35mm Reflections: UMA (Bengali – 2018)

Someone had once said, “Great art has the ability to heal.” Where time and circumstance fail to heal past wounds inflicted by life, art often acts as the panacea we crave for. The actual effect of the same is not known–but the illusion of having found a sense of closure for painful memories is what keeps us all going.

Srijit Mukherji’s latest film UMA is all about illusions. In fact, it is, in one sense, a heist film. Heists operate not only on the basis of daredevilry and brains, but also on the basis of the perfect illusions. And what are these illusions here? A young father tries to keep his usual cheery demeanour intact in front of his daughter, who is dying before his eyes. A director, who has fallen on hard times personally and professionally, tries to operate under the assumption that he can still make it work. And then later, both men team up with other committed individuals in order to stage the biggest mirage of all: an entire city engaged in the one festival that defines it globally.

At one level, then, UMA is essentially a father-daughter story. But at another level, it is also a tribute to a city, and a community. It reminds us that at the end of the day, even the most cynical and supposedly-tainted hearts are capable of possessing a modicum of goodness.

The fake Durga Puja recreated in the film seems believable, because every Bengali living in Kolkata knows the ideal Puja checklist. Mohd Ali Park? Check. Mudiali? Check. Dhunuchi-naach? Check. Pandals? Pratima? Check and check. Mukherji takes advantage of this, choosing to focus on the ensemble cast as they grapple with the logistics of creating a fake world for a little girl. You keep cheering on the washed-up director Brahmanand as he marshals the Avengers his production team to come up with the best illusion possible, even as they grapple with their biggest enemy: Thanos Time.

Anupam Roy’s soundtrack is terrific. My favourite remains Jaago Uma, that plays near the climax of the film. Soumik Halder ‘s camerawork is top-notch, but the editing is a bit patchy, especially in the Switzerland leg of the film.

Sara Sengupta and Jisshu Sengupta shine the brightest in the film. But I enjoyed the performances by the ensemble cast more. Abhijit Guha, Sujan Mukherjee, Rudranil Ghosh, Apratim Chatterjee, Amborish are too good. I loved Srabanti in that little role as Mariam Dastidar a.k.a. Fake Menoka. That one scene in the dead of night with Jisshu and her had more chemistry than what Ravi Kinagi could conjure up with them in laat year’s Jio Pagla. And if anyone still doubts Anirban Bhattacharya’s finesse as an actor, they should watch the scene where he breaks down in front of Sara’s Uma when she offers him prasad.

But if the film’s hero is Mukherji, the hero of the film-within-the-film is undoubtedly Anjan Dutt. As Brahmanand, the washed-up cynical who seeks redemption in crafting a “masterpiece” for someone he does not know, Dutt is heartbreakingly real. With Pratim D Gupta’s Shaheb Bibi Golaam, a terrific soundtrack in Aami Ashbo Phirey, and more roles coming up in Ahare Mon, Ek Je Chhilo Raja and Byomkesh Gotro, I think it is safe to surmise we’re all in the middle of the Anjanaissance.

I loved the cameos too. In a post-Zulfiqar world, you expect Prosenjit, Dev and Nusrat to turn up in your film. But my favourite bit was the part where different directors are requested to direct the fake Puja. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance, where different actors keep giving hilarious refusals to Rishi Kapoor’s cantankerous producer.

There are so many scenes within Uma that are memorable, and most of them will probably be dissected thoroughly in the days to come. But I loved the film. Arguably Mukherji’s finest illusion since Autograph, Uma is a reminder that, in spite of the Pujas and the yearly date with Salman Khan at the cinemas, perhaps the greatest illusion a person lives and dies for is one that remains off-camera: hope.


35mm Reflections: BABY (Hindi – 2015)

Neeraj Pandey is probably a rarity in contemporary Hindi cinema. While the “masala entertainer” constantly goes through a lot of churning, becoming more and more outlandish by the day, Pandey’s movies are a solid reminder of how powerful these movies can be, if rooted in contemporary issues. His previous movies A WEDNESDAY and SPECIAL 26 are testament to this.

We also got a glimpse of what Akshay Kumar is capable of, with the right script in hand and the right man guiding him, in SPECIAL 26. This means that, in Pandey’s latest film BABY, you can sense that Akshay feels right at home in the Pandey universe of sharp one-liners and fast-paced narratives.

BABY (2015)

Let me be honest at the start–BABY has a great ensemble cast, but everyone else pales in comparison to Akshay, and to an extent, even Danny Denzongpa. Denzongpa, as Feroze, heads the secret intelligence project, codenamed BABY, that is designed to take out enemies without endangering civilians or inconveniencing foreign authorities. Unlike most movies that glorify the police or our armed forces by taking jingoism to unheard-of levels, BABY succeeds in earning and directing our respect for the numerous unknown operatives who risk their lives for us. And it does so, without any fuss or hyperventilation.

The script of BABY is its best weapon. It’s an absorbing spy thriller spanning a number of countries from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, and Ajay (Akshay) is right in the middle of it. Using his brain and brawn, Ajay manages to outwit terrorists and moles within the intelligence wing to great effect. He and Feroze share a great camaraderie, and yet he’s fully aware of the fact that he’s expendable to the Indian government, if caught. This provides for some brilliant action sequences, which are choreographed by Cyril Quenel Raffaelli and Abbas Ali Mughal.

Technically, BABY is a visual treat. Sudeep Chatterjee’s lensing is fast on its feet, especially during the action sequences, and again during the Saudi leg. This, coupled with Shree Narayan Singh’s deft editing, ensures that you don’t even want to bother getting up from your seat during the interval. However, Pandey needs to learn ASAP how to use sound properly. Sanjay Chowdhury’s background score is good, but also jarringly loud. It’s almost as if the emotional quotient of a particular scene is being hammered into the heads of the audience, rather than letting it seep through.

BABY has a great cast, but the problem is that so many talented actors get so little- screen-time. Kay Kay Menon as Bilal, Rashid Naz as the Maulana and Sushant Singh as Wasim Khan are all superb as antagonists. Rana Daggubati, Taapsee Pannu and Anupam Kher are also excellent, but they are all side-players in what is essentially the Akshay and Danny Show.

As a result of some lapses, BABY is a Neeraj Pandey film that is thoroughly entertaining but also forgettable after some time. A WEDNESDAY and SPECIAL 26 were exceedingly good, because you felt emotionally invested in the characters. BABY, on the other hand, serves as an excellent showreel of Akshay Kumar the actor, as well as Neeraj Pandey the storyteller, and nothing more. It’s always worth a watch.

35mm Reflections: CHOTUSHKONE (Bengali – 2014)

2014 seems to be the year of the “movie-within-the-movie” narrative as a form of cinematic storytelling. A few weeks back, Karthik Subbaraj’s acerbic-yet-entertaining masterpiece, Jigarthanda, critiqued and demystified contemporary Tamil cinema on multiple fronts. And this week, we have Chotushkone, Srijit Mukherji’s sixth film, that uses the same concept to tell a tale of love and betrayal.

Chotushkone is a highly-polarizing film. Regardless of how much money it makes for Reliance Entertainment and Dag Creative Media, it is bound to provoke a lot of debate. During the 3.10 pm show today at INOX City Centre Siliguri, the first half provoked mixed reactions. Some people hated the slow, languorous and disjointed first half, and therefore walked out of the auditorium within the first 30-40 minutes; others loved it and therefore stayed back. The only other Bangla film I remember that elicited this sort of reaction was Q’s Tasher Desh.

Frankly speaking, Chotushkone, just like Jigarthanda, is pretty impossible to review without giving the story away. But there are three ways of looking at the film.

Since Chotushkone revolves around the premise of four directors, each with different cinematic sensibilities, coming together to make four segments of an anthology film, the film is filled with so many references that the discerning film buff would happily lap ’em up. 36 Chowringee Lane, Mr and Mrs Iyer, Troyee, Rupkatha Noy, Ghare Baire, Mayabazaar, Talaash…the list goes on and on. Literary references abound too, with Shakespeare, Kafka and Agatha Christie taking the cake. Parambrata, who plays Jayabrata, one of the directors, makes hilarious digs at his own real-life filmography. I loved that line he uses at a very crucial point in the film–“Ebar ektu hawa-bodol hok!” #win

Then there are the references to Srijit’s own career. Never have we seen so many direct shout-outs to a Bangla filmmaker’s previous films. Besides Autograph, whose shadow looms large over this film, there are subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to Baishe Srabon, Hemlock Society and Jaatishwar. From a certain angle, Chotushkone may be seen as a deconstruction of his previous films, wrapped as a sly tribute.

Secondly, Chotushkone may be seen as a real-life tale of revenge and destruction masquerading as a collaborative effort of creation. The “movie-within-the-movie” format is used in this regard to propel the story forward, as the creators of celluloid get trapped in a tight real-life web of their own making.

But perhaps it is the third angle that is refreshing. The disjointed narrative of Chotushkone works best as an astute allegory documenting the highs and lows of Bangla cinema. The ego-clashes and romantic relationships between actors, the failed real-life relationships of directors in love with their own work, fly-by-night producers (or “chit fund producers” as everyone now knows them as), producers who fell prey to the tantrums of their lead actors, conflicting sensibilities among filmmakers and actors alike—nothing is sacred in Chotushkone. In that sense, this feels like a refreshing and in-your-face reboot of Autograph. The scary part is that we see those realities in Bangla cinema even today.

There are some flaws in this story. The revenge angle is set up beautifully, but I feel Srijit gives the game away about 10 minutes too early. The Payel-Indrasish-Rahul track should have been more seamlessly integrated with the main story. The sub-plot involving Koneenica and Anindya Chatterjee could have been fleshed out more. And Barun Chanda’s presence in the film is similar to that of Pankaj Kapur in Finding Fanny—he’s good in that limited screen-time, but even when he’s not there in the film, you don’t miss him.

Still, these are minor glitches in a film that is technically top-notch. Sudeep Chatterjee, whose previous credits as DoP include Chak De India and Dhoom 3, is in crackling form here, as he runs riot with the color scheme of the film. Reds, blues, greens and monochrome are interspersed freely with a muted palette. Anupam Roy’s score is expectedly good, with Boba tunnel, Bawshonto eshe gechhe and Shetai satyi used in the film.

Doing a film like this requires a tremendous amount of guts, and it is to Srijit’s credit that, in spite of that middling second act, he pulls it off. Of course he has a hugely talented cast helping him here. Parambrata, Aparna Sen and Goutam Ghose are expectedly excellent. Neel Mukherjee, Arpita Chatterjee, Debleena Dutt, Sumit Samaddar, Shantilal Mukherjee and Tridha are all excellent in their brief screen-time. Anindya Chatterjee, whom I had last seen in Bapi Bari Jaa, is good as Dipto’s son. Kaushik Ganguly knocks it out of the park in that cameo. And Koneenica Banerjee shines in that Boba tunnel sequence, where her eyes and body language convey so much, even with brief dialogues.

But if somebody has to be anointed the Man of the Match in this film, it has to be Chiranjeet Chakraborty. As Dipto, the alcoholic actor-turned-director, who shares a difficult relationship with his son, and still harbours feelings for Aparna Sen’s Trina, he shows remarkable restraint—a far cry from his “bou harale bou paoa jaayre” days. I really hope he gets more roles like this in the near future.

Chotushkone is a refreshingly original ode to Bangla cinema. Like Bhooter Bhobishyot, this is a film that would be ruined if remade in another language. However, it’s a polarizing film not many would love. If you want to see something that breaks all conventions of storytelling and is entertaining as hell, go for it.


A still from BA PASS.

A still from BA PASS.


Celluloid adaptations of literary works might sound grand on paper, but executing them is tough. Directors either get it right (think Maqbool, Omkara, The Namesake, Life of Pi and so on), or mess up with the ethos of the work (Issaq, Hello  and other inanities). Which is why a good adaptation of a literary work needs to be applauded, if one ever comes across something exceptional.


Ajay Bahl’s debut film BA Pass is exceptional. Very exceptional, actually. You’ll find a lot of reviews floating around in cyberspace about how much of a gripping thriller it is. You’ll find testimonials by other acclaimed directors about the film, dominating its press material. But nothing, literally nothing, prepares you for the deviousness and numerous betrayals that occur one after the other.


