Sunday, May 29, 2016

REVIEW 396: PHOBIA


Release date:
May 27, 2016
Director:
Pavan Kirpalani
Cast:

Language:
Radhika Apte, Satyadeep Mishra, Ankur Vikal, Yashaswini Dayama
Hindi


Bollywood has a lousy track record with horror films in the past couple of decades. Most makers of spookfests and mind benders in Hindi have, for what seems like the recent forever, tried to manipulate audiences with screeching sounds, sudden camera movements and other clichés.

Phobia has no time for such low-brow nonsense. Director Pavan Kirpalani’s third film is a heart-stoppingly frightening thriller that refuses to take the viewer for granted. His first, Ragini MMS in 2011, was flawed but proved that he was cut out for the genre. Phobia is simply brilliant in the way it rolls up to the multiple massive surprises in the end. This is seriously scary, seriously intriguing stuff that, as it happens, features a career-defining performance by Radhika Apte.

The film begins with wickedly chosen clues. Franz Kafka’s words, “A cage went in search of a bird”, appear on screen before the camera closes in on a painting. Next we meet artist Mehek Deo (Radhika Apte), surrounded by what seem like friends and admirers at her exhibition while she narrates a story about a cat and a weird old man and gently ribs a chap called Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra). Everything in that apparently innocuous scene is crucial to what follows.

Soon after, Mehek is sexually assaulted and develops agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that leads her to fear leaving her home. Shaan, her some-time lover and full-time friend, takes her away from the flat she occupied with her sister with whom she shares a tense relationship, to a friend’s apartment since he is sure solitude will cure her. He does not, however, anticipate the creepy neighbour (Ankur Vikal) and the diary of an ex-tenant who went missing, which start preying on Mehek’s mind. What follows is a hair-raising parade of visions, violence and then gore.

Satyen Chaudhry’s design of the rented house is crucial to the panic building up in Mehek’s mind and the anticipation mounting in ours. The air of decaying prosperity, the walls bearing paintings with darkened human figures that could easily be mistaken for mirrors in which we are possibly seeing a reflection of someone watching Mehek from behind – it is all very spooky.

Jayakrishna Gummadi’s camera occasionally changes vantage points so that we sometimes watch the proceedings as outsiders and sometimes right beside or behind Mehek, hoping to see what she sees. His work, Vivek Sachidanand’s sound design and Karan Gour’s background score never once make us conscious of how they are working to play around with our heads.

Fully backing the talent backing him, the director builds up a sense of foreboding from the very first shot. He occasionally relieves the tension with a genre cliché – a bathtub, a musical timepiece, a peephole, a character opting to enter an eerie place though we as viewers are smart enough to know it probably houses a ghost – possibly to convince us that since this is familiar ground, we are well prepared for what comes next. In one scene, a knife is conveniently left in the vicinity of a patient with a grave psychological ailment. As it turns out, a cliché is not a cliché and a loophole is not a lazy loophole if what you saw is not what you think you saw.

There are brief passages of humour in Shaan and Mehek’s fights and when her paranoid actions border on the farcial. A formulaic filmmaker trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator might have used such scenes to mock Mehek and mental maladies. Not Kirpalani. These interludes serve to lull our senses before – boom! – another plot twist smacks us in the nerves.


Mehek is popular, attractive and knows her mind. Watching her develop a phobia is akin to the shock you get when you discover that someone like Robin Williams suffered from severe depression. “How could a funny man be depressed?” here becomes “how could a feisty woman be afraid?” Medical professionals could explain whether the film is accurate in its depiction of agoraphobia, but this is for sure: by painting Mehek as a lively creature in that brief introduction, Kirpalani overturns the stereotypes about mental illness that so many of us harbour. Bravo!

This is truly intelligent writing all around: the story is by Kirpalani himself, he co-wrote the screenplay with Arun Sukumar, and the naturally flowing dialogues are by Pooja Ladha Surti who is also responsible for the film’s crisp, clever editing.

At the heart of it all is the wonderful Radhika Apte who is pitch perfect as Mehek. Apte has already built an impressive filmography in character roles across Indian film industries in the past decade. Her experience shows in Phobia in which she dominates the story and the camera rests on her almost throughout, without the strain showing for even a second.

She is ably supported by believable performances from the entire supporting cast. Yashaswini Dayama playing her slightly kookie teenaged neighbour is a find.

Though the film’s primary goal is to scare the bejeezus out of us, it is also filled with acute social insights. For instance, Mehek’s fear of the outside results from a sexual assault, yet in her flat she is stuck with the devil within. In that sense, Phobia is a metaphor for the omnipresence of sexual predators in a world where women are told to cover up, not step out late, not step out alone, not step into crowds, all to protect themselves, but judgmental misogynists have no answer for what is to be done about sexual marauders within homes, families, offices and among acquaintances.

Mehek’s actions in her new home are an effort to help a woman she never knew. Her innate goodness, the risks a chirpy neighbour (Yashaswini Dayama) takes for her, the lengths to which Shaan goes for her indicate the film’s non-black-&-white view of the world. When we first see Mehek, it is evident she has a wide social circle. When it comes to the crunch though, the only one by her side is Shaan. Even her seemingly loving sister turns on her with alarming ferocity when she becomes an inconvenience. Then Mehek steps up for a stranger, then a stranger steps up for her. The crowd at the party does not turn up for Mehek, but decency is clearly not dead.

