Saturday, March 12, 2016

MacGuffins, Motifs and Mona Darling!

Tamasha: A celebratory take on storytelling

A few years ago, when I had tumult in my life, fighting societal conventions to get closer to the person I love, I saw Imtiaz Ali's "Rockstar", only to be devastated by its abstract beauty and passion. I ended up watching that film twice at the cinemas, crying resplendently each time. Cut to now, I'm in a far better place in life, having won some battles and lost some, yet close to people, places and ventures I love. Given that, Imtiaz's latest feature, 'Tamasha' has still managed to invoke those tears in me and a couple of days after watching the movie, I was still reeling over the afterglow of the several emotions and thoughts it has managed to stir up. However, this time, this afterglow is merely because of the film's accomplishment as a celebration of all things pertinent to storytelling. I can only imagine how it must have felt to people who could actually reflect with the film's essential plot.

Tamasha, in my book, is undoubtedly Imtiaz Ali's most accomplished work. Its a natural yet scrupulously careful progression of his cinematic style, exploration of the concepts of modern love and the human narrative, experimentations in storytelling techniques, and collaborations with powerful artists. Given my understanding of his style of cinema, going in, I was pleasantly enthralled by the way each moment hit the right notes with me, often surprising and amusing me.

To start with, Tamasha works in four layers for me. On the core inner layer is the mish-mash of a plot that involves Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) and Tara (Deepika Padukone). I call it a mish-mash because one can almost half expect this plot from an Imtiaz Ali flick. A boy meets girl, typically in a situation that is unusual to either lives, which lets them be more of themselves. They explore the dynamics of their own personal selves and the company in unique ways and end up falling in love. And this love only lets them further explore their personal selves and face the inhibitions their lives have had a priori. The way the characters recognize and later, realize their love for each other is usually woven into the overall fabric of the plot in an illogical, flawed yet delightful manner. Almost like how adding a mosaic pattern to an otherwise monochrome garment shouldn't work, but almost always works in that weird way through which the splendid world of fashion thrives. In essence, the love story becomes sort of a MacGuffin, a mere plot device that exists to push the larger points of the film forward.

Yet, this MacGuffin used here rises to have a rhapsodic presence and treatment in the film. The characters feel grounded in reality, despite their occasional surreal contexts. The arcs the characters follow feel very organic, and their inihibitions and enthusiasms for love and life feel accurate. This is where Imtiaz's writing feels the most subtle yet precise amongst the entirety of his work. And it is an absolute pleasure watching Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone drive these characters forward. Ranbir feels effortless throughout most parts, yet I missed the pain in his eyes that is so well portrayed in Rockstar. Maybe Ved is too bottled up to let his eyes emote. On a polar opposite there is Deepika, who does so much with her eyes that are worth insuring! On a personal note, I think Imtiaz should try and return to these actors as much as his position as a mainstream-auteur would let him. They make for great muses!

The second layer in Tamasha and the primary plot of the film, is the overall story of Ved, a guy who recognizes his love for storytelling and revels in it. All through his life, he seems to be eternally stuck between his innate urges to be imaginative and his conscious compulsions to conform to norms. And the aforementioned MacGuffin helps catalyze the shift from him being Ved to Don. Imtiaz writes and directs the juxtaposition of these two personas quite well. Even the dialogue ranges from Don's quips like 'Apna Haath Jagannadh' to Ved's generic comment about how the Continental place they have their first date at is amongst the top restaurants. There's so much in the script that can be dissected and appreciated here for its careful treatment, like how Ved starts agitating against Tara, as she manages to incite a catalysm in his persona. Or how in Corsica, he constantly muses about his life as Ved, sitting atop the lonely cliff or as he quips "Is duniya ka dil us duniya me nahi chaltha na Zohra bai". I'll respect brevity here as I talk about this otherwise prominent layer of the film. Ranbir shines again, often deliberate but exact in his personality alternations.

What happens to be a simple tale of a person realizing his inner self owing to his experiences, turns into a marvellous extravaganza in the third and most cunning layer of the film. It almost feels as if Imtiaz pulls a magical rabbit out of a hat that contains his love for the non-linear narrative and his admiration for the Indian cinematic style replete with song, dance and drama. He literally makes this film a Tamasha (a play). One that the audience of the play are invited to as the film begins and then, one that the viewers of the film are taken through as this play on-stage metaphorically takes over the entire film. This gives Imtiaz the much needed liberty to explore narrative styles. Something that he's particularly good at. Only, the various styles that would otherwise make a movie thematically discordant are justified in this film, as a play lends more freedom to the narrator than the cinematic medium could. Thus, what makes Rockstar an abstract art piece makes this film an exquisitely metaphorical play. Montages propel the tale forward as if a storyteller was summarizing the plot, several motifs take centerstage and cutting into songs makes perfect sense as an imaginative technique. We see random Punjabi folk singers sing about a character that has resonance with Tara in Kolkata, an Auto Rickshaw driver's song hints at Ved's past, characters from mythologies come alive owing to little Ved's daydreams (Yash Sehgal is a pleasure to watch) and adult Ved and Tara appear in the montage over the Titles (even before their characters are introduced). There is a beauty in using subtext, motifs and a blend of narrative methods as storytelling techniques and this film is essentially Imtiaz Ali finding a way to capture that beauty and making it an ode to the art of storytelling itself.

