Friday, February 20, 2015

Qissa (2013)

In a nascent, post-partition India, a Sikh man (Irrfan Khan playing Umber Singh) with three daughters resolves to delude himself for the rest of his life - and then some - by making himself believe that his fourth born daughter is the male heir he has been waiting for. Suffused with folklore, "Qissa" is a story of patriarchy, unforgivable sins, guilt and no redemption.

The premise is so startlingly fascinating that writer-director Anup Singh's script tackling even the most foreseeable complications in the child Kanwar's life lends the film immense complexity. The girl (or, the boy,) oblivious to her condition, plays the central character in her father's fantasy.You can't wait to see what happens at every stage of the child's growth - from a privileged childhood, more than what was afforded to her sisters, to the confusions of puberty and the attractions of adolescence. Considering the father's unshakable determination to see this lie to its logical end, you begin to anticipate and, to an extent, predict the places the story would go. 

The partition era is such a great period for mining fascinating stories that it's a real tragedy that so few contemporary filmmakers venture to tell them. Earlier in the film, Umber Singh pushes a cart laden with the body of a Muslim man he fell, back to his own village. When inquired by the other men, he says he was going to dump the body in the well of the house he is leaving behind, to poison whoever it is who comes to occupy it. When questioned about morality and whether this action befit a Sikh, he says he has lost his religions identity. Maybe it's this act of  unwarranted vileness that comes back to affect him and his family since the day he arrives in Indian Punjab. 

It would be unfair to call "Qissa" a reflection of patriarchy in rural India, when it's quite evident just how deep rooted this issue is in every corner of the country. Earlier in the film, a midwife marks a girl's birth with the words, "Girls are also a blessing." Although what happens in "Qissa" is set in motion by general patriarchy, it's getting uprooted from their homes and being forced to start life anew that urgently spurs the need to drop an anchor or sow a seed - anything that would say, "I was here." And that anchor to Umber Singh, who like many others lives his life through the eyes of society, is to father a son.

As much as the film is about the father's megalomania, it's also about the unfortunate life Kanwar is born into. As a child, she shows a natural affinity to the gender that she was born with - letting her hair loose and looking in the mirror, watching her mother gracefully bathe herself, wanting to go out with her sisters for Lohri festivities. Then Anup Singh depicts what is expected of masculinity and the struggles anyone has to go through to live up to someone else's rigid expectations. Struggling for affection after becoming her mother's other child, Kanwar naturally adopts bullying as a trait as she mans up. But the feminine pull is stronger, especially since the household has four other women, and no amount of wrestling lessons, hunting and truck-driving appears to be enough to make Kanwar function without a sense of doubt about her identity. 

Deciding to marry Kanwar to Neeli, the daughter of a man belonging to the lesser, gypsy tribe, is the beginning of the end for Umber Singh. From here, the film goes on to become frightening, mysterious, poetic, oddly beautiful and, ultimately, truly sad. You are likely to hear from people who loved the film that it is haunting, because it absolutely is. Days after watching it, the film, its imagery and musical cues, still lingers in my mind. The film urges viewers to take certain leaps of faith, and I was more than glad to. The performance by Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra and Tillotama Shome is top-tier. The craft is impressive from the largely foreign crew. "Qissa" is one of the most entertaining and deeply satisfying films I have seen from India in recent times. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yennai Arindhaal (2015)

This article is intended for people who have seen Gautham Vasudev Menon's Yennai Arindhaal.

"Yennai Arindhaal" marks Gautham Vasudev Menon's return to action filmmaking for the first time in 9 years. It's another righteous cop story that works better as a romantic family drama than it does as an action film. Ajith, in what I personally think is his most captivating performance to date, gets to play the guy Suriya and Kamal did in the past, and goes on to one-up them.

Stripping the film to its bare bones, it's a story about a boy Sathyadev whose father gets killed (collateral damage, as the boy would one day grow up and say to someone else) by a gangster, and decides (with some inspiration from Alex Pandian) to become a cop to stop people like his father's killer. Although the film's intentionally misleading teaser makes it seem like it's a story about a man having an internal battle between good and evil, in reality, this whole Melisaana Kodu business is as important as a scratch on Sathyadev's Enfield. Menon introduces it, but does nothing to explore the theme. There's no pull of the dark side luring Sathyadev to cross over. There's no evidence to show that, deep down, his chosen nemesis Victor wants to be a good guy. These two people are quite comfortably thriving in their own chosen sides of the melisaana kodu with no moral quandary. For that, you'll have to go see Mysskin's brilliant "Anjaathe". But seriously, what do expect a boy to become besides a police officer when you name him Sathyadev?

