Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Inception: The number of questions exceed the number of answers by one

One of the more interesting thing about dreams is they do not play out like a conventional story. They are at best carelessly stitched vignettes that at times speak through their absurdity more than by anything else. Idiosyncrasy is central to majority of dreams.  And so is departing out of order.
“ Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange”, says Cobb to Ariadne. It is quite clear that Nolan is obsessed with this particular facet of dreams. He is constantly endeavoring to erase the line between dreams and reality and thereby forcing the characters to question themselves. He very astutely places his characters in a world where they emotionally invest themselves and then slowly tracks back to show the world never existed. This is the single most frustrating thing about dreams too, you invest yourself so much emotionally, but when you wake up you can’t make much of them.

The best way to make sense of the movie is to be steadfast to one plane of reality at least. Otherwise, it just becomes a nested loop which is even more complex to fathom. Lynch in Mulholland Drive subtly differentiates between dreams and reality mostly via the use of colors, and Nolan does it in Inception sometimes by means of quite unnatural architecture, sometimes by means of physics defying universe. Nolan’s concept of dreams is quite literal here. However, he doesn’t concentrate much on his real world too, so we can never be entirely sure of what is real and what is dream. So any attempt to deconstruct the movie should be first attempted with a basic premise of what world is real, although I am pretty sure most people will agree on the first base of their real world, that is the world where Cobb is given an assignment to plant an idea into Fischer’s mind that would enable him to go back to his family again.
One of the major thing I was wary about the movie was the fact that Nolan might have been just too clinical for the film’s own good, too obsessed on the technical finesse of the plot and in the process depriving the audience an emotional connect with the characters. However, Nolan surmounts this by making the protagonists as vulnerable and rugged as perfect and deeply layered the world they wish to penetrate.

I was also worried that the movie might be neatly executed at a cerebral level but would ail from a rather hollow heart. Or, Nolan would try to cover it up by adding a parallel track that would be a Mcguffin of sorts. But, he doesn’t do all that. By introducing Cobb, a character with a troubled and closeted past, he seamlessly merges the two worlds of dreams into one, thereby both stories not playing out in exclusive to each other but rather in a queer way as a function of each other.

What is even more interesting is our allegiance to a particular character pretty much shapes our own movie experience. The movie can be analyzed from an entirely different perspective if we give in to one character rather than the other. Who do you believe more? And what world do you see from their eyes? There can always be things we can believe in, but nothing we can be sure of. Can Cobb be trusted enough? I am not sure I have the answer to that question after just one viewing. And that is just one of the strands that Nolan has left loose.
At a certain plane, everything is as real as we want it to be. That was what underlined the protagonist’s motive in Memento too. We make peace with ourselves to construct a moat of truth around us. And we live happily in it, safely sheltered by ignorance.

Multiple viewing would make things clearer relatively and the recollection from the first viewing can only be very dream like – at best vague and roughly concocted. And that is the beauty of the movie, Nolan doesn’t make it mind numbingly complex to turn off the audience, rather he just keeps the carrot dangling by adding back stories that keeps the audience interested enough to speculate and propound.

And for all the people debating whether the totem spinning would have fallen or not, consider this: Cobb finally comes back, sees his kid’s face and holds him up in his arms. In the same frame the totem is still spinning, juggling between the two worlds. Cobb penetrated different levels of dream(or at least, that’s what he thought they were) to get what he really wanted. The totem is still spinning, but he doesn’t turn back. He got what he wanted. And then Nolan blacks out the screen. Our lives look like a sweet dream when we are with people we love the most. So, why do you even care whether the totem would have fallen or not? Cobb does not any longer.

Dhobi Ghat: Some scenes that stayed with me

Some scenes stay with you, like the satisfaction of a fulfilled promise. I will share couple of scenes from Dhobi Ghat that made me sit up and take notice, and were the pivotal factors behind me loving the movie. They run as follows:

Scene #1 Munna comes to Shai’s house to return her cloth he inadvertently tampered. He has rectified his mistake and salvaged himself. She calls him inside. To understand the essence of the scene completely, let’s trace the backgroud of both the characters. Shai is an Investment Banker in USA who has come to India on a sabbatical. She is a bit romantic (aren’t all hobbyists are?), is easily charmed by life, and faces any new experience with alacrity. Then, there is Munna. He is a Dhobi (washer-man). Munna does not even understand what sabbatical means, nor would he probably ever understand. He would also probably never understand the concept of ‘a new perspective’, because when the most rudimentary desires begs for attention, you are in a bubble battling that and cannot afford to look beyond it. Kiran Rao brings these two representatives of their respective world together — in one roof, bonds them over a cup of coffee and weaves a beautiful scene.