The final layer in the film is Ali's collaboration with respected and skilled artists and the product that is delivered. The film makes us stand up and take note of Ravi Varman's gorgeous cinematography, Grainy frames depicting Ved's imaginations, in a quirky coincidence, invoke thoughts of Raja Ravi Varma. Visuals of the streets of Corsica, the alleys of Delhi or the hills of Simla are all smartly lit, deftly tracked and painstakingly detailed. I'm very excited for Ravi Varman's upcoming collaboration with Mani Ratnam, the latter being specially known for his visual mastery. I wish I could explore into Irshad Kamil's work for this film, but I dont have any basic lyrical literacy to talk about Hindi. But I'd stop press to indulge the reader with some adulation for Rahman's soundtrack for the flick. Now, I'm usually a sucker for his music but I must admit I was faintly disappointed when the album for the film came out. Only to have both feet in my mouth as I watched the film, as the soundtrack works brilliantly with the narrative, each musical piece and section having a definite purpose and conjunction to what's happening on the screen. Beautiful music has always been his forte, but Rahman, over time, has seemingly developed a knack for narrative and he excels at it when he collaborates with Imtiaz. For instance, a slightly modulated version of the piano riffs from the interlude in 'Agar Tum Saath Ho' find place in the background during the scene where Tara sits by the pavement watching Don play soccer with random guys on the street. In fact, she isn't even watching him, but taking in his presence and being content with it. Or think about how Arijit Singh's dual octave rendition in this very track is a reflection of the two personalities dwelling within Ved. Probably ample anecdotes to explain why I'm terribly excited for '99 Songs', a film being written and produced by Rahman.

It is not often that you watch a film, and for days after, keep going back to the many moments in it. Waiting eagerly to relive them, read about them and discuss them with fellow film enthusiasts. And more often than not, it is the art of storytelling and how able storytellers have mastered it that drive us in our adulation for these films. 'Tamasha' is a celebratory take on this very art.

P. S.: There's two uncanny tangents that this film has also made me muse about. One, my dad, who used to make up myriad tales of 'Aladdin and Genie' to tell a very young me as we spent sleepless nights when there was no power in the house. I guess my love for storytelling began when I was very young.

P. P. S: Piyush Mishra's dialogues in the opening scenes invoke a throwback to a caption the trailer of the film came out with - 'Why always the same story?'. It seemed like Imtiaz was doing a 'here's the answer yet here's the question' to all his critics who keep saying that he rehashes the same plot for all of his flicks. I'd always justified this by quoting Roger Ebert who said 'Its not what a movie is about, its how it is about it'. Here, Mishra asks - Brahma or Ibrahim or Abraham - its the same story everywhere. Across civilizations, cultures, borders and times. A conflict - a resolution.  It is only us mere people who squabble over the details.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blog-ette # 6: Zesty Infatuations

Thoughts on "Premam"

To get the 'not-so-good' out of the way, firstly, the heroines in the film, solve little more than the purpose of being plot pushers and dare I say it, even eye-candy to an extent. Though the performances by Madonna Sebastien, Sai Pallavi and Anupama Parameshwaran are ample, they fail to evoke a quality in their characters that feels grounded in reality. But I do see promise with each of these actors as they make denser movies with more character to bite. I say that because, the movie itself, secondly for my 'not-so-good' things, doesn't chew a lot in terms of depth in emotion or character development. 

Premam majorly seems content with one objective. To explore, and celebrate the probably superficial yet definitely jubilant tryst of a guy falling head over heels for girls, at several stages of his formative life. If you've been through these phases in life, you'd surely recognize the exuberant joy, the fantastic enthusiasm, the adrenaline rush, and the pulsating pain involved. Premam is a suave, stylistic and thorough ode to this zesty infatuation a guy has for a girl. Writer-Director Alphonse Putharen, also in a Tarantino-esque cameo, employs himself thoroughly to this ode. I invoke Tarantino because, in terms of stylization and attention to environmental detail, if a young Tarantino had actually made a rom-com, this is how it would look. 

This tale of fervors is insanely littered with little details, quirks and subtextual humor. For instance, the cafe that the lead runs towards the end of the film is called 'Agape', which is Greek for love, according to iMDB. Anand C. Chandran's camera quietly follows the charming narrative Alphonse takes us through. Rajesh Murugesan's rustic soundtrack comes with tremendous gusto and is given its worthy due. In recent times, I've seldom seen lip-sync songs done and blended into the overall narrative with so much appreciation for that art. Much can be said about the flick, but I have to doff my hat to Nivin Pauly's finely layered acting. He's grown so much as an actor who can anchor an entire film around him and he makes this pleasure ride all the more enjoyable.

As a teenager, trying to woo my first love (whom, I'm thankfully with, in Life), I had a great infatuation for this lady, writing her love notes, singing her songs, and putting out my most gentlemanly-flirtatious self, with the miniscule hope of winning her heart. Premam made me sit back and cherish all that naive unadulterated fun. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bringing Down Broadway!

Notes from the A.R.Rahman Intimate Concert in New York City

As we raced up the stairs at a non-descript Newark train station to catch the train that was audibly screeching to a halt on the platform above us, I was almost cursing myself and more so, my friend for being late. As we rushed our way through multiple subway stations and cluttered Manhattan streets, I told my friend jocularly that I'd push him in front of a car if I missed the first few performances. But then, that was the excitement for me, an A.R.Rahman music fanatic for life, for my first ARR concert, that too in an impressionable setting no less on one of the theaters on New York City's famed Broadway. Lining up outside the theater, it almost felt like we were at a temple on a pilgrimage. Only there were enough Pradas and Guccis to match the Sarees I guess.