Ghost flick, psychological thriller, social commentary or all the above – in the end, Phobia is what you want it to be for yourself. It is also, without question, a superbly entertaining film.

Rating (out of five): ****

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

Poster courtesy: Raindrop Media


Friday, May 27, 2016

REVIEW 395: WAITING


Release date:
May 27, 2016
Director:
Anu Menon
Cast:


Language:
Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Arjun Mathur, Suhasini Maniratnam
Hindi


Considering the grim subject and setting – the intensive care unit of a luxe hospital in Kochi – Waiting is a surprisingly pleasant and positive film.  

Anu Menon’s second directorial venture has the same lightness of touch and natural storytelling style she brought to her debut in 2012’s London, Paris, New York starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Ali Zafar. Yet this film is as different from her first as night is from day and Tara is from Shiv.  

Tara and Shiv are Tara Deshpande-Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin) and Professor Shiv Natraj (Naseeruddin Shah) in this Hindi-English-occasionally-Malayalam (subtitled) film Waiting. They ought, henceforth, to be an accepted metaphor for strangers who really “get” each other.  

She is a feisty, often foul-mouthed, occasionally unthinking though always well-meaning, impatient, impetuous, flashy, attractive, young, recently married woman. Her husband Rajat has just been in a near-fatal accident that sends him into a coma.  

Shiv’s wife of 40 years, Pankaja, has been in a coma for eight months. He is a spirited yet sobre, prim and propah, meticulous, kind, staid old man and theirs has been a happy marriage.

Tara is well off. Shiv has taken on back-breaking debt to pay Pankaja’s medical bills.  

The two meet in the waiting room of the Kochi hospital where their respective spouses lie in an Intensive Care Unit. As they bond over their grief, fears and difficult decisions, they form an unlikely friendship that transcends age and backgrounds.  

He does not know what Twitter is; the discovery that he has been married for four decades elicits an incredulous “oh fuck” from her. Here is what they do have in common though: they both adore their spouses.  

It is the simplest of premises drawn from a challenging phase in Menon’s own life. Under her direction aided by a strong script she has co-written with James Ruzicka, it turns into a warm, telling commentary on love, family, generation gaps, inner strength and basic human goodness.  

The film is not only about two grieving individuals though. Central to the plot is the fact that Tara is more alone than she might otherwise have been in this tragic scenario, because she has been plucked out of her home city Mumbai and planted in a new milieu where she has no friends and does not understand the language. Kochi is busy and buzzing in comparison with other Kerala towns and cities, yet not as much as India’s biggest metropolises; it is large enough to offer the kind of high-end hospital where Rajat is being treated, but not as crowded or frenetic as Chennai and Bengaluru in a way that might be familiar and comforting to a lonely Mumbaikar.

The hustle and bustle of daily life can sometimes be used to drown out the voices in our heads. In relatively languorous Kochi, Tara does not have that option.  

In such a place, away from her family and social circle, it is but natural that she would turn for comfort to a local who is also somewhat of an outsider: Pankaja is a Malayali, Shiv is not. Being a retiree gives him enough time to be devoted to his comatose wife while also offering a shoulder to cry on to Tara who initially strikes him as an inexplicable drama queen.  

If you go looking for dramatic twists, you will not find them here. Waiting is not that kind of film. It does, however, throw a bunch of questions at us. When we pray for a bed-ridden loved one’s longevity, are we doing it for them or for ourselves? Is it selfish to long for their survival irrespective of the quality of life they may have? If you pull the plug on someone you love, are you giving up on them?

Waiting does not spoonfeed us responses to these questions as universal truths. It leaves us to find our own answers while its protagonists find theirs.

Shah and Koechlin complement the film’s non-preachy and realistic tone. There is a natural rhythm to their acting and the chemistry between them is unmistakable.

Tara is the kind of woman who thinks nothing of making her husband’s evidently conservative colleague squirm by asking him if Rajat was sleeping with a business associate. Koechlin’s achievement is that she makes her character appealing despite her brashness.

Shah is charismatic as ever. Although his pupils appear strangely dilated in some close-ups, those shots do not happen so often as to be distracting. The actor does not resort to over-statement at any point although there are plenty of scenes where he could have. Even when Shiv gets frantic about Pankaja, care is taken not to reduce him to a caricature of an eccentric old man. His is a seemingly effortless and moving performance.

The film features several well-written supporting roles. National Award-winning Tamil-Telugu-Malayalam actress Suhasini Maniratnam and Arjun Mathur are so likeable in cameos as Pankaja and Rajat that you can well imagine a spouse pining away for months and years for them.

Actor Krishnasankar as the junior doctor Ravi and Rajeev Ravindranathan playing Girish from Rajat’s Kochi office are interesting choices. It is nice to see the film’s Malayali characters being played without the usual Bollywood ‘Madrasi’ stereotyping.

Rajat Kapoor walks a fine line as the neurosurgeon Dr Nirupam Malhotra, making him a man who is hard to dislike although he is painfully practical in a way that some people might consider heartless, even egotistical. I did not entirely understand why he had to be a Punjabi though – this is not to suggest that there are no Punjabi doctors in Kochi, but that the lack of locals except in supporting, subordinate positions is curious. Except for this and a somewhat contrived, needless revelation Shiv makes to Pankaja at one point, the rest of the film flows as smoothly as the backwaters that briefly appear on screen.

Waiting is about some of the toughest decisions life can throw at us and about an unusual, heartwarming friendship. It is both sad and amusing, believable, well acted and very well told.

Rating (out of five): ***

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost: