Saturday, April 19, 2014

REVIEW 258: DEKH TAMASHA DEKH


Release date:
April 18, 2014
Director:
Feroz Abbas Khan
Cast:




Language:

Apoorva Arora, Satish Kaushik, Tanvi Azmi, Vinay Jain, Satish Alekar, Sharad Ponkshe, Alok Rajwade, Jayant Wadkar, Ganesh Yadav, Dhiresh Joshi
Hindi

In a seaside town somewhere on the deceptively tranquil Indian coast, the giant cut-out of a neta falls on a poor man, crushing him to death. Under normal circumstances Hamid Tangewala would have got a funeral and been promptly forgotten by all but his closest family. As it happens, however, this is no ordinary poor man. He was once Kishan, an impoverished Hindu who fell in love with a Muslim woman called Fatima (Tanvi Azmi), converted to Islam and married her a long long time ago. In a nation perennially searching for political hot potatoes, a local Hindu leader (Sharad Ponkshe) shifts his attention from an offensive book to demand that “Kishan’s body” be handed over to “them”. What follows is a battle involving police, courts and media, in a film that underlines the utter ridiculousness of riots and religious bigotry, like few Hindi films have done in the past.

Director Feroz Abbas Khan’s Dekh Tamasha Dekh (DTD) is an unusual cocktail of humour and poignance, unusual because of the grimness of the subject and because he has chosen satire as an instrument to convey the bizarre lengths to which violence-prone communalists will go to score a point. Khan – a veteran of theatre, but relatively new to the film world – had earlier helmed Gandhi My Father, a film on the Mahatma’s strained relations with his son Harilal. The assured directorial hand he displayed on debut comes to his aid here again, ensuring that despite the bloodshed in the background, we are not offended when DTD induces tears and laughter in equal measure.

How can a film about riots be funny, you may well ask? Well it can be, just like a film set in a concentration camp could be a comedy? Khan displays the same directorial sleight of hand that made Roberto Benigni’s La vita é bella (Life Is Beautiful) such a hard-hitting commentary on Hitler’s Holocaust. Dekh Tamasha Dekh takes a swipe at hollow religious leaders on both sides who don’t give a damn about the people, but are happy to use them to further a dubious cause. It subtly slams the media through the character of a traitorous, chameleon-like journalist. As a hapless judge is asked to decide whether a body is Hindu or Muslim, whether that body must be cremated or buried, it gives us one of the most preposterous, most hilarious courtroom scenes ever seen in a Hindi film.

“Did you care about Kishan all those years ago when he was struggling for a living and desperately needed help?” the Hindu leader is asked. He has no credible answer and doesn’t care to search for one either. That the majority community’s bigots are hateful not just towards the minorities but also towards its own moderates is evidenced by the harassment of the gentlemanly, scholarly Professor Shastri (Satish Alekar) early in the film. Elsewhere, a moderate Muslim leader is summarily brushed aside by the more rabid elements of his biraadari, once the situation heats up. We are never shown exactly who started the riots, who lit that first fire, the point being that it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Somewhere in between is an inter-community love story destroyed by the bloodshed. Most of all though, the film renders a resounding slap in the face of self-appointed guardians of “Indian culture” who assume that this country comprises one homogeneous mass of people, ignoring the vast differences in rituals and social practices across India, within states, and even within the same caste or religious community.

Some scenes are deliberately stage-like, in particular the ones involving the late Hamid’s daughter Shabbo and her boyfriend Prashant, further underlining the absurdity of the goings-on around them. This boy, who refuses to believe in a world of “them” and “us”, seems to live forever in a trance-like state, inhabiting a parallel universe far removed from his fellow citizens’ ludicrous antics that lead to tragic results.

The camera never rests for too long on any one character. Make no mistake about this though: this is a solid cast drawing on Shafaat Khan’s disturbingly incisive writing and the director’s clarity of vision. The performances are all uniformly fitting in a film with no heroes or heroines, only real people. It’s particularly heartening to see little Apoorva Arora from that 2011 gem Bubble Gum, all grown-up and playing Shabbo.

DTD is particularly resonant because of its timing, coming as it does in the middle of one of India’s most significant and polarising elections so far. It compels us to ask ourselves how political leaders can claim that a riot was not their fault if it lasted for more than a few hours under their watch. It holds up a mirror to every section of society that causes or permits communal violence to happen, either due to apathy or by actively sparking a flame. The silent secularist, the opportunist and the bigot are all to blame. The old man who takes off his hearing aid to find his peace, the editor who headlines a rumour to increase his newspaper’s circulation and save his job, the policeman who stays equidistant for a while for fear of being accused of bias, the sword-wielding rioter…in one way or the other, each one is to blame. Take one of these elements away from the mix, and the madness can end.

