Saturday, November 26, 2016

Akira [dir. AR Murgadoss]

Simply by not having an extended flashback with an excruciating romance-meets-odious-comedy track, Akira (no relation to Katsuhiro Otomo's classic anime) is 200% better than most Murga-dross movies. Add to it an absence of tedious fantasy song sequences in bad fashion scapes and you have to wonder if the director had one of those "blow on the head that changes your life" moments his protagonists are subject to.

Akira is the official remake of a Tamil film Mouna Guru (which had a male protagonist, and according to Baradwaj Rangan, was a much better film). As Rangan perhaps rightly points out, a woman-centric action film feels obliged to point out why its lead is so quick to sock people. So in a preamble, Akira as a child is witness to an acid attack. For who-knows-what reason the victim's parents appear to have invited the entire neighborhood to witness the unveiling of her bandages, like it was a fucking award ceremony. Akira's Masterji father (Atul Kulkarni in a where's-my-paycheck part) then pushes her into a karate class, oh-so-meaningfully bypassing the adjoining dance class, and almost immediately after, a confrontation with the acid-hurling goons, which lands her a 3-year remand home sentence for causing one of them to splash himself with the corrosive after-shave. One would think the cops should arrest Akira's father for forcing his progeny into an acutely risky vigilante situation, but in Murugadoss' world this qualifies as awesome parenting.

Thus Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) grows up to be a Shiva, with breasts instead of a mustache - She is by nature reserved and taciturn, but ready to take panga with anyone that crosses her; This isn't layered writing, but you don't need more detail for this sort of film. Anyhoo, by a convoluted sequence of circumstances, our heroine gets mixed up with a posse of not-so-bright, not-so-upright cops (led by a cheerfully sleazy Anurag Kashyap) that stole a large bag of cash from an accident victim. To save their own skins they have her framed as a violent delusional and sent to an asylum that rivals the one in Amitabh Bachchan's Yaarana for WTF-ery. You know how it goes from here - Akira-gal must escape from the asylum and flush out her tormentors for justice. This happens with remarkable facility, and there's a last-minute twist that's more difficult to swallow.

Akira doesn't have the sleight-of-hand of say, an Ek Hasina Thi, but trots at a brisk clip without much in the way of stopping to smell the roses. Unlike Rani Mukherjee's forced mardaangi in Mardaani, Sonakshi slips into the character with ease. Given the space, she has an understated charisma and strong instincts as an actor, and effectively conveys Akira's tough-tender nature. It's unfortunate then that Murgadoss shoots the action in a manner that undermines her - lazy choreography, quick cuts and multiple angles don't help to sell the illusion of the badass heroine, and too much seems to have been left to stunt doubles (The brief  'making of' snippets on the DVD show Sonakshi doing multiple kicks-in-the-air, but in the film it's unnecessarily chopped up).

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Labyrinth of Lies [dir. Giulio Ricciarelli]

It is telling that 2014's Labyrinth of Lies was selected as Germany's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign film. In a neatly laid-out manner it covers an "important" issue, of the 1963 German home-grown trial of former Nazis for their concentration camp atrocities, appeals to emotional heartstrings with writing and musical score cues that in no uncertain terms tell you what you must feel and also aims for mainstream appeal with its handsome Dicaprio-esque leading man Alexander Fehling. Fehling plays enthusiastic young lawyer Johann Radmann, a fictional composite of public prosecutors involved in the case, while making a pivotal but ultimately supporting character of Fritz Bauer, who conceived and spearheaded the legal onslaught to expose and lance the festering sore many Germans would prefer to have forgotten (Bauer is also supposed to have passed on crucial information to Israel that led to the capture of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann).

In the film Radmann is eager to prove himself with more worthy cases than the traffic violations assigned him. He picks up the trail of a school teacher identified by as an SS officer by a camp survivor, and is encouraged by Attorney General Bauer (Gert Voss). Radmann digs deeper to unearth a mass machinery of torture and murder that many ordinary Germans of the time were aware of, and complicit in deed. People exposed to Allied accounts of the Nazi evil will find nothing here that's new or shocking (the Nuremberg trials were held immediately after WW2 ended), but the German public remained for a long time in a state of shock and denial about the actions of their own government and people, of what crimes against humanity had been committed in the name of "following orders". Radmann carries out  interviews with survivors and pores over several directories worth of documents to identify former Nazis associated with the camps. His investigation faces resentment and opposition, from his own colleagues and from forces in high circles. But with Bauer's support and encouragement he brings the case to trial, which is where the film ends.

