Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P., Ingmar Bergman

Bergman is no more. (Link via India Uncut.) Check out Ingmar Bergman Face to Face, the official site run by Ingmar Bergman Foundation; it has a lot of those wonderful images that Bergman captured in film.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Long, gushing notes on Chennai 600028

Venkat Prabhu’s Chennai 600028, the latest sleeper hit among Tamil films, is an immensely enjoyable film that makes you ask for more, a rarity in itself. I walked in the theatre with quite a lot of expectations and thoroughly enjoyed the film.

The film blends City Of God-style realism with quintessential Tamil pop cinema, full of frothy fun and humour, with great flourish and comes up trumps overall.
Venkat Prabhu matches his unabashed crowd-pleasing instincts (which he seems to have faithfully inherited from his father, Gangai Amaran), inch for inch, with a strong eye for solidly real backdrops, zany humour, sheer wit and inventiveness. Sample this: A father goes ranting, bashing up his son in the middle of the street, “Unnaya pullayaa pethadhukku…” Cut to a guy talking over the phone, “… second show cinema-kke poyirukkalaam!

The film starts with SPB’s voiceover introducing us to the protagonists of the film, which sets up the spirit of what is to follow with assuredness. “Kandippaa innum neraiya cricket!” we’re promised. And, cricket, we get. Street cricket, the game that the entire nation plays, with tennis balls and great passion; one guy brings in the bat, another brings in the stumps, and so on.
The story is that of a local cricket team, Sharks, of Vishalatchi Thoattam (a.k.a. “Sunambu Kalwa”) and its players. The movie starts with the Sharks team losing out to Royapuram Rockers in the finals of the fourth edition of the floodlit gully cricket tournament, Radio Mirchi cup [1]. As it happens, a key player of the Royapuram Rockers team moves in to Vishalatchi Thoattam (his “encroachment” is one of the primary setup for hilarity in the early sequences), finds himself a place in the Sharks team, as another edition of the tournament is about to start.

But, that’s not all there’s to it; in parallel, runs the stories of individual players of the team, in different threads. The film infuses the stock Chennai elements (or, the elements of any urban or semi-urban place of Tamilnadu, for that matter) with generous doses of masala and fun, but without ever making the mix reek of even a wee bit of fakeness or banality. Be it, the love that develops from cursory glances and courteous smiles, the consequent betrayal that’s felt when the same cursory glances and courteous smiles fall on some other guy, a friend who comes with the thoodhu, the possessive owner of the bat with which the team plays, or that one fellow in a gang who finishes up all the booze, the film reaps rich from real people we’ve known all our life, and serves it all in a refreshing package, that is rich in droll humour and unapologetic willingness to entertain. (Premgi Amaran, Gangai Amaran's second son, dons the mantle of an overt comedian in the film.)
And, mind you, this is the kind of film that could have gone wrong in a hundred ways, could have struck all wrong notes, if it had taken itself seriously, even a wee bit seriously. Recalling all those “youth flicks” of 90s will instantly remind us of this. (As if to elicit the same, there’s even a teasing reference to Kannedhire Thondrinaal.) Those films picked their stock elements from real life too, but handled them in absolutely irredeemable ways, resulting in terrible films. The typical Madras elements – figures, friends, love (the most popular archetypes are here: a guy loving a dear friend’s sister, a coffee shop attendant loving a rich brat girl), the karpu in friendship, et al. surface in this film as well, but the film handles them in such an offhanded manner, and yet with such sensitivity, that, at times, I was positively stunned. The film’s wonderful ending, more than anything else, stands as a testimony to this. (I don’t want to spoil this for the readers, suffice to say that the film has a cracker of an ending and the last shot of the film is the best I’ve seen in years!)

There are just too many delicious moments in the film that one would be more than just inclined to forget the few forgettable moments. (The story of Aravind sticks out like a sore thumb though, there’s not anything much interesting in it, it comes of use only for the song-and-dance routines.) From the pop-culture nods and references to the spoofs of stock elements of Tamil films, even the inserted bits mostly work pretty well, while some of the bits are indeed predictable, but never actually off-putting.
The film has no story arc as such (nor does it contrive ponderous, heavy-handed “insights” into its various themes, individual redemptions or a collective salvation!), but when the scenes themselves are as well fleshed out and funny as this, to hell with story arcs! I must confess, there were moments in the film when I just wanted to watch these fellows talk, gang up, booze together, and play cricket.

