Sunday, September 25, 2016

REVIEW 434: WELCOME TO CENTRAL JAIL


Release date:
Kerala: September 10, 2016. Delhi: September 23.
Director:
Sundardass
Cast:



Language:
Dileep, Vedhika, Aju Varghese, Renji Panicker, Thesni Khan, Hareesh Perumanna, Cameos: Vinaya Prasad, Siddique
Malayalam


Few Indian stars can do ludicrousness quite like Dileep. The Malayalam film actor is in full flow in director Sundardass’ Welcome to Central Jail in which he plays a habitual prison-goer constantly seeking excuses to get himself arrested. Weird? You see, he feels at home behind bars since his parents died in custody, and he finds himself bereft of love in the outside world.

Then one day he falls for local photographer Radhika (Vedhika) and in her, finds a reason to value freedom. A murder follows, leading to a second half in which comedy shares equal space with suspense, corrupt politicians, policemen who are on their payrolls and extreme bloodshed.

All’s well as long as Dileep’s Unnikuttan indulges in inoffensive, over-the-top antics. After all, everything about his character is unapologetically caricaturish and crying out not to be taken seriously.

Fair enough. I giggled each time Unnikuttan refers to the jail as his tharavadu (ancestral home). There are plenty of laughs to also be had from the banter between the hero and a prison superintendent played by Renji Panicker, an inmate played by Hareesh Perumanna and a friend played by Aju Varghese. These portions work on the strength of the actors’ comic timing, energy levels and some well-thought-out silliness.

Sadly though not surprisingly, cliched juvenility, sexism and squirm-worthiness too are par for the course in Welcome to Central Jail. In one scene a man’s wig is accidentally lopped off in public and ice creams fly around. Yawn. There are bawdy references to female breasts, Unnikuttan describes a policewoman’s bottom in detail and as an afterthought makes a wisecrack about her male colleague’s rear. Cringe. But when a dwarf falls into a food container, you have to wonder how low-IQ and insensitive a viewer must be to find humour in a disability.

It gets worse.

Writer Benny P. Nayarambalam couches rape ‘jokes’ in concern. There is a pointed conversation between Unnikuttan and two cops – one of the few sobre exchanges initiated by the protagonist – in which he expresses his revulsion for rapists and a belief that imprisonment is a kindness to them. Yet, other mentions of rape are made in a deliberately comical tone. Guess Team Central Jail knows their audience. You should have heard the sniggers in the hall where I watched the film, when a character casually tells Unnikuttan to next time make arrangements for a longer prison sentence with a rape or murder charge.

I could tell you more about Welcome to Central Jail. I could tell you that Dileep’s dance moves to the film’s title track – part of a stage show by the prisoners – are hilarious. I could discuss the amusing contrast between his gawkiness and Vedhika’s lissome grace as they groove to the song Sundaree. I could reveal that Welcome to Central Jail lifts from the Pink Panther theme for the background music to a break-in scene. I could critique the gruesome violence in two long-drawn-out scenes that come as a shock in the middle of a UA-rated comedy. Or I could say what I really want to say.

And what I really want to say is that I am tired of stars who sacrifice not just intelligence but decency and humanity too while wooing the lowest common denominator in the audience for box-office success. Absurdity is acceptable as fun, but not when it descends to callousness.

Rating (out of five): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
152 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




REVIEW 433: ORU MUTHASSI GADHA


Release date:
Kerala: September 14, 2016. Delhi: September 23.
Director:
Jude Anthany Joseph
Cast:



Language:
Rajini Chandy, Bhagyalakshmi, Suraj Venjaramood, Lena, Aparna Balamurali, Vineeth Srinivasan, Vijayaraghavan, Rajeev Pillai, Dharmajan Bolgatty, Cameo: Lal Jose
Malayalam


An ill-tempered old woman makes life hell for her son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, until she meets a person who looks past the raspish surface and finds the human being it camouflages.

Jude Anthany Joseph’s Oru Muthassi Gadha (OMG, meaning, A Granny’s Mace) is the story of a muthassi (grandma) and an unlikely friendship that transforms her. Joseph made his directorial debut with the 2014 romcom Ohm Shanthi Oshaana (OSO). Comedy is his preferred genre, as is evident from the light-hearted veneer he uses in his second film to raise many crucial questions about attitudes to age and ageing – not questions of the superficial, populist kind.

