Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nayagan, and a treatise on the Maniratnam biopic.

Nayagan (alternative spelling Nayakan, Hindi dubbed version titled Velu Nayakan) is often called one of the greatest Maniratnam and indeed one of the greatest Indian films of all time (it even earned a mention on TIME magazine's 100 Best Films of All Time), so it's rather odd that I get to this film so late in my film-watching career. It's even lauded as India's answer to Hollywood legendary The Godfather. Nayagan, in short, is an epic tale of criminal glory throughout generations, a story of an orphan boy, who ends up a hero for the poor community Tamil-speakers in Mumbai, regularly discriminated by various people in power. It's a tale of good and evil, and the hopelessness that drives people to cheat the system, and the contradictions of this criminality.

I suppose it makes sense that I only got around to watching this film now, because I've recently realised how strange my relationship is to Maniratnam (or Mani Ratnam, if you prefer). I began watching his films, thoroughly impressed with every aspect - the wild visuality that usually accompanies gorgeous A.R. Rahman songs, the strong, performance-driven stories, and the popular tackling of certain, heavier subjects. I was shocked by Dil Se, moved to tears by Bombay, and adored Alaipayuthe madly. Then something happened. I liked Guru, but did not love it; I was certainly impressed by Iruvar, but again, it didn't make it into my favourites; Kannathil Muthamittal was pretty good, I suppose, but I was just kind of lukewarm about it.

It's as if I moved from feeling Maniratnam's stories on a purely emotional, raw level to just appreciating the competent film-making from him. There are good performances in the films that did not make it into my favourites - I love Aishwarya in Guru and Iruvar, Madhavan was great in Kannathil Muthamittal, Prakash Raaj in Iruvar blew my mind - but overall I would rate none of these as favourites. Out of all these films, I think I like Raavanan the best, and even so, I think what I appreciate most about it are the performances, and the way its cast play off one another. The story is good, but could be better, and somehow ends up secondary.

So where does Nayagan fit in, then? While watching, I suddenly realised that this was where Maniratnam's real life inspired biopic career began, and also understood what binds all the male protagonist-centric biopics that he's done so far: the hero who breaks the law, but wins people over. There is a scene in Nayagan, where a police officer is eager to nail the main character, Velu, who's risen up the underworld rank to be a don of sorts, so he interviews those ordinary people closest to Velu. The common people won't betray Velu, however; he is their hero. Contrast this to the scene in Raavan/an where the exasperated Dev  hears from villagers how amazing Veera/Beera is in their eyes - the similarity is crystal clear. In Guru, Abhishek's character may be corrupt, but this corruption helps him succeed, so it is not condemned by the film's narrative.

Maniratnam's heroes are folk heroes, not revered by the institutions of the state, but by the people - there's an almost naive populism to them, but at the same time you can't fault him. The characters are all based on real people, who are also held up as heroes despite their crimes. Perhaps, instead of thinking about any kind of moral message woven into these stories, one should instead admire the lack of moralism - for better or worse, the films all present both sides of the story.

So I didn't fall in love with Nayagan, but was instead fascinated by this common thread that the film started in Maniratnam's career. There are other interesting things, too, though. Kamal Hassan, who I've always found charming and a good actor, does excellent in the role of the steadfast criminal, torn at times by his understanding that what he does is against the law. I've never been the biggest fan of Kamal, but in here he is at his very best: commanding the screen with such a presence that it's impossible not to pay close attention. The portrayal of the Tamil community is interesting as well - the sense of being outsiders in Bombay, despite being in their homeland, and the discrimination that comes from this, as well as their poorness, helps explain why Velu does become such a revered hero to them.

The songs are gentle and lovely Ilayaraja compositions and P.C. Sriram's cinematography showcases Bombay beautifully. Karthika, the Malayalam actress playing Velu's daughter Charumani, was a definite stand-out, so I was surprised to see the actress having a film career shorter than five years, retiring at a time when her career was reaching its peak. Sigh, the choices actresses have to make between a marriage and a career..

Another interesting performance was by a very young Nasser, as the police officer doing his damnest to catch Velu in the later parts of the film. Every bit as intense as Nasser's later performances!