A round of applause (ah, cut the stiff-upper-lip tone, add a ‘wow!’) for the spot-on performances, all of them are spontaneous, nonchalant and heavily restrained, even if a bit amateurish at times. You won’t remember the names, but every one of them makes a mark. Even the ones who appear just for a couple of scenes strike a chord – like, say, the Royapuram Rockers team captain (who looks every inch like that). Many such outlier moments are lovely here. The Royapuram team guys call Raghu back to the team for a match over the phone, (the screen splits, first into three, and then settles for two, one for each end) he evades from giving an affirmative answer, and the guy on the other end takes the phone off his ear for a moment and says in a matter-of-fact tone, “semma gaandu-la irukkaan da.” – a simple scene, but well fleshed and strikingly real.
I was especially impressed with Shiva (Radio Mirchi RJ) who plays Karthik, the Sharks team captain, with that quintessential Madras accent you rarely see in films, mixing his restrained persona with wry humour and nice comic timing, Nitin Sathyaa (who was anything but notable in his previous outings) as Palani, and Jai (music director Deva’s son) as Raghu, the new team member, who play the main roles with wonderful spontaneity. Either it’s the spot-on casting that did the trick, or Venkat Prabhu is quite fantastic in extracting spontaneous performances out of his actors.

The soundtrack score reeks a bit of rap and hip-hop, but works pretty well with the film, if one’s willing to overlook that aspect. [2] The background score by Premgi Amaran works even better.
The camera work is restless and patchy, pulling every trick (or gimmick, if you will) in the book to keep us engaged, employing “unsteady” cams, jump cuts, ramping shots, freeze frames (the freeze frames in the marina beach side bet match are sidesplitting!), colour tones, etcetera, with no restraint whatsoever. But, much of those doesn’t go in vain, but is rather put to good effect. If not anything else, it packs in all the plethora of detailing in impromptu mode, like in the montage in the title song, or in the scenes of cricket matches.

This is a greatly assured and brilliant debut from Venkat Prabhu. Please take a bow. Three cheers to SP Charan and the entire team as well for giving us such an entertaining film. Just, go watch. This one’s for the ages.

[1] – One of the many brand placements. We’ve, et al.
[2] – A bit of clarification needed. Isn’t there a guy uttering – spashtamaa – “otha!” a couple of times in the stanzas of the remix version of “Jalsa”? Or, was he going “what the…?”

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Not-so-short notes on Paruthiveeran

Note: Please do yourselves a favor, dear readers. Go watch Chennai 600028, easily the best film of the year, as yet. Saroja, saamaan nikaalo!
Rest of you all, who are still reading this post, this is another dull, “not-so-short” notes on a month-and-half old film – a modified version of a quick write-up
(albeit with a lot of additional notes and changes, I’m afraid) on the film I originally wrote soon after I saw the film, but didn’t publish for reasons best known to none.

Ameer’s Paruthiveeran (just like his previous venture, Raam) is yet another of those “new age” films, remarkable in its mise-en-scène, but unremarkable in its aspiration; and spotlessly hollow in its inspiration. In short, insipid filmmaking.
The film is set in Paruthiyoor, right in the heartland of rural Tamilnadu, commendably capturing the characteristically sultry locations, the people and their mud-walled houses, the native dialect and the way of life, with an assured hand. But, that’s all there is to it.

Veeran (Karthi), the protagonist of this film, is a one-dimensional caricature; a stereotype of the sandiyar image, conceived without much sensitivity, the few moments that betray the vulnerability of the character notwithstanding. Ameer establishes his protagonist as an aruvaal-happy, aimless urchin that we perceive through films and media – pleased at ourselves in finding it all senseless – through a series of sketches which in essence pander unreservedly to the audience (curiously enough, pander to both the “urban class” and the “rural class” with equal success here!), but passed off as something more serious and ambitious. Veeran’s ultimate objective is to be serve a term in the Chennai Central Jail. This is digestible if said in wry humour, but the director wants us to take this at face value, as a fact. In a realistic portrayal, we expect protagonist to exist within a real system. But, here, Veeran is, well, a veeran, the hero, even if not in the traditional sense. He can just go sever the ear of a policeman, or knock down a seemingly significant denizen of the village, for petty reasons; well, actually, for the laughs. Honestly, I too laughed at some of the nakkal-naiyyaandi jokes in the beginning, but grew tired of them too soon.

