Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

THIS. This is what I go to the movies for.

I encountered David Mitchell's novel on which this movie is based back in the twelfth grade. It wasn't the easiest book to read - starting innocuously enough with an 18th century journal aboard a ship, it abruptly skips to another narrative about an aspiring composer set in the early twentieth century, before taking another sharp left turn into a '70s conspiracy thriller. Next up are stories about an aging, institutionalized publisher, a futuristic dystopian tale, and finally, a post apocalyptic quest. Mitchell allows for this last story to conclude, then doubles back to finish the other stories in reverse order. So yes, it wasn't a particularly easy read, but it remains one of the most satisfying - and daring - literary feats I have yet encountered. I was naturally nervous about the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer's adaptation, wondering how they could possibly bring this seemingly unfilmable novel to the screen.

Well, they brought it. And how.

If the book was daring, this movie is flat out insane in the best way possible. No more nested narratives - the six stories now happen simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other in a mind-boggling act of orchestration. What this juxtaposition does quite beautifully is enhance the sometimes dormant themes of the novel, and a clearer picture emerges before us. Cloud Atlas is ultimately the tale of how the human spirit strives for freedom, how the small everyday acts of bravery are no less heroic than the grand tales of rebellion. In its own way, it takes the history of humanity and paints it into a wondrous narrative that spans time and genre. 

And it doesn't stop there. The other huge gambit the directors take is casting actors across different roles in different time periods. Except for bits where the makeup team occasionally fails them, this is a perfect decision. The novel snuck in the theme of reincarnation through hinting that the protagonists in each its stories were iterations of each other - the movie manages to take that theme and suffuse it with deeper meaning. Lovers cross and re-cross paths, meeting each other in one period, losing each other in another. One character's ultimately triumphant struggle with his dark side becomes a motif across each story. Connections established in one lifetime determine the choices made in another. Days after watching this film, I'm still going over its intricate puzzle pieces in my head.

This is incredible film-making. Through its final half hour, I was fighting back tears of astonishment, marvelling at the way it managed to work through moments of such grandeur to touch on experiences so deeply intimate. The romantics said that if you describe the particular with enough detail, the universal will begin to seep through - Cloud Atlas approaches this situation in the reverse, and through its broad abstractions, it finds its emotional reverberations. 

One of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time, and hands down, the best movie of the year.

Friday, October 19, 2012

English Vinglish (2012)

Most people who grew up in the 80s or 90s will fondly remember the British TV show, Mind Your Language“.  The show hasn’t aged too well unfortunately, what with all the racist stereotyping and today,  its worth is only nostalgic.  I often wondered how a remake of the TV show might fare in the thicket of PC rules we have today.  Thanks to English Vinglish, we have an answer:  very well indeed!  In addition to the predictable array of misspoken English jokes, this film beautifully portrayed how wide that gulf of language can be.  English isn’t just a spoken language with rules of grammar and punctuation, we were reminded, but is also a culture.
Sridevi plays a typical Marathi housewife who finds herself increasingly alienated from her children and husband who all speak fluent English.  They “lovingly” mock her for her mispronunciations and are visibly embarrassed by her.  During a lengthy visit to the US to help her sister prepare for her niece’s wedding, she can no longer bear the alienation caused by the language and signs up for an English crash course. There she meets a motley crew of foreigners who want to learn English for their own personal quests.  Her quest is for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t from the loved ones.  On the surface, the English class is composed of stereotypes: the Mexican nanny, the Pakistani taxi driver, the Tamil software engineer, the middle-class housewife etc.  But as we get to know Sridevi better and realize that there is no such thing as a “typical housewife”, we understand that these characters also want to escape from the pigeonholes they have been put in.  And they share such a great camaraderie that one does not even notice the “I like Rajnikanth and idli” cliches.
Much has been said about Sridevi’s comeback so I wont say much more except to add my adulation.  The movie rested entirely on her shoulders and she pulled it off with such grace that it is not surprising that men still have her poster up on their walls.  And her sarees!  Appropriately dressed-down enough to be credible as a housewife’s daily wardrobe, but so colourful and elegant.  Britney Spears, THIS is what a comeback looks like.
Anybody who has ever been to a foreign country will know how terrifying it can be to do as the locals do.  Even a visit to the supermarket or a restaurant is fraught with fears:  am I doing it correctly?  Have I committed a faux pas? And if something goes even slightly wrong,  mouth goes dry, everything in front of your eyes start swimming,  sound is muted and all you can hear is your pounding heart.  If you don’t speak the language, so much the worse for you.  English Vinglish portrayed this feeling so well in a scene where Sridevi tries to order a sandwich and it was so taut with humour, confusion and mortification that it has to have been based on a real life experience.
But strangers aside, this film beautifully handled that generation gap issue:  parents whose children not only speak English at home but whose tastes have grown so alien to their parents.  I remember the first time my family ordered pizza from the newly-opened Pizza Hut (at my sibling’s and my insistence). We’d heard so much about this dish from the sitcoms we were addicted to, that it HAD to taste amazing, surely?  We picked one that didn’t have any mushrooms (because mushrooms are a gateway meat according to my parents).  Apart from complaining about the cost, my parents’ view on pizza was, “too much garlic“.  Since then,  pizza became one of those mysterious things that the children liked for no apparent reason but something they lovingly tolerated.  So too does Sridevi lovingly tolerate trips to the cafe with boys and jazz dance classes, but what she won’t tolerate is her daughter’s assumption that these interests are somehow better than Hindi and laddoos.
I had two problems with the film though.  First, those absurd, jingoistic, we-are-better-than-USA jokes had no place in a film with such a strong script.  Second, I took issue with the total effacement of Sridevi’s needs.  All she wanted from her family was some respect and recognition of what she does for them and completely puts their needs before her’s.  Children, I can understand, but even the needs of her uncaring, somewhat douchy husband? I don’t get that.  I understand that this is supposed to represent the reality of housewives, but her utter lack of any sexual desire or temptation to cheat did her character a disservice and bought into that ‘Indian women are so selfless and awesome that they would never so much as look at a man other than their husband, even if a caring, gorgeous Frenchman threw himself at them’ cliche.  But these are tiny, overlook-able defects in an otherwise wonderful film.
(My mother’s verdict on the film, “Yes, you were an insufferable brat too. Sridevi’s ability to emote has diminished considerably.  Must be botox.”)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Aiyyaa (2012)