Nayagan is a classic, but it is another one of those films I'd be forced to recommend purely on the strength of the performances. This film just didn't quite move me, didn't quite speak to me - I understand it might have a different appeal to different people, for different reasons. As such, I merely liked it, and would rate it among Maniratnam's best films - however, I'd still prefer the gut-wrenching Bombay, or the beautiful, equally well-made biopic Raavanan over it. These are purely personal picks, admittedly. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Kadhalan: how about no?

Shankar, one of my favourite Indian directors, began his career in the early 1990's with Gentleman, which I haven't seen but I hear is not all that good. His next film, the Prabhudeva-Nagma starrer Kadhalan (1994), was a commercial hit with a popular A.R. Rahman soundtrack, but his film career really hit a stride when he made Mudhalvan (which he later remade in Hindi, and titled Nayak: The Real Hero, starring Anil Kapoor), a story of an everyman who gets to be Chief Minister for 24 hours, does a lot of good in the role and therefore creates a scandal for the political establishment.

Considering this background, Kadhalan (which, as the title suggests, centers entirely on a love story between the leads) is sort of Shankar before Shankar himself knew the kinds of films he was best at making. The lack of a social message is partly what makes this film so uninteresting in my eyes. The love story isn't believable, original or striking enough to make for a good story, and the villain isn't even bad enough. Coupled with some very questionable scenes (like the torture of Prabhudeva's character by a female police officer), and in terms of plot this film just doesn't feel very worth watching.

The positives come from a couple of comical scenes (not provided by the film's comedian Vadivelu, who's so unbearably unfunny it hurts) and the indeed memorable soundtrack. The song visuals include excellent dancing by Prabhudeva, and there's even a couple of scenes where he does some awesome classical dancing. (The blogosphere's resident expert on classical dancing films, MinaiMinai, posted her thoughts on the movie here.) A fun piece of trivia is that my favourite actor Vikram actually dubbed for Prabhudeva in this film. (Don't ask me why, I honestly couldn't tell you..)

I don't want to rag on the film too much. It does have some good bits and pieces that remind me of my favourite Shankar films, and it was obviously a very popular film in its time. But overall, it simply didn't win me over like his others have, and I'm only holding onto the DVD for the fun songs.

Speaking of which, here's one of them - enjoy!

Take it easy!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Are wah! Old Hema Malini pictures, part one.

I'm pretty sure this might be from Meera..

No idea where this might originate from, but adore the shot nonetheless.

I just love old black & white photography in general.

(Truth be told, I wouldn't have found any of these if it wasn't for Tumblr's "hema malini" tag, so credit to all those who find&post wonderful pictures there.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why Kanthasamy is over-the-top, out there and exactly as it should be.

This post is a recommendation, though it might not appear it.

After Kanthasamy you may find yourself in a delirious stupor, wondering whether you dreamt it all. Did you just witness a film where Vikram delivers justice while making chicken noises, and Shriya Saran wants to jump his bones so desperately (and who could blame her?) that she imitates a cat? Was this thing the result of a costume designer and a director of photography on a acid trip, or just something you imagined?

I'm here to convince you it was all real, because I witnessed it, too. And if it really was all a mass hallucination, well ... mass hallucinations do not get much better than this. Which is why, if you haven't seen Kanthasamy, you really need to.

Yeah, so, Vikram plays a cop who takes care of bad guys on his spare time using a costume and amazing special effects and has his own theme song (of course!). That is literally the plot. And Shriya is the daughter of one of these bad guys, who plays some mind games with the cop Kanthasamy. Also, she really wants to jump his bones. I don't think I've seen a heroine this sexually assertive in a Tamil film, ever. Is it just to make her sexy or genuinely empowering? Who knows?

Vikram's never met a heroine like this either, clearly.

The reason I love this film is because it's like somebody watched Anniyan and thought, "That wasn't quite strange enough for me," and then they filmed it and somebody else went absolute berserk with the editing software and filters.

And that? Is glorious. It's also got way too many subplots and strings of plot that don't maybe quite all add up but who cares, Vikram kicking ass whilst being the most badass chicken god that ever lived.
You still with me?

Well, come back to me. Allow Vikram's contact-lens-blue eyes hypnotise you back to this world. And by this world, I mean the alternate universe portrayed in this film.

