Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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

Originally published on 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.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Do Bigha Zameen, Umberto. D and the Bicycle Thieves: Where Do Bigha Zameen falters

Originally written for The article has been orginally published here

The distinction is important. Amongst good, very good and great. Because, something which is merely good sometimes seeks to shelter and glow amidst the presence of myriad mediocre works, where it stands apart on a strictly relative plane, nudging mediocrity by an iota. And we often confuse and consequently, equate it to as great. Great it is not, mediocre it could have been, but to its credit, it is only good. This is true with respect to Do Bigha Zameen.

I was delighted to find a copy of its DVD in my University library. Having recently seen Umberto D., and earlier in year The Bicycle Thieves, the comparisons amongst the movies is inevitable as these three were not only made around the same time, but even their principal plot point was same – poverty. The predicaments of characters, vacillating needle between right and wrong, the unusual friendship that only poverty can give rise to is similar too.

Do Bigha Zameen dives straight into the problems of farmers, where the babus never give a moment of respite to the farmers. A world where farmers not only live on Zamindar’s money but also on their mercies. The stark contrast between the cunningness of rich and naivety of poor is portrayed effectively. The first half an hour establishes and exposes the grave problem of the protagonist. But, not before showing a fleeting glimpse of romance between Sahni and Nirupa Roy(My first movie, where no one called her Mataji). Fabulous scenes such as: When he coaxes her, and then drags her deceitfully to get drenched in rain. And when they talk like two love struck teenagers in the field, much to the surprise of a fellow tiller who thinks and suggests romance has no role after marriage. Nice observation, interestingly juxtaposed.

Then, Shambhu (Sahni) moves to Calcutta in order to earn quick cash so that he can save his land. His mother, as he calls those two bighas. The city life slaps him and treats him like a proverbial step child. Then the movie moves into the maudlin zone. And sadly, stays there. Bimal Roy along with the dialogue writer injects maudlin, over the top dialogues scene after scene, and paints a more sorry picture than required where the characters speak out aloud their problem. What could have been some quiet, poignant scenes of sharing sorrow turns out to be loud declaration of love and sacrifice.

Performance wise, the kid is so unbelievably shoddy that he takes the sheen away from what could have been very poignant last 15 minutes of the movie. His performance is a walking, talking guide of the many Don’ts in acting for child actors. Infact, Bollywood had its share of horrendous child actors, mainly in many Amitabh Bachann movies, where a 8 year old’s mouth was filled with such wisdom that you wondered whether to cry or die. Or, both.
Nirupa Roy’s performance is a delight. Her portrayal of a typical coy Indian housewife is not only accurate, it is heartwarming too. Specially that scene where she is dictating the content of the letter to be sent to her husband, and even a remote suggestion of little romance in the letter makes her shrink in veil. Amazing, little scene. Balraj Sahni is spot on as an idealist farmer, though he gets a bit jarringly repetitive towards the end as he sings paeans of morality every second scene with his son. But, that is just a minor blemish to a very controlled and believable performance.

Contrast it to the relationship between the father and son in the Bicycle Thieves, where there is no histrionics on play, the sorrow has bound the father-son together, and they don’t wail over their problem every now and then. Even in Umberto D, what is possibly the last meeting between Umberto and the Maid, when she knows that Umberto has resigned to fate, there is a only a faint eye contact; small, insignificant promise of keeping in touch, and things move on. Just like life.

While the protagonist of De Sica’s two movies are realistic, edgy individuals, Roy’s Shambhu(Sahni) is just too good to be true. So, when the landlady threatens to throw out Umberto of the house, he doesn’t cry or fall at her feet evoking sympathy from us. Instead, he retorts. His pathetic condition doesn’t rob him of any manipulation a perfectly flawed human being is capable of. Making him ordinary makes the story real, and his struggle all the more important and relevant. The character’s constant see-sawing between the two sides of morality in De Sica’s two movies makes them more interesting as compared to Do Bigha Zameen’s linear characters. There is no battle in Do Bigha Zameen, in fact a uni-dimensional, rigid, too idealistic approach by the characters that raises a huge wail whenever the line of morality is crossed.(Although the kid’s moral does sway a wee bit towards the end but his redemption comes gift wrapped in such a pathetic fashion that you wished it never happened in the first place!). There is no wrong in portraying idealist people in a world where they are misfits. It would have elevated the movie to a new level had it been achieved without being preachy, or without highlighting the halo of every character.

The penultimate shot where Shambhu clutches a piece of land, but isn’t allowed even that is touching. Here not much words are exchanged, but even then the director so effectively captures the essence of the scene. I wished the movie had more of that, but it sadly falls in the categories of many merely good movies which could have been great.