Uri: The Surgical Strike

SPOILERS AHEAD…

For the full review: https://www.rediff.com/movies/column/uri-election-propaganda-or-genre-flick/20190205.htm

Other reviews might have already told you this, but I’ll say it again: Rajit Kapur in Uri gave us the better Manmohan Singh portrayal of the week.

Just kidding, folks, hold your horses! But to talk about Uri and about whether it is propaganda or not one must start with those aspects of the movie that betray a (perhaps even deliberate) tentativeness, the kind of tentativeness which many of this film’s benefactors loved to underline as the ex-PM’s chief trait.

The prime minister shown here is barely a character or even an archetype, he is just a collection of the most favourable attributes of both Singh and Modi; a figurehead which, if not for the few technicalities actually related with the subject, both parties would have loved to appropriate.

Continued at the above link…

Thugs of Hindostan

SPOILERS AHEAD…

For the full review: https://www.rediff.com/movies/column/did-thugs-of-hindostan-deserve-the-flak/20181126.htm

To be fair to Thugs Of Hindostan, a lot of its gaffes or ‘faults’ could be seen in its trailer itself.

The film and its makers made no palpable attempt to shroud its deficiencies.

So we were warned that the film had no interest in delving into the history of the actual Thuggee cult (Thugs of Hindostan might be the first film to be born out of a case of misconstruction of etymology), and as far as Apocrypha are concerned, Thugs, unmistakably, is a part of a lineage that includes such decorated predecessors as Lagaan and Urumi though it doesn’t share their, of extrapolating sentiments.

They made it clear that striving for geographical accuracy was not their concern either as warriors from what seemed to be the landlocked Hindi heartland went to war at sea within the snap of a finger.

No logic, you’re out too — the British officers would rather slog it out in an acquired tongue than speak in English.

Continued at the above link…

Velipadinte Pusthakam

SPOILERS AHEAD

The first thought that came across my mind while watching the teasers of ‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ (The Book of Revelation) – and Mohanlal in two get-ups – was that with the advent of ‘New Gen’ films, one of the tropes of commercial cinema to have been retired more or less post-2010 was the ‘double role’. In Mohanlal’s case, for example, his last double role before ‘1971…’ and this movie, was in ‘Photographer’ 11 years back. Even in films like ‘Njan’, ‘Sakhavu’ and ‘Oru Mexican Aparatha’, the second role was more of a modern-day extension, or reincarnation of the first role, and these weren’t really ‘watch two heroes for the price of one’ dual roles. The most telling sign of these roles could be that we don’t get the scene where both characters team up and get into action.

We do get to know halfway through the movie that it isn’t slavishly bringing back the conventional ‘double role’ (More about it later). Meanwhile, we have other digressions (or regressions, to be less forgiving). There’s the hypocritical, perverted, laughing-stock of a professor (Prem Raj, a.k.a. ‘Kamaraj’, played by Salim Kumar). We get two young lady professors: one of them made to be more conventionally ‘good-looking’ and thus the nominal heroine (Prof. Mary by ‘Angamaly Diaries’ fame Anna Reshma Rajan), and the other, the less ‘pretty’, or ‘older-looking’ teacher. The latter is a staunch proponent of eugenics nonetheless, and at least for some part of the running time, tries to unite hero and heroine. The film also gives us the cliché of the boys in the college being divided into two factions (here, it’s the city guys led by ‘Aanandam’ fame Arun Kurian who plays Sameer, versus the boys who stay by the seashore, led by Sarath ‘Appani Ravi’ Kumar, who plays Franklin) with one leader each. Because if you have even one more faction or leader in the house, the college would be too scattered. How would the students dance in unison then, to the Campus Song, which is half list of war chants and half nonsensical ditty?

Enter Professor (and priest) Michael Idikkula (Mohanlal), and soon, the campus is heaven on earth; what could be seen as a complete antithesis to Prof. Ramachandran’s fate in Cheppu (1987). He meets Franklin’s drunkard father by chance, and over the course of one scene, convinces him to go easy on the hooch. He gets Mary hitched with one of his relatives. He easily brings peace between Team Sameer and Team Franklin to a point that it was as if they weren’t rivals at all. He even convinces a student’s father, who he has never met before, to let her continue her course in the college (A slight misunderstanding led to her having to discontinue her studies). You’d think he’d at least ask for the directions to her home.

‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ is at once similar to and different from Lal Jose’s last film with the other ‘M’, ‘Immanuel’ (2013), which was also essentially about a nice-to-a-fault outsider who is compelled by circumstance to don a new role in an alien environment. Here too, he should fight all odds to succeed, lest he should lose his soul (or mind, in this case). But while that movie tried hard, bringing forth conflict point after conflict point, this time Lal Jose is content letting Mohanlal solve a problem even before we know there is one.