I laughed and cried through Dekh Tamasha Dekh because I was embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that every bit of stupidity and cruelty and insensitivity portrayed in it is true of today’s India. This is a film that should be compulsory viewing in social science classes across the country.

Rating (out of five stars): ****

CBFC Rating (India):

A
Running time:
109 minutes

Poster and trailer courtesy: Everymedia PR
Trailer 2 (“Is every Indian a Hindu?”:
Trailer 3:
Trailer 4:

Friday, April 18, 2014

REVIEW 257: TWO STATES

Release date:
April 18, 2014
Director:
Abhishek Varman
Cast:


Language:

Alia Bhatt, Arjun Kapoor, Amrita Singh, Revathy, Ronit Roy, Shiv Kumar Subramaniam, Achint Kaur
Hindi with a bit of Tamil

Abhishek Varman’s 2 States is not so much a love story between Ananya Swaminathan and Krish Malhotra, as it is the tale of a young couple from differing cultural backgrounds wooing their respective families. It’s based on the book 2 States: The Story Of My Marriage by Chetan Bhagat. The film takes us from IIM-Ahmedabad where Ananya and Krish first meet, to their early professional lives and their struggles to get her happily married, traditional (though not painfully so) Tamilian mom and dad, his good-hearted but crude, all-Punjabi mother and estranged, alcoholic father to all get along. Why not avoid the trauma, run away and get married? Answer: because Ananya – an interesting mix of tradition and modernity – wants their parents to be present and happy at their wedding.

Those who have read 2 States know how it will end. Either way, it’s not the climax but the treatment of the journey that makes this an under-stated, uncommon mainstream romance. Five Point Someone, the only Chetan Bhagat book that I’ve read, led me to conclude this about the man: that his language is deplorably mediocre but there’s a kernel of common sense at the heart of what he’s saying, which can’t be ignored. In fact, FPS was a far more balanced assessment of the Indian education system than the more populist, everything’s-wrong-with-it approach adopted by Rajkumar Hirani’s much-acclaimed, hugely entertaining film adaptation, 3 Idiots. The feeling about Bhagat remains, now that I’ve seen the celluloid version of 2 States.

The film’s core strength is that while it revolves around cultural clashes, it does not resort to the irritating, sometimes nauseating community clichés that Bollywood usually favours. The Malhotras and Swaminathans are more like the Punjabis and Tamilians that I’ve had as neighbours, friends, colleagues and classmates all my life: yes there are social differences and specific characteristics, yet Ananya’s people are not oily-haired or cowardly, nor do you hear them say “Ayaiyyo every step of the way; and Krish’s relatives don’t break into Bhangra, get belligerent or say “O paappe” at the drop of a hat. More to the point, in the virtual lack of differences between Krish and Ananya when they’re outside home territory, we see the reality of so many city-bred Indians, rooted in their ethos yet citizens of the world, who would and could blend in wherever they go.

Varman’s writing speaks to us gently of the many reasons why Indian parents object when children pick their own life partners, even in 2014. Sometimes it’s societal pressure; sometimes caste and other narrow-minded considerations; sometimes a genuine worry about whether their beloved child can handle differing customs and find acceptance in her/his partner’s family; but most of the time (though political correctness holds us back from saying this often enough) it’s an ego hassle that leads them to object for the heck of objecting, like when Krish’s Mom assumes from the start that that damned “Madrasan” must have trapped her son, because Punjabis are so white that any southern Indian girl would be dying to get hitched to a Punj boy.

I can imagine people out there saying, “par Alia Bhatt Madrasan toh nahin dikhti hai,” for obvious reasons. Well, the varying shades of skin colour within both clans in this film is an unspoken message to those who are fixated on the differences in complexion of various communities in India, to those who assume that “sab Punjabi gorey hotey hai aur sab Madrasi kaaley hotey hai”, but most especially to those who think white is beautiful and black is ugly.

The proceedings unfold on screen in an unhurried manner, as though they are real-time events. The snuggling and coupling in the early part of the film is fluffy, fun and sweet (even if the portrayal of IIM-A is superficial and factually off the mark); the parivaar saga later on is moving and feels authentic. There’s humour throughout, low-key and not raucous. The measured tone must be credited to Namrata Rao’s editing complementing Varman’s direction and writing (he’s done the screenplay, with dialogues by Husain Dalal).

