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Shanghai: IInd Impression

15 Jun

What Went Right —

Pithy dialogues

Casting coup: Abhay Deol & Emraan Hashmi


Opening scene

Dibakar Banerjee

What Went Wrong —

Songs that went missing like Jogi

Songs that were there: clumsy with no impact

No twists, no surprises, no mystery

Projecting the movie as a thriller during promotions

I hope the review has been as subtle

but pointed in its style in keeping with

that of the movie.


Shanghai: Ist Impression

12 Jun


This last month I realized how the enjoyment (or not) of a movie is fraught with dangers. Before you even buy a ticket you’re bombarded with opinions all and sundry, and to go against the tide on a social networking site is akin to poking a beehive.

Take Hugo. I expected to like it so much that I avoided reviews and reports like the plague (though now that I think about it, psychotherapists would tell me I had been quite certain I would dislike it). I was laughably disappointed because for me, the movie never began.

Ironically, the polar opposite happened with Shanghai. I was so confident of loving it that I sought out every bit of available information from talk shows, reviews and making-of segments (psychotherapists world over nod knowingly). Here’s what I got – fast-paced political thriller, brilliant performances across board (some barred Kalki from this praise), average rating 4/5.

I caught the movie much earlier than I usually do – on its first Sunday – but it so happens that I also gave it the worst reception any creative maker can get: bored.

                                      Yes I was bored. Shanghai is an exceptionally well-made film but unfortunately, the story is so straightforward I was shifting about in my seat waiting for it to go somewhere. There’s no mystery. I knew the good doctor was murdered by politicians not because of any brilliant deduction on my part but because the promos had made it crystal clear. It’s no fast-paced thriller either. The interval was the most startling event in the first 40-odd minutes since only ho-hum motivations and dead bodies had been stacked up so far. If you ask me, the interval should be bumped off as succinctly as these characters.

Political activist Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit) is an inconvenience to the dominative political party in a small town, and is duly killed. His lover and student Shalini (Kalki) is compelled, more by personal loss than ideals, to prove the accident was no accident. A pornographer who moonlights as a journalist Jogi (Emraan), excited by a sudden proximity to pale skin, offers her taped evidence. IAS officer Krishnan (Abhay) is pressurized to put a quick and clean end to the investigation. Jogi’s partner is bumped off, giving him a stronger motivation than love for white leather to locate lost evidence. He locates it. Krishnan uses it fittingly. The end.

LSD has more tension than this one.

If there’s any reason for me to love Shanghai, even now in my disappointment, it is its maker.

While I was serving time in film journalism, Dibakar Banerjee had told me that he wanted to gradually say more while showing less. He has done that exquisitely with Shanghai. With him, God is in the details, and it is these details that delight me. He is a relentless, even ruthless, watcher of life. Where Dibakar the director is concerned, Shanghai is leaps beyond his previous work. If I hadn’t walked into it expecting to be on the edge of my seat, I might have warmed to it.

And yes, performances are pitch-perfect, though not across board. This has probably become a cliché by now but Emraan Hashmi made me go all warm and fuzzy inside (less sexual, more maternal) (yes I have to clarify). Abhay Deol is fantastic and I would have bowed if he had worked on his accent better. Proshenjit has made Ahmedi memorable with just 15-odd minutes of screen-time. The weakest link is Kalki. According to Dibakar (in a TV interview), Shalini is the character who drives all the plot points but she is the character I remember the least. I suspect the half-baked impact is not Shalini’s doing but Kalki’s; she’s good, but somewhere out there is an actor overlooked who would have done full and total justice to the character.

                                         What I regret most is that Dibakar’s sense of humour has fallen prey to the law of diminishing returns. His anger – the one common factor in all his films as different as they are from each other – has steadily sloughed off the skippy humor of Khosla ka Ghosla until it’s now reduced to the cynic’s chafing. This is undoubtedly Dibakar’s darkest film.

 But …his punchline is on me. I found myself royally cheesed off as I exited the theatre and the reason was none of the above. It’s because I was cheated of Emraan’s lover-boy act. The two songs in the movie were clumsy appendages, and the two others were entirely missing. 

Truth is, every time Khudaaya and Duaa played on TV and I saw a helpless Emraan mooning over the unattainable white girl, a part of me willfully melted. Ironic that I should choose to admit this first on a public forum.

So congratulations, Dibakar. With Shanghai, you led me up the garden path in ways I hadn’t imagined. I will remember this.

Pirates of the Caribbean — on stranger tides

27 May

What’s up with pirates with consciences? I’d rather watch parts 1-3 on a loop!!


24 May

Rituporno Ghosh’s Naukadubi is like a poem.

Oh, dear heart

4 Mar

I just caught the last 15 minutes of The Graduate on TV, and realised that the entire story is captured in those few frenetic minutes. By themselves, those 15 minutes could compose an entire short film.

Here’s Ben begging pretty Elaine to marry him; she is caught between him and Carl. But she gives him a clear indication that he is a strong suitor. Once home, Ben is confronted by Elaine’s father. The man is both angry and afraid, of what, we don’t know, but the emotions are clear. And it is then that we get to know that the boy has had an affair with his wife, the girl’s mother, but that was a ‘nothing’ affair: his heart was reserved for the girl. This makes the man angry beyond reactions. The next day boy realises that the girl has been removed from school and is being married of f to her other suitor. He tracks her down to the church. Girl sees that he loves her madly, romantically, and elopes with him.

Dustin’s frenzy was what caught me. I had seen the movie years before, and my mind retains little of it. For all practical purposes, these 15 minutes that I saw made an impression on me quite independent of the entire movie, and yet I got all of it. Dustin’s frenzy, his desperation, the lack of background score through the entire chase scene, his reactions at the wedding itself — the fact that Elaine eloped with him despite having gotten married a second before! It is the quintessential situation of the woman choosing to leave everything for a guy who proves that he wants her beyond reason, beyond self-respect, beyond social acceptance.

Rescuing his fair lady from the church, by the church, for the church

Ben in those 15 minutes, is what every woman wants. Perhaps that is why I disappeared somewhere into those 15 minutes, too.

It is what happens after they get into the bus that made me laugh. Ben and Elaine sit side by side, and stare ahead. Ben gives a wide, deliriously happy smile once, and it fades right away. Mostly, they look unsure. After all, every book and every movie ends with the union of the lovers. What happens after? They don’t know.

And the song begins: Hello darkness, my old friend. The Graduate is made all the more memorable through the music: tongue-in-cheek, insightful when you least expect it. And truthful too. After all, who knows why Ben wanted to marry Elaine so desperately? Was it love? Or a spiteful slap in the cheek of the woman who seduced him? Torn between two men until the day before, why did Elaine decide to elope from the man who had just become her husband? Was it because she loved Ben or because her parents had jumped the gun by forcing her into the marriage? Who knows?

Who knows what love is anyway? Really, truly is? What makes us love one another? Is it really all that noble? Selfless, grand, euphoric? Is it everything the movies and books promise us it is? Who’s telling?

Saat Khoon Maaf. Doubt. and Consternation.

25 Feb

Somewhere in the great yawning space that looms between two movies as disparate as these, disappointment and queer timing cropped up to create a connection. I watched Saat Khoon Maaf on the evening of its release and Doubt, the morning after on TV. If my expectations for Saat Khoon Maaf were lowered because I had not enjoyed Vishal Bharadwaj’s last release, Priyanka Chopra playing Susanna who murders seven husbands excited me. Doubt’s was a less euphoric subject: a nun suspects a priest of paedophilia. Hazard a guess at which disappointed?

You get the same time as I got to guess which husband had which flaw: three seconds per husband and chop-chop.

Saat Khoon Maaf irritated me from the word go. Cinematographer Ranjit Palit is supposed to be damn good at his job, so I’m guessing the reason for that grainy effect was a deliberate effort at creating an arthouse effect. As also the shadow play that made me squint to see characters’ faces. Both are inexcusable in an age where slick is the way to go. Worse, the bad make-up used to age Chopra made me wonder if the budget was slim. Until I heard that the budget was in the region of Rs.7crore. The mystery persists.