The conversation begins by Shai asking Munna, So you like Doors? (Munna is wearing a Doors t-shirt). For Shai, even simple attire is a mode of expression, some sort of silent declaration to the world regarding one’s tastes. But, does that mean anything to Munna? For him clothes hold a basic meaning — to cover. For all we know, he might have picked it up just because it looked colorful or dhinchaak.

She asks him, So, you are from Mumbai? He replies in negative. He came to Bombay in want of food and has since stayed here. Does he not miss his family, she ponders. Was he not happy with his family there? Munna has nebulous concept of happiness. Being famished as a child, he simplistically equated happiness with the amount of food he used to get. And he used to get way too less. It is a quite sagacious comment on one’s happiness with respect to one’s earning potential. Many a times, the more people earn, the more avenues they seek to be unhappy. Damn! I need that perfect sofa. Once the perfect sofa is acquired, they need that perfect coffee table to go along with it, then that perfect rug, then that promotion, then keeping a balance between the work life and personal life… . Shai’s India’s trip is a quest for checking one of those boxes. So, here are the representative of two different worlds, where every stroke — be it natural or manmade (will come to it in the next scene) stands for something strikingly different.
The conversation trudges along and Munna’s hovering eyes notices the camera kept on the table. Are you a photographer? He asks. And then he gazes at the couple of camera lenses on the table. It is a poignant juxtaposition of two different worlds. Munna whose life had been hostage to hunger pangs, for whom creative satisfaction is an alien concept. How do you explain sabbatical to someone whose aim in life (and even that’s not as easily achieved) has been to secure two meals for himself throughout the day? That is the spirit of any metropolis teeming with millions, if you take your camera and run amok with it, and freeze various moments of life captured, this is what you will get. Dreams criss crossing with each other, each on a different level and satiated by a different yardstick. This is the most emphatic achievement of the movie. The soul of Dhobi Ghat lies in these poignant moments stitched together. Kiran Rao doesn’t judge the protagonists here, neither does her camera (no excruciatingly close up shots trying to milk the pathos), she just puts things as they are. She observes like an innocent, inquisitive kid, simply trying to understand how and why certain things are, the way they are.
Scene #2 Mumbai rains. They have been delineated so many times in movies that over the time they have both become a cinematic device and cliche. But, here Mumbai rains serve a different purpose. In this scene, Arun uses Mumbai’s rain as an aide to smooth his evening (He uses rain drops to soften his whiskey), the same rain in some other part of the city is wreaking havoc on Munna’s house. Even Mumbai rains acquire a different meaning for disparate Mumbai denizens. Human beings be damned, even the rain Gods are partisan.

Scene #3 In this particular scene, Agnes (Shai’s housekeeper) wonders why Shai frequents out with Munna. She is at loss to explain what she wants to convey clearly. I mean, he is dhobi, can’t you freaking see? You could almost see Agnes saying this aloud. For her that should be reason enough. In Scene #1, she brings Coffee for Munna in a glass (She serves Coffee to Shai in a Coffee mug). So what if Shai can’t see the difference?

Scene #4 Why does Munna not kiss Shai? Arun and Shai had a moment together, and their night culminated into a predictable finale. What does stop Munna from seizing the moment here? Is it the apprehension of facing an awkward moment if Shai rebuffs him? Or, is it something different? This scene would have had a different flavor to it if Munna and Shai were sharing the same societal pedestal. But, they are not. We as an audience cannot see them having a future together. How can Munna?

Scene #5 I felt uncomfortable for a moment in the aforementioned first scene where Munna was standing in Shai’s living room. Would she offer him a seat? Would he sit on the ground? Would he just stand? There has to be some differentiang factor between a Banker and Washer-man? No? She offers him a seat. He sits. The conflict is resolved readily and easily. But, then during one of Shai’s night outs, she is sitting in the front seat of her friend’s car and she spots Munna standing some distance away with his street peddler friend. Would Shai invite him to hang out with her friends? Would Shai welcome him in the car? (As she did when they were hanging out together) Shai does not even extend a hello to him. Why? Who is she more ashamed of at this instant? Of herself? Of Munna? Of her and Munna’s friendship? Or, the equation she shares with her friends? (“He is just a Dhobi ya!”). What does Shai do ultimately? She tilts her head and sinks into her seat, oblivious of the world that exists on the other side of the car.
The car zips into that part of the city where the party continues till morning. Munna dissolves into a different night of the same city. He has more pressing concerns to address at the moment. He has to take care of some rats.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Up in the Air - Wanting to belong

