Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola: pink buffalo politics.

There's no way around this fact: Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a strange film. However, its oddities are in the end rather scarce, so what you have is a fairly fun, thoroughly musical political satire, taking place in the fictional village of Mandola in Haryana, interspersed with moments that just trip up the viewer a little. It's a good film, but it's also the kind that I can imagine leaving some a bit puzzled, some a bit frustrated, and others overjoyed with what they just witnessed. 

The story is relevant to the modern political realities in India today; the farmers of Mandola are getting communist propaganda briefings from a person calling themselves only 'Mao', encouraging the peasants to rise against the drunkard landowner Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), who is being charmed by the cunning politician (Shabana Azmi) to set up a Special Economic Zone near the village. The servant Matru (Imran Khan) is supposed to keep Mandola away from booze, a task he fails at more than he succeeds, and meanwhile Mandola's daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) lives a care-free existence, under nobody's rule. 

There's a lot to bite into here, and perhaps one central failing of the satire is that it allows itself some silly flourishes without delving too deep into some of the themes it could explore more. Mind you, this is India, and the Censor Board affects the way every story we get is told - it's hard to say what might've changed from the director's original vision. There is also the fact that Bhardwaj is typically at his best when adapting other people's material - from the Shakespeare adaptations to 7 Khoon Maaf, originally a novel. Kaminey was all his, but also played within a genre (underworld thriller) that Bhardwaj knows like he knows how to compose beautiful tunes for his wife Rekha Bhardwaj to sing. 

I find myself not being too sure what MKBKM is going for at times. There are portions of it that are clear-cut political satire and criticisms of modern Indian society, where the criminal politicians (who are a-plenty) take land away from poor farmers to start up big development projects that benefit mainly the already well-off classes. Then there is the depiction of Mandola's alcoholism - both comical and tragicomical at once, and about as gruesome a portrait as the anti-smoking campaign ads Indian films now seem to have tacked onto their beginnings. The pink buffalo is just one of the little oddities that the film throws into the mix, but its greater meaning is never quite clear.

Perhaps one problem is just the fact that Bhardwaj is not exactly at home in the comedy genre. There are funny moments in this film, just as a lot of his other films, but it's not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. Nor do I think it should be, but the fact it really seems to go for it, attempting to get those chuckles, kind of makes me wonder. I also don't know what to make of the African Zulu musician-dancers. Their first appearance has a definite reason from the script, and they pretty quickly align themselves with the plight of the villagers (perhaps signalling some sort of solidarity between their own conditions at home). They're never given a speaking part, or much of a character, so they stand as this strange reminder of one strand of plot - an excess of comedy, perhaps - that I personally didn't really know what to do with. I couldn't condemn it, but nor could I justify it entirely in my head.

This is perhaps sounding a bit too negative, considering how much I actually liked the film. It's filled with things small and big that I generally enjoy. Vishal Bhardwaj plays the tune of my heart, and so his music always underscores the mood of his films beautifully. The soundtrack is as strange as the film, but it's also wonderful, catchy and infectiously enjoyable. The acting is also all-around great. Pankaj Kapur's character Mandola is written to be a show-stealer, so it's no surprise he does just that, and crafts a strange relationship between him and Shabana Azmi's politician character Chaudhari Devi, who's amusing in her megalomaniac manipulative nature. I really fell in love with Anushka's rebel-finding-a-cause Bijlee, even though it doesn't seem like she gets that much scope in the story - it could just be that I like Anushka Sharma, period.

Imran Khan is one of those guys I've been perpetually lukewarm towards. I like him, I've just never had a reason to like him for than that faintly positive tolerance I have of him. Matru probably had the makings of a career-defining performance, but since Mandola ends up being the undeniable main character, Matru ends up playing second fiddle and so does Imran. He acts well, though, so much so that I finally began to warm up to him. Him and Anushka share fairly easy chemistry and their love story forms one of the best parts of the film.

