Friday, July 31, 2015

REVIEW 342: DRISHYAM

Release date:
July 31, 2015
Director:
Nishikant Kamat
Cast:


Language:
Ajay Devgn, Tabu, Shriya Saran, Rajat Kapoor, Kamlesh Sawant, Ishita Dutta, Mrinal Jadhav
Hindi


I cannot remember ever enjoying a thriller so much, despite knowing each element in the plot.

In case you came in late on this, Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam is a remake of the 2013 Malayalam hit of the same name starring Mohanlal, Asha Sarath and Meena. Despite the continuing insistence of members of the film-viewing public and press, Jeethu Joseph – writer and director of the Malayalam film – persists in his claim that he was not inspired by the Japanese bestselling novel The Devotion of Suspect X but by a real-life incident instead.

Be that as it may, between 2013 and this week, Jeethu’s Drishyam has been remade in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil; he directed the Tamil version, Papanasam, with Kamal Haasan in the lead; and the Hindi Drishyam credits him for the “original story”. No doubt each critic’s and viewer’s reaction to this film will be governed by whether or not that individual has seen/liked any or all the previous celluloid versions. So FYI right at the start, dear readers, I watched the Malayalam Drishyam back when it was released in theatres, but pointedly avoided the other remakes – especially Papanasam, which was out just this month – for fear of overdosing on the story.

I’m glad I did, because I loved the original and did not think it was possible to feel as much for a remake. As it turns out, I do not. I love the Hindi Drishyam even more.

Ajay Devgn here plays Vijay Salgaonkar, a cable TV operator living in rural Goa with his wife Nandini (Shriya Saran) and school-going children, the teenaged Anju (Ishita Dutta) and a much younger Annu (Mrinal Jadhav). They are a regular, traditional family where Dad is the breadwinner and primary decision maker, while Mum takes care of the house. As with many such traditional families, all four are comfortable with this arrangement. Interestingly though, their conservatism pushes boundaries and so, for instance, they have it in them to chuckle when a stray remark about Dad’s amorous ways floats around in the presence of the older child.

It is thus established that Vijay The Master Of The House shares an easygoing relationship with the women in his life, that they are a close-knit family, that the kids feel free to confide in their parents and that there is little they will not all do for each other. Vijay is popular among the locals, his only enemy being the corrupt policeman Laxmikant Gaitonde (Kamlesh Sawant).

In a parallel universe lives the state’s Inspector General of Police, Meera M. Deshmukh (Tabu), her supportive husband Mahesh (Rajat Kapoor) and their son Sameer. This is a more liberal home where spouses stand shoulder to shoulder every step of the way. Despite their differences over Sameer’s upbringing, it is clear that between Meera and Mahesh too, affections run deep.

When these two worlds collide – the world of the middle-class Vijay and the influential Meera – havoc is created and lives nearly destroyed. When a crime is committed, the suspense is not in discovering who is guilty – we know that from the start. The thrill lies in the genius of the cover-up, in how it is revealed bit by bit and in wondering if the truth will ever be found out. This is not a whodunnit or even a howdunnit. It’s a howtheydunnitandwilltheyorwonttheygetawaywithit.

More than just the mystery, what makes Drishyam work is that Jeethu’s story has a heart, and at the centre of it all, six people – flawed, frightened and oh so human – that we begin to care for.

Director Nishikant Kamat’s signature leisurely style is crucial here, well-complemented by the serene setting, Avinash Arun’s unflashy camerawork and the unobtrusive music. In fact, the build-up to the crime is so relaxed, that when the deed is done at last, it is designed to sock us in the gut. Everything after that is an adrenaline-infused – yet remarkably still unhurried – journey filled with edge-of-the-seat moments, until that final revelation that had me open-mouthed and wide-eyed in wonder the first time round, and is none the worse for wear a year and a half later.  

Mohanlal’s Georgekutty was more jovial than Ajay Devgn’s Vijay, as a result of which the gravity of his actions later in the film was in itself one of the twists in that tale. Ajay plays the character in a more stoic fashion, letting a smile only occasionally escape his lips, but for the most part allowing those trademark brooding eyes to do the talking. Whether it was intentional or not, the decision to play the hero differently ends up serving Ajay well since it makes comparisons redundant – after all, Mohanlal at his best is always a hard act to follow.

Another big change from the original is that Upendra Sidhaye’s Hindi script – derived from Jeethu’s story – plays down Vijay’s obsession with films. This, unfortunately, diminishes the impact of a significant point about the source of “fourth class fail” Vijay’s wisdom.