So we get in, settle down and in a few minutes, the lights go off. Over the next couple of hours, 'bringing the house down' felt like a contest between the performers on the stage and the audience. But I've felt that over the years, that has become the essence of ARR's work. Packing so much into one little album, soundtrack, venture; And that is precisely what we saw as the lights went off and the stage lights came on. There he sat to the left, surrounded by a grand piano, a Roli seaboard, an ipad, a Macbook and a few other programming thingamajigs. He started off by a subtle Raaga invocation on the seaboard, followed by a prayer to the almighty in the form of a few lines of 'Maula' from Delhi 6. Haricharan joined in for the vocals only to stay back and remain a powerhouse for the rest of the evening.

But before that, I had to register the band; folks that I'd seen performing in stunning youtube videos and have been wanting to witness live. There was Keba on the guitars, the prodigal Mohini Dey on the bass, the jubilant Ranjit Barot on the drums, the sublime Anne Marie on the violin, lined up in the second row by a three folks on the keyboards for rhythms - Annette Philip, Karthikeya and Shiraz Uppal; flutist Naveen Kumar and a superb percussion guy whose name I was too busy to note when the credits rolled up.

You know there is going to be something special when you see three rhythm players! And yes there was! The set-list started by paying homage to where it all started - 'Chinni Chinni Asai', followed by 'Tu Hi Re' and another Mani Ratnam track I can't recollect now, given my miniscule memory for details. What I can remember was Haricharan and Jonita Gandhi's powerful vocals leading us from track to track effervescently. These two folks should seriously consider insuring their voices. But what else could I expect from two singers that Rahman has obsessed over for his soundtracks successively over the past few years. Concerts on every evening through different cities and their voices remained unfazed, the energy thousandfold, the pitching perfect. Even ARR struggled through his tracks, self admitting to his voice giving up after successive concerts.

But it didn't matter; what with so much else sublime going on, just like in a typical ARR track. There was ARR juggling between everything from an accordion to vocals to the Roli to a funkily tuned note on the piano. There was Keba juggling between leading guitar notes on the acoustic to very touching backing notes on electric guitars. Then there was Mohini awing everyone as her fingers slithered through the lenghty fretboard on the bass guitar.

And there were the best surprises of the evening, in no particular order, detailed here under: A filler piece from one of his OSTs ('Warriors of Heaven and Earth', I presume) that had an amazing crescendo with the drums, percussions, bass, violin and Annette Philip on the vocals doing a stand-off. Talk of Annette Philip (cue: Berklee College of Music) brings fond memories of the 'J' club element from the night - when Annette Philip caught unmitigated attention with her smooth vocals for the jazz number 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na'. I can't quite pinpoint on what grabbed me more - the Annette - piano - bass - violin standoff in the song's interlude or the ARR - Annette duet where Annette went 'full jazz diva' on us as she leaned on ARR's piano and looked him in the eye. (Yes, finally a saree clad Jazz diva - oh you wickedly beautiful almighty!) Then there was the subtle duet between Annette and ARR in an ode to my all time inspiration anthem, 'If I Rise'. Somewhere down the line, ARR and Ranjit went into 'Sheldon' mode by wearing wrist bands and ankle straps and playing music by waving arms and stomping their feet. And then into Rock-Jazz stratosphere as ARR extended 'Oh humdum/Endrendrum Punnagai' into a svelte afterlude standoff between the bass-drums-piano. But my moment of the night belonged to the time when Solange Merdinian guest appeared (the benefits of a concert in NYC meant terrific artists can descend down on you, unannounced) for the sublime 'My mind is a stranger without you'. As Solange and ARR played mellow with the vocals, the bass-drum-percussion arrangement left the theater spellbound.

Then there were the usual moments one expects from ARR's music. Arrangements in tracks that deserve album releases, but, sigh, wont get any. Just like the countless cues from the background scores he's composed. Then there was the extensive list of artist/programmer credits projected in the backdrop, set to 'Vandemataram', during the break before the encore. And the list of many euphoric moments goes on.

This diary-entry can go on, but before I start spoiling the wonder for further concert goers in this series, I'll stop here, go sit in a corner and reminisce last night. And ponder my options before I buy the JBL 'ARR' Raaga series headphones that Harman threw a discount coupon to, stuck to a few lucky seats in the theater! So long...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Raavan - A Masterpiece!

"Somewhere down the line, I thought I'd done that kind of storytelling too many times. I thought it was time for me to concentrate only on what really fascinates me and not try to have a backstory which would conveniently put it on an easy-to-follow platform. I thought we're ready to move on to the next form of narration. I'm very happy that's the way the film turned out." - ManiRatnam on Raavan, as quoted to Bharadwaj Rangan for the book "Conversations with Mani Ratnam".

    Many a times, as any debate on films would eventually lead to, I come across this set of questions - "What is a film? What makes up a film in the traditional sense of it? What should a film talk about? What should any non-descript viewer take back out of a film viewing experience?". Depending on the level at which you are obsessed with films, your keys to the answers to these questions would range from simple to outright perplexing. I'd like to believe that I lie a few miles beyond the level 'perplexed'; in that very direction. This probably comes from my belief in art as an unending and largely undiscovered realm, only hindered in extent by human convention. Now, at the risk of sounding insolent, let me ask you to consider that as a call for discretion, in that, I'm stating myself as a profound 'art-house' fan and so shall the nature of this blog be!

    Continuing from these very question that I'd stated above, I must say I had this gut feeling through and through when I was watching Raavan; that it was absolutely different from what all Mani Ratnam had tried earlier. I only needed a hint to reaffirm this presumption. And just when I bought Mr.Rangan's book, I quickly flipped through to the last chapter on Raavan and read through to find this relieving statement. Relieving because it struck a tune of convergence with the thought I'd been harnessing for this movie all along. That it was a bold and audacious experiment at a new form of cinema. Like the quote says, Mani Ratnam was trying just that very thing with Raavan.