In 2003, Bollywood scored a hit with Baghban starring Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini as a couple neglected by their grown-up children. The film’s black-and-white worldview virtually canonised the parents, tarred all their kids as uniformly, irredeemably evil, deified the patriarchal family set-up through rose-tinted glasses and romanticised the idolisation of the husband.

Baghban played to the gallery with two notions widely propagated in the public sphere in India: that all mothers and fathers are great, and that all children ought to care for their Mums and Dads. Umm… What about paedophile Dads, or Moms who remain silent about such abuse? What about parents who discriminate between girls and boys, who bully and manipulate children over their professional and marital choices? What about the millions who have kids not out of affection for kids but as a social obligation or as insurance for their old age? What about the extreme conservatism of Baghban’s parents? Or the boorishness of OMG’s Muthassi?

Mollywood’s latest offering is braver, more sensible and subtle than Bollywood’s Baghban or the public discourse on parent-child equations. Joseph does not resort to one-sided blame games. He does not, for instance, waver in portraying Muthassi’s nastiness yet reminds us too of those who think that taking care of parents means just sharing a home, feeding and clothing them, without quality time and conversations anywhere in the picture.

Despite the seriousness of the preceding paragraphs, make no mistake about this: OMG is a breezy film. Joseph’s penchant for the funny bone is complemented by his cast. The very pretty, ultra elegant debutant Rajini Chandy plays Muthassi (whose name, by the way, is Leelamma). Chandy, 65, was reportedly found through auditions of seniors who responded to Joseph’s ad. Good choice considering her confident performance that belies her lack of experience.


Veteran dubbing artiste Bhagyalakshmi plays her bête-noir-cum-buddy Susamma. This charming actress metamorphoses from a huggable granny to an authority figure in a jiffy, even dancing unselfconsciously to a song in which she is joined by the feisty Chandy.

Of the supporting cast, a special word must go to the lovely Suraj Venjaramood as Muthassi’s son Siby, Lena as his wife Jean, sweet Aparna Balamurali as their daughter and the hunky Rajeev Pillai as her boyfriend. Balamurali also plays young Muthassi, a casting move that works because of clever styling. Not so effective is the decision to have Vineeth Srinivasan playing the young Muthassi’s college mate – the poor chap is incongruous in a pre-degree classroom. 

Still, OMG is a well-packaged product. Shaan Rahman’s up-tempo background score and songs provide a fitting (even if not memorably melodic) backdrop to the story. And DoP Vinod Illampally delivers many picturesque views of Kerala, though I must confess I would have loved to see more close-ups – and atypical ones at that – of the two leading ladies’ fetching faces.

This is also where the narrative falls short. It looks at a bigger picture throughout, and is entertaining while it does so, but does not get sufficiently intimate with Leelamma or Susamma.

That said, Joseph has shown himself to be an interesting risk taker with OMG. He has gone from casting young stars like Nivin Pauly and Nazriya Nazim in OSO to centering a film around two elderly unknown faces playing women who are decades past the age when Indian cinema loses interest in the female half of our population. (Aside: OMG’s story idea is credited to Pauly.)

This film veers away from stereotypes in other areas too: such as the ma-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship that is troubled yet not the stuff social lore and cinema are made of, or Siby and Jean’s partnership. This is that rare mainstream Indian film which does not see humour, spousal subjugation or a talking point in a man who shares the domestic workload with his wife.

It is also a relief when a filmmaker relies on his sharp wit rather than prejudice, mindlessness and slapstick tomfoolery to create comedy – not counting a father in OMG implying that his teeny tiny chit of a son is too turned on to see straight in the presence of his teeny tiny chit of a classmate (the Dad’s language is not as crude as mine, the thought is); a woman attributing her fondness for alcohol to the fact that she is Syrian Christian, thus blithely perpetuating one of Mollywood’s favourite stereotypes; and a young man’s stammer being used as a joke.

Thankfully, these are fleeting moments of indolence from a writer-director who otherwise displays an uncommon ability to poke fun at social groups without furthering hate, clichés or harmful biases. A fine example is that uproarious scene in OMG in which a bunch of people mimic a Charismatic Christian prayer meeting. Elsewhere, the manner in which a character is routinely referred to in terms of his community and not by his name is a stark reminder of how even seemingly good folk in India openly reveal their suspicions of “the other” – like the saala Bihari hai kya?” (are you a damned Bihari?) taunt so casually thrown around in Delhi.