What makes this Drishyam (even) more interesting than the original though, is the tweaking – both in the casting and writing – of its women and the central man-woman relationship.

First, the vast difference in age and trimness levels between Mohanlal and  Meena – who played the wife in Malayalam – automatically made her seem more dependent and child-like around him. In the Hindi film, the 14-years-or-so gap between actors Shriya Saran and Ajay Devgn is much less but not minor at all, yet in terms of appearance they seem more like equal partners (despite Shriya’s distractingly over-made-up face). Second, Ajay’s character Vijay is less patriarchal in conversations with and about his wife, Shriya’s Nandini. Third, Nandini gradually comes into her own, at first emotionally reliant on Vijay when tragedy strikes but then growing into a partner: he may be the one with the plan, but she’s no shrinking babe in the woods either.

In a film filled with talented artistes, Tabu – who enters near interval time – sinks her greedy acting fangs into a powerful role and ends up towering over the rest. Actress Asha Sarath in the original was wonderful too, but the Hindi script has made the character marginally more likeable.

I still think the story is playing to the gallery of prevalent social notions by making the child of a working mother wayward while the good kids are the kids of a stay-at-home Mom, but Tabu’s awe-inspiring performance overshadows even that covert messaging. Her IGP Meera is forever on the verge of exploding but constantly keeping herself in check. It is a performance so contained and yet so much on edge, that I wanted to bow in my seat each time she came on screen. Befittingly then, Drishyam strays from its overall understated tone just once, to give Tabu the kind of introduction scene usually reserved for heroes in mainstream masala films.

There’s another remake waiting to be made here. When the memory of this one has faded, how lovely it will be to see, say, Vijay’s wife Nandini working outside the house and – better still – Nandini being the spouse with the brilliant plan through which Vijay supports her as they cross swords with a senior law enforcer/father over a notion of family honour that gets a relook. Now imagine that role reversal with an actress of Tabu’s stature playing Nandini and an actor-star as major as Ajay Devgn in the role of her husband or even the policeman. Imagine.

Until then, there is this captivating Drishyam, a unique thriller for parents of sons and daughters, for those with a point of view on stalking, voyeurism, police high-handedness, the nature of life in small towns, definitions of self-defence and the power of the visual. Neat job, Nishikant!

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):

U/A
Running time:
163 minutes

Still with Tabu courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/DrishyamTheFilm


Friday, July 24, 2015

REVIEW 341: MASAAN

Release date:
July 24, 2015
Director:
Neeraj Ghaywan
Cast:


Language:
Richa Chadha, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi, Pankaj Tripathi
Hindi


Every second, every silence, every word, every glance, there’s not a moment that does not matter in a film – making a difference either for the better or worse.

I’ve watched Masaan twice this month. I would usually not do so before writing a review but in this case, I had no option. Because after the first viewing – at the Jagran festival in early July – the film’s debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan announced that what we had just seen was the Cannes cut which was 9 minutes shorter than the India cut. Damn! No choice but to see it again.

“Damn”, because at the first viewing I found Masaan endearing and perceptive only in parts, the story involving Richa Chadha did not resonate at all with me, and in its entirety I did not find the film memorable. Theek thhi, acchhi thhi, par itni bhi khaas nahin. “This was what won two awards at 2015’s Cannes film festival? Reall­­­y?” I thought to myself with deep disappointment.

As any committed film buff knows though, every second counts. And 9 minutes can make the difference between a kinda sorta nice film and a profoundly moving experience. That indeed is the Masaan I saw the second time – a seemingly simple yet intricate, insightful story about love and loss, grieving and closure, redemption, repentance and ultimately, hope and new beginnings. Set in the north Indian town of Varanasi, Masaan is rich in its interplay of caste, class, gender and faith, and without a doubt one of the most noteworthy Hindi films of the year so far.

The narrative carries with it two parallel strands. One is about a computer programming instructor called Devi Pathak (Richa Chadha) whose attempt at sexual experimentation goes horribly wrong, ruining any chance of a peaceful life for her in her home town and putting a strain on her already troubled relationship with her father, Pandit Vidyadhar Pathak.

The second story is about college student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a lower caste boy who falls in love with an upper caste girl called Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi). Along with his family, Deepak works on funeral pyres in this holy city where Hindus come to cremate their dead. That’s where the film gets its title – masaan means cremation ground.

The social dynamics in this small town are fascinating, and Varun Grover’s script is unrelenting in its detailing. So much is revealed with the mere mention of a name or the blink of an eye, so much left unsaid. The fleeting words of a family in conversation float towards a brooding daughter, reminding her of their radical casteist convictions. Lovers in mourning are constrained in their grief because of the clandestine nature of the relationships they shared and lost.

Despite the overt feminism of Devi’s story, the thread I found myself completely immersed in was Deepak and Shaalu’s courtship. When Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa – also set in Varanasi – was released in 2013, all criticism of the violent stalker hero met with responses such as “well, this is the nature of romance in small-town India”. Firstly, a reality is not acceptable merely because it exists. Second, normalising a horrid reality is condemnable. Third, to my mind such views come either from snooty city dwellers with a patronising view of mofussil India or small-town residents who malign their own homes and/or do not question their negatives. In Masaan the wonderfully sensitive Varun reminds us that within the constraints placed on romance in societies with extreme gender segregation, decent men find ways of approaching women they are attracted to without intimidating them or demanding their attention as a matter of right.

Aided by the excellent screenplay, Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathi make Deepak and Shaalu one of the most winning couples ever to appear on the Indian screen. It is a pleasure to see such a tender romance unfold through the delicate performances of two rank newcomers. I confess to having watched them and felt an ache for a youth now gone and an innocence lost forever.

It helps that crucial scenes from this segment – their first meeting, a rendezvous at a gift shop – are in the India cut. In fact, it’s slightly disconcerting that that initial encounter was snipped out for Cannes, because the choice of scene to chop suggests a willingness to succumb to the average Westerner’s likely stereotypical notion of how relationships are conducted in conservative India.

It’s also hard to understand why, without the time restrictions that were probably placed on them in Cannes, the team cut out from the Indian version a sequence involving Deepak’s family which underlines a marginalised community’s desperate circumstances and the desperation of those compelled by caste to stick to socially derided – even if socially essential – professions. There is also a conversation about a picnic between the two leads that seems awkwardly rounded off. These are questions to be taken up with the director at some point. Nothing in this paragraph though should end up downplaying the appeal of Shaalu and Deepak’s soul-wrenching journey.

Devi is less charming yet intriguing, a woman simmering in her own dissatisfaction. Richa Chadha rises above even the contrived, half-baked reason for her resentment towards her father, to deliver a stupendous performance. To watch her stand struggling with humiliation, fear and caged fury next to a corrupt policeman is to witness something special.

Richa is surrounded by a sparkling trio in her segment – the men playing her father (Sanjay Mishra), a colleague and a cop. The little boy in the role of her father’s assistant is inconsistent. He is lovely in his sprightliness but confusingly expressionless while an adult sits weeping next to him. On the other hand, the scintillating Pankaj Tripathi from the Gangs of Wasseypur films elicits smiles while tugging at the heart in his small role as her colleague. A neatly executed scene featuring them in a restaurant (not in the Cannes cut) adds a whole new dimension to the man, transforming him from a satellite player to a primary character.

The stories of these characters are so engrossing that one almost forgets the sanitised visuals of Varanasi presented to us by this film, like most films set here. Varanasi is atmospheric, but it is also filthy. A foreigner would never guess that though from DoP Avinash Arun’s images. If Masaan is about a city and its people, warts and all, why camouflage some of the warts?

Ah well, to distort a cliché, all’s fair in love especially when you’re in love with a film. The lasting memory of this one is of Indian Ocean’s contemplative songs, Varun’s writing, Neeraj’s unobtrusive direction and characters that leave a lasting impression.


For every disciple of kismet in Varanasi, there is also a Deepak and a Devi straining at the straitjacket, and a bright, shining, spirited Shaalu, practical yet poetic, hooked on the shayari of Bashir Badr, confident and completely her own woman.

There can be no greater measure of the effectiveness of a film than that the dreams of its characters become ours, their heartbreaks become our heartbreaks, their joys our very own. That is the kind of film sweet little Masaan is.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

A (because a couple in Masaan having actual sex, consensual though it is and not graphic at all, could pollute children’s minds according to the Censor Board, but sexist and crudely suggestive ‘item’ numbers, metaphorical depictions of romanticised rape, trivialised molestation and harassment are usually awarded U/A or U ratings, especially when made by established mainstream directors, with major commercial male stars in the lead)
Running time:
109 minutes minutes