Saturday, June 26, 2010

Review Toy Story 3

Director: Lee Unkrich

Voices of: Tom Hanks, John Cusack, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Ned Betty, John Morris among others

Rating: ***

The Toy Story series has been a landmark in Hollywood’s animation history, and an unqualified achievement for Pixar/Disney. The good news is that, the latest addition and perhaps the final one, Toy Story 3, is a delightful and worthy follow-up to the last two films.

Andy (John Morris) is seventeen and all set to go to college. His mom insists that he clear his trunk of toys and either put it all in the attic or donate it. Andy looks at his play things affectionately one last time before he decides to dump them in the attic. He decides to take along his favourite toy, Woody (Tom Hanks) with him to college and puts the rest of them in a bag. In a mishap, the toys end up among the junk meant for donation. Woody desperately tries to explain to the others that Andy never meant to dispose them off, but it falls on deaf ears. ‘If he doesn’t want us, we should go away,’ they argue.

And their decision appears correct when they find themselves at a colourful and vibrant looking day care centre called Sunny side. But the toy gang’s joy is short-lived, as they get treated roughly by the kids who come to play there. Moreover, the place is controlled by a sinister bear, Lotso (Ned Betty). When the toys protest about their condition, he gets them locked in a place that serves as a prison. Woody returns and springs into action, as soon as he learns that his friends are in trouble. The rest of the film is a prison-break adventure, with numerous twists and turns.

Even though Toy Story 3 has all the action and thrills that will please children, the film is by no means frivolous. Its central theme gently touches upon the unexpected shifts in life, when one feels discarded and worthless. Scenes where the toys feel homeless and unwanted have been very well executed and your heart goes out to the them. The voices and animation effects compliment the characters admirably. The expression on Lotso’s face when he reveals his evil side is so effective, it makes you wonder if even real-life actors can match up.

The film is engaging for most part, but one’s interest flags in the middle. There is a cheesy love story thrown in, where Barbie and Rex get together. The more interesting sub-plot is one where Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is captured and his configurations are reprogrammed so that he turns against his own toy-friends. Some of the scenes in the jail seem a bit long-drawn. Also, the theme about a bully using his henchmen to control the inhabitants is hardly a new one and is in fact an oft repeated plot in animation films. The dialogues are good, but not particularly witty. Yet, things remain watchable at the very least and post the prison-break, things start to get quite exciting.

There is a dark, lingering sadness to this story about abandonment, but hearteningly, the film settles on an enlightening note, where it points at the unending joys and sense of wonderment that toys bring with them. If the old toys get discarded, someone else will pick them up.

The film is in 3D, but my guess is that audiences will enjoy it as much in 2D. The 3D does not enhance one’s experience of watching Toy Story 3 at all. All the same, this is a very competently made film, with its heart in the right place.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Raavan review

Ten-tative epic!

Director: Mani Ratnam
Starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Vikram, Govinda, Ravi Kissen
Rating: **1/2

The Stockholm syndrome, where the captive develops feelings for her captor, is always a fascinating one to explore, and not often seen in Hindi cinema. To employ this element in the Sita haran episode from the Ramayana, and ultimately make a larger point about human complexity and frailty, is undeniably a wonderful concept. But as it happens often with ambitious ventures, quite a few things go wrong with Raavan reducing what could have been an explosive drama to a flickering beauty.

Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) is an outlaw, a Robin Hood figure who is loved by the poor people of his village (no idea where this place is, there's no reference to any Naxilite movement as one believed earlier). In the course his violent skirmishes with the police, he one day abducts Ragini (Aishwarya Rai), the wife of police inspector, Dev (Vikram). Initially, Beera plans on killing her within 14 hours of bringing her to a secluded forest. But captivated by her beauty and courage, he no longer has the heart to kill her. In fact, he passionately harbours hope of possessing her, but realises that she's way above his league. Meanwhile, Dev launches a massive search operation to retrieve his wife. He is aided by a forest guard, Sanjeevani ( Govinda), who helps him find Ragini.
Govinda is meant to be Hanuman, but Mani makes it too literal, by having him clumsily jump from one tree branch to another. And with all that bulk the actor has, it ends up looking extremely funny.

The film is a visual masterpiece no doubt. Rarely has one seen an Indian film so beautifully shot. But the downside is that Ratnam is so preoccupied with getting the perfect frames, that the drama ends up taking a backseat. There's no conflict or even a definite plot in the first half. Ratnam is happy to just give you one great looking shot after another. The camera seems especially focussed on Aishwarya Rai, capturing every contour and expression, as she struggles for her dear life. The actress is marvelous in her no-make up look, her translucent green eyes being her sole adornment on a face constantly filled with bruises and mud.