It’s minutes before the interval when we get to the actual meat of the story: the college needs funds for building their first hostel, and Prof. Idikkula (who else?) comes up with the idea of students and staff making a film to generate funds for building the hostel. Prof. ropes in his friend Vijay Babu (playing himself), who made ‘a film starring only newcomers’ a superhit, and Sameer, who is said to be a short film maker, dons the director’s hat. They later zero in on the story of ‘Bullet’ Vishwan (Anoop Menon), a mechanic-cum-thug who rallied for the establishment of this college, and was murdered under mysterious circumstances (The film opens with his murder). Soon the students and teachers are given their roles, and yes, the one role left to be filled is that of Vishwanathan’s. Everyone’s in a fix, Vijay Babu has almost shelved the project, and when he is about to leave, we see a lifted leg, then the ‘mundu madakki kutthal’, and then the ‘meesha pirikkal’…

The rest of the film plays out as ‘velipaadu’ after ‘velipaadu’, and even when they happen, we aren’t caught by surprise. As interesting as it seems on paper, to see that the villains (Siddique and Chemban Vinod Jose) aren’t exactly what they seem to be, the happenings on-screen couldn’t be any more limp. How does it help when even Mohanlal, who is a rather mellow and muted presence in the earlier portions, goes on autopilot mode post-intermission? How involved can one be when the cast and crew are seen servicing the star more than the story?

Which brings me to say that, even if inadvertently, ‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ is way more interesting, and way more watchable as a self-commentary on the star at the centre, at least for the sheer audacity in display. As irksome as you might find it to be, you have to give it to them (or him) for the amount of thought that has gone into this aspect. While other stars would have easily settled for a few fourth-wall breaking moments, Mohanlal churns out an elaborate (if not very intricate) meta-movie all for himself.

The film’s innovation (if you will) can be found in the supposed ‘double role’ itself: Mohanlal doesn’t go for the easy ‘one massy role, one classy role’ divide. He plays both actor and character here, and could it be any more ingenious when the actual Bullet Vishwan is played by Anoop Menon, who is frequently accused of trying to mimic Mohanlal while performing? You’d think it works better the other way round, with Anoop Menon being the imitation and Mohanlal the roaring original, and yeah, it is the easier conceit to go with, but think about this: with this role reversal, is the film saying that all it takes for a character to be immortalised is to have Mohanlal enact it? Or is this Mohanlal confidently stating that from now on, his on-screen persona shall dwarf whatever character he plays? To add to our suspicion, Anoop Menon gets almost no dialogues as Bullet Vishwan, whereas Mohanlal gets plum punchlines when he acts as Vishwan.

The film does go for a few easy blows too, like Franklin’s father evoking Nedumudi Venu from ‘His Highness Abdullah’ and the customary Antony Perumbavoor cameo. ‘Velipadinte…’ in a way, seems to be an antidote for ‘Puli Murugan’, which for all its myth-making, made almost no references to its leading name. We also see how Anoop Menon’s coastal dialect gets denatured into a more generalised Malayalam when Prof. Idikkula enacts him. Is this Prof’s limitation as an actor, or an admission of one of the most telling traits of the post-Narasimham Mohanlal role?

There’s more reason to think that VP is perhaps Mohanlal’s most unabashedly self-aware star vehicle. Among those in the star cast beckoned to be at his service include a fellow National Award winner (Salim Kumar), and two actors who played breakout characters in ‘Angamaly Diaries’, which was the quintessential anti-‘star vehicle’. What do you know, it is the scriptwriter of that movie who plays one of the antagonists here!

We also get the most oblique stab at auteurism in this movie: Sameer was indirectly the reason why that student stopped attending college for a while, because he shot a video of her and Franklin chatting in a secluded place. Franklin’s accusation is as follows: ‘All you need is a glance to know that Sameer shot that video!’. Later, before Vishwan’s story is chosen, the ideas Sameer pitches for the movie are dismissed as ‘short film-worthy concepts’, only to see him shoot the most clichéd fight scenes and song sequences. Later, his decision to not make certain changes in the story is overruled by Mohanlal’s plea to change the climax (after he gets to know who actually killed Vishwan). Is there more to this scene than what is shown?

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Mohanlal is trying to convince us that he can slip into roles and become the invisible actor that he once was. We see him stay in character after the director yells CUT!, in two instances, and later he is shown crying long after a very emotional scene has been shot. Hell, towards the end , the film gets totally kitchen-sink on us by adding a mental condition into the mix (Lines between actor and character being blurred! Get it?) ! There’s practically no other reason for the outlandish climax to exist. Or maybe the reason is: ‘What if Mohanlal got to play the Nagavalli part?’

I must admit I was engaged, watching the film this way, but I did notice the rest of the audience tune out during the second half. They looked exhausted, having had to sit through too much of such exertions for a tad too long. How much fun can one have with oneself on-screen until the audience stops having fun? They were much happier during his intro scene, watching him do a wheelie on his cycle.

