Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Horror without soul

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 24, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bipasha Basu, Doyel Dhawan and others
Director: Suparn Verma
Rating: 1.5 stars
As one of those people who’re scared of the dark, I was apprehensive about Aatma. Director Suparn Verma had promised that the filmwould be a departure from the cheesy scream-and-scare loaded horror genre. However, except to perhaps make us slightly wary of our daughters, nieces, and cousins of a particular age, this film – like most other child possession stories – is unlikely to impact the audience terribly.
Granted, the cinematography (by Sophie Winqvist) is a class apart. And Verma’s intent in bringing sophistication to horror does peep through at times. But he’s unable to escape the clichés – an empty rocking chair, a telephone with an ominous ring, a tennis ball that bounces of its own accord, hazy reflections in the mirror, shifting shadows, thundershowers, and possession scenes.
The lovely texture of the imagery is at odds with the mundanity of the story. The premise is interesting, and told in an engaging flashback. We’re led into the story by a single mother who’s worried about breaking some awful news to her five-year old. The following scenes are disturbing, and – like all horror-movie kids – Doyel Dhawan does have enough cuteness to make her story poignant. Bipasha Basu uses her experience in the genre to her benefit – she’s learnt how to look angry and tormented. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, always an excellent actor, plays his part with a menacing viciousness that’s frightening in its intensity, and creepy in its self-righteousness.
But how can a film be truly chilling when an earnest police officer mumbles about having a bad feeling about the murder he’s investigating? When an exorcist pronounces that the dead can only be fought by the dead? When, despite the camera’s attempts to draw us into the paranormal, the staples of the genre keep us distanced?
Aatma lasts just over an hour and a half, but the script is unable to sustain itself even through this duration. The supporting cast is reduced to saying lines we’ve heard too often before to care. Though we’re largely spared the sudden scares that contrive to make us jump out of our seats, I found myself rather irritated by the film’s adherence to formula.
I’m not a fan of the paranormal genre, chiefly because of its lack of scope for innovation. Some may argue that the inherent dilemma in a child possession story – the parent’s love for the child in conflict with terror of the aatma – makes us empathise. But didn’t Omen milk that sentiment dry?
The Verdict: This film is one for the horror junkies.

Tarantino unfettered

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 24, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio Samuel L Jackson and others
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 3.5 stars
Fact: If you’re between 25 and 50 years old, you like Tarantino kitsch. Fact: If you’re younger than 25, you’ve been taught to like Tarantino kitsch. And so, we’re perfectly all right with his heroes walking in slow-mo through smoke, eyes narrowed, cowboy hat or ponytail or bandana hair bobbing, a shotgun or knife or drill in each hand. It would be ridiculous for Salman Khan or Rajnikanth to do it, but Tarantino has earned his right to douse us in kitsch. It’s cool, it’s stylish.
Django Unchained has its share of eccentricities, ranging from a horse that bows upon introduction, to anachronistic sunglasses, to Australian accents. However, it is a departure from the Tarantino norm in that the violence never makes us laugh, not even from the discomfort of uncertainty. We know how to react – with horror. The brutality is unflinching, and unlike his other films, not masked by music. The music, which ranges from spaghetti Western tribute to rap, is reserved for character entry, character exit and horse-riding scenes.
The film opens in Texas, in 1858, with the slave-trading Speck brothers leading a chain gang through the cold expanse. Their backs carry welts from repeated whipping, and they stumble along with vapours emanating from their mouths and blood crusting around their shackles. Except for Jamie Foxx, they’re homogenous. And then, we meet Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), trundling along in his carriage, his speech teeming with grandiose vocabulary, his actions bearing the cool decisiveness of a man who doesn’t like listening to other people talk.
What follows is either a Western parading as a love story, or a love story parading as a Western. Despite its nearly three-hour duration, and a series of distasteful scenes, we’re hooked to the film, if not the story. The credit for this goes almost entirely to Christoph Waltz, who somehow makes us empathise with his poorly-written, over-the-top character. Technically, there are too many conflicts in Dr Schultz for him to be convincing – he finds slavery execrable, but it is only violence against blacks that appears to distress him. His character veers between man-with-a-plan, and man-who-takes-the-high-road. While this helps Tarantino spring surprises, one wishes he’d used his artistic licence rather more judiciously.
There are other comic interactions, most notably a discussion among villagers wearing cloth masks, but it is Waltz who commands our attention – at least until Samuel L Jackson steps in, as a character who starts off as the male equivalent of Scarlett O’ Hara’s Mammy and becomes far more sinister. After Waltz’s exit, the film struggles for pace.
The Verdict: Highly-recommended for two outstanding performances, but go on an empty stomach.

Dead man waking

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on March 24, 2013)

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bipasha Basu, Doyel Dhawan, Shernaz Patel, Jaideep Ahlawat, and others
Director: Suparn Verma
Rating: 1.5 stars
Maybe we should give up on ever seeing horror that is truly different. What doesn’t draw from Bollywood kitsch draws from Hollywood kitsch. And so, if a ghost doesn’t elaborately show us its feet that are front-to-back, or set its own feet on fire, or speak in a funny voice, it will still make people scale walls, walking parallel to the ground, and speak in funny voices. Here, the child in conversation with the Aatma obliges with empty eye sockets over plump cheeks and whatnot.
Right, so the story. Maya (Bipasha Basu) has decided to divorce Abhay (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), after her happy love marriage turns sour. And she gets custody of their daughter Nia (Doyel Dhawan). She thinks she’s finally off the hook, especially when Abhay conveniently dies in an accident. Yeah, right. And this is when the edgy horror movie Suparn Verma promised falls back on every cliché horror has ever incorporated.
Abhay becomes Aatma, and decides to win custody of Nia. Apparently, the family courts in the spirit world are somewhat more lax about abusive behaviour. The pattern of killings is obvious once they start. Piss Nia off, you die. Piss Aatma off, you die. You’re Maya, you get scared. And, of course, Maya must oblige the spirit in the house by creeping around in the dark. The ring of supporting characters, all of whom seem equally anxious about Maya and equally incompetent in fighting the ghost, are brought in and then shoved out.
Sadly, the special effects don’t offer anything new. There are very few times we’re startled, and when we are, it’s largely due to soft silences followed by eerie occurrences. And these occurrences involve throat grabbing, reflections in the mirror, appearances on computer screens, manifestations by candlelight and everything else we’ve seen over decades of horror filmmaking. Once, just once, it would be nice to watch a Bollywood horror film that didn’t feature a séance.
The best aspect of the film is undoubtedly the camerawork. To an extent, we’re kept guessing because the camera often doesn’t show us what we want to see. However, the script is unable to rise above the genre. The dialogue prompts a good deal of eye-rolling. Despite Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s best efforts – and he is truly scary at times – the film falls flat simply because of its predictability.
The Verdict: Despite the hype, Aatma, like most of its predecessors, only scares mildly and that too in retrospect.

