Thursday, May 31, 2012

Movie Review: Dupa Dealuri (Beyond the Hills)

(Published in, on May 30, 2012)

Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Rating: 4.5 stars

The Romanian film Dupa Dealuri (Beyond the Hills) by director Cristian Mungiu has been a grand success at Cannes. Not only did the two lead actresses, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, share the Best Actress award at the festival – and that too on debut – but Mungiu picked up the award for Best Screenplay. Of course, his 2007 film 4 years, 3 months and 2 days won the Palme D’Or.

There are similarities between the two films – both are set in mesmerising landscapes, and both trace the trials of two women who share a close bond. Dupa Dealuri is a film that raises more questions than answers, possibly one of the most subtly critical films ever made on the rigours of religion.

Based on “the non-fiction novels” of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, it tells the story of an exorcism at a convent tucked away in a barren idyll, somewhere beyond the hills of a Romanian village. The tragedy of the film is that everyone has noble intentions, led by their personal convictions, and everyone suffers for this.

How heartbreaking it can be to look at close friends drifting far away, even as both yearn to save the friendship! Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) have grown up in an orphanage. Alina has clearly been Voichita’s protector and defender, and the two appear to have shared a relationship that is not devoid of physical intimacy. Alina is adopted, while Voichita finds Jesus. Both seek new lives in new environments, Alina as a housemaid in Germany, and Voichita as a nun in an Orthodox convent.

Their lives form counterpoints to each other. Alina is headstrong and rebellious, Voichita accepting and calm. Yet, neither will be bullied by the other. Where Alina confronts seemingly kindly foster parents who fumble when she asks about her savings, Voichita bows down to the punishingly strict Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga). Where Voichita is trusting of everything – God, faith, life, and people – Alina is inclined to scepticism.

Our sense of foreboding and helplessness is magnified by the mise-en-scène – the landscape is frightening in its starkness, overwhelming in its expanse. Our characters are dwarfed by the vague ideals that loom over them, tied down by the suffocating confines of scriptural interpretation.

The film refrains from definition and judgment, leaving us to make sense of what is happening. The leanings of the filmmaker are slyly conveyed to us through debates in the convent, and we’re left to contemplate the various attitudes to dogma. One is represented by an emergency room doctor, who is more saddened than angry at the consequences of the attempted exorcism. The other is represented by the weeping nuns, and the beatific expression on Alina’s face, as she wakes up and appears to have attained peace.

The relationships between characters are mostly implied, and we’re never sure what to think, because no one appears to be what they seem. The virginal Voichita is disturbed when Alina takes off her clothes; but everyone in the convent believes Voichita wields some influence over the Priest. The bold Alina is often guileless and naïve, allowing her heart to lead her even when she knows her mind would be a better guide under the circumstances.  It is easy to vilify the Priest, but we’re shown that he only does what he believes is best for his flock, willingly turning the other cheek when he is insulted.

As it involves itself more deeply in the question of faith, the film does struggle for pace at times. Running into more than two and a half hours, it does sag at intervals, and makes us wonder whether it would not have been more effective were it tighter. Towards the end, the pace becomes frantic, and the action somewhat melodramatic, which is at odds with the texture of the film.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Después de Lucia (After Lucia)

(Published in on May 28, 2012)

Cast: Tessa Ía González Norvind, Hernán Mendoza, Gonzalo Vega Sisto

Director: Michel Franco

Rating: 3.5 stars

Films on school bullying are hard to watch. Irrespective of which country they’re set in, and which countries the audience is drawn from, all of us are aware that this isn’t fiction. Bullying happens in various forms, in various proportions, every day, across the world. Sometimes, children die in the process. Sometimes, they kill themselves. Sometimes, they turn to crime. Sometimes, they’re haunted right through their lives, traumatised by a few weeks or months of cruelty. And Michel Franco’s dark, unrelenting Después de Lucia forces us to watch the full horror of a high school clique’s harassment of a motherless girl.

We never see Lucia. We only see the people she left behind – her husband Roberto (Hernán Mendoza ) and their 17-year-old daughter Alejandra (Tessa Ía González Norvind). After losing Lucia to a car crash, the heartbroken remains of the family move to Mexico City in the hope of making a fresh start. Roberto, a chef, looks for work, as Alejandra tries to fit into a new school. While father and daughter are clearly fond of each other, the immensity of the loss they have suffered makes both incommunicative to each other. They cope with their sorrow in different ways – while Roberto unleashes it on the staff at his restaurant, Alejandra’s good looks earn her the attention of José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and get her into a group of popular kids. She doesn’t speak of her mother, never letting on that she is dealing with grief.

Things begin to go downhill at a weekend house party, where Alejandra and José find themselves alone in the bathroom. An MMS scandal follows, in the aftermath of which petty jealousies and teen cruelty snowball into sustained savagery. The film is unremittingly heavy, and we watch Alejandra put to humiliation and abuse.