This is a film that compels us to think while we laugh. It does so largely without preaching. By the time it does deliver a sermon – in a terribly contrived scene featuring a pointless cameo by director Lal Jose – I was in a forgiving mood since I had enjoyed so much that had gone before.

OMG’s heroines are older than most of us, but we could all learn from their journey. During a discussion on Muthassi’s pre-degree, you realise she is barely in her 60s. Age, health and finances are on her side, yet she has so far depended on others to steer her life and generate happiness for her. What stopped her from making her own road, except the conviction that she is someone else’s responsibility and not her own? OMG raises questions we Indians are not socially permitted to ask. I doff my hat to Joseph for asking them and having a lark while he is at it.

Rating (out of five): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
114 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Footnote on Subtitles: OMG’s subtitling team repeatedly translates “thalla” as “old hag”. No doubt “thalla” (which literally means “mother” in Malayalam) can be a pejorative term, but it is not sexist like “hag”. I remember Pretham subtitling “Ammachi” as “you old hag”. “Ammachi” is a respectful form of address for a mother or any elderly woman, but was used sardonically in Pretham. Dear subtitlers, next time try “old woman”. It far more accurately captures the degree of derision in “thalla” and in “Ammachi” in that context.



Friday, September 23, 2016

REVIEW 432: PARCHED


Release date:
September 23, 2016
Director:
Leena Yadav
Cast:



Language:
Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Lehar Khan, Riddhi Sen, Mahesh Balraj, Chandan Anand, Sumeet Vyas, Adil Hussain
Hindi


Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched comes to Indian theatres after a year-long run on the international film festival circuit starting with its global premiere at Toronto 2015. In terms of storylines, Parchedco-produced by Ajay Devgn, no less – is to impoverished women of rural India what last week’s much-acclaimed release Pink is to educated, middle-class urban Indian women: both films are about the physical dangers, prejudice and discrimination women face in contemporary society, and the consequences of rebellion.

Parched revolves around three friends in a Rajasthan village. Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) has been a widow for years now. When he was alive, her husband used to beat her mercilessly. Now she has an old mother-in-law to take care of and a wayward son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) who she is anxious to marry off. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is childless, chatty and married to a sadistic alcoholic. The women of the village have begun earning money through their handicraft skills, a development that causes insecurity and anxiety among the men.

Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is the one bright spark in their miserable existence, an erotic dancer and sex worker in a local entertainment company who might traditionally be viewed as the most enchained of the lot, yet speaks her mind more often than Rani and Lajjo would dare. In the presence of others, these two are cowering, simpering creatures who never question their lot. In their time together though and especially when they are with Bijli, unfettered by abusive hands or social scrutiny, they are unrecognisable: lively women who speak freely of sex, love, lust, their hopes and dreams.

The most interesting part of Parched is its sense of humour, which rears its head unexpectedly in the midst of bleak circumstances. When the women are laughing together, cracking jokes about their bodies and their men, they make you smile. How, you wonder, can they find it in themselves to forget for even a second, the horrors that await them back home? Yet they do. And you cannot but love them for that miraculous ability.

Equally telling are the moments when they turn on each other. Rani’s harshness towards her under-age daughter-in-law Janaki (Lehar Khan) and a flash of anger directed at Bijli in one scene are reminders of how women participate in the patriarchy that dehumanises and subjugates them.

Chatterjee is efficient as Rani, Apte is a live wire and Chawla is a revelation. The supporting cast too is dotted with interesting actors though young Khan and Sen deserve a special mention for their sure-footedness. Elevating the film by several notches is Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter who bathes Parched in warm flames and bright sunlight by turns, paying equal attention to the beauty of the landscape, the colourful attire of its inhabitants and the lovely faces of the sensuous women at the centre of the story.

Yet Parched is a curiously unsatisfying experience. The issues it highlights – domestic violence, marital rape, child marriage, male entitlement – are the sort that would naturally draw empathy from a considerate viewer. Why then is it not as gripping as might be expected?

The answer lies in the fact that Parched shares more than a theme with Pink, it also shares a weakness: an extreme awareness of being a film created specifically to send out a message about women’s rights. This awareness was evident in the trite titling of Pink and in the needless layers of drama laid on thick in the courtroom scenes. Both elements were far removed from the naturally flowing sensitivity of the rest of the narrative. Pink worked, nevertheless, because its self-consciousness was not all-pervasive, and because it got so completely under the skin of its brilliantly acted female protagonists that their battles became our battles.

Parched is rarely able to get past its mindfulness of being a film with a message, thus failing to lose itself in a story of real people with real, heart-wrenching problems. There was a scene in Kanu Behl’s Titli last year, in which a man reaches out to his new bride in a tiny bedroom of the hovel they share with his family, and she wrestles with him wordlessly, determined to resist his carnal overtures while he seems equally determined to claim the body he considers his right. It is a scene that gives me goosebumps of fear at the very memory of it. I cannot think of a single moment in Parched that as effectively made me feel the pain these three women feel. Instead, I found myself in the role of a concerned bystander, not an absorbed, involved viewer.

The problem is with both the direction and writing by Yadav who earlier helmed Shabd and Teen Patti. Apart from the detached nature of the storytelling, there are too many contrivances thrown in for effect. A nameless, faceless caller seeking a telephone romance appears to have been introduced for no reason other than to give the target of his affection the chance to reject him at a later stage. The final scenes juxtaposed against Dussehra celebrations in the village take a cliched, superficial view of the Ramayan’s good-vs-evil battle, apparently forgetting long-standing discussions on the mistreatment of Sita, among other things.

The film is also rather literal in its definition of “escape”. If good folk vacate every space where they face resistance or exploitation, what is left behind? Does escape necessarily mean a physical exit, and is such an exit even possible for most people?

Parched also seems designed to appeal to a foreign film festival crowd that might buy into a dose of good ol’ Indian exotica. Nothing exemplifies this better than the handsome, dhoti-clad mysterious stranger of the film (played by Adil Hussain) who makes love to women with his words and hands, driving them to otherworlds of ecstasy. That the credits identify him as “mystic lover” is amusing, a label no doubt coined to conjure up visions of The Land of the Kama Sutra as India was known before the anti-rape movement grabbed headlines in recent years, a culture where women may experience unbounded sexual pleasure far removed from spousal savagery.

There is a problem with that imagery though. It is a fantasy. Just like the film’s climax, which may be written to draw cheers, but is too conveniently wrapped up, too rushed and too far removed from reality to match the tone of the early scenes in Parched.

This determination to pointedly dole out lessons to an audience can be the death knell of any film. The primary purpose has to be to tell a story. If you are a socially sensitive storyteller, the lessons will automatically follow. Listing out the lessons first and then building a story around them is not filmmaking; that approach is better suited to moral science classes, protest marches, newspaper columns and seminars.

Radhika Apte’s laughter and Surveen Chawla’s dynamism are a pleasure to behold in Parched. The women’s hesitant exploration of each other in forbidden areas is riveting, as is the vein of comedy in each of them. The film is only episodically engaging though. In its entirety, Parched left me thirsting for much much more.

Rating (out of five): **

CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
118 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


FOOTNOTE ON SUBTITLING:

Interestingly, Parched has been released with English subtitles across the country, including the Hindi belt. We watched a subtitled version at the press preview, so I checked with the producers to be sure that this is how all of India will see it.

This is a very impressive and progressive move by Team Parched, considering that most Hindi filmmakers seem to be labouring under the misconception that Hindi is spoken and well understood in every corner of India, which it is not. To release a Hindi film with English subs even in Hindi-speaking states is an acknowledgement of how much our people travel for work, especially to the political capital, which happens to be in the Hindi belt. Kudos.

The subs are of good quality to boot. When I occasionally glanced at them, I did not spot any grammatical or spelling errors, and the translations were as accurate as translations of film dialogues can be. Good job.

Subtitles contribute to a culture we should all be aiming for: one where Indians in India routinely watch all Indian films across languages, not just our own mother tongues.

Regular readers of my blog will know I have written extensively on this subject this year. Here are some relevant links for new visitors:

The Diary of a Frustrated Indian Film Buff:

It’s Not “Regional”, Dammit, It’s “Indian”!