Every year in February, several companies feature in my university’s career fair. Various students throng the diverse colored corporate booths with a resume in hand, and lots on their mind. If you happened to be standing close to one of my friend, you would hear his perfect pitched voice talking to a recruiter. “Hello Sir! My name is xyz and I am working towards my Electrical Engineering degree. My specialty lies in….” and then he rattles on, and on and on. He is tensed, but also hopeful. How do you talk to someone when you think the person you are talking to has the power of making or breaking your life? (truth be told, there is nothing as such as making or break one’s life, and ideally our correct evaluations can come from only within ourselves. But then we hardly believe what we were once taught in our Moral Science class.) Would you be nervous? A nod here, a nod there. A touch too polite, a firm handshake, that amount of correct smile that is not servile but neither overtly confident.

But, when his monologue of achievement ends and he basks in a momentarily smugness of self achievement with some obvious nervousness, his heart breaks when he listens the recruiter speak – “I am sorry, but our company does not hire international students.” Or,” I am sorry but we are not hiring any electrical engineering interns this year. But, we encourage you to submit our resume to our database and we will contact you once your talent meets our requirement.” He just realizes that his monologue echoed back to gibe him. And on top of it, the recruiter says it with just an appropriate amount of correct smile on her lips. Beatific but not comforting. Or, when he opens that e-mail which has the subject of a company’s name, his heart leaps, dilates with hope he had only heard about only to be surprised by being crushed under it. And then so it begins “We regret to inform you that…” And that’s where it began, and that’s where it ends. A whole breath between congratulations and regret, success and failure, crossing the line and missing it.
The disillusionment of my batch mates is still not that bad. Where does it stand with the disappointment of a 57 year old guy who just got laid off? Where does the disillusionment of a 22 year old compare to that of a single mother who finds it difficult to face her daughter. And she sits opposite to a glib talker of a balanced disposition. He sits with an aura of unsettling serenity and discusses her ‘future options’. Just like that recruiter my friend met at the career fair, that familiar smile embellishing his lips. While that recruiter wishes my friend “best of luck in your future endeavors”. Ryan simply says “not to take it personally”. That false comforting smile comes naturally to him. One of the major things Up in the Air fleetingly touches in its opening frames and also in the midst of it. Disappointment. And its escalation by lies. Smooth lies.
The movie is not as much about people losing jobs in the crunch economic situation today per se. But, it has more to do with wiping that invisible barrier, which relegates us to bottom and deprives us from getting what we want. And it could be anything. It has more to do with the ‘you are not welcome’ board one encounters in life so very often. Be it at that company you want to work for, or were working but have now been let gone. Or, be it about that emotional stability that you want. The movie is about deprivation in any form. Tangible or intangible.
Retiman weaves poignant ironic scenes that echoes the sentiments of ‘You seldom get something you really want’. They come back to you when you bask indifferently in their presence. Like that 10 million miles moment. The moment for Ryan. The moment he had rehearsed and played it over in his head. But, he couldn’t care less for it when it actually dawned on him. Because, may be for the first time he can judge it by what it really is – just a number. Why have the lives of most imperfect beings structured like that? This movie is about that. About the deconstruction, in fact a retro-gradation of a seemingly perfect man who fires people with disquieting ease to his own gradual emotional bankruptcy.
It’s not as if the movie is not ridden with its share of cliches. The most notable being, underscoring the supreme importance of love, where an Ivy-League passed out go getter’s life is first dictated and then almost shaken by love. Thus, in a way not showcasing its importance, but making it a wont and hence exaggerating it. Arguably it may be true, but is nothing new. And Alex’s character has inconsistencies galore. Someone who treats Ryan just as parentheses would not (or want to) hold hands with him at his school’s stairs and moreover definitely not attend his sister’s wedding at the least.