KEY

  • Cheppu – here
  • Immanuel – here
  • ‘superhit film starring only newcomers’ / Angamaly Diaries – here
  • ‘mundu madakki kutthal’ – folding the mundu in half
  • ‘meesha pirikkal’ – twirling the moustache

 

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha

SPOILERS AHEAD

In her second film too, Bhumi Pednekar (who plays Jaya) gets a bridegroom whose decisions seem to get overruled by those of his father’s. The groom Keshav (Akshay Kumar) is said to be a ‘manglik’, and the ill effects of this on his marital life can only be nullified if he ‘marries’ a cow first (that’s what his father says). Now we don’t know if Keshav buys this idea entirely. We don’t know if he’s going through the motions because he actually believes in this superstition or because he has no other choice than to take heed of his father’s orders. After all, his doomed horoscope didn’t stop him from falling in love with Mallika (played by Sana Khan, who couldn’t wait for him for too long, and gets married to someone else), or from wooing Jaya later.

For a film with an unambiguous title, the object in question actually takes centre-stage only midway through the movie (repeated cutaways to the act of relieving oneself notwithstanding). Unlike in the title, it is the ‘prem katha'(s) that comes first. And this is where we see that this isn’t a lazy message movie at least in concept. In a way, we get to see the stories of Priyanka Bharti and Anita Narre from the husband’s point of view. We see a man realising perhaps that what he had considered as an ‘accepted’ practice for a long time, was actually a mistake. We’d have seen him correct his mistakes, and go on to make others see the error in their ways. And as evident in the early portions of the film, it is his father, who believes that a Tulsi plant and a toilet shouldn’t share the same courtyard, who Keshav has to convince more than anyone else. We get more instances of the film’s adherence to the family-melodrama genre, in the form of the hero’s brother-cum-sidekick (Naru, by Divyendu Sharma), who is practically a neon board showing what mood the scene conveys, and the perpetually merry mood sustained in the 1st half before conflict happens and scenes play at a more serious, upbeat pitch in the 2nd half.

But almost nothing really works here, and the problems start right from the ‘prem katha’ itself. Keshav seems to have almost no sense of loss while courting Jaya (We don’t know if it’s because he’s moved on completely or Mallika never really meant much to him). We later see him stalking her and secretly taking videos of her in the process, and when she begins to show protest, all that he has to do is give an ‘impassioned’ monologue to make him fall for her, stalk him and film him secretly in return.

Even later, once they get married and she finds out that his house doesn’t have a toilet, we don’t see beyond a point why Jaya, who is established early on as a very progressive and feisty person, would settle down with having to use the train toilet everyday. For someone shown to have so much initiative and agency initially, you’d expect her to build one all by herself.

We do sense the dilemma on Keshav’s part (for a change, the son is caught in the crossfire between ‘bahu’ and ‘sasur’) but we don’t see what it feels for Keshav to correct a habit that he had inculcated since birth. We do hear lines of the ‘Manusmriti’ from him about the importance of proper sanitation, but we don’t know if he is building the toilet because he knows how it will impact him, or just because he wants Jaya back home. (Or is that ‘Manusmriti’ invocation a direct and deliberate plea by Akshay Kumar to the people)

Which brings us to the main issue with ‘Toilet…’: what the characters mouth aren’t dialogues but thesis points. At least half of the characters in here speak and do things, with their only motivation being : ‘the screenplay told me so’. Incidents don’t take place organically rather than wait to be ticked off a checklist. The one memorable line in the film for me is what Jaya tells the other women, who don’t mind being part of the ‘lota party’ and resent her protest: ‘Inhee lotaon mein doob maroge tum!’

This very simplistic nature of the film is led to to its logical conclusion only towards the end, where a lock-down on toilets in government offices is ordered, unless officials act fast and help Keshav build the toilet faster. What does it tell you when even a supposedly casual conversation early on between the leads has overt dumps of information?

All the characters are given one basic trait at best. Keshav likes to take the easier way out of problems and doesn’t think things through. Naru would abide by his brother’s decisions through thick and thin. The Anupam Kher character likes Sunny Leone and is open about it. And most of the performances do not improve on these one-note sketches. The only two actors who seem to be taking pleasure in performing are Sudhir Pandey (as Keshav’s father; he does the right thing by pitching his performance at an oh-so-slightly-higher pitch) and Rajesh Sharma, who has great fun as a government official.

It is great to see Akshay play a character who doesn’t think too much and makes mistakes too often, in a film that isn’t a ‘Housefull’ installment. (Keshav’s bride, supposedly, should have 2 thumbs on one hand. Keshav’s solution to this problem is so flimsy, you don’t know how he thought it would work). More so, in a film that chooses to highlight a burning issue. So it is a bit disappointing to see him belt out a rather obvious, too earnest performance. Given the popularity he has today, you’d think a speech by him alone would’ve sufficed.

Nowhere is the gap between the film ‘Toilet…’ wants to be, and the film it ends up being, more apparent than it is in the ‘Gori Tu Latth Maar’ sequence. We’ve been given a bit background early on, with Jaya telling her friend that the wife is just finishing off a yearly custom by beating her husband during every Lathmaar Holi, and it is always men who end up holding sway over women. And now, we see Keshav, asking for both forgiveness and punishment from Jaya. This should have easily been the emotional high the movie could deliver, an explosion of sentiments supplementing that of colours. All we get in the end is a dash of colour, beating too synchronised to feel painful and forceful, and Akshay Kumar giving us his sweetest Ishaan Awasthi impression.