Yeah. That world. Because trust me, the real world with its laws of nature and logic are not worth it.
But Kanthasamy completely is.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

All izz still well - Nanban.

Is watching Nanban (English: Friend), the Shankar-directed Tamil remake of Hirani's Hindi all-time blockbuster 3 Idiots, a bit like just rewatching the original? Yes.

Does it really matter? To me, it didn't.

It all comes down to the age-old question of cinema: what (if anything) should you remake, and how should you remake it? I think regional language remakes are universally accepted in Indian cinema. What about when the original is pitch-perfect film making? I get the sense the makers of Nanban did not want to mess with a good story that hits all the right notes, so what they did instead is go a little too faithful - every last little comedic detail is copied from the original, and only on occasion is a little local flare added.

The principals are all very good and true to their Hindi counterparts. Vijay especially manages to evoke with his acting precisely the same kind of character that Aamir made Rancho into. The same playfulness, optimism and good nature is present in Vijay's Pari. Some might say he's just aping Aamir, but in my mind more thought has to have gone into his process than merely taking cues from Aamir's original performance. The character of Raju is now Senthil, but almost eerily similar and played by a guy called Jeeva, who looks so much like Sharman Joshi it's a bit bizarre. Madhavan could've reprised his role as Farhan, I guess, but this Tamil counterpart is now called Venkat and played by Srikanth.

Kareena's spunky Pia has become Ileana's equally spunky Pia. The chemistry between her and Vijay never quite reaches the level that Aamir and Kareena achieved in the original, but they are helped along considerably by the two awesome songs they are given to perform together. But more on that later.

The two principals that weren't up to the task, in my mind, were the Tamil versions of Boman Irani's Virus and Omi Vaidya's already-legendary Silencer character. Both comedic villains come off as hopelessly cartoonish, which I suppose was a problem with Boman's character in the original, but not to this extent. They are just rather annoying.

As the plot is literally scene-for-scene recreated from 3 Idiots, let us focus on what's different. Shankar (pictured here with Ileana) has obviously wanted to honour the original - or was too lazy to think of ways to change things in his own version, I like to think it's the latter. However, the man (who is of course one of my favourite Indian directors) knows what people expect from him, and in not changing the original story or its execution, he does leave a mark on the film with the song sequences.

For those who are new to the magic that is Shankar, well, he really likes computer graphics. And I mean he really likes them. Can't get enough of them. This can be witnessed in nearly all of his films, be they mid-90's flicks where all that CGI thing was new or 2010 spectaculars. He also loves lavish song sequences. I'm pretty sure at least a third of Enthiran's budget was used on songs. Here, he takes the original Harris Jeyaraj soundtrack and spins it into a couple of very Shankar-like picturizations. So much so that "Asku laska", which takes place in the film where "Zoobi doobi" was in the original, is actually a brilliant navel-gazing exercise for Shankar, where he downright playfully parodies his own song picturisations from various films of his.

Suffice to say: it is brilliant.

I think Nanban does well in achieving a perfectly passable remake, that does shed some of the original's brilliance, but is nevertheless a fun viewing experience, filled with good performances (particularly Vijay and Jeeva). Some will harp on this film because it didn't change much, but the same folks would have hated it, had Shankar taken a more original route with his remake. It does feel like a rewatch of the original - but a supremely fun rewatch, and one that I certainly enjoyed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Three films I forgot about: Break Ke Baad, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Love Sex aur Dhokha.

One of the ways this blog is supposed to work is as a sort of opinion repository, which I can access to recall what my initial thoughts on a movie were, or what my thoughts after a multitude of rewatches ended up being. But then it so happens that I am absolutely lazy and occasionally forget to write about films I watch. The following three are some films I watched in the last 18 months that I then completely forgot to write about.

Break Ke Baad was a plane film for me, so I must've watched it when flying to Asia in early 2011. Or flying from Asia, little later than year. I honestly can't recall. As a plane film, this one is perfect - I don't particularly care for either of the stars, so I wasn't very likely to seek this one out, but I was nonetheless very enthusiastic to see more of Deepika Padukone and Imran Khan. They are a part of the new generation of stars I rambled about in this post: the folks who haven't yet quite impressed me but I keep hoping I'll get on the bandwagon soon enough.