But those are trifles, I suspect, compared to the two big peeves I have with the movie – the construct of Susanna and the director’s approach to the story. As far as I am concerned, he could have upped the quality of production, glossed the film over or hired a different cinematographer, but with these two flaws none of that would have helped.

The idea of Saat Khoon Maaf is more exciting than your average serial killer movie. On paper, Susanna is neither the bharatiya nari who suffers in silence nor the feminist who takes a dissatisfactory husband to the legal cleaners. She prefers the finality of death, ensuring a run-in with an ex spoils no party. In film, however, she comes across as a victim. First her husbands’, who dominate her in various unpleasant ways and later, of what I call ‘filmi madness’. You know, the insanity that makes a character laugh for no clear reason. Bharadwaj’s interpretation of her as a coquette is unfortunate and not just because I was expecting the femme fatale (thanks to the repeated telecast of the feisty ‘Darrrling’ number during the film’s promotions). She remains the eternal feminine romantic through mental trauma, S&M rape and emotional disappointments. Susanna cowers, weeps and laughs instead of being the catharsis for every woman who has ever wanted to kill a man… and couldn’t. She never once enjoys the kill, something that would have been the natural progression. Susanna goes through man after man feeling sorry for herself until the weight of self-pity breaks her down to laughter. God knows she had valid reasons to kill each of them, hell I’ve wanted to kill one or two for much less. I didn’t, though. I’d like to know what makes me different from her. Bharadwaj doesn’t tell. Apart from a strange anecdote, we don’t get any inroads to her mind. A Man Friday says that Susanna’s very nature compelled her to take the more difficult option in life. Is that the director telling us that divorce was easier than murder in the 70s? But if I consider the social stigma divorce entailed for a woman, murder seemed the easier way to go. Not that Bharadwaj even considers divorce; we are expected to swallow the psychobabble-by-moonlight without further thought.

Even so, I would have been less bored had Bharadwaj not adopted a criminally simplistic approach to the story. The trailers had made it clear that Susanna kills her husbands, so no surprises there. The insultingly linear narrative doesn’t even make a pretence of shocking you. The screenplay falls into a pattern from the word go, leaving us to play a guessing game about which husband will throw up which flaw. By us, I mean three friends and I. Considering that we had exactly three seconds with each husband before the narrator himself makes the revelation, we quickly tired of the game. There was a sting in the tale, but by the time we got there I had died, a casualty the director hadn’t taken into account while titling the film. I’m sure it was a great twist but my stupor only made the revelation confusing, and I left the hall feeling cheated.

Oh, and henceforth I shall wish ill on anyone who utters ‘black humour’ and ‘vishal bharadwaj’ in the same sentence in a complimentary vein. I didn’t get any in Kaminey and I certainly didn’t get any in Saat Khoon Maaf.

Then I saw Doubt. Some movies are best watched alone; this is one of them, and there are no spoilers in this post. Meryl Streep stars as Sister Aloysius who suspects Father Brendan, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has molested an altar boy. All the action takes place in an office, a church, a classroom and a front yard. Its characters sit and talk, stand and talk, walk and talk. Yet not only did I get raw tension from the proceedings but also a poignant picture of church hierarchies and the social truth of the ‘60s. In a brilliant scene I saw the mother of the boy refuse to get involved in her son’s church life for reasons that would be less identifiable than a woman killing seven men. And yet I do understand. More importantly, I empathise. Here, I sat up straight, I held my breath, I fisted my hands. And yes, I chuckled. Bharadwaj could take a few humour lessons from Patrick Shanley.

Our maverick director has become lazy. How unfortunate that he chose to mark the transformation with Saat Khoon Maaf! The loss is entirely personal.

Japleen Pasricha

Founder of Feminism In India. Feminist. Activist. Educator. Traveller

Author, ranter, dad

All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

Ashish Shakya

Writer. Stand-up comic. General idiot for hire.