(Check him out from 0:35 to 0:50)

Dunkirk

SPOILERS AHEAD (YOU’RE BETTER OFF READING THIS AFTER YOU WATCH THE MOVIE)

Until yesterday, the only Christopher Nolan film I had ever watched was ‘The Prestige’ (I watched it about 3 years back), and to add to it, I haven’t watched any of the major war films; Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket… none of them. So I guess it is my lack of antecedents that lends to this piece a slight open-endedness (or sheer inconclusiveness, to be less charitable)

Thus, if you are reading this, your opinion could actually complete this piece. Nolan fan, Nolan heretic, war film buff…whoever you may be; your comments down there could add to this piece, and perhaps even make it redundant.


Let me begin with one of the most celebrated aspects of any Nolan movie – the score, by Hans Zimmer. As much as I found it to be simple and very engaging at a primal level initially, it goes on to bring a layer of sameness to each scene. At times, it felt as if Zimmer was dictating to me what emotion is to be felt at each moment. Or is this Nolan saying that war (or survival) is an oppressively monotonous ordeal?

After I had watched the movie, this thought crossed my mind: What if the film had no background score; just ambient sound? (I don’t know if there are war films which don’t have a background score)

Silence would have made the sounds really stand out, and it is so relatable to all, the response (or the clock-ticking) would have come from within instantly

For example, one of the best moments in the film for me, was when one of the soldiers boards the train that takes him home, takes a seat, and immediately falls asleep… and the score goes silent. We know right then, how relieved he is.

Perhaps we could have seen how the soldiers feel when they hear silence after a lot of commotion. It might have also instilled suspense in the sound of an airplane engine…you hear the sound but you don’t see it, and you don’t know if it’s our plane or the enemy’s plane…


Many of those who were unimpressed by the film cited the lack of character development as one of its drawbacks. The story is narrated in a nonlinear fashion and yeah, backstories or a voice-over might have padded out the running time. On the other hand, a big plus that backstories here would have had, is that we’d have the subtext of people forgetting their differences and working together. Or is Nolan already doing this ‘setting aside differences’ part for us by doing away with backstory?

What we do get instead, is the offhand, lifelike gesture, like the moment in the train, and this one, where the Navy Commander (Kenneth Branagh) asks one of those who have arrived in pleasure boats to evacuate soldiers, if he’s from Deal (a town in Kent, England). For me, this moment was far more powerful than the one where he says that he is so close, and yet so far from home.

Again, we find these moments stacked up towards the closing portions of the film. Should we have had more of these moments in the rest of the movie, or perhaps in a lesser quantity, yet evenly distributed throughout the film? Or is this Nolan saying that there is no semblance of humanity or life-size emotions on the warfield?

And it’s not like no one has a character arc. We get the familiar-yet-affecting subplots of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and George (Barry Keoghan), and alongside them we find the Cillian Murphy character, who they find on top of a wrecked vessel on their way to Dunkirk. He is shell-shocked, and later this man, who may or may not have killed an enemy soldier in combat, leaves someone fatally injured by accident. The moment where he is given false reassurance aside, should this character’s arc have gotten a little more closure?

Nolan did say that the empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story, but without the aforementioned grace notes, are we more or less watching ‘brave soldier’ archetypes? Does this make it a rather generic survival story, as opposed to, very specifically, the Dunkirk evacuation? This confusion for me added to my thoughts about the performances as well. Are we watching perfect, invisible portrayals of stoic soldiers, or are these just disinterested, clinical renditions of abstractions or archetypes already known to us?

I didn’t get to watch the film in the IMAX format, so I guess I am not the right person to talk about the visual experience. Even then, I think, it would be the test of second and third viewings on television or on your laptop that would determine how truly good, great or ordinary ‘Dunkirk’ is. It would also be the advent of more of such experiments that would decide ‘Dunkirk”s place in film history

Tiyaan

SPOILERS AHEAD

In the 2013 film ‘Left Right Left’ scripted by Murali Gopy (‘Tiyaan’ is his very next script), there’s a rather blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line by his character, comrade ‘Che Guevara’ Roy, about how policemen, despite being a vital part of our democracy, are paid much less compared to other members of society. We’ve just heard about his neighbour ‘Vattu’ Jayan (Indrajith Sukumaran, who’s the protagonist in this movie too) through himself and his mother, about how and why he became the corrupt cop he is, and now this point comes through a conversation between Roy and his wife. The message is conveyed, without it being scribbled into a placard.

Cut to 4 years later, to last week’s ‘Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum’, where the exact same point is conveyed, without dialogue, through a single shot. The shot has, in the background, Fahadh sitting by the window, and IN THE FOREGROUND, a cop with a lottery ticket in hand. You take this cop and his ticket out of this shot, this scene, this movie…and place them anywhere else; the same point comes across to you…

All of which is to say that the New Wave of mainstream Malayalam cinema (of which Gopy’s ‘Ee Adutha Kalathu’ and LRL were early breakthroughs) has really matured and the filmmaking has improved immensely. So I can’t help but feel let down and say that with ‘Tiyaan’, we get the mental image of Gopy quivering under the weight of all the topics he wanted to talk about, and taking a step backward.