It’s also about that specific something in our mind, but without contesting its merit. Without even thinking about it, and worse without even questioning it. Just like that 10 million air miles Ryan has in mind. By doing that he is enslaving himself to that vicious cycle he can never live independently of. It always comes back to haunt and question him – keep me in mind just for the heck of it. Natalie gives a rather uncluttered answer – “If I had that much miles, I would just pick a place and go”. Or, even that Bag-pack theory he carries himself all along with him. In fact, carrying it, just like a bag-pack without even questioning its merit. How may times have we said something which is nothing but a progeny of our own thin clouded thoughts, saying something just because it needs to be said. Not entirely weighing what it means, because just like Ryan’s bag-pack, it is just something we have merely thought of and spoken. It is not something we have implemented or experienced it yet. We haven’t worn that bag-pack once. And in scenes before movie’s finale, Ryan for the first time is face to face with his own ideology, so as to speak. Before him is his sister’s to be husband who has suddenly developed ‘cold feet’. And Ryan is supposed to dissuade him. Does his bag-pack theory holds ground in real life? What is he supposed to tell him? The purpose of this scene is clear. To make Ryan discover the futility of what he thinks by placing him in a contradictory situation. And like a sold audience we expect him to talk himself out of this situation and convince himself and more so ourselves that how futile his thoughts been all this while. But, he doesn’t directly. It’s a scene that exhibits remarkable restraint by Reitman, where he withholds and downplays a scene for a moment so that he can amplify its effect later. It is when Ryan is in familiar terrain that he actually cogitates what to do with it. His thoughts. His lies. His bag-pack theory. His pseudo comforting line of ” Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s *because* they sat there that they were able to do it. ” In front of an audience. The speech should come easily to him. The ones he has practiced and delivered with flawless élan. But, it doesn’t. The 34 year old metamorphoses into a teenager that very instant.
There is nothing wrong in wanting to be alone and although the characters in the movie are judgmental of this fact, the movie itself is not. And the movie even take those many checking-in, checking-out, fooling around scenes lightly with swift cuts and a breezy background score. Where Reitman is doing nothing but yet again using irony as a potent weapon to juxtapose loneliness and being surrounded by people. Also notable are the scenes where Ryan is veering towards some kind of a family life, some kind of a stability, both in terms of having a family and having someone to cling on. And then it strikes him, the feeling of not belonging . The same feeling the people he let go had.The feeling that snakes onto him when his sister does not even look at the photographs he got for her, and instead just tells him to put it on a soft board. The personal touch and the sense of belonging being dissolved with hundred other similar looking photographs on the soft board. And unlike the people Ryan fires, when he is himself emotionally jolted, he doesn’t even get a chance to breakdown before anyone. In that sense, he has equaled the people he fires in terms of being desperate, but he still can’t vent it. The closest interaction he has is a door being shut on him rather acrimoniously which is symbolic of ‘You are not welcome’.
Reitman does all that and more, but without overtly scrutinizing the pathos of the central character. Also, it is at the movie’s final moments that the director projects the two conflicting conflicting emotions the protagonist has to battle with. Resignation and rebellion. Should he resign to his fate of being a vagabond, or should he rebel against it? He goes to the airport and takes a look at the myriad destination panels at the airport. What is on his mind? He is not a teenager anymore. He can’t break free just like that. He is 34, with little friends and a hazy idea about his future. Can he hear Natalie now?
If I had so many miles, I would just pick a destination and go
He lets go of his luggage in an almost theatrical manner for a moment. We don’t know whether he got onto that flight or not. Neither is his final monologue indicative enough. What tone does he employ? Is it wallowing in self pity, or, a derivative of an anger resulting from betrayed expectations. It is none of these. It is more of an observation. Albeit true but a sad observation, and not in an introspective manner that has promises of rebuilding. He was always an outsider, and he is still an outsider. To the people he fired and ‘consoled’. To his sister. To his sister’s husband. To the bag-pack audience. To Natalie. To Alex.
Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids, their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they will sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over
End credits.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wake up Idiots, Subah ho gayi mamu