    Cinema has traditionally been known as a mode of communication. A visual format to share information, to tell a story, fictional or real. Then, that's where the dividing line between video and cinema exists. Cross that line, and cinema has moved into a host of new territories, where it has managed to extract continuously evolving technical work, styles of narrative, script and dialogue and blend that with emotion and purport. To a major extent, it surely has remained a source of entertainment, a medium where a story unfolded for viewers who wanted a weekend getaway for 3 hours while they actually sat munching popcorn and sipping cola. However, parallel-y (so the appropriately named parallel cinema), cinema evolved as a transcendent form of art that constantly explored all that's prevalent around humanity - emotions, relations, life, science, art itself, and almost everything in the environment around us. This is exactly where Raavan finds its footing.

    What grabbed me thoroughly into this flick is the narrative. Before Raavan, it was a while since Mani Ratnam made a flick, owing to health issues and all. Now, dare I stereotype him, but his earlier flicks had a strong plot, sometimes historically conventional yet fresh on the Indian cinematic context and this was augmented by tremendous technical support and well built screenplays. Yet, the plot was the key and the narrative was definitely a subset of the plot. With Raavan, there is a hint that he chose to prioritize narrative over the plot. And this narrative, he chose to fuse with the quotient of exploration that this flick was all about. The plot was only a subject point for the functioning of this narrative. It was just the correct sheet of canvas for the art-form it needs to support. There in precisely, this film subdues the conventionalities a plot carries with it, and decries, albeit subtly, the want of an ingenious and classic storyline or a specific thematic message to go along with. If I sound like I'm talking of abstract art, maybe that's what it should be called. An art form which is continuously and progressively transcendent and is in the search for a deeper meaning of itself as it spreads out in layers.

    Yet charmingly, this flick consummates a project Mani had embarked on. Alongside Dalapathy, which was a story inspired around Karna from the Mahabharata, this flick completes Mani's duology of films inspired by the great Indian epics. As much as it is apparent from the title, Raavan has heavy influences from the epic Ramayana. Yet the title Raavan, is also linked to the essence of the character (more on this later), and isn't just there to hint the references to Ramayana. This is where much of the debate surrounding the flick has been sparked, as to how aptly has the flick managed to portray the epic. I must digress a step here to steer my blog clear of this argument. Now, over the centuries there have been a thousand iterations of the Ramayana, most of them drastically differing in their views and opinions of the three major characters of the epic, Rama, Seeta and Raavana. I'm mythologically incompetent to state any clear argument on this subject. As an art enthusiast, here I'm totally willing to give Mani Ratnam the benefit of having his freedom of expression maintain its mainstay in portraying his own version of the Ramayana. Anyways, I find it totally irrelevant to involve a question of validity of the movie's script with respect to the Ramayana while talking about Cinema.

    The charming bit is, inspite of loosely basing the plot on the Ramayana, Mani chooses not to stick to any of these thousand versions of it and lets himself have a degree of liberty to play with the characters, their circumstances, their choices and their emotions. Again going by Bharadwaj’s book, he himself quotes these characters better be just left as Beera, Ragini and Dev instead of calling them Raavana, Sita and Ram. In a time when directors reiterate scene to scene like clockwork, when making sequels or films which are based on popular stories or novels, this shows Mani’s refreshing tendency to tinker with cinema, to amuse himself, his readiness to play and have fun. And when you are in a theatre eager to watch dynamic cinema, this becomes a stronghold that keeps you glued to the seat.

    As I said, this flick is all about its narrative. This narrative probes deep into a singular element - what happens between the three lead characters as the plot unfolds. Its not just the chronology of events related to the characters but the emotions they go through, the moments they experience, the decisions they take and the situations that befall them.

    The narrative has a strong conviction here. It does two things. One, it chooses to meticulously follow the three characters as time flows, what happens to them, how they react to it, initially and in the long run, and what again happens to them as they make their choices.  On a subordinate level, it  peels off layer after layer of each of these three characters going deeper and deeper as the plot spirals towards an enigmatic climax. Picture this as a spiral with 3 lines running consecutively till they meet at the center. This center is that climactic shot of Beera falling off into the abyss. I’d like to take that shot as the modus operandi for this film, the whole purpose of the film or infact, the truth that this film and its narrative have been trying to unravel by looking deep into the characters.

    Picture it as one of those medieval paintings that appear in European history books, and looking at them from a standalone perspective, they represent a hefty moment in history, of triumph, joy, sorrow, ridicule or even irony, with all relevant characters involved juxtaposed within one frame. This climactic shot is where the three characters converge, even literally, in the film as well as where their ultimate emotions, eventualities and our journeys with them stand frozen. Mani Ratnam is said to have shot a lot more footage for this flick which he has left back on the editing table (a bit more on this shall be mused on in several parts of this blog), but I reckon it was a splendid idea to have chosen this particular climactic shot for the flick. Furthermore, an intelligent fusion of cinematic styles and techniques endow this narrative with a richness seldom seen in Indian Cinema (more on this later).