Bloodbath in the Bible belt

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on March 23, 2013)

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio Samuel L Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins and others
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rating: 3.5 stars
When I knew Quentin Tarantino was making a film set in the pre-Civil War era, my first thought was that he could finally justify the use of the N-word in a film, more than fifteen years after Jackie Brown brought him his share of flak. My second was to wonder how he’d fit sunglasses and his favourite four-letter words into a period film. However, Tarantino recasts both language and attire in the confidence that we will indulge him. And we do.
We indulge the bizarreness of the many coincidences in Django Unchained, quite impossible at a time when intelligence-gathering was nonexistent, especially for a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter. We indulge the set pieces, the jaunty silences, the studied stares at the camera, the looks exchanged with laboured self-consciousness, the incongruous music, and the pomposity of the dialogue (“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now, you have my attention”). However, there are scenes in this film which make us want to ask Tarantino to grow up. Yes, we knew there would be tomato-sauce-like explosions of red. But unlike the stylised choreography of his earlier films, the violence in this one is somehow more confrontational. Where we could laugh at the impossibility of the killing methods employed in earlier films, the ugliness of the sadism in Django Unchained derives from its realism.
That is not to say this film belies expectations. The sound design draws us into the story, and Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) engages us with his extravagant, but endearing, formality. We’re hooked as we watch one close shave after the other, and the film plays out as a delightfully slow, incredibly violent thriller.
The characters are fed to us in doses. Over an hour is devoted to the building of the rapport between Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr Schultz. This part contains some of the film’s funniest scenes and best one-liners. Waltz is undoubtedly the best performer here, portraying opportunistic and principled demeanour with equal conviction. Then, we meet the creepy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose idea of after-dinner entertainment is a bare-hands fight-unto-death. Soon after, we meet Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), the man who raised Calvin, is allowed access to his cognac, and wields almost more authority over the household than his master. Now, the film moves from borderline parody to serious engagement with the hierarchies in the nineteenth-century South, and the role of empowered slaves in the exploitation of their fellows – the story Margaret Mitchell didn’t realise she was telling us.
The film loses steam when its director compulsively tries to leave his trademark on it. Strangely, the interminable, climactic bloodbath is the only part of this movie that sags. The elevation of Django from upstart to hero seems contrived, complete with fawning looks from strangers-turned-fans. Equally unbelievable is the producers’ assertion that no horses were harmed during filming.
The Verdict: Sometimes droll and continually grisly, Django Unchained bears Tarantino’s signature, but is that a good thing?

All the queen's men

(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on March 22, retrieved from

Cast: Jimmy Sheirgill, Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill, Soha Ali Khan, Raj Babbar, Deepraj Rana
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Rating: 4 stars
Ek thha Raja. From his wheelchair, he supervises contract killings; through his wife, he runs a constituency. He’s the one you call when you’ve been filmed having sex with the wife of a man who’s blackmailing you. Reminded by his stepmother that he must produce awaaris, he decides to marry a second time. Perched in his wheelchair, he negotiates terms with the guardian of a prospective wife. When the guardian hesitates, pointing out that even if he were to get off the wheelchair, he would still be a married man, Aditya Pratap Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill) replies coolly, “Aap democrat ki tarah baat kar rahe hain. I am a king. I can afford an extra wife.” Even without government funding, he adds mockingly. Even as he tests political waters, he is repulsed by the idea of being called ‘neta’ by the people who now address him as ‘Rajaji’.
Ek thhi Rani. Her fingers are curled around the stem of a liquor glass far more often than they’re linked with her husband’s. She doesn’t sense the irony of bedding any man who shows her the respect her husband doesn’t. She saunters about in provocative clothing, usually in an inebriated state. She bemoans the fact that every one of her lovers is a mard, never a shayar. Even as she seems to watch with helpless despondency while her husband scouts for a second wife, she searches for loose pieces of railing that may just fall from a height on to an unsuspecting passerby in the courtyard.
Ek thha gangster, and those of us who watched Saheb Biwi aur Gangster know where he ended up. This time round, the gangster is an aspiring politician who lives in the ruins of a castle – Inderjeet Singh (Irrfan Khan). He knows why Aditya Pratap Singh survived a bullet shot – so he could die at Inderjeet’s hands.
In this royalty-infused thriller, political and personal vendetta come together to make a film that is gripping till it reaches its sudden and dramatic end. Thanks to director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s dialogue and quirky sense of humour, a film that could have been dark and grisly has its lighter moments too. Sometimes, it veers towards satire, as an erstwhile prince struggles to daub his blood on the forehead of an ancestor’s bust that stands in the garden, to seal a vow. A minister’s incompetence with his laptop makes for two hilarious interviews, one of which ends with him being branded “A very, very sensitive tamaattar.” Dhulia’s penchant for wordplay, in tandem with the actors’ comic timing, ensures that the repartee is sparkling.
There are references to real political gaffes, as the film takes on political malpractice and ineptitude. In a brilliant scene, an MLA who decides to play an active role in her constituency is told a troublemaker has filed a PIL. Puzzled, she turns to her personal assistant and asks what a PIL is.
The dynamic in the sour relationship Aditya Pratap Singh and Madhavi Devi (Mahie Gill) share is brought out expertly. Even as they continue to humiliate each other in public, each giving vent to his or her frustrations, they maintain a facade for their ‘subjects’. And though this is a familiar story, drawn from films we’ve seen earlier, including its own prequel, it is never quite predictable. The two-way love triangle makes for a grand finale.
The execution of the film owes much to Jimmy Sheirgill and Irrfan Khan. While Khan switches from being the oily politician to the promiscuous lover to the aggrieved prince to the scheming pretender with ease, Sheirgill’s performance is equally remarkable. As he lowers himself into his wheelchair from the car, it’s easy to forget he isn’t actually a paraplegic. His vexation at needing aid for everything, from having a bath to crossing a threshold, and his ignominy at the hands of his wife find expression in his eyes.
However, the women leads aren’t equal to the task. Though Mahie Gill plays Madhavi Devi with the same attitude as in the first edition, the zing to the character is missing this time round. This may be partly because she has less screen time, but the actor doesn’t bring out her transition from souse to kingmaker the way she could have. As for Soha Ali Khan, she is wasted on a wonderful character.
The other aspects of the film that don’t work for me include the superfluous item number featuring Mugdha Godse, and the bizarre Idhar Gire Udhar Gire, which borders on the burlesque.
However, none of this should stop you from enjoying this tragicomic film.

How pragmatic is a student protest?