The film itself is a simple enough romcom story: two childhood best friends, falling in love, and complete with the sorts of misunderstandings and failures in communication that happen when you've got two very different people interacting in a new mode - going from friends to loved ones. I remember being very unimpressed with the film initially, but sometime over the second half I was won over. I'm usually more forgiving when it comes to plane films anyway. When you're on a plane, I find myself in that weird, almost unreal state between sleep and consciousness. My ears are clogged, there's a lot of background noise, I'm surrounded by strangers.. It's all just weird. So when at that point I can submerge myself in the world of a film, it works a little better than if I was on the ground, in my bedroom, watching it on my laptop. So by the finale I was in tears - Deepika has a monologue bit that just kind of broke me.

But then .. it was a plane movie.

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan seemed to have everything going for it but somehow still failed in my eyes. The quirky romantic comedy setting of Imran's character seeking a bride for his brother (Ali Zafar!), and finding one who he happens to have a past with (Katrina Kaif) sounds like a pretty solid Bollywood entertainer. Add good songs, lots of Hindi filmi referential fodder, and a flashy YRF coating on the whole thing, and I should be melted into a happy puddle at this film's feet, right? Correct! I'm not that hard to please, honestly.

And yet...

Katrina's character's "rocker chick" style and "outrageousness" felt so try-hard it was unbearable instead of just cheesy (and therefore acceptable, the kind of thing you forgive a film that's otherwise charming). The manipulation from the main pair of the whole situation would have been fine, had I liked either as a character, but they both seemed very cardboard and bland. Ali Zafar's character, regardless of the fact he was kind of an asshole, ended up winning my sympathies more and the secondary pairing was pretty much a highlight of the whole film for me.

And what about those filmi history references? They didn't even make me crack up a smile. It was like they didn't try very hard to make the references clever or creative, it was just reference after reference and after a while, it was just like "Oh you referenced that movie, oh you referenced another film, oh yes Sholay is a famous film, well done, yes Raja Hindustani did have a scene like that, you are correct!". It just didn't really come together. Of course, this is all entirely subjective. I'm the kind of reviewer that probably likes or dislikes a film depending on how much coffee I drank that morning. But still. I keep thinking of films I enjoyed which also had a ton of filmi references. And I just can't help but think they put more of a creative spin on those jokes than this film did..

This film is not very new by this point but I did only watch it late last year, and it's definitely worth talking about, for all those who didn't see it: Love Sex aur Dhokha is a little, more independently produced than mainstream Hindi film, that slots comfortably in the "found footage" film genre. It's composed of three, slightly interjecting stories of precisely what it says on the box. Since the actors are unknowns, the film manages a brilliant, slightly eerie vibe of how this could actually all be very real, even when at the back of your head you know it's a completely fictional story, if somewhat based on real events (such as DPS MMS Scandal).

A part of what makes LSD so brilliant is how it uses the "found footage" genre's tools to create smaller stories than previously (after all, the genre was kicked off by Blair Witch Project, a supernatural horror film, and later made it big when JJ Abrams did his Cloverfield, a found footage monster actioner). Horror is probably the automatic choice for this genre, because the idea of people going missing, vanished into nothingness, with all that's left is a recording of what precisely happened to them, is a powerful starting point for any film.

LSD does something more mundane - it makes the footage portray its characters in a way that feels intimate and real, and then when things go wrong, the viewer just feels for them. It's not horror, where you're asked to reflect their anxiety and terror yourself, but there's more range to the emotions than just running around scared. There's empathy, joy, uncertainty, betrayal... There is a bit of horror, too, but mostly at the fact that if you made the wrong choices in life, messed with the wrong people, stepped over the line one time too many, this might happen to you.

However, the benefit of sticking to realism, and not trying to showcase the supernatural or gruesome killings, is enormous, and this film is utterly worth watching, if only for how the stories seam together. The soundtrack - yes, there is one, and the way it's integrated is pretty interesting - is also very much worth listening to.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Only the truth prevails: Aamir's journey on the small screen.