LoL (an unfortunate abbreviation) is very clear-cut and sanitized, too much so to have much impact (at least for a non-German who doesn't have that kind of personal resonance with the issue itself). Compare this to David Fincher's Zodiac, which covered a far smaller scope (lone killer, half dozen victims) but with sufficient detail and layering for us to empathize with the emotional toll on the characters and see them as three-dimensional beings. Here, both victims and perpetrators are mostly cogs in the story machine for us to see the struggle and eventual victory against odds of the haloed hero (the latter are particularly flat, even the teacher is shown to harshly address a pupil just before he is arrested). There is also a romance with a pretty dress-maker, and a lover's tiff when he tells of her father's involvement in Poland. This is not exploration of a searing issue, this is HBO Movie of The Week.

Perhaps I'm being unkind. Perhaps this is the sort of film that needs to be made first, to allow people at large to accept this part of their history before they are ready for more studied works. LoL works well at that, but it is not by any means a great film in itself.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Budhia Singh - Born to Run [dir. Soumendra Padhy]

Budhia Singh - Born to Run is the biographical film of the wunderkid from Odisha who ran about 50 marathons before he was 5 years old. It's equally, and perhaps more so, a portrait of Biranchi Das, the coach who discovered young Budhia's ability and tried to hone it through punishing extremes.

Early on we see Budhia as an ordinary slum kid sold by his impoverished mother for 850 rupees as a domestic help. Biranchi, a Judo instructor, social worker nurturing a bus-load of kids and hired dogsbody for political parties, rescues Budhia from this situation and takes him under his wing. A chance discovery of the child's stamina (when Biranchi orders Budhia to run rounds without stopping unless told, and forgets about him for hours after) ignites the coach's desire to mould his protege into a marathoner. His formula is a mix of reward (Budhia gets new shoes and better food, compared to his foster home siblings, and more attention) and punishment (Biranchi puts him through a tortuous routine of long hours of running everyday, refusing even water during the endeavour).

While the use of a rah-rah "let's do it" soundtrack seems to put the film in the same bracket as other recent Bollywood sports films like those on Milkha Singh and Mary Kom, there is always an element of ambiguity in the depiction of Biranchi Das' attitude towards Budhia. While he may have rescued and nurtured Budhia (and the film makes a point of Biranchi's affection, even to the point of ignoring his own child), providing a more stable father figure than Budhia had previously known, he is also shown to be ruthless in his ambition to make the boy excel. Shots of Budhia running alone are intercut with scenes of his siblings and classmates enjoying a normal childhood while his teachers and principal gloat over the fame that his achievements will bring them. One of the most powerful scenes comes in the staging of Budhia's 65km run from Puri to Bhubaneshwar. Biranchi tagging alongside on a bicycle taunts Budhia with a water bottle but never gives it to him. The soundtrack dies down and we hear Budhia's faltering gasps, which are spliced with visions of cold drinks and ice lollies, the fantasies of a boy racked with unimaginable thirst. Towards the end of the race Budhia faints and is carried to an emergency station where he throws up the fluids he is made to drink. After this Biranchi takes him out to display to the crowd almost like a trophy, not exactly a hurrah moment.

The film also takes into account the allegations that Biranchi exploited the boy to fulfil his own desires for fame and fortune. Manoj Bajpai gives a trademark measured performance, fully embracing the character's ambiguity, making him alternately sympathetic and provocative. Young Mayur Patole who plays Budhia gives a non-cutesy blank-faced performance appropriate for a boy whose actions were entirely dictated by the people around him.

The Odisha Child Welfare Commission filed proceedings against Biranchi Das for exploitation, which led to Budhia's separation from his coach and a ban from long-distance running that only caused the wastage of a potential talent. In the film the committee is portrayed as a coterie of unimaginative babu-dom more interested in preening its feathers than any real concern for the boy. Shortly after, Biranchi Das was gunned down by unknown assailants, while Budhia languishes in the state sports hostel where since he has regressed to a life of mediocrity, resting only on the hope that we will once again meet a coach with the passion of his former mentor.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

MSG The Messenger - Lion Heart

A few years back a friend asked me if I had any excitement for Conan The Conquerer, the proposed continuation of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan movies. To this I said, The movie will probably start with an old Arnold sitting on the throne. In his thick accent he'll say, "Let me tell you about one of my adventures", and the rest of the movie will go into flashback mode with a bland (Jason) Samosa playing Conan. At the end, we'll be returned to seated Arnold, who bids us part with, "In the sequel, I will tell you about another of my adventures."