    Talk of the characters, this flick provides such a broad stage to sit down, understand, empathize and maybe even learn how to create characters. Beera proves to be the most complex of them all, probably etched that way by the passing of time. He is vigorous yet an interesting aura of calm surrounds him as seen in his introspective moments, when he’s simply musing with a shawl draped over his body. Apparently his position dictates that he is fear inducing and is respected yet he’s very amicable and friendly in a way that little kids could play with him on a Coracle. He has his frivolous and cunning methods by which he’s a surviving and terrifying renegade but he has this childlike nascence to him as he expresses his growing affection for Ragini. He’s deeply canny in the choices he makes, he’s notorious, compassionate, brutal and delicate. The metaphorical sense in being called Raavan, could probably be the reference to his multi dimensional character, alongside the active motif of him being a master at disguise.
    Ragini here embodies a splendid concept Cinema the world over has been celebrating; having a woman at the center of a plot! This has been such a splendid tool for many movie plots, more so in the Indian context, with all the contextual richness it brings to a plot. Raavan has Ragini as the operating cog not just for the plot but also for the narrative. We experience every moment through her senses, understand every emotion alongside her and are left in almost the same awestruck state as she is at the climax as Beera falls off the cliff.  Ragini appears as the quintessential complete woman in the way we’d expect a woman to be in a traditional sense. She is staunchly rooted in conventional ethic, a benevolent, respectful and loving wife, yet in no way subdued, as she has the definite consciousness of her own self respect, personality and independence. This is seen in the way she doesn’t let herself be domineered by her abductors in various scenarios and makes sure her own personal space is kept intact. However, deep inside she still is vulnerable and lonely, a feeling we empathize as we come across her various apparitions. But, provoke her and she could prove to be fiery and feisty indeed as she jumps off the cliff before Beera can even point the gun at her; a moment that shatters Beera to the core.

    Now, the third vertex, Dev, turns out to be the most simplistic character of the trio. Also, the most conventional one. A straight-forward sincere cop for whom work tops the list of things he should dedicate himself to. Beyond the office hours, he’s just a simple guy who loves his beautiful wife. Yet, even for a simpleton, he keeps us awed as we notice how serious Dev gets when he takes things on a personal revenge note pushing harder and harder to find Beera, decrying his own personal boundaries.
    I’ll move onto my favorite bit of the flick. The thoughtful and fragile screenwriting garnished with a heady mix of invocative and occasionally edgy and raw cinematic styles and techniques. Proceeding chronologically, the first shot we see is of a man standing at a cliff overlooking a flowing stream. This is accompanied by that tribal shout out that we otherwise hear with the “Beera” track on the album. Dropping a pebble into the stream, he follows suit by taking a straight dive followed by a casual swim. This is interspersed by shots of Beera’s aides outwitting cops in several locations and attacking them. All through we hear a dholak in the background only to come back again to Beera playing it. This draws us into the middle of the tensed environ right at the beginning and announces the terror quotient involved, yet does it with an uncanny coolness which doesn’t take it over the top.  This strangely direct yet definitely brutal way of onslaught and assault is depicted throughout the film as a natural tendency of the rebels, when they choke the troops’ trucks by pouring sugar in the tanks, when they attack and torture Jamuna’s fiancĂ© and when they attack Dev’s camp in the forest in disguise, abducting Hemanth and then later shaving his head.

    Similar slickness in editing can be seen elsewhere in the flick, like the energetic introduction montage composed with sharp and classy visuals and a hip background score. The intensity of these action episodes is favorably assuaged by sections of classic Mani Ratnam style drama, replete with strong dialogue, subtle flow of emotion and innovative scripting. Of course the plethora of Mani Ratnam motifs are aplenty, the frame playing with colors, objects and lighting to hint at references.  
    There’s that scene where Dev receives a picture of captive Ragini surrounded by the tribals and Dev mulls over her rescue while burning the faces of the tribals with the glowing edge of his cigarette one by one, hinting at his internal grudge and deliberation.  Another mellow scene is the one in which Beera goes all out innocent confessional person in front of Ragini on the coracle being whirled around by playing kids. Beera’s monologue mixed with the kid’s words, the camera – constant while showing Ragini yet circling around with Beera (is that to show the respective mindsets they’re in, his in complete turmoil and her stationary yet drifting? – another Mani motif) and Rahman’s sublime score make for a cinematic treat. Another stifling scene is that rugged exchange of words between Beera and Ragini after the bridge collapses. Here, there is an underlying string of emotions, Beera, angry, sad (for Jamuna) yet with a slight inkling of foolish glee (for what he has done for Ragini) while Ragini is draught with an overbearing sense of concern for Dev that’s being overwhelmed slowly by her growing empathy for Beera. 
    What’s stunning in the screenplay is the way it adopts a reflective philosophy towards certain moments and emotions. It slows down drastically and chooses to ponder over a few feelings, a few thoughts, and chooses to carry the audiences with it in this introspection. There in lies that narrative conviction I had earlier talked about. The brilliant episode around the “Behne De” track, right from the scene at the top when Beera’s aides hand him the gun to kill Ragini to the moments in the forest when Beera cant get his head off her jumping off the cliff, is just enchanting.  Earlier in the flick, the title sequence stylistically carries over from that tribal war-cry at the start to the track ‘Beera’ accompanied by trippy visuals that inspire psychedelia in a fleeting hint to what one might expect from the movie. In the ‘Behne De’ episode, the shot of Ragini falling down the cliff, her unconscious body hanging through the trees before she makes the final splash into the stream beneath is replayed time and again, each time from a new perspective (hinting at a new state of mind of the observer, Beera). As we moves through this episode, we revisit Beera and Ragini undergoing two respective emotions that might have truly riveted them. Beera is fascinated by Ragini’s courage, her fiery essence and untarnished love for Dev. Ragini, on the other hand, is traumatized, distraught and is desperately seeking help, all this despite her pretense of courage. Both speak about these conditions, and also take us alongside their feelings through the narrative’s several close-up shots and dream like apparitions (another new aspect of the traditional Mani motif). I particularly like the way this episode sinks in slowly in pace, giving us time to muse along with Beera and Ragini (and occasionally with Dev too).