Gautham's writing seems to grow just a wee bit with each iteration, and by an iteration, I mean one whole fucking movie. The old tropes are everywhere. Some of these are intrinsic to what we have now come to call "a Gautham Vasudev Menon film". The interiors of houses, cluttered with books on filmmaking; two people bonding during travel; the mild-mannered romance, like an advertisement for Bru coffee; being admirably progressive and celebrating women. But then there are some which only go to show his limited writing prowess - like the part where Sathaydev's father basically rephrases "pursue what your heart desires" from "Vaaranam Aayiram", or the unnecessarily long kidnapping subplot set in New Delhi from the same film, which makes a splashy return with additional details about organ trafficking.

A lot of people have been calling "Yennai Arindhaal" the final chapter in Menon's cop trilogy. When "Vettaiyaadu Villaiyaadu" came out back in 2005, nobody called it a spiritual sequel to "Kaakha Kaakha" - because, let's face it, those two films were quite different. Just because there's a third film now, people are falling over themselves to defend Menon's repetitive narrative choices. Besides, there's so much happening - with the Rise-Fall-Rise structure typical to superhero films - that this one film is a trilogy in itself. A boy is spurred by the death of his father, becomes a cop, excels, quits after lover is murdered on the eve of wedding, takes a long break to bond with his lover's young daughter (All I'm saying is Menon is clearly a big fan of "Thanga Meenkal", a film which he himself produced) from a previous marriage, is forced to return after a friend's daughter goes missing, settles old scores and avenges lover's death. This is pretty good, right? On a story level, the answer is yes, but the end result is a) a resounding no or b) a half-hearted yes, depending on who you ask.

When actresses are offered a role in a Menon film, I'm sure they all want to play the one who dies. Playing the role Hemanika, a classical dancer/single mom, Trisha, the closest thing people of Chennai have to royalty, is breathtaking. These are things that Menon does effortlessly. Sathyadev's personal life is where the film scores.

When it comes to "The Dead Wives Club," Gautham is second next to none other than Christopher Nolan. In "Memento", "The Prestige" and "Inception", and to an extent in the Dark Knight trilogy and "Interstellar", Nolan's protagonists are driven by the death of their wives. The abduction and the subsequent killing of Maya in "Kaakha Kaakha"; Kayalvizhi's death in "Vettaiyadu Villaiyadu" turning Raghavan into an invincible cop with nothing to lose; Meghna's death in "Varanam Aayiram" sending Suriya on an all consuming downward spiral.. and now again in "Yennai Arindhaal", where Hemanikaa is sacrificed to set up a revenge plot. The reason I find this motif problematic in a Menon more than I do in a Nolan is because 3 of these 4 instances were in a cop film. Besides being predictable to the point of amusement, the death of Hemanika is frustrating because it allows us a glimpse at the frayed edges of Gautham's imagination. If there's any upside to this, it's that no matter how short-lived the marriage or the relationship, the guy always gets laid. Doesn't matter, had sex.

Pandian, Ilamaaran, Amudhan - these are iconic villains by the standards of Tamil cinema. The performances may have been too show-y for my taste, but there was a significant deal of intrigue surrounding these antagonists of Menon's previous two cop films. We witnessed them doing horrible things and we knew what they were capable of. In "Yennai Arindhaal", we get a watered-down, one-dimensional, PG-13 bad guy in Victor (played by a devoted Arun Vijay.) He is the name-sake villain here but you seldom see him do really bad things. Sure, he shoots a cop (Michael Mann's Heat inspired this scene, and perhaps more) once, abducts a homeless kid from the street, but that's the farthest Menon is willing to push Arun Vijay. Deciding not to show the grisly murder of Hemanika at the hands of Victor robs the second half and the climactic showdown of serious retributional heft. Instead, Menon chooses to play it out like a twist near the end, to Sathyadev and to us. And that didn't work for me at all because, by this time, Hemanika is a distant memory. A few months from now, I don't think I'd remember anything about Victor - because what does he really do anyway? 