Originally published on Passionforcinema.com , the article has been published here.

Rajukumar Hirani’s power as a director comes from the vision of world he creates. It can be called a world of ‘convenience reality’, his world is only real to the extent he wants it to be. But, it is his unique style of exaggeration where he chooses to address a relevant problem by dressing his characters and conversation in a manner which lends his narrative clarity and often helps him find his destination. He has been primarily a story teller where he chooses to create a somewhat simplistic model of the world he chooses, but it is the genuine warmth that his narrative exudes makes him an important filmmaker. However, with 3 Idiots, too much to recount at hand becomes his undoing rather than privilege and the movie ends up sneaking into different zones, peeking, often sniffing, passing a statement and then moving on to different parts of the story.

One of the liberties taken by our story tellers for eons has been the use of clichés. It is a convenient device that instantly polarizes the different characters and clearly draws a line by delineating clearly what is to be ridiculed and what is to be taken sides with. Hirani is no different here. Like Bhagat he sets his story and bombards it with characters that are painfully stereotypical. The movie is a depressing celebration of motley of clichéd characters who clamor after your attention: a nerd who is oblivious to ways of life and does not defer to human feelings, same can be said about the college dean, the female lead’s beau is a yawningly out and out black character who is blatantly stupid and materialistic, the main characters are under performers and therefore, by default ‘cool’ and ‘different’. Such shallow understanding of people that throng the campus and hence translating them to mere stereotypes stems from limited understanding of college life and plagues the movie quite badly, because the majority of conflicts arise from these stereotypes which makes the whole situation a farce and nothing else.

can’t be denied that Hirani has an interesting premise at hand. In fact, the most relevant and pertinent than his previous two movies; the age old debate examining the importance of grading system, the fact whether our current education system stifles independent thinking.etc, It is also commendable what he chooses to do with those questions, but the fact remains it is not a concentrated effort and the movie never settles into one zone. Also, what hurts the movie’s prospects is the fact that Hirani is more concerned about the fantastic quirks of the characters and exposing them so as to extract numerous laughter moments on screen. He is less concerned about the message he wants to put across and is more intrigued by the flippancy that comes by default to all his characters. Because, the real answers are not as monochromatic and simple as proposed by Hirani and Joshi, rather they are kaleidoscopic in nature. This is where Hirani’s world clashes with the real world. In his previous two movies, his was a world of ‘convenience reality’ where he kept things ‘real’ at one plane and hyperventilated to another at will taking every liberty under the roof and often achieving the desired result with glee. Because, for all we cared, we had not come across a Munnabhai anywhere and therefore we embraced his vision of world unquestioningly. But, the world depicted in the movie exists and we have been a part of it, and hence Hirani’s toggling his versions of reality does tend to affect the movie a bit.

Also, there is absolutely no connect between the characters of Aamir and Kareena. Barely three scenes they have met and the fourth one breaks into a imagined romantic duet. There is no noticeable arc in the feelings and hence, the whole romantic track between the two leads looks forced.

Where Hirani fails with this movie is the lack of conflict between the existing world and the world his main characters believe in. When the characters wants to chase excellence and not success, there is hardly any mention of what happens when you throw caution to the wind and do what you think is right. What happens when one’s idealist self steps into a dog-eat-dog world. How is one tempted to succumb when one’s ideals are questioned at each and every moment? The nerds are always shown as someone devoid of intelligence but only gifted with superb memorizing power. Is it really the case? Are they the typical drones they are made out to be? Really? Besides, it must not be noted that nerds are someone who have seen this system from close and know how to live harmoniously with it. How sinful is it to make peace with a system which you can do nothing about other than scraping out of it? But, these are serious questions that require deep contemplation; rather, here the protagonist’s problem gets solved by a freak accident. Although it can be argued that Hirani’s main intention is to propose a solution rather than contest the ‘what ifs’ of situations. Even then, the subject here is complex and required more attention than what Hirani chooses to lend it. The movie is also yawningly formulaic at places and laced with myriad filmy moments. Yes, not the magical uniquely cinematic ‘filmy’ moments but rather cringe worthy predictable scenes that have a hangover of ‘been there, done that’.

What is to Hirani’s credit is he keeps the thread of comedy throughout the movie and it is this flavor that Hirani is most comfortable with. He is most comfortable at creating something which is a derivative of his soaring imagination, and clearly not comfortable at creating (or, rather recreating?) a prototype of the world that already exists. Creating funny situations out of nowhere is Hirani’s groove. He makes the journey tolerable by creating many light moments. You tend to laugh at the situation, even though disagreeing with the way he handles the ‘message’. But, it must be admitted that he is an important filmmaker just because of the way he has handled all his three subjects so far. His style is often at times endearing and takes unique potshots at conventions; however, he is most comfortable when he does not have to think about hammering a ‘message’ to the audience. Because, Munnabhai despite being insanely funny showed what ‘parental pressure/expectations’ can force one to be. Here, the thread of laughter is strong and glowing, but sadly is the movie’s only saving grace because for most part it is absolutely clueless what to do with its soul.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paranormal Activity – Goes way deep than some goosebumps on surface

Originally published on Passionforcinema.com, here

Being fearful comes naturally to us. We need not be conditioned for it. However, bravery, courage and other virtues seek example. Fear stands on its own. Tall, unfettered bonded to our psyche naturally. All great horror movies revel in the fact that ‘it is not about what you show, but what you not show’. They exploit the human imagination and spur it on to unlock the normally inaccessible sets of thoughts and images. Peli knows the fear of unknown is the most pronounced of all and hence builds anticipation like a slow poison with a lot of care and craft. He makes sure the movie doesn’t startle us all of a sudden one moment and fizzles in the remaining parts. The emotions don’t vacillate in crests and troughs here, but rather take a forever depressing linear path which sometimes make it quite a task to even tolerate this movie.