MSG3 isn't that remote because all the lead roles are played by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan (who now also calls himself Dr. MSG, having in the interim has picked up a doctorate, probably one of those honorary thingummies no-name Indian universities fling about like so much confetti). But Pitaji has succumbed to the lure of needlessly splitting a movie into multiple instalments.

The opening was hearteningly explosive. Dr. MSG as the star agent of (I kid you not) Lion Heart Investigation Agency, takes out a batallion of inept terrorist-kidnappers (wielding bright yellow or mauve hued oversized plastic guns) with a sword that morphs into a grenade launcher cum laser pistol, and later shrinks into a pen. With characteristic subtlety they don't mention the device that allows him to change his shoes in the midst of combat (surely not a continuity error!). Agent Pitaji also has a plastic kit-bag that transforms into a souped-up bike he proceeds to do wheelies on for no particular reason. The LHIA seems to house a conference room dedicated specifically for his sycoph...erm, colleagues to pay tribute to his awesomeness (to which he in the most reluctant and mild manner says, "Chamchagiri band karo, yaar [Stop the spooning, pals]"), since for actual business they move to yet another place.

In the 'actual business' conference room we are introduced to the bad guys of the movie, alien races from 4 different planets, all of whom favor art decor picked from the Ramsay studio scrap sale and lightbulb-studded couture a la Amitabh Bachchan from Yaarana, differing only in the color-code. Agent Lion Heart proceeds to give a projector presentation flashback of how in ancient times he as Commander Sher Dil (See the subtle connection?) dealt with the aliens.

The flashback would have been more than acceptable as a snappy half hour max interlude, breezing through the CG-aided exploits of medieval-era MSG. Alas, this is the rest of MSG3, now matching the pace and tone of a Ramanand Sagar tele-serial. Yes, ineptitude as a benchmark is consistently adhered to, and there are bits of campy fun, like when he grapples with astonishingly shoddy CG elephants, snake-men and Gorilla Grodd wannabes, but it gets repetitive and has a decidely 'meh' flavor. You keep hoping for the flashback to be concluded and for the further adventures of Gurmeet Bond, but all you get at the end of 2 hours is an announcement for the next part. Disappointing.

Just before the film, me and my mum (who probably hates me for conning her into this) were the only people in the cinema. But shortly after the credits rolled, a whole mob of rustic punjus sauntered in filling most of the hall. I think they were holding free tickets since one of the leaders was directing someone on the phone to herd people to some Kohinoor theater, since this one was already spoken for.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Chantal Akerman special

On Sunday, I saw a couple of Chantal Akerman films as part of an appreciation at the local Liberty cinema.

First was Jeanne Dielman...[long title giving the name & address of the protagonist]. At 200+ min, the majority of it devoted to scenes of a homemaker doing her chores almost in real-time, it's jumping off at the deep end as an introduction to a director, and based on reputation I was all prepared to pronounce it as pretentious and dull, but the film has a rhythm and a reason for its structure. Day 1 can be interpreted as the last of the woman's orderly if dull existence. We see her wholly a creature of routine, her life devoted to accomplishing a series of tasks, be it cooking dinner, polishing her son's shoes, babysitting a neighbor's infant or sleeping with a regular client for money, all with the same unemotional precision. Day 2, we see a repetition of those tasks but with slight instances of disorder, like a tiny crack on a window, creeping into her routine, suggesting a long gestating mental breakdown. Day 3 shows those cracks spidering ever so little more, until we reach an abrupt startling crescendo

🚫[spoiler]where she stabs that day's client with a pair of scissors. It is shown that she gets an orgasm during sex prior to that and is therefore perhaps disturbed by her emotional involvement. I felt so, but not sure[/spoiler].🚫

The rhythm is what defines the film, stick with the first half hour or so of the film and it will suck you in. The differences in Day 2 will further intrigue you as to where the build-up is leading to, and the film doesn't disappoint in its culmination. There are instances where the film tests your patience, with 5 min static shots of the protagonist staring into space, but even if indulgent they make sense within the context of the film's thrust. I would urge people to see this film.