For the sake of argument, imagine that Anbuchelvan, Raghavan and Sathyadev are all the same person. I am sure it's not a stretch. Now allow me to collectively refer to this person as "the cop". So here's the pattern: if a part of what happens in "Vettaiyaadu Villaiyaadu" was the life lead by the cop after the events of "Kaakha Kaakha", then, as a friend suggested, a part of what happens in "Yennai Arindhaal" is the life lead by the same cop had Aaradhana died at the end of "Vettaiyaadu.." and left him with the daughter. It fits, right? It's basically a same person who soldiers on as people he falls in love with keep dying one after the other. Now, calm down, people. Let me assure you this "cop trilogy" is not the result of some grand design. It just goes to show just how badly Menon is in need of a writing partner. Also, here's wishing good luck to the character played by Anushka.

It's also not a smart film. Besides Ajith, every other cop is shown as an inept fucking idiot. Even as a police procedural, it doesn't deal with an interesting subject. It's slick, sure, but intelligent it is not. The intermittent humor is quite pleasant, I must say - a risk, as in the past, Menon neatly pulls off. Going into this film, I thought it was rather admirable of Gautham to ask for help because he was apparently struggling to complete the film. I don't see any of Kumararaja's "touches" in the final film and I'd love to be enlightened if you felt otherwise. In the final 30 minutes, Menon attempts to create tension through dynamism, the way director Hari does so often, keeping characters constantly on the move. But it doesn't really help. "Yennai Arindhaal" is an uninspired rehash of everything Menon has done in the past and doesn't really amount to much.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I (2015)

Arguably one of the most expensive pulpy, B movies in the history of cinema, Shankar's "I" is a classic tale of revenge about a simple man who, in pursuit of love, makes too many enemies, gets wronged, and eventually avenges them. Suffused with the opulence that Shankar's films are most well-known for, "I" has the technical finesse which was amiss in his previous films. Yet, "I" is a spectacular misfire -  a supremely predictable trashy genre fare with a muddled voice, a rotten heart and a misplaced moral centre.

Shankar has never been an economical filmmaker, both in terms of storytelling and especially when it comes to being extravagant (or reckless, depending on who you ask.) He is a man who has built a career on vulgar wastefulness and 'subtle' is a term that has seldom been used to describe any of his films. Returning three years after "Nanban", and for the first time with an original screenplay since the demise of long time writing partner Sujatha, Shankar's indulgence appears to have largely gone unchecked in terms of political correctness (or basic decency) and particularly when it comes to thematic clarity. In terms of a physically damaged protagonist hunting monsters who ruined his past life "I" is like "Ghajini". But "Ghajini" had one villain to vanquish - the kingpin. "I" has 5, though that is not why it is a lesser film. It fumbles big time because all 5 of them are on an even keel in terms of importance. "I" is "Kill Bill" without a Bill. It is a film that, by design, is doomed to dissatisfy.

Despite missing the fervor that put the grandeur typical to his films into perspective, the structure is quite admirable for the entirety of first half, with Shankar never resorting to over-explaining. The narrative shifts back and forth, switching between the past where Lingesan aka Lee is in the act of unwittingly making enemies, to the present, where a disfigured Lingesan, one by one, subjects his victims to brutal physical injury. It's when the timelines converge that non-twists are hyped up like twists and the film suddenly starts over-explaining the shit out of developments so obvious that it's kind of unbelievable a director like Shankar thought them to be unpredictable. The relative economy of first half is over-compensated by the expositions in the second.

Vikram, in his most physical role to date, stars as a bodybuilder who becomes a model and then loses it all. For a change of pace, we have a sensible female lead character in Amy Jackson's Dia, but with Vikram portraying a close version of the "loosu ponnu" archetype. He's an unreasonably chirpy and naive man, unconvincing in his half-baked North Madras baashai, but with a penchant for violence. Think Ambi with Anniyan's fighting genes. There's a chasm of class difference between Lee and Dia, an elephant in the room, that the film acknowledges. Mersalaiyitten is itself a self-contented celebration of this divide - an acceptance by Lee of his own huge complex. But then the are the circumstances under which the two meet again. And it's just plain, shoddy writing. Here's where Vikram's performance is pretty terrible. "Look at me! I am ACTING!" A lot will be said about his physical performance but without the crutch (or excuse) of prosthetics, his performance is severely lacking. Not once does he convince you of his "North Madras-ness", the way Kamal has done in the past, or the way even Santhanam very casually does in this very movie.