The movie’s sparsely used narrative style transports one seamlessly into the couple’s bedroom. Not like a voyeur, but as an intelligent and keen observer who has the unfortunate advantage of seeing things when the potential victims laze defenseless. Peli hands us the camera when we are least prepared for it. And he keeps putting the onus on us again and again, and we succumb to it unwillingly, because just like Micah and Katie there is no escaping from this. The audience faces the same predicament as the protagonists and it is the synchronization of fear that binds the audience and the protagonists together in an unsettling, stifling fashion.

The use of hand held camera and its often unpleasant jerky movements aggravates tension, for it restricts one’s field of view, and hence amplifies the fear of unknown. When the camera moves through a partially lit living room, the field of view worsens further, anticipation escalates dangerously, and one almost wants to implore the characters to switch on the lights and then continue their quest. At this time, our sympathies doesn’t lie with them, because it is our fear that robs us of any power of lending sympathy. In this way, Paranormal Activity erases the difference between what happens on screen and what happens off it.

It is interesting to note how otherwise mundane, insignificant things add on to the terror here. The place where the camera is planted in room provides the maximum field of view. And once the camera is alive, nothing happening in the house is merely an activity, but rather an indication of impending gloom. Also, the camera is agile and observant when the protagonists are totally defenseless, and becomes reluctant to give us whole peek into sets of action when the protagonists are active themselves. The motive and action of camera is totally opposite to what the characters do, thus connecting and alienating audience at will.

Generally, a lot is said, discussed and dissected about the role of background music with respect to horror movies. Peli adopts the contrarion approach by its minimalist use. The only appreciable moments it registers its presence are the scenes filmed in couple’s bedroom when everything is at standstill except the audience’s expectations of what is to come. The crescendo aspiring to reach its loud climax complement those scenes really well.

It is an important movie because of audience’s relationship with it. It sneaks quietly in that remote, inaccessible area of one’s mind like an unwelcome visitor and stays there. In times when majority of mediocre horror movies beg for audience’s attention, this one dominates the mindset ruthlessly even when the movie is long over. Give this movie a chance to play with your imagination. The sadist in you would thank you for that.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Viva Pedro: Talk to Her