Franco’s execution of the bullying is masterful. The situation escalates slowly but steadily, and we’re not surprised when it turns horrific. Our only reprieve from Alejandra’s situation comes when the camera follows Roberto, whose internalisation of the pain cuts him off from participating in any activity that isn’t essential to the running of the house. In a film that dwells on loneliness as much as it does on alienation, the camera’s position increases our sense of anxiety. Often, we’re only half-aware of what’s happening. When characters move out of the frame, we don’t see them. Some of the ugliest incidents in the film take place in the background, even as young couples kiss in the foreground.

The mood of the film is enhanced by powerful performances from Tessa Ía González Norvind and Hernán Mendoza, both of whom are so natural in their roles we forget they’re acting in a film. The supporting cast, too, appears to have been picked out of real life. The film juxtaposes the taunting Alejandra suffers at school against the hesitant overtures of her father, and a scene involving cake and dinner makes us sob with the characters.

The film does have some gaps. For one, the adults’ obliviousness to the happenings in the lives of this bunch of teenagers isn’t quite convincing. Of course, one could argue that there is little communication between parents and children during the latter’s adolescence, but the attitude of the school staff is bewildering. The school conducts regular blood tests on students, but the teachers seem almost afraid of them, barely checking them even when they’re having a noisy party on a school expedition.

The climax and the events leading up to it are more fable-like than real, and the film leaves us hanging. But the lack of certainty in the ending, and our doubts as to whether the events could really have unfolded in this way, takes nothing away from this profoundly disturbing account.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

(Published in, on May 26, 2012)

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Rating: 5 stars

Every once in a while, one chances upon a film or book that gives one a sense of the all-encompassing, that makes one believe one has seen all there is to see, because of its inherent sense of completeness, of self-sustenance, of a world that we long to go into, but that is locked away from us and yet intimate to us. The books that have made me feel this way were One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Lord of the Rings, and Midnight’s Children. The films that have made me feel this way, in recent times, were Tree of Life, and now, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

There is something elusively ethereal, yet earthily primeval about this film. The setting is as beautiful as it is brutal, and we’re never sure whether it is primordial or post-apocalyptic.  Perhaps it’s because the place is called ‘The Bathtub’, perhaps it’s because it’s narrated by a 6-year-old child who calls herself ‘Hushpuppy’, perhaps it’s because it’s populated by characters called ‘Wink’, ‘Walrus’ and ‘Hushpuppy Mama’, perhaps it’s because these people are only held together by the fact that they live in a marsh, cut off from the mainland. Nothing matters here – not age, not race, not gender, not income. This place is about survival.

And in this wilderness, we see images of oil rigs in the distance. Everyone knows everyone, because there are so few of them.  And this community, which shares nothing but habitat, is alienated from technology. Sure, there are stoves and motors, but their only means of communication is yelling to each other. Danger is part of their lives, which are built around improvisation and reconstruction.

How did these people arrive here? Are they exiles by choice? Are they the dregs of a once-flourishing people who drifted away to the mainland? Are they fugitives? They appear to live in a dream, into which reality and regulations constantly intrude. And it is this dichotomy, central to the film, that makes it so haunting.

This place is imagined; and yet, it has a context – a storm that appears to be Katrina is brewing. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) has a house of her own, where she cooks her own meals and plays her games, and her father (Dwight Henry) appears quite content with this arrangement; and yet, government officials arrive to evacuate them. Wink thinks nothing of slapping his daughter when she causes trouble; and yet, he shows a certain tenderness towards her, telling her stories of Hushpuppy Mama, and how she “swam away”. This child feeds pigs, speaks to creatures that crawl on the ground, and captures fish; and yet, when she sets a house on fire, she hides in a cardboard box for protection.  She screams for her mother every time she’s angry; and yet, she calmly confronts wild beasts that have returned from extinction, as they charge towards her.

The storm is brewing, the glaciers are melting, and a language is carved out of dialects, as people burn with fevers in refugee camps, and people stick to their homeland at a time of desolation, and a woman only has to wave at a stove to set the gaskets burning because ‘she so hot she never lit a fire’. And here we are, sinking into ‘the prettiest place on earth’, holding on to the soil they want to take away from us, to save us from the storm that’s brewing.

Time collides into itself; logic is irrelevant. This is a world where the angry eyes of a child will stop Aurochs in their tracks and make them bow down to her. This is a world where a schoolteacher tells the children communal myths. This is a world where fathers will fire shotguns at storm clouds to reassure their kids that everything will be all right. This is a world where waitresses may be mothers, and children may be protectors, and everything makes sense in this world alone. It is a world to lose ourselves in, it’s a world we ache to find ourselves in.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: Amour

(Published in, on May 24, 2012)

Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud

Director: Michael Haneke

Rating: 5 stars

If you had to choose between losing someone you love, someone who understands you and knows you, someone with whom you’ve shared the best and worst days of your life, and watching that person lose his or her dignity, what would you pick?

From acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke comes a film that is subtle, profound, and achingly slow. His other films have left us with questions, and many have disturbed us for days after, but this film haunts us with the answers it forces us to confront. It leaves us with the sense of impotency. Nothing, surely, can be more despairing than having to watch something we’ve built all our lives crumble around us. To watch as the bank of treasured memories with the person we’ve loved all our lives become polluted by the helplessness of his or her final days.

We know death must come, but don’t we always imagine it as sudden, and poetically tragic? Don’t we imagine white sheets, sunshine filtering into a cosy room, sad-faced and moist-eyed children and grandchildren, a peaceful glow on our faces from the realisation of our own mortality? Do we think of the growing infirmity of old age? Do we think of the uncomfortable sponge baths, the impersonal professionalism of carers, the assisted feeding, the toilet routine, the unbecoming and constant drooling?

Amour tells the story of an old couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who do the things all old couples do. They go to concerts, they trade gossip, they make acerbic remarks that only they understand the context of, and each comforts the other as they fret over the lives of the people they care about. When one of them suffers a stroke, everything turns on its head, and their relationship is forced to mount its final challenge.

The first scenes of the film reveal the end. The focus is not on what happens, but how it happens, and what it does to the spectator. What is it like to know you’re fading away slowly, putting those you love through agony, unable to release yourself? Can it be worse than watching someone you love grow slowly helpless, and adamant, even as your own strength saps away?

The enigmatic scapes that characterise Haneke’s filmmaking are seen here, too. There is a beautiful image of a pigeon wafting in through a shaft of light, into Georges’ apartment. The significance of the pigeon strikes us much later, when it appears in the final edition of a recurring nightmare, as if it were to be the redemption of the dreamer, of an escape from a flooded hallway.

The director’s genius comes through especially in two scenes. Arguably the most powerful one in the film involves someone being slapped. What can be more heartbreaking than the guilt of punishing someone you love for something that person can’t help doing? The other scene is an audience shot at a piano recital, which we will come to know is performed by Alexandre Tharaud (playing himself), who was once a student of Anne’s. Though it is a wide shot, we’re drawn to Anne and Georges, and the comfortable silence they share, a dynamic that takes decades to earn.

The characters dwell on death mostly though morbid humour. When an old man is asked, “What would you say if people don’t come to your funeral?”, he thinks and replies carelessly, “Probably nothing.” There is a description of a funeral at which an urn meant for the coffin rolled into a hole, making the attendees laugh.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant sink into their roles with such natural ease that we feel like voyeurs looking in on their lives. Riva, probably more beautiful now than she was when young, takes on a brave role in this film. It allows no scope for her glamorous bearing, and she willingly discards all concern for her appearance. Without makeup, and in one scene without clothes, she stands exposed for the flaws age has carved into her face and body. Trintignant’s expressions convey fully to us the pain, the indecision, the rage, and the frustration his character feels. Though it is often perceived that good actors must put the audience in their shoes, these two veterans of cinema and stage show us how we can empathise from the outside – it would be presumptuous to even attempt putting ourselves in their places.

The supporting cast, comprising the couple’s daughter, her English husband, and the former student, represent the outsider’s viewpoint as well. Their attempts to help will only intrude into the lives of the old couple, their concerns are tangential to the couple’s, and their offers of help can only be insulting. There are nurses who come and go, earning Georges’ wrath. And then, there’s the pigeon.

However, this film isn’t depressing in the conventional sense. We often laugh, at lines such as, “I can only take British humour in small doses”. Bathed in pastel colours, the texture of the film isn’t reflective of the dark preoccupations of this film. Perhaps that is why the story is so effective, making us mull over it for long after we’ve left the cinema.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Movie Review: Jagten

(Published in, May 22, 2012)

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Thomas Bo Larsen

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Rating: 4.5 stars

Let’s say you knew a man. He is dependable. He is good with children, and allows them to engage him in their little fancies about the world. He is kind to animals. He is more buddy than father to his son. He is handsome and single. Let’s say a child told you that the man “is stupid and ugly and he has a willy.” You would probably laugh and say, “Well, so do most men.” Let’s say the child looked at you and said, “But his is pointing straight up, like a rod.” What would you do? Is he really dependable now? Is he good with children, or is he a kindergarten teacher with an ulterior motive? Can a little girl supply such graphic detail if it weren’t true? In a world that is becoming ultrasensitive to child sexual abuse, this film boldly interrogates the belief that children never lie.

Jagten opens to Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) playing with children in the school where he teaches. Everyone loves him, except his ex-wife. He is trying to rebuild his life in the wake of his divorce, with a new job, a new love interest, and the comfort of his old friends, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and his wife. Theo’s little daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) dotes on Lucas, who makes time for her, encourages her stories and the little games she plays (“Oh, we can’t step on this line, how do we go over it?”), and allows her to take his dog for walks.