The other Akerman effort I saw was Je Tu Il Elle (I / you / he / she). It is at 86 min a brief venture. Although released in the same year as Jeanne Dielman, it carries far more of a student film feel. The opening segment has Akerman monologuing in stream of consciousness mode while we see her sleeping / writing / binging on sugar, all with / without her clothes on. The middle segment has her hitching up with a trucker who takes care of her. Apart from his instructing her in giving him a handjob we don't see any overt evidence of sexual interaction between them. There's a really good monologue (taken in a single shot, IIRC) in this section where the trucker rambles on about his married life and the routine it has been reduced to. It's a lot more comprehensible and easy to empathize with than the intellectual garbage of the first segment. In the concluding act of the film, Akerman joins up with a former girlfriend, with who she behaves in a terribly boorish fashion before proceeding to have vigorous sex with (a precursor to the sex scenes in Life of Adele). The end. My opinion: Akerman has a sexy Venus-like figure she fully exploits, but the film itself is prententious crap IMO.

There was also a 10-min short La Chambre (The Room), which is just a series of 360 degree pans around a 2 room apartment where the only change comes in the position and activity of the woman on the bed. If there was something to be made of this, it missed me entirely.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Teen Prahar Concert [12 March 2016 St Andrew's Auditorium]

Last evening I attended an Indian music concert called Teen Prahar, held in Mumbai at St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra. It is an annual event conducted by the Banyan Tree group, and this is the first time I attended. The program promised a staggering 5 hours of music (from 5-10pm), and delivered hugely on that.

The first part was a presentation of classical pieces by talented children. I'd say most of them were around 10 years give or take a couple, reminding me of the time when my folks enrolled me in Harmonium classes at school which I bunked so flagrantly they had to take me out (they were very indulgent to all my whims, sometimes I think I would have been a better person if they'd whacked me a few times). Anyhoo, Flautist boy did renditions of Marwa (one of my fav ragas) & Hamsadhwani, Harmonium boy did Bihag and Tabla girl gave a performance of Teen Taal. The boys were accompanied by professional tabalchi Anubrata Chatterjee (they seemed a little intimidated by his florid playing, but did a good job, especially in the fast runs for which they had reserved their stamina). Tabla girl was accompanied by another little girl on the harmonium and did a fine job (I'm not versed in the technicalities of the piece to make any real comment on that).

Next up was an percussion ensemble - Taal India. Led by Anubrata Chatterjee, this is a supergroup that included percussion instruments from all corners of the country - tabla, dhol, naal, khadtaal, dholak, mirav, edddakka, chenda etc. There were some 8 performers on stage (joined in the last by another 3, who played Dhak, a traditional Bengali drum). While everyone in turn showed their virtuosity, the khadtaal player with his royal mustache, pot-belly, mischievous eyes and dramatic way of moving his arms garnered the most cheers and applause - A case of showmanship over music, but that's to be expected in a popular concert, and definitely not the fault of the performer. The finale in which everyone performed together was almost a good way. The group got a standing ovation from the crowd.

Ideally the organizers should have announced a proper break before the second half of the program, but Shujaat Khan was brought on shortly after, so one had to scramble to get a bit of coffee and a sandwich at the short-staffed cafeteria (and of course finish them outside the hall). Khan saab jokingly complained that after the thunderous percussion display, people would not be interested in hearing a man plonking on a Sitar, but the soothing strains of Sham Kalyan were just what was needed after that chunk of excitement. I cannot say anything about the purity or technical finesse but one thing was evident to me - the extent to which he can stretch and modify a meend, the man could really extract not just notes, but emotions from the sitar. A satisfyingly long exploratory alaap was followed by a composition of his father Vilayat Khan. He was accompanied by 2 percussionists, which was in most part redundant, but they had their individual solo sections during the gat, and I noticed that they played their solos in different styles. Later, Khan saab revealed that they are from different schools (one from Allarakha, and one from Kishan Maharaj) and to paraphrase his words, you can get the "khushboo" of their school from their playing. After that wonderful finish to his performance of Sham Kalyan, he launched into a medley of songs cheered by the audience (both his own and some standards like Vaishnav jan to). He also naughtily played the opening bars of Tu hi re, then said that this was just a trailer for the next performance (by Hariharan).