(Published in, on March 23, 2013, retrieved from

For several days now, Madras has witnessed protests by students and other youth, calling for a stronger resolution to be passed against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Their methods have ranged from fasts to sit-ins to blockades to seminars. While this has ensured that the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils dominates several pages of the newspapers, and not just the front page, what else has it achieved?
Perhaps it’s compelled the DMK to pull out of the UPA. When students have taken an active role in calling for a strongly-worded resolution, the DMK – which has already been heavily criticised for acquiescing in India’s indifference to the devastating Eelam War – cannot be seen to do nothing, especially since Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been so vocal about her stance against Sri Lanka.
Whether the tiff between the UPA and the DMK will last long is debatable. The UPA does need an ally in the state, and Jayalalithaa has been too outspoken in her disapproval of the Central Government’s policies for the coalition to approach her with an alliance proposition. No other party has a strong enough presence in the state, and enough importance in the national arena, to be worthy of consideration as an election partner.
The protest has clearly had little impact on the resolution. India’s attempts to make amendments to the wording were not entertained by the US. Last year, a much stronger resolution passed in the UNHRC found 24 countries in favour, and 15 against, with 8 abstentions. This year, the figures were 25-13. Sri Lanka has refused to take cognisance of the relatively mild resolution this year.
In the meanwhile, several colleges have closed early, and many have stopped plying buses. Some have closed hostels, forcing students to rush back home on unreserved compartments in trains. Others have insisted that the parents of the students come to fetch their wards, to ensure that they don’t join the protests.
Across the world, and across decades, student protests have hit the headlines. Every time, the pundits speak of the promise of this new, politically-aware generation. Every time, they have given the entire nation a heady sense of change. But how effective are these protests? And how true is the sense of involvement these students feel?
Often, these protests have led to tragedy. Even more often, they have led to a false sense of achievement.
While political initiative from students is always a good thing, perhaps we need to rethink the channels it finds. There is a crucial distinction between student protests and student activism. The former, more often than not, is a token gesture. I’m not saying it’s easy to go on a fast, or to stand for hours in the hot sun. But does it really accomplish what the protesters want it to? Would it not be more effective to focus the world’s attention on why it’s so important to call for change?
In the case of the Sri Lanka protests, the human rights violations and alleged war crimes had already got media attention before the students marched out. Photographs of children who appear to have been killed in military custody, videos of men being lined up and shot, and of the naked bodies of women – possibly victims of rape – had gone viral.
However, the condition of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) only merits the odd article every now and then. Journalists occasionally visit these camps, and bring back stories of abysmal living conditions and lack of basic facilities. Activism involves engaging with these issues, and ensuring that the media’s focus stays on these subjects. The improvement of facilities in camps for Sri Lankan IDPs in India is within the purview of the Indian government, and this would be a good time to demand that something is done about that.
Geographically, India is in a delicate position, surrounded almost entirely by hostile nations. It doesn’t make political sense for a weak government – as the UPA has undoubtedly proven itself to be – to take a hot-headed stance in this context. It doesn’t make military sense for most countries to intervene in others – it definitely doesn’t for India.
But it is possible, and it is important for us, to keep the pressure up. And this is something a strong student body can help achieve. With the protests having got the media’s attention, those involved need to think of ways to take it forward. And the manner in which they do will illustrate the extent of their engagement with the issue they are fighting for.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

An intensely disturbing snapshot

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on March 16, 2013)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch and others
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: 4 stars
Perhaps the most frightening thing about cults is their passionate certainty in their beliefs, which leaves no room for doubt. We think of their leaders as crafty conmen, their followers as volatile eccentrics, their aggressive defence of their core philosophy as spoof-worthy. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a fascinating portrait of the origins of one such cult. Having gone into the film blind, I wouldn’t have guessed at its references to Scientology if it hadn’t been for a bunch of well-informed – and garrulous – college kids in the row behind me. However, some Googling will give you a list of parallels that have, apparently, offended the Church of Scientology.
The main story in the film isn’t the evolution of The Cause, though. It’s a film that deals with two characters – Second World War veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the enigmatic leader of the cult, Lancaster Dodd a.k.a The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Skinny men with slouches are somehow creepy, and their creepiness is enhanced when they have wild eyes, stuttering speech, psychological baggage, and sex obsession. Quell tells us his mother is in “the loony bin”, he can’t muster up the courage to go back to his pre-war sweetheart, and he’s had an incestuous relationship. He’s basically the sort of man you shudder at and give up on. Well, unless you’re Lancaster Dodd.
Dodd is open about his interest in Quell – he intends to use him for experiments in his research into the human mind and spirit. Dodd’s family – comprising a cunning daughter, supportive young wife, passive-aggressive son-in-law and sceptic son, among others – and his group of followers are nutty oddballs. But there’s something kindly about them, as if these are the sort of freaks that become victims, not threats. The film remains non-judgmental, putting in a sentence or two that illustrate the cult’s stoic survival in the face of opposition from the government authorities.
Set mostly in the summer of 1950, when people were intrigued by hypnosis and the idea of past lives, the film treats its subjects judiciously. They are ridiculous, but not without pathos. We empathise with The Master, an excellent orator who gauges his audience and calibrates his speeches accordingly, an eternal optimist who persists even as the forces gather against him. We empathise with his protégé, listening intently to his speeches, defending him to doubters, trying desperately to succeed in his bizarre tests.
There are two particularly powerful scenes – one in which Quell submits to an ‘informal processing’, and one in which a cynic poses tough questions to The Master, at a party. Dreamy with its recurring image of blue waves, and sombre in its texture, the film incorporates the comic, with quirky music and everyday absurdity. In the end, we, like Quell, are left with questions.
The Verdict: The Master is a wonderfully acted film, interrogating the idea of cult without imposing a message on us.

Striking the balance

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 17, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Arshad Warsi, Boman Irani, Saurabh Shukla, Amrita Rao
Director: Subhash Kapoor
Rating: 3.5 stars
No film based in a courtroom can be realistic. For one, only Bollywood can dispose of a case within days. For another, a courtroom drama is bound to be hilarious because fake lawyers can say things and do things that, in a real court, would get them debarred. So, let’s work on the premise that Jolly LLB is a fantastical satire on the flaws in the legal system.  Subhash Kapoor’s brainchild is not quite a Well done, Abba, but it does pack a punch.
The storyline is pretty straight – a spoilt brat gets away with a crime because his family can afford the right lawyer. An upstart from Meerut, to whom English poses only one of many challenges, decides to gun for publicity by filing a PIL. Naturally, the media hounds him, and Jagdish Tyagi a.k.a. Jolly (Arshad Warsi) is delighted. What he hasn’t quite bargained for is a clash with the formidable Tejinder Rajpal (Boman Irani) – and a judge (Saurabh Shukla) who’s indebted to Rajpal.
Jolly LLB is a fun take on the ridiculousness of the loopholes that a legal eagle can exploit. The dialogue is sometimes quite brilliant. Take, for instance, the line, “Bachcha ghar mein bore ho raha hoga. Court mein bulalo”, used to convince the lawyer to bring in a witness. The seriousness of the crime in question ensures that the film does not get too facetious.  However, thanks to Boman Irani’s and Saurabh Shukla’s seemingly effortless expressions, and Arshad Warsi’s over-the-top performance, it refrains from getting preachy.
The humour here rests mainly on comic timing, and the three main actors get it just right. That said, there are times when we’re not quite sure whether to laugh or groan – like a cameo involving a corrupt cop called Ram Gopal Varma. Some of the jokes may be distasteful to the politically correct, but if you’re willing to indulge the film, you’ll get some good laughs in.
Since the plot isn’t too bulky, one wonders whether the script couldn’t have been tighter. Jolly, in a cinematic cliché, is supplied with a small-town schoolteacher girlfriend (Amrita Rao) who plays Agony Aunt and conscience keeper. This doesn’t quite supplement the story in the manner Jolly’s interactions with the proprietor of the cafeteria at the courthouse do. The latter’s back-story brings in an extra dimension to the film. My only other grouse with the film is a jarringly shrill soundtrack, but I can live with that.
The Verdict: This film strikes the balance between mockery and commentary.

Cult of Personality

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 17, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and others
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: 4 stars
I suppose it’s normal enough for Navy men to theorise on crabs – the STD, not the crustacean. And maybe it’s funny when they build an improvised – and oversized – sand sculpture of a naked woman. But when one of them treats it like an inflatable doll, the laughter begins to die out. We’re thoroughly disturbed when this man cuddles up to the structure and sleeps. We’ll find out eventually that he’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).
Set at a time when there was awareness of, but no term for, what we now recognise as PTSD, The Master initially focuses on Quell’s attempts to re-assimilate into society. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Quell as an anxious, aggressive, confused, perverted character who’s unhinged enough to set off our alarm bells. In his slouching walk and maniacal gaze, we sense something dark and deranged. Director Paul Thomas Anderson illustrates the extent of this derangement through a part-amusing, part-frightening incident involving studio lights.
When Quell runs into a man initially known only as Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we feel a sense of relief. We know Quell will be taken care of. When someone who’s as unsure of himself as Quell is, meets someone who’s as self-assured as Lancaster Dodd, something has to give. Dodd sighs, with modest pomposity, that he’s many things – “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
Bonding over the dangerous hooch Quell stirs up, and extreme experiments involving mind and body, the two men strike up a relationship that isn’t clearly defined. Is one a mentor and guide? Are they sexually attracted to each other? Are they emotionally connected in a way that they can’t be with anyone else, even Dodd’s charming, solid wife Peggy (Amy Adams)? Perhaps it’s Dodd’s bizarre speech on the dragon, perhaps it’s the cultish camaraderie in the group, but something about the proponents of his school of thought – The Cause – makes us uneasy. Then again, any man who announces, “You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé” is bound to make us uneasy.
Driven by its characters, the film captures a spiritual movement in flux. We’re aware that this is only part of the story. Never sure what is memory, what is imagined, what is dream, and what is real, we float through this unsettling narrative. The timeline and certain allusions suggest that the film is loosely based on the origins of Scientology, but the characters and pieced-together fabric prevent it from playing out like a documentary.
The Verdict: Bolstered by powerful performances, this spellbinding film poses more questions than answers.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Eternal sunshine of the thoughtless mind

(Published in The Friday Times, on March 15, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: John Abraham, Prachi Desai, Chitrangada Singh, Zarina Wahab
Director: Kapil Sharma
Rating: 1 star
One thing more tragic than a good actor wasted in a bad film is a good film ruined by bad actors. And the only thing more painful than either of these is a middling film worsened by poor actors. I, Me aur Main establishes that it belongs to the last category early on. It opens in ‘Pune, many years ago’, where a little boy and his older sister are fighting over who threw a paper rocket further. Enter 53-year-old Zarina Wahab, trying to pass off for their mother with dyed and straightened hair. While it is a tad more believable than the pregnant woman she played in the 2012 remake of Agneepath, I did choke over my cold coffee. “You’re my best son,” Maa croons, and Ishaan is flattered, though she doesn’t appear to have any other sons. “Who’s the best?” she croons again, and he chirps, “Ishaan is the best.”
The film then shoots forward to ‘Mumbai, 25 years later’, where 40-year-old John Abraham plays 30-year-old Ishaan. We know he’s Ishaan because he goes up to the bathroom mirror, asks, “Who’s the best?” and answers, “Ishaan is the best, Ishaan is the best, I’m the best!” while taking a boxer’s stance. He’s living with Anushka (Chitrangada Singh), and he appears to spend most of his time dancing with horny waitresses and eager waiters. The song that corroborates his megalomania gives us a headache, partly induced by lyrics such as, “Capuccino mein haseeno ne de diya hai dil ghol kar yeah!” The film then shows us just how selfish he is. Having sponged off Anushka for three years, he refuses to pay for the milk, saying he drinks only black coffee. And she whines to his sister Shivani (Mini Mathur) about it, but sighs that she loves him. Shivani whines about how she should never have introduced the two of them. Full points for dramatic epiphany.
So, Shivani and Anushka are close friends. Shivani and Ishaan are brother and sister. Anushka and Ishaan are dating. Anushka wants to meet Ishaan’s parents. Shivani, who shares the parents, bitches about how Ishaan hasn’t allowed Anushka to meet the parents. Just when we think the film couldn’t get any more illogical, we find that the Muhammad Ali wannabe is a music producer. He has a boss (Raima Sen) whose sleeveless blouses and gauzy saris he doesn’t approve of. Early in the film, he grins, “Any girl I know would do anything for me”, and apparently, Boss Lady is the exception that proves the rule. She faces off with him, saying she’s been hired only to put him in his place. Erm. Why didn’t they just fire him instead? Nobody knows. He parks a series of mediocre singers with skimpy clothes in front of her, only to have her humiliate them.
If the film’s intention is to make us like Ishaan, it fails. Sadly, it fails to make us hate him too. We’re completely apathetic to him. He’s the sort of jerk who’d drop off women in the middle of the road in the wee hours after having a fight with them, who’d host parties at his girlfriend’s place and leave her to clean up, who’d forget about important appointments because he’s partying. He’s a generic, boring jerk, and we’re perfectly okay with him landing Tacky Gauri, Stylist (Prachi Desai). She’s one of those annoyingly optimistic, life-affirming types we want to strangle halfway through their first squeaky sentences.
There is a part-comic, part-tragic interlude involving Maa’s marriage. Zarina Wahab does come into her own at this juncture, reminding us that she won acclaim for her acting, many moons ago. We laugh with the film for a wee bit, but then it all goes back to another predictable twist, which leads us into the interval. By this time, we know Selfish Ishaan’s redemption is due, from either Doormat Anushka or Tacky Gauri. Turns out we haven’t accounted for Amala Singer (Sheena Shahabadi).
When six women are trying to teach one man a lesson, he’s bound to cave at some point. To its credit, I, Me aur Main springs two surprises: (a) He learns his lesson in an hour and a half (b) Worse actors than John Abraham do exist, as the two female leads will prove. Naturally, any film starring John Abraham must end with an item song that features him riding a bike, and women in tiny dresses pouring liquids over themselves. As I left the cinema halfway through the song, I remembered that the title of the film had led to me to fear it may star John Abraham in a triple role. Thank God for small mercies.

Do rapists deserve a second chance?

(Published in, on March 15, 2013, retrieved from

(Picture Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction is prohibited.)