It's not film-related, other than for Aamir Khan's presence and producer role, but I figured I'd talk about this anyway. Much to my delight, the first episode of "Satyamev Jayate" (the truth prevails) was put up on YouTube legally, for most people to see (I hear it's blocked in the US), and with good English subtitling to boot. Curious, I sat down to watch it.

The first episode deals with sex selective abortions (often committed despite the mother's own wishes) and is pretty hard-hitting stuff. I'm sure some people will accuse this of being Aamir's vanity project, but he lets the people telling their stories get the centre stage, and talks to experts as well - there isn't much vanity to be seen here. While not perfect, the first episode seemed to be very good, informative and educational television - it tackles complex issues in a way that makes the viewer understand some of the complexity, but also that there is a very simple, humane solution. Aamir's unadulterated optimism and idealism shines through, but when it comes to such horrific things, it's precisely that hopeful attitude that allows one to digest it all. Some things are unfortunately not explored (connection to dowry, how gender inequality in general affects the issue), but what with the stories and the well-presented statistics, even an hour of running time goes by very fast.

I hear this first episode has raised the issue back to the national conscious, and hopefully some progress will happen because of it.

I have to say, while I understand the appeal of watching game shows that are hosted by film stars, though I never watched many myself (I think the Aamir episode of Salman's "Dus ka Dum" was the only one I sat through in full), I think this kind of more journalistic television is perfect fit for Aamir and I will continue following it. If you're interested in the same kind of issue-tackling television, I recommend you do the same.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is not-kissing (or kissing) a thing anymore?

Most things are just reactions, and reactions to reactions. A person who hasn't seen Indian films at all might be puzzled as to why there isn't the ubiquitous kiss you find in American films whenever there is even just a thread of romance in there somewhere. Another person who has seen and likes Indian films might defend the "no kissing" trend by talking about the benefits of not-kissing; the flirtation through looks, gestures and dialogue. In fact, a filmi fan might even get overly defensive about this sort of thing: "why should there be kissing? it's called acting!"

I recognise this sort of defensiveness in myself when I was really getting into Indian films and everywhere I turned, it seemed, I found something new to love and gush about. Then there was the flipside of not-kissing: the gratuitous almost B-film style full-tongued make-out sessions that were rather a turn-off. Due to actors like Emraan Hashmi gaining reputation not as good actors but as "serial kissers", it's no wonder some people will actually claim a preference to non-kissing. Perhaps not quite coincidentally, some of the most popular actors, like Shahrukh Khan, still refuse to kiss on-screen.

But times change, and it's not 2005 anymore. While some people shed tears over the fact that it seemed that the "no-kissing" trend was petering out to give way for more on-screen macking, perhaps it wasn't so much a surge of the kissing trend as it was just moving to a period where neither option was the prevailing one. At times there would be kissing, at times there wouldn't be.

So I wonder - is not-kissing a thing anymore? Is it still a distinct trend, a phenomenon that's mostly observed?

In my own personal experience, I've noticed a definite shift from paying attention to nonchalance. I no longer notice that a film has kissing, or has fake-kissing, or hasn't got any kissing at all. A romantic pair bumping foreheads instead of lips can have the same emotional impact of a happy ending, but if there is kissing, I'm not usually taking notes as to whether this kissing is awkward, gross or perfectly executed. It no longer feels like a necessary or an unnecessary feature in mainstream Indian films. It's just another choice made by the director or by the actors in a way to convey a romantic relationship on-screen.

But of course, I may be alone in this. There may be some people who feel like not-kissing should remain a feature integral to romantic Indian films, that it gives them a unique emotional flare, where subtext is there, but lip-on-lip action just isn't, and doesn't have to be. Perhaps to some, there is still a relevant debate to be had about this subject.

What do you think?

I recently rewatched The Dirty Picture, and noticed that for such a raunchy, honestly sexual film with brazenly sexual characters, nearly all the kisses seemed to be the kind where actors just turn away from the camera. I'm sure that says something on this subject, but I'm not quite sure what..

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Eye candy/brain melt: awesome Shankar song picturizations.

Say what you say about S. Shankar, the Tamil director extraordinaire, the man makes sure his films have interesting song picturizations. They are always worth sitting through, sometimes because they're just so odd, other times because the song is so good, but always, always because they are so amazingly visual in such interesting ways. Oh, and then there's the computer-generated special effects! Must not forget.