How does Matru rate among Bhardwaj's excellent filmography? The lower half, for sure, but only because his other work is just so stellar. I'm loathe to use the word quirky, but that's what the film is - its quirkiness forms about half of its charm, but also contributes to a rather uneven narrative. I also have a feeling I may be pre-judging the film, as any political satire that plays with as many themes as the film should probably be viewed a few times before passing final judgment.

It could be that despite feeling a bit uneven, Matru is precisely the film it wants to be - with all those little oddities in there, all those comedy flourishes, and the portrayal of alcoholism just as goofy-serious as it's meant to be. If so, I feel like I need to digest this one a bit more. If not, and this is just Bhardwaj-sahib trying something new, and not really knowing what to do in the new genre, then perhaps we would do well to send him a good novel we'd like to see adapted. As ever, even Bhardwaj on a bad day is better than most other directors on a bad day. Ultimately, Matru is very much worth seeing.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Talaash: when is a slow reveal too slow?

Had it been released any other year, Talaash would've probably been the best film of the year. Lucky for us the audience, the year was 2012, which gave us another excellent Hindi mystery thriller, Kahaani. It's difficult not to talk about the two films in conjunction with one another, as they both involve an urban setting, a main character trying to piece together what seems like an unsolvable mystery, a plot twist and attempt to hood-wink the audience into not seeing that twist coming. They're also both films you're best knowing the most minimal amount of premise, going in.

So here's what I'll say about the plot - things you can piece together from the first trailers, which hit the internet about a year ago: a man drives off into the sea on an entire empty road, for no apparent reason. A police man (Aamir Khan) tries to piece together what happened, while growing distant from his wife (Rani Mukherjee) and running into the lady of the night, Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), who helps him try to solve the mystery.

I will try to discuss the film without revealing spoilers, but you're very sensitive to this sort of thing (I know I am!), you may want to stop reading now.

Talaash is a finely made movie with competent direction, littered with strong performances (from the heart-wrenching one from Rani Mukherjee to the crooked yet sympathetic character portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). It's definitely a step up from Reema Kagti's debut, Honeymoon Tavels Pvt Ltd, which was adorable but not too ambitious. As such, it's hard to phrase why the film doesn't really make it into my favourites. It's got so many things going for it, from the performances to the themes it portrays (which I cannot really discuss without going into spoilers), to the excellent cinematography. Going into it, I didn't know much, but I was expecting a lot - that's what tends to happen when three of one's favourites are shoved into the same film, with a promising premise. I'm not quite sure if the film delivered on all the things I really wanted it to.

I suppose one factor was the relatively slow pace of the middle third of the film. As a viewer, you're trying to put together the same mystery Aamir's Surjan is attempting to solve, but coming up with very little. I wasn't really at my sharpest when watching, so perhaps I could've seen the twist coming, had I concentrated a little more, but by the time the film got to its half-way mark, I found myself as frustrated as Surjan seemed to be. Things just weren't adding up in a satisfying manner, and the film began to feel a bit boring. I was fine with the twist, when it arrived - it seemed strangely fitting, and I didn't mind the aspect it added to the film. I figured it out, I suspect, exactly at the moment the director wanted me to figure it out, considerably before Surjan does, but not so early as to ruin the discovery.

So what I was left with was "just" a good film. When put up next to the crop of other good films, Talaash definitely stands out as a good film, but not so overwhelmingly strong that I'd say I loved it. I also wasn't so personally moved by as to call it a favourite. But worth seeing, especially if you like any of the three big stars in the main cast? Absolutely. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Standards, reactions and film criticism.

I'll be honest: this is going to be one of those absolutely painfully self-indulgent posts about the nature of film criticism from somebody who doesn't even do this for a living. Does the world need another pensive post from a blogger about what they occasionally do to fill the hours of the day? Probably not. And yet, I am writing it.

Look at Rani Mukherji smiling. At least this post has that going for it.