Thankfully, post-interval, the story actually unfolds, and, there are some good moments with Muthazhagu (Priya Mani) – the scene where she’s thrashed by her dad (a moving moment when she scoffs at her paatti asking for more food), and the scene where she tearfully pleads with Veeran work pretty well; the stock, grayish-toned flashback with the kiddies romancing, notwithstanding. But, the love story – after Veeran heeds to Muthazhagu, that is – is developed so hurriedly that there’s little one has had invested on their love as the climax draws near. And, the denouement sticks out like a sore thumb.
Here, I must digress a bit and elicit a problem that I face with a lot of films. (I’d say positively argue that it’s a natural problem with story-telling in general.) A problem with stories that take unexpected turns coming out of nowhere. Yes, it’s so characteristic of fickle human life and all that, but then you expect the filmmaker to reflect on the same, or at least acknowledge that. Else, it’s like a bad television show, as Woody Allen would have put it.
As if this abrupt turn wasn’t enough, the film conveys a silly moral out of this for the story. Muthazhagu says, “Nee senja paavathai ellaam en madiyila aethittiye da…” Now, this can be taken as a dying woman’s rambling, but Ameer is actually serious about it. Ameer’s viewpoint on Veeran is dubious and conflicting in its truest sense. It’s supposed to be a realistic portrayal of a hoodlum, but he is severely censuring of Veeran’s indulgence in petty crimes and hollow bully attitude.

On a positive note, the performances are impressive on the whole (Saravanan warrants special mention). Karthi is pretty good for a debutant, but he’s way too earnest and slightly overdoes his act, constantly “offering” us something, through gestures, body language and a bit exaggerated dialect et al. There’s not one lazy moment where we’re not “told” who he is. Also, I am much ambivalent about the extensive usage of native, amateur actors. The dialect is spot-on, but the dialogue delivery is so hurried (I don’t mean ‘fast’ here), and the acting is shuffled. (So much for the native flavour, the dialect is actually inconsistent at places. Some chaste Chennai slang words pop in the dialogue. Lazy writing.)
More brownie points for Yuvan’s superb music score – “Ariyaadha Vayasu” and “Ayyayyo” stand out among the songs – which works so well for the film.

Baradwaj, in an excellent review (albeit a positive one) as usual, puts forth an excellent set of points, making almost this entire write-up redundant – the movie’s preference to sensationalism (a nice dig at how the hero of today “won’t just switch off the lights, he’ll leap up and break the glass bulbs with his aruvaa!”) over sensitivity (though am surprised that he brackets Pithamagan along with), on how “[t]he infrequent bits of exposition are almost apologetic,” how the last act of the movie was curiously unmoving (not curiously so, in my case).
Well, as for me, I don’t go to theatres determined to see a story unfold per se, but it’s not that bad an idea, I think.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Not-so-short notes on Pachaikkili Muthucharam

Note: This is a modified version of a quick write-up on the film I originally wrote soon after I saw the film, but didn’t publish for reasons best known to none.

Gautham, in his latest offering has admittedly attempted making a “Balu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of film.” Even a mere suggestion that a blend of those two eminent filmmakers’ style would result in such a horrendous film is enough to make one wince much. Refrainment from bombarding us with ramping shots and jump-cuts in general, and employing rather serene camera movements, whimsical fade-ins and fade-outs doesn’t automatically qualify as “Balu Mahendra style” of filmmaking.