Over the last week, the Delhi gang rape is back in focus. Ram Singh, the driver of the bus on which the 23-year-old victim and her male friend were tortured, hanged himself in prison, despite having been on the police’s suicide watch list. Earlier, actor Rahul Bose spoke of the idea of forgiveness for repentant rapists, setting off a volley of polarised opinions on social media and the press.
When I read the news of Ram Singh’s suicide, my first emotion was relief. Relief that at least one man who had brutalised a girl was out of the way. Relief that, unlike Pappu Salve, this man wouldn’t be released early from jail, to go out and rape again. I don’t claim to have used my reasoning abilities. That was my first, instinctive reaction – relief.
Even as the protests over the rape in New Delhi in late December grew fiercer, newspapers carried reports of more rapes in the capital, as well as in cities across India.
In January, we learnt that 32-year-old Pappu Salve, who had been released from prison early, for good behaviour, was arrested again for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old. He had been sentenced to death for the 2003 rape and murder of a minor, but was acquitted on appeal. However, he served simultaneous jail terms for convictions in cases of rape and murder, lodged against him in 2002. Less than a year after his release, he went on to rape and kill again.
I was in the audience during a panel discussion on violence against women at The Hindu Literature Fest, in Madras, at which author Nilanjana Roy and Rahul Bose were speakers. Bose spoke of how we need to start thinking about forgiveness, and Roy agreed, saying the perpetrators of the Delhi bus rape had shown remorse, and said they were sorry, and that they had been wrong to do what they did.
But does one need to commit a rape to know that it’s wrong? For a very long time, activists have spoken of violent upbringing, of how children raised in homes where they witnessed women being abused tend to turn to crime against women, of how perpetrators of sexual crime have often been victims earlier.
To me, none of these makes for a good reason. To suggest that people who grow up watching their fathers beat their mothers think it is right amounts to the same thing as blaming violence in society on cinema and video games. Witnessing an abusive relationship forces a child to see what a victim suffers too. And being a victim of abuse cannot justify the committing of an abusive act.
When I questioned the panellists after the discussion, Nilanjana Roy said she had spoken to several convicts about this issue. Some showed no remorse, and said they would do it again. Others wept, and said they were sorry they had done it, and wanted a second chance to prove they had become good human beings. Roy said her stance was that locking them up and throwing away the key is not the solution.
It may not be the solution, in the sense that it will not stop rape. But it will stop that particular criminal from going out and raping another woman. True, there is a chance he may not rape another woman. True, he may have turned over a new leaf. But a person who has inflicted such cruelty on someone else does not deserve the chance to turn over a new leaf. He should be locked up, and the key thrown away. He should be made to suffer, if not in the same way, at least for the same period as his victims do – the rest of his life.
A woman who has been raped does not have the chance to un-live her nightmare. It will continue to haunt her, it will make her paranoid, it will frighten her, it will stay with her for the rest of her life.  The victim of an acid attack does not have the chance to get her face, or her abilities, back. She will carry the physical and psychological scars, and the medical and financial consequences of what she went through. The victim of a murder does not have the chance to come back to life, nor does his or her family have the chance to see him or her again.
In this context, can we possibly make a case for the people who are to blame being given a chance? Everyone has the chance to be a good human being. We all falter. We are all capable of horrible things. Some of us are inclined towards them. Some of us have a violent streak. But not all of us – not even all of us who grow up in an abusive setting – turn to crime. And if someone can find it in himself to destroy another person’s life, and put him or her through such pain, that person has exhausted the chance.
Rapists belong in that category. No, they don’t deserve a second chance. Once their guilt is proved beyond doubt, they should be locked up and the key thrown away.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Comfort of Invisibility

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 10, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller and others
Director:  Stephen Chbosky
Rating: 4.5 stars
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for most of its duration, is the high school story we never thought Hollywood could make. Set in 1990s America, it’s not about cheerleaders, jocks, and geeks. It’s about the wallflowers – the misfits who embrace their non-conformity, have intelligent conversation, celebrate The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and get “baked like a cake”, who make friends with their English teachers, and who have their own insecurities under their pretended identities. This is a high school film we can relate to, because even giving room for the separate class systems in the high schools of each culture, there is a certain universality to the existentialism of teenage.
At the outset, the film is about Charlie (Logan Lerman), who has 1385 days of high school left. His brother was a jock, his sister is dating Ponytail Derek, and yet he’s afraid he won’t find a table to eat his first lunch; he’s afraid he won’t find the acceptance, security, and sameness that a circle of friends would provide. Will he find a bunch of oddballs, with whom he can laugh at himself? Will he grow out of the “Friend” he writes letters to, because keeping a diary is so passé? Can he stop “seeing things”, the after-effect of losing the people he loves most?
However, we find out at some point that this is not the film we thought it was all along. Its themes are far more intricate, venturing into psychological apparatus. Suddenly, we are forced to confront the frightening complexity of the human mind, with its safeguards, weaknesses, and defence mechanisms. Are we ever prepared for the triggers that can pierce through our emotional armour, leaving us exposed to our inner demons, threatening to make us collapse under the weight of the things we must come to terms with?
There are little hints throughout the film that give us a sense of foreboding. Seemingly throwaway remarks, such as “Freshman year is when you really find yourself”, accrue significance in retrospect. The film scores with its dialogue – the lines simply stick in our heads, because of how beautifully they’re framed. These characters laugh at the clichés in their lives, just as we do. In one scene, a boy surveys the setting and announces, “My life is officially an after school special.” We roll our eyes, along with the others, at a young man who, when asked, “You write poetry?”, replies, “Poetry writes me.” Sure, some of the angst is laid on a bit thick, but isn’t everything larger than life at that age?
The Verdict: A charming film that is contemplative, funny, and disturbing in equal measure.

Revenge of the Royal

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on March 10, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Jimmy Sheirgill, Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill, Soha Ali Khan
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Rating: 4 stars
In 2011, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s tribute to Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam took us all by surprise, swashbuckling in its execution, precise in its jibes, and luxuriating in its decadence. The sequel takes up from where the first left off, and builds on its bawdiness. The love triangles here are somewhat grander, and therefore more significant. The political satire is more specific in its references to the real clowns that populate our Parliament. And the dialogue is sharper, with double-edged witticisms and offhand sneers eliciting hoots of laughter from the audience.
Like the previous edition, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns, too, keeps us hooked to the downward spiral of the characters. Under Dhulia’s direction and writing, the characters are etched with the detail that shapes them into people we care about. There’s the wheelchair-bound Saheb, Aditya Pratap Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill), no less arrogant, no less royal. His pathetic struggle to maintain his opulent lifestyle, his resentment against a government that has snatched away his right to rule and left him fighting for a stake, and his contempt for everything that is common are edged with a peculiar poignancy. That, of course, is thanks to Sheirgill’s nuanced portrayal. Back, too, is the Biwi (Mahie Gill), still given to alcoholism, nymphomania and hysteria. Sadly, Mahie Gill, who slipped seamlessly into the role last time round, hasn’t found any new dimensions to her character, and gets rather stale.
However, the main draw is the new gangster – a contained-yet-cocky Raja Bhaiyya (Irrfan Khan), with a score to settle. Irrfan Khan, who, like Sheirgill, is finally getting the roles he deserves, is a delight to watch, conveying much with the tiniest flicker of his eyes, and slightest twist of his lips. Soha Ali Khan, who completes the two-way love triangle, plays a princess who is foil to these deviants. One wishes a better actress had been chosen for the part.
Fast-paced and smooth, the film keeps us guessing till it finally unfolds into a neat, sudden climax that takes us by surprise. However, it does have its drawbacks. For one, though the political references do reflect reality – from netas caught watching porn to states being cut into pieces – this part does not quite gel with the main story. Part of the reason for this is that we don’t get the strong sense of setting we did in the first film. That said, it is still a worthy watch.
The Verdict: This stylish sequel lives up to our high expectations.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Everything You Know about Tamil Films Is Probably Wrong

(Published in Open Magazine, March 12-18, 2013 issue, retrieved from

(Photo Courtesy: Open Magazine. Reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