Here are some of my favourites.

Akkadanu Nanga from Indian

You know how hard it is to search for an Indian film named Indian? Gah, anyway. This mid-90's Kamal Hassan starrer has him sort of torn between two women, Urmila Matondkar and Manisha Koirala. This song in particular has Urmila, in all kinds of strange costumes, and thankfully the song just gets more bizarre as it goes along - the last minute is a joyfest of mid-90's computer effects. Laws of physics be damned! It's just pretty awesome.

Ale Ale from Boys

You know that bullet-time effect they invented when making The Matrix? You know what? Well, if you don't, here's an introduction video to it, in form of a love ballad. What ingenuity is this!

Kaadhal Yaanai from Anniyan (ie that song with Remo)

Watch here!

Just a link this time, as ErosTamil doesn't like embedded videos. A biased pick, since I love pretty much everything about Anniyan, so it goes without saying I also like every song from Anniyan. This one isn't even so much about sheer visuality, lavish sets or even computer-effects, though it has a bit of everything. It's just such a highlight of the film in all its wildness and hilarity and it's just awesome and I had to make it a part of this post. The song is also superb. Try watching it without getting it stuck in your head. Just try.

Vaaji vaaji from Sivaji

This is just one of those songs that defines Shankar's devotion to building lavish sets for his songs. It looks amazing, even if Rajnikanth is far from the most fresh-faced hero. Like a lot of good song picturizations that completely rip you out of the story temporarily and seem to take place on alternate plane altogether, it evokes the feeling of a story-within-a-story.

Every song from Endhiran / Robot

Why? Because I'm finding it virtually impossible to choose, or to skip over all of them. There's the incredible Kilimanjaro (shot on foreign location, duh)!, and the lovely Kaadhal anukkal that includes endless vistas of gorgeousness, and Irumbile which takes place inside a robot, with choreography and costuming that reflects just that, and Aarima aarima, which is just creepy and bizarre and perfect as is (and should probably carry a SPOILER warning to boot).

It's all good, is basically what I'm saying. Plot? Hmm, well, you probably recall my gripes...

Asku Laska from Nanban

This is the song picturization I never knew how to ask for but was clearly made for me, because it's nearly everything I love, all wrapped into one incredible package. It's a meta-song picturization with breaking-the-fourth wall, spoofs Shankar's previous song picturizations beautifully and also features the director himself. Best of all, it's set to a great, catchy song. All the parts of the songs come together fantastically, I enjoy both actors (I think Nanban really warmed me to Vijay - review pending!) in it and all the elements complement each other. It's basically four songs in one gorgeous set, and that's what makes it one of my favourite Shankar picturizations ever, if not the favourite.

So, any directors whose song picturizations you always end up loving? Any Shankar film songs I should have included in this list?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Deiva Thirumagal.

There are things in A.L. Vijay's Deiva Thirumagal that work splendidly: the casting is great and the performances are all pretty much superb. The mood and humour of the film is just right, and I was certainly moved by it in the end. It knows which strings to tug at, and when it does, you're smiling through tears.

Vikram's performance as the mentally challenged father, trying to gain back his young daughter, could have borderline offensive, but ends up rather subtle and believable. Anushka Shetty is great as the female lawyer who helps him, and the child actress playing the daughter is solid, too.

I saw a couple of reviews questioning the premise (can a mentally challenged person genuinely marry and be with another person in order to bring about a child?), which based on my (limited) knowledge of these matters is a very legitimate concern. But I suppose if you suspend your belief, as I did, the film is worth watching. Certainly if you're a fan of the main star, as I am, I wouldn't not recommend this, as it's one of his more memorable performances.

There's just one thing... And script-wise, it's a somewhat big problem. It's also a SPOILER, so look away now if you've not seen this film yet.

I found myself punched in the gut by the ending, and really by the whole story and everybody's inability to see the credible, completely acceptable alternatives to the either/or situation the film presents (which creates the drama). Why can't Krishna live with Bhanu's family in Madras? Or why can't Nila visit him every weekend? There are virtually limitless options that offer good compromises to this situation, rather than the horrible "either/or" the film forces us to accept.

I get that it's the saddest ending. But it doesn't have to be like that.