The film explores the idea of child sexuality, at a time when children are exposed to pretty much everything. How do they show affection? Can they differentiate between romantic love and avuncular fondness? Do they cast themselves in the roles of grown-ups too early? How much do they absorb of what happens around them? Does a joke about a photograph in a magazine, or a stray line in a film stick in their minds, or will it go over their heads? On one level, Klara becomes a juvenile embodiment of William Congreve’s assertion in The Mourning Bride:

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,

Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned

At another level, she is a victim too. Being the perpetrator of a lie whose consequences she can’t comprehend, she is thrown into a situation where she’s not quite sure what happened. Is she telling the truth after all? When her headmistress (Susse Wold) and parents assure her that what happened to her did happen, can she really have imagined it all?

What about the adult in the equation? Should he tell the entire truth, if it will exonerate him and traumatise the child? Will anyone believe him even if he does? As suspicion leads to disgust and hatred, Lucas slowly gets alienated from the close-knit community. He could move and start a life elsewhere, but that would be confirmation of his guilt. If he were to stay on, he could become the victim of a hate crime. Who really trusts him anymore? Does his newly-acquired girlfriend believe him? Does his teenage son think his father may be a paedophile? More importantly, will a suspected paedophile be allowed to keep in touch with his son?

A single line turns Lucas’ life upside down. His relationships with the people he was once close to, including Theo, crumble. He is unwelcome in the supermarket, he is ineligible for a job, and his contention that children have vivid imaginations is seen as callous. When his son begins to suffer for his reputation, Lucas must choose between accepting his fate and fighting for his credibility. Naturally, the stigmatisation he faces begins to get to him, making him display violent behaviour that further undermines his stance.

In this complex film, there are several strands – the innocence of children, whether truth can only have one version, society as judge and jury, the effects of being cast in a false mould, and the idea of forgiveness. The last comes through in a beautiful scene where Lucas and Klara meet again, after the dust has settled. Klara asks for his help to cross the lines in a room, and as he picks her up, he hesitates momentarily, as if he is still unsure of what the judgment is.

Each character is etched with grey shades too, and the story becomes an exploration of how much harm can be wrought by conviction. The final scene leaves us wondering whether one can ever lead a normal life, after facing such hatred and being accused of something so serious.

Our empathy with the characters is aided by stellar acting. It would surprise the audience if Mads Mikkelsen didn’t walk away with the Best Actor award this year. He sails through the gamut of expressions and emotions his role demands, every facial and bodily movement calibrated so perfectly that it’s hard to remember this is all staged. From the surprise and discomfort he shows when Klara plants a kiss on his mouth, to his attitude in the scene of reconciliation, Mikkelsen never plays Lucas – he is Lucas.

Annika Wedderkopp, who cannot have had a complete understanding of the character (partly because laws mandate that she cannot have been told the whole story) turns in an incredible performance as Klara. She is conniving, but in a way we understand. As she gets progressively bewildered by the events she has set in motion, we feel a deep sense of protectiveness and sympathy for the child.

Even in his small role, Lasse Fogelstrom brings conviction to his character as a hero-worshipping son who just may be in denial.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Movie Review: De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone)

(Published in, on May 19, 2012)

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Shoenaerts, Armand Verdure

Director: Jacques Audiard

Rating: 4.5 stars

The big film of the second day at Cannes is De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone), which is in competition for the Palme D’Or. A French-Belgian production starring the very talented Marion Cotillard, and directed by Jacques Audiard, who won the Grand Prix at the same festival for his A Prophet in 2009. Audiard’s mastery of marrying the funny with the poignant is showcased in De rouille et d’os, a film that is as much about strength as it is about love, as much about our tendency to take things and people for granted, as it is about trust.

It would not be fair on the reader to give away much of the storyline, as a lot of the themes of this film surface during two crucial, life-or-death situations. The visuals open into a dreamy underwater world, with debris floating gently through the blue. We will make sense of this much later, when we have made the journey the characters do.

We’ve met people like Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a handsome single father, who looks like he could reform if given the chance; but we know he may well choose not to reform. We know he may decide to take advantage, and think in terms of what he can take from a giver. We know he’s not the sentimental type, and something about that makes us not want to be the sentimental type around him. Does he care about his son, Sam (Armand Verdure)? Well, enough to rob something when he wants to eat. But not enough to refrain from taking his anger out on a little boy who clearly has some reason for having to stay with his unemployed father. Alain thinks nothing of staying with his sister, who works double shifts at a departmental store.

And we’ve met people like Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a ‘Princess’ as Audiard describes her. She knows men are looking at her at the clubs she goes to, she drives a classy car, and she shows just enough contempt for the bouncer – Alain – to tell him wordlessly where exactly he stands. You could see her heading a boutique, you could see her managing publicity for an actress, you could see her heading events for a chain of luxury hotels, but you wouldn’t see her training orcas in the South of France.