       In the first year of law school, in the process of getting high on each other, my friends and I had a particularly inane conversation. Out of that conversation was born an even more inane idea. We would, at the appropriate moment, stage a snake dance. We'd be a snake family, hiss in synchronized serpitude, arch our hands above our heads threateningly, perhaps do a few lolls on the ground. It was gloriously silly and of course we wouldn't EVER commit to it, but just the thought of doing it would make us convulse with hysterical laughter. 

         Aiyyaa is the result of someone committing to such an idea. It is a deranged film, high on its ideas, unashamed and unembarrassedly ploughing ahead with the loopy situations it engineers. It is crass and loud and pretty darn silly. Its also the best, most hilarious time I've had at the movies in quite a while. 

         Now this wouldn't necessarily be a memorable film if it stuck to that template. It'd dispense with its duties as a no-holds-barred entertainer, and that'd be all. But what Aiyyaa does is actually contain two completely different genres, two completely different kinds of movies, that may as well have been directed by two completely different people who hadn't seen each others scripts while making the movie. There is the unsubtle laugh riot I've mentioned. But there is also this other achingly melancholic, overbearingly sensual piece of film-making that jumps out at strategic points in the madness. That other movie is about a girl who is in love with a smell, and the fact that it belongs to a rather attractive man makes things that much more difficult. When her olfactory senses are triggered, she is unable to do anything but follow the source, chasing the man in a dazed state  through increasingly narrow alleys. Even as her yearning escalates in intensity, he remains seemingly oblivious to her presence.

      This other movie is not just an occasionally powerful piece of film-making, its also an incredibly refreshing one. This is one of the few Bollywood movies I've seen where the female gaze so unashamedly objectifies the male body, where sexuality is celebrated as such a powerful, positive force. A scene where Rani Mukherjee and Prithviraj stand on opposite sides of a curtain, his body as close as possible to her without her actually registering her presence - the screen absolutely throbs with erotic charge. There is similar sensuality in the sequences where she follows him down a street which explodes with colour as a religious procession marches past. 

         Aiyyaa then, is not a conventionally good movie. It doesn't play by the established rules of narrative, it can be too loud at parts and slow down too much at others. This juxtaposition of genres doesn't always work. But, if the purpose of art can be to move you, if it is to make you feel, vital, alive, if cinema can also be about the thrill of the unexpected - then Aiyyaa is a roaring success. It will be compared, and be held as inferior, in scrutiny to last week's English Vinglish. Both are "comeback" vehicles, both feature defining performances by heroines who can hold an entire movie. And yes, while English Vinglish is the technically better movie, while it gets the script and performances right and goes for the heartwarming finish, its also less vital in some ways. The boundaries of cinema are pushed by the ambitious failures rather than the conventional genre products. 