In the 1990s, the Tamil film industry saw the age of inexplicable heroes, each with a thinner moustache, redder eyes and softer paunch. Then, a young crop of male leads broke into the industry. Some of them would go on to become the biggest stars of the new generation. Among them were Ajith Kumar and Vijay, both of whom switched from romantic roles to action roles. It was a quasi-replay of the Kamal Haasan-Rajinikanth rivalry—their fans, too, would often clash with each other, till Ajith disbanded all his fan clubs in 2011.
Both were unlikely stars. The half-Sindhi Ajith, now 41, was born and raised in Andhra Pradesh. He got into modelling, and later films, to fund a career in motor racing. His debut was in Telugu, and initially, someone had to dub for him in Tamil. His Tamil still carries the tinge of an Anglicised accent. Many of his early films, mostly family dramas and love stories, were critically acclaimed, but few were box office hits. Ajith turned ‘action hero’ with AR Murugadoss’ Dheena in 2001. The nickname given to him by his fans, ‘Thala’ (literally, ‘head’) is from the film too. For Ajith, that marked the beginning of a series of critically panned but commercially successful films.
Of these, the biggest hit was Varalaru, the story of an effeminate dancer who rapes a woman to avenge the death of his mother, which was caused by a cardiac arrest that, in turn, resulted from the woman mocking his feminine bearing and dumping him at the altar. Now branded ‘Ultimate Star Ajith’, he appeared in a triple role—as the dancer and as his twin sons.
The climax of the film involves the dancer, now in a wheelchair, getting off the wheels to fight the antagonist, and the big revelation is that he feigned his crippling to atone for the rape.
Vijay made his entry as a scrawny, curly-haired youngster who spent half his films dancing with a group of extras. It made no sense for him to be either an action hero or a romantic hero. However, after a series of bewilderingly successful romantic films, Vijay switched to action. He clicked. Since the early 2000s, he’s churned out hit after mindless hit. The latest, Murugadoss’ Thuppakki, marries terror with the love story of an Army captain and a female boxer.
Having rejected her in an arranged marriage set-up, because he finds her too traditional with her long hair (which turns out to be a wig) and translucent sari (which she later discards for shorts and spaghetti top), he realises he made an error of judgment when he sees her at a college boxing tournament that merits police security; after taking a few hits on being distracted by his presence, she visualises him rejecting her, screams, “Aaaiiiiiiiii!” and knocks down her opponent. This is the trigger for a dream song called Antarctica. After asking whether she’s a penguin or a female dolphin, the lyrics move on to suggesting that radar technology must be used to track the captain’s heart and sonar to measure the depth of his love. Through the song, the boxer plays American football with a rugby ball and soccer kit, throws a javelin, and plays tennis, basketball and volleyball. Their love is cemented when she confesses that she’s smoked and still has a weakness for red wine.
Though there were protests against the film by Muslim groups, the film netted Rs 180 crore at the box office, according to the financial report released by Eros International for its quarter ending 31 December 2013. It will soon be remade in Hindi with Akshay Kumar in the lead. Vijay’s efforts have earned him the title ‘Ilaya Thalapathi’ (Young Commander) from his fans.
At some point in his career, he also acquired the habit of biting the collar of his shirt in a trademark gesture that begs lampooning.
It has been an interesting decade for Tamil cinema. Films are made on budgets that wouldn’t have been dreamt of in the industry earlier. The production cost of Raavanan was estimated at Rs 55 crore by IMDb (Internet Movie Database) and that of Thuppakki at Rs 65 crore. According to a 2012 report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (Media and Entertainment in South India), Tamil films took Rs 1,030 crore in revenues in 2011-12. For big-budget films, Rs 2-2.5 crore is usually spent on publicity alone, and the visual effects budget could range from Rs 5 crore to Rs 10 crore. Deloitte attributes such spending to ‘corporates and big studios like Eros and Fox Star crowding the regional film industry’, drawn by the low-cost, high-margin factor. And in looking for avenues of revenue, their makers reach out to the North as well as international market. New heroes have emerged across genres—complete with epithets like ‘Ilaya Thalapathi’, ‘Thala’, ‘Ultimate Star’, ‘Chiyaan’ (Vikram), ‘Little Superstar’ (Silambarasan) and so on—even as the stars of the 80s and 90s kick on, battling villains and arthritis. And with a series of successful spoofs, Tamil cinema has finally learnt to laugh at itself.
In the league of Ajith and Vijay is the superhero, Surya, now 37, who starred in the Tamil originals of both Ghajini and Singham. He has worked with Murugadoss on the big grosser, 7 Aum Arivu (literally, ‘The Seventh Sense’), which co-starred Shruti Haasan. After false starts in the late 90s, his breakthrough came in Kaakha Kaakha in 2003. He also acted in Mani Ratnam’s Ayutha Ezhuthu (the Tamil version ofYuva), and is believed to be working on a sequel to Singham, but has never attempted to enter Bollywood.
Sharing space with Surya as a ‘mass hero’ who can also act is 46-year-old Vikram, who was seen most recently in both the Hindi and Tamil versions of David, after debuting in Bollywood with Mani Ratnam’sRaavan. The actor, who tried unsuccessfully to make a mark throughout the 90s, spent years dubbing for several actors whose Tamil was not fluent, including Ajith and Prabhu Deva, who is Kannadiga. He was catapulted to fame by the 1999 sleeper hit, Sethu, which tells the story of a college student (played by Vikram) who rides roughshod over everyone and eventually ends up in a mental asylum after getting into a fight that leaves him with brain damage. Vikram’s acting has been critically acclaimed in several films, but he’s made his share of entertainers, some as crazy as the notorious Kanthaswamy, whose central character is a vigilante superhero with a penchant for dressing in rooster costume.
However, the actor who has been most successful straddling both Hindi and Tamil cinema is Madhavan, now 41. Introduced by Mani Ratnam in Alaipayuthey, he went on to act in Gautham Menon’sMinnale and its Hindi remake, Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein. Since then, and especially in the past four years, he has crossed frequently between Bombay and Madras. Madhavan may be the only actor who has debuted on Hindi television, moved to Tamil cinema, and then got into Hindi cinema.
Looking back at his early years, Madhavan is candid. “Initially, I jumped on the bandwagon of doing as many films as possible, so I ended up doing close to 30-odd films in the first five years, which was ridiculous. See, when I first joined the film industry, I wasn’t expecting to make a name for myself. When it happened, suddenly, there was this utter greed to push the luck I had earlier. Everything was going too well. Action films are always going to work. But then, I was very sure I wanted to get into the archives and survive for a couple of generations. And I was seeing that my expressions were the same, my attitude was the same, my body language didn’t change from film to film. So, that’s when I consciously stepped back and decided I couldn’t keep rushing through movie after movie. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and start doing the kind of films that I really wanted to do.”
And so, he went back to Mani Ratnam, for Ayutha Ezhuthu. Suddenly, the chic boy next door was playing a coarse, crude, wife-beating lorry driver Inba. “As far as my physical transformation was concerned, I thought it was complete. Mani didn’t say anything, but I got my hair cut really short, almost bald, I grew a moustache, and I worked out a lot, and built a body, not like an athlete, but like a street fighter. People like lorry drivers lead hard lives. They’re strong, but fairly unhealthy. They don’t have cuts and muscles, they have a body full of muscle and fat.” He feels he was only partially successful with the portrayal, though, and wishes he had focused more on the way the language was spoken. Though he is Tamil and has proven adept at picking up its slang, he grew up in Bihar, and Hindi comes more naturally to him. He says he is dying to do something like Inba’s role in Hindi now.
