35mm Reflections: HIGHWAY (2014)

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Once in a while, every director makes a film that stands out as a marker—a cinematic lodestone, if you will—of how his thoughts and his control over his craft are ready to move on to the next level. This film may not do well commercially, but it signals a definite change in his technique. It means he is ready to introspect on his craft, almost as if the filmmaker is ready for the tag of an auteur.

Every filmmaker has that film, lurking somewhere in that filmography. For someone as celebrated as Mani Ratnam, that moment of truth came way back in 1986 with the release of the Tamil film MOUNA RAAGAM (Silent Symphony), after four back-to-back movies that did not do so well commercially. MOUNA RAAGAM had all the quintessential elements of a standard romantic film, and it had a winsome Revathy as the bubbly, sprightly Divya, but Ratnam combined all these elements into a film that critiqued the social norms governing marriage and teenage love. It showed everyone the first glimpse of a director who was willing to treat cinematic story-telling as an art, and not as a business proposition.

Gautham Menon, another celebrated Tamil director nowadays (half of whose Tamil filmography seems to have been remade in Hindi), had his moment too in 2010, with the twin movies based on the same story, VINNAITHAANDI VARUVAAYA (Tamil) and YE MAAYA CHESAVE (Telugu). The stories were the same, but both films had two different endings. With VTV especially, audiences found a filmmaker willing to push the envelope and completely upturn the notions of a typically-soppy romantic film. Unfortunately, when Menon wanted to remake the same film in Hindi, the film backfired. (EKK DEEWANA THA, remember?)

When he made a quiet entry into the big bad world of Hindi cinema in 2005 with SOCHA NA THA,  no one thought much of Imtiaz Ali as a filmmaker. The film did average business, but achieved a sort of cult following, thanks to its numerous reruns on TV. Besides being a launchpad for Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia, it was a refreshingly original take on the confusion surrounding commitment and the institution of marriage. But above all, it was a quirky, romantic film, made from the heart.

After that, Ali’s fortunes as a filmmaker rose with every successive film. With JAB WE MET in 2007, LOVE AAJ KAL in 2009, ROCKSTAR in 2011 and COCKTAIL in 2012 (which he wrote, but didn’t direct), Imtiaz Ali became a byword for frothy romantic films that tried their own deconstruction of popular notions of love. These movies had big stars, catchy soundtracks, snappy dialogues and memorable characters.

However, somewhere that honest, fearless voice we’d last seen in SOCHA NA THA had got lost. Until today, that is.

HIGHWAY, which opened today, is unlike anything we’ve seen from Ali. The core idea, obviously, comes from a similarly-titled telefilm he had directed for the RISHTEY series on Zee TV in 1999. But the telefilm had a sort of rushed closure befitting its limited length. The 2014 version, however, has no such compunctions.

Veera (Alia Bhatt), is an upper-class Delhi girl, daughter of a business tycoon and getting ready for her own wedding. Feeling claustrophobic because of all the wedding preparations, she sneaks out on a midnight drive with her fiancé Vinay. However, everything goes horribly wrong when both of them get inadvertently embroiled in a shootout at a petrol pump, and Veera is taken hostage by a gang of Jat criminals, led by the gruff Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda). Realizing they’ve taken on the entire system by kidnapping Veera, Mahabir and his gang try to drive her away, but she always keeps coming back to them. The funny part is that Veera enjoys tagging along with them, wherever they go.

It is a strange scenario, but Imtiaz Ali crafts a tale that uses a mix of Veera’s monologues, Mahabir’s reticence, long silences and the forever-changing North Indian countryside, in order to portray the odd relationship between kidnapper and hostage. Both have endured abuse they’d like to forget about, but by being in close proximity, both open up to each other. And this is really where HIGHWAY takes off. Where other so-called romantic films would harp on the concept of “happily ever after”, this film dares to delve into the effect of love and understanding on an emotionally-scarred individual, setting up for a positively moving finale. It is a very polarizing film—many people would balk at the idea of a hostage falling for her kidnapper—but if you have some semblance of patience, it is a very moving film.

Ali may be the captain of the ship here, but his technical crew is in fine form here. Anil Mehta shows why he is one of the best cinematographers around—the sort of shots he takes on digital is worth savouring. Coupled with Aarti Bajaj’s languorous editing, it makes for poetry on screen. A.R. Rahman’s score is sparse, only accentuating the silences in the film. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra comes up trumps in this film too, casting actors in memorable avatars.

But if HIGHWAY belongs to anybody, it is the two leads. As Veera, Alia Bhatt delivers what many might term as a career-defining performance. Vulnerable, yet stubborn, Alia’s Veera obviously brings back memories of JAB WE MET’s Geet; but then, Veera is a more layered character. Other actresses would’ve messed it up with a lack of spontaneity, but Alia Bhatt pulls it off. Randeep Hooda effectively underplays Mahabir, but he portrays himself as a hardened guy who cracks every now and then.

HIGHWAY ain’t everyone’s cup of tea. You’ll either love the movie or hate it. But if you have the patience and the willingness to enjoy some different, you might just enjoy Imtiaz Ali’s latest. I just think he may be ready for that auteur tag now. I end this review with Devansh Patel’s terrific tweet:-

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35mm Reflections: MISHAWR RAWHOSHYO (Bengali – 2013)

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It is a truth widely acknowledged in West Bengal that nobody in Tollywood can quite make those slick, urbane Bangla movies the way Srijit Mukherji does. With a hat-trick of critically-acclaimed hits (Autograph, Baishe Srabon, Hemlock Society) behind him, Srijit, along with other contemporaries such as Mainak Bhaumik and Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, has ensured the return of the urban Bengali middle-class to the cinema hall/multiplex. However, some people (including me) felt that Srijit’s writing had suffered in his bid to rake in more moolah, and thus the original and refreshing voice of Autograph was somehow lost in the din of too much rhetoric in Baishe Srabon and Hemlock Society.

With Mishawr Rawhoshyo, however, Srijit cuts out the pretensions, and squarely brings back the focus on the story. Based on the much-loved 1984 Kakababu novel by the late Sunil Gangopadhyay,  Srijit weaves a crisp, taut screenplay that really takes off from the civil uprising in Egypt and comes alive on 35mm. It’s clunky at a few places in the narrative, but Srijit manages to transport the urgency and the unfettered spirit of the original story from page to screen. MR is essentially the story of how Kakababu (Prosenjit Chaterjee) and Santu (Devdaan) manage to travel from Kolkata to Egypt (with a brief stopover at JNU) in search of the key to a mysterious set of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which has probable links with a decades-old legend. While Satyajit Ray’s Feluda franchise had innocence and wonder in abundance, things are much more urbane and realistic in the Kakababu-Santu universe.

Of course Srijit’s trademark witty repartees and his dry humour are present throughout the film. It’ll take me a lifetime to forget how Kakababu sits in that room in JNU composing a tweet, “Just reached Delhi”, gets shot at by an assassin, and then, on his way to the nursing home, adds something more to the tweet—“Having a blast.” However, what stops this rollicking Bangla potboiler from becoming a classic are a few inconsistencies in direction, as well as some other aspects. Indradip Dasgupta’s score for MR has two diverse shades to it—while the songs work well as situational fillers, the background score, though apt, is unusually loud and sometimes drowns out dialogues. Also, the editing is uneven, especially the second half of the movie, where scenes (with the background score intact) get chopped midway for no rhyme or reason. That said, Sonu Nigam’s rendition of Hani Alkadir Gaan, and Srijit’s picturization of the song, is sure to give you goosebumps. And if you love the gorgeous frames of MR, the full credit should go to Soumik Halder, who seamlessly integrates the expansive grandeur of a Red One camera, with the intimate jerkiness of a DSLR.

Acting-wise, it’s a mixed bag, really. Prosenjit (as Kakababu) and Devdaan (as Santu) are expectedly good, and complement each other really well. Neel Mukherjee, Swastika Mukherjee, Tridha and Rajesh Sharma are effortless in their respective roles. But it’s a real pity seeing the veteran actor Rajit Kapur hamming it up as Al-Mammoon. And shooting and prancing around makes Joyraj’s assassin act look more like a cross between Gandu’s Rickshaw and Twelfth Night’s Feste.

But where this film truly scores is in the political stand it takes. It is refreshing to see a film that dumps the political correctness out of the window and takes a strong anti-Mubarak stance with regard to the Egypt uprising, While the link may seem tenuous, it works largely because of Indraneil Sengupta’s knockout act as the mysterious rebel leader Hani Alkadi. Emoting largely with his eyes, Indraneil brings gravitas and intensity to Hani Alkadi, tinged with a slight note of self-deprecating humour. Watch him in that scene where he debates with Kakababu about right and wrong, even as he attempts to kill a traitor. It’s a role that comes across rarely in Bangla cinema, and Indraneil sinks his teeth into it with relish. Indraneil’s Hani Alkadi can truly be called the director’s voice with regard to the Egypt uprising.

Mishawr Rawhoshyo thus throws in a compelling narrative with a fresh bit of pizzazz. It’s rough at the edges and slightly disjointed, but it’s not a bad watch at all. The way it has been directed and mounted on such a large scale, I really hope this movie does well and recovers its budget. The success of MR can only spur Bangla cinema to become bigger and better.

P.S.: Don’t miss out the small cameo by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, whose mere presence is enough to remind us that another Bangla biggie is coming up—Chander Pahar.

35mm Reflections: SHUDDH DESI ROMANCE (2013)

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One thing any avid watcher of Hindi films will tell you is that it is useless to underestimate Yash Raj Films, because you never quite know what Aditya Chopra has up his sleeve. Either the experiment can go delightfully right (the Dhoom series, Band Baaja Baaraat) or horribly wrong (Dil Bole Hadippa, Aurangzeb and other crap). You just never know with the brooding Mr. Chopra.

Yet his latest offering, Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance, takes all those chiffon-clad, Lata-crooned, Raj-Simran stereotypes so painstakingly crafted by his late father, and just dumps it out of the window like the garbage in the morning. Because this film dares to question those same notions of love and relationships so happily espoused by YRF over the years. Sharma, along with maverick writer Jaideep Sahni, crafts a narrative questioning the very ethos of Indian marriages, and the hypocrisy surrounding the entire “marriages are made in heaven” idea. Sahni’s crisp writing ensures that the film steers clear of being preachy, and yet holds up a mirror to our preconceived notions about relationships and commitments, reminding us that we live in a  country where the question of love is problematic and sexual encounters are more frequent than we’d like to admit.

The film kicks off with a short crisp monologue by Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput), who deconstructs and disses the entire notion of the “arranged marriage” and the question of commitment, followed by a flurry of shots of Jaipur and its varied love-struck couples, set to Divya Kumar’s sprightly “Chanchal mann ati random”. On his way to get married to Tara (Vaani Kapoor), Raghu, an experienced baaraati­-on-rent himself, meets Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) and sparks fly. Ten minutes later, we see that Raghu has escaped (read ran  away) from his own wedding, has got cosy with Gayatri and has started living with her. From here onwards, the film becomes a never-ending game of pakdam pakdai that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Nickelodeon, if not for Sahni’s racy script and dialogues. The best part of the plot is the entire Raghu-Gayatri romance in the first half (featuring the delightful “Tere mere beech mein kya hai”). The dialogues are lively—ranging from the snarky (“Na jaan na pehchaan, free mein ho gayi santaan?”) to the profound (“Pehle ek doosre ke pichhe bhagte ho, phir ek doosre se door bhagte ho….Ab bhagte hi rahoge, ya thehroge bhi?”)

Such a crackling script deserves convincing performances, and SDR possesses those. Sushant Singh Rajput is utterly believable as the lovable, bumbling rascal Raghu, while Parineeti Chopra adds equal doses of rebelliousness and vulnerability to her portrayal of Gayatri. Rishi Kapoor is lovable as veteran wedding planner Goyalji, while Rajesh Sharma is efficient in a cameo.

But the big mystery of the film remains newbie Vaani Kapoor. She does turn in a decent performance as the jilted Tara, but her character remains just a sketch, and nothing more. All we know is that a) she is jilted at her own wedding by Raghu, b) she wants to confront Raghu about this and c) she loves cold beverages. Wish the audience knew more about her.

Do give SDR  a watch. It’s not a classic, but it’s not unwatchable either.

STATUTORY WARNING: You may never look at a bathroom the same way again after watching this movie.

35mm Reflections: MADRAS CAFE (2013)

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There is a point in Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café when, amidst a montage of close-range shots of the crowd assembled to hear a political rally addressed by an ex-Prime Minister about to be assassinated, there is a roughly three-second shot of Vikram Singh, played by John Abraham, helplessly looking around for the unknown assassins, while one of them, in the guise of a civilian, slips away past him, unnoticed. It is a brief, and yet telling, scene about the nature of threats to national security in a post-Cold War global scenario—there are no known enemies anymore.

Much like this scene, the film unfolds like a conspiracy. The main action of this movie is based around the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, as well as India’s involvement in this war through the IPKF, which constitutes one of the darkest chapters for Indian foreign policy after 1971. There are references to many major events, from the rise of Vellupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE, to the assassinations of Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. However, Sircar brings to light many sub-themes that have had, or are still having, an impact on contemporary politics.

Honestly, after watching this movie, I felt like applauding the CBFC. They get a lot of flak for the movies they censor (and quite often, don’t censor), so it is quite unusual, and heartening, to see a film like Madras Café release.