If you are someone like me - someone who gave Shankar way too much credit - you too are likely to spend most of the first half frustratingly breaking your head over what is it that he is trying to convey with this film. Is this film about extreme obsessions of fan culture? Or about the lack of inventiveness in advertising, maybe? Is it eventually going to make a statement, hopefully with subtlety, about the hollowness of appearances? Will it shame society for marginalising the transgendered community? Will it teach its audience a thing or two about empathy for the differently-abled? Sooner or later, like me, you too will stop looking for a subtext and resign yourself to the fact that there isn't one. In hindsight, I find it absolutely ridiculous that I lent Shankar even that much of credence, painfully analyzing why he was being such a pig headed transphobe and shockingly insensitive towards disabled.

There's something unsettling and perverse about Lee fiendishly deriving pleasure in hurting someone to the point he does, revenge it may be. On a baser level, this whole adukkum melai business is exactly what sick, jilted lovers think when girls turn down their advances. That's the reasoning behind the bad guys seeking to destroy the one thing about Lee that has resulted in their undoing: his beauty, his physicality. Tying this idea to the bad guys makes sense because, obviously, they are bad guys and its a horrible thing to do to anyone. What Shankar doesn't realize, perhaps does and simply doesn't care, is that, without just vanquishing, making his bad guys taste their own medicine, all at the hands of the hero. There's no difference between the two sides anymore. It's irrelevant who drew first, especially when you were never really fond of the hero in the first place. Worse is Shankar having Santhanam's tragically unfunny character go around rubbing salt on the wounds of Lee's victim. What reaction does Shankar expect from his audience during this scene? Laughter? Some people laughed, but I squirmed. 

I have no qualms with Shankar revelling in stereotypes. The promiscuity and low morals of people from the fashion industry, evil multinational corporations, pervy doctor uncles, the virginal and "pure" lover, gangsters from North Madras - go ahead, have it all. But there needs to be a limit to the chest-thumping idealism in his films that more often than not reek of hypocrisy. Big corporations, soft-drink companies especially, have become convenient punching bags for "socially conscious" sub-plots, with Vijay Mallaya as the poster child, embodying everything that's wrong about them. "I" is one of those Shankar films where he does not keep us busy watch him peddle grandstanding social reforms or his protagonist hand out impersonal justice. This brings into focus his world-view, and, my God, what a regressive outlook it is.

Shankar has the sense of humour of a horny 14 year old, but raunchiness is a-okay in my books. He casts someone from the transgender community for the role of someone from the fashion industry. Another stereotype, but I'm willing to cut him slack. What makes me absolutely furious is his treatment of the character in the hands of the film's "hero", especially when there was no obligation to cast a transgender in the first place - unless, of course, he was making a point about gender violence and marginalisation. Cinema is a powerful medium and filmmakers have the responsibility to, if not help emancipate, at least refrain from causing further trouble. Trust me when I say I have thought about this element in the film for a long time since watching the film and there's no way to justify Shankar's insolence. Even if I were to watch the film in isolation, away from the people relishing the drab scenes, I am sure I still would have been offended because this is not a case of audience misinterpreting a director's intentions. He could have done wonders for the community if he boldly chose to. Instead, he chooses to be so detrimental that it makes my head reel. He is not just ridiculing them the way all minimally talented Indian directors do.  I don't say this because Shankar is one of our country's leading directors but because of how relentless his film is in destroying the pride of the said character - even making Vikram utter a line that basically meant "know your place." One day in future, when majority of Indians, hopefully, would have realized the magnitude of injustice directed towards the transgender community, we will look back in horror that we let a filmmaker like Shankar run amok spewing insensitive and ignorant ideas. "I" would be 21st century Tamil cinema's "The Birth of a Nation"; an albatross around its director's neck.

Clearly out of ideas, Shankar is very close to becoming just a glorified music-video director. In terms of visual grandeur, other directors have caught up and his monopoly has waned. It's high time he stopped thinking in terms of money shots and set pieces and concentrated on a better script. Vikram's efforts are commendable, but seem like an overkill - mostly futile and unnecessary, when less would have sufficed. Amy Jackson is very good. Taking everything into consideration, there's not much left to make "I" worthy of an audience. It's just not fun enough to overlook its flaws. Also, Shankar, please make up your mind about what "I" means. Is it the name of the Mallya lookalike's company or the name of the virus? Or perhaps something that's good? I mean, why else would the two lovers run around singing it? Oh, and in case you are having trouble telling who the bad guys in "I" are, just look out for the people who are smoking a cigarette. Ingenious filmmaking!