       Go watch this movie. And even if you hate it - and there is a reasonable chance you might - you will have experienced something far, far removed from what the conventions of Bollywood have given you to expect. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

BARFI! (2012)

Tired of sweeping shots of the Andheri sky line and the protagonist being all pensive about the mafia on Marine Drive? Don't fret, because Calcutta is now Bollywood's go-to gritty city with its mysterious (but romantic) alleyways, gritty (but romantic) trams and Durga statues. Anurag Basu's latest film, Barfi! takes us to '70s Darjeeling and Calcutta to present day.

A ridiculously gorgeous girl, Shruti (played by Ileana D'Cruz) moves to Darjeeling and meets the eponymous hero, Barfi, who is a charming rake and was born deaf. They promptly fall in love with each other, even though she is engaged to another man.  She decides to marry her betrothed because Barfi's disability frightens her (although, I'd have empathized if her reason had been his total lack of a job, salary and the desire to get one).  In the meanwhile, Barfi is desperately in need of money and abducts the unloved and autistic daughter of the richest man in Darjeeling, Jhilmil, and hopes to ransom her.  

Ranbir Kapoor as Barfi was great and I applaud him for sticking to what he knows best.  He has played the same charming funny honest optimist in nearly every film he's been in. Barfi is also a similar character, except without the talking and he effortlessly glided.  Priyanka Chopra on the other hand was not convincing;  she clearly put some effort into this role but there was something missing.  Someone should've told her that incessant lip-biting and an odd gait don't constitute character development. I was also unable to look past the sexy bombshell persona she normally inhabits and her self-consciousness was palpable.  That said,  she had a couple of good moments like when she starts becoming conscious of her appearance and her sexual awakening.  

Barfi! was no doubt a beautiful film but it just did not impress. Like Priyanka Chopra's performance, it got so many things right because it took every opportunity possible to remind us that it was quirky and touching and ended up feeling gimmicky from overusing motifs. The raconteur-musicians were a great idea, but in this film, they were jarring and unnecessary.  The Charlie Chaplin routine was cute at first but did not belong in the second half of the film and there were just far, far, far too many chases.  I don't know about you, but I am still recuperating from chase sequence fatigue after Gangs of Wasseypur 2.

And all those movie references and homages-- again, they were cute but to what end? The Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton references and Donald O'Connor's iconic "Make 'em Laugh" tribute were all very well made and nostalgic blah-blah but I still don't understand what their purpose was, apart from providing Anurag Basu several opportunities to flaunt his deep knowledge of film.  Now compare Barfi! with Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp.  I wont say that the former is a blatant copy of the latter, but the similarities do pile up.  In Benny and Joon, an eccentric, laconic cinephile (Johnny Depp) enters the lives of siblings Benny and Joon. Joon is a schizophrenic and is unable to live without assistance. Charmed by Johnny Depp's eccentric ways,  Joon falls in love with him and they live happily ever after. Guess how Johnny Depp charmed her?  Chaplin/ Keaton tricks. The Chaplin/Keaton sketches fit in because it reinforced Johnny's character's love for film. What was Ranbir Kapoor's reason?  Anurag Basu had a drawer full of cool ideas and he decided to stick them all into the same movie.  At some points it almost felt as if Basu built his film around the quirkiness rather than let them add colour to the story.

Also, was I the only one who got vaguely creeped out by the Barfi-Jhilmil story line? So here we have this grown man, Barfi, who abducts an intellectually disabled woman who has the faculties of a child, keeps her with him (forcibly in the beginning) for months... and then proceeds to marry her. I get that they were going for the whole love-knows-no-boundaries-and-blossoms-everywhere thing  but Stockholm Syndrome much?

But hey, I'm no h8r. Like I said, the movie looked great and it is difficult to detest it. Darjeeling and Calcutta are lovely places and even though Anurag is a bit obsessed with tracking shots, it was all very lush and pretty.  The story was certainly more than a National Association for the Deaf educational video and it did rise above being one of those preachy, the-disabled-are-just-like-us films (I'm looking at you, Taare Zameen Par).  Was it an obvious tear jerker? Yes, but that isn't such a bad thing.  And we really must encourage this new trend of Bollywood leading ladies de-glamourizing themselves for a role.