Category Archives: Cinema

Desires of the undesired

I watched Margarita With A Straw last night, and it’s still on my mind. Most frequent moviegoers will acknowledge that that is quite a rarity in today’s times. Margarita is beautiful. It is the story of a girl with cerebral palsy, and her experiences as she explores her sexual desires. It is natural, understated and heartfelt. At the center of the film is Kalki Koechlin, who shines like a thousand stars in the role of Laila. Laila, who is restricted to her wheelchair and has speech impairments, is out there. She’s in Delhi University, she’s in New York University, she’s doing a creative writing program, she’s hitting on men, she’s dancing with her family and in a NYC club, and she’s also dealing with layered relationships – with her caring parents who get a little overprotective at times (for good reason), with her friends, with her crushes, with her partner. Sounds familiar? Absolutely! It’s about what you, I and everyone “like us” go through. We’re just able to enunciate our sounds better and walk on our feet.

Margarita, apart from being an endearing work of art, is also important in many different contexts. First, while its protagonist is physically challenged, the movie treats that as a fact and as a backdrop. There have been good films in India about physically and mentally challenged individuals – Gulzar’s Koshish back in the 1970s explored the marriage of two deaf-and-mute people; Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was a take on the travails of a child with dyslexia; Bhansali’s Black was about a girl who was blind, deaf and mute. All of these were beautiful movies and important in their own right. But they were essentially about the disability of the protagonist. The disability wasn’t a mere backdrop, it was the story. Margarita, on the other hand, has a most natural way of dealing with the disability. The fact that Laila goes to class every day on a wheelchair, or she makes music and performs in concerts, or the fact that it does not take a lengthy dramatic scene between her parents to decide that she will go to NYU – all of these could be happening in any home. The adjustments her limitations call for – such as her father driving a Matador van that can hold her wheelchair, the peons carrying her up a staircase when the elevator stops working, are also weaved in effortlessly, without arousing any sympathy in the audience, and yet presenting an alternative way of life.

Second, Margarita is about sex and sexuality – and not in a way that most Indian movies understand those subjects. There are no full-busted women coming out of water, or hot men doing peekaboo of butt-cracks. It breaks paradigms all over the place – a girl, a physically-challenged girl at that, is attracted to men and women along the way, and explores that side of her. In a country and an industry where the concepts of sex, women, and homo/bisexuality are bigoted and convoluted, Margarita is the most human telling of this undeniable emotion that makes us living things.

Third, Margarita is important because, yet again, it has proven that good cinema does not need male superstars. In recent years, Bollywood’s women have taken it upon themselves (of course backed by a small bunch of great directors and writers) to cleanse the stinking industry, that sees disgustingly artless and regressive movies starring 50-something actors in 20-something roles make Rs.100 crores in opening weekends. Movies such as English Vinglish, Queen, Kahaani, Lootera, Highway, NH10, Mary Kom and now Margarita will change that slowly and steadily. If this trend continues, in five years’ time, we may be able to get rid of the senior citizen brigade thriving on teenage buffoonery. Hopefully, the girls will also serve as a lesson for the new boys (Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, etc).

English Vinglish Movie Stills

queen nh10

Last but not the least, Margarita is important because it will do well internationally. It will win prizes, be screened at film festivals, and be talked about. It will finally present India as a place where specially-abled people CAN go to college, CAN have friends, CAN have supportive parents. It will also open up to the world a country of understanding fathers and male friends, empowered women making their own decisions, and a sensitive and cultured society. Of late, India has been in the international news for its crime against women, attacks against minorities, and culture policing. This film will work as one of the many little things that will reveal another side of India. We may not want a Western stamp of approval on everything we do, but that does not mean we would like to be known to the world as barbaric and criminal. The American boy in the film asks Laila – do I have to marry you if I kiss you? We’ve all had to answer such idiotic questions – a Dutch professor once asked me in the middle of a viva voce if I was treated specially in India because my surname signified my ancestors were priests. Hopefully, with the likes of Margarita, we can do away such eye-roll moments.

One last thing – superlative works of art always remind us of other good works. I’d like to mention two here. One is the film Amu, made by the same filmmaker as Margarita. I don’t think it got a big release back then, and many might have missed it then. Do watch. The other is a book called Trying To Grow by Firdaus Kanga, that is a beautiful autobiographical account of a physically-challenged boy growing up and exploring his sexual preferences within the confines of a Parsee family in Bombay. It isn’t that readily available. I had read an excerpt of it, and had placed an order for the book at Singapore’s National Library. They promptly got it for me. Even today, it costs a bomb on Amazon, or is only available as used copies. It is imperative that we preserve such alternative literature. This one already seems to be hitting oblivion. But times have changed. Margarita will stay and be remembered for a long time to come.