    Time passes by and we are dropped right into the middle of the Beera-Ragini conflict, as the “Ranjha Ranjha” episode as I’d like to call it, where the melee of their mutual feelings of fascination, possible affection, hatred, anger and fury are depicted in that little choreographed fight between the two. The ensemble of cinematography, music, even choreography (notice how Beera never lays hands on her?) and scripting give this episode a new dynamic often not found in Mani’s movies.

    Later, we come upon the episode after Beera narrates how Jamuna met her death, where Ragini begins to notice herself sympathizing with Beera and his tribe. Most of these emotions are handled by simple drama and dialogue set in classic circumstances, like the offhand conversation in the jungle near the big deity statue.  Interestingly, the Behne De and Ranjha Ranjha dynamics aren’t employed here, an outcome possibly from the editing room, yet it somehow subtly hints that the emotion defined here is more of a flowing, gradual one as against the angst from earlier, which was sudden and upsetting to the two characters and needed more brooding over. With the later acceptance they garner for each other, they grow more vocal, less reluctant to be open and talking about it. Its more like the transition in you when you first fall in love and when you’ve taken love as a part of your life a couple of years after.

    Likewise further scenes are handled deftly, like the revolving camera and aggressive dialogue when Beera and his brothers discuss options at hand, or the audacious scene with the fight on the bridge, burning et al. This particularly harks back to Mani’s obsession with audacity and set pieces and staying right on tradition, this scene is quite realistic in the taking. And the narrative is only left unconsummated without that epic climax, even in a metaphorical sense of the word, as the three characters meet what could possibly be their only destiny. For their lives and their emotions too. Beera falling off the cliff, Ragini frantically trying to grab his hand as she gasps and whispers his name while Rahman takes over with the scintillating “Jaa Udh Jaa Re, Ruth Beeth Gayi”;  is just masterclass in Cinema.

    I can hardly compliment enough the technical competence that went into making this flick. Santosh Sivan and V.Manikandan bring themselves in total gusto to this flick and truly deserve every bit of the plethora of accolades they’d garnered. The camera work, hand held, intense and in your face in some parts and flowing, panoramic and settled in other parts compliments the director’s eye to the tee. The canvasses they’d succeeded in setting up, be it a closed up shot of Ragini in the pit, her face bloodied and muddled and eyes murky and quivering, or a slow crane shot of the lush green misty valley are terrific. Sreekar Prasad is another guy who’s hardly acknowledged for what he brings to the package. His experience and skill brings that last edge of refinement (and sometimes a deliberate bluntness too!) to many a cinema, including this one. He’s a true behind-the-scenes master. Should I conclude this enumeration with an ode to the Maestro himself, A.R.Rahman! This album, though strikingly very simple and grounded, keeps every track fresh, musically rich and emotionally very apt. The compositional brilliance, the instrumental talent and every other accessory Rahman supplies needs no introduction. Yet, the background score is where he astoundingly reinvents himself. Tugging hard at the emotion in each scene, and letting one instrument (sometimes, just one vocal tone – the male humming and female vocals in Ranjha) take center stage for the score (like the Pianos and the Flutes), he has truly touched a new element in himself with this flick. So much so that the score has demanded the release of an E.P. despite this film’s commercial failure (not to forget mentioning that hasn’t prevented this flick from becoming a cult classic in Tamizh).

    This essay, which I’ll not like to call a review, is an elaborate comment on cinema and is amongst my first few (Read elsewhere, my piece on Rockstar) and is suitably on one of the finest examples of Indian Cinema I’d seen to date. To adjudge that, I can only think up these words of Mani Ratnam’s from the same interview with Bharadwaj, where he excellently translates what Cinema is all about.

"If the film holds you, you dont notice anything else. In some cases, a film could be magical and really poetic, and in such a case, you take in the film like any other viewer, but you also see a master at work. And maybe you'll see the movie again and again to really understand what he's done. The high you derive out of watching a good film is tremendous."

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Teary Invocation

Crying in joy along Rahman's latest masterpiece....

               It is not exactly a new thing. Rahman's tracks have always managed to bring a tear to my eyes, out of joy, wonder, sorrow or just pure inexplicable human emotion. This time, somehow, it felt different. It felt a little more honest. A little more innate. A little more divine. This time was with the song 'Malargal Kaettaen' from the OK Kanmani soundtrack that was launched a few hours ago. In the span of these few hours, I've listened to this track a bunch of times, each time resulting in the aforementioned teary implosion. 

The composer has delivered tracks that have always been a source of solace and silent introspection to me for a long time. Sometimes, I come home, after a generically bad day at work, and plug randomly into one of his albums. Only to find a quaint sense of wonder and enthusiasm for life, which makes me go to bed with a smile on my face and begin the next day with the same mood. Sometimes, running through a random playlist, I find the one track I've listened to numerous times, only to find a hidden layer of violin or flute or string in there which elates my mood to an absolute superlative. And sometimes, its those tear-jerkers.

With Malargal, I've been feeling a sense of divinity that is somehow unprecedented. The track itself feels like a nostalgic trip down all the many melodies Rahman has composed back in the 90s, that were heavily set on Carnatic Ragas and simple instrumental arrangements. Malargal follows the same pattern, with Chitra's voice mellifluously handling the proceedings while a subtle percussion, a synth note and naadaswaram background keep her company. But, the best part kicks in at the end, as Rahman joins her (singing Carnatic in possibly one of his very few such tracks) with a low set baritone that spells beatitude. I just can't help but find an upper echelon of calm, solitude and invocation with that duet. In a cultural analogy, I guess its probably like those few minutes of actual conversation, sans the ritual, one has with his deity at a temple. Or like that moment when one touches one's parents' feet. Or like the time when one holds a loved one's hand to insist an assurance of comfort and safety. Or like a kiss on the forehead of the better half. 