When these two meet, they don’t get off to the best start. Alain ends up driving the Princess home, after a bar brawl that she needs to be rescued from. Stéphanie rages about how men behave around her, Alain offers her the sort of explanation that tell us why he’s so unpopular – “You dress like a whore.” They lose touch, as he turns his attention to furthering his kickboxing career. And when they get back in touch, Stéphanie is in a bad place.

What must it be like to know one is beautiful, and then turn repulsive? What must it be like to have to depend on people to do the little things one could do blindfolded? Cotillard beautifully brings out how even the smallest of things, the slightest effort to make oneself look presentable can appear pointless. And when one is in that state, where does one turn for validation? To one’s past? To the pity and concern of people? To the people who don’t seem to care that one is different now? To a man who, while washing something up, will ask, without looking up, “Wanna fuck?”

Alain goes through his journey too. In the course of his odd jobs, he meets someone who can actually channel his passion towards something solid, something worth fighting for. And tragedy, for him, strikes when he’s just beginning to understand responsibility, when he has just been taught what “respect” and “consideration” mean, when he has just learnt to read between unspoken lines. In a few terrifying minutes, he stands to lose everything he cares about, and finds out just how much he will sacrifice to save what matters most to him. And in the hours that follow, as he waits for a verdict on whether he has indeed saved his most precious gift, he understands he must speak words he has never learnt.

A sub-plot involving a spy camera crystallises a theme that is central to the film – the idea of betrayal, and how much it can hurt, even when it is unintentional. Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection of the same name, the film evokes emotion in us through subtle events that are seemingly unconnected. Bolstered by terrific acting from both the leads, and intelligent direction, this film should be a close contender for the Palme D’Or.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This Vampire Film Lacks Teeth

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express on 12 May 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz, Johnny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Gully McGrath, Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: 3 stars
Since 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have come together eight times, creating and recreating gothic favourites, inspired by their childhood fantasies and cult favourites. From that stable comes Dark Shadows, the story of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the scion of a wealthy fishing dynasty, Josette/ Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), the love of his life, and Angelique (Eva Green), the wicked witch whose all-consuming lust for Barnabas leads to vicious schemes that will destroy everyone and everything he loves. But she desires and despises him too much to kill him, condemning him to a vampire’s eternal existence.
The film begins with a stylised narrative that holds much promise. It introduces us to characters with great personality – the wraith-like Victoria with her powerful voice, the drunken butler Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) whose Cockney accent lends a sarcastic edge to grouchy lines, the old servant Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), who’s “about as useful as a bucket without a bottom”, the sharp-tongued, nasty teenager Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz), her cousin David (Gully McGrath) who talks to ghosts, the resident shrink Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and the Collins siblings, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Johnny Lee Miller).
But the story disintegrates into a far milder version of what it could have been, no thanks to a storyline that turns insipid, and underwhelming performances by most of the main cast – Johnny Depp is the only one who adapts to the part-satirical, part-intense tone that is a hallmark of Burton’s films. We’re pitchforked from 1760 to 1972, and though Depp does a remarkable job of portraying Collins’ bewilderment at modern life, it’s a routine we’ve seen too often to find funny. There’s a lovely quirky touch in his conversation with a bunch of hippies, but we must turn to well-timed one-liners for the humour.
Burton’s masterful art direction and his over-the-top sequences are complemented by the dreamy appearances and mysterious utterances of sundry spirits. But those – like me – who have a soft corner for his work may be stunned by the poor execution of certain scenes, especially towards the climax. Then again, those – like me – who are sympathetic to his style may perceive the drama involving a werewolf, vampire and human as a subversion of that horrific teen romance involving sparkling bloodsuckers.
With most actors struggling for a foothold, it doesn’t help that the plot seems to have holes in it. It’s hard to make sense of parts of the story without the context. We don’t quite understand Carolyn’s references to her father, or David’s to his mother; nor are we told how the Collinses endure, or where the “distant relatives” came from – the only inhabitants of Collinwood Manor seemed to be Barnabas and his parents.
The Verdict: There’s enough in the film to keep you engaged, but not enough to live up to expectations.