There are people in this world who judge you. There are people in this world who understand you. In fact, let’s not attach any hues with either the former or the latter. These are just some of the few things that exist. You are free to take a seat on any side of the pan. Point of view can be a strange thing. It can transform a human being to a monster, and vice-versa. In fact, who is who? We can be conditioned to see different things, and feel them in a certain way, judge them by the restricted parameters where there is not much scope for sinking into other person’s shoes.
It is very, very difficult to divorce idealism from love. Also, it is a very thin line. In this territory, virtue can be seamlessly bartered with corniness. For me one of the fascinating things about Chungking Express was that it tread that line of idealism sans any flaws. Same holds true for Talk to Her.
The movie opens to a concert dance which shows two women dying, and a man trying to restore order or increase disorder in their life. Depends on how you may want to view it. This is pretty much similar to what happens in the later part of the movie. Benigno comes back from the emotionally draining concert only to dive in an equally disturbed world of his own. Today is not special for him, it is just one of those nights when she is lying on a bed, stone like, motionless. Dead. Well, almost.What does he do in such a case? It’s pretty simple. He talks to her. While washing her hair, her body, filing her nails, all he does is talk to her. Nothing special, nothing profoundly moving, nothing remotely even worth remembering and recounting.
There is a difference in which we see Alicia and the way in which Benigno sees her. There is one overhead shot where Alicia’s clothes are being changed, and we are only shown Alicia’s body being wrapped by clothes. We, as audience, obviously see Alicia as a mechanical unit, incapable of giving and receiving love, sometimes to an extreme even callously wondering as to why there is so much fuss over someone who is practically dead? Ironically, for Benigno she is his life.
Well, did he rape her? Try asking him this. He might have just been making love, he would reply. Can love really push someone to the edge of insanity? That is the beauty of Almodovar’s movies. He makes his characters seemingly normal. There are always two worlds. One on the surface, and the one under it. Benigno could just be any guy when he is introduced to us, but then using a series of flashback Almodvar corrodes the paint from the facade and brings out the real him. It would not have been half effective, had the movie been loyal to chronology.
Benigno’s love for Alicia defies the conventional boundaries. It is madness, his friend tells him. But, haven’t our own madness been sheltered and consoled by the oft quoted “If it is not madness, it is not love”? He would unhesitatingly accept her as who she is. No questions asked. It never bothered him that her brain is dead, because he knew that a major part of his insignificant, humdrum life in the last four years has gone in talking to her. He talks to her as if she is there, listening patiently, smiling contently.
Almodovar effectively uses the silent movies that Benigno goes to mirror his state of mind. The movie he goes to see is titled ‘Shrinking Lover’, where a man(Alfredo) shrinks in size so much with respect to his lover that he is unable to make love to her(in a conventional sense, at least!). Benigno is not much different from Alfredo. He wants to love Alicia, but he is incapable of loving. Months looking from the window, years nurturing her in a dead-like state. Yet, he is zilch to her. And as he narrates the story of the movie to Alicia, in the strangest and the most poignant of scenes, it looks as if the ever-vulnerable-parched-from-love Benigno is losing grip over himself by each passing second and strangely almost-dead Alicia looks in supreme control. That has been the sum-total of their relationship. If at all it could be called that. Benigno was never in control even in life, while Alicia even in a comatose state held the strings. It is this forever imbalance that pushed Benigno further.
And then there is Marco, whose life inter cuts with Benigno’s. Marco is visibly frustrated with his inability to communicate with his wife who suffers from the same problem as Alicia’s. Benigno offers an uncluttered explanation –Talk to Her.Really, if at all instead of harboring their parallel world, people would come out and talk, confusion, melancholy would not be swept coldly under the rug, rather they will see the light of each other’s feelings. However contradictory, however caustic. This supreme metaphor is almost an antithesis of Almodovar’s many movies. This is what makes this movie so unlike his previous works.
One of the most striking feature of this movie is that it is difficult to bracket it. And it is not a mean feet. For a movie that runs for 110 minutes, it gives plenty of slices to relish. Different people can take different things from this movie. It is the various sub-plots in the movie that makes it even more profound. What is the movie really about? Loneliness? Friendship? Unusual love? Also, after a subtle revelation in the movie, it seems as if Almodovar is teasing us with childish glee, throwing the question at us again and again: So, whose side you are on? Benigno? Or, the people who judged him? Whose side is Alicia is supposed to be (if at all she comes to know)?
And then Benigno crosses the line, probably for the last time. In the heartbreaking climax, Beningo writes to Marco. The camera moves over to the barbed wires of the Jail. How different was it from the window of his own room from where he used to gape at Alicia, daily? The biggest, thickest and the most insurmountable barriers are the ones we create for ourselves. Benigno created one for himself and it finally took more than a dozen pills to break free from it. Although according to him he was not even trying to break free. He was going back. To himself, to Alicia, to the ‘we’. As he writes in his letter to Marco, to “reunite with Alicia in coma”. Almost as a matter of fact. Little does he know, she came crawling out from the coma, on that faint dim of hope that Benigno had infused her with in those four years. And she does not even know it. Neither does he.
Benigno’s expectations from life had been fairly modest. Even now, he just wanted Marco to ‘Talk to Him’. Because, he had never been talked to. He was the one, who invariably used to do all the talking. It is his time to listen now. As the movie draws to a close, there are three world and its inhabitants. Marco, obviously distraught by trusting ‘the correct people who judged Benigno’ rather than his own judgement. His only redemption is to live in a room that had promises of Benigno-Alicia relationship. Yes, just that. Promises. Alicia’s world is insulated from her past. She would never get a chance to even contemplate whether ‘Benigno’ meant any harm or not. Infact, more so, it was Benigno who never got a second chance to reiterate this fact to Alicia. And then there is Benigno, waiting to be talked to. Just about anything.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sankat City: What it could have been, what it is.

Originally published on Passionforcinema.com here.

Let’s begin with Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. One of the few ‘Bollywood’ movies that dealt with a loser’s story. The movie made us sink into his shoes and helped revisit our vulnerabilities. It also commented intelligently on youth’s lack of choices, and only few clearly defined options of future that they gulped. Rather, forcefully. A loser who bent all the rules in the book, but still remained what he was – a loser. Although the last scene got trapped by the contagious disease called ‘Happy Ending’ or ‘binding all the threads together’ that had been prevalent in Bollywood movies since forever, even then the movie was one of the finest of the decade. Pankaj Advani wrote the screenplay for that movie. It always helps to know where the director is coming from.

But, Sankat City’s fault not lies entirely with director’s surprisingly stunted cinematic vision, but rather failing to realise even its most basic requirement. Living up to a promising script. A script that contains some of the most weird, zany characters, but when translated on screen, the consequence is not inebriated laughter, but listlessness . The jokes are inconspicious by their absence, and it hurts the movie’s prospects because social commentary is not the director’s aim here. At least not the primary one. Although Advani’s attempt is undeniably laudable and honest, but, don’t we all understand and appreciate the cliched ‘Don’t talk about the labor pains. Show us the baby’?