It is indeed well said that music has an extraordinary ability to touch human lives. This track is a fine example, as if art is your religion, this can surely be one of the prayer songs. 

Here's a link to the track -

Friday, January 2, 2015

Blog-ette # 5: The year of the Heroine

Trends in culture and social responses to them don't really tend to follow calendars and dates as much as eras and periods. Yet it's always a good thing to stop at the end of every calendar year, and purely for bookkeeping purposes, take notes on the emergent trends from the previous year however nascent or transient they might be. This thought brings me to the one particular trend I found myself surrounded by. In 2014, by chance or choice, I found myself championing strongly with the acting efforts of a few actresses, both in the honesty they bring to the table as an actor and the way they manage to embed their charm to the character's aura. As such, of the several things in Cinema that were part of new-found-land for me in 2014,  the most prominent one was me becoming an ardent follower of a few actresses. Here are some reflections on these dames.

Scarlett Johannson - Film buffs and fan boys alike recognize the respectable career of Scar-Jo given her now admirable portfolio with its fine balance of mainstream cinema and indie/arthouse fore. She's garnered good attention with her work in The Other Boleyn Girl, Lost in Translation and other similar works and at the same time, has been an outright bedroom poster girl with outings like The Black Widow in Marvel's eponymous Avengers series. I must admit I'd overlooked all of this till this year, when she voiced the most enigmatic yet sexy computer in 'Her', portrayed an Angelina-esque action figure in 'Lucy', fiddled with indie stuff in 'Chef' and yet took time out to stun film buffs with her portrayal of the terrifying yet sexy alien character in 'Under The Skin'.

Amy Adams - I'm deeply haunted by the beauty in Amy's eyes. Her eyes seem to belong to a person that is naive and innocent yet has the wisdom of a lifetime. They have a moist teariness to them which might probably be due to a sparkle of enthusiasm as much as it could be due to pain. She brought all of these emotions to her celebrated role in 'American Hustle' but she outshines that character with her portrayal of a nerdy tom-boyish lady in 'Her' who is as casual as she is elegant. I'm not sure how much of a pun Tim Burton based his casting choices on when he chose her for his latest venture 'Big Eyes'

Rosamund Pike - Glenn Close, over time, has specialized in a certain niche of characters. Characters of powerful, slightly vulnerable, professional women who make love and life choices out of their own whims and might almost make the right template fits for the ideal independent woman. I have a feeling Rosamund Pike is soon becoming the Glenn Close of her generation. She oozes an undercurrent of sexuality and vulnerability, yet is in deft control of professionalism as a lawyer in 'Jack Reacher' while she absolutely strikes it out of the ball park in 'Gone Girl' vying quite well to be the best sexy villains of all time.

Marlee Matlin - The first of my chance finds this year, I thought Marlee Matlin stood her firm ground amidst intimidating cast in the TV drama 'The West Wing'. She brings a radiance to her character as a humble yet surefooted political consultant. An expiry date on Netflix's streaming line-up then forced me to watch 'Children of a Lesser God' which only refurbished my initial impressions of Marlee as an actress. She plays a deaf person (the actress is actually deaf, a factor which in no way diminishes her acting traits) in the film who is conflicted between finding herself, trusting love and blending socially with society. The portrayal is so emphatic, strong and confident that I'd ended up wanting to watch more of her.

Patricia Arquette - A friend of mine invited me to watch David Lynch's enigmatic 'Lost Highway' at his place, leading to my discovery of Patricia Arquette. She's stunning in the flick with a gloomy beauty and gravity to her two characters, essentially the same woman portrayed by two radiant skins. We followed this viewing up with 'True Romance' a couple of weeks later, which, for me, established that she was no one trick wonder. She portrays a naive and bubbly girl to the core in this flick only to surprise the viewer by deftly pulling off a gallant and bloody fist fight with a goon shot resplendent Tony Scott style. This culminated in me strongly vouching out for her when I later went to watch 'Boyhood' and the plethora of supporting actress nominations she's received world over speak for that outing.

Meryl Streep - I must confess I was never quite acknowledging of what a tremendous actress Meryl Streep is. Being cognizant of awards proceedings, her name pops up all the time but it hasn't really occurred that I'd actually seen her in a flick. Well, that changed with a viewing of 'Sophie's Choice'. She turns out such a delicate performance in the flick, as a Jew immigrant in New York city, still troubled by her past under the Nazis while she tries to move on in her life through a series of lovers. Seldom have I seen an actress play a part embedded by a fine thread that weaves together sensuality, vulnerability, grit and pain.

This exposition of female performances in cinema that have struck me with awe this past year explains the one trend that I guess underlined movies for me in 2014 - the year dedicated to celebrating some fine heroines in Cinema. It was only a poetic coincidence that Hindi cinema also churned out some delectable shows by actresses in movies like Queen, Highway, Haider and Hasee Toh Phasee. As 2015 progresses in movie-going for me, I'm keeping an eye out for girl-power.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Three phrase retrospectives: 2014

As I tweeted earlier, year ends are field days for bloggers, as retrospectives make terrific subjects for new blogs. Well, I'm jumping in on the bandwagon here. And in typical fashion, since this is my movie blog, here's my two pence on the films I got to watch this past year. Now, the list doesn't essentially include only those films that came out in 2014. I have a few flicks from 2013 that were amongst the prime Oscar contenders. Well, being in a university means that they've free screenings of the previous year's best films and I took the best advantage of that. Alongside these are the typical weekend films as in, the films and TV shows on Netflix. Since, that list is generally exhaustive owing to frequent couch movie marathons, I included those that caught my eye or rather stayed with me for some reason or the other. Of course, I have the occasional Hindi movie thrown in for good measure, which brings me to express utter disappointment when I say there was not one Telugu movie that I felt was worth spending my time on. So much for the second largest film industry in India.