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Slumdog Millionaire – A Review

The Film

Very nicely done. Kudos to Simon Beaufoy for the amazingly taut screenplay. To convey a layered complicated story, spanning several years, in just about 2 hours was quite a feat! Also, kudos to Danny Boyle for keeping a positive spirit throughout the film, even in the grimmest of circumstances. Though the kids are fighting the continuous struggle of keeping up with a heartless world, there’s an energy of love, friendship, brotherhood and goodness in every frame. The audience cringes one moment, but Danny makes sure they smile the next moment. For example, the blinded beggar boy who sings for alms deeply saddened me, but when he smelled a dollar bill and said he knew the face on it was Benjamin Franklin’s, I didn’t feel so bad anymore! Or the scene when the kids travel on the rooftops of the train makes you go tsk-tsk, but the next moment they’re stealing food upside-down and you’re laughing your guts out! That’s the kind of magic the film keeps weaving on you. It shows you the harshest realities, but immediately lights a lamp of hope somewhere near.

People aren’t talking about her much, but I have to mention Lavleen Tandon, the assistant director of the film. She’s the one who scouted for locations, who did the casting, who acted interpreter, got the right Hindi dialogues done, used the right songs and the right expressions. The “Indian” contribution is so perfectly noticeable in every scene that one has to appreciate the fact that a British crew could not have achieved this on its own.

I also have to talk about the respect and love for India that the makers of this film have shown. To have more than half the dialogues in a native tongue was a brave decision. Also, the fact that there were no subtitles when Indians spoke English meant something to me. I feel highly insulted every time Discovery, BBC, CNN etc show subtitles whenever a non-American/ non-European speaks in English. C’mon! We don’t understand everything they say either!


India

I’m being asked a lot of questions by foreigners – Is it true? Are things really this bad in India? Yeah, I have to admit everything shown in the film is very true. Slumdog Millionaire has single-handedly showcased to the world just about all the social ills India suffers from – be it the communal riots, poverty, child trafficking, underworld & extortions, child prostitution, lack of hygiene etc. I’m sure, at the cost of a few Oscars, India is going to lose a sizeable chunk of its half-baked tourism industry. And I’m not one of those who’s gonna walk around the Dharavi slums and scream to the world – “See? They live in slums but they’re all so happy! That’s the spirit of India” (like Anil Kapoor did for CNN).

There are so many issues that need attention, so many problems that need solving. But when you are the second-most populous country of the world, the sixth largest country but with just about 10 big cities in it, with people speaking 29 different languages and practising 10 different religions, you aren’t really sure you know the solutions to most of the problems. In the struggle to grow, to make money, to survive, to feed your children, to keep your crops from drying, to be able to live a respectable life, people make compromises. And through these compromises, human society forms an ecological balance. It’s not just India’s story. It’s the story of human beings all around the world, a little more filth here and a little less violence there. But we’re all part of the struggle, some of us luckier than the others.

More than ten thousand people arrive in Mumbai everyday from villages in search of work. Though it is possible for the government to do more than it does, it is not possible to have apartments ready for all of them. Hence the illegal hutments, the slums, the burgeoning population, the crime, the drive to earn money through whatever means. The fittest survive and move on to better accommodations and lives. The lessers are doomed to worse experiences.

India is used to being called dirty and corrupt. That’s why, we are sportingly celebrating a movie that shows our shit to the world. Did you know the Mayor of Shanghai had banned Mission Impossible III because it had shown the slums (and really clean ones!!) of the city?

I have to protest against a few smaller technicalities in the film though

– No one plays cricket on the runway of Mumbai airport. That’s plain bullshit!

– On the actual TV show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, participants came from all backgrounds and strata of society. The anchor, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan and later, Mr. Shah Rukh Khan, were absolute gentlemen on the show. They treated everyone with a lot of respect and never poked fun at any contestant, as is shown in the film.

– When the makers of the film went to the extent of having almost half the dialogues in Hindi to make it realistic, why did they have to cast Dev Patel as grown-up Jamaal? Dev did a good job except for his accent. How can a guy from the slum speak in a British accent? Kinda took away the realism and made it artificial!

– Ok, our films do have a lot of song-and-dance. But choreography in Indian cinema is no longer the synchronized aerobic steps. Today, our actors are great dancers and, over the last decade, we have evolved a beautiful fusion of Indian classical and folk with Western dance movements. Therefore, I was squirming in my seat at the lame dance steps of Jai Ho (the ending song)


Slumdog Miilionaire at the Oscars

Well, it’s a nice film. But that’s all I can say about it. Nothing I saw is new to me. Good filmmakers in India have made far better movies on these issues – some serious, some satires. Bombay, Satya, Company, Chandni Bar to name a few. While, on the one hand, I am happy that a film about India has gained so much popularity and is winning big awards, on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that it’s unfair at how less-known cinema in other languages is. I’m sure there are several better films made in other countries every year than the ones that win the Oscars.