The most potent weapon in the movie of these kinds is dialogues. But, that is not a mean feet to achieve. Specially because one attempts to tackle madness with a subtle method. Less effective dialogues only causes the method to appear more wobbly at a tangible level. The method is then no longer hidden, but is rather exposed, bringing all the flaws on surface. Sankat City ails from this major problem. Ek Chaalis ki Last Local and 99 were prime examples of smart dialogue writing in the movies of same genre. Yes, I am not even attempting to raise the bar by mentioning Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Even in the Bollywood playground, the dialogues of Sankat City are uninteresting and pedestrian.

However, Sankat City doesn’t suffer from hangover of any film. Pankaj Advani’s voice is essentially his own, and that is heartening to note, however detached it may be from tickling the funny bone is a different thing all together. Characters don’t become weird and interesting just by default. They have to prove their madness. The fact that Fauzdaar substitutes ‘j’ by ‘z’ every time he speaks doesn’t make him a very appealing character. There is nothing else he does to hold your attention. The character had a lot of potential to seamlessly switch between aggression and comedy. That’s what these kinds of characters can do. They coax you into their mannerisms, and when they unleash their venom with blinding alacrity, you almost feel guilty by laughing at the wrong time.

Fauzdaar does nothing of the sort. Briefly, when he chides Pachisia for not slapping the captive followed by a hesitant, wobbly camera closing up is one of the few times the character looked interesting. The movie had a motley of potentially interesting characters on paper. Consider this: A gangster who has a thing for sexy sirens, a homosexual baba, a con woman who is not out and out black, a goon who struggles with English as much as with his life and his overtly emotional co-worker, a stupid goon, and his lover, a sex worker. Pretty interesting characters these. However, the director’s inability to go full throttle with them robs the movie of many potentially rib tickling moments. When Fauzdaar meets the Dynamite, it could have been an insanely, complex, comical epic scene. However, Advani trivialized the whole thing by showing us a silly 20 second dance number. Amongst the pack, KK stands out. The consistency in his character is remarkable. Papa will geeo you breakfast, still makes me chuckle. It is not the kind of role we are accustomed to see him play. But, even then his execution looks effortless .

Over the top characters are a dangerous territory, not because they stand the fear of being rejected outright by people hopelessly running after realism. They are a dangerous proposition because they are difficult to carry. Some characters are intentionally over the top to quench people’s quota of laughter(Most of them are formulaic and poorly written too). But, one there is even a remote intention of taking a dig, the character’s loudness seems shallow. Because then, one is sure the mannerisms are supposed to justify the self depreciating humor dedicated to a much higher cause. Sadly, they don’t in this case. So, Chunky Pandey’s ‘Ye role different hai’, and the usual inanites that he mouths merely transports the message the director wants to convey. It doesn’t touch us in any way, and thus doesn’t a warrant a laugh. Same holds true for Lingam, and Dr.Zhivago. They are irritatingly loud and hence, mere caricatures who do not justify their presence. Here the character’s justification is not related to whether they mean something in the context of the story, which is obvious they do, but into the larger context of adding that quirkiness which movies like these are known for.

It is not as if Advani doesn’t have anything to say. He says, and says it rather well in plenty of situations. Most notably in the movie’s climax when KK and Rimi are trying to find the money in the heap of garbage. Isn’t it analogous to trying to make a fortune in a city which is full of scum(people)? Or, that scene when KK plays with his fishes. One of the few things in the movie(or, even in the dynamics of the frenzied city as a whole) that is not corrupted by the shadow of monetary gain. The fact that KK and Rimi Sen’s story don’t have a romantic angle to it. The swapping of bags and the meteor twist is really smart too. The movie has its moments, but few and far in between.

The movie could have been an intelligent homage to all the Bollywood absurdities we have grown up watching, and it gets some of the things right too, but on a macro level the movie leaves a lot to be desired for. It became a slave to a genre and couldn’t justify its place there.

I wish the highly discussed New wave Indian film making doesn’t resort to mere mutual back slapping, but rather cultivate and encourage serious criticism. Where every rebuttal is not encountered with ‘It is his first film’, ‘atleast he made a film’ , ‘the movie was made in trying circumstances’ , ‘go make a film yourself’ ( Lest I be misunderstood, this is a general statement and is not directed at any one particular!). Or, with excessive cynicism such as ‘Look! he is trying to sabotage our baby’. Our collective goal is much more higher and shouldn’t be impeded with such trivialities.