Ratnam lingers on forever on the visuals and perhaps this may not have been a major grouse if Beera's character had been more revetting. Call it either a major mis-reading of the character by Abhishek or an inability to pitch it correctly, but the actor makes a caricature of his role, doing a poor imitation of Heath Ledger's Joker. He grunts, makes faces, mutters incoherent stuff to himself, and keeps widening his eyes in what is an altogether unpleasant sight. Ratnam, for a considerable length of time, is enamoured with Ragini alone. As for Beera, the director tries to build a legend around his character, trying hard to sell him as something of a devil-child. But none of the gimmickry works, and Beera never rises beyond appearing anything more than a petty criminal. The character - in spite of his villainy - needed to appear more majestic. But Abhishek plays Beera as if he were a maniac, with no shades or layers. Obviously Ratnam must take some blame for this. This not only affects one's interest in the drama, it also has a bearing on the Veera-Ragini relationship which appears entirely passionless and placid, in spite of the narrative trying to suggest otherwise. This is partly because the leads don't share any chemistry on screen here. And perhaps because Ash and Abhi are real-life husband and wife, there is no chord struck when Veera says in the film,
' I'm jealous of your husband'
Again, when Beera touches Ragini on her cheeks in one scene, it's supposed to be a moment of simmering sexual tension, and justifies Veera professing his liking to her in the next scene. But that feeling doesn't come across at all.

While the film is slow till the very end, it gallops in the last 20 minutes. This part contains the crux of the story, and though the sequence where Dev demands an 'agni pariksha' from Ragini in the form of a polygraph test appears too literal, Ratnam understands the complexity of the Ram-Raavan ie good-evil equation. How can a good man remain one, when the evil man shows so much goodness?

Vikram is formidable, perhaps a bit too strong in a film where the role of Raavan does not make an impression. All in all, a film that had enormous potential to be great, but falls quite short.

- Sandhya Iyer

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Myths & Mythology

Mythology has always been a fascinating treasure for our filmmakers to delve into. What’s the lasting appeal of our epics, will mythology be relevant to our cinema in the future, too? Sandhya Iyer explores...

With Raajneeti and Raavan — films that are adapted from our great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively — one would think there’s a certain revival of interest in mythological themes. However, fact is that Indian cinema has always drawn from the deep well of these influential epics. Every character and story within these epics have been so entrenched in our psyche and collective consciousness, that they have invariably come to determine our ideas of culture and morality. And the fact that our epics are such a compelling artistic and creative tour de force have made them timeless in their appeal and relevance. Not to add, they remain the ultimate source material for our arts, especially cinema.

Straight from epics

Naturally then, when Indian cinema took its first baby steps, it was mythological subjects that became the obvious choices for filmmakers. Dadasaheb Phalke’s most well-known films included Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) — all derived from our great epics. And this was the trend across the country, with almost every film made down South, through the ’30s being a mythological one — Sakkubai, Sita Vanavasam, Krishna Tulabharam in Tamil cinema, to name just a few. These were all straight-forward representations of the epic tales and the fact that the audience were well-versed with the stories allowed them to make an immediate connection with the films. Hence, the transition to cinema proved to be an easy and pleasant one, where the content was familiar, even if the medium was a new one.
“Indians have a deep connect with their mythological texts. It’s an umbilical cord,” says writer and director Vinay Shukla. “There are so many strands in the Mahabharata that a filmmaker can base every story on the epic if he wanted, and yet never run out of material.”

The myth continues

With time, as cinema started evolving, filmmakers began experimenting with their stories, making it more contemporary. However, they seldom moved away from the templates and archetypes created by mythology. So the hero was mostly a representation of the ideal man Ram or the manipulative Krishna. The inspiration for the heroine came directly from the image of Ram’s dutiful wife, Sita — an embodiment of purity, compassion and sacrifice.
Even in the ’70s, when the anti-establishment wave took over, and youths were disenchanted with the old ‘ideals’, people got a new anti-hero after their own heart. Amitabh Bachchan’s characters in Trishul and Deewar, the illegitimate son and the underdog respectively, can easily be compared to that of Karna in Mahabharata, the illegitimate son of Kunti, who rebels and succeeds against all odds. Not only was such a character completely resonant with the mood of the nation, it also fired the imagination like none other. “Everyone has fantasies of being this abandoned child. It’s a universal fantasy, which is why Karna’s situation strikes such a deep chord,” says Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Raajneeti, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Ghulam. “The don and his loyal henchman seen in countless films invariably draw their energy from the Ram and Hanuman relationship. Similarly, all our old villains have the same motivation that drove Raavan. It was revenge and lust. So he abducts the heroine to teach the hero a lesson and eventually falls in love/lust with her.”