If not for all this hype, I would’ve probably thought this film is not the best I’ve seen in 2008.


A step forward for world cinema

When I watched Memoirs of The Geisha some years back, I wondered if I would ever get to see an English-language foreign-produced film set in India and about Indians. It didn’t take long for that wish to be granted. It is great that English-language cinema is spreading its wings and telling us stories from different lands, without any foreign connection in them. It doesn’t always have to be about a Westerner visiting other regions (Body of Lies, The Last Samurai, Syriana etc etc). People in other continents are perfectly capable of being the subjects of beautiful stories.

In the same breath, I have to say that with this step forward, I hope world cinema will not restrict itself to stereotypes. After all, India is not just about slums and poverty, China is not just about people breaking into martial arts, Japan is not just about Samurais and Geishas, Middle East is not just about oil, Afghanistan is not just about the Taliban and Germany is not just about World War II.

A good start would be pronouncing A R Rahman’s name correctly at the Oscars and not messing it up like at the Golden Globes 🙂


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A caricature – the alternate or the regular?

It’s not easy to start writing an entry for your blog after a year and 3 months, especially because you have no ideas whatsoever and you are not really a brilliant, innovative, well-researched writer.

But I’ve been planning to pen something down (anything will do! Even a nursery rhyme!) and if I don’t tonight, I probably never will (not that it matters. I don’t have any readers. It’s for my self-satisfaction)

Well, so let’s just talk about this film I watched this evening – Notes On A Scandal. It’s about a lesbian woman, quite old – played by Judie Dench, who lives a life of utter solitude with her cat. She takes a fancy for a younger colleague at work, played by Cate Blanchett, and strikes up a friendship purely based on keeping the other woman’s secrets safe. When she is disappointed by this woman (for not keeping her company when her cat is about to die!!!!), she lets out the hideous secret and turns lives topsy-turvy all around. Towards the end, the audience comes to know that she has had a record of ruining younger women’s lives, presumably the ones she fell for.

A very compelling drama it is, with excellent performances, very taut narrative and superb background music.

What I could not appreciate was the fact that there was no explanation for her actions. True, not every action needs an explanation. But when they did explain the adultery committed by the younger woman, didn’t they also owe the character of the older woman some justice? Especially since she’s the protagonist. Maybe just a dialogue or a short scene?

The older woman was someone from another age, when one could not be lesbian. It is not like she had loved and lost. She had not ever received love probably. She had grown old alone (and “alone” to the extent that she wasn’t open to discussing her partners and sexuality with even her sister). She needed companionship and she made some wrong moves to secure a friendship that she really saw promise in. She was not right, but she had to be explained! If one hasn’t thought about the film (or lacks the intelligence, maybe), one would think she’s a plain psycho.

On a broader note, was it ok to make her a psycho to the audience because she’s lesbian? If it was a straight old woman craving for company, would there be more urge to explain (unless it was a cheap thriller movie where just about everyone is psycho)

Maybe I’m thinking too much and getting a tad too judgmental. But, incidentally, my weekend has been full of cinema about the alternate sexuality. I watched Dostana on Friday, and the depiction of two straight men acting as gay partners to get hold of an apartment is simply despicable. Not just because of the jokes and the obviously effeminate mannerisms, but also the fact that one could think of this as the plot of a movie and yet treat it in such a non-chalant way. It looked like a lot of gay-bashing to me.

I guess the most disturbing was the reaction of the audience, who couldn’t stop laughing at the lame and repetitive jokes. But why blame them when the makers of the film themselves had no dignity in their story and rendition.

In this world of seemingly-straight majority, the insensitives have always treated the alternatives with contempt, but have the sensitives been coined so only due to their indifference? Has there been an utter lack of understanding and a huge gap of sexuality that just keeps growing wider? Well I won’t get into lectures. You get my point. One would rather give money to an able-bodied beggar who is perfectly capable of going out there and getting a job, than give respect to a dignified individual whose preferences may not be similar.

I love this episode in Seinfeld, in which the press reports that Jerry is gay. He gets calls from everyone he knows, and after the usual surprised exclamations and we-always-knew-its, they invariably say “Not that there’s anything wrong with it!”. In trying to be politically correct and non-tabooing a scandalous subject, are we actually making caricatures of ourselves?

