Saturday, April 18, 2015

Friday, April 17, 2015

REVIEW 326: MARGARITA WITH A STRAW

Release date:
April 17, 2015
Director:
Shonali Bose (Co-director: Nilesh Maniyar)
Cast:


Language:
Kalki Koechlin, Revathy, Sayani Gupta, Kuljeet Singh, Hussain Dalal, William Moseley, Tenzin Dalha
Hindi and English with subtitles


A young woman with cerebral palsy gets sexually adventurous...

That single-line description is enough to convey the point that Margarita With A Straw is both brave and rare. Thematic courage need not translate into great cinema, but writer-director Shonali Bose grabs the subject with both hands, refuses to pussyfoot around it and handles it with remarkable sensitivity. In the ultimate analysis though, Margarita is uncommon not only for its unusual heroine but also because, unlike too many films revolving around a physically challenged person, it does not set out to draw tears. It is a celebration of a remarkable life.

Nagesh Kukunoor has often said about his pathbreaking film Iqbal: a few minutes into watching it, you will forget it is about a boy with a disability. Though not quite in the league of Iqbal, Margarita With A Straw manages pretty much the same thing in spite of a major difference between their leads: Iqbal was deaf-mute, Laila’s debilitating condition stares us in the face. That we’re able to get past it to focus on the bright, sparkling human being beneath is a measure of the film’s excellent writing, deft direction and Kalki Koechlin’s wonderfully natural performance.

Perhaps “performance” is not the best word to use in this context. So comfortable is Kalki with Laila, that it would be easy to forget she is the same healthy actress with a ramrod-straight back we know well. Like Laila, she does not deny her character’s reality, but she certainly does not spend all her time dwelling on it either. Kalki lives Laila but does not for a moment allow the physical demands of the role to overshadow her character’s emotional depth.

When we first meet Laila Kapoor, she is a student in a Delhi college whose spirit is not bound by the wheelchair that carries her body. She writes lyrics for an indie band, watches adult videos on her computer, touches herself unapologetically, has a lively social circle and balks at being singled out for a prize at a university contest because she happens to be “disabled”. Give her empathy and compassion, not favours or condescension – got it?!

Laila’s classmate (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair makes it clear that he wants them to be more than friends, but she is attracted to the band’s lead singer. Nima (Tenzin Dalha) responds to her romantic overture with embarrassment. Laila soon takes off for a creative writing course in New York University (NYU). The story travels from New Delhi to New York and back, as she finds love, romance and sex, and realises that they are not synonyms. The film’s title is drawn from the first alcoholic drink Laila consumes – at a nightclub with a friend in the US. 

Along with the writing, DoP Anne Misawa too deserves credit for not allowing us to stay overly conscious of Laila’s physical condition. Misawa shoots Laila primarily in close-ups and mid-shots, possibly to de-emphasise the perennial presence of that darned wheelchair in her life. Her camera also captures New Delhi and New York in an unstereotypical fashion, without setting them up as cities of cliched contrasts and without mandatory excursions to globally recognised landmarks. FYI outsiders, those metallic sculptures resembling giant sperms are a relatively recent addition to the vicinity of Delhi’s iconic All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

A large part of the success of Margarita comes from its talented leading lady. Among the rest of the cast, Hollywood-gazers might enjoy spotting the attractive William Moseley here playing Laila’s NYU classmate Jared – same boy who played Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia film series. Of the other supporting players, a special cheer must go out to Revathy who brings warmth and conviction to Laila’s Aai as she does to every one of her screen appearances; and to the sweet-looking newcomer Tenzin Dalha who subtly conveys awkwardness without revulsion towards Laila in a flicker of a moment that might have been overplayed by a lesser actor.

One quibble: Tenzin does not look Assamese even to my inexpert eye, so it’s strange that the screenplay gets Nima to specify that he is. This moment stands out because no other character in the film is required to announce their roots, which led me to google him and discover from imdb.com that he is “an Indian actor of Tibetan origin”. Characters from north-eastern India are rarely seen in Hindi films, but this plus point in favour of Margarita is neutralised by the self-conscious handling (we did not have to be told where Nima is from) and what seems like a “they all look the same” attitude towards anyone from the east, south or north of West Bengal.

Treat that as a passing caveat from a finnicky viewer, because the overwhelming takeaway from Margarita is a sense of of upliftment. Considering the widespread tendency to view persons with disabilities as asexual beings, the film’s comfort level with the theme is commendable. Even when Aai is shocked at a mention of bisexuality, the director clearly is not. In fact the nicest part of this film is that it does not make a song and dance of anything, not even Laila’s challenges. Even her strained speech is conveyed to us without a fuss, with the simple act of subtitling.