Girl, Regurgitated

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 13 May 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Karishma Kapoor, Rajneish Duggal, Jimmy Shergill, Divya Dutta
Director: Vikram Bhatt
Rating: 1 star
The string of expletives in my head is slightly lengthier than the painfully long Dangerous Ishhq, which follows a love triangle through six centuries of unconsummated pining. The good news is, there can be no sequel because the random witch’s curse that spawned this travesty of romance is broken at the end.
Karishma Kapoor is back, complete with prepubescent voice, shaggy eyebrows and pre-pregnancy figure. We meet her as Sanjana Saxena, Manish Malhotra’s showstopper. Sanjana happens to be dating Rohan (Rajneish Duggal), whose foppish disapproval of a female doctor wearing rubber chappals to a fashion show might lead us to think he drives on the other side of the road, nudge-nudge. Trouble brews in paradise when Sanjana wins a modelling contract with French brand Global Fusion (I know!!!) that’ll take her to Paris for a year.
She changes her mind when she sees a statue of Krishna on her way to the airport. Instinct tells her she’ll never see Rohan again if she leaves for Paris, so she comes running back. Wrong. Some folks in Taliban costume kidnap him anyway, but leave her to her devices. Lest you think this is Hindutva propaganda, let me assure you Krishna and Allah team up to beat the bad boys. Well, actually one bad boy, through several rebirths.
See, we’re used to seeing the likes of Nirupa Roy lose their memories when they bang their skulls, courtesy the villain, and regain their memories when they rebang their skulls, courtesy the villain’s son. But when Sanjana Saxena bangs her head, she remembers her past lives. Get out. And her enabler is BFF Neetu (Divya Dutta), a doctor whose circle of friends includes a shrink who dresses like she’s attending an art gala in Delhi and is into hypnosis, and a surgeon who has a penchant for roleplay.
You’ll know how bad this film is when you hear this exchange: “What’s wrong with you?” “I can read Urdu!” Facepalm. To his credit, Jimmy Shergill seems pretty embarrassed to be playing a cop who drags along two hysterical chicks to his stakeouts, and passes evidence to forensics after fingering it himself. And we are dragged into 1947 Pakistan, 1658 Daulatabad, and 1535 Chittaurgarh, where Mirabai makes a guest appearance. Oh, and Ravi Kishen pops in too, as a sexually frustrated senapati.
The Verdict: This orgy of bad graphics and corny dialogue only serves to remind us that the greatest service Karishma did cinema was to keep away from it for over a decade.

A Faint Shadow

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 13 May, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Heathcote, Chloë Grace Moretz, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: 3 stars
“Blood is thicker than water,” declares Johnny Depp’s voice, as we’re swept into 1760 Liverpool, “It is what defines us, binds us, curses us.” The next fifteen minutes are hypnotic, as Barnabas Collins tells us the tale of his family’s journey to Maine, where they founded a fishing business that flourished so well it spawned the town of Collinsport, of the witch Angelique (Eva Green) whose obsession with him would lose him his loved ones and see him entombed for two centuries, of his “one true love” Josette (Bella Heathcote), whom Angelique torments.
Unfortunately, these are the best fifteen minutes of the film. When the vampire wakes up in 1972, the story falls back on formula, and there’s only so much Depp’s nuanced facial expressions can do to salvage a tired screenplay. There is hilarity in the timing and dialogue – watch out for Collins’ first encounter with a car. His horrified, “What sorcery is this? Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” as Karen Carpenter sings Top of the World on television is the highlight of the trailer. Sadly, the funniest parts of the film are in the trailer, and this kills some key moments.
The minor characters turn in the best performances – Jackie Earle Haley as the grumpy souse Willie
Loomis, and Ray Shirley as the mute and wizened Mrs. Johnson excel in the few scenes they get. Chloë Grace Moretz as the eye-rolling Carolyn, teenage daughter of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), fits into her role as naturally as she did in Hugo. Gully McGrath as troubled child David and Johnny Lee Miller as his father Roger Collins are the only other characters with any conviction (aside from Johnny Depp, of course). Pfeiffer, Green, Heathcote and Bonham Carter try to emulate Depp’s stylised acting, but end up being stilted where he is arch.
The film has all the Burton signatures – seemingly comical scenes suddenly turn sinister, the music is a treat, the wordplay tickles, and a couple of Addams Family references are slyly slipped in when Barnabas sits at the piano. The execution of gothic fantasy is exquisite. But the vapours and the moors and desolate plains and lonely houses and forbidding cliffs lend the film atmosphere, without enough substance. The translation of the 1000-odd episode long TV series into a 3-hour film leaves one feeling parts have been fast-forwarded. The most frustrating aspect is the wasted scope of Alice Cooper’s guest appearance, which is lost to cheap comedy. It’s left to the lone vampire to lift the film.
The Verdict: Not the best Burton-Depp collaboration, but the art direction and one-liners make it worth a watch.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Do we really need beef and pork festivals?

