Friday, March 13, 2015

REVIEW 323: NH10

Release date:
March 13, 2015
Director:
Navdeep Singh
Cast:

Language:
Anushka Sharma, Neil Bhoopalam, Darshan Kumaar, Deepti Naval
Hindi


NH10 is eerie, scary and frighteningly realistic.

It is the kind of film women who drive their own cars in big cities might watch and pray: I hope this never happens to me. Or worse: I’ve been so close to being in such a situation more than once in my life, thank goodness I got away safe.

The action takes off when a woman driving through Gurgaon is attacked by hooligans one night. The horrific episode leads to her purchasing a gun for her protection (dear non-NCR-ites, Meera’s acquisition is unusual; please don’t exoticise Delhi/Gurgaon any more than you already do after watching this film). Not long after this incident, she and her husband witness a fracas on a highway, and a series of tragedies are set off by the lethal mix of a man’s basic decency, his wounded ego and the knowledge that a gun is within easy reach.

What happens to Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) is every traveller’s nightmare. Director Navdeep Singh – who earlier made the acclaimed Manorama Six Feet Under – has designed his road film as a thriller, but it is also a layered commentary on gender and caste. NH10 examines social reactions to violence against women, the difference between how men and women respond to assault, the intricacies of human relations, public morality, migrants, the assumptions we make about people and the many planets packed into Planet India.

Why do men tend to counter aggression with aggression, while women instinctively recoil and retreat to protect themselves? Should we help a person in danger, if it means risking our own and a loved one’s life? If the impetuosity of a man we love puts us at risk, do we stop loving him?

As events hurtle down National Highway 10 at breakneck speed, Singh injects his film with questions, answers and depth rarely seen in suspense dramas. That is what makes NH10 special.

When Meera suffers the first attack, for instance, the policeman taking her complaint casually informs her that it would have been so much easier to solve this case if she had noted down the licence plate numbers of her attackers’ vehicles. He does not stop at asking her if she did (a legitimate question), he makes it sound like he is chiding her because she did not.

You can sense Meera’s frustration, habituated as women are to being lectured about protecting ourselves. Why did you not note down the number? (I was scared, flustered and busy fighting off a murderous gang, you idiot!) Why were you on a lonely road? Why were you in a crowd? Why were you alone? Why did you not take a man along? Why were you with a man?

The conversation at the police station barely lasts a minute yet resonates with significance. In fact, the spotlight is trained almost throughout NH10 on how women are constantly stalked by sexism, extreme misogyny and security concerns in a world where even going to a public toilet could be an act of bravery. Where if she does not go to that toilet she might be mocked for being paranoid, but if she does and something untoward happens, she might well be asked: why did you? The film later turns also into a disturbing chronicle of caste intertwined with gender and the many contiguous worlds within India, where a jeans-clad, English-speaking woman from Gurgaon city is a virtual foreigner in rural Haryana.

In a film where every moment counts, it’s hard though to decipher that scene in which a fatigued Meera pointedly sits down to smoke, in a moment of twisted triumph. Since her cigarette habit is mentioned repeatedly early in NH10, clearly that later scene is a metaphor for something. Can’t tell what. It does seem though that with rare exceptions, Hindi cinema is now incapable of giving us tough, successful women who are not smokers. Understand this, Bollywood: assuming that all smart women must be smoking is no less regressive than branding women smokers as immoral.

That lapse notwithstanding, NH10 is a hard-hitting film that is completely terrifying in an I-kept-my-eyes-half-covered-because-I-couldn’t-bear-to-watch-it-yet-I-was-dying-to-see-what-was-going-on sort of way. Its impact is achieved with the coming together of quality acting, intelligently used music, concise dialogue writing, impeccable editing and sharp sound design (not counting a couple of places where those tyres on the road could have been toned down and the over-done spell of metal scraping the ground in the climactic scene).

It is a measure of Bhoopalam’s talent and charisma that even when Arjun is exasperatingly foolhardy, it is hard to entirely hate him. Darshan Kumaar’s violent Satbir is as far removed from his turn as Mary Kom’s gentle husband as Chile is from China. He is brilliant.

Headlining the cast is that pretty model we first saw acting in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). Anushka – who turns producer with NH10 – delivers a stupendous, immersive performance here, displaying immense range within a single role. In fact, there is hardly any Anushka in this film, there is only Meera.

When it goes easy on layering and nuance to focus on suspense post-interval, NH10 loses some of its edge. When it stretches Meera’s exploits in the climax, filling an ominous silence with a single heightened metallic sound, it feels manipulative although her actions are believable. That said, NH10 is never less than compelling. It is from start to finish a thoroughly absorbing film.

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

CBFC Rating (India):

A   
Running time:
115 minutes

Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NH10

Saturday, March 7, 2015

REVIEW 322: COFFEE BLOOM


Release date:
March 6, 2015
Director:
Manu Warrier
Cast:

Language:

Arjun Mathur, Sugandha Garg, Mohan Kapur
Hindi and English


Coffee Bloom is a small, charming even if inconsistent film about a young man letting his life slip away in bitterness over an incident in his youth. Director Manu Warrier tells his tale armed with three talented actors and one of the most gorgeous settings in India: the coffee plantations of Coorg in Karnataka.

The story revolves around Dev Anand Cariappa (Arjun Mathur) who spends his time listening to clichéd recorded sermons about the meaning of life, as he wallows in the lingering misery of an old romance gone terribly wrong. Dev claims to be a sanyasi, but has to deal with the surfacing of his worldly desires when a tragedy takes him back to his old family estate – which now has a new owner – in Coorg. There he meets his former girlfriend Anika (Sugandha Garg) and her husband. As he works at his job on a local estate, he must confront his feelings for her and his own desperate need for closure over the incident that tore them apart.

The circumstances surrounding their broken relationship are told in instalments through a series of flashbacks. The incremental revelations form an interesting element in Coffee Bloom. Equally attractive are the three central performers – Mathur, Garg and Mohan Kapur playing Srinivas Panicker, the boss of the plantation on which Dev takes up temporary work.

The ever-reliable Mathur – earlier seen in Luck By Chance, I Am, My Name Is Khan and several author-backed roles in high-profile ads – is convincing as always as a flaky, immature fellow borrowing pretentious phrases for everyday conversations from those sermons he listens to; an emotionally ravaged young man masking his silent screams for revenge with a veneer of renunciation. He comes across as a person who probably pictured himself playing the part of a tortured soul/tragedy king and then did such a good job of it that he became the man he was playing, a man who just cannot let go of the past.

Garg is a familiar face as the excellent actress who played Imran Khan/Jai Singh Rathore’s close friend in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Not only is she talented, she’s also exceedingly good-looking. It’s a mystery why we don’t see her more often in mainstream Hindi films. Kapur turns in an interesting performance as the ebullient, slightly dense, but well-meaning Srinivas who does not know the ‘c’ of coffee or the ‘oo’ of oogaana (cultivation), as Dev puts it angrily, but sees running a coffee estate as his dream. He is a bit flighty but so good-natured and good-hearted that it’s hard to be put off by him.

In the midst of their believable characterisations and acting comes Ishwari Bose-Bhattacharya’s turn as Shonda, who is… well, I could not entirely make out what she does, but she is the live-in partner of someone we never meet and a woman who Dev befriends. This inexplicable, voluptuous woman speaks an awkwardly written blend of Bengali-accented Hindi and English, which is incongruous considering that the director is clearly asking for a suspension of disbelief from us by: (a) not asking Mathur to ‘do an accent’ (you know what I mean) and (b) by showing a Coorgi boy and his mother naturally conversing with each other in Hindi. Since we have been convinced to accept both the above, trying to introduce authenticity to Shonda’s language and style of speaking makes the film uneven. Why could she not have spoken plain Hindi?

That apart, the narrative turns slightly disjointed during an incident involving a gun towards the end of the film. Still, Mathur and Garg manage to pull Coffee Bloom over that bump with their natural ease before the camera.

A desire for revenge consumes us much more than it harms our intended targets – that’s what the film seems to be gently telling us; and that even if you never discover what caused a cataclysmic event in your life, the best thing you could do for yourself is to move on.

For the most part then, this is an engaging film. What is disappointing though is that Director of Photography Yogesh P. Jani fails to fully exploit the naturally rich location at his disposal. This is not to say that his pictures aren’t pretty. They are. Very pretty indeed. But then even if you and I were to take random shots of sundry spots in Coorg, we might come away with exquisite visuals – that’s how lovely the place is. Point is, with a professional behind the camera, I can’t remember any outdoor shot in Coffee Bloom so unique in its composition that it surprised me, which is odd considering that the Internet tells me Jani is the same man who delivered to us the photographic detailing of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2013). With Coffee Bloom, was he constrained by a limited budget or was he personally less invested in this project? It’s impossible to guess the reason. It is a measure of the absolute splendour of this region that it looks stunning in the film despite the limited imagination employed in the cinematography.

Be that as it may, I found Coffee Bloom a well-acted and unexpectedly satisfying film. Be warned: it is paced in a fashion that might be considered too slow and too languid by some. To me though it felt relaxed, reflective, unusual and offbeat.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
U/A   
Running time:
95 minutes