A timeless treasure trove

“I have no doubt that our mythology is timeless in essence. Our epics are an external and dramatic representation of an inner life. Since human nature does not change, our epics will remain as compelling and influential as ever,” says Rajabali.
Almost everyone agrees that mythology has a treasure trove of stories and if they are are well-woven into contemporary settings, they will always find a resonance. “I would recommend every student and filmmaker to read the epics to simply understand how to tell stories and what these stories actually reveal. It helps one to see the entire range of depths and the layering of characters. They are simple, but never simplistic. For example, take the episode of Hanuman entering Lanka to retrieve Sita. Here is a man who is completely devoted to Ram and yet when he enters Raavan’s palace, he is struck by his glory and exclaims, ‘this man is fit to rule this world!’ This is the conflict which even Valmiki mentions in the original Ramayan. So our epics keep throwing cues at us, telling us not to look at things in a very simple way,” views Rajabali.
In spite of other narrative influences coming in, filmmakers believe that mythology can still be a great source of stories for films. “Mani Ratnam’s Roja is actually a simple tale of Savitri wanting her husband’s life back from Yama. And Mani does it very cleverly, so that the reference is never overt. I think South Indians perhaps have an advantage because mythology is very deeply ingrained in them. They can easily take the emotions from the epic stories and present them in the modern context,” says Shukla.
Rajabali too agrees that a lot more of mythology can flow into our films. “Unfortunately, the literary aspect of our films has not been explored enough. You need a literary tradition. Our earlier writers were all authors. Today, we don’t see that,” he says.

Mythology, a gimmick?

Author of several mythological books, Devdutt Patanaik believes our films, which directly try to adapt the epics or borrow recognisable elements from them, present very primitive versions. “They are cosmetically fantastic and alluring, but their soul is missing. They present to you a cosmetic archetype. So any person who is manipulative is Krishna, but then what about Shakuni? Earlier scholars who researched the Mahabharata and Ramayan tried to explore and impart the wisdom in it. That is not the intention of the films that one sees. Most of them only play with popular perception. They will glamourise the villain (Raavan) because the dark side is always interesting. But I doubt it is done with any understanding of the story. So I will say, they are great cosmetically, but on the soul level, there is a complete disconnect. A good katha should shake you up from your complacency and uplift you. Do you see that happening with any of these films?,” he asks.
Rajabali has a contrary view and argues, “I don’t see anything uplifting about Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, these epics make me ponderous and reflective. Both these texts end in tragedy. In Ramayana, you see Ram being the best king and having the ideal kingdom and yet, his life ends in pain. It is a way of telling us how life is very difficult and is ultimately very painful.”

The future of mythology

Since epics are living texts, the understanding is that they can be re-interpreted in a million ways, and they will still find a resonance among the future generations. Ultimately, whether one sees our epics as cautionary tales or inspirational parables, it is evident that their greatness lies in their narrative craftsmanship, emotional depth, and profound understanding of the human nature, something which every artiste can take inspiration from.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives sums it up best in a chapter about the Pabuji epic in Rajasthan and oral traditions, when he says. “Myths pick up the pieces when philosophy throws up its hands. Great myths help to think through the unthinkable and make sense by analogy.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Interview: Anjum Rajabali

Anjum Rajabali, who penned the script for Raajneeti along with director Prakash Jha, speaks to Sandhya Iyer on how he isn't really satisfied with the film, among other things

Considering the sweeping success of Raajneeti, one would have expected its writer Anjum Rajabali to be elated. However, when I called up the man behind films like The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Ghulam among others, he accepted the congratulations, albeit stating that he was having mixed feelingS. “A writer is never pleased. It was a very ambitious task, to take the Mahabharata, an all encompassing, influential text and adapting it into a contemporary electoral set-up. I won’t say we succeeded entirely, but it was a worthy endeavour nevertheless” says Rajabali, one of the most well-spoken and erudite film writers we have today.

“Am I satisfied with the way the film shaped up? No, not fully. But yes, it’s good to have a hit, rather than have a film you are not entirely content with, and also ends up being a flop! So yes, in a qualified sort of way, I am happy," he says.
Raajneeti has come in for some criticism, for taking scenes too literally from the Mahabharata and not incorporating it deftly. For example, the scene where Kunti meets Karna seemed out of place. The writer says he was aware of the flaws and was not surprised when these portions were criticised. “I’ve watched the film so closely and Prakash (Jha) and I have discussed the film so much, that I knew where it suffered. I was unhappy myself with certain parts, so the critics weren’t far off the mark when they pointed out mistakes,” he says.