(Picture Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

I may as well begin with full disclosure: I turned lacto-vegetarian over a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with my religious beliefs. I stopped eating animals for the same reason that I stopped wearing them. I don’t buy silk, leather, or wool, and I prefer animals off my plate. So, I’m being honest when I say I see no difference whether one is eating cows, pigs, dogs, fowl, fish, crustaceans, goats, cats, or reptiles.
What I find disgusting about university students organising beef-and-pork festivals is that their self-proclaimed assertion of their dietary culture, or cultural diet, or whatever they label it, boils down to deliberate provocation. Neither Osmania University nor Jawaharlal Nehru University prohibits students from eating any organism outside campus – or, as far as I’m aware, even in their rooms. Do universities not have a right to decide what to put on their mess menu? And does the menu matter enough to disturb the already shaky equilibrium of persuasions in this country?
It’s easy to equate protests against beef and pork with religious fundamentalists. But, doesn’t waving these “forbidden meats” at people who subscribe to those beliefs qualify as secular fundamentalism? Do the “rationalists” who organise these festivals not know that militant youth wings of political parties will oblige the stereotype by vandalising property and attacking individuals at these events?
Let’s dismiss the rumours about the meat melas being driven by political agenda and power struggle. Students of these universities are not the first people to have organised beef-and-pork festivals. Atheist centres have been holding them for years. But the statement that these festivals are simply a call for respect for people’s traditional food habits is either naïve or ironic.
The idea of respect for people’s dietary preferences is particularly laughable because festivals that celebrate food that’s banned by certain communities are essentially trampling over the sentiments of those groups.
What is it about us Indians that makes us want to needle each other? In a country that’s united by such a fragile fabric, where differences in language, religion, ethnicity, and appearance leave us with little more in common than nationality, in a country that several states want to secede from, in a country whose states several regions want to break away from, do we need yet another reminder of why we’ve been partitioned so many times?
Celebrating diversity is all very fine, but highlighting dissonance cannot end well. And in India, we jump at opportunities to do the latter. We have been for decades, if not centuries. It was part of the reason for our repeated enslavement by colonial powers, and part of the reason we splintered even as we were liberated from foreign rule.
The reason I think this is a specifically Indian trait, one that we’re prone to when we live in this country, is that it hit me when I returned home after a couple of years abroad. We find it impossible to assert ourselves without offending others.
In the multi-ethnic ethos of London, where I would hear five languages while walking from my dorm to Sainsbury’s, I saw how diversity can actually be celebrated, and more importantly, respected. I’m not claiming London is free of racists, but I was lucky enough not to encounter any. My life was, for the most part, that of a university student.
My flatmates were from Japan, Engand, Switzerland and Pakistan. Most of my friends were from the Middle East, and there were some intelligent folks who weren’t atheists. And we could share meals without upsetting each other. It wasn’t because we followed the same diets, or chose “neutral” food. It was largely because we were polite about it.
Omnivorous friends of mine would ask me if I minded their eating meat in my presence, and we would ask teetotallers if they minded our downing a few. The consideration for other people’s beliefs touched me, especially because ever since I’d turned vegetarian, I’d had people practically rub dead meat in my face. I stopped taking people out on my birthday because I didn’t like paying for something that went against my conscience. And I didn’t enjoy having a lard-laden fork thrust at my face, courtesy some grinning moron who wanted to know whether I was “tempted”.
I wouldn’t want to give anyone the impression that the consideration and politeness came only from people from “developed” countries. It was something of a given in the student body, which leads me to think it’s the natural inclination of anyone thrown into an unfamiliar environment to tread a little carefully. And it was in that unfamiliar environment that I made a conscious effort to say “idiot!” or “ass!” in place of “pig!” (which is my favourite chiding term) in gatherings were pigs weren’t kosher. It was also where I figured one could be politically incorrect, as long as one’s intent wasn’t malicious.
It’s the inherent malice in beef-and-pork festivals organised in India that I find repulsive. If we were once slaves to validation by foreign powers, we’re now slaves to endorsement of our own ideologies.
I discovered that this isn’t a pan-India syndrome yet, during my travels in the North East, where most people do eat both beef and pork. And although I had more varieties of vegetables piled on my plate during a single meal in that region than I did in a week back home, my hosts would be apologetic; they didn’t need to be. I wasn’t in the least offended by their dietary habits, but I was moved by their efforts to ensure I wasn’t. And student politics in that region is largely about saving the environment from being destroyed by mindlessly rapid industrialisation.
Maybe the reason students feel so triumphant about organising this food festival of theirs is that their lives are so untroubled by bigger concerns that they feel compelled to get pig-headed about holy cows. Maybe rebellion to them is about fighting communalism by enraging conservative Hindus as well as conservative Muslims. And it’s precisely that kind of misguided foolhardiness that the likes of Bhisham Sahni and Saadat Hasan Manto wrote about. We should probably ask ourselves whether we’re willing to pay as heavy a price now as we did then.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Of Rajesh Khanna's fan-tasies and IPL's delusions