Of the songs created by Shankar Ehsaan Loy, none are as rousing as their best work in Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Bunty aur Babli, Salaam-e-Ishq and Rock On. Two numbers – Offo and Locha-e-Ulfat – are also positioned too close to each other within the film. However, the rest of the songs are blended well into the narrative and Mast Magan is really nice. 

Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor inhabit the characters of Ananya and Krish with a level of comfort that belies their lack of experience. He’s becoming more easy before the camera with each film; she’s got a natural talent for acting that was inexplicably left untapped in her debut film Student Of The Year. He’s got brooding eyes, and a manner about him that would make a woman want to protect him; she’s pretty and charming on screen. Together they manage to whip up some sparks in the rough and tumble of their bedsheets at IIM; and later, to convey to us the pain of their separation and family squabbles.

The supporting cast is excellent, headlined by Amrita Singh who seems to be sinking her teeth into her second innings in Bollywood. Here she is given the task of playing a Punjabi mother who is crude yet not the usual breast-beating, loud, over-the-top Punjaban played by Kirron Kher in a number of films (fun to watch at first, but repetitive after a point, for no fault of the actress). Singh rises to the challenge, delivering a delightfully nuanced performance, vastly different from her impressive evil turn in 2013’s Aurangzeb. Ronit Roy as her husband is just as striking. As a result, some of 2 States’ most powerful scenes are within the Malhotra home.

The lovely Revathy and Shiv Kumar Subramaniam play Ananya’s parents who are poorly fleshed out in comparison. This is the film’s major failing: that we find ourselves involved with the Malhotras whereas the Swaminathans remain distant figures. The relationship between Krish and his mother in particular has both depth and detail, far more even than the relationship between Krish and Ananya. Mr and Mrs Swaminathan, on the other hand, are given short shrift.

The defence could be that this is a story told from Krish’s point of view. Still, when a film is called 2 States, you want to know equally about both states, not just one. I was also disturbed by the “dil ka buraa nahin hai” attitude that surfaces in the end towards the emotionally abusive Mr Malhotra whose presence usually hints at a threat of physical violence. Worrisome, because this is the line almost always taken to condone physically abusive husbands.

The screenplay has some rough edges that required more work. For instance, the narrative device of getting the hero to recount the story from a psychiatrist’s couch doesn’t serve any particular purpose, and a back-and-forth in time at one point gets confusing. A straightforward narration would have just made more sense. Early on in the film, the exceedingly bright Ananya who is an Economics topper at the graduation level, seems inexplicably clueless about Economics theories in her IIM class. Why? Possibly in a bow to Chetan Bhagat who would have been in IIM-A in the early 1990s, Krish is shown working on a manual typewriter – except that the film is set in today’s India where this dated device in the hands of a 20-something Delhi boy who is an IIM student seems ludicrous.

That being said, 2 States is moody, low-key, pleasant yet steeped in the idiosyncracies that mark relationships even in contemporary, seemingly forward-thinking India. It revolves around a likeable lead pair, and is unusual in tenor as Bollywood romances go. With all its flaws, it touches the heart and had me rooting for Ananya and Krish to end up together. When that happens in a film, you know it’s worked.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):

U/A
Running time:
149 minutes

Photograph courtesy: Everymedia PR


Sunday, April 13, 2014

FILM FATALE: STAR PARIVAARS THAT DEFY PATRIARCHY / COLUMN PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU BUSINESSLINE

(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline’s BL Ink supplement on April 12, 2014)


Headline: THE MODERN FAMILY


Introline: A few feisty Bollywood daughters and parents are challenging the industry’s patriarchal ways


Changing roles: Alia Bhatt is among the new batch of actors who continue to defy gender bias in Bollywood families
In a season of opinion polls, here’s one of the non-electoral kind. Do you believe a majority of Bollywood stars are from film families? Chances are most of you will say yes. The right answer though, is yes and no.

In this notoriously nepotistic film industry, there’s a gender angle even to nepotism: while it’s true that most male actors ruling Hindi cinema today are relatives of producers, directors, actors and other industry insiders; most female actors are not.