There were genuine difficulties too, he notes. “Within the format of a two and a half hour feature film, we had to squeeze in all the main events of the Mahabharata, at least the essence of it. Some in the audience could take a leap of faith and they didn't mind the transformation in characters. There were others who were dissatisfied with the narrative.”
Talking about how the subject came into being, he says, “I have a view on the Mahabharata. I have grown up on it. My grandma used to narrate it to me as a child. Since then, my interest in it has been a continuous and consistent one. The Mahabharata has a world of situations, but in this particular film I was primarily interested in re-interpreting the character of Arjun and his moral decline. The Pandavas do a lot of things in the end that are not honorable. Instead of Arjun being a passive character, I wanted to see him as an active protagonist, who starts enjoying his demonic nature. I wanted to look at the darkness residing in his character. Samar’s subject as a student is ‘sub textual emotional violence in Victorian poetry’. He has a predilection for violence that is sublimated in the arts. But when he enters the war-zone, those demons are unleashed.”

Many have compared Arjun’s character (played by Ranbir Kapoor) to that of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. In fact, many felt that the film itself had several shades of the iconic Hollywood film. Anjum Rajabali assures that it was never done consciously. “Perhaps Prakash and I should have been more careful and taken the Godfather parallels away. We allowed it to go how it was going. For example, that bomb blast scene between Sara and Prithvi would instantly remind people of The Godfather. Inadvertently, some resonances came about. The archetypal graph of Samar and Micheal Corelone are similar, but their motivations are very different. I never had The Godfather in mind,” he clarifies.

In spite of not being entirely satisfied with Raajneeti, Rajabali agrees that the process has whetted his interest, and he would love to take up more aspects of mythological in films. “I derived great joy writing the first few drafts of Raajneeti,” he says. Given how conscientious and candid he is about his work, one can expect the bar to be set much higher the next time around.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Review Raajneeti

Starring: Ajay Devgn, Nana Patekar, Ranbir Kapoor, Manoj Bajpayee, Arjun Rampal and Katrina Kaif

Director: Prakash Jha

Promises big, delivers little

Political films are rarely attempted in Bollywood - the kind of awareness and insight that is required for tackling such a subject is not generally found among directors. And even otherwise, save for a niche audience, the genre has never received much attention or interest. The last political film that made a stunning impression was Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi, but apart from that, we've had no film seriously exploring the political scene. There was Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar Raj, but its framework was still that of a standard commercial film.

But when Prakash Jha - the director of serious social dramas like Mrityudand, Gangaajal, Apaharan - directs Raajneeti, with heavy-weight actors on such a grand scale, one naturally expects it to be a definitive film on politics. Also, given that Jha has always taken a keen interest in politics and even fought an election makes him a credible name. The director's previous films have all been gritty and dark, also somewhat heavy and lacking in respite. In Raajneeti, the novelty rests with the fact that he attempts to re-tell the Mahabharat by setting it in a contemporary political world. The result is mixed and Jha does not really succeed in balancing both aspects and creating a plausible narrative (screenplay Anjum Rajabali and Jha) that would have made for a compelling watch.

The first 15-20 minutes are highly confusing, as too many characters are introduced. The story is about the struggle for power between two cousins - Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai) and Prithviraj Pratap (Arjun Rampal). Veerendra considers himself to be the rightful heir of their political party, as his father was their chief - before he got struck with paralysis. The power equation gets shifted to the other family and Veerendra sees red. To get even, he takes under his fold a promising Dalit youth leader, Suraj (Ajay Devgn). When things still don't go as he desires, he plots the murder of his uncle (Prithvi's father). All of a sudden, Veerendra again is in the driver's seat, but now he has to contend with Prithvi's younger brother, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor). So far, the young lad had distanced himself from politics, and was quietly studying 'subtextual violence of Victorian poetry' in America. But now, determined to teach his enemies a lesson, he turns all evil and conniving. So you see him sitting and smoking, giving intense expressions against the backdrop of a chess board. From here on, the Mahabharat is forgotten and the film goes full blast into Godfather mode.