By Ogle Bunkraker

(Published in on May 7, 2012, retrieved from

So, the new thing in the experts studio, or whatever they call it, is a stand-up comedy act before the match. Like there aren’t enough jokers in the game. Thankfully, though, this act is only slightly more repulsive than the sight of seven girls making pom-poms dance toChikni Chameli. And it’s slightly more entertaining than last week’s – or was it the week before’s? – discussion on Adam Gilchrist’s dismay at having to miss a match for the first time in sixteen years.
If you want to analyse the psyche of players, why not choose Munaf Patel and Harbhajan Singh? I mean, it’s like their IPL agenda revolves around fighting with any current or prospective national teammate they can spot in the opposition. Or better still, slap them, but it’s been years since that happened. The only physical contact Bhajji seems to make with players now is encouraging pats to the backside. I don’t get that, but then again, I don’t play a sport swimming in machismo. And Munaf Patel’s taken to arguing with umpires, which is probably the wiser thing to do.
But if you want to bring entertainment into the pre-match discussion of a Mumbai Indians vs. Chennai Super Kings game, you should probably just bring in seven men who can do the two-metre coffee thingy in sync. Would be a mighty sight better than fourteen pom-poms trembling to an item number.
The ones who really get it wrong during the IPL, though, are the admakers. What happens to them this time of year? Do they assume just about anything goes when people are watching a bunch of has-beens and wannabes play each other? Or do they assume people won’t be watching the ads anyway? Or, is it a Communist plot to turn all of us off the products the manufacturers are advertising? Because I’ve decided not to buy a lot of this stuff simply based on the ads.
Idea 3G? I mean, forget it. It was bad enough when I had to see three Abhishek Bachchans on screen. Now, I have to hear him try to sing, while cheerleaders from heaven mope around him? Or fat angels die? Right, we get that he’s finally the breadwinner of the Bachchan parivaar, but I find myself wishing for the first time that someone would give him a movie to kill time with.
And then, there’s Ranbir Kapoor, out to prove that the stand-up act from last season is not the worst he can do. Yes, he can play a slow waiter, a menacing waiter, and every other character that fake hair and a rubber belly can conjure.
Then, there’s the Big One of the Season. Rajesh Khanna and his “fans”. What was he thinking?! So, this guy walks into an auditorium that is empty, but for battery-operated objects, and assures us that no one can take his fans away? Wrong, pal. That borderline psycho ad just lost you your last, menopausal fans. And what were the admakers thinking? Crazed yesteryear actor who is obsessed with table fans for want of human fans can sell the appeal of electronic fans?
It’s almost like cricket is the least illogical thing about the IPL. And I write this on a day that the French-sounding Francois du Plessis turned in arguably the best fielding performance of the game. It also happens to be the day a man called Hollande became president of France, but that’s irrelevant.
My favourite thing about the IPL, though, is that it fancies itself the equivalent of every football premier league there is, simply because it sees fit to throw larger sums of money at fewer men. Forget that football’s been around in those clubs for about a century longer than the IPL, allowing anthems to evolve, and a fan base to build up.
But, no, our IPL has the fans anyway, and the cameramen will prove it, focusing on women who look like they’ve just watched their first-borns sacrificed every time their team loses a wicket. And the team-owners, who will smile and wave anyway, because that’s what actresses do. And the WAGs, most of whom are unrecognisable, because – unlike the football WAGs – very few of them are famous in their own right.
And let’s not even get started on the Champions League!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Good Heavens!

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 6 May 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Randeep Hooda, Esha Gupta, Manish Chaudhary
Director: Kunal Deshmukh
Rating: 1 star
As I write this, I’m not sure whether Jannat 2 was intended to be a comedy, thriller or action flick. I’ve just sat through the film thinking the female lead was Sunny Leone, partly because of her expressions, and partly because she plays a doctor called Jaanvi Singh Tomar, whom Sonu Dilli (Emraan Hashmi) fantasises about.
Of course, a story about gun crime is set in Delhi. Which means there will be chases in Chandni Chowk, a Sufi-meets-Punjabi song in Dilli Haat and India Gate, a love song in Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb...hell, even the Airport Express is not spared.
The sleekest part of the film is the opening montage, where Sonu Dilli, KKC (apparently kutti-kameeni-cheez) rants about a world in which everyone including doctors and engineers wants a gun. He’s in the illegal gun trade, and his front is a cut-piece shop we see him at only when he’s romancing his scantily-clad doctor-muse. We know he’s a good guy because he’s in the gun trade for the right reasons – if people didn’t have guns, they’d kill each other with knives; if they didn’t have knives, they’d kill each other with truncheons. Guns are the quickest and least traumatic. Awww.
Enter Pratap Raghuvanshi (Randeep Hooda), a fiery ACP whose fantastic entry is ruined by a weepy back-story. Poor Randeep Hooda ends up, yet again, being a good actor in a bad film, and one can sense him trying not to puke through tender moments with Emraan Hashmi. Yeah, the cop-informer relationship is fleshed out far better than the gangster-doctor affair in this sordid underworld tale where kohl-eyed Muslims are the small fry, and kohl-eyed Durga-worshipping Mangal Singh (Manish Chaudhary) is the big fish.
The sad thing about Jannat 2 is that the framework could have made for a neat, tight thriller, if it hadn’t been weighed down by lard. Sonu Dilli breaks into song more often than he uses the C-word, and the only memorable one is Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan’s Tu Hi Mera. Unfortunately, this song highlights the stupidity of the only doctor who doesn’t own a car in Delhi – she takes an auto from Dilli Haat to Qutub Minar while her lover dances alongside. Throw in a comedy track that stars two bumbling cops and relies on stereotyped accents for humour – need I say more?
The Verdict: The only intentionally funny scene in this film occurs a few seconds before the interval. And you’ll probably catch it flipping channels on TV a few weeks later.
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