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Hindi)

Director: Sudheer Mishra

Cast : Shiny Ahuja, Kay Kay Menon, Chitrangada Singh

I’ve always felt it very difficult for the medium of cinema to essay the complexities of real characters, and even if it does, it takes over-the-top situations to communicate to the moviegoer. It’s easier for an author, who can spend pages describing the nuances of characters, their thought processes, justifications of their actions and so on. I haven’t seen many films that have successfully done justice to its characters as human beings with different shades. Especially in Hindi cinema, where every character is either black or white, and sometimes, there’s the clichéd “gray shades” treatment, which is not close to what I’m talking about.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is one such film that delves into many hues of a human character. I finally got to see it after 2 years of its release. I’ve come across appreciations galore for this movie, and, I should say, I’m very impressed myself.

This film takes us back to the 1970s, an era when our generation did not exist, but also an era which is, perhaps, the most defining period of Indian politics after Independence. Based in New Delhi, the hotbed of political activity, Hazaaron… introduces its three characters from the first scene. In 1969, Siddharth (Kay Kay), Geeta (Chitrangada) and Vikram (Shiny Ahuja) go to the same college. Siddharth comes from a bureaucratic family, his father being an officer in the Indian civil services. Through Siddharth’s family, we are exposed to the bureaucratic class of society, who had not shed their English ways even after three decades of Independence. Entrenched as India still is in the problem of its ever-growing highly-paid bureaucracy, these officers were removed from their countrymen for whom they were working. For a country worshiping the teetotaler Mahatma Gandhi, these officers were more British in spirit, drinking, partying and intermarrying. Children of such high-ranking government officers went to expensive boarding schools and knew only to speak in English. Siddharth is one of them, and perhaps because of his over-exposure to such things immoral and unethical, he is inspired to work for rural India, to upgrade the conditions of farmers, to fight for the rights of the poor and to make India a better place to live in. Geeta Rao is the daughter of a middle-class South Indian family settled in New Delhi. Geeta is beautiful, smart and intelligent, with men courting her, most prominently, Siddharth and Vikram. Vikram comes from a middle-class family living in a small town in northern India. He is down-to-earth guy with small-time political connections. His father is a Gandhian.

The story begins when college finishes for the three. Siddharth decides to go to Bihar and work for the farmers there. Geeta goes to London for higher studies. Vikram makes a career out of using his several contacts and his PR skills. He becomes an agent, getting people to talk, making contracts possible, doing the groundwork for any political deal being struck.

Cut to four years later, 1973. Vikram is a successful man in New Delhi. He has flourished in his occupation and continues to do so. In a party for bureaucrats, he spots Geeta, now married to a government officer. Seeing Geeta after all these years, Vikram’s old flame re-ignites. He tracks Geeta’s visit to Bihar and discovers she is still having a clandestine affair with Siddharth. Later in the film, Geeta divorces her husband and joins Siddharth in his social work. Siddharth, now, is a part of the Naxalite movement – a movement that set the eastern states on fire in 1970s. Thousands of young men joined hands to wash away the deep-seated corruption in the country. As happens with any such movement, it became violent, gory and murderous. The government dubbed the Naxals as terrorists and thousands lost their lives in police firing, encounters and in jail.

Coming back to the film, the turn of events comes when Emergency is declared in the country and the political system collapses. The police now has a free hand to arrest and kill Naxals without documentation. Geeta and Siddharth are arrested in Bihar. Vikram is out to search for his friends and free them of their tribulations. And this search of his brings us to one of the best-orchestrated climax ever seen.

Informed of his imminent death at the hands of the police, Siddharth is ready to use his father’s contacts. He rants out important telephone numbers, names, anything that will get him out of this ordeal. On the other hand, Vikram, who is leading a secure and influential life in New Delhi gives it all up and plunges into the riot-torn state of Bihar only to wipe the tears off Siddharth’s father’s face. The paradox is too much to bear – that someone who has lived his life in social service with brave ideals and grit of mind becomes a coward in face of death and someone who has thrown morality to the winds gives himself up to save the life of a friend.

Hazaaron… is a wonderfully made film. Though some of the dialogues and costumes seem very up-to-date with our times and the technical quality is not very good, this is a film that will touch the audience deep within. It made me wonder as to how unpredictable we can be, how strong are our ideals, and how flimsy are the opinions we have of people around us. Kay Kay has always acted well and Shiny Ahuja gives a superlative performance and has won awards for it. But perhaps the most credit goes to Chitrangada Singh. I haven’t heard of her before, and if this really is her debut movie, I have to say she’s brilliant. Being the central character of Geeta around whom the story revolves, one cannot think of anyone else playing the role.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi ends with a mentally-maimed Vikram in the arms of Geeta with the sun setting on the Bihar countryside. The image stays with you long after you’ve switched off the screen. It is a pang of how ironically ugly reality can be, but also a hope of how true ideals never die a silent death and how the torch of noble work is still glowing with Geeta.

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