One’s quibbles with the film (directed by Jiyen Krishnakumar) start with the lines themselves: barring a few (most of which are mouthed by deuteragonist Prithviraj Sukumaran), all of them are downright flat and expository, and to add to it, we have the usual tropes every big-budget commercial film has: the frequent use of aerial, ‘God’s-eye-view’ shots with unmotivated camera movement, relentless cutting to reaction shots, and a background score which dictates the emotion that is to be felt. As in the above-mentioned (That’s the meaning of ‘Tiyaan’ for you!) two films, some of the burning issues our country/state faces are referenced: Hindutva, ‘Swachh Bharat’, fanaticism and what not, and unlike in those movies where these problems were skillfully folded into the narrative, they are screwed into the dead center of each frame. A policeman is shown beating his son up in a prison cell because he went to Nainital, had a few drinks… and ATE BEEF!

The plot ostensibly is that of Vedic scholar Pattabhirama Giri (Indrajith), a descendant of Adi Shankaracharya settled in Shankar Ghat, U.P., who finds his and his family’s existence threatened when self-styled godman Mahashay Bhagwan (Murali Gopy) sets foot in the village, and decides to acquire Giri’s land, along with those of others, for the big ashram he wants to build there. Bhagwan seems to have his finger in every pie, and very soon, Giri, who is shown to be the ‘right warrior’, finds his well-wishers (including Jayanthan, by Suraj Venjarammoodu) changing sides.

What might be the only difference to this otherwise hackneyed plot, is that after a long time it isn’t a rationalist, atheist or alien against the godman, but a true believer (that’s what the makers say…). The other thing that makes you think that something different might be in store for us, is the intermittent appearance of Aslan Mohammed (Prithviraj Sukumaran). He’s all draped, on top of a hill, waiting for divine intervention. At times we see him tending a fire, which translates to ‘Something’s burning inside him’. Or maybe ‘He’s kindling his inner fire’. And it’s with his appearance that the film, which was stuck on a rather mundane plane during the first half, makes a move towards the bizarre. Unwitting example of a premonition: we see a tracking shot…through a CCTV camera!

The film morphs into a masala movie, as we are told about Aslan’s past. He was…a gangster who ruled the roost in the Behrampada area of ’92 Bombay. He is called the ‘God Amongst Demons’. Among the people who tried to kill him and got themselves killed instead, include someone named ‘Mudaliar’ and someone who dresses like Haji Mastan. He has a Hindu wife (that’s the only thing we know about her!) and a daughter and they get killed thanks to an assasination attempt on him, one of the perpetrators of which is…guess who? He then undergoes the kind of transformation which was also seen in the 2014 Malayalam film ‘Gangster’ (That sequence was shot in Ajmer. This one includes shots set in the Kumbh Mela)

Now the film goes full on kitchen-sink at us. It isn’t just the godman’s goons who we see flailing about…we get a dead kid’s revival, a clairvoyant (Padmapriya Janakiraman), ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, a CM aspirant who wants to be Pattabhiraman’s ‘devotee’… The film gets dumbed down too much to actually say something meaningful (or ruffle a few feathers), and at the same time, it is too high-minded to function as a good revenge drama or a sturdy enough Good-defeats-Evil saga.

For both the performances and the cinematography, you could say the same thing: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them, but they are just ineffective. Indrajith does exude a certain goodness in his character without sounding pretentious or preachy, but he has very less to chew on, and so he can’t do much to make this character different from tons of other such characters. All that Prithviraj is asked to do is look wise and sound grave, but again, it is to his credit that it doesn’t entirely feel like faux gravitas.

The oddest performance around here must be that of Murali Gopy himself. In the midst of what seems to be a mass prayer, but looks like a hybrid of a Nazi rally and the Bollywood ‘hero intro’ song, with all the devotees in a frenzy, he’s in the middle of it all, literally conducting the show like a bandmaster. Elsewhere though, where things might have worked with the kind of hamminess Narendra Prasad freely exhibited in ‘Ekalavyan’, Gopy underplays it, does it straighter than an arrow. You think it sticks for this sly, suave godman, who switches easily between Hindi, English and Malayalam, but no. If the character isn’t exactly menacing, maybe you should go for broke. His performance stands as a metaphor for the movie itself. Or maybe an anti-metaphor. Or I guess the film is so misshapen, it works both ways.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum

SPOILERS AHEAD

Dileesh Pothan’s debut film ‘Maheshinte Prathikaaram’ (Mahesh’s Revenge), was among other things, a so-muted-it’s-barely-there commentary on the act of revenge. It had many instances of the characters’ (yes, not just the hero’s) logical, rational selves being dwarfed by their crude, primitive side. Mahesh didn’t just avenge his defeat in a fist fight; his revenge was also about becoming a better person and not turning into the base creature of habit that Jimson was (‘ottabuddhi’ as Jimsy says). By the end of that movie, he has it both ways, and justice prevails every which way.

Pothan’s second film, the title meaning ‘The Mainour and the Eyewitness’, could be called a meditation on justice itself; a meditation on the process of delivering justice in fact, and unlike the first film, this movie is less concerned about heading towards a convergence. Justice seems near-elusive here. The canvas is wider here, and so do we get wider perspectives.