In a bid to stay positive though, it does seem like Margarita papers over too many of the problems a character like Laila is likely to face in the real world. The ease with which she finds sexual partners defies believability even in the more liberal climes of the US. The ending, too, comes off as unnecessary. Kalki’s sunny smile is enough to convince us that Laila is a woman brimming with life, who is keen on romantic relationships but does not assess her worth based on whether others want her. The point did not have to be rubbed in with that slightly forced finale.

These glitches notwithstanding, Margarita With A Straw is a beautiful film.

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

CBFC Rating (India):

A
Running time:
102 minutes



REVIEW 325: COURT

Release date:
April 17, 2015
Director:
Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast:

Language:
Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar, Pradeep Joshi
Marathi with Hindi, English, Gujarati


It’s the simplest of films, yet unimaginably complex. It’s straightforward yet marvelously thoughtful. In its understatement lies melodrama. In its refusal to dress itself up lies its richness. Without uttering a single acerbic word, Court delivers a scathing indictment of India’s sluggish judicial processes and the wily ways in which freedom of expression is suppressed, throwing in insights about gender inequality, systemic buck-passing, archaic laws, caste and class.

At the centre of the free speech debate is a dead man. Sewage worker Vasudev Pawar’s body is discovered in a manhole in Mumbai. Pawar’s poverty and the governments culpability in his work circumstances are blithely ignored. Instead, the elderly Dalit folk singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is arrested and tried in court on the charge of performing an inflammatory song that allegedly prompted the suicide. Yes, it’s that absurd – as life often is.

The film is mainly devoted to the trial in a lower court in Mumbai, with the camera also occasionally wandering into the personal lives of the three primary players in that room: public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) and defence lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the film’s producer).  

It’s hard to believe this film had a script, but it did. If the credits and publicity material did not mention that debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane is also the writer of Courtit would be natural to assume that what’s playing out on screen is a reality show set in a Mumbai court.

If you have ever visited the not-so-hallowed halls of India’s judiciary – from the lowest to the highest rungs – or had the misfortune of being involved in a legal wrangle, you would know where that statement is coming from. Real courts across the world are rarely as energetic, glamorous or filled with impressive oratory as we see in most Indian films and the American legal serials routinely telecast in India. Ally McBeal’s short skirts, Alan Shore’s politically incorrect gimmickry, the cliches of desi courtroom-ery and the highly dramatic “tareekh pe tareekh” speechifying in Damini are the stuff that fiction is made of.


Real life legal tangles – especially in India with its desperate need for judicial reform – are tedious, frustrating and boring, peopled with lawyers and judges who read the law literally and are often apathetic beyond belief. When defence counsel Vora in this film, for instance, tells Judge Savarte that it would be unjust to keep Kamble in custody since the court is going on vacation for a month, the judge nonchalantly reminds him: only the lower courts will be on a break, you can always apply for bail in  a higher court.

Moments like these are designed to exasperate. The hard knocks of life tend to pare down our reactions though – that’s what we see in the testimony of the dead man’s wife (Usha Bane), as she matter-of-factly describes his horrific work conditions, recounts how he would get drunk before leaving for work so that he could tolerate the stench in the sewer and how he used to hit her. Her lack of emotion is chilling.

It would have been nice to get better acquainted with Narayan Kamble though, as we do the two lawyers and the judge. This man is the victim of the judicial morass we witness and the target of a state witch hunt, yet his singing on stage remains spirited. Which makes you wonder why we don’t get to see more of him off stage. Is this because the feisty revolutionary might have disturbed the film’s otherwise muted tone?

That concern notwithstanding, Court is a cinematic triumph. Mrinal Desai’s camerawork and the production design by Pooja Talreja and Somnath Pal are in tune with the film’s title and narrative: unadorned, to the point. The acting is, without exaggeration, perfect; so real that the ‘actors’ come across as real people who are unaware that we’re watching their lives.

It is also refreshing to see a film that does not romanticise the oppressed classes or tar every person of privilege with a judgemental brush. Vasudev Pawar’s penury is heartbreaking, but the film maker does not paint him or his wife as saints; Vora is a well-off man who can afford liesurely evenings with alcohol, jazz and friends, but that aspect of his life is not used to diminish his activism or his commitment to Kamble’s liberty and rights.

The dialogues are in Marathi, Hindi, English and Gujarati because people in that milieu would naturally speak those languages. Many Indian films over the past century have been set in courtrooms. In this decade, one of the best, most plausible of the lot has been 2013’s Bollywood offering Jolly LLB. Still, the film had a star – the charismatic Arshad Warsi – playing the lead, and outside the courtroom, a romance, song and dance. Court is shorn of all the above.

The proceedings in this film are bizarre to the point of being tragic, so farcical that it’s almost comical, cruel in such a low-key fashion that that hyperbolic word seems out of place.

Tamhane has redefined realism with his maiden feature. Court is an incredibly impactful film.

Rating (out of five): ****

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

Photograph courtesy: Parull Gossain Publicists