To his credit, Sircar, along with his fellow writers Somnath Dey and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, actually succeeds, as far as research goes, to keep events as close to reality as possible. Those with no knowledge of the Sri Lankan war will probably feel a bit lost during the introductory sequences of Vikram’s journey into Jaffna. Names of important characters have been changed, but they resemble the real-life characters so much that you actually figure everyone out after a point of time. Another plus point in favour of Sircar’s research is that though he keeps things fictitious, he does not experiment with the timeline. So, the climactic “assassination”, that is the spine of the movie’s narrative, occurs in the same year as the real-life event. Basically, Sircar dives straight into the complicated involvement of the IPKF in the conflict, as it is the most relevant point for his protagonist to start his journey.

Goaded by his bosses in the highest echelons of Indian intelligence, Vikram sets out to Jaffna in the first half of the movie to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the LTF (no prizes for guessing which organization it resembles) and its aggressive-yet-charismatic leader Anna Bhaskaran, in order to fulfil New Delhi’s (read Rajiv Gandhi’s) dream of setting up a stable provincial council and score big for Indian diplomacy in South Asian politics. However, Anna and the LTF want a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their aims (read foreign help).

Vikram tries to engage Anna’s main opponent, Shri, into joining forces with the India government in order to get the LTF to surrender their arms, by promising all military support for him. However, when a scheduled arms-drop for Shri, being overseen by Vikram, goes horribly wrong, Vikram realizes there is a leak within his own organization RAW. Also, since his cover has been blown by now, both Shri and Anna refuse to cooperate with him.

With help from war correspondent Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri), Vikram sets out to investigate the leak, but is captured and tortured by the LTF. However, he does manage to learn of a conspiracy being planned by the LTF.

If Sircar uses the first half of Madras Café as a commentary on civilians being the collateral damage in a war-zone, it is in the second half that the central conspiracy of the movie comes alive. With the action shifting between Jaffna, Madras, London, Bangkok and other cities, the movie becomes a hard-hitting critique of the notion of “hegemony”. In a geo-political arena where the lines between structural power and soft power have long diminished, diplomacy is shown to be jostling with MNCs and other powers (read Western influence) for “strategic control” over territories. In such circumstances, Vikram tries to a) investigate the leak, and b) uncover the LTF’s conspiracy. All of which results in a deadly, heart-stopping climax.

However, I had two concerns with the narrative. One was the entire ideological stance of the movie. Sure, the movie doesn’t take sides in the war. However, you can’t help but think what a good thing it might have been, if Sircar had not slipped into the war in medias res, and had instead given a brief description of how and why the conflict in Sri Lanka started. In the absence of this exposition, two things happen. Firstly, people unaware of the conflict are caught unawares by the mass killings and exodus of Tamils. Secondly, it also (maybe unintentionally) portrays Anna (and therefore Vellupillai Prabhakaran), as the proverbial “bad guy”.

The other problem with the narrative is the problematic of language taking place in the conversations between Vikram and Jaya. It’s quite obvious that Vikram can speak English himself, and comprehends Jaya’s heavily-Anglicized English, and yet, he chooses to respond to her in Hindi. Why?

If Madras Café looks and feels like an up-to-date gritty thriller, it is also a compliment to the movie’s technical crew. Kamaljeet Negi, who made Delhi come alive with his camerawork in Vicky Donor, succeeds here in creating a sombre mood with his muted sepia-tinted frames. Chandrashekhar Prajapati keeps the tension going with his razor-sharp editing. The dialogues by Juhi Chaturvedi are devoid of abuses and cuss-words, and yet they sting. Manohar Verma’s action is raw and rugged, with none of the James Bond nonsense. Though there are no songs in the movie (Papon’s Maula sun le re plays during the end-credits), Shantanu Moitra’s background score only adds to the air of intrigue around the narrative.

As far as acting goes, here’s a special word for John Abraham—the guy has come a long way. From being the “wooden actor” who played obsessive lovers (Jism, Aetbaar), villains (Dhoom, Zinda) and the pathetic comic (Garam Masala, Housefull 2), it is refreshing to see him in his new avatar as an actor-producer. He brings soul and grit to his depiction of Vikram. Nargis Fakhri, after that disastrous debut in Rockstar, is also very believable as the hard-as-nails Jaya.

But if you really want to applaud acting, look no further than the ensemble cast. People who had criticized Sircar’s casting choices on seeing the first trailer, will eat humble pie when they see the movie. Siddhartha Basu as intelliengence boss RD, Prakash Belawadi as the Lanka desk-head Bala, Ajay Ratnam as Anna, Arijit Dutta as Anna’s deputy Malya, Rashi Khanna as Vikram’s wife Ruby, Piyush Pandey as the Cabinet Secretary—everyone is top-notch. Well-known Hindi journalist Dibang also excels in a small role.

Honestly, if you want to make a genuine film reach the Rs. 100-crore mark, go and watch this movie. It’s not flawless, but it’s one of the best thrillers to have come out of Hindi cinema. Make a visit to this café. And relive history.