Consider the theft itself. Whenever there’s a theft on-screen, you’re either supposed to root for the thief and indulge in the sly pleasure of the act, or you sympathise with the victim’s plight. Pothan doesn’t resort to this binary.

We’ve met the victim, Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan) and her husband Prasad (Suraj Venjarammoodu), who fell in love and got married against her parents’ wishes. They’ve left their native place Thavanakkadavu and moved to Kasaragod, and at the moment, she’s in a bus, asleep. While another movie would have shown the act in a flash, or have her shriek out ‘Thief!’ first, here we are shown the thief (Fahadh Faasil) doing his job slow and steady, in a painstaking yet playful fashion. We hear the teaser’s BGM (it screams ‘crime comedy’) as the scene plays out, and instantly, we find ourselves rooting for both predator and prey.

He is caught in the act, and brought to the nearby police station, and as the investigation goes on, the quest for justice seems to recede, and what we see instead is each of those involved being slaves to their routine, their methods. As in ‘Maheshinte…’, these characters see their primal selves dominating their voice of reason. And through each of them we see a different kind of conundrum.

Take, for instance, ASI Chandran (Alencier Ley Lopez)’s case. You could say he is a more benign version of DySP George Lopez, whom Alencier played in ‘Njan Steve Lopez’ (the sophomore effort of Rajeev Ravi, who is the cinematographer here). He has been posted here on a punishment transfer, due to some issues he had at his previous workplace. This case has been giving him hell, and he flies off the handle when the thief accuses him of helping him to escape. You begin to wonder if he’s working on the case to actually help Sreeja and Prasad, or to save his face. Thus the film nudges us towards thinking: what does a policeman work for: delivering justice, or the incentive of more power?

On the other hand, we have the thief, who is also named Prasad (or is he?). He actually has a motto to live up to: ‘Never give up till the last moment!’, and you’d want to ask him at times: Should you try so hard, just to not break character? He is easily the most mysterious, and most vivid character of the lot, and Fahadh Faasil does well to sustain the suspense in the character, and the narrative itself. You’d think the choice of Fahadh for the thief is stunt casting, but consider this: as much as he is punched and kicked around, he is treated as a superstar, and he seems to like all the attention everyone’s giving him. Few actors could evoke emotions as precise, to both these aspects.

We see more instances of how rigid rules get along rather uneasily with the frailty of human judgement. When the thief is summoned to the police station, the sub-inspector scolds co-passengers who slapped the thief while apprehending him. Later, when he has escaped, a kabaddi team is on his trail too, chasing him along with the cops. We also see flash judgements and assumptions under the scanner: the Sreeja-Prasad relationship begins with one, and later, they’re told to present a more believable version of the truth in court.

The film’s excellence lies in the fact that these ponderings on the System, in other films, would have either been blurted out through a megaphone, or wrapped beyond recognition and folded into more dramatic narratives. In either case, these questions might get coloured by the requirements of the narrative, and lose some of their sting. Here, Sreeja and Prasad are pretty much John and Jane Q. Public (both Nimisha and Suraj nail this quality) and even the thief, who remains a cipher throughout, is given shades of humaneness.

This dispassionate approach can be found in the filmmaking too. Except Alencier (who’s excellent), all the actors playing cops in this film are real-life police officers. Even the handheld tracking shots are done in an unobtrusive, un-showy manner. Rajeev Ravi’s camerawork brings to mind what Roger Deakins said in an interview: ‘If the audience doesn’t notice, you’ve done your job’. The film’s most flamboyant moment comes before the climax, where a firecracker shoots up in the night, and dawn bursts along with it. Even the background score is rather reserved: we just hear snatches of music when major events happen.

Finally, ‘Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum’ could be seen as a graduation in terms of the kind of cops we see in Malayalam cinema. Leave alone the usual cop movies, it makes even a rather restrained cop film like ‘Action Hero Biju’ look like a wish-fulfilment saga. Rajeev Ravi’s films too portray cops as small cogs of the system, yet in those movies, the rather systemic brutality has seeped a little too much into them. The 2013 movie Drishyam, which was another movie around crime and justice, took a slightly easier route as it made its cops rather one-note (but effective nonetheless). So the film’s biggest achievement might be the nuanced, art-house sensibility it maintains, even as it remains a mainstream film. This film pushes boundaries, even the extensive ones of today’s mainstream Malayalam cinema.

A Death In The Gunj

SPOILERS AHEAD

‘A Death in the Gunj’ could be the most straightforward title you’d give to an Indian murder mystery. So precise, so economical, even news headlines would be put to shame. We’re nudged further into thinking that the film is a murder mystery with the opening scene, which has two men driving to Calcutta with a corpse on board. But here’s the twist: the question isn’t just the ‘Who is the murderer?’. The bigger questions are ‘Who was murdered?’ and ‘Was it actually a murder?’.