If you think this is a feminist over-reading of the scenario, just run your eyes through the past fortnight’s mainstream Bollywood releases and spot the star kids in each lead cast: director David Dhawan’s son Varun is the hero of Main Tera Hero; producer Vashu Bhagnani’s son Jackky headlines Youngistaan; and Dishkiyaoon co-stars producer-director Harry Baweja’s son Harman with legendary actor Dharmendra’s son Sunny Deol. Score: film family sons – 4, daughters – 0.

Alternatively, consider the male stars in the 30-50 age group who have dominated Bollywood for the past quarter century. Only three – Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham – are rank outsiders. Their contemporaries are Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Imran Khan whose lineage needs no introduction. The percentage is dramatically reversed among leading ladies in the same age group, with outsiders (Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif) far exceeding the number of industry daughters (sisters Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Kajol and cousin Rani Mukerji).

The explanation for this skew lies in Bollywood’s male chauvinism. Sanjay Dutt explicitly states that no daughter of the Dutt clan can act in films. Some star parivaars opt for politically correct public utterances on this matter, but Dharmendra – who openly opposed daughter Esha’s film career – was unblushing about his conservatism when I interviewed him on his 75th birthday in 2010. “Aisi unpredictable line mein jaha ladkon ke liye bhi mushkil hai, usme bechari bachchiyon ko kyun bhejoge? (Why would anyone send their poor daughters into a profession which is so difficult even for sons?) Ultimately daughters have to settle down, to be frank,” he said. “A father wants nothing but happiness for his daughter. They should settle down, live a happy life, and work according to their husbands (sic).”

Don’t be shocked. After all, our film industries are not set in Venus or Mars; they’ve emerged from our very own gender-prejudiced society here on Earth. Like Dharmendra, most industry families are fixated on patriarchal notions of “protecting” daughters who are too “bechari” to take on the world, instead of investing in changing that world.

This industry is acutely aware too of its own culpability with the casting couch. There is also a hypocritical categorisation of women into types: if society at large often labels women as ‘wife material’ and ‘girlfriend material’, for people in the film industry, there is the ‘my mother/wife/daughter type’ who must not wear skimpy clothes or romance other men on screen, and the ‘co-star type’.

Rare is the film family where the baton has been passed from father to daughter; rarer still from mother to child to grandchild. The Samarths – Shobhana Samarth, her daughters Nutan and Tanuja, Nutan’s son Mohnish Behl and Tanuja’s daughter Kajol – are exceptions who have opened doors to others, as pioneers always do. If there had been no Karisma and Kajol, who’s to say whether Rani and Kareena would have joined films. If it weren’t for this quartet, would the past seven years have witnessed the arrival of Anil Kapoor’s daughter Sonam, Shatrughan Sinha’s daughter Sonakshi, or Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan’s daughter Alia? Coming soon is Suniel Shetty’s daughter Athiya.

These girls are droplets in the ocean, but their entry still marks a notable change from earlier decades, partly because they are not pliable or bechari and partly due to evolving parental mindsets. Anyone who has met Anil and Sonam could tell you that he is far too liberal to keep a daughter in a professional purdah and she is far too feisty to follow norms. Less obvious though is the spiritedness of Shatrughan’s daughter Sonakshi, who cultivates an image of traditionalism by discussing family values, sanskaar and her family’s dignity in most interviews.

As I write this column, I place a quick call to Sinha Senior, who is busy in Patna campaigning for his seat in the Lok Sabha polls. On the drive to an election rally, Shotgun – as he is known to colleagues and the press – describes himself as Sonakshi’s shield against the casting couch. I ask: Would she have listened if you had commanded her not to act? “We’re past the era when parents could dictate terms to children,” he replies. “You have to treat them as your friends, guide them according to their capacity, aptitude and qualifications.” Open-minded as Dad clearly is, it turns out too that Sonakshi of the lowered gaze in public, is very much her own woman.

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an IntrepidFilm Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
Photograph courtesy: Everymedia PR (shot of Alia Bhatt shooting for Imtiaz Alis Highway in Aru Valley, Kashmir)
Note: This photograph was not used in BL Ink
Related Links:
(a)   The Dharmendra Interview by Anna MM Vetticad / Headlines Today / December 2010: http://tinyurl.com/pq5ut45
(b)  “Bollywood and The Inheritance of Gloss” / Article by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/ne5xzt3
(c)   Ranbir Kapoor, on being a Kapoor / Interview by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/ouxawxs   
(d)  “Ranbir my son is a fourth generation male actor” / Interview with Rishi & Neetu Kapoor by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/nj4fngo