Meanwhile, he has also been trying to push offbeat films into the mainstream arena. One of his attempts was the 2007 film Evano Oruvan, a remake of the Marathi film Dombivli Fast by Nishikant Kamat. It tells the story of an idealistic bank employee who refuses to compromise his principles. A turning point in his career makes him an angry young man, out to set society right by employing whatever means he can, so that he is eventually branded a criminal whom the police want to get rid of through an ‘encounter’. Though the film did not do too well, Madhavan does not blame the audience for it. “I was naïve as a producer, and I didn’t release it properly. I just trusted what other people told me about releases. I think if it had got the release it should have, or if it had been released at a time like this, when we’re engaging with themes like corruption, it would have done very well.”
Since 2000, the industry has seen a spate of new directors quickly become brands. Selvaraghavan, brother of actor Dhanush (of Kolaverifame), first came into the limelight for his Kaadhal Kondein, the story of a psychopath (Dhanush) obsessed with a woman. The climax of the film is literally a cliffhanger, where the woman has to choose between saving her boyfriend and her stalker from falling into a chasm. Selvaraghavan’s next film, 7G Rainbow Colony, the supposedly angst-ridden story of a man who letches at and eve teases a woman till she falls in love with him (because that’s how women’s brains work, according to old Tamil male wisdom), became an even bigger hit. Most of Selvaraghavan’s subsequent films have been successful at the box office. The hero is typically a flawed character who is loved by the heroine despite his flaws, which include kicking her when she’s pregnant. His last release Mayakkam Enna, which starred Dhanush as a frustrated wildlife photographer, had a long run at the box office. In the film, his big break comes when the Tamil magazine Kumudam, which is usually packed with film gossip, carries a cover photograph shot by him of an African elephant. It was probably the first time anyone had seen something apart from a plump woman flashing her navel on the magazine’s cover.
Another director who became extremely popular at that time is Gautham Vasudev Menon. Nearly all his films have been remade in Hindi. His debut, Minnale, was made into Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein, hisKaakha Kaakha became Force, and his Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya was remade as Ekk Deewana Tha. He has often cited Mani Ratnam as a major influence on his filmmaking, and while his action-thrillers and semi-autobiographical romances have not been nearly as complex as the films of his idol, most have done very well at the box office.
Actor-director Cheran, also a maker of semi-autobiographical films, is a three-time National Award winner: for Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000),Autograph (2004) and Thavamai Thavamirundhu (2005). The first is an upbeat and somewhat patriotic film, which traces the success stories of two impoverished men after they are duped by a middleman who promises them passage to Dubai. The second follows a man and the women in his life, all of whom he wants to invite to his wedding. This nostalgia-tinged growing-up story received standing ovations at some film festivals. Thavamai Thavamirundhu explores the relationship between a father and his two sons. Though Cheran is immensely popular in Tamil Nadu, he has kept to the Tamil and Telugu film industries. Among directors, the two most unlikely migrants from Tamil to Hindi were possibly Prabhu Deva and AR Murugadoss.
Prabhu Deva, who started his career as a choreographer, was first seen as one of the dancers in the song Raja Rajathi Rajan from Mani Ratnam’s Agni Natchathiram (1988). He had slightly more screen time in the film Gentleman (1993). The following year, he played the lead inKaadhalan, dubbed in Hindi as Hum Se Hai Muqabla. He entered Bollywood through dance too, appearing in the song Kay Sera Serawith Madhuri Dixit in Pukar (2000). But since then, he has established himself as a director. In the Telugu and Tamil industries, he has made some of the biggest hits of the last decade. In Bollywood, he has directed Wanted, starring Salman Khan, and Rowdy Rathore, starring Akshay Kumar. His latest film, ABCD, which had a simultaneous release in Hindi and Tamil, has done well so far too.
AR Murugadoss’ Ramana, which stars actor-politician Vijayakanth, stunned audiences by killing the hero. Vijayakanth rarely dies—in fact, in the film Narasimha, when he is given the third-degree with electrodes, he calmly tells his interrogators, “Only an ordinary man gets a shock when he touches an electric current. But I’m Narasimha. If current touches me, the current gets a shock.” A transformer duly bursts when they press the electrodes to his brain. However, inRamana, he is successfully hanged.
Murugadoss made Ghajini in Hindi without knowing a word of the language. The Tamil version of the film had raised many eyebrows for its close link to Memento. But both Murugadoss and Aamir Khan told the media at the time that the director had heard about the concept ofMemento, written the script, seen the film and decided it was nothing like Ghajini, and had then gone on to shoot it. If you are befuddled by what they were saying, it means they did not plagiarise. When asked at a press conference about making a film in a language he did not know, Murugadoss said Aamir Khan had taken over the dialogue through a two-step translation process, from Tamil to English, and then English to Hindi. Murugadoss said, “I don’t know Hindi at all. From knowing the Tamil words, I had to find my way through the Hindi dialogues. Every time I was stuck on a word or line, I’d call up Aamir.”
However, attempts to move between the two industries had begun far earlier. Most had been unsuccessful. Kamal Haasan couldn’t make the crossover himself with Saagar and Ek Duuje ke Liye. Neither could the highly acclaimed Tamil director K Balachander. Remakes of Tamil films like Virasat (from Thevar Magan), with Anil Kapoor’s misguided casting, were disappointments.
But Nayagan and Roja were among many of Mani Ratnam’s films that did well as dubbed versions. Often, they lost their flavour in translation, especially in scenes where language becomes important. For instance, the poignancy in Roja draws from a village girl’s inability to communicate with anyone in the North, because she speaks neither English nor Hindi. The bonds she develops with the characters played by Nasser and Janakaraj hinge on their having a common language.
But, at the turn of the century, something interesting happened. Mani Ratnam made a Hindi film (Dil Se, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala), which had only a dubbed release in Tamil. In 2000, Kamal Haasan made Hey Ram, which has dialogue in Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, English and Marathi, and then remade it in Hindi. He followed this with Aalavandhan/ Abhay in 2001.
Mani Ratnam too began to not just dub, but remake his films in Bollywood. In the case of Yuva/Ayutha Ezhuthu andRaavan/Raavanan, he used different casts for Hindi and Tamil versions.
It was through Kamal Haasan’s and Mani Ratnam’s films that Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Manisha Koirala, Raveena Tandon, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherji filtered into Southern cinema. Raveena Tandon would go on to make several films in the South, as would Aishwarya Rai. Kajol had already acted in Rajiv Menon’s Tamil film Minsaara Kanavu in 1997, with Arvind Swamy and Prabhu Deva.
When I interviewed Mani Ratnam in 2007, ahead of the release ofGuru, I asked him if his sudden focus on Bollywood was an attempt to spread his banner to another market, or whether it had to do with Bollywood being more receptive to the budgets he now needed. He said that, for him, it’s the subject that decides the language, which was why Dil Se and Guru were Hindi films, and a movie like Kannathil Muthamittal (which looks at the fallout of the Eelam conflict) could only be a regional film. His films set in Bombay had revolved around Tamil families in the city.
“I was hesitant for a long time to do films in Hindi, because I’m still not very familiar with the language, I’m not so fluent, and I cannot follow every word,” he admitted, “I find it very frustrating to have a script in front of me that I can’t read. I have to depend on somebody to read it out for me, and for me to correct. So, I’m still hesitant. But once I didDil Se, I knew that it could be done, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.”
At the time, he said it was unlikely he would ever shoot a film in two languages again. “Remaking is too elaborate an effort, you know. To do the same thing twice over, to get it right two times in a row, one after the other… it just takes too much of you, and if I’m going to put in that effort, I might as well make a new film. So Yuva was only a one-off attempt. The magic to me is to do a scene when you don’t know how to do the scene, when you’re still struggling to find a way to get it across correctly. And once you think you’ve got it, to recreate whatever you’ve done before, trying to think what [we’d done] that time that was right, is not the same as discovering it for the first time.” Ironically, his next film, after Guru, was Raavan/Raavanan.