You could say that Konkona Sen Sharma further subverts the murder mystery by avoiding voice-overs and multiple flashbacks, but no, that’s not what she’s going for in her directorial debut. (The tale is just one long flashback from the opening scene, as it moves to one week before the death)

Instead, she chooses to give an unhurried account of a large Bengali family (the Bakshis) spending their Christmas vacations in 1979 McCluskieganj, during what would be the deceased person’s last week. (Still interesting as a murder mystery, because there’s no ‘investigating’; we’re the ones left to do that).

So positively sedate, that even with the days shown to be counted, we don’t feel the pressure of a clock ticking away. We’re on vacation ourselves here: not so much the ‘exciting’ type, but not yet boring.

And with this very relaxed pace, she lets the themes unravel themselves rather than introducing them herself. Such hefty themes like the eponymous phenomenon (death finds its place in myriad ways throughout the course of the narrative, each mention being a little more ominous than the one before) and gender stereotypes.

But ‘Death…’ is primarily about Shutu (Vikrant Massey)’s inner journey, and for the most part, you could either see it as a coming-of-age story sans the sanguinity, or as an understated tale of innocence lost (at a very internal level, of course). It is Shutu’s identity crisis, for lack of a better phrase, that lends to the film its slight ambiguity of genre.

On the one hand, he likes to be his own person and do his own thing. We see him draw frogs, keep moth specimens, make vocabulary lists, read ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ … but at the same time, he does aspire to be what his cousins Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) are: they fit what is the more accepted image for men, to the T. He wants to be able to do what they can: have everything and everyone at their beck and call.

The rest of the family members don’t know what to do with Shutu either. They play pranks on him, he’s made to run errands for them, Nandu’s wife Bonnie (Tillottama Shome) expects him to take care of their daughter Tani … but at the same time, it is Bonnie who defends Shutu (not in his presence) when Nandu wants him to toughen up (and be a ‘man’). This example perhaps stands for their behaviour towards Shutu: maybe they aren’t always mean to him and are genuinely trying to understand him; maybe they tried and tried and just let go after a point…

It is only with Tani that he seems to have anything resembling a relationship. Well she isn’t judging him (the other girl of the batch, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) tells him ‘he could have been a girl’) at least. Even here, there comes a stage when he can’t bring himself up to talk to her, and has to tell a lie.

A slightly mannered way of dialogue delivery apart, the cast (completed by Om Puri and Tanuja) do well to sustain the illusion of an actual family. Sen Sharma goes about with a graceful yet steady hand and an unjudging eye, giving us the offhand bit of spectacle too (e.g. the shot that sets up the third act). She isn’t spelling out Shutu’s feelings; she rather keeps it open for us to discern.

The above-mentioned subversion of the mystery apart, Konkona also manages flesh out the kind of characters we see only as stock figures in the average family drama: the resentful youngster, the shy and sensitive type, the extrovert etc. We don’t see a ‘There’s nothing like family’ dictum at the end too. This may as well be her biggest triumph.

 

 

 

Godha

SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the things I liked the most about Basil Joseph’s debut ‘Kunjiramayanam’ was its opening credits sequence. A rough description: for each crew member whose role in the movie was credited, the visual shown was that of a person who did a similar job in the village.
Pretty simple, not rocket science, but laudable simply because so many filmmakers don’t really do anything with the opening credits sequence. They leave it as it is, and it stays as the most un-cinematic thing about the movie.
So with a folk-ish song playing along, he easily established mood and setting with the sequence. Moral of the story: you don’t have to be Godard to be inventive with this; one small tweak and it’s all fresh and new.

His second feature ‘Godha’ (wrestling arena in Malayalam) goes even more economical with the opening credits. We’ve just been shown a mass hero-style intro scene for Captain (Renji Panicker, pitch-perfect as both gruff father and gruff coach), which cross-cuts between his heydays as a champion wrestler, and him driving cricketers out of his beloved Manayathu Vayal (their wrestling arena). In the opening credits sequence here, we have a tracking shot that whizzes through Manayathu Vayal in 1990. It moves past people, goes through kitchens. roadside stalls, banners and at last to the ‘godha’. All you need is to know whose P.O.V the camera has assumed, and this sequence isn’t just showboating anymore. We know right away what wrestling or ‘gusthi’ once was for this village of Kannadikkal.

Basil’s inventiveness is that of the impish prankster who always had a good trick in hand, and this is at once Godha’s strength and limitation (more about it after a while). For a 2 hour movie, Godha is incredibly fast paced and this really bolsters the narrative, which is essentially a mixed bag of sports movie (and rom-com) clichés and archetypes. Along with Captain, we have his son Aanjaneya Das (Tovino Thomas) as both the gifted player oblivious to his fine talent and the happy-go-lucky diffident lover, and Aditi Singh from Punjab (Wamiqa Gabbi, who owns tthe film along with Panicker) as the dogged fighter braving all odds, including a brother who doesn’t want her to pursue this ‘boy’s sport’. We also have the presence of a rival sport in cricket, adding more to the underdog subtext. Thus for the most part, ‘Godha’ seems to flow from subplot to subplot.