Raajneeti is a colossal disappointment for those expecting a nuanced, incisive look into the world of politics. Stunningly, Jha's focus is minimal on real politics and his aim is mainly to weave in the chief characters and episodes of Mahabharat into the narrative. This proves to be a double-edge sword. The film has little or no resonance with contemporary political figures or families, and the action that take place is cliched and uninspiring - seen dime a dozen in standard family revenge dramas. The film shows one leader after another getting killed in quick succession - as if it is so easy to murder important political figures! Also, there's too much gloss and grandeur in a film about politics, making the drama somewhat superficial. The characters stay in a palatial house, wear expensive clothes. Even the folks who appear in the background are dressed in spotlessly clean, designer kurtas. Perhaps Jha intended to retain the majestic appeal of the Mahabharat - the dialogues have words like 'jyeshta putra' and 'kartavya', but all this weakens the film's contemporary appeal considerably. Again, some of the instances taken from Mahabharat - like Kunti meeting her illegitimate son, Karna - seem ludicrous the manner in which they appears in the film. Without adequate character build-up and contained drama, the scene feels out of context and redundant.

Mani Ratnam adapted Mahabharat far more successfully in his Rajnikanth-Mammooty starrer, Thalapathy. Jha struggles to balance the two ends and achieve a coherent narrative.

On the upside, the film is shot very well. Some of the scenes between Ajay Devgn and Manoj Bajpayee are highly watchable. These are really the only two actors who seem completely convincing in their parts. Bajpayee, in particular, gives a solid performance as Duryodhan. For the first time in his career, Ranbir Kapoor looks lost in a film, where his character is extremely ill-defined. Again, Katrina for the first time gets to prove her acting skills, to disastrous results! What was supposed to be a showcase vehicle for her ends up exposing her limitations as an actress. Arjun Rampal's role is very loud. Nana Patekar, who doubles up as modern-day Dronacharya and Krishna, plays his part well.

Raajneeti is worth a watch for Bajpayee, but in terms of crafting and narrative, the film achieves very few of its goals.

Rating: **1/2

- Sandhya Iyer

'Why hasten our extinction?'

Pooja Bhale's zealous work towards the protection of wild-life and the larger cause of environment is an attitude that many more people can do well to emulate

While most of us take a cursory interest in environmental issues and related concerns, for Pune-based 26-year-old Pooja Bhale, it is a life-long commitment and a way of life. A qualified conservation biologist, the young achiever is running an organisation called Protecterra Ecological Foundation that aims to spread awareness about the environment, with special focus on wildlife protection.
Pooja always had her mind set on environmental studies and by 18, she was in London pursuing a course in it. “As a kid, I remember my mom telling me a story about a baby elephant who gets separated from its mother in a poaching incident. It stayed with me for a long time and I knew then that I would do something related to wildlife."

“Often, people don't know how they can contribute towards wildlife protection. The 'Save Tiger' campaign was great, but you were never told how you could make a difference. What we can do is watch our individual habits - stop littering, not play blaring music near jungles. We also need to strengthen our wildlife protection laws. Right now, the conviction rate is less than 0.01 per cent. The more we protect our environment, the better the chances are that we retain our wildlife. Our economic stability depends on our ecological stability. Otherwise, both collapse,” she says.
In 2008-09, she helmed the 'conservation awareness programme' at the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), Delhi and worked as assistant to prominent wildlife conservationist and executive director of WPSI, Belinda Wright.
In the next few months, she intends to have an army of volunteers who can work towards targeting different age groups. "When I go to schools, I see that a lot of children are well-aware about the problems of pollution, climate changes, and so on. It is the adults who need to be re-educated about their civic responsibilities," she says.

Besides the various schools Pooja visits and the workshops she conducts, her diligence towards the cause prompts her to even talk to perfect strangers at a traffic signal, if need be. "I live my work. I am collaborating with a Mountain & Adventure Group called Trekdi. The message is to respect one's surroundings. Not many know that the stretch to Mount Everest has an incredible amount of garbage. I'm also associated with another group, PEM in Ratnagiri, which empowers rural people and educates them on environment," says Pooja, who herself is heavily into adventure sports.

At the moment, her own home (a sprawling bungalow in Aundh) is where the action lies. "I intend to get my own place soon. I have a 300-plus collection of books related to environment and about 100 documentary films on it. The idea is to create a dialogue first. But for me, it's not about merely imparting information only. It is about empowering people to make a difference," she says with youthful zeal.

Pooja's passion for nature extends to all walks of her life, and no slack is cut for friends and family. Any one bringing a plastic bag to her place is duly fined Rs 5. "And if it's my mother, I take Rs 500," she says, without being amused. "My father is a builder, and I ensure that every project of his is environment-friendly." And understandably, every conceivable eco-friendly measure from rain-water harvesting to solar heating is adopted at her place.

“Extinction is the rule of evolution. That is bound to happen, but we are quickening the pace and losing our species faster than ever before. I hope our environmental concerns pick up as a movement, wherein each person feels responsible for the consequences of their actions,” she says.

- Sandhya Iyer

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