Well, moving on to warmer thoughts, I tried giving in a twist to this rewind note. Well, reviews for films are scattered all over these days and a mighty lot of them are probably way better written than what I'd be able to fathom. For an immediate expression of what I personally felt after watching any movie, I'd probably need to start using Letterboxd, the time for which wasn't on my side so far. So that makes up for one new new year's resolution for me. So, what I did here is to just use three phrases to describe what I felt were three best/worst aspects of each of these movies. Here it goes then. The three phrase retrospective of 2014 -

Her : Scarlett Johannson's voice, finding love, humanity's social fabric

Omar : Human desperation in conflicted times, Love & War, gutsy Indie film making

Highway : Alia Bhatt surprises, Imtiaz goes Indie, Rahman goes Indie

 The Great Beauty : Companion piece to 'La Dolce Vita', soundtrack, cinematography

12 Years a Slave : Steve McQueen's intriguing surrealism, Mike Fassbender's villainy antics, Brad Pitt's southern accent

True Romance : Patricia Arquette being sexy and ferocious, Tony Scott's camera antics, Tarantino's dialogue

Lost Highway : Patricia Arquette being sexy and enigmatic, David Lynch's mysterious artistry, screenplays that incite endless discussion

Dallas Buyer's Club : Matthew McConaughey elicits emotions, Jared Leto impresses, Alright alright alright!

Nymphomaniac 1 & 2 : Mindboggling screenwriting, sheer sense of awe, ballsy cast

Captain Phillips : Paul Greengrass proves versatility, classic 'based on a real story' thriller, stand offs between Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi

John Wick : Nonsensical action flick, A waste of Keanu Reeves' talent, unimpressive exercise in style

The Grand Budapest Hotel : Most fun had in ages, charming storytelling, gorgeous visuals

The Lunchbox : Sublime storytelling, Nawaz Siddiqui's naivete, Neemrat Kaur's elegance

The Hustler : Paul Newman outshines everything, standard classic movie dialogue, taut storytelling

Need for Speed : Best car stunts in some time, Aaron Paul disappoints, dull pacing for an action flick

Under the Skin : Scarlett Johansson's brooding appeal, indulgent camera work, screenplays that incite endless discussion

Tahilina Sky : Kings of Leon soundtracks, rustic storytelling, honest documentary

The Ice Storm : Makes one take Ang Lee seriously, Sigourney Weaver's eyes, Christina Ricci dazzles

Dedh Ishqiya : Soundtrack, bold screenwriting, impeccable cast

Five Easy Pieces : An interesting side of Jack Nicholson, a haunting ending shot, a great monologue

Das Boot : Brilliant filmmaking techniques, seldom seen side of WW2, gutsy direction

Sophie's Choice : Meryl Streep's show through and through, undercurrents of sensuality, undercurrents of subtle emotions

The Office : Steve Carrell, Rainn Wilson, great writing

Twin Peaks : David Lynch pushes enigmatic boundaries, female cast, Red lounge soundtrack

Children of a Lesser God : Undercurrents of passion, Marlee Matlin's striking presence, William Hurt's jocular senses

From Here to Eternity : Impeccable execution, Frank Sinatra's timing, sublime plot

Shadows and Fog : Mia Farrow's elegance, quirky conversations in unusual scenarios, dazzling cinematography

Roman Holiday : Typical Italian charm in characters, Audrey Hepburn's beauty, visuals of Rome

Little White Lies : Balance of grimness and humor in script, introspective tendencies, Marion Cotillard's show

The Day I Saw your Heart : Exposition of Melanie Laurent's talent, soundtrack, subtle take on human relations

Guess who's coming to dinner : Spencer Tracy's monologue, Katherine Hepburn's poise, dialogue

Found Memories : deliberate pacing of scenes, profundity amidst extreme vagueness, gorgeous visuals

Just a Sigh : Intimacy between characters, subtlety in narration, brooding camera work

Jack Reacher : Sheer unadulterated fun, gripping storytelling, undercurrent of passion between Tom and Rosamund

Neighbors : Great premise, awful execution, Seth Rogen's wasted talent

Godzilla : Bad male lead, great storytelling technique, wrong publicity technique

Restrepo/Korengal : Gutsy documentation, unique subject, thrilling premise

Snowpiercer : A plot that incites introspection, undercurrent of social comment, decently interesting execution

Life Itself : Roger Ebert tribute, dedicated documentation, good moments of resonance

Boyhood : Historical landmark in filmmaking, Patricia Arquette exuding warmth, soundtrack

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes : Overrated drudgery, decent screenplay, achieves nothing special

Gone Girl : Terrific soundtrack-narration interplay, great balance of wit and thrill, Rosamund Pike vying for being sexiest villain ever

Fury : Stunning war visuals, unique battle tank perspective, Shia Lebouf's poignant show

Interstellar : Great silence-soundtrack balance, stunning space visuals, typical Nolan screenwriting

PK : Typical Raju Hirani lecturing, surprisingly subtle antics by Aamir Khan, execution lets down script's ambitions

Breakfast at Tiffany's : Manhattan as a backdrop, Audrey Hepburn's elegance, undercurrents of introspective storytelling

Three phrase retrospectives shall return in 2016. And possibly with a letterboxd page attached to it. Till then, have a great year in Cinema experiences folks...