That said, the near-relentless comedy and quick pace seem to rob the subplots of a little of their dramatic heft. These subplots, which are usually seen as their own movie, rub off a bit uneasily against each other, and the Das-Aditi relationship which is crucial to the tying up together of these sub-narratives, is done a bit hastily. Das’ coming-of-age which comes in the second half isn’t entirely built up to, and we don’t get the high of him realising the extent of his abilities. The finale too, where Aditi finally defeats her inner demons (what else?), seems rushed.

These problems are, again, somewhat alleviated by what is a fine comic ensemble. Be it Tovino (acing it as the easy-going lad), Aju Varghese (as cousin Balan), or even Bala Saravanan in a brief supporting role, all of them play off against each other very well, and the gags explode on screen. We get two fine scenes back to back, one with Aditi giving Das a rap on the knuckles, and the next involving an exchange between father and son. The wrestling scenes are so energetically shot, and even the more static moments, most of which have been shot as pans or tracking shots, move with a certain vigour.

Both Godha and Kunjiramayanam had issues with their writing, especially at situations where we should empathise with the characters, and not just laugh at or with them. I’d be walking in to his next movie expecting an all-out slapstick comedy, where he wouldn’t have to deal much with romance or drama. All we expect from our comedies is a bunch of good one-liners and gags. From Basil, now we’ll expect more.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

SPOILERS AHEAD

You either stop thinking while watching an action scene and just take in everything, frame by frame, having held your breath all the while. Or you laugh it off and wait for each badly done move to amuse you unintentionally (Though the worst of them may also make you cry). So barring the rare ultra-mediocre fight sequence, you react to action scenes, not respond.

Or so I thought till I watched the much-awaited second part of the franchise, as most of the initial set pieces and action scenes, however well-crafted or visualised, didn’t just keep me at the edge of my seat. I was still using my brain, rather than my emotional reflex arc. For example, the scene where Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) wards off a group of dacoits along with Kattappa in the nearby province of Kunthala, and in the process falls in love with the region’s warrior princess Devasena, is well choreographed and staged, yet it wasn’t entirely captivating.

I had only watched parts of ‘The Beginning”, most of which were the flashback portions, and what I liked most it wasn’t so much the magnitude of it all, but the inventiveness, the attention to detail, the precision. He cared to show asides like giant rotating blades used as W.M.D, war formations and strategies being discussed with replicas and tools, and later executed on the battlefield. These were new enough for me to blow away all the clichés associated with ancient war scenes. These made it a movie that was more than a familiar but potent story full of archetypes and myth-derived characters

That said, he doesn’t do the other parts like the comedy (involving Devasena’s cousin) , romance or court intrigue (Bhallaladeva and Bijjaladeva planning to oust to-be-Crown-Prince Baahubali) in a very new way. These parts are staged in a big fashion, but they still come off as very familiar (never outright clichéd though) even when they’re well-written. What is on paper a very involving tale of how injustice is meted out to the good by the deeds of the bad, just as it is in the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, comes off as just a notch above soap opera. What is genuinely complex as in myth becomes a little too simplistic when it gets there on screen.

Maybe I am just miffed because the film wasn’t rushing to the part everyone was waiting for, but most of the time we aren’t inside the characters’ heads, especially in Bhallaladeva’s case. This man has cues coming from tons of villains and antiheroes: Duryodhana, Karna, Ravana, King Claudius from Hamlet, and even Scar from Lion King by a stretch, but at times we feel we’re meant to accept his villainy as a given (based on how he behaves in the first part) rather than see him gradually turn evil. Again, this is not to say that the performances are bad. Every performer here does what is required of their character, nothing more, nothing less.

What Rajamouli does extremely well though are the big set pieces, and these compensate well for whatever is missing in the rest of the film. The first half of the film, that was till then stuck with a predictable courtship routine really takes off with a sequence where Baahubali and Devasena work in tandem to ward off invaders. We get more like the coronation sequence at the interval point and one that leads to the much-awaited revelation.

And there’s more to them than just good choreography and execution. For one, we have emotional sub-arcs traversed within the course of the scene, like say, Devasena discovering who her co-fighter is and getting smitten with him, or Bhallaladeva being mentally ‘dethroned’ at his ascension to the throne. The sequences have an overall clarity and simplicity in motive that doesn’t exactly lend to, say, the scenes involving the conspiracy. Each of the characters’ actions fill in for the larger decisions they take, and this fits exactly with the ‘actions-have-consequences’ rule of myth.

The climax, however, doesn’t exactly capture the highs that these sequences do. It gets a little too kitchen-sink for its own good, but it can be seen why. We have so many characters, so many narrative arcs to wind up, so much of retribution to dispense…and so little time. The Mahabharatha had 18 days, and here all we have is about half an hour.

We don’t get historicals or epics all that often now, leave alone mythologicals, and a good number of these are either internal, meditative pieces, or just happen to have a lot of its events happening within the palace or fort. Even the ones that did have a lot of ancient warfare in them, the historicals and mythologicals that were made initially, could have used some tweaking if they were to be made today. So ‘Baahubali’ scores certainly, as a successful attempt, after a long enough time, to use the myth-derived ‘masala’ way of storytelling on myth itself.