While he has often said his films are not ‘message-bearers’ but ‘reflections’, Mani Ratnam was equally clear about working in the mainstream arena, and trying to reach as many people as he can. “I’m trying to make films which will reach the popular audience. And the more serious the film is, the more I think it should go to the people. To say ‘A film is too serious’ and so ‘We’ll talk only to the elite’ doesn’t make any sense at all to me. But I feel that within this, you can make sensible films. People like Guru Dutt have done that, and this is what I strive to do with each film.”
What has irked Mani Ratnam all through, though, are charges of plagiarism. Both he and Kamal Haasan have their critics who contrive Hollywood inspirations for their films. Mani Ratnam was accused by some factions of lifting scenes from Amores Perros for Ayutha Ezhuthu/ Yuva.
“I think it is unfortunate that we think we are not capable. It is really sad. We assume we aren’t capable of thinking for ourselves, and we always look for what it could have been copied from. It is very, very sad. For example, you know Chaiyya Chaiyya, right? Luckily for me,Dancer in the Dark came out two years later. Otherwise, I’d have been told that the train song sequence is inspired from that!” The idea of an item number featuring Malaika Arora being lifted from the slow, poignant I’ve Seen it All is hilarious, but Mani Ratnam has suffered even more absurd charges in his career. “You know, we’re still under the shadow of the White man. We don’t give ourselves enough credit or enough credibility. We want to dismiss ourselves.”
Mani Ratnam moved into unexplored territory again with his fable-likeKadal, which tells the survival stories of four characters through a narrative loaded with Christian symbolism. The film has mostly bewildered critics and angered distributors (after a poor showing at the box office). And it has polarised opinion—there are those who love it, and those who hate it, a not-so-rare phenomenon for a Mani Ratnam film.
Yet, few filmmakers have polarised opinion in the last decade the way Kamal Haasan has. He has made movies with huge budgets, veering towards bankruptcy at times. Several of his dream projects, including the much-hyped Marudhanayagam, were shelved. To fund these ventures, he acted in potboilers, most of which were tremendously fun comedies, in between. His box-office hits include Thenali, Pammal K. Sambandam, Panchathanthiram, and Vasool Raja MBBS. He also collaborated with Gautham Menon on the cop thriller Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu in 2006, and starred in Unnaipol Oruvan, a remake of Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday.
Kamal Haasan’s big films during this time included Hey Ram, Aalavandhan/Abhay and Virumandi, followed some years later, of course, by Vishwaroopam. But, though he remade several of these movies, rather than dub, they were not as successful in Hindi as in Tamil. Some even did badly in Tamil. The films that had critics in raptures, most notably Hey Ram, had disappointing collections. He repaid distributors for Aalavandhan/Abhay. Most of these films were dogged by controversy. However, this was also the period that saw some of his biggest commercial successes, including Dasavatharam, which became the highest crossing Tamil film ever, at the time, with collections of over Rs 200 crore.
Vishwaroopam has given Kamal Haasan the most trouble, with its release stalled twice. First, theatre owners were unhappy about the film being available on the Direct-to-Home (DTH) platform a day before the theatrical release.
He agreed to postpone the DTH release. Days before the film was to hit theatres, a Muslim outfit in Tamil Nadu got the film banned for two weeks. There was an appeal, and the judge ruled against the ban a few days later. But the Tamil Nadu government intervened to have the ban extended.
As the media speculated over political vendetta, Kamal Haasan said in an interview to Mid-Day: “[The Tamil Nadu government] won’t rest easy until they finish off my film and destroy me financially.” He also said, “I am going to take the print of the Tamil version of Vishwaroopand burn it in front of the relevant government office. They are aborting my baby. I might as well give it a proper cremation.”
Finally, the film released on 7 February, with some scenes muted and others edited out. By this time, fans of Kamal Haasan had already crossed state borders and flocked to theatres in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to watch it. These states, too, had stopped screenings a few times, but did eventually show it without cuts.
Rahul Bose, who plays the antagonist in the film, says he was surprised by the fuss in Tamil Nadu. “According to all my friends in Madras, there was nothing offensive. I don’t understand Tamil Nadu politics, I don’t understand Tamil Nadu’s religious sensibilities, so I don’t know. But what I do know is that if a film has been passed, been given its CBFC rating, it should be the responsibility of the state to support the film, no matter what. It doesn’t happen—it doesn’t happen in Tamil Nadu, it doesn’t happen in Gujarat, it doesn’t happen in Maharashtra. This is not a new thing.”
Addressing a press conference after the row was settled, Kamal Haasan said such demands for film bans were becoming a trend that needed to be challenged by people at large. Incidentally, the same week, Hindu outfits protested against a film titled Aadhi Bhagavan, and Christian groups against Mani Ratnam’s Kadal.
Though Mani Ratnam wasn’t available for comment on this particular controversy, he spoke against censorship in his 2007 interview, saying he believed it was something the British had left behind. “It’s an unfortunate thing that we’re still carrying around, that we haven’t modified, that we haven’t upgraded, that we haven’t given enough thought and exercise to. I think it will be reviewed sooner or later. I think ideally filmmakers should be trusted with self-censorship… It is just another medium—it can do what a newspaper article can do, what a radio broadcast can do, what television can do; what a musician can do, what a painter can do, what an artist can do. The rest of them don’t have censors, only cinema does.”
Meanwhile, the big daddy of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth, suddenly came alive to the North, which has been trying desperately to make sense of him as a ‘phenomenon’. His attempts to break into Bollywood in the 80s and 90s, with films like Asli Naqli, Hum and Aatank Hi Aatank had been unsuccessful. What got everyone’s attention was the success of Sivaji (for which he was rumoured to have been paid Rs 20 crore) and the even bigger success of Enthiran/ Robot (for which he was rumoured to have been paid Rs 45 crore). Chandramukhi, his 2005 comeback from a two-year hiatus following the flop of Baba, had been remade as Bhool Bhulaiyaa in Hindi, starring Akshay Kumar. That film was more faithful to the Malayalam originalManichitrathazhu than the customised-for-Rajini Chandramukhi. But now, all of India understood that no one else could be Rajinikanth. There was just him— with his rags-to-riches story and his unfathomable stardom.
For the first time in Tamil cinema, spoofs began to enter the market. Tamil films had always had ‘comedy tracks’, which could range from slapstick to social satire. But it was understood that some things were sacrosanct. You could not make fun of Rajinikanth, for instance. Or Mani Ratnam. Or Vijay and Ajith.
The first all-out spoof was the 2010 release Thamizh Padam. It spared nobody. The film opens in a dimly-lit hospital, straight out of Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi. The most mundane lines are spoken in one-word utterances. The film also features a satirical version of Karuthamma, a National Award-winning film on female infanticide. This is followed by an elaborate gag in which a loud female gangster is all set to rape a well-groomed, petrified male virgin. From the Rube Goldbergian device used to kill one of the villains in Apoorva Sagodharargal/Appu Raja, to Vijay’s compulsive shirt-biting, to AR Rahman’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, to the Hutch dog and Vodafone’s ZooZoos, Thamizh Padam left no survivors. The films spoofed by it include Nayagan, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Kaadhalan, Virumandi, Anniyan, Ghajini, Kanthaswamy, Mouna Ragam, Baasha and Sivaji. A song in the film, Oh-maha-zeeya, was made up of nonsense words used in Tamil movie lyrics. The film ruffled many feathers, but had a long run at the box office.
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