Firstly, you need to applaud this debutant director’s guts and vision. He bases the movie on a short story, “The Railway Aunty”, written by a Brooklyn-based author, Mohan Sikka. The short story is part of an anthology of short stories edited by Hirsh Sawhney titled “Delhi Noir”, and published as part of the Akashic Noir series. I read the anthology a few months back, and I can vouch for the fact that the book actually makes you feel scared about taking a trip to the rajdhani. (If you’re still interested, the book is available on all major shopping sites.)


The story, in spite of initially reminding the viewer of the Dustin Hoffman-starrer The Graduate, is highly intriguing. Mukesh, a young boy who has just lost his parents, is packed off to the railway colony in Delhi’s Paharganj area, to live with his bua. Mukesh’s own precarious subject-position in the family, his struggle for a better future for his two sisters, as well as the BA Pass course he gets into at DU—a khichdi of different courses, as he thinks it to be—only deepen his anxieties about his existence. His only source of comfort is playing chess in the Paharganj cemetery, with the bubbly caretaker Johnny.


Enter Sarika, the eponymous “railway aunty” of the story, who sees Mukesh at one of the numerous kitty-parties thrown by his bua for the benefit of all the influential “aunties”—wives who can charm their railway-officer husbands into granting the ever-welcome “promotion”. One day, when Mukesh is sent to Sarika’s house on an errand, he gets seduced by Sarika, and they start an affair. In the meanwhile, Mukesh also slowly gets involved with “servicing” other aunties in the neighbourhood. After this, all hell breaks loose.


I will not divulge more details about the plot because this is where Ajay Bahl’s direction takes over. Sikka’s story is rich in detail, and therefore lends itself to a film adaptation more seamlessly than other works. But Bahl deserves kudos, simply because he fashions a screenplay from this short-story without sacrificing even a single iota of its essence. For me, it felt like watching a more visceral and violent version of Mukesh’s struggles on the big screen.


Bahl knows that with a delicate subject like Sikka’s story, the direction and narrative have to be spot-on. Which is why he takes the very wise decision of not deviating from the story in the first half of the movie. And this is his biggest masterstroke—he uses the first half to set up the main characters and their moves, almost like one of Mukesh’s chess-games. The love-making scenes, which have been a staple of the main trailer of the film, all happen in the first half. Very aesthetically (and in a few cases, very wittily) shot, with no trace of vulgarity, they remind us of what the Bhatts can learn from Bahl.


It is the second half where Bahl lets loose his own creativity. He throws in a surprise appearance by an acclaimed actress (whose name I won’t reveal here), which does not exist in Sikka’s story, but which somehow manages to throw open a mirror to Mukesh and show him what a mess his life has become. He also puts in another shocking episode, which actually makes your stomach churn. Bahl combines all these elements with the remaining narrative of Sikka’s story, in order to produce a climax that you think you are ready for, but just aren’t.


Since Bahl handled the camera on this film himself, he should be credited for making Paharganj escape the pages of literature and take a life of its own on 35mm. Through his eyes, Paharganj becomes more than just a cesspool of corruption—it also becomes a playground for the personal anxieties faced by all the characters in the film. The dingily-lit hotels, the bright neon-lights—Bahl’s understated cinematography is the prime reason why his depiction of Paharganj trounces that of Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D by a mile.


As far as the performances go, everyone is top-notch here. Rajesh Sharma, that wonderful actor from Kolkata who is hitting the ball out of the park nowadays with one powerful performance after another, shines in his brief role as Sarika’s abusive husband Ashok Khanna. Shadab Kamal is brilliant as the naive, stuck-in-a-mess Mukesh, who manages to convey his vulnerability wonderfully through his eyes.


But to me, the real stars of the film are Shilpa Shukla and Dibyendu Bhattacharya. Shilpa’s Sarika act is so powerful, it blows away Shadab’s screen presence to some extent. Her portrayal of Sarika is such that you find her bewitching and menacing in equal measure—something that only Vidya Balan managed to pull off with aplomb in Ishqiya. Dibyendu, on the other hand, is wonderfully restrained as the ever-smiling Johnny, whose dream of going to Mauritius conceals a deeper anxiety.


I would suggest that you take a chance and go and watch BA Pass. It’s not a happy-go-lucky film, but its 90-odd minutes of breathless devilishness will make you sit up. And shudder.