The first half, on basis of which Gautham has taken the unintentional dig – or so I call it, is as meandering as it gets. Sarath Kumar and Jyothika alight trains, travel, talk to, and sit next to (the sheer number of shots of the two brushing against each other would serve as a lesson to film students), and develop love for each other. (Not to forget their frequent tiffs about paying bills at restaurants, and for the taxi-drives.) Let’s not get into the “Quentin Tarantino half.”
The few moments that actually work in the film – like, the scene with Sarath Kumar and Andrea after they get to know about their kid’s medical ailment, or when Jyothika teases Sarath Kumar saying, “illannaa, ippo dhaan thalai nimindhu paakkareengalo ennavo…” – are so unobtrusively woven into the narrative, in which, otherwise, each moment gets cornier than the last.
Dialogue in Gautham’s films has always touched horrendous standards, but, the dialogue of this film takes the cake. It is one thing to write wannabe-smart lines at the expense of naturalness, realism and suchlike, but it’s something entirely different to write supposed-to-be-keeping-it-real lines that no self-empathetic human being would utter at any moment of one’s life. In a standout scene, Sarath Kumar and Jyothika, coming after a secret date, are bothered by some hoodlums, Sarath stands up to the situation, fights them, (and is also hurt) and saves Jyothika. The lady picks up the man’s hand, looks at the bruise and asks “Enakkaagava?
[This line takes the top honour for the corniest line of the year, ranking alongside similar jaw-dropping lines from his previous outings like “Freeze!”, “Ilaavukkaaga!”, “Back home, they call it the Raghavan instinct!” I’ve been campaigning for this from day one, by the by.]

No prize for guessing that Harris Jayaraj’s background score must have been unspeakably painful. (The popular violin bit, which I liked until I watched the movie, is played vociferously, almost a dozen times, when the protagonist and the antagonist bump into each other.)
Jyothika doesn’t grate as much as she’s capable of, Sarath Kumar safely keeps out of any sort of “performance,” Andrea is ridiculously young for the role. The one who played the cab driver takes the top acting honours.

I don’t get Gautham’s films, but this is easily his worst film. I’d rather prefer an unpretentiously escapist fare like Minnale, which, in my opinion, is his most interesting work. (The readers may gasp.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Blue Umbrella Soundtrack

Fabulous, the soundtrack is. So is the film going to be. There's much to rave on and on about the man. Here's, once again, doffing one's hat to Vishal Bhardwaj and his soon-to-be-released Chatri Chor.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


I usually take a great share of merit in Mani Ratnam films for granted. Like in Aayidha Ezhuthu, I was quite underwhelmed considering it came from Mani Ratnam. It was naïve, idealistic, I complained. But, when a Selvaraghavan goes on and on, taking almost the whole of Pudhupettai’s running time to establish a gangster for what he is – a ruthless man who will go to any end to preserve himself, I couldn’t help but recall how amazingly Mani Ratnam establishes the same in a few sequences in Aayidha Ezhuthu with characteristic ease and great restraint.
As everyone knows, Guru is about the life of a man who rose from his humble beginnings to a business tycoon, one of biggest national icons, with close parallels to such a real-life personality, Dhirubhai Ambani. Somehow, I didn’t have any great expectations on Guru. The rather pedestrian caption – “Villager, Visionary and A Winner” – didn’t help much either. As I read in some interviews of Mani Ratnam that the intent was to chronicle the times of our nation post-independence in terms of social outlook and progress, I got hooked to it.
And, it turned out to be an enjoyable film of his sensibilities, in his inimitable style. In short, Mani Ratnam in form.

