12- year old boy (Mohammed Faizal) and a friendly old mechanic (Satish Kaushik). Vishnu reluctantly gives them a lift in return for repairing his truck when it breaks down. The journey is full of obstacles. A hostile cop threatens to lock them up unless they treat him to films through the night. Soon, the trio run out of water and go in search of a well. They are joined in this by a gypsy woman ( Tannishtha Chatterjee) . Their troubles are somewhat assuaged in the midst of some night-life revelry at a mela, where Vishnu and others exhibit their iconic films to a riveted audience. But an encounter with a water-lord (Yashpal Sharma), who steals water and sells it to the desert dwellers at a higher price, once again derails their journey.

As an idea, Road Movie instantly perks your interest. Director Dev Benegal combines his love for the movies and travel, as an escape into an unknown, magical world. He tries to portray the healing power of cinema in what is a warm, visually stunning, but an underwhelming screenplay. Benegal is fairly successful in bringing out the restorative nature of films. There are at least two-three scenes that do so brilliantly. In one instance the rag-tag team lands up for a mela, only to find it empty. Not giving up, they set up their screens, only to see more people trickling in and in no time, the place is transformed into a vibrant, joyous wonderland. This element of magic realism beautifully brings out the collective love we share for entertainment, as a way to escape from the drudgery of our lives.

But there are enough problems too. Abhay Deol is portrayed as a self-centered yuppie who learns some lessons in humaneness by the end of the trip. This transformation is not convincing, because you never really get a sense of his character at all. Abhay is made to look more like an NRI - completely at odds with his surroundings. Again, his fleeting romance with the gypsy woman appears forced, so when they exchange a passionate kiss in the end, you feel no palpable emotion.

The real issue though is that Dev Benegal inserts the issue of water scarcity and lets the script run away with it. It gives the film a serious tone, not wholly in consonance with the rest of the subject.
If the film is still worth a watch, it's because of its tremendous technical achievements. The gorgeous cinematography (Michel Amathieu) and vibrant music score (Michael Brook) make it visually sumptuous experience. Curiously all of Abhay Doel's recent movies – Dev D, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and now Road, Movie – boast of eye-catching, electric colours. One wonders if it has something to do with Doel's background in graphic designing.

Among the performances, Satish Kaushik stands out. After a long time, the veteran actor has been given such a meaty part and he sinks his teeth into it with relish.
Road, Movie - much like the truck - is wobbly and uncertain. But it has some delights - like the traveling cinema it houses.

- Sandhya Iyer