The reason I'm writing about the subject is not even because an Indian film inspired it in me. Post-Oscars, I got the sudden inspiration to actually watch some nominated and awarded films (which I rarely do, as so few Oscar contenders interest me). One of the films I went to see was Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which I found, simply put, brilliant. The film has some excellent performances, a simple narrative that seems to hide a lot from the viewer, beautiful cinematography and interesting subtextual themes. It made me pause a bit, reflect on what I'd just seen, recall certain scenes and then try to piece together their significance as a whole. It's that kind of film, and some people will find it difficult to understand, frustrating even, and some fans of the film will dismiss these criticisms as people just not "getting it" or not taking the time to rewatch the film and allow it to sink in properly.

These discussions caused one film writer to ask: Should some films be taken more seriously than others?

My first reaction is to say no, but then to immediately say yes. Arguably, all films should be judged by their own standards - a comedy has to make you laugh, or it's not a very successful comedy, and a romantic film ideally has you rooting for the leads to get together. A documentary provides you with new information, or portrays old information in an interesting manner, and hopefully makes you think, to boot. On the other hand, all films will be judged by your own  standards as a viewer. The best thing a film critic can do is write about a film in such descriptive terms that you can take away two things from their writing: what their standards for this film were, and how that film met those standards. More simply put - whether they liked it, in relation to what kinds of films they typically like.

So if a film makes you to pause and reflect at length on what you just saw, perhaps even rewatch, it's only fair to that reaction that you do so. If a film goes down without much pondering, regardless of how you feel about it, I don't think it's strictly necessary to over-ponder a film that doesn't inspire such a thing naturally.

This is not necessarily a split between films from interesting, respected film makers who make thoughtful cinema, and potboiler mass-entertainment films. The problems come in when people's prejudices make it so - when a critic thinks an arthouse film is worth pondering over, but an action film could never be, even if it touches on interesting themes. But film criticism is a fairly simple sport, as all it really has to contain is a certain honesty about your own reactions when it comes to a particular film.

I like to think that I can analyse films as I see fit, regardless of whether they are "meant" to be taken seriously or not. I've discussed each Upendra-directed film I've seen like it was an academic thesis, with points and arguments and explanations - while realising that these are still films made for the masses in mind. I thought a lot about Laal Patthar, even though the film was not particularly deep or even nuanced. Once I vented about my frustrations regarding a Malayalam art film - I could see it was good, but it wasn't for me in terms of the story or the characters, and I didn't catch the significance of the director's choices, nor did I think I would upon a second viewing.

To me, it doesn't really matter if you "get" a film or not, what matters if whether you like it or not. I don't know if I understood The Master, but I knew I liked it a lot. I liked it as I as watching it, I liked the performances and found the characters fascinating, I liked the soundscape and the visuals, and I loved pondering my own interpretations of the film. That's my honest reaction - whether my take on the film is wrong or right, doesn't really factor into my enjoyment of the film as a film.

Road, Movie (2010, directed by Dev Benegal and starring Abhay Deol) comes to mind. This was a small film that I remember a lot of people reacting to in a pretty negative way, finding it beautifully shot, but ultimately rather pointless. I liked it fine, but it wasn't a passionate, enthusiastic sort of like, but the lukewarm type - I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time with with it, but neither did I walk away from it feeling like I'd witnessed something magnificent. At times I do feel like I need to rewatch it, but other times I don't really think there was that much there to miss out on, so perhaps my reaction to it would be the same as last time. I don't think anybody absolutely has to give a film another chance, if it fails to impress the first time. If a reaction is not intrigue or a desire to look into it deeper, then why force it?

It's the strange nature of film-watching. Films can have enormous personal significance, or inspire a person to do something they normally wouldn't have. Films can say things about nations and cultures and points in time, or they can say not much at all. I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to react to cinema - perhaps Jism 2 really does provide some commentary on the sexual politics of modern India, or perhaps it's just a flick with tons of skin shown. What you see in it, is what's there for you.

I remember being called out on liking a certain, "trashy", entertainment-geared fare in Indian cinema but not the same thing, coming from Hollywood. I admit to this criticism, but I would also counter - isn't this what everybody does? You can't have the same standard to every film, unless that standard is your own enjoyment of a film. So Avatar didn't inspire much thrills in me, but Dabangg did. That's my truth - feel free to share yours.