Guru is probably the strongest case, in Indian film history, of showcasing unreserved, all-out self-interest as a virtue. And, this depiction of a protagonist who’s so full of self-interest is one of foremost things I loved in the film. The way the lead character of Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan in his career-best effort) is conceived and established seamlessly is worth mentioning here. He’s unabashedly capitalistic, completely munafa-oriented. He marries Sujata (Aishwarya Rai) because of the dowry he’ll get in the process will help him setup his first business venture. When Sujata comes to know of it, he doesn’t deny it. That’s what he is, and he is unapologetic about it. And, in his view, this is in no way related to his love for his wife.
He holds no grudges whatsoever against those who despise this trait in him. (“Ab pair padoon, kya?” he asks his brother-in-law-cum-partner, when he accuses him of one for whom money means everything, rather than making his stance.) Much like Mani Ratnam himself, he’s naturally non-judgemental and all he means is bijiness. And, when it comes to bijiness, he has such an air of superiority around himself and he doesn’t quite consider anyone as a rival at any level, in any sense except when it comes to munafa.
Guru chances upon a Gandhian media baron, Nanaji (Mithun Chakraborty), who develops great affection towards Guru and whom Guru thinks of as a father figure. Nanaji consequently becomes instrumental in Guru’s rise up the ladder. When Nanaji later turns against Guru (his affection for Guru notwithstanding), after he comes to know that Guru had exploited his newspaper for his business prospects, he turns very critical of his unethical ways and employs an energetic investigative journo, Shyam Saxena (Madhavan), to expose his unethical and illegal ways. And, like in Iruvar [1], Mani Ratnam shows finesse in depicting this conflict between these two who’ve great affection for each other. Any lesser filmmaker would take the easy path diligently exposing the ugly side of the protagonist from a moral perspective. But, Mani Ratnam puts them on an even pedestal and wonders if all is fine with the intent and the means one takes to nail down the other.
But, Guru actually is, in many ways, a throwback to Nayagan. Yes, it doesn’t surely scale up to the other in its merit, but it’s hard to miss the similarity in the structures and the protagonists of the two films. It’s strikingly visible in the deliciously well made scene of Guru paying a visit to Shyam’s house only to find that he’s married to Meenu (Vidya Balan), with whom he shares a special relationship; in the scene where a young Guru before he makes it big barges in to the city collector’s (an unidentifiable Prathap Pothen) house with all his cotton goods to give an apt rejoinder to his shutting down the market place of theirs; and in the courtroom penultimate scene. Also, just like in Nayagan, the film romanticizes the larger-than-life “heroic” persona of the protagonist and empathizes with him; which means, the other two men in opposition to Guru’s ways are shown in a much smaller dimension and their characters aren’t developed so much as to stand tall against Guru; thus, deliberately stopping short of Iruvar in its richness of depiction of the conflict faced between the protagonists.

What makes the film really endearing is the way the scenarios and the characters are conceived throughout the film, so full of familiar Mani Ratnam touches. Most of them work, and when they work, they work superbly. Take for example some delightfully written, brilliant scenes like Guru ringing the school bell in response to his father’s refusal to stand by his side on starting business on his own; or, Guru pouring the drink into the glasses of his colleagues at a house party as he charms them into his idea – which they themselves would neither imagine, nor agree to in a sober state – of starting a new polyester factory themselves; or, in depicting the love of Guru and Sujata for each other. Or, the way in which even the smallest of characters (like Guru’s newly-wed, close friend in his village) are so well fleshed out.
The overall mise en scène and the detailing of the different eras (the film posters of Kaagaz Ke Phool, Naya Daur) is spot on, but the political and legal aspects are kept in the background and there is no didactic treatment examining the problems that existed back then with the largely socialistic setup in the early decades post-independence. Nevertheless, there are clear references to License Permit Raj which made it difficult for new entrants to make it big in the market. Guru blames it on this system for his taking ways out of the system to sustain and grow his business.

The onscreen performances and the work by the technical departments (with Mani’s stamp all over) are all top-notch. Rahman’s score works pretty well with the soaring chorus, unrestrainedly infectious beats lending themselves really well during the sequences of Guru’s rise. But, songs, as has been the case in Mani saar films in the recent past, serve as real show stoppers.

The denouement of the film is like the characteristic Mani Ratnam-esque positive ending. But, it’s also real, which is why I don’t have any qualms about it. But, the way it’s staged itself is a bit too congratulatory on the protagonist. Like in Nayagan, Mani Ratnam romanticizes the victory of Gurukant Desai the visionary [2] – and I wasn’t surprised at all considering his tendencies to stage such finales – rather than maintaining a stiff upper lip about the protagonist’s strides. (And, the “Sapney Dekho!” bit was really overdone.)
Even here, Guru bhai’s final defence (did we need those flashing camera movements?) in the courtroom in front of the junta is essentially a piece of showing off, a grand speech to garner their support, after calculated silence till then. (Am I the only one who noted that his jaw stops drooping down as he starts his defence and slyly comes back to its drooping position after he finishes his speech?)
And, the denouement is just real; that he is a hero, an icon in the common man’s eyes and that the collapse was just a hiccup. Mani Ratnam doesn’t take a stance on either side in a moral or an ethical respect. He is rather awed at the persona of Gurukant Desai in the junta’s view. Gurukant Desai – take this at its face value – is a winner; and, so it is, even in the real life scenario. And, this story, after all, is the winner’s version.

[1] – In one scene, Sujata is shown to have a mole on her left shoulder, a direct reference to Pushpa, the character she played in Iruvar.

Cross-posted at