The last leg of the concert began with a rendition of a thumri (about a gopi calling Krishna to the river, don't recall exact words). There are a few things I have come to accept about a Hariharan show now: 1) His low-end is kinda gone, and he doesn't have the level of fluidity what a Mallikarjun Mansur or a Maharajapuram Santanam had even in their later years 2) His song repertoire now mostly consists of the blander stuff, and I'll probably never get to hear him sing Dard ke rishte (Hazir) or Khud ko behtar hai saraabon mein bhatakta dekhun (Ghazal ka Mausam). 3) Urdu blues - I know I'm being close-minded but this fusion-confusion stuff sucks. Those caveats in place, I had a good time. I was hoping for one song of my choice to be performed and this time I was rewarded with Shahar dar shahar from Hazir (based on Nat Bhairav). Expectedly, he finished with a rendition of Tu hi re, sufficiently freshened up to make it a nice experience. Among his accompanists, the flute, harmonium and tabla sections were frequently exciting: the flautist was marvelous, moving seamlessly from Indian classical to a jazz-inflected style. The keyboardist did a noticeably good job with the Nat Bhairav style in Shahar dar shahar, the guitarist played middling to bad blues/jazz solos.

In general the crowd really grooved to the music. Of course, a few sore points typical of audiences I've sat with.

Behind me I had to have the one elderly ass who had a remark for every frakking thing that happened, loud-voiced compliments for each turn of musicmanship he perceived, and even responded to the audience chatter done by the performers. An example: Even Hariharan knows his Urdu Blues is not universally acclaimed, so he modestly says to the audience "If you like it, please clap for it [he meant as a beat, not applause], otherwise forget it"

I previously mentioned the khadtaal player who charmed the audience with his style. As soon as he finished his part some in the crowd started yelling "Once more!" Hello, he is part of an ensemble and there are several others who have not had their chance to show their prowess. You could see the embarrassment on the faces of the other performers.

As soon as Hariharan finished the first song on his setlist, a dude gets up and starts shouting for X song to be performed, at which other people take a cue. Everyone has their favorites they would like to hear (I know I would) but you shouldn't be a boor about it, not with a senior artiste who has just barely started with his program. I sometimes feel organizers should include an audience etiquette sheet with the ticket.

But overall, I had a great time and would definitely be looking to attend more such concerts.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Aligarh [dir. Hansal Mehta]

Aligarh is Hansal Mehta's attempt to depict the tragedy of an AMU professor Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) who was illicitly filmed indulging in a consensual sexual act with a rickshaw puller, hazed into admitting guilt, and subsequently suspended by the authorities and pilloried by shrill conservatives for immoral behaviour.

The script travels two paths. The first is external, the struggle to restore Siras' position and dignity through the press, in which he is supported by journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), and through legal procedure (in the wake of the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgement which amended section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to decriminalize homosexuality, subsequently reversed by the Supreme court in 2013, in who-knows-what wisdom). The second path is internal, an exploration of the psyche of a lonely outcast. Apart from his closet homosexuality, Siras was a divorcee single man, who taught Marathi in an Urdu dominated institution. Despite this he was appointed Head of the Modern Languages Dept (The film implies this was a motive of jealousy for the sting operation, in which senior university officials seem to have a strong hand).

Mehta displays a genuine sadness and anger towards the tragedy. The collaboration between him and Bajpayee gives us a very moving portrayal of a man who only wanted to be accepted for what he was. Sexual orientation aside, the cruel bias faced by an ageing bachelor in a society where marriage and family are the de facto standard is something that anyone should be able to empathize with. Every moment of his life, Siras feels the burden of being shunned and judged by his peers. It is no wonder then, that even after the Allahabad High Court ruled in his favour, restoring his position and benefits, he committed suicide shortly after (There were some allegations of murder, but nothing was substantiated). While certain elements may seem overly composed and deliberate, the film depicts this aspect with honesty and feeling.

Which is why the portrayal of the legal battle seems unnecessarily shrill. Of course, after Court, typical courtroom dramas will always seem artificial, but Ashish Vidyarthi's smug cockerel act as Siras' lawyer and the general theatrics in this section are at odds with the subtlety depicted elsewhere in the film. Still, Aligarh's core remains strong and the film is a vital protest for acceptance and peaceful inclusion of differences between human beings for us to retain the right to be called a civilization.